When Hank Flynn stumbles onto the site of what will soon become Protection, Kansas, it’s immediately apparent to Wallace Bixby and his daughter, Josie, that there’s something special about this grievously injured man. Nursed back to health, Hank settles in and becomes a member of the growing community as long as God will allow it. Protection is aptly named, with Hank Flynn around, because there’s no threat that Hank won’t combat to keep the people of his home safe, whether marauder, drought, or worse. It soon becomes clear that “worse” is going to be the case more often than not, as strange and evil forces align to seek out Hank where he’s found peace. But Hank is a man of many skills and a haunted past that propels him forward as he does God’s will wherever he’s called to do so. The malevolent beings that hunt him down would be wise to avoid Protection, Kansas because Hank is no stranger to raising Cain when the situation merits it. Candace Nola has written a spiritual horror stand-in for Little House On the Prairie, punctuating the prosaic struggles of frontier life with body and soul battles against the denizens of Hell. It’s a little bit Kung Fu (the 1970s television series) and a little bit Supernatural all rolled into one captivating package. The narration provided by Jamison Walker is dramatic, and the voices of the assorted characters are distinctly their own. I’d never encountered his narration with previous audiobook titles, so I’m not sure if this title is representative of his other work, but it was suitable for this book.
There is no question why S. A. Cosby’s Razorblade Tears made it to many national publications’ best of 2021 lists. This novel rests near the top of my list of best titles published in 2021 as well, especially when I focus on non-horror titles. 2021 was a good year for crime and suspense literature. Stephen King released Billy Summers, Kristopher Triana released And the Devil Cried, and S. A. Cosby released the absolute masterpiece Razorblade Tears. Neither Ike nor Buddy Lee were great fathers when their sons were alive. Between recurring stints in prison and their prejudices about the fact that the boys were gay, in large part informed by antiquated perspectives on what it meant to be a man, the two men had driven substantial wedges between themselves and the sons they loved with reservations. It was only after the two young men were murdered that either father allowed themselves to embrace the sons they’d shown far too little affection when they were alive. Isiah and Derek, the interracial married sons, are like ghosts at the periphery of the tale Cosby weaves for us. They haunt the two men we come to admire, despite all of their faults, at the core of this novel. Had Ike and Buddy Lee been able to overcome their ingrained bigotry while the boys had been alive, the two would have met years before the funeral, but that was not who the two men were. It turns out that the meeting of these two vastly different–yet strangely similar–men would be a fateful occasion that would lead to more bloodshed than either of the men could anticipate. As the police investigation into Isiah and Derek’s deaths stalls out, Buddy Lee approaches Ike with a proposition that the two of them might have better luck taking matters into their own hands. Unraveling the mystery behind the brutal murder of the boys will force the two ex-cons to confront their pasts, their preconceived notions, and their concepts of love as the trail leads them through Hell and back before bringing them closer to home than they could’ve imagined. The regret and retribution at the core of this book are at turns heartbreaking and viscerally satisfying. Most important, Cosby doesn’t shoehorn in any ersatz redemption for Ike and Buddy Lee because both men are so damaged and broken that redemption, in the sense that many writers would define it, simply wouldn’t make sense. That is not to say there’s no redemption here; there is redemption in these pages, but it’s the hollow sort that arises from the transformations coming far too late for it to make any difference. Witty dialogue, well-crafted characters, and realistic portrayals of race relations, homophobia, and the difficulty associated with escaping a criminal past fill this novel with so much depth and honesty that it would be impossible to convey in a review. All I can say is that anyone delving into this book will come out the other end with an understanding that they didn’t have when going in. Adam Lazarre-White’s narration for the audiobook is phenomenal. The additional character he brings to both Ike and Buddy Lee with his delivery of their dialogue is something that weighs heavily in favor of the audiobook edition of this novel because there’s such life and depth added to the characters with that extra texture.
My first exposure to Ken Liu was through his superbly readable translation of Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem and the third novel of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Death’s End. To have translated those information dense and character rich narratives from Chinese to English required an impressive literary skill on the part of the translator. When The Grace of Kings, the first novel of Ken Liu’s The Dandelion Dynasty series was released, it was a given that I had to pick that massive book up for myself. The Armies of Those I Love is definitely a smaller story than the books Liu has been releasing, though only in page count. The size of the story packed into this relatively brief tale is a huge one, taking us to a post apocalyptic Earth that is both familiar and impressively original. On the surface, one can see similarities to stories like Mortal Engines and The Matrix as the narrative unfolds, but Liu molds those familiar elements into something thoroughly his own. Franny lives on BOS, a massive roaming city that prowls the war torn and ravaged landscape of what was once North America. An orphan, she exists on the outskirts of the rigid society most BOS residents fall into, and this is fine for her. Franny has an unwelcome fascination with old world artifacts and remnants of the world before the Pilots set the major cities adrift to wander. When a stranger, escaped from LAX, stumbles upon her home and sends her world spiraling out of control, Franny embraces the opportunity to learn more about the world in which she lives as she and the fugitive struggle to escape the BOS citizens hunting them while evading the biomechanical Guardians who protect the city from internal and external threats. Though it may be best not to seek answers to the questions Franny has been dying to resolve, there’s something magnificent and beautiful in the hope and faith the young woman exhibits even in the face of nightmarish truths. Auli’i Cravalho’s narration seems perfectly suited for Franny and the story of her adventure. She captures the innocence and desperate hunger for knowledge quite expertly.
Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Tower of Fools won’t necessarily appeal to fans of his far more popular The Witcher series. While elements of his distinctive writing style carry over to this first book of the Hussite Trilogy, the story itself is a major departure from what readers might expect. The Tower of Fools is more akin to Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver (the first book of The Baroque Cycle) or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, in that it’s a dense fantasy tale firmly embedded within true European historical context. Whereas The Baroque Cycle transpired in a fictionalized version of the late 1600s to early 1700s, and Clarke’s novel took place in the 1800s, Sapkowski’s trilogy inserts itself into Eastern Europe of the 1400s. We are introduced to Reinmar of Bielawa, an unlikely and peculiar hero, as unwanted adventure is thrust upon him by virtue of Reinmar caught in the process of a different sort of thrusting–with the wife of a member of a wealthy and powerful family. On the run from vengeful aristocrats (and those working on their behalf), the inquisition (for being a magician and heretic), and sinister forces with unknown motives, Reinmar finds himself on a meandering scramble across the Eastern Europe of the late Middle Ages. Populated by an almost intimidating cast of additional characters, while not as bad as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow–a book I’ve never been able to finish–it becomes challenging at times to keep track of precisely who is who. Strange acquaintances along the way become friends, friends become enemies, and enemies become victims of the peculiar sort of charmed life Reinmar seems to live. With the familiar wit and subtle comedic writing Sapkowski brings to the narrative, we witness an extreme example of fortune favoring the fool. As Reinmar stumbles from one bit of trouble to another, dragging unfortunate allies with him as he careens from frying pan to fire and back again. Densely packed with historical events and figures of the Hussite Revolutionary period, The Tower of Fools is as much a history lesson as a tale of fantasy. Though Sapkowski’s novel incorporates elements of magic, witches/sorcerers, and supernatural beings aplenty, the narrative is so deeply fixed in a foundation of historical veracity that it all feels more textured and real than it might otherwise. Of course, those familiar with The Witcher are well aware that the author is capable of fleshing out a fictional world without the benefit of drawing the fine details from real-world history. It’s a nice touch, though, being able to explore a historical period many of us aren’t familiar with. The titular Tower of Fools–though referenced at numerous points throughout the story–makes an appearance in Chapter 26, at almost the end of the book. It could be argued that the wider world we witness in the book is the real Narrenturm, and the whole of Eastern Europe and the Holy Roman Empire makes up the real Tower of Fools. Though the story is not one that I can praise in more than peculiarly specific ways, the narration provided by Petter Kenny is spectacular. This narrator is impressive, to put it mildly. He successfully tackles various accents, dozens of characters, as well as songs and chants performed in Latin and other languages, all with a clarity and quality that almost astounded me.
From a literary standpoint, Rule of Cool is certainly not the best example of the LitRPG genre…but it is far from the worst. I don’t expect epic fantasy literary prowess from LitRPG novels–because I’m not a complete idiot–but there are plenty of books within the genre that successfully combine skilled storytelling, captivating characters, and ample humor. This one had a fair bit of humor, some slightly worthwhile characters, and a story that could have been assembled from a story-in-a-box plot development application. Personally, I prefer the stories where there’s some explanation–even a flimsy one–as to why we (and the characters) are exposed to stats, rolls, and other such RPG-oriented elements. Otherwise, it seems like a poor attempt to simply pad and shoehorn a story–decent or not–into a niche genre hoping to ride the coattails of those who came before. Combine all of that with a healthy dose of the fan service and the almost desperate geek appeal of Ready Player One, and you’ll have a good feel for Rule of Cool. A story focused on life within an RPG world from the perspective of a bitter, moody NPC has a lot of potential. Sadly, Matthew Siege couldn’t bring that potential to life the way the concept deserved. The world itself is nonsensical. Rule of Cool is centered on a starter town, Hallow, where prospective heroes begin their journey to obtain levels and make names for themselves. For some inexplicable reason, Hallow is filled with detritus from the real world for no apparent reason, except that it somehow slipped from our world into this fantasy realm through a rift that is never adequately explained nor explored. It struck me as a poorly conceived ploy to justify random pop culture references littering the narrative, much the same way that damaged electronics and toys from our world litter the realm where Hallow’s located. It’s not all bad. Don’t get me wrong. This is a fun, albeit generic zero-to-hero tale centered around a trio of gearblins (a hybrid of goblin and gremlin) struggling to take their home back from the heroes who have been grinding them into the muck for generations. There’s social commentary embedded in the plot that–while unsubtle–appeals to me in a Marxist workers’ revolt sense. The best aspect of Rule of Cool was that I listened to the audiobook edition. Felicia Day’s narration is fantastic, sufficiently so that it drags the story–kicking and screaming the whole way–to a higher level of quality than it would have had if I’d simply been reading the book. I can’t recommend reading this book, but I would recommend the audiobook because the superb narration makes other aspects of the story far more tolerable than they probably deserve to be.