Reviews

Review: THEFT OF SWORDS (Riyria Revelation Omnibus 1), by Michael J. Sullivan

10790290This 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…

My Rating:


Reviews

Back in a while…

 

Holiday

 

Hello everyone!

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!

Reviews

Review: CONGRESS OF SECRETS, by Stephanie Burgis

28953200I received this book from Pyr Books through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to them both for the opportunity to read this novel.

If I enjoyed Stephanie Burgis’ previous book, Masks and Shadows, this one went well beyond any expectations I had, after my first encounter with this writer. Congress of Secrets is far richer and multi-faceted than its predecessor and I enjoyed it very much, as the levels of tension and intrigue kept me glued to the pages until the end.  The story is set a few decades after the events of Masks and Shadows, and follows new characters, although there is a passing mention of Marie Dommaier, the young maid-turned-opera singer, who seems to have become very famous and whose role appears to be the handing of the narrative baton to the new players.

Caroline Wyndham, a wealthy English widow, hides a secret: she was born Karolina Vögl, daughter of a Viennese printer arrested by the secret police twenty-five years previously for his illegal anti-establishment pamphlets. Karolina herself was a prisoner of Count Pergen, the head of the secret police, who held her – and other equally forgotten victims – as a subject for his experiments in dark magic and alchemy for several years.  She is now back in Vienna, with the pretext of following the Congress being held on the wake of Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat: her real goal is to find a way to free her father, the only one of Pergen’s inmates still to be released.

Michael Steinhüller is a professional con artist, and his latest scheme involves passing himself as a dispossessed Russian noble come to Vienna to obtain reparations for the losses suffered during Bonaparte’s campaigns of conquest. He’s no stranger to Caroline, either, since he was her father’s apprentice when the police came to arrest them all, and her last image of him – and Michael’s recurring shameful memory – is of Michael running for his life as the printer’s shop was torched.  When he meets Karolina/Caroline again, the past threatens to infringe on their respective plans and to intrude with uncomfortable memories and unspoken feelings.

Around these two main characters moves a number of either fictional or historical figures, making once more this novel a rich tale that intrigues with its core story and stimulates curiosity toward the events being depicted: if Peter Riesenbeck, the leader of an acting troupe traveling to Vienna in search of success and fame, is an imaginary construct, and the unwitting lynchpin around which part of the drama unfolds, there are also some very real people moving across the stage and weaving seamlessly between reality and fantasy. There is Emperor Francis and the dark secrets he shares with evil Count Pergen, another all too true figure from the past; or we encounter famous politicians as Talleyrand and Metternich; or again my favorite among the secondary players, the Prince de Ligne, who I discovered was a flesh-and-blood person, widely known for his wit and his scorn of political expedience: his friendship with Caroline and his avuncular curiosity toward her, and the mystery she represents, is one of the highlights of the story.

Of course much revolves around Caroline and Michael’s meeting, the emotional undercurrents of their past and present and the misunderstandings that threaten to drive them further apart: once more I commend Ms. Burgis for not placing the romance at the center of the story, but using it simply as part of the plot, leaving the daring schemes of the two under the spotlight.  Caroline herself is an intriguing character: like her virtual “sister” Charlotte von Steinbeck in Masks and Shadows, she works within the era’s social conventions, but manages to wield whatever power she can muster with skill and courage, driven by the need to free her father and the guilt she feels for the long years she was forced to abandon him to his destiny.  Caroline is no innocent – her truncated childhood saw to that in no small measure – and she’s not an angel either, able as she is to employ her feminine wiles to advantage, but at the same time her past experiences and the deals she had to make have not hardened her completely, and she retains a core of vulnerability that gives her personality a delightful complexity.

The magic elements of the novel are just as intriguing – and frightening: the darkness that inhabits count Pergen and allows him to draw energies from his victims, shifting them to himself or other recipients not unlike a blood transfusion, seems to have a connection with the dark, formless shapes that we saw in Masks and Shadows, and maybe is a sort of evolution of that entity, or a side manifestation. Much is left to the imagination and not explained completely (something I approve of) and the very insubstantial nature of the phenomenon is what makes it so terrifying and believable, especially in the final scenes of the unfolding drama.

If the story seems to end with a somewhat easy “and they lived happily thereafter”, it does so in a very satisfactory way – and after the horror and anguish visited on the characters for most of the time, I think they deserve it, and so do the readers.  The added value in this novel, even more than in its predecessor, lies in the curiosity that the author manages to instigate in her audience about the historical period in which the action is set, and in the real-life figures presented there. As always, a book that makes me think, besides its entertainment value, is a good one.

Very, very highly recommended.

My Rating:


Reviews

Review: CHILDREN OF THE DIFFERENT, by S.C. Flynn

29864261I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review: unlike other submissions I accepted in the past, this one took a different path. The author is also a fellow blogger, and he built some anticipation for his book by sharing first an excerpt and then the cover art, an interesting – if puzzling, at the time – image that further piqued my curiosity.

Children of the Different is a post-apocalyptic novel dealing with the aftermath of the Great Madness, a wave of murderous, virus-driven insanity that swept the globe some twenty years previously, whose victims fell prey to an unstoppable killing instinct.  Apart from a number of people who proved to be immune – as it often happens with any kind of plague – the only ones to avoid the Madness’ effects were those who had previously exhibited mental problems of various gravity: they not only survived the infection, but their afflictions were cured. Those who did not fall into either category became Ferals: as the name suggests, they are little more than beasts attacking other people, killing them and feasting on their flesh.

Now, all children born after the Madness undergo, once they reach puberty, a process called “the Changing”: they enter a comatose state in which they experience the Dreamland, a place of the mind capable of affecting the body as well, so that an injury sustained there shows in all its painful tangibility in the waking world. The Changing can bestow unique powers on those youths, or transform them into Ferals, who are driven away from the communities where they grew up.

As the novel opens, young Arika just started her Changing, observed with huge trepidation by her twin brother Narrah, who is alternately worried for his sister and for the ordeal that will shortly claim him as well. The story unfolds following the twins’ experiences – both in the Changeland and in reality – while they slowly discover more about the world they live in, as it once was and as it is now: until their Changing they lived a very sheltered life in an isolated settlement, the only information about the outside provided by the elders of the community, and therefore lacking many important details that they need to complete the puzzle.

Arika and Narrah’s path is both a coming-of-age journey and a quest, and a fascinating one at that, since it develops on several planes, due to the intermingling of reality and dream-state, without forgetting the peculiar powers that both of them gain from their Changing: here is where I finally comprehended the full meaning of the cover image, and where I understood my feelings of dread when I observed the figure of the echidna, the Ant-eater that keeps plaguing the young protagonists both in the material world and the dream state. The malevolent countenance and the red eyes of this creature struck me as totally evil on the cover, so that when it appeared in the Changeland, threatening the twins, it appeared even more of a danger than it would have from description alone.

As far as dystopian novels go, this one was quite unlike my previous experiences, and it was a very welcome change: for starters, the Australian setting is unusual for the genre, and it adds a further dimension to the post-apocalyptic landscape, imbued as it is with some Aboriginal wisdom and customs, which give it a distinctive flavor in respect of similarly set novels.  Then there are the main characters: forget the much-used (and abused) tropes of angsty youngsters, whining about the unfairness of the world or dealing with the equally ubiquitous love triangles – Arika and Narrah feel like real, flesh-and-blood teenagers, eager to take their place in the world and at the same time plagued with doubts and uncertainties, but strong enough to want to face any obstacle before them. Their courage comes from the awareness of the responsibilities they carry toward each other first, and then toward their community and, later on, the wider world; the love and the strong bond they share is the power that drives them forward through hardships and terror, and it’s a delightful and very real emotion to behold.   

The interweaving of reality and mind-scape is another fascinating side of this story, because it helps focus on the changes that the Great Madness brought to what remains of humankind: if the real world is scary enough, what with the constant threat of Ferals, or other humans preying on the weak, the Changeland is much worse, if nothing else because of its unpredictability and the opportunity for other, stronger minds, to affect it and create nightmarish dangers.  Following the twins during their Changings, or the later visits they are compelled to pay to this dream-state, can be a disturbing experience, one that personally made me hold my breath more than once, such was the power of the images I found there.

This is a novel primarily directed at a young audience, and as such it suffers a bit from the need of detailed exposition and the reiteration of a few basic concepts – both instances probably aimed at strengthening the understanding and attention span of its intended target, though slightly jarring for a more… mature reader. That notwithstanding, the story is a fascinating one, and the characters very easy to relate to and care about, so that I feel perfectly comfortable in recommending this novel to everyone who wants to hear a new voice in the speculative fiction panorama.

My Rating:


Reviews

SCI-FI MONTH 2016

Better prepare because Winter is Coming! ooops, sorry, wrong quote… Let’s start again…

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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…

 

 

Reviews

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAYS #9

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.

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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…

#1

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.

(N.K. Jemisin – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms)

#2

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.

(Mira Grant – Feed)

#3

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.

(James S.A.Corey – Leviathan Wakes)

#4

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.

(Juliet Marillier – Dreamer’s Pool)

#5

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.

(Patrick Weekes – The Palace Job)

Reviews

GIVEAWAY! A Whisper of Leaves by Ashley Capes

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!

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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!