Monthly Archives: August 2016
This series has been on my radar for some time now, the kind of series I keep telling myself I need to start, sooner or later, but for some reason always ends on the back burner. With the announced publication of a new series that would act as a sort of prequel to the Ryiria Revelations, I knew it was high time for me to jump on this train, and finding the first two volumes of the series in a very convenient omnibus seemed like the kind of final nudge I needed.
The Crown Conspiracy introduces the readers to the (mis)adventures of Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn, two thieves-for-hire able to penetrate any location, no matter how secure, and to retrieve the objects required by their employers. For a price, of course. A widespread fame like theirs is however bound to attract the wrong kind of attention, so that Hadrian and Royce find themselves framed for the murder of the king of Melengar as part of a multi-layered political plot to change the balance of power in the realm. What follows is an adventurous romp through the country, with a kidnapped prince and, later, a very naive monk for company, on the run from the “bad guys” trying to capture and kill the two friends while advancing their dastardly plot. In Avempartha, Hadrian and Royce are hired to retrieve a powerful sword that’s the only weapon able to destroy the monster preying on an unfortunate settlement of farmers.
Both stories travel on a current of adventure laced with humor and witty repartees, and peppered with characters that seem quite intent on poking fun at some of the staples of the genre: the haughty prince who badly needs an eye-opener on the realities of the realm; the strong-willed princess who nevertheless needs saving; the powerful wizard speaking in riddles (and old-fashioned language); the farm girl with a Destiny; and the required dragon. But mostly the focus is, of course, on Hadrian and Royce, and the balance between brawn and brain they represent: Hadrian is more a man of action, a sword-wielder of great ability, while Royce is more proficient in lock-picking and in finessing their way out of trouble when needed – which means, almost always.
There are a few more serious issues explored in the books: the encroaching power of the religious faction, whose representatives are shown as dangerously manipulative; the treatment of elves, once a powerful force in the land and now reduced in virtual slavery, hunted and reviled as third-class citizens; the hints of a more enlightened past, whose higher achievements have become lost or forgotten. All of this makes for an engaging read and the curiosity to learn more – but…
Sadly, there is a “but”: as entertaining as the story is, as entertaining as the main characters are, something feels off-track. We don’t seem to learn a great deal about the two main characters, apart from the fact they are long-time associates, work well with each other and are very good at exchanging quips even in the most dire of situations. Moreover, much of the world’s background comes from huge chunks of “telling” as opposed to “showing”: the characters often (too often!) engage in long discussions about the past, or the current political situation, in a way that’s a bit too pedantic for my taste, and in so doing lose the momentum so far impressed to the story. The worst example of this can be found at the beginning of Avempartha, when Royce and Hadrian meet with some members of Royce’s old criminal guild: the leader of the group spends a great deal of time giving Hadrian a rundown of his friend’s past activities in the guild, with abundance of details, while the two are under the threat of physical harm. In my opinion, the unease generated by such an encounter is diluted by the conversational tone – and the overlong tale – to be as effective as it was probably meant to be.
Modern fantasy has led me to expect more from female characters, as well, and here I was less than satisfied with the offer: princess Arista looks, on the surface, like a strong-willed woman, but is soon revealed as too easily deceived (her continued blindness concerning a certain character becomes quickly irritating) and she is constantly in need of being saved, first from a false accusation of witchcraft (and a collapsing tower!) and later from being kidnapped by none less than a dragon. Young Thrace, the peasant-girl-with-a-destiny, is almost raped before the two friends save her (insert sarcastic eye-roll), and once she’s cleaned of the grime that covers her, is revealed as startlingly beautiful, and blessed with child-like innocence. The other woman of any relevance in the story is a whore with a heart of gold – at which I sighed heavily in despair, wondering if what I initially saw as amused fun thrown at some narrative tropes was not simply the unimaginative use of those tropes, instead.
This does not mean that I totally disliked the books, of course, to the point I’m willing to give this series another chance with the next two-volume omnibus in the hope to encounter some improvements in both characterization and narrative style: this series has received too many positive comments for me to give up on my first attempt. But I will need to find some stronger storytelling to keep on reading…
As you will see from the sign, I will be away for a two-week vacation, a much-needed stop to recharge my spent batteries 🙂
Since I can’t be sure about the internet connection, I have scheduled a couple of posts, but I will most likely be unable to reply to any comments or to comment on your own posts. I promise, however, to do it on my return – cross my heart!
Happy reading and reviewing to you all!
Better prepare because
Winter is Coming! ooops, sorry, wrong quote… Let’s start again…
SCI-FI MONTH is back again! (ok, that’s better) 😀
The month-long celebration of all things sci-fi will start again in November, hosted by Rinn at RINN READS and by Lisa at OVER THE EFFING RAINBOW. To know everything you need to participate, just go over at Rinn’s blog and read this post. Then sign up, and have fun!
I certainly intend to…
This GoodReads group proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.
This week the theme is: Favorite First Sentences, which is a problem because it’s not easy to narrow it down to only five. I started with three times that much and then proceeded to an agonizing pruning job. No, not easy at all….
These are all the kind of beginnings that grab my attention from the very start, and never let go, from page one to the end. What I found surprising, with some hindsight, is that they are all first volumes in series I’ve enjoyed more than most, so, if it’s true that beginnings are very delicate times (to quote from “Dune”, another all-time favorite), these beginning were strong enough to keep me reading on.
And now for the quotes…
I am not as I once Was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore. I must try to remember.
Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – in this case, my brother Shaun – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens. As if we didn’t already know what happens when you mess with a zombie: The zombie turns around and bites you, and you become the thing you poked. This isn’t a surprise. It hasn’t been a surprise for more than twenty years, and if you want to get technical, it wasn’t a surprise then.
The Scopuli had been taken eight days ago, and Julie Mao was finally ready to be shot. It had taken all eight days trapped in a storage locker for her to get to that point. For the first two she’d remained motionless, sure that the armored men who’d put her there had been serious. For the first hours, the ship she’d been taken aboard wasn’t under thrust, so she floated in the locker, using gentle touches to keep herself from bumping into the walls or the atmosphere suit she shared the space with. When the ship began to move, thrust giving her weight, she’d stood silently until her legs cramped, then sat down slowly into a fetal position. She’d peed in her jumpsuit, not caring about the warm itchy wetness, or the smell, worrying only that she might slip and fall in the wet spot it left on the floor. She couldn’t make noise. They’d shoot her.
I fished out the rusty nail from under my pallet and scratched another mark on the wall. Tomorrow would be midsummer, not that a person could tell rain from shine in this cesspit. I’d been here a year. A whole year of filth and abuse and being shoved back down the moment I lifted myself so much as an inch. Tomorrow, at last, I’d get my chance to speak out. Tomorrow I would tell my story.
The rulers of the Republic lived atop the great flying city of Heaven’s Spire, their magnificent palaces soaring above the world. From their great manses in the sky came the laws and decrees that kept the country in motion, and the commoners on the ground could look up every morning and see their rulers overhead. The prisoners of the Republic lived beneath the great city of Heaven’s Spire, scouring the lapiscaela whose magic kept the city aloft. For their terrible crimes, each man and woman served a life sentence, clinging to the pipes with only a mile of empty air beneath them. There was no chance of release, no hope of escape. Today, however, Loch intended to change that.
I’m very happy to share the news that Australian author Ashley Capes is hosting a giveaway of his novella A WHISPER OF LEAVES on Instafreebie: you will find the download link HERE. The giveaway starts today and will go on until August 25th, so hurry and grab your copy!
The story, in short:
When ESL teacher Riko finds an old journal buried in the forests beneath Mt Fuji, a malevolent, untraceable force begins to threaten her at every turn.
But is it all in her head?
The more she studies the journal for answers, the more questions she uncovers. Worse, no-one takes her fears seriously and her best lead appears to be a belligerent old man, whose only care in the world is raking leaves deep in the forest.
With her grip on reality shaken and friendships strained to breaking point, Riko has to discover the truth about the journal in order to put ghosts of the past to rest, as strange events turn deadly.
If you’re interested, here is my review of the novella, but I urge you to go and read for yourselves this very moody, very peculiar story. Enjoy!
The first time I heard about this author was through reviews of his upcoming new novel The Suicide Motor Club, so I decided to try out his previous works and settled on this one whose main theme – vampires in the very urbanized context of New York city in the late ‘70s – sounded quite promising. Well, it was more than that, a great deal more.
The vampire myth is one of the staples of horror fiction, one that underwent many permutations lately, from the humorous declination of a handful of movies to the angsty, overly romanticized version of a certain well-known saga, but for me the true vampire is the one that remains true to its first incarnation: the blood-drinking monster preying on defenseless humanity, and Christopher Buehlman’s vampires are exactly that – without frills or sparkly glamor.
The action takes place in 1978 New York and the story is told from the point of view of Joey Peacock, who was turned into a vampire in 1933 at the age of fourteen: 45 years later he’s living (if you can use that term with the undead, of course) with a community of his brethren in the abandoned tunnels of New York’s subway system. The group is led by Margaret, formerly a maid in Joey’s household, and she rules them with the iron fist of a queen of old: one of the most fascinating sides of this novel comes exactly from the dynamics of this vampire community and the different personalities of its members, who have somehow retained the characteristics of their lost humanity, integrating them into the changed necessities of their state as vampires.
For example, Joey – despite his decades as a blood predator – still remains the pampered, selfish teenager he was at the time he was turned, and the author’s skill in characterization shines through in the balance he achieves between the wise cunning of the vampire he is and the petty yearnings of the youth he was. There is a scene that drives home this duality and that stayed with me for some time, due to its chilling quality: Buehlman’s vampires have no need to physically subdue their victims, since they can exert some form of hypnosis that renders them docile and accepting, and that’s exactly what Joey does with a whole family, sitting with them in front of the TV, watching some mindless, mind-numbing show, as he feeds from each of them in turn as if from a box of snacks.
There is nothing romantic in these vampires, not in the way they cater to their own needs, nor in the way they live: despite the attempts at decorating their subterranean lairs, still the life they lead closely resembles that of the homeless with whom they share the tunnels. Darkness, dirt and decay are their constant companions, with no concession to glamor whatsoever – except the one they wear to move undisturbed and unnoticed through an oblivious humanity, made even more oblivious by the “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” attitude of the times. This lack of any exotic overtone to Buehlman’s vampires is compounded by the creeping awareness that the undead are not immune from decline, that eternity is tainted by isolation, melancholy or peculiar forms of madness that are as dangerous as their human counterparts, as it happens with Night Fever:
You might guess it’s kinda like cabin fever, and, yeah, that’s close. Night fever is what happens when a vampire can’t take being in the dark anymore. […] It’s a disease of the soul.
The status quo is broken when Joey’s community becomes aware of a group of vampire children who not only prey on humans without the discretion necessary to keep their existence concealed, but also engage in gruesome rituals before killing their victims. Margaret and Co. are compelled to intervene, not out of a sense of compassion toward the murdered humans, but rather because of the threat of discovery, while Joey and his friend Cvetko – and older, scholarly-inclined vampire – also feel a need to protect these children, whose former innocence still seems to flash through their animalistic behavior. And this will lead them on an unexpected path…
What I most enjoyed in this book is the way any expectations I had were twisted beyond recognition, starting with Joey himself: he warns the readers up front that he’s a deceiver, someone who cannot be trusted:
You will be burdened with an unreliable narrator who will disappoint and repel you at every turn.
Still with me?
Too bad for you.
I can’t wait to break your heart.
Despite the warning – or because of it? – the atmosphere drew me in and kept me spellbound until the very last page: part of it is due to Joey’s peculiar narrative style, more like a stream-of-consciousness report than a coherent tale, and part is due to the strong feeling of impending disaster that permeates the air, of looming danger that has no form or substance and yet is there, just out of the corner of one’s eye, unavoidable and at the same time utterly fascinating.
Buehlman dares his readers to go on, to see what’s around the next dark corner, while at the same time he warns them that things are not what they seem, but just like his vampires, once we have opened the book, once we have invited him in, there is not way we can escape the spell. Even when the story seems to have reached its end, before the last chapter named “Coda”, he warns us about proceeding no further, but by that time he has ensnared us so deeply that there is no other way than forward, and on to a shattering surprise.
Well done, viciously well done…
If the police are there to protect citizens from your run-of-the-mill bad guys, what happens when these bad guys are supernatural creatures? No need to invoke the famous Ghostbusters, because SPI exists precisely for this reason. Supernatural Protection and Investigations works to safeguard humans from scary creatures like vampires or ghouls or whatever, and to keep their existence as secret as possible. Makenna “Mac” Fraser has been enrolled by SPI for her rare gift: she is a Seer, someone who can see through any disguise or spell cast by supernaturals to cover their non-human appearance.
Unlike other Urban Fantasy heroines, Mac is not a brooding, ass-kicking lady or someone with a dark, terrible past she’s trying to forget: she’s a rather ordinary person, holding a job as a tabloid reporter investigating the kind of fake monster sightings that the trashy press most enjoys, only to be contacted by SPI because of her peculiar characteristic. She has the quite uncommon ability to see the real monsters under the human mask they wear. She is also quite unprepared for the dangers SPI agents have to face each day and is quite straightforward about it, studiously avoiding to rush in where angels (or better trained operatives) fear to tread. That was the first quality I appreciated in this character, the willingness to admit her own shortcomings and the reluctance to face unknown dangers, even though these are part of her job description: too often in this genre the spunky protagonist finds herself well in over her head and regularly needs saving, while Mac knows her limits and also knows when to take a step back and let her more experienced co-workers take over, with no qualms or inferiority complex whatsoever.
And what interesting co-workers she has! Starting with her partner Ian, a former cop who at first does not look too happy to babysit a rookie, but who quickly changes attitude once he understands that Mac does not intend to be just excess baggage but wants to be trained – as much as her own limits allow – so she can be an effective operative the others can depend on. There are a few dark corners to Ian, some of which we uncover in the course of the story, and he comes across as a decent guy – again avoiding the cliché of the skilled agent looking down on the newbie and putting her through hell just for the sake of it. I also like the partnership and friendship vibes coming off Ian and Mac that might in future evolve into something deeper, but don’t seem in a hurry to do so – another overused trope happily avoided.
Then there are people like Yasha, the Russian werewolf, or Kenji, the computer-savvy Elf, or again Alain Moreau, SPI’s resident lawyer who’s also a vampire (there’s some not-so-understated subtext here, I’m certain…). But the most impressive of them all is Vivienne Sagadraco, the director who, as her name suggests is indeed a dragon. A dragon lady in every sense of the word, to be precise. This diverse and interesting cast animates a quickly developing and fast-paced story that mixes adventure and humor in a successful way, while continuing to raise the stakes until the very end: the kind of book that keeps you glued to its pages and at the same time makes you smile – and sometimes laugh out loud, mostly through Mac’s self-effacing jokes like this one:
There were entirely too many grave markers lurking just below the snow’s surface on that hillside, and my feet were doing a fine job of finding every last one of them. I’d made two face-down snow angels and one outright sprawl.
The story itself focuses on a complex plot to make the world aware of the truth about supernaturals in a most dramatic way, by unleashing the titular Grendels on an unsuspecting crowd on New Year’s Eve: from what we learn, the mythical creature vanquished by Beowulf does indeed exist and is even more dangerous (and prolific!) than its literary ancestor – the scenes concerning the hatching of the Grendel’s eggs make for some of the most terrifying and claustrophobic reading I can remember – and SPI finds its resources taxed to the maximum to contain and eliminate the threat. If you enjoy breathless monster hunts through abandoned subway tunnels or multi-layered plotlines that finally converge into an explosive climax, with the added bonus of a crew of battle-hungry Scandinavian agents who enjoy a good, gory fight just as much as their Viking forebears did, this is indeed the book for you.