#REVIEW: King of the Rising, by Kacen Callender

I was not a huge fan of the first volume of Kacen Callender’s Islands of Blood and Storm duology, Queen of the Conquered. Feel free to click through to the review, of course, but the short version is that I felt like the book was both too ambitious for its own good and a main character who was not only not especially likable to the reader but was also flatly detested by literally every single character in the book. It had potential, though, and I decided to keep an eye on Callender in the future although at the time I wasn’t committing to picking up the sequel to the book.

Well. Kacen Callender is from St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, and I hadn’t read a book from there last year, so …

It took a while to get to it; in fact, when I picked it up yesterday it had been on my unread shelf since 2021, and had spent more time there than any other book on the shelf. I honestly just picked it up to get it out of the way, and for a brief moment I considered not actually reading it, since it’s not like the Read Around the World thing is something official any longer.

*cough*

It’s a lot better.

King of the Rising begins exactly where Queen of the Conquered left off, at the beginning of a massive slave revolt on an archipelago colonized by the white-skinned Fjern, and if you want the historical equivalent you need nothing more than to recall that Callender is a St. Thomian, and St. Thomas was colonized by the Dutch. What makes this a fantasy novel and not just thinly-veiled historical fiction is the existence of Kraft, which is basically X-Men style magical powers that some of the characters possess. Kraft, if I’m being honest, is the weakest part of the book and in general its main role in the plot is to give the main character of this book and the main character of the last book a way to communicate with each other across long distances.

That switch in narrators is probably the singe change that that played the biggest role in my enjoying this book more than Queen. Sigourney was kind of rough as a narrator. She was very passive in a lot of ways and literally everyone hated her, and she just wasn’t a great choice as an MC. This book is told from the perspective of Løren Jannik, her half-brother, and while Sigourney still plays a pretty significant role in the story, Løren is a much more dynamic character than she was. He is still flawed, certainly; one of the major themes of the book is leadership during crisis, and the book isn’t interested in backing away from his failures as both a leader of the revolt and as a person in general. But the main thing is that he makes decisions during the book and while some of them are definitely bad decisions, at least he acts throughout the course of the book. Sigourney was just too passive, and pushing her offscreen or at least into the background made King of the Rising a superior read.

I probably should have put this first, but, like, you don’t need a trigger warning for this one, do you? Because this book is about a slave revolt against a colonial slave power, with everything that implies, and it can be a really fucking rough read. If you read Queen of the Conquered you should absolutely pick this up even if you didn’t particularly like it. If you did like Queen, I feel like you’ll really enjoy this one.

#REVIEW: SCORPICA, by G. R. Macallister

The following are all true facts about my reading of G.R. Macallister’s Scorpica:

  • That I was offered a free digital copy of the book by its publicist in return for a fair review;
  • That, at about the 40% mark on the digital copy, I ordered the book in hardcover anyway;
  • That I am definitely buying the next book in the series;
  • That I am not sure at all how much I liked it.

This is an interesting one, y’all. Scorpica is a close relative of the recent microgenre known as “All of the XXX are gone,” where XXX is filled by, usually, an entire gender. I can think of a handful of examples– and, in fact, I have another on my TBR shelf right now— of this broad plot being used, and, well, it can be a tricky thing to write, at least partially because trans people exist, and one of the questions people might reasonably ask right away is whether you as an author are aware that trans people exist, and how you treat them within your book where all the wimminz went away, or whether you even acknowledge that they exist, can at the very least put your book at a disadvantage right away.

Scorpica doesn’t quite do that, as the issue here is that, in a fantasy world simply known as the Five Queendoms, female babies suddenly stop being born. Nothing happens to anyone who is currently alive, but the book goes fifteen years with no female infants being born anywhere in the Queendoms. The Queendoms themselves, as you might already suspect, are matriarchies, and the book employs a rotating POV among several characters scattered among at least most of the five countries, although most of the characters are at least tangentially connected to Scorpica, one of the five.

In a first for any work of fantasy I’ve ever read, the book starts off with not one but two babies being born, and it hit me while I was reading that I can’t really think of any detailed narrative descriptions of what giving birth is like that were 1) set in fictional worlds and 2) written by a woman. Macallister excels at describing how her characters are feeling, and her description of both the births is … harrowing, even though both of them end up going well. As the book goes on, and the nature of the problem becomes clear, it’s interesting to see how the different cultures represented in the Queendoms react to what becomes known as the Drought. The Scorpicans are presented as a very martial, Not Amazons type of culture, and it seems like they’re the most thoroughly matriarchal as well. I don’t know how many books are planned in this series, and it’ll be interesting to see if the next one shifts the focus from the mostly Scorpican characters to new characters from somewhere else.

And, well, this is sort of where I start having issues with the book. You all know how into worldbuilding I am. Give me a setting that I think is cool and I’m willing to overlook a lot, but if you get me into a place where I start nitpicking your worldbuilding your book and I may not end up getting along all that well. And the interesting thing here is that I do have a whole lot of questions about how this world works, but I liked it anyway, where I feel like this exact setting in the hands of a less talented author would have me writing a post with a whole lot of sarcastic bullet points ending in unanswered questions.

One thing I would definitely like to have seen, and I’m honestly surprised to be typing this, because as a straight white guy I’m not used to having to worry about representation: I need y’all to realize that this is not just a book about five queendoms and five matriarchal societies, this is a book where narratively speaking men barely even exist. The Scorpicae may literally be an all-female country; there is talk about sending male babies to something called the “Orphan House,” and as the Drought drags on they actually start taking unwanted female children from other countries. There are no male PoV characters, but there are also virtually no male minor characters. One PoV character ends up in a little gang of bandits for a while that has a pair of male twins in it, and there’s one dude who ends up fathering a child for one character who gets some dialogue while she’s deciding to let him impregnate her. That’s about it, and you’re never going to see him again afterwards. Several characters mention being married to men but their husbands play no role in the story.

Everyone– everyone, everyone, everyone— is at least a little bit bisexual, by the way. It’s the default, to the point where it’s generally barely worth commenting on.

At any rate, I’d like to have seen maybe one male character, if only because I really don’t know how men exist in the Queendoms. They’re treated as afterthoughts if not actually chattel in Scorpica, and there’s talk that one of the other Queendoms is considering raising their role in society late in the book, but by and large we don’t have any real idea what their lives are like, or even answers to questions like what fatherhood looks like in this world. Like, do none of the men in the Queendoms have any idea if they have children or not? Is this sort of like a societal flip-flop where men occupy low-status occupations? Are they cooking and cleaning and having dinner on the table when their wives get home? I don’t know!

(And, to make this clear, I have no problem with the idea that all of the PoV characters are women in and of itself, but in a book that is explicitly about a society that handles gender very differently from how we do, I think wondering about the male perspective on all this is fair. And while we might get into it in later books, it’s simply not there in this one.)

So, yeah: I’m in for the sequel, and I’m glad that the publicist put this on my radar, because I’d have missed it otherwise. There are definitely some flaws and big open questions here (and it’s worth pointing out that while Greer Macallister is an established author, this is her first foray into epic fantasy) and I ended up four-starring it on GR, but it’s absolutely something that I want to see more of. There’s a great sudden left turn at the end of the book– not quite a cliffhanger, I think, but the book sets you up to believe one thing is going to be happening through the series and then yanks the rug out from underneath you at the end, and I’m really curious to see where this goes next. If the notion of an explicitly feminist epic fantasy floats your boat, you should absolutely give Scorpica a look.

#REVIEW: The Shadow of the Gods, by John Gwynne

This. This is what I wanted.

Y’all know this; I’ve been pushing myself for the last several years to broaden my reading, both in the types of books I’m reading and the kinds of authors I was reading books from, and this year I kind of wanted to just step back and retreat into my comfort genres again. I’m still looking for new authors all the time, though, but I’m maybe a little more likely this year to buy a book where the cover is a giant fucking dragon threatening a warrior who is smaller than one of its teeth.

I mean, come the fuck on. Gimme.

I wasn’t previously familiar with John Gwynne’s work, but he’s been around for a while, and he’s clearly got enough pull with his publisher to be able to say “this is a trilogy” and know good and well that all three books are getting published. Because this particular first-book-of-the-Bloodsworn-trilogy is really clearly structured as the first book of several. It has three main protagonists, and none of them ever meet, although their stories knit together satisfyingly in the last pages, where the book throws a couple of curveballs (one of which I feel like I should have seen coming and didn’t) that set up wonderfully for the next book– which, conveniently, comes out pretty soon.

The setting: proto-Norse, set in an unspecified Cold North (actually, I don’t know for sure that they specify north, but definitely Cold) where nobody really bathes enough and everybody’s a badass and we call daggers seaxes and everyone carries an axe and a seax and if you see those words together enough they start blurring together, and there’s lots of words drawn from Middle English using weird letters, like niðing, which is pronounced “nithing,” and you may as well know know that that letter is pronounced eth and pronounced like a -th. There are monsters and trolls and little goblin-things that eat teeth and oh God it’s so good.

Oh, and the gods are all dead, and everybody’s pretty cool with that. So it’s sort of post-Ragnarok, although they don’t ever use that word (there are no direct references to any actual Norse mythology or history things, at least not that I noticed, although everything’s pretty clearly inspired by them; this is second-world fantasy.) And the greatest thing about it? I would forgive you if you were taking arch note of the fact that I’ve gone from deliberately reading books from all over the world and a year where I focused on books by women of color to singing the praises of a book set in, literally, the whitest place on Earth. To which I will point out the following delicious little detail about the book: it’s got this awesome subtle feminist thing going on, where most of the leaders are women, where two of the three main characters are women, and where as near as I can tell everything exists in a state of near-perfect gender equality. Nowhere is it even hinted that women aren’t just as able to be warriors as men are, and while there’s a subplot with one of the protagonists involving avoiding a forced marriage, the book actually does a pretty cool job of you have to do this because you’re the jarl’s kid and not you have to do this because you’re a gurrrrrrllllllll.

(I cannot think of a single place where a character’s skin color is explicitly described. I might be wrong about that, and I’d be happier if Gwynne had made it clear that some of his characters are people of color, but I’m also not the most careful reader in the world, so I might have missed something, and he definitely doesn’t go on about everybody being white, either.)

Anyway, I enjoyed this a hell of a lot. It’s not High Literature or anything but if you’re looking for a bloody fantasy romp with cool monsters and well-written combat and people eating from trenchers, you’ll like this series a lot. I can’t wait for the second book to come out in April. Check it out.

#REVIEW: The Paladin Trilogy, by Daniel M. Ford

I have reviewed a couple of Daniel M. Ford’s books in this space before, and they always have to start with a disclaimer: Dan and I are friends, or at least are whatever parasocial, mutual-followers-on-social-media, never-met-before sort of friends that stand in for most of my adult social relationships nowadays. He’s a Cool Guy, is what I should be saying, and if you stopped right now and followed him on Twitter and didn’t read the rest of the post you’d actually come off pretty well anyway. That said (and the second sentence in the disclaimer always starts with “that said,”) authors are really really good at reading each others’ work and just quietly never saying anything when we don’t like it. I don’t know if I would have bought any of these books if I didn’t know Dan through Twitter; I am absolutely certain I would have liked them just as much once I encountered them.

Anyway, I’ve worked my way through his Paladin Trilogy over the last who-knows-how-long, finishing up with the massive, 800-page doorstop Crusade, which absorbed a good chunk of my February, and while for some reason I didn’t review the first two (although I think I mentioned them here and there,) I’m reviewing the series as a whole now that it’s concluded: this is really good epic fantasy, and most excitingly, it’s epic fantasy of a style that I really don’t think I’ve seen before: it’s about religion. The main character, as you might guess, is a Paladin, the first convert of a new religion, and while the series is mostly Allystaire’s story, it’s also very much the story of how the religion of the followers of the Mother begins to gain traction in the collection of baronies that the story is set in. The book is second-world fantasy and manages to be both low fantasy and high fantasy at the same time; the Mother ends up with five main apostles, four humans and a dwarf, and all of them end up with various powers of one sort or another, and there are some really magically powerful enemies, but the world itself is not heavily magic-imbued. The bad guys would not feel out of place in a Robert Jordan Conan book, if you’re looking for a vague analog to the style.

The apostles are known as the Arm (that’s Allystaire,) the Wit, the Voice, the Will and the Shadow, and all of the characters have their own roles to play in the Mother’s religion. The first book is mostly dedicated to pulling the team together, for lack of a better phrase, the second to establishing the Mother’s religion as a threat to the status quo, and the books end as all fantasy trilogies should, with a big war. It’s delicious work from start to finish, and I’ve praised Dan’s exceptional character work in my other reviews and it’s on full display here. I really liked reading about Allystaire in a way that isn’t terribly common for me(*) and the way he balances his innate sense of justice with his (admittedly bad) temper and his responsibilities to his deity and to the people he’s supposed to protect are fascinating. You don’t see a whole lot of discussion of moral behavior in fantasy, and Allystaire is fascinating in that he’s more or less constantly worried about doing what is right and just but still never comes off as, well, as obnoxious as you think a paladin character could very easily be. Of the other characters, the Shadow, Idgen Marte, and the Wit, a dwarf named Torvul, are the standouts. I particularly wish I could learn more about Torvul. I spent the entire third book worrying about something bad happening to Torvul.

In a lot of ways, these books are what I’ve been looking for this year. I’ve been doing Big Reading Projects for the last several years, and this year I mostly wanted to kind of pull back and take refuge in genre, and this big honkin’ fantasy trilogy with a unique angle on the genre, great worldbuilding, interesting politics and character work and cool magic has been a great way to start off the year. I’ve told my wife to check them out, which is not a sentence you see around here all that often. Definitely definitely check them out, y’all, you won’t regret it.

(*) To vastly oversimplify things, some people read for language, some for character, and some for story. I have majored in Story with a minor in Worldbuilding, so those things are what I look to first, and a book that tells a cool story but maybe has boring or annoying characters will win out for me over a book with intricately developed characters but a boring story.

#REVIEW: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, by Alexis Hall

I first encountered this book through Twitter, and I’ve completely lost track of how; I’m not even sure if it was specifically recommended to me or whether I just happened across someone being enthusiastic about it. At any rate, I’m mad at everyone else who has read it. Why? Because all of you should have recommended this book to me– yes, to me specifically, whether you know who the hell I am or not– because I’m pretty sure this book was written for me and me alone.

This is another “tell you the premise, and then I’m done” sort of book. The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, starring a bisexual, amoral sorceress named Shaharazad Haas in the Holmes role and a transexual gay man(*) named John Wyndham in the role of Watson. The book starts off as a clear homage to A Study in Scarlet, as Wyndham arrives in the city of Khelathra-Ven as a wounded veteran of a war in another dimension, in need of a job and housing, and ends up answering an ad for a place at 221B Martyrs Lane, where he meets Haas.

Who immediately attempts to shoot him.

You may have noticed the word sorceress. Wyndham is very Victorian British in his comportment and his morals, and Alexis Hall’s ability to mimic the writing style of the Holmes stories is flat-out uncanny, but the rest of the book is pure eldritch horror, where I want to compare it to Lovecraft but the simple fact is that I think Alexis Hall out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft. He does forbidden knowledge Man is not meant to taste very, very well, and Haas might be the single most memorable practitioner of magic I’ve ever encountered. They end up in Carcosa for a while. There are byakhees. And vampires. And Wyndham fights a shark. Their landlady is an intelligent swarm of bees inhabiting a corpse. Well, two, actually, as one rots away enough to become useless over the course of the book and she needs to acquire another.

It’s absolutely delicious.

So, yeah, while it goes without saying that this book gets one of my highest recommendations; I will admit I have some slight criticisms of the overall structure of the story. Affair starts off with five suspects for a blackmail and then has basically five sub-quests where people are progressively ruled out; it sounds weird to both say that I loved a book and that it could have been a bit shorter, but any time you build in that structure where there are Five Things to Be Accomplished, you end up with a book that sort of has the feel of a video game and by the end of it the reader kind of wants to get to the point. I combatted this by reading the book somewhat more slowly than I might have expected from something I was enjoying as much as I was; I actually dragged this one out a bit rather than devouring it at a sitting, which is my normal move.

But … God, you need to read this. I think right now it’s planned as a one-shot, which is a damned shame if it’s true, because (much like Watson) Wyndham is writing this story from the perspective of twenty years in the future, when Haas is actually dead, and there are tons of references to other mysteries and other adventures. I want to read these stories; I have got to have more of Shaharazad Haas in my life, because she is utterly fascinating as a character. Another thing I haven’t mentioned is the humor; there’s more than a little of Douglas Adams’ DNA in this book. In fact, I took this picture and sent it to a friend of mine who I was pitching the book for, and I might as well include it here as a quote:

Wyndham’s unwillingness to swear or repeat profanity in the text of the story, and his squeamishness around women, and his frequent asides to his editor are all fantastically dry humor, and I laughed out loud several times while reading the book, once loud enough that my son emerged from another room to ask me what was so funny. The boy notices nothing, so this is quite an achievement.

Anyway, yeah, you want this one. Go pick it up.

(*) I actually need to have a conversation with someone about the trans angle, because, I admit, I completely missed it on my first read, and upon seeing some references to it on Goodreads went back and reread the first chapter, where a single sentence refers to Wyndham “becoming himself for the first time,” or something very similar. I don’t think I missed a ton of references, and that sentence strikes me as something that’s going to have immediate salience for a trans reader that it might not for a cisgendered one. Then again, I read Gideon the Ninth twice and Harrowhark the Ninth once before realizing that Harrowhark was Harrowhark and not Harrowhawk, so occasionally I am absolutely a blinkered idiot.