#REVIEW: THE WARDEN, by Daniel M. Ford

First, the standard disclaimer whenever I review one of Dan Ford’s books: while we’ve never met in person, Dan and I are interweb mutuals and have been for years at this point, and I’m a member of his private Discord server, and if you would like to take that information as a reason to perhaps toss a pinch of salt on my opinion on his latest book, I would not look askance upon you. That said, the rule I’ve always followed when reviewing books written by people I know is that if I can’t write an honestly positive review I’m just not going to write a review at all. I owe my readers honesty in my reviews but that doesn’t mean I can’t keep my mouth shut, right?

At any rate, I think this is probably his best book, and I’ve read and reviewed all of them, as far as I know. So let’s just start with that: this is his best book, and it’s part one of a trilogy, and I need Book Two, damn it. This is not going to be a spoiler review but let me just say that I think that the next book will begin quickly after the end of this one and I need to know what happens next.

The premise: Aelis de Lenti is a necromancer and a (supremely talented) recent graduate of the prestigious Magister’s Lyceum. The Lyceum trains Wardens, which are basically a mix of a town sheriff, a local ombudsman, and if necessary the magical equivalent of a Navy SEAL. Aelis, a city girl and the scion an extremely wealthy family, finds herself posted to Lone Pine, a tiny farming village at the edge of nowhere with absolutely nothing of the comforts she is used to. The townspeople don’t trust her very much at first, she’s not especially fond of them either, the second floor of her wizard’s tower on the edge of town basically doesn’t exist, and her home keeps being invaded by a goat.

Shenanigans ensue. Like I said, this isn’t a spoiler review, so I don’t intend to describe the shenanigans, but one way or another by the end of the book you’re going to have a decent idea of why the Lyceum “wasted” her by posting her to Lone Pine, and you’ll have met enough characters from Lone Pine itself that you’ll be invested in what ends up happening with them.

One of the things I really liked about Ford’s Paladin trilogy was his choice of main character. Religion generally doesn’t have much of a role in high fantasy, or at least doesn’t have much of a role among the main characters, so seeing a paladin as the central character of the trilogy was great. This book is about a wizard, and while my first thought was “Well, there are tons of books about wizards,” … are there, really? Because I don’t know that I’ve seen a character like Aelis as the MC of a series. Can I come up with some characters who fit her role? Sure, but they’re all side characters. I’m gonna come up with a counterexample as soon as I hit Publish, but Dan’s got a great knack for choosing protagonists that feel new and different.

Which is interesting, because the overall feel of the book is very old-school and very D&D influenced, and it’s been interesting to look at other reviews of the book and see how people feel about that. What do I mean? Well, all of Aelis’ spells have names, and they have “Orders,” which are functionally equivalent to spell levels as far as I can tell. Most wizards, or at least most Wardens specialize in a single school of magic, and the most powerful might have a handful. If you’re a D&D player, you can list them off right now, and let’s see how many I can do from memory: Necromancy, Divination, Abjuration, Conjuration, Evocation, Illusion, Alteration, and … dammit … Enchantment! The eighth is enchantment. Aelis specializes in Necromancy, Abjuration, and Enchantment, more or less in that order, although most of what she does throughout the book is cast wards. You don’t really see her lean into the necromancy until the end of the book, and the townspeople of Lone Pine have serious aversions to it.

Now, this is not so much up my alley as it is the actual alley itself, so it worked for me across the board. Aelis does have her spells memorized, and definitely runs low on magic the more casting she does, but I don’t think she’s actually forgetting spells or getting up and consulting her spell books like a D&D wizard might be. I can see why a reader might roll their eyes a touch, perhaps, at Aelis literally deciding to cast Moogerdook’s Hornswoggling Goat-Inconveniencer at someone. I am not one of those people.

A word about Aelis herself, so long as we’re discussing mileages and how they might vary. Aelis is … well, she’s a lot, to be honest. Someone asked Dan in the Discord if he thought she was arrogant the other day, and his response was something along the lines of that she is likely to think that of all the people in a room she is the most capable of solving a problem and probably also the smartest and most talented. She is also likely to be right. She reminds me– and I doubt this is intentional– of Aloy from the Horizon games, because Aloy is a supreme asshole when she’s surrounded by people who aren’t as competent as she is, and there are plainly and simply not that many people who are as competent as she is. Aloy has no patience for anyone’s bullshit, and neither does Aelis. She’s bossy and curt but she’s also literally in charge most of the time due to her role as a Warden, and one way or another there are going to be people who are turned off by her.

I was not one of those people. I’m kind of sneering at them right now, too. A lot of the book is inside Aelis’ head, and the trick is she has doubts and recriminations and anxieties and such but she is not about to let anyone see them. It’s going to be interesting to see if she cracks under the pressure in future books, because she rather abruptly becomes responsible for a lot toward the end of the book.

She’s also delightfully gay, by the way, and the romance subplot is a highlight. I won’t spoil anything about it but I’m looking forward to seeing more of her love interest.

I haven’t talked about the worldbuilding, which is typically great, especially since the book is literally set in a tiny village where nothing ever happens. Ford does a great job of giving you an idea of what the outside world is like, via letters from family (that Aelis reads to the recipients, who are frequently unable to read) and the occasional adventuring group from outside of town showing up. I want to see more, of course, because I always want more worldbuilding, but this was a highlight as well.

Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t surprise me that I enjoyed this book as much as I did; I was all in based on the description, and knowing the author obviously doesn’t hurt. But you want to check this one out. It’s Dan’s sixth book, but it’s also his first with Tor, and I’m kinda personally invested (emotionally, not financially) in it doing well. Give it a look. You’ll like it.

The Top 10 New(*) Books I Read in 2022

Here we go here we go here we go, the post I spend most of the year looking forward to writing: my top 10 new books of 2022, where “new” in this case means “I never read it before,” and as it turns out most of them are pretty new but the oldest book on the list came out in 1977. We have, for the first time in three years, returned to the original 10-book list, mostly because I read fewer books this year than I did in the last several years and I don’t want the list to get much past 10% of my reading. Fifteen out of 101 just doesn’t feel special enough, especially when you consider that I always throw an Honorable Mention at the end. Pick five of those if you like.

Also worth pointing out: this is the tenth of these lists, and part of me feels like I should do a top 10 of the top 10. That’s not coming before the end of 2022, though; it’s going to require a lot of thought and possibly some rereading. Previous years:

And, with no further ado, here we go:

10. Rust in the Root, by Justina Ireland. This was the most recent of my reads to be added to the list, as I just finished it a few days ago. I generally like to have a few days to see if the shine wears off a book (or, as will happen later, if a book improves in my estimation or not) but I don’t see this one falling out of favor anytime soon. I don’t recall off the top of my head if Justina Ireland has shown up on this list before, but this is a great example of her style: historical fiction with a supernatural twist, told from the perspective of a person of color.

In this case, it’s 1937, and the United States is still recovering from the Great Rust, a cataclysmic event where anything created with the aid of the magical art known as Mechomancy has suddenly fallen apart. This includes pretty much anything that has been constructed, so the effects are immense and wide-ranging, although some areas have been harder hit than others. There are other schools of magic beyond Mechomancy, and the main character has some strength in several of them, including Floromancy, the ability to transform plants and seeds into other things. Branches of magic beyond Mechomancy are frowned upon and sometimes flat-out illegal, and the fact that most of their practitioners seem to be people of color doesn’t help. Laura moves to New York City at the beginning of the book and takes a job with the Colored Auxiliary of the Bureau of the Arcane’s Conservation Corps– sound familiar, by any chance?– and gets sent off to deal with a Blight, an area where the effects of the Great Rust are worse than usual. Much worse, as it turns out.

This is the first book of a series, and I’m really looking forward to the rest of it, especially as I want to know a lot more about this magic system and Ireland makes a point of only giving you as much information as you absolutely need to comprehend the story. I am, for example, dying to know why walnuts and okra seeds, specifically, are so important to Floromancy. She literally wears a bandolier full of seeds. Tell me mooooooooore.

9. The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, by Alexis Hall. Sherlock Holmes is, in and of himself, a great argument for why awesome things can happen when copyright is allowed to expire. Affair is a not-very-thinly-veiled Holmes pastiche, crossed with H.P. Lovecraft, and if you know me you should already be smiling at the thought of me crawling over people and knocking over furniture in my rush to get my hands on this book. The main character, a military veteran named John Wyndham, takes up lodging at 221b Martyr’s Walk with a “consulting sorceress” named Shaharazad Haas. Wyndham’s war, by the way, was in another dimension, as opposed to, say, Afghanistan, and Ms. Haas has every bit of Holmes’ investigative acumen and invincible arrogance, combined with magical powers well beyond Holmes’ imagination. There are vampires and pirates. Wyndham gets to punch a shark at one point. It’s delicious.

The story begins with adapting A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes novel, but continues to branch off into its own mystery as it continues. I don’t know if this is intended to be part of series or not, but I would love to see more. This combination is just too irresistible for me; I loved this book.

8. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter. I have to imagine that it’s rather difficult to write autobiographies of academics. I have some evidence to this effect, as I’ve read a handful of biographies of professors and authors that basically boiled down to “he got this degree, then he wrote this, and then he wrote that, and that made some people mad, so he wrote that after that in response to this,” and a life that was lived by someone who was objectively interesting just becomes a long list of publication credits. Tolkien himself basically was a hobbit, and his homebody tendencies add to the problem, but somehow Humphrey Carpenter makes his biography every bit as interesting as the man it’s about. Tolkien’s friendship with C.S. Lewis is covered fairly extensively as is a lot of the detail and etymology that went into the writing of The Lord of the Rings, along with Tolkien’s obsession with internal consistency and detail, which once led him to correct some details in a reissue of The Hobbit and literally blame them, in the text, on Bilbo Baggins himself.

I was light on nonfiction this year, and there will be a handful of other books showing up in the Honorable Mention, but this one was definitely the standout. It’s not like I needed an excuse, as Tolkien has been a huge influence on my life and this book came out when I was a year old, so it’s actually kind of surprising that I never read it before now, but I read this in preparation to watch The Rings of Power and then never watched The Rings of Power. Oops.

7. Seed, by Ania Ahlborn. I called this book “deliciously fucked up” when I wrote my initial review of it in October, and I absolutely stand by that, as Seed wins this year’s award for Book Most In Need of Multiple Trigger Warnings for this year. In particular, if violence against and occasionally by children is going to be something that gets to you– if you are a parent, or really if you have ever even seriously considered becoming a parent, this book is gonna fuck with you. Whether that experience is something you’re interested in or not is your call; I spent the first night of the two it took to read this book with my skin crawling, and I figured out what the ending was going to be early on in night two and spent most of the rest of the read in slowly-mounting dread that I might have been right and desperately hoping that I was wrong.

I was not wrong. This book is somewhat predictable, generally considered a weakness, but that only increases its ability to screw with you. It’s about a generational curse, and family trauma, and there’s pet murder and car crashes and projectile vomiting and and all sorts of godawful shit and it’s beautifully written and it’s scary as all hell. You may wish you hadn’t picked it up when you’re done with it and you should read it anyway. I wish I could write this scary, and that’s the highest compliment I think I can pay the book. Just be glad it’s short.

6. The First Binding, by R. R. Virdi. What was that about short books? The First Binding is 832 Goddamned pages long. It’s a doorstop. You could kill small animals with it. You could probably kill medium-sized animals with it, although reading it would probably be a better use of it. It’s the first of a series, and I have not the slightest idea how many books are planned for it but this is gonna look great on the shelf assuming the author doesn’t develop a case of Rothfuss syndrome and never finishes it.

We’ll get back to the Rothfuss stuff in a minute, but it’s worth pointing out that this book initially wasn’t on my shortlist for 2022. I added it in this week after realizing that I was still spending a fair amount of time thinking about it, so it’s a book that I gave a five-star review to initially that has managed to grow on me since I first read it.

To be wildly unfair about it, The First Binding is The Name of the Wind, only with a vague feeling of Southeast Asia about it. Or, alternatively, it’s Christopher Ruocchio’s Sun Eater Chronicles but not in outer space. It is, in other words, a first-person autobiography-style story told by an old and vastly powerful being, with occasional jumps around in time and lots of references to stuff that’s going to happen later on in the series. And, honestly, Name of the Wind crossed with Asian cultural influences really will give you a damn good idea of whether you want to read this or not; I feel pretty comfortable saying that if you (at least initially, before 10 years of Rothfuss’ nonsense) liked NotW, you’ll like this, and you should give it a look. Just, uh, maybe think about it in ebook format unless you have strong forearms.

5. The Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao. I literally just now pre-ordered the sequel to this book, which unfortunately isn’t due out until August of 2023, but this is the first book on the list where drooling enthusiasm could legitimately be part of my talking about it, something that will be a theme for the rest of the list. (I never said this: in general, don’t pay too terribly close attention to the order of the books, except maybe for the top two, but I do feel like there’s a bit of a division between the top five and the bottom five. If I had waited until tomorrow to write this list they might have been in different order.) It also has, hands down and far away, the best cover of any of this year’s books, to the point that I had the wraparound without the text on it as my desktop background for a while after reading it.

Also, if you Google Xiran Jay Zhao, the author, they are wearing a cow onesie in the first pictures that will pop up, which is a reason to buy the book all by itself.

Right, the story: imagine Pacific Rim crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale: giant mechs beating the shit out of each other piloted by tiny, soft humans, only one of them has to be male and one has to be female and very frequently piloting the mech will lead to the death of the female pilot. Now make the main character one of those female pilots and make her hate men to a degree that is almost attractive. Wu Zetian is an amazing, fascinating character and even if she didn’t have the fascinating worldbuilding around her (and y’all know what a sucker for good worldbuilding I am) I’d want to read the book to know more about her. I read this back in January– I think it was one of the first books added to the shortlist– and I still think about it all the time. Absolutely madhouse brilliant. Go buy it.

4. Between Two Fires, by Christopher Buehlman. In a world where I had never read Seed, I’d start this off by talking about how amazingly fucked up Between Two Fires is and how I don’t read enough good horror novels, but I already wrote the bit about Seed, which is both scarier and more fucked up than Between Two Fires but somehow isn’t quite as good of a book. I think the difference is that Between Two Fires is a more complex story; it’s going to scare the hell out of you and gross you out and push some buttons that generally have DO NOT PUSH on them in blinking lights, but there’s more going on with this one than with Seed.

Anyway, it says “An Epic Tale of Medieval Horror” right there on the cover, and, well, yeah, that’s what this is, only the Middle Ages were kinda a horror story all on their own, and this particular book is set at the height of the Black Death, so it’s historical fiction about what very well may have been one of the worst times and places to be alive and human in history.

The main character is Thomas, a former knight who leaves a life of wandering the countryside stealing and looting and trying to avoid sudden, horrible death when he rescues a young girl from a band of men who are more or less just like him, and if you’re getting a hint that violence against children is part of this book, yeah, maybe roll with that? Only thing is, this kid might be a prophet of God, as she’s convinced that the plague is part of Lucifer rising up against Heaven, and hey, relative stranger, would you mind escorting me to Avignon so that we can do something about the impending literal end of the world? Pretty please?

So, yeah, maybe that’s what’s going on. Or maybe she’s just sick and delirious. Either way I’m sure it’ll be fine.

3. The Chosen and the Beautiful, by Nghi Vo. I was talking earlier about how certain things falling out of copyright protection led to (or at least could lead to) cool reinterpretations of the source material, and that leads to me wondering if The Great Gatsby is in the public domain yet. I can only assume that it is, as Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful makes no attempt whatsoever to hide the source material, right down to keeping all of the character names and locations the same. The mysterious Jay Gatsby is still the central driver of the book, his mansion is still across the bay in West Egg, and a certain green light and optometrist’s billboard are still there to be obsessed over by generations of English teachers.

The big difference? Vo’s Jordan Baker is a Vietnamese adoptee, and queer to boot, and she has a relationship going with not only her Gatsby lover Nick Carraway but also Daisy Buchanan herself. The book is thick with magic, too, although it’s fascinatingly expressed; where I’m usually a sucker for “magic systems” and worldbuilding and such this book has absolutely no interest in explaining things, and you’re just going to have to take that little vial of demon’s blood at face value, damn it, or (in one of my favorite scenes) the speakeasy that can only be accessed by crossing the same bridge three times in a row, or the paper doll that Daisy animates and sends to a social event that she doesn’t want to attend.

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m a big fan of Gatsby, which I haven’t reread in a while and need to get to, and the story of this book fascinated me from start to finish, but that’s not why it’s on the list. This book, more than anything else I read this year, is on this list because of the quality of the writing. I’ve read a couple of Vo’s books in the past and I didn’t quite realize she had this in her; the writing is beautiful, with sentences I wanted to lift off the paper and roll around in on nearly every page. It’s stunningly well-written, and even if you aren’t generally into speculative fiction or you haven’t read Gatsby you should allow yourself the pleasure of a night or two with this beautiful little book.

2. The Shadow of the Gods, by John Gwynne. I considered making it official that you were to consider both this and its sequel The Hunger of the Gods as both being in second place, since I read both books this year, but whatever, you get it. As you’ve no doubt figured out I read a lot of series fiction this year, more than I usually do even though that’s always been a big part of my reading diet, and this book is an amazing example of the grittier, slightly-more-reality-based side of fantasy literature. Slightly, mind you, as the cover of this one features an absolutely enormous dragon and the sequel has a wolf half the size of God on it, but it still feels like low fantasy for all that.

Shadow is Norse-themed, possibly post-Ragnarök-Norse themed, as there’s gods but they’re all dead, and the main characters are all phenomenal badasses and they all cart around lots of axes and seaxes (which is a dagger) and everybody’s cold all the damn time and there are letters like ð scattered through a lot of the words so you need to know to pronounce it like a -th. There are three main POV characters that the book cycles through, and by the end of the book none of them have even met yet although their stories have overlapped in certain ways; this was very clearly written as the deliberate first part of a trilogy and not a book that got successful so they greenlighted sequels.

This is not the most complicated nor the most literary book on the list. It is, however, an extraordinarily well-crafted example of a genre that I have loved since I was a kid, and discovering John Gwynne’s work was an amazing treat. I have another book by him that has been sitting on my shelf for a while because it’s the first book of a (completed) tetralogy and I strongly suspect I’ll be reading them close to back-to-back, so I’ve been waiting for the year to end, because I already have two books by this guy on my list and I can’t have two entire series. I loved it, and you should read it.

  1. Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, by R. F. Kuang.

This is the part where I inevitably get pissed at WordPress, which cannot be convinced that just because I have started a line of text with a 1 does not automatically mean that I am about to create an indented list. It can not be talked out of this. It cannot be edited. It barely makes any visual impact at all, and it nonetheless drives me insane.

Anyway. Babel represents the best minor thing that happened to me all year, which is that I got a pre-publication ARC and got to read it a couple of months before it actually got released. R.F. Kuang’s name is not going to be unfamiliar to anyone who has been around here for a while; her Poppy War trilogy is one of the greatest achievements in fantasy literature of the last ten years, and she is somehow only 26 or 27 years old. I believe all three of her previous books have made my top 10 list; the second one might not have but the first and third definitely did. Babel, in all its academic colonic title glory, has absolutely nothing to do with the Poppy War trilogy, and instead represents yet another alternate history, something I’m only just now realizing was absolutely the genre of the year for 2022.

Babel is set in the 1830s at the Institute of Translation at Oxford University, a giant tower that occupies most of the center of campus and very much does not exist in the real world. The main character, called Robin Swift because none of the white people in the book can be bothered to learn his real name, is a Chinese orphan basically kidnapped by an Institute professor and brought to England to serve as a translator for the Chinese language. This world’s entire magic system (there’s that phrase again) is based on translation, and the Institute has a death grip on the technology that this magic makes possible, so Robin, along with his three friends– an Indian Muslim and two women, one of whom is Black– are put in the position of wanting to be scholars and translators but having to literally participate in stripping cultural resources from their homelands in order to do it.

It’s magnificent. It’s angry and dark and complicated and fascinating and eventually it almost turns into an espionage novel– don’t miss the bit about the Translators’ Revolution in the title– and I thought the Poppy War books were wonderful but they feel like a warmup in comparison to how confident and assured the story Kuang is telling with Babel is. Dark Academia has become an interesting subgenre in the last few years, so if you’re into that, or historical fiction, or really just into good books at all, it is the best book I read this year, and you should have read it already, so get on that.

Honorable Mention, in No Particular Order, Except for One Book: The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World, by Riley Black; Kings of the Wyld and Bloody Rose, by Nicholas Eames, which you should understand as the unofficial #11 on this list; The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Serial Killer, by Dean Jobb; Leviathan Falls, by James S.A. Corey; Under the Whispering Door, by T.J. Klune; Six Crimson Cranes, by Elizabeth Lim; Bluebird, by Ciel Pierlot; The Architect’s Apprentice, by Elif Shafak; The Doors of Eden, by Adrian Tchaikovsky; The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter; and Scythe, by Neal Shusterman.

#REVIEW: Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames

Y’all, this one was delightful.

This isn’t going to be a long review; in fact, I’d be surprised if the cover art doesn’t take up more real estate than the actual review. Suffice it to say that this is the kind of book where I can identify the characters on the cover by their weapons (left to right: Patrick, Gabe, Clay, Ganelon and Moog) and I enjoyed it enough that I ordered the sequel before I’d finished it and almost went directly into the sequel afterward. It won’t be on the unread shelf for long, I can assure you of that.

Kings of the Wyld is a pure epic fantasy adventure, featuring a gang of murder hobos fighting monsters that any D&D player will recognize, with the minor exception of substituting rabbit-eared immortals called Druin in for the expected elves. The hook, such as it is, is that these guys have been retired for a while and most of them have gained a bunch of weight, gotten old, moved on from the adventuring life and have spouses and children. The story kicks into gear when a giant horde of monsters nearly takes over and besieges a town far to the north, a town that Golden Gabe’s (adult, also adventurer) daughter happens to be among the defenders of. Gabe’s plan: get the band back together (that phrase is literally used, repeatedly) and go rescue his daughter. The problem: even before you get to the city surrounded by tens of thousands of monsters, you have to get through the massive forest full of other dangerous monsters in between them.

Toss in some Pratchett/Adams-level humor and you’ve got yourself quite a book. I gobbled this up in just a couple of days, and enjoyed every page of it. I have a few gripes– I’ll get to those in a second– but all in all this was a hell of a treat.

So: the gripes. The book remains firmly locked into the third-person perspective of Clay “Slowhand” Cooper, the guy with the big shield (it’s more important than the sword) on the front cover there. Clay wants to get back to his wife and daughter but his loyalty to his friends is what gets him to go on this one final mission. The problem is, I feel like a few chapters here and there from another perspective might have helped. In particular, I’d like to have seen some chapters from Rose, the daughter trapped in the city. Gabe is nearly frantic with worry for most of the book, but we never really see the danger Rose is in because they spend 85% of the book trying to get to her. At one point they’re able to contact her via a scrying tool of Moog’s, but she rather brusquely tells her dad to stay the hell away because she doesn’t want him to get killed and … well, he doesn’t take it all that well.

This is also very much a Dude Book. The five main characters are all men, and the representation level isn’t great: one of the five is gay, but his husband is Tragically Dead before the events of the book start, which is kind of annoying. Now, the dude-heavy nature of the team might be part of an ongoing commentary throughout the book of How Things Have Changed Since Our Time, and I’ll point out that while the main story thrust of the book is the Damsel in Distress trope, Rose herself is an ass-kicker, she’s just an ass-kicker surrounded by a hundred thousand demons, and most of the younger bands of adventures feature women rather heavily, including one exclusively female group that manages to rob Clay and his team multiple times over the course of the book. The sequel, starring Rose, will presumably be better on that front.

I think it’s fair to say that if those things are going to bother you, you can probably pick up Bloody Rose, the sequel, because I’m pretty sure that you’re not going to have to have read this book to know what’s going on, and given the quality of the writing I feel safe recommending Bloody Rose unread. I was not bothered by them so much as I noted them and moved on; your mileage may vary and adjust your expectations accordingly. But I loved this one, and I can’t wait to get to the sequel.

#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.


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.