Reviews

Review: SNOWSPELLED, by Stephanie Burgis

I received this novella from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

The two novels penned by Stephanie Burgis that I previously read – Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets – were both delightful finds, creating a very successful mix between historical events and magic-driven fantasy: not only were they enjoyable books, but they compelled me to search for more information on the history of the times chosen as background, so that I was able to learn details that were previously unknown to me, which is always a plus from my point of view.

You can therefore imagine how thrilled I was when Ms. Burgis contacted me to read and review the first of a series of novellas titled The Harwood Spellbook, set in an alternate Regency England, one where magic is quite commonplace.  This historical period is one I enjoy reading about, since it brings back fond memories of the times I shared Georgette Heyer’s books with my mother, and the premise for Ms. Burgis’ setting sounded quite fascinating, so I did not waste any time in accepting.

England – here named Angland – is a country where humans, elves, trolls and other creatures coexist more or less in peace, mostly through treaties stipulated after the bloody wars of the past. The country is ruled by women through the Boudiccate (so named after Queen Boudicca, who in this alternate history did manage to overcome the Roman invaders), while men are tasked with the exercise of magic, relinquishing every political power to their wives, mothers, sisters and so on.  The most amusing aspect of this social background comes from the overturned customs: men seem more inclined to gossip and trivial pursuits, while women deal with the responsibilities of government and the rule of the land.

Cassandra Harwood is a rule-breaker: to the chagrin of her mother, one of the Boudiccate’s more powerful members, she was never interested in politics, preferring to explore her potential for magic and therefore going against every social convention of the country. Her drive brought her to be accepted in the Great Library, the male academy teaching the finer points of magic, where she distinguished herself and where she met Wexham, a magician of equally strong powers and ultimately her fiancé.  As the story starts, however, Cassandra is recovering from the effects of a spell she should never have tried alone, and as a consequence she is forbidden to practice any kind of magic: to do so would mean courting death.

Cassandra feels her life is all but over, and hardly tolerates the sympathy of friends and family members, seeing in it a veiled reproach for the unconventional life choices of the past: for this reason she has broken her engagement with Wexham and is not looking forward to meeting him again at the formal reception in the Cosgrave estate, where the pacts with the Elf kingdom will be renewed. Other concerns will however claim Cassandra’s attention – among them an unseasonable and strangely intense snowfall that all but forces the guests to stay indoors – and she will be compelled to fight for her freedom without the help of the magic that until recently was her second nature.

I read the story in one sitting, unable to let go of the charming atmosphere depicted by the author, one where a subtle vein of humor runs throughout the pages thanks to the upside-down social customs of this alternate version of Regency England. The verbal skirmishes, the strict adherence to conventions, the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle…) snubs exercised by the guests, all the details I expected from interactions based on this historical period were there, but artfully shifted to encompass the differences created by the premise. Here are two delightful examples:

It was a truth universally acknowledged that women were the more pragmatic sex; that was why we were expected to run the government, while the men attended to the more mystical and imaginative realm of magic.

The gentlemen, of course, were expected to remain at the table, until a maid was sent to notify them that it was safe for them to join us in the parlor, meaning that the political conversations were officially finished for the night.

Cassandra is a very enjoyable heroine, stubborn enough to want to pursue her own goals in spite of conventions, but still prone to the weaknesses of the heart, whose existence she outwardly denies only to be constantly reminded – with loving humor – by her brother and sister-in-law, two other characters I liked from the very start.  And she can also be courageously strong when the time comes to face dangers or the creepy (oh, so creepy!) Elf lord who challenges her.

As a beginning to a new series, Snowspelled is a very promising one and also a departure from what this author’s previous novels led me to expect, a change of pace that I found totally enjoyable: where Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets held a darker core to their background, here the tone is lighter, more a divertissment than anything else, the kind of story that can take my mind off more serious concerns and leave me with the definite sense of having breathed some fresh, invigorating air.  Something we all sorely need now and then…

I certainly will look forward to more adventures from Cassandra & friends.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Orbit US Turns 10!

 

 

I’m very happy to share the news that Orbit US will be celebrating its tenth year of presence on the market for Science Fiction and Fantasy literature: you will find an interesting article detailing the history of these past ten years on Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

And in the best Hobbit tradition for birthdays, presents will be given instead of received: in this case a not-to-be-missed deal on the ebook version of 10 of the most successful Orbit titles for the past decade, including some of my favorites like James S.A. Corey LEVIATHAN WAKES,  M.R. Carey THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, or Mira Grant’s FEED.  And many more…

Just click on this LINK to see the full array of amazing books.

Happy 1oth Birthday ORBIT!

Reviews

Novella Review: HOPE’S END (Powder Mage #4), by Brian McClellan

Another prequel story from Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage world: this one does not focus on Tamas directly, but rather sees him through the eyes of his subordinates, in particular Captain Verundish, a field officer.  At the beginning of the story Verundish is contemplating suicide: a letter she received from her philandering husband requests she divorce him, so he will be able to marry his mistress. Since it might be difficult for Verundish to grant him a divorce, or rather impossible, since her father – a minister of the faith – married them and he’s opposed to the idea of breaking a sacred bond, she should kill herself to free him – otherwise he will sell their daughter into slavery.  With this kind of threat hanging over the child, Verundish has every intention of ending her life to save her daughter, but the appearance of Captain Constaire – a fellow office and her lover – forces he to postpone her plan.

Constaire has been chosen to lead a “Hope’s End” attack against the stronghold of Darjah, a Gurlish city besieged by the Adran army, under the command of General Tamas: this kind of attack, as the name suggests, is nothing but a suicide mission to breach the wall and open the way to the bulk of the army, and the man wonders whether Tamas wants him dead, since Constaire is noble-born, and everyone knows that Tamas is not fond of people buying their army commissions rather than earning them in the field.   Her lover’s plight gives however Verundish an idea to solve her problem: if she were to lead the attack, and die in the battle, she will be a hero and her daughter would be safe forever…

With this story I realized something, that with Brian McClellan it’s easy, very easy, to grow fond of characters in a very short time, and Verundish is a case in point: a woman who is a capable warrior and at the same time a victim of circumstances and – probably – of warped customs.  If society allows her to enlist in the army and actively participate in campaigns, on the other hand it leaves her at the mercy of a vile husband who would be allowed to sell their own offspring to slavers: there is something twisted, and horribly wrong at work here, something that made me like her instantly as she battled with her options with lucid despair.  Moreover, her lover Constaire appears something of a whiner, and his attitude toward the orders he just received made me wonder if, with them, Tamas wanted exactly to “test his mettle”, and if he had just failed the test…

Through Verundish’s eyes we see Tamas not just as a character in the story, but as the man his soldiers know: a stern, uncompromising man who still has a few axes to grind against society, although he’s very aware of his own shortcomings, especially when he sees them mirrored in others: “Sometimes I envy those men who don’t let pride cloud their judgment”.  The more I get to understand him better, the more I’m eager to retrace my steps in the series and sees how the main story develops.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: PROMISE OF BLOOD (Powder Mage #1), by Brian McClellan

When a few years ago I saw this book mentioned on one of the periodic showcase posts on John Scalzi’s blog, I was immediately intrigued and did not waste any time in seeing for myself what this novel was about. Despite enjoying both the story and the writing, however, I never managed to move forward with the series, rekindling my interest only when a couple of months ago Orbit Books offered me the chance of reading and reviewing the first volume in Brian McClellan’s new series, Sin of Empire.    

On hindsight, I believe I now understand the reasons for my procrastinating, but they have been completely vanquished by this author’s new novel and the fresh enthusiasm for his world engendered both by Sins of Empire and some of the prequel novellas I’ve read since then.  So it was only fitting that I start again with the first book in the Powder Mage series, and I must admit that re-reading Promise of Blood, after getting to know better some characters and their background, was a much more satisfying experience.

This is an unusual world for fantasy, because it’s not based on a medieval-like setting, but rather a period reminiscent of the late 18th/early 19th Century, although it does possess its own forms of magic: at the top of the pyramid stand the Privileged, whose ability in mastering the elements makes them quite powerful – they offer support to the king’s rule and form powerful alliances called ‘cabals’, that are considered nearly invincible.  Then there are the Powder Mages, to whom gunpowder lends great stamina and skills, not least the ability of floating a bullet well past its normal trajectory, and of directing it with accuracy. Last are the Knacked, people with minor abilities that can however turn quite useful, if correctly employed.

As the story in Promise of Blood starts, Field Marshal Tamas brings to fruition the coup he’s been orchestrating with his allies: the present king’s rule brought the realm of Adro to the brink of disaster, with poverty and hunger beleaguering the people, while the forthcoming Accords with neighboring Kez will place Adro under the Kez political and financial thumb.  In one fell swoop, Tamas is able to kill most of the royal cabal of Privileged and to summarily judge and execute the king and the higher ranks of nobility: the use of guillotines for this final stage of the coup is what lends a strong French Revolution flavor to the novel.    Changing a country is however a difficult business and Tamas finds himself battling on several fronts while trying to resurrect his country’s economy, keeping the Kez and their expansionism at bay and thwarting some attempts on his life, the latter pointing at a traitor among his allies.  The Field Marshal therefore employs the services of former inspector Adamat (a man with the knack of eidetic memory) and sends his own son Taniel, a highly skilled powder mage, in pursuit of the last surviving king’s Privileged, while dealing with the problems of running a country and unraveling long-standing mysteries, again mixing mundane matters with magic in a compelling blend.

The background for Promise of Blood is a very interesting one, thanks to the combination of ordinary and supernatural I mentioned above: we have people wielding magic alongside common soldiers and servants, merchants and accountants, and through the various phases of Inspector Adamat’s investigation we have the opportunity of a closer look to Adran society where, for example, one of the major players is a workers’ union (something almost unheard of in the historical period that inspired the novel); or a powerful guild of assassins, the Black Street Barbers known for its silent efficiency, who are allowed to operate unhindered.  One of the elements I most enjoyed was the balance in the abilities afforded by gunpowder: a powder mage can draw great strength and resistance, or improved sight, from consuming it, not to mention the possibility of literally guiding a bullet well past the trajectory imposed by mere ballistics. And yet there are counterweights to this: not only in the fact that weapons are of the flintlock kind, and therefore able to shoot only one bullet at a time, so that a powder mage’s skills cannot be turned into a convenient deus ex machina, but also the use of powder can become addictive, not unlike any other drug.

As far as characters go, Field Marshal Tamas quickly became my favorite: he’s a somewhat hard, uncompromising man, but he also possesses a strong sense of justice and the willingness to make difficult choices for the common good. Having learned more about him and what makes him tick through the novellas I’ve read, it’s easier to understand his anger toward the former ruling class of Adro, although most of the times it’s a coldly calculated anger he knows how to channel, both for himself and the people he wants to lead toward a different future:

The people want blood right now, not words. They’ve wanted it for years. I’ve felt it. You’ve felt it. That’s why we came together to pull Manhouch from his throne.

His son Taniel is more difficult to relate to: both now and on my first read I saw him as something of a whiner, a boy looking for his father’s approval, and inclined to sulk when he doesn’t receive it in sufficient amount. If on one side I understand how difficult it would be to be the son of such a man, and to find oneself walking in such renowned footsteps, on the other I constantly felt the need to slap some sense into Taniel, especially when he pitched himself deeper into his powder addiction to numb the pains of the world, both the real and the merely perceived ones.

The pace of the story is fairly quick, alternating between Inspector Adamat’s investigation, political maneuvering in Adro, the looming Kez invasion and the obscure threat of god Kresimir’s return on the wings of an old prophecy that some Privileged seem determined to bring to fruition: the story flows pretty quickly between these different events and builds to a spectacular climax that however leaves many doors open for future developments.  With such a premise, as I said, it seems strange I did not feel compelled to continue sooner with the series, and I believe now that the main reason is the imbalance in characterization: unlike the first novel of the new series, or the prequel novellas, Promise of Blood does not seem to care much for female characters, and in a world where women can even choose to enroll in the military this does not come across too well.

Let’s examine some of the women who people this novel: Lady Winceslav, one of Tamas’ co-conspirators, is an influential person and the head of the mercenary group The Wings of Adom, and yet she’s easily duped by a young suitor; officer Vlora, Taniel’s fiancée and the central figure in Sins of Empire, causes the break of their engagement when he finds her in bed with another man; Ka-Poel, Taniel’s Fatrastan ally, is a powerful mage and a fearless fighter, but she’s mute; Privileged Julene is the quintessence of the Dark Lady, cruel and power-mad. And so on… I might be wrong, but I see a pattern here, one that might have subliminally influenced my decision to wait in discovering how the story progressed.  Thankfully, I can now see how the author changed this course along the way, and I must admit that reading the new novel before returning to this older trilogy had a very positive impact on my point of view of the overall story, one that promises to lead me on a very interesting path.

This time around I will not wait long before moving forward…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: ROLLING IN THE DEEP, by Mira Grant

Writer Mira Grant – the pen name of UF author Seanan McGuire – deals with horror in many forms, but always without need for the excesses of blood and gore: the fear in her stories comes rather from plunging the reader into the thick of events whose buildup is carefully crafted. Rolling in the Deep is no exception, as is no exception my choice of one of her stories for my posts: it’s by now an open secret that she’s one of my favorite authors…

Mermaids have always been a fascinating subject, beautiful hybrids between woman and fish whose sweet song lured lonely, unwary sailors to their demise, although in more recent times they have been turned into cute creatures of animated movies, while the truth – if there is indeed a glimmer of truth in the legend – could be quite different. As one of the characters in this story says at some point: “We turned monsters into myths, and then we turned them into fairy tales. We dismissed the bad parts.”

Imagine Network is a TV channel dedicated to monster-of-the-week B-movies and older sci-fi classics that launches into a venture destined to diversify their programming with “realistic” documentaries on controversial subjects (the various ghost-hunting shows plaguing current television come immediately to mind…) and for the highly-publicized launch of this new course they sponsor a scientific cruise with the goal of confirming the existence of mermaids.

On board the ship Atargatis convene scientist and TV people for what seems a whimsical search: a few of the former are either looking for scientific confirmation or refutation of the theory, and others to make a name for themselves in their field no matter how outlandish the subject; while the latter seek of course to improve ratings for the network and to reach personal success and visibility.  To insure that footage will show something to captivate the audience with, Imagine Network also enrolls a troupe of “professional mermaids”, women in costume who will provide some interesting film clips should all else fail.

The peculiar narrative choice of Rolling in the Deep comes from the blunt premise that the voyage of the Atargatis ended in mystery-shrouded tragedy, as testified by the quotes from the documentary created by Imagine Network on the crew’s disappearance, using the footage found aboard the empty vessel: evidently, not to be outdone by events, Imagine Network found a way to capitalize on the disaster and to draw a profit out of the expedition’s failure.  So it comes as no surprise to the readers that none of the characters they come to know in the course of the story will make it through, but that hardly matters – in my opinion – because what truly does is the road leading to the catastrophe.

The section of the novella heading toward its horrifying climax is deceptively unexciting: we meet a number of people – scientist and TV cast and staff – and learn a little about them, as we do with the ship’s captain and some of her crewmen. The three groups start their uneasy cohabitation on board the Atargatis as the differences in their personalities and leanings are tested in the enclosed environment of a ship at sea, and on the surface it seems like uninteresting fare, but on hindsight it looks like a plot to lull the reader into a false sense of tedium, so that when the unthinkable happens, when “the clawed, webbed hand (lashes) out of the dark” they are caught by surprise just as much as the characters are.

And what a bloody, disturbing surprise it is…

From that point on, the story goes into a fractured, accelerated sequence of images, not unlike the found footage of some well-known horror movies, offering us swift glimpses of the carnage that happens aboard the Atargatis as the myth choses to move out of the depths where it had been hidden and comes to the surface, swift and merciless and totally efficient in its actions.

Thanks to fellow blogger Tammy, over at Books, Bones and Buffy, I’ve learned there will soon be a follow-up to this novella, and to say I’m quite curious to see where Mira Grant will lead us next would be a massive understatement, indeed.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

WESTEROS IN MILAN…

As the start of season 7 for Game of Thrones, the TV series based on George R.R. Martin’s saga A Song of Ice and Fire, approaches – with the premiere slated for the evening of July 16th – so does the fans’ excitement to see how the story will move forward, now that the all-out war between the various warring factions is about to begin (although I will admit that I will take it all under advisement, while I wait for the next books to come out, since I’m pretty certain that GRR Martin has some surprises in store for us readers and has kept a few cards close to his chest, without revealing them to the show’s creators…)

Nonetheless, the hype is at its highest levels, and many events are being staged to keep it that way: I recently discovered that one of them has been set up here in Milan in the inner courtyard of the Sforza Castle, a 15th Century fortress located in what is now the heart of the city. Here is a brief video that will give you an idea of the location:

 

A few days ago I learned that a presentation of the world depicted in Martin’s saga and the HBO series would be held on this weekend, culminating in a public showing of the first episode of season 7 at 3 a.m. on Monday, July 17th, at the same time as the USA airing. Thankfully I will not have to observe such an ungodly hour to see the episode, since Sky Italy will be airing it and, as a subscriber, I will be able to record it and watch it at a more humanly convenient time 🙂

I was however curious about the presentation, my curiosity increased by the huge billboards covering the walls of the Duomo subway station I have been seeing all week long on my way to and from work, and announcing that “Winter has come”, or asking if we were “ready for it”, the more impressive one being a scene of the sword duel between Jon Snow and the King of the Others – a very impressive scene, indeed. So this morning, since I was in the area, I decided to see for myself: in truth, it looked more like a display aimed at younger audiences, especially with the big, bronze-like dragon everyone wanted to be photographed with, and the copy of the Iron Throne with a long queue of people waiting for their picture to be taken while sitting on it – and my heart went to the poor guy dressed like a Wildling standing beside the throne and looking fierce: with a 32 C temperature (that makes it close to 90F) and a 35-40% humidity, it must have been hell to stand there in such heavy clothing!

 

 

The best feature was indeed the fountain in front of the main entrance: it has been dressed to look as if part of it is frozen (after all “Winter has come”!) and despite the July mid-morning brightness it looks good.

The light of day might not be the best to observe the presentation, though, and I believe that at night, with some strategically placed illumination to enhance the location and the displays (and to keep away the darkness and the terrors Melisandre is so fond of mentioning) the castle’s courtyard will take on the properly magical atmosphere required by the event. For those fortunate – or bold – enough to brave the wait until 3 a.m. on Monday morning it will certainly be an amazing experience to see the brand new episode surrounded by the ancient walls of the castle.

For the rest of us, especially those waiting with impatience to know the date of issue for The Winds of Winter, the trailer for the new season will have to be enough.

Are you ready? 😀

Reviews

Review: ISLAND OF EXILES (The Ryogan Chronicles #1), by Erica Cameron

It’s practically impossible for me to resist a deep desert setting, not since Frank Herbert’s Dune became one of my favorite books, so when I read the first reviews for Island of Exiles I knew it would not be long before I saw for myself what this story had to offer.

Life on the island of Shiara is hard and unforgiving: set in the middle of a turbulent ocean, the island’s climate alternates between periods of intense, searing heat and seasonal storms that can annihilate everything in their path. The city in which the novel is set is an enclave of relative comfort in such a harsh environment, but requires total dedication from its citizens, whose main goal must be the survival of the tribe, even before that of the individual.

The city’s society is divided into three layers: the nyshin – or warriors/hunters, who provide security and forage for whatever other foodstuffs the island can provide, besides what can be cultivated on the plateau; the ahdo, who are a sort of teachers and administrators; and the yonin, the lowest possible rank: these are people who were unable to manifest any magic ability during the rite of passage into adulthood, and are therefore kept inside the city walls and set on any kind of menial work – there is no overt contempt displayed toward the yonin in this society, but the writing on the wall is quite clear about their station.  At the top of the power pyramid, however, stand the Miriseh, a group of long-lived (or maybe immortal) people who act as protectors to the city’s population, and are regarded as the ultimate source of reverence.

Khya is a nyshin warrior, brave, highly respected and dedicated: she wants to get to the very top and become one day part of the council of advisors to the Miriseh, just as her blood-parents did, and it’s her most fervent hope that her younger brother Yorri might share that honor with her, but so far Yorri has shown no magical ability, and she’s afraid he might end up among the yonin, as happened to his lover Sanii. Training him in secret, she finds the way to unlock Yorri’s magic – a very powerful, very rare kind of magic – and everything seems to move according to her plans when tragedy strikes, and on its aftermath Khya starts making unpleasant discoveries that will turn her world and beliefs upside down, and lead her toward an unexpected path.

The world described by Erica Cameron is a fascinating one: enclosed in a relatively small space, hemmed in by cruel nature, the people of Shiara have managed to create a flourishing society, one that displays many interesting facets, and a few shadows as well.  For example, if on one side we can observe the existence of three sexes (male, female and a neuter called ebet) and a total freedom about the choice of partners, with no distinction between genders, on the other we have a rigid caste system that puts at its lower tier the yonin: the outward reason for keeping them in the city is that they need the protection of the walls, since they have no magic that could shield them from the elements or any enemy they might face. The truth, however, is that the yonin are pariahs, people to whom little value is attached (as witnessed by the lack of mourning when accidents take their life), people who are not deemed worthy of a liaison with the upper strata of society, and are best kept out of the collective sight: they serve in silence, their work required but not acknowledged.  To me, this was the first sign that not everything was as it looked on Shiara, so that once the revelation about long-kept secrets and lies surfaced, I was not overly surprised.

The downside of such a fascinating premise, however, is that there is too much of it: as a reader I felt virtually assaulted by a huge amount of new terms, most of them without explanation, that required my utmost concentration on these details, concentration that was stolen from the story itself.  I’ve often said that I like to work through what I read, that I don’t like to be spoon-fed by excessively enthusiastic authors, but to me Island of Exiles went completely the other way, burdening the narrative with a plethora of terms that proved more distracting than informative, more on the side of telling the readers about the differences in this society, rather than showing them.    In a similar way, the moment in which the truth behind the careful façade is revealed is less of an enlightenment and more of a full stop in the forward momentum: again too much information is given in a rather pedantic way and it takes the wind from the novel’s sails, where a slow accumulation of clues might have worked far better.

Fortunately, the characters’ journey more than compensates for this problem, even though it’s hard at first to connect with the central figure of Khya: she’s so driven, so focused on her goals, that she often dangerously comes close to be an overbearing zealot – her desire to see Yorri excel and join her in the advisors’ inner circle carries her like a bulldozer over her younger brother’s eventual aspirations, never once taking into account that he might want something different.  She loves him deeply, and yet she does not know him, not fully: indeed the discovery of Yorri’s desire to bond with Sanii – thwarted by Sanii’s failure in the rite of passage – comes as a huge surprise, as if Khya considered Yorri’s life an appendage of her own, without needs or drives she has not contemplated.  Only loss will force Khya to look inside herself as she tries to unravel the island’s mysteries, and those observations will lead her to understand the error of her ways, to really grow both as a person and a fictional character: it’s not something you find often in YA-oriented novels, and it finally gives meaning to the coming-of-age journey that tends to be at the center of this kind of story.   In a similar manner, the romantic thread of the narrative is developed in a believable, organic way (and there’s no love triangle, which is always a plus with me…): fellow warrior Tessen could not be farthest from Khya’s interest – they have known each other since childhood, but she resents him because she believes he stole from her the opportunity of advancement in the nyshin ranks. Khya’s wariness gives slowly way to growing trust when Tessen proves time and again his reliability and steadfastness, creating a slow-burn romantic entanglement that does not take over the story proper, but instead offers a nice counterpoint that is never overdone.

Despite a few objections, I rather enjoyed Island of Exiles, and it’s my hope that the “wrinkles” I encountered might be straightened out in the next installments: the story, and its future developments, are indeed worth keeping the faith.

 

My Rating: