Review: Babylon’s Ashes

Book: Babylon’s Ashes

Author: James S.A. Corey

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Recommended for: Anyone who enjoys space opera, science fiction, space mystery, military sci-fi, or a long well written series set in the expanse of our solar system (and beyond).

As I flew through Babylon’s Ashes I once again found myself at home among the crew of the Rocinante. The plot picks up where Nemesis Games left off; Earth is struggling to stay alive after the rocks fell, the Free Navy has declared itself the new power in Sol under the leadership of Marco Inaros, Earth and Mars have combined forces to oppose the Free Navy and the crew of the Rocinante is back, ready to do what is necessary to help bring things back into equilibrium.

I thoroughly enjoyed this addition to The Expanse series, and it is nice to see the writing improve with each new novel. For those devout followers of the series – and I can’t see anyone making it this far without some level of devotion – you will find a lot here that feels familiar. We get to see the crew of the Roci back together again, along with a couple of new faces in the crew that readers will recognize and enjoy. We return to a multiple POV style of storytelling, but while the previous novels focused on a handful of them, this book had a dozen or so different characters through whose eyes we get to see this story unfold. Also, the universe the author has created with these novels has been explored in greater depth with each new release – the same is true here and I, for one, love that detailed world building.

Much of this story focuses on the human experience and how no matter how hard Holden may try, we always find a way to end up fighting over territory, segregating based on our origins and inevitably shooting at each other in order to prove that our way is the right way. This is where I really liked the change in the number of viewpoints. It was interesting to see how the war between factions looked from different points in the solar system. On one hand, we have Holden and the crew of the Roci, a familiar group whose ideals are tested in humanity’s most trying time. On the other hand, are Belters from across the system, some in favor of the actions of the Free Navy and some who are sympathetic to the plight of their fellow human beings. We also get to see things from the POV of those trapped on a dying Earth, passages that really evoked a feeling of helplessness, but that also showed small moments of human mercy and compassion. As much as I tried to enjoy the science fiction setting and not compare it to the real world, the “us vs. them” mentality that many people on both sides of this conflict displayed is a stark reminder of our current socio-political climate.

The plot was interesting and engaging, though this certainly felt like a stepping stone novel for the next book in the series. Nemesis Games was action packed, with the Free Navy rising to power and the rocks falling on Earth – it really changed the game in terms of how the story would progress.  Before that we saw the protomolecule epic unfold in the first few books, followed by the exploration of the new worlds through the alien gates. Babylon’s Ashes did not do a whole lot to progress the overall plot, but what it did do was allow everyone to come back together and it definitely set the stage for what is to come next. This is in no way a negative reflection on the work; the plot moved at a good pace, the characters were well developed and we get to see an interesting take on a galactic civil war in our own solar system. My only real gripe with the book was the writing of Marco Inaros, who I found to be a boring villain and a skin deep character.  Overall, this is a small complaint when compared to the good thing to be found here.

I am a little behind the eight-ball with my reading right now, so Persepolis Rising is already out – it has been for some time. Luckily, after reading 6 books in a series I can pretty much assume I am going to see it through, so I have already ordered the book and it is en-route to my house. Keep your eyes open over the coming weeks for a review!

Review: The Dharma Bums

Book: The Dharma Bums

Author: Jack Kerouac

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Recommended for: Anyone who is interested in existential thought, nature lovers and fans of travel heavy American literature.

Kerouac came to me during a very interesting time in my life. As a result, I think I have an opportunity to view his works through a unique lens. Having recently quit a potentially lucrative career at a large engineering company in search for something “more”, I find much of Kerouac’s writing speaks to that part of me that is out there searching.

Dharma Bums, while certainty a flawed work, captures the essence of Kerouac, portrayed by Ray Smith, and his never-ending struggle for existential definition. From the sides of Matterhorn to his sanctuary in the forest behind his family’s home – I found his search for meaning painfully relevant to my own existential struggles.

“You and your Buddha, who don’t you stick to the religion you were born with?”

At its core, much of Dharma Bums revolves around Kerouac’s rejection of traditional Western values in search of meaning and happiness. The reader is given a glimpse into his friendship with Gary Snyder, portrayed by the loveable and eccentric Japhy Ryder, and how Snyder introduced Kerouac to the basic tenants of Zen Buddhism. Many Buddhist words are thrown around throughout the novel, sometimes seeming to be adapted to situations where they don’t quite fit. The “dharma” portion of this novel felt skeletal and hollow to me and as such, I would not recommend anyone read this book in an attempt to further understand Zen Buddhism. That being said, I do think Kerouac’s interpretation of Buddhism was a useful tool for him to delve further into the important questions he was, and always has been trying to answer. It helped set the stage for the parts of the book that I loved.

“But I’d watch them rambling around the fields all day looking for something to do, so their wives would think they were real busy hardworking men, and they weren’t fooling me either. I knew secretly they wanted to go sleep in the woods, or just sit and do nothing in the woods, like I wasn’t too ashamed to do.”

Where the “dharma” side of this novel falls short, the “bum” portion thrives. Kerouac is at his best when describing emotions evoked by his surroundings. I fell in love with his descriptions of his time on Matterhorn and his secluded stay at the fire tower on Desolation Peak. It was particularly fitting to have these two sections open and close a novel otherwise devoid of narrative or progress. Much of the work bounces between parties with friends where the wine flows as freely as the Buddhist rhetoric, and the protagonist’s thoughts as he sits in solitude or hitchhikes across the country. Above all, this novel allowed me to feel at peace with my own internal struggles. It helped me feel like I wasn’t alone. I found a companion in Ray Smith who understands my turmoil and even if the work didn’t provide any new revelations into my own search for meaning, it did bring along a feeling I would akin to nostalgia. Much of Smith’s time with Japhy reminded me of my own friendships and the times I have spent staring at the stars with a good pal looking for something in the blackness. I always put this book down feeling at peace with the world around me.

“You’re drinking too much all the time, I don’t see how you’re ever going to gain enlightenment and manage to stay out in the mountains…”

Kerouac was an alcoholic, something I picked up while reading On the Road and later confirmed when I learned he died at age 47 from an alcohol related illness. There was a palpable contrast with how each of these works addressed alcohol abuse. In On the Road, Kerouac’s character is often portrayed drinking with the other characters, sometimes spending their last dollars on wine and beer. Where On the Road focusses on the early Beat Movement and its key figures, many of whom had substance abuse problems, Dharma Bums takes a much more pragmatic approach to Kerouac’s alcohol problems. Many of the characters chide Ray for his constant drinking – the above excerpt is from a short chapter where Japhy confronts Ray about his alcohol abuse. Although this is a theme throughout the novel, Smith is always dismissing his friend’s remarks and continues to down jugs of port at every available opportunity. As someone who grew up with an alcoholic father and having myself struggled at times with substance abuse, this part of the narrative struck close to home. Knowing that Kerouac does eventually succumb to his addiction at such a young age left me feeling helpless and frustrated. There is certainly something to learn here.

“By itself it’s a no-thing; it’s really mental, it’s seen only of your mind. In other words it’s empty and awake.”

“Now there’s the karma of these three men here: Japhy Ryder gets to his triumphant mountaintop and makes it, I almost make it and have to give up and huddle in a bloody cave, but the smartest of them all is that poet’s poet lyin down there with his knees crossed to the sky chewing on a flower…”

The most important thing that this novel represents to me is that feeling that one gets when they discover something new about themselves; about the world. Kerouac is always searching for meaning and manages to find components to truth and happiness in the mundane and simple. He has a way of evoking that feeling one gets when they discover that something. It’s as if the world is a buffet set out before you and most of the food you can see is mediocre and bland, but every now and then you find that delectable morsel that you just want to savor until it has completely faded from your memory. Then you keep digging through the bland until you again come across another piece worth savoring. As I close this novel and add it to my shelf I hope I will come back to it at a different point in my life and still find some of those delectable morsels. They might taste different next time and I might find them in new places, but that is what was striking to my about Dharma Bums and why I would recommend it to anyone still out there searching.

I want to close this out with a thought I often ponder, and it is one that a friend and I came to during a conversation in the woods, much like those moments between Ray and Japhy.

“Perhaps the answer to this great question is the question itself.”

Never stop asking questions and never stop searching. Even if you don’t find what you are looking for, you will be better off for it.

“The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify to this feeling.”

Review: Wrath of Empire

Book: Wrath of Empire (Gods of Blood and Powder #2)

Author: Brian McClellan

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Recommended for: Anyone who enjoys fantasy adventures, religion/magic mashups, political intrigue, world building, military fantasy and fast paced novels.

Warning: This review contains spoilers for Sins of Empire.

Reading Wrath of Empire felt like snorting a line of gunpowder while charging headfirst into an enemy brigade on the back of a mighty steed. Seriously, though, McClellan has been one of my favorite fantasy authors since my random discovery of his first novel, Promise of Blood, during my college years, and he has delivered yet again with this second installment in Gods of Blood and Powder. He remains a master storyteller whose books flow so well that this 639-page novel felt like a much shorter read. Admittedly, I haven’t devoted as much time to reading as I would have liked these past couple years and it has been over two years since I read the first installment in the series, Sins of Empire. Luckily, the author does a great job reintroducing the reader to the main plot points as things progress, and I was able to quickly piece together where the last book had left off.

This novel follows McClellan’s typical format – three different POV storylines that each play into the overall plot. I find that this style of writing gives the book the flow that helps it feel like a much shorter read. The chapters often end on cliffhangers, but you usually have to wait at least a full chapter, if not two, before returning to find out what happened. Meanwhile, though, you are equally engrossed in what is happening to the other characters. This kept my heart pounding and my mind racing through the possibilities of what could happen next, and helps cement McClellan in my pantheon of action writers.

This installment in the trilogy is again told through the eyes of General Vlora Flint, powder mage and Adran general in command of a company of hardened mercenaries, Colonel Ben Styke, leader of the Mad Lancer cavalry and a man who never fails to flash his large Boz knife at least once per chapter, and Michel Bravis, a spy with complicated allegiances who is working to save the people he cares for while also furthering the goals of the enigmatic Taniel Two-Shot. The plot picks up where Sins of Empire left off; the mysterious Dynize empire has invaded Fatrasta in search of the godstones, large obelisks capable to raising a new god, and our heroes must work together to stop them. After the events of The Powder Mage Trilogy, none of the Adrans want to see another God walk among mortals and they convince their Fatrastan allies of the importance of their mission. Along with the dangers posed by the tireless Dynize forces, the heroes will have to deal with contending Fatrastan agents, ancient magic and often their own internal demons.

One of the most pleasantly surprising thing here was the interesting character development. Most notably, we get a look into Styke’s psyche and learn that there is more to the man than a large thug who kills his way through his problems – though there is plenty of that as well. Told through a side plot of revenge where he seeks out old companions responsible for his 10 years spent in a labor camp, we see Styke evaluate his past and present, and take a closer look at the man he thought he was. On the flip side is the development of Michel Bravis, a distrusting and furtive man who is no stranger to working in the shadows. We see Michel work as a spy for the Blackhats in Sins of Empire, only to end up being Taniel’s agent within their network. Here, though, Michel must navigate the dangers of working in an enemy controlled Landfall and his loyalties are tested as he joins the Dynize forces while on a mission from Taniel to find a woman named Mara. With no information to go on and almost nobody left to rely on, every decision he makes means risking life and limb. His internal struggles were a welcome addition to the action and adventure that dominates most of the book.

Another highlight is the melding of military fantasy, an interesting magic system and political intrigue that I have come to know and expect from McClellan’s work. His ability to write a clear battle scene that moves as quickly as the bullets and swords is part of the reason I keep coming back. On top of this, his writing of intrigue and politics through the eyes of Michel helps keep things moving forward. In my mind, this is part of what keeps these books a step ahead of other, more straightforward military fantasy novels. Regarding the magic system, there is not a whole lot that is new here, but I still get goosebumps every time one of the powder mages takes a bump of gunpowder and uses their sorcery to take out an enemy privileged. The one addition I did enjoy was a greater understanding of bone-eye magic. It is still somewhat shrouded in mystery, but we get to see the effects from both the Dynize bone-eyes and Ka-Poel, whose story is starting to unfold – albeit still a slow burn.

Finally, my draw to fantasy has been and will always be my love for intricate world building. McClellan does not fail to deliver in that regard. While we already have a fairly well fleshed out understanding of Fatrasta and the Nine, we are given our first peak at the secretive Palo Nation to the far North through the eyes of Vlora, and the history of the Dynize is discussed in detail during Michel’s time among their people. Not only is this a welcome addition to any fantasy novel, McClellan makes it critical to the plot and therefore all the more interesting to read. I cannot wait to see what more we learn in works to come. As a side note, the availability of the maps at the beginning of the book are a small touch that I love to see. I often found myself flipping back to them during the read as the characters explored new areas.

The novel ends with a bang (literally and figuratively) and I am truly excited for the release of the final installment in the series, Blood of Empire. For those of you who haven’t jumped on the powder mage band wagon, I encourage you to head to your nearest book store and pick up some novels by Brian McClellan!

Introduction and Rating System

Hello and welcome to Journey to Nowhere! The intent of this blog is simple – I like to read and wanted a place to capture my thoughts and feeling on books as I finish them. How did they impact me? Did I relate to them or were they just a fun detour into another world? Growing up, books were one of the most influential aspects of what helped shape me into who I am today and this love of literature has followed me into adulthood. My reading preferences generally center around sci-fi/fantasy as well as American literature and poetry. While these are what you should expect to see the most of, my tastes do vary and you will occasionally see other genres pop up. Hopefully I can provide useful reviews that others will use to influence their next pick!

My rating system follows that used by Goodreads – I will rate books on a scale of 1-5 stars (no half stars):

5 Stars – This book was incredible and I loved every second of it!

4 Stars – This book was really good.

3 Stars – I liked it, but it wasn’t anything that stood out in a meaningful way .

2 Stars – I did not like this book and would not recommend it to others.

1 Star – Reserved for those books I really disliked at a molecular level.

I will use Goodreads as a separate forum for my reviews and will link to the site often when citing books. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy your time here! Leave a comment as you go to let me know your thoughts. Let the book blogging begin!