Book Review: A Cloak of Blades, by Isaac Sher

What if Dungeons and Dragons, but in space?

Okay, so it’s not exactly a new mashup, but space-fantasy can still be a lot of fun. Which brings us to Issac Sher’s A Cloak of Blades. Loyal readers of this blog (so, like, twelve of you?) may recall the title as one of the books I picked up from my WorldCon trip. Sher had a table set up in the dealer’s room, and an acquaintance of mine recommended his book, and I figured I’d pick up something I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else, and … here we are! I got a signed copy, even. Fancy that.

Though honestly, even if the book hadn’t been recommended to me, I’d be pretty stoked for it, solely based on the fact that, before the book starts proper, there’s a playlist. Which is novel (har har, a pun) thing that I’m kind of surprised isn’t more common? Like, Nicholas Eames’ rock-n-roll swords & sorcery novels have playlists, and James Roberts did a similar thing during his run on Transformers comics, but it’s still something I haven’t seen very often? Then again I may be reading the wrong books.

In any case, it wasn’t the playlist itself that sold me, so much as what was on it. Sher goes for some deep, nerdy cuts in his playlist, including songs from the Streets of Fire soundtrack and the soundtrack of Transformers: The Movie (the 80’s one that murdered your toybox, not that Michael Bay nonsense), which is the sort of thing that makes me wish I’d chatted with him more at WorldCon. Ah well.


So yeah. A Cloak of Blades is a space-opera/high fantasy mashup, centering on a ragtag crew of space adventurers who hot-rod around the galaxy doing hero stuff and trying to get paid for it. It’s very D&D-esque, to the point where you can pretty much identify various character’s class. There’s a kung-fu monk, a burly draconian fighter with a big gun, one of those prestige-class fighter/wizard sword-mage types, and so on. Though it’s also notable that the perpetually horny max-charisma bisexual character isn’t a bard, but rather, the party’s cleric.

Which brings us to Lindauriel, the red-headed elf guy with the knife on the cover there. He’s the priest of a death-goddess, but a surprisingly compassionate one. It’s kind of an interesting contrast, as Lindauriel is goody-two-shoes Lawful Good, to the point where he’s introduced helping out at an orphanage. Lin goes around doing good deeds and so on– even though he’s signed on with a slightly more mercenary crew as the ship’s healer.

Said crew start the novel on the trail of a big score, having found a lead on an ancient treasure hidden away in an isolated asteroid belt. Of course, they’re not the only ones after said loot, and so Lindauriel and his new friends must fight their way through a whole-ass criminal syndicate to get to where they wanna go. And, of course, things even get more complicated once they find the ancient treasure is even more valuable than they thought.

It’s all pretty standard and tropey, but that makes it no less fun. I’d never call A Cloak of Blades high literature, but if you’re in the mood for something light and fun, it’s worth a read. However, this isn’t to say the book’s without its faults.

For one, A Cloak of Blades is pretty horny. To be fair, there’s a “This book is for Mature Readers” disclaimer on the back cover blurb. Which means that, after some romcom-esque bickering, Lin hooks up with Coriolis, the crew’s space-goblin first mate (ha ha, pun not intended) in the third act. Explicitly. Pretty sure the word “throbbing” was used. It got to the point where I had to stop reading the book on my train ride back from WorldCon ‘cause it just felt weird reading about butt stuff in public, y’know?

It probably didn’t help much that while Cori and Lin were going at it, the plot was … still going on? So you’d get a couple paragraphs of explicit smut, then switch to the rest of the characters who still had their pants on. It was kind of a weird balance, as it was more sexytimes than I’d been expecting … but at the same time, not enough sexy bits? Like, if you’re gonna write a book about horny space goblins, good on you, but commit to the bit. A Cloak of Blades has enough smut to be distracting, but not as much outright boning as you’d get from something like, say, Titan Mage. Otherwise, I think A Cloak of Blades could have just had some fade-to-black sequences and not really lost anything narratively.

The book has some … odd structural quirks, too. There’s more than a little first-in-a-series-itis that introduces setting elements and characters and so on that may pay off later, but come off as slightly awkward at the moment. Furthermore, there’s also an issue with Lin being ridiculously powerful, mostly because he’s The Protagonist™. It’s not quite “chosen one of chosen destiny,” but it’s close. Lin’s not the only one, as his whole crew is a bunch of proper bad-asses. Which is fun, but there were a lot of times where I was waiting for further complications that … didn’t happen.

Case in point, in the book’s climax, Cori and crew must teleport onto a ship full of murderous psychopaths in order to rescue some prisoners. So they teleport over, shoot some bad guys in various messy ways, and … that’s it. The plan works, and then we get a few too many chapters of denouement. (Uh, spoilers, I guess). This is really frustrating, as the cleaning-up chapters feature a plot point that would’ve made for a great “hell yeah!” kind of moment is relegated to a “oh, we can spend XP on the spaceship, right?” kind of bookkeeping upgrade.

Really, I think I’m nitpicking because I enjoyed the first half of A Cloak of Blades so much. Sher lays out a rich setting and populates it with colorful characters who run around and do cool stuff. It’s just that there are times when it feels like Sher thinks his characters are too hot and cool, which means they obviously win, which takes a lot of narrative tension out of the book. Still, I have to give A Cloak of Blades points for being different, and even more points for that soundtrack. Seriously, anybody who’s down with Fire Inc is somebody I wanna hang out with.

Dial H … for Hugo?

I went to Worldcon!

I’d never been before, but once I found out it was going to be in Chicago, I realized “oh hey, that’s actually manageable for me!” and here we are! Plus, y’know, I haven’t done much traveling/vacation in the last few years, for fairly obvious reasons, so it was refreshing to Go Somewhere and Do Things. Not to mention that this blog’s got a mostly literary bent (though one wonders if anyone even reads blogs anymore) so it’s only logical that I go to a literary-focused con. Plus, y’know, the guest list was stellar. John Scalzi, Fonda Lee, Jo Walton, Seanan McGuire, Becky Chambers, Catherynne Valente, Charles Stross, and many, many more rad people besides.

And so, I joined somewhere around four thousand other nerds, converging together to talk about nerdy stuff. As you do. This was my first time at WorldCon, so right off the bat, I realized things had a far different vibe than a lot of other cons I’ve been to. For one, the crowd skewed a little bit older than some other conventions. Which isn’t to say there weren’t plenty of twentysomethings running around, but there were equal amounts of veteran fans who’d been to dozens of WorldCons over the years. It’s kind of an odd contrast, as there was plenty of discussion of forward-thinking science fiction and fantasy … but there was also a lot about the history of fandom, almost to a self congratulatory extent? As Chicago has hosted more WorldCons than any other city, and heck, the hotel we were in hosted more WorldCons than a lot of countries, so … yeah.

Worldcon, or at least Chicon, is definitely its own thing. It’s far more fan-driven than something big and corporate like San Diego Comic Con, and it’s far more focused on literary sci-fi and fantasy than anything else. For example, the most visible bunch of cosplayers weren’t Stormtroopers, or Avengers, or Trekkies, or even a bunch of fursuiters– rather, they were the Royal Manticorian Navy, fans of David Weber’s Honor Harrington books. More on them in a bit. Likewise, the dealer’s room was very, very focused on books, both new or used. Very few movies or comics, and nary a Funko Pop in sight.

There was a lot to do at WorldCon. Too much, in fact– which is always the sign of a good convention. There’s just no way to see all the panels, go to all the parties, and so on. Especially when you’re boring and have to take time for stuff like “eating” or “sleeping.” And since it’d been a long time since I’d actually been to a convention proper, it took me at least a day or two to get into the right mindset/routine. And even though I didn’t get to do everything, I managed a fair amount of somethings, including:

Panels! Always one of my favorite parts of any con. I attended stuff on subjects ranging from “how to pitch your novel to a publisher” to “how movie options work when Hollywood comes calling.” That latter one may be a bit wishful thinking on my end, but hey. It wasn’t all publishing-focused, either, as there panels on all kinds of other topics. Some of these were wonderfully entertaining (Guest of Honor Steven Barnes is a wonderful speaker, and now I wish I’d gone to more of his panels) where others got precariously close to nerds “well-actually”-ing each other over semantics. Which could be kind of interesting in its own way, but hey.

Music! WorldCon is … not a big music con. Or at least not for music I dig. Guys like Mega Ran or The Protomen or The Cybertronic Spree tend to play far larger conventions. Still, a friend of mine recommended I go see Uncle Fluffy’s Post Apocalyptic Sing-Along, which was pretty fun. The gimmick was that Uncle Fluffy sings kids songs to teach them lessons about how to survive after the collapse of civilization! Think The Last of Us meets Mr. Rogers. It makes sense in context, honest.

Exhibits! In addition to panels and vendors and such, there were some pretty neat little displays on the history of fandom, sometimes with decades-old fanzines. Yay for ephemera! Though the best one was an exhibit from the Korshak Collection, a collection of old Sci Fi/Fantasy cover paintings. I’m not much into visual art, but it was super cool to be able to see paintings by greats like Frank Frazetta or Boris Vallejo in person. No photos of those, for obvious reasons, but it was still neat!

Parties! So yeah. Room parties are a long going tradition for WorldCon– or really nerd conventions in general. Various people set up room suites for partying, with varying themes: a book release, promo for upcoming conventions, and so on. Though honestly the most fun party was thrown by the Royal Manticorian Navy, of all people. They go in pretty hard on the “British navy in spaaaace” thing, including a specialized shot (a kind of mulit-layered spicy-sweet cinnamon/chocolate concoction) that even has its own specialized little ritual around taking it. I wound up dropping in at just the right time on Saturday. Y’see, the Navy folks even have a queen (couldn’t Rule Space-Brittania otherwise, I guess), who made an appearance just in time to do space-shots. That I was the only guy in a starfleet uniform (hey, I got it for a Halloween costume and I’m gonna get my mileage out of it, dangit) in a room full of Space-Navy officers and Monarchs made it even more surreal.

The Hugos! Okay, so, I cheated on this one. Instead of watching it in person, I decided to watch the stream from my hotel room, because I had beer there, and I was kinda tired from the past several days of convention-ing. Probably had a better look at things, too. Most of the works I voted for didn’t win, but that’s just the nature of things, y’know? Though now I’m gonna have to read that Arkady Martine novel on my to-read pile.

Speaking of my to-read pile, I spent a fair amount of cash in the dealer’s room– though certainly not as much as I could have. Not that I don’t have enough to read already, but still. Though as a bonus, the three books on the bottom of that pile are signed. I also got fairly excited to see a vendor selling Ookla the Mok CD’s– they’re a nerd-rock band that sings about comic books and so on. I stumbled across their stuff over 20 years ago (agh I am an old) on MP3.net (basically bandcamp for cavemen), so the chance to buy a physical CD was a bit of a thrill.

Hokey Pokey Crunch is a candy bar from New Zealand and now I wish I’d gotten more of it.

So yeah. WorldCon was fun! I didn’t socialize and network as much as I could/should have, but I at least talked with some really neat people– on the last day I even got to make friends with Bitter Karella, the mad weirdo behind Midnight Pals, which is honestly one of the few entertaining things on the twitters. I’d definitely go to another WorldCon … though not WorldCon 2023, which is in China, which presents all kinds of problems. Though I understand WorldCon 2024 is gonna be in Glasgow, which could actually be an option? I mean, I’ve always wanted to visit Europe, so … hmm. Still, that’s a long way off, so it’s not like I need to make any decisions right now. In the meanwhile, I’ll just keep an eye out for some fun con in the US– there’s plenty of those to check out, after all.

Book Review: Project: Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

So!

Having read a book about horny magitech mecha pilots, I figured I should review something classy and smart and thought-provoking! Either that, or I could air my OPINIONS about the recently released Transformers RPG PDF, but … well, I won’t go on about that unless somebody asks. Nicely.

So yeah. Andy Weir’s Hail Mary! Let’s talk about it!


So yeah. Did you read (or watch the movie adaptation of) The Martian? Because Project: Hail Mary is more of that. In fact, I’ve heard Project: Hail Mary best described as “The Martian, but in space” which is kinda redundant but makes sense in context. Or, to be more specific, it’s “The Martian, but in deep space,” which is … slightly more descriptive?

Either way, Project: Hail Mary is Andy Weir playing to his strengths. Which is to say, it centers on a goofy-but-brilliant everyman (insomuch as a brilliant astrophysicist can be an everyman) plunked down into deep space with very limited resources and several very large problems. Problems that he has to solve through SCIENCE. And not through “mwa ha ha” mad science, mind you. But rather, rational theorizing and experimentation and also lots of math. Which is more exciting than it sounds, especially since the fate of all humanity is at stake.

I’m being a bit vague with the plot details, because, well, spoilers. This said, the biggest difference between The Martianand Project: Hail Mary is a matter of scope. Project: Hail Mary almost feels like a random Star Trek episode (albeit one of the brainy ones, instead of one of the horny ones. Trekkies know what I’m talking about here) in the various ideas it kicks around. It’s got a definite Golden-Age sci-fi feel, just with less smoking and the occasional female character who’s actually allowed to do something productive.

This said, Project: Hail Mary shares a lot of The Martian’s flaws, too. Mostly in that its first-person narrator, while brilliant, is still more or less a cipher. To the point where the narrator protagonist has literal amnesia at the beginning of the book. Which is explained later, but still. The narrator’s memories come back in conveniently chronological order, which is one of those things that works narratively, if not exactly logically? It makes sense in context. Or maybe it doesn’t, I dunno. Either way, we have a blank slate of a protagonist, without much in the way of personal connections or even personal tastes– much like the poor beleaguered astronaut from The Martian.

If anything, Project: Hail Mary is an optimistic book– perhaps to the point of naivete? Mostly because it’s one of those sci-fi books that posits “surely, if the planet Earth was presented with an existential threat, everyone would work together to save humanity!” Which, um. I can appreciate that sort of optimism, and I recognize its importance in the grand scheme of things, but … yeah. Like, a plot where Russia, China, and the United States all work together towards a common goal seems more and more far-fetched with each passing day because … you know. Everything Russia, China, and the U.S. is doing right now. Which, to be fair, isn’t Andy Weir’s fault!

Though what is Andy Weir’s fault is the undercurrent of techno-authoritarianism running through the book. It’s not quite on the “Hard Men making Hard Decisions” you’d get out of, say, a Baen book, but there’s definitely a recurring theme of “we just need to find someone smart enough to solve all our problems with SCIENCE” throughout the book. The downsides of which are … kind of addressed, in the last third of the book? But not really.

Don’t get me wrong, science is definitely a good thing. Optimism is a good thing. Space exploration is a good thing. And Project: Hail Mary combines all of these things, mostly for the better. It all comes together as a piece of hard-ish sci-fi space opera where problems aren’t resolved through laser-sword fights. However, things mostly come off as good, not great, because, well– as mentioned before, this is more or less The Martian, redux. So if you liked that book, great! And if not, well– there’s other stuff to be read these days.

Though now I realize I need to read Artemis for comparison. So there’s yet another book on my to-read pile. Hurray?

Book Review: Titan Mage, by Edie Skye

I only read this for the giant robots, I swear.

Let me explain.

The last few books I’ve read have been really, really good. Award-winningly good, even. But, since I am a weird and horrible nerd, sometimes I get in the mood for something less, ah, prestigious. And so, I started clicking around on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited page, which is the electronic equivalent of the dollar bin in the corner of a used bookstore. (I mean this as a compliment, for the record). And apparently the current #1 book in Amazon’s Steampunk section is Edie Skye’s Titan Mage, which features magic-powered giant robots. Cool!

Of course, Titan Mage also has that “harem fantasy adventure” subtitle, which means it centers on a generic protagonist guy inexplicably getting teleported to fantasyland in order to pilot said giant robot– and have sex with a bunch of hot ladies. The author explicitly (ha! Pun) lays out in the book’s description that this is an unabashedly “spicy” (read: smutty) novel, so I have to give Skye points for honesty. And I will admit, I was a little curious– mostly because I’ll give anything featuring big stompy mecha a chance. So here we are.

And it’s … okay?

Titan Mage makes no effort to hide its influences. Skye draws heavily from anime– in particular, very specific genres of anime. There’s the mecha stuff, of course– but more notably, Skye draws from the “Isekai” genre. For those of you who aren’t horrible nerds who dig into the minutiae of sub-genre definitions, Isekai stories are pretty much “Portal” fantasy, a-la Narnia or Peter Pan or what have you, in which someone from “our” normal world gets tossed into ye olde fantasy land, because reasons. Like, hell, you could argue the John Carter of Mars stories are Isekai. Or even Army of Darkness. Or just about any other Portal fantasy you can think of.

Except.

In the best portal fantasies, the dimensionally displaced protagonist can bring their skills and knowledge from “our” world to put it to use in ye olde fantasyland. Sometimes it’s something as major as inventing gunpowder in an otherwise medieval setting, or sometimes it’s as simple as knowing the Heimlich maneuver so you can save the King from choking, or being good at track so you can run the hell away from angry dragons.

On the other hand, there’s a whole mess of Isekai stories where the displaced protagonist is only special … because the plot says so. Standard chosen one plot laziness. Or what’s even worse is when Ye Olde Fantasyland is explicitly modeled on a video game or a tabletop RPG. These kind of stories are generally known as “LitRPG.” In these stories, the protagonist’s advantage isn’t the knowledge of anything useful, like chemistry or medicine or whatever. Instead, the protagonist is inexplicably placed into a situation where their otherwise useless nerd-knowledge is the one thing that will save the world, Because Reasons. It’s basically the whole schtick behind Ready Player One, and I don’t think I’ve ever read/watched anything where it wasn’t just as obnoxious. The whole “if you are enough of a gatekeeping nerd all the hot babes will throw themselves at you” vibe just strikes me as … unhealthy, I guess? Or at least terribly self indulgent.

Now. Titan Mage isn’t straight-up “experience points and character classes” LitRPG, but it’s close. Which again, is very much on purpose– the protagonist uses mecha anime (and hentai anime– we’ll get to that soon enough) as a reference to the crazy stuff going on.

I quibble and complain about this sort of thing because, well, the Isekai tropes just come off as frustrating in Titan Mage. With a little more effort, the book could have been a lot more interesting. Take, for example, the generic guy protagonist, Joseph Locke. He starts the book in the real world– or at least stuck in small town in the middle of nowhere. Joseph’s an orphan, who’d previously been paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident– until a random magic lady says “hey, want a new job?” and zips his consciousness to another world, where he’s given a brand new, physically perfect body. And there’s a lot of narrative potential in exploring “holy shit I can walk again,” but Skye never goes that deep thematically. Which, again, is a deliberate choice on the author’s part, as Titan Mage is unabashedly straightforward.

I can respect a desire to get into the part with the cool stompy robots– but at the same time, Skye could have just as easily made the protagonist of Titan Mage just some random sheltered nobody (a farmboy, perhaps?) who learns how to pilot a giant robot without going into the whole Isekai bit. Joshua, being a generic (read: boring) protagonist, brings little to the table when it comes to skills or personality. Like, he’s nice enough, and he’s honest, and he’s fairly determined– but that’s it? He never comes off as clever, or inspiring, or even charming– and he certainly doesn’t bring any skills or knowledge from “our” world to make him stand out in mecha fantasyland.

At least the big stompy robot stuff is pretty fun. The action scenes are plentiful as well as entertaining. Skye lays out a unique magic system– it’s not quite Sanderson-ian in its crunchiness, but it works to justify how the big stompy magic robots work for the most part. There are airships, there are mecha, there are big gnarly monsters that sometimes try to eat the airships and mecha, good times. Though I’ll quibble again and note that the book really isn’t Steampunk: no gears on top hats, no Victorian era apologism, etc. But hey, I guess any fantasy novel that’s set after a medieval-ish period but before a modern-ish period gets stamped with the Steampunk label these days.

So that’s the robot stuff covered. But what about the smut? I suppose I can’t fault Skye for writing something explicit, because, well, sex sells. But again, things come off as a bit … lazy? As for one, the protagonist is presented with a fairly “standard” trio of potential love interests: blonde, redhead, brunette. At least the blonde engineer had some fun personality, but that might just be my residual crush on Kaylee from Firefly shining through decades later. (Also, shut up. Everyone crushed on Kaylee. That was the whole point of her being on the show). But again, even the sexy bits come off as more than a little … contrived.

Y’see, instead of Joshua being particularly charming, the various ladies of mecha fantasyland throw themselves at him for, again, plot reasons. Kinda gross plot reasons, to be honest. As, y’see, Joshua’s new improved body has a bunch of super magic power, which can be passed on to his potential children, which is something all the ladies on board are interested in. What makes it worse is that they all want to have his magic babies, so they can have the state raise those magic babies for a literal cash reward. So it’s eugenics and child trafficking! You know, like heroes do! Oh, and there’s a thing where time-mages can accelerate a pregnancy to come to term in just a week, which is another of those holy shit parts of the setting if you think about it.

Edie Skye does not think about it.

Am I putting too much thought into contrived excuses for smut? Absolutely. But at the same time, this is just another one of those places where Titan Mage could be better … with just a bit more effort. I mean, it wouldn’t be hard to give mecha fantasyland a different culture, maybe make them a little more free-love ish? Maybe even make the airship crew an extant polycule that’s bringing Joshua in, instead of each of the women wanting to jump his bones individually? It doesn’t help that the sex scenes themselves, while explicit, are … kinda boring? Like, they’re horny, sure– but not passionate. And again, Skye unabashedly draws from hentai as well, so there was at least one part where I had to go “sex does not work that way!” Probably more than one, honestly, but I kind of skimmed over the sexy bits so I could get to the robot fighting. Honest. At least there aren’t any tentacles. Low bar, admittedly, but hey.

So yeah. Titan Mage is the kind of book that does exactly what it sets out to do. It’s just that it doesn’t set out to do very much. There’s robot fights, there’s sexy babes, and … that’s about all there is to it. Skye is a decent enough writer, to the point where I think the book could have been exponentially better if it dropped some of the anime cliches and bothered to build up some original ideas and genuine character development.

Or maybe I just have high standards when it comes to giant robot fights.

Book Review: The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison.

Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor was another of those ward winning/nominated books I’d heard about in passing, but I’ve only now gotten around to reading. So here we are!

The book centers on Maia, the titular Goblin (or, well, half elf/half goblin) Emperor, an unlikely, previously exiled heir who’s only put on the throne when all the other potential claimants are killed in an accident. It’s not quite King Ralph in pointy ears, but hey. Complicating matters is the fact that Maia has spent the last ten years forgotten in exile, so he has no idea how to navigate courtly politics and government bureaucracy.

The Goblin Emperor is an outright fantasy of manners, albeit one with far fewer swordfights than something like The Privilege of the Sword. More’s the pity. Which isn’t to say there isn’t any conflict– instead, things are more subtle and political as Maia tries to establish himself as a “proper” Emperor.

Maia’s mixed heritage is, of course, one of his first obstacles in being Emperor. In The Goblin Emperor, Goblins aren’t low-level cannon fodder for the local Sauron-imitator. Instead, Goblins are basically dark-skinned elves, making them more of a separate (but adjacent) culture instead of another species entirely. Addison never outright says “It’s a metaphor about racism! GET IT?” but it’s not exactly a subtle exploration of the idea, either.

The difference (or lack thereof) between elves and goblins is the barest surface of Addison’s wordlbuilding. The book starts off with a guide on Elvish pronunciation and honorifics (elves like to use the singular “we,” like, a lot), as well as an extensive cast of characters and glossary of terms. Which, honestly, is a good indicator if the book is for you or not. The Goblin Emperor is certainly a well written novel, but it’s absolutely dripping with nonsense fantasy terms like Nohecharei or Alcethmeret and so on. But hey, Addison going all-in on a web of complicated royal lineages and noble titles is no different than other fantasy authors making up intricate and over complicated magic systems or dragon biologies or whatever. Though, speaking of which, The Goblin Emperor is pretty magic light. Like, some of Maia’s sworn bodyguards (the aforementioned Nohecharei) are outright wizards, but I can count the number of spells cast in the book on one hand. Instead, things have a slightly more steampunk-ish element, with big factories and airships and letters delivered via pneumatic tubes. But even then, this is just set dressing, as Addison is more concerned with the political fallout of Maia’s coronation more than cool airship battles or whatever.

Just as The Goblin Emperor is peppered with the sort of passing detail that other fantasy novels would focus on, it’s filled with characters that other fantasy novels would focus on. There’s warrior-bodyguards sworn to defend Maia, a plucky princess who winds up betrothed to him in an arranged marriage, even a detective-priest investigating the death of the former emperor. Any of these characters could (or perhaps should?) be the focus of their own story, but in The Goblin Emperor they’re only shown in their relationship to Maia.

This can get frustrating, as Maia is kind of useless.

Maia isn’t particularly clever, or brave, or much of a leader. He’s basically little more than a wide-eyed naif, caught up in the ceremonies and schemes of the Imperial palace– and then he doesn’t do anything about it. Heck, Maia barely does much of anything past his ceremonial Emperor duties– he’s not even allowed to dress himself. He pushes back against the stifling ceremony in only the smallest ways, which … is kinda boring, really. Admittedly, Maia gets a little sassy and sarcastic from time to time (and then feels bad about it later), but Maia’s most prevalent character trait is that he’s … nice. Now, kindness is certainly an admirable trait, but being polite to the kitchen staff isn’t enough to make one into a compelling character. Like, I get it, Maia is never gonna be Conan, but it’d be nice if there was more to him than “he’s nice and also he gets to be the most important man in Elfland because his dad (who never cared about him anyway) was the last Emperor. God save the King!”

Fantasy– High Fantasy in particular –often has a monarchist bent, with plots revolving around who gets to be the King, often without really interrogating the underlying themes around Kingship. Addison just barely touches on this towards the end of The Goblin Emperor, when someone has enough balls to tell Maia that monarchy is a bad thing, actually– but nothing ever really happens because of it. By the end of the book, we get the tiniest of bits of progress as Maia finally gets a pet project approved by the royal council, but the fact still stands that most of the book’s other plots (including assassinations and coup attempts) are resolved by the other characters, and rather matter-of-factly at that.

So yeah. The Goblin Emperor is an odd book. It’s very well written, though perhaps not well plotted, if that makes sense. I enjoyed reading it, but at the same time it feels like there are more interesting stories, starring more interesting characters, relegated to background detail. Though apparently Addison has written a sequel. Witness for the Dead isan outright mystery, starring that priest-detective from earlier. I’ll have to get around to reading that one at some point to see what the rest of Elfland looks like from someplace besides the throne.

Book Review: A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark

I read more than one book a month, I swear.

It’s just that I had a streak going where I read (but didn’t finish) a couple of pretty bad books– and not even as much on the WTF-fun-bad level, either. Might revisit some of those at some point, depending on how spiteful I’m feeling. And so, I opted to read something notably better, which I did finish– but I kept on putting off writing a review because I was hard pressed to think of something to say other than “guys this book is so good.” But hey, I’m finally going into a holiday weekend, might as well give it a shot.

Because guys, A Master of Djinn is so good.

I’ve read a little bit of P. Djeli Clark before, if not enough. The Black God’s Drums is a solidly entertaining little novella that puts the “punk” back in Steampunk, and his horror-fantasy novella Ring Shout likewise is an African American take on cosmic horror. I probably should have covered more of his stuff on this blog, considering Clark actually lives in Houston (even if I don’t anymore). Master of Djinn is Clark’s first full-length novel, which gives it the space it needs to really develop as its own adventure.

A Master of Djinn takes place in an alternate Cairo, where the old magic has returned, making Egypt into a world power, where djinn walk the streets and power the wild automotons and airships and other steampunk/dieselpunk gizmos. But when twenty people are burned alive with magic that hasn’t been seen in centuries, it falls on Fatma el-Sha’arawi, an agent of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural entities to investigate.

A queer Middle-Eastern Muslim woman, Fatma checks off every box to send the right-wing CHUDs of fandom into apoplexy. So that’s fun. But, more importantly, Fatma is a great protagonist to follow: she’s snarky, determined, resourceful, and a heck of a snappy dresser. She’s not the only character of note, either, as A Master of Djinn is absolutely stuffed to the gills with fascinating characters, from djinn librarians to seemingly omnipotent doormen to a plucky young girl-detective sidekick to Fatma’s femme-fatale girlfriend, Siti. Siti’s an African priestess of Bastet who fights using clawed gloves and … wait, is this just Clark writing Catwoman?

Of course, one of the most compelling characters of A Master of Djinn is Cairo itself; an international city, thousands of years old, yet now at the forefront of a new era of magic-powered technology. Clark makes it a point to show his Cairo as unabashedly Egyptian in its culture, but not reactionary. This Cairo is full of restaurants and speakeasies and universities and all sorts of neat places for Fatma to explore as she tries to crack the case. It’s also worth noting that the Cairo of A Master of Djinn isn’t an afrofuturist (or, uh, afro-retro-futurist, given the 1912 setting?) utopia, as the city still has to deal with the same issues of class, racism, and wealth inequality as any other city of the era.

Where A Master of Djinn’s setting is vibrant and original, its plot is a little more traditional. As mentioned before, it centers of Fatma’s investigation of a strange magic-murder, and as such hits a lot of the standard detective/Urban Fantasy beats: interviewing witnesses, chasing clues, occasionally getting into magic fights, and so on. Which, for the record, isn’t at all a bad thing. As not only does A Master of Djinn present an alternative history in its setting, it still works as a straightforward adventure– and a rather good one, too. Though I was able to at least predict one particular plot point fairly early, but I dunno how much of that is just me being jaded and trope-conscious. Or something.

Still! A Master of Djinn has already won a whole mess of awards, and it’s nominated for even more; and rightly so. If you’re in the mood for a fun adventure in a fresh, original setting, featuring a likeable and diverse cast of characters, give this one a read. And as a bonus, apparently Clark’s written a couple of other short stories/novellas set in the same Cairo, so at least I’ve got something to check out until he writes a sequel!

… I’m really hoping he writes a sequel.

Book Review: Zoe Rosenthal is Not Lawful Good, by Nancy Werlin

Hey, remember when cons were a thing?

I mean, big nerd gatherings are making a comeback now that we’ve got anti-covid measures (and I’m probably gonna be attending at least one con at the end of the summer), but every now and again I find myself thinking about the Before Times, back when it was no big deal to cram into a hotel ballroom with a bajillion other nerds.

I’m not the only one with such memories– which brings us to Nancy Werlin’s Zoe Rosenthal is Not Lawful Good. Normally, I don’t read much YA, but with a title like that (I’d rank it just behind The Girl Who Could Move Shit With Her Mind), I got curious. And once I started reading, I was hooked.

The book is told from the perspective of the titular Zoe Rosenthal, a meticulously organized (and subsequently anxious) high school senior. Thing is, Zoe has a secret: she’s obsessed with a new, streaming-only Sci-Fi show, Bleeders. Bleeders is a space opera mashup of Firefly and M*A*S*H*, quite lurid and bloody and soap-operatic– which makes it the sort of thing Zoe’s stick in the mud activist boyfriend Simon wouldn’t approve of. Which means Zoe lies to him– and to her family –in order to sneak off to Dragon*Con 2019 in order to catch a midnight showing of Bleeders’ second season premiere. Soon, Zoe makes friends with other Bloodygits (the Bleeders’ fandom’s favored moniker) , and she’s drawn into a nerdy world of cosplay and fanfic and other nerdery as she starts sneaking off to other conventions to hang out with her new Bloodygit crew. Hijinks ensue.

Zoe Rosenthal is Not Lawful Good is a cute, fun novel that addresses coming of age through the lens of fandom, much like Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, and probably a bunch more books I’ve never heard of. It’s honestly enough to make me a little jealous of kids today, as back when I was a kid most YA novels were more “serious” books where the protagonist’s dog and/or best friend died at the end.

Werlin peppers her novel with nerdy detail, to the point I’m certain she’s been to Dragon*Con at least once. She really captures the nerdy, liminal feeling one gets from a big convention experience. Late nights, sharing a single hotel room with a half-dozen of your fan-friends, spending too much money on merch, and so on. It’s not a substitute for attending a convention yourself, but it’s enjoyable all the same. Furthermore, the book’s scope is mostly confined to the various cons that Zoe goes to, meaning we only see her home life (and the show she’s obsessed with) in little bits and pieces and references, which is an entertaining little touch. Less is more, and all that.

This said, perhaps it’s just because of the YA rating, but Werlin’s picture of the con experience also comes off as a little … tame? As, well, the one time I made it to Dragon*Con involved a shitload of booze, the editorial staff of Zoofights, and a cardboard robot suit called “The Crumpler.” There’s a brief encounter with a shitty gatekeeping fan (dressed as The Joker, naturally), and some business about an embarrassing viral video, but other than that Werlin never addresses any of the downsides of fandom, apart from people not knowing what the hell you’re nerding about. There’s also plot twist in the third act that could have been foreshadowed more (and also could have gone a lot darker), but Zoe Rosenthal is Not Lawful Good is meant to be light and episodic and fun, and Werlin certainly accomplishes that.

Also as an odd nerdy quibble, while Werlin uses the Lawful/Chaotic/etc terminology, the book never outright mentions Dungeons and Dragons, which … has me wondering if that’s a copyright thing? Instead the ‘alignment chart’ thing is just mentioned as being “from roleplaying games.” But hey, this is a book about going to conventions, so I’m allowed to nitpick about silly nerdy things.

One of the most refreshing things about this novel is that it’s not a romance. Oh sure, Zoe falls in with a great set of fellow fans– but she never gets romantic with any of them. In fact, the book’s emotional climax isn’t two characters getting together, but rather breaking up, which is somehow even more gratifying than any two characters making out would have been.

So yeah. Zoe Rosenthal is Not Lawful Good is an entertaining YA novel that does exactly what it sets out to do. Unfortunately, in looking at Werlin’s other novels, they don’t really seem like my cup of tea. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if Werlin got a little metatextual and wrote a Bleeders novel either– and I’d read the hell out of that.

Book Review: Engines of Empire, by R.S. Ford

“It’s like Final Fantasy meets Game of Thrones.”

I’ve found it’s an often-mentioned comparison in discussion of Engines of Empire, the new novel by R.S. Ford (who, as far as I’m aware, is unrelated to Jackson Ford). It’s an accurate description, too, as the very same thought went through my head about halfway through the novel.

Engines of Empire centers on various members of the Hawkspur family, members of one of the elite ruling Guilds of a kingdom based on magic-technology. At the beginning of the novel, each of the three Hawkspur children are sent to various corners of the world for various reasons, while their mother stays in the capital to navigate political intrigues. And there’s certainly a lot to navigate through, as inevitably there’s a conspiracy, and civil war, and betrayal, and … it’s all kind of rote?

The setting is where the Final Fantasy comparisons get thrown about. There are various monsters, big stompy magitech robots, enormous birds of prey used as flying mounts, and even an airship powered by dark magic. And that part’s really neat! However, the Game of Thrones influence comes through in the plot, almost to a paint-by-numbers degree. You’ve got the various Guilds– though thankfully it never comes down to “so, these guys are the Not-Starks, these are the Not-Lannisters.” But as the book goes on, the plot grew more and more predictable, to the “oh here’s the sudden but inevitable betrayal part.” And, while the book is certainly violent, and Ford is unafraid to kill off characters with little warning, things never get to the same level of cruel misanthropy in Game of Thrones, or even other derivative works like The Emperor’s Blades.

Game of Thrones isn’t the only influence on Engines of Empire— one of the Hawkspurs winds up in a dusty, Western-ish desert, while another goes on a James Cameron’s Avatar inspired adventure, complete with jungle-dwelling catpeople. It’s “everything and the kitchen sink” style worldbuilding, which is fun. But after the first few chapters, the novelty wears off, and so you don’t get the sense of unpredictable weirdness one gets from, say, a Malazan novel. Which may be an unfair comparison, but hey.

I think the thing that gets me is that while Engines of Empire has a lot of cool elements like the aforementioned war hawks or magic-crystal-powered mecha, it’s never about any of those things. The book focuses more on how the Hawkspurs get into (and occasionally out of) trouble. The issue is, the Hawkspurs … aren’t that interesting? Apart from one plot twist revealed about a third of the way through the book, most of the viewpoint characters are exactly what they seem: the brash young military officer, the plucky young noblewoman, the brash young inventor, and so on. It really came down to the fact that I didn’t particularly care about what happened to the characters, especially when they kept getting outmaneuvered and thrust into even more and more trouble. I mean, a character who never faces any setbacks is boring … but the inverse is also true, as a character who consistently loses can be just as dull. At least they are if they’re not interesting enough to build a connection with the reader.

Incidentally, my favorite character was a witch named Wenis, even though Ford broke the rule of “don’t name your characters anything that Beavis and Butthead would laugh at.” But at least that’s better than Terry Goodkind’s Panis Rahl. Oof.

So yeah. Engines of Empire is another one of those books that cribs more from Martin than from Tolkien– but the cribbing is pretty evident all the same. It’s not inherently bad– just kind of predictable in the last act. And, of course, it’s the first in a new series, so it’s building up to big events in later books; though honestly, I dunno if I’m gonna bother reading the rest.

Maybe if they put a big stompy robot on the cover of the next one. That’d be rad.

Book Review: The Girl Who Could Move Shit With Her Mind, by Jackson Ford

The Girl Who Could Move Shit With Her Mind is the best title I’ve seen since All Those Explosions Were Somebody Else’s Fault.

Jackson Ford’s novel is not a riff on Steig Larsson (thankfully). Instead, it’s the first of Ford’s “Frost Files” series, centered on Teagan Ford, the titular girl who can move shit with her mind. See, Teagan is a psychokinetic– though her superpower has its limits. Most notably her powers only work on non-organic matter, and she’s got a weight limit of about 300 pounds. Though even with these limits, Teagan is still a very, very valuable asset for a shadowy government conspiracy operating out of Los Angeles. Though that’s really just her day job– Teagan’s more interested in listening to hip hop and sampling all the amazing food L.A. has to offer. But when Teagan gets framed for murders only another psychokinetic could have comitted, she’s got 22 hours to prove her innocence before she gets black-bagged by her government handlers.

So with Urban Fantasy being a well established genre, it only makes sense that Urban Sci-Fi would follow? Which is to say, The Girl Who Could Move Shit With Her Mind hits a lot of Urban Fantasy benchmarks: snarky protagonist, cool powers, in-depth dive into a particular city, sexy love interest. I don’t think Teagan wears a trenchcoat or leather pants at any point, however. Even still, the gimmick is, Teagan’s powers come from a vaguely mad-sciencey background, as opposed to being a half vampire or Merlin’s granddaughter or whatever.

And, like the best Urban Fantasies, The Girl Who Could Move Shit With Her Mind is a rollicking good time as poor Teagan gets put through the wringer, getting mugged, flashbanged, drugged, strangled, hogtied, heartbroken, and even hit by a car over the course of the book. It’s all written in fast-moving present tense, with plenty of snark and a genuine love and understanding of Los Angeles’ culture. Furthermore, Teagan herself is an entertaining narrator, and she’s got just enough character (and trauma!) beneath all the sarcasm to be compelling instead of obnoxious.

This said, the plot relies perhaps a little too much on coincidence (which honestly may be another ‘feature’ of the urban fantasy thing), and the shadowy government agency Teagan works for (and later runs from) is … kind of stupid? Which, honestly may be fairly accurate when it comes to shadowy government agencies. But honestly it should’ve been easier to prove Teagan’s innocence than it came out to be, but that would’ve relied on the evil X-files conspiracy jerks to be, uh, rational, and then you wouldn’t have a plot.

Ford’s written four books starring Teagan Frost so far, and the series has a strong enough start that I’ll look forward to reading them at some point in the future. I wouldn’t say The Girl Who Could Move Shit With Her Mind is particularly deep– but with a title like that, who would expect it to be? So yeah, if you’re up for a fun and fluffy bit of adventure, the Frost Files are worth a read.

Book Review: Soulsmith, by Will Wight

“The series gets better as it goes on.”

It’s a common refrain, one that I’ve said myself on more than one occasion. And quite often, it’s true! Like, there’s a whole thing where you can roughly determine the quality of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode by whether or not William Frakes has a beard or not.

When I started reading Will Wight’s Cradle series, I was told the same thing. Well, not with actor’s facial hair specifically, but I was told the series really picks up as it goes on. Which had me curious (and since Wight did a free giveaway of the first couple books in the series), I figured I’d see if that was true. Which brings us to Soulsmith.

Wight has a niche. That is to say, he’s Amazon’s leading self-publisher of “Progression Fantasy,” a sub-genre of fiction heavily influenced by Asian “Xianxia” fiction. The “progression” part of Progression Fantasy is quite literal, as the whole point of the sub-genre is to show characters becoming progressively stronger through the use of various weirdo magic martial arts or whatever. Though it’s worth noting that this progression isn’t literally tracked by experience points or whatever– that’d be a different sub-genre called LitRPG, which I have issues with just on general principle, but that’s another post entirely.

Soulsmith follows Lindon, the series’ protagonist, as he sets out and tries to survive in a mad world of deadly magic, despite the fact that his own personal magic is terribly, terribly weak. Without high powered kung fu of his own, Lindon is forced to rely on his wits– and also his friend, a young swordswoman named Yerin. Together, they set out across a dangerous wilderness, and soon find a “gold rush” sort of town filled with all kinds of deadly martial artists, all trying to extract treasure from a haunted, trap-filled ruin that’s just been discovered. And, of course, Lindon and Yerin soon run afoul of some of the factions in the boomtown, and … this all sounds more interesting than it actually is.

See, from the first chapter onward, Soulsmith kicks around sentences like “Lindon cycled pure madra through his twin cores,” expecting the reader to understand– and enjoy the terminology. On the one hand, crazy nonsense terminology is a key part of sci-fi and fantasy literature. On the other hand, for as complicated as Wight makes his various magic systems, it comes off as shallow, because there’s little depth to the books (at least the two I’ve read so far) beyond that. There’s also some business about Lindon studying to become a titular Soulsmith, somebody who makes magic weapons and items and stuff– which honestly is less Lindon finding creative ways around his lack of personal magic, and more an excuse for Wight to deliver some lectures about his magic system.

The frustrating thing about Soulsmith is that the story has the potential to be a lot better than it is, if everyone would just shut the hell up about how good their kung fu is. Almost every character with any amount of focus on them has the same motivation: “I must get stronger at magic kung fu so I can be the strongest.” Though Wight does spice things up a little by including the occasional character with the perspective of “ha ha my kung fu is already so much stronger than yours so I’m gonna do whatever I want.” I mean, when the average Street Fighter game has deeper thematic heft than your book, you may want to rethink some things.

Every character in this series is like this.

It’s all very one note, which is disappointing. Wight can write a solid action scene, and he cooks up all kinds of fun character imagery. Like, one of my favorite ‘factions’ was the Fishers, a clan of martial artists that fight with fishhook-shaped swords. Though not all of Wight’s imagery hits quite as well. Like, the boss of the Sandvipers, the local “designated bad guy” clan, fights with … two awls. Not daggers, just a pointy nail with a handle. I guess you could say it’s a snake-theming thing, but it’s not nearly as impressive as some of the other weaponry the other characters have.

So yeah, Soulsmith is a very Progression Fantasy book, with its focus on how characters can get more magic. It’s just that the book (and likely the series as a whole) is only focused on characters getting stronger, often just for its own sake. Like, okay, Lindon gets a pass because he’s got a big convoluted quest (to be stronger) to worry about, but most everyone else is just sort of … there. Hell, if Wight even tossed in a character who was like “I just want to learn how to do hadokens so I can impress girls,” that’d be positively Shakesperian when compared to most everyone else in these books.

And again, the books aren’t necessarily bad, which almost makes it worse? Maybe it’s a fool’s errand to look for deep characterization in a series about “who has the best kung fu?” But Wight’s a skilled enough writer that he could apply deeper motivations, it’s just that he … doesn’t. Though really, this has me wondering if I’m just not a fan of Will Wight, or if I’m just not a fan of Progression Fantasy in general?

Honestly, it’s probably both.

I’ve still got a couple more Cradle books on my Kindle app however, ‘cause, well, they were free. Might read another one sometime if I’m feeling salty.

Or heck, maybe the series will get better with the next one.