The Woven Ring (Sol’s Harvest, Book 1)

By M.D. Presley

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in return for my review. 

Thus far in this blog’s short lifespan, I’ve resisted book review invitations that came from the authors themselves, mostly because I only have a limited amount of time to read, and would prefer not to spend it reading things that are half-baked. However, I’ve made an exception for The Woven Ring, in part because the author asked nicely, and in part because the book’s Amazon page indicated that it might be worth a shot.

Described as a “fantasy re-imagining of the civil war,” The Woven Ring centers on the character of Marta Childress, one of three children to a powerful and secretive political operator (kind of a spymaster, I guess?). The novel unfolds on two parallel tracks, as the author juxtaposes Marta’s childhood (and later participation in the nation’s civil war) with her more contemporary post-war travails. The use of this narrative device is one of the strongest things about the book, as it functions as a great way of slowly filling out Marta’s backstory, while giving Presley the ability to foster tension in multiple scenarios, rather than being tied to one more linear story-line.

As we discover, Marta (and most of her family members) are among the ranks of the nation’s magic users, which manipulate the substance known as “breath” in order to utilize one of a set of magical abilities (for instance, as a “shaper,” Marta is able to manifest magical weapons and armor). These skills (and her family background) lead Marta to play an important role in the civil war, and much of the book’s suspense comes from waiting to find out exactly how “the old Marta” transforms into “the new Marta” of the modern timeline. (As an aside, the ways that people should, or should not, utilize the power of “breath” seems to be the impetus for the civil war itself.)

As self-publishing grows easier, the line between “professional” and “amateur” work is certainly blurring, which I think is generally a good thing (though it does make choosing each next read a little more challenging). The Woven Ring certainly straddles that line, and as such, there are definitely some instances where the inner editor in me said “oops, there’s something I would have changed” (a few omitted words, and other stuff that’s challenging to catch with a spell checker). While Marta’s character itself is certainly nuanced, several of the other main characters (particularly the bad guys) have a certain cardboard cut-out quality (though there is a revelation towards the end of the book that might help to explain this). I’m also still not sure what to think about Marta’s companions in the modern timeline, who will presumably have their stories fleshed out further in the series’ later books.

Overall, I found this to be a very enjoyable read, and it is certainly an impressive debut! While I wouldn’t put The Woven Ring up against Sanderson and co. just yet, it’s a promising start, and I’m eager to see where Presley takes the series (and lest I appear to be damning it with faint praise, I’d say the same thing about Sanderson’s debut, Elantris). The writing could still use some refinement, so I’m going to stick with the “recommended with reservations” rating, but I’m confident that there’s the potential here for some great stories to come.

Rating: 3 – Recommended with Reservations

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Elantris, Blood Song

For We Are Many (Bobiverse, Book 2)

By Dennis Taylor

Last week I reviewed the first book in the “Bobiverse” series, We Are Legion (We Are Bob), which I found to be a surprisingly engaging “hard sci-fi” novel. Book two, For We Are Many, picks up right where book one left off, with former human (now AI replicant) Bob and his many clones attempting to re-settle Earth’s population, while simultaneously exploring the universe and encountering new friends and foes.

Make no mistake, this series is definitely on the “hard” end of the sci fi spectrum (it’s pretty readable, but a lot of the plot and action sequences depend on engineering, space physics, etc.). Being a soft sciences kind of guy, I readily admit that Taylor’s science could be total BS, and I wouldn’t know it, but I get the impression that he’s done his research. In that sense, and in terms of the books’ comedic bent, I think The Martian is probably the closest comp I can come up with.

During the course of the books, the eponymous Bob continues to create clones of himself, both to perform specific tasks (like monitoring an alien civilization), as well as to expand his (and humanity’s) ability to explore and eventually colonize distant planets. I did find it occasionally difficult to follow the proliferation of the various Bobs, which number in the dozens (hundreds?) by the end of the second novel. It’s a bit of a strange situation, as each of the Bobs retains a certain core identity, but continue to evolve and diverge from the original Bob’s perspective as they exist separately from him. Because they’re all basically the same person, it can be a struggle to keep track of who is who, though Taylor does a good job of making sure that doing so is not necessarily essential to following the plot.

I did find myself drifting a bit towards the middle of the book, which primarily focuses on re-homing humanity and terraforming planets, but the action picks back up with the emergence of a threatening alien civilization (who receive the tongue-in-cheek moniker of “the Borg,” as all true Bobs are trekkies). By the novel’s end, I was happily back in the saddle, and am eager to see what book three holds.

To recap: this series is fun and provocative, if a little bit more on the “techie” side of things than I typically go for (the author is a computer programmer, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read any of these books). You should absolutely start with book one if you’re considering picking up the series, and if you like that, you should absolutely give book two a try!

Rating: 4 – Highly Recommended

If you enjoyed this, you may like: The Martian, A Fire Upon the Deep

We Are Legion (We Are Bob)

By Dennis Taylor

Wow, another pleasant surprise! Like Kings of the Wyld, I picked up a copy of Dennis Taylor’s We Are Legion (We Are Bob) without doing much in the way of research (it helps that it’s currently available as a free rental on the kindle store).

Here’s the pitch that got me to take a chance on it:

Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. There are places to go, books to read, and movies to watch. So it’s a little unfair when he gets himself killed crossing the street.

Bob wakes up a century later to find that corpsicles have been declared to be without rights, and he is now the property of the state. He has been uploaded into computer hardware and is slated to be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets. The stakes are high: no less than the first claim to entire worlds. If he declines the honor, he’ll be switched off, and they’ll try again with someone else. If he accepts, he becomes a prime target. There are at least three other countries trying to get their own probes launched first, and they play dirty.

The safest place for Bob is in space, heading away from Earth at top speed. Or so he thinks. Because the universe is full of nasties, and trespassers make them mad – very mad.

The beginning of the book is a little rocky, but it also turns out to be a bit of a red herring. What Bob does on Earth isn’t actually all that interesting- it’s once he launches into orbit (and starts making copies of himself) that things get fun. Once you reach the meat of the book, you realize that it’s really more of an extended thought experiment about how someone might react when put into the odd (but not impossible?) situation in which Bob finds himself. If you could create more copies of yourself, would you? How many? What if they turned out to be very similar, but not identical to you? What if one of them insisted on calling itself “Homer,” primarily to get a rise out of you?

In tone, the book is quite similar to Andy Weir’s The Martian, insofar as it’s a mix of somewhat campy sci-fi humor and more technical “hard science” about what is going on during Bob’s travels. I will say that the book definitely is not high brow literature. The writing is by no means bad, but this is a book about plot, not prose (or character development, for that matter). I did cringe occasionally as Taylor inserted various pieces of sci-fi lore for color, but as in something like Ready Player One, it’s all done with a good humored wink and a nudge.

To sum it up, this is an entertaining speculative novel about space travel, cloning, artificial intelligence and the colonization of the stars, all with a significant dose of sci-fi camp thrown in for good measure. If that sounds like your thing, I highly recommend you give it a try! I’m on to book two

Rating: 4 – Highly Recommended

If you enjoyed this, you may like: Ready Player One, The Martian

Revenger

By Alistair Reynolds

I’m a relatively recent convert to science fiction, and spent a considerable portion of my first twenty-some years fuming about why libraries insisted on lumping dry old sci-fi in with my beloved fantasy books. That began to change around 2011, when I encountered Dan Simmons’ incredible and challenging novel Hyperion which, fittingly enough, was more of a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid (or at the very least, a sci-fi/literary fiction hybrid).

Since then I’ve slowly but surely incorporated more sci-fi into my literary diet, and have had the pleasure of reading several books by noted sci-fi guru, Alistair Reynolds. I first read Reynold’s House of Suns (more on that in a future review), but my most recently read Reynolds (say that 3x fast!) is Revenger.

Like Hyperion, Revenger is sort of a hybrid of several different genres, though it still fits comfortably within the “sci-fi” range. A review I found on Amazon described it thusly: “Basically, it’s Treasure Island meets Moby Dick, set in space, with a nice Blade Runner-ish color palette and a cast of character worthy of a Terry Gilliam movie. I loved it.”

I really can’t argue with any of that assessment! The story follows Arafura Ness who, along with her sister Adrana, decide to leave the relatively comfortable world they grew up on, in search of interstellar adventure. The sisters’ desire to set out from their home is assisted by the revelation that they have the rare talent to be “bone readers,” which enable them to provide a vital service to ships searching for lost treasure.

This lost treasure ends up being one of the most fascinating parts of the story, to me at least (though I’ll admit to having a certain preoccupation with the treasure in “Treasure Island” as well, and indeed remember having one dream in particular about having discovered the hoard for 10 year-old self! If only…). Essentially, in this universe exist a number of “baubles,” or planetary enclosures that only open for very specific periods of time. So for instance, a ship’s captain may determine that a certain bauble will be open for a week, starting tomorrow, and so will position their crew to raid the planet’s treasures during the time that the bauble is open. The downside is that when a bauble closes, there is no way to manually open it, and so if any crew members are left inside, it’s game over.

Arafura and Adrana do indeed find themselves embroiled in adventure, but as it turns out, they may have bitten off more than they can chew. I’ll leave the plot summary there, except to note that there are SPACE PIRATES, so that’s pretty cool. Reynold’s writing is solid, and I found the book to be highly readable. There’s some “hard science” space travel detail, but in general this is more a book about interstellar adventure than anything else (did I mention the SPACE PIRATES?).

Overall, I found this to be a very enjoyable read. In fact upon finishing it, I was surprised to see that it had been 400+ pages, as it felt much shorter to me. While it’s not my favorite Reynolds work so far (that’s House of Suns), I’m more than comfortable recommending this one to anyone with a passing interest in science fiction or adventure.

Rating: 4 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: House of Suns, A Fire Upon the Deep.

 

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: 5 – Mandatory Reading

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

 

An Echo of Things to Come (Licanius Trilogy, Book 2)

By James Islington

Past readers will know that I was blown away by Islington’s initial entry into The Licanius Trilogy, The Shadow of What Was Lost. It currently occupies one of the few spots in my “mandatory reading” category, and I’ve been salivating about book two for months now.

Part of what made Islington’s debut novel so surprising is that it was originally self-published. The fact that I didn’t realize that until after finishing the book should give you some indication of the book’s quality- this was a polished work, free from a lot of the clunkiness that typically comes with early drafts. And though Islington was obviously drawing heavily from the Wheel of Time series (among others), I never got the feeling that he was writing fan fiction, only that he was inspired by the same stories that I love.

Now for the more difficult part: I have to say that I didn’t love book two. Did I like it? Yes! Did I like it a lot? Yes! But I can’t quite bring myself to give it the coveted “mandatory reading” status.

Things I liked about book two *no spoilers*:

  • the writing continues to be solid
  • Islington has built a fascinating world, and the magic system is complex but nuanced
  • the continuing reveals about Caedan’s past are entertaining
  • the development of Davian and Asha’s characters and powers is satisfying,
  • the ongoing questions about whether our heroes are doing the right thing
  • the sense that even the putative villains might have understandable motivations, and that we as readers might not fully understand what’s going on

Things I didn’t like about book two *minor spoilers*:

  • In hindsight, I wish I had re-read book one before jumping into book two. I had some trouble recalling the specifics of what was going on, in part because some characters have multiple names, and because a significant portion of the book centers on Caedan regaining piecemeal memories from years (or millennia) earlier.
  • Similarly, I had some trouble with the timeline of events. For instance, it seems that no-one can remember the details of the war that occurred just a few decades before the book is set. Some of that is explained away using magic, but it still rubbed me the wrong way.
  • I think Islington leans a little too hard on the trope of “authority figures don’t appreciate the coming threat” (and yes, I realize that our own leaders are ignoring the coming climate apocalypse, so this isn’t really that far-fetched). In particular, I found myself legitimately angry with how stupidly Wirr’s mother acts in the book.
  • I’m still a little lukewarm on readers being led to sympathize with Davian’s sense of morality. There’s an important scene where he decides not to kill someone, and I’ll just say that it’s not at all clear to me (even as a pacifist-type) that this was the moral choice.

So ok, I had some quibbles. Overall, I still found it to be a very enjoyable book, and I’ll still happily pre-order book three. In the meantime, I’m going to leave book one in the “mandatory reading” category, while inserting this second entry one step below. Depending on how the series unfolds, I could see myself nudging the whole series into one category or the other, but for now, I’ll wait and see.

Rating: 4 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Way of Kings, The Name of the Wind

 

 

Child of The Daystar (Wings of War, Book 1)

By Bryce O’Connor

Child of the Daystar is the first entry into The Wings of War series. It introduces readers to the story of Raz i’Syrul, a sort of humanoid dragon, who is captured by slavers early in his life, and is subsequently raised by a kindly group of nomads. After a series of unfortunate events, we then witness Raz’s rise to fame (infamy?), in which he becomes a badass mercenary/gladiator type (hey, wouldn’t you, if you were a 7-foot tall dragon dude?).

This is one of those books that I felt conflicted about while reading. It’s not exactly young adult, insofar as there is plenty of combat, viscera, etc. But it does have the sort of cadence that I’ve come to associate with YA fantasy literature (similar to Red Rising, The Hunger Games, etc.), and there were times throughout the book when I thought about putting it down (mostly in the first half). But I never quite did, and when all was said and done, I think I’ll probably pick up the sequels at some point (I know, I know, I’m damning it with faint praise). O’Connor has a strong hand with the action sequences, and I appreciated how Raz’s dark side helped to flesh out his character. I will dock a few points for the bad guys being transparently evil, but I suppose there are straight-up demonic slaver-types still around in the world today, so it’s not that much of a reach.

The amazon reviews for books two and three of the series look positive, so hopefully that’s an indication that the series grows stronger as it progresses. At the very least, book one was a relatively quick and entertaining read. I’ll gladly designate it as “guilty pleasure” reading; if you’re looking for for a drink that goes down easy, and like combat-filled fantasy,  this isn’t a bad choice!

Rating: 2 – Guilty Pleasure

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Red Rising, The Hunger Games