Monthly Archives: May 2016
When a series runs for a good number of books as this one, the danger of reader weariness must be taken into account: Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, however, keeps flying at a very good speed and manages to reinvent itself, adding new information – or new turns of events – with each new installment. This is particularly true of A Red Rose Chain: the story is compelling and delves into several interesting issues without ever appearing preachy or allegorical (always a plus with me), but it also shows the author’s complete control over pacing and characterization – a level of control so firm that the story never sags for a single moment, turning it into one of the best in the series, so far.
I will try to be as spoiler-free as possible, but be warned I might mention some as-yet-uncovered detail from previous books so… read on at your own peril!
In the aftermath of the events shown in The Winter Long, some of which were real game-changers for Toby, our heroine seems to enjoy a period of relative peace. Well, as much as the word ‘peace’ can be applied to her life, of course: after all, the novel starts with Toby battling some feral, dog-like fae creatures with the help of her friends…
The dangerous beasts are soon revealed as the fae equivalent of lonesome puppies looking for people to love and care for them, and the adventure closes on a humorous note, and a few scenes where good-natured banter between Toby and her allies shows she’s found a sort of balance in her life – that is, until the realm of Silences, where the former Queen of Mists has taken shelter after being exposed for an interloper, declares war on the rightful Queen Arden, and the latter sends Toby as an ambassador to try and avoid a bloody conflict. Armed with this resolve, and flanked by Quentin, May, Tybalt (of course!) and alchemist Walther – a welcome return for a character about whom we’ll learn a few interesting details – October departs for Silences, where she will do her literally bloody best to defuse the brewing war and where she will find much more than she bargained for.
One of the best features of this novel is the focus on court politics: we know by now that the fae move in strange ways, but until now we saw only glimpses of these weird realms, while A Red Rose Chain plunges us into the thick of it – this full immersion in the dealings and scheming of the kingdom of Silences is both an enlightening and terrifying experience, one that taxes even Toby’s endless stamina, and those of her friends. If there are some moments of humorous relief in the scenes where our heroine is forced to deal with etiquette and the Divided Courts’ dressing code, the story becomes all too soon a descent into ever-darkening circles of Hell. After the coup that brought a change of rulers to the realm of Silences, no one really knew what was happening inside and what the living conditions where: it took me just a few pages after the “ambassadorial” group’s arrival to perceive the dreadful vibes given off by the place. There is a nightmarish quality to Silences as described by Seanan McGuire, and it has less to do with the attitude of its king or his revenge-bent guest, and more with the behavior of the courtiers, whose desire to curry favor with the king compels them to willingly participate in the plot to beat Toby into submission, through odious acts of intimidation or outright mockery.
King Rhys is a bigot and a racist – there are no other words to describe him: if the pureblood fae generally tend to look on changelings, or partly-animal other fae, as inferior beings, they prefer to do so through studied indifference. Not Rhys: he has espoused a “racial purity” goal that he pursues with single-minded, sadistic pleasure and the same inner conviction of righteousness we can see in real-life examples of the same ilk. The comparison with present-day issues is clear, and as I said before I love the way the author explores and comments them without need for a virtual lectern or lengthy exposition: all she needs to do is present the situation, and allow us to watch it through Toby’s eyes, and those of her friends. It’s more than enough to drive the message home in no uncertain terms.
In the process, October’s character takes on new facets and new definitions: at the beginning of this series she was alone, having lost everyone and everything, including her attempts at a ‘normal’ life. Once she embraces her new existence – and, more important, who and what she is – Toby starts gathering a circle of people who admire and share her commitment to others, her willingness to sacrifice life and limb in order to serve justice. She started as an outsider – neither fae nor human – and she morphed into someone who is proud of her dual heritage and does everything in her power not to let go of either component of it. Some time ago, while discussing Toby with a fellow blogger who started reading this series, I said that she transcends both her natures, that trying to be only fae or only human she would do a disservice to herself, because in the end she turned out to be more than the sum of her parts – and here she shows that in admirable detail.
The other characters shine as well, both on their own and as part of Toby’s world: Quentin in particular is swiftly losing his metaphorical baby fat and evolving into a self-possessed young man. Their relationship hovers on the threshold between mother/son and older sister/younger brother, and I could see how much of Toby’s determination and willingness to sacrifice herself has rubbed off on him, making him a far better person than he started with. And of course this would not be a complete review without a mention of Tybalt and the way his liaison with October keeps building: if I had harbored any fears about their talks turning into sweet-mushy drivel (not that I did, of course!) here they would have disappeared, because these two enjoy a wonderfully confrontational relationship, based on the mutual awareness of talents and flaws, and reciprocal trust built over time. What’s truly delightful here is the juxtaposition of Tybalt’s old-fashioned, Shakespearean-type speech patterns and Toby’s more modern slang, and the fun they can poke at each other because of it: another way to balance the darker elements of the story with some much needed light.
Any real complaints I might express concern the very limited presence of the Luidaeg in this story – even though I understand the need not to overuse her – and the author’s tendency to recap the characters’ history: if a few reminders of past events are welcome, and at times necessary as a link to present situations, I think that explaining in rich detail who May is, or where Quentin comes from – for example – tends to slow an otherwise optimal narrative flow. Readers who have reached this far are very aware of these specifics and don’t need to be told again who’s who: personally I found it only distracting and also a little bit frustrating.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed A Red Rose Chain very, very much, and I’m ready to celebrate book nr. 10 when it arrives – hopefully soon…
There are times when a book calls out to me with a voice that’s stronger than the others’: more often than not that voice proves to be very true. This is the case for Dreamer’s Pool: I read the enthusiastic review for the second book in this series on a fellow blogger’s post, and my “book vibes” refused to be ignored. What I found in this story is much more than I expected, starting with my instant love for the narrative and the two wonderful main characters.
Blackthorn has been imprisoned for a year for the crime of having spoken against the cruel and sadistic chieftain Mathuin, and waits for the chance of being heard and seeing justice done. In that year she has endured unspeakable torments, her only ties to sanity being her need for revenge and Grim, the man held in the cell in front of her, so that when she learns that she will not receive the justice she’s owed, but is instead slated to be executed, she falls into a pit of rage and despair. Deliverance comes from Conmael, one of the Fae, who proposes a deal: her life and freedom in exchange for seven years as a healer – her former occupation – tending to everyone who needs her help, and postponing for that time her plans of revenge against Mathuin. Despite the heavy price – after all desire for retribution is the only force keeping her alive, and somewhat sane – Blackthorn accepts and she reaches the realm of Dalriada, where she settles as a wise woman together with Grim, who’s followed her after their escape from prison.
The crown prince of Dalriada, Oran, has finally found the woman he wants to marry, having entertained a long correspondence with Flidais, a young lady who shares his inclinations for poetry and literature and seems like a gentle soul. Reality is however quite far from the dream, because when Flidais arrives at Winterfall for the betrothal ceremony she appears withdrawn, shallow and not a little vicious in her dealings with her future subjects. Oran’s only way to make head or tails of the situation, and avoid what he sees as a bleak future, is to enlist Blackthorn’s help in understanding what might be wrong.
The backbone of this story, although fascinating, takes second place before the wonderful characterizations and the fluid, mesmerizing writing that constitute the real magic in the novel: the tale is carried by the three characters of Blackthorn, Grim and Oran, all of them speaking in the first person and doing so with very distinctive voices, both in overall mood and speech patterns that showcase their personalities with clarity and at the same time paint a vivid picture of the speakers. Blackthorn is a very damaged soul (and we learn along the way how deep that damage goes and what kind of scars she carries) who hides her pain under a brusque façade and a fierce need for solitude: the choice of her name, which is not her real one, is indeed a warning sign for everyone not to come too close. Such traits seem to go against her work as a healer, which she carries out with a minimum of fuss and keeping emotionally distant from her patients: and yet, little by little, she is drawn into the lives of her fellow villagers and they respond to her and her ministrations with kindness and acceptance and we can see her barriers beginning to give in – grudgingly but surely.
Grim – another aptly chosen name – is a hulking fellow gifted with enormous strength that terrifies even him: he knows that loss of control (what he calls “the red”) can transform him into a dangerous creature, and there are some hints about past occurrences in which he was unable to stop himself, one of which must have been the reason for his imprisonment. Yet he is far from a brute and despite the nickname “Bonehead” he gained in prison, Grim shows over time his thoughtfulness and compassion, not to mention a deep understanding of human nature: he seldom speaks, and when he does, he uses as few words as possible, but his silences cover strong powers of observation and intuitive logic.
Blackthorn and Grim are two very improbable companions, and yet they create – with time and not without difficulties – a wonderful relationship that feels more profound exactly because it’s not openly mentioned, not despite of that: it’s not a romantic bond (which I found most refreshing) but it’s part friendship and part family tie. As Blackthorn tells Grim toward the end, they complement each other – an admission that is much more valuable and important because it’s expressed by the woman who would have preferred to live out the rest of her life isolated from any kind of contact, and yet has accepted to share her space with this lumbering hulk of a man who needs her closeness to keep his own demons at bay. Their relationship is one built on unspoken trust, on the acceptance of the other’s shortcomings and on the willingness to make room for them and work them into something positive and mutually beneficial.
In the economy of the story, the fairy-tale mystery at the heart of it all is quite straightforward and obvious – at least for the reader – but its resolution is not important: what matters here is the journey toward this resolution, and the themes explored along the way. Friendship and trust are two of them: there is an interesting counterpoint here, as we see the relationship between Blackthorn and Grim grow day by day, while the one between prince Oran and his valet – and oldtime friend – deteriorates through silences and misunderstandings after Flidais’ arrival. Trust is also quite difficult for Blackthorn, especially trust in men of power: I was fascinated by her conflicting emotions, as she compares Oran’s gentle wisdom with Mathuin’s thoughtless cruelty and struggles to give the prince the benefit of the doubt, to let herself believe that there might be men for whom justice and fairness are more than words.
Her attitude introduces another important subject, the role of women in society, and how their voice carries far less weight than men’s. Blackthorn is a case in point, of course: her imprisonment is the direct result of having taken a stand against a powerful man and his wrongdoings, and at the start of the book she is even denied the right to defend herself and bring forth her accusations – the death sentence hanging over her being the ultimate way of silencing her voice. But the narrative thread that follows young Ness’ tragedy speaks far more loudly and touches issues that transcend the fairy-tale setting of the book and are still debated in our present reality. Ness’ kidnapping and imprisonment at the hands of a man who could not take ‘no’ for an answer, who thought he had a right to exert his will on her, is tragically contemporary, as are some of the villagers’ reactions once they learn of Ness’ plight: some of them wonder if she did not “bring it on herself”, whether she did something to “encourage” her tormentor. Sounds sadly familiar, doesn’t it?
This is a book that goes far deeper than one would imagine from its surface appearance, a book with many souls: this is the reason I was caught in its spell so deeply – Juliet Marillier just gained another enthusiastic fan.
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 meme is: SUMMER READS and it can include beach reads, fun reads, or any book you associate with summer for whatever reason. So let’s get started…
Summer, or better yet, a beach vacation, means a LOT of time for reading: no distractions, no demands on my time, and the opportunity to read books that require total immersion or those that I’ve kept shifting down the queue. This is the reason I usually keep more “demanding” reads for the times when I can go on vacation, since my idea of rest is exactly this: the beach, a comfortable recliner and an absorbing book. Paradise… 🙂
This year I lined up a few books I intend to read during my long-awaited week at the beach: I hold no hope to be able to read them all, but I will carry them in my faithful reader and I’ll let inspiration decide.
Iain Banks – Excession: it’s been a while since my last Banks book, and I’ve meant to read this fifth Culture volume for some time now. From what I hear it’s a complex story, one that will require some concentration, but I can hardly wait to visit this universe again. And how could I not be intrigued by huge, sentient ships’ minds whose names are “Unacceptable Behavior”, “Yawning Angel” or “Shoot Them Later”?
Daniel Abraham – The Dragon’s Path: after enjoying Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, I’ve been curious about this huge fantasy series (The Dagger and the Coin) that saw the publication of the fifth and final book only recently. If this first volume will grab hold of my imagination, as I hope, I know I will not have to wait long years to see its conclusion, and that’s a comforting thought.
N.K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season: most of the reviews I read about this book spoke highly of Jemisin’s new series, so I might break my self-imposed rule to finish the Inheritance Trilogy first and take a peek at this one first. Considering my previous experiences with this author, I know I will be swept away by her storytelling all the same…
Peter Hamilton – The Neutronium Alchemist (Night’s Dawn #2): after finally breaking the ice with The Reality Dysfunction, I’m quite invested in this massive science fiction trilogy that spans huge distances and presents many mysteries and a terrifying new kind of invasion. This second book’s page number is even higher than the first one’s: the perfect choice for a time of leisure.
Brandon Sanderson – The Final Empire (Mistborn #1) – I must confess I’ve long been wary about Sanderson’s books because of his link with the Wheel of Time series, which I didn’t enjoy, but a couple of samples of his writing – a short story contained in an anthology, and the beautiful novella The Emperor’s Soul – changed my mind and I’m now more than ready to explore his works.
Not bad as a summer vacation plan, isn’t it?
The word “experience” is often used when referring to a creative work of any kind, and I believe it would be the best term to define this amazing, unexpected book. Unexpected because I would never have thought that the epistolary form or the found-footage narrative would work so well with a science fiction story; unexpected because the different sub-genres at work here (sci-fi, thriller, horror and a bit of romance) blended so seamlessly into a cohesive and enthralling whole; and unexpected because my previous encounters with YA themes have mostly led to disappointment, while here I saw how skillful writing and respect both for characters and their audience can breathe life into teenaged protagonists that are not only believable, but that make you care and root for them. More than once I found myself thinking that Illuminae should be used as a manual about creating YA characters that are neither cliché nor annoying or predictable.
But let’s proceed with order…
The time is five hundred (and something) years from now: humanity has expanded across space and on the isolated mining colony situated on frozen Kerenza, Kady Grant and Ezra Mason just broke up after a big fight. Events soon put their lovers’ spat in a corner when ships from BeiTech Corporation attack Kerenza – independent and therefore considered illegal – with a brutality that hints at the will to teach a bloody example. The survivors of the attack are rescued by three ships: the freighter Copernicus, the science vessel Hypatia and a Terran battlecruiser, the Alexander: the meagre convoy sets out to take the refugees to safety, despite the heavy damage sustained by Alexander, that remains their only line of defense against pursuing BeiTech ships. Kady ends on Hypatia and Ezra on Alexander, both of them conscripted – despite their young age – to help in the effort against the attackers.
Through the collection of files, memos, transcripts of communications, interviews and personal IM conversations we learn that the plight of the Kerenza survivors keeps getting worse: the Alexander‘s powerful IA, named AIDAN, has been damaged in the battle against BeiTech’s dreadnought Lincoln, to the point that its logic cannot be trusted anymore; before the evacuation, the attackers used bio-weapons on the colonists, and all of the affected people were taken aboard by the Copernicus, where the symptoms manifested first as tremors and then as loss of reasoning and the transformation of the victims into homicidal maniacs. When Copernicus is destroyed, officially by Lincoln, and AIDAN is taken offline shortly thereafter, speculations start to fly wildly about…
This is the premise (although calling this massively engrossing beginning ‘premise’ seems somewhat reductive…) from which the whole story takes flight, a story rich with dramatic twists and turns, unexpected revelations and a constant escalation in tension that makes for compulsive reading. There’s also the format to take into consideration: the transcripts and assorted documents are integrated with schematics, computer screen printouts and a few pages where the narrative is carried forward through a blending of words and images – I can’t describe it in a better way, it must be seen, and enjoyed directly. Which requires a few words about the differences between physical books and the e-book format: I read Illuminae in the latter, and I understand that the paper book would have enhanced my experience, because at times the printed characters were so small and arranged in such a way as to be quite difficult to read on a small screen. When I moved the book from my usual reader to a tablet, the situation improved quite a bit thanks to its better magnification properties, and I was able to see details that were denied to me on my default e-reader – so that might be a good solution to the problem for those who prefer the virtual medium.
Nonetheless, much as I admired the authors’ choice in formatting, the “meat” of the book is in the story itself, and the characters, and they come through no matter what format you get to know them in. The authors have done an astounding work in building and growing amazing personalities through the use of transcripts and conversations: these might look like very poor means to create three-dimensional characters, and yet the writers were able to do exactly that, and to present us with unforgettable people, even with secondary figures. The general effect they reached was to make you hear these people’s voices as if they were speaking directly to you: you listen to their emotions, you see them for who and what they are, and in the end you discover how much you care for them, and the harrowing journey they are on.
We get to know Kady and Ezra through the IM exchanges not in spite of what they avoid saying, but because of it: what remains between the lines, and sometimes comes out in the most unexpected way, is so powerfully built that it shines through. They are not the kind of teenagers that so much stereotyped YA literature has taught me to expect and dread, they are real teenagers and realistically complex creatures who are dealing with something so much bigger than they are, and yet they manage to face it – through trial and error, through pain, sacrifice and loss – with no hint of the useless whining and fake angst so many of their counterparts are invested with in lesser works. Their emotions are so authentic that it’s impossible not to suffer with them as they see what remains of their world crumbling piece by piece; just as it it’s impossible not to cheer for them as they try to accomplish the impossible. In this respect, the section where Kady moves through Alexander, in a situation that makes The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later look like a picnic, is an amazing spotlight for her character and for the personality of AIDAN, a grievously damaged AI whose actions made me run the whole emotional spectrum from loathing to compassion.
Because emotions, powerful emotions, are possibly the main reason for the success of this book: the impending sense of dread, the realization that something is wrong and it’s going to become even worse, made me afraid for the characters and compelled me to keep going forward to know what happened, while at the same time I was terrified to – not unlike what happens to the protagonist as they walk the ships’ corridors infested by the affected victims. The authors of this amazing book managed to convey all those feelings through writing that is both epic and lyrical, and even if I closed the book in a state of emotional exhaustion, I know that I would happily welcome more of this story, and drink it all up with the same kind of eagerness.
Very highly recommended.