“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 free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.

“The Emperor’s Soul” by Brandon Sanderson

Emperor's Soul coverI’m a die-hard Brandon Sanderson fan (see reviews of The Way of KingsElantris, Warbreaker etc.), so of course I pre-ordered The Emperor’s Soul as soon as I heard about it, and of course I read it the day I got it, and of course I loved it.

The Emperor’s Soul is set on Sel, the same world as Elantris (but in an empire far away and unrelated to those events.) Shai is a master of the art of Forging – mutating an object’s history to change its appearance in the present. However, she’s been caught trying to steal the nation’s most famous relic, and now she awaits execution… unless she can forge the emperor a new soul in just over three months. An impossible task, but Shai will take any chance she gets.

Brandon Sanderson is in top form as usual, despite the shortness of this novella. Shai is a thief and has no compunctions about being opportunistic, but her driving force is her pride in her art. She’s proud and tenacious – almost to a fault. I wouldn’t exactly say she’s lovable, but who doesn’t love a good noble thief? The supporting characters, with the exception of Gaotona and Emperor Ashravan, don’t really have enough time to be developed, but that’s understandable for a book less than 170 pages long.

I loved the examination of identity in this book. In order for Shai to be such a good Forger, she has to be extremely good at observing both people and objects – the little things that influence them, their motivations, how they can be manipulated. She needs to be able to produce her desired changes with the minimum of effort required for it to appear natural (think about the complexity of planting an idea via a dream in Inception – it’s the same concept.) Shai does this instinctively, and it greatly adds to the complexity of the plot and the world building. Of course, she also does it deliberately, and how she pieced together Ashravan’s life from notes and interviews is fascinating.

I was slightly dissatisfied at the end because it was over too quickly and I wanted more! More of the characters, more plot, more of the world. I can’t really complain about that, though – this is a novella, and I knew that going into it, and Sanderson does a great job with it. The only thing that felt rushed was Shai’s task [SPOILER WARNING] – she said it would ordinarily take her two years at least, but she manages to complete it in three months – why was she able to do it so much faster? I would’ve liked some sort of explanation. [END SPOILERS]

I hope Sanderson writes more books featuring Shai and the Empire – perhaps even coming into contact with characters from Elantris.

“The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon ReaderThe Uncommon Reader is an charming novella about the worlds that reading opens up, and the consequences that can have. Queen Elizabeth II has spent her whole life carefully cultivating impartiality and doing her duty. This all changes when she finds herself in a travelling library by accident, and feels obliged to borrow a book. This leads to another book and another and another… (anyone who knows me well is groaning by now, since they know exactly where that leads.)

Bennett does a great job of portraying the repercussions of the Queen developing a hobby, both good and bad. She loses interests in opening ceremonies and other official duties, pays less attention to her wardrobe and earns the ire of her staff, who try to discourage her reading by hook or crook. However, she also starts to understands people better – books give her a window into how “normal” people think, something she has never been able to experience directly.

The writing is fabulous – subtle but poignant. The detached but biting perspective works really well for both political satire and as a tribute to books; Bennett makes you smile with every turn of phrase. The book is also very successful at showing us how truly alien the Queen’s life is.

Highly recommended quick read!

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
Farrar, 2007 | Buy the book