Goodhouse

Astoundingly good, though not always coherent. Dystopian, yet based in truth. Dark, but not without its light. I’d never even heard of Peyton Marshall before I picked up this book, but I’ll remember her now.

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I read this in just over two days. It was around 3:30 am when I finished Goodhouse, and I waited til the next morning to start my review of it. My feelings about this novel are complex, but I feel I can still string ‘em together in a fairly coherent manner. Which is more than I can say for Goodhouse on the whole. Here’s the short of it: I didn’t love this book. But it was good, and I raced right through it. At just over 300 pages this isn’t a surprise in itself, as I often do get swept up in a story. But this story, uh. Well.

So, I’m conflicted. But I’ll try to hammer it out for y’all.

Goodhouse is a dystopian novel set in a twenty-first century America where the children of violent convicts—the ones that have specific DNA or genetic markers (which are believed to determine a premeditated violent behavior)—are taken away from their parents by the state, and put in a part-juvie, part-reform school, part-work camp known as a Goodhouse. They do this when the kids are like 3. Over the course of the next 15 years, they are coached and brain-washed and judged, sorted into 4 levels of preparedness to integrate into society. Once they turn 18, these levels determine their future. Level 3-4 are sent to remote mines, quarries or off-shore platforms. Level 2 gain the ability to reintegrate into regular society, but they must keep the moniker ‘Goodhouse’ as their last name. Level 1 are allowed to rejoin society and change their names, becoming a productive member of society.

There was something about this story that seemed plausible. I swear that this was considered at some time by some (probably small) number of scientists but for the life of me I cannot remember where or when. Peyton Marshall quotes that Goodhouse was inspired by real-life events, that of the Preston School of Industry (which I have heard of, though am not familiar with), so there’s that.

So let’s just say; plausible story? Yeah.

James Goodhouse is a Level 1 student at the Goodhouse facility near Ione, California, having recently been transferred following an attack on his former facility in La Pine, Oregon. He is haunted by his history; showing all the symptoms for PTSD—seeing specters of his dead friends and schoolmates, suffering nightmares, exhibiting fear and paranoia. Goodhouse is the story of his life in the system, and the unexpected events that befall him following his transference to Ione.

This is quite a good book. Set in an imaginative and plausible—if not terribly detailed—world, Goodhouse was a quick and interesting read. I generally like dystopian novels, though some are a bit more farfetched than others. This was realistic (and based on true events (based being the key word)) and imaginable, so there was no problem there. It was a page-turner; without the keen eye to detail that is found in some longer, more fantastical books. The story, though not always coherent (there were times I was somewhat lost, but as I pushed through, they… not went away so much as… clarified), was quite good.

My main problem was with the love story.

While I do think that the story of James paired acceptably well with the blossoming love story… well, that’s just it. It paired well. Shouldn’t a story of James include his own love story? But it didn’t, not really. It felt like something extra, something added, something… detached from the main. I feel like these were planned to blend better together, that they were supposed to… but they just don’t. Even towards the end, the two remain oddly disjointed.

Don’t get me wrong—the love story works. It’s a bit incoherent at times, especially early on (the first half or so). But it feels added. Like another story within the same book. Like we’re skipping back and forth between the two, all the way to the end.

The disjointed story of James is by no means a deal-breaker. While it slowed down the story (at least for me—at first—as I had to keep rereading sections in an attempt to figure out what was going on), soon enough I got used to it. Some of the conversations were especially confusing, and even after I finished the book and went back to them, I still couldn’t figure everything out.

Despite this, given how long it took me to read Goodhouse (which is about 320 pages), I’m still tempted to recommend it to all. But I won’t. I mean, if you’re a fan of dystopian, or just a quick reader—by all means. It’s more descriptive and less juvenile than The Maze Runner. It is significantly darker and less jovial than Ready, Player One. If you’re after an exact match, there isn’t one. But…

I’d say the closest thing to it is Mockingjay (which I’d rate about a 3/5). Dark, emotional. While not bereft of joy, not chock full of it, either. PTSD and depression are common things, and death is no stranger. Love that is a complex and fragile thing.

I would give Goodhouse 3.5 / 5 stars. Peyton Marshall’s debut wasn’t the best book I’d read in a while, nor the worst. It was alright. Decent, even. A good dystopian novel, a decent scifi read in general, though not without its flaws. I’d recommend it if you enjoyed the Hunger Games, or dystopian novels in general. If you happened to love Mockingjay, I’d say this book would be right up your alley.

Worldbuilding: The Banished Lands

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The problem with most novels is that they’re over too quickly. Series—okay, mostly trilogies—set in the same world can give a greater sense of worth to this creation. But from good worlds can come bad novels and from lazy worlds, good novels.

The Banished Lands is an example of neither.

In The Faithful and the Fallen tetralogy by John Gwynne debuted in late-2012 with the novel Malice. This effort is a classic coming of age sequence, with some not so classic themes. Evil, it seems, is not always evil. Good, not always good. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. Not yet, at least.

The Banished Lands is the jewel of this debut (not to take anything away from the excellence of the story). And while in Malice we are given a glimpse of the world, the following three books in the series—Valor, Ruin and Wrath—provide a gateway for a more total immersion in John Gwynne’s new creation. For all of this near-3000-page epic we wander the Banished Lands, traversing their depths to an admirable, though by no means exhaustive, extent. From the three islands in the Tethys Sea; to Arcona, the eastern sea of grass; to the western kingdom of Ardan, where much of this story takes root; to the foothills of the Bone Fells, the territory of the Jotun giant clan—the Faithful and the Fallen explores this new exquisite, detailed and imaginative land. And if this tale was not sufficient for some, have no fear! John Gwynne recently announced a further series set some thirty-ish years after the events of The Faithful and the Fallen, to take place in these same Banished Lands.

And while—I would like to note—this is not specifically a review of the series, but more a review of the world in which said series is set: the series itself was excellent. And a good story often leads to a more clear, detailed world. That being said, let’s look at some worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding Review: THE BANISHED LANDS by John Gwynne

The Banished Lands were once a land of giants, not men. Thousands of years before the events of The Faithful and the Fallen (TFatF), the five giant clans dominated the land, living beneath the rule of the first king, Skald. But then came war. The first king was murdered, and the clans fractured, warring between one another and each retreating into their own lands.

And then came man. Humans arrived from the sea, being driven out of their own lands, crossing the great sea to begin anew in what would become known as the Banished Lands (for it was here they were banished to, see). The giants further retreated into their own and for a time man and giant lived in—well, not “peace”, but as close to a thing that was possible at the time, given the situation. But as was certain to occur, men and giants went to war. And the giants, though their strength was great and their warriors fierce, could not reproduce as quickly nor in as much supply as their cousins—lost. They retreated deeply into their own lands, ceding the world to men.

Then came the events of TFatF.

There. A little background.

Every good world needs a history, and a good history can make any story that much better. Especially, if the story and history are tied, which these are.

But first we’ll focus on the land itself.

The Banished Lands is a part of its own continent, an area much like that of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, or David Dalglish’s Shadowdance or, more realistically, kinda like Europe. A realm that, while not covering the entirety of its landmass, is a complete geopolitical entity.

It is a land reminiscent of the traditional Celtic lands, with a history to match. Highlands, forests, fens, with a vast expanse of grassland in the south and east. To the west and south along with much of the north lies the sea, and to the north and east a desolate land of tundra and wastes of which, unfortunately, we get little more than a peek. Far be it of me to criticize someone’s grasp of geography, so I’ll settle with saying that for the story, for what Gwynne had in mind, the geographical world itself is exceptional. And while pictures are worth a thousand words, the hundreds of thousands he expends on the series fills in the details the map cannot pretend to.

While some series boast their own territories complete with separate languages, Gwynne simplifies his with one common tongue for men, and another for giants. Though not as… comprehensive as some others, the speech of the Banished Lands feels much less intimidating. It’s one less aspect to worry about, and enables the reader to focus on the history, the kingdoms, the characters, and of course the story. Having to translate from one tongue to another constantly—while more realistic, and when done well can really enhance the experience—can also become exhausting, and can slow the plot considerably. Once more, far be it from me to critique the author’s linguistic choice, but I think Gwynne makes the right call here. After all, Malice is certainly a Coming-of-Age novel, and while it starts off a bit slow, the pace of the plot is by no means a burden.

The Banished Lands’ currency is also shared. One that uses gold and silver and copper bits, like many other fantasy systems. Again, I think that while when done well this can enhance the story, adding definition to the world, in general it can really do more harm than good, and Gwynne’s choice to simplify it is a good one.

It’s the magic system that falls a bit short.

It’s not like the magic of the Banished Lands isn’t well thought out. It’s not that it’s absent from the story. In fact, ‘the earth power’ as it is referred to in the text, appears in the prologue. But after this, well, we just don’t hear from it too often. Again, it’s not absent, just… lacking. Magic occurs with increasing regularity in later books, but in Malice, it seems… underplayed.

It is quite possible Gwynne does this on purpose. A series that leans heavily on its use of magic calls for an in-depth, well thought out and immersive magic system—which is something that the Banished Lands just does not have. It’s not that the system is not thought out and well designed. It is. It’s just not central to the story. In fact, the tale could probably get along just fine without it, although I’m not saying it should. There’d be some tricky bits to just removing it, however. While not vital to the human POV chapters—which really dominate the book—giant history and society are deeply steeped in ‘the earth power’, and their POV chapters reflect this. But it are these giant POVs that really tie the plot together. It was their land, after all. It was stolen from them. And it’s this history that affects much of the motivation—be it for, or against—behind their actions through much of the series. But that’s a whole other can of fish.

The Banished Lands doesn’t go out of its way to reinvent the magic system. Some recent entries—the Powder Mage, Brandon Sanderson fill-in-the-blank, the Demon Cycle—have gone out of their way to overhaul the basic system, to major success. For the story of TFatF, however, the motivation to do this is simply not there. The plot is strong, the world is detailed. The story is the journey. I’m not saying Gwynne didn’t bother because he was lazy. Nothing of the sort. Just that he doesn’t really need to reinvent. I’m just saying that this was an under-explored part of TFatF, and maybe something that Gwynne will expand upon in his next series.

It’s simply that ‘the earth power’ leaves the reader wanting. It isn’t central to the plot. It seems to be written-in more than included. This could be because it’s not thoroughly thought out, or it could be that for the purpose of this story it doesn’t need to be as strong as magic systems are in other series.

It’s in the history and evolution that the Banished Lands excels.

Borrowing from Celtic themes, though not necessarily on Celtic lore (uh, of which I’m not terribly familiar), the Banished Lands creates a vivid and believable history, and one that plays strong throughout TFatF. Indeed, the creation and lore is central to the plot. A god that has broken a world he views as corrupt and evil. Before the end, this god—Elyon—stays his hand and, feeling shame from his actions, leaves the land, becoming a so-called ‘absent god’. In his stead he leaves the Faithful—a race of angel-like beings—and the Fallen—which parallel fallen angels, led by Asroth—to fight for supremacy of the land. And, like in all good lore-based Coming-of-Age fantasies: a prophecy. One that predicts the fate of the world will be decided by a war. A war between the Bright Star and Black Sun, the avatars of Elyon and Asroth respectively, to decide the fate of the world.

This prophecy is excellent—not too long, not too short, just vague enough, and plays out quite well through the series; through a series of plot-twists I personally never saw coming.

And beneath it all: the lore. And the peoples’ belief in the lore.

It’s important when borrowing from existing cultures to not borrow too heavily. Not rip off the names and places, for example. If someone is going to steal something straight up—they might as well change the names and places, right? In his world of Paradise, Victor Milán does this. It is one of the laziest worldbuilding efforts in a series I’ve ever read. John Gwynne doesn’t. He borrows: from the angels and fallen of Abrahamic lore; from the highlands and forests and fens of the British Isles; to the place names and use of language (though not word-for-word, or name-for-name. He uses the style of the Celts, he doesn’t just copy and paste of of the encyclopedia) of the Gaels as well. A good author knows how to borrow from something, from someone, to create something new. And John Gwynne is a good author.

One people, one land.

For the most part, this describes the Banished Lands. There are idiosyncrasies between the peoples, certain things that differentiate them from one another. And of course, there is the dynamic between giants and men. There are a few exceptions, however.

One is the Gadrai. The giant hunters of Forn. While not exactly a separate culture or ethnicity (they are made up of people from each corner of the Banished Lands, anyone who kills a giant is welcome to join), they maintain a distinctive status. A kind of reverence, of awe, of guardianship towards the land. It is more of a society alike the Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller.

The other inhabits Arcona—‘the sea of grasses’—who ride small ponies instead of horses, boast a darker complexion and inhabit the sea of grasses. They have a different look than the rest of the Banished Lands, as well as different values and a different culture. They are not overly explored in TFatF, as there is no POV character from the (whatever). They are an entity I hope Gwynne explores in his coming series.

While most of the cultures (of men) are similar to one another, as are those of the giants (meaning, no giant clan is that different from one another), and the culture of the Banished Lands borrows from the Gaelic peoples—the creativity of it, though not too innovative, is quite well done. More importantly, it all works. It is not forced together (i.e. If it doesn’t seem to work; make it).

Magic System:                              Acceptable
Cultures:                                        Excellent
Lore:                                                Excellent
History:                                           Exquisite
Details:                                            Decent
As it Complements the Story:   Excellent

WORLDBUILDING:                     EXCELLENT

If you’re after some kind of out of 10 score, tough.

I mean, okay okay okay. Um somewhere between an 8 and 9. Call it 8.5/10

The best (albeit first and only) Worldbuilding system I’ve reviewed thus far. Hope someone liked it somewhere, at least.

The Fold

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Though Peter Clines has been on my list for years, this is the first book of his I’ve ever read. And I have to say, if the rest of his novels are anything like The Fold, I’m gonna have to make time for them.

Our protagonist, Leland “Mike” Erikson isn’t superhuman, but his superpower is very much real. Perfect eidetic memory and recall—meaning he has never forgotten anything he’s learned in his life. Now that’s such a cool ability, if one that’s been overused in fiction. But Mike takes time to point out that this blessing isn’t necessarily always a blessing. It can easily be a curse.

Mike imagines his eidetic memory as a hive of ants; each carrying a scrap of information. The ants move in an endless cycle, retrieving and organizing the info in his head, cataloguing it before moving on to the next subject. When he needs them, the ants organize in a heartbeat, marching the information to the forefront of his mind, often laying it out in a relative and often complex manner depending on what the situation calls for. He can create a graph or a scatterplot composed of pieces of data collected days or even years apart. He can replay any movie, reread any book so long as he had seen it sometime in his life. He can overlap places atop one another—images or scenes of the same locale taken from different times, recreating each in gory detail to compare for differences. He can remember where he left that important thing, you know, the one I always seem to lose.

But along with the blessing, his gift can also be a curse. Since he can never forget anything, every death, every trauma is a raw wound. He can picture it in perfect detail hours, days, even years after it has occurred. Every horrible, pain instilling moment we normal folk endure once—even those particularly scarring memories that haunt us for weeks or months after they occur—he carries with him for the rest of his life. They are with him always, and in perfect clarity. It’s the kind of thing that when others portray eidetic memory, they usually gloss over or skip it entirely. It’s but a cliff note to the plot, really a footnote, but it puts everything in perspective. An infallible man with perfect recall and no trauma doesn’t make an interesting or realistic story. Mike is human—it makes all the difference in the story.

When we enter The Fold, Mike is teaching high school English in Maine. A simple life, for someone whose talents demand so much more. An old friend, Reggie, drops in on him for something of a surprise. But this isn’t the social call it seems. Instead, Reggie, a DARPA bigwig in charge of a super secret project, has a problem. He isn’t sure what is wrong exactly, but something is. And he needs Mike to help.

The perfect eidetic memory aside, this is quite a compelling plot. One that engrossed me in mere minutes. That said, it took me three days to get past the first part. I don’t remember what was going on at the time, but I remember being around page 50 after the first three days. The rest I read in one night. But luckily by then the kicker is revealed.

The Fold is like Stargate meets Fringe. Wormholes and parallel universes and some problem that always arises from dealing with one and two. “The Albuquerque Door” is a portal that folds over time and space twice—first once and then back—allowing a person, an object, a… hamster, to travel from Point A to Point B in a fraction of a second, no matter what that distance is. But there’s a problem. There always is. Reggie isn’t sure what it is, but there’s a problem. Something off. Something… wrong.

As scifi thrillers involving wormholes go, The Fold is pretty good. There were questions I had later in the story, questions I couldn’t reason out at three in the morning, questions that bugged me for the next few days. Unfortunately, it’s taken me nearly a year to write this review and, well, I ain’t Mike. It’d be helpful sometimes… okay, most of the time, but I wouldn’t be… me. Right, yeah. I can’t recall my problems with the science. But I remember the gist. ‘Try not to dig too deeply, not all the explanations are there’. So long as you don’t dive too deep, The Fold is an amazing read. The best part is the story doesn’t get weighed down by the heavy science that affects some other stories. It toes the line between light and heavy, coming out somewhere in the gold. At least, I liked it. In terms of relating it… I’d put the science more in-depth than Time Salvager or Hollow World, but not anywhere near Peter F. Hamilton level. A nice middle ground, like Becky Chambers manages.

The book is no work of art; the prose isn’t sublime, the text isn’t chiseled from gold, the characters aren’t gods made men. But the plot goes together pretty well and the story flows along well. Mike has a distinctly human element to him that tethers the tale to reality. While it wasn’t my favorite book ever, there’s really nothing for me to poke holes in.

4.5 / 5 stars. And I added the rest of Peter Clines work to my ‘to-read’ list.

When The Heavens Fall

When the Heavens Fall

WHEN THE HEAVENS FALL
by Marc Turner
Chronicles of the Exile Book 1

3 / 5 stars.

WHEN THE HEAVENS FALL is an intriguing new sword and sorcery fantasy from British author Marc Turner. I mean, it’s really only new by the fact that I hadn’t read it. Otherwise, the book’s about two-and-a-half years on the shelves, but let’s move past that. I picked it up at the library last month, so this is the best kind of review—a free one.

I had absolutely no expectations starting WHEN THE HEAVENS FALL. I’d never heard of it, nor the author. I read a couple pages, liked what I saw and was intrigued by the world, the characters—at least at first. But once I got down to serious reading, I started to struggle. But we’ll get back to that.

Like a classic fantasy tale, WHEN THE HEAVENS FALL begins with a quest. An ancient and powerful artifact—a book—called “The Book of Lost Souls”, has been stolen. The perpetrator, a rogue mage, Mayot Mencada, has retrieved the book from the god of death—Shroud—and retreated to the Forest of Sighs where he can study the book and build his power. But all actions (at least, all diabolical ones) have consequences. The four POVs arise from the theft, all pulled together by the web that bound them. First Ebon—the crown prince to a kingdom bordering the forest—has had spirits trapped in his head for years. For a time, their effect had diminished, but lately, they had begun to reemerge in his mind. Romany—the high priestess of a god called the Spider—has been recruited by her deity to help Mencada read the book, which is protected by powerful magics. The Spider, who has her own agenda in the matter, also orchestrated the book’s disappearance. Lurker—the former guardian (of what never really became clear) with an awesome name—is tasked with seeking out Mencada and retrieving the book for his Emperor. Well, not exactly his emperor. But when Lurker finds Mencada, he will also find his absent mentor. Parolla—a young necromancer with a grudge against Shroud—seeks the book for her own reasons, to further her own aims. They are all present on the same web, pulled together as the plot unfolds. Together, they will resolve the story—one way or another.

Unlike most fantasy books I’ve read, WHEN THE HEAVENS FALL does not dedicate its chapters to a single POV character. Instead, the POV bounces between the four through the entirety of the book. This made for strange and uneven pacing, especially at first. The world of The Chronicles of the Exile is bright and beautiful. The snapshots we see of it at first are highly detailed and even sublime in its intricacy. And yet this is all they are. Snapshots. Since no POV holds its own chapter, the plot jumps around too much for the world to come together—until much, much later. In fact, The Forest of Sighs and its surrounding area alone is well-rendered, the rest off the world obscured by a bank of fog, with only intermittent glimpses peeking through. It reeks a bit of Landfall from the Erebus Sequence by Den Patrick. Highly detailed and ambitious, but incredibly limited in scope and size of the world portrayed. If you haven’t read this, I’m sorry. It’d be like describing Hogwarts, or Gondor, but covering the rest of the world around it in fog. You could see a few things outside the scope but only if you’re right in front of them and have a controlled POV narrating the story at that point. Anyway, while I did finally get past this pacing, it took a couple hundred pages of inconsistent reading, and a lot more time than I felt it should.

And yet the plot—as each POV controls their own piece—tends to move along inconsistently. I never really became invested in Romany’s thread until near the end. Lurker I found interesting yet there was never enough of it in the first half, jut snippets of his journey until reaching the world near the Forest of Sighs. Ebon and Parolla had their own ups and downs, but by the halfway point three of them picked up quite nicely.

That said, after the 200-250 or so pages, the pace picked up considerably. The plot starts rolling here as well. The conclusion—the last 150 or so—I LOVED. But it was the rest that really controlled my opinion of it. WHEN THE HEAVENS FALL is ambitious, an entrance into a highly detailed world. What I see smacks of Joe Abercrombie, Robert Jordan, and John Gwynne. All authors of broad, expansive worlds that I loved. Marc Turner’s creation falls short of these talents through his first offering alone, but at this time he has an additional two books out, both set in the same world. Though I really struggled at first, WHEN THE HEAVENS FALL was an interesting fantasy read. If you’re used to stories with a slow build, this is something you should definitely consider. If not, you may get lost before the plot turns around.

I’ve heard the second offering is a better read than the first, and look forward to reading it. I’m thinking 3 / 5 stars. It was okay, but the second is in fact better, so there’s more reason to start the series.

Hell Divers – Review

Hell Divers

Think Metro meets The Darwin Elevator. Add in airships, and creatures reminiscent of The Legend of the Duskwalker series. And you end up with Hell Divers.

 

HELL DIVERS
Book 1 of Hell Divers
by Nicholas Sansbury Smith

4.5 / 5.0 stars

‘ We dive so humanity survives.’

It’s almost as if Nicholas Sansbury Smith wants the world to end. Or expects it. He’s certainly prepared for aliens, nuclear fallout, or weaponized pathogens—at least in theory. This is my second NSS novel, and third story overall. I previously finished ORBS, and its prequel SOLAR STORMS, in 2014. For years, I meant to read the second but perpetually failed to get around to it. NSS has been on my must-read list ever since, both for ORBS II and the BIOMASS REVOLUTION. I only heard of HELL DIVERS this summer and was able to snag the kindle edition on sale.

Anyway, HELL DIVERS takes places in a broken world, a post-apocalyptic nightmare where the bombs had crippled civilization and the nuclear fallout had ruined it. The only remnant of humanity lives aboard airships floating in the lower end of the troposphere (that’s the portion of the atmosphere closest to the earth), navigating between the fierce electrical storms which plague the planet. Humanity has held on this way, despite the airships being intended to only remain aloft for at most months at a time—these ships haven’t landed in centuries. And they’ve been able to do so through the contributions of hell divers—men and women who dive to the planet’s surface to search for salvage used to keep the ships alight.

But slowly these ships have failed, and fallen to earth. As of the events of HELL DIVERS, but a pair remain, and their days may be numbered.

Here’s the blurb:

‘ More than two centuries after World War III poisoned the planet, the final bastion of humanity lives on massive airships circling the globe in search for a habitable area to call home. Aging and outdated, most of the ships plummeted back to earth long ago. The only thing keeping the two surviving lifeboats in the sky are Hell Divers: men and women who risk their lives by diving to the surface to scavenge for parts the ships desperately need.

When one of the remaining airships is damaged in an electrical storm, a Hell Diver team is deployed to a hostile zone called Hades. But there’s something down there that’s far worse than the mutated creatures discovered on dives in the past—something that threatens the fragile future of humanity. ‘

While the meat of the second paragraph—the strange, mutated creatures—helped capture my interest, it was the Hell Divers that commanded my interest and could’ve carried the plot on their own, despite the intervention of mutants below and crisis and revolution in the world above. The strange new world that the Hell Divers explore is reminiscent of that of the METRO series (if you’ve read any Glukhovsky, or played any of the games), while the divers themselves relate heavily to the rangers found within the same.

Also, like the rangers in METRO—or really like rangers or explorers in any series—the Hell Divers of, um, HELL DIVERS lead short, often violent lives measured by the number of jumps completed. The average Hell Diver completes a mere 15 before an often violent death on the surface; be it succumbing to radiation poisoning or being ripped apart by abominations or simply suffering a failure from equipment which is overtaxed and outdated. Many never even make it to the surface alive, being swept away by wind and sundered on buildings or being struck by lightning before crashing to earth alone.

Characters and Setting

The story sees Xavier Rodriguez begin his 96th dive, making him a living legend among the remnant of humanity remaining. Xavier (called X) is a somewhat popular choice of character. A legend. X, alike the others, has his flaws; a drinking problem, a disconnect from the humans he protects, a mental and emotional anguish (also PTSD) stemming from the lives he’s seen extinguished—including those of his wife and lifelong friends.

Maria Ash captains the ship— and is a legend in her own right. Cancer survivor, and dedicated savior of the human race. Over the course of the story she deals with disease, dissent, betrayal, all while walking a knife’s edge—failure on both sides threatening to cost not only her own life but those of all others.

Tin is another popular character choice. Young and bright, small and quiet, son of a Hell Diver. It is and isn’t a coming of age story, as Tin is forced to deal with multiple tragedies and loss, all while finding his way in the world and maybe, maybe saving humanity as he does it.

Travis represents the unwashed masses: the lower-deckers aboard the airships who deal with rampant radiation and cancers from the nuclear drives keeping said ships aloft, with the lack of natural light and cramped living quarters, with less food and decency as those living above them. Travis might find what he wants through revolt, or he may cost the lives of those he’s trying to protect.

Weaver is a Hell Diver aboard the Ares, the Hive’s sister ship, and the only other remaining ship aloft. But his story isn’t found aboard this other ship, but instead on the ground, where he fights to save everything as his life falls to pieces around him. I found him the most intriguing character as I kept expecting him to die, but he kept refusing to. I’m not saying whether he does eventually, or not, just that he lived an awful lot longer than I expected. He’s a stubborn bastard, he is. And honestly, while I really enjoyed X’s story, Weaver is probably my favorite character. I think he adds an element to the story that—while we could probably have lived without it—transformed the story with a subplot both vibrant and noticeable. Something that shone in this depressing wasteland of a tale.

HELL DIVERS is a story that I probably would’ve read just for the exploration of another world ravaged by war. To wander a post-apocalyptic wasteland devoid of anything remotely human. Throw in airships (AIRSHIPS!) and include mutant nightmares, along with betrayal and revolution, and—hey, I’m all in.

The plot does suffer towards the end under the weight of NSS’s ambitions—the pace slows despite trying everything not to, sacrificing the vivid world- and character-building it created at the outset in favor of a faster and more thrilling conclusion. While I had raced through the story to this point, the lack of a detailed word-picture caused my pace to falter somewhat, as NSS seems willing to sacrifice it in order to reach his forgone conclusion. Yes, I’m saying that it feels like he’d written the conclusion separately instead of building up to it—and there’s nothing wrong with this, so long as it works. And it does, it does, but… It feels forced. Just a bit. Not a deal-breaker. Not even a problem, really. It just feels a bit… off. Towards the end.

Rating and Recommendations

Digesting this book was surprising. While I initially rated it at 4 / 5 upon finishing HELL DIVERS a few weeks past, now upon writing this review I can’t recall why. This is a solid read. It got better after I digested it. Usually I find more faults with a book given time. Not always big, usually not deal-breaking, but minor holes or miscues. It’s not often that a rating goes up. But HELL DIVERS does, in my opinion. It gets better upon reflecting on the world. I mean, it doesn’t hurt that the scifi I’ve gone through since has been less-than-compelling. But still.

4.5 / 5 stars. Excellent. A must read for scifi fans and/or fans of post-apocalyptic thrillers, dystopian, or even steampunk. Or, if you haven’t explored Nicholas Sansbury Smith before—this is the time, and place, to start.

A Green and Ancient Light – Review

A Green and Ancient Light

Uh, so I wrote this review last year and’ve been to preoccupied to like, change it. Should be fine.

Sometimes you run across a book that defies expectations. When judging a book by its cover—which I do with some frequency, despite the old adage—you have to remember that the artist that designs the cover and the author that writes the book are very rarely the same person. So, when confronted by a cover that is the dark green of an old-growth forest, a smattering of trees and bushes that confirm this, a translucent gate that invokes thoughts of Tolkien, and a hind which is framed in a strange and haunting light: it is tempting to think that perhaps someone just read the title (in this case A Green and Ancient Light) and went from there, not bothering to read the actual story. In many such cases, despite my tendency to judge books by their covers, I find this to be true. In this case however, it is not.

A Green and Ancient Light
by Frederic S. Durbin
5 / 5 stars

This book was haunting, a beautifully crafted piece that awakened in me thoughts of childhood, Tolkien, and dreams of a mysterious and fantastic world.
This is a book written by Frederic S. Durbin, an author whom I’ve never read anything else by, never seen referenced by any other author I’ve read, and well, never even heard of, really. Though it took a little to get acquainted with his writing style (at least, that which is featured in this novel, and which I’ll get more to later), this was a sublime read, with an imaginative plot and beautifully crafted prose. I’d compare it to the likes of The Boy With the Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick, and The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, which—while they suffered from multiple problems—were two of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. But A Green and Ancient Light (AGaAL) fails to cave beneath these same issues. Instead it excels, becoming (so far) my favorite read of the year.
While I said that this invokes Tolkien, it does so not for his writings, exactly, but instead for what I relate to him. My childhood was a bit dark, a bit lonely. But it was mine. And honestly, I liked it that way. Tolkien—more specifically, The Hobbit—taught me to dream of the fantastical and unknown. It is of this that I think when reading AGaAL.
The story follows a young boy living in Europe, just after the outbreak of the second World War. I won’t give away the country; Durbin doesn’t either, keeping everything about it secret until the… well, until after the end of the story, in his post-reading remarks (how he does this I’ll get to in a minute). In all intents and purposes, however, the country doesn’t matter. The story is not about the war at all, but about the people—the regular, common folk—and something else, something in the wood. Something that most have forgotten.
The boy travels from the city to a seaside village, to visit his Grandmother for the summer. His father is, of course, off fighting in the war. His mother remains at home in the city with his younger brother (?).
Now we get to the heart of my problem with this book—and, really, my only problem: the use of names. And it’s not what you think.
The novel just doesn’t use any.
Like, none.
Instead, in place of a person’s name, the narrator simply uses a ______. Like Mrs. B______ or Colonel D________ or Postmaster R_________.
This made it really hard for me to keep track of who was who, especially in the early going. I ended up just making up names to fill in each blank just so I could keep the characters straight. Don’t get me wrong—I have every idea why Durbin does this, and it is a good reason at that.
He does it to protect the country’s anonymity. Why does it matter so much? Well, depending on which nation this boy is from, the reader my find it difficult to keep from judging him, his father, his people. And Durbin doesn’t want this. To quote a passage from early on:

‘I won’t tell you my name or that of the village where I spent that spring and summer when I was nine. I won’t because you should realize there were towns just like it and boys just like me all around the sea—and in other countries beyond the mountains, and all over the world.’

And he’s right. It legitimately does not matter. I mean, I had my suspicions throughout the text. I even figured it out somewhere around halfway through. But this didn’t change anything. The boy is a boy. His father is his father. The people are still just people. Everything else, it doesn’t matter.
This book was sublime. From the cover, to the text, to the story, to the feelings it invoked in me. To the one thing I didn’t like. I read it once and then quickly read it again. And I’m unashamed to say I teared up both times.
If you enjoy fantasy, or even if you don’t really, this is a must read. I will say though, I have met people who didn’t care for this book. I don’t get why, but I’ll attempt to explain. My friend is really into Dark Fantasy; I suppose this wasn’t grim enough for her. My dad is weird; the reasons he likes or dislikes books no longer surprise me. So, yeah, I guess it is possible for you to not enjoy this. Hypothetically.
If you’re not sure just read an excerpt at the library or the bookstore or on a kindle. If you don’t hate it give it a try. If nothing else, it has one hell of a cover.

My Rating

5/5 stars, best of the year thus far. A must read for fans of Tolkien, Tad Williams, C. S. Lewis and any fans of a more classic fantasy style.

MY TOP 10 FOR 2017

Now, these aren’t all books that came out in 2017, but ones that I read for the first time this last year. That said, there are a few that were new, so… well, yeah. I didn’t include rereads, ’cause if I’m reading them again, I probably loved them the first time.

1. A Green and Ancient Light – by Frederic S. Durbin
My favorite book of the year is one written in the style of another world caught but in glimpses. Something that dwells deeply in one’s imagination and sense of childhood wonder. Durbin creates an enchanting scene: Europe in the throes of World War II; an untouched seaside village and an adjacent, ancient forest; an enigmatic garden harboring a mysterious secret. The plot is full of mysterious players with questionable loyalties, and as the story progresses, the lines between friend and foes blur.

This reminded me of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, of childhood, and of a strange, exciting world full of wonder. I would recommend it to anyone, ever.

2. The Faithful and the Fallen Series – by John Gwynne
While I read only the final two books for the first time in 2017, I read through the entire four book series in the first two months of the year. The journey was so enjoyable, I decided not to pick an individual book, but to place the entire series on my list. Through Malice, Valor, Ruin and Wrath, I loved each book to the point that I could scarcely name a favorite. Or, even, my least favorite. After months of reflection, I still can’t.

The journey through the Faithful and the Fallen was highly enjoyable, in part since the story just blends together so well, the series becoming alike a single volume in itself. While not exactly what I what call “classic fantasy”, this is epic fantasy at its best—sword-and-sorcery blended with high and a bit of dark thrown in. I would recommend this series to anyone that enjoys any kind of fantasy.

3. The Wayfarers Series – by Becky Chambers
I’m doing it again.

While I probably enjoyed the second book in the Wayfarer series more than the first, I loved them both to the degree that each would’ve eaten up a spot on this list so I decided to combine them. While Becky Chambers has doctorates in Astrophysics and such, the science of these novels is less important than the journey within them. It’s not a classic space opera where a galaxy is spanned and highly technical knowledge or imagination is required. There is some tech, and imagination is always helpful, but Chambers’ books are more about the lives of those described, and their various pursuits of happiness. There are high points and low, laughter and tears, but an overall note of hope that persists.

And inspires hope in its wake.

4. Chaosmage – by Stephen Aryan
While I made it through the entire Age of Darkness Trilogy in 2017, Chaosmage—the conclusion to said trilogy—was definitely my favorite. By book three, Stephen Aryan had hit his stride, the result a lovely blend of epic and dark fantasies. Since it’s the last book in an otherwise unbreached trilogy, I won’t spoil much. Just that a shadow looms over each book, each character in each book, so much so that by the end this darkness was almost a physical, real element, almost like another character in the story.

I’d recommend reading the first two, obviously, first. And for lovers of dark fantasy especially, but moreover anyone who really enjoys sword-and-sorcery at all.

5. Hell Divers Series – by Nicholas Sansbury Smith
I quite liked the first Hell Divers, a post-apocalyptic thriller reminiscent of a quasi- steampunk, cyberpunk Metro 2033. But with airships. Sansbury Smith continues to impress with his cataclysmic thrillers, as I haven’t actually read any other genre than those by him. I’m not even sure if he has written any in any other genres. Um, so. Right.  The second book wasn’t quite as good, but left me lusting after the third, so…

The final book in the Hell Divers trilogy drops then in the summer of 2018, so maybe wait til then and read ’em all. Or buy them now and read ’em twice.

6. Edgedancer – by Brandon Sanderson
A nice little story by Sanderson from the Stormlight Archive to tide people over until Oathbringer came out some several months later. Um, “little” here is over 40,000 words, but as anyone who’s read Sanderson knows—the man is unreal. A robot, a demon, Highlander. Anyways, Edgedancer is the story of Lift, a minor POV Interlude from a previous Stormlight book (I think WoR). Lift’s mocking tone and particular brand of awesomeness is both what captured and kept my attention. Oh, and there’s the world and plot and such to consider. As always, Sanderson doesn’t half-ass anything and Edgedancer, while short, is both vivid and engrossing. A highly entertaining read.

Recommended to any and all fantasy lovers, anyone who likes Sanderson, Stormlight fans, or anyone who’s bored.

7. The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter – by Michael J. Sullivan
The last book I read this year may have well’ve been the best. It’s tough to say. My top 3-5 are all really good, and really tight. If you haven’t read any of the Riyria Chronicles or Revelations, don’t fret. I mean, you really should read them, but it’s not necessary to understand the plot. You may miss some subtleties, sure, but… you can always get to those the second time around. After all, upon reading Winter’s Daughter, you’ll really want to read all the rest. Two thieves actually working inside the law for a change is… well… It was my favorite of the series thus far.

Sullivan uses language that he’s comfortable with, so you won’t run across anything to abstract or complicated. Not to say the writing is simple, however. It is a lovely read, with just the right amount of comedy, action and drama to frame a mystery that actually kept me questioning, right up to the end.

Recommended for lovers of fantasy or scifi, or anyone who’s new to either genre.

8. Sins of Empire – by Brian McClellan
If you haven’t read through the Powder Mage trilogy, I’d highly recommend it. It’s basically magic with guns, in the sense that Mistborn is magic with coins. I thoroughly enjoyed every single book, and where the Powder Mage series ends, the Gods of Blood and Powder picks up.

This book was actually new this year, so I can’t vouch for the series continued awesomeness. That being said, I loved it just as much as the previous books, even though my favorite character did not return as a POV. Favorite two, actually.
Recommended for anyone who likes fantasy, Sanderson, or steampunk.

9. Children of Time – by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My sister would kill me if I didn’t include this. It would take a bit of doing, and some vacation days—but she would.
While I didn’t have the world-altering reaction to this that she did, it does have giant, sentient spiders, and a highly interesting plot. It’s a bit more of a hands-on scifi novel than any of those I’ve previously mentioned, but not totally overwhelming. I listened to the audiobook while multitasking, and while I did have to repeat a section or two, it wasn’t anything I had to concentrate too religiously on.

Uh, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone arachnophobic, because you will dream about giant spiders. Otherwise, anyone into scifi or spaceships or big, talking, jumping spiders.

10. Six Wakes – by Mur Lafferty
It was a tough one for #10. I’m not Alyssa, or Cait, or Mogsy, or anyone that I follow. I can’t read a couple hundred books a year. I made it through maybe 60 books this year, and that’s really pushing it (or about average, depending on my social life). Six Wakes was the perfect blend of scifi and murder mystery, both of which were quite intelligent and enjoyable. I’d never heard of Mur Lafferty before this, but as Six Wakes was her debut, that’s not surprising. I actually managed to find this at the library, so it didn’t even run me anything. I’d totally buy it, though.

The characters, while not entirely likable, were pretty human. The concepts and stretches weren’t blatant, nor objectionable—depending on how one feels about cloning morally. Regardless, if you can stomach it, the book is quite good, especially as the premise regards something that’ll never occur in our lifetimes.

Honorable Mentions:
Killing Pretty – by Richard Kadrey
Book 7 of the Sandman Slim series delivers—my favorite yet. It features a quite human, quite relatable Stark, which I quite enjoyed. Missed the Top 10 by hair, though.

Bloodmage – by Stephen Aryan
Not as good as Book 3, Book 2 is the point of the series I couldn’t put it down and had to get the third as soon as possible. Aryan hadn’t figured everything out yet, but managed to deliver an entertaining read.

Dragon Hunters – by Marc Turner
This actually lost out to Six Wakes for #10. I liked When the Heavens Fall, and after reading that Mogsy actually enjoyed the followup more, I tried it. And I even agree, Turner shows marked improvement. I got the three as a package deal, and can’t wait to read Red Tide.

Bane and Shadow – by Jon Skovron
Yeah, it’s pretty good. Didn’t like it quite as much as its predecessor, though. Definitely enough that I’ll read the third installment.

A Darker Shade of Magic – by V. E. Schwab
I’ve heard this series gets better as it goes on. The first one was quite interesting, just not enough to make the Top 10. Victoria Schwab really had a couple of great books in 2017.

Scrappy Little Nobody – by Anna Kendrick
The only non-fiction book I read this year. I think. Maybe.

Anna Kendrick is quite enjoyable as an author, actress, and figure that I’d never heard of before I read this. Although, I did recognize her later as “Oh, she was in that. Really?”