“The Crown Tower” by Michael J. Sullivan

Reading Age of Myth by Michael J. Sullivan made me want to go back (to the future!) and read some more Riyria. I’ve read the entirety of the Riyria Revelations series, but I hadn’t read any of the standalone Riyria Chronicles yet – starting with this book, The Crown Tower. I don’t have any of the Riyria Revelations books reviewed because I raced through them so fast, so I’m forcing myself to go slower with this series.

The Crown Tower is the origin story of Riyria – it tells the story of how Royce and Hadrian first met and their first adventure together – robbing the Patriarch of the Nyphron church. Gwen is also a viewpoint character, and the book covers how she met Royce and Hadrian as well. I don’t remember the minor details of the Riyria Revelations books enough to comment on how much of this story is referenced in them (if at all), but some of the major plot points are definitely foreshadowed.

I enjoyed this book. More Royce and Hadrian is never a bad thing, and it was interesting meeting them when they aren’t quite the people I was used to. There isn’t really much of an antagonist – the conflict is just Royce and Hadrian’s intense dislike of each other. There are people after them, but it’s not personal.

I was a little disappointed at how little control Royce and Hadrian had over their meeting – they are literally forced together by Arcadius. Gwen displays a little more initiative, but she is also bound by prophecy. I would have been much less sympathetic to how everything happened if I hadn’t read the Riyria Revelations series, so I would definitely recommend reading that series first, starting with Theft of Swords.

Now that I’ve reviewed this, I can go ahead and read The Rose and the Thorn!


The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan (The Riyria Chronicles, #1)
Orbit Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“Empire Games” by Charles Stross

I’ve never read any Charles Stross before, but he’s been on my wishlist for a very long time, so I was excited to read this book. It’s set in the world of his Merchant Princes (also known as Family Trade) books, but it’s the start of a new series. I had high hopes, but I ended up being a little underwhelmed.

After terrorist “world walkers” from an alternate timeline nuked the White House, the U.S. has become a paranoid surveillance state. Rita Douglas is the adopted daughter of a family that knows how to keep their head down and out of trouble – her grandparents escaped from the GDR and outwitted the Stasi. Unknown to her, the U.S. government has been keeping tabs on her since she was eight – her birth mother was a known world walker and she has the gene as well. She’s recruited to become the first American world walker spy. Meanwhile, her birth mother is trying to rebuild modern technology in an alternate timeline while waiting for the inevitable U.S. first contact.

There are a couple of reasons why I didn’t love this book, the biggest one being that I just didn’t believe the picture that Stross painted of the timeline closest to our world. It was the same until 2003 when the nuclear attack on the White House happened, but since then, the Bill of Rights has become a farce, conservative values have taken root (Roe vs. Wade was overturned), society is more overtly racist and homophobic, and India and Pakistan have had a nuclear war. Surveillance is everywhere – every street corner has a camera, and there are advanced algorithms to identify suspicious people.

The danger of setting up an alternate reality that diverged only a few years ago is that it will inevitably ring false to many people. Everyone has opinions about the times they live in. I just couldn’t believe that Americans would give up privacy or civil liberties to such an extent, or that our increasingly liberal world would suddenly descend into a moral panic about race or homosexuality. And India and Pakistan having a nuclear war struck me as exceedingly unlikely – there’s no political gain to either country going to war (much less nuclear war), and I don’t think there would be popular support for war at all (from having grown up in India.) References to “President Rumsfield” implementing draconian surveillance measures, and far too many references to the “Defense of Marriage Act” made me suspicious that the author was using the story as kind of a dumping ground for his politics.

The story and characters were fine, but they were inseparable from the world, so it made me hard to get invested in them. The tone of the book is an old school spy/tradecraft story, with much lamenting about skills lost after the Cold War ended. Without the world being what it is, I have no idea who Rita would be. Miriam and her timeline are much more interesting – the problem of introducing modern technology rapidly to a society with old fashioned values is fascinating, and I liked seeing the glimpses of how that was being implemented.

The book uses omniscient narration, including things like behind-the-scenes transcripts from Rita’s handlers, and that meant there was very little tension in the story. There was no real anxiety about Rita’s mission to the other timeline because we’ve been following the other timeline through Miriam and we know they’re fairly nice people. Rita’s contentious relationship with her handlers could have been a lot more ominous, but we’re reading their transcripts and we know they’re well-intentioned even if they occasionally misjudge her. There are hints of a larger threat established, but since they haven’t been encountered at all so far, that doesn’t add much excitement either.

I’m not saying this was a bad book – it was well written and well executed for what it wanted to be. What it wanted to be just wasn’t for me.


Empire Games by Charles Stross (Empire Games, #1)
Tor Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“Age of Myth” by Michael J. Sullivan

This is another book that I received in the recent LibraryThing Secret Santa that I participated in. I’m a fan of Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations series, so I was looking forward to reading this book since it’s a prequel. It’s set 3,000 years before the events of Riyria which sounds like a lot, but since that’s a normal lifespan for an elf of this world, it actually has more connections than I thought it would.

Our band of heroes are Raithe, a human that kills an elf (called Fhrey in the books) and accidentally proves that they aren’t gods, Persephone, the widow of the chieftain of Dahl Rehn, who has to look after her people in a time of change, Suri, a half-wild girl who has grown up in the woods and possesses a power she thinks she understands, and Arion, a respected elven mage venturing outside of her home for the first time. Raithe killing the elf brings long simmering resentments to the surface, and war between men and the elves seems inevitable.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. I think of the Riyria Revelations series as comfort fantasy – heroes rising from an unlikely place, evil plots needing foiling, oppression needing to be to stopped, and this is exactly what Age of Myth was too. The world is different – humans are barely surviving, and their standard of living is pretty low, but otherwise the themes and characterization seemed pretty similar. The book is often not very subtle (the character of Gryndal, for example), but that’s okay – it’s still fun, and there are some epic moments.

I keep talking about Riyria Revelations, but I should make clear that this book stands perfectly well on its own as the start of a new series. Any references to things in Riyria are just Easter eggs.


Age of Myth by Michael J. Sullivan (The Legends of the First Empire, #1)
Del Rey, 2016 | Buy the book


“The Shadow of What Was Lost” by James Islington

the-shadow-of-what-was-lostI’m always on the lookout for a good classic fantasy series. While I’m glad that so many books these days are not following the “hero’s journey of a secretly powerful young farmboy as the Dark One rises in a vaguely medieval world” trope, that trope is what got me into fantasy and it’s still my first love. It’s getting harder to write good books with that storyline, though – they end up being too clichéd, or too dark, or the characters are too wooden. When I read that The Shadow of What Was Lost was inspired by the Wheel of Time and Brandon Sanderson’s work (both of which I turn to for comfort reading), I was pretty excited to read it.

The Shadow of What Was Lost follows a group of three friends at a school for the Gifted (magic users) – Davian, Wirr, and Asha. Tragedy strikes and the friends become separated – Davian and Wirr on their way north on a quest they barely understand, and Asha taken to the royal capital determined to find out the truth of what happened. And the Boundary keeping out an ancient evil sorcerer and his hordes of evil creatures is starting to fail, and it doesn’t seem like it’s happening naturally.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It has an detailed world, interesting complementary magic (kind of like Robin Hobb’s Skill and Wit), and I cared about the characters. It isn’t entirely original (the Wheel of Time inspirations are occasionally pretty obvious), but the author puts his own spin on things and there were quite a few surprises as well. I liked that even though there were a few obvious Evil elements, most of the characters ended up having realistic motivations and things that seemed pretty black and white when they were introduced ended up have more depth to them. The author also doesn’t drag plot points on for very long – even if there are a few things that the reader learns that the characters don’t know yet, the characters find out within a few chapters (unlike the Wheel of Time; it’s excruciating when characters make decisions based on information we know to be incorrect as of a few books ago.)

I can’t wait to read book 2, An Echo of Things to Come, which should be released next year. I’m a little disappointed that the series is only planned to be a trilogy, I feel like the world and the characters are interesting enough to sustain a few more books.


The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington (The Licanius Trilogy, #1)
Orbit Books, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“Time Salvager” by Wesley Chu

TimeSalvagerI hadn’t read anything by Wesley Chu before, but I’ve heard extravagant praise for the Lives of Tao series, so I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I didn’t think Time Salvager was very good – it had a great premise, but the writing was clunky, the plot is riddled with clichés and the characters seemed more like archetypes than people.

It’s the 26th century, and humanity is in danger of extinction due to centuries of war and resource limitations. The only thing keeping humanity going are the chronmen, who take difficult excursions into the past and salvage material for present day rebuilding.  James Griffin-Mars is a chronman who gets a “golden ticket” job offer, accelerating his retirement considerably. However, on his way back, he breaks the cardinal Time Law, bringing a doomed scientist, Elise Kim back with him, and now they’re both fugitives.

Like I said, the premise of this book is interesting – time travel as a way to gather resources. What it actually ended up being was a mostly a lot of different action scenes with a clichéd evil corporation as the villain. There are a few forays into various historical periods, but they’re sparse on detail and atmosphere – in fact, the whole world it builds doesn’t seem compelling at all. Some of the lack of color makes sense with the whole “humanity is desperate” thing, but how desperate can humanity be with roving spaceship malls being commonplace?

None of the characters were engaging either, their decisions didn’t make any sense, and they seemed like a bunch of stereotypes thrown together – for example, the protagonist James is going somewhat crazy (complete with hallucinations of people whose lives he didn’t save), he likes Elise Kim, and I don’t know anything else about him. I can’t describe him as brave or determined or pretty much anything, he’s just someone who feels and thinks what the plot needs him to. Every other character has the same flaws, any attributes they have are just described by the text, not shown.

The book isn’t even self-contained – it’s clear setup for a trilogy, it raises a bunch of questions and answers none of them, and since the entire book has been fighting and running, the climactic fight doesn’t even seem much different from the rest of the book. I’m not sure how this book got so many glowing blurbs, I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of this series.


Time Salvager by Wesley Chu (Time Salvager, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“Too Like The Lightning” by Ada Palmer

Too Like The LightningI knew absolutely nothing about Too Like The Lightning when I picked it up to read it (well, other than the fact that Tor had sent it to me, so it was presumably sci-fi or fantasy.) It’s not often that I encounter books I know nothing about, and ever rarer that I end up really loving them, so it was a very pleasant surprise.

It’s the twenty fifth century, and Earth has evolved into a kind of utopia where really fast flying cars have made the whole globe accessible, and nations are based on membership rather than geographical location. Our protagonist (as much as he likes to swear that he isn’t the protagonist) is Mycroft Canner, a convict sentenced to spend his life being of use to people, and Too Like The Lightning is presented as an in-universe account of events written (mostly) from his point of view. He’s also the protector of Bridger, a young boy who can seemingly make all his wishes come true and bring inanimate objects to life. When the house sheltering Bridger becomes the focus of a high-profile theft investigation, it kicks world-changing events into motion, and Mycroft is at the center of it all.

I’m not sure where to start – reading this book was like being drawn into a whole new world and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days after I had finished. I don’t think I’ve encountered any future utopias that still involve humanity living primarily on Earth – there’s Star Trek, but it involves spaceships and aliens. It seems ambitious because it fills in so many details of the world and how we got there from here. It’s not entirely a utopia either, all writing is censored and labeled, the practice of religion is outlawed (it’s instead been replaced by an order known as the sensayers, who are kind of like psychologists, philosophers, and priests combined, and talk to people about the existential questions that you can’t outlaw), and distinctions between genders are not encouraged. And the people populating the world are different too, as you would expect from a world where scarcity wasn’t much of an issue – still very much human, but with unfamiliar values and assumptions. I don’t think I’ve encountered such a cohesive and fascinating world in a long time.

I found the writing somewhat pretentious at first. Mycroft is deliberately borrowing heavily from the style of eighteenth century French philosophy, and it seems somewhat incongruous. Plus, he has an irritating habit of occasionally pretending to be the reader reacting to the text. It probably doesn’t help that he has a particularly sensational way of looking at the world sometimes – it’s pretty clear that it’s Mycroft’s point of view and not the world itself, though. I got used to it though, in part because the people in the world do seem like real characters (probably because they have the time to be, not having to work all the time.) I’m sure many of the references to Voltaire and Diderot and the Marquis de Sade and Robespierre and the rest went straight over my head, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book.

There’s a pretty large cast of characters, the sensayer Carlyle Foster is probably the most prominent of them, but they’re all very memorable. The book itself takes place over only three days, but a lot happens in those days – much of it talking (Too Like The Lightning is classified as political science fiction, so of course there’s a lot of politics, which I always love), but none of it is boring. It helps that Mycroft has known most of these people for years and can give us comprehensive introductions to them. The author really takes advantage of the fact that it’s presented as an in-universe book to give us information in a natural way. I can’t say much else about the plot, it seems to move slowly at first, but there are major payoffs. Also, the book doesn’t quite end in a cliffhanger, but you’ll be glad that the next book in the duology, Seven Surrenders comes out this year as well.

A couple of minor annoyances – like I said, the writing style bothered me for the while, and some things never stopped bothering me, like bringing up the national heritage of characters all the time as descriptors – for example both Thisbe Saneer and Bryar Kosala’s hair was described as “thick Indian hair”, I wish my Indian hair was thick! It just seemed like a shortcut to describing the characters, as well as tying the world to present Earth. Also, I guess it matches the eighteenth century France theme, but it seemed like everyone had weird sexual proclivities.


Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer (Terra Ignota, #1)
Tor Books, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


A few mini-reviews, January 2016 edition

I’ve read more than 30 books since the last book I reviewed, so I’m just going to do a few 1-paragraph reviews in an attempt to catch up.

The Philospher Kings by Jo Walton

thephilosopherkingsSequel to The Just City, which I loved. This was one of my most anticipated reads this year, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a pretty different book from The Just City, and starts off with the very unpromising note of the death of one of my favorite characters from the last book. But it goes on to explore the nature of grief, and what it means to be your best self regardless of circumstances in an incredibly thoughtful way. The new characters are compelling, and it’s fun to see more of the world. And the ending is a doozy, I really cannot wait for the next book, which is going to be entirely different from the last book again.

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

themechanicalThis book had been on my to-be-read pile for far too long. I was introduced to the world by Tregillis’ short story in the anthology Human for a Day about a clockwork android seeking his freedom from the compulsion that drives him to be a slave. Tregillis later developed the short story into The Mechanical (I’m only linking to that Reddit AMA because I asked the question.) The series is set in an alternate history where the Dutch empire has conquered the world through its invention of mechanical servitors called Clakkers, and New France is the primary opposition, although it is on the brink of defeat. We follow, among others, Jax, a Clakker that longs for his freedom, and Berenice, the spymaster of New France as they fight against the empire. The world and politics are fascinating, I found the characters a little flat at times. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, which is out next month.

The End of All Things by John Scalzi

theendofallthingsI really enjoy the Old Man’s War universe, so this was a no-brainer pre-order for me. Just like The Human Division, this is a series of loosely connected stories that tells a larger tale. Scalzi’s trademark wit is in full evidence, and the political shenanigans his characters get up to are always fun to read about. I was surprised that the ongoing CDF/Earth/Conclave story arc was actually wrapped up pretty neatly, since there are more books scheduled to be written in the universe. I’m looking forward to see where Scalzi takes the story next.

Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

shadowsofselfThis is the sequel to The Alloy of Law, set 300 years after the original Mistborn trilogy. Pretty much everything you expect from Brandon Sanderson and Mistborn – fun characters, amazing magic-system innovations and worldbuilding, a very, very effective plot twist and terrible puns. I was a little disappointed that there seemed to be a lot of banter/action, and not enough character moments, but I’m excited that the next book comes out in January – only three months after this book.


Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn Adventures, #2)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.

The End of All Things by John Scalzi (Old Man's War, #6)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis (The Alchemy Wars, #1)
Orbit Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton (Thessaly, #2)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“Luna: New Moon” by Ian McDonald

lunanewmoonAs always, I’m behind on my reviews, so I’m keeping this one short.

Luna: New Moon was marketed as “Game of Thrones set on the moon”, and that seemed pretty accurate to me. The Moon has finally been colonized, primarily by the Five Dragons, five powerful industrial families that are constantly battling for supremacy. We’re following the upstart Cortas, led by matriarch Adriana Corta, who’ve made a fortune mining Helium-3, but are finding that their ascension to Dragon stature comes with a whole bunch of complications.

There’s no one protagonist, as is the case with many of McDonald’s novels. We follow pretty much all of the Cortas, and some others, like Marina Calzaghe, a “Jo Moonbeam” (a recent arrival from Earth) who gets thoroughly tangled in the Cortas’ affairs. There doesn’t seem to be plot at first, we dive head first into the Cortas’ lives, what they do, who they love, their struggles with each other, but it’s all extremely compelling. We also learn more about the early days of the moon and its colonization through Adriana’s memoirs, which adds a lot of context to the story and is a lot of fun. There is plot though, and it all makes sense when it comes to fruition.

Some of the other highlights were the evolution of world/national culture (something McDonald specializes in), the development of  interesting AI, and the brutal economics of living on the moon. My only complaint was that I didn’t realize that this was a duology until I reached the end and realized there was no way this story had ended. I’m looking forward to the sequel, though. CBS is also developing a TV show based on the books, which I really hope goes to series.


Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald (Luna: New Moon, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“The Traitor Baru Cormorant” by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor Baru Cormorant coverI was intrigued by the evocative title of The Traitor Baru Cormorant ever since I first heard of it. Then I found out that it was about a woman who wants to take down a ruthless empire by rising within its civil service – as an accountant! Political intrigue and worldbuilding are two of my very favourite things in fantasy, and you can’t really have a story about manipulating the economy to bring down a country without either of those things. And I figured that someone with the audacity to base their debut novel’s premise on fantasy economics has to be good enough to do it well. So yes, I had really high expectations for this book, and I was still blown away.

Baru Cormorant is from the island of Taranoke, which has caught the eye of the Empire of Masks (or the Masquerade as it is called derogatorily). The Masquerade doesn’t do anything as overt as actually invading, though – their strategy is much more subtle, starting with getting the Taranoki dependent on their trade, “helping” with Taranoki defense, and opening schools, and before you know it, half of Taranoke is dead from a plague and most of the customs Baru grew up with are declared anathema. Baru recognizes how helpless she and her people are, and resolves to help her people the only way she can think of – by destroying the Masquerade from the inside. She knows her first assignment is a test, though – to subdue the harsh and rebellious country of Aurdwynn, which has always destroyed those who have tried to rule it.

There are so many ways this book could have been done wrong – the trope of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” has been done a lot, and it is hard to sympathize with anything that helps an Evil Empire (and the Empire is definitely Evil – eugenics, cultural superiority, no regard for human life, strict laws on sexual preferences). But Baru is a tremendously compelling character,; she haunted me for weeks after I finished this book. She really wants to be ruthless in her quest for vengeance, and she usually succeeds, but no matter how many atrocities she causes, you can’t help but rejoice at her successes. You see how much she suffers with every betrayal and watch her pull herself back together through sheer force of will, and it’s as beautiful as it is terrible. The Masquerade has shaped Baru for longer than her family of “a huntress and a blacksmith and a shield-bearer” has, and even if it kills her, she must work for it to eventually be able to work against it.

Everything else about the book is extraordinary too – the supporting characters (especially the enigmatic Duchess Tain Hu), the settings (complex and organic cultures, but no stereotypes), the plot (the loans and futures trading are fascinating, but there’s a lot more to it too) – but Baru steals the show, as is apropos of book’s title. I absolutely cannot wait for the next book.


The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (The Traitor Baru Cormorant, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“Updraft” by Fran Wilde

updraftKirit Densira is only a couple of days away from earning her wings and starting her apprenticeship as a trader. But when she breaks one of her city’s laws by attracting the attention of a monstrous predator, her life changes irrevocably, and she finds herself neck-deep in the city’s secrets.

The real star of Updraft is the setting. A city of living bone towers rising above the clouds, where people live within the hollowed out bone and flight is the only way to get around. It’s one of the most unique worlds that I’ve encountered so far, and the author has thought through a million little details that make it feel real – the availability of resources, the different occupations that people have, the way people eat and sleep, how farming would work – to name a few. The description of the world is what made me pick this book to read, and it was as cool as I was hoping it would be.

The rest of the book has quite a few rough edges. Kirit is a pretty typical teenager – takes everything that happens far too seriously, utterly convinced that she knows what she wants from life, and incredibly stubborn when the world doesn’t meet her expectations. This works to her advantage for the plot because the people she’s dealing with often aren’t acting with good faith, but it makes her an annoying protagonist, especially because the book is written in first person. It’s hard to empathize with her because we don’t know much about her and what she likes; we just know a lot about what she wants.

The writing style and tone of this book reminded me a lot of Red Rising – lots of short sentences, first person, very determined and serious protagonist with no apparent sense of humour (or at least not one shown in the book). That isn’t bad, but it doesn’t work for me as well because I prefer some fun in my books, especially books where everyone’s flying! I mean, it’s really interesting how the author manages to make flying an everyday, unremarkable part of life, and there are some cool flying scenes, but I wanted a lot more.

One other thing I was disappointed about was that a lot of what happens towards the end is figured out by Kirit’s associates (kind of like the end of Catching Fire and most of Mockingjay, where Katniss has no idea what is going on and people are just telling her to do things) and it’s a bit boring to see events play out from Kirit’s perspective. For instance, most of the plot surrounding the wingbeaters was just hearsay (they think this, now they think that) but was really important to the plot.

I don’t want to imply that this was a bad book, it just didn’t work for me as well I had hoped. I really did enjoy the world, and the characterization was excellent – Kirit’s relationships with her mother and Sellis were particularly well written.


Updraft by Fran Wilde (The Bone Universe, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.