The Red Rising Series

By Pierce Brown

I took a trip to Iceland last fall, and in the process found myself frantically downloading books to my Kindle before I left. In the process, I ended up with Red Rising, which I hadn’t heard anything about previously.

Full disclosure: this isn’t a well-written book. I think the average sentence length is probably like 8 words, and let me tell you, this ain’t Hemingway.

“But Sam,” you say, “in your ‘About Me section,’ you say that you’re not interested in trashing authors’ work, right? Why so harsh?”

Also full disclosure: I basically inhaled this book, and its sequels Golden Son and Morning Star. Is it fine literature? Nope. Is it highly derivative of the Hunger Games? Yep. Did I read all three books within like 48 hours? You betcha.

Here’s the basic plot: in a futuristic dystopian society, a member of the downtrodden “Red” class manages to infiltrate the upper tier “Gold” class, and embarks on Hunger Games-esque adventures. And while I panned the writing of the first book, to be fair, the author is young, and improves over books 2 and 3. Throughout, Brown commands a strong control of the plot, and keeps the cliffhangers coming. If you enjoyed the Hunger Games (or even Harry Potter, for that matter), you’ll probably find something to like here. At the very least, it’s a good way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Warning: though this is something near young adult literature, there is a fair bit of violence and gore (a la The Hunger Games).

1/22/18 Editor’s Note: this book was initially given a rating of “2 – Guilty Pleasure.” As part of the blog redesign, all ratings of “Guilty Pleasure” have since been revised to “Recommended with Reservations.”

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: The Hunger Games, Harry Potter

H.P. Lovecraft, The Complete Fiction

By H.P. Lovecraft

I’m a certified “big book” lover, and so when I wander through bookstores, my eye often settles on the bulkiest books around (insert Sir Mix-A-Lot reference here). On just such an outing a few years ago, I found myself drawn to a suitably large tome, which revealed itself to be The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.

I knew Lovecraft’s name, and that it was synonymous with weirdness, but that was about the extent of my familiarity with the author. A few short hours later, I had remedied that situation, by poring over his weird and wonderful tales of woe. Lovecraft is difficult to describe- he’s very much situated in a particular place and time (or at least that’s how it feels to read his work 100 years later), and yet he’s writing about fantastic and horrific concepts that seem to transcend time. His writing is compelling, and his imagination is truly something to behold.

The enduring nature of the words, images, and, well, creatures that Lovecraft created is a testament to his skill. I mean, how many other authors dead before 1937 are the inspiration for modern board games? (I HIGHLY recommend the game, btw.) If you’re a reluctant reader of the horror genre (and I count myself firmly in that camp), I’d still suggest giving Lovecraft a try, if only because of his over-sized influence on the modern fantasy/horror landscape.

Now, one very significant caveat: Lovecraft, by any modern definition, is well… pretty racist. Even if you’re inclined to grant the guy a certain amount of slack for having lived in a different era, your eyebrows are likely to rise on occasion due to his descriptions of “mulatto’s,” etc. My personal approach is that reading an author’s work doesn’t necessarily mean accepting their premises, but I can certainly understand if some people would just prefer to skip H.P. entirely.

Rating: 2- Recommend with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: Edgar Allen Poe, George R. R. Martin’s Short Fiction

The Morgaine Cycle

By C.J. Cherryh

The Morgaine Cycle began in 1979 with the publication of Gate of Ivrel, but I didn’t encounter the series until 2016, when all 4 books of the series were long since published. Reviews of the series compare it favorably to the Lord of the Rings, and I eagerly sat down to begin my copy of The Complete Morgaine.

Full disclosure: I only made it half-way through book 2 before throwing in the towel. I enjoyed book one, but ultimately found the world to be pretty bleak and unsatisfying, and that dynamic didn’t seem to be changing by book 2. To be fair, part of that is the intentional tone of the story, but it just never quite clicked for me. Much of the plot development felt jarring; characters frequently engage in activities that seem ill advised, or swear oaths that end up constraining their behavior in dramatic ways, or otherwise make decisions for reasons that are difficult for a reader to fathom. The cast of characters was also quite small, which is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to “epic fantasy.” For a world to feel truly lived in, I think it needs more than a handful of named characters.

I’m sure there are plenty of other people for whom this series would be right up their alley, but it’s just not my cup of tea. If your tastes run similar to mine, then my advice to you is: skip it.

Rating: 1- Skip It.

The Expanse

By James S. A. Corey

Upon reading 2011’s Leviathan Wakes, it should be obvious why the series was later picked up for TV by the Sci-Fi Channel. The characters are engaging, the writing is clever, and the books are filled with cliffhangers leaving you wanting more. The brainchild of two authors, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the series has since grown to 6 books, and aside from one or two hiccups, the story has remained highly engaging. These are true page turners, and the authors have been churning out new books in rapid fashion.

Generally speaking, The Expanse tends towards the “soft sci fi” end of the spectrum; there’s certainly plenty of talk of scientific principles, rocket propulsion, vacuum dynamics and such, but ultimately this is a series about people, not technology. James Holden and his tight-knit crew will quickly find their way into your heart, and I eagerly await books 7+.

I’ll continue to update this review as new books in the series are published, but with 6 books in print, I’m comfortable declaring that this series is: Highly Recommended.

Rating: 3- Highly Recommended

If you like this, you may enjoy: A Fire Upon the Deep, Old Man’s War 

Red Sister

Author: Mark Lawrence

Mark Lawrence broke onto the fantasy scene in 2011 with Prince of Thorns, and has been kicking ass and taking names ever since. I read PoT with some trepidation- the book is truly dark, and from the outset it was clear that Lawrence was determined to play with our sympathies re. his nefarious main character, Prince Jorg, who is not above the occasional slaughtering of innocents.

Two trilogies later (The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War), any hesitation I had was gone: Lawrence’s skills continue to evolve, and he is truly becoming a master of his craft. Red Sister, his most recent novel, occupies a different universe than his earlier works (I think?), but is consistent with the dark themes and compelling action of his previous trilogies. In terms of tone, Lawrence’s work is perhaps most similar to the great George RR Martin himself, as both happily engage in subverting traditional fantasy tropes and expectations.

The book itself is set primarily in a sort of “monastery for fighting nuns,” which provides ample opportunity for the sort of school-based drama that helped to popularize the Harry Potter novels (though, you know, darker). By the end of the book, we see hints that future novels will move well beyond the walls of the monastery, but I, at least, was in no hurry to get there. Not when the first book is so good!

We’ll see where the series leads, but at this point, Lawrence has a long enough track record to receive the benefit of the doubt. I won’t give his books “mandatory reading” status, if only because they are surely too dark for some readers, but as long as one is open to that sort of thing, I can’t recommend Lawrence’s work highly enough.

Rating: 3- Highly Recommended

If you like this, you may enjoy: The Night Angel Series, The Powder Mage Series

The Wheel Of Time

Author: Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson, for the final 3 books)

The Wheel of Time… where to begin? The first volume of the series, The Eye of the World, was published in 1990. George W. Bush was president, East and West Germany were in the process of reunification, and your helpful reviewer was making plans for Kindergarten.

Who would have guessed that the 14th and final volume of the series wouldn’t see the light of day until 2013, and that when it did, it would have had a different author’s name on the book jacket? Not me, that’s for sure. And yet, not only have I happily read all 14 volumes, but I imagine I’m one of a relatively small minority of people who have made their way through the series twice (cue the hatemail from devoted WOT fans here…).

WOT is famously long and meandering, so I’ll skip to the chase: should you read this series? The answer is: Yes, if epic fantasy is your thing. The series is famously long and meandering- each book clocks in at 500+ pages , and with 14 books in the series, WOT is one of the most time-intensive book series you’ll encounter. The series starts strong with books 1-7 (ish), and the opening trilogy of The Eye of The World, The Great Hunt, and The Dragon Reborn stand out in my memory as being truly excellent. Around book 7, however, it’s clear that Jordan begins to lose his way. The books continue to add in new characters (and reborn versions of past characters), in a way that can be challenging for readers (my wife recalls that she started a journal just to keep track of who was who, and who seemed to be evil, etc.).

Books 8-11 are a bit of a slog- the action doesn’t always seem to be progressing, and it’s not clear that Jordan is preparing the way for a satisfying conclusion. By 2005, Jordan had been diagnosed with terminal heart disease, leading him to start preparing detailed notes for what he intended to be the 12th and final volume of the series. He passed away in 2007, with the series as yet unfinished.

Books 12-14 (Jordan’s final novel was eventually split into 3), would come to be written by fellow author Brandon Sanderson, who was chosen to continue the series by Jordan’s widow. Sanderson, in typically frenetic fashion, churned out all 3 final novels between 2009 and 2013, giving a satisfying conclusion, and general closure, to the legions of WOT fans. The final novel, A Memory of Light, may not be perfect, but it is a wholly satisfying end to the series, and given the very real possibility that the series could have ended with Jordan’s death, I for one am tremendously grateful to Sanderson for stepping in.

Ultimately, WOT isn’t a series that can be recommended without reservations. This is a special beast, and one that only certain kinds of people will have the energy and interest to complete. With that said, WOT will forever inform my opinion of what “fantasy” is as a genre, and will stand in my memory as the classic example of what an epic fantasy series can be, for better or worse. If you’re looking for a truly epic series, give this a try. The world of Rand al’Thor is a truly incredible one.

Rating: 3- Highly Recommended

If you like this, you may enjoy: A Song of Ice and Fire, The Stormlight Archives


A Song of Ice and Fire

Note: “A Song of Ice and Fire” is the original name for book series that HBO’s show “Game of Thrones” is based on. Book 1 of the series is titled “A Game of Thrones.”

Author: George RR Martin

Is it possible for a single series to be both the best, and the most frustrating fantasy ever written? If so, George RR Martin may have accomplished the impossible (though in all likelihood, the final books of the series will render one or the other of those outcomes irrelevant, assuming the books ever see the light of day!).

I first encountered A Song of Ice and Fire (ASIAF) shortly after book two, A Clash of Kings had been published (1999). I was absolutely blown away, and hunkered down to wait for book three, A Storm of Swords, which promptly arrived in 2000. In this humble reviewer’s opinion, books 1-3 of ASIAF represent the very best fantasy published in, well, ever. This is a truly audacious series; Martin takes incredible risks, subverts common fantasy tropes, and seems determined to grow the story beyond what even a seven book series could bear. It is little surprise to hear that HBO is considering four additional ASIAF story lines as spin-offs; Martin’s books absolutely brim with stories begging to be told.

Now for the bad news: as everyone on the internet knows by now, Martin’s pace on the subsequent books has slowed significantly (two books published since 2005). The most recent two novels (A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons) have also been less impressive than their predecessors, leaving legitimate questions about what the series’ final legacy will be.

There’s a sense in which this series should really be rated as “Recommend with Reservations.” After all, it’s dark as hell, and may never be truly finished. But for GRRM, I’ll make a special exception. This is… Mandatory Reading!

Rating: 4- Mandatory Reading

If you like this, you may enjoy: The Wheel of Time, The Broken Empire Series