Book Review: The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell

Introduction

The narrative of The Tangled Lands, written by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell, follows the separate but intertwined stories of a handful of people living in or attempting to leave the Blue City, so named for the blue fires whose smoke detects those who have recently used magic. Choked with bramble and briar, the world features mere pockets of civilization, a far cry from the past, when mages and kings lived in floating castles and anyone with a spellbook could cast a spell. For casting magic brings on the bramble, and once the bramble arrives, it remains.

The clutch of stories within this anthology examines life in such a place, following the suffering, struggle, loss, overcoming, and hope. But not always in the ways you expect. In The Tangled Lands, hope almost always comes snarled up in loss.

Review

Of the short-stories presented, my favorite followed the tale of the Executioness, wherein her search for her kidnapped sons leads her to learn to fight, raise an army of women, and topple a small empire. I loved her no-nonsense manner of interacting with others and her unwillingness to see herself as anyone but a butcher from the Blue City, even as she becomes elevated throughout her journey.

As The Tangled Lands falls firmly within the realm of adult fantasy, I had no delusions going in of how gritty the descriptions could get. Frankly, there’s a lot of brutal death. As well, many instances of the nature of consequences in an incredibly unfair existence. Yet none of the short-stories left me feeling hopeless. In spite of the nihilistic nature of reality for the characters, their stories always represented the possibility of hope or peace or acceptance. A small, flickering reward for the struggle.

Readers will appreciate the very human nature of each of the characters. Their complicated relationships with their families, their willingness to fight to survive even as the odds stack against them. And the impressive twists that keep you hoping things will turn out alright, even as you suspect they will not.

Conclusion

In reading The Tangled Lands, I found myself fascinated with the conflict between the danger of using magic and the desperate need for it. I couldn’t help but compare this central problem to the danger of wringing out earth’s natural resources to the (perceived) desperate need of many to continue using them. We look back at past empires and admire them, then look toward a bleak future, knowing that a little dabble now will harm someone else, but that in the end, our actions will come back to bite us as the consequences become all-encompassing.

This book felt like it was made as an intersection of many of my personal interests. I don’t know who out there may have my exact reading tastes, but I would happily recommend The Tangled Lands for others to read.


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My Top 10 Favorite Books Written by or About Women

You know readers. We can never pick just one favorite book. For my part, I can’t even pick my favorite series. So many amazing books await out in the world, more than I could ever read before I die. To keep this post short, I had to narrow down the parameters to my top ten favorite books written by or about women.

While I spend my life trying to read the most moving, the most truthful, and the most meaningful novels out there, a few have drawn me back into their welcoming pages over and over. I have reread every one of the books below and keep most of them on my (limited) bookshelves. (Only Sabriel still lives at my local library, but I will own a copy someday.)

Nothing makes me happy quite like when I meet someone who has read one of these, or who decides to read them at my suggestion. Please check them out. They’re arranged in no particular order. If you’ve read any of these, I would love to hear what you thought!

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Though I loved The Raven Boys, the first installment in the Raven Cycle, I fell deeply into Stiefvater’s writing in The Dream Thieves, which released just after I finished the first book. Imagine characters you know so well as to be your friends. Imagine they stumbled upon magic, the dangerous kind, and upon each other, dangerous people. Want so big and impossible as to swallow up existence. All set against the backdrop of Virginia’s mysterious Shenandoah Valley.

Her writing hooks itself like thorny vines into my veins. The narrative driven by these characters makes me breathless for flashed smiles, daring choices, and the strength of unbreakable friendship.


The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Oh, look. Another book by Maggie Stiefvater. (Spoiler alert: there is not a single one of her stories I have not enjoyed.)

I first bought The Scorpio Races for my mom’s birthday, even though I had never read it. While sitting within the massive shadow of a Gander Mountain sign, hoping to sell a litter of puppies to passersby, I read the first several chapters aloud to my mom.

I may or may not have later asked several times if she was done with the book yet so I could read it.

Every year in October or November, I reread The Scorpio Races. Nothing else I have read evokes the magic of fall and deadly horses the way this book does.


Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

I’m not even sure how I wound up reading Six of Crows. My friend had convinced me to read Leigh Bardugo’s previous series, the Grisha Trilogy. I recall standing in a Barnes & Noble with her as she gushed over the book’s beautiful, black-edged pages. Maybe she handed it to me one day in that Read this! way some readers will do.

I had never loved heist stories before reading Six of Crows. As a fantasy heist, The Lies of Lock Lamora could not begin to compare to Six of Crows and its sequel for sheer brilliance of maneuvering, tactics, risk, and stakes. And beyond that, each and every character breathes with life, cleverness, and desperation for a better life.


Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce

Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce

In Tamora Pierce’s lengthy, multi-installment series about the country of Tortall, the Trickster’s Choice duology comes at the very last. I own every one of her books, but for me, none compare to this one.

Two words: fantasy spies. The daughter of a rogue and a knight who becomes embroiled in the espionage of a foreign country as she works to prove herself a capable spymaster. She’s fun-loving and sly, surrounded by clever and brave characters who grow dangerous enough to stage a coup.

I have ever loved the rogue and spy tropes. Perhaps this book is why.


Gregor and the Code of Claw by Suzanne Collins

Gregor and the Code of Claw by Suzanne Collins

You want a fantasy, underground (literally) reimagining of World War II and the Holocaust, mixed with giant flying bats, kickass princesses, and prophecies? The Underland Chronicles have exactly that and more. I love this entire series, more even than Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. But the fifth and last grips me the most.

Lines have been drawn, alliances made and severed. The main character has experienced loss, betrayal, and growth as a young man and warrior into a deadly fighting machine. Gregor and the Code of Claw puts Gregor through the wringer of all-out war. I love tracing his journey to this point, from kid to adventurer to soldier, training to become deadly enough to protect the mysterious world he loves.


All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Anxious? Just want to be left alone to do your thing? Have only a specialized skill set at which you are very, very good? Don’t know what you want out of life? Sarcastic and cynical?

If so, you will love Murderbot. I identify so hard with the protagonist of All Systems Red by Martha Wells, a SecUnit designed for security and nothing else, that hacked its own governor module in order to… keep pretending to work just so it could watch media serials. Where ‘pretend’ means do a top notch job while worrying about the quality of the work performed. Y’know, like we all do.

Eight chapters of thrilling action, touching moments, wonderful characters, and seething intrapersonal conflict makes up this first installment in a quartet of novellas, all set within a seamless science fiction interstellar society.


Sabriel by Garth Nix

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Whenever I talk about good books about necromancy, I always laud Sabriel by Garth Nix as the best. Beyond a wonderful story about a strong and thoughtful young woman adventuring in a land full of monsters and finding a boy to love and protect along the way, the narrative covers all the delectable little necromancy things I love. From a representation of the River Styx to the death knell of a bandolier of small bells to a lineage of necromancers who, instead of raising the dead, send them back down the river where they belong.

This story brought me in to the presentation of trained wizards living in a modern age (that being a World War I era fantasy world), mixing ancient magic and rune-inscribed swords with modern inventions like firearms and flying machines. I practically vibrated with happiness through the whole read and couldn’t get enough of some of the beautiful and haunting diction. In my opinion, Sabriel is the best necromancy story.


Eona: the Last Dragoneye by Alison Goodman

Eona: the Last Dragoneye by Alison Goodman

I have spent many a moment admiring the cover art of Eona: the Last Dragoneye by Alison Goodman. In this sequel to Eon, in which Eona pretended to be a boy in a desperate bid for power and status, Eona must now face her identity as a woman. I loved following her struggle to grasp for power in a man’s world by attempting to erase herself, only to discover that doing so lost her the most important aspect of her life, her connection to the queen of the dragons that controlled the land.

This story inspired me so much when Eona discovered she could find strength in her truth instead of viewing womanhood as weakness. The journey across two books to find her way is filled with splendid characters, a variety of perspectives, and incredible power plays and counter plays, all set against the beautiful backdrop of fantasy China.


Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Remember from before when I mentioned I love rogues? And tough women? Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett has both, as well as playful, fun banter, deadly peril, clandestine operations, and underdog struggles to save everyone in the awful city of Tevanne from several individuals, each with ambitions to be become a god.

I love how the unfolding of the narrative brings the four main characters together: a rogue, a paladin, and two artificers, to use some tropey language. Oh, and a talking key. Though the characters all begin at odds with each other, they soon find that their goals align as they uncover secrets about the magical method of scriving, secrets that upend everything they know about their world.

Also, there’s a fabulous LGBTQIA+ element, but I won’t spoil. Wink.


The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

In The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, Myfanwy wakes up in a park with amnesia, surrounded by dead bodies. The rest of the story follows her discovery that she, pre-amnesia, knew this would happen and left clues and helpful notes to herself to be able to resume her life and find out who would do this to her.

As an office worker firmly planted in the corporate world myself, I appreciate the descriptions of Myfanwy’s experience starting over with a blank slate to discover the person she always could have been as she navigates her high stakes job and office politics. The office life interwoven with supernatural bureaucracy cracks me up. The intricate mystery of finding herself and uncovering her attempted murderer keeps me turning the pages on every read.


If you’ve read any of these novels, I would love to hear what you thought! If you haven’t, then what are you waiting for?!


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