The Spiral Wars

By Joel Shepherd

My father-in-law is a long-time sci-fi fan, so when he recommended Joel Shepherd’s Spiral Wars series, I listened.

I’m so glad I did! At this point, I’m part-way through book 3 out of 5, and I am loving it. Shepherd is an excellent writer, and this is exactly the kind of sci-fi that really does it for me: it’s technical, but not too technical, the emphasis is on action, but big ideas are involved, and perhaps most importantly, the characters are 3-D and compelling. The series definitely has the same kind of feel as that of The Expanse, which is high praise considering how much I’ve enjoyed those books as well.

The books follow the human warship Phoenix, which at the beginning of book 1 has just finished up its role in a century-long war against an alien species. The Phoenix crew return home to be feted, only to find themselves pulled into a political conflict, which quickly grows in scope and complexity, eventually threatening the human race itself. Like the Expanse, the books are a combination of “hard sci-fi,” along with a healthy mix of adventure and mystery.

Part of the appeal of the books is the portrayal of non-human races, as Shepherd is able to create some fascinating and real-seeming alien races for his characters to interact with. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how things unfold in the latter half of the series (there are 5 books total).  I’ll update this post once I finish them all, but for now, I’m comfortable in declaring The Spiral Wars… mandatory reading.

Rating: 4 – Mandatory Reading

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Expanse, A Fire Upon The Deep.

Altered Carbon

By Richard K. Morgan

I came across the Altered Carbon TV show before realizing it was a book series, so while I typically prefer to read the source material first, in this case I went the other way around. The good news is that the TV show is highly entertaining, even if it departs from the book narrative in some significant ways.

The story follows “envoy” Takeshi Kovacs, which is sort of like a super-spy, with the important twist that much of one’s training involves quickly and seamlessly adapting to a new body. In the distant future, bodies are fungible, and much of the book’s narrative involves exploring the question of how human reality would be affected if our minds and bodies could be mixed and matched at will.

The series’ initial novel (titled Altered Carbon) is set up as a futuristic murder mystery. Kovacs, who had been serving an extended prison sentence for various forms of malfeasance, is woken up in a strange place and given an offer he can’t refuse. You know the drill. As you’d expect in this kind of noir, we follow Kovacs deeper down the rabbit hole, and there are quite a few satisfying twists along the way.

Overall, I really enjoyed the series’ first entry, and will happily be picking up the sequels at some point. The TV show does a good job of nailing some of the sultry, lurid nature of the story (Kovacs spends a lot of time tearing his way through whorehouses), so this is definitely a book for an slightly more mature crowd. The story can also get complex at times, so reader beware if you prefer your mysteries simple. With all that said, I thought it was an excellent read, and recommend it to anyone who likes the darker side of sci-fi.

Rating: 4 – Mandatory Reading

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Snow Crash, Leviathan Wakes

The Books of Babel

By Josiah Bancroft

I picked up Senlin Ascends, the first of the Books of Babel, on a whim, and boy am I glad I did! This book is an absolute delight, as I suspected when I saw that author Mark Lawrence had called it “one of his favorite books of all time.”

Senlin Ascends is technically a fantasy book, though it occupies more of a muddy middle ground between fantasy, sci-fi and even a little magical realism. I’ll give it the “sci fi” tag as well, since there’s definitely some steam punk flavor here too. The story follows Thomas Senlin, a newly married school headmaster, who is finally pursuing his dream of visiting the storied Tower of Babel. The enormous Tower, which exists as sort of a universe within itself, is well-known to be a place of whimsy and delight, or so Senlin’s guidebooks claim. The reality of the Tower, however, turns out to be something quite different, as Senlin and the reader will discover.

This is a difficult book to really pin down. It’s humorous, and a little surreal, but is at its heart a story of adventure and exploration. The Tower is a fascinating setting, the characters seem fully baked, and Bancroft’s prose is quite strong as well. I really have no complaints whatsoever about the book; it accomplishes everything that it sets out to do. I’m very much looking forward to reading the next two books in the series, Arm of the Sphinx and The Hod King.

I’ll report back soon!

Rating: 4 – Mandatory Reading

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Kings of the Wyld, Guards, Guards!

 

 

The Traitor Son Cycle

Update, 6/21/18: This post has been updated to include comments on book 5 of the series. Scroll down to find more recent updates.

By Miles Cameron

The Red Knight

I’ve been trying my hand at writing some fiction of my own recently, which means that as I’ve been reading other peoples’ books, I’ve found myself frequently switching back and forth between the perspective of someone who is invested in the story itself, versus being a more analytical observer (thinking about the structure of the book, the author’s intentions, etc.).

All that is to say, while reading Miles Cameron’s “The Red Knight,” I spent most of my “analytical” brain power thinking constructive thoughts like “I am sooo jealous of this guy’s writing.” Then I’d lose myself in the story for a bit, and emerge a few hours later going “wow, he’s so much better at this than I am.” So I guess, thanks, Mr. Cameron?

Seriously, though, I was really taken with this book, and I’m absolutely elated that there are four more books in the series already published. The story itself occurs amidst sort of a parallel universe version of medieval Britain around the 1300’s. Very early in the book, it becomes clear that the author is very familiar with the intricacies of things like period-specific arms, armor, horses, etc. By the time I reached the “about the author” at the end of the book, I wasn’t at all surprised to find that Mr. Cameron (real name Christian Cameron) also writes historical fiction and has extensive experience with military re-enactment.

As discussed in this excellent episode of Writing Excuses, the danger in having done that much research is that you are tempted to use all that knowledge in your book, which can be overwhelming to readers (ultimately the book needs to be about characters, not saddles). With that said, while the book is certainly on the “historical fiction” end of the genre spectrum, I loved the detail. More importantly, I also loved the plot. It certainly isn’t easy reading, but if you enjoy the more sprawling,  darker, epic fantasy plots like The Wheel of Time, Malazan Book of The Fallen, and The Broken Empire, then you’ll likely love this series. I do note, however, that some people in the Amazon reviews did end up holding the high level of detail against the author.

The story itself focuses on the titular Red Knight, and his quest to hold a keep against the encroaching magical forces of the Wild. Like all the best stories, the nuances of the plot go much deeper than that, and I have no doubt that by the time I’ve read the latter books of the series, my understanding of what happened in book one will be different still.  It’s a dark tale (though not without humor), set against a background of war, magic and violence.

One downside I do want to mention: on the Kindle version of the book I read, there were quite a few typos. If you’re a stickler like me, that will no doubt break your immersion, which is a bummer. With that said, it certainly didn’t deter me from gobbling this one up, and I’ve already started inhaling book two.

Rating: 4 – Mandatory Reading (despite some typos in the Kindle version)

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Wheel of Time, The Last Kingdom.


Below are updated comments on the later books in the series. Read on only if you’ve already read book one, or if you don’t care about spoilers.

The Fell Sword

Having just finished The Fell Sword, and begun The Dread Wyrm (book 3), I’m conflicted about how to review the series. In general, I thought The Fell Sword was a slight step down from The Red Knight. I’d argue Cameron moved a little too fast to open up his world (which was already brimming with details and characters), and the book suffered for it, particularly in the early-to-mid section. There’s an art to incorporating multiple POV’s into a book, and Cameron is quite good at it, but juggling a dozen POV’s is still a heavy lift for anyone. George RR Martin is probably the best in the business at it, but even he seems to have lost control of his narrative over time, so the struggle is real.

With that said, there is real payoff here for readers willing to stick with it through the rough patches, and it took me about 5 nanoseconds after finishing book 2 to pick up book 3. Like the initial book of the series, The Fell Sword is prototypical medieval, epic war fantasy.  Cameron is clearly an expert in the details of arms, armor, and era-specific content, and if that level of detail occasionally slows the story down, it also adds a richness to his novels that I appreciate and envy.

I do need to mention that the Kindle version of this book, like book one, needs some additional editing. Sometimes character’s names are randomly spelled wrong, and there are other similar errors that threaten to pull the reader out of the story.

When it’s all said and done, I’m going to retain the “mandatory reading” rating for now, even though I’m sure the series would appeal to a smaller slice of fantasy fans than a more refined and accessible series (see: Stormlight Archive). I’m vacuuming this stuff up, and so I’d like to make sure other people have the opportunity to hear about it as well.


The Dread Wyrm

My apologies for the lack of substantive blog updates- please blame Miles Cameron!

I’m still chugging along with the Traitor Son Cycle, and book 3 was more of the same (which is a good thing!). I do note that I’m seeing fewer typos lately, so it could be a reflection of him having more editing help later in the series.

I won’t add much more at the moment, other than to say that my rating for the series is unchanged: Mandatory Reading!


The Plague of Swords

The Fall of Dragons

That’s it, I’m done! It’s been a few months and about 3,000 pages, but I’ve wrapped up Miles Cameron’s epic, medieval fantasy series. It’s by no means a perfect series (is there one?), but it kept my interest throughout, and I’d welcome another journey into the land of the Red Knight. If you enjoy fantasy with a medieval, historical bent, then I highly recommend The Traitor Son Cycle.

The Stormlight Archive

Update, 1/8/18: This post has been updated to include comments on books 2-3 of the series. Scroll down to find more recent updates.

By Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings

I’ll be totally honest: I have a bit of a man-crush on Brandon Sanderson.

I wrote about Sanderson briefly in my recap of the Wheel of Time books, as he was kind enough to step in and finish the series after Robert Jordan’s untimely death. For many writers, completing Jordan’s magnum opus would qualify as a “lifetime achievement,” but Sanderson seems intent on making it simply one more footnote in a prolific career.

Sanderson’s first novel, Elantris, was published in 2005. In the years since, he’s published approximately one bajillion novels and short-stories (that’s my professional estimate), of which I’ve read virtually word. It’s always a treat to watch an author that you like blossom, and I’ve had a front row seat for Sanderson’s development. His early works like Elantris and the Mistborn trilogy were entertaining but raw. The character development could be a little scant, and while the magic system in Mistborn was intriguing, it was set up in such a way that the “pushing” and “pulling” (these are magical terms) in each combat scenario got old fast. And while there is definitely violence and tension in Sanderson’s work, his work can trend towards the “young adult” end of the spectrum, which is often a non-started for me. There’s rarely any sex (I’m guessing this is due to him being Mormon?), and in general you can depend on the bad guys being transparently evil, and the good guys snatching victory from defeat at the last moment.

But where Sanderson shines, and I mean really, really shines, is in his plotting. It’s very clear that before he gets to work on any given novel, he’s sketched out the plot in significant detail, such that readers can count on being guided to a satisfying, climactic ending. No matter which Sanderson work you’re reading, you can be pretty confident that at around 80% of the way through the book, you will feel compelled to take a break from everything else in your life and finish reading. This includes pausing your body’s biology for as long as it takes.

Now, on to The Way of Kings. This is the first of 10 entries into the “Stormlight Archive,” and it’s clear that Sanderson’s early works were basically a trial run for this, his own magnum opus. Here, he’s marshaled all of his considerable talents, and if your taste runs anything like mine, you’ll quickly be absorbed by the stories of Kaladin the slave, Brightlord Dalinar, and the scholar Shallan. Despite being the first book in a series, the novel is satisfying in its own right, and we get the kind of adrenaline pumping denouement that Sanderson has become famous for.

It’s tough for me to offer objective criticism for this book. I’m sure there are nits that could be picked, but this is the kind of story that reduces me to being a total fanboy. I eagerly await future entries into the series.

So, to sum up: do you like fantasy? If so, read this book. Period.

You’re welcome!

Rating: 4 – Mandatory Reading

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Mistborn, The Black Prism


Below are updated comments on the later books in the series. Read on only if you’ve already read book one, or if you don’t care about spoilers.

Words of Radiance

Sanderson has done it again! Words of Radiance is a worthy successor to The Way of Kings, simultaneously delivering an installment of his compelling saga, while setting the stage for future books (all eight of them!). It’s clear that Sanderson has a long-term vision for the series, which helps me as a reader to really invest myself in the story. Much like Robert Jordan before him, Sanderson does an excellent job of slowing pulling back the curtain on the world, while leaving tantalizing hints of foreshadowing and prophecy to keep us guessing (I wonder how finishing the Wheel of Time may have affected Sanderson’s approach to writing Stormlight?).

Words of Radiance is a truly massive tome (1300 pages), but it never felt drawn out to me. Part of Sanderson’s strategy (I think) is to make sure that each significant character has some sort of internal tension or mystery to them, so that when our POV switches to a different character, there’s almost always some sort of payoff involved for the reader. As The Way of Kings focused on slowly revealing Kaladin’s backstory, Words of Radiance focuses on Shallan, who really comes into her own as a character over the course of the book.

Like all Sanderson books, the book concludes with a frenetic rush of action and reveals, which leads to appropriately awesome moments for the reader. A friend pointed out to me the other day that this type of predictably awesome ending has become known as the “Sanderson Avalanche,” and therefore I will be referring to it as such in future blog posts.

With that in mind, I’ll be leaving the series review above unchanged: this is mandatory reading.


Oathbringer

In preparation for reading Oathbringer, I went back and re-read books one and two of the series, which coupled with reading book three, made for a very satisfying month of living in Sanderson-land. I realize there’s a temptation to just re-read plot synopses of past books before jumping into new material, but with a series this good, I’d prefer to marinate myself in it for as long as possible.

With that said, I do have to admit that I didn’t think Oathbringer quite measured up to books one and two, though that’s admittedly a very high bar. I was surprised to look back and realize that Oathbringer was actually shorter that Words of Radiance, as it felt considerably longer. There comes a point in the book where I seriously thought I might be nearing the end (reading on a Kindle, and not looking at the page count), only to find that I had another two-fifths of the book left. Now, as a lover of both epic fantasy and the Stormlight Archive, I’m not going to turn down any extra content, but I did think the flow of the book was not quite as natural as that of the previous novels.

Oathbringer is also a bit of a challenge insofar as our protagonists are going through some pretty challenging times in the story, which (I think) makes it a little more difficult to zip along through the book. At almost any given time during the book, either Dalinar, Shallan or Kaladin is having a crisis of faith (or something equivalent), and despite the fact that all of their suffering seems genuinely earned, it can be difficult to not want to grab hold of them and yell things like “JUST BELIEVE IN YOURSELF AND INHALE THAT STORMLIGHT, DAMMIT!”

With all that said, have I changed my mind at all about the series itself? Not a bit. This is still the series I’m most excited about (though GRRM may have something to say about that if The Winds of Winter ever comes out). I eagerly await book four, as well as whatever side project Sanderson cooks up in the meantime…

Kings of The Wyld

By Nicholas Eames

Wow, what a pleasant surprise this was.

I found Kings of the Wyld like I find most books these days, by tooling around on Amazon and looking for authors similar to those I like. The process can be hit or miss (hence the creation of this blog!), but occasionally one does strike gold. I was initially a bit skeptical of the book’s premise, which sounded like it could get old quick.

From the site:

Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best, the most feared and renowned crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld. 

Their glory days long past, the mercs have grown apart and grown old, fat, drunk, or a combination of the three. Then an ex-bandmate turns up at Clay’s door with a plea for help–the kind of mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for. 

Reviewers went on to explain that in this world, mercenary “bands” paralleled modern rock bands (e.g. each band has a “frontman,” they go “on tour” through the wilderness, etc.). I fully admit, I was skeptical of this premise, which brought to mind some of the really terrible 80’s fantasy that I read when my library started running out of more promising candidates.

But take it from me: this is a truly charming book, and like The Shadow of What Was Lost, it’s that much more remarkable for having been the author’s debut effort. Perhaps the highest praise that I can give the book is this: it is laugh-out-loud funny, to the point that I have trouble coming up with good comps elsewhere in the fantasy tradition. It’s not quite zany like Pratchett, though does share some similarities with his work. Maybe The Princess Bride? Readers, help me out if you have suggestions!

Here’s a typical passage, as our protagonist tries to extricate himself from an opponent’s grasp:

The stitches in Clay’s face had come open again, and his left cheek was scraped raw. He climbed groggily to his feet, trying to reconcile in his head how he’d spin this story to Tally if he lived to tell it. 

What’s that honey? What I was doing while Uncle Gabe was dueling a god with all of civilization at stake? Why, I was wrestling in the muck with an exceptionally tenacious cow.

The book is an engaging, funny work that somehow both inhabits and subverts many of the traditional fantasy tropes. I’m kind of running out of superlatives here. I understand there’s a sequel in the works, and it’s immediately shot to the top of my waiting list.

So to sum up: if you’re looking for a quick, fun, satisfying read, then this is a great choice. I eagerly await Eames’ future work.

Rating: 4 – Mandatory Reading

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Princess Bride, Guards! Guards!

 

The Martian

By Andy Weir

I started reading The Martian in 2013, having heard that it had been picked up for what would become the 2015 movie starring Matt Damon (if you haven’t seen the movie, you should, but read the book first!). While being optioned for a movie may not always been a guarantee of quality, in this case someone in Hollywood made the right call, because this is a special book.

The plot is a fairly straightforward one: in the not too distant future, a group of American astronauts become the first humans to walk the surface of Mars. Via a series of unfortunate accidents, team botanist Mark Watney is injured on the planet surface, leading the rest of the team to presume him dead. Now stranded and alone on an inhospitable planet, Watney is challenged to survive long enough to allow someone, anyone, to attempt to perform some kind of rescue.

The Martian ends up being a remarkable story because of the author’s ability to blend two unlikely themes: science and what might be called “heart.” This is very much a “hard science” book — Weir has done meticulous research on what methods and items would be available to someone in Watney’s situation, and quite a bit of the book comes down to Watney musing about technology and biology. However, Weir never loses sight of the fact that the real pulse of story is the degree to which a reader cares about Watney himself, and goes out of his way to make Watney a humorous and relatable protagonist. Make no mistake, this is a funny book, and not just by the normally dour standards of science fiction.

The second half of the book zooms out to incorporate more characters back on Earth, as people in NASA-like agencies work to try to improve Watney’s chances of survival. These interactions can admittedly get a little cheesy (especially in the movie version), and yet, I don’t think I would have it any other way. There’s a lot of gritty, dark writing out there, much of which I love dearly, but there’s also something to be said for an old-fashioned “humanity bands together” story. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself shedding a manly tear or two on the subway.

There are very few people to whom I wouldn’t recommend this book. Maybe if you really, really hate potatoes? (You’ll get it when you read the book.) If you’ve been meaning to get around to reading it, let this be your kick in the pants!

Rating: 4- Mandatory Reading

If you like this, you may enjoy: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Leviathan Wakes