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.

Senlin Ascends – by Josiah Bancroft (Review)

The Orbit republished cover is the same that graced Senlin Ascends when it was first released in 2013. An impressive bit of art by Ian Leino.

Books of Babel #1

Fantasy, Steampunk

Orbit Books; January 16, 2018

383 pages (ebook) 14 hr 15 min (audio)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

No one is more surprised that Thomas Senlin was married than the man himself. And there was a lot of surprise to go around. The headmaster of a small school in a small village, Senlin wed one of his former pupils, a once difficult and inquisitive girl, Marya. For their honeymoon, Senlin took his new wife to visit the Tower of Babel—greatest wonder of the world both old and new. For brief moments his life was perfect; a beautiful and inquisitive wife on his arm, the most fascinating marvel laid out before him—Senlin was as amazed as he was blissful.

But in those few moments Marya disappeared. Whisked away by nothing more than the vast crowds and sweeping foot traffic, she is fated to become yet one more face upon a flyer, another missing loved one among a sea of the damned. But—no. For Senlin is determined: he will try—no—he WILL find her, and they will be together again.

And yet Senlin is also surprised. The Tower is nothing like he imagined it. Fascinated with the marvel for years, Tom has read many books on the subject, even toting an Everyman’s Guide to the Tower that he carried with him to this very point. And none of them—not even the guide—relate to his present situation. And so he must use his cunning and his wit to navigate the Tower, made more challenging by the lack of either these two assets. But, even if he survives long enough to escape the Tower, he must also find Marya. And to do so he must reach the top. But even while Senlin wades through the filth of humanity—the desperate, the lawless, the poor, the infamous, the miscreants, the traitors—he must navigate back alleys and twisting passages, bath houses and ballrooms, warehouses and theaters. But he would do these things ten times over if it means finding Marya, and returning home.

But the Tower is massive, and the task before him immense. And so, Senlin must ASCEND.

I mean, I really, really couldn’t resist that, sorry. But the book was pretty good. Bit of a slow start eventually gives way to a slow middle, a slower middle, then a hectic end. Honestly, the pacing of this book attests to its subject matter. Senlin Ascends is a deep fantasy tale, but without the battles, assassinations, or well… action. Okay okay, there’s SOME action. Just… not what you might be used to. It’s not that Senlin Ascends is boring, it’s just complex. A more of a political fantasy than an epic. There are plots, there are chases, there are assassins, betrayals, intrigue, and yes, even some action. There just aren’t many fight scenes. Battles. Armies. Glory. And while the reading may be tamer than something like GoT, or less amazing than Stormlight, it’s not any less fantastical. A steampunk adventure set in a world featuring a whole, massive Tower of Babel is certainly a new one. It’s just not what you might be expecting.

The characters of the Tower are its strong suit. Well, them and Senlin. The headmaster is a deeper and more complex individual than he may seem—which comes out over the course of the tale, mirroring his desperation to find his missing wife. What he will and won’t compromise to succeed, to continue, to find Marya at all costs. Will Tom Senlin still BE Tom Senlin when the series closes, or will he be someone else? SomeTHING else? Though mostly we are treated to glimpses into Senlin’s soul, others crop up as well. The painter, Ogire. The tourist, Tarrou. The Red Hand. Edith. Adam. Finn Goll. The Commissioner. The cast is deep and thorough, all with intricate backstories, personalities, and details that ultimately humanize them. At first we can assume that any may be good or evil, but eventually are opened to the realization that they’re all merely people. Some are better than others, true, but both are human. While there are precious few action sequences and quite a lot of politics over the course of the tale, the characters of Senlin Ascends provide more than enough reason to justify reading it.

While the Tower of Babel is justified in its brilliance, the rest of the world is very much clouded in fog. Senlin does reminisce about his home, his village, but otherwise the Tower is all that matters. A world in its own right, Josiah Bancroft’s vision of the Tower is more than a little impressive, with each level encompassing its own city, its own world. As Senlin progresses his way up the Tower, he must endure the assault on the senses, the different sights and atmospheres, while adapting to each level’s way of doing things. Bancroft has not built one but many worlds within the Tower, so that when we were granted glimpses into the world without, I was surprised to realize I didn’t know anything about it. The Tower of Babel is more than just the center of the story, it IS the tale. Though the world-building seems incomplete at first—when you realize that the Tower IS the world, the more you appreciate the job that Bancroft has done with it.

TL;DR

Senlin Ascends may seem like a dry, political fantasy, more concerned with intrigue than action, but, well, it kinda is. It’s also a story heavily driven by its complex, intricate characters; a deep story told of a man and his wife, who only wish to reconnect; an amazingly constructed world centering around a wonder most of us would consider nothing but mythical. While it is a bit drab, slow, and even outright boring at times, get through these parts and you’ll find an absolutely fantastic story beneath. Just don’t try to make it more than it is. The first few chapters I had to power through. I kept wondering when the story would pick up, over and over. I became mesmerized by the world, lost in the tale itself, subsumed with the story of Senlin and Marya, even teared up a bit later on. It’s not a thriller. It’s not built on action. It probably won’t get your blood pumping, turn you on, or sate your lust for blood. But it just might tell you an amazing tale, should you let it.

The Books of Babel is a tetralogy (a four-part series), beginning with Senlin Ascends, which was self-published by Bancroft in 2013, only to be reissued by Orbit in 20118. The second book, Arm of the Sphinx was initially released in 2014, and followed the first through Orbit later in 2018. The penultimate book, The Hod King, came out a year later, in 2019. The final entry, The Fall of Babel, is due out next year.

Brightstorm – by Vashti Hardy (Review)

Sky-Ship Adventure #1

Middle Grade, Steampunk, YA, Adventure

Scholastic; March 1, 2018 (UK)

Norton Young Readers; March 17, 2020 (US)

352 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly furnished with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Norton and NetGalley for the ARC!

Brightstorm is the debut novel from middle grade author Vashti Hardy. Set in an alternate London (called “Lontown”), it follows a set of twins, Arthur and Maddie, born of adventurer Ernest Brightstorm, who must retrace the steps of his final adventure in order to clear their family name.

When adventure twins Arthur and Maudie Brightstorm receive word that their father has been killed while attempting to reach South Polaris, they think that life can’t get much worse. But, when he is accused of attempted sabotage and disowned by the explorer community, they find out that this nightmare can get even worse. Stripped of their home and inheritance, the Brightstorms are essentially sold off by their de facto legal guardian as housekeepers to the Beggins, a malevolent pair of busybodies occupying a poorer section of Lontown known as the Drips.

In an attempt to recover their family’s honor, the twins must escape domestic servitude, get hired on another expedition to South Polaris, locate their father’s downed skyship, and clear his name. Not an easy task for anyone, but possibly more for a pair of twelve year-olds. Though instead of experience, the twins have each other—which is sure to be the greatest benefit of all.

Officially a middle-grade fantasy, Brightstorm was a fun, rousing adventure so long as I didn’t overanalyze it. So, it’s a kids’ book and I’m not an English teacher—you don’t have to overthink it. I mean, you totally CAN overthink it, but I’m not going to. It’s all good fun. That’s my review—little more needed.

While Brightstorm isn’t perfect, it’s certainly good enough. An enjoyable adventure! Arthur and Maudie are the desirable narrators for a childhood adventure story; with one boy and one girl, they can tell a nice, balanced story that most young children will relate to. That is, it COULD have been a balanced story perfect for both boys and girls, except that Arthur does all the narrating. Not that Maudie plays a bit part or anything—she shares the spotlight with Arthur, solving mechanical puzzles and problems, as well as doing a fair bit of exploration herself. She just doesn’t live the story the way Arthur does. Now, nothing away from Arthur—with his iron arm, the kid is a true survivor, someone who has overcome their so-called “limitations” to lead a rich, fulfilling life, even excelling where so many “able-bodied” people would fail. That being said, I would’ve liked to see more from Maudie’s perspective. Maybe in the next book!

The mystery is… not really very mysterious. It plays out like any starter mystery I could think of. There’s good, there’s evil, and there’s a generally solid line between the two. Likewise, the Brightstorms start low in the beginning, but life gets better the more they progress. Yes, there are a few harrowing parts, but seeing as this is a middle-grade fiction, I really wouldn’t’ve expected any harsh life-lessons at this point. Clues are collected, they all add up nicely and leave very little in the way of loose ends, and the end of the tale sets us up for the next one in a straightforward manner.

TL;DR

If you like exciting, new adventures that are above all else fun—then Brightstorm is your kind of read. This preteen steampunk adventure features a pair of twins as the protagonists, though we only ever hear from Arthur, an oversight that I hope gets corrected in the next book. We even learn a few lessons; the most obvious being that we can overcome any obstacle with friendship, resourcefulness, and sheer determination. If so far you think that this sounds like your cup of tea—then dive on in! It being an adventure with definite British overtones, I can guarantee you that you will hear some funny names and a lot about tea. Now, if you like exciting novels that tell it like it is, feature dark overtones that blur the lines between what’s right and wrong—maybe skip this. This ain’t that kind of book. It’s more straightforward, fun and adventure. Don’t read too much into it.

Don’t miss the next Sky-Ship Adventure—Darkwhispers—due out in February 2020.

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.