Interview: Rod Duncan, Author of The Map of Unknown Things series

Duncan-CoverThe Speculative Shelf is excited to welcome Rod Duncan to the blog today for a discussion about his upcoming book, The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man (out January 14, 2020) from Angry Robot Books. It’s the third and final book in The Map of Unknown Things series. This trilogy closes the chapter on the Elizabeth Barnabus saga, which began in Duncan’s award-winning Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire trilogy. I’ve reviewed all six of the books here on the blog and I think you’ll really enjoy this final chapter if you’ve been following this wonderful alternate history series. Many thanks to Rod for taking the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully.


Hello Rod, thank you for joining us here today! Let’s jump right in:

From a process standpoint, how much preplanning do you do when writing a series like this? When you started penning the first book, did you know how this final book would conclude?

I began writing the first book – the Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter – without much idea of what would follow. Indeed, at the very start, I thought it would be a short story.

9200000084559751But, from your question, I’m guessing you’ve spotted various connections between book one and book six, The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man. The most obvious perhaps is the motif of Elizabeth’s pistol with the emblem of the leaping Hare inlaid in turquoise on the stock. As well as being a weapon, it is an object resonant with meaning for her, being the last gift from her father. It symbolizes that ideal of family life, which was taken from her and against which she measures her present reality.

I knew that her recollection of the past and what it meant would eventually be challenged. If you re-read the Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, you’ll find more clues layered in. Chapter 9 begins with a quotation that mentions the switching of guns in a conjuring trick, hinting that there may be an exact replica of Elizabeth’s pistol. Twins are mentioned twice in the following pages. All this was quite deliberate.

But don’t take that to mean the series was planned out. I knew about certain plot strands and story beats. But I didn’t know the story itself. By this, I mean, I did not understand the emotions – which are the foundation of the whole thing. Elizabeth would be confronted by her past in this final book of the trilogy. But how would she feel about it – this I did not know.

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Review: The Strange Bird

The Strange Bird.jpgTitle: The Strange Bird (2017)
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Pages: 109
Series: Borne #1.5 (Series Tracker)


I had a difficult time connecting with Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this novella set in the same world. The Strange Bird herself is an odd amalgamation – part bird, part human, part machine, part other. She’s sentient and self-aware, but ultimately disoriented. Her understanding of the world is fragmented, much like the composition of her body. 

The way VanderMeer describes bird flight in the story is evocative and beautiful. His love and appreciation for birds and their characteristics is obvious (check out his Twitter feed for further confirmation).

Overall, The Strange Bird is a moving and haunting story that reignited my interest in this world in anticipation of Borne‘s pseudo-sequel, Dead Astronauts, next on my to-read list.

★★★★½ out of 5

Review: Thrawn

Thrawn.jpgTitle: Thrawn (2017)
Author: Timothy Zahn
Pages: 449
Series: Thrawn #1, Star Wars Canon (Series Tracker)


I’m always impressed by authors who can write genius characters well. I hadn’t read anything by Timothy Zahn before this, but it’s clear he has Thrawn’s personality down pat. I’m enjoying how blurry the lines of Good vs. Evil are when it comes to Thrawn and his actions. His military decisions usually benefit humanity and minimize casualties, although it’s unclear whether that’s intentional or just the most prudent action for the time and place. I suspect these decisions will increase in complexity as he continues to rise the ranks in the Imperial Navy.

At times, it felt like there was a certain inevitability and repetitiveness to his advancement up the command chain, but that provided a nice juxtaposition to the stagnation of Ensign Eli Vanto’s career. I was less enthralled by the secondary storyline, but things came together nicely in the end and I’m excited to continue on with this series.

★★★★ out of 5

Review: The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man

9780857668448.jpgTitle: The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man (January 14, 2020)
Author: Rod Duncan
Pages: 400
Series: The Map of Unknown Things #3, Gas-Lit Empire #6 (Series Tracker)


Elizabeth Barnabus, our intrepid adventurer, having made it to the Free States of America, is pursued, caught, and eventually escapes the custody of Gas-Lit Empire agents. She flees to a kingdom in Oregon, where a power-hungry monarch has plans for eastward conquest. Only a grand illusion and an assist from a long-lost ally can save her skin and keep the world from falling into ruin.

This is the sixth and final(?) adventure for Elizabeth and these books have been really enjoyable. This specific trilogy has improved with each subsequent installment, with each book exploring a new frontier and story type. Book 1 was a seafaring tale, Book 2 a revenge story, and Book 3 now deals with court intrigue and politics. While I’m less interested in the world-altering events that Elizabeth continues to be mixed up with, her personal journey is the hook that keeps me coming back for more. The smaller moments of this book that deal with Elizabeth finding her identity, her family, and her real place in the world are exceedingly well done. 

In all, this is a satisfying conclusion to a six-book, two-trilogy saga that has been supremely entertaining and well-told by an author with a wonderful flair for storytelling.

★★★★ out of 5

My thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Master & Apprentice

1_PQZJXDgG295D8TMrIa-2yg.jpegTitle: Master & Apprentice (2019)
Author: Claudia Gray
Pages: 400
Series: Star Wars Canon (Series Tracker)


My knowledge of the Star Wars canon outside of the films is extremely limited. The dawn of Disney+ and the excellent debut of The Mandalorian have sparked my interest to see what else was out there in this faraway galaxy… I’ve never read any fan fiction or media tie-in novels, so it was a bit of an adjustment to read new stories about established characters like the Jedis Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. 

Author Claudia Gray does some excellent character work in this novel – she adds depth to existing characters while introducing several new characters to the story. Each individual is given agency, clear motivations, and satisfying arcs across the board. I particularly enjoyed the dynamic Gray establishes between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. Their seemingly incompatible personality traits and frequent head-butting paired with their respect and mutual admiration for one another made for a nicely nuanced portrayal of master and apprentice.

I had a few minor quibbles about the use of modern day language disrupting my immersion and some dragging in the middle of the book, but all in all I found this to be an engaging and enjoyable interplanetary adventure story.

★★★¾ out of 5

Review: The Bone Ships

Barker-The-Bone-ShipsTitle: The Bone Ships (September 24, 2019)
Author: R.J. Barker
Pages: 512
Series: The Tide Child #1 (Series Tracker)


What a wonderful adventure! This was my first experience with R.J. Barker’s work and I came away quite impressed with his skill as a storyteller. He drops us into the fully-formed world of the Hundred Isles, a sea-dominated region that’s peppered with small islands. Two warring territories, each equipped with extremely valuable ships made from ancient dragon bones, are stuck in constant and endless conflict. When the first dragon in generations is sighted, the race is on to be the first to track it down.

Barker’s prose is rich but rough and perfectly suited for a seafaring tale. You can taste the ocean spray and feel the sway of the ships as they traverse the angry seas. The world is filled with unique flora and fauna, but the setting still feels familiar and accessible.

The book also features really satisfying character work, most notably through the main characters Joron and Lucky Meas and the cultivation of their relationship with each other and with the rest of their crew. The connection that is forged between Joron and the Gullaime, the ship’s enigmatic, bird-like “windtalker,” is particularly touching. I hope we see more of the Gullaime in future books because the page (and I) lit up whenever it would appear.

Generally, I like to finish books quickly so I can move on to the next thing in my stack, but it was really gratifying to spend extra time with such a well-crafted novel. Even the artwork on the chapter headings is meticulously crafted and beautiful.

All in all, this is a superb start to an exciting new series. The worldbuilding, the prose, the character development, and the story beats are all top-notch. I’m already anxiously anticipating book two. In the meantime, I’m going to jump back and give Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy a try to see if that is also to my liking.

★★★★½ out of 5

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: A Choir of Lies

A-Choir-of-Lies-cover-683x1024Title: A Choir of Lies (September 10, 2019)
Author: 
Alexandra Rowland
Pages: 
464
Series: A Conspiracy of Truths #2 (Series Tracker)


Alexandra Rowland’s A Conspiracy of Truths took me by surprise in 2018. I deemed it an “unexpectedly delightful story featuring a wonderfully eccentric narrator named Chant.” I was just as surprised, in this follow-up book, to see Chant left by the wayside in favor of a story focusing on Ylfing, Chant’s former apprentice. Ylfing is now a wayward soul, untethered, searching for purchase in a new city, having left his name, his master, and his personal connections behind. In many ways, his experience is mirroring that of the reader. Without the anchor of Chant and his splendid narration, we’re left to pick up the pieces along with Ylfing.

It’s a bold choice to change gears so drastically from one book to the next, but it pays off well. The overarching plot about a mysterious flower serves as a backdrop to the real story of Ylfing’s personal growth. The book itself is “written” by Ylfing in a manuscript format with a bevy of footnote comments by an opinionated newcomer who slowly comes into focus.

In the end, this book is charming, heartening, and well worth your time. It feels like Rowland is just getting started here. They’re an exciting, fresh voice in fantasy and I’m excited to see what yarn they spin next.

★★★★ out of 5

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

Harrow_Ten-Thousand-Doors-of-January_HC-1Title: The Ten Thousand Doors of January (September 10, 2019)
Author: Alix E. Harrow
Pages: 384


The hype surrounding this book has been building for several months now – I was lucky enough to land an ARC and do believe the buzz is warranted. The writing is beautiful and lush. The story is sad and sweet in equal measure. The world is captivating and I truly felt transported back in time. January is a well-drawn character, full of life and verve and nuance. She was a wonderful window into this fantastical world. 

The way the first half of the novel is structured kept me from getting into the flow of the story until the second half, but the payoff of that structure is worthwhile. This, coupled with some uneven pacing and a few unearned twists, kept me from going above 4 stars. Nevertheless, if you enjoy Seanan McGuire’s ongoing Wayward Children series (with the whimsy turned down a bit) or other portal fantasy stories then you’ll have a marvelous time with January and her Ten Thousand Doors. 

 

★★★½ out of 5

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Recursion

RecursionTitle: Recursion (2019)
Author: Blake Crouch
Pages: 336


A dynamic “what if” novel that builds and builds as the unintended consequences of messing with memories threaten to unmake the world.

I was worried that the mind bending nature of the story would be too hard to follow, but Crouch doles out the complexity slowly and never piles on too much quantum theory at once. I read this in one sitting and really enjoyed my time with it. It’s quickly paced and features well-drawn, sympathetic characters. My main quibble is that the ending did not live up to the great buildup that came before it.

With back-to-back sharp, page-turning sci-fi thrillers, Blake Crouch has certainly found a genre sweet spot for his writing talents. If you liked Recursion, definitely check out Crouch’s Dark Matter or Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays for something similar with a lighter touch.

★★★★ out of 5