Six-Gun Tarot – R.S. Belcher

15793094Western has never been a favorite genre with me: I used to say that most (if not all) movies started in the same way, with a man arriving into town on a horse, to proceed along similar lines toward a somewhat predictable ending. So I was firm in my belief that I would rather not spend my time reading or watching a western-themed story.

That is, until I stumbled on Firefly.

That delightful and unfortunate show changed my perspective, teaching me that a western blended with… something else, if well done, would be a perfectly acceptable way to enjoy a story. Therefore, when I heard about Six-Gun Tarot, I was curious enough to see if the magic of mixing western with another genre would work again – and indeed it did, even though the opening lines seemed to confirm my conviction about the start of such stories: young Jim Negrey, on the run from the law and his own past deeds, lands in Golgotha with his horse Promise, after barely surviving the crossing of the harsh 40-mile desert.  The town seems perfect for someone holding secrets, probably because it harbors its own mysteries, some of which disguise dangers way beyond the wildest imagination.

Everyone in Golgotha has something to hide: Sheriff Highfather had several brushes with death, and always unexplainably survived; his Indian deputy Mutt is a skin-changer, wise in the ways of the coyotes; Mayor Pratt, leader of the local Mormon community, is forced to live a double life because of his homosexuality; Maude, wife of the local banker, is a trained warrior and assassin masquerading as the perfect spouse.  These are just some of the figures in the vast choral tapestry of the town, a town that’s accustomed to the unusual and the bizarre, as some off-hand remarks indicate, laying down a curious but unexplained background:

Why is Golgotha the town where the owls speak and the stones moan? Why is this the town that attracts monsters and saints, both mortal and preternatural? Why is our schoolhouse haunted? Why did Old Lady Bellamy wear the skins of corpses on the new moon? How did old Odd Tom’s dolls come to life and kill people? Why do you still pour a ring of salt around that unmarked grave and how did this little ditch of a town become the final resting place of some of Heaven’s treasures?

This must be the main reason why some strange happenings are at first underestimated by Golgotha’s citizens, thus allowing an ancient evil to raise its head and threaten not only the town’s survival, but the whole world’s.  As the story progresses, the pace becomes breathless and the reading compulsive, taking the reader to the end battle that – most satisfyingly – looks only like a reprieve and a possible lead to the next book.  What I liked most about Six-Gun Tarot, besides the characters, are exactly these hints of past happenings, of a more complex history of which we are allowed only glimpses: it’s a well conceived tie to the existence of the ancient evil deep in the bowels of the silver mine, a tie that needs no drawn-out explanations to make itself understood and accepted, and for this very reason it worked perfectly for me.

There were places in the story where I was somewhat baffled, especially when it went back to the birth of the world and the scenes focused on angels and demons: for a little while I was worried that it would all turn into something of an allegory (being an admirer of Professor Tolkien’s work, I share his dislike of this kind of symbolic representation), but in the end even those passages came into focus and blended into the narrative in a most satisfying way.

Characters are another strong point in this novel: despite the large and variegated cast present on the scene, it’s easy to picture each individual and to understand what makes them who they are. Their back-stories are organically integrated in the narrative and they never feel like info-dump, which is always a plus, but what makes these characters attractive to me is the fact they are flawed.

Like young Jim, who took the worst kind of action for the best of motives, but did it with such blind ferocity that he made a terrible mistake, as we will learn well into the story: he’s looking for redemption and he’s afraid he’s way past any chance for it, as he says in a very impassioned outburst. “I’ve been trying since I got here. Trying to live up to the fine men I’ve made the acquaintance of, live up to what they expect of me. […] Everyone I’ve met has been so damned noble, so good, I just couldn’t see that light die in their eyes when they knew what I really am.”  Jim’s coming-of-age journey is indeed a fascinating one and I hope to see more of it in the next novel.

Mutt, Sheriff Highfather’s Indian deputy, is an equally compelling character, not just because of his dual nature but because he is a total outsider in either world, the one he came from and the one where he choose to live. Reviled by most of Golgotha’s citizens because of his heritage, and an outcast among his own people, Mutt’s very aloneness is the source of his strength and even a matter of pride, a badge of honor, because Mutt wears this uniqueness as a shield and feels no need to excuse who and what he is.

As for Maude, she’s a very intriguing character coming from a long line of women (the Daughters of Lilith), dedicated to building one’s inner strength and exceptional abilities: the flashbacks concerning her training with Grandmother Anne make for a quite engaging reading, and I enjoyed very much the old woman’s dry humor, especially concerning men.  “Guns are like men—only useful for a little while. They can go off at a moment’s notice when you don’t want them to and they make a lot of damn fool noise doing it. They tend to fail on you when you need them most. Don’t rely on them.”     Despite being so empowered, Maude suffers from self-doubt and is painfully aware of having let her training slip through the years of her marriage to a selfish and unlovable man, but is still able to find the most important core of her strength when the need arises: an all-out heroine would have sounded contrived, while a woman who can connect to her hard-won abilities when the going gets tough is far more convincing and true.

Given these premises, I truly look forward to reading more about Golgotha, its citizens and the strange world they live in…

My Rating: 8/10


Tough Traveling: Law Enforcement



Though Traveling is an interesting and thought-provoking meme started by Nathan @ Fantasy Review Barn: each week Nathan chooses a topic from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynn Jones and challenges everyone to come up with a list of books featuring that trope.  After reading so many fascinating posts, I’ve finally decided to pitch in and join the fun.

This week’s theme revolves around law enforcement.

Seems odd to think that in fantasy cities in which entire economies revolve around crime there is room for the men in blue (or crimson, or whatever). But the law does the best it can, even when faced with magic, mystical creatures, or rogue deities.

The first example that comes to mind is the Thought Police from Orwell’s 1984: they monitor the citizens for potentially disruptive behavior that could affect the strictly enforced discipline that stands at the basis of the totalitarian government of Oceania. Since they are known for widespread surveillance obtained both through technological means and misinformation, the Thought Police is rumored to be able to catch a guilty citizen even as he thinks unacceptable thoughts. Scary!

I’m not sure if Special Circumstances, the strong arm of Iain M. Bank’s Culture, can be considered a real law enforcement agency, since there is no government as such in the utopian, post-scarcity anarchy of the Culture, but still they act as if they believe it. In their understated and underhanded way they manipulate and channel forces that could prove destabilizing to the Culture itself or to its goals, and handle every “dirty job” the situation requires.. Sometimes with mixed or even catastrophic results.  If I ever needed an example for the old dilemma about who watches the watchers, Special Circumstances would be at the top of my list…

I’ve recently become aware of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, a mix of steampunk and urban fantasy peopled by the most diverse and outlandish creatures, from werewolves to vampires to ghosts. How are they kept in line? By B.U.R. – the Bureau of Unnatural Registry – that works at the behest of Queen Victoria and keeps a close tally of the preternaturals in the British Kingdom and keeps them in check when necessary.  Manned by members of the non-human races, B.U.R. has no qualms about employing harsh means to enforce the co-existence covenant between the preternaturals and the human population.

Could the Nightwatch from GRR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire be considered law enforcement? I think so: they are not involved with day to day management of cities and NightsWatchsettlements, but rather police the northernmost border of the realm at the Wall, beyond which lie both huge numbers of Wildlings, always ready to invade and plunder, and the Others – terrifying wraiths who once were human. It’s ironic that most of the Nightwatch’s men are former criminals, sentenced to the Wall as an alternative to the death penalty, but someone might say that to catch a thief you need to employ another one….


Look to Windward – Iain M. Banks

LooktoWindwardMy third journey into Iain Banks’ universe proved to be a very satisfactory read, if a sometimes meandering one, and it strengthened the conviction that this is an author I must keep exploring. In previous books the Culture, the galaxy-spanning enlightened society that features in most of Banks’ works, was portrayed as a subtle and stealthy meddler in other civilizations’ development; here we are presented with some of the disastrous results of that meddling.

800 years previously, the devastating war between the Culture and the Idirans caused widespread destruction and death: one of the outcomes of that conflict was the annihilation of two stars and their Orbitals (massive ring-like habitats) to prevent their capture by the Idirans. The light of those twin explosions is now reaching the Orbital of Masaq and will prominently feature in the celebrations to commemorate the war’s victims, accompanied by a new symphony from the self-exiled Chelgrian composer Ziller. The Chelgrians, a felinoid race based on a strict caste system, are in their turn the victims of a past miscalculation from the Culture: in facilitating the rise of a lower-caste leader with the hope of a more balanced society, the Culture opened the door to a bloody civil war in which old resentments played a terrible part.  Now, on the eve of the appearance of the Twin Novae, a former military-turned-monk, Major Quilan, is en route to Masaq to ask Ziller to return home, or rather this is the cover he employs to mask his real objective: a devastating act of destruction against the Orbital in retaliation for the Culture’s dreadful blunder.  From a relatively slow start, with several detours where the characters engage in prolonged discussions of various nature, the story gathers momentum with the question of whether Quilan will succeed in his plan, gaining in intensity until the unexpected but satisfying conclusion.

This double theme of mistakes coming back to haunt their perpetrators represents the main driving force of Look to Windward: the Twin Novae have somewhat lost their destructive connotation, approaching as they are as a light show to be enjoyed, even in wistful remembrance, while Quilan’s mission of revenge is a clear and present danger masked as an ambassadorial envoy.  There is a wide range of feelings being explored here, and they are very human feelings despite the alien nature of the majority of characters: this is one of the fascinating sides of this book, that these alien creatures can be such a good mirror of our human emotions, and frailties.

The “alien” point of view rules here and the question of its adequacy, in the face of the predominantly human way it’s expressed, becomes a moot point, in my opinion, when one considers that even the humans present on the scene are very different from us: Culture humans might look like us (unless they have chosen weird body modifications), but their thought processes and feelings, the way they face life and relationships, are so different – so alien – from our present-day customs that these humans feel like aliens themselves.  Once I accepted this, I was able to enjoy the well-portrayed range of emotions from the main characters, especially Quilan: it’s fascinating to observe the degree of sympathy he creates in a reader, despite his role in the story.  The civil war that tore Chel apart, and that was stopped in its tracks by the Culture’s shame-faced admission of their own involvement, caused the death of Quilan’s beloved wife, Worosei: the flash-backs he experiences about their shared past, the poignant sadness of his loneliness and inability to move forward from the loss, lead the reader to compassion, especially when one realizes that Quilan and his pain are being used and manipulated by a Chelgrian faction bent on bloody revenge on the basis of an ancient religious code.

Quilan lost everything in the war: his wife, most of his body (regrown after his miraculous rescue) and the will to live, this last compounded by a deep survivor’s guilt. Despite this, he does not contemplate suicide, because what he wants is for his death to have meaning, to serve something bigger than himself. For this reason it’s quite easy for the revenge-bent faction to recruit him for the one-way assignment to Masaq, and yet we see him slowly begin to doubt the rightfulness of the mission and the true significance of such an act.  I believe this is the main reason for the sympathy I felt for this character, that despite his grief and his search for oblivion he still retains the basic decency of thinking about others, and the consequences of his act.  Because, when all is said and done, this is a story about consequences…

The other character that stood out for me is that of Hub, the artificial Mind running the Orbital: as other Culture Minds, Masaq’s Hub sports an interesting personality that – again – comes across as very human, despite its totally non-human and non-biological nature.  It’s through interaction with various other characters (either as the disembodied voice of the Orbital’s Mind or as the Hub’s silver-hued avatar) that its personality is layered and defined: unlike other AIs I previously encountered, especially the ubiquitous sentient drones, Hub does not exhibit any forceful or mischievous inclinations, rather coming across as wistfully thoughtful, as shown in his approval of Ziller’s new symphony’s title, “The Light of Past Mistakes”.   It’s through Hub that the dangerous situation is resolved, with a choice that is both elegant and emotionally satisfying – even moving, as far as I’m concerned.

Where the book falters, in my opinion, is the very end, where we witness the harsh retribution visited by the Culture on the Chelgrian organizers of the attack on the Orbital.  Throughout the book the concept that you don’t mess with the Culture is stressed several times, and if I can accept that even a deceptively peaceful society like the Culture would not let such an attempt go unaddressed, the gratuitous, gory violence of the epilogue robs the book of what I thought was a graceful, lyrical and balanced ending.

Still, I consider this a wonderful read, one that encourages me to explore more of Iain Banks’ works.

My Rating: 8.5/10


Blackbirds – Chuck Wendig

12944651I became aware of this book through the recommendation of a friend, who also advised me to read the author’s blog: captivated by the cheerful irreverence of Chuck Wendig’s blogging style, and on the strength of past successful recommendations from this particular friend, I bought Blackbirds and started reading it straight away.  Unfortunately, what we jokingly refer to as the “great minds think alike rule” did not work its magic this time…

The premise is a fascinating one: Miriam Black can see how and when people will die, just by touching them. It’s both a gift and a curse, because there’s no amount of prior knowledge that can help her prevent a person’s death, especially when it’s a violent one: Miriam knows that all too well, because she tried. And failed.  This transformed her into an aimless drifter and at the same time an unwilling harbinger of death, taking its toll on an already dysfunctional personality: from the very first meeting she comes across as a foul-mouthed, cynical creature who resorts to living off what she can scavenge from those doomed people, a detail that I found somewhat repulsive but was ready to overlook to see where the story led me.

Despite the interesting premise and a promising beginning, though, this book did not work for me, because I can take just that much grimness, and hopelessness; I can tolerate a certain amount of gratuitous profanity when it’s necessary to the development of the story and characters; I can accept a character’s journey into hell if it’s a means to an end and not just the end itself. But Blackbirds felt way too forced in that respect, and more like an authorial exercise in shocking themes rather than an actual story.

Miriam Black looks to me like an empty vessel, totally devoid of motivations or drives; a sketch rather than a person, an endless source of apathetic musings expressed in the foulest possible language that after a while becomes annoying instead of darkly humorous – if that was the author’s intention, of course. Miriam lets things happen to her, accepting everything with a sort of detached nonchalance that goes beyond a human mind’s attempt to shield itself from pain.  This character wallows in degradation, actively seeks it and appears to forsake every right to dignity, every chance at redemption.  If, on one side, I do enjoy flawed characters very much, on the other I like to see in them some hidden strength, some drive to escape whatever the world dishes out at them, even if they ultimately fail: Miriam does the opposite, allowing fate’s currents to carry her on with mindless abandon.   Of course she’s scarred by this unwanted “gift”; of course life has been far from kind to her (as the regular flash-backs show); of course she feels the terrible burden of the countless deaths she’s forced to witness. Still, I would have liked Miriam to be something more than a disinterested spectator of her own life: the book sometimes stops at “intermission” chapters where she tells her life story to a young man who’s interviewing her, and this led me to hope that she might find some sort of balance in the future – a future where she would be able to look more clearly at her past self, understanding if not accepting what makes her different. Not long after the midway point I was deprived of this tiny glimmer of hope by the abrupt and senseless conclusion of this narrative thread.

The other characters fare just as poorly: the world described by Chuck Wendig is a dark, degraded one – granted, most of the action takes place in truck stops and seedy motels, which indeed makes for a grim background, and yet my perception was that the rest of humanity shared the same fate.  The people Miriam meets in her peregrinations are either as lost and uncaring as she is, or merciless exploiters – sometimes a combination of both – and the few vaguely positive characters, like trucker Louis for whom Miriam feels a sort of remote attraction, are too paper-thin to make an actual impression.   Chief villain Ingersoll and his two henchmen (or rather henchman and henchwoman), an ill-assorted couple of cold-blooded killers, are nothing more than one-dimensional baddies with no apparent reason for being there than to pursue Miriam and her companions.

Which leads me to my biggest contention with this book: the portrayal of female characters. Besides Miriam, there are only two others: Harriet the paid assassin, and Miriam’s mother, who appears only in the protagonist’s flashbacks. The former is a small, mean creature who seems to enjoy inflicting pain as a form of retribution for the grief from a bad marriage: it’s possible that more is explained past the point where I stopped reading, but what little I gathered was quite unpalatable. Miriam’s mother is described as a fanatically religious woman, who kept her daughter under a tight leash only to relent a little when she got herself pregnant, though still being prone to extremes of behavior. Not one of these scarce female figures in a mostly masculine background is presented in a positive light, and that, sadly, was another nail in a quickly building proverbial coffin.

All these details are wrapped up in a grim, gritty tale liberally laced with profanity: I’m not squeamish nor a prude, and I can accept a peppering of foul language when the situation and the characters require it, but Blackbirds goes well beyond that limit. I now understand that what I found amusing and irreverent in Chuck Wendig’s blog posts, enough to compel me to try one of his novels, derived its appeal from the very briefness of such posts, while in book form it all mutates into a teenager-ish fascination with grossness for its own sake, and as such it becomes repetitive and tiresome, burying what little story there is under an avalanche of potty-mouthed expletives and truly disgusting metaphors.

At some point, reading on became a struggle and I had to give up.

My Rating: 4/10



Blameless – Gail Carriger

7719355There will be spoilers in this review – it’s impossible to write about Blameless without mentioning important plot points so… you have been warned!

After the rather abrupt – and unexpected – ending of the previous book, I felt compelled to know how the story progressed, so I broke my own rule about pacing myself with series, and started immediately on volume three. And yes, the Parasol Protectorate is becoming something of an addiction for me…

The previous book, Changeless, ended with Conall Maccon’s rejection of the baby Alexia carries, on the premise that a supernatural is unable to conceive – ergo, the earl believed his wife had been unfaithful in a major way. This is the plot device the author picked to launch Alexia in a mad chase across Europe in search of evidence that could prove her stubborn and short-sighted husband wrong.  What’s exceptional in this book (or rather the whole series) is the seamless blend of dramatic circumstances and humorous reactions that transform what could have been an angst-laden journey into an amusing caper that had me laughing out loud in many places.

Book 2, even though quite entertaining, was something of a letdown after the first installment: not because it was bad, far from it, but because it had seemed to lack part of the sparkle and wit that made Soulless such an amazing discovery. With Blameless, Gail Carriger returns to her previous brilliance and even surpasses herself, expanding not only on the main characters, but also on the secondary ones, some of which present the readers with pleasant surprises.

At the beginning, the estrangement with her husband throws Alexia into a brush with depression: the situation is not helped by her return to home and family because the Loontwills, far from proving sympathetic – which would have been surprising considering their overall attitude – end up driving her away when the “scandal” reaches the ears of the press. I love how Alexia feels the hurt of Conall’s rejection but deals with it in her usual no-nonsense manner, that in this case also acts as a barrier against despair. Carriger’s heroine is firmly rooted in her historical time and customs, and yet she exhibits a believably modern way of facing challenges: Alexia’s uniqueness and strength, as a character, come from this flawless balance.  Her feelings for the unborn child are equally interesting: at first it’s labeled as “infant inconvenience” (a term that I found highly amusing and quite Alexia-like), but little by little her approach changes to grudging acceptance and finally to fierce protectiveness, even though the pact she formulates with the baby, reaching a sort of truce with the “tiny parasite” is way too funny for words. “Just you allow me to eat regularly, she told it silently, and I’ll think about trying to grow a mothering instinct.”

Fantasy heroines are often drawn as spirited and clever, always working outside of their culture’s boundaries – or against them: what Carriger managed with Alexia Tarabotti is to create a character who works inside those boundaries, who takes those boundaries and customs to heart, yet still manages to deal with every situation through a fresh and unexpected approach. The very contradiction between adhering to a conventional background while reacting in a totally unconventional manner is what makes this character so appealing.

Alexia in not alone in this, however, since Blameless shines the spotlight on several other characters from the previous books: Professor Lyall, Lord Maccon’s Beta and adviser, is a case in point.  Due to his Alpha’s incapacitation (Conall Maccon spends quite some time being drunk over Alexia’s perceived unfaithfulness – and drunk on formaldehyde of all substances!) Lyall must handle both this situation and the larger problems that come with the running of BUR, the Bureau of Unnatural Registry.  I’ve always had an eye out for Lyall, because he showed great promise, and here he’s given the chance to show who is the brain behind Lord Maccon’s brawn, besides being a shrewd and consummated politician and a man – or rather werewolf – with a great sense of understated humor. Here is an example:

“A vampire extermination mandate. Ordering a death bite on Lady Maccon’s neck. Amusing, considering she cannot be bitten, but I suppose it is the thought that counts.”

Through Lyall we make another fascinating discovery: Ivy Hisselpenny, Alexia’s best friend and scatter-brained wearer of outrageous hats, is a far deeper person than she lets on. When she tells him “I may, Professor Lyall, be a trifle enthusiastic in my manner and dress, but I am no fool” we understand there is more to her than appears on the surface. Alexia’s choice of friends also shows she is not deceived by mere appearance, and this sheds new light on her association with Ivy.  Now that the proverbial cat is out of the bag, it will be fascinating to see where the revelation will lead us in the next books, even though I’m certain her outlandish choice of words will continue to be a source of entertainment:

“Your younger sister was thrown over for a schoolroom chit, quite the persona au gratin, if you take my meaning.”

And what of the silent and steady Floote, Alexia’s butler? He not only comes across as a fighter and expert marksman, he also reveals a few tantalizing details about her father and his past.  Though still tight-lipped about his previous employer, he seems more inclined by present circumstances to be more forthcoming: what this will mean in the long run is something that I hope to discover as the series progresses. Meanwhile I know I can enjoy his presence in its new and not-so-silent incarnation.

Blameless also affords us a deeper look into the steampunk side of these novels, with a considerable array of gadgets and contraptions (killer ladybugs!!) that enrich the narrative, complete with a variety of inventors and scientists – both of brilliant or evil inclination – better embodied in the returning character of Madame Lefoux, inventor-cum-hat-maker and architect of Alexia’s latest, gadget-filled parasol.  Lefoux is a fascinating figure, a woman who goes against all conventions by wearing male attire and exploring the depths of science.  Her outspoken, though not returned, interest in Alexia as something more than a friend adds a little spice in the overall mixture and once more promises interesting developments.

With this book, the Parasol Protectorate series shows its ability to combine amusing premises with more serious aspects: a clear example of that is the situation with Biffy, Lord Akeldama’s drone, and the implications about divided loyalties that without doubt will be explored in future.  What started as an entertaining story is gaining more substance and depth with each new installment, and it’s the kind of promise that will keep me reading on.

My Rating: 8,5/10