The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, book one of the Stormlight Archive
No spoilers. (Promise.)
This was a 1,200 page monster that I just could not put down. Which is impressive considering the fact that I had no idea what was going on for the first two hundred pages. It's not that Sanderson introduced too many people and concepts at one time--he didn't. The pacing of this story and the exposition are excellent. It's just that there's so much going on, so many characters in a world that is so unique and alien that it's a lot to digest. But if you can get through those first two hundred pages, then you're all set. And trust me, it's worth it. This book is absolutely stunning.
My attention was drawn to this series by one of my favorite YouTubers, Hello Future Me. In addition to being a super-geek, he also does some writing videos (which is why he's mentioned in my For Writers page). It was during one of these videos--I forget which one--that he mentioned the world-building of the Stormlight Archive.
In addition to the unique geography, Roshar also has a social structure I had never seen before. It's a pseudo-patriarchy that is extremely binary, nothing new there. But while men are pushed toward "masculine" traits such as leadership, military, labor, et cetera, the women have their own equally important "feminine" traits, such as architecture, science, engineering. Reading is, in and of itself, a feminine art. None of the men in this story--Kaladin, Dalinar, the king--know how to read! It's hilarious, but it also launches women into leadership roles themselves, as they're the advisors and creators of their society.
This, of course, begs the question: what about the people of the LGBT+ community? So far there has been no mention of same-sex relationship or genderqueer people, and I will be disappointed but unsurprised if that holds true for books two and three. But if, by chance, Sanderson has added them, then I imagine they'd be facing a lot of social adversity.
On a related note: romantic subplots are near non-existent! There's one with Dalinar and the king's widowed mother that's a little cliched, but it serves as some character development for Dalinar and introduces another awesome woman to the story. Even though he uses the word "beautiful" to describe her way too much. (We get it! You think she's hot! Maybe focus on some other traits, or at least pick up a thesaurus to mix it up a little.)
The story, at first, seems to be everywhere. It doesn't help that the novel is chopped up into parts that are divided by short stories. These stories seem random (except the ones about the Assassin in White, as he's very important despite his minor appearances), but they are very helpful in establishing the world itself and the political and social rules that influence the main characters. When one of the short stories includes a couple of scientists studying a type of magic, that type of magic becomes very important later in the book. A couple of servants talk about a mysterious woman who specializes in another type of magic, she ends up being the answer to a mystery that plagues one of the main characters. It's a very handy type of exposition.
After about two or four hundred pages, you see how all the different threads--Kaladin, Dalinar, Shallan, the Assassin--all start to weave together. There is some predictability; it's not like Game of Thrones where you have almost no clue which main character is going to get slaughtered next. But it's the good kind of predictability, the kind that drags out the tension. (Oh no, one of the major characters is in critical danger in the climax of the story, and only this other major character can save them, but only if they get over the major internal issues that have plagued them the whole book...WHY IS THIS TAKING A WHOLE CHAPTER. GO GO GO!)
It helps that all of these characters are very different from each other. Kaladin and Dalinar are probably the tropiest (most trope?) of the bunch, being the depressed hero with rotten luck and the super strict yet kind lord, but they're still extremely engaging. I cared about them, I worried about them, I cried with them through all their ups and downs. (Although, content warning, Kaladin seriously contemplates suicide relatively early in the book, and references it a few times later.) Shallan is a walking mystery; despite hundreds of pages we still know very little about her, and her last few chapters only raise more questions. Hell, the last fifty pages were dedicated to raising more questions and leaving cliffhangers, which is why as soon as I can, I'm purchasing book two.
Well played, Sanderson. Well played.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
No spoilers. (Promise.)
I've read and reviewed one of Nnedi Okorafor's other books before: her short sci-fi novel Lagoon about mystical aliens touching down in Nigeria. I was enraptured by her storytelling, and when I found out she had other books--many of them bestsellers--I added all of them to my wishlist, and had the opportunity to purchase Who Fears Death thanks to a Barnes & Noble gift card I got for Christmas. I had high expectations for Who Fears Death because of everything I'd heard, both about it and about Okorafor herself.
And I was not disappointed.
It's rare--or at least, rare for me in my little corner of America--to find popular SFF books that have a post-apocalyptic or fantasy setting outside of the U.S., or even Europe. So the setting itself of a fantastical, post-apocalyptic Africa was intriguing to me. I wish Okorafor had gone into just what, exactly the apocalypse was that completely reshaped the world and set up whole new religions and ethnicities, or even just the history of the world in general. We're given the religious version that everyone is told growing up and that main character Onye has little respect for, but not a definitive This is what happened, and this is why the world works this way now. But that's probably just the history major in me.
The magic system used is very unique and interesting. It's a soft magic system, which is the kind that basically allows the author to make it up as they go along (kind of like Tolkien or Game of Thrones), compared to the hard magic system where the rules are explained and strictly adhered to (i.e. Avatar: the Last Airbender and Fullmetal Alchemist). But while Onye and the other sorcerers' powers are many and varied, there's no deux ex machina that goes on. She still has limitations, especially in the beginning when she has no control.
The story itself starts out pretty slow. Onye is obviously very special and eventually has to set out to topple the unjust system of oppression and war that her mother's people is subjected to. But she and her friends don't start their journey until halfway through the book. The first half is Onye coming to terms with who and what she is (for the most part, at least), worldbuilding, and describing the struggles and conflicts between Onye, her mother, and everyone around them. So even though the pacing of the overarching story is very slow, there's still a lot that goes on that kept me turning the pages.
Oh, and in case you didn't get the hint from the book description, this story is not something to flippantly give to children. More on this later.
There are a lot of characters here. While the entire story is told in first person point of view by Onye, she runs into a lot of characters. There's her beau, Mwita, another sorcerer who knows more about magic but isn't as powerful as she is and functions as team healer. She has three best girlfriends, her mentors, her mother, her stepfather, and of course, her rapist father. Who is a real piece of work. Just...wow.
All of these characters are deeply flawed. Onye has some severe anger issues that are a direct result of how horribly her society treats her and her mother, leading her to do several things that she almost immediately regrets. The friends she sets out on her journey with turn out to be less than ideal travel companions, given that half of them abandon the quest out of fear. (Though the one that sticks around, while not magical in any way, is a total badass.) Mwita himself has some inferiority complexes. I mentioned that he's not as powerful as Onye is, and while it's clear that these two characters deeply love and go to great lengths for each other, Mwita has some sexist views that come out every now and then. He believes that he should be the sorcerer while Onye hangs back as the healer. Needless to say, this is a bit of a conflict between the two of them.
In addition to expert storytelling, captivating worldbuilding, and engaging characters, Okorafor also weaves in several themes throughout this story. And when I say several, I mean all of them. I thought I was impressed by how many topics she was able to cover in Lagoon, but that's nothing compared to when she has an extra three hundred pages to play around with. Who Fears Death unflinchingly talks about rape, war, slavery, genital mutilation, misogyny, racism, religion and tradition used as tools of oppression, love, hope, death, and probably a dozen others that I missed in my first reading or just can't think of right now.
Bottom line, this is an amazing book. It is a bold, beautiful story that deserves to be on bookshelves everywhere.
I should give a quick update before I let Shannon from Read & Reels take over. A couple of weeks ago I got a second job working at Panera Bread as a delivery woman (well, technically it's my third job; my full-time position is PCA/job coach for people with disabilities, writing is my second job, and now this). At the same time, a bunch of other stuff happened this month:
In the middle of all of this, I realized yesterday, Shit! I need to blog this week, too!
Guest post to the rescue!
Unlike me, Shannon O. apparently has her life way more in order, and managed to not only finish reading a book, but write a review for it, too. Please enjoy while I go out and buy a much-needed planner.
"Slithers" by W. W. Mortensen: Book Review
Thank you so much for having me on your blog! It’s so awesome! Seriously, everyone needs to be reading it!
Today I thought I’d share a review of a Sci-Fi Horror I read recently, called Slithers by W.W. Mortensen!
There are so many things to like about Slither! Perfect setting, a tense atmosphere, wrought with fear, great writing, and good pacing. See what I mean, LOTS of things to like. That said, the ending is so huge and complex, I feel the author should have dedicated more time to explaining it better. I mean, I get the gist, but with such existential ideas to contemplate, readers would benefit from a more thorough conclusion.
This is the first book by Mortensen that I've read, and this one didn't put me off. On the contrary, I'm quite intrigued by his other titles, especially Eight. He's clearly very talented and based on the mood he creates in this story alone, I'm more than keen to read more.
Some other things worth mentioning: I loved all the creepy crawlies in this story. They very much reminded me of King's creatures in The Mist, which is high praise because that is one of my favourite short stories, and the gory scenes were also brilliant! I just loved how vivid and descriptive they were, so well done sir. Ugh... I'm shuddering just thinking about some of them.
Ultimately, I think the theme is about the universal question "What if?", and Slithers is an original, and entertaining approach to answering it. It may not be for everyone but many of you will really enjoy it!
Rating... B or 3.75 Gooey Truck Drivers out of 5!
Thanks again for letting me share on DZA today, it warms my heart to see so many amazing blogs like yours dedicated to Horror and Science Fiction!
Shannon O. (a.k.a. Shanannigans)
Blogger & Publicist
Yay, Shannon! I am definitely adding this to my reading list.
Be sure to visit her blog Reads & Reels. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Blade of Memories, Book One of the Black Shadow series, by Tina Hunter
While it won't be landing on my Favorites page anytime soon, Tina Hunter's Blade of Memories was quite good, and a joy to read. There weren't a whole lot of surprises, and there were a few parts of the book--like the whole thing with Lynn's ex--that had little to no relevance to the actual plot and only existed to set up future books. That's understandable for the first installation of a series, but it tried my patience when all I wanted was to get on with the actual story.
The pacing is excellent. It starts with a smaller heist that Lynn barely pulls off, introducing us to magic when she has to use enchanted crystals to scale walls and heal her broken arm. Funny enough, while magic crystals that anyone can use is widely accepted, people with innate magical abilities are harshly discriminated against. Which makes a certain amount of sense, as those with innate abilities are much more powerful than someone with a fancy glowing rock.
There are a few different cultures in this world that are very distinct and believable, and the magic system Hunter sets up is followed to the letter. I was intrigued to see that the setting is not based on Medieval Europe like 95% of epic fantasy. The existence of pistols and the costuming suggests something closer to the Victorian Era, though there is no steampunk element. The world-building is definitely an aspect that I want to see fleshed out in future books.
Lynn's relationship with Dorjee--the young runaway she takes under her wing--is an absolute treasure. In fact, every relationship Lynn has with each character is unique, complicated, and very real. Lynn herself is a good protagonist to root for: she's smart, crafty, compassionate, and we're empathetic to her because of the deck stacked against her. The only time I rolled my eyes at her character was near the beginning, when she agrees to undergo this impossible, extremely dangerous heist to get...a necklace. Maybe I'm just too practical for sentimentality, but even if it had belonged to her deceased mother, going through all of that hell for a hunk of rock just seems really stupid. Later we find out that it has magical value, but at the time of the deal Lynn doesn't know that. If she had even the vaguest idea, then it would have made it a much stronger MacGuffin and seemed like a more realistic reason to go through with everything.
Once the necklace-triggered plot gets started, though, it's a fun ride. Lynn has to try to lead a team of people who want nothing to do with her, encounters several family members who are involved and each have a stake in this, and has to find a way to pull of the heist to get the necklace without actually giving her boss the stolen goods, because she knows he's going to do something absolutely horrible with them.
I would recommend this for light summer reading, something fun to distract yourself with when you're recovering from the crippling death of a beloved character from another story. I will be picking up book two when it comes out.
My Favorite SFF Books Read in 2018
Christmas was, of course, last week. If any of you readers are like me, you asked for--and hopefully received!--a lot of books for the holiday this year. Never mind that I'm a Buddhist and don't believe in God or their controversial demigods, I will take any excuse to beg for books. And spend time on family, I guess.
For me personally, 2019 seems to the be the year that I should really consider getting an extra bookshelf rather than just piling all the books in my room. But before we move forward, I thought it would be fun to look back on the best sci-fi and fantasy books I personally read and reviewed in 2018.
Note: these are in no particular order. Don't ask me to choose my singular favorite or to even vaguely list them. That'd be like torture.
Another note: these are all books that I read in 2018. While some of them did come out this year, some are a few years older. But they're included in this list because it's my blog and therefore follows my rules of time, space, and physics. Enjoy!
Throne of Glass Series
The Adventure Zone Graphic Novel
By Fire Above
Trials of Apollo: The Burning Maze
The Nemesis series
What were your favorite books from this year? Let me know in the comments so I can add them to my reading list!
Kingdom of Ash (Throne of Glass series) by Sarah J. Maas
I've had conflicting views on this series as a whole, which I've made very clear in my overall series review and my LSQ article "How NOT to Write Romantic Subplots," and all of those views and emotions came to a head in this book.
Mind-bending plot twists? Check.
Aelin being awesome along with Maeve being a bitch? Check.
Unnecessary use of romantic subplots that honestly make me wish several of these characters would just die already? Check and mate.
If you follow my YouTube channel, you may have caught my review for Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, where I was endlessly frustrated not just by the books, but the fact that all of my problems with those books were major spoilers. So I kind of had to dance around them in my review while making it clear that there were some major issues. Well, it's the same thing with KoA: all of my complaints are spoilers, and I pledge myself to spoiler-free reviews. Which means this review is going to be short, with no small amount of frustration on my end.
So let me just say this: Sarah J. Maas needs to learn to kill off major characters. She uses the "saved by last-minute reinforcements" trope a few too many times in this book, and it kills the tension. Not to mention it makes this book incredibly crowded. When she does kill a character, it loses its impact because there are a dozen other characters for us to root for. To be completely honest, this is a big problem in the series as a whole. The only major characters she's killed this entire series are Nehemia and Sorscha. Remember them? I sure don't! Because there are too many goddamn characters!
And that...is my only real complaint, other than the usual "too many romantic subplots, not enough murder" bickering that's usually in my reviews, and I've already slammed into Maas for it on my BitchShelf column.
As usual, Maas has excellent characterization and pacing. I think my favorite part of this book is the temporary team-up between Dorian and Maeve. Yes, you read that right. Dorian and Maeve team up for a few chapters against Erawan, and it is incredible. I love the "bad guy and good guy are forced to work together against a worst guy" trope, and seeing Dorian and Maeve trying to manipulate each other while also manipulating Erawan was the highlight of my day.
I'll stop now because I'm dangerously close to spoiler territory. Bottom line: I do recommend this book and the series as a whole. It has it flaws, but it's still a good read. Anyone who's into YA fantasy will want this on their bookshelf.
The Adventure Zone Graphic Novel
Is there anything better in life than free books? My roommate is a fan of the podcast, bought the graphic novel, and ended up giving it to me for...I don’t know. Friendship? Fun? A poor attempt at bribing me to do the dishes? One of the three.
I found this graphic novel hilarious for two reasons. The first is that I myself will be publishing a graphic novel series loosely based on my own family’s Dungeons & Dragons adventures (see, Sovadron), so seeing someone else take that very same premise in a completely different direction is just good fun.
The second reason this book is so funny is because it is legitimately funny. I admit, the modern tone and swearing coming from characters in a medieval-ish setting threw me off a few times. And several of the jokes and at least one scene would not make sense to someone who is unfamiliar with roleplaying games. Especially the first battle, where Magnus hesitates for five whole minutes and debates with the DM on how exactly to kill the goblin. In the real world, of course, Magnus would be dead. But for D&D players, we are all intimately familiar with pausing the game while we try to figure out the best way to commit murder.
Pacing-wise, the story starts a bit slow. The characters had to find their footing and get properly motivated to go on an actual quest. But once it picks up, it's lightning quick.
A related note on tone: while about 75% of the story is funny, every now and then it takes an unexpectedly dark turn. There are several characters who die (for good reasons as well as stupid ones), and we’re dealing with Merle’s fucked-up family, including his very straight-laced cousin. If they were aiming for something like Cable from Deadpool 2, they missed by about a mile, namely because Cable at least lets Deadpool play off of him while the funnier Adventure Zone characters don’t really manage it.
But that’s honestly my only complaint about the story: exclusive humor with occasional sharp turns into grimdark territory. The plot is cohesive and gripping: there’s a large mystery that all falls neatly into place in the end (on a cliffhanger, of course, because they want us to buy volume two in 2019). While we know very little about the three main characters’ backstory, we are still very invested in them not getting stabbed, mutilated, or set on fire. The whole thing is just an excellent homage to Dungeons and Dragons and all of its fans.
I read this book in two large settings. It’s one of those reads where once you finish the last page, the only viable response is “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUGGGGGHHHHHH!”
Anyway, it was great. There is a love triangle (groan), but it’s handled very well and is actually relevant and useful to the plot. Mare is the “standard” YA protagonist, in that she’s a poor girl from an oppressed class thrown into the deep end of the privileged class and has to balance her compassion with her desire to bring justice and the ultimate bloodbath that it will cause. It's thinly-veiled racism in a fantasy world and good social commentary on our real world.
While there is racism (bloodism?), there is surprisingly no sexism. Not even in the subtext. The main character (Mare) is a girl, as is the leader of the Scarlet Guard. The men--Reds and Silvers--treat the women as their equals. And the fighters are all co-ed! There's a scene where Mare is learning to use her gift with the Silvers in the training room, and ends up fighting Cal's fiancee, who's basically Magneto with an unhealthy obsession with knives.
You could argue that Aveyard, who's obviously trying to do a social commentary on oppression with her book, fails to talk about intersectionality, the overlap of social identities and all the privileges and oppressions associated therein. And to a certain extent, she does. At least in Red Queen, racism and classism are interchangeable (when in truth, they are not) and the LGBTQ+ community isn't present at all.
But in terms of women being able to fight, rule, and be otherwise kickass without being questioned at every turn, it's a nice breath of fresh air.
One of my favorite aspects of the book is the grayness--the moral ambiguity--of the characters. The love triangle Mare finds herself in is, of course, between the two prince brothers: Cal and Maven. Maven is like Mare, believing that there needs to be change now, that radical action is needed to bring equality between Reds and Silvers. On the other hand, Cal ultimately agrees that while the injustice done to Reds cannot stand, he takes a more moderate approach. He points out that the other countries would likely punish them for bringing equality and that moving too fast will bring far more violence and chaos than they’re prepared to handle.
And then there are characters like Maven's mom, the queen, who's just an all-out bitch.
The pace is breakneck speed. I mentioned earlier that I read this in two settings, and that's just because I couldn't put it down. It's not like the slow burn of Lord of the Rings where you can casually pick it up, read a few pages, put it back down to return to cooking dinner, and then pick it up again while you're baking cookies. No, Red Queen is the kind of story where you don't want anything else going on around you. If you pick this up while you're cooking or baking, your food is going to burn and probably take a large chunk of the kitchen with it.
The book is first person POV, told entirely through Mare's eyes. Which means we learn everything about the world of the Silvers right along with her. As such, most of the book is dedicated to exposition. It’s kind of like Harry Potter: book one is an introduction, the end of which includes the gauntlet being thrown and the Big Bad Guy being revealed. The biggest difference between Red Queen and Harry Potter is that while Rowling kind of eased us into the character deaths and injustices, Aveyard cracks out the angst right away, while still leaving us with a hopeful ending.
The next books are Glass Sword, Cruel Crown, King’s Cage, and finally War Storm. So, if you’ll excuse me, I now have to raid a bookstore.
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Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
In a land without magic, where the king rules with an iron hand, an assassin is summoned to the castle. She comes not to kill the king, but to win her freedom. If she defeats twenty-three killers, thieves, and warriors in a competition, she is released from prison to serve as the king's champion. Her name is Celaena Sardothien.
The Crown Prince will provoke her. The Captain of the Guard will protect her. But something evil dwells in the castle of glass--and it's there to kill. When her competitors start dying one by one, Celaena's fight for freedom becomes a fight for survival, and a desperate quest to root out the evil before it destroys her world.
With the seventh and final book of the Throne of Glass series (Kingdom of Ash) coming out this month, I thought I’d take the opportunity to review books one through six, plus the prequel anthology The Assassin’s Blade.
I hesitated to get started on Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series, simply because the descriptive blurb of the first book makes it obvious that there’s a love triangle involved (it says something along the lines of Two men love her, the whole world fears her, and only she can save them all). That triangle gets resolved very quickly and maturely, thank God. And while I do have several complaints about Maas’s overuse of romantic subplots that I talked about in my Luna Station Quarterly article last month, overall this is an excellent series.
When talking about this series to friends, I tend to describe it as “the YA version of Game of Thrones, without the incest.” There’s a mile-long list of characters in a carefully crafted epic fantasy world facing an apocalyptic threat few people are ready to believe is real. The main character at the center of it all--Celaena--is an intriguing protagonist. She’s in many ways a reluctant hero. Despite her natural tendency to help and protect the innocent, she’s spent the last decade of her life as an assassin and has been running from her larger destiny. She’s arrogant, spoiled, a bookworm, self-hating, terrified, and charismatic.
She’s probably my second-favorite character, right behind Manon. We don’t meet that lovely badass or her coven--The Thirteen--until book three. Technically, they’re bad guys, being allied with the evil king. Manon is part of a clan called the Ironteeth witches, and those women are vicious. And they ride wyverns. Because why not? Manon and Celaena’s meeting is as explosive as you’d expect for two powerful women who balance hidden hearts with bloodthirsty tendencies and are on opposite sides of a war.
Maas has the character development down pat, but her true strength lies in total mind-fucks. Starting in book two and picking up in intensity, Maas regularly gives jaw-dropping plot-twists at least once a book, and they get crazy starting in book four. Sometimes it’s something Celaena does, as she becomes a master of setting up elaborate plans without telling anyone until the last minute. Sometimes it’s a big reveal as to a major character’s backstory. Sometimes it’s the real answer to the mystery that supposedly got solved four chapters ago. I can no longer read these books in public because I start swearing out loud when one of these twists comes out.
If you like fantasy mysteries with diverse characters and way too many romantic subplots, then this is the series for you. Fair warning: you should probably buy all the books at once, and you’re going to want to read them in this order:
Books 1-3 (Throne of Glass, Crown of Midnight, and Heir of Fire)
The prequel anthology The Assassin’s Blade
Books 4-6 (Queen of Shadows, Empire of Storms, and Tower of Dawn)
Godshaper introduces a vast world where there's a god for every person and a person for every god...though for Ennay, unfortunately exceptions may apply. People like him are Godshapers, godless social pariahs with the ability to mold and shape the gods of others. Paired with Bud, an off-kilter but affectionate god without a human, the two travel from town to town looking for shelter, a hot meal, and the next paying rock 'n' roll gig.
I got Godshaper on a limb, pre-ordering it because I liked the concept and I actually had a bit of spare cash to treat myself. And I loved it! The first thing that blew me away was the artwork. It's just so dizzyingly colorful and beautiful. Take a look:
The second thing that caught my attention were the two main characters: Ennay and Bud. Bud is the adorable, hat-loving god with no human. By rights, he shouldn't exist. He's one of the big mysteries of the story that some of the other characters are trying to solve. One of those characters...is not Ennay. He's very much the reluctant hero. Being a homeless pariah, he just wants everyone to leave him alone, and he'll leave them alone. Unless it's a concert, then he loves the positive attention. He's one of those characters who pretends he doesn't care about anyone or anything except him and his. But he gets dragged into doing the right thing by the other characters.
The one complaint that I have about this story is all the unanswered questions. We never find out why Bud is human-less, or where the gods came from, or why they all showed up when all of the power and electricity in the world suddenly stopped. This kind of open ending is obviously done on purpose. Ennay flat-out states that he and Bud just don't care. They're going to just keep doing their own thing and be happy. Everyone else can suck it.
I guess that bothered me because such an attitude goes against natural human curiosity. We're hard-wired to keep poking the bear until it either tells us what's going on, or (more likely) mauls us to pieces.
But that's more of a difference of theme and style than what I, personally, am used to. Open ending or not, this is still a very good story. It has humor, it has darkness, and it has some really great, really diverse characters.
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!