As with Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, I can absolutely understand why people might love this novel. It’s got an intriguing premise (two people try to figure out how to escape a bizarre time loop), a pair of very likable protagonists, a hint of romance (as per the title), and some fun pseudo-science involving quantum physics and temporal paradoxes. I also enjoyed the novel’s overall bright tone, which feels very solarpunk-adjacent à la Becky Chambers’ Monk & Robot novellas. Alas, though I enjoyed A Quantum Love Story, I wish I had loved it more than I did. It felt like two different novels smashed together, especially once the time travel hijinks began in earnest. The actual romance felt very one-sided, which made it hard to fully buy into it. Finally, I understand why Chen glossed over some of time travel’s ethical conundrums, which would’ve bogged down his novel’s breezy story. Even so, the handwaving was occasionally irksome.
For better or worse, most fantasy is fairly British in nature. (Blame it on Tolkien.) What initially interested me in The Justice of Kings was that its fantasy seemed more Germanic in nature, if only in the names of people and places. But what’s most noteworthy about the novel is that, although it has some of the usual fantasy trappings (e.g., magic), it’s actually a detective story crossed with a healthy dose of legal drama. (Author Richard Swan is a lawyer in real life, which adds to the verisimilitude.) It’s well-written and engaging, particularly since it’s narrated by a young woman who serves as a scribe for an imperial agent tasked with investigating rumored cult activities, which eventually reveal a far bigger conspiracy that threatens the whole empire. The Justice of Kings is the first in a trilogy — does anyone publish one-off genre novels any more? — and though I enjoyed it, I’m not sure I enjoyed it enough to make me rush out and read the remaining books.
The arrival of this one took me by surprise, simply because the previous Orphan X novel — The Last Orphan — seemed to end things on a rather definite note. (That, and it was literally titled The Last Orphan.) Would that it had been the final Orphan X novel. Lone Wolf suffers from the same flaws as its predecessor, namely that it spends so many pages diving into the protagonist’s trauma, existential angst, psychological baggage, and (worst of all) experiences with HOA politics, that it becomes surprisingly and frustratingly inert. After all, this is a series of novels about a super-deadly assassin who now loans out his skills to desperate people in desperate situations while trying to stay one step ahead of the people who trained him. Ironically, the more humanity that it protagonist seems to reclaim, the less interesting he becomes as a character.
After finishing Sarah Arthur’s Once a Queen and then discovering that she co-founded a festival devoted to C. S. Lewis, my first thought was, “Yep, that tracks.” And no, that’s not a slight. But Arthur’s novel — in which a girl named Eva discovers evidence that her grandmother was a queen in another world, the very same world chronicled in Eva’s favorite book — is clearly inspired by Lewis’s beloved Narnian stories. But it’s inspired in the best ways, and no mere rip-off. Arthur’s prose is often quite beautiful and even moving at times, and she weaves a story filled with delight and imagination as well as sorrow, tragedy, and heartache. (Because, as we all know, the best fairy tales often have darker, sadder undercurrents.) Once a Queen is a bit cluttered — I confess, it was occasionally difficult to keep track of all of the characters’ familial connections — and Eva’s naïveté and stubbornness is as frustrating as it is endearing (as is often the case with fourteen-year-olds). But the novel is also deeply earnest in its insistence, à la Lewis, of the importance and power of myths and fairy tales, and their ability to convey deeper truths. Perhaps the highest compliment I can give Once a Queen is that upon finishing it, I immediately began thinking of all of the youngsters who should read it when it’s released later this month, starting with my own kids. (Thanks to NetGalley for the advance review copy.)
If you haven’t read any of Brandon Sanderson’s other novels set in his extensive (some might say, convoluted) Cosmere mythology, have no fear. Sure, it’s narrated by Hoid and references cognitive shadows, cryptics, lightweaving, and whatnot, but Yumi and the Nightmare Painter’s story about a man and woman from different worlds who suddenly find themselves inhabiting each other’s bodies is largely self-contained. It’s also a bit on the slight side, which makes sense given its origins as a secret project for Sanderson’s 2022 Kickstarter campaign. The novel worked best for me when I remembered that it’s basically Sanderson riffing on a Final Fantasy game; the storyline, characters, magic, technology, etc., all feel very much like something out of a JRPG. If JRPGs aren’t your thing, though, then you might have a harder time with it.
I didn’t realize until I had finished reading The Sky Vault that it’s actually part of a series. But Benjamin Percy’s novel is remarkably self-contained. Thus, I never felt like I was missing any important details or context while reading its story about a random assortment of people in Fairbanks, Alaska who get caught up in a secret government program stretching back to World War II, one involving bizarre weather phenomena and an otherworldly threat. Conversely, I don’t feel all that compelled to check out the preceding novels in Percy’s series or to eagerly await future installments. The Sky Vault contains interesting threads, including a conspiracy theorist whose theories finally become true, a former government agent-turned-mercenary in search of one final score, and an aging lawman caught up in events far beyond his ken. But the resulting novel is over-stuffed, and as a result, its core revelations about the aforementioned otherworldly threat are a bit undercooked. For what it’s worth, I was occasionally reminded of Peter Clines’ The Fold and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland.
When I was in grade school, I was enamored with wilderness adventure stories, particularly ones set in the far north. While I read plenty of Jack London (e.g., The Call of the Wild), my favorites were Jack O’Brien’s Silver Chief stories, which chronicled the adventures of a Canadian Mountie and the titular wolf-dog (with some definite similarities to London’s stories). Reading Silver Chief to the Rescue now, I see why I loved it as a boy; O’Brien’s novel is filled with highly romanticized descriptions of life in the snowy Canadian wilderness that nevertheless ring with authenticity. (O’Brien was a surveyor on Admiral Byrd’s 1928 Antarctic expedition.) What I didn’t see as a kid, however, is the novel’s unvarnished racism. Native and Indigenous characters are often depicted in unflattering ways: as shifty, cruel, uncultured, and above all else, in desperate need of the White Man’s law. (And lest there be any doubt about that, the Mountie says as much in an extended speech.) At best, they’re useful and eager to serve the book’s protagonist. Even if you try and explain the book’s racism as a product of its time, it’s still pretty obvious and ridiculous.
You don’t often read a novel that completely checks some of your boxes. But Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Silver Nitrate is one such novel for me. Obscure film history? Check. Eldritch horror? Check. Bizarre occult conspiracies? Check. Montserrat is a sound editor who, by virtue of a being a woman in ’90s Mexico, is constantly disregarded by her peers. But a chance meeting with a once-famous horror director might turn things around for her, especially after he invites her to participate in an arcane ceremony involving a lost film supposedly imbued with magic by a Nazi occultist. Naturally, things go wrong and Montserrat and her best friend — a former actor haunted by his reckless past — are soon visited by unsettling visions and forced on the run by an evil cult. Silver Nitrate drags in places and the protagonists’ nigh-constant bickering gets tedious, but Moreno-Garcia still casts a spell, especially when she delves into Mexican film history. Admittedly, I know very little about Mexican cinema, so I don’t know how much of Moreno-Garcia’s history is real or imagined — I was occasionally reminded of the mélange of conspiracy theories in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum — but that just made Silver Nitrate all the more intriguing.
I’ve been on something of a Lloyd Alexander kick lately, and with The Illyrian Adventure, I think I’m finally over it. Set in the late 19th century, this first in a series of six novels follows a headstrong young woman named Vesper Holly who decides to follow in the footsteps of her eccentric archaeologist father who mysteriously disappeared, and complete his expedition to the Balkan region of Illyria — with an appropriately fussy guardian in tow, of course. It’s a fine adventure story for the most part, though in a clear sign that I’m getting old, young Ms. Holly’s non-stop precociousness grew increasingly eyeroll-inducing as the novel went on.
Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy — which takes place in a pseudo-historical alternative to Revolution-era France — comes to a middling close with The Beggar Queen. But perhaps that’s too harsh. Much like the previous book, The Kestrel, The Beggar Queen isn’t bad. But it toes the line between being palatable for kids and delving into the horrors and brutality of war. Alexander can’t make up his mind which way to go, and so it ends up just being a bit meh and all over the place. Towards the end, it feels like Alexander has even become bored with his own story, and so stuff just starts happening and resolving in a fairly perfunctory manner. I do realize that my assessment may be due to being a 47-year-old. If I’d read this as a 12-year-old, then I could easily see how it would’ve felt so “adult,” and thus, so much better than all of that other “kids’ stuff” I’d been reading. Indeed, my biggest regret with the Westmark novels is probably that I didn’t read them as a 5th or 6th grader first.
It may have won the Hugo Award for best novella, but I was surprisingly underwhelmed by All Systems Red. The concept is very promising: a security robot hacks its programming and becomes self-aware, which poses some thorny questions given its incredibly deadly — and, ahem, murderous — nature. But the actual storyline felt rather pedestrian, as the titular Murderbot struggles to help his latest clients, a group of researchers whose expedition on a distant and hostile planet has been compromised. There are hints at a broader storyline, but I don’t feel a deep need to check out the rest of Murderbot’s diaries.
While I enjoyed Westmark, I struggled with The Kestrel. At less than 250 pages, The Kestrel is not a long book, but Lloyd Alexander aims for an epic scope as the nation of Westmark faces betrayal and invasion by the neighboring nation of Regia. The book’s characters are all caught up in the conflict, particularly protagonist Theo, who joins up with the anti-monarchy freedom fighter Florian and slowly begins to lose his humanity amidst the horrors and brutality of war. The Kestrel felt rather fragmented at times, as Alexander hops all over the place in order to keep track of the growing conflict. That, and I never quite got a handle on the book’s tone; it switches from grim battles and moments of anguish to scenes with a pair of child thieves that, while not exactly light-hearted, still felt like they were from another novel entirely.
Charlie Fitzer is a down-on-his-luck substitute teacher barely living from paycheck to paycheck. When his ultra-rich uncle dies, it seems like things might finally be turning around for Charlie — except that in addition to being ridiculously wealthy, Charlie’s uncle was also one of the world’s greatest super-villains. And now Charlie has been tapped to be his heir, which means dealing with the world’s other super-villains. But at least Charlie now has his very own island volcano lair. Starter Villain is precisely what I’ve come to expect from John Scalzi: an engaging and entertaining read that’s the literary equivalent of a bacon double cheeseburger with a side of fries and a chocolate milkshake. (Which is a good thing.) It’s frequently funny — the potty-mouthed talking dolphins trying to unionize had me chuckling, as did a scene of super-villains trying to meet over Zoom — and as an added bonus, Scalzi makes some pointed digs at tech bros and ultra-rich elites alike. (Which feel particularly relevant in light of, say, Elon Musk’s “inspired” leadership that’s current driving Twitter down into a death spiral.)
Lloyd Alexander is best known for his Welsh-inspired high fantasy series, The Chronicles of Prydain (which I finally read last year and enjoyed). However, he wrote others novels set in historically influenced settings, including ancient India (The Iron Ring), ancient China (The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen), and in the case of Westmark, the French Revolution. Its setting aside, Westmark includes themes that are common to Alexander’s stories, i.e., the protagonist is an idealistic young man who discovers that the world is a lot more complicated than he thought, and with the help of a cast of colorful characters, must fight evil while grappling with moral and ethical quandaries. This is far from weighty, preachy stuff, though. I read Westmark in just a few hours thanks to Alexander’s economical (though no less imaginative) writing and worldbuilding.
Having recently finished and enjoyed his Final Architecture trilogy, I wanted to read some more of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s work. On a whim, I picked up this novella, and saw that it was dedicated to the memory of Gene Wolfe — which struck me as a good sign. Ostensibly a fantasy story about a young, headstrong princess determined to banish the demon that’s plaguing her kingdom, Elder Race takes a sci-fi turn when the mighty wizard she turns to for help turns out to be something else entirely: an anthropologist sent to study her planet. Of course, the blending of sci-fi and fantasy isn’t new, but Tchaikovsky throws in some interesting twists, be it the trauma and loneliness of a “wizard” who fears he is the last of his kind or some particularly beautiful ruminations on the power of myths and stories to inspire, comfort, and heal us. This took me a little longer to read than I expected because I kept getting distracted with other things, but Elder Race could be a nice weekend read — if you’re looking for such a thing.
From my full review on Christ and Pop Culture: [W]hat is the goal of The Ballot and the Bible? I believe it can be summed up in a single word: humility. Schiess’s book is filled with examples of people — from all points along the political spectrum — who were absolutely convinced that they were applying Scripture to their politics in an objective manner, that their exegesis and interpretation weren’t merely correct but obviously so. And conversely, their political opponents were obviously wrong. Schiess… does explore how some interpretations were, in fact, incorrect (e.g., the South’s “biblical” defense of chattel slavery) or overly simplistic (e.g., certain conservatives’ use of Jesus’s “render unto Caesar” speech). But she also considers how there’s plenty of room for nuance, and how nuance is absolutely necessary due in part to our own limited and sinful nature, which will always “warp our moral intuition and biblical interpretation.”
James S. A. Corey’s Expanse series remains my gold standard for galaxy-spanning space opera, but Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Final Architecture trilogy comes pretty close, with Lords of Uncreation concluding the series in suitably epic fashion. Turns out, I like my sci-fi with a touch of eldritch horror, and in Tchaikovsky’s novel, a ragtag group of humans and aliens seek access to the bizarre, otherworldly realm of unspace in a bid to prevent the galaxy’s sentient life from getting wiped out. Even better, they’re led by one of the most delightfully pathetic and sadsack protagonists I’ve encountered since The Curse of Chalion’s Lupe dy Cazaril. Lords of Uncreation does get a bit long-winded with Tchaikovsky’s repeated descriptions of the aforementioned otherworldly realm — there are a lot of explanations of just how much unspace defies explanation — but there’s also a lot of delightful and clever prose, and several moments practically had me cheering. More importantly, his cast of characters — hard-bitten salvagers, cyborgs, government agents, indestructible human-lobster hybrids, warrior clones, clam-like alien gods, and even a space lawyer — are colorful and endearing in their own ways.
I don’t mean it lightly when I say that if it weren’t for Philip Yancey, I might have abandoned Christianity years ago. Shortly after college, I went through a long period of intense doubt and bleak cynicism during which the Church seemed pointless and my own faith useless. A friend lent me a copy of Yancey’s Reaching For the Invisible God and it proved to be a lifeline. I’d never read a Christian book like it before, one that explored faith and doubt honestly and thoughtfully without devolving into condemnation or simple platitudes. In the years that followed, I read everything I could find of Yancey’s, and books like What’s So Amazing About Grace? and Soul Survivor greatly shaped my present faith. Throughout Where the Light Fell, Yancey reflects on what inspired him to write books like Reaching For the Invisible God: a Southern childhood characterized by racism and rigid fundamentalism; attending an ultra-legalistic Bible college; and most of all, a deeply dysfunctional family upbringing. Some portions of the book are chilling, particularly when Yancey recounts his mother’s harsh discipline and even harsher words for him and his older brother, and the wounds they left. Having read so many of his other books, Where the Light Fell does suffer a bit from familiarity; many of its stories appear as anecdotes in his earlier titles, albeit in more anonymous forms (something he even admits). But it’s also by turns fascinating, thoughtful, and affecting. Yancey’s memoir is consistently winsome, even when he’s plumbing the darkest parts of his past.
I didn’t enjoy this as much as the trilogy’s first book — 2021’s Shards of Earth — mainly because it suffered from being the middle book. A good deal of Eyes of the Void felt like Tchaikovsky was just biding his time and shuffling things around in preparation for the third book, Lords of Uncreation. As such, it lacked some of the urgency and momentum that I enjoyed so much in Shards of Earth. That said, the book’s fourth and final section — “Criccieth’s Hell” — ended it on a strong note, with Tchaikovsky once again unleashing his creative prose to describe the horrors of the galaxy’s most inhospitable planet as well as the unsettling discoveries that Idris Telemmier makes while plumbing the depths of “unspace” (the bizarre layer of (un)reality lurking just beneath real space) for clues on how to stop the world-destroying Architects.
Ever since finishing the Expanse series last year, I’ve been looking for something to fill up that space opera-sized hole in my life — and Shards of Earth did just that. I’ve seen Tchaikovsky’s novels at the library for awhile now, but finally decided to check this one out after seeing that his Final Architecture series had concluded earlier this year. (I didn’t want to start an unfinished series.) Shards of Earth has everything I wanted: a richly detailed universe filled with multiple alien races and offshoots of humanity; a motley crew of ne’er-do-wells eking out an existence on the edge of civilization; and a mysterious planet-destroying threat that, of course, only our motley crew seems capable of defeating. That is, if they can survive cults, corrupt politicians, alien gangsters, and their own prejudices. I particularly enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s vivid prose describing the bizarre realities of space travel, the otherworldly entities potentially lurking in the depths of space, and the effects they have on mortal minds — all of which make his universe more compelling and intriguing, and reminded me of my favorite aspects of David Zindell’s storytelling.