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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Links

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!

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.

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.

All links to Amazon are affiliates.

Links

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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!

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.

“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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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.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “The Book of Skulls” by Robert Silverberg

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is over (it’s in January), but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop reading vintage sci-fi. After great response to my posts during January, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. 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.

The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg

I can’t stop thinking about The Book of Skulls. It haunts me at the strangest times, but especially when I’m driving (more on that later). Silverberg is at his best in this novel, but is he also at his worst? I don’t know. 

At its core, The Book of Skulls is a kind of coming-of-age story of four young men who found a manuscript that they believe–maybe–will unlock immortality to them. All they have to do is travel across the country and join a murderous gang of cultists and have two of their number die–one through sacrifice and the other through murder. No big deal, right? It’s a strange setup for what seems almost like some B-list spring break movie where the plot is simply a vehicle for getting titillating scenes on the screen. And make no mistake, the book has lots of sex. I can’t help but think about the strange, disturbing sexualization that Silverberg put forward in the driving scenes; the way the car interacted with the road, and the language Silverberg used to describe it. But it’s not just the car assaulting the road as a (very strange) metaphor. There are liaisons with prostitutes, sex cultists, there sexual encounters of all kinds all along the road trip. That B-list titillation is all over the place. 

But The Book of Skulls is a lot more than that. It’s a haunting tale of humanity gone wrong in so many ways. Its main cast doesn’t really feature a single likable character, but that somehow works, because you don’t want to care about these young men, but you do! And you find yourself caring what happens and wondering what’s going to happen and whether the ‘real’ Book of Skulls in the characters’ minds is going to give them immortality. Is this a fantasy novel? Is it sci-fi? Is it just a strange thriller where the main characters go off and kill each other after a series of orgies? 

Why is it so compelling?

Silverberg is an immensely talented author. And it shows here in this almost annoyingly spellbinding book. I feel as though I ought to hate it. I can’t tell if Silverberg’s put his own views into the minds of his characters or not. If so, there’s a lot to call out as awful here. Self-hating characters–one that is Jewish and one that is homosexual–each could be called out for promoting hatred of the same in some ways. His comments about disabled persons are detestable, but again occur in the mind of a character whose viewpoint we can’t trust. Racism, sexism–it’s there. But is it what Silverberg is promoting, or is it simply more characterization of these four messed up, generally terrible men? Silverberg has mastered the art of an unreliable narrator, and we have four in this book. 

Like the characters in the novel, I can’t stop thinking about The Book of Skulls. I bet you would think about it if you read it, too. Would you hate it? Would you love it? Or would you feel as I do–stuck wondering exactly what it means and why it is so gripping?

Links

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!

Vintage Sci-Fi– Click the link and scroll down to read more 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.

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.

2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel: My Reviews

I read as much sci-fi/fantasy as I can get my hands on, and have been working through the backlog of all the Hugo winners and nominees for best novel for some time. The 2020 Nominations were announced recently, and I wanted to read them all so I could review them and talk about/debate them with fellow fans. Without further adieu, here are my reviews!

[Edit: The Hugo Award for Best Novel went to “A memory Called Empire,” which is a truly deserving novel that I also loved. 2020 was a great mix of works showing a wide variety of speculative fiction. Let me know what you thought of this year’s nominees!]

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders- Grade: C
There are some cool ideas here, and a strong inspiration from classics like 1984 (the government determining times, for example). However, I felt the whole thing was hampered by a lack of enthusiasm from the main characters which led to me not caring very much about the stakes. Moreover, the strangeness of motivation behind some of their acts throttled my suspension of disbelief. Perhaps there are some metaphors or analogies happening here that simply went over my head. I’d love for someone to explain if I did miss some things of import here. Anyway, the whole thing ended up feeling kind of surreal in an off-putting rather than enthralling way. 

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine (Winner)- Grade: A-
I attempted to read this book four times. I say attempted because each time I got sidetracked by something else. It’s dense, and my life circumstances were such that I couldn’t concentrate on it as deeply as I’d have liked to. Finally, it went on a great sale and I grabbed the audiobook along with the ebook. Listening to the book was a great experience, and let me concentrate on it better than reading it on paper. The bottom line for A Memory Called Empire is this: How well do you like complexity in your sci-fi?
A) The more Machiavellian, the better! I want names that I have to write down to keep track of! I want political intrigue I need to chart to follow! 
B) I enjoy complexity quite a bit, but don’t want to inflict pain on myself for trying to follow a story.
C) Complexity is fine, as long as it is spoon-fed to me.
D) I admire the handiwork, but I don’t like it.
Whichever option you chose is basically what I anticipate your grade for this book being. There are names that are nothing like you’d expect. There’s mystery throughout. There are political maneuvers, thrusts, and counter-thrusts. It’s all there. This book is like a combination of the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie with some Iain M. Banks in it. The book has a phenomenal payoff for the investment of energy, as well. The last 40% or so of the book has all the political machinations that you could desire to go along with the central mystery. I love it, but I also had to work to love it. I can’t wait to see what the next in the series does to me.

Gideon the Ninth by Tasmyn Muir- Grade: D+
I don’t know that I’ve experienced as much hype surrounding a book as this one before I’ve read it. I also try to avoid being one of “those people.” You know who I’m talking about: the type of people who talk all loud and proud about how “I read that super hyped thing everyone loves and found it was just mediocre at best.” So instead, I’ll try to focus on real, substantive critique rather than posturing. First, I do not like pop culture references in my sci-fi/fantasy. Veiled references? Sure. If they make sense for the story? Absolutely. But straight up pop-culture references in a novel that doesn’t have a very good explanation for how they come into play for the main character? Hard no. Second, the novel ends up reading exactly like it sounds in the blurb: it’s a sci-fi space necromancer with a sword and cool tattoos and a lesbian who kills stuff and cusses and doesn’t care but maybe she does care more than you know and there’s magic and space castles and everything that’s awesome like skeletons and badassery and it’s there! Whew. There’s no such thing as too much cool stuff thrown together. I firmly believe that. But it has to actually work together, and here we somehow have all of that cool stuff in it without ever having a main character or interesting enough main plot for me to care whatsoever. Moreover, since the cool stuff is being hurled at the reader at a breakneck pace, one cna never really sit back and just absorb how awesome it should be before you’re getting confronted by the next thing. There’s a gothic space palace! What more do you want!? I know: I want to actually have that described to me. I want to envision how gothic it is. I want to feel its movement through space–or the mechanization that keep it in place. I want to read about all of these awesome ideas, not just have them pitched to me as one-liners and then thrown onto an increasing heap of ideas that are never fully realized. And this is what I think made the book so terribly disappointing to me. It had so many cool ideas–it oozed with them–but it never really cashed them in. 

The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley- Grade: C
I am so torn about this book. I love so many of the ideas in it. There’s a foreboding sense that aspects of Hurley’s vision of the future are not far off from the reality we may experience if we let greed continue unfettered indefinitely. The trauma of war, the pervasiveness of changing reality through the way that news can shape people’s minds, and the like are all explored here through what is, ultimately, a character piece about a soldier, Dietz. But Dietz is not, to me, particularly likable as a protagonist, and there’s a kind of paper-thin quality to not only Dietz but every other character in the book that made me start losing interest. There are so many cool concepts here, but I don’t know that we ever get to enjoy them as well as we should. It’s a thrill-ride, but one that may not have enough meat on the bones to sustain the interest of all readers. For me, it was a middling read, though I may go back to revisit it sometime. 

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire (My Winner)- Grade: A+
Seanan McGuire is one of my favorite authors, and she did not let me down with this sprawling epic about the twins Roger and Dodger and the strange, weird, magical world they–and we–inhabit. McGuire is a master of peeling away layers of reality so that it seems like you, the reader, haven’t actually thought about everything yet. Maybe there is magic just around the corner. Perhaps there’s a strange, disturbing creature lurking just under that rock. Witches may have a coven over in that moor. These things seem so possible in McGuire’s deft hands, and Middlegame is one of her best efforts yet. The central plot and characters are riveting, to the point that I basically didn’t put this book down until I’d finished it. McGuire writes with a tone that is somehow both light and dark, conspiratorial and friendly. You want to love the characters from the outset, and by the time the action really gets intense, your heart is racing along with theirs. I don’t know if McGuire will explore the world she created in this standalone (so far) novel, but I’d go back in a heartbeat. 

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow- Grade: C+
I loved so much about this book. It’s one of those books that is a book about books for people who read books, and those tend to be right up my alley. Harrow created January, a fantastic main character whom I love and for whom I rooted the entire time, but then didn’t really… seem to do anything with her. Throughout the whole book there were echoes about how there are these ten thousand doors and so many possibilities and so much more to reality than we expect, but then that infinite set of possibilities never seemed to get realized for me as a reader. I felt let down by the payoff, which didn’t really even begin until about 60-70% into the book. By the end, I found myself reminiscing about the earlier portions of the book, when I had a character I adored and the anticipation that something big would happen. The prose is lyrical and endearing. Ultimately, I felt the book was merely okay, due to the main plot stumbling along, but it shows immense promise. I will absolutely seek out the next thing Harrow writes, because she has the gift.

Links

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!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Read more posts in this series and follow me on the journey! Let me know your own thoughts on the books.

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SDG.