Category: Reading

Starfire: A Red Peace – Spencer Ellsworth

A confession, reader, before starting this book review: when browsing Audible’s list of books for review, I saw a familiar name in the Narrator column, and chose this book before looking at the title or genre. Starfire: A Red Peace is jointly narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal and John Keating; long-time readers of this blog will recognize Mary as an author whose work I admire and someone who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and learning from, on that cruise as well as subsequent online classes. I knew that she was an audiobook narrator, but hadn’t heard her work, so I jumped at the opportunity to listen to the first novel in Spencer Ellworth’s Starfire trilogy. Before I dig into the book and narration, I want to thank Audible for providing this book for review, and flag for you, listener, that they’re running a promotion until May 4th, 2018 that gets you a free kindle when you sign up for a one-year membership—12 audiobooks and a kindle for around $130 is a pretty good deal, especially if you consider how they discount audiobooks if you already own the kindle version. I’ll stop that spiel now, lest my words meander into the realm of sponsored content.

Kowal and Keating’s performances for Starfire: A Red Peace are excellent, their choices of accents lending color to a space opera that could otherwise have seemed like yet-another-brits-in-space affair which, continuing my confession, I had been expecting. Instead, there was twang and grit, a bit of a different soul inside the characters. I found it particularly interesting that a change in accent could do so much for certain aspects of characterization—which, on reflection, could have been a result of my own ingrained biases. Something to ponder later, for sure.

What I found in A Red Peace surprised me. It has the pieces of a great space opera—a military populated with genetically engineered soldiers, aliens of various sizes and degrees of ferocity, a plucky young heroine with a knack for getting herself into trouble, and writing that echoes its forbears.

But Spencer Ellsworth’s novel took me by surprise, too. I half-expected to be nonplussed by A Red Peace; not enthralled but not bored. Instead, I found myself fascinated with the ways Ellsworth infused his take on space opera with a breath of fresh air, from the arthropodal spacecraft to the exquisite sequences of intoxication that painted the universe in haunting melodies and strange colors, scenes that lingered on my ears and tongue long after I’d finished listening to the book.

Because I’ve been somewhat derelict in my duties as a reviewer, the space between my having finished A Red Peace and publishing this review is, regrettably, nearly half a year. Many of the details of the story are hazy now, but there are things that do stand out: the excellent performances of the narrators, the spectacular execution of an addiction cycle powered by PTSD…these things stuck with me.

There’s a silver lining, however. Taking so long to publish this review leaves me with the opportunity to pick up the next two books in the series: Shadow Sun Seven and Memory’s Blade, which I intend to add to my to-read list forthwith.

Starfire: A Red Peace is a quick read that will sate your hunger for classic space opera while giving a taste of something new. You can support The Warbler by using these links to pick up the book on Amazon, or to find some of Spencer Ellworth’s short fiction in various magazines at Weightless Books.

Announcing: The Warbler Weekly (And a Book Review!)

According to the Gregorian calendar, it is nearly the end of February. Somewhere around the middle of this month—and truth be told, I can’t remember the exact date—The Warbler celebrated its seventh birthday. Seven years! It’s been an interesting time, to say the least, and I am immensely grateful to you, readers and friends, for helping me forge my love of reading into something tangible.

Today, I’m delighted to tell you about something new. More than a few of you know that I, along with several colleagues and friends, host a weekly writing podcast called Write Right on which we discuss a variety of writerly topics near and dear to my heart. I’ve been mulling over the idea of expanding this blog into a multimedia extravaganza for some time, and at the repeated insistence of my friend G. Derek Adams, I have done just that.

Meet The Warbler Weekly. It’s a companion to this blog (which I’ll continue trying to update with written reviews as often as I am able) in which I’ll cover one book or several works by a single author every week. The podcast will likely expand into other topics as I pursue a variety of endeavors, so I’m keeping it very loose. I’ll be publishing a post on the site every time I publish a new episode, too.

I’m using Anchor to host and distribute it, but the platform offers a bunch of neat features. For instance, if you download it, you can record questions or comments on episodes and send them to me, which I can in turn feature on future episodes. An asynchronous conversation, audible to all kinds of book nerds. Sounds fun, right?

The first episode is up right now, and you can subscribe to the podcast on any of your favorite services—links below to the big ones.

The first book review on The Warbler Weekly is Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, a book of nonfiction essays compiled by Jim Al-Khalili. Give the episode a listen and let me know what you think!

Anchor Podcasts      Apple Podcasts       Google Play Music      PocketCasts

A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers

While I haven’t read The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, the first book in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers series, I found A Closed and Common Orbit, last year’s Hugo-nominated sequel to that volume, a deeply enjoyable and approachable read. The characters are rich and honest, the universe is extensive and fascinating, and the writing is excellent.

At the core of A Closed and Common Orbit is one question, explored from several angles: what is personhood?

Whether the AI learning the limitations of a single body, an escaped genetically engineered slave finding out about the world outside her prison, a ship AI exploring motherhood, or an alien shifting between genders with fluidity, each character arc deals with the question of personhood. (Personhood as opposed to humanity is something particularly interesting to explore, given our own proximity to artificial intelligence and our somewhat limited understanding of consciousness.)

There isn’t an adventure at the heart of A Closed and Common Orbit, but there is action and change, despite the slow pacing of the novel. From a quick search, I gather that the pacing presented a problem for some readers, but I feel that a book about asking difficult questions and exploring them with genuine care should take it slow, be methodical, and not detract from it’s central premise with an epic dressing.

I am sure that, by making a categorical statement, I am shooting myself in the foot. There’s no doubt that it’s possible to write a compelling adventure that deals with the essence of personhood. That isn’t this book, though. This book takes time to show the confusion, fear, pain, and the joy, wonder, and curiosity that are part of the conscious experience. It made me think. A lot. And for that, I genuinely appreciate it. In a year filled to brimming with excellent reads, A Closed and Common Orbit may have fallen short of where it otherwise might have been on best-of lists. It’s an excellent book. One I won’t soon forget.

A Closed and Common Orbit is available on Amazon. (Use that link to buy it, if you like, and support The Warbler while doing it!)

2017 in Review

It is early evening on January 8th, 2018 and, having gathered the requisite statistics (and my thoughts, besides), it is time to wrap up the strange, beautiful, horrible year in a post. As I did last year, I’ll go over my stats and favorite reads of the year, but before diving into that, a bit of housekeeping and personal reflection.

The two-thousand-seventeenth year of the common era was a doozy. Sociopolitical upheaval without and myriad changes within put something of a damper on what I’d hoped would be a year of voracious reading and reviewing, owing largely to my ingenious plan to make my way as a freelance writer.

I started 2017 as a full-time writer at a startup in San Francisco, from which I shifted to an editorial stint at UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science. I had made plans to attend the Writing Excuses Cruise and, upon my return, kick my freelance career into overdrive. I had clients, financials planned, and my eyes on the prize, so to speak.

What is it they say about the best-laid plans?

I ended up (quite unexpectedly) interviewing for and getting a job with a tech company based in Cupertino. My title there is Writer, and it is a surreal thing. I started that job a few days after returning from Europe, and while I’m grateful for the work, and happy to be there, it’s much more demanding on my time than I’d estimated. You may have noticed the result, dear reader. I only managed four posts in the final quarter of the year. And while The Warbler is a work of love and, therefore, not subject to any kind of grueling content calendar, I must acknowledge that I felt its absence. I love reading these crazy books. I’ve love writing about them. And for some reason, there is a non-zero number of people out there who like to read these posts.

And so I will promise, once again, that this year I will post weekly. My goal is (again) to read 52 books this year. It would be an honor to have you swing by the blog now and again to see what’s up at Warbler way. Who knows? You may even come across a surprise or two!


Books read:

  • 45 Books Read (of 52 Goal) – 3.75 books per month
  • 10,238 Pages Read – 830 pages per month

Blog stats:

  • 30 posts – 2.5 per month
  • 3231 views by 1821 visitors
  • Total words – 21,036

The year’s best:

Best Novel:

Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer

I haven’t reviewed this book on the site yet, but I will. The writing was extraordinary; truly far-out science fiction written in the style of, say, Daniel Defoe. Ada Palmer is a singular talent, and no mistake.

Summerlong – Peter S. Beagle

 

The Three Body Problem – Cixin Liu 

– I will review this soon, but oh MAN did I sleep on this. People have been talking about it for ages, and I felt like something of a lout when I was hanging out with Ken Liu, the translator, on the cruise without having read his work. This is magnificent.

Honorable Mention: This Immortal

I had picked this book up by complete happenstance when I was living in Seattle, as part of a pulp-fiction sale at a cool bookstore near my house. It didn’t even register that the author was Zelazny, a prolific and decorated author who was a contemporary of Frank Herbert. Imagine my shock at learning that This Immortal shared the hugo with Dune. I resolved to read it while I was out and about in Europe, hugo-adjacent and surrounded by delightful nerds. I’ll review the book as a whole later, but suffice it to say that it was an exceptional read.

Best Novella:

Forest of Memory – Mary Robinette Kowal

The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle

The Jewel and Her Lapidary — Fran Wilde

Fran Wilde brings every ounce of her poetic ability and vivid worldbuilding to this novella. It is a gorgeous read

 

Best Short Story:

A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers

An amazing, surreal, beautiful story about loss and identity by Alyssa Wong.

The Game We Played During the War

Something about this story really stood out to me. Carrie Vaughn explores telepathy, chess, and the horrors of war.

 The City Born Great

N. K. Jemisin plays with the idea that cities are their people in a resonant and higly visual short.

Notable Non-Fiction:

The Princess Diarist

Carrie Fisher’s account of her time as Princess Leia was fascinating, sad, and uplifting. I recommend the audiobook read by Fisher.

2K to 10K – Rachel Aaron

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Carl Sagan, ever the extaticist (I just made up that word), seems out of character in this book, harshly critical as it is of non-scientific belief systems. He has salient points throughout, but it was a surprising read. Truth be told, it sends my all-too-willing mind down the conspiracy rabbit hole. Was Sagan threatened by the government, which caused a shift in his tone?

 

That’s it for the best-ofs, but 2017 was an incredible year for me. Here are just a few of the other things I did with my time, if you’re curious:

  • Writing Excuses Cruise – Traveled to Europe, attended a week-long writing intensive, leading to my attending Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland.
  • Mary Robinette Kowal’s Short Story Intensive
  • Night of Writing Dangerously
  • Saw and chatted with Kim Stanley Robinson, Robin Sloane, and Nnedi Okorafor at Apple. One of the unreal perks of the new job.

So that’s 2017. Here’s hoping for a 2018 filled with indictments and inspiration.

This Census-Taker – China Miéville

In past posts, I’ve alluded to the divide within the speculative fiction world, wherein on one side stands the group that wants to elevate unheard voices, shine a light on different stories, and push the boundaries of our boundless universes just a bit farther. From the other side wafts a miasma, that same stench that has consumed U.S. politics which, in this case, wants to make science fiction “Great Again.” That group calls itself the “sad puppies,” which isn’t a joke, somehow. Anyway, their continued efforts to bend the system to push certain works toward award nominations have been less effective than previous years, though not entirely ineffective. Which brings me to This Census-Taker, by China Miéville.

I had planned not to read any of the puppy-nominated books from the 2017 Hugo nominees list, but I’d been meaning to read China Miéville for a while, having had his work recommended to my time and again by friends and colleagues the world over. Despite what follows, I will very likely try another Miéville in the future.

This Census-Taker is a book that, for me, never quite took off. It blends elements of fantasy and horror within a surreal framework, muddied by the unreliable narrator, a nameless boy who tells the story in pieces, from different periods of time, and with varying levels of basic knowledge. For all its artistry, the (quite good) writing isn’t able to give the requisite lift to the book. It falls flat.

There’s a murder (maybe), and a (possibly) bottomless hole where his (suspected) evil father dumps the (presumed) victims of his homicidal tendencies: animals and humans alike. Sometimes, the story moves one step outward, telling a loose frame story—the nameless boy, older now, in some kind of incarceration, is writing down the details of his childhood—but that, too, remains somewhat bland. This Census-Taker becomes even more lackluster when comparing it to the other nominated novellas from this year’s Hugos—Black Tom, Vellit Boe, and Every Heart a Doorway in particular, which I had read shortly before sitting down to listen to the audiobook of This Census-Taker.

As I implied above, I don’t indent to blackball Miéville from my to-read list as a result of my less-than-stellar affair with this novella. He’s a fascinating figure who has amassed an impressive corpus, and I’m curious to see his takes on other genres.

Maybe you, friend, can convince me to pick up one of his books sooner. Give it your best shot in the comments.

Penric and the Shaman – Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold, who won the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Series (for the Vorkosigan Saga), is a fantastically decorated writer. Among her many accolades are six Hugos, three Nebulas, three Locuses, and as of 2010 (according to wikipedia), has sold over two million books.

And because I’ve been derelict in my studies of speculative fiction, I hadn’t heard of her until I saw Penric and the Shaman on the list of nominated novellas for the 2017 Hugos.

It’s tough to give a fair review to a novella that is set smack-dab in the middle of an established series: the second novella in a series of five that is itself set within a larger series. There’s an established world, pantheon, society, and long-standing relationships between characters, nations, and religious sects that would have been prohibitively difficult (not to mention ill advised) to include in the novella.

As such, there’s a bit of catch-up on the part of a reader hopping in to the Chalion series in its fifth installment. That being said, Bujold did an excellent job of back-filling questions for new readers while making sure that her pacing would keep knowledgable fans interested. Even with her admirable efforts, I found myself occasionally lost while reading Penric and the Shaman. There was just too much information to assimilate. There was plenty of available information between the lines, in character behaviors and dialogue, but keeping track of it is where I became disoriented.

But that’s part-and-parcel of my circumstance as a reader, and not a knock against the book. Bujold’s writing is very good—she imbues a sort of clarity in her writing that makes even the abstract and hallucinatory moments in the novella easy to picture, which helped me a great deal when it came to piecing the story together in larger, implied context.

Penric is a young (too young, according to most of the reactions to him in the story) sorcerer, advisor to a princess, and a divine priest of the “Bastard’s Order”—who represent the Bastard, the unnamed god of the forgotten, abandoned, and etcetera. Penric is also possessed, or perhaps in possession of, a demon, Desmonda, who hangs out in his brain and can occasionally, with Penric’s permission use his body.

Penric is sent off on a mission to capture a runaway shaman, Inglis, who has been charged with murder. When Penric and his cadre of soldiers finally catch up to Inglis in the snowy mountains, they discover that the situation is much more complex than they’d been led to believe, and Penric is tasked with balancing his roles as a clergyman and sorcerer, torn between his desire to help the man he’s chasing and appeasing the hard-nosed military leader who just wants to complete the mission.

Penric and the Shaman is, all-in-all, an excellent story that deals with intriguing themes of belief, death, personal responsibility, and agency within a wonderfully deep framework that I knew almost nothing about. I’m sure I would have loved the story if I was familiar with Bujold’s other work, but as it is, I really enjoyed Penric and the Shaman.

All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders

So…hey there, reader. I’ve been away a while, with the exception of a few posts regarding that trip I took. Work’s been busy, life gets in the way, etcetera. In the couple of months since I last posted a review, I’ve read somewhere around a dozen books and stories, so in an effort to catch up to the schedule, I’ve set myself a rather aggressive review schedule. If, as I hope, I stick to that schedule, you can expect a review every other day through mid-November, possibly even into December. You ready? I am. Let’s do this.

[drop_cap]C[/drop_cap]harlie Jane Anders has been the talk of the Sci-Fi world this year, with her debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky, winning a Nebula and nomination for a Hugo, among its many other accolades. I think it deserves the praise.

All the Birds in the Sky is a story about abuse, growth, fear, artificial intelligence, the transcendental power of the mind, and the unknowable power of nature. It’s something of a treatise, from a Bay Area native, on the dangers of taking technology too far—something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit, incidentally.

The story follows the lives of two characters, Patricia and Laurence, who become friends as children, finding solace in each other’s company, processing their traumas together. They discover they’re a witch and gifted technologist, respectively, which drives a wedge between them, the resulting separation causing even more pain to each of them.

The three-act structure of the book is divided among periods in the protagonists’ lives, and leaps into their twenties—after Patricia has gone to Witch School after rescuing Laurence from a horrible military boarding school. Patricia has grown into a capable Healer, who cures people in San Francisco of all manner of ills, from actual sickness to fatal marital conflicts. Meanwhile, Laurence is a hot-shot engineer, whose connections and skill placed him in San Francisco as well, where he’s a rockstar in the tech industry. Our heroes meet again, at a party, and rekindle something of their old friendship. It blossoms into something more, and they work together to redefine themselves while recalling their traumas.

The final act consists of an epic conflict between the forces of witchcraft (nature) and technology, which, because it’s awesome, I won’t detail here. You’ll have to read the book. Which you should absolutely do.

Anders’s writing flows easily between ecstatic and window-pane, reserving stylistic flair for the moments of surreality that punctuate the novel. It creates a powerful effect—the contrast between the moments of magic and pain is stronger for it.

My only issue with the novel was the uneven pacing between the first act and the others. The first act—the childhood and abuses portion—was longer and slower-paced than its adolescent and adult counterparts and, for me, the latter two acts dealt with much more interesting philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness, morality, technology, humanity, and the limits of each of those subjects. Because the bulk of the action in the story takes places in the second and third acts, it feels like it races through those discussions, and I’d have liked to explore the topics a little deeper with her characters.

I loved the idea of putting technology and magic against each other in our world, especially one that I’ve become intimately familiar with throughout my (admittedly short) career. San Francisco and Silicon Valley are complicated places, and more than a few of the ideas that come out of these places could use the careful consideration that a book like All the Birds in the Sky gives to the merits of limitless technological progress.

I really enjoyed All the Birds in the Sky, and I think that chances are good that you’ll enjoy it too. If you’re eager to read it, consider clicking this here link to order it on Amazon, which will give your pal The Warbler a kick-back.

2k to 10k – Rachel Aaron

Given that the podcast I’m on recommended this book almost a half-dozen times, I decided it would be prudent to read Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. 

So I did. And I’m glad we’ve been recommending it so heartily. The book is short and to the point, focusing on the author’s experience raising her own writing efficiency to (some might say) inhuman levels. 10,000 words a day is massive. It’s more than I write in a good week. And it’s what Rachel Aaron manages daily.

Her techniques for achieving that daily feat are not opaque magical rituals, nor do they require ritual sacrifice—much to the possible chagrin of folks hoping for a “secret sauce” to writing lots and lots of words. Rather, she has a three-part plan that she claims can double word counts.

I won’t dig into the details here, because the book can be read in an afternoon, but suffice it to say that the tips come down to time, enthusiasm, and knowledge. Not rocket science, necessarily, but when you have a strong sense of what you’re going to write, why you want to write it, and you make the time for it, you are guaranteed to get more work done than if you sit down to work without a game plan.

The most helpful thing in the book ties into something that’s been on my mind for a few months, since a particular episode of Writing Excuses aired. Specifically, it has to do with treating writing more like a fine art practice. Rachel Aaron’a take on this topic is simple: take the concept of a thumbnail sketch—wherein artists make a very small, abbreviated sketch of what they intend to work on prior to beginning—and translate it to your writing. Before you sit down with your draft, take five minutes to briefly write out what you’re going to write; get yourself from point A to B in brief, and discover if there are any hangups before you’re deep in word-selection mode.

2k to 10k is loaded with tips, most of which may seem like common sense, but the benefits of reading the effects of a carefully considered writing strategy cannot be minimized. If you’re a writer who is looking to improve your productivity at the page, you need to read this book.

2k to 10k is available on Amazon.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe – Kij Johnson

A strange and delightful congruity connects The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe with the last Hugo-nominated book I reviewed, The Ballad of Black Tom. Both reach back toward Lovecraft, grab hearty handfuls of story, and mold it into works that manage the requisite respect for the author of such incredible tales while openly challenging his prejudices. You can refresh your memory about how Victor LaValle elegantly reframes Lovecraft into a tale of loss and revenge in last month’s review. We’re here today to talk about Kij Johnson’s brilliant, expansive, and enthralling The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.

Most of the story takes place in the same world as Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, complete with the array of fantastical locales and creatures that populate Lovecraft’s dreamlands—that’s right folks, there are zoogs, gugs, and ghouls aplenty in Vellitt Boe. I hadn’t (and still haven’t) read Lovecraft’s Unknown Kadath, but based on some cursory research it’s a bit of an outlier in Lovecraft’s body of work, particularly because it isn’t as macabre as his other works. In fact, some people on the web called it “uplifting.” I’ll reserve my own commentary until such time as I have read the book in question. I’m certain that an intimacy with Unknown Kadath would make reading Vellitt Boe all the sweeter, but even without knowing the context in which the story’s told, Vellitt Boe is a terrific work of writing.

In contrast to where LaValle took Lovecraft’s horror, Kij Johnson took the wonder and fantasy of Lovecraft and cranked them up to eleven. But there’s a stunning reversal at the heart of the story, specifically to do with wonder, which I’ll go into further below. Where LaValle took Lovecraft’s bigotry and reformed it into a story of loss and cathartic revenge, Johnson looked at the complete lack of women—his dismissive sexism—in Unknown Kadath and, occupying the space he glossed over, tells a story about adventure, fear, wonder, and the subversion of the divine.

Vellitt Boe, the eponymous protagonist of the novella, is a professor at the Women’s College at Ulthar (one of the dreamlands). That there is a Women’s College at all, and the hinted-at fragility of its existence, is clear commentary on Lovecraft’s treatment of women in general, but it isn’t a focal point of the story. It’s the foundation upon which the stakes are built for Vellitt and, though they remain throughout the story, an odd distance grows between Vellitt and the College she defends; her need to protect the school, its staff, and its students never falters, but her personal connection to it wanes.

A brief overview of the story’s events before I dive into what captivated me about it: Vellitt Boe is awoken in the middle of the night to discover that one of her brightest students, Clarie Jurat, has run away with a man from the waking world. As Clarie’s father is one of the benefactors of the Women’s College, this scandalous event could have far-reaching ramifications, up to (and including) the closing of the Women’s College. Vellitt volunteers to go after Claire and return her to the College, and sets off immediately. At this point, we know little of Vellitt aside from her role at the school and tidbits about her personality. As she travels, we learn more about her past and her passions—the story is a story of growth and change that is inspired by (and mirrored in) her adventure. Ultimately, the quest takes Vellitt out of the dreamlands and into the waking world where she finds Clarie and delivers her message—that Clarie must return to the dreamlands. That she must go home. It so happens that, because of the quest itself, Vellitt is barred from returning to the dreamlands. She is unable to go home.

Connection to home, or a lack thereof, is a recurring theme in the story, and there’s a kind of inverse relationship between Vellitt’s fading connection to her home and the overall story arc. As she travels, we learn that Vellitt lived an adventurous and nomadic youth, finally settling at Ulthar and hanging up her traveling cloak and boots for what she thought would be the remainder of her life. But at 55 and back on the road, Vellitt feels the breath of new life in her, and though she sees how she has aged since her traveling years, she realizes that while she was happy at Ulthar, she was stagnating. She was home at Ulthar. But she’s at home on the road—at home at the helm of her own moment-to-moment experience.

As she travels, she’s presented with difficult trials, and each is surmounted with the intervention of Vellitt’s own lived experience. The people she traveled with, the loves and abuses and terrors and strengths of her youth, they all inform her and propel her in strength toward finding her goal, which happens to be restricting that selfsame adventurous streak in a young girl. Vellitt feels for Clarie, for her desire to see the waking world, but she knows that tragedy could befall the Women’s College if this one girl’s thirst for adventure isn’t curbed. The sacrifices she must make so that the progress women made in that world wouldn’t be nullified. It’s a conundrum. It’s thought provoking and gives pause.

Before I spoil the whole book for you, I’d like to talk about one more thing I found particularly compelling about The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe: The dreamlands are extraordinary, vivid, and magical. To us—and to waking-world dreamers who visit—it is a fantastical delight. In many respects it is to Vellitt and Clarie, but it is home. Having both been involved with dreamers, they yearn to see the waking world, with its infinite sky of billions of stars, with its enormous scale and properly behaved physics. A tessellating sky that’s something between paper maché and silken lacework is beautiful, but limited. Through the eyes of Vellitt, the awesome landscape of the dreamlands is dimmed, and when she finally opens her eyes in the waking world, a Wisconsin blue sky on a clear day holds the majesty of all the prismatic crystalline cliff-sides you can imagine. The simplicity—mundanity, even—of the real world isn’t replaced. Rather, it is seen from a different perspective, and I was as enchanted with the infinite sky, one I’ve seen every day for my whole life, as Vellitt when she first saw it.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is available on Amazon.

The Last Sacrifice – James A. Moore

What happens when the great antagonist, the villainous figure bent on destroying the world, is the divine? The Last Sacrifice, the first book in James A. Moore’s Tides of War series, places that conflict at its core. And while it’s an interesting question—what if the gods themselves are the enemy—the book invests a great deal of time in worldbuilding and stage setting, leaving the “meat” of the plot on the back burner while hopping between points of view.

The Last Sacrifice is Grimdark, which is to say it’s brutal and gory, and deals with some of the darker aspects of human behavior. The inciting incident of the story, which pits the protagonist against the gods, asks about the lengths to which anyone would go to get revenge for losing their entire family for nebulous reasons. It’s a familiar concept—man loses wife and children, becomes enraged, goes on a rampage to avenge his family’s killers. Rinse, repeat. But the execution in The Last Sacrifice breaks that trope open, making the revenge itself a secondary incident which ignites the entire world. The scope of consequences changes, and the man’s blind rage doesn’t get quenched in a vacuum. I really appreciated that exploration, because oftentimes our media that glorifies righteous violence and revenge doesn’t address the fallout of those actions—it lets the protagonist win, and washes its hands of the brutal reality that such violence visits on the world around it. But it’s revenge atop revenge in The Last Sacrifice. In getting his revenge, Brogan McTyre enrages the gods, who want to punish the entire world in revenge for their monthly sacrifices being interrupted by Brogan’s actions. Predictably, chaos ensues.

Structurally, The Last Sacrifice jumps between characters and locations, building a large secondary world complete with features that are to be expected in this kind of fantasy: slavers, wretched towns, groups of kingdoms, mysterious geological phenomena, strange humanoid creatures that represent the gods, kilts, guilds, etcetera. It’s no more or less inventive than other fantasy in the same vein, but it’s well executed and feels complete.

I liked The Last Sacrifice, especially as an audiobook (as always, many thanks to Audible for providing the review copy), but I became so hung up on one detail that I couldn’t get really into the book. Let me set the scene.

The world in which Brogan McTyre lives has been sacrificing four humans every season to appease the gods. The sacrifices are (seemingly) arbitrarily chosen, and exchanged for valuable coins that act as reparations for the humans who lost loved ones. This sacrifice has been taking place multiple times every year since time began. Presumably, people would be used to the idea, wouldn’t they? Granted, the Grakhul (the humanoid divine servants who make the sacrifices) took Brogan’s entire family, an unusual event to be sure, but this has been happening literally forever. Brogan and everyone he knows have been raised to accept this sacrifice as part of life, yet when his own family is taken he goes ballistic, rounds up his mercenary friends, and exacts bloody revenge on the messengers of the gods. Throughout the book, characters flout the conventions that the world’s been accepting for its entire existence. Though there are mentions of past lapses in appeasement of the gods on the humans’ part, I kept getting hung up on the idea that so many people would be somewhat blaze about disregarding deeply-held beliefs regarding a global phenomenon that is as old as the world itself.

So when Brogan confronted the king of his country and asked what the King would do in his shoes, I’d expect the king to say he’d tow the line. When Brogan ropes his sellsword friends into the revenge, I’d expect a little less enthusiastic following of the rash actions that lead to the impending destruction of the world. Instead, everyone’s pretty much on board with the revenge plan. And when Brogan decides to sell the remaining Grakhul he hasn’t killed, the women and children, into slavery—a thing they all despise—the group goes along with that too. There’s some recalcitrance, but I always expected some internal conflict among the sellswords, which never fully coalesced. I expected more pushback from those who feel that “this is just how the world works” is a sufficient explanation for Brogan’s loss. There wasn’t much of that, though.

Those issues aren’t digs at the book, per se. Maybe it’s just me inserting my own writing voice into the story. Decisions I’d have made if I were telling the story. The Last Sacrifice will tickle the fancy of any fans of Grimdark fantasy, with its large cast of characters and earth-shattering consequences. The narrator, Adam Sims, does a great job of bringing intensity to the story, and at just under 10 hours, the book is easy to consume in a week of here-and-there listening sessions. Grimdark isn’t for everyone, but if you like it, pick up The Last Sacrifice. You’ll enjoy it.

The Last Sacrifice is available on Audible.