Angelfall, by Susan Ee

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 28, 2012

Summary: It’s been six weeks since the angels of the apocalypse destroyed the world as we know it. Only pockets of humanity remain.

Savage street gangs rule the day while fear and superstition rule the night.

When angels fly away with a helpless girl, her seventeen-year-old sister Penryn will do anything to get her back…

Thoughts: The apocalypse has come, and it was by the hand of angels that humanity fell. People survive in tiny scattered pockets, hiding desperately from angels who are bent on wiping out the last remaining few people. Penryn’s in a tougher position than most after her wheelchair-bound little sister gets stolen by a band of angels, and her schizophrenic mother is no help in getting her back. But with the reluctant help of Raffe, a wounded and outcast angel, she might just stand a chance.

Post-apocalyptic YA fiction isn’t exactly short on the shelves these days, but Angelfall still manages to stand out decently amid other offerings. It manages to use elements from Judeo-Christian religion without being overtly religious and preachy, which is a fine line to walk and was much appreciated. There is a God, in theory, but He only talks to one angel, who relays messages to the rest, and nobody’s really communicated with Him otherwise in who knows how long. Rather than having scenes about how people could have been saved if only they’d believed, yadda yadda yadda, it’s established that most of the angels don’t know why they’re there. They just followed orders. It’s more like the angels are incidentally attached to religion rather than religion being the focus of everything, which was nice.

Penryn’s journey leads her through treacherous territory, not just in having to help Raffe along and keep his true angelic nature hidden from any humans they encounter, but also through a paramilitary camp, and eventually into the heart of an angel base in California. From the reader’s perspective, the journey is fairly quick, skipping over most of the aspects of travel in favour of detailing the more disturbing aspects of what’s happening in the world. For the most part, this worked well, allowing for the story to move forward at a brisk pace. A couple of scenes, though, seemed utterly out of nowhere and pointless, such as Penryn arranging to get in a girly-fight with someone and lose so that people could place bets and be entertained, in exchange for her getting help in her quest. The reason this was so pointless is that it took about a chapter and a half of setup and then was aborted for more important and more interesting occurrences, leaving me wondering why that bit couldn’t have just been cut out.

For the most part, it was a very interesting story with an uncommon twist on current apocalyptic trends. Which is surprising that I can say, given that you’d think bringing angels into the end times wouldn’t be that big a leap, given North America’s heavy Christian population. Maybe that’s the very reason why it’s so different, though; few people wanted to step into those waters and walk that fine line between having inspiration drawn from religion and delivering an entertaining secular story. I think Ee is to be praised for managing that quite adeptly, for creating that kind of story without tipping the balance too far one way or the other.

The characters were quite interesting, too. Raffe’s true identity wasn’t that difficult to figure out for anyone who’s got a semi-decent knowledge of commonly referenced angels, though weirdly, he was the character I was least interested in. I felt that he was underdeveloped, and not just in the way that he was attempting to keep much of his identity secret from just about everybody. He would go from — if you’ll excuse the pun — holier-than-thou to very down-to-earth in a second, ranging from familiarity with modern culture to suddenly being annoyed that humans dare think of angels as anything but superior, and I was left with the feeling that Ee couldn’t quite pin down who she wanted this guy to be.

Far more interesting, I found, was Penryn’s mother, and the way her schizophrenia affected her during the extremely troubled times. As a woman who confronted demons on a daily basis, suddenly finding herself in a world where angels are killing humans all over the place must have been simultaneously confusing and all too familiar. There were many times when I couldn’t tell whether her hallucinations were actually drawn from being able to see and comprehend that supernatural events around her in a way that nobody else could, or whether she was just a truly distressed woman in a terrifying world, struggling to get by and coincidentally hitting on a few things that worked. I was hoping to see more development for her, but she really only showed up sporadically, so instead I’ll keep hoping that she gets a bigger part to play in future books.

If there was any one thing that bothered me about Angelfall, it was the reveal near the end, that angels were working on some weird science experiment that created strange scorpion-angel monsters that sucked the life out of people. It felt over the top, and pretty pointless considering that the premise for this book is, “Angels brought to apocalypse and there’s an internal power struggle going on.” That alone could have provided plenty of fodder for a great story, but throwing in the scorpion things and the mutilation of kidnapped human children felt like the author was trying to one-up herself with plot twists where none were needed. It was supposed to be terrifying, and visually it was, but at the same time it fell flat because it felt so very out of place.

But despite that, the majority of the story was quite good. Relatively tight pacing, and interesting premise, and plenty of potential that I hope gets explored further in future novels. It’s more than enough to make me want to keep reading and find out how things develop. It’s a unique story that’s more than welcome on the bookshelves of YA fans, insightful and very human.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

A Crown For Cold Silver, by Alex Marshall

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 14, 2015

Summary: FIVE VILLAINS. ONE LEGENDARY GENERAL. A FINAL QUEST FOR VENGEANCE.

Twenty years ago, feared general Cobalt Zosia led her five villainous captains and mercenary army into battle, wrestling monsters and toppling an empire. When there were no more titles to win and no more worlds to conquer, she retired and gave up her legend to history.

Now the peace she carved for herself has been shattered by the unprovoked slaughter of her village. Seeking bloody vengeance, Zosia heads for battle once more, but to find justice she must confront grudge-bearing enemies, once-loyal allies, and an unknown army that marches under a familiar banner.

Thoughts: Do you know those days when you’re in the mood for something epic, something that hearkens back to the classic fantasy most of us grew up on, and yet still in the mood for something a little bit different? Something that offers creative twists on familiar tropes, something that straddles the boundary between the old and the new and comes out swinging. That’s A Crown For Cold Silver in a nutshell.

The trope twisting starts off fairly minor, and doesn’t look like much of anything at first. You’ve got a destroyed town and a woman who swears revenge against the person who did it, only instead of just being some random woman, she’s actually a retired general, believed dead by just about everyone, forced to come out of hiding when the massacre occurs. It leads on her on a path that really gets going once an old friend, someone who fought by her side decades ago, sends her on a quest to rescue his kidnapped daughter. On other branches of the plot, a man with a mysterious past escorts a group of rich idiots through treacherous territory, indulging their desire for adventure against his better judgment. A man from a tribal community leaves home with his grandfather, seeking his long-lost uncle with a reputation for cowardice and dishonour.

If all of those intertwining stories sound like generic plots from fantasy-themed video games, you’d be right. The secret lies not in the bare bones of the plot, but in the presentation and the little details that get built up as things go. That kidnapped daughter? Not quite as kidnapped as you’d think. (Spoiler alert: she left home of her own volition to pose as Zosia returned and lead a revolution.) You get a host of both female and male characters who can kick ass and take names, both on the “good” side and the “bad” side of the conflict. People are complex and flawed and brilliantly human, no one person has the full right of things, and everything mixes to create a fantastically compelling story that’s far more than it seems at first blush.

The world-building is absolutely exquisite. The characters are from dozens of different cultures analogous to ones in the real world, and by that I don’t just mean that the world is populated by white people who celebrate holidays a little differently in one village than the next. I mean you see analogues for India, Korea, places that range from central Europe to Africa. It’s diverse and complex, as a world should be. Same-sex pairings are as common, valid, and unremarkable as opposite-sex pairings. Men and women are treated pretty much equally, in accordance with their skills, but much like with same-sex pairings, it’s not a big deal. Why make a big deal out of something that’s so commonplace?

This is where I found Marshall’s writing to be amazing. So many books try for this, to present a modern cultural ideal as realised in a fantasy or future setting. let’s really make women equal in status and treatment to men, let’s make it so that same-sex couples are just as valid and okay as opposite-sex ones. But rarely does it come off as well as intended. There’s always a subtle element of… Not preachiness, exactly, but a little bit of muttering about how good it is that equality happens and how bad it is when bids for equality fail. There’s also some aside or subplot about why it’s bad. It’s meant to be a compare-and-contrast moment, a look at the idealized presentation versus how things are here and now. Marshall manages to avoid this, side-stepping it neatly by essentially saying, “Yeah, this is a thing, now let’s move on with the story.” It’s an element of world-building, not a subplot.

Now, I’m not saying that anything with an emphasis on same-sex pairings, for instance, is thus moral fiction because it does try to make a point of saying that it’s all fine and good. 999 out of 1000, that’s not the goal of such fiction. it’s equanimity versus equality, I think. Leveling the playing field versus the playing field actually already being level. In A Crown for Cold Silver, the playing field is level, and such things are equal. In the same way that women in the novel can smoke pipes and not be called unladylike for doing so, because it’s just a thing that’s done. (And who would really dare to call Zosia unladylike, anyway?)

I’m really bad at saying what I’m trying to say here. Maybe it’s best to just cut my losses and move on.

A lot of this comes into play when people describe this book as “trope-bending.” There are a load of familiar fantasy tropes in this book, so many that I’m hard-pressed to identify them all, but it still comes across as original because of all the subtle ways things are handled. Religion and secular government being at odds with each other, military folk with grudges against each other, loyal friends having agendas of their own, old legends rising from the mists of myth. You could break it all down into component parts and feel very sure you’ve seen it all done a dozen times or more in other stories. But this book still feels fresh and new, a different take on old elements, and it works wonders for indulging that craving for classic fantasy and something unique that very much stands on its own without needing to stand on the shoulders of giants to be great.

From drugbugs to massive battles, Marshall manages to achieve something wonderful with A Crown For Cold Silver. It’s a doorstopper of a book but it fairly flies by, and it’s hard to not get pulled into the rich and detailed world and the intricate plot that gets woven through it. It’s satisfying, it’s entertaining, and the humour is sharp and damn near perfect. If you’re looking for something new with action and intrigue aplenty, then look no further. A Crown for Cold Silver delivers it all.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

READALONG: Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone – Week 2

This week I continued the readalong for Max Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise, and as with last week, I’ve got some questions to answer. This week’s questions have been provided courtesy of Lisa at Over the Effing Rainbow.

1)  So we’re halfway in, and we seem to have uncovered the culprit already… What did you make of the confrontation at Seven Leaf?

Well, I’d say the fact that we’re only halfway in means we haven’t uncovered the culprit. What a boring second half the book would have then!

Though that does bring up an interesting point on perspective. From the viewpoint of the characters, they think they’ve solved the problem. We as readers know that they can’t possibly have, or at least that there’s a larger connected problem, because of where the confrontation happened in the book. I find this similar to problems that arise with first-person narratives. Knowing that a book is told from behind the eyes of a character takes the edge off some of the action, because you know they have to survive to be telling the story. Here, it was an interesting event, but from our standing-back perspective, we know that it can’t have been the end of things, so the weight of the event is lessened.

Of course, Gladstone being the fantastic writer that he is, he’ll probably make me eat my words with some amaing plot twist later on.

2)  Temoc is still turning up at random, and still protesting his innocence. Doth he protest too much…?

Not really. Well, actually, it’s hard to say. Much like with Mal, I don’t think he’s behind this directly, because he was too obviousd a suspect. But it wouldn’t surprise me if someone influenced by him has a bit of a hand in all this.

Maybe it’s all misdirection and smoke-and-mirrors, but weirdly, he seems too honest to be lying. I know the best liars always do seem honest, but he seems like he wears his heart on his sleeve, and really, what would he have to gain by lying? Seems to me that if he is behind a lot of this stuff, intentionally if indirectly, he’d want to draw sympathetic people to his side and make proclamations. “Look at what our faith can do!”

3)  The Red King. Discuss.

Well, that’s not at all vague! :p Honestly, he doesn’t interest me that much. Or rather, I don’t find him as compelling as other characters. He has a powerful presence and his fingers in many pies, and there’s clearly more to this RKC-Heartstone deal than appears on the surface. But while he plays a large part in directing events, it’s thus far been largely from the shadows. He’s a mysterious figure without much mystery to him, and I find him good as window dressing, but so far I’m more interested by Caleb than by the King in Red.

4)  And let’s not forget Mal! I confess, I did not see any of those surprises coming. What do you think of Caleb’s ‘sweetheart’ now?

Mal’s a really interesting character because she’s got so many layers to her. She’s very real, very flawed, and absolutely fascinating. I can’t wait to see more of her revealed. I’m especially interested to see more of her religious background come into play, since that little gem was handed to us near the end of this section, and religious integration fascinates me.

Back in the saddle

I apologize for the lack of posts here these past few weeks. I’d love to come forward with some excuse about being busy or whatnot, but the truth is that I just fell into a bit of a reading slump and didn’t get anything done worth talking about. To date this month, I’ve only finished 2 novels. Well, and 3 graphic novels, but since they’re not ones I’ll be reviewing, they don’t really count toward anything that could create content here. Hence the lack of posts.

But the slump seems to be over, and I’m right back in the reading groove. I guess sometimes it just takes having a break and letting yourself focus on something else to give you that little pick-me-up we all sometimes need.

I know that nobody here expects me to stick to some post schedule or anything, since I don’t really have a formal one. I just post whenever I have something to post. It’s more notable when I do post than when I don’t, I think, so days when nothing new happens here isn’t really that big a deal. But when I go weeks with barely a review, I get disappointed in myself. I set my own pace, and when I can’t keep up with the goals I set for myself, I feel like a failure, like I’ve done something wrong.

Even when I’m only answering to myself and I’m probably the only one who feels the lack of posts. I just feel guilty, like I screwed up. And that creates a horrible feedback cycle where sometimes I feel like posting again will draw attention to the fact that I haven’t posted for a while, so I delay that moment, and delaying makes it all worse…

That’s killed blogs I’ve attempted in the past. Hell, it’s killed personal blogs where all I talk about are the stupid things my cats do and what I cooked for supper, posts that only friends have anything resembling an interest in. And they sure don’t judge me harshly for a lack of posting!

Thankfully, I didn’t fall into that trap this time. It’s been a close call a few times here, but I overcame it then, and I overcame it again this time. It helps that the reading slump ended and I’ve been diving back into books and I’ve had things worth talking about again. That always helps.

So yeah, my apologies on the relative lack of content, and my assurances that it will improve again from here on.

SPFBO musings

I’ve been sitting on these thoughts for a while, but I think enough of the thoughts have come together properly so that I can actually talk about them. And what it comes down to is this: I make a terrible pseudo-agent.

My typical reading style is to read a book from cover to cover and then review it. I don’t really do DNF reviews, and it feels wrong to start a novel and then not finish it. Long-time readers of Bibliotropic might notice that I’ve stuck with some truly terrible books, so that I could feel justified in giving them a proper review. Bad writing, flat characters, nonsensical and counterintuitive stories. I’ve made myself sit through them all, so that I could feel, in the end, like my review will be accurate and like the book is done justice.

Justice doesn’t always mean “positive review.” Justice, to me, means accuracy. It means looking at all the factors and weighing them and making a judgment call.

So the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is forcing me to go against my instincts and look at things in a whole new way. I’m under no obligation to read any of the books I was given from beginning to end. I can stop partway if I feel that the book just isn’t doing it for me, for whatever reason. That’s unusual for me.

As Mark Lawrence put it, we’re all putting on our pseudo-agent hats. We’re handed a batch of potentials and told to pick one that we feel is the best. If we were in charge of passing off one of these books to a publisher, which one would it be?

This is why I figure I make a bad pseudo-agent. An agent would be empowered to, if not inspired by the synopsis and cover letter, just put the submission aside and move on without reading the first page. This isn’t necessarily the agent being picky. This is the agent knowing what works for them, what will excite and motivate them, because how can you pitch a book to someone else if you have to say, “Yeah, this book really isn’t my thing, but it’s pretty good anyway. Maybe it’s not your thing either, but you should give it a try.”

An agent is, in many ways, a salesperson. And if there’s anything I’ve learned from my years of working in sales, it’s this: if you want to sell something, you have to believe in it. If you can’t get excited about a product, how can you expect to get someone else excited? You need to be able to say, “This product is amazing, because [this], [this], and [that]. And it’s right for you because [reasons].” And you need to be able to mean it.

(Or at least fake it well.)

Getting back to my point, if I was acting like a proper agent, I likely would have discarded the vast majority of what I was given, right off the bat. I could have looked at the summaries of all the novels and discounted at least a third because they didn’t immediately sound exciting. Not that some didn’t sound potentially interesting, depending on how they were written, but based on first impressions alone, “potentially interesting if other factors line up,” isn’t necessarily something you want to devote your limited time to.

I probably could have discounted another third after the first chapter. The writing in most of the books I’ve gotten is okay, it’s decent, but a lot of them aren’t wow-worthy. They don’t make me sit up and go, “Damn, this is good!”

I feel like I should be giving every book every chance it can possibly have, even if I know it’s not going to end up approaching the winner’s circle. Over the years, you develop an instinct about books. Or at least I have. I can usually tell what star rating I will end up giving a book by the time I’ve read the first 5 pages. Things may change as I read on. Sometimes the rating may go up or down by a star depending on how the story plays out. I’ve noticed that 9 times out of 10, though, I end up agreeing with my early assessment. At the end, more often than not I feel the same way as at the beginning.

The book I’ve already reviewed for the SPFBO? Had I been acting like a proper agent, I probably wouldn’t have read it all to the end. The writing was okay, but uneven. The story had potential, but the potential wasn’t fully achieved. The characters had no obvious motivation for what they did. It was, in short, decent but average. Okay, but could have been better. (And I don’t feel bad saying that here because I said it in the full review.) I still think it has potential. I think if it were worked on and expanded a bit more, it could be great. But as is, it’s not great.

It’s not going to be the book I choose to pass on to the others in round 2. I already know that. I knew that pretty early on, unless everything else I got was somehow abysmal in quality (and that isn’t the case).

This is my quandary. I don’t know whether I should continue as I have been, giving a book every chance and seeing how it plays out from beginning to end. Or whether I should break out the red pen, start slashing titles off the list, and concerning myself with only a few titles that I really think will do it for me. I know that sometimes my early judgments can be wrong. Sometimes books surprise me. Sometimes I discount a book because the synopsis doesn’t push the right buttons with me and then I pick it up later on a whim and find that I really like it and shouldn’t have made that snap decision.

That’s the risk you take, I guess, when you do what I do. And I mean that primarily for book reviewing, not wearing the pseudo-agent hat.

I see other participants in this challenge approaching it in different ways. Some are reading the book in full (at least so far) and then picking the best out of a smaller batch, then moving on to the next batch. Others have discounted most of the offerings and are down to only a handful of potentials they will devote more time to. There’s no right or wrong way to do this.

…The problem is, I think, that I have two warring inclinations. The first is to do what I’ve been doing, reading everything I can and exposing myself to a lot of books that are mediocre or uninteresting. The second is to be more ruthless and approach this like I am an agent, at least in the quality department, and risk missing a couple of gems. There are pros and cons to either choice. And I’m uncertain as to which one is better, both for me and for the books I read.

READALONG: Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone – Week 1

I forgot to mention it before now, but I’m participating in a readalong for Max Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise, book 2 of the Craft Sequence. I enjoyed the first book, Three Parts Dead, a while back, and this readalong gave me the perfect motivation to stop procrastinating and to read the rest of the series. And though I’ve only read less than a third of it so far, I’m not regretting that decision.

This week, we all read the first 15 chapters plus the first interlude, which sounds like a lot until you realise that the chapters are short and that this was less than 100 pages. Not too bad a requirement for a week, really, in between the other reading I do. As is typical in a readalong, we all have some questions to answer. This weeks questions are courtesy of Susan over at Dab of Darkness.

(Sidenote – Does anyone else in readalongs with questions like this ever feel self-conscious answering them? We’re all talking about speculation and unknowns and our theories when other people reading this may well have read the book and know what happens, and they’re probably sitting and thinking, “Haha, those answers are hilarious in their ignorance!” Seriously, am I the only one who feels this way?)


1) Poison in the Bright Mirror reservoir! What are your thoughts on the infestation? Then an explosion later on! Any ideas of who is the culprit yet? Are the two events related?

I think it’s safe to say the two events are related, though I’m not sure how yet. I don’t think Temoc is behind it, though. Someone like him, yes, and probably inspired by him, but not him. He’s too obvious a suspect to actually be the culprit, I figure. Ditto Mal. This is a mystery, and in mysteries, the truth is never so easy to spot. My money’s on the King in Red, just because it would be a twist and he could stand to gain a lot from events he controls like that.

2) Let’s talk about Mal and the sport of cliff running. Care to compare this sport to one here in our real world? What do you think Mal gets out of the sport?

Since cliff running is a thrill-seeking thing, it comes across very much like skydiving. You get the adrenaline rush, and if you screw it up, there’s the potential for massive bodily damage. Can you call skydiving a sport, though? Still.

Honestly, Mal may just be an adrenaline junkie looking for another fix, and that’s why she does it. But much like with the previous question, I don’t think so. At least, I don’t think that’s all of it. She seems like there’s more to her than just that thrill-seeking behaviour.

3) Are you enjoying the deities and culture this book is infused with? Has any of the architecture wowed or frightened you?

Absolutely. I love the way deities seem to work in this world, the way they’re powerful but not necessarily divine, depending on how you view the idea. They’re a hard thing to wrap my head around properly, and that’s part of what I like so much about them.

As for culture, well, I’m a culture geek myself, and I love seeing amazing worldbuilding like this. Real-world analogues that aren’t medieval Europe are awesome to see in fantasy, and generally speaking, urban secondary-world fantasy isn’t exactly common, so the novelty of it really interests me, alongside the awesome culture stuff.

Can’t say I’ve been wowed much by the architecture. I probably would be were I seeing it right in front of me, though.

4) The Red King is a pretty serious guy. Will he make the deal with Alaxic concerning the powerhouses known as Achel & Aquel?

Probably. It likely wouldn’t have been brought up as a plot point were it not going to develop further. I definitely think there’s more to that deal than meets the eye, though, but I couldn’t say just what that is.

5) Finally, Caleb has a wealth of scars, linguistic skills, and a complex relationship with his father. Discuss!

Caleb’s an interesting character. I like that complex relationship with his father, since there’s clearly a great deal of animosity there but the two are still very much on speaking terms, albeit a strained and mistrustful one. There’s clearly a lot of backstory there that hasn’t been revealed yet, and I’m curious to see the layers peeled back.

And being a language geek as well as a culture geek, I always love multilingual characters.

Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off: DNF Batch 1

I know, I know, hardly the most original title for the post. But it’s at least straightforward. I’ve gone through a few of the books in my batch now, read some all the way through and passed others after trying bits of them. As I mentioned before, anything I read from beginning to end will get a full review, but the ones I didn’t finish deserve an explanation as to why. Hence, this post.

Protector, by Vanna Smythe

I had such high hopes for this one, because the plot sounded interesting and the cover, I felt, was professionally done and quite attractive. But it didn’t really hold my attention when I read it. The writing was okay, but the dialogue, especially, felt very stilted, like the author was trying to go for a very high-fantasy tone but instead it left the feeling of amateur actors on stage. Combined with a lack of detail in descriptions, the story felt bleak and unappealing.

Honestly, the story may be excellent. The synopsis certainly leads me to think that way, and it’s got dozens of good reviews on Amazon. In the end, I think this may be a case of me being a bit picky combined with the book not really being for me. And there’s no shame in that.

I’m going to keep this one around and give it another try after this challenge has ended. For me, writing syle can make or break my enjoyment of a novel, but that doesn’t mean that the story is bad. I figure there’s enough in it to warrant a closer look, but for now I’m putting it aside and moving on to other books.

The Bone Flower Queen, by TL Morganfield

I would like to stress that the reason I DNF’d this book has nothing to do with the quality of the writing, the plot, or any other reason that I might normally be dissatisfied with a book. No, the reason that this one got DNF’d is because it’s book 2 of a trilogy, and I simply haven’t read the first book. And within the first few pages, there are mentions made to previous events, and the author included a note that essentially said, “BTW, if you really want to enjoy this, read the first book first.” Which I can’t do, as it wasn’t the one submitted for the SPFBO challenge.

And believe me, I wish it had been. When I glanced at the first few pages, I enjoyed the writing, the story seemed interesting, and it’s a book I very much want to read! Historical fantasy set in Mexico? Praise from Aliette de Bodard? I have no idea why this series isn’t attracting more attention.

I can say with certainty that if I get my hands on the first book, I’m going to dive into this series quite happily.

Ascent of the Unwanted, by Nathan T Boyce

I didn’t get very far with this one. On the first page alone, I felt it needed a copyeditor, since there were misplaced commas and misspellings. Pushing through to the first chapter, I found the writing syle unpolished and simplistic. Based on writing style, I would have assumed that the book was intended for younger readers, mid-grade fantasy, but given that the synopsis of the plot involves murder, rape, and prostitution, I’m thinking this isn’t the case. No real motivation to return to this one.


I’ve at least glanced at att the books in my list, to see if anything jumps out at me right away that would make me want to not look any closer at it. Even the ones with descriptions that I didn’t think were that interesting at least seemed to hold some attraction for those first few pages, which is something I didn’t expect, and I’m quite happy about it. That’s no guarantee I’ll end up reading them all or that there’ll be no more DNFs over the course of the challenge, but at least there’s that initial toe-in-the-water test done.

On a related note, I’m really enjoying seeing the SPFBO posts on other blogs. I’ve found a couple of books that I want to take a closer look at that ended up on other lists, so even books that don’t make it to the final round of judging have at least garnered some attention. And isn’t that the whole point of this, after all?

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some more reading to do!

I Will be Silent

On April 16th, I will be spending the day in silence, for charity, as part of Free The Children’s “We Are Silent” fundraiser. The goal is to be silent for the day to take a stand against the enforced silence that others have to endure, through bullying, through poverty, through circumstance that people can’t help being born into. Being silent to prove a point about people needing to find a voice.

My aim is to raise $100. A modest goal, but then, I’ve always been pretty lousy at fundraising, so if I can hit that goal, I’ll be happy. The money will go to fund education programs in rural China, to help kids there get an education and learn skills and maybe, hopefully, reach a better place where their voices are heard and their lives are improved.

I have experience with silence. I can’t say that I’ve experienced great poverty, or a lack of education, or war. My silence was limited to feeling like nobody gave a toss about me, that I was worthless and shouldn’t even try. That there are still people who are unempowered not by things like depression but by government regulation and lousy circumstance and the widespread idea that they shouldn’t even have a voice, let alone use it for anything, is sickening. So I know a bit of the power of silence, and what it can do to keep people from standing up.

That’s why, at a time when I can stand up and use silence as a weapon, use it to prove a point, I will. I am.

So here’s what I ask. If you have a few spare dollars, please consider donating through my sponsor link. None of this money goes to me; it’s not a scam. If you don’t have the money to spare (and believe me, I completely understand being in that situation too!), then that’s okay. If you want, please share the link. I don’t want to turn this into some loud viral “SHARE THIS LINK OR ADORABLE PUPPIES WILL DIE” kind of thing, because I hate those and don’t want to be That Person. But any help is appreciated.

And if you want to join the campaign and be silent that day to make a stand and show how powerful silence can be, then more power to you! I’d love to see a bunch of my bookish friends join this; we’re nothing is not vocal about our causes and our passions, and we make change where we see it’s needed, and I swear I’ve never met a more awesome group of people committed to making things better through the power of words (or in this case, a lack of words).

So that’s why I’ll be silent on April 16th. Literal silence to help fight against metaphorical silence. And I hope it can make even a little bit of difference, raising that awareness.

Thanks for listening. I now return you to your regularly scheduled bookblog.

The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 7, 2015

Summary: Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, soaring battle kites, conspiring goddesses, underwater boats, magical books, as a streetfighter-cum-general who takes her place as the greatest tactitian of the age. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.

Thoughts: When people think about epic fantasy, they often think about a a series, something longer than a trilogy, that spans many years and is full of great and far-reaching events. Ken Liu manages to achieve this in a single novel. Though it is the first book of a series, the scale that it deals with is immense, and it works fairly well as a standalone epic fantasy, which can be hard to come by.

The Grace of Kings features a large and diverse cast of characters, but the story generally revolves around two main figures: Kuni Garu, the smooth-talking bandit-turned-war-leader, and Mata Zyndu, a hard and fierce fighter who shows no weakness and despises betrayal. With the previous emperor recently dead and his heir being a boy with no knowledge of governance and so who leaves the running of the empire to his advisors, the empire is in turmoil. Abuses of power run rampant. Death from tyranny and neglect are everywhere. And not being the type of people to take this quietly, Kuni and Mata take it upon themselves to make a difference. As people flock to them and the lines are drawn, great change is in the air for the empire. But as with any war,it’s far from clean, it’s far from clear-cut, and it’s as brutal and political as anyone could expect.

And all the while, the gods watch on…

Honestly, it’s a difficult novel to sum up properly. It’s full of military strategy and tactics and politics, as real war is. It’s not possible to say that one side is right and the other is wrong. It’s not possible to just root for the good guys, the liberators, because there’s every chance that the army who liberates you will turn into your new oppressors. Your loyal advisor may be plotting your demise. When the winds change direction, so too might the people closest to you. War is messy, and not just on the battlefield, and Liu portrays this well. As such, it’s difficult to say, “Oh yes, this side does this thing and that side does that thing,” because it’s true right up to the point where it changes. And then it changes half a dozen times. The lines get redrawn so many time you might well need a flowchart to keep up with things.

It’s that very thing that makes it such a good novel, though. For one thing, it’s definitely got reread value, since reading it through a second time might make many of the events a lot clearer when you know a bit of what’s coming. Much like how it’s hard to tell how any given event will turn out while it’s happening, in hindsight things often seem a lot clearer. So if you’re looking for a realistic portrayal of both the violent and the political sides of war, then this is a fantastic novel for those things.

It’s also fantastically realistic in that not every character sticks around to the end, and not just because they get killed. Again, much in the way that it happens in real life, characters show up, play a small role for a few chapters, and then vanish into history, leaving a little influence behind but not always an essential one, one that changes the course of the story or is absolutely necessary to the tale being told. Kikomi, for instance, played a role that was important for her people, she had a bit of influence on Mata especially, but when all is said and done, her scenes and her name could have been excised from the novel and I don’t really think anything would have changed.

Which is a shame, because she was really a fascinating character, and I wished she’d had a larger role in the story.

This is both a positive and a negative, in my opinion. As I said, it makes it wonderfully realistic, because people are like that. They come and go and don’t always have some great role to play in the grand scheme of things. I liked seeing that, because they were like little side stories that added detail and flavour to the piece, made it feel more complete. On the other hand, it creates scenes that feel an awful lot like filler, scenes that could have been cut without losing anything, and things felt meandering at times.

The large cast of characters also was both of a positive and a negative. They’re hard things to manage at the best of times, and then you add in all the chaos of war. They bordered on unwieldy here, and if you asked me what certain characters did, I might not be able to tell you. They played important roles, won important battles and strongly influenced how the story would turn out, but there were so many of them that they were hard to keep straight.

Perhaps this is a very subjective complaint. Other people with better minds for it might have had a much easier time. And I can’t deny that they had great importance and added a good deal to the story. But some of them were just unmemorable.

But onto things that were positive without anything negative attached to them. I adored the addition of the gods to the story. They weren’t just passive watchers, either, as it would have been easy to do when they had all made a pact not to directly interfere or bring harm to mortals. But they often appeared in disguise to offer advice to characters who had attracted their attention, and in the case of Tazu, influenced the outcome of battles in a very clear way but still managed to stick to the letter of the pact, if not the spirit of it. They were varied, primal, and fascinating characters in their own rights.

It’s not often that I can say this, but I loved the presentation of war here. Specifically, I liked that it wasn’t a gradual build to one giant fight that would decide everything. It was a series of small victories or losses. The final battle of the book wasn’t any bigger than the ones that had come before it. Territories were gained and lost numerous times. And as I mentioned previously, sometimes the victor oppressed citizens of newly-captured cities much more harshly than the people who held it before; it wasn’t a story of good versus evil, no matter how much the rebel armies had started with the good intention of freeing people from tyranny and slavery. Good people did horrible things in the name of the greater good, and that greater good wasn’t necessarily good in the long run. Mata Zyndu might have been brilliant on the battlefield, but he’s lousy at politics and governance, and people suffered for what he did in the name of creating a better world.

Ken Liu has managed to do something I didn’t think possible. He managed to make me like how a war was presented. I honestly didn’t think it could be done, but evidently, I was wrong, and it’s The Grace of Kings that I have to thank for it. The realistic portrayal of people and events, the way things were less than clear-cut, and the way it wasn’t all about either fighting or politics, but a solid mix of the two, was genius. I’m already looking forward to the second book in the series, especially knowing that at least one of my favourite characters makes a comeback, and I have high hopes that it will be just as great as this one. The Grace of Kings is a brilliant novel, full of action and philosophy in equal measure, paving the way for silkpunk fantasy to take a strong place on many bookshelves.

(Received for review from the author.)

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Ken Liu

Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings hits the shelves today, and because he’s an awesome person, he was willing to do a short interview with me, answering a few questions I had about the book (my review of which will be live tomorrow, so stay tuned)!

1) One scene struck me fairly early on, and that was the scene with people trying to convince Erishi that a deer was a horse. That reminded me of a commonly-told meaning behind the Japanese characters for “idiot,” (written with the kanji for “horse” and “deer”), the story for which goes that it refers to someone so stupid they can’t tell the difference between a horse and a deer. Was it something similar that inspired that scene?

The Grace of Kings is a re-imagining of the history and legends surround the rise of the Han Dynasty in “silkpunk” epic fantasy form, and as such, I borrowed liberally from the source material when it suited my purposes. This particular scene is based on a real episode during the reign of the second emperor of the Qin Dynasty in Records of the Grand Historian, by Sima Qian. Sima’s history is the foundation for Chinese historiography, and this particular episode has become an often-used allusion in Chinese to describe those who would deliberately confuse truths with falsehoods.

2) What was the inspiration behind Mata Zyndu’s double pupils? (It was as a result of seeing this in The Grace of Kings that I discovered pupula duplex in the first place, so I’m really curious!)

In traditional Chinese physiognomy, the presence of the “double pupil” is supposed to be a sign that the person is destined for great things. Mata Zyndu is based on the historical figure of Xiang Yu, who was said to be double-pupiled. Ovid and other writers of classical Western antiquity also spoke of “pupula duplex” as a distinguishing mark (the Evil Eye), though it’s not clear exactly what physical condition the phrase referred to.

I chose to take the phrase literally, as this is, after all, a work of fantasy.

 3) From a writing standpoint, was it difficult to handle such a large cast of characters, especially when so much military strategy was involved?

My experience was with short stories, which could be kept all in the head during drafting. The biggest challenge for me as I shifted to the novel was keeping all the details about plot, timing, worldbuilding, and character traits straight. I ended up having to learn to keep a wiki for myself and essentially write a mini Wikipedia about Dara to be sure I recorded all my decisions.

4) Of them all, who was your favourite character to write?

This depends on the day you ask me the question! I’d say probably Gin Mazoti. She’s an interesting character who will develop further in the sequel, so giving her enough of a character arc in Book I to be satisfying was a challenge, but also instructive.

Thanks so much, Ken, for dropping by and agreeing toanswer questions about this amazing fantasy! (And I completely agree about Gin; she’s one of my favourite characters, and I can’t wait to see more of her in the sequel!)