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.


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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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“The Godless World Trilogy” by Brian Ruckley- An Underappreciated Masterpiece

I love getting recommendations for reading from friends. A book-loving friend of mine recommended the Godless World Trilogy by Brian Ruckley as top-notch fantasy. I grabbed the trilogy on the recommendation and over the course of the next several months read through this fantasy trilogy. Let me tell you, dear readers, I want to pass along that recommendation to you. This trilogy is fantastic fantasy. I’ve kept this post as vague as possible related to spoilers because I want to encourage you to read the series yourself without losing out on some of the twists.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the series is its prose. The introduction to the first book is a masterful set up as we watch a band of exiled people trudging away from their homelands as they are harassed by enemies chasing them away. It instantly set up a kind of empathy towards these people that is used in some rather surprising ways throughout the series. Time and again, Ruckley’s craft of writing is worth admiring. The introduction to the third book features details about watching for approaching enemies by observing how nature reacts. It’s such a subtle, natural scene that tethers the fantasy book into a sense of realism that few fantasy series end up capturing. Ruckley does this time and again, using the shifting of birds, the movement of plants, and other natural clues to viscerally lead the reader into the world of the books. 

What of the main plot, though? We follow a number of people as conflict breaks out across their land. The gods have left the people, and some wish to usher in their return. Unfortunately, this leads to conflict as some peoples’ means to bring the gods back is decidedly less peaceful than that of others. What we get is, on its face, a rather traditional fantasy setting with most of the expected heroic tropes. And, the series largely is that but with such grandness in its telling and elegance of writing that even the times where it may fall into cliché are worth the time spent reading them. And the series doesn’t stay mired in the mundane tropes of epic fantasy. There is plenty that happens that takes twists in unexpected directions. And the earliest parts of the series loom in unexpected ways towards the end. 

If you’re looking for a serious epic fantasy that is incredibly well-written, I highly recommend the Goddless World Trilogy to you. I’m planning a re-read of the series once I’ve gotten through at least some of the rest of my TBR pile, myself. That’s how much I enjoyed it. I think you will, too.


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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The Dragon Prince Trilogy: Melanie Rawn’s Cunning Political Fantasy Epic

My story of discovering Melanie Rawn started decades ago with a bookmark. My mom would always go to this Hallmark that was a franchise. The owner apparently thought it would be a good idea to have a bookstore at the back of what was a large Hallmark space. And, apparently, the owner had a taste for sci-fi/fantasy books because that was one of the biggest sections in the store. I loved it. We’d stay in the store for hours. My mom would look at cards for hours, picking out the just-right card for some occasion, while I roamed the long corridor of sci-fi fantasy books. That greeting card shop is where I discovered Ben Bova’s Grand Tour books, where I found a book that remained my favorite for some time–The Blood Jaguar, and where I’d spend my early teenage years looking at heavy metal magazines. Yeah, it was an awesome Hallmark.

Anyway, one day, I bought a bookmark at the store that showed this mysterious orange dragon standing regally on a rock. I bought it for the same reason kids buy any bookmark: it looked cool. I used it for years, then misplaced it, but then found it again during a move. I was looking at it one day, having possessed it for more than ten years, when I noticed that it was based on the cover for a book: The Star Scroll. On a whim, I looked up the book online and discovered it was the second book in a trilogy with pretty fantastic reviews. I searched for the author, Melanie Rawn, and saw several posts about how she was a forgotten major voice in epic fantasy. I saw the first book, Dragon Prince, was just $2.99 on Kindle and snagged it. I read it late at night in bed, just a few pages at a time, and was overcome by this fascinating world Rawn had created. Then, I got my mother-in-law to start reading the books, and she loved them, too. So here we are, with me hoping to get you hooked on them, too. I’ll try to keep the spoilers mild.

The Dragon Prince Trilogy

At its core, this trilogy is a story of political intrigue in a fantasy setting. The first book, Dragon Prince, centers on a young prince as he solidifies his power during a festival in which leaders from all over the continent have gathered. Essentially, it’s a time for matchmaking and Prince-making. There’s no king, and the different princedoms exist in relative peace. But behind the scenes, there are wars of words and power plays that are constant. Rawn weaves an incredibly intricate plot. Moreover, she’s an absolute master of characterization. These people all feel completely genuine. They have real motivations. They’re flawed. They make huge mistakes. They even do vile, repulsive things when they’re truly good people. But that’s like the real world, right? Good people still sin. Good people still make mistakes. And, occasionally, a circumstance turns a good person into a monster.

Anyway, in Dragon Prince I encountered some of the most exciting political machinations I’d read in a book. There are parties where the characters are all trying to pair off and determine how the power might shift. There’s one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever read: a horse race with several layers of drama overshadowing the main event. It’s just fantastic, thrilling writing front to back. But it’s thrilling in the sense that you want certain characters to succeed and others to fail. You, as a reader, feel their successes with them. You bemoan their mistakes. Yes, there’s action in the book, but it’s largely a few major climaxes in the midst of what is largely many people working to accomplish goals through intrigue. There’s also Sunrunning–a fascinating magical system that depends upon the light of the sun to work.

Having read the first book, I moved on to the book that inspired me to buy the whole set: The Star Scroll. The cover actually has a person with the dragon, which was different from the bookmark which featured only the dragon. Anyway, the second book has quite a bit about a certain Star Scroll and some forbidden magic that I don’t want to spoil. The characterization is once more excellent. Rawn truly makes it seem as though the characters are real people with real motivations that go beyond the normal fantasy tropes. The magic system continues to be fascinating, though I think there’s untapped potential that gets more fully realized in the concluding book.

Finally, the trilogy wraps up with Sunrunner’s Fire, which has one of the most epic fantasy duels I’ve ever read. This brings the series to including two of the most memorable moments I’ve read in fantasy. I won’t spoil it at all, but wow, this is a superbly written scene. And, again, Rawn brings the characters to life. One thing that impressed me in this is the diversity of experiences, along with how she writes different generations in compelling and genuine ways. Rawn is a true master, and we need to acknowledge that! The series ends with an open thread, but thankfully the next trilogy is already complete. I’ll be moving on to that one next.

Content warnings: the books do have scenes featuring sex, including sexual violence. There is also warfare, murder, and abuse. I would not recommend this for children at all.


Vintage Sci-Fi– Click the link and scroll down to read vintage sci-fi posts! I love hearing about your own responses and favorites!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

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!



Initial Thoughts on the 2021 Hugo Nominees

The 2021 Hugo Nominations have been announced. I’m pleased to say I was involved this time as a paying member and got to help nominate. It was a ton of fun, though I absolutely agonized over my choices for best novel. I wanted to talk about the shortlist now that it’s been announced and highlight a few things.

Best Related Work

I start here because one of the selections truly blew me away. Finding new things that I’d never have thought about before is THE reason I read through lists of any sort. Well, when the nominees were announced, I saw “The Last Bronycon: a fandom autopsy” from Jenny Nicholson, a YouTube video pop up. I know a couple bronies, and my kids love the Friendship is Magic show, so I’ve seen glimpses of it here and there. I figured, what the heck, I’ll watch this video. It’s a bit over an hour long and I was just enthralled the whole time.

First of all, Nicholson is an engaging speaker. She blended humor, personal experience in the community, and a critical eye into a genuinely wonderful piece. It would be easy to make videos mocking bronies or asking why people are how they are. Nicholson has enough firsthand experience to love the community and acknowledge its faults. It was an incisive look at how the fandom rose up around My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and how some parts could be quite toxic while others were wonderful.

The video also made me want to watch My Little Pony much more than I have with my kids watching it in the background. I think it’s always fun to join new fandoms, though trying to navigate the unfortunate (and sometimes, it seems, inevitable) toxicity and gatekeeping makes it tough to get on board.

As a related work, though, what a great work “The Last Bronycon” was. It offered insights into the subject while also calling on viewers to experience the joy and love that Nicholson herself had/has for both the community and the content. I highly recommend you watch it. (Fair warning: some adult content, language, and discussion.)

I love this thumbnail, it’s so great!

Just another quick note, I was tickled to see the article “George R.R. Martin Can Fuck Off Into the Sun, Or: The 2020 Hugo Awards Ceremony” by Natalie Luhrs on there. The 2020 Hugo Awards ceremony was certainly an interesting thing to behold, but I only watched it intermittently. This analysis helped me see more of the problems with it. I confess I’m a huge Silverberg fan as far as much of his fiction, but the searing he got in this article may have been deserved too. Whether it was or not, I do think that articles like this that help make us aware of potential problems in fandom are helpful.

Best Novel

This is probably the category with the most buzz, and, as I said, I agonized over my own choices. There was so much fantastic speculative fiction released last year. The nominees are

  • Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse (Gallery / Saga Press)
  • The City We Became, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
  • Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tordotcom)
  • Network Effect, Martha Wells (Tordotcom)
  • Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
  • The Relentless Moon, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books)

I’ve read most of these, but not Harrow the Ninth or The Relentless Moon. I did a deep dive into some Mary Robinette Kowal recently, though, reading the entire Glamourist Histories series, which was fabulous, along with some shorter fiction. I need to go back and read the whole Lady Astronaut series. As for Harrow–well, I did not enjoy Gideon much at all, but since I try to read every single Hugo nominee for best novel, I’ll be giving the series another chance. I genuinely think Harrow will win regardless. The first book had so much hype and this one seems to be getting just as much. The other four novels, which I’ve read, would each be deserving in their own way. So far, out of these (and excluding by default those I haven’t read), I’d probably pick Network Effect, but they’re all great choices.

I gotta say I was shocked that To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini wasn’t on this list. I thought it was a shoe-in for at least getting a nomination. It was one of the biggest surprises of last year’s reading for me, and I wrote about it in longer form already. I loved it. Given Paolini’s big name from the Eragon books (which I admit I didn’t like much, having only read the first), I figured he’d be on it for sure. Goes to show how much I know!

Best Video Game

I believe it’s the first year for this category, and the nominations are all over the board. A few are expected–Animal Crossing and the Final Fantasy VII remake (which I still need to play, come on PC release!), while others are surprises. Like Blaseball? I’ve never even heard of it, but apparently it’s a browser based horror baseball game? Uh, I’ll be giving that a try.

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko should win this. It’s one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in years. I loved it so much, and I encourage you to go read it as soon as possible! I keep seeing A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking showing up places–I need to read it. I wrote a review of Raybearer if you’d like to check it out.

Astounding Award for Best New Author

The choices here are:

  • Lindsay Ellis (1st year of eligibility)
  • Simon Jimenez (1st year of eligibility)
  • Micaiah Johnson (1st year of eligibility)
  • A.K. Larkwood (1st year of eligibility)
  • Jenn Lyons (2nd year of eligibility)
  • Emily Tesh (2nd year of eligibility)

This is an incredibly solid list. I personally lean towards Simon Jimenez because his The Vanished Birds is a spectacular debut work. Found family, shades of “Firefly.” Check it out.

Best Fanzine

I am so pleased to see the “Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog” ed. Amanda Wakaruk and Olav Rokne on there. I enjoy their presence on Twitter so much, as they both interact so kindly and also help highlight so many works. They’re great at signal boosting others and I just love that.

Other Categories

I’m sorry if I didn’t comment on your favorites, but I’d love to read your thoughts! Let me know what you think in the comments, please! I love talking about this stuff. I also tried to avoid commenting on anything I just hadn’t read or didn’t know enough about to comment upon. Congratulations to all the nominees!


Announcing the 2021 Hugo Award Finalists– Tor dot com’s post about the finalists, a convenient place to view them all.

Science Fiction Hub– I’ve discussed past Hugo Awards extensively, and would love to chat about them and hear your own thoughts! I have several posts discussing entire years’ worth of nominees/winners for best novel as well as my own choice for a winner. Check out all my posts on science fiction (and some fantasy!) at this hub.

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!


Indie Highlight: “The Sovereign of the Seven Isles” by David A. Wells

The “Indie Highlight” is a series of posts in which I shine the lights on Indie/Self-Published books that I believe are worthy of your attention. I’ll be writing reviews and recommending them, along with providing links on where to get the books. This is a special edition post for Indie April!

The Sovereign of the Seven Isles by David A. Wells

“The Sovereign of the Seven Isles” is a lengthy epic fantasy series by David A. Wells. Some time ago, the first book popped up as free on Kindle, and I snagged a copy. With Indie April approaching, I decided to finally dive into the series, and read the first book, Thinblade. I quickly followed up by reading the second in the series, Sovereign Stone. I can’t yet comment on later books in the series, as I’ve yet to read them. But I already got the third book from Kindle Unlimited, so I will be continuing this series fairly soon.

The core thrust of the series is a story of prophecy and expectation regarding the Sovereign of the Seven Isles. It’s a setup that will seem familiar to fans of epic fantasy, and so far the series doesn’t diverge much from what one would expect going in. There is ancient family expectation woven seamlessly into ancient evil and, as I said, prophecy.

So far, what makes the series stand out is mostly that it has been so conventional. Normally, that would be a point to potentially un-sell a novel for me, but there’s a sense of comfort reading these books that comes from being a longtime fan of fantasy. It’s easy to sit down and churn through half the book in an afternoon because it just feels like entering into a fantasy world that doesn’t ask too much from its readers. There are a lot of characters, but it’s never overwhelming. More importantly, the action keeps up at such a brisk pace that some of the flaws regarding narrative or prose are easy to ignore for the sake of continuing to the next major point.

The first book, Thinblade, has Alexander working to find the titular blade, which is so fine that it seems to be able to slice through or destroy just about anything. By the second book, the importance of this blade is tempered a bit by Alexander learning he must also have sound strategy and skill. It’s a coming-of-age story in the middle of world-rending events, and fans of fantasy will be quite comfortable.

Wells has written an intriguing world, and for fans of epic fantasy, it’s easy to recommend this one to give a try, especially if you have Kindle Unlimited. I recommend these especially for those looking for some epic fantasy that don’t also want to spend actual hours trying to figure out the world or memorize all the names going in. Sometimes I love books like that–but we all need a break once in a while. These books are a good bridge book for those breaks between heavier reads. The first book, Thinblade, is still just $0.99 on Kindle, so it’s worth a try if you’re interested. Let me know what you think!


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!


Indie Highlight: “The Carnelian Fox” by Kay MacLeod

The “Indie Highlight” is a series of posts in which I shine the lights on Indie/Self-Published books that I believe are worthy of your attention. I’ll be writing reviews and recommending them, along with providing links on where to get the books.

The Carnelian Fox by Kay MacLeod

I love Pokémon. I love monster collecting games in general, and have tracked down a bunch on Steam and other platforms. I’ve always craved books that capture (hah!) that same feel of excitement, exploration, and bonding with creatures of games like Pokémon. Kay MacLeod’s The Carnelian Fox is a fantastic book that does exactly that.

In the world of Maiyamon, some corporation made real life monsters that could be caught out of everyday creatures. Of course, this included giving them stats, bonuses, and other things that go along with monster catching games. The company faded and interested in the ‘mons faded along with it, but the ‘mons remained, and became a problem for the real world to deal with.

Jump forward in time, and we get to follow Sam, a Maiyamon trainer who wants to better herself and her team as she sets out to become a great trainer. She gets paired with Lucy, a wealthy young woman who wants to use her Maiyamon(s) for show (think of dog shows), in order to protect her and earn some money. From there, readers follow a series of adventures, competitions, and more as we get exposed to the world of Maiyamon.

MacLeod has created a beautiful experience with this book. The battles feel just like what I had hoped for–real time, epic battles between ‘mons that still have a kind of pseudo rock-paper-scissors aspect to them. The battles are one of the major highlights of the book. I also quite enjoyed the bonding between the Maiyamon and trainers that happened. Sam cares for her critters, and their interactions are sometimes touching. I didn’t expect to feel emotional in this book, but I did. MacLeod’s characterization is great, and genuine (often witty) dialogue is the name of the game.

There are a few typos here and there, and a few sentences that end with a question mark that doesn’t seem to fit. These are more jarring than I expected (I tend to be pretty good at ignoring such things) because of how few and far between they were.

The Carnelian Fox is a great indie read that absolutely, at last, scratches that Pokémon itch. If you like monster training games and have longed for a novel that can give you that same feeling with a great story, you should run and grab this book. I recommend it.

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“Raybearer” by Jordan Ifueko – A beautiful, unique fantasy

Let me put it as simply as possible to start off: Ifueko has created an utterly captivating world in Raybearer.

I have been anticipating Raybearer ever since I first found out about it. I followed the author on Twitter before I even knew about the project, so when she announced this debut novel, I was ecstatic. Then, I had it in hand and I… waited. I’m sure other people do this–you want to truly savor a book, so you wait until you feel the time is right and you’re perfectly ready to read the book, even as it calls to you from the TBR (to be read) shelf. I finally thought the time was right, so I grabbed the book on my way to work to read on breaks. But I couldn’t put it down. My breaks flew past, and then I got home. I confess I read the whole book that night, staying up well past when I am normally asleep to do so. “Savor,” indeed. There will be some light SPOILERS below.

Raybearer is a coming-of-age story about Tarisai, a girl whose mother, The Lady, has nefarious plans for Tarisai and others. Tarisai is sent to the capital city with one mission: she must kill the Crown Prince once she’s gained his trust. Here already, I want to pause to point out the subtle ways Ifueko plays with fantasy tropes and turns them unexpectedly into exciting new stories. Tarisai’s origin, you see, was not from a human union, and this results in her having traits that even she doesn’t know the extent of. One of these, The Lady knows all about–Tarisai has to obey the wish of her mother. So my summary above, that Tarisai must kill the Crown Prince, was intentional. This isn’t a predictable tale in which some young woman gets sent, falls in love with the prince, and so decides to shun her evil mother and rebel. No, Ifueko doesn’t give in to tropes. This is a fresh-feeling story from start to finish.

One of the most refreshing and exciting parts of the book is Ifueko’s world-building. The world of Raybearer, from the magic to the way the political system works, is fascinating. The Crown Prince is a Raybearer, and attempting to build his council. He will connect mentally with others to form his council, and they will be unable to leave him without getting a debilitating council sickness. They will love him. Tests, intrigue, and magic work to intervene throughout the novel as we see what will happen to the ticking bomb that is Tarisai’s compulsion from The Lady. Meanwhile, tension builds and hints at broader problems come through the cracks in the seemingly perfect façade of the Crown Prince’s life. All of this adds up to a read that I found completely unputdownable.

Raybearer is a thrilling ride from start to finish. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I hope you’ll pick it up and become as enamored and enthralled by the rich world Ifueko created as I was. The main problem I have with Raybearer is that there’s no release date for the second book. I can’t wait.

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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!


Ken Scholes’s “Psalms of Isaak” – A Haunting Science Fantasy

Inevitably, when you read a lot of sci-fi fantasy, you discover works that you find to be absolutely marvelous but that go by relatively unnoticed by many other readers. Books that you feel deserve awards and widespread sales disappear from publication and booksellers’ shelves. There are several series or standalone books that fall into that space for me. Ken Scholes’s genre-defying “Psalms of Isaak,” a five book series filled with horror, wonder, and hope ranks very highly among them. There will be light SPOILERS for the series in what follows.

My Journey to Reading the Series

I bought Lamentation, the first book in the series, when it first came out in paperback. It languished on my shelf, showing off its beautiful cover art (are those… cowboys in front of a ruin? or warriors riding around?). I lost it in a move but couldn’t shake the image of the cover from my mind. I grabbed it in paperback again, but it was purged when I was getting ready for another move–after all, why keep just the first book in a series I wasn’t sure I’d even like? Finally, as I browsed for audiobooks available through the library, I saw that alluring cover once again. Knowing I like listening to books, and that this one in particular seemed to be haunting me, I dove in.

I was in for an absolute treat. Lamentation has nearly everything I could want in a science fantasy. It has an awesome sense of vastness of the world, both in space and time. There are ruins and mysteries lost to the past. There are subtle hints of technology that may be recovered. There are mysterious steampunk vibes mixed with those of fantasy. Truly wicked villains populate the whole series, while interesting main characters manage to keep hope alive in the darkest of times. The book was brilliant! I immediately grabbed the next one on audio and went through them all. I rarely read series back-to-back, enjoying a break in between with other books, but I couldn’t stop with the Psalms of Isaak and continued all the way through.

What Genre is it?

One of the many things that makes this series so excellent is its ability to defy genres. At its core, it’s a kind of epic fantasy, with some feeling of the hero’s journey happening throughout. But it also has clear elements of science fantasy, with some fantastical elements scattered throughout seemingly explainable with scientific means and in-world rules. Additionally, there is a helping of steampunk swirled in. Ancient artifacts are scattered throughout, as well–one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy tropes. Each time I started a new book in the series I struggled with which genre to file it under, and I ultimately just piled on the labels so that I could find the books if friends asked for recommendations.

On top of all of that, though, there is an evocative sense of religious crisis. I read some autobiographical stuff from Scholes as I read through the series and it appears he has had his own crisis of doubt–I’m unsure where he came out of it. That sense is mixed throughout this series as religion plays a major pot in many of the plot threads. It adds yet another layer of both hope and dread.

Read It!

I hope I’ve sold you on the Psalms of Isaak, because it is a series that is well-worth your time. I’m nabbing the audiobooks on Audible as I get credits. It’s a wonderful journey through a fantastic world, filled with so many vibes and ideas that you might think it’s overwhelming. But it’s not. Scholes does a great job grounding readers in this haunting place, and his storytelling will make you want to stay there forever.


J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

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!


Indie April Highlight: “Awaken Online: Cartharsis” by Travis Bagwell

The “Indie Highlight” is a series of posts in which I shine the lights on Indie/Self-Published books that I believe are worthy of your attention. I’ll be writing reviews and recommending them, along with providing links on where to get the books.

Awaken Online: Catharsis by Travis Bagwell

It’s been one heck of a couple months with COVID-19 going around. I decided to finally cave and try out a sub-genre I’ve been thinking about for a while: LitRPG. Simply put, a LitRPG books are written as though they’re taking place in an RPG, complete with leveling up and stats in the text. I know pretty little about the genre, so I can’t comment on how broadly that definition works but that’s how I’ve seen people talk about it. The book I went with was one that advertised hard for me on Facebook to the point I finally snagged a copy of it: Awaken Online: Catharsis

The book follows Jason, a young man who’s had a lot of things go wrong recently–getting in fights, a girl he likes apparently siding with a bully against him, school troubles, etc. He decides to play “Awaken Online,” a virtual reality MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) to blow off some steam, and discovers an experience that seems tailored to his own life in some ways. There are other things going on in the plot, much more than I expected, to be honest.

The book is basically broken into two phases taking place simultaneously: Jason’s real life, and his in-game life and development. I was honestly surprised by how quickly I got sucked into the MMORPG life of Jason’s VR avatar. It wasn’t complex, but it was a lot of fun. The wa he leveled up and thought through how to gain what he desired was interesting, and made for a page-turning read. I loved the magic and other aspects of gameplay, and found myself thinking of it as a real video game I’d want to play. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, there are some shenanigans with the company that made the addictive Awaken Online and an AI they created to make it fun to play. 

The real-life portion of the book almost seemed a distraction at times as I wanted to see what was going on with Jason in Awaken Online. But it was important to the story’s flow, and I think it does credit to Travis Bagwell’s writing that I got sucked in so well to the game world. Jason’s real life, as I said, is pretty tough, and his parents aren’t great either. That said, the characters outside the game world have very little interaction or development. I’d say at this point in the series, the meat of the book is the gameworld, though it’s clear more ‘real life’ things could transpire as well. 

I was extremely pleasantly surprised by Awaken Online: CatharsisIt served as my first foray into LitRPG as a sub-genre, and I expect to spend a lot of time here. Check it out, and let me know what you think, too!


Indie Highlight– Read about more indie titles by looking at all my posts about indie sci-fi/fantasy (mostly)! Scroll down for more. Let me know what you think, and tell me your recommendations!

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

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!