A Heartbreaking First Contact Story: Mary Doria Russell – The Sparrow

This is one of those books that keep coming up. It’s on many favorite Science Fiction lists, it has won quite a few awards, and people are still talking about it. Not in a hype sort of way, but I’ve stumbled across reviews and recommendations of this work a lot in the last decade. Now I finally picked up this classic sci-fi story about Jesuit priests going to another planet in order to make first contact with an alien species and it was everything I had hoped plus a lot more. So you can add my voice to the many others screaming about how amazing this book is.

THE SPARROW
by Mary Doria Russell

Published: Ballantine, 1996
eBook: 518 pages
Series: The Sparrow #1
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: It was predictable, in hindsight.

In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet that will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question what it means to be “human”.

The Sparrow is a novel about a remarkable man, a living saint, a life-long celibate and Jesuit priest, who undergoes an experience so harrowing and profound that it makes him question the existence of God. This experience–the first contact between human beings and intelligent extraterrestrial life–begins with a small mistake and ends in a horrible catastrophe.

I finished this book a few nights ago and, honestly, I still feel raw. That’s the only word I can think of. This story has taken me through all the emotions and left me crying like a baby. I will not spoil anything of course, although I don’t believe knowing the end would take away from the emotional journey at all.

The Sparrow is told in two timelines. The “present” is set in 2059-2060 and takes place in Italy, where Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz is being treated for his various injuries and illnesses after returning – as the sole survivor – from the planet Rakhat. Something has been done to his hands that renders them not only painful but mostly useless for everyday tasks. His body is battered and weak and his mind is even worse. This timeline follows his slow (physical) healing process and his interviews with the Father Superior and some other Jesuit priests who wish to know what exactly happened on the mission they sponsored.
There is an immediate air of mystery surrounding these events and while Russell feeds us tidbits right from the start, we want to know what happened from Emilio. These passages were painful to read because Sandoz’ character is so well drawn that his pain feels utterly real. He is a priest who has lost his faith in God, who is dealing with severe depression, and is in constant physical pain. And we, the readers, need to know why!

The second timeline goes back to how the Rakhat mission came to be. In fact, it starts even earlier than that, with a young Emilio Sandoz who is not just a priest but also an incredibly skilled linguist. He travels around the world, picking up languages left and right, and ends up working as a professor. Which is where he meets 60(ish)-year-old Anne Edwards and her husband, a doctor and science all-rounder respectively. They become a sort of found family.
When a man named Jimmy Quinn who works with George at the Arecibo radio telescope picks up a signal that sounds like nothing he’s ever heard before, he joins the group as well. Soon they realize that what they’re picking up is not only alien in nature, but is actually alien music!
Last of the bunch is Sofia Mendes, a Sephardic AI specialist, and super smart person who is connected to Emilio and Jimmy.
Although they first aren’t quite sure how to proceed (inform the authorities etc.) Emilio knows that there’s only one thing to do: Go meet the aliens who make this music! And so, with a little help from the Jesuits and under the leadership of priest D. W. Yarbrough, they go…

There is so much to unpack in this novel that I don’t know where to begin. The characters are all brilliant and the found family they slowly build together was a thing of pure beauty. And funny enough, although I knew right from the start, that only Emilio would survive this tale (he is the only one who returns from Rakhat and we learn this in the very first chapter) I couldn’t help but fall in love with all of them. D. W.’s Texas drawl, Emilio and Sofia’s feelings for each other, Anne and George’s wonderful marriage and the way they become surrogate parents to the younger ones… man, it’s bringing tears to my eyes just thinking about it. The fact that they are all brilliant scientists just makes them even more interesting.

This is often cited as a work of religious science fiction, and I guess in a way it is. But the religous aspects are subtle or at least restricted to the characters who actually are religious and I always felt the novel kept a great balance. Anne, for example, does not understand how people can believe in God and she considers Emilio’s celibacy as a waste. I’d love to say that him dealing with his vows to God and his feelings for Sofia were the most interesting part of this novel, but there is so much going on here that it sort of faded into the background. Emilio does struggle but that struggle is part of the deal, in his opinion. And there is a lot more to him than his decision not to have sex.

I could tell you so much about each and every single character in this book, even the ones that don’t show up all that often. Because Russell writes with such ease and creates fully fleshed-out people on the page effortlessly. The quippy banter that often goes on between our protagonists helps, of course, and gives the book the much-needed levity to balance out its seriousness. She also managed to convey the joy the characters felt whenever they got to nerd out over some discovery on Rakhat, whether it’s an animal species or a particular plant, a bit of grammar from the Runa language – they clearly all love their jobs and eagerly record their findings for the people on Earth.

But doom hangs over the novel and we are reminded of it every time there’s a chapter switch and we return to present day Emilio Sandoz and his interrogation by the Jesuits. Over the course of the novel, more and more information comes to light that gives you an idea of where Emilio ended up. But – as with all the best stories – it’s the how that’s important and the why. And trust me when I say this, although the closer you get to the end of the novel, the more you can sort of guess the direction things will move in, it will still hit you like a rock when it does. I can’t explain it to you. I knew characters would die in this novel because I’ve known it all along. And yet I felt so sad when it happened because this found family had grown so dear to me that a part of me kept hoping against all better knowledge, that there would be some twist along the way that would let them live.

Probably the central theme of this story is the first contact itself. How humans interact with an alien species that has its own culture, language, anatomy, etc. in a way that doesn’t disrupt their lives but also lets them learn all they possibly can. Our scientists are incredibly careful when it comes to the alien Runa. They take all precautions, and once they do make contact, they are respectful of the Runa’s needs, oftentimes at the cost of their own comfort. But this book shows that even the best intentions can lead to terrible things. Saying any more would be a spoiler but as I said – the tone of the novel sets the story up for Something Terrible and while you don’t know what exactly happens and why, you know that things won’t go perfectly.

I didn’t believe this year would bring me another book that could make me ugly cry (the first was Doomsday Book by Connie Willis), but 2020 is the year that keeps on giving, I guess. I wish I was a more eloquent person so I could properly tell you how much The Sparrow meant to me. I kept returning to it with both eagerness and dread and the more I read the less I wanted to finish. But it’s quite impossible to put down and so I ended up finishing it way past my bedtime, crying into my pillow and not knowing what to do with myself afterwards.
Needless to say, I have the sequel on my e-reader already, but I think it will be a while until I’m ready to return to this world. But when I do you can bet I’ll prepare tissues.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

 

Linden A. Lewis – The First Sister

I am still catching up with all the awesome 2020 releases and this was one of my most anticipated ones. Debut author Linden A. Lewis delivered a kick-ass first novel that – while flawed – got me excited for her world and for the next books in the trilogy. I’m telling you, this is a tough year to pick favorites… I’m already dreading my favorite books of the year list but I guess I’ll just cheat and make it super long. 🙂

THE FIRST SISTER
by Linden A. Lewis

Published: Skybound Books, 2020
eBook: 352 pages
Audiobook: 12 hours 33 minutes
Series: The First Sister Trilogy #1
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: The new fool captain arrives in two houers, so I sort my belongings and pack them into a small bag.

Combining the social commentary of The Handmaid’s Tale with the white-knuckled thrills of Red Rising, this epic space opera follows a comfort woman as she claims her agency, a soldier questioning his allegiances, and a non-binary hero out to save the solar system.

First Sister has no name and no voice. As a priestess of the Sisterhood, she travels the stars alongside the soldiers of Earth and Mars—the same ones who own the rights to her body and soul. When her former captain abandons her, First Sister’s hopes for freedom are dashed when she is forced to stay on her ship with no friends, no power, and a new captain—Saito Ren—whom she knows nothing about. She is commanded to spy on Captain Ren by the Sisterhood, but soon discovers that working for the war effort is so much harder to do when you’re falling in love.

Lito val Lucius climbed his way out of the slums to become an elite soldier of Venus, but was defeated in combat by none other than Saito Ren, resulting in the disappearance of his partner, Hiro. When Lito learns that Hiro is both alive and a traitor to the cause, he now has a shot at redemption: track down and kill his former partner. But when he discovers recordings that Hiro secretly made, Lito’s own allegiances are put to the test. Ultimately, he must decide between following orders and following his heart.

A stunning and sweeping debut novel that explores the power of technology, colonization, race, and gender, The First Sister is perfect for fans of James S.A. Corey, Chuck Wendig, and Margaret Atwood.

I love me a book with multiple POVs. In this case, we get three: The eponymous First Sister who is a Gaean priestess serving on a space ship where she (and her fellow Sisters) are there to give comfort to the soldiers. Comfort in the form of taking confessions as well as bodily comforts… they’re basically prostitutes, except they don’t get paid and their job is considered religious in nature. The sisters cannot speak and are limited to sign language among each other and using facial expressions and body language when “talking” to others. It’s an intriguing premise that immediately asks questions about bodily autonomy, identity, and freedom. First Sister is lucky insofar as she is First Sister – a privilege granted by the ship’s captain which means she is his own private courtisan and none of the other soldiers can request her services.  But at the very beginning of the book, the captain is going into retirement and does not keep his promise of taking First Sister with him. She is stuck on the ship Juno once more and has to regain her First Sister privilege with the new captain, the charismatic war hero Saito Ren.

The second perspective we follow is Lito, an Icarii soldier fighting against the Gaeans. Icarii duelists are paired together as Dagger and Rapier, two people who not only fight as a team but are also emotionally connected via neural implant. They can share messages and emotions through these implants which makes them even better fighters.
But Lito’s partner Hiro val Akira is missing. More than missing, they are branded as a deserter and Lito’s new mission is to find and kill them. Needless to say, he has qualms about executing his former partner, friend, and maybe even romantic interest. Newly paired with Ofiera, Lito goes onto the mission anyway, fighting his feelings the entire time. When new information about the war comes to light, Lito has to rethink his entire existence, however, not just whether he will actually go through with killing his friend…

Our third perspective comes in the form of recordings by Hiro val Akira himself, left to Lito as a sort of explanation/goodbye. Through these chapters, we learn more about Hiro and Lito’s back story, the battle of Ceres which was a turning point for the war between Icarii and Gaeans, and how Hiro came to be a traitor to their people.

You may have noticed that Hiro uses they/them pronouns. Their gender identity isn’t talked about much. They are simply Hiro and they go by “they”. It was quite refreshing to see a nonbinary character in this sci-fi story without their gender identity being an issue. First Sister identifies as female, Lito identifies as male, and all the side characters also fall onto one side of a binary, but people generally accept Hiro as Hiro – although there are instances where characters wilfully disrespect their wish for they/them pronouns.
But that’s not the only interesting thing Lewis does with gender in this story. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you the rest without spoiling things, so you’ll just have to believe me. 🙂

Although the book is called The First Sister, I found her to be the weakest aspect of the story. First Sister is a good character to follow but, boy is she flawed. I don’t mean as a person (she is that too, but I’m considering that a good thing that makes her more believable) but as a part of the world she lives in. In fact, the whole Sisterhood is a great idea that wasn’t executed very well. I can suspend my disbelief about the Sisters being unable to speak  – because whatever religious reason demands it – and I can even see who a society evolved that has prostitutes on a war ship to keep up the soldiers’ morale. As despicable as this may be, it makes sense within this world Lewis has set up.
What bothered me a lot, though, was how little explored the horrors of such a world were and how isolated First Sister felt the entire time. Sure, as First Sister, her only “patron” is the captain of the ship, but she does occasionally communicate with other Sisters as well as Aunt Marshae who is a sort of overseer for the Sisters. Her only friend is a soldier named Ringer. Apart from that, First Sister doesn’t have much personality. She doesn’t want to be a Sister but dreams of a quiet, simple home on Mars. But her life on the Juno doesn’t feel believable. It’s unlikely that she would have no relationship with the other Sisters whatsoever, that she doesn’t see how they are dealing with their lives. And because First Sister only “services” the captain, we don’t see the horrors of the Sisterhood. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have wanted to read graphic scenes of how the other Sisters are used, but it would have helped to see the aftermath of their experiences. Since First Sister barely communicates with them and the story is told from her POV, we don’t get to see the other Sisters’ suffering (or whether they consider it suffering at all). To me, this was a lost opportunity to flesh out the world, show us different characters, and explore why First Sister hates the system so much.

As for the larger story arc, this book was very much part one in a trilogy. It sets up certain things that will probably become the main plot in the sequel. I really enjoyed the world building, even though certain aspects of it could use more depth. First Sister’s dangerous relationship with Saito Ren, the ongoing war between the technologically advanced Icarii and the nature-loving Gaeans, and the Asters – genetically changed humans living on the asteroid belt – there’s a lot to discover. Lewis did some heavy lifting when it comes to world building without lenghty expositions and she got me hooked early on. Character-wise, Lito and Hiro are easily the most interesting people in this book. First Sister, unfortunately, fell a little flat.
As for the plot, there are some great twists at the end that actually made me gasp. I did not see it coming but it worked perfectly within the story, it didn’t feel cheap, and its implications and consequences will carry on into the next book.

As for  the audiobook version, it is narrated by Emily Woo Zeller, Neo Cihi, and Gary Tiedemann who read the three POVs respectively. I thought each of them did a fantastic job in bringing the characters to life. Zeller’s voice felt a little too sensuous and sexy to me at first, but whenever First Sister was afraid or excited, the emotion totally came through in the narration and made the audiobook a great experience. Cihi and Tiedemann I liked right from the start and they stayed brilliant until the very end. It was also really nice to have someone pronounce the (very few) Japanese words or names in a way that sounds Japanese – I don’t speak it, so I can’t judge if it was actually pronounced correctly, but it definitely helped with the immersion. So: Audiobook highly recommended!

Although the book has some debut problems, I am deeply impressed with Linden A. Lewis’ work and storytelling ability. It also felt like she has the whole story planned out – at least in broad strokes – and we will get a satisfying trilogy. I’m definitely going to read the next book, The Second Rebel, which is currently set to come out in August 2021.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!

Shockingly Timely: John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell – March Vol. 1-3

I’m not a big reader of non-fiction but I gave this graphic novel trilogy to my boyfriend last Christmas so it was at the house. The Black Lives Matter protests as well as John Lewis’ death in July of this year kept bringing me back to these books and so I finally picked them up myself and devoured them in just a couple of days.

MARCH VOL. 1-3
by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin
art by Nate Powell

Published: Top Shelf Productions, 2013-2016
Paperback: 560 pages
Series: March #1-#3
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: “Can you swim?” “No.” “Well. neither can I. But we might have to.”

March is the story of John Lewis. It is the story of the Civil Rights movement, of how Black people protested peacefully in order to gain basic human rights. As a reader of (mostly) fantasy, this is not the kind of story I usually pounce on, but the year 2020 has done a lot of things, one of which is me trying to read more diversely and educate myself on topics that I find important. And as these books were already in my home and my boyfriend said they were really good, I picked them up, thinking I’d know mostly what to expect.

I did not know what to expect. Sure, when you hear “Civil Rights Movement”, certain images come to mind. People marching in the street, King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, and so on. But John Lewis did much more in this trilogy than rehash a history lesson we all had in school. He tells his story, beginning with his childhood and ending with the inauguration of Barack Obama. The frame story takes place just before and during Obama’s inauguration speech, but it’s the flashbacks that tell the real story.

We learn about segregation in the South, how John Lewis came to the SNCC, how people trained and practiced in order to stay peaceful even when faced with physical violence and to say that these scenes were harrowing is an understatement. Imagine letting a friend shout vile things at you, slap you, pour drinks over your head, and you have to stand there calmly, not even defending yourself… That’s just one of the things that got to me and, frankly. it’s the least terrifying one. Sit-in protests in Whites only establishments turn ugly pretty quickly but the protesters persevere and slowly – ever so slowly – gain a little bit of the rights that any human should have. There is paperwork, there are meetings with state officials, there are marches and the attempt to register to vote. There is a lot of jail time.

At one point, I actually laughed (in a desperate sort of way) when I read “This was the first time I was sent to prison in Selma. It would not be the last.” because John Lewis had said the same thing before about prison in general… He was arrested so often that he had to specify his first arrest in a certain place. And while reading about his time in various jails wasn’t exactly fun, it was still not the worst of what’s in this book.
No, what really stuck with me, was the violence with which all these peaceful protests were met. I shouldn’t have been surprised, really, given what we now see on the internet all the time. But it goes to show how well this graphic novel is done. When every other page a church is blown up, or people are beaten bloody simply for standing in line, waiting to register to vote, or people are murdered by police… you don’t really know what to say to that. We all know these things happened and they still do (even if the racism isn’t quite as overt anymore) and yet I found it shocking and terrible and I cried more than once reading these books.

You can also expect a fair amount of politics in these comics. There are grand speeches, corrupt politicians, other politicians who give the people hope, even more paperwork, endless hours of travel between places, organizing protests, politics within the organizations fighting for Black people’s rights, and so on and so forth. Those parts should have been boring because, come on, paperwork as such is a tedious job, but reading about someone else doing paperwork should be mind-numbing, right? Well, John Lewis wasn’t just a man with a vision who dedicated his life to civil rights but he also was a damn good storyteller!

I admit I didn’t remember all the names of the people involved in the protests, who led which organization at what time, or who held what speech in which church, but that’s not important for the story to work. This book, although it is John Lewis’ story, also doesn’t present him to be the one true hero who saved his country by being the best – no, he’s part of something much bigger, of a group of people, most of whose names aren’t even mentioned because there were so many of them. I loved how he never lifts himself above his fellow Americans but stands side by side with them, sometimes in the face of great violence.

The book ends – beautifully – with Barack Obama officially becoming the President of the United States and thus fulfilling a dream many Black people didn’t think would ever become a reality. But despite this enormous achievement, March also makes it clear that the journey isn’t finished, that there’s a lot left to be done. But it’s a trilogy that leaves you with a sense of hope and a smile on your face.

It feels strange and even wrong to “rate” a book like this. After all, it’s someone’s life we’re talking about here and it’s not like I’m going to judge it by its plot. So I’d like to stress here that my rating is purely about how the story is told. The artwork, the pacing choices, etc. but not the actual events or the characters – because there is no way for me to judge any of that and I don’t feel that things like likability  (who are REAL PEOPLE in this case) should figure into it. But this also happens to be a very well told story, an important story, and one that’s more fitting our current times than it should be.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

The End of an Era: Robin Hobb – Fool’s Fate

It has been very long since I read the previous book in the Tawny Man Trilogy and even longer since I devoured a Robin Hobb trilogy in one go, but I’ve been yearning for the kind of immersion and deep character work she is known for. And I also finally felt ready to face what would happen in this book. Spoilers for The Farseer Trilogy, The Liveship Traders trilogy, and the first two Tawny Man books below (including some in the synopsis) – I’ll keep it to a minimum, but it’s impossible to talk about the plot without mentioning what happened before.

FOOL’S FATE
by Robin Hobb

Published: Voyager, 2003
Paperback: 805 pages
Series: The Tawny Man#3, The Realm of the Elderlings #9
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: The White Prophet’s premise seems simple.

The triumphant conclusion to the Tawny Man trilogy, from the author of the bestselling Farseer and Liveship Traders trilogies. The moving end to the tale of the Farseers, in which kingdoms must stand or fall on the beat of a dragon’s wings, or a Fool’s heart.
A small and sadly untried coterie – the old assassin Chade, the serving-boy Thick, Prince Dutiful, and his reluctant Skillmaster, Fitz – sail towards the distant island of Aslevjal. There they must fulfil the Narcheska’s challenge to her betrothed: to lay the head of the dragon Icefyre, whom legends tell is buried there deep beneath the ice, upon her hearth. Only with the completion of this quest can the marriage proceed, and the resulting alliance signal an end to war between the two kingdoms. It is not a happy ship: tensions between the folk of the Six Duchies and their traditional enemies, the Outislanders, lie just beneath the surface. Thick is constantly ill, and his random but powerful Skilling has taken on a dark and menacing tone, while Chade’s fascination with the Skill is growing to the point of obsession.
Having ensured that his beloved friend the Fool is safely left behind in Buckkeep, Fitz is guilt-stricken; but he is determined to keep his fate at bay, since prophecy foretells the Fool’s death if he ever sets foot on the isle of the black dragon. But as their ship draws in towards Aslevjal a lone figure awaits them…

If you’ve come this far, you pretty much already know what to expect from a Robin Hobb book, especially one set in the Six Duchies. What sets this book apart from most of the previous ones, though, is that we know ahead of time what the big quest will be. In The Golden Fool, everything is already set up and we’re prepared to follow Fitz and the others on their journey to Aslevjal to find and slay the dragon Icefyre, so Prince Dutifull can gain the Narcheska’s hand in marriage and secure an alliance between the Six Duchies and the Outislanders.
So it seems like this could be a somewhat boring book. Of course it is not, because we’re talking about Robin Hobb here and even when nothing much happens, she manages to keep me glued to the pages because her characters are just so stunning.

Being back with Fitz in Buckkeep truly felt like coming home. It took me no time at all to remember all the characters, and fall in love with them all over again. Thick especially grew dear to me, as annoying as he can be. Just wait until you see his reaction to being on a boat… 🙂
The beginning of the book is mostly spent in prepraration for the journey to come but it’s also a time of training and bonding for the Skill coterie. And let’s not forget Fitz’ foster son Hap, his daughter Nettle whom he still visits in his dreams, and the fact that the Wit is no longer outlawed. There’s a lot going on and Hobb juggles these plot lines effortlessly alongside the main story. So while it’s true that nothing epic happens at the beginning, I felt it was perfect to find your way back into this world, familiarize yourself again with the characters and setting, and slowly sink into the story.

Whereas in the previous books the bond between Fitz and Nighteyes was always the most defining one, here this shifts to Fitz and the Fool. Nothing and nobody can ever replace Nighteyes of course (come to think of it, I believe that’s why I didn’t continue reading the trilogy… I was too sad and simply wouldn’t accept Fitz without Nighteyes.) but that doesn’t mean that Fitz and the Fool’s relationship isn’t incredibly strong in and of itself. I loved that we got to see the Fool from yet another perspective, that he showed himself vulnerable in ways he never has before. Again, if you’ve read this series up until this book, you know that there are quite a few sides to the Fool and that he can never be pinned down. Maybe it’s because I waited so long between books but I definitely thought that Fool’s Fate showed us the most honest and heartbreaking version of the Fool. There’s also the fact that his vision has shown him he will die if the quest is a success – so you have that sword hanging over your reading head the entire time…

Fitz has lived a life filled with pain and heartbreak and this book set a similar tone from the very start in order to prepare me for more crying. I’m not spoiling anything here but I will warn you that there are several moments that made me cry like a baby, some of them were kind of expected (but no less sad), others came out of nowhere, and yet others brought me tears of joy – yes, it is possible for good things to happen in a Robin Hobb book!
I’m making this sound super depressing but it’s really not. There are plenty of beautiful moments between characters, especially the slowly growing bond between Fitz and Thick, Fitz and Nettle, Dutiful and the Narcheska, and many others. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to explain how exactly she does it, but Robin Hobb has a way of drawing characters in a way that makes them feel like actual real people. You may have noticed me mentioning Thick a couple of times but I just  loved him so much. He is described as mentally slow, often withdrawn into his own world, and most people don’t exactly respect him. But he also happens to be one of the most powerful Skill users. And Hobb wouldn’t be Hobb if she didn’t show him as a full human character with likes and dislikes (boats, in particular), hopes and dreams, as well as feelings of friendship and love.

Representation has become more and more prominent in recent SFF books but I’ve rarely seen a character who is described as less intelligent than others (Flowers for Algernon comes to mind, but that’s pretty much it) and yet drawn with so much care and love on the author’s part. I especially loved that Thick isn’t put on a sort of disability pedestal simply because he is smart in a different way. He can be super annoying at times, but that only made me love him more. Because he feels real!

I’m leaving out the entire part where all the Big Stuff goes down. After a long-ish build-up all the epic things you expect do happen (and then some) and others don’t, but there is plenty of action and many emotional moments that make the pages fly by.
The ending – unlike in so many books – is also a bit drawn out. Because whether you fulfill a quest or not, whether you save the kingdom or not, things don’t just magically fall into place after that. An adventure may be over, but the aftermath is a whole different story. For Fitz, that means coming to terms with everything that’s happened, picking up the pieces of his many relationships and trying to find a way to live a life with as much happiness as he can grasp.

I thought it was a thing of beauty. The bittersweet conclusion to the third Realm of the Elderlings trilogy truly feels like an end. By now, we know there is another trilogy with Fitz as the protagonist, but I think when Fool’s Fate was written, it was really supposed to be the end. On the one hand, it would have made a great ending to a very long story, on the other hand, I’m more than happy that there are more Fitz stories ahead of me. This time, I won’t wait so long again. I just have to make a quick trip to the Rain Wilds first and see what’s up with those dragons…

MY RATING: 8/10

Sisterhood and the Fight for Freedom: Alix E. Harrow – The Once and Future Witches

I was so worried I wouldn’t like this book. Harrow’s debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January was good, but not nearly as immersive or emotionally impactful as I had hoped. So I went into her second novel with a bit of scepticism. It took a little while to get going but then it turned into everything I had hoped and more.

THE ONCE AND FUTURE WITCHES
by Alix E. Harrow

Published: Orbit, 2020
eBook: 525 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: There’s no such thing as witches, but there used to be.

In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.
But when the Eastwood sisters–James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna–join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.
There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.

Three sisters – James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna – meet again after seven years of being apart, in the city of New Salem. Through coincidence, or maybe fate. Their relationship is fraught, each feeling the betrayal of the others as keenly as if it happened yesterday. In their past lies a childhood spent with a violent, abusive father and only a loving grandmother and each other for comfort. Juniper, the youngest, was the last to finally escape and is determined to make it on her own. Her sisters, the ones who left her all alone with their father, don’t have to be in her life. After all, they left, didn’t they? And if the three Eastwoods are thrown together again through the suffragist movement, that doesn’t mean they have to love each other, right?

For a long time, maybe a third of the book, I felt that it would have been better served if we followed only one protagonist – June – instead of head hopping between the three Eastwood sisters. Because during the beginning of the novel, none of them ever got to shine fully due to the frequent switches between them. Whenever I’d feel like I was getting to know one sister, we’d jump to one of the others. Juniper was the only one who was intriguing from the start, but both Agnes and Bella stayed rather bland for quite some time. Bella, the mopey, quiet librarian who just wants to stay out of everyone’s way didn’t have much to interest me (except being a lesbian in a time when that was considered shameful). Whenever we’d see glimpses of her hopes and dreams and things got interesting, however, we’d promptly move on to Agnes. Her defining characterstic (at least at the beginning) is her pregnancy and the fact that she works in a mill under terribel conditions. She stays away from people and doesn’t want to bond with anyone because that means she could get hurt. Again, not much to aspire to and thus, not much of interest to me as the reader.

But things improve over the course of the novel, and they improve greatly! By the second half of the book, I felt like I knew the Eastwood sisters much better. It was mostly the bond between the three that helped them come to life. But their seperate story lines also started to shine. Bella’s infatuation with the Cleopatra Quinn leads her to discover a whole different part of New Salem, the Black community, which also has its own witchy ways and words and is fighting its own fight for freedom.
Agnes meets August Lee, a man who doesn’t just see her as a beautiful object but who acutally admires her spirit and capabilities. And Juniper grows up a whole lot throughout this novel. Her wild spirit doesn’t get dampened so much as she learns that her first impulse is not necessarily always the best course of action. Watching these three grow, each as her own person as well as in their role as sisters, was a thing of pure beauty!

Harrow also did a magificent job showing the utter unfairness of the time and setting. The Sisters of Avalon – an organisation of suffragist witches – want to gain voting rights for women with the help of a little witchcraft – which sounds nice and all, but becomes all the more tangible when you see what they’re up against. It’s not just that they have no rights currently, it’s how the system is rigged against them, how any grasp for the tiniest bit of power is immediately thwarted – and sometimes by the very people they are fighting for!
Gideon Hill is running for mayor of New Salem and while he is a bit of an overdrawn villain, his methods aren’t fantastical at all but all too realistic. Discrediting the opposition wherever possible, making them out to be sinful, evil, and deserving of severe punishment makes it harder for the Sisters to gain traction. They’re fighting for all women, yet women stand against them just the same as powerful men do. Out of fear, out of conviction… it doesn’t really matter. Hill’s blatant disregard for the law for his own personal gain reminded me a bit too much of our current situation. This book is set in the 1890s…

I also quite enjoyed the magic system if you want to call it that. In order to work a spell, you need the words and the ways (and the will but that one’s easy). The words could be a rhyme or a little song, the way may involve an item or a strong emotion – it may not be a strict magic system, but it felt real, and the words and ways always made sense and fit the respective spell.
What was so fascinating about it, though, was how these spells have been handed down through generations of women. Witch hunts happened and many of the spell books were burned alongside their witches, but that doesn’t mean witchcraft has died altogether. Women just had to become cleverer in the way they handed down their knowledge to the next generation. They hid it in plain sight. Discovering some of these witchy words and ways alongside the Eastwood sisters gave me so much joy!

One thing that could have been done better was the side characters. It was lovely to have a Black side character who shows us the time and setting from a different perspective – one even less privileged than our three white protagonists. But Cleopatra Quinn never quite makes it out of the sidelines, she’s always just hovering there in her function as love interest and as a mouthpiece for the Black community of New Salem.
What I found a real shame, however, was the last minute transgender character. That really felt like it was just thrown in for added diversity. And while I do appreciate that Harrow shows us all sorts of different women, this could have been done better or at least integrated into the story somehow. The way it was done is just that a character randomly announces that they’re a trans woman at the end of the book.

All that said, I love how diverse the cast of characters was. I did at times question that everyone is so immediately accepting of people who were not, at that time, generally accepted. Of course I want my protagonists to be good people without biases but I found it very strange that Bella was incredibly ashamed about her being a lesbian, yet had not a moment of doubt about falling for a Black woman. You could argue that the group of women thrown together in this story are all fighting for the same thing – for their rights and their freedom – and that racial differences, sexual preferences, or assigned genders don’t matter. Because they really don’t! But this book is set in 1893 and that made the unquestioning acceptance a little anachronistic to me.
The same goes for the gender swapping of famous story tellers and collectors. In this universe, it was the Sisters Grimm and Andrea Lang who are renowned collectors of stories. Which is cute and all but not really believable. Who would publish books by women in a time when women had next to no rights? I mean, the whole book is about this issue, yet we’re supposed to believe that women authors are just as respected as men and would even have been published? I don’t know…
But all of that said, in the end, I reminded myself that this was a fictional story that also hat magic in it, set in a made-up place with more than one liberty when it comes to actual history. So I rolled with it and simply enjoyed reading about these women all working together in a beautiful way.

The story itself takes a while to get going and at least in the beginning, I wasn’t sure what to focus on. Harrow sets up several plot strings right from the start but her focus shifts throughout the book. You have the difficult relationship between June, Bella, and Agnes and you have the suffragist movement – which teaches June that there’s a lot more paperwork involved than she would like. But then something weird is going on with people’s shadows, Agnes is pregnant and not sure if she wants to be, and Bella is falling in love with a Black woman who may not be completely trustworthy. It’s a lot!
Give the book some time, it finds its pace and it definitely finds its heart. It’s a pretty long book so I’m surprised that I’m saying this, but it wouldn’t have hurt if the first half of it had been even longer. Instead of rushing through the set-up for all those plot strings, we could have spent more time with the protagonists, getting to know them a bit earlier, and getting a feel for this world. But no harm done. As I said, after a while, I was completely in the story, feverishly turning the pages, needing to know what happened next and if things would turn out okay.

By the end, Alix E. Harrow had me near tears on several occasions. I can’t tell you any of the specific moments without spoiling them but I can explain why they gave me such warm feelings. You see all sorts of women working together as a group for the greater good, despite terrible odds, despite enormous danger to themselves and their loved ones. There are no petty fights, there’s no jealousy, there’s simply weighing the cost against the potential gains. There’s loyalty and friendship and love. And magic, of course!
It’s not a spoiler to say that the Eastwood sisters do resolve their problems and grow together more and more over the course of this story, and this was another thing that brought me to tears several times. Harrow describes their bond in such a beautiful way and she doesn’t need flowery declarations of sisters love to do it. She lets her characters’ actions speak for themselves and I think that’s what made this book so powerful.

I started out with trepidation, slowly found my way into this story, and by the end I was all aglow and want to push all of you guys to read it too. So although The Ten Thousand Doors of January didn’t work for me 100%, I’m glad to say that Alix E. Harrow is still one of my favorite authors and that I’ll be watching closely for her next book. She’s going to spiderverse a fairy tale (Sleeping Beauty) with two Tordotcom novellas and I AM THERE FOR IT! But for now, I’ll simply enjoy that feeling after you’ve finished reading a truly great book that warms your heart and makes you feel like magic hasn’t completly gone from the world after all.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Truly excellent!

 

A Charming, Uplifting Feel-Good-Book: Diana Wynne Jones – Castle in the Air

In case you missed the news, my city (Vienna, Austria) suffered a terrorist attack on November 2nd. My family and friends are all safe but as you can imagine, everyone is still working through what happened. Add to that the stress of the US election ( we all followed that closely here as well) and you have the perfect recipe for a reading slump, or at the very least a reviewing slump. So reviews won’t be coming as regularly as normally for a while but things are slowly getting back to normal.
My book choice was all the better because Diana Wynne Jones’ utterly charming story managed to take me away from all the darkness and despair and transported me to a world that made things seem okay again.

CASTLE IN THE AIR
by Diana Wynne Jones

Published: Harper Collins, 1990
Paperback: 285 pages
Series: The Lands of Ingary #2/Howl’s Moving Castle #2
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: Far to the south of the land of Ingary, in the Sultanates of Rashpuht, a young carpet merchant called Abdullah lived in the city of Zanzib.

“I never said my wishers were supposed to do any good,” said the genie. “In fact, I swore that they would always do as much harm as possible.”
By day Adbullah is a humble carpet merchant, yet in his dreams he is a prince. But his dreams start to come true when he meets the lovely Flower-in-the-Night.
When a hideous djinn carries Flower off into the sky, Adbullah is determined to rescue her – if he can find her, and if he can avoid all the ferocious villains who seem to be after him. But how can he possibly succeed, with only a bad-tempered genie and an unreliable magic carpet to help him?

Abdullah is a humble carpet merchant from Zanzib who has never been looking to get rich. Instead, he loses himself in his daydreams, a thought-out story of daring do, exciting adventures, and of course, him marrying a princess. When one day, a very rude man sells him a magic carpet, Abdullah’s life changes dramatically. The carpet takes the sleeping Abdullah to a beautiful night garden where he meets Flower-in-the-Night, an actual princess with whom Abdullah promptly falls in love. After some hilarious shenanigans, the two decide to elope and live happily together. Except of course just at that moment, an evil djinn captures Flower-in-the-Night and takes her away.

This was such a delightful feelgood book! Abdullah is a lovable protagonist, although the way he speaks gets annoying soon – he is overly polite, as the customs of Zanzib demand, and his flowery descriptions of whoever he speaks to get a little out of hands sometimes. But although, after Flower-in-the-Night’s kidnapping, he finds himself in the sultan’s dungeons, he immediately makes plans on how to save the woman he loves. This quest takes him on a long and fun adventure, where he (1) loses his carpet but (2) gains a genie in a bottle, (3) meets strangers who become dubious and maybe not quite trustworthy friends, as well as (4) several cats, (5) witches, (6) wizards, and (7) very many princesses. 🙂
His travels take him from the Zanzib desert to the green lands further north and the further he gets, the better he understands what has to be done in order to save the woman he loves.

I won’t go into specifics about the plot because it was so much fun to just follow along and see where the journey takes Abdullah. As he starts picking up companions along the way, situations both dangerous and funny happen more and more often, and I just had a blast finding out what happened next. It’s the kind of book you could read in one sitting and also the kind of book that leaves you with a big fat smile plastered over your face.
The characters we start out with may appear somewhat one-dimensional but as the story progresses, we get to see more depth. I especially liked the soldier, the cats, and the princesses because they each had a distinct personality and while this is a children’s book and neither of the characters faces huge moral dilemmas, they felt real.

If, like me, you were a fan of Howl’s Moving Castle and, like me, saw that this was supposed to be a sequel, I can assure you that it is! The story focuses strictly on Abdullah and his quest to find Flower-in-the-Night but Sophie and Howl definitely make an appearance. It wasn’t at all what I had expected and they are not the most important characters in this book by a long shot but they do appear and we do get a glimpse of where their lives have led them in between the first and second book.

Another thing I love is Diana Wynne Jones’ language. It is just the way a YA/MG book should be written. She never talks down to her readers but she doesn’t show off with too fancy prose either. The story flows along beautifully (like I said, you coult totally start reading this book and not stop until you’re done) but she takes enough time to describe Abdullah’s surroundings, the people he meets, the situations he gets himself into – I can’t explain to you how exactly it works, but there’s a level of immersion that I wish every book could achieve. While reading it, I felt like I was in the story, I was walking alongside Abdullah, thinking how to outsmart that genie who is set out on doing the most mischief possible with every wish he grants.

This is the perfect book to get you out of a reading slump and while I didn’t love it as much as I did Howl’s Moving Castle, it was exactly the breath of air I needed this last week. Needless to say, I will of course read the third book in this trilogy and I don’t even care if it has Howl or Sophie in it.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good

The Witcher Witches On: Andrzej Sapkowski – Blood of Elves

I started diving in the the Witcher universe late last year, mostly because I wanted to be prepared for the Netflix show (can definitely recommend reading the first two books prior to watching), and the two story collections surprised me so much that I knew I would continue reading the series this year. Blood of Elves is the first full-length novel in the Witcher series and while I think the author does much better with short stories, I still kind of liked it. Enough to keep going anyway.

BLOOD OF ELVES
by Andrzej Sapkowski

Published: Hachette, 1994
eBook: 420 pages
Audiobook:
Series: The Witcher #1
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: The town was in flames.

For over a century, humans, dwarves, gnomes, and elves have lived together in relative peace. But times have changed, the uneasy peace is over, and now the races are fighting once again. The only good elf, it seems, is a dead elf.
Geralt of Rivia, the cunning assassin known as The Witcher, has been waiting for the birth of a prophesied child. This child has the power to change the world – for good, or for evil.
As the threat of war hangs over the land and the child is hunted for her extraordinary powers, it will become Geralt’s responsibility to protect them all – and the Witcher never accepts defeat.
The Witcher returns in this sequel to The Last Wish, as the inhabitants of his world become embroiled in a state of total war.

This book is very much an introduction. An introduction to the larger tale that will (probably) take place over the course of the series. Geralt of Rivia has found his Child Surprise Ciri and is training her in the arts of fighting at Kaer Morhen. But soon it becomes apparent, after a visit from Triss Merigold, that Ciri could use a mother figure as well. Add to that the fact that many people are out to find her and user her for their own purposes…

Although this is a novel, not a short story collection like the previous two books, it very much reads like vignettes that were pushed together somehow to form a slightly coherent whole. Through several different POV characters, we see the state of the world – impending war, the machinations to get to the prophecied child, unrests in the kingdom, and political intrigues – but there was decidedly too little of Geralt himself in this book to quite please me. I had a blast meeting Dandilion again (who was called Dandelion in the first two books and is called Jaskier in the Netflix show, for ultimate confusion) and of course my favorite sorceress Yennefer, that complicated, amazing, difficult woman!

But the story as such is rather thin. A mysterious man named Rience is looking for Geralt, and through him for Ciri, and has his agents spread throughout the kingdom, killing and torturing people for information. Geralt, meanwhile, has sent Ciri away to a secret place, making sure she isn’t found by anyone who would harm her. And the various rulers of the land are discussing on how best to unite the kingdom to prepare for war. The situation between humans and Elves is difficult, but we also musn’t forget the Nilfgaardians. Sure, there currently is a truce in place, but nobody believes it will last long… And that’s really all the plot we get, summed up for you.

Then why did I kind of enjoy this book anyway? It is only set up, no conclusion. It opens new plot strings, shows us more about the characters, but it doesn’t really lead anywhere. In fact, the book spends a surprising amount of time on long conversations between two characters, be it Ciri and Yennefer, or Dandilion and whoever is questioning him at the moment (serioulsy, that guy attracts trouble like nobody else). That’s why I felt the transition from story collection to novel wasn’t all that well done. Sapkowski still does the same thing he did in The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny, except not as clearly divided by chapters.

I did love to get to know Ciri a bit better, especially as she grows up a few years throughout this book. Having been trained a little bit like a witcher (minus the dangerous treatments) and a little bit like a sorcerer, she still is just a girl wanting to fit in somewhere. Sapkowski surprised me again with how much time he spent on having Ciri discuss being a woman with first Triss Merigold and then Yennefer. It is Ciri’s first period that makes the witchers understand that they can’t give Ciri everything she needs (although why a grown man who has been with women wouldn’t have some understanding of how things work is beyond me, but okay, I’ll run with it) and then, a thirteen-year-old Ciri worries about things like losing her virginity. It’s not plot relevant and it’s not even super important to the characters but it does make her a much more believable young girl. Prophecy or no, she’s a teenager who worries about teenage things. The fate of the world may rest in her hands, but what’s begin discussed amont her friends is who kissed whom and who’s the prettiest. So while these sections weren’t exactly action-packed and consisted mostly of two characters talking, I really appreciated them.

I also liked how Sapkowski helped me remember what happened before without using info dumps. When the rulers discuss on how to handle the upcoming war, they don’t rehash all the events from the first two books, but they talk about them as something that happened and had consequences, which in turn helps us readers remember those events and the names of the people involved. Because let’s not forget that while Ciri is Geralt’s Child Surprise and has a prophecy and all that, she’s also the only living heir of Queen Calanthe (one of the most badass characters in fantasy ever!), the Lion Cub of Cintra. Apart from her magical powers, her blood lines, and her witcher training, she’s also an important person politically speaking. And that’s what this book is really all about. Showing us just how important this one little girl really is and what her mere existence is doing to the kingdom. I expect epic stuff to happen in the following books, judging from all that was set up here.

And that’s really all there is to say. I had hoped for more depth when it comes to the conflict between races from a book that’s called Blood of Elves but we get only a few glimpses of that. Enough to keep me interested but, you know. More wouldn’t have hurt. I also wanted more Geralt but at the same time I appreciated the other characters’ points of view. And while I enjoyed this book, it is by no means a book that stands on its own. There’s no evil cliffhanger or anything but nothing gets resolved, no questions are answered, it’s more like a very long first chapter. I, for my part, will continue on to the next, and probably the one after that, because I fell in love with the world and with Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer as characters. These books have all been quick reads so far and didn’t feel at all like they were 400 pages long. And once I’m done, I’ll finally dive into the game, only five years after everyone else. 🙂

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

The State of SFF – November 2020

I can’t believe it’s already November! This year, man. It has lasted at least two decades and at the same time, it feels like it was only last month that the world went into (first) lockdown…

It’s important to remember the good things though, especially in trying times, so let’s all look forward to great new releases together, and see what’s happening in the world of SFF awards and adaptations. 

Quickie News

  • The inaugural IGNYTE Awards have been announced. Congratulations to Silvia Moreno Garcia who won Best Adult Novel for Gods of Jade and Shadow as well as all the other winners! I’m a little sad that The Deep didn’t win Best Novella but the entire list of nominees and winners is a great source for recommendations!
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  • Also, the World Fantasy Awards have been announced. Best Novel went to Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender (my review). Congratulations for a well-deserved win! I’ll be reading the other nominees as well because it’s a great ballot altogether.
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  • In case you missed it: my very favorite author of all time, Catherynne M. Valente, has been performing her duology The Orphan’s Tales on Instagram/Youtube as a sort of treat during the pandemic. 1000 pages later, it’s all done and I wasn’t the only one who got emotional. Start with Night One here. After the reading, she always answers audience questions so it’s well worth watching even if you’re already familiar with the books.

Time’s 100 Best Fantasy Novels of All Time

Look, any Best Of list will always have entries that we agree or disagree on and that’s fine. But TIME published a list of the 100 Best Fantasy Novels of all Time and it’s… somewhat strange and inconsistent. A panel of judges, consisting of amazing fantasy writers, was put together to create this list from pre-selected nominees and while I may not agree with some of their choices, there are a few things that just don’t make sense about this list.

The Lord of the Rings was put onto this list as three volumes. Sure, it was originally published that way, but Tolkien himself wanted people to know that it was one book. Why use three spots on this list of 100 when one would work just as well, especially when it’s for a book that doesn’t exactly need a signal boost. Those two other spots could have been used to showcase more of what fantasy has to offer! The Once and Future King on the other hand was placed as a single book although it actually consists of several bound-up volumes…
The other odd thing is that several instalments from the same series are on this list  – for multiple series. I’m not saying that the first book is always the strongest in a series (in many cases it isn’t) but again, it feels like a waste of precious slots on this list to put both of Tomi Adeyemi’s books and two Harry Potter volumes on this list. Why not let one volume (doesn’t have to be the first) represent the series?
Which leads to the third problem I have with the list. Almost every one of the judges has at least one, usually more, of their own books on the list. Now, from what I gathered, they couldn’t vote for their own books but of course the other panelists wouldn’t leave off their colleague’s works. That would just be rude. Which would also still be fine if this didn’t pretend to be a list of the BEST fantasy novels of all time but rather a somewhat random recommendation list.
And that “of all time” thing is also misleading because the list may have some classic entries but it leans heavily on recent publications. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of most of those, especially because recent times have highlighted more diverse voices than we used to get in the 20th century but I don’t think this list does what it sets out to do. Where’s Robin Hobb and Octavia Butler? Where’s Joe Abercrombie and Gene Wolfe? Where’s Gormenghast and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell? China Miéville, anyone? Patricia McKillip? And I’m sure there are many more I’m forgetting at the moment that should be on a list of the BEST fantasy novels (a list which would be much longer than 100 entries, by the way).

As happy as I am to see more diverse voices on a big list of recommendations, I don’t really see the purpose of this particular list. If it’s supposed to show the most important and influential books of the genre, I’m afraid it left too many big ones out. If it wants to recommend diverse voices, it wasted a lot of space by using two books from the same series when that second spot could have gone to another author/book that deserves to be more well-known. I see it mostly as a list where the panelists recommended each other’s books and added a few classics and big recent publications. To what purpose? I don’t know.

Dune to release in October 2021

I’m sure many of you are just as excited for the new Dune adaptation by Denis Villeneuve as I am and while we thought we only had to wait until December to see it, its release date has now been pushed back to October 2021.
I personally wasn’t a huge fan of the book (mostly because I didn’t like the writing style) but it is without a doubt an important work of science fiction with many great ideas and space politics. And the trailer looked absolutely brilliant, so even though we now have to wait almost another year, I’ll be looking forward to seeing it in a theater.

Get Another Look at Zendaya's Dune Character in New Photo – /Film

Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland Retelling

Come Away - Wikipedia

I stumbled across this trailer for the upcoming movie Come Away and it looks so good that I have to share it with you guys. Peter and Alice are siblings who couldn’t be more different. Peter doesn’t want to grow up while Alice can’t grow up fast enough.
This looks to be a sort of prequel to Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland and while it first appears to take place firmly in the real world, the trailer does promise a bit of magic. Will it be the kind of magic we know from Pan’s Labyrinth or a more obvious sort? I don’t know but I’m definitely excited to find out!

 

Clear your Sh*t Readathon

It so happens that I stumbled across a readathon that runs November through December and is meant to help us clear our shelves of all the books we already own. You know… to make space for all the new ones we’re inevitably going to buy next year.

The Clear Ur Shit Readathon is hosted by Mouse Reads and her helper, the Narrator. 🙂
There are quests and character cards, there will be boss battles (!) and there’s a list of prompts. I’m especially taken with the assortment of weapons that can be used during the readathon:

I have no shortage of books on my TBR and they need to be read but I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll join. But if this sounds like something you might like you can get all the info, prompts, graphics and what have you on the readathon’s blog page.

Exciting NovemberPublications

JAIDA JONES & DANIELLE BENNETT – MASTER OF ONE

This sadly underknown author duo has produced one of my favorite fantasy of manners with their novel Havemercy. It looks like it’s about mechanical dragons, but it’s really about complicated relationships, a beautiful gay romance, and amazing characters. I’m expecting nothing less from their new novel. It’s about fae!!!

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Sinister sorcery. Gallows humor. A queer romance so glorious it could be right out of fae legend itself. Master of One is a fantasy unlike any other.

Rags is a thief—an excellent one. He’s stolen into noble’s coffers, picked soldier’s pockets, and even liberated a ring or two off the fingers of passersby. Until he’s caught by the Queensguard and forced to find an ancient fae relic for a sadistic royal sorcerer.

But Rags could never have guessed this “relic” would actually be a fae himself—a distractingly handsome, annoyingly perfect, ancient fae prince called Shining Talon. Good thing Rags can think on his toes, because things just get stranger from there…

With the heist and intrigue of Six of Crows and the dark fairy tale feel of The Cruel Prince, this young adult fantasy debut will have readers rooting for a pair of reluctant heroes as they take on a world-ending fae prophecy, a malicious royal plot, and, most dangerously of all, their feelings for each other.


FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

I haven’t read the first Star Wars anthology but Catherynne M. Valente is in this one and it’s themed after the best Star Wars movie, so of course I need it!

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From a Certain Point of View strikes back! Celebrate the legacy of the groundbreaking Star Wars sequel with this exciting reimagining of the timeless film.

On May 21, 1980, Star Wars became a true saga with the release of The Empire Strikes Back. In honor of the fortieth anniversary, forty storytellers recreate an iconic scene from The Empire Strikes Back, through the eyes of a supporting character, from heroes and villains to droids and creatures. From a Certain Point of View features contributions by bestselling authors and trendsetting artists.


R. F. KUANG – THE BURNING GOD

Nobody needs me to remind them that this book is coming out. The internet is aflame with early rave reviews, people posting sob emojis and making gorgeous fanart. I have yet to read the second book in this trilogy but that doesn’t mean I can’t be excited for this final volume already.

45857086. sy475 The exciting end to The Poppy War trilogy, R. F. Kuang’s acclaimed, award-winning epic fantasy that combines the history of twentieth-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating, enthralling effect.

After saving her nation of Nikan from foreign invaders and battling the evil Empress Su Daji in a brutal civil war, Fang Runin was betrayed by allies and left for dead.

Despite her losses, Rin hasn’t given up on those for whom she has sacrificed so much—the people of the southern provinces and especially Tikany, the village that is her home. Returning to her roots, Rin meets difficult challenges—and unexpected opportunities. While her new allies in the Southern Coalition leadership are sly and untrustworthy, Rin quickly realizes that the real power in Nikan lies with the millions of common people who thirst for vengeance and revere her as a goddess of salvation.

Backed by the masses and her Southern Army, Rin will use every weapon to defeat the Dragon Republic, the colonizing Hesperians, and all who threaten the shamanic arts and their practitioners. As her power and influence grows, though, will she be strong enough to resist the Phoenix’s intoxicating voice urging her to burn the world and everything in it?


TOCHI ONYEBUCHI – REBEL SISTERS

The second War Girls novel is coming out! I only read the first book (War Girls) recently and while it was really tough to read, it was also an excellent novel about child soldiers, civil war, sisterhood and survival. I look forward to continuing the series.

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In the epic, action-packed sequel to the brilliant novel War Girls, the battles are over, but the fight for justice has just begun.

It’s been five years since the Biafran War ended. Ify is now nineteen and living where she’s always dreamed–the Space Colonies. She is a respected, high-ranking medical officer and has dedicated her life to helping refugees like herself rebuild in the Colonies.

Back in the still devastated Nigeria, Uzo, a young synth, is helping an aid worker, Xifeng, recover images and details of the war held in the technology of destroyed androids. Uzo, Xifeng, and the rest of their team are working to preserve memories of the many lives lost, despite the government’s best efforts to eradicate any signs that the war ever happened.

Though they are working toward common goals of helping those who suffered, Ify and Uzo are worlds apart. But when a mysterious virus breaks out among the children in the Space Colonies, their paths collide. Ify makes it her mission to figure out what’s causing the deadly disease. And doing so means going back to the corrupt homeland she thought she’d left behind forever.


HOLLY BLACK – HOW THE KING OF ELFHAME LEARNED TO HATE STORIES

I am an unabashed fan of Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy (especially The Wicked King) so there’s no question whether I’ll read this sequel. And it’s illustrated!

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An illustrated addition to the New York Times bestselling Folk of Air trilogy, that started with The Cruel Prince, from award-winning author Holly Black.
An irresistible return to the captivating world of Elfhame.
Once upon a time, there was a boy with a wicked tongue.

Before he was a cruel prince or a wicked king, he was a faerie child with a heart of stone. #1 New York Times bestselling author, Holly Black reveals a deeper look into the dramatic life of Elfhame’s enigmatic high king, Cardan. This tale includes delicious details of life before The Cruel Prince, an adventure beyond The Queen of Nothing, and familiar moments from The Folk of the Air trilogy, told wholly from Cardan’s perspective.

This new installment in the Folk of the Air series is a return to the heart-racing romance, danger, humor, and drama that enchanted readers everywhere. Each chapter is paired with lavish and luminous full-color art, making this the perfect collector’s item to be enjoyed by both new audiences and old.


JULIA EMBER – RUINSONG

This is the November book I’m unsure about. I’ve read one book by Ember (The Seafarer’s Kiss) and it was okay but the more I think about it, the more flaws I discover. However, LGBTQ+ romantic fantasy and musical magic sounds too good to miss, so I’ll probably give it a try.

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In Julia Ember’s dark and lush LGBTQ+ romantic fantasy Ruinsong, two young women from rival factions must work together to reunite their country, as they wrestle with their feelings for each other.

Her voice was her prison…
Now it’s her weapon.

In a world where magic is sung, a powerful mage named Cadence has been forced to torture her country’s disgraced nobility at her ruthless queen’s bidding.

But when she is reunited with her childhood friend, a noblewoman with ties to the underground rebellion, she must finally make a choice: Take a stand to free their country from oppression, or follow in the queen’s footsteps and become a monster herself.


BRANDON SANDERSON – RHYTHM O WAR

Here it is. The Big One. It needs neither introduction nor description. I mean… it’s the next Stormlight Archive book.

17250966. sy475 After forming a coalition of human resistance against the enemy invasion, Dalinar Kholin and his Knights Radiant have spent a year fighting a protracted, brutal war. Neither side has gained an advantage.

Now, as new technological discoveries begin to change the face of the war, the enemy prepares a bold and dangerous operation. The arms race that follows will challenge the very core of the Radiant ideals, and potentially reveal the secrets of the ancient tower that was once the heart of their strength.

At the same time that Kaladin Stormblessed must come to grips with his changing role within the Knights Radiant, his Windrunners face their own problem: As more and more deadly enemy Fused awaken to wage war, no more honorspren are willing to bond with humans to increase the number of Radiants. Adolin and Shallan must lead the coalition’s envoy to the honorspren stronghold of Lasting Integrity and either convince the spren to join the cause against the evil god Odium, or personally face the storm of failure. 


MARISSA MEYER – INSTANT KARMA

I’m cheating a bit here because this isn’t standard SFF, it’s a contemporary romance with a slight fantastical twist. And it’s written by Marissa Meyer whose Lunar Chronicles are a favorite guilty pleasure of mine. So although it doesn’t really sound like something I would normally read, I’ll probably cave and pick it up when I need something to get me in a good mood.

53568395. sx318 In this young adult contemporary romance, a girl is suddenly gifted with the ability to cast instant karma on those around her—both good and bad.

Chronic overachiever Prudence Daniels is always quick to cast judgment on the lazy, rude, and arrogant residents of her coastal town. Her dreams of karmic justice are fulfilled when, after a night out with her friends, she wakes up with the sudden ability to cast instant karma on those around her. Pru giddily makes use of the power, punishing everyone from public vandals to karaoke hecklers, but there is one person on whom her powers consistently backfire: Quint Erickson, her slacker of a lab partner and all-around mortal enemy. Soon, Pru begins to uncover truths about Quint, her peers, and even herself that reveal how thin the line is between virtue and vanity, generosity and greed . . . love and hate.


News from the blog

October has been good to me, reading-wise. I picked up some spooky books for the season, I finally read Dracula, and I caught up on some new publications. 2020 is one hell of a year for many reasons – most of them bad – but one of the good ones is that SFF publishing is on fire! All the 2020 publications I read in October were standout books that I’ll happily recommend. For my thoughts on each book, there’s a review hidden under the link.

What I read in October:

  • Susanna Clarke – Network Effect
    Murderbot – friendship – sci-fi thriller – emotions – perfect ending
  • Susanna Clarke – Piranesi
    eerie – atmospheric – riddle – twist
  • Bram Stoker – Dracula
    epistolary – journal entries – spooky – a bit too long
  • Evan Winter – The Rage of Dragons
    good beginning – repetitive – battles upon battles – revenge story  – no depth – no women
  • Alexis Henderson – The Year of the Witching
    atmospheric – dark and spooky – great protagonist – lots of blood – witchy mythology
  • P. Djèlí Clark – Ring Shout
    mindblowingly good – monster hunting – racism – dealing with grief – perfect pacing
  • Raymond E. Feist – Magician
    80ies tropey fantasy – comfortingly predictable – pacing issues – almost no female characters
  • Rivers Solomon – An Unkindness of Ghosts
    generation ship – class differences – great, diverse cast – amazingly written – new favorite
  • Leigh Bardugo – The Lives of Saints
    nice addition to the Grishaverse – stories not that special – very pretty illustrations
  • Andrzej Sapkowski – Blood of Elves
    quick read – complicated characters – mostly introductions – doesn’t stand on its own

Currently reading:

  • Diana Wynne Jones – Castle in the Air
  • Alix E. Harrow – The Once and Future Witches
  • Robin Hobb – Fool’s Fate

For November, I’ve decided to take it easy and just mood read. My current reads are all very promising and – as far as I can tell – will end up getting pretty high ratings. I guess The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue will make it onto my November TBR (reviews have been overwhelmingly positive so far) and I’m glad I finally picked up the last book in the Tawny Man Trilogy, so I can return to Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings and catch up on those last seven books…

Until next month: Stay safe, stay kind, and keep reading. 🙂

Neurodiversity in Space: Rivers Solomon – An Unkindness of Ghosts

This book was one of my five star predictions for the year and I’m glad to say, it was everything I had hoped and then some. As I loved Rivers Solomon’s novella The Deep, I wasn’t really worried that I might not like this book. But I didn’t just like this book, I loved it with the strength of a baby sun and I totally want to read everything else Solomon writes.

AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS
by Rivers Solomon

Published: Akashic Books, 2017
eBook: 340 pages
Audiobook: 11 hours 55 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: Aster removed two scalpels from her med-kit to soak in a solution of disinfectant.

Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire.
Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.
When the autopsy of Matilda‘s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

This will be a difficult review to write, so let me say the most important thing first: I adored this book, from the very first page to the very last. It exceeded my (pretty high) expectations and strengthened my resolve to follow Rivers Solomon’s career closely. In this novel, they do so many different things, give us so many layers of story and character and world building that I don’t even know where to start gushing.

The most logical thing is to start with Aster, our protagonist, who has lived on the generation ship Matilda all her life. She was born in the lower decks, which are populated mostly by People of Color who are basically slaves in space. They have overseers, they get up very early to work in the fields, they have little to no rights, and the rich people from the upper decks look down on them as if they weren’t even human. But if you’re expecting a narrative that dwells mostly on the horrible social structure of Matilda you’re only partly right.
Aster is a helper/mentee to the ship’s surgeon, Theo, a former child prodigy who is considered only a step away from godhood. Aster is training to become a doctor of her own and the book even starts with her performing an amputation. But that’s not all Aster is or does. Although it is never mentioned explicitly, we learn throughout the story that she is neurodiverse, sometimes having difficulty distinguishing whether people mean what they say literally or figuratively. She makes a great effort to learn new words, to listen how people use them, to learn how to behave.
I guess Aster won’t be for everyone. Her curt and direct manner don’t exactly make her a Mary Sue, but I absolutely loved her.

But this book also isn’t only about Aster becoming a doctor. Twenty-five years ago, Aster’s mother Lune died, leaving her nothing but a journal that contains records of Lune’s everyday life. When one day, Aster’s best friend and sort of kind of lover says that the journal is obviously written in code, Aster begins searching for the truth her mother has been hiding and which may even have led to her death. Add to that the fact that Matilda‘s Sovereign Nicolaeus is very ill, the lower decks don’t get any proper heat, and conditions on the ship are getting worse and worse, and you’ve got all the ingredients for an exciting novel.

The reason I loved this book so very much is the characters. Because Aster isn’t the only complicated, interesting, realistic person on the ship. I quickly developed a soft spot for Theo, whose past we learn about through flashbacks and memories. The circumstances of his birth give him more privilege than Aster but that doesn’t mean he has had it easy. Frequently being called effeminate for choosing not to wear a beard or for not behaving “manly” enough, he has his own burdens to bear. Aster and Theo both don’t identify with the binary genders that were assigned to them and while they may not know what to call it, they know what feels right to them.  I found this to be another highly interesting aspect of their characters, also considering that they don’t have a lot of romantic feelings towards anyone. But they do care for each other.
Giselle, that impusive, complicated, wonderful human being, equally impressed me. The way she deals with the horrors she is confronted with came as a surprise. This book comes with trigger warnings for physical violence, assault, and rape. I wasn’t surprised that the overseers pick out girls from the lower decks when they feel like it – sadly, it’s that kind of a society – but I did have certain expectations on how the lower deck people would deal with this. Aster has her own way of making sure she survives which fit her practical personality (but make it all the more clear how terrible it is to live on the Matilda as a Black person), but Giselle is very different. That’s all I can say without spoilers. Giselle wasn’t exactly likable either and does some seriously shitty things, but I appreciated her all the more because it made her feel so real!

My second favorite part was the world building. It is done effortlessly through storytelling, without info dumps or lenghty exposition. We simply follow Aster throughout the day and, thorugh the things she sees and experiences, we learn about how Matilda works. There are a handful of chapters from different points of view – one for Theo, one for Giselle, one for Aster’s surrogate mother – but the bulk of the novel is seen through Aster’s eyes. Her astute observations and analytical mind aren’t exactly the right vessel for flowery descriptions or romantic metaphors, but I thought the practical, almost cold, way in which she views things created a great atmosphere and showed life on the generation ship for what it was.

Aaaand just in case you’re worried there isn’t any plot, let me reassure you. The red thread is Aster’s research into her mother’s past, trying to decipher her journal and find out what her mother knew. Interwoven and connected to that plot thread is the way Matilda operates as a whole. The ship has been going through space for nearly 300 years, traveling to an unknown destination, a promised land for the colonizers. If I say any more, I’ll get into spoiler territory, but you can probably guess that something isn’t quite right and that Lune figured certain things out that may or may not have led to her death. I would have loved this book even if there wasn’t much of a plot, but for those of you who are more plot-focused readers, I think this mystery and its ultimate resolution will be enough to keep you interested.

An Unkindness of Ghosts has so many more things to offer and I’m sure I’ve missed some of them, which is why I plan to re-read it some day. As my five star predictions go, this was a total hit. A deeply unsettling look at humanity through the eyes of a diverse character, this is a book I’ll remember for a long time. And it’s the book that makes me officially call myself a Rivers Solomon fan.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

Strangely Comforting but also Really Backwards: Raymond E. Feist – Magician

I picked this book up late in April when it was chosen as a Sword and Laser book club pick. As I had only read the first half – Magician: Apprentice – previously, I thought this would be a good chance to re-read that part and then go straight for the second. To clarify, depending on which edition of the book you pick up, it is sold in either one or two volumes. The experience was both wonderful and a great reminder of why SFF if such a brilliant genre these days. Those Tolkien-inspired fantasies have some real problems…

MAGICIAN
by Raymond E. Feist

Published: Harper Voyager, 1982
eBook: 865 pages
Series: The Riftwar Saga #1
My rating:

Opening line: The storm had broken. Pug danced along the edges of the rocks, his feet finding scant purchase as he made his way among the tide pools.

The world had changed even before I discovered the foreign ship wrecked on the shore below Crydee Castle, but it was the harbinger of the chaos and death that was coming to our door.

War had come to the Kingdom of the Isles, and in the years that followed it would scatter my friends across the world. I longed to train as a warrior and fight alongside our duke like my foster-brother, but when the time came, I was not offered that choice. My fate would be shaped by other forces.

My name is Pug. I was once an orphaned kitchen boy, with no family and no prospects, but I am destined to become a master magician…

Pug and Tomas are two teenage boys who live in Crydee, where there is a Lord, a magician, a priest, and a princess. They are looking forward to the annual choosing ceremony with trepidation, because this will decide their future. Both boys dream of becoming great warriors in the military and conquering the heart of a beautiful princess – maybe even their own princess Carline, who knows? But, as you can expect, the ceremony arrives  and everyone is chosen except for Pug, who is then picked by Kulgan, the magician, almost like he’s taking pity on him. But we, well-read in fantasy as we are, know that Pug has great powers slumbering deep inside him and is destined for Great Things. What really kicks the story off, however, is the arrival of a strange ship at the coast. We soon learn that a people from somewhere else is invading the country and this starts a very, very, VERY long war.

I understand why this book was split in two by certain publishers. While it does tell one larger story – that of the war mentioned above – it clearly feels like two books. The first one was pure comfort for me. I had read it before, although many years ago, and I only remembered a few key scenes. Following Pug and Tomas as boys was a charming experience, not only because everything is so quaint, but because I knew exactly what I was going to get. They even go on a quest with a group of people – among them a dwarf lord and an Aragorn-like master of the hunt. Their journey leads them into dwarven caves, over mountains and over sea. It’s your basic Tolkienesque quest story and I was happy to be in it. Whenever they encounter trouble, something or someone conveniently appears and saves the day. You never get the feeling that there is any real danger for our protagonists but that doesn’t mean the more thrilling scenes were boring. I enjoyed the writing style and actually breezed through the first half of Magician very quickly. It was the second half, the one that was new to me, that dragged on…

Feist made some interesting decisions about how to tell this story. At the beginning of the second part, the war between Midkemia (Pug and Tomas’s home world) and the invading Tsurani has been going on for five years. In the second part, we finally get to learn more about the Tsurani, sometimes even from their own point of view. My problem was more with the pacing and the POV changes than with the story or content itself.
We’d get one, sometimes several, very long chapters from one POV without hearing anything from the other protagonists. And as the list of POV characters increased, that meant even more time away from the people and settings I was actually interested in. There was one sequence in particular that felt super unnecessary to the plot as a whole and also just Didn’t Want To End. It involved prince Arutha and a pirate captain and a long journey there and back again that only served the purpose of setting up a plot line for the next book. I’m serious, it had no bearing on this book. All the information and set up it conveyed could have been done much more quickly and would have saved me 100 pages of an okay but somewhat tedious “adventure”.

As for the characters, they are mostly cardboard. Pug and Tomas are the ones we start out following, but the cast grows and grows as the story goes on. And nobody really has much personality beyond what they’re first described at. Kulgan is the wise elderly magician, Pug and Tomas are both super nice and honorable and just want to do good things, the princes differ only insofar as one is shy and one more outspoken and the Tsurani are all about honor, although some of them are pure evil and others more morally grey. The most interesting character, and incidentally one that was dropped almost completely in the second book, is princess Carline. She is a difficult person with her own head and you can never be sure what she’s thinking or even what she wants. I don’t think she even knows herself what she wants, which made her all the more believable as a teenager, especially a royal one. I liked Carline. 🙂
As for other female characters, there is a disturbing lack of them. But I also knew that going in. This is Tolkien-inspired fantasy from the early 80ies so my expectations were low to begin with. Carline was a positive surprise, though, and raised my hopes for other female characters. Alas, no such luck. There is one other princess who is only there to be pretty and both childlike and womanly elegant (the way she was described was actually quite creepy, but either way she was only seen as an object, both sexual and for power because princess) and a Tsurani woman who barely gets to say anything and only shows up as an understanding spouse and mother who leaves the men to do the serious business. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d brought them freshly baked cookies into the war tent, to be honest. Oh, and let’s not forget the elf queen Eglaranna who is… beautiful, and a queen, and exists to become the wife of a male character who gets a way more interesting story than she can even dream of. So yeah, it’s not good.

I had decided to try and ignore most of these “old timey” fantasy book issues and just roll with it, to enjoy the story mostly for the plot and hopefully cool magic, maybe a dragon or two, and some epic battles. Sometimes, that’s all you need, and as I started reading this during the height of the pandemic (at least here in Austria), Magician gave me a sense of nostalgia and made me feel somehow safe in its world. I knew all the important characters would survive, I knew Pug would become a magician – I mean, it’s in the title – and evil would be vanquished.
Well, Feist may have started out basically re-writing Tolkien but he threw his own ideas in eventually and delivered a book that was entertaining enough. Not groundbreaking, not even really something I’d recommend but something that was like a warm, cozy blanket during a difficult time. And for that I am grateful, despite all the book’s flaws. And there are plenty of them.

Not just the characters are lazily written, the world building – at least for Midkemia – is even worse. It’s your basic medieval Europe fantasy where nothing needs to be explained, the world doesn’t even need to be built because it’s your basic blueprint for most fantasy from that time period. Take Middle-Earth, change the map around a bit and you’ve got Midkemia. At least with the Tsurani, Feist had to make up his own race, his own world with its own customs. Making the Tsurani a people of war wasn’t super original but at least it’s a step up from Orcs. The Tsurani do have a culture, and customs, and a social order, and that was easily the most interesting aspect of the entire book. The way they revere their magicians made for great reading, especially compared to how Midkemians view their own practitioners of magic. But that’s just one of the differences between our two warring factions and they don’t make Midkemians look good.

The Tsurani culture is disrespected wherever possible. The entire story is set up in a way that makes us believe the Midkemians are the forward thinking, modern folk while the Tsurani, although they produce powerful magicians, are stuck in the past. They have slavery and gladiator games, after all. They have to commit suicide when honor demands it. They are, in short, very different from our protagonists. I mean… the nerve ! Our glorious heroes from Midkemia live happily in a monarchy where the king can decide on a whim whom to give a title and lands, after all, while the lower classes toil away without a chance of moving up in the world. Those are clearly the good guys, right? As I mentioned, I had made a conscious decision to let most of those issues go and just read this book for the story. Of course it’s impossible to completely shut off the part of your mind that questions things and while I tried my best to not let this influence me too much, it certainly did.
I mean… the Midkemians accept a Tsurani into their military and the first thing they do is change his name (Tchakachakalla) to Charles! Why? Because it was too hard to pronounce! Yeah, it sure is if you don’t even try. It’s just a small scene but holy shit, did it make me angry. As someone who loves learning new languages, I know all too well that words can be hard to pronounce but – as with most things – with a little practice you can get close enough. And people usually are happy when they see you try, even if you don’t get it perfectly right. And it’s not like they were talking about the Tsurani word for “bread” – it’s someone’s name!

I was also really disappointed in the ending. As I don’t spoil books, I’ll have to vaguely talk around what I mean but I’ll do my best so you can understand why I’m so annoyed. A sort of resulotion is in grasping distance, all pieces are in place for the story to end. Then someone does something for a reason “that will be revealed later” and that makes no sense whatsoever, which drags the whole thing out and creates problems for (I’m assuming) the next book. Okay, fine, I like a good twist, now give me those mysterious reasons why things had to happen this way. Don’t worry, this book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, we do get the reasons. Except they are flimsy at best and ridiculous when you think about them for a second. I mean, maybe Feist had this whole series planned and it will all somehow make sense in the later books after all. But it didn’t in this book and without that added extra plot, the book could have been another 50 pages shorter.

As you can see, this is a tough one for me to rate. I would give the first half – the one that was the predictable Tolkien-clone and didn’t do anything original – a 6.5 out of 10 because despite all its flaws, it was also fun and it had Carline in it and it had limited POVs which made it super readable. The second half, although that’s where the original ideas start coming in, will not stay in my mind as fun. It took me ages to finish because I didn’t care enough to find out what would happen to most of the characters. Just like the people of Midkemia, I was tired of this long war and I didn’t want to have to follow so many people I didn’t even like all that much. With some POV changes, cutting unnecessary scenes and plot strings, it could have been good. And now I have to combine these two into one rating for the whole book. I don’t know, you guys. It’s one of those books that keeps showing up on “the most important fantasy books you have to read” lists so that makes it sound important. But having read the whole thing, I disagree. Read The Lord of the Rings and then move on to someone who does something new and original with fantasy.

I didn’t really get anything out of this book except some comfort and the ease of not having to learn about a fantasy culture or magic system. I had fun for the first 400 pages, I enjoyed some of the rest, but in reality, the reading experience got worse and worse for me the closer I got to the end. And because I don’t see why this book should be important for the genre as a whole, I’m going to go ahead and and rate it accordingly.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh