Sins of Empire – A Five Star Review

Verdict: 5/5 Stars. Go read it, it’s awesome.

What I loved:

  • Characters –  The book starts out introducing each primary character in turn, and McClellan does a very good job of establishing each character outside of and while setting up the impending conflict. I thought each character had unique and interesting flaws, believable motivations, and little details brought them to life. I liked the diverse cast of characters as well – the POV characters weren’t your typical fantasy heroes.
  • Plot – McClellan intertwines his character arcs in such a way that they not only come together gradually, but so that the character growth moments also comprise the main plot. I can’t recall another book or author who has done this so well. I would really like to talk to Brian about how he plotted this book.
    • I also appreciated that Brian was able to continually raise the stakes without resorting to a world-ending threat in the first book. He went from personal stakes and interesting side-quests for the primary characters to those side-quests turning into a large scale conflict. Even better, the personal stakes and side-quests stayed away from typical fantasy tropes, for the most part.
  • Pacing – I think Brian encountered an issue in the first 10% of the book that almost all speculative fiction authors have to deal with: hooking your readers while also setting up the world and characters. To me, the pacing for the first 10% was above average, but the remaining 90% was superb. Not only did the plot move forward extremely well, but switching through 3 primary POV characters was handled expertly.

What I liked:

  • Style: the writing is clear and engaging. There were very few passages that I either glossed over because the words were unnecessary, or that I had to read twice because it wasn’t as clear as I’d like it to be, and the few I encountered could easily have been due to my own user error.
  • Worldbuilding: SoE builds off of the world created in the first Powder Mage trilogy, which I really like. I’ve seen a few complaints about the interwebs regarding logical inconsistencies in how the magic system(s) work. Really, people? You have no problems with alternate universes where unexplained magic can be used indiscriminately, but the fact that gunpowder has magical properties is a problem for you? C’mon man. I like it. It’s fun and makes for a great story.

My takeaways as a writer:

  • I loved seeing someone execute a near-perfect blend of plot and character in an interesting world. I’ll be tweaking my plotting process as a result of reading SoE.
  • The treatment of POV characters was awesome, and convinced me that a measured approach to switching between a small number of POVs can work very well.

-Scott

Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star

Stop whatever you are doing and go read Red Rising by Pierce Brown. Seriously, it’s that good.

 

My rating + review for each of the 3 books:

Red Rising – 5 Stars

The first 5-10% of the book is a little bit slow, and the “worldbuilding” elements (new words, terms, new races of humans) were a bit much for me, but not enough to bother me. Also, the first person present tense was very new for me, and took a bit of time to get used to. Then BAM, the story takes hold and never lets go. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with such superb pacing. It has been quite some time since I’ve loved a book enough to lose A LOT of sleep to read it.

Pros: Incredible pacing; distinct, meaningful characters; simple yet sufficient worldbuilding; awesome premise; thematic parallels; complex yet understandable plot that both entertained in the moment and set up the next books nicely.

Cons: It didn’t bother me, but some people will HATE this book/series because of its obvious ties to Hunger Games. Like they are really, really obvious at times during book 1. And you know what? I liked the book even better for showing that its not necessarily a mind blowingly unique premise that makes a book awesome, it’s the execution.

 

Golden Son – 4.9 Stars

The sequel is really very good. One of the best sequels I’ve ever read, probably. And to be so consistently awesome with his pacing, Brown had to start somewhere he could launch right into the next portion of the conflict that mattered. But the character relationships that weren’t “on screen” for the first several scenes felt neglected. Particularly the primary romance sub plot. Overall though, it was incredible. Still lost a ton of sleep to this book.

 

Morning Star – 4.5 Stars

By the third book, the frequent plot twists pulled off by the character started to become obvious. Brown kills off just enough beloved characters off that you worry a bit about who is next, but by the third book you are pretty sure it’s not going to be any of the characters that the author has fallen in love with himself. I like happy endings as much as the next guy, but if I’m being honest, it started to feel like more of the same.

The friends turned villains theme didn’t work as well as I wanted it to, either: the outcome of the MC’s conflict with the “bads” could have been a lot more satisfying.  I get that the author is going for a realistic interpretation of how a group of friends torn apart by conflicting ideologies would/could act in war, but something about the Roque/Cassius storylines just felt… contrived. Roque’s storyline made some sense but could have hurt the feels a lot more instead of having your MC just turn into an emo bitch. And we all wanted to see Cassius come back to the fold. But the way it happened just felt sudden, and too easy.

Oh and the pacing took a hit in the third book. It was still good, better than almost any other book out there. But the break-neck speed of the other books took a back seat at times to long descriptions or exposition from the MC.

It was still an awesome book with a great ending, but at the same time I was glad that it ended after 3 books. Hence the 4.5.

 

These are the types of books that inspire me to write. The kind that drags you along for the ride, whether you like it or not. The kind that sticks with you, consumes you, perhaps even changes you in some small way.

Thank you, Pierce Brown. You talented bastard.

Finishing Books and Other Stuff I Like

I just finished my book… again. There will be plenty of tweaks to make still, but I’m starting to look forward to when my agent will submit the manuscript to publishers. It may still be quite a ways out depending on how we feel about the current state, and there’s no way to know how it will go. But here’s one author’s account of how the process went for him.

That type of contract would be a dream come true. It will allow me to make writing my primary pursuit sooner rather than later, and start pumping out books like crazy. I hear of authors like Sanderson and Larry Correia writing 2-3 books per year, and that sounds freaking awesome. I’m fairly certain that I can produce at or near that level if the finances are there to free up the time.

I’m doing what I love, obsessed with quality and success (ask my wife, apparently it gets old), willing to put in silly amounts of work, I signed with a great agent who not only knows the book business but is a great resource in improving the quality of my work, and most importantly: my wife is incredibly supportive. No matter what, I’ll make this work, and in five years I’ll have a solid writing career and several books “on the shelves”. The quality of the upcoming contract really just affects the number of books I’ll have on the shelves in five years, and how quickly I’ll be able to dedicate a large number of hours to writing all of the books that I’d like to write.

— Okay, now to ramble about some stuff I’ve enjoyed lately —

Speaking (or typing?) of Jay Kristoff, he’s an awesome person and everyone should check out his books and his blog – if you enjoy nerdy writing blogs. I received his latest book Illuminae as a Christmas gift (thanks Molly) and I’m really enjoying it so far. I’ll rate and review when I finish.

I feel extremely fortunate to have an awesome agent – Matt Bialer – who provides valuable feedback on my manuscript. I honestly don’t know what the “norm” is for agents, but he’s great. Assuming that one day aspiring authors read this, I’d highly recommend submitting to him. I hear his junior agent Lindsay Ribar is also awesome, but I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting/corresponding with her yet.

George R. R. Martin – So I’ve intended for quite a while to get actual reviews of his books up, but haven’t found the time. Wife, Baby, my book, work, and actually reading for fun (I’m still an addict) have all taken precedence. I’ll write an actual review someday, but for now let me just say that George is so damn good at what he does. All of his acclaim is very justified. I held off reading them for years because I figured that people only liked them because of the HBO series, and because he takes like 6 years to write each book and I can’t handle another multi-decade “wait for it…”marathon like the Wheel of Time ended up being. But I read the first book and was hooked. They are SUPER not family friendly, especially later books, but holy cow that old man can write. His world is believable and incredibly well thought out, his characters are “real” and unpredictable, and the storyline is somewhat predictable as an overarching plot, but everything in between is up for grabs. So if your soul can withstand a little (okay, a lot of) horrible language, check it out. ESPECIALLY if you watched the HBO series. I haven’t watched it but I guarantee the books are better. They are like the Bible for writers who want to learn how to handle a true epic fantasy series with tons of POV characters. Yeah yeah, I hear you bitching about how “nothing happened” and “all my favorite people died” and “the last two books weren’t as good”. Well, shut your mouth, because this crazy old man just did the literary equivalent of dunking over every other epic fantasy author ever, and sadly that includes Robert Jordan, as much as I still absolutely love the Wheel of Time. (Yeah, that’s right. I dare you to get that picture out of your head now. George RR Martin dunking on you. Flamed-out suspenders and goofy hat and all. And probably unholy amounts of belly sweat like this.) Even after killing everybody we cared about, YOU STILL KEPT READING, and you WILL buy the next book(s). He owned you/us. Pwned, even.

Phew, okay, breathe. Last, but certainly not least, Larry Correia. I saw him at Salt Lake Comic Con and thought he seemed like a pretty cool dude. And he pronounces his last name like “korea” and I’m pretty sure he knows he’s saying it wrong – it’s (Co – Hey – Uh) and you know it. Say your name right, LARRY! Own it, man. Anywho, that’s why I even remembered this guy. I’m not super connected with the fantasy world and still haven’t heard of a lot of great books/authors, but honestly I’ve been burned on a lot of books I’ve picked up that turned out to be really bad, though other people inexplicably like them. I won’t be specific about any of them, because that’s rude. Okay back on track. Long story short, Larry Corriea is an awesome writer, and the first book of his Monster Hunter International book is free on Kindle. Go get it. Now. Sure, his prose isn’t “refined” and he doesn’t “follow all of the rules” and his plot lines are “predictable”. But he is SO GOOD at building a good story, with great characters, and most of all – he KILLS at emotional and fast paced fun-readin’. And apparently this dude lives in my home state. I’m hoping to run into him and talk shop someday.

Alright, that’s enough for today.

-Scott

Review: The Emperor’s Blades – Brian Staveley

The Emperor's Blades (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, #1)The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

True Rating: 4.45 – Brian, if you read this (and you won’t, because what kind of lunatic reads all of his reviews on the interwebs?), I’m sorry for not rounding that 4.45 up to a 5. But I really try to reserve a 5 rating for those books that really blow me away. Not many come to mind, but Rothfuss’s books and a few of the Wheel of Time books come to mind for me. And maybe some of the Dresden Files books.

One can learn a great deal by looking at a person’s goodreads book collection. What people could/would/should learn from skimming through mine is that I’m a huge Fantasy nerd. It’s almost sad how many Fantasy books I have read compared to any other genre or category. What’s even sadder is that when you’ve read that many great Fantasy books, it becomes difficult to find the next book that really enthralls you. Most recommendations floating around the world of geekdom either aren’t up to par, already live on the “read” list”, or just aren’t my cup of tea.

Enter, “The Emperor’s Blades”. I received a copy of this book at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, England 2013. I don’t think it’s an ARC, but rather an early proof copy of some kind.

The first point I’d like to make is that I think it’s AWESOME that TOR put the money and effort into printing copies to give away to fantasy fanatics at WFC.

The second is that I should have read this book much sooner. I have recently been wallowing through a few books that were mildly interesting at best, and decided to give this book a try after looking it up on goodreads and finding a large number of favorable reviews.

Okay, now to why I gave this book a 4 instead of rounding the 4.4 up to a 5 (which was not an easy decision, mind you). It all boils down to the 3 character arcs. I know what you’re thinking, the first time author must have had a hard time relating and tying the 3 arcs together. Nope, not it. Staveley actually did a really good job of foreshadowing and then tying the threads together (at least 2 of them literally converged).

The problem is that I only found Valyn’s thread truly engaging. He had a goal, believable motives, a romance interest, a heckler, a shadowy enemy/threat (who ended up fairly predictably being the heckler, one of my only knocks on this character thread), and he literally kicks ass. He’s a character who speaks to me personally, so I accept that others may have found the others delightful, but I found their (Kaden and Adare) plot lines fairly boring and their character arcs very predictable and vanilla. I found myself skimming those sections just to stay current on plot points.

The book really is very good, though. Staveley is a very solid writer. I was reading an uncorrected proof, and even still there were very few grammatical errors. I only noticed the writing when I came across a phrase that I liked, which for me is a powerful testament to Staveley’s skill. And his characterization is superb. He doesn’t have many truly “deep” characters, but give the guy a break, it’s only the first book. He is, however, very good at giving characters, even secondary or tertiary characters, a distinct on-page flavor. This is particularly impressive to me because I worry about it constantly in my own writing. I know each character and their motivations, but Staveley has succeeded in making me insecure about how each of my characters presents him/herself on page.

And that’s what I really liked about this book: It not only grabbed me by the eye sockets and pulled me along for the ride, it made me want to be a better writer and showed me something I can improve.

Many thanks to Brian for writing such a great book.

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Review: The Autumn Republic by Brian McClellan (Powder Mage #3)

The Autumn Republic (The Powder Mage, #3)The Autumn Republic by Brian McClellan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I gave this book a 5 because I enjoyed reading it enough that I finished it within a few days, and because I think that the author did a very good job with his characters in this book. The characters were moderately interesting in the previous two volumes, but I felt a real attachment to them several times in the final volume, which is not easy to do. The magic system is very interesting, and the character actions and reactions are believable for the most part.

The Autumn Republic is also a good example of why I wish there were more resolution to the rating system. 3 stars may as well be zero as far as I’m concerned, which leaves very little room to differentiate between books that are various degrees of awesome.

If I could have, I would give this a 4.5 or so. The above positive points make this a very enjoyable book, but at times I felt that the author was in too much of a hurry to hit all of his plot points. I appreciate a fast-paced book as much as anyone, but it’s unfortunate to see the continuity of the prose suffer at times. One particular example is a scene in which a main character is stabbed, and the perpetrator is then seen “running down a hill” or some such, never to be heard from again. Furthermore, there were a few logical inconsistencies and/or improbabilities that keep this book and series from becoming a truly masterful compilation. And finally, the ending felt rushed. I mean come on, nobody reading fantasy books minds if you take another twenty or even fifty pages to put together the spectacular ending that this series deserved.

Overall, a great book and series. I recommend it to all. I’ll certainly be reading this author’s future works, as he does a great many things right and showed definite improvement even just through three books.

-Scott

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Review of “Act of War” by Brad Thor

I’m going to – finally – get back into blogging about my book (Draft 1 is done, I’m editing and should submit to agents soon), but for now I’m re-christening the blog with a quick review of Act of War by Brad Thor that I posted on Goodreads.

I’ll stop back in a few days to recount the last year or so of writing that I haven’t blogged about, including: meeting Patrick Rothfuss and two of my dream agents last October in Brighton, England, finishing Draft 1, the editing process and much more.

 

Act of War (Scott Harvath, #13)Act of War by Brad Thor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really like Brad Thor and his motivations for writing his thrillers. I love the plot of this book…every plot point is well thought out and realistic, not a “gimme” for his characters.

However: while this book still did its job and kept me reading all the way through, I’m not sure that would have been the case had it not been for the trust Thor had already built with the other Harvath books.

In this book (as in the last 1 or 2), action is often sacrificed for plot explanations or info dumps, and pacing takes a back seat to pages-long sermons. Though I agree with most of the libertarian patriotic leanings, it’s a little misplaced and obvious at times. And I felt that the POV drifted a few times, resulting in some confusion as a reader.

In brief, it’s still a great read for Thor fans, but I wish he would concentrate a bit more on his tradecraft or get his editor to actually look at the manuscript before publishing. Heck, I’ll edit it, Brad.

-Scott