Review: LOOKING THROUGH LACE, by Ruth Nestvold (and Teaser Tuesday)

Teaser Tuesday #13

This week I’ve decided to mix one of my usual TEASER TUESDAY posts with a brief review of this novella, that I received through Instafreebie in exchange for an honest review.  Teaser Tuesday is an intriguing meme started by Miz B over at Books and a Beat.

Teaser Tuesday

All you have to do is:

• Grab your current read

• Open to a random page

• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

• Share the title & author, too, so that other Teaser Tuesday participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

11213638I was curious about this story because I am familiar with the author’s name, but had never read anything by her: now that I have I will certainly add some more of her books to my reading queue.

Antonia (Toni) Donato is a young xenolinguist who is enrolled for a tour on the planet Christmas – so called because of the inverted Christmas tree shape of its main continent – to study the humanoid natives’ languages, especially the women’s, who seem to possess one all of their own, not spoken with and by the men.   Her initial excitement about the project, one that could launch her career out of obscurity, is marred by the project manager’s dismissive attitude toward her skills, one that quickly transforms into open obstruction once Toni is able to reach some small breakthrough in the puzzle of the women’s language.

I’ve always been fascinated by stories dealing with first contact with alien cultures, and this one – even though the ‘aliens’ are quite human-like – is made doubly interesting by the strong link between language and customs, and the questions about the origins of both.

What Toni discovers will turn all the previous findings – and her own assumptions – on their head and lead to a conclusion I found both bittersweet and highly satisfying.  Ruth Nestvold is indeed a writer I must keep on my radar.

The lace mentioned in the title plays an important role in the economy of the story, and so I have chosen a quote that showcases it while offering a clue to the interpretation of the title itself:

Our ways differ so much, when you say one thing, I understand another. We can’t help but see each other through the patterns we know from the cultures we grew up with. Like looking through lace — the view isn’t clear, the patterns get in the way.

Fascinating, indeed.

Review: THE DRAGON’S PATH, by Daniel Abraham (The Dagger and the Coin #1)

8752885This book has been sitting on my virtual shelf for quite some time now: I did start reading it, a while back, but it was not the right moment for it – it does happen sometimes, when I realize that a book has the potential to be a good one for me, but I’m not in the right frame of mind to appreciate it as it deserves. So I set it aside, and in the interim read Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet – which I loved – and as time went by, the author managed to publish all five books in this series: on hindsight, that was quite fortunate, because I will not have to wait for the other four volumes to be published. After a somewhat slow start, this story and these characters took hold of my imagination, and I’m certain I will need to follow the rest of their journey as soon as possible. Knowing I can is indeed a great relief…

The Dragon’s Path’s world-building is deceptively standard for the genre, following a number of characters moving across the kingdom of Antea, where political unrest is brewing toward war. Young Cithrin bel Sarcour, an orphan and ward of the Medean Bank, is tasked with the job of taking the bank’s funds out of the city of Vanai before the unavoidable invasion by a conquering army. Cithrin joins a caravan escorted by Captain Marcus Wester, a war hero with a painful past, his Tralgu lieutenant Yardem Hane, and a group of traveling performers enrolled to act as guards. On the eve of Vanai’s conquest, Geder Palliako, son of a minor noble and the butt of cruel jokes by his comrades, tries to fit the soldier’s mold while dreaming a life of scholarly pursuits. And Dawson Kalliam, shrewd politician close to Antea’s ruler and staunch believer of the “old ways”, navigates the court’s many intrigues while pursuing his own goals.

The world itself dimly remembers its past, an age in which dragons ruled and men – all thirteen different species of them – were their servants. The only legacy left by these mythical rulers are the roads, covered in enduring material, that link the cities of men and on which travelers and armies move. On the surface, this would not look so different from many other similar backgrounds, with a medieval-like society, a few hints of magic, and the required components of war and intrigue; some of the characters might appear as tropes, especially the world-weary former soldier and the young orphan on a quest. And yet, as the story unfolds, we discover that there is more here that meets the eye.

For starters, the ancient history that’s mentioned in passing offers an intriguing glimpse into a past that is as fascinating as it is nebulous, and the many different species of men – some of them quite exotic-looking – represent another point of interest, though hardly explored. With five books in this saga, it’s possible that more will be explained in the next installments and that the few peeks offered to the readers might get expanded later: at this point, more would have been a distraction and it would have overburdened the narrative flow – at least in my opinion. More importantly, one of the novel’s focal points is on economics and business, prime motivators in any society – real or fictional – and the space that these elements are given here shows how they are just as important as an army’s might or the influence of powerful men. This is a new and very welcome twist in the story, one that is developed in an easy-to-understand and intriguing way, adding to the many facets of this novel.

What truly drives The Dragon’s Path forward, however, are the characters: if Marcus Wester is a little standardized for the genre – former soldier who turned mercenary after a bloody betrayal that cost his wife and daughter their lives – he grew on me as the story unfolded, and I enjoyed his exchanges with his wingman Yardem, whose subdued humor is always delightful, and his complicated relationship with young Cithrin. Dawson Kalliam does not possess any of the characteristics that would endear him to me – he’s “old guard” to the bone, and something of a martinet – but his adversaries are such that I ended up rooting for him anyway, hoping his plans would succeed. Dawson’s most intriguing feature comes from his wife Clara, the real “power behind the throne” and a woman so subtly powerful, clever and manipulative that I hope there will be more about her in the following books. Master Kit, the leader of the acting troupe, is an interesting character as well, and there is just that hint of mystery about him that makes him worth keeping one’s eye on.

Cithrin bel Sarcour and Geder Palliako are the two figures that drew most of my attention, though. On the surface, Cithrin looks like the proverbial girl on a quest, the kind that will lead her on a journey of discovery and growth, but there is much more to her than that. Forced to assume the enormous responsibility of smuggling the Medean Bank’s riches out of doomed Vanai, she at first struggles with this burden and the need to keep a low profile, all the while trying to survive outside of the sheltered world where she grew up. But once she can do away with the cover-up, she starts to come into her own, showing her skills as a banker and revealing her determination to forge a path for herself through those skills: the fact that the road is far from easy and that she moves along it through trial and error – sometimes with painful results – only adds to the depths of this character that shows a great deal of promise for the future.

As for Geder… Well, I’m very ambivalent toward him, and I say that as a compliment toward the complexity of his character: when we first meet him, he looks like what we would nowadays call a “nerd” – not very physically-inclined, more interested in “speculative essays” than in the rules of war, he’s the target of his comrades’ jokes and cruel hazing. There is enough, in Geder’s psychological makeup, to make us root for him, especially when he manages to find some sort of courage once he’s in the midst of his first real battle, but when a series of circumstances raises him from obscurity and derision toward a brilliant political career, something in him changes, and not for the best. Underestimated and reviled up to that point, Geder finds himself invested with unlooked-for power, while at the same time realizing that everyone sees him as a joke even though they are forced to bow to his commands: something does snap at that point, and he makes a decision that left me stunned for its unthinking ferociousness, so that I started to wonder about Geder’s true nature, whether I had totally misread him, because the act seemed so contrary to his personality as shown until then.

As a long-time Babylon5 fan, the step toward a comparison with Londo Mollari was a very short one for me: in both cases we deal with people who are looking for redress, Geder for himself and Londo for his people, and when they are in the position to do so they take a path toward darkness, more or less aware of the price they will ultimately have to pay for it, but willing to do it, despite the doubts and nightmares that plague them. From the point of Geder’s meeting with the mysterious priest Basrahip, servant of the goddess of truth, the similarity has become foremost in my mind, and I can’t shake the feeling that Basrahip could be Geder’s Mr. Morden…

Even though The Dragon’s Path beginning is something of a slow burn – probably the reason for my original doubts – it quickly finds its pace and evolves into a solid, promising first installment of a series I know I’m going to enjoy. Highly recommended.

 

My Rating:

TEASER TUESDAY #12

Teaser Tuesday is an intriguing meme started by Miz B over at Books and a Beat.

All you have to do is:

• Grab your current read

• Open to a random page

• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

• Share the title & author, too, so that other Teaser Tuesday participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Teaser Tuesday

This week’s offering comes from a book I just finished reading, Alastair Reynold’s HOUSE OF SUNS, a sweeping space opera that encompasses both space and time, since the characters are long-lived people who spend their lives traveling across the galaxy, gathering knowledge that they store and trade as a very useful commodity.

We did have almost everything we could dream of. We had lived for millions of ears, crossed the galaxy countless time over, drunk from the riches and glories of ten million cultures. […] Entire civilizations owed their existence to our good deeds, unwitnessed and uncommemorated. We did marvelous, saintly things and we never stopped to ask for thanks.

Intriguing, isn’t it?

Review: THOSE ACROSS THE RIVER, by Christopher Buehlman

10772903Right after the great find that was “The Lesser Dead”, I wanted to read more of Christopher Buehlman’s work and settled on this shortish novel set in the era of the Great Depression.  Here the main character is former WWI soldier Frank Nichols, still haunted by nightmares about his war experiences: he lost his job as a history teacher after starting an affair with the young wife of a colleague with friends in high places, so that he and Dora – who divorced her husband to follow Frank – seem to find a break in their difficult situation when Frank’s aunt leaves him a small inheritance and the deed to a house in Whitbrow, Georgia.  Forsaking the aunt’s warning about selling the house and never setting foot in the place, the two decide to start a new life: Dora will teach at the local school and Frank will write a book about the cruel history of a nearby plantation, owned by one of his ancestors and the theatre of a bloody slave revolt.

Shortly after arriving in Whitbrow, though, the couple starts hearing vague warnings about never walking in the woods across the river – curiously enough, the location of the old plantation – and they are faced with a strange ritual: every two months, the village’s inhabitants release two pigs into the woods, following a tradition that seems almost festive, if it were not for the historical moment’s privations and the need to provide for more urgent needs.  It goes without saying that the collective decision to bow to the time’s hardships will unleash an unstoppable chain of terrible events…

What’s fascinating in this novel is that the truly supernatural horror, whose origin is revealed a good way into the story, seems to take almost second place to a different, and more human-related kind of dread.  Whitbrow is a stagnant place, not only as a result of the Great Depression (even though its mark is deeply felt), but more as the product of an age-old torpor that has taken possession of the minds and souls of its inhabitants, and that quickly ensnares Frank as well.  The drive to write his novel is soon drowned in the daily visits to the local store, where he engages in endless checkers games with the patrons under the guise of gathering background information for his story, but in truth succumbing to the timeless inertia that seems to be the village’s modus vivendi.

Whitbrow’s dullness goes hand in hand with a deeply rooted distrust of strangers, of those who are different: this extends to both out-of-owners (their quick acceptance of Frank due solely to his family ties) and the truly different, like the homeless moving across the land and, of course, black people.  There are a few scenes where the animosity toward these “aliens” is shown in no uncertain terms: given the recurrence of this phenomenon in our present times, the unwillingness of some to extend human consideration toward the less fortunate “outsiders”, these pages take on a far more chilling flavor than it was probably intended at the time they were written…

And then there is the closing of the villagers’ minds to anything new, to the possibility of attaining something better in one’s life: Dora’s struggle to keep the children in school when their families prefer to steer them toward field work, is one such example. There is one situation in which she and Frank go to the home of one of her most gifted pupils, in the hope of offering her more advanced schooling, and the scene that Buehlman depicts is both historically accurate and vivid, as they are met with cold indifference and mulish refusal from the girl’s father, and a sort of hopeless compliance from the daughter:

[…] looked up from the chicken she was plucking in the kitchen and peeked through the doorway, but she did not risk a hello. I guess she never knew exactly when to speak in this house, but with her daddy it was good to err in favor of silence.

After these all-too-real evils, the apparition of the true horror seems almost mundane, even though the discovery brings forth an abomination that goes back a long time, something that has always dwelled near the village – ignored and maybe conveniently forgotten. And this is where the story’s magic fell somewhat short for me: from the opening’s chilling preview to the big reveal there is an increasing sense of foreboding that unfortunately loses steam once the proverbial cat (or rather critter) is out of the bag and the carefully crafted buildup flounders in a great deal of anti-climatic exposition that does not fully realize the expectations I nurtured up to that moment.

All in all it was still a good read, but I’m sorry I cannot rate it as high as the previous book I sampled from this author, even though this slight disappointment will not prevent me from exploring further Mr. Buehlman’s work.

My Rating:


TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY #10

This GoodReads group proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.

This weeks’ topic is: BOOKS YOU WANT TO SEE AS TV SHOWS

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This is a great topic indeed, particularly for me: my usual consumption of speculative fiction does not stop at books, but also includes a good portion of tv shows, so that the idea of a series taken from a book looks like having the best of both worlds.

The recent success of The Expanse – taken from the book series with the same name by James S. A. Corey, a saga I love beyond words – is indeed a case in point, so let’s see what else I would like to see translated on the small screen…

Every time I read – or revisit – a book from Lois McMaster Bujold’s VORKOSIGAN SAGA I think that it would be excellent material for a tv show: space opera, humor, politics and an interesting setting with wormholes connecting various colonized worlds. And of course Miles Vorkosigan himself, his family and friends (not to mention the foes): with the right casting this could turn out into a huge success, and also attract viewers who are not “into” science fiction, because the stories are not so much about spaceships and technology, but people. And people are always fascinating…

18966819One of the most riveting book series I read lately is Pierce Brown’s RED RISING: set on Mars, where a strict class division forces most people to serve the ruling Golds, it follows the journey of a lowly Red – a miner who, like all of his people believes he’s working to terraform the planet for future generations, not knowing he’s being exploited by the Golds – who infiltrates the upper echelons of society, bent first on revenge and then on changing the rules.  I often think that with good scripting and an enlightened choice of actors this could be for science fiction what Game of Thrones was for fantasy.

Urban Fantasy as a genre has been rising steadily, these past few years, both in reader appreciation and in15812812 number and quality of books. Two of my favorite series would lend themselves very well to a tv show: one of them is M.L. Brennan GENERATION V, that starts with the vampire trope in a new, fresh approach and through a main character that is both a reluctant blood-sucker and something of a wimp, at least in the beginning.  His growth and the changes he undergoes make for a fascinating read and would be equally intriguing on a tv screen, and I would love nothing more than to see his interactions with Suzume the shapeshifter, friend, companion and thorn in the side.

The other book series that would be a great UF show is Seanan McGuire’s OCTOBER DAYE: half-human, half fae, October belongs to neither world and at the beginning of the story has lost everything that mattered to her. Slowly, as she plies her trade as a private investigator in a very peculiar San Francisco, where the mundane blends with the magical only for those who are able to see, she gathers a group of friends that become family and face with her the dangers of this world.  It would be a great show, full of darkness and dangers, but also of wonder and love – and they had better do a careful casting for Tybalt. Just saying…

LooktoWindwardLast but not least, as I walk my way though Iain Banks’ CULTURE series, I ofter think they would translate into wonderful productions: they would be expensive, granted, because the “strange, new worlds” depicted there, the immense orbitals, the sentient ships or the talking drones of every shape and size would require an enormous amount of CGI, but it would be worth it, because these are stories that capture one’s imagination like no other. And the potential for social commentary offered by the Culture, a post-scarcity society where everyone can be whatever they want, is immense, especially considering that this virtual Paradise is not immune from some snakes.

What about you? What would you like to see next?

Review: DARK ASCENSIONS (Generation V #4), by M.L. Brennan

23590296After finishing this book I went in search of information on the Generation V series, and the possibilities to keep on reading about Fort, Suzume & Co., and what I found did not encourage me greatly: there are two more books planned, but they have yet to… find a home, so to speak, and therefore the author is concentrating on a new series. Much as I’m sorry to have to say goodbye (at least for now – I’m an incurable optimist) to these characters and their adventures, I can take comfort in the knowledge that I can look forward to more stories from M.L. Brennan: given how much I’ve enjoyed the Generation V novels, I know that I will buy everything she puts on the shelves, sight unseen.

That said, let’s move on to the review for the fourth installment in the series…

Transition. This is the word that has been looming ever larger on Fortitude Scott’s horizon since we first met him, and here – in a book that is mainly concerned with transformation and passage – that transition has become unavoidable, in more ways than one.   Madeleine Scott’s failing health, something we have been aware of from the very first novel in the series, has reached the point of no return and her passing heralds a series of changes that involve the main characters, both singly and as a group.

Madeline’s death is one the most quietly moving pieces of writing I can remember: I kept thinking, as I read, that in less skillful hands it could have skirted into cheap sentimentalism, but instead it turned into something that was both tragic and intensely emotional: “I felt the bond shatter, like a fluted sugar sculpture that had been spun out like stained glass and is dropped to the floor. The death of the bond, and the death of my mother, cut through me, and the pain was unimaginable.”  Those scenes were further enhanced by a few touches that reminded me both of a pharaoh’s death and a Viking’s funeral – which were entirely appropriate for such a strong, commanding character.  The aftermath presents what is probably the most difficult challenge that the Scott siblings have faced until now: since Madeline refused to name her heir, her three children are forced to work together and reach decisions… by committee.  Considering the huge difference in their personalities, the ensuing stalemate is hardly a surprise.

All three of them have come into their vampire-hood in different ways, so that Prudence – the eldest – is the less interested (to be nice about it…) in the collateral damage resulting from any decision, and her first and only answer to any problem remains destructive violence.  The phrase “death by Prudence” used by Fort at some point might be humorous in intent, but it paints an all too clear picture of the Scott firstborn’s attitude.  As the middle child, Chivalry stands between his two siblings, acknowledging Prudence’s need for a strong response and Fortitude’s penchant for the softer approach. And Fort himself, not surprisingly, is the one who always advocates taking the less violent, more humane path.

Once more I asked myself, as I observed the interpersonal dynamics between the three, if Madeline’s choice of different upbringings for her children was some sort of experiment, her way to shape a different path for her successors – or even for the vampire community. If the ultimate goal was to attain some kind of balance, the trio’s first attempts at it are less than successful, the only agreement they reach concerning as mundane a matter as the interior décor of the mansion…  What this means for the future of the family, and the empire Madeleine built, remains to be seen, although Prudence’s way of resolving the first impasse is far from encouraging. And yet there is hope for the three of them because – despite the differences in personality and outlook – they share a strong, if often unspoken, bond of affection transcending the individual leanings, much as Prudence’s side of it still scares the hell our of Fort, as he sums up with: “My sister was never more terrifying to me than when she was showing her affection.”

Another, more compelling consequence of the matriarch’s death is the completion of Fort’s transition into a vampire: until now, he has been able to deny his nature (or at least to keep at bay its less savory aspects) by emphasizing his humanity and accepting only the “good” sides of being a vampire, like increased strength and more acute senses. But without Madeline to draw blood from (in what I always saw as a very twisted analogue to breast-feeding…), Fortitude has no other choice but to submit to his needs, to finally acknowledge that he must drink blood to survive.  Again, I want to praise Ms. Brennan’s choice of giving this very dramatic moment a completely different outlook from what I expected: Suzume’s presence, as accomplice and moral support, removes any shade of horror or grossness from the scene, and even gives to Fort’s first feeding a patina of rightness that both eases him into this new side of his life (without “post-meal remorse”, as Suzume labels it) while helping the readers keep their image of the character substantially unchanged.

Suzume is indeed Fort’s center of gravity, the true rock on which he can stand – which is sort of funny, given the kitsune’s unpredictable behavior – and she’s the one who provides much-needed balance to his constantly shifting world and perspectives. Their relationship is one of the best facets of this story, because it’s quite unconventional and free of any traditionally romantic overtones – and how could it be, when Suze unashamedly bills the Scott family for the time she spends in Fort’s company? Despite this “hiccup” and the constant hazing she inflicts on him during his working hours (just two words: Kitsune Karaoke – enough said!), it’s clear that Suzume is quite committed to Fortitude and their relationship, and seems pleased when he takes a stand about it. Her ultimate goal is to wake him up to the though realities of life, so that they will not overcome him. As she tells him at some point: “I just don’t want you to end up like a marshmallow Peep in the microwave of the world.

This fourth book in the Generation V series is a game-changer, one that leaves its readers with many questions about future developments, and therefore makes the uncertainty about the continuation of the story doubly frustrating. Nonetheless this is a series I would recommend strongly to both enthusiasts of the genre and to those who are new to Urban Fantasy, on the strength of its rich characterization and strong writing.

My Rating:


Review: THEFT OF SWORDS (Riyria Revelation Omnibus 1), by Michael J. Sullivan

10790290This series has been on my radar for some time now, the kind of series I keep telling myself I need to start, sooner or later, but for some reason always ends on the back burner. With the announced publication of a new series that would act as a sort of prequel to the Ryiria Revelations, I knew it was high time for me to jump on this train, and finding the first two volumes of the series in a very convenient omnibus seemed like the kind of final nudge I needed.

The Crown Conspiracy introduces the readers to the (mis)adventures of Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn, two thieves-for-hire able to penetrate any location, no matter how secure, and to retrieve the objects required by their employers. For a price, of course.  A widespread fame like theirs is however bound to attract the wrong kind of attention, so that Hadrian and Royce find themselves framed for the murder of the king of Melengar as part of a multi-layered political plot to change the balance of power in the realm.  What follows is an adventurous romp through the country, with a kidnapped prince and, later, a very naive monk for company, on the run from the “bad guys” trying to capture and kill the two friends while advancing their dastardly plot.   In Avempartha, Hadrian and Royce are hired to retrieve a powerful sword that’s the only weapon able to destroy the monster preying on an unfortunate settlement of farmers.

Both stories travel on a current of adventure laced with humor and witty repartees, and peppered with characters that seem quite intent on poking fun at some of the staples of the genre: the haughty prince who badly needs an eye-opener on the realities of the realm; the strong-willed princess who nevertheless needs saving; the powerful wizard speaking in riddles (and old-fashioned language); the farm girl with a Destiny; and the required dragon.  But mostly the focus is, of course, on Hadrian and Royce, and the balance between brawn and brain they represent: Hadrian is more a man of action, a sword-wielder of great ability, while Royce is more proficient in lock-picking and in finessing their way out of trouble when needed – which means, almost always.

There are a few more serious issues explored in the books: the encroaching power of the religious faction, whose representatives are shown as dangerously manipulative; the treatment of elves, once a powerful force in the land and now reduced in virtual slavery, hunted and reviled as third-class citizens; the hints of a more enlightened past, whose higher achievements have become lost or forgotten.  All of this makes for an engaging read and the curiosity to learn more – but…

Sadly, there is a “but”: as entertaining as the story is, as entertaining as the main characters are, something feels off-track. We don’t seem to learn a great deal about the two main characters, apart from the fact they are long-time associates, work well with each other and are very good at exchanging quips even in the most dire of situations.  Moreover, much of the world’s background comes from huge chunks of “telling” as opposed to “showing”: the characters often (too often!) engage in long discussions about the past, or the current political situation, in a way that’s a bit too pedantic for my taste, and in so doing lose the momentum so far impressed to the story. The worst example of this can be found at the beginning of Avempartha, when Royce and Hadrian meet with some members of Royce’s old criminal guild: the leader of the group spends a great deal of time giving Hadrian a rundown of his friend’s past activities in the guild, with abundance of details, while the two are under the threat of physical harm. In my opinion, the unease generated by such an encounter is diluted by the conversational tone – and the overlong tale – to be as effective as it was probably meant to be.

Modern fantasy has led me to expect more from female characters, as well, and here I was less than satisfied with the offer: princess Arista looks, on the surface, like a strong-willed woman, but is soon revealed as too easily deceived (her continued blindness concerning a certain character becomes quickly irritating) and she is constantly in need of being saved, first from a false accusation of witchcraft (and a collapsing tower!) and later from being kidnapped by none less than a dragon.  Young Thrace, the peasant-girl-with-a-destiny, is almost raped before the two friends save her (insert sarcastic eye-roll), and once she’s cleaned of the grime that covers her, is revealed as startlingly beautiful, and blessed with child-like innocence.  The other woman of any relevance in the story is a whore with a heart of gold – at which I sighed heavily in despair, wondering if what I initially saw as amused fun thrown at some narrative tropes was not simply the unimaginative use of those tropes, instead.

This does not mean that I totally disliked the books, of course, to the point I’m willing to give this series another chance with the next two-volume omnibus in the hope to encounter some improvements in both characterization and narrative style: this series has received too many positive comments for me to give up on my first attempt.  But I will need to find some stronger storytelling to keep on reading…

My Rating:


Back in a while…

 

Holiday

 

Hello everyone!

As you will see from the sign, I will be away for a two-week vacation, a much-needed stop to recharge my spent batteries🙂

Since I can’t be sure about the internet connection, I have scheduled a couple of posts, but I will most likely be unable to reply to any comments or to comment on your own posts.  I promise, however, to do it on my return – cross my heart!

Happy reading and reviewing to you all!

Review: CONGRESS OF SECRETS, by Stephanie Burgis

28953200I received this book from Pyr Books through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to them both for the opportunity to read this novel.

If I enjoyed Stephanie Burgis’ previous book, Masks and Shadows, this one went well beyond any expectations I had, after my first encounter with this writer. Congress of Secrets is far richer and multi-faceted than its predecessor and I enjoyed it very much, as the levels of tension and intrigue kept me glued to the pages until the end.  The story is set a few decades after the events of Masks and Shadows, and follows new characters, although there is a passing mention of Marie Dommaier, the young maid-turned-opera singer, who seems to have become very famous and whose role appears to be the handing of the narrative baton to the new players.

Caroline Wyndham, a wealthy English widow, hides a secret: she was born Karolina Vögl, daughter of a Viennese printer arrested by the secret police twenty-five years previously for his illegal anti-establishment pamphlets. Karolina herself was a prisoner of Count Pergen, the head of the secret police, who held her – and other equally forgotten victims – as a subject for his experiments in dark magic and alchemy for several years.  She is now back in Vienna, with the pretext of following the Congress being held on the wake of Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat: her real goal is to find a way to free her father, the only one of Pergen’s inmates still to be released.

Michael Steinhüller is a professional con artist, and his latest scheme involves passing himself as a dispossessed Russian noble come to Vienna to obtain reparations for the losses suffered during Bonaparte’s campaigns of conquest. He’s no stranger to Caroline, either, since he was her father’s apprentice when the police came to arrest them all, and her last image of him – and Michael’s recurring shameful memory – is of Michael running for his life as the printer’s shop was torched.  When he meets Karolina/Caroline again, the past threatens to infringe on their respective plans and to intrude with uncomfortable memories and unspoken feelings.

Around these two main characters moves a number of either fictional or historical figures, making once more this novel a rich tale that intrigues with its core story and stimulates curiosity toward the events being depicted: if Peter Riesenbeck, the leader of an acting troupe traveling to Vienna in search of success and fame, is an imaginary construct, and the unwitting lynchpin around which part of the drama unfolds, there are also some very real people moving across the stage and weaving seamlessly between reality and fantasy. There is Emperor Francis and the dark secrets he shares with evil Count Pergen, another all too true figure from the past; or we encounter famous politicians as Talleyrand and Metternich; or again my favorite among the secondary players, the Prince de Ligne, who I discovered was a flesh-and-blood person, widely known for his wit and his scorn of political expedience: his friendship with Caroline and his avuncular curiosity toward her, and the mystery she represents, is one of the highlights of the story.

Of course much revolves around Caroline and Michael’s meeting, the emotional undercurrents of their past and present and the misunderstandings that threaten to drive them further apart: once more I commend Ms. Burgis for not placing the romance at the center of the story, but using it simply as part of the plot, leaving the daring schemes of the two under the spotlight.  Caroline herself is an intriguing character: like her virtual “sister” Charlotte von Steinbeck in Masks and Shadows, she works within the era’s social conventions, but manages to wield whatever power she can muster with skill and courage, driven by the need to free her father and the guilt she feels for the long years she was forced to abandon him to his destiny.  Caroline is no innocent – her truncated childhood saw to that in no small measure – and she’s not an angel either, able as she is to employ her feminine wiles to advantage, but at the same time her past experiences and the deals she had to make have not hardened her completely, and she retains a core of vulnerability that gives her personality a delightful complexity.

The magic elements of the novel are just as intriguing – and frightening: the darkness that inhabits count Pergen and allows him to draw energies from his victims, shifting them to himself or other recipients not unlike a blood transfusion, seems to have a connection with the dark, formless shapes that we saw in Masks and Shadows, and maybe is a sort of evolution of that entity, or a side manifestation. Much is left to the imagination and not explained completely (something I approve of) and the very insubstantial nature of the phenomenon is what makes it so terrifying and believable, especially in the final scenes of the unfolding drama.

If the story seems to end with a somewhat easy “and they lived happily thereafter”, it does so in a very satisfactory way – and after the horror and anguish visited on the characters for most of the time, I think they deserve it, and so do the readers.  The added value in this novel, even more than in its predecessor, lies in the curiosity that the author manages to instigate in her audience about the historical period in which the action is set, and in the real-life figures presented there. As always, a book that makes me think, besides its entertainment value, is a good one.

Very, very highly recommended.

My Rating:


Review: CHILDREN OF THE DIFFERENT, by S.C. Flynn

29864261I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review: unlike other submissions I accepted in the past, this one took a different path. The author is also a fellow blogger, and he built some anticipation for his book by sharing first an excerpt and then the cover art, an interesting – if puzzling, at the time – image that further piqued my curiosity.

Children of the Different is a post-apocalyptic novel dealing with the aftermath of the Great Madness, a wave of murderous, virus-driven insanity that swept the globe some twenty years previously, whose victims fell prey to an unstoppable killing instinct.  Apart from a number of people who proved to be immune – as it often happens with any kind of plague – the only ones to avoid the Madness’ effects were those who had previously exhibited mental problems of various gravity: they not only survived the infection, but their afflictions were cured. Those who did not fall into either category became Ferals: as the name suggests, they are little more than beasts attacking other people, killing them and feasting on their flesh.

Now, all children born after the Madness undergo, once they reach puberty, a process called “the Changing”: they enter a comatose state in which they experience the Dreamland, a place of the mind capable of affecting the body as well, so that an injury sustained there shows in all its painful tangibility in the waking world. The Changing can bestow unique powers on those youths, or transform them into Ferals, who are driven away from the communities where they grew up.

As the novel opens, young Arika just started her Changing, observed with huge trepidation by her twin brother Narrah, who is alternately worried for his sister and for the ordeal that will shortly claim him as well. The story unfolds following the twins’ experiences – both in the Changeland and in reality – while they slowly discover more about the world they live in, as it once was and as it is now: until their Changing they lived a very sheltered life in an isolated settlement, the only information about the outside provided by the elders of the community, and therefore lacking many important details that they need to complete the puzzle.

Arika and Narrah’s path is both a coming-of-age journey and a quest, and a fascinating one at that, since it develops on several planes, due to the intermingling of reality and dream-state, without forgetting the peculiar powers that both of them gain from their Changing: here is where I finally comprehended the full meaning of the cover image, and where I understood my feelings of dread when I observed the figure of the echidna, the Ant-eater that keeps plaguing the young protagonists both in the material world and the dream state. The malevolent countenance and the red eyes of this creature struck me as totally evil on the cover, so that when it appeared in the Changeland, threatening the twins, it appeared even more of a danger than it would have from description alone.

As far as dystopian novels go, this one was quite unlike my previous experiences, and it was a very welcome change: for starters, the Australian setting is unusual for the genre, and it adds a further dimension to the post-apocalyptic landscape, imbued as it is with some Aboriginal wisdom and customs, which give it a distinctive flavor in respect of similarly set novels.  Then there are the main characters: forget the much-used (and abused) tropes of angsty youngsters, whining about the unfairness of the world or dealing with the equally ubiquitous love triangles – Arika and Narrah feel like real, flesh-and-blood teenagers, eager to take their place in the world and at the same time plagued with doubts and uncertainties, but strong enough to want to face any obstacle before them. Their courage comes from the awareness of the responsibilities they carry toward each other first, and then toward their community and, later on, the wider world; the love and the strong bond they share is the power that drives them forward through hardships and terror, and it’s a delightful and very real emotion to behold.   

The interweaving of reality and mind-scape is another fascinating side of this story, because it helps focus on the changes that the Great Madness brought to what remains of humankind: if the real world is scary enough, what with the constant threat of Ferals, or other humans preying on the weak, the Changeland is much worse, if nothing else because of its unpredictability and the opportunity for other, stronger minds, to affect it and create nightmarish dangers.  Following the twins during their Changings, or the later visits they are compelled to pay to this dream-state, can be a disturbing experience, one that personally made me hold my breath more than once, such was the power of the images I found there.

This is a novel primarily directed at a young audience, and as such it suffers a bit from the need of detailed exposition and the reiteration of a few basic concepts – both instances probably aimed at strengthening the understanding and attention span of its intended target, though slightly jarring for a more… mature reader. That notwithstanding, the story is a fascinating one, and the characters very easy to relate to and care about, so that I feel perfectly comfortable in recommending this novel to everyone who wants to hear a new voice in the speculative fiction panorama.

My Rating: