“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 complimentary review copy of this book.


“Dear Samsor” by Ahmad Zia Wahdat

Dear Samsor is a novella written by a friend of mine from college. I was very interested in reading it since it’s set in a time and place I don’t know very much about – Afghanistan in the 1980s – and since he’s Afghan, it seemed like it would be very authentic.

We follow Samsor, a young boy from the small Afghan village of Gogar, whose father is accidentally killed in a period of civil unrest. Being fatherless and poor means that he is forced to grow up too quickly, and he has a hard life with many difficult choices.

The writing style of this book is fairly simple, almost like someone is right there with you telling a story. It does a good job of setting – you really get a sense of war-torn Afghanistan where life is uncertain all the time, no matter where you are. There are a few glimpses of the past before things got so bad, and that makes it even more heartbreaking. Samsor’s life is not easy, and even when he’s trying to do the right thing, it often doesn’t end well. His life is not unrelentingly bleak, though – he’s young, and he sees the bright side of things and has fun where he can. And the book is a coming of age story, and ends on a note of hope.

This book has a few flaws that first books often have, and it could use a little editing – there’s a little more telling than showing I would like, and some awkward phrasing at times. I still enjoyed the read, though, and I hope the author keeps writing!


Dear Samsor by Ahmad Zia Wahdat
Self-published, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The Obelisk Gate” by N.K. Jemisin

I absolutely loved The Fifth Season when I read it a couple of weeks ago – it made my top five books of 2016 despite reading it in late December. I immediately requested a review copy of The Obelisk Gate, and the fantastic Ellen Wright of Orbit (who also happen to be thanked profusely in the acknowledgements of this book) got it to me very quickly.

I’m avoiding spoilers for both The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate in this review, which is going to be a little tricky. At the end of The Fifth Season, we (and Essun) find out a little about what exactly is wrong with the world of the Stillness. The Obelisk Gate picks up pretty much exactly at that ending. We get a couple of new viewpoints – Schaffa, Syenite’s former guardian, and Nassun, Essun’s missing daughter who has been through more in a year that a person should have to bear in a lifetime.

We delve more into the world of the Stillness into this book, Essun isn’t as focused on her grief since she’s had some time to process things, and she’s lost Nassun’s trail. Her purpose changes, and she finds a community and starts paying attention to the wider world again. It turns into a more conventional (but still excellent) fantasy story – politics, alliances, defending your home from a threat, figuring out how to save the world. Nassun and Schaffa’s stories explore other plans for the world that are being made in parallel to Essun’s story, but have the potential to establish even more conflict.

This world is utterly brutal, and it’s shaped the people who live in it to be pretty monstrous as well. I’m not usually a fan of protagonists who commit heinous acts, but even though all three protagonists do this multiple times, N.K. Jemisin writes so well that I ended up feeling (almost) nothing but sympathy for them. Broken as they are, they’re the only people with the power to change things, and they’re reasonably well-intentioned. Some of the events makes it easier to understand why people are scared of orogenes, though, and I hope there are going to be some consequences in the third book for them. Right now the main consequences seem to be that the protagonists feel bad about themselves, but that doesn’t stop them from not being in control of themselves later.

Even though this was an outstanding book, it’s still very much a middle book, and by the end, the pieces are in place for what seems like it’s going to be an explosive (in multiple ways) finale. Only about six more months to wait for The Stone Sky!


The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin (The Broken Earth, #2)
Orbit Books, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The Heart of What Was Lost” by Tad Williams

I read Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series back in 2012, and while I didn’t absolutely love it (see my review here), I still have pretty good memories of it. I was excited to hear that the author was finally going to be returning to the world of Osten Ard with a whole bunch of new books, beginning with this short novel – The Heart of What Was Lost.

At the end of To Green Angel Tower, the Norns have been defeated at Hayholt, but wars are not generally over with a single decisive battle. As the Norns retreat, they pillage and destroy villages, and the new king sends his armies to make sure the Norns don’t bother his kingdom again. This novel tells the story of the actual end of the war from different perspectives – the commander of the human army Duke Isgrimnur (who was pretty prominent in the original trilogy), human soldier Porto, who is far from home, and Norn engineer Viyeki, who is with the force retreating from Hayholt.

This is very much a grim war book, and it made for more intense reading than I expected. It was very interesting to see a Norn viewpoint – they were faceless implacable enemies previously, and now we know a lot more about their culture and motivations. They’re the ones we end up rooting for (despite some horrible acts they commit), because the alternative seems to be genocide, and now that we know they’re not just evil killing machines, they don’t deserve that.

I think this book would work perfectly well as a standalone and as an introduction to the world of Osten Ard. I didn’t remember much of the events of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, and I thought it was a complete story. Having said that, I liked the complexity that it added to the ending of the original series, one of my biggest complaints was that everything was tied up far too neatly in To Green Angel Tower. And the ending of The Heart of What Was Lost is most definitely not “happily ever after” – it makes me look forward to reading The Witchwood Crown (the first book of the new trilogy) when it comes out later this year. I’m especially excited that Viyeki is confirmed to be in it.


Also, this is completely unrelated, but fantasy books need more original names. I recently read The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington, this one is The Heart of What Was Lost. To make things even more confusing, the second James Islington book is going to be titled An Echo of Things To Come, and Tad Williams is writing another Osten Ard book called The Shadow of Things To Come


The Heart of What Was Lost by Tad Williams
DAW Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Unfettered II” edited by Shawn Speakman

I’ve been waiting for my pre-order of Unfettered II to arrive for weeks, so I was pretty excited when it finally got here last week. Unfettered II is an anthology of mostly fantasy stories, with no underlying theme at all. Editor Shawn Speakman created the first Unfettered to help with his medical debt, and I originally bought it because it contained a story that was deleted from the final book of Wheel of Time. Unfettered II was created to help other authors get out of medical debt, and contains stories from many authors that I like – Michael J. Sullivan, Django Wexler, Seanan McGuire, Jim Butcher, and of course, Brandon Sanderson (the impetus for me ordering this collection – a chance to read a little bit of Oathbringer ahead of its release in November.)

Overall, I thought it was a solid collection of stories. There aren’t really any total clunkers, which was surprising, I usually at least dislike two or three stories in any anthology I read. Since there’s no theme, there are a wide variety of tones and themes, and I thought that helped keep the book from getting too repetitive or boring.

Some of my favorite stories:

And Men Will Mine the Mountain for Our Souls by Seanan McGuire: This is a lyrical and tragic story about the last stand of dragons who know they are about to be destroyed by humans and can’t do anything about it. The imagery in this story is just stunning.

Day One by Jim Butcher: A Dresden Files story featuring a side character. I’ve only read the first Dresden Files book, but I’ve read a handful of stories set in the world in various anthologies, and they’re all great and just make me want to read the series. Considering I own the first eight or so books, I should really get around to it. Anyway, back to the story – it’s a nice story about a nerdy medical examiner going on his first mission as a knight and building his confidence, and it was fun and heartwarming.

Magic Beans by Django Wexler: This story was originally written for a coffee shop erotica anthology, and so it has lots of sex in a coffee shop. It’s fun and weird and has a ton of heart. I don’t have much else to say about it.

The Hedgewitch by Sarah Beth Durst: I thought the world of this story was really cool – the people live in huge trees and are constantly under threat of attack by sprites. The protagonist, Hanna, has the magic to control the sprites, but is terrified of them after they killed her family, and has to learn to accept her place in the world. There’s nothing better than a well done coming of age story! Based on this story, I think I’m going to read the author’s novel set in the same world (bonus: it also features Hanna in some capacity.)

A Duel of Evils by Anthony Ryan: This is another story that made me want to go out and get the author’s work set in the same world (although in this case, Blood Song has been on my wishlist forever.) It’s written in the form of a historical document, and I love in-universe writing. The author of the document is chronicling the fall of a city, and he’s trying to be objective and academic about an event that clearly had crazy magical stuff happening. That kind of writing can fail horribly, but in this case, it works really well.

The Raven by Erin Lindsey: I love a villain that you can empathize with, and that’s the intent of this story. We follow Tom, a prince who is trying to do the right thing for his kingdom, but is blocked at every turn by the king (his brother), who has the best of intentions. You understand and agree with every single choice he makes, even though you can see why it’s wrong. Apparently Tom is the antagonist of Lindsey’s novel The Bloodbound, and I’m definitely going to seek it out.

The Gunnie by Charlaine Harris: I liked this alternate history gritty western type story featuring young mercenary Lizbeth. Lizbeth works as part of a crew that protects traveling families from bandits. When her latest job goes horribly wrong, she has to singlehandedly complete her mission. I liked that this story wasn’t just about Lizbeth being a hero, it also follows what happens to her and how she feels once she’s back home.

I would have expected The Thrill by Brandon Sanderson to be on my favorites too, but I wasn’t that impressed by it. We don’t learn much about the world or any secrets about Dalinar’s life (unlike Edgedancer, the awesome Stormlight novella that was in Arcanum Unbounded.) The bigger disappointment was that I felt like Dalinar’s voice was too generic – he’s young and quippy like a lot of other Sanderson characters, and he didn’t have any of the gravitas that characterizes present day Dalinar. I know part of the point is that Dalinar is very different than he used to be, but he didn’t even seem like the same person. I still enjoyed reading it though, and I have enough faith in Brandon Sanderson that the complete story will make more sense – I just didn’t love the excerpt as its own story.


Unfettered II by Shawn Speakman
Grim Oak Press, 2016 | Buy the book


“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 Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin

I read the first two books of Jemisin’s Inheritance series a few years ago – I liked them okay but I wasn’t blown away, so I was in no hurry to read more of her work. However, when I received The Killing Moon for a recent LibraryThing Christmas swap I participated in, I remembered that I had a review copy of The Fifth Season on my shelf, and it also won the Hugo this year, so I figured I should read it. I’m glad I did, because it’s fantastic!

The Fifth Season is set on a world where people are used to dealing with apocalypses, they happen every couple of centuries. A new cataclysm has just started though, and this one may not be survivable despite the widespread disaster preparation. We follow three viewpoints – Essun, Damaya, and Syenite, and it’s not immediately clear how they are all connected, or even if they take place at the same time. I thought of Essun’s viewpoint as the main one though, since it’s clearly taking place after the cataclysm. Essun is an orogene (born with the feared earth magic), whose husband has just murdered her young son for possessing magic and taken off with her daughter in tow. As she tracks him, we see the world starting to fall apart around her.

I loved this book. The characters are fantastic – Essun’s grief is raw and visceral and scary, and it’s rare that I’ve seen those depths explored in fantasy, the only comparison I can think of is Robin Hobb. Damaya and Syenite also leap off the page, and when you finally find out how the three viewpoint characters are connected, it packs a huge emotional punch. That doesn’t even count the secondary characters, who are three-dimensional and haunting.

I keep using the word fantastic, but I’m not sure how else I can describe this book! The world is unique and completely immersive, Jemisin has thought through every little detail of how a society that has to deal with apocalypses frequently would do things. It is a harsh world with harsh people, but there’s also kindness when it can be afforded. And there is a good explanation (or the beginning of one) for why the world ended up the way it is – the Stillness is not a world without science.

I kept hearing The Fifth Season described as both apocalyptic and magical, and I wasn’t sure exactly how those two separate genres would work together. Everything just falls into place, though! Highly recommended, and I can’t wait to read The Obelisk Gate.


The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (The Broken Earth, #1)
Orbit Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Merchants and Maji” by William C. Tracy

Merchants and Maji is a collection of two novellas set in the same universe (the “Dissolutionverse”) – Last Delivery and The First Majus in Space. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything self-published (mainly because I don’t know how to find good self-published work) but I was intrigued by the description of this book and decided to accept a review copy.

I’m a big fan of worldbuilding, and I thought the world of these stories was pretty interesting. I don’t read a lot of science fantasy, so I’m always fascinated by secondary worlds that have both magic and a modern-ish level of technology (I guess urban fantasy does that too, but that ends up being too close to our world, so I don’t find it as interesting.) The Dissolutionverse is a set of ten planets inhabited by different sentient species that are linked together by magical portals. Among other things, the maji are the only people capable of creating these portals, so they’re integral to economy and trade.

The first story, Last Delivery, follows a group of ragtag merchants who accept a particularly shady assignment out of desperation. Once they figure out what they’re dealing with, they have to figure out what (if anything) they want to do about it. I enjoyed this story, the crew of the trading vessel (I don’t think I can call it a spaceship since it doesn’t actually fly) was well fleshed out, and I would read more of their adventures gladly. It isn’t just a simple adventure story either, it ends up tying into the politics of the world, and it gives the protagonist, Prot (I couldn’t help but imagine him as Kevin Spacey in K-PAX because of his name) a solid growth arc as well.

The second story, The First Majus in Space, is about the first known attempt to launch people into space the traditional way. We find out more about the magic system in this story because the spaceship is designed to require a maji’s power to fuel it. When the launch goes wrong and the original majus assigned to the ship is injured, veteran majus Origon Cyrysi must replace him at the last minute. Nothing goes according to plan during the mission, though, and it reveals deeper forces working against the maji. I liked this story too, I liked learning more about the larger world and how the maji fit into things. Origon is somewhat of a curmudgeon, but a likeable one. My main frustration with this story was that it seemed like setup for a larger story, so it didn’t feel as complete as Last Delivery, there are a couple of unanswered questions at the end. Also, the antagonists’ plot didn’t make as much sense, I feel like it was a little bit too convoluted and there were too many variables for it to succeed.

Overall, I’d recommend this book, especially if you’re looking for something that feels like old school sci-fi but is still modern. The author is also working on a novel set in this universe, which I think will be great since it will have the room to explore the world and politics more.


Merchants and Maji by William C. Tracy
Space Wizard Science Fantasy, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Flame Tree Road” by Shona Patel

Flame Tree Road was recommended to me by my husband’s grandmother, and I immediately put it on my wishlist because I was interested in reading Indian historical fiction. I was pretty excited to receive it recently as part of LibraryThing’s secret Santa book exchange.

The protagonist of Flame Tree Road is Biren, a boy from a small Indian village in the 1870s who grows up to be a Cambridge educated lawyer crusading for women’s rights in India. There isn’t really much of a plot, the book is just a series of vignettes from his life and the lives of people he knows, told from an omniscient perspective. We follow him from childhood to his eighties, although the bulk of the book takes place when he is a young man.

I enjoyed how atmospheric this book was, it really drew you into the sights, sounds, and smells of its setting. You feel like you’re actually there with the characters. However, the book took the same poetic tone towards descriptions of people, though, and I didn’t like that as much, it was a little bit too romantic for me.

Biren was a good character, but he didn’t seem to have any flaws. There are even multiple scenes from the viewpoint of people that meet him whose entire point is how impressed they are by Biren. Secondary characters are not very fleshed out – they’re only described in how they relate to Biren, and don’t seem like real people. Not every book needs to have strong characters, but since this one didn’t have much of a plot, I was hoping for some character growth or change. This especially frustrated me in regards to the events at the end of the book – given how perfect Biren seemed to be, I didn’t really buy some of the events that happened to him, they seem like they could have been preventable. And if they weren’t, there needed to be some flaw in Biren’s character to explain why he wasn’t able or willing to take action.

Overall, it was pretty light reading, and it was different from the kinds of book I usually read, so I enjoyed it.


Flame Tree Road by Shona Patel
MIRA Books, 2015 | Buy the book


“Martians Abroad” by Carrie Vaughn

I don’t think Martians Abroad is coming out for a couple of weeks, but I was delighted to receive a review copy from Tor a couple of days ago since I’ve enjoyed most of Carrie Vaughn’s work that I’ve read.

Polly Newton has had her life planned out for a while now – intern at the astrodome on her native Mars, and eventually get into a starship piloting program. When her mother arranges for her and her brother Charles to attend the prestigious Galileo Academy on Earth, her whole life gets derailed. Life at the academy doesn’t exactly turn out to be what she expected either.

Books set at schools are always a little more fun because of the setting, and Martians Abroad is no exception. There’s something intrinsically compelling about reading about your protagonist getting used to a new place and new people. Polly is a pretty typical teenager – confused but completely certain she knows best, stubborn, and rebellious. But when things get hairy, she does the right thing, and everyone likes her for it, including me. Her difficulties fitting in are exacerbated by her reaction to Earth. Vaughn did a great job of conveying how alien a planet like Earth would be to someone who grew up on a naturally uninhabitable planet. The other characters don’t stand out that much, except for Charles, who I really wanted to know more about.

I’d say the biggest flaw with this book was the plot. I couldn’t believe that the antagonist would get away with the things they did so easily. I feel like it also made Polly’s growth arc too contrived, it felt like she was constantly reacting rather than growing on her own. Maybe I would have felt differently if the book hadn’t ended so soon; it ended just as things were getting interesting. I hope there will be a sequel because I would like to follow up with what happens to Polly and Charles.


Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn
Tor Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.