Monthly Archives: March 2016

TEASER TUESDAY

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 quote:

And even when things had been at their darkest, when anger had been like a rat gnawing at my vitals, when grief had shut down my heart, I’d known death was not the answer. There’d always been vengeance to keep me going.

Juliet Marillier – Dreamer’s Pool

I fell in love with this book from the very start and I often think it must have put a spell on me, considering how mesmerized I am by it. Both main characters, Blackthorn and Grim, are fascinating, though not exactly what one would call easily likable. I can’t wait to know how it all pans out…

Review: PACIFIC FIRE by Greg Van Eekhout (Daniel Blackland #2)

22238140The first volume in this series, California Bones, caught my attention for its more than unique approach to magic, but this second installment transformed me into a staunch fan.  Even though Daniel Blackland remains in the foreground, this book focuses most of its attention on his adopted son Sam, the golem of Southern California’s Hierarch, blending the heist trope with a coming-of-age story in a seamless, delightfully riveting way.

The book starts in the immediate aftermath of Daniel’s defeat of the old Hierarch, as the young osteomancer and thief goes into hiding to protect child Sam from the greed of all those who would not hesitate to kill him in order to consume the old, powerful magic contained in the golem’s body. We then flash-forward ten years into the future, with Sam a teenager starting to feel the weight of a life on the run, without the possibility to put down roots and have a normal life, one that does not require constantly watching over one’s shoulder.   

Southern California is not a better place after the Hierarch’s disappearance, because the power vacuum gave a few strong players the chance to step in and establish a power base: one of them is shifty Otis Roth, the same one who sent Daniel Blackland to the Hierarch’s stronghold in Book 1.  Otis is determined to create a triumvirate with Sister Tooth, a powerful osteomancer, and Gabriel Argent, the former Hierarch’s relative and the ruling water-mage, controller of the mandala-shaped waterways that are Los Angeles’ circulatory system. To reach such goal, Otis means to osteomantically resurrect a Fire Drake, a dangerous creature that will ensure Otis and his cohorts the means for total control, but Argent – whose power has not greatly undermined his intrinsic decency – contacts Daniel urging him to stop the plot by killing the dragon, and Daniel feels morally obligated to remove what he considers a weapon of mass destruction from the equation.

He’s poisoned on his way to Los Angeles, though, and while he’s incapacitated Sam decides to shoulder the burden and try to finish the task, despite the mission’s inherent dangers and the constant risk of being recognized and harvested for the magic in his bones.  Here is where the true story starts, with Sam’s choice to finish the task Daniel started and at the same time find the freedom he’s always been denied, defying the restrictions that have shaped his life until that moment.  He’s not alone in this adventure: first he teams with Em, one of the many Emma golems already encountered in California Bones, and then with other characters he meets along the way.  The young man revealed in the course of the adventure is a very likable person, one that’s easy to root for: like all teenagers he hungers for a different, better life, and he rebels against the impositions he had to struggle under until this moment, but at the same time he’s a detached observer, prone to keen and sarcastic comments about himself and his perceived shortcomings, so that he never comes across as snotty or abrasive.

Having a new character carry off this heist gave the author a fresh approach to the trope and the world he created, and Sam is a wonderful person to care about: in the first book, Daniel Blackland felt somewhat cold and distant, accepting the dangers and harm his friends were facing as part of the equation, as the unavoidable price to reach his goal; Sam, on the other hand, possesses a basic integrity that makes him suffer for any hurt inflicted on others in the course of his mission, whether it happens through his direct intervention or not.  Sam’s empathy is what makes him stand out and in the end be his own person, and not an appendage of Daniel Blackland: he represents the distillate of Daniel’s best traits and the successful way in which he raised this boy who is the incarnation of a cruel enemy – if every father wants his son to be a better man than he ever was, and Blackland clearly wants that from his adopted charge, Sam fulfills and exceeds these expectations.

The greater part of Sam’s character growth, and definition, comes from the interaction with Em: another golem, like him, but one who did not live the same kind of sheltered and isolated life. She is a warrior in the truest sense of the word, her training and experiences making her appear far older than Sam is, but as the story goes on, the balance between the two of them evens out, helped in great part by the witty exchanges between them.  This is another side of the novel I enjoyed enormously: it’s often difficult to offset drama with humor in a successful way, but the author accomplished it here though the humorous quips Sam and Em indulge in. More often than not it’s gallows humor of course, considering the chain of situations the two find themselves in, and yet they manage, even in the direst of circumstances, to find the right comment, the perfect combination of words to break the tension and let us know more about them.

Alongside the two true protagonists of this adventure moves a number of characters that are always well-defined, no matter how short their appearance on stage: from charter pilot Sofia Bautista and her family to the crazed guy raising “the Hierarch’s chickens” or the jaded ex-singer offering an easy friendship born of boredom, they all spring up from the pages in sharp focus. Bit players they might be, but they are never cardboard props, and this is one of the reasons for the sense of organic reality you can find in this novel. And of course there are a few welcome returns from the previous book: I already listed Gabriel Argent or Otis (well, he’s not so welcome, to say the truth…), but we also find lock-picker Cassandra and hard-to-kill Moth, my favorite from Daniel’s old team, and encounter a couple of very surprising figures from his past.

All of them move in a world where magic is everything, a cruel, pitiless world where the tiniest shreds of osteomancy a person possesses can be harvested for profit, the victims abducted, penned in and slaughtered like animals. A world where beauty can be destroyed in a puff of sorcery, or soar in terrifying power with the shape of a dragon.  A world that seeps through your bones and settles there in osteomantic alchemy.

It will be thrilling to visit it again in the next book…

My Rating:


Top Five Wednesday: BOOKS I DID NOT FINISH

I recently stumbled on this GoodReads group that proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related. It sounds fun, and something I can manage even with my too-often-limited time.

This week’s topic is: Books I Did Not Finish

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Perdido Street Station by China Mieville: I tried for three times to read this book, because it pictured a fascinating background and an interesting combination of science fiction and horror elements. What’s more, it was written in a rich and vivid language, but each time I had to give up, mostly because of the unrelieved darkness of this world, one that is permeated by a sense of unstoppable decay I ultimately found off-putting. Many times I felt that the grossest details were there just for their shock value, and not so much for descriptive purposes, which ultimately proved to be my undoing.

Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan: What started as an interesting fantasy series, turned out to be (in the not-so-very-long run) a massively wordy journey where descriptions abounded but the story progressed at a snail’s pace – at least as far as my tastes are concerned. I will not go into the similarities with other genre books – although there are quite a few – since for me the endless repetitions of personal traits (like that infamous braid chewing!) were more than enough to drive me crazy and to drive me away in the end.

Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon: here is another case of word bloat, compounded by some narrative choices that had the same effect on me as the proverbial fingernails over a blackboard. For example, how about a modern woman who, finding herself some two centuries in her past, accepts the fact that her man beats her into obedience? And proceeds to make-up sex afterwards without the slightest qualm? O the use of sex and violence (either alone or in combination) as plot devices? Moreover, the protagonist trespasses so often into Mary Sue territory as to become caricature rather than character.

MaddAddam series by Margaret Atwood: much as I enjoyed the first two books in this series, I could not make myself take any interest in the third and final one. It felt as work, rather than reading pleasure; the writing did not even seem the product of Margaret Atwood’s excellent penmanship; the characters act in a way that made me wonder is some second-hand stand-ins had taken their place.  I’ve heard from good, reliable sources that the end of the book is satisfactory and that it closes the series neatly, but I still have to find the strength – and the willingness – to go on.

Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey: another case of a widely acclaimed book that fell totally flat for me. It does start with an interesting premise but it suffers from too much telling and very little or no showing, the pace feels glacially slow and the characters lack proper development.  I know that if a book fails to capture my interest in the first 30 pages, it has no chance at all, and this one did not manage to hold my attention.

March 22nd, 2016

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#PrayForBelgium

TV Review: THE EXPANSE – Season 1 (spoiler-free)

Every time a successful book (or series of books) is translated to the screen, readers always deal with some nagging doubts: fear that the source material will be changed too much from the original; that the actors chosen to portray the various characters will not be equal to the task; that the switch from the imagined to the visual will prove a huge disappointment.  Now that I’ve finally watched the first season of The Expanse, I can say to my extreme satisfaction that those fears were groundless: the show managed the transition from the book(s) quite successfully, and it also kept my attention riveted to the story-line even though I was familiar with it. And that’s not an easy feat.

On hindsight – and after a careful re-watch – I understand that the show had an uphill road to travel, and one that was charged with a doubly difficult task: on one side there were the book readers, like myself, who expected to see a faithful rendition of a compelling story (or as faithful as the medium allows, of course), while on the other there were the viewers with no prior knowledge of the facts and who needed to be guided into the story, to become invested in the characters and in their journey.  And in the meantime it needed to deliver a product with good enough ratings as to be eligible for renewal.  Enough to give anyone nightmares…

Despite this intimidating prospects, The Expanse‘s screenwriters were not afraid to take their time to develop the story, the background and the characters: it’s a proof of both courage and confidence at a time when viewers rarely possess the patience to wait for a slow buildup, and can decree the premature end of a promising show by killing it with poor ratings. Because, for some reason, while people at large can accept and even welcome a slowly-developing story in a book, they want to cut to the quick when watching a tv show, as if they thought that the visual medium should be pared down to a minimum.   So I was surprised when I discovered that the pace of this first season was quite leisurely, but after a while I understood how the “big picture” was being painted in incremental brush strokes that expanded (no pun intended…) a viewer’s understanding of the playing field and the characters, while raising the stakes little by little – it was something akin to Sherazade’s game: keep the listeners interested, grab their attention, but don’t reveal too much, so they will be back for more (and possibly decide NOT to kill you in the morning…)

This narrative choice also avoided another danger, that of long exposition that can slow a story’s momentum. There was a great deal of information to impart here: the reach of human exploration in space, the living conditions in various environments, the technological level and the politics of it all. Through those little brush strokes, and the almost subliminal clues offered by visuals or by small bits of dialog, the show kept building that information in a satisfying way that nonetheless never interfered with the story-flow.  One of the best examples is given with the Belters: it would have been impossible (and quite costly) to show them all with the elongated bodies resulting from a life in micro-gravity, so we were given just a couple of glimpses of extreme cases, and several references were made to the fact, reinforced by the cultural and behavioral patterns that were present as visual clues. It all added up in underlining the Belters’… other-ness without need for lengthy explanations.

While our subconscious was being fed all this information, the story developed under our eyes through three main points of view: this is the only major change from the book, and one whose wisdom I understand – not to mention the fact that it brought one of my favorite characters on stage much earlier than anticipated!  Adding Chrisjen Avarasala as a point of view, besides Miller and Holden, makes for a more complete picture of the complex political currents flowing in the area of space inhabited by humanity, and for a more dynamic change of scenery between the various playing fields.  Detective Miller can be our eyes and ears in the Belt, offering a view of living conditions on the frontier and on the impact of corporate interests on the inhabitants; Jim Holden and his crew show us what it means to ply the distances between planets and outposts, and the dangers inherent in this kind of life; Avarasala, the consummate politician from Earth, helps us understand how it all comes together, how the power plays between the home planet, a proudly independent Mars and the Belt colonies can affect it all.

The show was also very successful in giving us a version of the future that is all but highly technological and glamorous: the frontier – here represented by the Belt – is dirty and drab, the living quarters cramped and grungy. Water and air are rationed, and the latter’s quality can be contaminated by sub-standard filters.  Spacers fare no better: their ships suffer from poor and careless maintenance, and traveling between worlds with cargo or equipment is as fascinating as carrying a truck-load of vegetables from one city to another.  And there are the inherent dangers of such a life, because – for example – gravity can kill you: it does so when it’s too much and you need drugs to sustain the crushing force of too many Gs of acceleration, and it also kills you, more slowly, when it’s not enough and your bones don’t fuse properly, or become too brittle to live in an Earth-like environment.

As if all of the above were not enough, there are the risks coming from human greed and the convoluted plot that the characters struggle to unravel…

This leisurely, incremental progress represents the winning strategy to lure viewers into the story, as I understood by reading various online comments about people having to pay close attention to detail in order to keep abreast of the developments. And yet it felt somewhat frustrating: part of me wanted to see certain events from the book, and as the number of remaining episodes dwindled, I knew that this first season would not cover the entirety of Leviathan Wakes. It was really my only disappointment, and I can rationally agree that it’s only a minor one, even though there’s still a small, quite childish voice insisting that she wanted it all, that what I was given was not nearly enough.  Still, it’s a measure of how much I loved this translation from book to screen, and of how it successfully engaged me: knowing that a second season is already in the works is a comfort – a small one, granted, but a comfort anyway. The journey is not over.

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It would not be a complete review if I did not speak about the characters, and the actors who gave them life: I imagine it’s a tricky job to find the right person for any given character, especially when he or she has been fleshed out over the course of several books, and there are huge expectations from the reading crowd.  As the cast choices were announced over time, I was both happy and thrilled by learning that Shohreh Aghdashloo would play Chrisjen Avarasala: having seen this actress before, I knew that the strong personality she can project and that peculiarly husky voice she possesses would be perfect for this character – and they were, indeed. Her portrayal manages to balance the shrewd, ruthless politician with the person who still retains her humanity but knows it can be a liability in her chosen job. No casting could have been more spot-on that this one.

My uncertainties concerned instead the rest of the cast, for no other reason that I knew none of them, but again, seeing them on screen, those doubts disappeared soon. For example, I feared that Thomas Jane would not look seedy enough for detective Miller, but he played the part perfectly, showing the various sides of the man in a very believable way: the slightly corrupt, disheartened cop who suddenly finds a cause he believes in and pursues out of sheer doggedness; the cynic who is capable of unexpected acts of bravery and sacrifice; the man walking on the razor’s edge between two worlds, who knows he does not belong to either one anymore.

Cas Anvar as Alex and Wes Chatam as Amos have replaced my mental image of their book counterparts for me: they both felt right from the very start, as if they had been playing these characters for a long time and were more than comfortable in their shoes. Alex’s cockiness, so typical of ship pilots, is portrayed with flair and the right dose of humor that provides a counterpoint to that arrogance, while a few visual clues give us a glimpse of the man’s innermost turmoils.  Amos, on the other hand, required an equally difficult balance between a killer’s soul and a sort of basic innocence, a dichotomy that’s carried off with successful, and admirable, credibility.

Dominique Tipper as Naomi Nagata (a figure I’ve come to appreciate even more with the last book in the series) is the best choice from this group: she manages to bring Naomi into sharp relief with all her contradictions, the things left unsaid or buried deeply, the sense of a harsh past that nevertheless has not prevented her from becoming a strong, independent person. There is a hint of layers upon layers here, that’s conveyed by looks and silences more than words: I can’t wait to see how she will further develop the character in the future.

The jury is however still undecided about Steven Strait as Jim Holden: I admit I was a little prejudiced because he looks too young for my mental image of this character. Granted, Holden is a young person, but still in the book he carries that air of gravitas that makes him look and act as an older one. And what I saw on screen did not exactly match that mental image, but in the course of the show I saw some progress, and growth, that made me hope he might become more comfortable in this role.

With The Expanse there is no doubt that SyFy has made a grand return to the genre it used to be know for: I know I’m not the only one hoping that this will be only the beginning of a long-awaited rebirth.

My Rating:


(and a gold medal)

TEASER TUESDAY

Teaser Tuesday is a curious meme I’ve caught on some of the blogs I follow, and it’s a creation of Miz B over at A Daily Rhythm.

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 quotes come from the latest addition to the Vorkosigan Saga (one of my favorite book series, by the way):

At age fifteen, Lon had acquired nearly his full adult height, and his people ran to tall; the rest of his development still lagged behind. The general effect was of one of those primary school science experiments where Bean Plant No. 3 was raised without light, growing long and thin and pale and barely able to stand upright.

E-page 85 of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is a great example of Ms. Bujold’s delightful sense of humor, an element that’s never missing from her books, even the most drama-oriented ones.

Review: THE BORDER, by Robert McCammon

24406483It’s always sad when a book disappoints me, but it’s worse when that happens with an author whose work I appreciated in the past: I discovered Robert McCammon several years ago with Swan Song, a gripping novel mixing science fiction and horror, depicting a world ravaged by nuclear holocaust and peopled by powerful characters on both sides of the fence, the survivors and the damned.  I read two other books by him, They Thirst – the story of a vampire invasion in Los Angeles, and The Wolf’s Hour – an interesting combination between history and fantasy, with a werewolf working as a spy against the Nazis; while not on the same level as Swan Song, they were both entertaining reads, so when I learned about The Border I was thrilled at the idea of a story that could parallel that first book I read.

The premise is indeed intriguing: Earth has been invaded not by one but by two alien races, yet for once our planet is not a place for mere conquest, but rather a battleground between creatures that have been dubbed Cyphers and Gorgons.  Earth finds itself on the border (hence the title) of both races’ expansion drive, so they fight each other for supremacy, uncaring of the collateral damage represented by humanity, whose survivors barely hang by the skin of their teeth, their civilization gone, cities reduced to burned rubble, water, food – and most important safety – running out at an accelerated pace.

The book opens as a teenaged boy, with no memory of who he is and how he came to be there, runs for his life as a fierce battle between Gorgons and Cyphers is waged around him: he’s hurt, bleeding and at the end of his endurance, but there’s a force driving him on – maybe a strong survival instinct, maybe something else. It’s a powerful start, one that draws you straight in and takes hold of your imagination.   The boy, who will later on be called Ethan, is rescued and taken into a small community of survivors holding out in the remnants of a housing enclave – and here is where the strong beginning of this novel starts to falter.

Ethan is quickly revealed as a special person: he uncovers a source of much-needed water under the complex’s abandoned swimming pool, and he can project lethal energy that creates earthquakes or vanquishes attacking foes. His body exhibits signs of inexplicable changes and he’s driven by a powerful imperative to reach the mysterious “White Mansion”, where his unknown destiny must be fulfilled. The similarities to Swan Song’s main character and her journey are evident, and while I found this mildly disappointing, it’s not the key reason for my disenchantment with this novel.  Ethan himself is too weak a character: the discovery of his abilities, the changes in his body, are both accepted far too easily and happen far too conveniently, while he remains a passive spectator of it all.  I would have expected deeper emotions from him, from the loss of his identity to the discovery of the powers he’s invested with, but while we are told about the way he reacts to what’s happening, we are never really shown that any of it truly touches him.

Something along the same lines happens with the survivors of Panther Ridge, the enclave where Ethan finds momentary shelter: these are people at the end of their wits and supplies, their numbers dwindling daily from injuries, alien attacks and despair-driven suicides, but we never really get to know them as people, we are only told – again – about their emotions, or offered a few meandering dialogs that give little in the matter of true characterization.  What’s worse, they seem to accept Ethan’s strangeness and his nebulous ‘mission’ with an amazing swiftness that seems to clash loudly with the strict measures taken until that moment against alien infiltration.  Yes, because the invaders, as a side activity, take humans and perform genetic modifications on them, letting them loose among the survivors to wreak further havoc: that’s the origin, for example, of the Grey Men, zombie-like hordes of flesh-eating ex-humans that plague the nights of humanity’s remnants. The Panther Ridge dwellers devised a way to screen real humans from the fake ones, since injecting a saline solution into their bloodstream causes a negative reaction in the latter, and the fact that Ethan passed this test with flying colors seems enough to warrant such blind faith in him.

If the enclave’s inhabitants’ despair might justify this too-easy acceptance that looks like that of a drowning man grasping at anything to stay afloat, such a justification loses some of its strength when the group, embarking on a dangerous journey toward the mythical White Mansion, meets with a military contingent stationed in a former shopping mall.  The garrison commander, described as a seasoned officer, takes the new arrivals’ explanations for Ethan at face value, and after witnessing the boy’s abilities in a clash with aliens, becomes a believer: he refurbishes the group’s bus, gives them much-needed supplies (evidently the military have an inexhaustible reserve of them, even in the desperate conditions in which Earth now stands) and sends them on their merry way.  This is where I drew the line, because my capacity for suspension of disbelief was stretched beyond its limit, the situation not helped by a writing that at times felt clunky, by the sketchy characterization, and by a few truly painful dialogs from a few secondary players.

And so, a little past the midway point, I abandoned my struggle to keep on reading, and see at least where the story was headed, unable to summon even the mildest interest in events or characters, though not without keenly feeling the loss of the unfulfilled promise of this book.

My Rating:


Top Five Wednesday: TIME TRAVEL

I recently stumbled on this GoodReads group that proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related. It sounds fun, and something I can manage even with my too-often-limited time.

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And TIME is indeed the topic for this week, or rather: Books that feature Time Travel

There is a huge number of books dealing with time travel, but having to create a list for this week’s Top Five I discovered I read far too few of them, barely enough to fill the meme’s requirements…

H.G. Wells’ THE TIME MACHINE is undoubtedly both a classic of the genre and the best known book featuring time travel. The main character, a Victorian era inventor, uses his own contraption – the titular Time Machine – to travel to the future, where he discovers that what remains of humanity is divided into the childlike Eloi and the apelike Morlocks. The success of the book, and its theme, is testified by its various adaptations both for radio and screen, big and small.

Michael Crichton’s TIMELINE focuses on a group of history students who travel back to the 14th Century to rescue their professor, accidentally marooned there after having gone back through a time machine built by the professor’s sponsor, a corporation with shady goals – after all, how could a corporation not pursue shady goals?  This book as well was translated into a movie for the big screen.

R.A. Heinlein’s THE DOOR INTO SUMMER is something of a walk down memory lane for me, since I read it a few decades ago: despite the long years, I still remember it dealt with a man who has lost everything – his company and his fiancée – to a dastardly plot, and manages to get his revenge by playing with time. What’s interesting here is that time travel is accomplished in two different ways: a more “conventional” machine and cryo-sleep. And I remember that a beloved cat was involved…

THE MANY-COLORED LAND by Julian May is another book I remember fondly: here the time travel is a form of permanent exile for people who don’t find themselves at ease in a time when contact with alien species and the formation of a galactic society are at the root of everyday life. So they choose to emigrate into the distant past, the Pliocene Era, where they discover, to their dismayed surprise, they are not alone as far as intelligent species go.

Last, but by no means least, the latest book on time travel I read: THE SHINING GIRLS by Lauren Beukes. It’s a wonderful, harrowing story about a Depression era amoral drifter who stumbles on a peculiar house that can take him to other times in the future, where he proceeds to kill young, promising women – the Shining Girls, those with a bright potential he feels the burning need to snuff out. The only potential victim who manages to survive, Kirby Mazrachi, will be the one who sets on his trail and transforms the hunter into the hunted.  One of the best books I read in recent times, indeed.

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Review: THE SHARDS OF HEAVEN by Michael Livingston

23848192Historical fantasy is something an unexplored genre for me, and this book managed to pique my curiosity about it: what I found particularly interesting is the seamless blend between historical characters and facts and the story’s more fantastic elements; the most fascinating aspect of this book comes from the way in which the fantasy elements do not change history – as can happen, for instance, in some steampunk or alternative history novels – but rather enhance it, making this story a very compelling one.

In the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination, the political landscape is shifting: Octavian is ruthlessly consolidating his rule as Caesar’s heir, while Antony defies laws and duty by challenging him from his new home in Egypt, at Cleopatra’s side. History flows along its well-known tracks, the only alteration given by the presence of the titular Shards – fragments of divine might that men can turn into weapons, changing the balance of power.  While history depicts Octavian as a strong, enlightened ruler, here we see his darker side, something that does not sound so far-fetched after all, considering that records are often filtered through the victor’s point of view, and if coldness and ambition are among a leader’s requirements, Octavian seems to enjoy them a little too much for comfort.

But the real protagonists here are people on whom the limelight of history did never shine, like Juba II, the son of the defeated Numidian king; or Selene, Cleopatra and Antony’s daughter, and her half-brother Caesarion, the offspring of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.  Chronicles indicate that Juba’s father choose suicide rather than submitting to the shame of being paraded through the streets of Rome in defeat, and that his son was adopted by Caesar and became a renowned scholar. Juba, as we encounter him in this novel, is indeed an academically-inclined individual, and he’s the one who first finds evidence of the Shards and of their awesome power: the difference, in the economy of this story, stands in the burning hatred and need for vengeance driving him on. This young man outwardly appears as a well-integrated citizen of Rome, the step-brother of Octavian, but in reality he chafes in his role as Octavian’s useful tool, as a commodity to be exploited and kept under constant surveillance.

Selene, on the other hand, leads something of a charmed life as the daughter of the queen of Egypt, but she’s hungering for more: more freedom, more knowledge, more responsibilities than those enjoyed by a young girl – even one from the ruling class – in that time and place. She possesses a very determined personality that nonetheless never slides into silly stubbornness, and in the course of events she gains depth and a maturity that go well beyond her years.   Her half-brother Caesarion is somewhat less defined, but what little we see of him points to a responsible, thoughtful young man, one to whom leadership comes naturally and who is able to rule through empathy rather than brute strength. Unfortunately the latter is more suited to the times he’s living in…

In this almost-choral set of characters, even the secondary ones are well-defined and worth of sympathy, starting with Dydimus, the Greek librarian burdened by guilt for his past actions, or the comrades-at-arms and friends Pullo and Vorenus, seasoned soldiers whose loyalty can bring them to extreme sacrifices. They, along with the bit players that fill this fascinating scenario, are never one-dimensional figures placed there for a specific purpose alone, but have the definite feel of real, flesh-and-blood people, adding to the wonderful depth of this immersive story.

The Shards themselves become a character as their existence and origins are slowly revealed, their presence throughout history and myth ensuring a continuity that is the true backbone of this novel: from Greek mythology, with Zeus’ scepter and Poseidon’s trident, to the Bible, with Moses’s staff and the pieces hidden in the Ark of the Covenant, to Alexander’s armor, that granted him a sort of invulnerability, these artifacts have passed through the ages leaving behind them the memory of their might, and of those who wielded them.  But like all powerful objects, the Shards cannot be used by anyone, and even those specially gifted individuals are not immune from the inevitable side effects, as we see through Juba’s narrative arc.

Wielding Poseidon’s Trident in service to Octavian – but secretly dreaming of one day mastering it and exacting his revenge on his land’s conquerors – first taxes Juba’s strength, adding to the man’s inner turmoil as he’s forced to be an instrument of destruction in his step-brother’s hands. But as time goes on and his skills improves, the Trident – and later another Shard he manages to acquire – start to transform him in a way that somehow reminded me of the corruptive powers of the One Ring: where there was only the inner conflict of a basically decent person, callousness and thirst for power take its place and threaten to transform him into what he most despises.

Only the next novel(s) in this very promising series will reveal how much these changes will affect both his personality, the course of events and the people he comes in contact with. If this first taste, with its adventurous quest after the Shards that is both epic and informative, is anything to judge the next installments by, I will welcome them with eagerness.

My Rating:


Review: BLACK CITY SAINT, by Richard Knaak

26025681I received this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Urban Fantasy went a long way, lately, to disavow readers about the beauty and charm of the Fae world, and while Black City Saint is no exception, this book manages to bring the concept several steps further into darkness – and terror.  If we had any residual delusion about these creatures, after reading this novel we will never look at queen Titania or king Oberon in the same way: at some point their Shakespearian counterparts are mentioned, but only to stress they are as far from the characters portrayed here as possible, and the Bard is shown as the fallible reporter of imperfect information.

The Gate separating Faerie from the mortal world used to be guarded by a powerful creature, a dragon, the very same that was slain by legendary Saint George who, in so doing, exposed the world of men to the dangers of contact with Faerie: the dragon slayer, now forever joined to the creature he vanquished – or what remains of it – is now both duty-bound and cursed to guard the portal between the two realms and as the story opens lives as occult investigator Nick Medea in the Chicago of the ‘20s, keeping watch for the creatures escaping though some crack in the Gate and hunting them without mercy.

There is a fascinating juxtaposition here between the fell denizens of Faerie and the Chicago underworld of gangsters and bootleggers, giving the story a peculiar noir feeling with a twist, a danger that remains unseen to most of the population but still affects their lives and the destiny of their city: the terrible fire that consumed most of it in the second half of the 19th century, for example, was in truth due to the dragon’s fiery breath as Nick battled with Oberon, king of Faerie, and destroyed him – or so he thought.

As the story opens, Nick Medea perceives that something is terribly wrong, that darkness and danger are looming over his city, and the terrifying discovery is that Oberon survived and has been planning his return for long decades, intending to use Chicago as the battleground for his clash with queen Titania: here lies the true horror of the premise, that humanity is nothing more than collateral damage between two opposing forces of evil, one bent on conquest and the other driven to maintain her power, no matter the cost. Nick must act both as guardian and as balance between those powers, but he’s dangerously distracted by the re-appearance of his love Cleolinda, the woman he already lost to death several times over the course of the centuries. When she contacts him to engage his professional skills, she appears as Claryce, a young woman worried about some strange events she witnessed, but Nick sees behind the façade and recognizes his many-times-lost love, deciding that this incarnation must survive, no matter what.

Despite the “damsel in distress” premise, Claryce is anything but: strong and determined she constantly refuses to be left behind or to stay safe, on the contrary she demands to be part of the action, especially when her feelings for Nick start surfacing. This is indeed a refreshing approach both for the genre and for the time period chosen as background: even when the truth about her nature and the past she doesn’t remember are revealed, she wastes no time in needless lamentations, showing a remarkable backbone that makes her stand out in interesting light and ultimately reveals her for the bold fighter she is, a true warrior princess of old.

Curiously enough, the main character Nick Medea is less defined than his companions: apart from his history, that comes up in bits and pieces over the course of the book, little is revealed about him beyond his determination to fulfill his task and the terrible memories that haunt his days and his tormented nights.  Moreover, events tend to  depict him as somewhat easily deceived, since more than once he falls prey to others’ machinations: true, heroes don’t have necessarily to be perfect, but poor Nick Medea sometimes fails to connect the dots…

Much more interesting is Fetch, his lycanthrope side-kick, an exile from Faerie who can talk when in proximity with Nick and expresses himself in an entertaining mix of old-fashioned language and contemporary slang that manages to define his mercurial personality in sharp relief: I can say with certainty that he’s the character that most appealed to me, the one that felt more real and three-dimensional, even in the surprising developments centered around him in the course of the story.

Equally interesting – in a disquieting sort of way – are Diocles (the ghost of former emperor Diocletianus, and Saint George’s executioner) and Kravayik, another exile from Faerie: this creature, draping himself in human form that can barely disguise his otherwordly origins, is one of the most intriguing figures, a staunch observer of the commandments of the Church after his conversion to religion. His total devotion and subservience to Nick, coupled with hints about his true nature, make him one of the creepiest figures in this novel, as fascinating as a caged anaconda – a creature best observed from a safe distance.

The story is an absorbing and swift read, and only sags slightly in the central segment, where the narrative hits a sort of repetitive loop: it takes flight again shortly after, though, and reaches its apex in the last fifty-odd pages, where the action speeds up at a breakneck pace through sudden betrayals, about-faces and the climax of Oberon’s decades-long plan for conquest, closing the book with a very satisfying ending that hints at possible sequels.  Something I would be quite interested in…

My thanks to Pyr Books and Edelweiss for the opportunity to read and review this novel, that will be officially published today.

My Rating: