ARC Review: Skullsworn

 

Note: I can’t post a Richard Anderson cover without gushing about it, because THEY ARE ALL SO GREAT. Check out the info in the cover reveal, because it has some cool details and other art. I am also in love with the UK cover here (and have the UK hardcover just for that), and the cover reveal for that one is here.

From Goodreads:

Pyrre Lakatur doesn’t like the word skullsworn. It fails to capture the faith and grace, the peace and beauty of her devotion to the God of Death. She is not, to her mind, an assassin, not a murderer–she is a priestess. At least, she will be a priestess if she manages to pass her final trial.

The problem isn’t the killing. Pyrre has been killing and training to kill, studying with some of the most deadly men and women in the world, since she was eight. The problem, strangely, is love. To pass her Trial, Pyrre has ten days to kill the ten people enumerated in an ancient song, including “the one you love / who will not come again.”

Pyrre is not sure she’s ever been in love. If she were a member of a different religious order, a less devoted, disciplined order, she might cheat. The Priests of Ananshael, however, don’t look kindly on cheaters. If Pyrre fails to find someone to love, or fails to kill that someone, they will give her to the god.

Pyrre’s not afraid to die, but she hates to quit, hates to fail, and so, with a month before her trial begins, she returns to the city of her birth, the place where she long ago offered an abusive father to the god and abandoned a battered brother—in the hope of finding love…and ending it on the edge of her sword.

I should note that, if this review makes you really want to pick the book up, you can read the first handful of chapters here. The prologue sets up the entire book, so if you want an idea what it’s about, and you don’t like reading summaries, I suggest you go read it now, before reading the rest of this review.

Because Skullsworn takes place chronologically before the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne trilogy, you can read it before or after. I feel like it’s best read after, because some of the reveals near the end of the book don’t pack the same punch without some of the knowledge you get from the main trilogy. I may be biased in this recommendation, however, as I almost always recommend reading books in publication order. Regardless, if you haven’t read the main trilogy, and are looking for a shorter, less intimidating entry point into the world of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, Skullsworn is a great place to start.

If I were to actually make a complaint about the book, it’s that, in comparison to the previous books that Staveley has written, the tension is a little lower. I think this is because there was only one main character, and we already know what’s going to happen to her. In addition, she doesn’t care that much if she dies, since she’s already a devotee of the death god. Also, there are no empire-shaking plots going on here, merely personal ones, throughout most of the book.

The other complaint I can see being leveled at Skullsworn is that it’s much shorter than the rest of Staveley’s novels. While I would call the original trilogy epic, I don’t think that Skullsworn meets the criteria. It’s a personal quest story, and as such, it’s the right length. I feel like trying to make the book longer by adding unnecessary complications or words would have made it a worse book. I don’t have any complaints about the length other than that I’m once again out of Staveley to read, and I have to go back to waiting for the next one!

Pyrre is a very different viewpoint character than any that Brian has written before. While Kaden can attain some measure of calm, and Valyn is trained to kill, neither of them reach the levels of cold-blooded apathy that Pyrre ascends to in her devotion to Ananshael. This could make for a very boring character – someone who just wanders around and kills people – in the hands of an amateur, but Staveley is anything but an amateur. In his hands, Pyrre had wants, desires, and needs. She is on a quest, her own kind of twisted coming of age story, and while the “life or death” part of the quest doesn’t hold the same pull as it might for another character, it still makes for a compelling narrative, and gives the book a definite sense of progress. In addition, Pyrre learns a lot about herself during the book, and the lessons and her character growth are brilliantly done.

It’s not Pyrre who really sold the book for me, though. It was the ending. While I was enjoying the book throughout, as a very good book that was a quick read and thoroughly enjoyable, I’ll admit, before the ending, I was thinking I was going to give the book four stars.

And then the ending happened.

I can’t really say much other than that it was epic and way better than I had anticipated or thought possible. YOU NEED TO READ IT.

In summary, while Skullsworn follows a single character, and one who is a challenge to make interesting, it pulls this off very well. It’s the right length for the story that it is trying to tell, and the ending packs a massive punch. While I felt that the ending was even better because I read the original trilogy first, Skullsworn can be read at any time, and I think you’ll love it regardless. I give it five of five stars, and very high recommendations. Now go read it so I have someone to discuss it with!

Brian Staveley’s Website.

Skullsworn on Goodreads.

 

Con Report: ICFA 38 (2017)

Hello, all! We’re back from ICFA 38, and still recovering. I thought I’d just give y’all a quick overview of how the con went while it’s all still relatively fresh in my mind.

We arrived Wednesday of last week after a very long day. My flight left Austin at 5:35 AM, and Shannon’s flight left even earlier. I had an empty seat next me on both my flights, so that was pretty great. I also got to read a lot of A Closed and Common Orbit, which I really enjoyed, so the travel overall was pretty great (besides having to get up so early…).

In the evening, we signed in, checked out the free table, and attended the opening ceremonies, then went back to our rooms to rest and plan out which panels we would go to for the rest of the week. I saw a name I was not expecting for one panel on Thursday, and got rather excited. More on this later.

Thursday morning, I was up bright and early and went down to work out. The hotel had a really nice workout room, and after, we hit up the cafe in the hotel for breakfast. I wandered off to some very interesting panels. The first one I went to had one presenter who talked about a novel where everyone is an amputee, and one of the amputees kills all of the other amputees. One of the other presenters rewrote her paper at 4 AM that morning and ended up talking about problematic themes in paranormal romance novels (Read: paranormal erotica). Like I said, it was… Interesting.

After a quick lunch, Shannon presented at the first panel in the afternoon. Despite a relatively small crowd, I thought the presentation went really well.

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Shannon was exhausted after this, quite understandably, so I went off to my next panel alone, with some trepidation. This was the panel I was excited about, if the name I read was the correct name, and if it was who I hoped it was. The subject of the panel was defining “epic fantasy”, which I already knew was going to be a fairly futile endeavor, because everyone has their own opinions on what defines genres, but the discussion was still lively.

And the person I was wondering about, the person on the program who I wasn’t expecting to be at the con at all, showed up. He was who I thought he was.

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On the left there is some dude named Brian Staveley. He’s one of my top 5 favorite authors, and the only one I hadn’t met yet. (I finally got to see V. E. Schwab in Austin at the beginning of March! Woo!) So, uh… Understandably, I was a little excited.

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I was even more excited when I went up to talk to him after the panel and he recognized me. Me. A fan he had never met in person, and he knew who I was. It was surreally awesome, and definitely made my week.

I think there was dinner and stuff after. I can’t quite remember, because I kinda had my head in the clouds for the rest of the evening.

Friday started off with more exercise. Seriously, it feels so good to work out early in the morning. You’re more awake and active for the rest of the day, and I love it.

The first event was a Steven Erikson signing. (I know I went to other signings at various times, but I had the most books for Erikson, so that’s the one I remember.) I had started the first Malazan book at the beginning of this year before the train that was Oathbringer hit me, and I was really enjoying it, and expect to love the series as a whole, so I was excited to meet Erikson and have him sign my copies of his series.

There was a free luncheon on Friday, where they gave out some really cool free books. Tip for if you ever go to ICFA: Go to all the luncheons and dinners. It’s worth it for the food. It’s also worth it for the books. Combined, it’s *really* worth it, and I wish I’d known ahead of time to sign up for the Thursday luncheon as well.

I know I went to several panels on Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and other such literary things, but they’re all kind of blending together by now. A lot of the papers presented were really interesting, so it was definitely worth going, though!

In the afternoon, I attended a reading with Nick Mamatas, John Chu, and Fran Wilde. All of the readings were excellent. Chu read part of a short story he’ll have in an upcoming magazine, and Wilde read all of her own story. I was really glad I went, and kinda wish I’d made time to see some of the other readings earlier in the week.

That night was the flash play section. It was unbelievably fun, and if you go to ICFA, you have to go to the flash plays. It should be required for everyone. I haven’t laughed that much in a long time. The best part is that the authors themselves are also the actors, so I got to watch Max Gladstone pretend to be drunk, declare himself a sensualist, and then get into a mock sword fight and accidentally break his sword.

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Staveley sat next to me during the play, and after, invited me to come out to the balcony to hang out and chat with people. He introduced me to several people, including his editor, Marco Palmieri. (Who also sorta knew who I was from Twitter!) I really appreciated the introductions, and got a bit outside of my comfort zone, talking to new people and stuff. It was a good experience.

Saturday started off with a very special signing. Staveley was there, signing none other than Skullsworn, his next book. His editor had them printed 2 weeks earlier than normal just so he would have copies for ICFA, and I was unbelievably excited to be able to pick up a copy early, and have Staveley AND Palmieri sign it.

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(Yes, there is actually a picture with me prominently in it. That’s how excited I was.)

I know I went to several other interesting panels that day, but the only one that sticks in my mind was the last one–a humor panel featuring Max Gladstone and Andy Duncan. It was, well, humorous.

The day ended with one final dinner, with more free books (eep), and then a party out on the terrace, where I got to talk to several more people, make more connections, and even talk to Staveley a bit more. We got him to agree to do an interview for our blog when Skullsworn is released, so look for that in a few weeks!

Travelling home was… A chore. We visited the free table every day, the bookseller’s room at least twice, and picked up books at the luncheon and the dinner. We had to transport all of this back to Austin.

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Yes, the boxes are also full of books. Mostly the books we brought with us to get signed.

I ended up checking a 50.0 pound bag and another that was around 40 lbs. I likely carried another 40-50 pounds around the airport, between my backpack and the overloaded tote bag I was using. Shannon was also carrying a bag of books, and put as many as she could fit into her carry-on luggage.

All of the books (and people) made it home safely, but I think that next time, I’m going to go ahead and ship back a box of books. Getting everything through the airport and home was backbreaking, and after a long weekend (I was up really late Friday and Saturday night forcing myself to be sociable), I would have liked a slightly easier trip home.

I did manage to read all of Skullsworn on the trip back (I finished Closed and Common Orbit sometime during the conference), and absolutely loved it. Having a good book to enthrall me on both legs of the journey made the travel seem so much shorter than it actually was.

All in all, ICFA was a great experience, and meeting Brian by surprise definitely made it exceed all of my expectations. My takeaways from the con would be this:

  • The panels are all pretty great, and don’t be afraid to try out some of the more interesting ones.
  • The readings are awesome too, especially if you go and watch authors who read with voices, and have any kind of acting background.
  • Go to all the luncheons and dinners. You’re not saving much money regardless because the restaurants around the hotel are so expensive, and you get really good food, plus free books, and it’s a great opportunity to network.
  • Don’t forget to check the free tables, and check them often. If you’re the kind of person who will pick up books on a whim, or has a long list of books you want, expect to bring a lot of books home, and likely need to ship some of them.
  • The flash plays are required.
  • Don’t be afraid to hang out with the cool people and talk to them. They weren’t at all afraid to talk to me. 🙂

I’m not sure if my schedule will allow me to go back next year, but I definitely enjoyed my trip this year. Thanks to everyone who put this conference together and made it such a memorable experience!

Book Review: The Last Mortal Bond

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Staveley started his trilogy strong with The Emperor’s Blades (Go read it if you haven’t done so already), and The Providence of Fire was an excellent continuation. The Last Mortal Bond continues that tradition and delivers exactly what I expected, even if it didn’t do so in all the ways that I expected.

WARNING: THERE ARE SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST 2 BOOKS AFTER THIS POINT. DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU HAVE FINISHED BOTH OF THEM.

The first two books set up a lot of conflicts and problems for our characters–Ran il Tornja, the Urghul, the Ishien, etc.–and it takes a lot to resolve them all. The Last Mortal Bond is a brick of a book, coming in at 649 pages in my hardcover copy, and it makes good use of all of them. A number of conflicts are still left open at the end of the book, but given that Staveley is already writing more books in the same world, and that he wraps up all of the most pressing threads in satisfactory manners, it works excellent as an ending.

Staveley has really managed to take the tension up a notch here, with everything from the massive, army-clashing, city-destroying battles, down to the personal fight between 2 or 3 people, and even within some of the characters, and it doesn’t leave much room for breathing, even in such a long book.

A large part of the tension also comes from the fact that Staveley does not shy away from killing characters when necessary, and earlier than you might be expecting–and there were certainly some impactful deaths I was not expecting.

Staveley also manages to throw in a few more twists, and unexpected turns, as well as taking us to some really cool new locations as we begin to explore more of his world. I’m glad that we’re going to get to go back and see even more of it, as even the small glimpses we get of some of the foreign lands are enticing.

Although the trilogy started by focusing on the three children of the Emperor, this book is completely taken over at several points by my favorite Staveley character, the star of the cover art, Gwenna. I will admit that I didn’t like her very much in the first book, when she spent a lot of her time arguing and generally being obstinate, but now that we get viewpoints and some real action from her, she really shines. I can’t say much more about her without spoiling a lot, but trust me. She just gets more and more awesome.

There’s not a lot more to say about this book, honestly. If you liked the first two, you’ll love this one, with numerous twists, nobody being safe, awesome moments all around, though especially from Gwenna, and threads tied up in satisfying ways that nevertheless beg more exploration of the world that Staveley has created. 5 of 5 stars, and since the trilogy is now complete, and all of it is awesome, you really have no excuse for not going out and getting and reading them all right now.

2015 Favorite Books.

Now that the year 2015 is over, I’m going to talk about the books I enjoyed the most during the year. Not like certain places that have voting for the best books in October or November…

I’ve broken the books down into two categories for 2015’s reading. The first are the books I enjoyed reading more than any other, which were released in 2015. The second category is books that were not released in 2015—or books in series where only the latest book was released, but include the entire series. I realize the division is a little arbitrary, but it’s how the books break down in my mind, so it’s how I’m going to list them here. Also, note that I’m not including rereads here—all of these are books that I read for the first time in 2015, else the list would be pretty much the same (and almost completely Sanderson) every year.

Releases:

5. Gemini Cell.

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I don’t read a ton of SF books, but my 5th place for 2015 is actually a tie between two SF novels. The first, Gemini Cell, is a brilliantly paced, brutal, and exciting military SF/fantasy tale that I absolutely devoured. It’s an excellent starting place for Myke’s universe if you’ve never read any of his books before, so check it out!

5. Time Salvager.

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This was my first Wesley Chu book, which I read because 1) I had it, 2) Chu was nominated for the Campbell Award, and 3) I was going to get to see him twice in 2015 (ArmadilloCon and WorldCon). It earned him my Campbell vote, and is probably my favorite time travel novel. It’s a very dark book, but has beautiful glimmers of hope, and I’m really looking forward to Time Siege next year.

4. The Autumn Republic.

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The concluding volume of Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy, which is a series I’ve been following from the beginning. McClellan has a real talent for battle scenes and rough, gritty fantasy without being grimdark (in my opinion), and it really shines here, when everything is going wrong, and the gods themselves are waging war across the planet. If you’ve not read any of his work, go check out some of his short fiction—it’s an excellent and quick starting point at a good price-point, and will hopefully convince you to pick up Promise of Blood.

3. The Providence of Fire.

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Staveley’s another author I’ve been following since his first book came out—and even before. The Providence of Fire is slightly longer, and perhaps a little slower paced than The Emperor’s Blades, but is also a more satisfying and epic read, and I thoroughly enjoyed how it is unabashedly straight up epic fantasy, done right. I am eagerly anticipating the last volume, out in March.

2. A Darker Shade of Magic.

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After Vicious (see below) was my first read of the year in 2015, I immediately preordered this one, and it is not a decision that I regret. I enjoyed the parallel Londons and the amazing characters that Schwab presents in the book, and how easy, fast, and thrilling the book was to read.

1. Sanderson.

Surprise, surprise, right? Well, Sanderson continued to not disappoint in 2015, with not 1, but 2, absolutely stunning novels full of everything awesome.

1-1. Firefight.

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As the second volume in a strict trilogy, this one should have been a bit longer, slower, and more boring than the first one. Even in my favorite series, this happens, and I don’t complain.

Someone forgot to give Sanderson the note about that, though, and Firefight was, in my opinion, better than Steelheart, and it has the distinction of being one of two books I read (probably since The Princess Bride, certainly of 2015) where I thoroughly enjoyed and cheered for the romance.

1-2. Shadows of Self.

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Cosmere! Mistborn! Wax and Wayne! Steris! Marasi! [SPOILER]! What isn’t to love? Shadows of Self was easily my favorite book released in 2015, and I can only imagine how entertaining it must have been for the people riding in the car with me while I finished the book on my way to the Sanderson signing. So many amazing, unexpected, surprising, and downright mindblowing moments. If you’ve never picked up a Sanderson book before, I might have to start recommending the Era 2 (1.5?) books as another starting point now.

Other new reads/Authors:

This list is 7 books long because the last 3 spots were more or less a tie—I thoroughly enjoyed all of these books, though they were all quite different, and they all earned their spot on my list.

5. The Goblin Emperor.

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The Goblin Emperor was a book I read last year because it was on the Hugo nominees list—and it is the book that ended up getting my vote. It’s just so much fun and happiness. This book has been described as anti-grimdark, and it fits the label. If you need an uplifting fantasy novel, check this one out!

5. Robin Hobb.

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I only managed to read Robin Hobb’s first trilogy, The Farseer Trilogy, last year. However, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and while it’s not flashy, it is still powerful, and her writing has a way of making things compelling, and she puts her characters through intense torture without resorting to tactics such as chopping off hands or other bits. I’m definitely aiming to read more of her books in the coming year, though I don’t know if I’ll have time to catch up to the latest books she’s written or not—but I’ll certainly try!

4. Jaime Lee Moyer.

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Now, this one is a little bit of cheating, since I’m talking about the Delia trilogy, the last book of which, Against a Brightening Sky, came out in October. However, I decided to consider the series as a group, and so I placed it on this list, because the first two books came out before last year. I only managed to review the first book, Delia’s Shadow, before school overwhelmed me and I had to take a break for a few months from blogging, but I read and loved the entire trilogy. Set in an alternate San Francisco, the books fall largely into an alternate history setting. The characters are such good people, the mysteries are intriguing, the magic is exciting, and the endings were exciting, even if they left questions unanswered.

4. Dan Wells.

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This one is also cheating a little bit, since I’m talking about Dan’s John Cleaver books, the latest of which, The Devil’s Only Friend, was released in 2015. Also, the series in ongoing. But… This is my list, so I get to do what I want with it. While I felt the first book got off to a slightly rocky start—it foreshadowed the supernatural elements a little too heavily for my tastes—they ended up being really good, quick, exciting reads, even though horror is not usually my genre of choice.

3. City of Stairs.

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I’ve talked about this one a lot—it was a surprisingly good read, and I am so glad that I made the time to read it. I really enjoyed Shara, and Saypur and the continent, the worldbuilding, the way political issues were handled, and Sigurd. I can’t talk about Sigurd enough… I think the most convincing recommendation I can give for this book is that when I was about 100 pages from the end, and forgot my copy at home, I bought the eBook so I could finish reading it on my phone on the train to work.

2. Vicious.

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I keep talking about how Schwab is one of my new favorite authors from last year, and this is the book that did it for me. My first read of 2015, it set the tone for the rest of the year, and I am so glad to hear that we are going to get a sequel! Seriously fun tale of superheroes and supervillains—and of people. Also, it has a really cool time-line structure that I’ve never seen any other book pull off successfully.

1. Ready Player One.

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I read this book for the first time last spring. Upon finishing the book, I turned it back over and started from the beginning, not even pausing to have something to drink. I don’t think I’ve done that since Harry Potter.

Since then, I’ve listened to the audiobook. And reread the book. So yes, I’ve been through it 4 times last year, something else I’m not sure I’ve done since I was reading Harry Potter, back in the days when I wasn’t in college and had a lot more free time.

This book scratched every itch I didn’t even know I had. Gaming, nerd-dom, geekery, virtual reality goodness, some absolutely awesome characters and twists, as big of an epic battle of good against evil as you can imagine, and the other romance that I cheered for. It was perfect, and in the grand scheme of books I’ve read, the only ones I’ve loved more are the Stormlight Archive.

It’s that good.

I realize that I haven’t posted a review of it yet—that’s because I haven’t figured out how to hack Goodreads to give it 6 stars. (I’m working on it, though.)

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So that was my year in books… What did y’all enjoy reading last year, new or old?

Most Anticipated Books of 2016.

Yes, I’m back to blogging. More on this–hopefully tomorrow, depending on how travel goes. For now, the post.

2016 looks like it’s going to be another amazing year for books. I’ve managed to narrow my list of super most incredibly anticipated books down to 5 (with some wiggling). Before presenting the list, I’m going to note that I’m rather spoiler-phobic, so I haven’t read the blurbs yet for any of the books on this list that I haven’t read—therefore, my anticipation is largely based on series/authors whose work I’ve loved in the past. Authors I trust. Every single one of these books has been pre-ordered for months now, most ordered on the day I discovered they existed. So, without further ado…

5. A Gathering of Shadows.

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V.E. Schwab is one of my new additions to my favorite authors list. I read Vicious as my first book of 2015, and it was awesome. I read A Darker Shade of Magic as soon as I could get my hands on a copy, and I loved it even more. A Gathering of Shadows continues the series that A Darker Shade of Magic started, and I am super excited to get back to the world of the multiple Londons and all the amazing characters—Rhy, Kell, and Lila–who inhabit it!

4. City of Blades.

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City of Stairs was my most unanticipated love of 2015, and Robert Jackson Bennett is the other new addition to my favorite authors list I made last year. I actually got a chance to read this one this week, thanks to Patrick McQuoid, and it is a worthy successor to the first book. If you haven’t read City of Stairs, you really need to remedy that—it’s fast paced, has a really varied and unique cast, some really cool worldbuilding of a flavor I’ve never seen before, and Sigrud. You need Sigrud in your life.

3. Solutions and Other Problems.

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This one’s a little strange—everything else on my list is a fantasy novel of some sort. Allie Brosh’s books are part stick-figures-of-awesome comic book, part memoir, part fantastical stories, and complete and utter side-splitting hilarity, while sometimes delving into deep and important topics, such as depression. If you have not read her blog… Why are you reading mine? Hers is infinitely more awesome, GO READ IT.

2. The Last Mortal Bond.

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If you don’t want to order it just for that Richard Anderson cover… You need to go check out the first book in the trilogy, The Emperor’s Blades. The Last Mortal Bond finishes out the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne trilogy, and it promises to be an awesome adventure. Brian has said that the book will be considerably longer than The Providence of Fire, which I believe puts him firmly in the epic category. There were so many plot threads left up in the air, so many world-shaking events in progress, so much tension left at the end of the second book… GIVE IT TO ME ALREADY!

1. Sanderson.

Yes, okay. This is cheating. This is 3 books in 1, but without it, it would take up 3/5 of my list.

You probably know by now that Sanderson is my favorite author ever. (If you don’t go look at this.) I more or less worship him, and getting to go out to dinner with him was the highlight of my year.

1-1. The Bands of Mourning.

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I’ve read this one. It is everything it is promised to be, and more. All the best characters from this era of books, all of them being awesome. Plus, boatloads of Cosmere, one heck of an awesome plot, and some brilliantly funny moments. I cannot wait to see this one out in the world.

1-2. Calamity.

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Yes, I’ve read this one too. I was truly blessed with e-ARCs last year (I’m still looking for physical ARCs, so if you know how to get ahold of those, let me know.). It’s the end of a trilogy, the last book Sanderson is planning to set in this world (for a while, at least), and it’s named Calamity. What more could you ask for? It delivers on every promise, and there’s one sentence that I would pay to sit down and watch people’s reactions as they read it. SO GOOD.

1-3. Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians: Book 5: The Dark Talent.

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I haven’t read this one. It’s going to be shorter, but it’s another series ender for Sanderson, and one that I’ve been anticipating for a long, long time. Alcatraz was the only series that could make me laugh when I was depressed a few years ago, and they’ve always held a special place in my heart. I am super excited to see what happens in the last book, and it looks like it’s going to be beautifully illustrated as well! (I’m anticipating the re-releases of the entire series quite avidly.)

Well, that’s my list for 2016. What are you looking forward to reading?

ARC Review: The Providence of Fire

WARNING: THIS IS A REVIEW FOR BOOK TWO IN THE SERIES. IF YOU HAVE NOT READ BOOK 1, THE EMPEROR’S BLADES, GO CHECK OUT MY REVIEW OF THAT BOOK INSTEAD. THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR IT.

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I don’t like the official summary for the book. It spoils about half of it, and I’m honestly a little annoyed that I read it before I picked up the book itself. In fact, this is the summary that has made me try to stop reading summaries for books before reading the books. From here on out, I would like to try to not read them at all. But, in the interest of all of you who came here looking, I’m going to try to write a less spoilery back cover copy myself. You can skip over it if you want.

Adare has discovered that her lover is a traitor who helped to kill her father. A traitor who now holds more power than perhaps anyone else in the empire of Annur. She knows she is no longer safe in the Dawn Palace, but to escape she must first avoid her ever-present guards, guards she does not know if she can still trust.

Adare’s brother, Kaden, is the heir to their father’s throne. Before he can take the throne, however, he must travel safely home—a journey he has no idea how he will make when all those he might have called friend for the past ten years have been slaughtered. He is far away in the mountains with one of the strangest groups he has ever found himself part of, and he knows he can no longer trust those who are assigned to project him.

Valyn, the third child, made some incredibly dangerous enemies when he turned his back on the Kettral, the most elite fighting force in the world, to rescue his brother. Now, he must simultaneously try to keep himself and his brother alive, and find a way to get them to safety, all while learning to trust a mysterious warrior monk and submit to his brother’s commands—for Kaden is the Emperor now, and Valyn has spent years determining the course of his own life among some of the harshest fighters in the world.

And none of them can see of the darker, more powerful forces that move in the shadows, twisting empires to their wills and willing to tear the world apart to get what they want.

The Emperor’s Blades was my favorite novel from a new author in 2014, and one of the most intensely paced books I’ve ever read. Staveley has a brilliant sense of the epic yet intensely personal saga that grips with breathtaking action from the first page to the last.

So, I had very high expectations of The Providence of Fire, expectations that it was going to have to work very, very hard to live up to. Higher expectations, perhaps, than I place on any book except a Sanderson, and higher than I place on some Sanderson novels–The Providence of Fire actually outranked a Sanderson novel on my most anticipated list for this year. When I got an ARC in November, I was anxious to see what happened in the world—and if the book lived up to my expectations.

It did.

(I should be able to leave that alone as my review, but… Okay. I’ll elaborate.)

The Providence of Fire did not, for me, quite match the incredible pacing that Staveley achieved in The Emperor’s Blades. And that’s fine with me. While The Emperor’s Blades came in at around 475 pages, The Providence of Fire is about 600, a good bit longer. I don’t think I could handle quite the same pace throughout the entire thing and come out alive. But that does not mean in any way that the book is slow or boring. It’s still much, much faster paced and more intense all the way through than much of the other fantasy I read—even the really good stuff. I’m not entirely sure how Brian does it—I’ve never been able to step back far enough from the story to really examine the craft behind it. It’s just too intensely good and readable.

The Providence of Fire is a much more political novel too, especially with Adare’s plot-line. Probably my biggest complaint with the first book was that it didn’t have enough female viewpoints or character balance. This book definitely fixes that, both with a much more expanded role for Adare, and the inclusion of at least two more important female characters I won’t name because it would be a spoiler. Adare’s plot, her dealings with the traitor and the religions of the people, could easily have become bogged down in politics. But Staveley manages to keep the tension high and the excitement flowing, even in the scenes that could easily have become travelogues. Kaden and Valyn have very interesting plots as well, and saying much of anything about them is a spoiler.

Staveley quickly reached the point where he was flipping between all three characters, always making me not wanting to leave the character whose chapter I had just finished, yet always looking forward to the next one. While the pacing allows for occasional moments where you can actually breathe, it’s always nearly impossible to physically put the book down and go about your life. Even when you do, it sticks with you, making you want to know what happened next.

And there are plenty of twists—it’s not just an action book. There are several really powerful revelations that I didn’t see coming, and some I wonder exactly how long Staveley has been plotting and planning to unleash on us. There were several times where I had to stop reading, hard though it was, and simply sit there for a moment to process exactly what had happened and what I had just learned.

(Seriously, Brian, how long did you have the Hendran line coming?)

The viewpoints begin to diversify later in the book, giving the trilogy more of an epic feel. But Staveley manages to keep the cast under control and the plot moving forward, in some places by trimming characters… Be prepared for a few scenes that will hit hard. The ending, in particular, is brutal and massive, and simultaneously has me clapping and demanding the next book. I’ve been following Staveley on Twitter, and I’m really glad to know that the first draft is done and off into edits. I’ll be watching closely for updates and any way I can get my hands on an early copy.

I have to take a moment here to stop and once again admire Richard Anderson’s amazing cover art, as well as the incredible map inside by Isaac Stewart (both of which were included in the ARC I read). They really provide the finishing touches to make this book a work of art, and it’s always nice to see such an accurate depiction on the front cover that really represents the events of a book. Also, I’m really hoping to see some amazing Adare cosplay—you’ll know what I’m talking about once you’ve read it.

In summary: The Providence of Fire is a longer, slightly less insanely paced book than The Emperor’s Blades, but it is nevertheless an incredible, epic read that leaves me hungering for more, as soon as I can get my grubby paws on it. Five of five stars without a question.

Brian’s Website.

TPoF on Amazon.

TPoF on Goodreads.

Solving the “The Last Abbot” Riddle

Brian Staveley, who is one of my favorite authors, set up a scavenger hunt this past year. He hid 20 copies of his first book, The Emperor’s Blades, around the world for people to find—each special copy had a letter inside that would allow you to unlock a portion of a short story that was hidden on his website. You can read more here.

Unfortunately, none of the copies were near enough for me to make a trip and retrieve them, so I didn’t end up with one myself. 19 of the 20 copies were found over the course of about six months or so, up until December when Brian revealed that the final copy, numbered 1/20, was hidden in an epic special location, the source of which was encoded in a riddle. I managed, with the help of a few of the other hunters, to crack the code and discover the location. It was too far away for me to retrieve myself, and so I didn’t try, but I had an incredible amount of fun (and lack of sleep) solving the riddle. What follows is a brief account of what I actually did when solving the riddle, the challenges it posed, and what ended up being the final solution. You can see most of it play out in the comments of the article linked above, but I simply had too much fun to not tell the story on my own blog. (And Brian, I’m totally getting that shirt for WorldCon.)

The riddle:

A whole world, older than memory, younger than old women, old men,

Vast as the ocean, small enough to hold in a hand,

A gift of the daughter of the watchers of women and men,

A gift of Parnassus, spread in dozens of tongues,

It whispers to us:

Your name is not your name.

You can’t escape.

The shadow is the self.

 

99 3 6 21    9 10 26 22.

21 10 24 68   4 26 5 18 9 3   1 75 22   63 24 1 1 3 26   23 7 43 6 22   26 18 26 1 3 22 26   43 7 67 3 5   26 26 99   10 37   23 16 9 7 23 3   5 75 22 63 63 4 5   67 7 5 1 21 22.

**********************

I quickly came to the assumption that the numbers were a substitution cipher of some sort, with each number representing a letter. My main reason for making this assumption was because of the specific formatting—there appeared to be 2 sentences, each of which end with a period and are broken into distinct words with letters. There are also only 23 distinct numbers, fewer than the 26 letters of the alphabet. I operated under this assumption pretty much the entire time. My efforts on the first day of solving the puzzle focused almost exclusively on the numerical cipher, because I could not make heads nor tails of the riddle itself.

My first attempts focused on using the riddle itself as the key to the cipher, attempting to use the first letter as 1, second letter as 2, and so on. This did not work, even though I tried many, many variations, including working backwards, using syllable numbers, and treating the lines like an array.

Then I spent some time staring at the numbers, and came to the conclusion that the first line/sentence was quite probably a congratulatory message—well done, or nice work. I grabbed the back of an envelope and tried these out. The solution of “well done” produced some interesting results, which you can see below. I discarded it because I couldn’t make any more progress, and because it didn’t make sense to my rational mind for multiple numbers to translate to the same letter.

IMG_0930

I then switched over to using a program I had written a year ago in one of my computer science courses, which takes the string and attempts to run a frequency analysis on it, then create a key for decryption. It then presents the solution, and allows you to change the key 1 letter at a time, always giving you the newly decrypted message so that you can fix any mistakes you make. By the time I gave up on this method, it was almost 4 AM, and I had intended to go to bed at midnight, so I was a bit depressed and frustrated.

I was able to mostly put the riddle out of my mind for a few days, mostly due to my perceived lack of progress on it, and the fact that I was out of town, helping my Grandma with technical issues that I had really not been anticipating. (It was hell. NEVER LOSE YOUR ADMIN PASSWORD.) But then Brian was a meanie. He taunted me with this tweet:

Aaaaand there was no way I wasn’t going to solve the riddle, plus I never really got the thing out of my head; it just sat there staring at me while I didn’t have time to look at it.

I cursed. I complained. But I got back to it as soon as I got home. I posted my work so far in the comments of the riddle, with more detail than given above, in hopes that it could help spur someone else on to solving the riddle—I wanted to at least be a part of the solution. Brian said I had made some really good progress. I also looked at other people’s various answers; they had focused largely on the words themselves. They had interesting conjectures; 1 took the riddle to simply mean a novel, any novel, another tried to interpret them to mean a particular song from Lord of the Rings. Brian had chimed in telling them they were both making progress, but missing something, and so I memorized the riddle and thought about it all evening/night the first day when I had returned home. I’m sure I got some sleep in there somewhere, but it was restless, to say the least.

When I woke up in the morning, I’d had a slight bit of a revelation. The riddle meant some kind of book, yes, but a specific one. And the author was female, so it couldn’t be Lord of the Rings. (You can find my detailed analysis of the riddle in the comments on the original article.) I offhandedly mentioned A Wizard of Earthsea in my analysis because of the word “ocean” used to describe the world inside the novel, and some of the other hunters ran with it, digging up other quite interesting connections, nicely connecting LeGuin’s parents as archaeologists to the “watchers of women and men”, but the kicker was when someone noticed that the book was originally published by Parnassus Press. Previously, we had all assumed that the Parnassus line meant that it was a book simply because the muses lived on Parnassus.

With this revelation, I dug out my dad’s copy of A Wizard of Earthsea and thumbed through it, trying various things before I hit upon the solution. There were other similarities I noticed too, chiefly that the plot matches the last three lines of the riddle quite well. It took a few tries, but I found the solution fairly quickly at that point. The key to the riddle was the first words of the text itself, with the first letter being 1, the second letter being 2, and so on. With the message cracked, I quickly checked the location and determined that I would not be able to make it myself (It’s somewhere in NH…). Thus, I posted the solution, which is below:

Well done.

Look inside the rotten maple nineteen paces NNW of madame Sherri’s castle.

Brian was right that this was an epic location—it’s an abandoned castle in the middle of the woods.

Patrick, whose adventures you can also read in the comments of the blog, hopped in his car literally 3 minutes after I had posted the solution to the riddle, and drove 5 hours to retrieve the book, which is now in his possession. Congratulations, Patrick!

I was amazed at how close I had come to solving the riddle in my earlier attempts. If you look at the picture I posted above, I had almost cracked the code on my own, without the key. My biggest problem was that I was tired, doubling letters didn’t make sense with the rules of codes I had been taught, and I had the “maple nineteen” portion squished up and missing a letter or two. I’m pretty sure if I’d taken a closer look at the envelope above during the day, I would have been able to solve the riddle without the key, but I managed it anyway, a fact that makes me incredibly happy. I was also incredibly lucky with my guess of “A Wizard of Earthsea”, something I had thrown out almost as an afterthought when analyzing the riddle. Thanks to everyone who helped, especially those who pointed out how well the riddle fit with the solution being a novel, and those who found the clues that confirmed that we should look in A Wizard of Earthsea.

Overall, it was a fun, challenging, and rewarding experience. It reminded me why I love going to school and learning—I enjoy the feeling I get when I tackle a seemingly insurmountable problem, conquer it, and learn an incredible amount along the way, and the more and more I get into upper division classes, the more I experience this feeling. I would really like to thank Brian again for a great experience and a fun riddle, and I’m looking forward to meeting him at some point in the future! I also hope he continues to do these riddles, and that, perhaps, if he does this again, there will be a copy that I can find.

Brian is an amazingly fun person and a really good author. His first book, The Emperor’s Blades, came out last January, and was my favorite debut novel of the entire year! If you’ve not read it yet, you’re really missing out, and you should go fix that, especially since his second novel, The Providence of Fire, comes out tomorrow! And if you enjoyed The Emperor’s Blades, you should get The Providence of Fire, because it’s just as good as the first one.