Book Review: Six Sacred Swords, by Andrew Rowe

I don’t know when I realized that self-published e-books have become the modern equivalent of the dollar paperback bin, but that epiphany made me a lot more open to self-publishing. After all, I love the dollar paperback bin. It also helps that I’ve gotten into the habit of reading e-books on a regular basis. And so, when I stumbled across Andrew Rowe’s Six Sacred Swords being given away for free, I figured I’d check it out.

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And, uh. They can’t all be winners.

Six Sacred Swords is the first in Rowe’s “Weapons and Wielders” series, which in turn is connected to a bunch of other books he’s written. As I’ve gathered, Rowe mainly writes “progression fantasy,” which is a sub-subgenre that focuses on, well, characters who get progressively stronger (See also: Unsouled). Though thankfully Rowe never delves into actual XP totals and level caps, as that would make his books “LitRPG,” which is a different sub-subgenre. It also happens to be a subgenre I personally find to be kind of … trite, at best, and openly problematic at worst. But that’s a post for a different time.

Anyway! Six Sacred Swords is ostensibly supposed to be a jumping-on point for Rowe’s greater body of work. And, uh … it honestly kind of fails at that.

Right off the bat, Six Sacred Swords has some issues. I mean, to begin with, there’s a little author’s note at the beginning of the book where Rowe explains some of the text conventions he’s going to use regarding telepathic dialogue. (It’s, uh, that kind of book). Which … like, I get where he’s coming from, but it honestly comes off as a bit amateurish and unconfident? In comparison, Elizabeth Bear’s Machine uses similar text tricks with italics and brackets and such to delineate different kinds of alien speech, but she just throws it out there, letting the reader figure it out for themselves. Which, uh– comparing Rowe to Bear may be a bit unfair, but that’s gonna be something of a recurring theme in this review.

Anyway, the book centers on a dude named Keras, a mysterious swordsman with a cursed sword, as he … does … stuff? For some reason? The first few chapters in particular come off as a bit clumsy. Keras’ mission and motivations are laid out in blandly generic terms– he’s been randomly teleported to a different continent by “a sorcerer” so he can recruit “a goddess” to … fight some dark lord guy? I think? Rowe might have given some more specific names at some point I missed– but at the same time the little details became fairly irrelevant. Especially early in the book, stuff just kind of … happens, and I found myself not really caring about it. Given the video-gamey nature of the book (Rowe lists Zelda and Final Fantasy among his inspirations), it almost feels like when you’re blundering around in an open-world RPG and stumble across a random sidequest? Which, while it can be an entertaining surprise in a video game, doesn’t work well for a novel.

Keras has a whole mess of backstory (some of which we get in some clunky expository flashback chapters), which is … fine, I guess? It’s just that one of the first major obstacles Keras faces is an illusion of some of his friends and enemies from earlier books in the series. And that’s not even the only flashback-illusion we get in the book, either. The whole thing had me wondering “wait, why should we care about these randos again?” If I’d read the earlier books in the series, I might be more enthusiastic about these cameos, but as it is, it’s kind of like jumping into an Avengers movie without having done the “homework” of reading the comics and watching earlier movies. (“Why does the raccoon have a laser gun again? Who is the prune face man with the bling-glove? How come Sherlock Holmes is a wizard?”)

Eventually, Keras blunders around until he fights (and then makes friends with) a shapeshifting dragon-lady, and then through some mild schenanigans, he comes into possession of the only titular sacred sword in the book. Said sacred sword is also sentient, and also kind of flirty– though thankfully Rowe never gets into the Mike Truk kind of sexytime self-publishing.

The problem is, Rowe spends a bit of time poking fun at video game tropes. For example, Dawn, the sword, is a bit miffed that Keras has yanked her out of her magic rock without collecting the requisite magic amulets first. It’s an amusing bit of comedy (if not exactly Pratchett, to make another wildly unfair comparison) … except that after getting the sword, Keras decides to go dungeon-crawling to get the magic amulets he cheated his way out of needing before, for … reasons? It’s all very arbitrary and aimless– which, well, you’d think a mysterious swordsman on a quest to recruit gods to fight a big dark lord guy would have a little more focus, but hey. Sidequests, man.

What’s most frustrating (apart from the fact that a book called Six Sacred Swords only has one sacred sword in it), is the fact that there are the bones of a fun adventure novel in here. In particular, Rowe has a lot of fun writing the characters. They’re a little tropey– but at the same time, a semi-cursed swordsman, a flirty sentient sword, and a dragoness with a hoard of cheap romance novels all make for a fairly entertaining cast. It’s just that while there’s plenty of action in the book, there really isn’t much in the way of plot. It’s just ‘go here, fight a monster, do a dungeon, have another boss fight, repeat.’ If Keras and co. had more stuff to actually do and/or higher stakes to make the reader care about what happened, Six Sacred Swords would be a much stronger book.

So yeah. Six Sacred Swords was … okay. Like, it’s got its fun bits, and it’s not offensive or anything. But at the same time the book just didn’t hook me to the point where I’d find excuses to read more of it, or give me the burning desire to read the rest of the series. Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of confidence. Six Sacred Swords is littered with expository passages that slow the book’s pace to a crawl so Rowe can lay out the exact details of which characters use which weapons and/or flavors of magic. And it’s not even in a Brandon Sanderson-esque “here’s how these unique and strange powers interact, see details in Appendix C” sense, either. With every little detail laid out in such a straightforward matter, Six Sacred Swords lacks the sense of weirdness and wonder that can be found in great fantasy novels. And that, I dare say, was the biggest disappointment.

But hey, at least the book was free, right?

Book Review: Machine, by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear is an author I’ve been … tangentially aware of for awhile, as I keep on seeing her name get bandied about. It helps that she’s really prolific, having written dozens of novels over the years. Also apparently she married Scott Lynch back in 2016, so good for them?

In any case, I didn’t set out to look for one of Bear’s novels specifically, so much as her book caught my eye while I was browsing the library (or, well, the library app), which is what brings us to her 2020 novel, Machine.

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Machine is the second in Bear’s ‘White Space’ series (make your own joke about typesetting here), but it works perfectly fine as a standalone novel. I didn’t read the first White Space book, Ancestral Night, and once things got going I didn’t have too much trouble following along. Though really, Machine doesn’t draw as much from Bear’s earlier novel as it does from the golden-age-era “Sector General” books by James White. Which, uh, I haven’t read either, but I still was able to follow along.

So, White’s Sector General novels and stories centered on, well, Sector General, a space-hospital that had to deal with all kinds of weird alien patients and their subsequent strange ailments. In turn, Machine is about Core General, a space-hospital that has to deal with all kinds of weird alien patients and their subsequent strange diseases. Which isn’t to say that Machine is derivative– it stands tall as its own work, more of a tribute than a pastiche or a parody.

The ‘space hospital’ gimmick allows for all kinds of new problems and logic puzzles and such. Like, how do you perform surgery on a species of sentient crystals that live on a planet so cold that something as simple as a flashlight would give them a lethal dose of radiation? Or how can human doctors get when the smell of coffee is nauseating to every other sentient species in the galaxy? In that, Machine feels like a golden-age SF novel … except for the fact that the novel’s narrator, Dr. Brookllyn Jens, is decidedly not a golden-age SF protagonist, on account of being, you know. A woman. A gay woman, to boot. Neither of which are the focus of her character, either. Dr. Jens is entertainingly snarky, not to mention subbornly determined and notably observant. There’s a hint of noir-PI to her character, actually– which is entirely intentional on Bear’s part, as Machine is, at heart, a mystery.

The book opens with Dr. Jens’ space-ambulance finding a lost colony ship decidedly where it’s not supposed to be, with its crew in cryogenic stasis, watched over by a half-mad AI and a strange, self-replicating machine (hey, title drop!). Things get even stranger when Jens brings her patients back to Core General, where she’s soon assigned to investigate mysterious acts of sabotage going around the hospital. And, naturally, Jens soon discovers some deep dark secrets connecting it all. As you do.

So yeah. While Machine certainly has a lot of slam-bang space opera action, it’s also interesting in that nobody’s running around with a laser gun, either. (Though, admittedly, there is at least one stompy mecha thing). Dr. Jens is an ex-space-cop, sure– but one of the more harrowing (and interesting) parts centers on disaster triage, because first and foremost, Dr. Jens is a doctor. The medical sequences, even centered on greebly aliens, are written well enough to make me if Bear ever worked in a hospital herself.

All and all, Machine is a blend of oldschool mystery-box sci fi combined with modern day social commentary (and a bit of snark). Bear embraces the fact she’s drawing from a bunch of other sources– but at the same time she makes the book fresh and entertaining. You don’t need to read the first White Space novel to understand Machine, nor do you need to dig into White’s Sector General books either, but at the same time Machine is good enough to make me want to. Or really, I should start reading more of Elizabeth Bear’s work in general, as if her other books are as good as Machine, that means I’ve got a lot to look forward to.

Book Review: The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter

Afro-futurism has been A Thing for a while, breaking out into broader culture with the Black Panther movie from a few years back. And, since Sci-Fi and Fantasy are interconnected genres, it makes sense that afro-fantasy (is that the proper term?) has also grown in popularity, with works like Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf and, for this week’s book, Evan Winter’s The Rage of Dragons.

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I first heard about Evan Winter while perusing various fantasy sci-fi book reviews on Youtube, and pretty much everyone had nothing but good things to say about his debut novel, The Rage of Dragons. That, combined with the fact that Winter self-published the book before getting scooped up into a book deal by Orbit books, got me curious. And here we are!

The Rage of Dragons immediately marks itself as different from ‘standard’ fantasy with its setting, which is inspired by bronze age West Africa instead of Ye Olde Timey Europe With Wizards and Stuff. It takes a little bit to get used to the different setting, particularly with some of the terms Winters tosses around.

The book centers on a young man named Tau, who grows up in a militarized, caste-based theocracy (that also has dragons) that’d pretty much be the villains of any other book. The plot really gets going when Tau’s father is murdered, and so Tau swears he will become the kingdom’s greatest swordsman and so he can get reveeeeeenge on the obligatory evil vizier-guy responsible. It’s kind of interesting that Winters has such an original setting, but more straightforward plot.

This isn’t to say the plot is bad, mind you. Winter is a talented writer, and he does a good job of keeping things moving at a fairly brisk pace. A good chunk of the novel is devoted to Tau’s obsessive training– kind of reminded me of an old Shaw Bros kung fu flick, in that respect. Of course, Tau’s quest for revenge gets complicated once he stumbles into conspiracy and politics. But the various machinations are mostly there to give Tau an excuse to fight.

And he fights a lot. The Rage of Dragons is possibly the sword-fightiest book I’ve ever read. Like, literally, there’s some kind of fight or another every third chapter or so. They’re almost always specifically sword fights, to boot. Though honestly one of my little quibbles about the setting is that the militarized caste-based theocracy is exclusively focused on sword-and-shield soldiers, when spears are easier to make and use in a combined formation, but that’s just me being a nerd.

Winter manages to make each fight unique at least in terms of its stakes, and he’s got some clever business with a demon-infested dream world that allows for even more variations on fighting. It’s almost … too much swordfighting? Which is something I never thought I’d say about a book. Like, after a bit, some of the battles begin to blend together, and honestly Winter could have probably cut out some stuff in the middle without impacting the plot too much.

Still, the near-constant battles give The Rage of Dragons a snappy pace. It takes a little while to get going, but once it does, the novel turns into a quick but compelling read. I wouldn’t call The Rage of Dragons a perfect novel by any means, and it may be a bit grim and gory (though not hopelessly grimdark) for some readers, but it’s still all and all pretty fun. If you’re a fan of oldschool swords & sorcery a-la Howard or Lieber, you could do worse than giving The Rage of Dragons a go. And since Orbit picked Winter up for a four-book deal, with the second book out already, I’ll look forward to seeing where this series goes, ‘cause there’s a lot of room to explore the plot and the setting. Should be fun! Or, well, as fun as a book about a revenge-obsessed swordsman can be.

Book Review: Hard Reboot, by Django Wexler

There are countless books about spaceships, or time machines, or dragons, or any other fantastical means of transportation. But there are a scarce few books (at least that I’m aware of) about giant robots. And even most of the ones I have stumbled across have been tie-ins to established media properties like Robotech, Gundam, Battletech, Transformers, et-al. Not much in the way of original stuff.

Which is why I pre-ordered Django Wexler’s Hard Reboot as soon as I heard about it.

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An original novella, Hard Reboot centers on Zhi Zero, a scrappy mecha pilot, and Kas, the offworlder academic she cons into betting a ludicrous amount of money on a giant robot arena fight. When said bet (and the giant robot arena fight) goes bad, the two must work together to hatch a scheme in order to get out from under the thumb of the crime cartel that rules over the post-apocalyptic remains of old Earth. Oh, and Kas and Zhi fall in love along the way, so bonus. (That last part shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given that a queer romance was central to the last Wexler novel I read). Though for the record I should probably note I read this book in May, not June, so no Pride points or whatever.

Wexler pulls off the lesbian romance pretty well (including a rather amusing excuse to stick both women into the cramped cockpit of a giant robot), as well as the big punchy robot fights. In addition to that, however, he also tosses in a bunch of other neat ideas, such as how the war-torn ruins of Earth are plagued by omnipresent malware that can overwhelm unprotected computers (such as Kas’ cybernetic implants) in a matter of seconds. Death by spam. Or, in more serious matters, Wexler also explores some themes of classism and privilege, giving the book a bit more depth than an out and out slugfest would offer.

Speaking of slugfests, though, I dare say that’s my biggest complaint. As I wanted more robot punching. Or really, just more book in general. There’s only two mecha battles in Hard Reboot— which, while that’s two more mecha battles in the oeuvre of most writers you can name, (shoulda thrown in some Gundams, Faulkner), I’m still terribly greedy and want more. There’s easily enough meat to Hard Reboot that Wexler could have expanded it into a novel. But, I suppose that’s just a quirk of the novella format, as they offer more depth than a punchy short-story without expanding to a full novel’s length. Still, while Hard Reboot’s ending wraps everything up pretty well, there’s still enough there that Wexler could revisit the characters and setting for more mecha mayhem.

And if we’re lucky, he will. I’m all for mecha fiction becoming the next ‘big’ thing.

Book Review: Final Fantasy VI, by Sebastian Deken

I’m old enough to call it Final Fantasy III.

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Just for convenience’s sake, I’m gonna call it Final Fantasy VI, since, y’know, that’s the title of Final Fantasy VI.

Ever since I found out about Boss Fight Books, I’ve been waiting for a volume on FFVI, since it’s easily one of my favorite games of all time. I spent untold hours playing that game in a wood-paneled midwestern basement … at least until I loaned my cartridge to my cousin whose dog chewed it up. Even then, I’ve returned to FFVI in all kinds of formats over the years: emulation, the GBA port, and on the SNES Classic mini-console. I even went so far as to pitch my own take on the game, though Boss Fight Books decided to go in another direction. And honestly, Sebastian Deken did such a great job with Final Fantasy VI, I can’t blame them.]

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One of the most enduring elements of Final Fantasy VI is its soundtrack, composed by now-legendary Nobuo Uematsu. Deken examines the game through its music, sometimes going into measure-by-measure breakdowns of particular tracks. While original music composed for video games had been a thing before FFVI, Uematsu’s soundtrack was a turning point, as well as a warm up for Uematsu’s equally legendary Final Fantasy 7 score. Honestly, this book could have easily been called Final Fantasy VI Soundtrack and published by 33 1/3rd books. In fact, Deken quotes the 33 1/3’s volume on the Super Mario Bros soundtrack, along with several other works on video game history and music.

Final Fantasy VI leans more towards the academic side of Boss Fight Books’ oeuvre– it’s not nearly as personal and nostalgic as many other books in the series. This said, Final Fantasy VI is hardly a boring read. Deken uses his extensive knowledge of music to contextualize the game, in particular its famous opera house sequence. In addition, Deken also lays out some fascinating ideas about the uncanny valley, comparing the stylized ‘chibi’ sprites of the characters to the 16-bit instrumentation of the music. In both cases, the player’s imagination fills in the gaps presented by the SNES’s technological limits– which in turn has allowed the game (and its soundtrack) to endure over the decades, where later, more photorealistic games have far less cultural cachet.

Deken also touches on the phenomenon of video game music being played in symphony halls, something that’s served to bring in new audiences (and money) that would have never gone to a classical orchestra otherwise. Which, honestly, is just another variation on the debate between what ‘great’ music is, and what actually puts butts in seats.

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The only thing I can really complain about in Final Fantasy VI is that … well, it’s too short a book, for too deep a game. Deken focuses on the music of the game– which, don’t get me wrong, is great –but at the same time there’s lots of other aspects of the game to dig into. There’s the sprawling, ensemble cast, the steampunk setting, the unique (and sometimes broken) mechanics, and even how FFVI served as a ‘warm up’ for the pop culture juggernaut of FFVII. It’s all stuff that Deken mentions briefly, if at all. Then again, Boss Fight Books’ volumes tend to be on the shorter side, so there’s not quite enough room for an exhaustive analysis of every aspect of the game. I suppose if the worst thing I have to say about Final Fantasy VI is “I wanted to read more of it,” then that means Deken’s certainly doing something right.

Book Review: Starsight, by Brandon Sanderson

So!

After reading N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, I was in the mood for something a bit … lighter. And hey look, it’s Brandon Sanderson! That guy’s usually good for some punchy adventure, right? The funny thing is, I actually started reading Starsight nearly a year ago, but general pandemic malaise kept me from finishing it.

Until now!

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Starsight is the sequel to Sanderson’s Top Gun Meets Gurren Lagann YA Space Opera, Skyward. Which, despite being a Sanderson YA novel, I actually rather liked. It wasn’t perfect, mind you, but there was enough to keep me mildly curious for the sequel, and … here we are.

Skyward continues to follow the adventures of Spensa (Callsign: Spin) Nightshade, a scrappy young pilot with something to prove™, and her mysteriously sentient starfighter buddy, M-Bot. That’s short for “Massacre-Bot,” because Spensa is a weirdo, and “Murderbot” was taken already.

Right from the start, Starsight changes things up. Instead of continuing Spensa’s adventures in defending Barren-Utahlike-Desert-Planet, Starsight soon has Spensa and M-Bot zipping across the galaxy to the titular Starsight station, an alien metropolis where Spensa inadvertently winds up as a spy, trying to discover the secret to FTL travel that will save her homeworld and the last remnants of the human race living there. No pressure.

Honestly, the sudden change in setting threw me off at first, but it’s something I got used to as the book went on. The expanded scope of the setting allows Sanderson to really go nuts with various alien races and stuff, so you get creatures like clouds of sentient vapor, or tiny little fox-aliens that crew starfighters the way that humans crew battleships. You can tell Sanderson had a lot of fun coming up with this stuff, and that sense of enjoyment carries through to the book itself.

Starsight is honestly a more solid book than Skyward, as it boils down to the more interesting bits. So there’s more space opera Top Gun business, and less explorations of a human society that doesn’t make much sense. Or, well, perhaps the setting of Starsight is just as arbitrary, but it’s easier to swallow coming from various aliens? Though instead of dealing with clumsy notions of “cowardice” like Skyward did, Sanderson instead explores ideas of human “aggression,” particularly in that most aliens living on Starsight station consider humanity to be a horde of mindless hyperviolent berserkers. Humans as space-orks, basically. Kind of an amusing, outsider way to look at humanity– and it likely doesn’t help that Spensa herself is kind of a bloodthirsty weirdo. (As again, she named her spaceship buddy “Massacre-Bot).

So yeah. The plot of Starsight moves along at a fair clip, and there is plenty of blasty spaceship action to enjoy. There’s also some business about “cytonics,” which are the kind of psychic powers you saw pop up in Campbell-era sci-fi all the time. Though amazingly enough, this is a Sanderson novel without an appendix at the end going into the minutiae of the magic system, so … bonus?

Starsight is also the second in a (theoretical) trilogy, in that it builds off of the last book, expanding the setting to a large degree– and then it ends on a cliffhanger. Which, naturally, has me at least interested in reading the conclusion, so good on that, Sanderson. Though I wonder if we may be getting into “The Second One’s the Best” territory, here. (See also: The Empire Strikes Back, Evil Dead 2, Mass Effect 2– this could be a long list).

Honestly though, I dare say there’s not much to say about Starsight. I mean, it’s an entertaining enough piece of space opera, and it’s certainly an improvement on the first book in the series. But at the same time it didn’t change my life or give me a new look on the wider universe or whatever. But honestly, sometimes you just want to read about spaceships and lasers, y’know?

Book Review: The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin is a one of those writers I know I should be reading, but I never got around to it. I tried reading The Fifth Season some time ago, but I kind of bounced off of how bleak the first few chapters were. But! I’ve finally gotten around to filling at least one gap in my reading list with The City We Became. For whatever reason it seemed a hair more approachable than her other work?

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The City We Became is a fantasy novel, but not in the ‘elves and dragons’ sense. I mean, technically, it’s an Urban Fantasy novel, but not in the ‘wizard detectives and vampires in tight leather pants’ sense, either. Rather, The City We Became is urban fantasy in the most “urban” sense of the term; it’s a fantasy about cities. Or, well, New York City in particular.

In the world of The City We Became, great cities have the potential to be ‘born,’ to have certain denizens become their champions, physical manifestations of that city. So, uh, basically Jack Hawksmoor from The Authority, if you want to get nerdy about it. The City We Became centers on New York City, and six people who suddenly find themselves turned into avatars of the largest city in the US. Jemisin really shows the cosmopolitan nature of NYC in the novel, in that all of New York’s avatars are women, queer, people of color, or sometimes a combination of all three. It’s a celebration of New York’s diversity, a decided counterpoint to the standard square-jawed white guy action hero on the cover of most SF/F novels.

If turning into a city wasn’t overwhelming enough, New York’s nascent manifestations must also deal with the machinations of The Enemy, a cosmic force that seeks to prey on and destroy cities before they can be truly born. Places like Atlantis and Pompeii are some of The Enemy’s conquests. Jemisin isn’t exactly subtle in her portrayal of The Enemy, either, as the Enemy is … white. Both in its preferred color scheme, but also in the fact that the Enemy works through methods that are far too familiar in this day and age: nosy people who freak out when they see brown people in their neighborhood, corrupt cops, white-supremacist internet trolls, and so on. It’s gentrification as cosmic horror. Which may sound a bit too on the nose, but Jemisin does an excellent job in showing the banal-yet-cosmic evil of modern society– but also how said evil can be overcome. And hell, I’m the whitest of white guys, and even my skin crawled at a lot of Jemisin’s sequences. I can’t imagine how The City We Became would hit someone from a different demographic.

Even still, while The City We Became deals with some heavy topics, it’s still a rollicking adventure, with plenty of twists and turns, including one “oh shiiiiit” reveal towards the end that’s worth the price of admission alone. Moreover, the book is a celebration of New York City, the crowded, chaotic, somehow magical metropolis that’s loomed large since before the United States declared independence. Jemisin paints a fascinating picture of New York City, the kind of picture that only someone who knows and loves a place can create. I’ve only visited NYC once, over a decade ago– and even then I was just a clueless tourist. Still, I’m sure there are plenty of little jokes and references sprinkled through the novel that only a true New Yorker would get. Though now that I think of it, I can’t remember any references to pizza.

My only quibbles with The City We Became are that some of the characters get less spotlight than others (something inevitable, given an ensemble cast), and the book’s climax– while solid, and with a surprising reveal –feels just a hair too … neat? Though with this said, The City We Became is supposed to be the first in a series, so at least later books have more plot threads to follow.

Kinda makes me wonder if Jemisin will stick to NYC, or if she’ll branch out to other cities.

Maybe even Houston?

Book Review: Promise of Blood, by Brian McClellan

I guess the term “Flintlock Fantasy” has a better ring to it than “Magic and Muskets.”

Either way, the name of the subgenre certainly conveys what it’s about. Stories about fantasy characters with guns aren’t anything new (Solomon Kane usually packs a brace of pistols to go with his rapier, after all), but the Flintlock Fantasy subgenre is a bit more specific than that. Where Steampunk is often modeled after the Victorian era (often to its detriment), Flintlock Fantasy more often draws its inspiration from the Napoleonic Era, if not earlier. Or, as I read it described once– Steampunk is what happens after an industrial revolution, where Flintlock Fantasy is the moment right before.

Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy is one of the more popular works of Flintlock Fantasy to come out in recent years, and has kind of served as a codification of the genre. I’d been meaning to check these books out for awhile, so when I stumbled across  Promise of Blood, the first of the series, in my library’s e-reader app, I figured I’d give it a go.

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Promise of Blood starts with a coup heavily inspired by the French Revolution, down to the barricades and guillotines. (Though technically the barricades would become more prevalent during the July Revolution of 1830– I’ve been listening to the Revolutions Podcast a lot recently). Where a more traditional fantasy novel might center on the last scions of the royal family trying to escape and reclaim their power, McClellan has a different (and I dare say more interesting) story to tell. Field Marshal Tamas, one of the main viewpoint characters, is the officer who’s orchestrated the rebellion in order to overthrow a decadent and incompetent king for the good of the people.

Of course, revolutions are messy things– made even messier when magic is involved. Tamas and his son (another POV character) are powder mages, gifted with the ability to draw magic power from gunpowder. They can burn gunpowder with a thought, make their bullets curve and ricochet around corners, and even snort gunpowder to make themselves stronger and more alert. That last part is … basically magic cocaine, and McClellan treats it as such, complete with nosebleeds and addiction and stuff. Which just goes into the tone of the book– I don’t know if I’d call it outright Grimdark, but it’s a bit heavier than just a swashbuckling adventure.

Powder mages aren’t the only folks who can use magic, either. There are a couple of different styles of magic in the novel, most notably in the old cabal of mages that aren’t too happy about the king getting his head chopped off. McClellan, like a lot of modern fantasy writers, takes a lot of cues from Sanderson in establishing a couple of different interlocking magic systems and how they can be used against each other. Thankfully, there aren’t any charts at the back of the book detailing just who has what powers.

So while the revolutionary setting and the ‘hard’ magic systems are fairly modern, the deeper plot of Promise of Blood is a bit more straightforward and traditional in origin. Basically, it comes down to old gods being summoned, and massive armies going to war and suchlike. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it came off as a bit … higher magic level than I had expected, I guess.

McClellan writes some pretty solid action scenes, and Promise of Blood has a lot of them. This said, I think they could be just a little bit better? As mentioned before, this book is the distillation of the term “Flintlock Fantasy,” which means single-shot weapons. Fair enough. Except that there’s at least one action scene where a character shoots his gun, misses, and then curses ‘cause the bad guy’s running away before he can reload … except he’s carrying multiple weapons. That’s the whole point of having more than one pistol, dude.

Likewise, the magic system is novel– but I found myself kind of overthinking the system. For example, if powder mages can ignite powder with just a thought– why bother with flintlock mechanisms to begin with? Without the need for a finicky device to set off the gunpowder, a powder mage could just weld a couple of metal tubes together and attatch it to a handle in a sort of primitive pepperbox pistol. Which would have the added bonus of being unusable by anyone except a powder mage– but again, that’s just me being a nerd.

And while it’s a serviceable enough fantasy adventure, Promise of Blood still has some notable flaws. There are a couple of fleshed out female characters, which is good– but at the same time, there’s some weird undercurrents to the book. Like, there’s a setting detail that the royal cabal of mages are inherently horny and sexy due to their powers, and so they all have their own harems. And then there’s another villainous character with a whole estate full of scantily clad sex-servants, which … like, I dunno, maybe McClellan just likes the word ‘harem.’ Maybe he’s been reading Mike Truk. I dunno. There’s also some business with a sidekick character getting noticed as “oh, she’s a woman,” by one of the protagonists, which … well, said sidekick is nineteen, so it’s not COMPLETELY skeevy, but it’s not exactly good optics. Especially considering the sidekick (who was actually one of my favorite characters in the book) is mute. She can communicate through sign language, buuuut the whole thing just feels kinda hinky.

Still, these are fairly small quibbles in the long run. Promise of Blood is a solid adventure that’s not too goofy- but not too grim, either. McLellan leaves enough plot threads dangling that I’ll probably read the next two books in the series … eventually. As while I enjoyed the story well enough, I’m not excited enough to gobble up the rest of the trilogy just quite yet.

Book Review: Unsouled, by Will Wight

And now, for something completely different.

I’m kind of late to the party when it comes to self published stuff. Partly because of my own snobbery, and partly because it’s only in recent years that I’ve started reading e-books on a regular basis. Still, platforms like Kindle Unlimited are creating an interesting (if nigh monopolistic) niche. Between the democratization of self publishing, and the consolidation of the big publishing houses (how many are we down to, anyway? Five? Four?), self publishing has more or less replaced the concept of a ‘mid tier’ book.

In addition to that, Kindle Unlimited has allowed various sub-subgenres to develop that, quite honestly, probably wouldn’t get published by any major company in quite some time. Like porny fantasy harem erotica, for example.

Or, in a less smutty niche, there’s xianxia, or “cultivation” fantasy. It’s a genre that has a long history in China, but has only come to recent niche-popularity in the west. Xianxia is easy to get mixed up with the wuxia genre, since both of them are about guys in ancient China flying around with magic swords. But, to … very loosely (and perhaps inexpertly) break it down, xianxia is the more fantastic of the two genres, often getting into wild, fireball-flinging magic instead of just cool sword stuff. So, like, compare something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (wuxia) to a TV show like The Untamed (xianxia).

Or, you could compare something like A Hero Born (wuxia) to Will Wight’s Unsouled.

Which, admittedly, is something of an unfair comparison. Jin Yong’s novel is a seminal work in wuxia literature that laid out the structure that like 2/3rds of all kung fu movies follow, and Unsouled … isn’t. Still, in poking around the internet, I heard that Wright was basically the best author writing original xianxia fiction in English these days, so I figured I’d check it out?

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Unsouled centers on a kid named Lindon, who has a problem. See, Lindon lives in the Sacred Valley, a place where everyone devotes all their time to becoming better at magic kung fu. Only the problem is, as an Unsouled, Lindon’s personal magic is so weak that he can’t fit into any of the assigned roles of the valley. He can’t progress beyond the very first stage of things, so literal children are better at magic kung fu than he is. Lindon’s lack of power instantly gives him a hook, as over the course of the story, he’s forced to rely on his wits, using what few tricks he has to overcome far more powerful opponents. Wight can write a solid fight scene, and he often comes up with interesting and compelling ways for Lindon to prevail against increasingly dangerous bad guys.

But … that’s about it. See, Lindon’s entire character motivation is ‘get stronger,’ first so he can actually be accepted by his society, and then to ward off an impending disaster he gets a vision of because of … weirdly complicated reasons. Which, y’know, fair. Except that most everyone else in the book is preoccupied with leveling up their magic kung fu, with the few exceptions of a couple of mentor type figures. It’s all very one note. Like, I get that such things are what the book is supposed to be about, yet at the same time I found myself wondering “who actually, uh, grows food in Sacred Valley? Or makes clothes? Or sings songs?” I’m not saying I need a Simarillion’s worth of history and lore, but at least some nods to how the world actually works would be an easy way to give the world some depth.

The extent of the worldbuilding starts and ends on magic-fu. There’s a lot of stuff going on, with official terms. There’s cores, auras of various flavors– and then everyone learns a Path from their Clan, but the Clans pale in power to the Schools, and that’s even before you get into magic fruits or weapons or other cool widgets, or … yeah. I’m not sure how much of this is ‘toss you in the deep end’ worldbuilding, or how much we’re expected to already be familiar with as readers of the xianxia genre. Eventually I was able to get my head around it, and at least Wight is able to craft various scenarios in which Lindon uses his various power ups in new and clever ways, with satisfying payoffs. Even still, it feels a lot like an anime or video game. Which, uh, may be the point?

It doesn’t help that everyone in Sacred Valley has a literal level, pretty much. A Copper level student is weaker than an Iron, who in turn is weaker than a Jade, and so on. Which, fine– except that Unsouled has the same problem as Dragonball Z and a lot of other fight-anime, in that ‘power level’ escalation gets way out of control. For example, (mild spoilers, BTW), it’s a Big Deal when a villain shows up who’s made it past Jade, to the legendary Gold level, which means he’s powerful enough to take over the whole of Sacred Valley.

Vegeta-Its-Over-9000-Dragon-Ball-Z

(Obligatory meme reference)

Except that, in like the next chapter, somebody even more powerful than him shows up and kicks his ass handily. With the added revelation that “Oh, by the way, Gold isn’t a big deal. In fact, people outside Sacred Valley pass that power level by the time they’re six.” Which … kind of makes things cheaper, y’know? It almost makes it sound like Sacred Valley is somehow the tutorial area in a video game, almost? Which, again, might be the point?

I’ve heard the second book in the series is where things take off. Though I’m not sure if that just means Lindon gets a bunch of new power ups, or if that’s where we meet characters with more of a motivation than “level up and fight stuff.” There’s like nine books in the series at this point, with more on the way. I’m … not sure if I’m gonna read more of them. Like, maybe if I had Kindle Unlimited and could read the books for free, I’d be more inclined to continued, but as is, I’ve got enough stuff on my to-read pile already.

It’s not so much that Unsouled is a bad book, per se. It’s readable and put together well. In Unsouled, Wight sets out to do exactly what he wants to do– no more, no less.

Book Review: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, by Christopher Paolini

So!

As you may have noticed, I haven’t been posting as many reviews as I used to in my prime. Part of this is due to the expected apocalyptic pandemic malaise, and also part of it has been the fact that I’ve been trying to get through To Sleep in a Sea of Stars for literal months now. The book is 900 (!) pages long, and the audiobook (which is how I’ve been taking it in) is over 30 hours in length. And that’s not counting the extra two hours of appendixes, which I didn’t even listen to. Ooof.

Christopher Paolini is an author I have … mixed opinions about. Mostly because his debut, Eragon, is one of those books I can point to and say “I can do better than that!” Which, well, it may be a bit unfair to compare my own work to something Paolini wrote when he was a kid … but at the same time Eragon is pretty thoroughly terrible. I even tried reading some of the sequels, way back when, but bailed about halfway through the third one.

But! The last of Paolini’s fantasy novels was released in 2011– and now, with To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, he decided to play around with science-fiction. And so, I got curious– after all ths time, and with the opportunity to mess around in another genre, had Paolini matured as a writer?

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Turns out, yes. Go figure.

The first thing that struck me about To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is that it comes off as more an adult book. Not in a swearing and sex scenes sort of way (even though the book has both of those), but rather, the book comes from an older perspective. Instead of being about Generic Fantasy Destiny Boy™, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars centers on Kira Navarez, a xenobiologist, off surveying some alien colony world. Right off the bat, Kira has a grown-up relationship, and grown-up problems (namely, balancing a long distance relationship with having to travel across the galaxy due to work). It’s honestly kind of refreshing to see this kind of stuff from Paolini– or even in a space opera book in general. The more grounded themes make the characters a bit more approachable, I guess?

At least, until the plot gets going.

So. Eragon steals from is inspired by Star Wars. In contrast, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars draws from … pretty much everything that isn’t Star Wars. Just off the top of my head, I spotted references to Alien, the Culture, Halo, Firefly, Anne McCaffrey’s “The Ship Who” series, Lovecraft,  Mass Effect (Though that last one might just be ‘cause Jennifer Hale reads the audiobook, more on her later), and probably a bunch of other stuff I’m missing. Heck, Kira shares the same name as one of the core characters of Deep Space 9– which is the best Star Trek, but I digress. Honestly, though, I didn’t mind the smorgasbord of other plot elements. If you just crib notes from one work, you’re a hack– but if you crib from a bunch of them, that just means you’re well-versed in the genre! Or something.

Really, though, one of the biggest things To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is inspired by is … Marvel Comics. Or, specifically, the Venom symbiote suit from Marvel Comics. Or maybe Jamie Reyes’ Blue Beetle suit from DC comics. Or maybe the Guyver Suit from, er, Guyver, if Paolini is into 90’s anime. As, y’see, while off xenobiologist-ing, Kira finds herself bonded to an alien symbiote suit, which kicks off the plot. Soon, more aliens come chasing after Kira, trying to take the symbiote from her, and soon Kira is at the center of an intergalactic war.

And it’s … okay?

So, while To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is better than Eragon, that’s a something of a low bar. As once the book kicks off, things feel … really video-gamey. Like, there’s even the ‘find a pistol in a cutscene while the aliens attack your spaceship’ bit, which had me rolling my eyes. There are plenty of greebly monsters for Kira to run away from– and then, later, to blow up in various creative ways.

The funny thing is, while To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is full of action scenes and chases and explosions, it’s also … really weirdly paced. See, Paolini is really proud of all the homework he did making up the FTL system (two hours of appendixes, remember). And, part of it is that FTL travel takes months at a time, requiring crews to go into cryo-sleep. Except Kira’s symbiote prevents her from using a stasis chamber, so there are looooong stretches of the book where Kira is just sitting by herself, in a spaceship, just being retrospective and/or having vaguely prophetic dreams. On the one hand, I can see the opportunity for character introspection– on the other, well, the book is just too damn long, and the winding-down to make FTL jumps just throws off the pacing.

Speaking of pacing, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is way too repetitive. Like there are two multi-chapter sequences that boil down to “Kira is captured by vaguely fascist military guys, imprisoned alone for study, but then breaks free when greebly aliens attack.” Between those two bits, there’s a multi-chapter ‘chase the magic macguffin’ sub-plot that literally contributes nothing to the plot. For a book around 200k words long, at least a quarter of it could probably be cut without losing too much, and that’s not even counting the “Look what I made up!” appendixes.

Just as the pacing is kind of stop-and-start, the tone of the book is really swingy, too. It’s mostly big sprawling space opera, which is … fine, but it goes into some weird places as well. Like, there are multiple, lengthy segments dealing with isolation, torture, and body-horror … in the same book where Kira’s ragtag smuggler crew buddies (not ripped off from Firefly, honest) have a pet pig named Runcible, and make terrible puns about newts. It’s a … choice. Oh, and while we’re getting into the weird stuff, there’s a sex scene later in the novel that’s not … super explicit, but it’s just enough to make one wonder about Paolini’s browser search history. Oof.

Really, the one thing that inspired me to finish To Sleep in a Sea of Stars was the fact that I was listening to the audiobook, as read by Jennifer Hale, a.k.a. Commander freakin’ Shepard. It’s a brilliant bit of casting that makes me wonder why nobody’s hired her to read more audiobooks. Unless Hale has read more audiobooks, in which case somebody tell me what they are so I can listen to them.

A voice actress by trade, Hale puts her talents to good use in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, as she gives each character their own unique accent and way of speaking. Some of the accents verge on hammy, but at the same time at least it’s easy to tell who’s talking at any given time in the audiobook.

So yeah. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is a perfectly serviceable (if overlong and oddly paced) space opera. It’s kind of weird, though, when you think about it. As on the one hand, it’s definitely an improvement over his earlier work. On the other … well, for something that’s been nearly 10 years in the making, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars isn’t doing anything new or mind-blowing for the sci-fi genre. It leaves plenty of dangling plot threads (some intentional, some not as much) for a sequel, and I may get around to reading the sequel when it comes out– I just wonder if it’ll take Paolini another 10 years to get it written.