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Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks

Issue 11

What I've been reading

The Faithful and the Fallen series, by John Gwynne

I'm never quite sure how best to approach long, involved series like John Gwynne's The Faithful and the Fallen fantasy series. Binge-read? Series fatigue. Long breaks? Lose the thread.

Not that my plans matter. I intended to space this series out over the year, one book each quarter, which plans went out the window the day after I finished book one and realized, nope, six months had passed. Oops! When I picked up Valor, and got back up to speed, I was re-hooked, and so I plowed through the rest of the series, splicing in just enough between each book to stave off burn-out.

Which worked, for me, for this series; if you're into this kind of thing, here's 3000 pages of absolute catnip. There's a lot going on without it ever feeling like too much—a broad cast of characters carrying their various worldly and spiritual conflicts back and forth between multiple locations across a broad continent; angels and demons, all jerks; magical artifacts and prophecies; giants, bears, and giants riding around on bears. There's a chosen one, and yes, he's a whole bowl of vanilla ice cream, but it's like, the fancy, artisan kind, so it's good! There's bad guys who rarely feel irredeemable; characters are rounded, given just the right amount of nuance, with the occasionally well-placed plot twist thrown in their paths. It all worked for me.

If I'm going to get critical, there is a certain thinness to the built world, the lore. Which is, perhaps, only to say, no, this isn't The Lord of the Rings. Gwynne gives us some good broad strokes but they seem to serve more as a functionally well-rendered CGI backdrop than a practical, physical set, shot on film and draped in technicolor.

To be clear, though, Gwynne knows how to pace. I wouldn't say the series starts slow, but it does accumulate momentum as it rolls toward its ripe-for-the-big-screen blow-out climax. That pacing serves his hyper-violent aesthetic well; if you took a drink every time a body part gets chopped off you wouldn't make it to the end of the series so please, please do not play this game.

All in, this was about as ideal a summer escapist beach-brain binge as I could have ordered up; immersive, violent, occasionally silly, delightfully camp, like televised wrestling, but with swords. Gwynne has since published a sequel trilogy that's set in the same world, and while I probably won't get to it soon, it's on my list.

Harrow the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

Speaking of waiting too long between books, I read Gideon the Ninth, the first book of Tamsyn Muir's Locked Tomb series, back in February 2021, then more than a year passed before I started the second book, Harrow the Ninth.

Want my advice? Don't do that.

I was taken by the manic energy of Gideon, the way it glued science fiction and horror and mystery elements together into a weird hybrid, laying down some great world-building groundwork in the process, drenching the story in the sense that there's something really big and cool going on beyond the walls we spend most of the story cooped up inside, teasing us with the hope that subsequent novels would take us out there. That book stuck the landing, then immediately coiled back up, ready to leap into that unknown. That book was passionate.

Then I finally get to the second book, and yes, it took us out there, and that was great, but it also gleefully spent so many pages willfully contradicting the events of its predecessor. To be clear, I love a challenge, and on paper, in theory, technically speaking, with the appropriate caveats, I really do appreciate what Muir did with this book, but actually reading it felt a bit like swimming upstream against a river of slugs; I'm a fan, but am I enough of a fan? Of the swimming? Or the slugs? Should I be waiting for her to finish the series, so I could do it all in one go? How big is the big picture, here?

I'm sure these problems go away if you read the two books back-to-back, or if you just have a better long-term reading memory than I do. (Gideon the Ninth had a grocery list of secondary characters who felt disposable to me. Probably because the book disposed with so many of them along the way! Harrow the Ninth may have been asking a bit too much of me to care about some of those characters I stopped caring about once they left the pages of the first book. Of course, I may also just be a terrible reader.) And to be clear I do recommend Gideon the Ninth. And this book, too. I think. But, while I'm typically spoiler averse, I wonder if maybe it's worth knowing what you're about to get into—that, if you're into the first book, maybe it's a good idea to have the second on deck, while the first is fresh in your mind. Certainly by the end of the second book I got it, the overall sweep of it at least, and really honestly truly I am in fact cool with how bluntly the book intended to disorient. I'm just not sure I loved how it did that.

Am I going to go on to read Nona the Ninth? Probably. But probably not right away. And then I'll probably be annoyed I didn't read it right away.