Should ‘Raybearer’ win a Lodestar Award?

Phew. It feels good to be doing a Hugo related post after so many posts about Narmer and the God Beast. I’m sure there will be more of those to come, but let’s break for a little while and talk about Jordan Ifueko’s incredible debut, Raybearer.

This book is amazing. I hesitate to say a masterpiece because I don’t feel like I’m qualified to make such distinctions (although honestly who cares lol), but it was definitely one of the most exciting books I’ve read in recent memory.

To me, it’s strengths lie in its consistent pacing, unique setting and the sheer power of this book’s main character.

Tarisai is quite literally a sympathy magnet. From page one, it is impossible not to connect with this lonely girl who’s been completely isolated from people her own age and a traditional family. That conflict is built right into the most basic aspect of her identity, her Hollow (unique magical power), which allows her to see other’s memories. This should allow Tarisai to build even closer connections with those around her since she can literally share their experience. Instead, it means that she cannot even be held when she’s sad, for her servants believe that she might accidently steal their memories.

Every conflict in Raybearer seems to stack against Tarisai in this similar manner. At the beginning of the story, her only purpose is to fulfill the last wish of her absent mother (who calls Tarisai ‘Made of Me’ yuck) who wishes that she befriend the crown prince of Aritsar (so he’ll invite her into his council), and then kill him. A purpose for which she must truly love this prince before being able to act out her orders (which of course she doesn’t want to do).

Of course, heroes do hard things, it’s what makes them heroes, but as I was reading the story, I found myself admiring how inventive each new conflict became as the script was flipped again and again on poor Tarisai.

And she truly just keeps doing the damn thing.

I don’t mean to mean to imply that she simply skips through each new challenge (quite the opposite), but the way she is able to continue onward despite everything is truly inspirational. This, perhaps more than anything else is what makes the book such a compelling read.

However, the setting also played a huge roll in my enjoyment of this book. Ifueko creates a rich (sorry just watch this youtuber say how rich the book is real quick) world which seems to draw from many African cultures (though I believe the author mentioned it was mainly Yoruba) yet still presents as unique and immersive.

Some of the more unique aspects of the world for me (which I think could have been explored a little more perhaps) where the magical creatures. We meet sprites, and albagato (a kind of genie type figure), shape shifters and large mythical cats. An entire underworld of spirits which we only just hear a small portion of.

But this is a small gripe, easily overlooked when considering one of my favorite aspects of the world. Its music. Song and rhythm seem to underpin our very understanding of this culture’s history and legacy. Aritsar’s myths and legends (the main one about a story telling Pelican which is weird and fun just on it’s own) are mostly passed on through children’s songs. But one of the key instruments featured in the novel are various drums. Perhaps this is not surprising as drums are important to many African cultures, however, Ifueko took the time to describe their sound — literally write out the noises they made — and the meanings behind each beat.

As a drummer myself, I was simply loving these passages. They felt so true to how the instruments can sound and the passion they can have when played. I’m not sure if Ifueko has any percussion in her background, but she was certainly convincing enough for me (I would also like to note that I listened to this book on audio, and so the voice actor also did an amazing job with these portions and I think really heightened the experience in a way that reading on the page may not have been able to accomplish).

Finally, I think it’s important to note, that this book never seemed to drag. Because of my work schedule picking up, I didn’t have as much time to listen as I have in the past (due to Covid), and so I had to give this book up several times and then wait for it to return. Each time I was as excited as the last to get started again.

This is all the more impressive considering all of the elements packed into this story. Themes such as uniqueness and diversity over homogeny (in culture), colonialism too but it was interesting because it wasn’t like a foreign power coming in that the MC’s need to fight, but instead more like just one group that kept expanding. Perhaps less like the British Empire and more like the expansion of the Mongols.

Anyway, I can feel myself beginning to ramble so I think it’s time to ask that all important question which is the reason we’re here . . .

Lodestar Award?

Yes. It seems I keep having to add this caveat, but as of 10/6/2021, I’m feeling that the Lodestar award should go to Raybearer. This was a hard decision for me, as I’ve already enjoyed two previous Lodestar contenders (Cemetery Boys and A Deadly Education), which were both amazing reads. I really thought Cemetery Boys was going to be my ride or die, but I think the deciding factor ended up coming down Raybearer’s unique setting.

For each of the other reasons I’ve outlined above — great pacing, and an incredibly powerful main character — Raybearer is an excellently written piece of art, but the thing I’m most excited about for the sequel, is simply being able to explore this world a little longer. Cemetery Boys showed us a unique setting as well, and I loved learning more and more about the Brujx. It was fun to think that their world existed just beneath our own. But the sense of immersion you experience into Raybearer’s secondary world shined a bit brighter. I guess I’m just a sucker for Secondary World fantasy . . .

Anyway, what are your thoughts? Should Raybearer win the Lodestar? What were your favorite elements of the story? The world (the answer is the drums! Lol)? Let me know in the comments, I’m excited to see what you all think.

Dinotopia: A Remembrance and Review

For the next post in my series of “influences” posts for Narmer and the God Beast, I wanted to review (gush about) a veritable classic.

DINOTOPIA!!

There’s almost nothing to critique about this book. I mean, I’m sure there probably is, but reading it, I’m so dazzled by the grandeur and majesty of what’s happening in the images, that all I can think about is how beautiful they are. And how much THIS IS THE WORLD I WANT TO LIVE IN!

Ok. . . deep breaths . . .

I’m ok.

Anyway, in case you couldn’t tell, I really enjoy this book. I keep enjoy in the present tense, because I don’t know that I’ve ever really stopped reading it. Published in 1992, I was pretty young when this book came out, which I think only made it more relevant to me as I grew older.

I think the early 90’s were a good time for dinosaurs. In August of 1990, one of the most complete T-Rexes ever found was discovered by Sue Hendrickson. November of that same year saw the release of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park which would become a huge blockbuster film in 1993 (a sequel novel, The Lost World, was published in 1995). And many more discoveries continued to keep dinosaurs in people’s minds.

For me, I think I experienced a bit of an intense interest in dinosaurs between ages of 2 and 6, and while — considering all the dino craze I’ve just described — I can’t pinpoint exactly which discovery or fiction put me onto dinosaurs, I can say my interest in them never completely faded like in most children. Certainly Dinotopia never did.

Tell me these couldn’t be Hieroglyphs!

The island presented in Gurney’s book is so idyllic and serene, with intelligent dinosaurs that have language and a culture of their own . . .

So different than the terrifying raptors or the indominable T. Rex portrayed in Jurassic Park.

Despite my love of Crichton’s classic, Dinotopia always held a special place for me.

** Fun fact, the first story I ever tried to write (when I was still in elementary school) was called Eventutopia and was pretty much a mix of Star Wars and Dinotopia. Boy do I wish I had saved that word doc haha.

So when it came time to start writing my own dinosaur story, it was only natural that I read through this classic once again. It had been quite a while since my last read through, and I wondered if Dinotopia would still hold up, after all these years. My only clear remembrance from the story was of the iconic Skybax, soaring above the city, or under the archways of Dream Canyon. But I could not remember much of the plot at all. I was slightly nervous that perhaps I was wearing rose colored glasses after all, and that as an adult, I would not find the story nearly so enchanting.

I needn’t have worried. It was as wonderful as I remembered.

Dinotopia is very much in the travel-log vein of fantasy, in which the main characters simply explore an unknown land and experience its wonders (and there are so many wonders to behold!). I suppose that you could criticize the story somewhat, in that there is not really a particularly strong narrative drive. But I actually think this is a feature, not a bug. Each of the images shown seems to pick up a narrative thread that the actual text may leave behind, but because it’s just an image, the reader is able to fill in the gaps with their own imagination.

It was perfect for inspiring me in my own writing . . . and then sending me into a crisis . . .

I pretty much froze dead in my tracks when I saw this image. This was (more or less) my idea, already realized by a master with which I could never compete. I had not remembered this from my reading as a kid, but here it was.

Did I just copy Dinotopia? Had this been hiding in the back of my mind, influencing me without my knowledge (or permission).

The answer is, to a certain degree, probably yes, but what I’ve come to realize is that just because something influenced my writing, that does not necessarily mean that I’ve copied it. This is one image in a book of many, and my Egyptian Dinosaurs will invariably be different than whatever Gurney had in mind while painting this. I’ve actually kind of come to see this image as a reassurance, that my love of both Ancient Egypt, and Dinosaurs (and wanting to combine the two) is not so far-fetched. That maybe some others will enjoy it, just as they (and I) have enjoyed Dinotopia.

Have you read / enjoyed this classic? What’s your favorite image? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to talk some more about this book!


Still here? Awesome. I hope you enjoyed Dinotopia: A Remembrance and Review. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, this was a major influence on my own story, Narmer and the God Beast. I revealed the story’s amazing cover art and blurb a few weeks ago, illustrated for me by Lee Eschliman and I’ll continue to be putting out posts about my influences for this story all month until the story’s official launch on October 4th. If you like anything you’ve seen so far, you can head over to Amazon and preorder it now.

If you want more of my writing, please check out my fiction page, or consider signing up for my newsletter at https://jdweber.news/EgyptAndDinos. It will give you access to exclusive fiction, special offers, and just my general life and nonsense (here’s a sample newsletter). Just for signing up I’ll send you an email with the very first story I ever wrote about a Warlock Doctor.

Thanks for your time, and I hope to see you around here more!

Pharaoh: The Boy Who Conquered the Nile (Book Review)

So this is will be something of a hybrid post for me. On the one hand, I’m going to review Jackie French’s Pharaoh: The Boy Who Conquered the Nile, and give you my thoughts about the book, but on the other hand I thought it might be cool to consider how the book influenced an original piece of fiction I wrote, Narmer and the God Beast, which I revealed the cover for last week.

Here we go!

Review: I really enjoyed this book. French’s writing style is super accessible and easy to read, probably something that means success for this book in the juvenile fiction space, which I believe is the audience this book is written for (confirmed on Compulsive Reader in Interview with Jackie French). Typically, now that I’m an adult, I often find that reading YA or Juvenile fiction is difficult because it often seems ‘written down’ to its audience or super infused with things that the author believes are ‘hip’ or ‘what the kids like’ these days. I didn’t notice any of this in Pharaoh.

As for the story? I think it was definitely well researched, well imagined, and well realized if not quite what I was expecting.

I’ll start with well researched because it’s immediately clear to anyone reading this book that French put in work here. Not only is Narmer’s world immersive and rich with detail and vivid imagery, but you can then flip to the back of the book and see just where all detail came from. I think I almost enjoyed reading the research section as much as the actual novel as I learned a good deal about Ancient Egyptian culture, religion and history, and was inspired to pursue my own inquiries after finishing.

For instance, the land of Punt, which Narmer and The Trader travel towards in hopes of wealth and riches, was called Ta Netjer by the Ancient Egyptians meaning “The Land of God”. Ta Netjer does not play a roll in Narmer and the Godbeast’s story (yet), but it did become important to some other writing in this universe (ahem the novel — what?). Also, I have mild suspicions that it became the Ta Ntry of Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy as I think they are in about the same spot.

But I digress . . .

I say well imagined, because truth be told, there is not a ton of history (or literature) that covers this period of time. There are a few main artifacts associated with Narmer (his palette and his macehead) but otherwise, there is a lot that we still do not know. French had a pretty blank canvas to fill in (perhaps an advantage, but I know for me it would be a disadvantage) and I feel she did so beautifully.

Which brings me to well realized. Just read this passage:

It was like a dream, thought Narmer, as servant after servant brought in bales of panther skin, fragrant wood carved into delicate boxes, beads of lapis lazuli and turquoise, the bronze plates he now knew as mirrors, heaps of myrrh resin, slabs of ebony wood, piles of elephant tusk, small bowls filled with a strange, almost green-coloured gold, the rarest in the world, curls of cinnamon bark, khesyt wood, small coloured jars of incense, and eye cosmetics.

French, Jackie. Pharaoh: The Boy Who Conquered The Nile. 2007 pg 143. . . accessed on Compulsive Reader in A review of Pharaoh by Jackie French

I know while writing my own story, I definitely tried to re-create passages like this in order to immerse the reader in my version of Ancient Egypt (which has dinosaurs)

My last critique of this piece is unfortunately a bit of a negative one. I feel like when we see a title like “Pharaoh” and think of Ancient Egypt as the setting to a story, we have certain expectations. We want great pyramids, golden sands and golden jewelry adorning the living person of an ancient king, or the gilt sarcophagus of one long dead (mummies!).

I felt this book was a little slack on some of the imagery we often associate with ancient Egypt. I think this is because a good portion takes place away from Egypt, in search of Punt, and later, in Sumer (Mesopotamia). And the portions that are in ancient Egypt feel little like the Ancient Egypt we know. This Egypt is one of small river towns, long before any pyramids were ever built. This is accurate to the time period, but a little disappointing if you’re expecting “peak Egypt” (does that count as a pyramid joke?), or Ancient Egypt at the height of it’s glory and mystique.

So . . . Read it?

Oh yes, definitely give this one a read. The book is well researched, and French’s imagination despite little historical inspiration, is a triumph. Also, the book is just beautifully written and realized. After finishing, I immediately looked for a sequel but sadly, I could not find one.

Welp. That’s about it for the review. Have you read this one? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments. What were your favorite parts? Tell me everything . . .

See you next time!


Still here? Awesome. I hope you enjoyed Pharaoh: Boy Who Conquered the Nile (a Review). As mentioned at the beginning of this post, this was a major influence on my own story, Narmer and the God Beast. I revealed the story’s amazing cover art and blurb last week, illustrated for me by Lee Eschliman and I’ll continue to be putting out posts about my influences for this story all month until the story’s official launch on October 4th. If you like anything you’ve seen so far, you can head over to Amazon and preorder it now.

If you want more of my writing, please check out my fiction page, or consider signing up for my newsletter at https://jdweber.news/EgyptAndDinos. It will give you access to exclusive fiction, special offers, and just my general life and nonsense (here’s a sample newsletter). Just for signing up I’ll send you an email with the very first story I ever wrote about a Warlock Doctor.

Thanks for your time, and I hope to see you around here more!

Jade City: A Rare Gem of a Novel

This could probably be a pretty short review. I’m half tempted to simply write ‘go read this book’ and call it a day. But I suppose I should work a little harder than that, and actually explain why I feel this way about the book. After all, it is clear while reading Jade City that it was a project of passion and painstaking craft; the end result deserves more than a sentence in review.

I think it makes sense to start with the premise. As described by the author, Fonda Lee, Jade City is essentially The Godfather with magic and kung fu” and honestly, that description hits the nail pretty well on the head (and for me basically sells the whole thing right from the start).

Add in a sort of post World War II modern, vaguely Asian setting, and you pretty much have all the ingredients for the novel’s success listed and defined. Each of these ingredients serve as excellent hooks, and any one of them draw the reader in, but as with all good recipes, I think it’s how these things are mixed together, which really causes the book to shine.

The two main things that immediately stood out to me upon reading Jade City was just how tightly plotted the novel is, and how deep the world building goes. From the very first scene, we’re exposed to the undercurrents of political unrest which will shape the main intrigue plot, a systematic but not overly (faux) scientific magic system, and some pretty exciting and harrowing action from the point of view of a seemingly minor character (who just keeps happening bumble into more and more important plot points). This could have been an absolute disaster of a first chapter in its ambition, but remarkably gets everything across to the reader in a way that draws us in, sets up the basic information that we need to continue forward, and leaves us with enough (and the right) questions to encourage us to continue reading. It really sets the tone perfectly for the novel, as the scenes which follow may not be as action packed, but they rely on the building blocks laid out here to keep the tension building throughout in a way that (to me) never felt slow or dragging.

I mentioned the worldbuilding before, and I’d like to circle back to it as it was certainly a main component of the book which really stood out. In a lot of fantasy novels, I feel like “Worldbuilding” with a capital W is often actually myth building. The author builds the setting and explains current conflicts through legends and history of the world. In a lot of fantasy, these histories are ancient, and there is often a remove of hundreds or even thousands of years between the events of the myths/legends, and the plot we experience. They are related, but there is something of a remove.

I think in a lot of stories that feature this kind of worldbuilding, the remove is (more or less) necessary in order to establish the magnitude of the stakes being set up. The epics we know in the real world are set thousands of years in our past, and so that kind of remove in a fantasy story will naturally give a kind of epic quality to the events we see in the story.

By comparison, the events of Jade City feel very young. We get a few interludes which give three parts of an old myth, but most of the history makers in this world are still alive, aging badly, and worse, are failing to live up to the myth and legend which has come up around them. To me, this was a nice contrast from more traditional fantasy, and I think only served to bring the drama of the story closer to its main actors, the No Peak clan, and specifically the Kaul family.

The next thing that stood out to me about the worldbuilding, I said in a tweet so I’ll just post that here:

“I’m not sure what I was expecting but I’m pretty much digging it. For such a deep setting it’s pretty quickly paced and (at least to me) there doesn’t seem to be much filler. I also really think the setting would make a fun board game or RTS. There so many definitions of winning.”@jamesweber16

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

I got about 75% of the way through this book and realized: “If so-and-so does this, that would be a satisfying ending to the story, but also if so-and-so does this, so would that.”

And of course, the ending was completely different from either of those things and still (to me) completely satisfying.

I attribute this to Lee’s story telling, but also must acknowledge that it was the depth of the world which provided the scaffolding for her to accomplish this. Each of the main characters seemed to have their own aspect of the world in which they were striving to create change, but all interlocked, and no one plot seemed to take the backseat to any other.

Finally, despite all that I’ve been going on about the worldbuilding and the setting, this story is primarily a family drama. The interpersonal relationships were what really drove so much of the tension in the story, but I was never frustrated by this. In a lot of family conflicts, issues that effect the character’s motivations can sometimes amount to very little more than shallow squabbles which any reasonable person would ‘suck it up’ and move forward from, especially when faced with world defining problems, and it can be very frustrating to see them fail to make these changes.

This was not the case in Jade City. The family conflicts seem deeply rooted in past history, and given the lives these characters have had to lead, seems completely reasonable. But Lee takes it one step further and also shows how they are still a family, and despite everything, seem to have a real familial love (or at least respect) for each other. I pretty much ate these scenes up (as well as all the others if I’m honest) and they were some of the scenes that stuck out to me the most.

TLDR

Anyway, please give this one a shot. There is so much more I could have written about but honestly, it would probably take more words than the book has in it already, so I think any readers still here should just go forth and read it. I’m really looking forward to the sequel, Jade War, and can’t wait to gush more about that here later.

If you’ve read Jade City, please let me know your thoughts in the comments. What did you love? Was there anything you hated? I’m excited to talk about this one.

Thanks again for reading! See you next time.

In an Absent Dream: A Parable of Wanting to Keep Your Pie and Eat it Too

I’m still making my way through the list of 2021 Hugo contenders (I’ve reviewed these Hugo contenders already), but this week I’m reviewing a novella which isn’t on that list, but is part of the same series as an entry for Best Novella, so I guess I’m kinda making progress towards getting a another title crossed off the list (which is soooo long).

Unfortunately, I read the previous three Wayward Children books long before I decided to start blogging again, so at this point there are no reviews for them, but if I ever do a reread, I’ll make sure to drop the links here.

Anywho, In an Absent Dream (IAAD) is the fourth book in the aforementioned Wayward Children series, which in general terms, seeks to answer the question: “What happens to (portal fantasy) children, when they come back from their quest?”

As we have seen in each of the previous installments, there is still plenty of story left to tell.

For the main character of IAAD, Kathrine Lundy (though she decidedly prefers just Lundy) that even means (many) returns through the series’ pivotal “doors”. If I’m remembering correctly, we actually spend a lot more time in the portal world, called The Goblin Market, than we have in other Wayward Children books which is interesting, but of course, as with each book in this series, it is still time spent after whatever quest a more stereotypical fantasy would have been written about. In this case, the usurping of an evil wasp queen, and a tragic run-in with some baddies called The Bone Wraiths.

I understand that these details are absolutely NOT what these books are about, but I can’t help but still sometimes wish that I could read about these events somewhere, even if it is just a “boring ol fantasy story”. I like those too.

Anyway, if you have read the first book in this series, Every Heart a Doorway, you’ll recognize Lundy (or recognize that you should recognize Lundy) and so while this title is a standalone, it ties in with the other books, and gives more backstory to their history which is always fun. I’ll admit that I hope we’ll get to see an adventure from Lundy’s father as it’s mentioned many times that he also did a tour in the Goblin Market.

In terms of prose and language, IAAD is extremely well crafted, as are most books I’ve read by Seanan McGuire. She always manages to turn at least one well-worn phrase subtly on its head so that it evokes some new meaning to suit the story.

OK. Ok. Skip to the part about the pies . . .

Yes! The pies! Specifically, wanting to both keep and eat them simultaneously. This is essentially the main theme of the story (at least for me). Some things you just can’t have both ways. What I found interesting about this novella was the way McGuire uses the setting to express this theme, and what she uses it to say, or at the very least question.

Now, in IAAD, The Goblin Market is really quite an awe-inspiring place, filled with magic, adventure (sadly offscreen), fun and glory, but each of these thrills has a cost which cannot be deferred or delayed. It is expected of the Market’s denizens to each pay “fair value” for any goods or services they require, but things like friendship or love, also seem to have their costs as well.

It’s a strange place which seems to be both better and worse than the real world we live in. In the Market people can work hard and avoid debt, but nobody can really “get ahead”. What’s strangest about the whole thing, is that people can’t really offer charity either for doing so just puts another person in debt to the would-be philanthropist.

In the course of trying to understand “what debt is”, Lundy discusses all kinds of things like prices which are based off the proportion one makes (although perhaps difficult to figure out in the Market’s bartering society), and how a system like this could still provide for the sick and elderly. The implications of such a system seem to be infinite.

So what’s the pie we can’t both eat and keep?

Honestly, I’m not quite sure. For Lundy, it is living in two worlds, wanting to both be a part of her life with her family, and also with her friends in The Goblin Market. For us, it seems to be something to do with late-stage capitalism.

We know from experience IRL that what we have now doesn’t seem to be working to everyone’s benefit, and so The Market presented in IAAD calls to us as an ideal of something we could strive for. With enough rules and moderation in place, perhaps we could build something which would be fair to everyone.

Although, as Ruthanna Emrys notes for Tor.com, The Market has:

. . . gone so far into capitalism that it’s come out the other side into “to each according to their needs, from each according to their ability.”

https://www.tor.com/2019/01/10/fairness-and-feathers-reading-seanan-mcguires-in-an-absent-dream/

Essentially The Market has become communism (I had to look up Emrys’ quote). And as we see in the novella, fair isn’t fair either. So perhaps — and this is rather a downer — the novella shows us that we can’t have a form of capitalism that is moderated enough to actually benefit everyone without it being the communism we all loathe and fear.

We can’t have capitalism without all the stuff we don’t like about it, because then there’s nothing left. The good things we like about it are also the bad things we hate about it and so to get rid of those things means it wouldn’t be capitalism anymore?

If we get rid of the pie (yummm) then we no longer have pie . . .

Let me know your thoughts in the comments! For only like 180 pages, I think this story still gave a LOT to chew on.

See you next time!

(Book Review of) The Poppy War: Context is Everything

Oooh nice cover. I’m assuming this is Qara? I don’t remember Rin picking up a bow.

Oooof. This was not a light read. But I think perhaps it is an important one. I picked it up because it is the first installment in The Poppy War series by R.F. Kuang which has been nominated for the Hugo Award category ‘Best Series’ (also take a look at the other Hugo Finalists I’ve reviewed).

I didn’t really do much other research into it than that. I vaguely remember when it was nominated for the 2018 Nebula Award and the 2019 World Fantasy Award, but for whatever reason I hadn’t really been following the coverage, and so I didn’t know what to expect.

As such, my blind (and perhaps rather ignorant) first impression of the book was that it was set in a truly intricate (if grim) world which was expertly realized and beautifully written, but the meandering plot was at times confusing and frustrating, mostly when large periods of time would pass mid chapter or without some kind of climatic event that would clue the reader that we were coming to a new phase of the book.

The Fantasy Hive writes that The Poppy War is . . .

“A coming of age epic that leads on to a magic school section of mayhem and mysticism, before spiraling into a grimdark no-holds-barred military fantasy that’d make Sun Tzu roll over in his grave to rewrite The Art of War, with Joe Abercrombie writing the foreword. The Poppy War delivers what most trilogies aspire to – in ONE BOOK.”

https://fantasy-hive.co.uk/2018/11/the-poppy-war-by-r-f-kuang-book-review/

To me, it was too much. As soon as I felt like I was beginning to understand Rin’s struggles at Sinegard (the “magic” school) we were off joining the Cike in a kind of ensemble-style cast which seemed like it was about to set up for a heist, only to be thrown into an all out war which is when the book got exceedingly dark and gruesome.

But through all of this, I think what I was failing to understand, was the context needed to really see what this book was trying to do, namely, use a fantasy setting to explore the violence and brutality of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Opium Wars which followed, and reflect on some of the darkest parts of Chinese history.

(I want to say a quick thank you and shoutout to Read By Tiffany who did a deep dive and explained all of this context in her post: Everything You Need to Know Before You Read The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. Truly an amazing post. If you haven’t read it, please do!)

Looking at the book in this light, and with this context, it seems quite remarkable in its achievement. If the book’s motivation was to capture the elements of history I mentioned above, then it really did so in a way that was compelling and interesting.

And so that’s why I feel this book was an important read if not a light one. It got me questioning. At first, those questions were simply: “What is everyone else taking away from this book that I’m not?” But now that I’ve found that answer, it’s become “Well what really happened during that period in history?” or “What is Investiture of the Gods as opposed to Journey to the West?”

With these questions rattling around in my brain, I’m now looking forward to reading the next book in the series, The Dragon Republic.

Although, I must admit, I will probably do some more research before continuing on. I’m assuming it can only help.

Anyway, that’s it for the review. If you read this one, please let me know what you thought in the comments. If you haven’t? Well still let me know your thoughts, I’m always up for chatting book things. See you next time!

Should ‘Cemetery Boys’ win the Lodestar Award?

I think so far this is my front runner for the award (though I still have four more nominees to read).

I’ll admit up front that (I think) Yadriel is the first openly trans character I’ve read in fiction, SFF or otherwise. Certainly, one of the most interesting and prescient elements of the novel is the way in which Yadriel has to navigate life with this identity, despite a world which — whether intentionally or unintentionally — just doesn’t understand him.

The author mentions in an interview for NPR, that “[Very often] … teaching falls onto the shoulders of queer/trans kids, which can be exhausting.”

I FELT THIS constantly while reading Cemetery Boys (so great execution there). At times it seemed there was enough tension and suspense in just this one aspect of the plot that it was almost cruel to have a magical murder mystery to solve on top of it.

But heroes do hard things and Yadriel is no exception. I enjoyed rooting for him and watching him grow. That he often had so few reasons to grin like a fool, only made me grin that much wider when he finally cracked a smile.

Another strength of the novel is Yadriel’s crew. Julian was perhaps my favorite. Even though he’s technically dead (a ghost), the kid is bursting with life. Energetic, confident, and enthusiastic about seemingly everything, Julian at first appears not to have a care in the world. We see later, that life has not been easy for him either, and that he has his own struggles and issues to contend with . . . which only makes his no-holds-barred approach to life (unlife?) even more impressive and inspiring. He doesn’t always know the right thing to say, and he basically never knows the right thing to do, but he’s honest and caring, and true to himself, in a way that gets him forgiven for his missteps. He’s a perfect companion for Yadriel on this adventure, a true yin to Yad’s yang (try saying that ten times fast).

Maritza also should get an honorable mention as well. She’s a badass and super supportive to everyone in a kind of I-am-rolling-my-eyes-at-you way (as in she’s rolling her eyes, not the reader). Plus she has two adorable pitbulls which provide a shot of much needed laughter and cheerfulness when things are in danger of getting too intense.

Essentially, this story is about its characters, and the author, Aiden Thomas, just nails them seemingly effortlessly.

The last element in the ‘awesome’ category is the book’s milieu (I probably should just say worldbuilding). We’re in Los Angeles, but mostly we’re in this Latinx community of Brujx. There’s so much to delve into here, but I won’t because I’d rather you just read it and experience it for yourself. What I really admired most though, was how tethered (in the case of freeing a soul literally) the magic was to the identity of the community and the protagonist specifically. Everything revolved around it, and there was no shortage of detail to really immerse (welcome us) into the community. Whether it was painting sugar skulls while discussing ancient gods, or simply eating delicious food at relative’s house, it all felt real, and wonderful.

And in the case of an aunt or grandmother constantly trying to push food on you as a teen, somewhat nostalgic?

I had only one gripe with the book and it was pacing. There were a few points which I felt we were getting information we had already seen or heard, or a few times — after learning some new clue or info — we’d have to go home or sit through school. Perhaps I was just identifying too much with Julian who can’t sit still for longer than a few moments. However, none of these moments took me out of the story for long.

Conclusion?

I’m going to say optimistically (as of 6/22/2021) that this will be my vote for the Lodestar Award. A Deadly Education was really great, but marred by too many insensitivities. This book just seemed to shine, so unless the one of the other four nominees shines brighter somehow, I think this will be the one.

Thanks for reading all this. Please let me know your thoughts on the book, and what your favorite parts were in the comments section. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Should A Deadly Education win the Lodestar Award?

Image of Naomi Novik's A Deadly Education cover
An awesome cover . . . not an awesome pic of my closet

This answer ended up being way harder than I expected it would be . . .

I really thought there was no chance this wouldn’t be my front runner for the Lodestar Award. On May 17th, it was even my ‘Can’t wait to read!’ pick for #WyrdAndWonder, and I was more or less bursting at the seams to tear it open and see what it had in store for me. As I discussed in my Hugo Finalist Reaction post, I had enjoyed Uprooted and Spinning Silver, but was excited that Novik was treading different territory here.

And while my initial reactions were extremely positive, I’m glad I looked around on the internet a bit, because there was a lot I had not yet considered.

Initial Reactions:

Pretty positive in the extreme. The main character, El (short for Galadriel), has an engaging voice, and is fun in her extreme antisocial outlook and behavior. There is plenty of snark, but somehow it never made me bristle like most snarky characters I’ve read.

Second, there’s a lot of pop culture references (like the MC’s name for instance) and winks at the reader. One of my favorite winks was a reference to spell writing as ‘creative writing’ and something about how anything she tried to write stream-of-consciousness turned into a super volcano. Any time I’ve tried to ‘pants’ something in my own writing (or even just write ANYTHING) has certainly felt this way.

I’ve seen the book marketed as “a darker Harry Potter”, and it would be willful ignorance to say that Rowling’s work did not influence A Deadly Education, and I think it’s no stretch to say that the Scholomance is an extreme and interesting (certainly terrifying) take on Hogwarts.

(Indeed, the Scholomance was perhaps this book’s most fascinating element for me, and I’d like to do a second post for Friday about how it reminded me of a kind of evil riff on the educational ideal of the Eudaimonia Machine. Hopefully I’ll have enough to warrant its own post.)

In the realm of theme, I felt the novel had clear and prescient messaging in terms of the dichotomy between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, and I really enjoyed the way this novel actually seemed to have a hopeful outlook on those divisions becoming at the very least, less significant if not disappearing entirely.

In essence, there was much to love in this book and many will find it a complete delight to read. After all, any book that uses the term ‘glom’ to describe how a stepfather attaches to one’s mother is hitting a lot of buttons in the ‘fun’ category.

So What Gives? (Some Other Considerations):

Much like when I was trying to review Gideon the Ninth, I found that this seemingly lovely book also had some controversy swirling around it since it’s publication.

Namely, claims of racist representation (which the author has since apologized for), and also themes of sexual assault which were handled improperly. For both topics, I’m going to provide links as other people have written about them much more eloquently then I every could:

Now, I can’t really say I have much more to offer, except I felt it important to boost these articles as their authors have done some hard work and critical thinking on our behalf. I definitely advise anyone reading this to give them a read and consider their arguments.

It’s been a good reminder for me to slow down and really consider what I’m reading. I hope I can be more aware of stuff like this on my own in the future.

So . . . Should it get the Award?

At this point, I’m going to say that even though there is a lot of things to love about A Deadly Education, the strikes made against it have still managed to lower my opinion of the work in general. I give Novik kudos for attempting to be more diverse with her characters, but I do not think enough work was put in to make that attempt a success.

If the other Lodestar candidates evoke similar positive feelings, but avoid the controversies pointed out by so many online, I will almost certainly raise them above A Deadly Education.

I’m still looking forward to the release of the sequel next month. If Novik can remediate any of the issues this first book had, and keep that same dazzle and fun that it also achieved, perhaps her own education will not have been so deadly after all.

Thanks for reading all this! Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Silver Medal for Empire of Gold

I’ve been putting off writing this review for a little while because it’s been hard to bring myself to say that The Empire of Gold is probably the weakest part of this trilogy. I thought The City of Brass was totes badass, and The Kingdom of Copper was brilliant!

But The Empire of Gold just didn’t surpass the bar set by its two amazing predecessors.

Perhaps the main draw (for me) of this series is the intricate and thoroughly magical world which Chakraborty has imagined. It feels new and astonishing, and is equal parts mysterious and delightful. That sense of wonder is only slightly dimmed by the fact that this is our third rodeo in Daevabad. After all, magical djinn, shedu, karkadann, and peri, are never going to fully lose their luster when compared to our real lives of (in the pandemic) Zoom calls and homemade lunches . . .

(I’m also getting slightly distracted by the World of Daevabad website which includes a definition of a creature called Ishtas, which I don’t remember from the book but is apparently “A small, scaled creature obsessed with organization and footwear.” Lolz! Ok back to the review . . .)

This complex and immersive experience has been delivered to us on two previous occasions and it is what we expect from a Daevabad book. I can’t say that the novel fails to deliver on this promise, because it doesn’t. The Empire of Gold is stuffed full of new and exciting bits of this world which are completely unexpected, or have been so thoroughly teased that we’re essentially frothing to find out what they actually are (for me this was the Marid and how this world related to that of Ancient Egypt).

Another key strength of the book, is that all of the cast we’ve come to know and love return, and they too are just as fun and delightful as they have been in previous books in the series. We finally get to see the resolutions of their arcs, and for me, everything came to a satisfying conclusion (which I won’t spoil for you here).

But only a silver medal?

Yep! Despite all of the praise I’ve showered on the book so far, I still felt it suffered from two fatal flaws (which are possibly the same flaw so maybe only one). Namely, this book was TOO LONG, and (in my opinion) failed to fully deliver on its promises (and maybe even over-delivered on a few that were less than relevant). There were many points during this book in which I felt we were making little to no progress towards the main goal of the novel.

I credit the length issue (784 pages and almost 29hrs in audio) to powers that were perhaps beyond the author’s control (although I’ve done no actual research to test my hypothesis). It is pretty standard practice in the Fantasy genre to write in trilogies (although there are plenty of series that go for way longer). I definitely had the sense reading this, that the author knew this was her last chance reveal all the many things she’d hinted at over the previous two books, and so I felt that our characters wandered the map tying up loose ends which in many cases I had forgotten about and did not seem to bring us any further down our main plot thread.

The second issue, that of failed promises, I’m not entirely sure how to quantify or explain. Simply, I was just disappointed in the way certain resolutions took place.

Slight spoilers ahead . . .

I had been waiting for connections to Ancient Egypt (Nahri is from Cairo and grew up in the shadow of pyramids, discovering clues on papyrus scrolls with Ali in the library, mentions of Sobek, an Ancient Egyptian crocodile god . . .) to be made clear and was curious how their vast and intricate culture would be pulled into the mythos of Daevabad, but when it was, I almost wished it had stayed separate. Like the pieces didn’t really fit together somehow.

And while I was so curious about the Marid after reading The Kingdom of Copper, I was disappointed with what we ended up getting. In the previous books, the Marid seemed to have a single nefarious and unknowable purpose, but after meeting no less than three marid ‘gods’, it was quite clear that they were not the grand conspiracy they appeared, and we still had issues in Daevabad which we needed to solve. Basically I grew impatient with our side quest in Ta Ntry (the name of which is suspiciously close to Ta Netjer, which in ancient Egyptian would have translated to “God’s Land”, also called Punt. It’s kinda neat that they are sorta in the same spot on the map, but ultimately, I’m unsure exactly what connection is to be made.)

TLDR and Hugo award considerations:

The Empire of Gold is still a great book, filled with magic and wonder; however, I felt it suffered slightly from its overwhelming scope and (in my opinion) a failure to deliver on it’s most interesting promises. It is somewhat sad that the final book was marred with these flaws, but in general, I’m happy with the ending, and feel this is a great series. I was surprised that this individual volume was not a Hugo Best Novel finalist at first, but after reading it, I can see now how it might not have earned enough votes.

The series is still my top contender for best series though, even with a bit of a flubbed landing. I think I’ll do a Best series post later on if I’m able to finish each of the series on that shortlist.

Thanks all for reading this! Please let me know what your thoughts are in the comments!

Should ‘Silver In the Wood’ win Emily Tesh an Astounding Award? (aka best debut) #WyrdAndWonder

A hard question to answer. Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh is a great novella for many reasons.

The first reason, is its up close-and-personal interpretation of the ‘Green man’ myth. Unfortunately, I’m not very familiar with the folklore surrounding this figure, so I can’t really comment on Tesh’s interpretation.

The impression I have though, using really only this story as a reference point, is that The Green Man is a kind of tree spirit, similar to a Dryad from classical mythology (indeed there is a dryad that follows our main character around and is very protective of him), which protects the forest and keeps out all the bad stuff that wants to come in. However, a few things set our main character apart:

  • he is male and most dryads are female in the book
  • he lives near a big oak tree which might make him something like a Hamadryad but I’m not sure

This sort of mythic existence puts him in a sort of tenuous relationship with the rest of the wood’s inhabitants. At first, humans see him as wild and scary, but ultimately get over it as the story progresses.

Whatever the folklore textbooks have to say, the interpretation written here feels simultaneously personal, and mythic in a way which is really engaging and is probably the first thing I noticed about the book.

I feel this mythic quality is accomplished by the second awesome part about this novella: Tesh’s prose. They’re lovely, and seem to rely on some seemingly impossible phrases (how exactly does time pass “slow and green”) which don’t hang up the reader, but give us our own freedom to imagine their implications. Throughout the entire work, we’re in a place where things don’t quite make sense but are nevertheless mystical and fantastic.

This novella’s final and perhaps most endearing quality is its romance arc. It seems to try and hide itself behind the thickets of legend and worldbuilding, but the reality is that this story does not start until Tobias meets Harry Silver, and can’t end until . . . well I won’t spoil it. Needless to say, it is the thread that pulls us through.

My only gripe, is that I felt like I was left wondering in a few too many places. The story seems to have complex character relationships based on a complex and long history, but I felt like we never got enough of that history to understand why the action we were taking would bring about the end we desired. Even in a scant 100 pages, there was at least two moments in which I wondered why we where seeing something and ultimately felt the scene could have been pruned away.

Astounding Award?

I suppose the answer to this question will ultimately come down to how it stacks up against the competition.

This title is a great read, and there is much to love within this bite-sized package. There is a clever mythology at play here, a genuinely enjoyable romance, and beautiful prose, but I also felt that some key information was missing, while other sections seemed to provide things which weren’t relevant.

Looking back at my review of The Vanished Birds, I seemed to have similar complaints, although I feel it’s longer page count might give it some more leniency than Silver in the Wood. Short works don’t have as much time for extra material. Every word counts.

Micaiah Johnson’s debut is probably still the story I’ve enjoyed most in my Hugo Contender read-through (though I’m not going to look back through all the posts to make sure I didn’t contradict myself). My review of The Space Between Worlds cites strong characters, and a well-developed setting as it’s strong points, and I believe that in these categories, it simply out-performs Silver in the Wood.

No Astounding Award for Tesh this year (in my rankings at least), though I’m sure she’ll contend for other awards in the future. If you’ve made it this far in the post, I’m hoping you’ll still go read Silver in the Wood as it is a great book!

If you have questions comments or gripes, leave em in the comments. Thanks all!