Phoenix Extravagant – by Yoon Ha Lee (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Alt History

Solaris; October 20, 2020

416 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Solaris and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Gyen Jebi isn’t a warrior or leader. They just want to paint.

But as the native child of an occupied territory, the future of their country, their people may depend on them and what they choose to do.

And yet it all starts when they forsake their heritage, donning a foreign name so that they might become a ministry artist—comfortably housed and paid—just so they might paint to their heart’s content. But instead of the Ministry of Art, the test instead lands them a job at the mysterious Ministry of Armor, where they are set to painting the curious symbols used to animate the Razanei’s fearsome automata.

In one stroke Jebi is cut off from their friends, their family, their life before—and ensconced in the Ministry’s fortress, where they learn to create and paint that which keeps their people in bondage. But the methods used are too horrifying even from them to imagine, which prompts Jebi to answer a question about themselves—will they emerge from the shadows and try to lead their people into the light, or will they instead focus on their art, the only thing they’ve ever wanted?

Phoenix Extravagant combines a unique magical system, an automated dragon of infinite potential, a beautiful by deadly duelist, and a rather bland artist that would rather fame had simply passed them by.

I actually really enjoyed Phoenix Extravagant, something that I would not’ve expected after the first 50-odd pages. The lead Jebi is a bit bland, really. A bit sheltered from the world, a bit caught up in their head, a bit off, odd. Not the best narrator (at least I would’ve sworn early on).

Only Jebi turns it around. As they grow more deeply embedded in Razanei society, so too do they develop as a character, as someone capable of telling a full story alone while maintaining an interesting lead.

In general, the world-building wasn’t terribly creative. The Hwaguk people were obviously styled after Korea, with the Razan invaders from a nearby archipelago were clearly Japan. The Chinese were mentioned too, but only in passing, and I didn’t take note of their pseudonym. If you weren’t aware, Korea and Japan have a… complex relationship, at least historically. And as Japan has previously annexed Korea (particularly during the early twentieth century, roughly the time this novel takes place), there’s certainly a historic precedent.

There’s actually quite a lot of historical parallels thrown around in this. In general I found these to be interesting parallels, though they also cheapened the novelty of the world-building (especially as the “westerners” are just called “westerners”). While the dynamic between the Hwaguk and Razan dominates, others include the isolationism in reference to the rest of the world, and the depiction of the West as something mysterious but to be feared and hated (not that they were wrong there).

Here’s a quick history lesson. If you’re interested, confused, bored, or Ola—read on. Otherwise, feel free to skip ahead a couple (or three) paragraphs .

Korea was known (in the West, primarily) as the “Hermit Kingdom”. For centuries the various Chinese dynasties were seen as the major influencer over Korean politics since even before the Goryeo Dynasty, when it was basically viewed as a tributary state of China under the Yuan and Ming dynasties. This balance shifted during the Joseon period, when the dynasty adopted a severe policy of isolationism in an attempt to keep both China and Japan from meddling too much in their affairs, as both nations favored adding Korea to their empire. But late in the life of the Joseon matters came to a head.

Now I’m going to oversimplify things a bit more. See, there was this peasant rebellion in Korea. The Joseon was late in life at this point, and things weren’t going particularly well. They panicked and requested help from China (the Qing sent aid to what they viewed as their “tributary state”). Japan, angry about the troops that entered Korea from China (as they thought it broke a treaty between the two), sent an army of their own. The rebels were defeated, but neither China nor Japan wanted to leave. Eventually it led to war. A war which Japan won, and China conceded a number of things including, essentially, the right to colonize Korea. The Joseon Empress didn’t much care for this, and attempted to strengthen ties with Russia in order to kick Japan out. Japan, in turn, had her assassinated. Then forced the Emperor to end the Dynasty and form a new government, ripe for colonization by Japan. Something which they did not long after.

So, there’s been a long history of contention between the two. [Historically] Korea hated Japan because they… well, there’s a whole lot of reasons, but it’s mainly the colonization, mistreatment, and the comfort women (you’ll have to google that one—I’m not explaining it). [Historically] Japan hated Korea because of ethnic tensions, inauspicious events, and just a whole host of other reasons. Enough to say that both have their reasons and leave it at that. Since this time, obviously there’re the attempts by the Japanese to ignore some of the things they did during World War II—which is a bit like being a Holocaust denier in Europe—which I’m not getting into either.

There are a number of creative changes made to the history throughout, notably the magic, automata, the gender and identity bias (or lack thereof), and the cultural norms. I quite enjoyed the direction the author went with the magic and automata, though sometimes even it seemed a bit too fanciful to be believed. Even with the obvious historical parallels, the magic system is unique and interesting enough to carry the book. But it doesn’t hurt that the story is really good, either.

The story tells somewhat conflicting tales of how individual choice and freedom affects everyone around you, and the freedoms and sacrifices of following your own path and doing what you believe is right, rather than obeying someone else’s dream instead. While all of this adds up to a very serious book, Phoenix Extravagant’s humor turns the book into something quite different: a fantasy with not one, but several possible lessons, and several possible outcomes cropping up along the way.

“Jebi,” she said, “this is like when you were four and you thought laundry magically happened.”

Jebi opened their mouth to protest that they’d helped with the laundry, then remembered “helping” had consisted of running around shrieking with glee while pulling underclothes off the line and flinging them about.

TL;DR

While Phoenix Extravagant does a good many things right—such as telling an entertaining story filled with interesting characters, and a thought-provoking premise and plot—it is let down by a somewhat uninspired display of world-building, an odd mixture of humor and intensity, and moments in the second half of the text that feel either fanciful or bizarre. I appreciated not only the story, but the multiple ways it could’ve been interpreted—even as many historic parallels can be drawn between this story and that of our own. The tale’s own message about one’s personal choices—on gender, culture, identity—are surely influenced by the author themselves, but Yoon Ha Lee doesn’t seem to lead the reader in any one direction. This story is about Jebi first and foremost—and dragons, magic, war, love, and loyalty second.

Bystander 27 – by Rik Hoskin (Review)

Standalone

Scifi, Superheroes

Angry Robot; August 11, 2020

356 pages (PB)

2.9 / 5 ✪

Goodreads

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

I’d class this as Punisher crossed with the Reckoners, but I’m not much of a comics guy so there could well be a closer match. There’s a heavy superhero/comic influence, mixed with a science-fiction/alternate world setting, and a bit of a mystery thrown in. It’s a curious combination—one that I feel could’ve been an amazing read when done right. While Bystander 27 did quite a few things right, it was far from perfect. Let’s get into it.

Ex-SEAL Jon Hayes has never felt so small.

With the Navy he’d served multiple tours all around the globe, battling terrorists in the Middle East and chasing cartels in South America. He returned to the States and married his dream girl, Melanie, before moving to New York to start their life together. But for a man who’d toured all around the globe New York might as well be a different world.

For New York is where the ‘Costumes’ hang out. Superpowered heroes and baddies overrun the place, battling it out in the streets on a daily basis. For the residents, it’s just a fact of life; pollution is annoying, traffic always terrible, and the costumes are out to play. Like the rest, Hayes does his best to ignore it, but is generally wowed along with the rest when the heroes take center stage.

Until Melanie is caught in the crossfire. She—along with their unborn child—is killed in a clash between Captain Light and the Jade Shade.

As Hayes struggles to come to terms with the loss, he uncovers a mystery at the center of the Costumes conspiracy. Deeper and deeper he digs, until the lines between fantasy and reality begin to blur. But as Hayes pieces the mystery together, he must decide whether he’s after just the truth of the matter, or vengeance for his fallen family.

So… I’m really torn on this one. Bystander 27 does a lot of things right; it combines a compelling mystery with an action-packed thriller, a heavy does of science fiction, and a tangible sense of urgency—all within the head of a man overcome by grief, his life slowly descending into madness as his chase takes him down the rabbit hole. While it’s a fairly slow build, I never had trouble reading it. The mystery—it’s a good one—kept me interested until the very end, where everything kinda goes to hell. And while I absolutely hated the conclusion, I very much liked the epilogue tacked on the end. The thing is, Jon Hayes is a pretty good protagonist. He’s a bit ordinary, bland, and forgettable in the beginning, but that makes his character development all the more impressive. He literally goes from just another face in the crowd to an unforgettable piece of the puzzle. You know the puzzles that have one piece shaped like an apple? That’s Hayes. He’s an apple.

No matter how many things it does right, Bystander 27 is constantly in its own way. The fascinating mystery at the forefront is countered by a slow build and just strange language. Jon Hayes—who’s in his early 30’s—talks like a man from the mid-twentieth century. “Son of a gun”, flakes with hypno-discs and popguns”, and “punk kids on their way to band camp” highlight some of my favorites. It’s not used to replace anything explicit—the author still uses plenty of that—it’s just like something out of the fifties. Or a comic. Or a comic from the fifties. The language is… just strange.

The author is also constantly reminding us that Hayes was a SEAL. I mean, CONSTANTLY. I can understand the references to it in the beginning and at certain times that relate to backstory, but we’re reminded of Hayes’ SEAL training at least once a chapter through the first hundred pages. After that it drops off a bit only to pick up again, so that we’re still being told about his SEAL training past page 300.

The book’s conclusion—which I won’t talk much about—is unoriginal at best, and clichéd at the worst. That said, I liked the epilogue. Way more than the conclusion to the story, in fact.

The last thing I want to harp on is 9/11. It’s mentioned as the reason Hayes joined the Navy. In a world where superheroes have roamed downtown New York, Manhattan in particular, since the mid-Sixties, how exactly is 9/11 still a thing? Worse, it establishes the time of the story. I might’ve accepted the language being as it is in a story set before the seventies. But as a post-9/11 thing? Nope.

TL;DR

Something like a cross between the Punisher and Reckoners, or the novelization of a superhero comic book, Bystander 27 does a lot of things right. Possessive of a intricate mystery and very real character development, I never thought about giving up on it. Unfortunately, with a slow pace, dated if not odd language, and a clichéd ending—the book constantly made me question my decision not to bin it. At the end of the day Bystander 27 just can’t get out of its own way. And while it legitimately contains a good, even provocative story, in the end it just doesn’t deliver.

The Constant Rabbit – by Jasper Fforde (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Humor, Alt-History

Hodder & Stoughton; July 2, 2020 (UK)

Viking; September 29, 2020 (US)

326 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Last year I actually read my first Jasper Fforde novel—Early Riser—and it was straaange. Like Jeff Noon strange. Like… something else strange. A story about a dream, a seasonal hibernation, and a love story between people that up until the halfway mark I didn’t realize weren’t people at all. Then there was an ending that confused me so thoroughly I didn’t know what to make of it. Fforde follows this oddity up with the Constant Rabbit, a tale about anthropomorphized rabbits and their acceptance among humankind. It’s… maybe less absurd, but that’s absurd in a good way. I think.

Peter Knox lives in Much Hemlock, a quiet little town in England, much away from the fuss of the city. Nothing gets its citizens riled up like their football, the Spick & Span awards, and Rabbits. Peter is much more concerned with his hobby of Speed Librarying, something that I couldn’t explain if I even had the faintest clue what the hell it is. And I don’t. But Rabbits are a concern to everyone else in Much Hemlock, so they are to Peter as well.

55 years earlier, an event known as “The Event” rocked Britain, spontaneously anthropomorphizing 18 rabbits, 9 bees, one caterpillar and a small host of other beasties. The bees haven’t been seen since and the caterpillar was so disturbed by the whole endeavor that it took up in a cocoon and hasn’t yet emerged. While the other species failed to make much of a dent on society, the Rabbits flourished, breeding, well, like rabbits. A jump forward to the present day finds around 4 million Rabbits in Britain alone. They speak, they work, they drive. They serve in the military, the navy, and eat a lot of lettuce and carrots. And they are hated for all of it.

Nothing has unified humanity like something else to hate. Something different. The Rabbit—while anthropomorphized (their bodies look like human bodies, with curves and bulges in all the right places)—are certainly different. Though they look a lot more human than their small, cuddly brethren, they just as clearly aren’t. What they lack in thumbs, Rabbits make up for in ears and teeth. And while humanity by in large hasn’t accepted them yet, the Rabbit is here to stay.

Or are they?

Peter works at RabCoT—the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce—which is an organization specifically designed to manage and police all matters Rabbit within England. While to his neighbors, he is simply a lowly accountant, Peter Knox is in reality a spotter: someone whose job it is to discern one Rabbit from another. This is just as difficult as it sounds as most Rabbits can’t tell most humans apart, and the feeling is quite mutual. Spotting is something that some people just have the knack for; it can’t be taught or learned, Peter is blessed with the ability, and in a rare position to use it. He’s also a rarity for his liberal views of Rabbits, something which is decidedly NOT the norm at RabCoT. Most are just one step above TwoLegsGood—a radical humanoid supremacist group—in their disdain for the Rabbit. But like it or not, the Rabbit are here to stay, and people have to learn to accept them.

That is, until a group of off-colony Rabbits move in next-door to Peter.

And, much to Peter’s surprise, he knows one of them. A Rabbitess by the name of Connie, whom he met in university—met and fell for, though nothing happened—arrives with her family, and turns Peter’s life upsidedown. For while the entire village of Much Hemlock is queueing up behind Peter to bribe, force or burn the Rabbits out of town, Peter himself is reluctant to see them go. For seeing Connie has opened a door he had thought was closed for good, and set in motion a series of events that will change Peter—and the world—forever.

**—**

So, I’m not sure what is an odder pitch: a winter wonderland full of murderous dreams, or a budding romance between an Englishman and an anthropomorphized Rabbit. I mean… it’s a tough call.

While the plot follows Peter in his life and job and interaction with Constance, the real story is that of the Rabbits and Humanity. As I said before, nothing has united humanity like someone else to hate. For years, we’ve been hating our neighbors, be it over religion, heritage, ethnicity, gender or creed. When there wasn’t any of that around, we came up with something else. So, drop a bunch of Rabbits in the gene-pool—anthropomorphized or not—and our fear of all things new and different takes it from there. The premise of the Constant Rabbit can be interpreted in so many ways, it’s difficult to know where to start. So much so, in fact, that I’m going to skip most of them. You know when you were in school, and your English teacher told you to read whatever book and correctly interpret what the author was thinking, only to later tell you that you were dead wrong and that they were actually trying to tell you this other thing? Yeah, I always hated that. Because the only one that could really know what the author was thinking was the author—and in Fforde’s case he isn’t talking (yet). So I’m not going to wildly speculate about what the author was trying to impart—I’m just going to pick the most obvious (to me at least) one. And talk about it for a sentence or two.

So, the Constant Rabbit deals quite a bit in the overwhelming leporiphobia of the Rabbit, the bigotry and abuse they suffer, how the government monitors and mistreats them, how radical groups go a step further—just short of killing them and making a stew. And now imagine our own world, where there is more than enough of this around despite the lack of 6ft, fuzzy, fully anthropomorphized Rabbits.

There’s no sex, in case anyone was wondering, so I’m fairly certain Fforde isn’t advocating beastiality. It’s probably just the racism one.

Reading this at the time I read it, with the backdrop of protests and racism and all else—it was impossible not to make some connections. But you can interpret those for yourself. I’m just going to deal with the story from here on out.

And… the story’s pretty good. It’s enjoyable, no matter your politics, if you can get past that. There’s the usual dry humor that Fforde imbues into the text, predominately through subtle wit, sarcasm, and the use of footnotes. It’s all quite entertaining, even the story of star-crossed lovers reuniting after an age apart. Even if one of them is an anthropomorphized Rabbit and the other’s English. Honestly, the romance was more compelling than I’d’ve thought, as it was the driving force—not the plot itself, which is by no means bad—that saw me through this book. The plot is alright, but one more interwoven with politics, which soured me on it (I loathe politics). The love story is more genuine, more real—even though Constance is a bit of a mystery throughout and Peter (though English) has quite a bit of character development and change to go through before the end.

Oh, and I still can’t explain Speed Librarying. As hooks go, this one was a bust—I was so thoroughly confused halfway through the first chapter that I ended up skipping straight to the second and beginning the book there. But this was one of only a few hitches in the story, as mostly everything carried on quite nicely over Peter Knox’s POV (he’s the only POV), through twists and turns, up hills and down valleys, until at some point it turned into not just a political piece, but an entertaining and enjoyable read as well.

TL;DR

The Constant Rabbit is the height of Jasper Fforde’s game, as it combines the author’s unique and shrewd writing style view and blends it with current hot-topics such as racism, bigotry and giant, anthropomorphized Rabbits. Then tops that with a healthy dose of absurdity, tomfoolery, and carrots. Peter Knox was an ideal narrator; a liberal view but one used to the comfort and order of the status quo. Though few other characters fleshed out quite like he did, it was Peter’s development that really sold the plot, the way that he viewed things altering the way I thought about even the most inane detail. While some may read into the politics of the book too much to enjoy it any, if you’re able to look past the present day parallels drawn to race, hatred, bigotry and violence—you might just find an enjoyable adventure within, albeit one that still involves anthropomorphic rabbits. One might even buy in to the romance within the story, one that—while a bit odd—was enough to keep me reading through to the end.

The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man – by Rod Duncan (Review)

The Map of Unknown Things #3

Fantasy, Steampunk, Alt-History

Angry Robot; January 14, 2020

400 pages (ebook)

4.8 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Beware spoilers for the previous Elizabeth Barnabus books! Though hopefully Fugitive and Vanishing Man spoiler-free!

While I was divided on my intro to Elizabeth Barnabus in Queen of All Crows—the next book in the Map of Unknown Things completely blew me away. The description, the setting, the world-building, the tension all sold me on continuing the series. While the characters changed, two things remained constant—Elizabeth, and her devotion to the Gas-Lit Empire. In fact, while we have seen some detractors over the past two books, none have really taken center stage like they do in The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man.

The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man (FatVM) follows directly on the heels of The Outlaw and the Upstart King (OatUK), picking up after Elizabeth and her friends escape Newfoundland to the (relative) safety of the mainland. There, they are immediately confronted by the Patent Office who are very interested about their time upon the difficult-to-reach island. And while Elizabeth isn’t interested in talking, the Patent Office holds all the cards to ensure that she eventually will.

But when Julia and Tinker break free from their hold, Elizabeth herself is left out in the cold. And even Patent Agent and her lover John Farthing can’t help her this time. Elizabeth is left with just two options: to flee the Gas-Lit Empire and set her old life behind, or to find something they want even more than her. Then she realizes that these two choices may yet become one. With just her mysterious pistol and a stolen wallet for company, Elizabeth heads west.

Enter Edwin Barnabus, Elizabeth’s long lost brother.

While the Patent Office is keeping the Gas-Lit Empire mired firmly in the past, those outside it are pushing innovation. None as much as in Oregon, where a kingdom built on both new innovation and old magic waits. The same kingdom that had its hands in Newfoundland’s advancement. The same kingdom where Elias manufactured his deadly explosive. And the very kingdom Elizabeth approaches, seeking her brother.

Years prior, Edwin and his mother fled the confines of the Gas-Lit Empire, leaving behind Elizabeth and her father for reasons unknown. Now, Edwin serves as the court magician to the King of the Oregon Territory, seeking to destroy the very empire that he once called his home. And with their weapons and innovation, war is not just a possibility. More like a certainty. But how and when is still up in the air. And when his sister comes knocking, how will her views affect Edwin’s own? Or will the ties that once held them together fray under the differences of their beliefs, leading not only the siblings—but the world itself—to war?

⚙ ⚙

I want to begin at the close. No spoilers, though. While Rod Duncan has stated that this is the final Elizabeth Barnabus novel, the ending itself isn’t cut and dry. It’s definitely open-ended. And there’s certainly room for a sequel. While the ending of the Fugitive and the Vanishing Man wasn’t the ending I was expecting going into the book, it IS an ending, finishing the tale of Elizabeth and her friends. At least, there’s resolution. For them, if not the world. And while Elizabeth may (or may not) return in the future, I was more than satisfied with the conclusion of FatVM. And yet, as I expected the FatVM to conclude the war that had been brewing since Book 1 of the Map of Unknown Things, the ending disappointed me.

And that both begins and ends my issues with this book. Though it may have faltered somewhat in the end, FatVM is still an amazing read—and one that cannot be missed.

Where Queen of All Crows begins the series with a stumble, the Fugitive and the Vanishing Man ends it with a flourish. In my opinion, the second book is where nearly everything came together: the world-building, the detail, the story. QoAC was a bit of a mixed bag—a faltering story, an uneven pace, a shaky lead. OatUK improved across the board, with only its character development lacking success. And that’s because only Elizabeth really returned, and there was a major disconnect between the events of Books #1 and 2. The same thing can’t be said of the break between #2 and 3. Mostly, because there really isn’t any break. Only a short time separates the events in Newfoundland from those in America, and nothing important is skipped over in the interim. Thus, the character that is Elizabeth continues to develop—her story continuing to unfold even while Edwin’s own fills in around it.

The interaction between the two siblings is fascinating. I was really wondering how they’d get on when they met, as Edwin’s views are night and day from Elizabeth’s own. They share blood, but little else. While I can’t go into any detail without spoilers, just take my word that their interactions alone make the entire story worth reading. Will it be a fight to the end, or a hug-of-war? Read it to find out!

Again, I haven’t read the original trilogy—the Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire—but I’ve heard that the entire thing takes place with England. Meanwhile, every book in The Map of Unknown Things takes us somewhere new, beyond the borders of the Empire. First it was the Atlantic Ocean, next Newfoundland. FatVM finds us across the continent in Oregon. It’s a very well constructed adventure when told from multiple POVs, as the last two books prove. Where the Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire showed us what life was like within, the Map of Unknown Things shows us life without—all setting up what I have to imagine will be an epic conclusion (if Duncan chooses to write it). Otherwise, it’s left to the imagination to fill in the gaps.

Neither the story nor world-building faltered at all from its high in Book 2. While we’ve moved location, the attention to detail did not wane in between, casting Oregon in an interesting and unique light. Though not much time is spent in the forest, the mountains and weather of the Pacific Northwest play a major role in setting the mood. And progressing the story. And while I didn’t feel transported to the Pacific NW in the same way I did to Newfoundland, I found that it didn’t bother me. The castle—where a good portion of the story takes place—is full of intrigue and is story-rich, making the time outside feel like exciting side-trips rather than breaks from a stifling prison. While not relevant to the story itself, the area surrounding the Kingdom of Oregon is a fascinating place (as I well know)—and one that I would’ve liked to see more of. Perhaps… in the future?

If I haven’t raved enough about how much I loved this book til now—don’t be fooled. I absolutely adored it, despite its few faults. Up to 90% mark, it was looking like a solid 5-star read. And while it let my expectations down in the final pages, the Fugitive and the Vanishing Man is a triumph, ending Elizabeth’s story in style—albeit in a manner that also leaves the door very much open for more. An intensely satisfying conclusion that satisfies while somehow leaving the reader wanting for more. But more of the world itself, not of the text.

TL;DR

The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man finishes Elizabeth Barnabus’s journey with a flourish—her greatest adventure yet, both involving her brother and a war not yet fought. But be forewarned: while this DOES end Elizabeth’s own story, it DOES NOT tie up all the loose ends of the world itself. If you went into this expecting war, prepare to be disappointed. If you went into this expecting an amazing story that tugged at the heart-strings, prepare to feel vindicated. And if you went into this with no illusions whatsoever, prepare to be surprised. While it does falter slightly at the end, the Fugitive and the Vanishing Man is an amazing read throughout, building upon the Outlaw and the Upstart King’s improved story, world-building and character development, while somehow adding its own unique flair. If you haven’t yet begun Elizabeth’s story, maybe start at the beginning. If you’re up to date but waiting to see if Duncan laid an egg here—don’t worry, he didn’t.

The Outlaw and the Upstart King – by Rod Duncan (Review)

Map of Unknown Things #2

Fantasy, Steampunk, Alt-History

Angry Robot; January 8, 2019

371 pages (PB)

4.5 / 5 ✪

I was somewhat divided on my intro to Elizabeth Barnabus after coming late to the party in The Queen of All Crows, Book 1 of the Map of Unknown Things but #4 of her combined journey.

I joined the adventures of Elizabeth Barnabus late—reading the Queen of All Crows last year without making my way through the Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire trilogy first. I’m guessing that this was an important factor in my divided opinion of the book; it felt like there were some inside jokes I wasn’t privy to, some extensive backstory I was missing out on, so many elements that just weren’t explained properly or fully. And yet, without reading the Gas-Lit trilogy first, how could I say for sure? Maybe these things weren’t a side-effect of my skipping straight to the Map of Unknown Things, maybe the Queen of All Crows was just underwhelming and poorly explained.

I already had a copy of The Outlaw and the Upstart King upon finishing Book #1, but it took me a little to get to it. Truth was, I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue the series. I found Queen of All Crows a bit of a slog: exciting bits, suspenseful bits, interspersed with long, uninviting text between. I’m happy to report that I had no such issue with Book #2.

Last we saw Elizabeth Barnabus, she and her two friends had boarded a skiff and fled the battle before them, making course instead for the sunny shores of Nova Scotia. And yet, not all went according to plan. The Outlaw and the Upstart King begins shortly after Queen of All Crows leaves off, but instead of Nova Scotia, it find Elizabeth in Newfoundland, a tavern maid with apparent slave-markings. And yet the story doesn’t begin with her.

Elias was once of the Blood—family of one of the ruling class in Newfoundland. He wanted for nothing, he answered to no one, he sat near in line to the Protector’s chair, not outside the realm of possibility that he’d one day rule his clan. And yet, life did not go his way. Cast out for cheating at cards—something Elias swore he didn’t do—he had his thumbs chopped off and found himself disowned, landless, and wanted by every man on the isle. Blood are respected for being rulers, yet feared and hated in equal measure as well. When one is cast out, it’s basically a death sentence, with any man, woman or child eligible to collect the bounty should they take the outlaw first.

And yet, somehow Elias escaped Newfoundland, a feat no other could pull off. For a notorious isolationist land like Newfoundland, his feat was not only unique, it’s worth its weight it gold. For if he could escape, maybe someone could get in the same way, bringing weapons, food or men—anything to break the uneasy truce between the various Protectors, giving one of them the upper hand. Such a thing could even make that man King. King of Newfoundland. So, yes—Elias’s secret is worth much, and he knows it. For what Elias wants above all else is vengeance—upon the men that falsely accused him, the men that cast him out, those that took his thumbs, cast him out and stole his life away. But he only has the one card, and he must wait to play it.

Enter the Upstart Patron Jago, born into a long line of fishermen and laborers, somehow he has risen to the rank of Patron, though in little but name. Oh, he HAS power—enough to keep the commonfolk in line, enough to keep the other clans at bay—but the title means little to his compeers. He would do anything for more power and fame. Anything for a shot at his one true dream: King of Newfoundland. Anything. Even consorting with Elias No-Thumbs.

And then there’s Elizabeth Barnabus. Stranded on Newfoundland. Taken as a slave-apparent by the locals. Forced to work in a tavern. Awaiting her opportunity to escape the unescapable isle—an opportunity she may’ve just lucked into.

With all the pieces in place, three desperate plays are made, each with their own aim. But not everyone can get what they want—this game has but one winner. And which one shall it be?

⚙ ⚙

I really enjoyed the Outlaw and the Upstart King, in all the ways I didn’t the first book. While I felt that the Queen of All Crows borrowed heavily upon the trilogy that came before, OatUK barely referenced the previous book at all, making it all but possible that the previous book hadn’t existed, at least early on. While it may not sound like it, this made for a more immersive experience: as I was able to really get into the story without having to constantly relate back to the previous book for clues. Now there are some points later on that ties the story in to what happened before, but they are few and far between. If anything, OatUK feels like a brand new, episodic adventure—y’know, one that tells a concentrated, complete story while also managing to further the overarching plot in the end. It really feels like your favorite TV show; a contained, satisfying adventure that moves the season’s storyline along while also managing to tell a completely separate story at the same time.

In QoAC, Elizabeth Barnabus shouldered the entire story. While it’s certainly something she could pull off (I assume she did it for most of the first trilogy, right?), I found that her story was often at odds with the main plot of the book. Not just that they didn’t align, but that they often competed for focus. It’s one thing to have two stories playing off one another in a way that somehow tells both better, but a completely different thing to have two stories butt heads continually, distracting the reader from what’s going on. I never connected well with either story, and so the overarching plot of the first book largely felt hollow to me. In OatUK, Elizabeth shares the load with Elias. And while Elias probably gets more screen time than her, their stories meld together quite nicely in a way those in the previous entry never did. For much of the text, Elias’s journey is Elizabeth’s and vice-versa. Their paths are aligned. Their destinies are… right.

The world-building I felt even improved on that of the previous book. Newfoundland is a new place with a new feel, completely unseen from anything that was learned in the Gas-Lit trilogy—but then so was QoAC. But while QoAC takes place mostly on ships or the open ocean, OatUK is entirely on land. The island of Newfoundland provides an excellent setting for this adventure, one that Duncan has redesigned from the ground up to fit the story he tells. I’ve never actually been to Newfoundland IRL, but I doubt it’s anything like this. Well, maybe the tides and landforms and whatnot.

The greatest issue I had was with the characters. In Queen of All Crows we got to know Elizabeth and Julia and Tinker better over the course of the book. While I felt like a lot of detail was absent from the original trilogy—especially fleshing out Elizabeth—it’s true a fair amount of time went in to getting to know our main cast. The various villains, maybe-villains, part-time-villains, and occasional allies never got much backstory. They all felt fairly uninspired, grey, lacking next to the main crew. I felt like OatUK did a better job in humanizing the would-be villains; they felt more real, more substantial, and I better connected with them. And of course Elias is well fleshed-out, most of his backstory being key to the current matters at hand.

And yet, it wasn’t a complete success. Any of his previous life that wasn’t directly relevant to the story was skipped over. I was left quite a few times with questions about his previous life—questions that would never be answered. More so, we don’t deal with Elizabeth’s past anywhere near as much as we did before. In QoAC, honestly I felt her past was skipped over a fair amount, just assuming we’d read the original trilogy. In OatUK, her past is barely referenced at all. I realize that since it IS the 2nd in a trilogy, that Duncan would assume that we’d read the previous installment, and would likely leave a lot of that detail out. But he doesn’t provide us any further detail that’s absent from the first book either. In QoAC, it seemed that her backstory was lightly touched on. In OatUK, it’s all but ignored. Likewise, Tinker and Julia don’t appear as anywhere near the characters they were in Book #1. While Tinker does appear in the text occasionally, he’s nowhere near as dynamic and amazing as the boy we saw before. Julia, on the other hand, is barely even mentioned, spending most the the book off-screen.

TL;DR

The Outlaw and the Upstart King succeeded in virtually every way I felt Queen of All Crows failed. The introduction of Elias as a lead definitely helped. Where Elizabeth was alone in leading the first tale, her and Elias come together in the second to tell the story in tandem, which works quite nicely. While both characters have their own agendas, for a good chunk of the time they happen to align, keeping the reader’s eyes ahead, instead of attempting to focus on two, very different plots. The Queen of All Crows felt like just a progression of the original trilogy, but the sequel tells a contained and complete story that—while it required no real knowledge of any of the previous stories—still managed to further the overarching plot of the Map of Unknown Things. Meanwhile, the world-building continues to improve. The isle of Newfoundland provides a lovely backdrop for the plot—which Duncan has masterfully rebuilt in this alternate history to suit his story. The only issue with the story is in its characters. While Elias and the Newfoundlanders (Newfoundlandians?) fleshed out quite well, neither Elizabeth nor her friends came across as well as they did in the last book. It’s as if in trying to tell this new story better, the author forgot to keep developing his existing characters to match.

All in all, highly recommended! An amazing piece by Rod Duncan—even more than I ever could of hoped after being disappointed with Book #1. The Outlaw and the Upstart King provides a lovely cover as well—complements of the talented Amazing15 group (who only knew of 14 entities more amazing than they). The Map of Unknown Things concludes with The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man, out earlier this week, January 14, 2020, which promises to be the final episode in Elizabeth Barnabus’s journey.

The Queen of All Crows – by Rod Duncan (Review)

The Map of Unknown Things #1

Fantasy, Steampunk, Alt-History

Angry Robot; January 5, 2018

345 pages (PB)

2.5 / 5 ✪

Beware Possible Spoilers for the Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire Trilogy!

The Queen of All Crows serves as my introduction to Rod Duncan, and the world of the Gas-Lit Empire. While the Fall of the Gas-Lit trilogy has been on my TBR for years, I recently came across a copy of All Crows and couldn’t resist getting it. This book begins the Map of Unknown Things trilogy, which I’ve been assured anyone can read, with or without prior knowledge of the world.

Following the events of the Gas-Lit trilogy (I imagine, at least), Elizabeth Barnabus resides in the relative safety of Victorian-Era London, circa 2012. Here, she has hollowed out a life for herself. She has a ward—the boy Tinker, vaguely introduced—a secret lover, John Farthing, member of the all-controlling Patent Office. Everything is set off when Elizabeth’s best friend, Julia, sets off for America to start life anew.

She never makes it.

Airships have been going down in the Atlantic for some time, with Julia’s just another victim of the unknown assailants. And Elizabeth, being the person that she is, heads out to investigate.

Part I of All Crows alternates chapters between the past and the present: the former detailing Elizabeth’s time in London, before setting off, the latter her time at sea, hunting for her friend. Much like much of human societal history, women weren’t treated as regular folk. Which is ridiculous, but. Their ability and demeanor are questioned. They aren’t allowed to sail. They must dress a certain way, act a certain way, and offer their opinion only when asked (which isn’t a given). Given this stigma, Elizabeth Barnabus is forced to dress as a man. And an ugly one, at that. This allows her to move unseen in the world of men, navigating the Atlantic until she finds her friend, or meets her end.

So, first thing: while it wasn’t vital to read the original trilogy first, I feel like it would’ve been really, really helpful. Indeed, would’ve made the read more enjoyable. Without doing so, several of the characters seemed hollow, unexplained—at least at first. Tinker eventually progresses, though neither Farthing nor Julia join him. Even Elizabeth herself isn’t fleshed out until… well, I didn’t feel that she ever fully was. We know snippets of her history, but little of what’s gone on before, which has certainly shaped her as a character.

Elizabeth Barnabus as an experience impresses. A strong female lead, her story really should’ve been the focus. Actually, it probably IS the focus of the Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire. I was so into her story that I want to go back and explore what the original trilogy has to offer. Sadly, it’s a focus that never really takes point in All Crows, where—while she is the lead—Elizabeth plays second fiddle to the main plot.

The main story of All Crows provides an ample amount of mystery and intrigue, and when coupled with Elizabeth’s secret identity, serves as an entertaining tale. Until the mystery is blown. When this happens, a subplot regarding the assailants and their lives is introduced. Another tale of lies, intrigue and… meh. This one I never connected with. And though I can follow the obvious parallels, I’m still not sure why Elizabeth connects with it, either. It’s an adequate sort, I’ll grant. But that’s about the height of it. And when the search for Julia near its completion—it pretty much pushes this subplot to the side for a bit before then hurriedly finishing it in an unsatisfying, out of character way.

The world building is pretty solid, but once again it seems like it’d’ve been better if only you read the original trilogy. While the occasional concept or history was adequately explained, I felt like these were few and far between, so much so that the world began to take the shape of a gigantic grey area populated by a few dazzling scenes.

TL;DR

While an intricate and immersive read at times, Queen of All Crows really didn’t inspire me. Elizabeth is a highly interesting character that plays second to a story that comes and goes, before being hurriedly completed. The subplot was a disappointment, one that never really felt important. I feel that fans of the original Gas-Lit books may love this further adventure within the world, but new readers (like me) probably won’t connect with unfleshed characters and a lacking story that really never provided. It’s a 50/50 book, so dunno if I’d recommend it for new readers. But I’m leaning towards not.

The Map of Unknown Things continues with The Outlaw and the Upstart King.

Duchamp Versus Einstein – by Christopher Hinz & Etan Ilfeld (Review)

Novella

Speculative, Scifi, Alt-History

Angry Robot; October 8, 2019

72 pages (ebook)

1.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished me with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot for the review copy! All opinions are my own.

The entire premise seems to be ‘What if Marcel Duchamp and Albert Einstein played chess?’

And that’s it.

Now, if you could make it past this and still be interested in the story, someone might be forgiven the obvious question of: ‘Why?’, instead focusing on: ‘How would they do that?’ because, as far as I know or could figure out, Duchamp and Einstein never met. There’s also the fact that while Duchamp turned into quite the chess player later in life, Einstein never showed it much interest. So, why would they play?

Enter a mysterious, extra-terrestrial Observer, as seen in such things as John Carter, MIB, the Themis Files, etc. She, for some reason, decides to facilitate the game. Which she does through seducing both men.

Apparently inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s archived letters (which are, yes, real), though the novella itself doesn’t seem to include any real ones. Instead, it introduces a series of letters, newly discovered in 2061, following the 3rd World War. This is the first and only time this event or the future is mentioned, which was just odd.

So… I liked the description of the world. I never had a problem picturing any of the things mentioned in the text. Duchamp Versus Einstein was well described and well-written.

Otherwise, it was awful.

There’s no real plot, just the premise ‘what would’ve happened if these two dudes played chess’. The ending was incredibly unsatisfying. Abrupt. The whole thing likely was nothing but an allegory for the illusion of free will. Neither of the characters are believable as their historic counterparts. Well, maybe Duchamp. More so than the portrayal of Einstein, at least. The pacing was strange, the time-skips stranger, the character Stella the strangest.

TL;DR

While Duchamp Versus Einstein initially seemed mildly intriguing, whatever appeal it held soon faded. So… nope, can’t recommend it. I liked the description. Really didn’t care for anything else. Like, nothing. The pacing, the nonexistent plot, the characters, the lack of realism, the premise. The ending was abrupt and unsatisfying. Definitely not my cup of tea.

Book Review: Flex – by Ferrett Steinmetz

‘Mancer #1

Alt History, Urban Fantasy

Angry Robot; March 3, 2015

423 pages (PB)

4 / 5 ✪

When I see the word bureaucromancy, what comes to mind are singing muppets, dancing file folders, and papers flying around in a tornado. Somehow, when I try to picture this as a method used to fight evil, done by a skinny white guy with one foot—the whole thing falls apart. Actually, the entire book kept picturing Paul Tsabo as a Louis lookalike out of Left 4 Dead, made difficult by the author attempting to curtail my imagination with the constant reminders that Tsabo was white. Thrown in videogamemancy, crystallized magic that can be eaten, and, well, just all the bureaucracy… and here you have Flex.

Flex is an alternate history urban fantasy with an interesting (if bizarre) magic system. Its’ users—known as ‘Mancers—have the ability to affect time and space and the laws of physics with their magic, but these abilities are weak at best. Their real talent lies in the ability to concoct a solid-state, edible magic—called ‘Flex’—which endows the user with the ability to spit in the face of logic, reason, and physics and pretty much make their own destiny. Until it wears off and the Flux hits. And they typically die. Violently.

Former cop Paul Tsabo is an insurance adjustor working for Samaritan Mutual, specializing in any claim involving ‘mancy. Seeing as Samaritan doesn’t cover ‘mancy related cases, and since magic is a fickle beast in nature—Paul is in high demand. Not to mention, as a cop, Tsabo was responsible for many, many ‘Mancer arrests, until the time where he lost his foot and was forced to retire.

The scene opens with a murder. Anathema has begun her spree of terror—a killing via the Flux of her Flex—one death that will soon give way to many. And it starts with Paul Tsabo.

Though ‘Mancy kills the intro character and his date, it also saves Paul Tsabo and his daughter. And yet there’s an issue. Samaritan will (shockingly) not pay the reconstruction surgery for his daughter, Aliyah, who has been horribly burned. And so Paul is out to prove to them that he’s worth it: by hunting down and capturing Anathema. So begins the adventure that will lead Tsabo on a merry chase, kill hundreds of people, involve sex, more sex and so, so much violence.

It was a pretty good read—good plot, sub-standard setting and lore, interesting and unique characters—and one that I really don’t have too much issue with. My only real issue was with the sheer amount of sex and violence within. I was thoroughly unprepared for it. If you have any delicate sensibilities, be forewarned! Or maybe skip it. Otherwise… Flex is highly entertaining, if weird. I mean, it can be really, really strange sometimes. But it’s still good. I even took a two month break in the middle (there were a couple other books I really had to get through) and was able to pick back up as if nothing had happened.

I guess what I’m saying is it’s like a good beer: bold and refreshing, but not too complex.

Book Review: The Six Directions of Space – by Alastair Reynolds

Standalone, Novella

Scifi

Subterranean Press; January, 2009

85 pages (Hardcover)

2.7 / 5 ✪

An interesting piece of scifi set in a future where the Mongol Khanate never fell but overran the earth, eventually extending their vast empire to the stars. Interesting, but quite short—especially when considering Reynolds’ other work—Six Directions tells the story of Yellow Dog, a spy for the Inner Systems sent to investigate phantoms on the Empire’s fringe. These “phantoms” appear in wormholes on the outskirts of the Outer Systems, and are thought by most to be simply a glitch of the machine, mistake of the eye, or even ghosts from the past. Others believe them to be aliens; though these are far in the minority.

And yet the Inner Systems seem to be taking the phantoms seriously, as they have sent one of an elite number of spies to investigate (albeit, after quite some time). Yellow Dog’s investigation will take her to unique and new places, let her see sights few of her kind has ever laid eyes on, while danger and death close in all around.

Six Directions is… okay. I mean, it was interesting, and I never had any trouble reading through it. I liked it, when everything was flowing. It’s just that right when I began to really get into the story—it ended. To say the conclusion was abrupt would be an understatement. I mean, I knew the thing was short, but it just… stopped. Some loose ends were tied up, the main arc as well, I guess. The story wasn’t anything to get excited about. The main problem with novellas is that; it’s hard to weave together any kind of adequate thread-count when your tale lasts about as long as the average cartoon.

The author also seems unwilling to completely separate the Chinese and Mongolian influences, although historically they were completely different, only coming together during the short period where the Khans conquered China (known as the Yuan Dynasty). I mean, they’re separate in the text, yet still oddly connected. I couldn’t figure out what was going on with their relationship.

All of this lends itself to my rather odd rating. I’d read it again, if only as it wouldn’t take much doing. I’d recommend it, but only if it were cheap or free (I got it from the library, so that was a win-win). I’m familiar with the author (and generally enjoy his stuff), so knew it’d be thoughtful if not terribly fulfilling.

Ultimately, however, it was just a thin story followed up by an brief, shallow conclusion and no prospect of future continuation. In short, it was interesting, but only that.