Reviews

The Winter Long – Seanan McGuire

TheWinterLong_155x250There was a sentence in this book’s foreword that made me fear for a moment this could be the final book in the series, because Seanan McGuire states that “Everything I have done with October’s world to this point has been for the sake of getting here, to the book that you now hold in your hands”. Luckily it was not so.  First, a quick peek at the author’s website assured me there are several more titles in preparation, and second, hindsight showed me that what she meant with those words is that this book was intended to be a huge game changer. And indeed it is…

It’s going to be difficult to review The Winter Long without mentioning important plot details, but to do so would mean spoiling the many surprises a reader has in store with this eighth installment in the October Daye series, so I ask your forgiveness if I will sound more cryptic than the Sphinx at times.

The book is mainly about revelations: revelations on Toby’s past, revelations on her mother Amandine (a figure that’s still heavily shrouded in mystery), but above all we are treated with new insights on the beginnings of Toby’s story.  When we first encountered this character, in Rosemary and Rue, she had just come back to life after spending sixteen years as a fish in a pond, transformed by a spell incurred during her investigation on the kidnapping of her liege lord’s wife and child. Back then at the beginning Toby was lonely and adrift, having lost everything that mattered to her, while at present she has built herself new bonds with family and friends – people who care deeply for her and for whom she cares just as deeply.

All this however does not cushion her from the shock of meeting Simon Torquill, the brother of her liege lord Sylvester, the abductor of his sister-in-law and niece and the one responsible for Toby’s own transformation. Simon’s appearance and enigmatic announcements take her literally back to square one, and she learns that the truth – if there is any to be found, indeed – is not what she thought until that moment. October must deal with the crumbling foundations of her certainties and forge ahead in the darkness – sometimes figurative, sometimes literal – to prevent a hostile takeover and the upheaval of both her life and her world.

And this is as much as I dare to reveal about the plot…

One of the reasons I’ve greatly enjoyed this series, apart from the main character and the wonderful mix of secondary figures orbiting her, is the constant growth I’ve seen in October: from a broken-down person with no ties to either world (the “normal”, everyday world and faerie), she becomes a strong woman who harbors no fear of tackling anything or anyone threatening the people she cares about.  She is not, however, the classical Urban Fantasy kick-ass character who flies unscathed through adversities, leaving a trail of defeated enemies in her wake: no, October suffers and bleeds in the course of her adventures, she remains fallible and she learns from her mistakes, even though she’s still prone to making new ones.  She is part fae and does have some powers, but her spirit remains very human, and the way she balances on this narrow line is part and parcel of her strength as a character.

Here, in this eighth book, Toby is forced to throw away almost everything she knew for certain and start over – and not only that: she must deal with betrayals and a web of lies she was unaware of.  These revelations are more painful than enlightening, and I love the way she reacts, again moving along the narrow border between sorrow and rage in the way I’ve come to expect from her.  This is what McGuire must have meant when she said she had been working for seven books to reach: a complete change of the rules of the game, and a new start.  Where this new start will lead… well, it’s something I will have the pleasure of discovering in the next books.

A few words about other characters: some of them gain new facets as we get to know them better, like the Luidaeg – the sea witch who is October’s main ally and a wonderful, snarky character that’s one of McGuire’s best creations; or Quentin – October’s squire, who is growing more than just in years and height; or Tybalt – King of Cats and October’s lover, whose mix of flowery, Shakespearean language and witty humor gives us some of the best moments of the book.  But the biggest surprise comes from Sylvester Torquill and his wife Luna: until now they were October’s go-to persons for advice and shelter, but in the huge upheaval brought on by this book they are the ones who undergo the deepest changes, especially Sylvester.  What I always perceived as silent wisdom looks now like feeble uncertainty, and it’s as if a veil was lifted, finally showing him for what he is – to say more would be too much.

October’s world is shifting, her alliances and foundations are shifting and changing, and so is the course of this series that is showing, book after book, it harbors no fear of reinventing itself to keep fresh and intriguing.  If you have not read it yet, do yourself a favor and start now. You will not regret it.

My Rating: 9/10

 

Reviews

Generation V – M. L. Brennan

15812812When first I came across this title, I discarded it outright because I thought it would be another example of the now-consumed-to-the-bone (or is it fang?) vampire trope. Yet I kept reading enthusiastic reviews about it, and catching the word “different” which made me curious, so I decided to give it a try.  Generation V is indeed different on many levels, starting with its main character, who is quite removed from the trite representation of vampires in Urban Fantasy: this book is a great fresh start for a new series, and the author is one I intend to keep on my radar.

But let’s proceed with order…

Fortitude Scott is an almost-vampire, meaning he has not come yet into his powers: a transition he’s dreading, and a heritage he tries to avoid as much as possible. For this reason he lives on his own, away from the influence of his powerful family – but he’s not leading a charmed life, not by a long shot.   Despite his college degree in filmography he barely scrapes by as a waiter in a coffee shop run by a disgruntled and abusive boss, staffed by lazy and bad-mannered co-workers; his roommate Larry is a slob who has not paid the rent in months and had sex with Fortitude’s girlfriend, who in turn has convinced him that this “open relationship” will be beneficial to both.  In short, Fortitude is a loser on many fronts, as he himself recognizes with wry self-inflicted humor, without showing the smallest inclination to do something about it.  We are as far as possible here from the glamorous, fascinating and kick-ass characters that can be found in most U.F. books, and as a reader I was both amused by and angry with Fort for being such a wimp and not trying to be more assertive.

There is nothing glamorous in his family either: his mother Madeline rules her territory with the iron fist of a Mafia boss; his brother Chivalry literally consumes willing human wives as we would consume soft drink bottles, and even his total devotion and care for them can’t erase the fact that he kills them to survive; and his sister Prudence is a cold-blooded killer who, among other things, is responsible for the murder of Fort’s human foster parents when they started to ask too many questions.   This is one of the most fascinating sides of the vampire myth as seen from the author’s original point of view: vampires are long-lived but not immortal, and their small numbers are the result of the peculiar way in which they reproduce, which requires the creation of human hosts infused with the vampire’s blood so they can carry the offspring to term. The blood infusion turns those hosts into insane killers, though, hence the necessity of foster parents, with whom the young vampires live until they come into full powers.

Having witnessed the bloody murder of the couple who raised him, Fortitude is both wary of Prudence and terrified at the prospect that one day he might become as cold, distant and exploitative as the rest of his family, so when he’s summoned to the mansion to meet a visiting vampire from Europe, he holds high hopes of finding someone different, someone who could give him some hope for the future.  Of course nothing of this kind happens, because Luca – the guest to whom Madeline offers hospitality and the freedom of her territory – is a deranged pedophile who indulges in a kidnapping and killing spree, ignored by Fort’s family because of those same rules of hospitality.  This finally wakes up Fortitude, who decides to take on Luca and save a little girl he’s keeping as a plaything.

Here’s where the story becomes more interesting, thanks to the appearance of a wonderfully crafted character: Suzume Hollis, kitsune shapeshifter, or in her own words, “a fox who can become a woman”.  Suzume is the exact opposite of Fort: energetic, irrepressible, funny and above all sneaky.  Hired by Madeline as a bodyguard for her son, Suzume proceeds to turn Fortitude’s life upside down while at the same time bringing to the fore his more pro-active drives: I received the distinct impression that she acts as a much-needed catalyst for something that had lain dormant too long, and finally wakes it up.  Fort is a different person when he’s with Suzume: after the initial annoyance at this flesh-and-blood tornado taking possession of his life, he becomes more reactive, refusing to let things happen to him.  If the first half of the book is played on a more humorous level, reaching its apex with the appearance of Suzume and her witty antics, the drama of the situation slowly encroaches on the lighter tone and takes hold of the rest of the story: this transition is carried by Suzume, who progressively leaves behind the funnier aspects of her personality to show more clearly her trickster nature, and the dangers connected to it.  There is a scene in which Suzume’s grandmother warns Fort about her granddaughter, because she might abandon him when “the situation is no longer amusing”: when that happens, he will have no other choice but to find his own strength, and hope it will be enough.   The final part of the novel is a breathless rush toward a not-so-certain epilogue that kept me awake until late at night.

For a first book in a series, Generation V is quite strong and well-balanced in storytelling and characterization, with none of the problems that could have troubled it, like uneven pacing or excessive exposition to lay down the background: on the contrary it’s a solid installment, rich in original details and situations.  It goes without saying that I look forward to next book(s).

My Rating: 8,5/10

 

Reviews

One Lovely Blog Award

I found an unexpected and delightful surprise today, when I came home from work and turned my computer on: the talented Ana, from Ana is the Bookworm, nominated me for this wonderful award.  It was not just a surprise, it was a great way to start the blissfully free part of my day!  Thank you Ana!

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Now, I should share seven facts about me, as the rules of this “game” require… Well, I’m too much of a private person for that, sorry!   (((Insert sheepish smile)))  On the other hand, I can freely admit to being a bookworm…  Ok, that’s not much of surprise, is it?

And finally, I need to nominate fifteen blogs I enjoy: I don’t have that many on my list, mostly because my time is so limited – but I can assure you that the blogs you will see listed here make up the shortness of the list with sheer quality.

Dragons, Heroes and Wizards

Old Bat’s Belfry

Rinn Reads

Oh, the Books!

Fantasy Review Barn

Ashley Capes

Two Dudes in the Attic

Bdhesse

Quinn’s Books

JW Kurtz

I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I do.

And again, many heartfelt thanks (and my best wishes for plentiful and successful writing) to Ana!

Reviews

City of Masks – Ashley Capes

city of masksI received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

A thoroughly enjoyable book, the kind that grabs your attention from page one and never lets go: the author has a great sense of pacing and rhythm, and his cunning switches in point of view between the main three characters, effected in moments of maximum tension, have the added benefit of keeping the readers going on at a fast clip while they wonder how these intermediate cliffhangers are going to be resolved.

The world is a fascinating one: while it possesses many of the “classical” characteristics of a fantasy background, it also sports several interesting details that are purposely not completely explained, leaving the readers wondering about the past events that shaped this world. To me, this is a positive feature: I don’t like to be “spoon fed” with a lot of footnotes and, still more important, those hints about the past are quite fascinating because of their indeterminate nature, and the chance for speculation that they offer.  It’s possible that some of those mysteries will be explained in the following books, but for now it’s been fun to wonder about them…

The city of Anaskar, the principal location of the book, is in itself a player in the story: a multi-tiered seafront city whose structure is arranged by social standing. The city is rife with political intrigue and shady dealings, and its twisting alleys and cobbled streets – described in a vivid manner – are the perfect background for the novel.

As I said, there are three main points of view: the first we encounter is mercenary Notch, a man with a troubled past that we discover bit by bit in the course of the book. In the very first chapter he’s in a cell waiting to be executed for a heinous murder he did not commit: it’s clear from the start that this is a person who has lost a great deal, and yet manages to find some cause to carry him forward, to overcome the sadness and rage of loss in favor of something higher.  His character is highlighted mostly by the interaction with his comrade Flir, a small, unprepossessing woman gifted with extraordinary strength and a wry sense of humor: the exchanges between the two, the glimpses about their shared past, are among my favorite sections of the story.

Then there is Sofia Falco: a young woman thrown by circumstances into an unexpected role, one she has no preparation for, one that will require her to go against preconceived social notions and the intricacies of court politics. Through Sofia we learn about one of those interesting details I mentioned above: the rule of the land is partly based on the interaction with the titular masks, that are carved from bone and worn by specially trained people who are able to come into contact with the mask’s own… spirit, for want of a better word.  The death of her older brother forces Sofia to take on the role of Protector and interact with the old mask Argeon: from what I could gather it’s a sort of symbiotic relationship that allows the Protector to tap knowledge from the past and thus offer solid advice.

And last is Pathfinder Ain: he belongs to the Medah, desert dwellers that once inhabited Anaskar and were driven away to live in the wilderness after a bloody war. The role of Pathfinders is to find access to the city and fulfill the ancient prophecy of vanquishing the old foes and regaining what was lost: Ain’s journey requires him to rely on old scrolls that seem based more on legend than fact, and on his skills as Pathfinder – a very fascinating notion about being able to feel the pathways of previous travelers on the very ground they trod on.  The Medah culture is an intriguing one, and I found myself quite drawn by its descriptions: hopefully more will be explained about them in the following books, especially in consideration of some tantalizing detail that seems to hint (unless I read it the wrong way…) to a more technologically advanced past.

I’d like to spend a few more words on Sofia Falco: when I was contacted by the author about reading and reviewing his book, he asked about the “warning” on YA themes and characters contained in my submission guidelines, since Sofia is indeed a teenager and he was concerned that this might color my opinion. Let me say up front that there was no reason for concern: when I admit I don’t enjoy YA-themed stories, I mean that I prefer when this kind of character is explored in an adult way.  For example, Harry Potter is a young boy whose life story is handled in an adult way; Paul Atreides from “Dune” is a teenager painted in an adult way. In other words, these characters act and are described without recurring to forced angst and constant whiny complaint about the unfairness of it all, as so many of them unfortunately are in recent YA literature.

Sofia Falco avoids this danger completely: she is young, yes, and inexperienced; when she is pushed into a role she’s not prepared for, both practically and mentally, her world falls out of kilter, and she struggles for the greater part of the book with situations that are too big for her, often forcing her to be a pawn rather than a player in the unfolding events.  She’s no spunky heroine who manages to overcome huge obstacles overnight, on the contrary she learns painfully how to adapt and to deal with frustration and powerlessness: only through struggle and terrible loss does she come into her own, gaining the maturity (and hardness) needed to fulfill the role she must undertake.  This kind of journey is not just totally believable, it also turns her into a fully-rounded character I can empathize with and root for.

In short, a well-crafted first novel and a great start to what looks like a promising series. Highly recommended.

My Rating: 8,5/10

Reviews

SciFi Month 2014!

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A couple of months ago I saw an exciting post on a blog I follow: the announcement for an event called SCI-FI MONTH,  a month-long series of posts, discussions, fun and games and whatever you might want to think about centered on science fiction.

How could I resist this siren call?  I signed on immediately, of course.

Now the deadline of November 1st, when the fun starts, is drawing near, and the 70-odd bloggers who, like me, signed on for the event are getting ready to jump right in and have a great time. If you are interested, tune in, or better yet, sign on too and share the fun!

SCI-FI MONTH is hosted by Rinn Reads and Oh, The Books! and you can find information about the event both HERE and HERE, or find updates on the dedicated Twitter feed @SciFiMonth and hashtag #RRSciFiMonth

The countdown has already started, but it’s not too late to come aboard!

Reviews

Without a Summer – Mary Robinette Kowal

Without-a-SummerThis third volume in M.R. Kowal’s Glamourist series pushes the envelope a little further than its predecessors – and with great success.  The premise takes inspiration from a real event: the 1815 volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora (in present-day Indonesia) spread such a huge quantity of ash in the atmosphere that the spring and summer of 1816 were far colder than seasonal norm.  Jane and Vincent’s England is a place of social turmoil, and the unusually cold temperatures give rise to a series of troublesome events that are used as cover for a plot in which the two find themselves enmeshed.

There are many interesting sub-threads in this story that keep raising the stakes and complicate matters in such a way that I felt compelled to reach the resolutions as quickly as possible. The appearance of Vincent’s family on the scene is indeed one of the main points of interest: every time they were mentioned in the past, there was an unpleasant aura attached to them, and here we are finally presented with the reality of Vincent’s relatives, and the reasons for his decision to cut himself off from them.  The best description I can come up with for Vincent’s father is “sneaky bastard”, and his attempt at driving a wedge between his son and Jane, and the way he manages to rock the foundations of their marriage, speak more clearly about his character than any other detail. On the other hand, this mean stab at the couple’s stability helps to highlight the dynamics of their marriage, its constant need of balance and compromise, in a very actual – and believable – way.

Prejudice plays a huge part in this story: in an era in which the first social upheavals manifested themselves (there are several mentions of the Luddite movement), we see how the old establishment erects a willfully blind wall of defense against a world that is headed toward inescapable change.  Preconceptions against the coldmongers (a branch of glamourists who, as the name says, can generate colder temperatures to preserve produce or create ice) drive the spreading worry for the unseasonable weather toward resentment against that guild and its members, accused of being at the core of the problem: there’s an interesting reflection here, about the ease with which humanity can be driven toward a scapegoat, a target for our fears and insecurities. The unknown terrifies us, and the simple fact of putting a face on it (no matter how wrong, as is the case here) seems to channel the worst of our impulses toward mob mentality: in the novel, if people had stopped to think that the colder temperatures worked against the coldmongers, robbing them of work, they would have perceived the sheer idiocy of such accusations. Even now, two hundred years past the events in this story, we are not so different from the people described in it, and are sometimes all too ready to listen to those who spout nonsense, only because they do it often and very loudly…

Even Jane is not immune from prejudice: MR Kowal makes an intriguing choice with her heroine in this novel, presenting her (despite her unquestionable good qualities) as a fallible person, prone to terrible mistakes in judgment – mistakes that affect both the story and her profile as a character.  I think it was a bold move, on the author’s part, to show how Jane can be short-sighted and biased, how her good and generous nature could be misled by social preconceptions. Yet, in some way this failure makes her more likable: not so much because her mistakes are driven by the misguided desire to do good, but rather because they highlight her humanity. Her “sin” here is that of social and cultural prejudice: the discovery about the glamourist couple’s new employers being Irish, and the attentions paid to Jane’s sister Melody by the employers’ son, send the protagonist into a paroxysm of worry that in turn leads her to unwelcome and disastrous meddling.  What’s more interesting is that Melody – presented until now as young, naive and easily fooled – is the one who shows more level-headedness and clarity of thought, not to mention a few instances of wisdom and witty self-analysis. It’s a kind of role-reversal that offers a few moments of amused reflection, a circumstance I enjoyed quite a bit.

The epilogue of the book brought home the reasons I like M.R. Kowal’s writing so much: there could be no doubt about the outcome, of course, but it was presented in such a way that I flew breathlessly thought the last chapters, both worried for the characters’ well-being and eager to see how things would work out. And that is the mark of a master storyteller. Well done, indeed…

My Rating 8/10