Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic, from #1 New York Times bestselling author V.E. Schwab

Kell is one of the last Antarimagicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black.

Kell was raised in ArnesRed Londonand officially serves the Maresh Empire as an ambassador, traveling between the frequent bloody regime changes in White London and the court of George III in the dullest of Londons, the one without any magic left to see.

Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.

After an exchange goes awry, Kell escapes to Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.

I’ve been following V.E. Schwab on Twitter for some time now. Her life revolves around writing and being an author, and I enjoy the peeks she gives us into that world. I also, if you haven’t guessed by now, really enjoy fantasy. 

Picking this book up, I was first intrigued by the idea of multiple Londons. I have seen multiple worlds done before (this isn’t quite a multiverse) but something about this particular iteration caught my attention. There is a finite number of worlds, each with its own level of magic. 

One world has none. One world is teaming with it. One world is tearing itself apart to find more of it. And a fourth that fell to a fate that no one wants to talk about, but you know it had to do with magic. 

I also don’t think I have ever had a book start off talking about the main character’s interesting jacket. Yet the whole thing is the perfect introduction for the main character, Kell. You quickly realize how and why he is different as he takes the reader on a literal journey through the three Londons. A great example of showing versus telling. It also does a great job of establishing the main cast of characters.

I found everything about these worlds intriguing and enthralling. When we finally got the story of the fall of Black London, I was in awe. I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to read that story as well. A lot of time in fantasy worlds, authors don’t take the time to explain how their magic system works. This means in a lot of fantasy worlds, the magic system doesn’t really make sense. I am looking at you, J.K. Rowling.

Before you start yelling at me I would like to state, for the record, that I basically grew up on Harry Potter. I will always love the series. That said, my point is still valid. 

I will save my magic system rant for another day. Because it is going to be a doozy. 

I really like this one though. It feels natural and makes sense in all of the worlds. It is what is called ‘soft magic’, where magic has an organic feel to it. There are some spells and some rules to the magic, but most of it flows naturally. 

Everything about these worlds and these characters has me hungry for more. I want to see more of Lila and Kell, to learn more about their mysterious past and see their friendship grow. They are so engaging and dynamic. They are complex. They evolve. 

I had a coworker refer to this series as a poor man’s Mistborn. Honestly, I don’t see it. This story is great in its own right. I mean, there is a reason that V.E. Schwab is a best selling author. She knows how to weave a fantastic tale in a world unlike any I have encountered before. 

I am curious to see what happens in the future between the three Londons. I want to see more of Kell and Delilah as they find themselves and their place in this wonderfully strange world. I’m also curious to learn more about Black London. I feel like there is much more to the story than meets the eye. 

I guess we will have to wait and see in A Gathering of Shadows.

Review: Dune

Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, heir to a noble family tasked with ruling an inhospitable world where the only thing of value is the “spice” melange, a drug capable of extending life and enhancing consciousness. Coveted across the known universe, melange is a prize worth killing for…

When House Atreides is betrayed, the destruction of Paul’s family will set the boy on a journey toward a destiny greater than he could ever have imagined. And as he evolves into the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib, he will bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream. 

A stunning blend of adventure and mysticism, environmentalism and politics, Dune won the first Nebula Award, shared the Hugo Award, and formed the basis of what is undoubtedly the grandest epic in science fiction.

People have been telling me for years now that I need to read Dune. I think it started in response to me sharing one of my story ideas, but I honestly don’t remember which one. I ended up buying it during employee appreciation week (yay extra discount). 

I knew next to nothing about this story when I started reading it, other than a lot of people thought I would like it. I was definitely not expecting the sheer amount of made-up words. Not going to lie, I got so lost in the first two pages that I almost gave up. Half of the words looked like keyboard smashes. 

I kept going though. I decided I would give it until the end of the chapter, and if I still wasn’t following, then I would switch to another book.

Three pages later, I was totally hooked. There were still some things I did not quite get as first, and some that I am a little fuzzy on even now. But the world drew me in and the characters won me over.

The story revolves around the Atreides family. Duke Leto, his concubine Jessica, and their son Paul are preparing, in the beginning, to move from their paradise of a planet to the dangerous desert wasteland of Arrakis. There was far more political intrigue and machinations going on in the background than I expected. That is part of what had me so intrigued by the story. I simply could not put it down.

Considering how thick the book is, I tore through it pretty fast. It probably helped that I had to take my grandmother to the doctor’s office for a minor procedure, so I had 4 hours to sit around and read. Made some good progress too. 

The world-building of Arrakis is far deeper and much more intricate than I have seen in most other sci-fi novels. A prime example is how Herbert portrays the importance of water in this world. The people have designed these specialized suits to help with the preservation of water. The wealthy plant and maintain palm trees on their property to show off how much water they have. The natives view it with a reverence that seems befitting of a desert world.

And that is just on the surface. The further I read the deeper and more complex the world became, both on Arrakis and throughout the universe. There are pieces moving both in the empire and on the planet itself. 

There is also a taste of something that exists in a grey area between science and magic. I could not quite wrap my head around all of the details but I was able to understand the gist of it. It was fascinating, though, to see both the reactions of the characters who did understand what was going on versus those who did not. On my next read through I will definitely be paying more attention to the finer details of how these abilities work. 

If you want a good example of blurring the line between magic and science on a basic, human level, I highly recommend reading Dune. It does a fabulous job of this, as well as world-building. It also provides an interesting look at ecological and environmental issues. I am still fascinated by how the society of those native to Arrakis has evolved to help them not only survive, but thrive in what looks like a desert wasteland. It was very well thought out. 

Basically…

The end of the story had me hungry for more. The world is so rich and the characters have so much going on internally, that I just know there is so much more to come. More machinations. More intrigue. More of that grey area between magic and science to delve into and play around in. 

I know there are five books total in the series written by Frank Herbert, as well as a few more written by his brother Brian. I assume these were created in some sort of ghostwriting fashion. I will do more research on this when I get to them. For now, it is on to a new book. 

If you are looking for a thoughtful, immersive science fiction experience, this is the book for you.

Learning How to Learn on the Fly

When you are creating something, you have to teach yourself how to do a lot of things that you probably never expected to need to know. There is a lot more business behind creative endeavors than one might realize at first. I will definitely dig into this later (both here and on my podcast, An Incomplete Guide to World Domination). For now, though, I am going to share how I learned a very useful skill.

How to learn things quickly.

Step one: know your learning style

Fun fact: different people learn different things in different ways. It’s shocking, I know. There are some people who can pick things up by reading, while others have to have someone explain it. I feel like most people have to actually do the thing themselves to really understand how to do it, but some have to do some research beforehand. A lot of people probably waffle between different styles depending on what it is they are trying to learn.

That is totally okay. The key is, knowing how you learn best and using that to decide how you are going to learn a new thing.

For me, it helps to be able to watch how a thing is done so that I can then go and copy it. I absolutely cannot learn anything technical by reading. I may be able to get the basics, but I need to see it to really get it. 

Step two: make sure you aren’t overcomplicating things

It is really not that hard to make things harder than they need to be. A lot of people think they need to get all of the books and take all of the classes on a subject in order to really understand it. That isn’t always the case, especially when you are trying to pick up a new skill.

Chances are when you are starting out, you don’t need to know how to do everything. It is okay to start with the basics and learn from there. 

Part of this ties in with the whole knowing your learning style. Some people (like me) can pick up new skills on their own time using the resources available to them without investing any sort of money. There is a sort of self-discipline and level of organization required for this. And a lot of stubbornness.

I also know some people who need the structure and organization and the deadlines that come with a classroom environment. It forces them to stay focused while making it harder for them to be distracted. That financial investment makes it harder for them to give up part of the way through. 

If this is you, may I recommend looking into continuing education classes at a community college, or online courses? These can be more affordable while providing the structure you need.

Step three: find your people

There is a good chance, if you are reading this, that you are about to embark on a creative endeavor of some sort.

If so, I cannot stress enough how important it is to FIND A COMMUNITY. There are communities everywhere for whatever kind of thing you are looking to create. The key is finding your people and sticking with them. They will give you the support you need when going through the hard times as well as proving to be an incredibly valuable resource. 

I am currently a part of two different audio fiction podcast communities through Discord. A lot of the people on there have been doing this a lot longer than I have. They also know a lot more about the tools and technicalities of audio editing than I do.

Having those people who I have a connection with that I can ask questions and advice has made a huge difference.  We talk everything from sound design to foley work to resources to production timelines to scriptwriting to current projects to Patreon to how to create an LLC and track business expenses. We also like to goof off and talk about road trips to conventions.

Find your people. They will make your life so much easier and so much better.

Step four: free tutorials are everywhere

For someone who had no idea what they were doing starting out, I have gotten pretty dang good at audio editing. I’m also pretty good when it comes to designing graphics through Canva. Did I study either of these things? No. 

I taught myself. Using YouTube.

Seriously though, YouTube is great for learning how to do things. There are countless tutorials covering everything you could possibly want to know made by professionals. If there is anything you need to learn, you can find it on there. It may take some digging, but it exists.

There are also people who do free webinars where not only can you learn things, but you can also ask questions. You can even watch live streams of people doing things to learn how things are done.

Either way, there are a plethora of free resources out there that you can use to pick up new skills or figure out how to do something before you go investing money in a class.

Step five: libraries, meetups, and more

This one kind of depends on your area, but it is still worth looking into.

Libraries are not only home to plenty of books that you can check out and use to teach yourself things, but they also often host regular events. These events are not just about books, but about learning. They have these events listed on their website or their social media accounts (if they have them). 

My personal favorite is Meetup.com. I have had an account there for a while now. It is the perfect place to find local social groups as well as more professional/educational groups. I highly recommend creating an account of your own. A few of my groups are social but I’m also in some for social media, WordPress, and podcasting. This is a great way to meet in a neutral area with a group of people with similar interests and learn something new. 

Basically, there is a whole host of ways you can learn something new. Just remember to not overcomplicate things. Don’t let your own lack of understanding stand between you and trying a new thing. Take that first step and you will eventually find your way. If you get lost, there are plenty of people you can ask for help. 

The question is, what are you going to learn next?

One Video Every Creator Needs to Watch

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sz4YqwH_6D0&t=39s

A friend of mine shared this video on his audio drama Discord server earlier this week. At first, I ignored it because sometimes the people on there can be super snarky. Then I started seeing other people responding to the video. So I watched it. And it was a giant kick in the butt.

We all go through this. We all deal with it. The toolbox fallacy. That constant fear of failure that keeps us from doing what we want to do until we have everything just right. Everything has to be perfect before we show it to anyone. Before we bring it into being.

I suffer from this myself. Constantly. I agonize over blog posts. I overthink my short stories. I rarely showed any of my writing to anyone. 

It was not until recently that I finally found the courage to just do it. Just get started. Move forward. Create my art and live my life one step at a time.  I started one podcast. And then I started another. I’m looking into audio dramas now. I spend most of my time talking to my people about doing things they are passionate about, both on and off my podcast.

I still have my days where I worry that I am not good enough. Where I worry that my plan has failed, that all of my work has been a waste. Where I start to wonder if maybe there is something else I should be doing.

On days like that, I rely on my network. My tribe. The group of people I have surrounded myself with, who support me in my creative endeavors. They are creators like me. Dreamers like me. Without them, I might not have the strength to keep going. Having that creative community keeps me going when things get tough. 

A lot of the time, the only thing between where you are now and where you want to be is your own self-doubt. We are our own worst enemies. We need to learn to set aside these silly rules we have made for ourselves about how things are supposed to be. 

Sometimes you just need to start creating and figure everything else out as you go. Trust me when I say, you never know what you will find along the way.

But, you don’t get anywhere unless you start. So just start. 

The Sound of Stories

I started getting hooked on podcasts in college. It started with Welcome to Nightvale, then branched into several other shows. I fell in love with the medium as a whole. There is a kind of storytelling that can be achieved through audio that I had never experienced before. 

I especially fell in love with audio dramas. One in particular that will always be special to me is We’re Alive. I am normally not a big fan of zombie apocalypse stories, but the characters in this one were so dynamic I couldn’t help myself. The sound design made it feel like I was really there. 

I have listened through that show twice now and the ending gets me every time. I was beyond ecstatic to find out they were adding new seasons. 

It was around my senior year in college that I joined my first podcast. Through a friend on Twitter, I was invited to be a panelist on the Supergirl Supercast (part of TeeVee, which is part of the Incomparable podcast network). I had a blast bantering back and forth with the panelists, overanalyzing the story and laughing at the “super-science.”

This was the start of a rabbit hole. I started looking into doing a podcast of my own. I started realizing that many of my story ideas would be better told through audio. While I was the interim managing editor for a small DFW publication, I was reminded of how much I enjoy interviewing people. 

That sparked an idea. An idea that would take me months to finally follow up on.

I launched An Incomplete Guide to World Domination a few months ago. I have always loved helping people tell their stories, especially people who have fought hard to make their dream a reality. You can hear that tone in their voice when they finally relax and start opening up about the thing that they are passionate about. That thing that gets them up every morning and helps them keep going, even when times are hard. 

I wanted to give them a place to share that. To share their story. To show those who are at the start of their journey that it is possible to make it happen. It may not be easy. It will take some time. But it is possible.

This caused a chain reaction that would eventually lead to a decision I never quite expected.

That decision being to create Pseudonym Social as a creative podcast network to house all of my ideas (and some of my friends’ ideas). I already have the basic site set up from another idea I had a while ago, so I built off of that. 

Part of this was sparked by conversations on Twitter. I had been playing with the idea of doing a podcast where I interview people’s D&D characters for a while. Every time I mentioned it in a conversation on Twitter, I got the same response. “Where is the Patreon?”

So I spent the next week creating the Patreon, doing all of the show art, updating the website, and tracking down some interviews. Tales of Adventure launched with a trailer on Monday, September 23 with the first full episode dropping the following Wednesday. 

That makes two podcasts I am producing entirely by myself, with a third in progress (a RP podcast with some friends of mine). I don’t think I ever expected to be here, doing this, but I absolutely love it. 

I love hearing people’s stories. I love connecting with other creators. I love helping promote what people are working on and helping encourage them throughout their journey. 

Heck, I even enjoy editing the audio. (Though transcribing it all will be less fun)

I have to say, I think I have found my niche. I’m still working on my novels. I’m still working on my games. I still plan on getting my master’s in creative writing. I am just going to be creating podcasts along the way.

I am changing the world one story at a time. So why not start with yours?

Review: Redwall

What can the peace-loving mice of Redwall Abbey do to defend themselves against Cluny the Scourge and his battle-seasoned army of rats? If only they had the sword of Martin the Warrior, they might have a chance. But the legendary weapon has long been forgotten-except, that is, by the bumbling young apprentice Matthias, who becomes the unlikeliest of heroes.

I am 24 years old and this is my first time reading one of the Redwall books.

Well, first time finishing one. I tried reading one from the middle of the series when I was younger, but never really got into it. Many of my friends did, though. I didn’t really think about it again until a friend lent Mossflower (book 2) to me briefly. I got 9 chapters into the story before I had to give it back.

It was that moment of “here, read this” that sparked my interest. A few months later, I found Redwall and Mossflower for sale in a used bookstore. 

Delving into Redwall, a book geared towards kids, after reading Blood of Elves, a book very much not geared towards kids, was an interesting experience. 

I found the simpler style rather refreshing. It has been a while since I read a book that wasn’t full of angst. Being that this book is geared towards middle school age (and an older series), it was much more straightforward and fluffy in its tone.

The story mainly follows the adventure of the brave little mouse Matthias. He is looking to join the Order at the Redwall Abbey, though in his heart he longs for adventure. There is a certain amount of hero-worship going on whenever he talks about Martin the Warrior, the one who brought the whole area to peace. 

It was a little weird hearing how the mice talk about them because the whole abbey definitely feels religious but I am not sure what they worship. Sometimes it feels like they worship Martin a bit. From what I can tell, though, the abbey is not particularly religious. It is just set up in a way that reflects certain, more traditional churches. Which I can appreciate. I’m not sure how I would feel about deeply religious mice.

The main villain of the books is a rat named Cluny the Scourge, who has one eye and an abnormally long tail that serves as a whip. He has a giant army of rats and stoats and other nasty creatures that he bullies mercilessly. 

Let’s just say he is a great example of how NOT to treat your underlings. Being more than willing to kill them for no good reason is not a great incentive for them to stay. I mean, if they all just up and decide to leave, how is he going to stop them?

Then again, I am reading this as a storyteller and sometimes I forget this was geared towards middle schoolers. They don’t care as much about villain motivations. I could go on about this for a while, but I will save that rant for later. 

Many of the interactions in this story are quite touching and I feel like most characters got their chance to shine at least once. One of my favorites is Silent Sam, a baby squirrel who is very smart but is nonverbal. No one questions this. No one pushes him to speak. I love it.

Halfway through the book, Matthias and an older mouse named Methusela go on a mini-quest within the story to see what became of the sword of Martin. This ended up taking more time than I expected and led them to some interesting places.

In a way, this story is about Matthias coming into his own and becoming the mouse he always wanted to be. It is a battle of the good and noble against the evil and corrupt. There are twists. There are turns. Some I didn’t see coming. Others I saw coming 6 chapters before the characters did. 

Then again, I am a writer. That sort of comes with the territory.

The rating

My only regret when it comes to reading this book is that I didn’t read it sooner. I would have loved these books when I was in middle school. Heck, I love them as an adult. The world is charming, the characters are endearing, and the plot has just enough twists to keep you engaged. If you haven’t read these books and are looking for something a little lighter to read, I definitely recommend Redwall

Review: The Witcher (pt 1)

For over a century, humans, dwarves, gnomes, and elves have lived together in relative peace. But times have changed, the uneasy peace is over, and now the races are fighting once again. The only good elf, it seems, is a dead elf.

Geralt of Rivia, the cunning assassin known as The Witcher, has been waiting for the birth of a prophesied child. This child has the power to change the world - for good, or for evil.

As the threat of war hangs over the land and the child is hunted for her extraordinary powers, it will become Geralt's responsibility to protect them all - and the Witcher never accepts defeat.

Following The Last Wish, Blood of Elves is the new novel starring Geralt of Rivia, the inspiration for the critically acclaimed videogame The Witcher.

I was first introduced to the world of The Witcher through the videogames. I spent some time on YouTube familiarizing myself with the events of the first two games because upon starting up the third I had no idea who anyone was or why I should care. Thankfully I was able to rectify that without spoiling anything.

That was when I first started falling in love with the world. The richness coupled with the hint of death and decay creeping around the edges. The interplay between an old world of magic and a new world of technology.

Needless to say, I was very excited to hear there was going to be a Netflix show. So excited that I decided to have the first book read before season one drops, so I can be caught up. 

I started with The Last Wish, a series of short stories that come before the first book. It took me a minute to figure out it was a frame story that jumped back and forth between then and now.  It was a great way to introduce the characters and how they all fill together.

It wasn’t until I started Blood of Elves that I really got into the story though. Andrzej Sapowski’s writing style varies differently between when he is writing long-form fiction and when he is writing short stories. I personally very much preferred the long-form style. I found it much easier to engage with and was quickly absorbed into the story.

There were a few interactions between Triss and Geralt that I was not particularly pleased with, but overall I do like their dynamic. A woman wantonly throwing herself at a man is never going to be something I like. Thankfully, these moments were few and the rest of the time Triss was incredibly competent and fiercely independent. So I can look past the few lines that made me cringe.

The Last Wish gives you a good taste of what Geralt’s life is like before the events of Blood of Elves. It establishes the world and the characters in a way that manages to not give away any of the twists to come. I know there is another collection of short stories, The Sword of Destiny, which came out recently. I found this out after I had started Blood of Elves, so I decided I would come back to that one.

There are so many moving pieces and so many questions littered throughout the story that I could not put it down. There are references to a prophecy that is connected to one of the main characters, but no one ever fully explains what it is. War lurks around the edges of the map, stirring up trouble within the kingdom and causing revolts. Alliances shift as each side is concerned solely with its own, eyeing to see which allies will most help them in the coming conflict. Agents seemingly tied with no cause flit in and out, leaving you to wonder whose side they are on.

There were many times where I had a hard time putting the book down. I became so invested in the conflict and in the characters that I had to know what happened next. The ending filled me with an intense curiosity and then, with a single sentence, left me with a vague sense of unease. 

Once I clear out more of my reading backlog I am definitely going to continue with this series. Until then, I am going to wait with bated breath for the release of season 1 on Netflix. 

I have been following Lauren Hissrich, the lead writer, since not long after I first heard about the show. Every bit of news she drops leaves me more excited than before. 

The Rating

The Last Wish – It may feel a little slow getting into this one, but once you get used to the style and pacing it is much more enjoyable. If you plan to get into the series, this is definitely the best place to start. The frame narrative helps provide context for the impact past events have had on Geralt, as well as how things have changed since then.

Blood of Elves – If you love fantasy, you will love this book. It will hook you from the very first page and it will not let you go until the very end. There is this sense of decay as the old world and all of its magic is being usurped by the new world of technology. Yet there is something ancient and powerful that is refusing to let go, creeping along the edges of the story to be addressed later. A solid start to a promising series.