Summer Reading List 2022: The beginning

One down, two more to go. I had started a couple of nonfiction books, but they just haven’t been holding my attention. So let’s go with a novel instead.


Title: Blood of Empire
Author: Brian McClellan
Genre: Fantasy
Year: 2019

This is the culmination of the second trilogy in the Powder Mage universe, one of my absolute favorite fantasy settings ever. And that includes the ones I’ve made. (To be perfectly honest, at least one of them came about because of the original Powder Mage series.)

I’m just going to say this right now: I loved this book. It took four days to read, longer than its 650 pages would indicate, but that’s because I read it before going to bed each night, and work means I can’t do the eight-hour marathon reads anymore. But every minute was worth it. Every page was worth it.

With what’s effectively the sixth and final book in a series, you would expect a lot of action. And you certainly get it. This being epic fantasy with guns, you’d expect something climactic and almost apocalyptic. You get that, too. At no point did I feel like there was a wasted chapter. Some scenes did drag a little, but the pacing was relentless almost the whole time.

If anything suffered, it was the characters. Vlora, one of the three protagonists throughout this series, seemed a little dull. Part of this was because of her story arc, which involved recuperating from a near-mortal injury at the end of the previous book; that’s forgivable, though it was odd that she became the character I was least interested in reading. Of the other two, Styke was good at the beginning and end, but otherwise felt…impotent; Michel (note: he and I do not share a name!) actually grew on me. The rest of the cast, however, struck me as lackluster. They were there because of the action, rather than being the causes of it. In other words, this is very much a plot-focused novel, not a character-focused one. But that’s epic fantasy for you.

It’s a small price to pay, if I’m honest. It was good to let go for a change, to turn my mind off and get lost in a world again. And what I read felt like the end of an era. The storylines were resolved, although McClellan did leave a tantalizing hook for a future sequel; that annoyed me at first, because it seemed like the perfect excuse for a set piece. We also got an almost literal deus ex machina and a country full of ginger ninjas. I don’t know whether to count those as points for or against.

Most importantly for today’s world, I feel, is that Brian McClellan was able to write without getting bogged down in external politics. Yes, half of the Adran generals are women. Quite a few of the men are, to put it in internet parlance, cucked. Yet that never causes a problem. There’s a very, very oblique reference to one of the enemy leaders possibly being a lesbian, but even that’s more of a footnote, rather than the blazing neon sign some other authors would use. Nobody is going on about trans rights or other nonsense. The racial issues are handled very well. That’s refreshing to see, and I think it helped my enjoyment of the novel.

Riflepunk, like any other subgenre of fantasy, isn’t for everyone. But if you’re interested in mixing magic with firearms, the Powder Mage series is one of the best introductions. Start with Promise of Blood. By the time you get to Blood of Empire, you’ll be as hooked as I am.

Rock on

I grew up with rock music. Whether it was the classics of the 60s and 70s, the grunge and alternative that hit their stride as I was reaching adolescence, or the 80s pop rock in between, that was my jam. I never got into country, despite living in Tennessee—and having an uncle who knew all the country stars of yesteryear. Rap? Not for me. And metal only caught my ear after I was grown, so only one genre got to take center stage in my younger days.

For a few years, though, it seemed like rock was getting the short end of the stick in terms of popularity. Most of the 2010s just didn’t have anything worth listening to. The fads were faux-indie bands with banjos (think Mumford and Sons or Lumineers) or the screaming and growling that trickled down from thrash and metalcore. For people who just wanted to hear music, the pickings were slim.

That’s really started to change in the past five years, and we’ve seen a lot of great songs, albums, and artists in that span. After half a decade of doldrums, rock is back. Here are a few songs that have made an impact on me in that time. First, the emotional impact.

  • “Under Your Scars” by Godsmack. We’ll just start off big, with a song I have never been able to finish without getting misty-eyed. This might be the perfect ballad, and it’s by a band known for…kind of the opposite of ballads. Still, it’s a song about coming to terms with your imperfections, and realizing that you don’t have to be perfect to be loved. Maybe that’s why it brings me to tears.

  • “Redemption” by Three Days Grace. This one just came out a few weeks ago, but it’s already rising to the top. Again, that’s because it’s one of those that hits me where I hurt. I still think Adam Gontier is the better singer, but Matt Walst nails it here.

  • “Daylight” by Shinedown. Another one released not all that long ago. (Last week, in fact.) Shinedown remains one of my favorite rock bands, and not only because they were the headline act at the one concert I actually attended. But their albums in the 2010s were very lackluster, in my opinion. Nowhere near the quality of Sound of Madness. Everything I’ve heard from them this year, however, sounds like a return to form.

  • “Heat Above” by Greta Van Fleet. This isn’t a song that makes me cry, but it’s one that gives me a feeling that’s hard to describe. I’ve often written about the idea of innocence on here. It’s a theme that I carry through many of my stories. And something about this song makes me feel innocent. Maybe because it’s moderately upbeat without being sappy, psychedelic while still sounding new, or something else. I just feel younger listening to it.

  • “Autumn Breeze” by The Allman Betts Band. The Allman Brothers Band has always been one of my favorites. I can remember lying in the back seat of my parents’ car (before they divorced, even before my brother was born), listening to “Ramblin’ Man” and getting lost in the melody. Growing up, I heard the stories my uncle told of playing and partying with the band. And I will tell you right now that this song is the one that proves the children are following in their fathers’ footsteps. It’s beautiful, and it’s Southern. Doesn’t get better than that.

Beyond the emotional impact of good music, rock is also becoming the home of “subversive” music. More and more artists are fighting against the narrative, while “popular” acts who made a career out of being rebels are supporting it. Rage Against The Machine, Foo Fighters, and The Offspring all have all required experimental gene therapy as a condition of attending their concerts. That’s sick enough, but at least others have joined the good guys with their music.

  • “Planet Zero” by Shinedown. (Yes, I put two of theirs in, but “Daylight” hadn’t come out when I first envisioned this post.) “They’re murdering our heroes” is an apt description of the woke mob today. The message is a little subtle, but that’s what makes it good. It doesn’t beat you over the head with the fact that some 30% of the country would gladly put you in a concentration camp because you know that there are only two sexes. Plus, it’s a great song.

  • “Zombified” by Falling In Reverse. Kind of the opposite. Here, cancel culture is explicitly called out, and that’s because it’s the artist’s personal experience. I’ve never liked zombies. I like even less that some people (even in my own family!) are turning into them. So I’m glad that someone else recognizes what’s going on and is willing to speak up.

  • “Trust The Science” by The Lone Wolf (ft. Topher). Tommy Vext basically got kicked out of Bad Wolves for telling the truth. The 2020 election was stolen, George Soros is undermining our Republic, and nobody needs a vaccine for a cold. As a solo artist, he can say it however he wants, and so he does. This track is rap rock, and every single word is there to take the evildoers to task.

  • “Stand Up” by Papa Roach. When I was a teenager, Papa Roach was the emo kid cutting his arms and crying about how much he wanted to kill himself. Now, he’s one of the few strong voices speaking out. Not what I would’ve expected back in 1998. This song isn’t as overtly political, but it’s a good fight song that slips in some shots at mass media and propaganda.

I could go on, but I won’t. The point I’m making is that rock is not dead. It never was. Maybe it went to sleep for a while, but it woke up a few years ago. Since then, it has only gotten louder, stronger, and more willing to take a stand. Music can move people, as the first half of this list shows, so it’s a good thing that so many of the movers are pushing in the right direction.