The Otissito Review

Novella Review: “The Ghosts of Tristan Basin” by Brian McClellan

I have always said that I love when an author adds new work to their worlds or universes, and that short fiction, either novella or short story format, is the absolute most enjoyable way for an author to make it happen. Lots of authors are doing this in the last couple of years, but Brian McClellan might very well be the best. With each additional short story or novella he has managed to expand the Powder Mage universe in wonderful ways that bring the most beloved characters to the forefront as new details about their lives are revealed, and as new characters and events come to join the fray.

The Ghosts of Tristan Basin is the newest installment of Powder Mage short fiction, and while I’m a massive fan of McClellan’s earlier endeavors, I think this novella might be the very best yet. My favorite characters in the Powder Mage books are as follows: Field Marshal Tamas, Taniel Two-Shot, and Ka-poel. There are others that I love, but those three seal the deal for me personally. I was thrilled to discover in the first few pages of this novella that Taniel and Ka-poel were going to be front and center for the entire time. I’ve dreamed of learning more about what the two of them did together and how they became a team in the first place. Their relationship is complex, mysterious, and at times, downright hilarious. Why wouldn’t you want to know more about the two of them?

Over the course of The Ghosts of Tristan Basin we get to follow Taniel and Ka-poel as they spend their time mired in the Tristan Basin, a swampland full of terrible smells, dangerous waters, and two armies vying for position. Taniel is a leader in the Ghost Irregulars, a ragtag group of soldiers who excel at silently sneaking throughout the basin, tracking down and eliminating Kez forces that are trying to invade. Ka-poel’s people, the Palo, serve as guides through the swamp, but they all seem to dislike her, for reasons still unknown. She sticks close to Taniel as he goes about taking down Kez forces, and aids him in his efforts to thwart the threat of Kez sorcerers as the Kez army advances on Planth, the city at the heart of Tristan Basin.

I don’t want to give away too many details about the plot of The Ghosts of Tristan Basin because it’s not a very long read, but there is one thing I can’t help but mention: The arrival of Ben Styke. Commander of the Mad Lancers, an armored heavy calvary unit aiding in the protection of the basin, Ben Styke might be the most amazing thing about this novella. Brian McClellan has already mentioned on social media that Ben Styke is a viewpoint character of his new trilogy of Powder Mage books, of which the first arrives next spring. I don’t want to sound like I’m exaggerating things too much, but reading The Ghosts of Tristan Basin has increased my anticipation of McClellan’s new books by about a hundredfold.

There are so many great things about this novella, including all of the nuanced details about Taniel and Ka-poel, but Ben Styke steals the show. He’s brash, cocky, entirely without fear, and let’s just say he does something to a Warden that will astound any fan of the original Powder Mage trilogy. There is something special about this new character, something that McClellan gives only the tiniest of glimpses about, but it’s going to be amazing down the road. I’m sure of it.

If you haven’t read any of the Powder Mage books or short fiction before, The Ghosts of Tristan Basin is actually a great place to make your first foray into the dynamic world that Brian McClellan has created. You’ll be exposed to two of the pivotal characters from the original trilogy of books, receive a few hints about one or two more, and get a nice grasp of the conflict between the nations that permeates the books; all without spoiling a single thing that takes place later on in the timeline. If you’ve been hesitant to jump in, take a dip here with this novella as it will serve you rather well in getting to know the world and the skill McClellan has with the written word.

The Ghosts of Tristan Basin is approximately 90 pages long, and was published by the author, Brian McClellan, on February 16, 2016. Further commentary on the novella can be found at Goodreads.

Availability:   Amazon   |   Direct from Author

Book Review: “The Unhappening of Genesis Lee” by Shallee McArthur

The Unhappening of Genesis LeeThere are a lot of themes in young adult fiction, and a lot of them end up being rather repetitive when lined up next to each other. For some readers this is just fine, they don’t mind reading stories that follow similar tropes over and over. Other readers, like myself, enjoy it when something reaches out and surprises the reader in unexpected ways.

In The Unhappening of Genesis Lee the reader isn’t subject to some dreary dystopian wasteland, they aren’t exposed to a love triangle, and they aren’t bogged down by a massive amount of world-building that forces the story onto a complicated and massive scale. This book keeps things intimate and at a smaller scale so the reader can dive right in, understand their surroundings, and get on with enjoying the story.

Along with keeping things at a more manageable, smaller scale, the author adds a very intriguing plot device, asking the question, “What happens if someone can steal a portion of your memories, or even all of them, in the blink of an eye?” What happens then? What sort of life is a character forced to live if losing their memories is something they have to constantly fear?

Genesis Lee, usually referred to by the nickname, Gena, is a teenager in Havendale, a city founded for people like her that store their memories in objects such as bracelets or necklaces made up of Links. She is a Mementi, and if she loses possession of her Links then she’ll lose the memories stored inside of them. She cannot store her memories in her brain like the other, unaltered members of the city, known as the Populace. When Gena’s best friend Cora has two years of her memories stolen by a thief the police have yet to catch, Gena begins trying to track the thief down herself. Along the way she crosses paths with a charming young man named Kalan. Gena doesn’t remember Kalan, but he remembers her, and that’s when things begin to get very interesting for Gena as she realizes someone is not stealing her memories, but rather erasing only the portions that specifically deal with Kalan.

Soon enough, Gena and Kalan are scrambling to find answers about who is stealing Links, who is wiping Gena’s memories, and who is behind the rising tensions on the streets of Havendale. As they begin to uncover the mystery, they discover the answers hit much closer to home than they originally imagined.

What impressed me most about The Unhappening of Genesis Lee was the skill Shallee McArthur showed in weaving all of the different plot elements together to keep the story moving. There is the relationship tension between Gena and her best friend Cora, the budding romance between Gena and Kalan, the mystery of the Link thief, and what seems like a dozen other important details that really flesh Gena out as a character. The story is told from Gena’s point of view using a first person narrative, so there are a lot of fun observations, internal dialogue, and thought processes that McArthur uses to tell the story. Gena is quirky, a bit naive sometimes, and very determined. A recipe that seems more destined for disaster than heroics at first glance.

I did find the character of Cora to be a bit lightweight, and that took a little bit of adjusting expectations on my part. Cora is important to the plot because as Gena’s friend, losing two years of her memory creates a direct negative impact on Gena. However, Gena was so involved in so many other things that Cora did not receive as much screen time as I was expecting (or perhaps hoped for) following the opening scene. However, Kalan did a great job of filling in the void I felt with Cora’s character. Kalan was dynamic, fun, and maybe my favorite character in the book.

The pacing of The Unhappening of Genesis Lee is really solid most of the time. There were a few scenes that I would have enjoyed a little more time inside of, but overall it was refreshing not having to be bogged down waiting for the next big piece of action to begin. On the whole, today’s Young Adult fiction tends to suffer from a growing case of wordiness, and with this book, things happened, and they happened fast. Not every story can be told at the pace of The Unhappening of Genesis Lee, but I’d rather read something with the pace this book has, than some of the lumbering Young Adult offerings of the past few years.

The Unhappening of Genesis Lee is the debut effort for Shallee McArthur and I think it serves her well as an example of the work she can do in the genre. Maybe it needs a tiny bit of polish in a few places, but the world of Young Adult fiction needs some new ideas, and this book serves up new and fresh ideas with wild abandon. I’d love to see what Shallee McArthur has on tap for her next endeavor.

The Unhappening of Genesis Lee is 352 pages long, and was published November 18th, 2014 by Sky Pony Press. Further commentary on the book can be found at Goodreads.

Availability:   Amazon   |   Barnes & Noble   |   Audible

Taking Stock of My Reading Loose Ends

Last year was a hell of a year for me in regards to reading, but as a result, I now have a very long list of books that I need to read so I can tie off the loose ends of series that I haven’t finished. Somewhere along the way I got caught reading the first or second books of a bunch of series without reading all the way through. It might have had to do with trying to keep things fresh while reading 100 books, or it might have been laziness. It’s probably a little bit of both if I’m being honest.

Going into 2014 I had series I hadn’t finished, then I added a bunch more, and now I’m sitting on a pile of… 24 separate series where I have at least one book, often more, that I need to finish in order to finish things. Some of these series are ones that are not fully published yet, but I want to be caught up with the most current book so it will be more manageable to stay current in the future. Across these 24 series are a total of… 67 books. Reading nothing but the books in this backlog could fill my entire 2015 on their own, leaving me with no room for new releases by my favorite authors or new books in series I am actually caught up on. It’s a very large conundrum for me. I don’t like leaving things unfinished in this regard, especially when I’ve enjoyed the books I’ve read so far.

The real question is how I go about tackling such a bit list of books. I don’t really want to add to the backlog of unfinished series, so I’m working really hard at not starting any new ones that have more than one book currently published. So far I’m doing okay with that, but at some point I’m really going to want to read things like The Gentleman Bastards books, or the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. I think the only feasible solution is to find some sort of middle compromise. If I can decide on some of the backlog I really want to read first and work to mix one or two of them into every month this year I think I can make some serious progress. For example, the following 11 books would catch me up or finish ten lingering series:

  • The Pillars of Sand by Mark T. Barnes
  • The Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers
  • Fairest: Levana’s Story by Marissa Meyer
  • Symbiont by Mira Grant
  • Fragments by Dan Wells
  • Ruins by Dan Wells
  • Dragons of Spring Dawning by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
  • iD by Madeline Ashby
  • The King by David Feintuch
  • The Mortality Doctrine: Rule of Thoughts by James Dashner
  • The Revenge of Seven by Pittacus Lore

If I were to focus my initial efforts on those ten books I would cut my unfinished series number by nearly 30% over just a few months. Sure, it isn’t like reading the last five books in a single series, which takes a lot more effort, but it would be measurable progress and put me in more comfortable position as far as numbers are concerned. After taking care of these one-offs I could just randomly pick a series with three or more books left and start methodically working my way through them.

Now, beyond the one-off books on the series backlog, there are a few series I’m very eager to actually get finished sometime soon.  Some of them have been on this list for a really long time, a couple of years in some cases:

  • The Unincorporated War by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin
  • The Unincorporated Woman by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin
  • The Unincorporated Future by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin
  • Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • The Third Lynx by Timothy Zahn
  • Odd Girl Out by Timothy Zahn
  • The Domino Pattern by Timothy Zahn
  • Judgment at Proteus by Timothy Zahn

Those books are ones that definitely got left behind because I was rushing to read other things and then never managed to circle back. I’m an unabashed Timothy Zahn fan and I loved the first book of the Unincorporated series much more than I thought it would be.

However, there are some series in my backlog that will simply take forever to catch up on, things like the entire The Dark Tower series after the first book and the entire second half of the Dresden Files from the eighth book onward. I really like the Dresden Files books, but they all melt together when I read multiple in a row and I’m still rather skeptical of The Dark Tower books after having read the first one, but I sort of want to see what happens as the series progresses.

I think my end goal for 2015 is going to be to trim the backlog by about 50% if I can manage it. That would leave me with about 10-12 series left to finish and most of those would be the bigger ones and I’d feel a lot better about tackling them more slowly. If I can pull off that type of a reduction in series backlog this year I will be so happy with myself. Maybe I’ll even have the chance to start one or two new series that only have a couple of books and be current with them so I don’t add back to the list at any point.

Book Review: “Heir to the Jedi: Star Wars” by Kevin Hearne

Heir to the JediIt’s been very interesting to see how the new Star Wars canon is beginning to come together after Disney removed the entire Expanded Universe from being and official part of the lore not that long ago. The first two books put forth some interesting backstory for Grand Moff Tarkin and the two lead characters of the new Star Wars: Rebels cartoon, but they did not deal at all with any of the big three characters of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, or Princess Leia. With Heir to the Jedi, Kevin Hearne introduces us to a Luke Skywalker from just after the destruction of the first Death Star, when he is a hero of the Rebellion, but is still trying to figure out what the Force actually does and how he fits into the big picture of the Rebellion in the future.

Luke makes his way through two missions during the course of the book. First, he is sent to Rodia to do some research about a new arms deal for the Rebellion. There isn’t a lot of money to go around, but Admiral Ackbar thinks that fostering a relationship with one Rodian clan in particular would be useful. To successfully complete the mission, Luke can’t take his usual X-wing because the Imperials would recognize it, so instead he uses a ship called Desert Jewel, which is owned by a woman named Nakari, a woman who also happens to be a rather accomplished sniper and is also bankrolled by a fair amount of family money if the need arises.

The mission to Rodia is relatively successful and upon returning Luke is asked to rescue a very talented slicer from Imperial captivity. This time he takes the Desert Jewel, but brings Nakari along with him as they’ve fostered a budding romantic relationship and seem to work well together on the whole. Ultimately, Luke and Nakari are able to help the slicer escape their Imperial captivity, but with some dire consequences along the way that will likely shape Luke significantly in future books.

Heir to the Jedi is doing a lot of work in establishing what kind of personality Luke Skywalker is supposed to have, and it does a pretty good job of setting him up as a man who wants to do the right thing, discover the secrets of the Force, and aid the Rebellion in whatever ways his skills work best. The problem for me comes when I realized that the Luke Skywalker in this book is very different from the Luke Skywalker we see in The Empire Strikes Back. This book is official canon, so I hope we get some more screen time with Luke in another book or two that will help flesh him out as a character while still letting fans of Star Wars love the character he is in the official movies. As it stands, after reading Heir to the Jedi, I don’t believe the Luke Skywalker from this book fits with the Luke Skywalker from The Empire Strikes Back.

I also had a tough time with feeling like Heir to the Jedi every really got started. Yes, there are action scenes, and yes, there are some interesting characters, but despite all of that, I felt like I was spinning my wheels a little bit as a reader. Maybe it had something to do with the first person viewpoint, a rarity in the Star Wars books, or maybe it was just the story that had been chosen for the author to tell. I’m not really sure. I’ve read other work by Kevin Hearne and never felt like I was spinning my wheels, so I found it a little strange to have it happen this time. Regardless, I hope that Kevin Hearne continues to get opportunities to work with Luke Skywalker as a character because I think he’s got a lot of good things in place at this point and I would hate to see it ruined by someone else.

So far the new Star Wars canon books have been solid in what they have done, but none of the three have really blown me away. I hope that they can get to that point sooner or later because some of the non-canon Expanded Universe has some really great moments that are not being matched by the new canon to this point.

Star Wars: Heir to the Jedi is 322 pages long, and was published March 3, 2015 by LucasBooks. Further commentary on the book can be found at Goodreads.

Availability:   Amazon   |   Barnes & Noble   |   Audible

Book Review: “The Mirror Empire” by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror EmpireThe Mirror Empire was an incredibly difficult book for me to get through. It had nothing to do with the subject matter and nothing to do with the quality of the story, as both are wonderfully fantastic, but everything to do with my having not read a true epic fantasy book in a very, very long time prior to picking it up. The last six months of 2014 were filled with books that moved quickly, had lightweight world building, and in general were not very hard to comprehend or digest. To go from that straight into Kameron Hurley’s fantastic, complicated, intense, and frankly, rather weird storytelling was a challenge, a big challenge, but one I would not give back for anything.

For a decent amount of time went by where I constantly admired the cover art for The Mirror Empire, but was unsure if I should pick it up to read. It took a majority of the authors on my Twitter feed raving about the book over and over again for me to bite the bullet and take the plunge. Just as I realized if all the authors I loved were going to love this book I should probably read it as well, it happened to show up on sale for my Kindle, so I had the bonus of trying it without paying full price.

If I had known how good The Mirror Empire was going to be, I would have waited until after the sale and paid full price as a show of support to the author. As it was, I bought one of her other books to make up for it.

The plot of The Mirror Empire revolves around two parallel universes colliding with each other as a satellite known as the dark star, among other names, rises into the sky giving greater power to certain magic users and taking away power from others. There are invading armies, warring kingdoms, feuding families, mysterious powers, killer plants, and so many other strange things in this book. One of the most interesting things about The Mirror Empire is the gender and sexuality orientations. Beyond the traditional male and female, half a dozen other options exist, all of which mix together into some interesting and dynamic family situations. I thought these new ideas on gender and sexuality were well thought-out and added a very rich layer to the story being told.

In this book your ideas of what is acceptable and what’s not are going to be challenged. The gender-bending moments, as well as the way people interact with each other really push the boundaries that most people are going to be comfortable with having. It took me a little while to settle into the book as a result, but I think by the time I finished I was glad I kept going and had the opportunity to see Kameron Hurley do what she is doing with the book. I think that the genre is better off for what she’s attempting with this trilogy.

The Mirror Empire is 544 pages long, and was published August 26, 2014 by Angry Robot. Further commentary on the book can be found at Goodreads.

Availability:   Amazon   |   Barnes & Noble   |   Audible