“The Grace of Kings” by Ken Liu

thegraceofkingsThere’s been a lot of anticipation about the release of The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu’s debut novel. If you haven’t heard of Ken Liu, he’s an accomplished writer of short fiction – his story, Paper Menagerie, won the Hugo, the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award. I was very excited to get an advance review copy, and I’m glad to say that it didn’t disappoint.

Emperor Mapidéré has achieved the seemingly impossible dream unifying of the islands of Dara, but he’s dying, and his empire is buckling under the strain of his autocratic rule. In a time ripe for rebellion, Kuni Garu, a charismatic working-class rogue (the “Dandelion”), and Mata Zyndu, the proud son of a fallen aristrocratic family (the “Chrysanthemum”) are determined to see that dream through. At the brink of victory, though, their fast friendship suddenly turns into deadly enmity, and things aren’t quite so clear cut.

The writing style and narrative structure of The Grace of Kings is fairly unique – it is told simply but perceptively, with myth/folktale qualities. I read somewhere that it’s influenced by Chinese pingshu storytelling, but I know nothing about that. There’s no point of view character, instead we get the whole story from a variety of different points of view as the plot demands, sometimes switching to entirely new characters from across the continent from where our protagonists are. None of the scenes lasts very long, the dialogue is economical and direct (but not so much so as to be unrealistic/humorous like the Belgariad, for example) but still conveys immense subtlety.

I ended up comparing The Grace of Kings to The Lions of Al-Rassan (review here), which I read only a few weeks ago, and it’s not really a fair comparison, but I’ll talk about it since I’m sure it influences my review. Both books are about two larger than life men and the conflict that they are forced into, and both have extraordinary but different styles of prose. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, we’re firmly focused on the characters – Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan are truly larger than life, incredible, men through the force of their own personalities, representing the best a human can aim to be. The reader cannot help but love them. In The Grace of Kings, the focus is more on the tale that is being told – Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu are more a product of their circumstances. Their personalities are very much evident, but much of what they do is because of advice, politics, the intervention of the gods. They are certainly extraordinary heroes within their world, but they still act in accordance with their natures, they don’t try to rise above them.

This makes complete sense if you look at it in terms of Western and Eastern philosophy – the Western tradition focused a lot on improving the self and the role of every individual (The Lions of Al-Rassan is a parallel of Moorish Spain), but Eastern philosophy emphasizes interconnectedness and inevitability (The Grace of Kings is inspired by ancient China). It’s a pretty minor distinction, but it made The Grace of Kings seem grimmer and not have as much heart, although it just comes from using a different storytelling tradition.

Okay, so this book is well-written, but it is also a lot of fun. Ken Liu calls it “silkpunk” – a riff on steampunk that is inspired by East Asian antiquity, and it features some fascinating takes on traditional steampunk technologies – airships, submarines, gliders, and other cool gadgets. There are multiple wars in this book, so there’s plenty of thrilling and often cinematic action. There’s a lot of unexpected humor, and some truly dramatic moments (the one where Mata Zyndu finds his horse, for instance), often aided by the gods.

Speaking of the gods, I loved how they were portrayed. Each of the countries has their own god, and they (of course) swear not to interfere in the affairs of mortals, and manage to sneak a whole bunch of interfering in while keeping to the letter of their agreement. They’re often not any wiser than the mortals, though, and although their motivations can be mysterious, sometimes they are quite petty. I’m familiar with spiteful, squabbling gods from Hindu mythology, and they heightened the mythological feel of the book.

Although the plot of the book was based loosely on the rise of the Han dynasty in ancient China, I appreciated the fact that the world was very different from ancient China. The Islands of Dara are an archipelago, for one, and their customs are not distinctly evocative of any one place (Ken Liu talks about why he decided to do that here). The world seemed organically built based on the geography and the cultural interplay, and that is the best kind of world.

The one thing that I didn’t enjoy about the book was how much of what happened happened because people were greedy and power-hungry. I think this goes back to the same kind of inevitability that I talked about earlier – it almost felt like many of the characters were the same kind of person, and the only reason they acted differently was because of their circumstances. Rebels replaced tyrants and became tyrants themselves, competent men and women let their competency go to their head and ended up destroying everything they’d worked for because they wanted more power. There were exceptions, but even they were tempted. It seemed like a world where ambition was expected, or maybe the story only focused on the ambitious people; I’m not sure – it is a book that’s about empires toppling, after all. I kept wishing for some nice characters, but they all ended up dead. If you’re a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire etc., this may be a feature, not a bug.

I’m uncertain about how I feel about the end of the book. It was a self-contained story, but the way everyone was acting made me uneasy for the future. It does make me excited to read the next book, though – especially because Ken Liu has said that each book will have a different theme, and the next one will focus more on historical misogyny.


The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu (The Dandelion Dynasty, #1)
Saga Press, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The Eye of the World” Graphic Novel, Volumes Three and Four

Not surprisingly, after my last post, I read Volumes Three, Four, and Five straight through. I still haven’t read Volume Six, though (primarily because I didn’t have it yet), so I’ll save my review for Volume Five until then to be symmetrical. Anyway. here we go. I’m assuming you’ve read the novel version of The Eye of the World and I might allude to future books, but no  spoilers.

Volume Three

eotwv3The party is forced to retreat to the abandoned and dangerous Mines of Moria Shadar Logoth since they’re surrounded by Orcs Trollocs and there’s nowhere to go. Every time I reread this book, I’m always struck by how many story beats The Eye of the World seems to have borrowed from Lord of the Rings – that’s probably why I wasn’t really interested in reading the series after I read it for the first time (and now I want to reread the series every few months, it seems like). Anyway, Shadar Logoth is creepy, and Mordeth looked very different from how I’d imagined him, but I liked the way he was depicted. I know Mat has to go through his whole insane phase before he becomes awesome, but I was really hoping somehow that he wouldn’t touch that dagger. Unfortunately, he did, although the full effects aren’t apparent in this book.

Anyway, the party finally splits up (I say “finally” because I’m mostly used to everyone being in different places and having their own story – I guess everyone doesn’t diverge fully until The Shadow Rising, but I like the multiple character arcs). Egwene and Perrin head into the woods and run into Elyas (who also looks very different than I thought he would – for some reason, I never imagined him with a beard, although when I thought about it, he’s not really likely to shave living in the woods with wolves…) and the Tinkers. The Tinkers were exactly as I’d pictured them, especially Aram. I forgot all about the dying Aiel speaking of the Eye of the World story, but it was nice to see it illustrated. I was glad to get to the wolves, too – it’s the first sign we get of Perrin’s destiny – he and Mat so much more interesting than Rand.

Although, Mat is not interesting yet – he escapes with Rand and Thom onto Bayle Domon’s ship, heading for Whitebridge. I love Bayle Domon, and I also forgot about how he said the Trollocs seemed to be following him for some reason. The reason won’t become clear until later books, but it’s such a small thing to miss! Also we see the Tower of Ghenjei! Mat is sulking his way through the whole trip, but Rand is finding himself strangely exhilarated. They go into Whitebridge and have the encounter with a Fade, and Thom is awesome. They flee Whitebridge and Rand insists that the rest of their party must be alive, since the Darkfriends are looking for them. Elsewhere, Egwene and Perrin are also affirming to each other that the rest of the party must be alive. It’s a good place to end the volume.

Volume Four

eotwv4Volume Four wasn’t as exciting as the previous one – Mat and Rand are on the road to Caemlyn, and don’t do very much. They have a bunch of encounters with low-level Darkfriends – Howal Gode, Paitr, Mili Skane (although we don’t know that yet) that they narrowly escape from. The dream featuring Ba’alzamon and Howal Gode is particularly gruesome. Also, side note: it’s way clearer who Ba’alzamon is when you actually see him, I didn’t really realize what was going on with him until I reread the series. But when you can compare his face to his other appearance, it makes a lot more sense.

So Rand and Mat play music in inns and work in farms, Rand attracts the eye of a cooped up farmgirl, Mat gets more and more suspicious and scary, and complains a lot. He does not say “my precious” at any point, but he’s basically turning into Gollum. That sequence has always been one of my least favourites (I can’t bear to see Mat like that!), so I was glad to see it done. But they meet some nice people too, and they finally get to Caemlyn, and the grandness of the city is the last panel of the volume.

Egwene and Perrin continue to travel with the Tinkers until Elyas deems it necessary for them to leave. That sign comes fairly suddenly, and they part ways. I like Egwene and Perrin’s friendship, I wish they had more opportunities to explore that, especially given their shared future talent. They make for Caemlyn, but are chased by swarms of ravens intent on pecking them to death. You wouldn’t think that birds would be that scary, but the short scene where a fox is torn apart in seconds is given very effective/disturbing page time. They make for an abandoned Ogier stedding, where a giant statue of Arthur Hawkwing was once built and abandoned. The statue is very well done, and conveyed the eerie atmosphere of the place admirably.

But then the Whitecloaks show up (I really do not like the Whitecloaks, I want to balefire them all, zealots are frustrating) and kill Hopper (HOPPER!) and Perrin goes all berserker, and Egwene and Perrin are captured. The commander, Bornhald seems like a nice guy, but a nice guy who’s a zealot is still not a very nice guy, and Perrin is destined for execution. I don’t even understand why the Whitecloaks started chasing the wolves in the first place; why couldn’t they have just made their camp and left? Anyway, Perrin and Egwene are firmly in Whitecloak hands now.

And yeah, Moiraine, Lan, and Nynaeve are in these two volumes too (I don’t remember which one), and Nynaeve learns that she can channel. Lan and Nynaeve express their mutual admiration for one another in subtle ways (another thing which I totally did not pick up on on my first read) and Moiraine is slightly frustrated. But they’re not in this very much.

The next volume is a lot of fun – especially introductions to Loial and Elayne. I’m looking forward to reviewing it.


The Eye of the World: The Graphic Novel, Volume Three by Robert Jordan & Chuck Dixon (The Wheel of Time Graphic Novels, #3)
Tor Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

The Eye of the World: The Graphic Novel, Volume Four by Robert Jordan & Chuck Dixon (The Wheel of Time Graphic Novels, #4)
Tor Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The Eye of the World” Graphic Novel, Volumes One and Two

I just started reading the graphic novel version of The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan and adapted by Chuck Dixon. It’s pretty good so far, and left to my own devices, I’m likely to read them so fast that they blur together, so I figured I’d stop and review the two volumes I’ve read now.

I’m assuming you’ve read the novel version of The Eye of the World, so beware of spoilers!

Volume One

eotwv1We start off with the Ravens prologue that’s not actually in The Eye of the World – it was only included in From The Two Rivers, which is the first part of the split up version of the book published for the YA market, I believe. It features a nine year old Egwene at the annual Two Rivers sheep shearing, and handily gives us some background on the Dragon and the Dark One via a story told by Tam al’Thor to the kids, plus hints that the servants of the Dark One are watching the place. I’m glad they included this scene, because we get to see the Two Rivers when it’s normal, but also some foreshadowing that it’s not going to stay that way.

After that, the book follows the novel pretty closely – the creation of Dragonmount, and Rand and his father heading to Emond’s Field for Bel Tine. The volume ends with the flight from the Two Rivers – I thought more would happen by the end, but I’m glad they’re taking the pace slowly.

I don’t read many graphic novels, so I don’t know enough to compare the artwork and storytelling to other ones, but I think it was very well done. It was great to see so many scenes that I’ve only imagined in my head come to life – Moiraine and Lan, especially. The adaptation from the book was pretty faithful – the only discrepancy that I could tell was that Tam reveals the secret of Rand not being his biological son while Rand is dragging him to Emond’s Field, rather than in the inn, but that works better for the graphic novel form because you see Rand’s journey along with the exposition.

Other random thoughts: Nynaeve gets less page time than I thought she would, but she’s certainly mentioned a lot. Moiraine’s Manatheren speech is one of my favourite scenes in the book, and it is given full justice. The concept art at the end of the book is amazing (and covers the whole book, not just this volume) – I particularly loved the one of the thirteen Forsaken, and the Cenn Buie one that has him saying “I’m so tired of thatching theez damn rooves”. There’s also a lovely depiction of Tam finding Rand on Dragonmount.

Volume Two

eotwv2Volume Two covers the party’s journey from the Two Rivers until they leave Baerlon and make the decision to go to Shadar Logoth. I loved the Two Rivers’ folk’s reaction to both Taren Ferry and Baerlon – it was portrayed perfectly. I know the whole “farmboy sees big city and is totally overwhelmed” thing is a massive trope, but I love it anyway, possibly because I really wanted to move to the US from India (my version of wanting adventure), and I did when I was 17, to a place where pretty much no one else was Indian, and I had a really thick accent and had never even crossed a road by myself. It was totally unfamiliar but incredibly awesome but also sometimes the unfamiliarity was scary, and I get the feeling.

Other scenes I loved – Moiraine’s Mask of Mirrors at the gates of Baerlon, scaring the Children of Light away. Also, the ta’veren trio’s Ba’alzamon dreams are vividly horrifying, I don’t remember them making such an impression on me in the book. And Min’s introduction is fantastic, she looks exactly like how I’d imagined she would, and Rand is very puzzled by her. Nynaeve’s arrival and her suspicion are well handled too, I was less irritated by her when I could see her earnestness.

Speaking of ta’veren, the graphic novel hasn’t gone into that concept yet, I assume it will come up later.  I couldn’t really find any significant omissions, though – the journey from the Two Rivers to Baerlon goes by a lot quicker, although we get the important bits like Moiraine’s One Power lessons to Egwene and Rand’s spying, Bela being mysteriously unfatigued, the scariness of the Draghkar. We don’t get a lot of Mat and Perrin, but I don’t think we did in the book, either.

Okay, I’m going to wrap up this post now, I’m excited to go see Shadar Logoth.


The Eye of the World: The Graphic Novel, Volume One by Robert Jordan & Chuck Dixon (The Wheel of Time Graphic Novels, #1)
Tor Books, 2011 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

The Eye of the World: The Graphic Novel, Volume Two by Robert Jordan & Chuck Dixon (The Wheel of Time Graphic Novels, #2)
Tor Books, 2012 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


Mini-review: “The Spirit Ring” by Lois McMaster Bujold

thespiritringLois McMaster Bujold is one of my favourite authors, and I’ve been hoarding her remaining books because I don’t really want to get to a point where I have no more new Bujold books to read. I succumbed to The Spirit Ring this week, though.

The Spirit Ring is a pretty straightfoward fantasy story set in Renaissance Italy. Fiametta’s life shatters when she and her mage/artisan father are caught up in the squabbles between two dukedoms, and now she has to find a way to free her town from the invading duke before he is able to use black magic (using her father) to cement his hold on it.

As always with Bujold, the characters have complex emotions and pretty much leap off the page. Fiametta is sad and very scared, but she’s also somewhat relieved by having to fend for herself, having constantly been judged as less capable because of her gender. She’s determined and stubborn, but realistic – she knows exactly how powerless she is as a multiracial woman without a protector. I liked that her story was told in a way that seemed historically accurate to the options that she would have in that time, but it did so without making Fiametta seem any less capable.

Fiametta’s father is another great character; he’s a true Renaissance man – master craftsman and amateur scientist (but with magic), flamboyant and selfish, definitely not the best father, but still very proud of his daughter. Every character in this book is just a person (another thing I love about all of Bujold’s work!), even the occupying “evil” duke and his black-magic using assistant are just people with their own hopes and dreams (albeit ones that are not good for the rest of society), and like most people, they’re usually pretty amiable when their life isn’t being affected directly.

Bujold is great at subtle romances – usually her characters just recognize a similar kind of competence in each other, and at some point realize that they should just join forces. The Spirit Ring does this, but with a healthy addition of Fiametta and Thur’s teenage hormones. Thur is fantastic, and his down to earth practicality matches Fiametta’s temperament very well. I’d love to read a book set a couple of decades later to see how they’ve grown together.

P.S. Yes, I know that cover is incredibly ugly, please don’t judge the book by it. The current cover is better, but I like to match the covers I put up with the edition I read.


The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold
Baen Books, 1992 | Buy the book


“The Lions of Al-Rassan” by Guy Gavriel Kay

thelionsofalrassanGuy Gavriel Kay is one of the most consistently praised fantasy authors; for instance, Brandon Sanderson calls him the “the greatest living author of epic fantasy“. I had read the first Fionavar Tapestry book, The Summer Tree, but I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about – I thought it seemed like a cross between a more adult Narnia and The Wheel of Time (“Tapestry” instead of “Pattern”). I figured I should give him another shot though, and I’m glad I did, because now I understand, and only the pile of unread books in the house is keeping me from buying his entire bibliography right now.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is set in the equivalent of the Iberian peninsula in the era of Moorish Spain. The Asharite city-states of the south and the Jaddite kingdoms of the north have had a tenuous peace despite their religious differences, but the winds are changing. Rodrigo Belmonte, the celebrated Jaddite captain, and Ammar ibn Khairan, the notorious right-hand man of the Asharite King Almalik of Cartada both find themselves driven away from their countries, and end up in the same city. Jehane, a Kindath physician, finds that her life is increasingly interwoven with theirs, as the world that she knows slowly begins to fall apart around her.

Despite being set in a secondary world, The Lions of Al-Rassan is clearly meant to evoke history – the names of the countries are different, and the religions are based on the celestial bodies of their world – but the map of the world is the same, and the Asharites, Jaddites, and Kindath represent the Muslims, Christians, and Jews, respectively. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that at first, but it’s a brilliant way for the author to take readers into how it felt like to live in that world without having to be too closely tied to historical accuracy.

Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan are the heart and soul of this book. They’re from very different worlds, but have a lot in common – both are larger than life, principled, intelligent, compassionate – heroes that actually deserve their reputation. When they finally meet, the world itself shivers a little bit. We see their story play out from many points of view, but the most important (and third protagonist) is Jehane, who is exceptional in her own right, but not as relevant to history. These three break the barriers of faith and country to develop an enduring friendship, but even the greatest of men are just men, and cannot resist the inexorable pressure of history waiting to be made.

The characterization of this book is exemplary – I’ve already talked about Rodrigo and Ammar a little bit, but Kay takes what would have been trite and cloying in less subtle hands and makes you truly believe in their legend. They’re not flawless – Rodrigo is somewhat reckless, and Ammar is a master of manipulation, but they still manage to make you believe in the ultimate goodness of humanity. I loved Jehane – the book blurb describes her as “increasingly torn by her feelings” which made me dread some sort of love triangle, but thankfully there’s none of that – she’s capable, intelligent, mature, and extremely skilled at what she does. I was pleasantly surprised to find that she’s also fully in control of her own sexuality. The supporting characters were fantastic, too – Alvar, one of Rodrigo’s young soldiers who gradually opens his eyes to the complexities of the world around him, and Rodrigo’s long-suffering, loving, and frankly, impressive wife Miranda were two of my favourites.

One of the biggest themes in this book is conflicting loyalties – to king, country, church, and family/friends. Rodrigo and Ammar are exiled by their respective monarchs, but they still don’t lose their love for where they’re from. Alvar loves where he’s from, but when he realizes what the world is actually like, he makes very different choices from what he would have imagined when setting out as a young soldier. Ramiro’s wife, Ines, is loyal to her god and her church, but that is tested when it endangers her country. Even the Belmonte’s cleric, Ibero, makes a terrible choice, and ends up regretting it dearly. Many of the choices made could have almost gone the other way, and are sometimes influenced by almost-random events (like Ramiro’s decision after the meeting with his fellow Espereñan monarchs) and it ends up making the coming war and its effects seem even more tragic.

Kay is an incredible writer –  he uses the common themes of honor, loyalty, and sacrifice but elevates them to a whole different level – I thought I was beyond being moved by those things. He’s also tricky sometimes; there are several scenes in which you think you know exactly what’s going on but his cunning phrases and slight omissions mean that what actually happens is a complete surprise. The scene at the end of the Carnival in Ragosa, and the epilogue are two examples. I don’t think I could read his books all in a row if they’re all this intense, but I’m so glad I have them to look forward to.

I could keep going on, but I don’t think I could convey any better how amazing The Lions of Al-Rassan is, so I’ll stop here. I highly recommend it, I think it’s one of the masterpieces of fantasy.


The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
Harper Prism, 1995 | Buy the book


“Fade to Black” by Francis Knight

fade to blackI’ve had Fade to Black sitting around for a while, and I jumped straight to reading it after I finished Aurora (which was great, but somewhat bleak) because I wanted to read something fun.

Rojan Dizon is a bounty hunter in the city-state of Mahala living a quiet life in the shadows and trying to stay out of trouble as much as possible. He’s also a pain mage, and his magic has been outlawed by the Ministry that controls the city. His life is going great when his long-lost brother asks him to find his missing daughter, and he can’t bring himself to refuse, despite knowing that he’s messing with the Ministry. And of course, he ends up finding much more than a missing girl.

I enjoyed Fade to Black a lot. Rojan Dizon is pretty much your standard Mat Cauthon template – roguish, out for himself, ultimately moral. He does become more heroic over the course of the book, but it’s believable – it’s because he cares for specific people (his niece, the people that help him find her) and because he’s a fairly nice guy, which is established early on. Also, his blatant womanizing  was pretty funny, and just like Mat, when he actually likes someone, he’s clueless.

The relationships (I don’t mean romance) in this book are complex and made the characters seem realistic. Rojan and his brother Perak are estranged, but they still respect and love each other. Rojan worries about his business partner Dendal’s use of magic, and it’s clear that they have a solid friendship. And I enjoyed the complicated relationship that he develops with his contacts in the Pit, Jake and Pasha – there’s a little bit of a love triangle, but it’s mostly just messy.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I really enjoy city-states in fantasy; I’m not really sure why – maybe because books set in city-states tend to make them more atmospheric, and also focus on the economy and structure of how everything works. Anyway, Mahala was a great setting, nestled in a mountain pass, with no choice but to build up to expand, and with only precarious walkways to navigate. I’m not sure about how that would work in practice, but I assume that since this world has magic, that would help somehow. It certainly makes for a very picturesque image. I also enjoyed the somewhat industrial setting, although electricity is just being discovered and magic powers the factories. I’d like to read more about how that works; luckily there are two more books. The magic system is neat, too – the author takes the general rule of “magic has to have a cost” almost literally, since magic is fuelled by pain.

I was a little bit confused by the writing style of the book – it’s first person, and I think it’s supposed to indicate that Rojan is writing this long after the events have happened, but that took a while to get used to, and in the beginning, I thought there were just a bunch of inconsistencies. One example is when Rojan reunites with Perak (not really spoilers, it happens in the first couple of chapters), before meeting him that it was no surprise that of course he’d end up in Alchemical Research (which is part of his overall narration), but then when Perak explains his job, he’s truly shocked (but that was his reaction in that moment). There are more things like that, but once I figured the style out, everything made sense.

My other complaint is that things wrapped up a little too neatly at the end. I was hoping that the case that Rojan is working on at the beginning of the book was just a look at his everyday life before he got sucked into something crazy – just establishing his character – but it turned out to be plot-relevant. I also did not like the identity of the main antagonist, he ended up conveniently wrapping up not one but two other major threads in the story, although given Rojan’s character of avoiding responsibility, there would’ve been no other way to set him up for the next two books without those threads being resolved.

There’s more stuff I haven’t talked about, like the way Fade to Black approaches religion (both organized religion and belief), but words are deserting me today. I’ll just say – I’m pretty excited to read the next two books and see what happens to Mahala. Maybe we’ll even see Outside!


Fade to Black by Francis Knight (Rojan Dizon, #1)
Orbit Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“A Darker Shade of Magic” by V.E. Schwab

A Darker Shade final for IreneI found a preview of A Darker Shade of Magic at the end of my copy of Vicious, and I was instantly captivated. Luckily, I had a copy already, so I was able to dive straight into it.

Kell is an Antari, one of the last humans with the ability to travel between parallel Londons. A long time ago, traffic between the four Londons flowed freely, but that was before Black London was overcome by magic, and the other three sealed themselves off, with nothing permitted to cross their borders. Kell doesn’t really take these restrictions seriously, though, and has a healthy trade smuggling items between the worlds. But when someone gives him a letter to take across, he finds himself in a whole bunch of unanticipated trouble.. and stuck with Lila, an incorrigible thief who seems to expect him to take her on an adventure.

First, the worldbuilding. I liked the idea of the four parallel Londons, each with varying levels of magic, and they were well executed – there’s our “Grey” London, with hardly any magic, Kell’s native Red London, where people and magic are balanced, and White London, where magic is seen as something to be conquered. And Black London, which was devoured by its magic, and no one talks about anymore. The universes are all very different, aside from having a city named London at the same spot, and it was interesting to see how that worked. I also enjoyed the near-sentience of the magic itself.

Just like Vicious, the book was pretty fast-paced, and the bulk of the action took place over a short period of time. While I enjoyed that things moved quickly, I really wanted to spend more time getting to know the world and characters. We get a little information via exposition (there’s a particularly clunky bit of that in the first chapter where Black London is explained) and characters musing about their past, but there’s pretty clearly an Urgent Problem To Be Solved. I guess it’s somewhat like urban fantasy – two partners trying to fix something magical (with romantic tension), but that’s not my favourite genre, especially when there’s a secondary world to explore!

The characters also weren’t that great – Kell was okay, although a bit too naive and entitled sometimes. Lila was pretty irritating, though – she’s a thief who has had a rough life, and who’s been forced to murder people to survive (which is treated very casually), but she also has childlike dreams of being an adventurer and a pirate. She’s also entitled in her own way, and it was hard to sympathise with her, or understand why anyone liked her. There wasn’t a lot of character growth, either, because the book takes place across such a short period of time, so Lila at the end of the book was still as irritating. The most interesting character was the other Antari, Holland, but he wasn’t exactly a good guy, and we don’t know very much about him.

This wasn’t a bad book, though, it just wasn’t the kind of book I was looking for. This is a great action-packed adventure with solid worldbuilding – I just like my fantasy to err on the side of excruciating detail, not action. :)


A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab (A Darker Shade of Magic, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Aurora” by Kim Stanley Robinson

auroraI’ve been meaning to get around to reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s work for a while (I’m woefully underread in the sci-fi classics), so I was delighted to get an unexpected copy of Aurora, his latest book. One of Earth’s first generation ships sent to colonize beyond our solar system is almost at its target, Aurora, a moon of the Tau Ceti system. They’re prepared for some difficulties but even then, the reality of colonization turns out to be much more complicated than anyone anticipated.

Generation ships are a pretty common idea in science-fiction, and they always seem so cool – people taking great personal risks and braving the unknown for the sake of exploration. Aurora takes a long, hard look at the reality of this concept and the morality of subjecting your descendants to living in a tin can decades away from anyone who can help them if something goes wrong. The residents of the ship make the best of the hand they’ve been dealt, but they’re fundamentally in a life they would have never have chosen – they’re heading to a place that may not even be habitable, but constantly see news feeds from an Earth that they could have flourished on. They have very few personal liberties (reproduction and choice of work have to be regulated to maintain the ship), but have access to literature and media that shows them exactly how controlled their life is compared to the norm.

The narrative voice of this book is interesting – the story is told to us mostly from the point of view of the ship, who started out as an AI that relied entirely on its programming, but is slowly gaining consciousness with the help of Devi, the ship’s de facto chief engineer. The text is presented as a chronicle that Devi asks the ship to write, except the first and last chapters. The ship mostly chronicles the journey via Devi’s daughter Freya, who grows from being a teenager in the beginning of the book to become a leader of her people. The style evolves subtly as the ship learns and observes more, and there are occasional meditations on the nature of self and consciousness, and the process of narrative itself, which are just as fascinating as the colonists’ story.

Ship was easily my favourite character in the story – we are somewhat detached from pretty much all the other characters, but I don’t mind that in hard science fiction stories like this one. Except for Freya and those close to her, most of the other humans are just seen as representatives of the factions and ideas they represent. Even Freya dulls in comparison to her mother Devi, who helped the ship grow and reason in unprecedented ways. She’s not actually present in a large portion of the book, but her furious drive leaves a lasting influence that is felt through the actions of both the ship and Freya, and she’s the character that we can empathize with the most.

Also, the science in this book was fantastic. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the physics or the biology/ecology, but it seemed as well-researched and accurate as the computer science algorithms and problems that the ship uses in its narrative. It wasn’t as riveting as the science in The Martian, but it was still a lot of fun to read. I’m fascinated by maintaining sustainable ecosystems in a closed environment – The Quiet War did a lot of that too.

I was expecting that this would be a triumphant tale of humanity overcoming adversity and making their mark on the stars, but Aurora is not constrained by that trite idealism. The portrait of humanity that it paints is not pretty – humans want to see themselves as pioneers, but are often petty, confused, violent, and all too happy to deprive others of safety to achieve something abstract. It was more depressing than I had hoped it would be, but there’s comfort in examining the consequences of an idea thoroughly, and it ends on a note of hope – not for humanity’s grand dreams, but the knowledge that humans can always learn and adapt.


Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The Galaxy Game” by Karen Lord

thegalaxygameI was really excited to get a review copy of The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord; I absolutely loved both of Lord’s prior novels – I reviewed Redemption in Indigo pretty recently, and The Best of All Possible Worlds is one of my favourite books of the last few years (and shares a world and some characters with The Galaxy Game). Unfortunately, I ended up being pretty disappointed with the book.

The main protagonist is Rafi, the nephew of The Best of All Possible Worlds, Grace Delarua, who has been forced to attend an oppressive school for the psionically gifted. He escapes with the help of one of his friends, and is thrown unprepared into a galaxy that is undergoing considerable turmoil. We also follow his two friends, Ntenman and Serendipity as they find their own way.

So, there were a bunch of problems with this book:

  • Rafi: Rafi should have been interesting – he’s scared of his psionic abilities because of the way his father abused his own, and he has a difficult relationship with his mother who’s scared of being manipulated by him. He’s doing exciting things – he’s exploring a new planet, and training for a galaxy-famous sport. Unfortunately, he just comes off as a child who’s mostly passive but occasionally reactionary (he even admits as much in the book) – the only thing he does actively is run away from his school. In the end, when he finds a place in society, it seems to be mainly because everyone else told him what to do.
  • The other viewpoint characters: I’m not really sure why Ntenman and Serendipity were protagonists – sure, we did watch them “grow up” a bit too, but their arcs were as dissatisfying as Rafi’s. This book was only 320 pages, and it didn’t have enough room for us to get to know these characters and invest in them. Ntenman’s voice was pretty charming, and I at least looked forward to his dry humour, but Serendipity seemed completely flat. Also, we get viewpoints from Delarua, Dllenahkh and the headmaster of the Lyceum (there might be more that I’m forgetting), and there’s even a framing story that takes place fifteen or so years later. This makes the book seem pretty fragmented, especially given…
  • The plot, or lack thereof: Okay, there is nominally a plot – the protagonists come of age in a time of great galactic turmoil, which they are marginally involved in. Emphasis on the “marginally”. As I said earlier, a lot of the stuff that happens is just Rafi reacting to what other people tell him to do, and most of the time, he just does it. So yes, a lot of stuff happens, but we’re just left with burning curiosity about what’s actually going on. For example, a planet gets attacked by a rival faction, but we have very little context for it, so it’s not very impactful, except for a generic “war is bad” way. And there are many factions, each with their own agenda, but we know very little. But the plot isn’t even about the galactic conflict, per se, but about developing a new transportation technique… that somehow involves a sport that Rafi is uniquely qualified to play, but it’s actually about Rafi and his friends growing up, but there’s also the plot of the framing story…
  • Characters from the previous books: Okay, I loved Delarua and Dllenahkh and the assorted supporting characters in The Best of All Possible Worlds, but they should not have been in this book this much unless it was at least twice the size. Pretty much everyone shows up, and we learn all about their problems, and how they’re resolved (Freyda and Lanuri’s marriage, Lian’s worry over the missing Queturah), and they add to the mess of plots already in the book.

If I were to describe the flaws of The Galaxy Game in one word, it would be “unfocused”. Both of Lord’s previous books were pretty intimate – they were mostly focused on one or two people and the consequences to their own life, and she’s very good at that type of narrative. She seems to be trying to do that in this book, focusing somewhat on Rafi and his friends’ coming of age, but it doesn’t really work that well because there’s so much going on in the grander scale. There was a lot going on in the grander scale in The Best of All Possible Worlds too, with the destruction of Sadira, but that was much more personal because of Dllenahkh.

I know that it seems like I hated this book, but I didn’t; I just had really high expectations from Lord’s previous work. The Galaxy Game has beautiful prose and fascinating ideas. It would have been great as either a 600 page book or a novella with a lot of the subplots cut out. I’m still anticipating Lord’s next book eagerly, though – I hope it is a return to her previous form.


The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord
Del Rey, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Vicious” by V.E. Schwab

viciousVicious follows Victor and Eli, who were best friends in college until their experiments to gain superpowers went horribly right. With Victor no longer in prison, neither of them will rest until the other has been utterly destroyed.

This is one of those books that’s almost a screenplay – I could see the movie playing in my head. It has short chapters (sometimes only a couple of pages) and is fast-paced, but it still focuses a lot on character by alternating flashbacks with the present-day story. The build-up to the final confrontation is extremely well-done – it almost gets too excruciating to wait any longer, and then everything happens very quickly.

Victor and Eli are fascinating characters, they both have something missing inside them, and that’s what drew them to each other in the first place. They learn to cope with that hole inside them in very different ways, although both are definitely supervillain material. Their sidekicks – Serena, Sydney, and Mitch, are complex in their own right – Serena’s crippling isolation with her power of persuasion is particularly poignant.

There was a lot of talk of gaining superpowers leaving people with a moral/spiritual hole inside themselves.  It reminded me a little of Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart universe, where superpowers also make you entirely selfish, so there are no superheroes – only supervillains. But most of this was perpetuated by Victor, Eli, and Serena, who all seemed to be pretty screwed up people even before they gained powers. Sydney certainly didn’t seem to have anything missing (and Serena even remarks on that at one point), and neither did any of the other superpowered people we met. I guess the ambiguity might make what Eli’s doing a bit more sympathetic, except he’s acting without any evidence, so it doesn’t.

I did like the fact that Victor wasn’t exactly a good person, but I wished that the book had pushed the envelope a bit farther – by the end, we know exactly who we’re rooting for – Victor might be a sociopath, but he’s remarkably well-attuned to society. It’s still a great book, though, in the Watchmen style of “who we think of as superheroes are usually badly-adjusted and obsessive people”. Someone please go make a movie out of it now.


Vicious by V.E. Schwab
Tor Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.