Interview with author Brian McClellan + giveaway

I’m still terribly behind on my reviews, but I did get to interview author Brian McClellan a few weeks ago. I tore through the first two books of Brian’s Powder Mage trilogy, Promise of Blood and The Crimson Campaign (which was just released this May) last month, and really liked them – a great fantasy world, awesome characters, a revolution, and cool magic system, including one based on guns! I’m super excited that I had an opportunity to interview Brian.

Orbit has also offered me a copy of Promise of Blood to give away – see the end of this post for details.


Brian McClellan - Credit Kevin KemptonHi Brian, thanks for doing this interview! 

First of all, I wanted to say that I really enjoyed the Powder Mage books; the universe is fascinating, and the characters are pretty awesome. For readers that aren’t as familiar with the series, though, could you tell us a little bit about it, and what makes it special?

Thanks for having me around! The Powder Mage Trilogy begins with the coup of a king by the country’s field marshal and follows several different protagonists as they deal with the fall out of the king’s execution. It has royalist uprisings, ancient sorcerers, black powder magic, betrayal, family strife, immense battles and much, much more.

As opposed to most epic fantasy, which has a medieval setting akin to the works of Tolkien, the Powder Mage books take place during the world’s industrial revolution. Muskets have replaced swords and the old ranks of nobility are giving way to the middle class. Despite the presence of flintlock weaponry, I’ve tried very hard to keep the feel of an epic fantasy novel with sprawling conflicts, duels, conflicted heroes, and many (but not too many!) of the tropes that readers will find familiar.

How is the third book (it’s called The Autumn Republic, right?) coming along? Do you plan to write any more books/short fiction set in the same universe afterwards, and if so, could you give us some hints about what they would be about?

The Autumn Republic is coming along great. The first draft is finished and has been approved by my editor, and I’m working on edits right now. When those are finished I plan on taking a month or two to write some more powder mage short fiction before moving on to the first book in the next trilogy.

I have many ideas for new short fiction, such as a locked-room mystery featuring a young Adamat, but I haven’t decided which one I’ll work on yet.

The next trilogy will take place in the Powder Mage Universe as well, ten years after the end of The Autumn Republic. I don’t want to say too much about it to avoid spoilers, but it will take place on a different continent and one of the viewpoint characters will be Vlora.

I loved that Promise of Blood is about the messy aftermath of a revolution – not something commonly explored. How did you come up with this idea, and how much did it evolve from your initial conceptualisation to the final book?

I had initially planned on starting the book earlier on in the timeline, with the coup being the culmination of book one. But that didn’t stay on the drawing board long. I quickly realized that the plot would move a lot slower and give the reader less to grab on to, and that the real story was after the coup. Some of the plot lines did change between the first and final drafts of book one. For instance, Taniel’s view point originally featured him at the Mountainwatch for the entire book, rather than starting off in Adopest.

I really enjoyed your three short stories featuring the women of the Powder Mage universe; please write more! Will we ever have a story from Ka-Poel’s point of view?

(Note: Here are links to the Powder Mage short fiction: Forsworn, The Girl of Hrusch Avenue, and Hope’s End)

Yes! As I mentioned before, I plan on writing more of those. I’d like to continue doing 3-4 a year, or even more if time allows.

Ka-poel is a tough one for me. A view point character that can’t speak would be particularly difficult to write, and both me and my wife (who does all my initial brainstorming with me) think that her character is far better suited to the mystery of a secondary character.

What is your writing process like? What parts of writing do you find the easiest/hardest and most fun/tedious?

I tend to write in spurts. Several weeks away from the keyboard, and then a flurry of activity with a third to half a novel being written in just a couple of months. It’s really a terrible way to work, and I’ve been trying to make myself be more consistent. But I tend to do most of my drafting in my head. If an idea for a scene isn’t fully realized, I won’t even start it. Now, it may change once I begin to put it on paper and that’s just fine. But I don’t like to get going until I know exactly where I sequence of scenes or a chunk of a plotline is going to end up.

I have a love/hate relationship with editing. If a scene is in good shape, editing it is so much fun because I’m looking at it with the eyes of a reader. If the scene needs a lot of work, it’s more of a grind as I go through and rewrite and change characters and all that stuff.

The Crimson CampaignOne of the reasons that I was really excited to read your books was because they were blurbed by Brandon Sanderson. How do you know Brandon Sanderson and has he influenced your writing?

Brandon was my professor back in college. I wound up in his class purely by chance (and I think only the second year he had been teaching it). We never had a terribly close relationship but he was always hugely encouraging and told me that I had real talent and if I kept working at it I’d be published some day. And now I am!

Brandon taught me that writing is more than a hobby. It’s a business, and if I wanted to make a living off it I would have to treat it as such, which was immensely valuable to me.

You live near Cleveland – how did you end up in this area, and what do you like/dislike about it? (I live in Oberlin!)

 I was born in Cleveland, raised over in Chesterland in Geauga county. I really love the area. While the winters are hard and the rain can get tedious, I love how green it is through the spring and summer. The people tend to be very nice and the cost of living is low. It gets a bad rap, but I love it.

What books have you recently read and enjoyed? Do you have any favourite TV shows?

I don’t get to read nearly as much as I used to, but I recently read both Django Wexler’s Thousand Names and Wesley Chu’s The Lives of Tao. They were both excellent books, of which I’m doubly glad because I’ve become friends with Django and Wes!

I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones, and I recently finished watching the latest season of Top Gear on Netflix, which I love despite not being interested in cars in the least.

Are there any other projects that you are currently working on?

 Just edits of Autumn Republic. I don’t do well working on several projects at once.

If you could have Tamas and/or Taniel and/or Adamat team up with a fictional character from another universe, who would it be and why?

I think Tamas would make a pretty fantastic Brightlord in Brandon Sanderson’s Roshar. He has the tactical sense to command armies on the Shattered Plains, and can you imagine him burning a powder trance while wearing shardplate? He’d be a one man army.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Just keep an eye out for more Powder Mage short fiction throughout the summer! I’m hoping to do a couple different pieces. You can check out my website for updates at www.brianmcclellan.com, or follow me on @briantmcclellan.


Giveaway

As I mentioned above, Orbit has given me a copy of Promise of Blood to give away! To enter, please email me at kriti@justaworldaway.com with subject “Promise of Blood” and your name and mailing address (US/Canada only). This giveaway is open until June 16, 2014.

If you can’t decide whether to enter (hint: you should enter!), here is the cover and blurb to help you out.

15790883 The Age of Kings is dead . . . and I have killed it.

It’s a bloody business overthrowing a king…
Field Marshal Tamas’ coup against his king sent corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brought bread to the starving. But it also provoked war with the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics, and the greedy to scramble for money and power by Tamas’s supposed allies: the Church, workers unions, and mercenary forces.

It’s up to a few…
Stretched to his limit, Tamas is relying heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be his estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty is being tested by blackmail.

But when gods are involved…
Now, as attacks batter them from within and without, the credulous are whispering about omens of death and destruction. Just old peasant legends about the gods waking to walk the earth. No modern educated man believes that sort of thing. But they should…

In a rich, distinctive world that mixes magic with technology, who could stand against mages that control gunpowder and bullets? PROMISE OF BLOOD is the start of a new epic fantasy series from Brian McClellan.

Interview with author Mur Lafferty + giveaway

I read and loved Mur Lafferty’s Shambling Guides books (The Shambling Guide to New York City and Ghost Train to New Orleans) last month, and I’m very excited to be able to interview her! I had originally intended to publish this interview alongside a review of the books, but I haven’t really had time to write over the last couple of weeks. Watch this space for a link to the review when it finally goes up, though.

Orbit has also offered me a pack of the two Shambling Guides books  to give away – see the end of this post for details.


Hi Mur! Thanks for doing this interview!

I’m somewhat nervous about interviewing you because I looked you up for interview research, and you run a podcast interviewing other authors, but hopefully my questions won’t be too amateur.

Tell us a little bit about the Shambling Guides books published so far, and what you loved the most about writing them.

Mur_lafferty-300x198The Shambling Guides are about a human woman, Zoe, who becomes editor of travel books written for monsters. She has to acclimate to the myriad monsters she comes across, learn etiquette, and how to deal with coworkers who would rather eat her than take her editorial input. Occasionally she has to fight for her life, and that’s no fun at all. And then she has to produce a book on top of it all. Her first book was New York City, and her second book takes her to New Orleans.

I loved doing research and looking at cities from a different point of view. Would zombies be interested in New Orleans’ strip club? Probably not. But the succubi would. Vampires have a tough time finding lodging in the city because there are few-if-none underground areas. And New Orleans was great because it’s such a wild city that most monsters can walk around with little to no camouflage and people will just assume they’re going to a party somewhere.

How many Shambling Guides books are you planning to write? Are they mostly standalone adventures, or are they building up to something?

I’m contracted for just two right now, but I’d love to write more. I do have some dangling threads I’d like to follow, (a person goes missing-presumed-dead in book 1, there’s a mysterious person who’s never around when you need him in book 2, etc) and I do have a larger arc planned, and more cities planned. So tell your friends to get these two books so I can write more!

Could you talk a little bit about your other work for readers that aren’t as familiar with it?

I’m a freelancer so I have work all over the place. I’ve done writing for gaming magazines, anime magazines, roleplaying games, audio scripts, animation scripts, and podcast-only novellas. I’ve been podcasting since 2004 and have several shows produced, the longest running being my writing podcast, I Should Be Writing.

Elsewhere, you’ve talked about how you think cities have a special life of their own (and it’s also evident in your books!) Why don’t you live in a city?

Two reasons- we settled where there was work after college, and we like our house, our city (Durham is a small city, thank you very much), and the standard of living here. (Aside- I was offered a job in San Francisco once, and turned it down. A friend from NYC thought I was insane, then I asked him how much a our four bedroom house would cost in SF. He got very quiet.)

And the second is I grew up in a small mountain town and learned to find my way around by looking at scenery and landmarks. The whole, “Go till you see the dead tree, then turn left, if you see the ski slopes you’ve gone too far,” cliche is often true. I have a terrible sense of direction, and when I go to a city I get lost easily because I don’t look at street signs, I look at landmarks, and on a glance, many city streets look exactly the same. I love cities, but am sure I would wander into a sinkhole and die somehow if I lived there.

What is your writing process like? What parts of writing do you find the easiest/hardest and most fun/tedious?

I often write chronologically, and do it in the discovery writer kind of way. Outlines are very difficult for me, because often I don’t know the details of what happens next until I am in the process of writing. Aside from outlines, description is so hard. I’ve gotten more confident in it, but it doesn’t make it any easier. I just know I can’t slide by a scene with just dialogue, and that there will be some heavy lifting in my future.

You’ve been writing and otherwise involved in SFF for quite a long time. How do you think the field has changed since you were first introduced to it?

lafferty2Oh gosh, I’m often myopic in my view of anything on a large scale. I think the field has changed with the internet, giving writers many more choices than they have ever had, and that is a good thing and a bad thing. The worrisome thing is watching the old guard in SF look at the Internet as if it was the devil. I had an old fan proudly tell me he didn’t even have an email address, and I wondered how many “glorious technologies of the future!” books he had at home on his shelves. It also worries me when the younger writers (And I use “young” to mean career, not age) look at the long slog to publication – with querying agents and editing your book and submitting your book and having it accepted and then waiting 18 months till it hits shelves and that doesn’t even count the time it takes to get an agent or editor in the first place! – and just say, “never mind, I’ll self publish.” The publishing cycle is long, yes, but going through a period of rejection is good for a writer’s growth, and self publishing too soon denies us that growth. (And agents and editors will never be as mean to you as a disgruntled Amazon reviewer, so you’re not saving your ego any bruises there, either.)

What are you currently working on?

I have two projects that are pretty much polar opposites. One is a future dystopian book with water wars and cannibals, and the other is a fun fantasy book that takes place in a world based on ancient Rome.

What books/TV shows/movies have you been consuming recently? Anything particularly cool?

Right now I’m going through a lot of YA, reading the Divergent series and The Testing series. I also just re-listened to John Scalzi’s Human Division in the car with my daughter, who loved it.

I don’t have cable so I wait for Netflix or Amazon or DVDs, and consume many seasons at once. I’m currently catching up on The Walking Dead and Dexter. Hannibal is next on my list. I want to rewatch Game of Thrones.

The two shows I am caught up on are Once Upon a Time and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, both excellent shows.

If you could have Zoe team up with a character from another fictional universe, who would it be, and why?

Arthur Dent of course! I didn’t realize how much Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had influenced me until I was done writing, and then did a headsmack. Zoe has a similar role- being involved with a travel book, but for monsters instead of aliens. I think they would have fun together, except Zoe would run headlong into conflict while Dent would wait about and pine for tea.

Hm, on second thought perhaps Ford Prefect could be a good companion.


Visit Mur’s website at http://murverse.com/ to see all the awesome stuff that she does. Also, buy her books – I would really like more books in this series!

Giveaway

As I mentioned above, Orbit has given me a set of The Shambling Guides to give away! To enter, please email me at kriti@justaworldaway.com with subject “The Shambling Guides” and your name and mailing address (US/Canada only). This giveaway is open until May 9, 2014.

If you can’t decide whether to enter (hint: you should enter!), here are the covers and blurbs to help you out.

Lafferty_ShamblingGuide2F8-1A travel writer takes a job with a shady publishing company in New York, only to find that she must write a guide to the city – for the undead!

Because of the disaster that was her last job, Zoe is searching for a fresh start as a travel book editor in the tourist-centric New York City. After stumbling across a seemingly perfect position though, Zoe is blocked at every turn because of the one thing she can’t take off her resume — human.

Not to be put off by anything — especially not her blood drinking boss or death goddess coworker — Zoe delves deep into the monster world. But her job turns deadly when the careful balance between human and monsters starts to crumble — with Zoe right in the middle.

 

17607897-the-ghost-train-to-new-orleansCOULD YOU FIND A MUSEUM FOR A MONSTER?
OR A JAZZ BAR FOR A JABBERWOCK?

Zoe Norris writes travel guides for the undead. And she’s good at it too — her new-found ability to talk to cities seems to help. After the success of The Sbambling Guide to New York City, Zoe and her team are sent to New Orleans to write the sequel.

Work isn’t all that brings Zoe to the Big Easy. The only person who can save her boyfriend from zombism is rumored to live in the city’s swamps, but Zoe’s out of her element in the wilderness. With her supernatural colleagues waiting to see her fail, and rumors of a new threat hunting city talkers, can Zoe stay alive long enough to finish her next book?

Interview with author Marie Brennan + GIVEAWAY

I got to interview Marie Brennan, the author of A Natural History of Dragons and its recently released sequel The Tropic of Serpents, which I consider one of the best new fantasy series’ that I’ve read over the past year. Marie is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to many short stories and novellas, she is also the author of A Star Shall Fall and With Fate Conspire (both from Tor Books), as well as Warrior, Witch, Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, and Lies and Prophecy. You can find her online at SwanTower.com.

I’m also giving away two sets of A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents – see the bottom of this post for details.


Marie BrennanThanks for doing this interview, Marie! A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents were two of my favourite books from last year (I was lucky enough to receive an ARC in December) and I’m thrilled that you agreed to an interview.

1. Isabella’s world is clearly an Earth-analogue. Why did you make the decision not to set it in our world, and how much historical research do you usually do for each setting?

I wanted the ability to comment on real-world history and culture (which is why I didn’t invent a setting out of whole cloth), without being constrained by the specifics of how things happened in our own past. There’s always alternate history, of course — but if I wanted to write about a version of West Africa where the slave trade never really took over, I would personally feel obligated to work out what changed in order to send events down a different path, because just hand-waving it would cheapen the significance of the actual conditions. And if I worked it all out very meticulously, then I would have to convey that to the reader, and pretty soon I’m writing something other than books about dragons.

Not to mention the effect the dragons themselves would have on history!

As for research, I do a fair bit of reading into the cultures I’m using as my inspiration, trying to get a feel for social organization, religion, that sort of thing. Nothing gets replicated with 100% fidelity — the dominant “European” religion is based on Judaism, I put Finnish saunas (and Russian overlords) in the Romanian-inspired Vystrana, and Bayembe incorporates elements of both the Ashanti and the Yoruba, to name just a few examples — but I enjoy doing that kind of research, because it teaches me not just to default to the familiar.

2. How many memoirs does Lady Trent end up writing? It seems like her exploits will take up at least a dozen volumes!

Not everything in her life merits a whole book! There will be five in total, each one covering a different major expedition.

3. When do we meet Lord Trent?

Now, that would be telling . . . ;-)

4. Can you give us a little hint about what the third book is about, and what excites you the most about it?

It’s called Voyage of the Basilisk, and the title is a pretty good pointer toward its general topic: Isabella goes on a voyage around the world, a la Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, to do a comparative study of sea-serpents and dragons in other regions. I think the bit I’m most excited for is the archaeologist character I introduced — someone interested in Draconean ruins. Quite apart from the fact that I used to be an archaeologist and therefore share his interests, he was a lot of fun to write.

5. Are you interested in ever releasing Lady Trent’s non-memoir books? I would love to read her fluffy travel book – I’m sure it would have a lot of hidden snark!

This seems to be something a lot of people would go for, so maybe! It would be a nifty side volume to add to the series.

6. Could you tell us a bit about your non-Lady Trent books? (I haven’t read any of them yet, but I plan to!)

I have three other series out there, though one of them is only in its first volume so far. The Onyx Court is a set in London during different historical periods, with a faerie court hidden beneath the city interfering with its politics. The doppelganger books are more straightforward adventure fantasy, in a secondary world with witches and people who are basically ninja by another name, and then Lies and Prophecy is the first in a series of near-future urban fantasies, in a version of our world where psychic gifts have become common.

7. What is your writing process for a new book like? Do you start with the characters, the plot/themes, or the world?

Inasmuch as I can generalize, I guess it’s usually a character in a situation or setting. The Memoirs of Lady Trent, for example, started with the notion of a natural historian trying to study dragons, which lent itself very well toward a Victorian-type setting. Lies and Prophecy started with a young woman studying divination at college. I usually have to play around with the idea for a while before I start figuring out the plot, though there have been exceptions.

8. What are some books you think everyone should read?

This is the kind of question that makes me wave my hands inarticulately, because where do I start? I think I’ll recommend Diana Wynne Jones, a British children’s author who wrote some truly amazing stuff. I grew up on her books and still love them today — to the point where, when she passed away a few years ago, I re-read all her works and blogged about them as I went.

9. If you had to write a book about Isabella teaming up with a  character from another fictional universe, who would it be and why?

I think she would get along splendidly with Kate and Cecy from Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer’s Sorcery and Cecilia. And Isabella would be delighted to have magic to help out in her work!


Giveaway

As I mentioned above, Tor has given me two sets of these books to give away! To enter, please email me at kriti@justaworldaway.com with subject “The Tropic of Serpents” and your name and mailing address (US/Canada only). This giveaway is open until April 21, 2014.

If you can’t decide whether to enter, here are the covers and blurbs to help you out.

A Natural History of Dragons

12974372All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

The Tropic of Serpents

Tropic Of SerpentsAttentive readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoir, A Natural History of Dragons, are already familiar with how a bookish and determined young woman named Isabella first set out on the historic course that would one day lead her to becoming the world’s premier dragon naturalist. Now, in this remarkably candid second volume, Lady Trent looks back at the next stage of her illustrious (and occasionally scandalous) career.

 Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.

 The expedition is not an easy one. Accompanied by both an old associate and a runaway heiress, Isabella must brave oppressive heat, merciless fevers, palace intrigues, gossip, and other hazards in order to satisfy her boundless fascination with all things draconian, even if it means venturing deep into the forbidden jungle known as the Green Hell . . . where her courage, resourcefulness, and scientific curiosity will be tested as never before.

“A Natural History of Dragons” and “The Tropic of Serpents” by Marie Brennan

12974372When I first saw the cover of A Natural History of Dragons, I knew I was going to love the book. (I know the adage about not judging a book by its cover, but come on, it’s gorgeous!) The book blurb only furthered that impression – a Victorian-style memoir by Lady Trent, who has defied convention to follow her passion and become the leading dragon naturalist of her day.

Isabella has been fascinated with the natural world (but especially the dragon family) ever since her cook taught her how to preserve sparklings in vinegar when she was seven. She knows that this hobby can only ever be a passing fancy for a lady of her station, but as luck would have it, she has the opportunity to travel to the mountains of Vystrana on a scientific expedition to study their fabled rock-wyrms. This journey, of course, turns out to be far more arduous than Isabella imagined it would be – involving not just inflamed dragons but complex politics, vengeful gods, and exhilarating discoveries.

Given this premise and that beautiful cover, I had really high expectations for the book, and they ended up being comfortably exceeded. Isabella is a fantastic protagonist – she tries very hard to reconcile her natural curiosity with what’s expected of her, and although she doesn’t always succeed, it’s still endearing. She’s no rebel with a twenty-first century sense of morals and propriety; she’s a woman of her time that is just very passionate about scientifically studying dragons.

A Natural History of Dragons also has a fascinating world. It is clearly based on 18th-19th century Earth, with Isabella’s homeland being analogous to England, and Vystrana similar to Eastern Europe. There are dragons, but they are just natural beasts – there is no “magic”; although the sense of wonder that Marie Brennan with new scientific discoveries is even better than magic. We learn a lot about the world through the political intrigue and the other mysteries in the book, like ancient ruins of a civilisation known as the Draconeans.

Other than that, the writing is great (I love Isabella’s forthright voice sprinkled with a copious amount of dry wit) and the plot is intriguing but this book really shines because it also packs quite the emotional punch – you really feel for Isabella through her disappointments, excitements, hopes, and sorrows. It’s a joy to see her come into her own over the course of this book. (Also, there’s one moment which you will instantly recognise when you encounter it where you just want to set something on fire.)


Okay, I’m also supposed to be writing about the sequel as well, so I’m going to stop talking about A Natural History of Dragons now.

Tropic Of SerpentsIn The Tropic of Serpents, it has been three years since the very eventful Vystrani expedition, and Isabella is far more confident in her abilities and far less concerned with what the world thinks of her. She jumps at the chance to go on an expedition to the continent of Eriga, home of many little-known varieties of dragons. However, Eriga makes her previous expedition look cushy – strange customs, warring countries (and more politics!), oppressive weather, hundreds of killer species, the list goes on.

All the elements that made the previous book such a success are still present in this one – Isabella continues to be awesome, the writing is beautiful, the worldbuilding is captivating. Eriga is an African analogue (except without as much rampant slavery/exploitation, I think), and there are many cool African-inspired things that this book explores, from stereotypical “big game” hunters to different views on gender and property ownership.

This is not just a series for light, fun reading – Isabella faces some heavy moral dilemmas. She has changed a lot from the first book (mostly as a result of the events of that book) and her character growth is very different. She is not quite as wide-eyed and eager, but her curiosity and competence still make her very compelling. She also takes more of a direct role in events this time; instigating rather than reacting, and you can definitely see her along the path to evolving into the somewhat cantankerous older woman that she is in the forewords.

I really enjoyed the supporting characters in this book; especially Natalie. It’s interesting to see Isabella’s choices already causing ripples in the freedom of other women, and Natalie had a great story arc from being the woman desperate to escape her expected place to society to becoming more mature and confident (all while inventing a glider!) I also loved the burgeoning respect and friendship between Isabella and Mr. Wilker.

I don’t have much to say about the plot except that I do like how the plot always ends up being relevant to major scientific discoveries that Isabella makes. I wish we still lived in a time when science was a new frontier and enthusiasts could make new scientific discoveries and/or invent things easily (okay, I don’t actually, because modernity has its benefits, but these books really make me wistful).

I’m terrible at endings, but I’m really excited to see what Isabella does next.


If you made it this far, you might be interested in my interview with author Marie Brennan and giveaway of two sets of both these books.

“The Black Count” by Tom Reiss

The-Black-Count-by-Tom-ReissI’m trying to read more diversely this year, and I finally read some non-fiction. I won an ARC of this book way back in 2012 but never got around to reading it, and I was intrigued to find out that it won the Pulitzer and a host of other awards in that time.

The Black Count is a biography of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the father of the famous novelist Alexandre Dumas and the inspiration for many of his stories, particularly The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas was the son of a French nobleman and an African slave. He was also a martial hero, rising from a lowly private to general-in-chief of an army in only a few years – the highest ranking person of color in the Western world until the 1970s. His story rivals the ones in his son’s books – a shipwreck, suspected poisoning, foreign dungeons, and finally being ostracised because of changes in France’s political climate and Napoleon’s personal ire.

I really enjoyed this book – Tom Reiss is a great writer working with a great subject. I couldn’t wait to see where Dumas’ life took him, but I also never felt like Reiss took any liberties with the truth – everything was meticulously cited. I learned a lot about France’s colonial history as well, which I didn’t know much about. I can’t believe that someone who broke as many barriers as Thomas-Alexandre Dumas isn’t more well known, but thanks to Reiss’ efforts, that will hopefully now change.

I’m also hoping that Thomas-Alexandre Dumas shows up in the recently announced Assassin’s Creed game set during the French Revolution.

“Words of Radiance” by Brandon Sanderson

worSome context for this review: I’m a huge Brandon Sanderson fan, and I thought The Way of Kings was his best book, so I was really sure I would love this book. I re-read the first book in anticipation, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen next. I’m glad (but not surprised) to say that I wasn’t disappointed at all.

Spoilers for The Way of Kings follow.

Words of Radiance picks up right where the previous book left off, with Jasnah and Shallan on their way to the Shattered Plains and a newly confident Dalinar Kholin plotting with Elhokar on how to unite the highprinces. As expected, both efforts run into some difficulty. I’m not going to say any more about the plot because I don’t want to give anything away. I’ll just say that events take some pretty shocking turns, and also some wonderful ones.

This was advertised as “the Shallan book”, and we certainly learn a lot more about her in it. It is spread out over several flashbacks, and we don’t get all of it until the end (which drove me crazy, because I had to constantly keep myself from skipping ahead to the next flashback). Her story was not what I expected, and I ended up liking her even more because of it – she’s been through a lot and turned out fairly well. Her powers are tied perfectly to her story, and I can’t wait to see what she does with them next.We also learn a lot more about the world of Roshar and the wider events going on in this book (often through the perspective of a one-time narrator). It was especially nice to get a Parshendi viewpoint, and see their side of things first-hand. A lot more also happens that I thought Sanderson would wait a few more books to reveal, which is pretty exciting. The world is changing quickly.

I really like that the heroes in this book are not inherently noble and good; they don’t always know what the right thing to do is. Instead, they are the products of their experiences, and they have to struggle with it. If there was a theme to this book, I’d say it was the characters coming to terms with themselves – Dalinar did this in the first book, and now it’s everyone else’s turn.Some random observations:

  • We get a lot more Adolin in this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
  • There is romance in this book, and it was fun. I’m just hoping it doesn’t turn into a love triangle, because that would be frustrating.
  • Roshar is a pretty small place, because characters I never thought I’d see again return, and are given good character development.
  • Some characters that I thought would be pretty significant given the way the last book ended didn’t end up getting much screen (page?) time.
  • I love that each of the Stormlight Archive books is named after a fictional book – I hope that trend continues.
  • Even though we learned a lot in this book, there are so many unanswered questions…

I’m not saying this was a perfect book, though – I had some issues. Many of the characters suffer a big shock in the book, and I felt like they took in stride too easily. Except one person, no one seemed to think about or talk about it. I was also annoyed that some plot developments happened off-screen, but I guess a lot of ground was covered in this book that wouldn’t have been able to be covered if we’d spent time with that character. However, my only major complaint is that I have to wait a year or more for the next book.

“Arrows of the Queen” by Mercedes Lackey

arrows-of-the-queen-1I’ve been wanting to read Mercedes Lackey for a long time, but she’s so prolific that I had no idea where to start! But then I received Arrows of the Queen as one of my SantaThing (LibraryThing’s Secret Santa type event) books for Christmas, which is apparently Lackey’s first published book, so it seemed like a great place to start.

Arrows of the Queen is set in the country of Valdemar, which is protected by the noble Heralds and their horse-like Companions. Talia is a young girl from a remote homesteading culture that is selected by a Companion and taken to become a Herald – something she has dreamed of all her life, but never actually dreamed would happen. Her task is to be the advisor to the Queen, which means she has to learn a lot in very little time.

There is not much of a plot to this book; it focuses mainly on Talia settling in and feeling at home with her destiny to be a Herald and training in the Collegium. She solves some problems, learns to cope with bullying, loss and rejection, and grows up. The Heralds are all ridiculously honourable, which makes for little conflict, and the few conflicts that occur are usually resolved off-screen. The characters all have their own distinct personality, but Lackey does a lot of telling, not showing – I don’t know if that was just a stylistic choice or because it was her first book.

Despite the simplicity of the story, the book never felt boring – the character interactions were charming, the events flew by quickly, and Talia dealt with some pretty complex issues. I expected the narrative style to grate on me after a while, but it never did.

I’m looking forward to reading about the rest of Talia’s adventures and more Valdemar tales afterwards!

“Expiration Day” by William Campbell Powell

expdayI’ve started avoiding the entire YA genre because pretty much every book I hear about seems to involve an implausible dystopia built around societies of arbitrarily capitalised Nouns and a female teenager that disrupts it whilst choosing between her “nice” and her “sexy” love interests. When I read about the premise of Expiration Day (a young woman discovers that many of her classmates are androids and her society is not all it seems), I figured it would be more of the same. I was not expecting the thoughtful, character-driven science fiction story that it actually was.

In the near future, most humans are no longer fertile, and human-like androids are used to substitute for children. We follow Tania Deeley, a vicar’s daughter, through her diary entries from age eleven onwards. This book is a coming of age novel; the “Expiration Day” mystery (why do androids need to eventually be returned to the corporation that made them?) is not important except for when it drives Tania’s story forward. We watch Tania grow up and slowly learn more about the world around her and herself, supported by a wonderful and three dimensional cast of secondary characters.

The worldbuilding is pretty interesting too; I was initially sceptical of the premise (android children seemed implausible), but Powell has constructed a world where it makes sense. The only quibble I have was with the ending, which seemed far too neat.

In conclusion, if you’re a YA fan, read this! If you’re getting disillusioned with YA tropes, read this!

“The Quiet War” by Paul McAuley

QuietWarThe Quiet War is set in the 23rd century in a fully colonised solar system. War is brewing between conservative Earth and the solar system colonists called Outers, who push the envelope on what it means to be human constantly. The protagonists of the book are very different, but they are caught in this building momentum – an ambitious geneticist whose star is rising, a genetically-engineered clone soldier, a junior scientist whose curiosity makes her a liability, a pilot who volunteers to test a dangerous new technology, and a power-hungry diplomat.

I expected The Quiet War to be focused on the military, but instead it’s a slow burning political book that portrays the inevitability of conflict, despite almost nobody actually wanting one. It does this rather well, hampered only by the frequent and long passages on the technical details of ecosystem building (which are fascinating, but don’t add much to the story – atmosphere can be overdone).

McAuley’s descriptive abilities are put to good use when he describes the colonised solar system, though – the Outers’ colonies are vividly beautiful and inspire awe. It seems like a doable near-future vision of space colonisation, which is something I would love to see happen in my lifetime.

The protagonists are not terribly sympathetic, but they do a good job of illustrating how people from pretty much every walk of life are drawn into the war. Some of the protagonists’ quirks (Sri’s odd relationship with her son, for example) seemed like attempts to make the character multidimensional, but instead ended up feeling pointlessly uncomfortable. I think one particular viewpoint (Cash) could’ve been totally cut – I didn’t really get what he added to the story, since Dave 8 had had the whole “engineered soldier PoV” covered.

The Quiet War is fairly standalone, but I think it could use a little closure on the war, so I’m looking forward to reading the next installment, Gardens of the Sun.

“Consider Phlebas” by Iain M. Banks

I’ve heard a lot about Iain M. Banks’ Culture universe, but hadn’t read any of his books for a long time. I was inspired by the start of the new year to set up a group read of all of the books over on LibraryThing, and Consider Phlebas was the first book I read in 2014.

8935689Consider Phlebas follows Bora Horza Gobuchul, a spy and assassin for the Idirans, who are at war with the Culture. He is sent on a mission to retrieve a lost Mind, an Culture AI, who has landed on one of the forbidden Planets of the Dead. Along the way, he has incredible adventures and narrowly avoids capture by the Culture. Despite all the action-adventure, I would not call this a fun book, but it was a very, very good book.

Unlike most of the books I read, I had a fair amount of preconceptions going into this one, since I’d heard about the Culture for so long (Wikipedia calls it “a post-scarcity semi-anarchist utopia consisting of various humanoid races and managed by very advanced artificial intelligences”). I was expecting a dense hard SF novel with unfathomably alien characters and plot primarily driven by worldbuilding ideas. I was not expecting the poignant character development or the incisive look at the sidelines of war, and those are what made this book great.

Two minor criticisms – one of the chapters has a fair amount of visceral body-horror, which I did not enjoy at all; I wish that Banks had chosen to display the craziness of his universe some other way. I also wish that there was more insight into the Culture, and how it works from the inside, but there are plenty more books in the universe for me to get that.