Reviews

Review: A BOY AND HIS DOG AT THE END OF THE WORLD, by C.A. Fletcher

 

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Post apocalyptic worlds can come in a wide variety of flavors, most of them having in common the obliteration of the greater part of the human race: either by quirks of nature, pandemics, or climate changes, mankind finds itself vastly reduced in numbers and trying to survive in what is often a ravaged land – or a very unfriendly one.  This novel, however, starts from a different kind of premise, that the dramatically dwindling population is the consequence of a devastating decrease in birth rate, one that results in the progressive, unavoidable emptying of the world, so that vegetation and fauna retake control of a landscape in which humans are more intruders than anything else.

A few enclaves survive, however, either small groups living together for support, or isolated family units: the latter is the case for Griz, the narrator of this story, whose family dwells on an island off the Scottish coast. It’s a harsh life, one made of hard work and constant struggle against the failure of ancient machinery cobbled together ingeniously from the remnants of the old world and made to function without the aid of electricity or propellants, both things having disappeared together with civilization as we know it.

Still, it’s not a bad life, despite its tragedies: Griz’s twin sister Joy died several years before falling from a cliff, and their distraught mother, searching for her child, fell badly and suffered a head injury that left her absent-minded and incapable of fending for herself. Griz’s father, older brother and sister are a tight-knit family unit, occasionally trading with the next-island neighbors, and surviving through sheep farming, some scavenging in the abandoned areas of the mainland (they call it “viking”, from Viking raiders or old) and whatever forms of agriculture the island climate allows.  And of course there are their dogs, Jip and Jess – part of the family and Griz’s best friends and faithful companions.

Things change for the worse when a passing trader elopes with Jess: like humans, dogs have suffered in their reproductive abilities and female dogs have become quite rare in litters, so Brand – that’s the name of the trader – knows he will get a good price for Jess somewhere else.  Incensed for the theft, and the awareness that the whole family has been deceived by Brand’s easy manners and tall tales, Griz jumps on one of the family’s boats and launches in pursuit of the thief, intending to retrieve the stolen dog at any cost.

What follows is of course an adventure in an unfamiliar and dangerous world, but it’s also a coming-of-age tale and a lesson about never losing sight of your humanity, no matter how harsh and unforgiving the situation becomes.   And it’s a story about the bond between humans and dogs, as well, showing us that they are not just intelligent creatures who have stayed at our side since the dawn of time (Of all the animals that travelled the long road through the ages with us, dogs always walked closest), but also the kind of companions we can always rely on, their love and devotion coming straight from the heart and never filtered through self-interest or artifice.

As easy as it is to like Griz as a character, the moments in which this youngster truly shines happen in relation with Jip the dog: they are not merely friends and traveling companions, they look out for each other, care for each other’s well-being and share a bond that goes beyond the need for words, since they seem to understand one another through an unseen connection – not so much a connection of the mind, as one of the heart.  As Griz tells the thief, in a heated exchange about the lack of laws following the fall of civilization: “…but if you steal my dog, you can at least expect me to come after you. If we’re not loyal to the things we love, what’s the point?”. Jip and Jess are family and as such they deserve the same kind of faithfulness and love as the rest of Griz’s parents and siblings – and in those simple words we can find the essence of this story and of Griz’s journey.

A side of this character that will not fail to endear it to us bookworms is the love of stories, the pleasure Griz takes in being drawn into them and letting the mind wander along the “what if…?” path that we all know so well: strangely enough, Griz’s main focus is on post-apocalyptic stories, which to me sounds like a tongue-in-cheek sort of joke and also as a curious parallel, since it’s a sub-genre I’ve always been interested on.  For me, I think it’s a matter of superstition – sort of: as long as I can read about all the ways the world might end, I know it all remains firmly in the realm of fantasy; for Griz it’s a way to understand how the world truly ended: being born in the aftermath of it all means that any information has been filtered through second- and third-hand retellings and there is no certainty that things truly happened that way.  Then there is the pure joy of losing oneself in stories – not just dystopian ones, of course: life on the island, with its definite boundaries and the need for constant hard work, does not leave much room for the mind to wander, and it’s only through books that Griz is able to move across a whole universe of possibilities.

And when the journey begins in earnest, when Griz is alone in the wide world beyond the borders of the tiny island, it’s the knowledge gleaned through books that helps in the difficult business of survival or that makes the sights and wonders more relatable, either thanks to scientific information or – again – to stories read in the past. And so the deep forests of the mainland (something that the islands lack) make Griz remember passages from The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings; or the need to escape from confinement is fueled by recalling The Count of Montecristo, and so on.

Above all, this is a story about love, loyalty and steadfast determination, but it’s also a journey of discovery: of an unknown – and sometimes unknowable – world, but also of oneself and what it means to be human. You will find a wide range of feelings here: fear and delight, joy and terror, anger and compassion – this is the kind of book that will steal your heart, taking you on an emotional rollercoaster driven by a writing that at times becomes almost lyrical despite its deceiving simplicity.  I found much more than I expected here, and I would not have missed it for the world.

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: KALEIDOSCOPE, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

 

 

Click on the LINK to read the story online

 

Every time I read something written by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, be it a full novel or a shorter work, I am impressed by her skills as an author and even more by the range of narrative themes she employs: no two works have been the same so far, and this short story is no exception.

Kaleidoscope is a weird story – and I mean weird in the most complimentary sense, of course – one that clearly deals with the concept of parallel universes, or alternate realities, but does so in a way I never encountered before, through short sentences depicting the various incarnations of the same two people, through time and the different circumstances that keep bringing them together, or at least meeting fleetingly.

What makes this story even more exceptional is its brevity that nonetheless manages to convey so many layers, so many emotions – all of them either skirting or falling straight into the painful category, not unlike a sudden knife slash. And she makes that pain appear intriguing, which is something I can’t help marveling at.

If you have never read anything by this author, do yourself a favor and read this story, and if you enjoy Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s writing but don’t care much about shorter works, do yourself a favor and read this one. You will not regret it.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: BIG DAMN HERO (Firefly #1), by Nancy Holder & James Lovegrove

 

Every time I think about the ill-fated TV show Firefly, or hear it mentioned, I can’t avoid a combined feeling of sadness and irritation, the former for the untimely demise of a very promising story, and the latter for the short-sightedness of the network executives responsible for that decision – a situation all too common in the unfathomable world of television, and whose lack of wisdom is stressed by the huge success that the short run of 14 episodes and the 2005 feature movie Serenity are still enjoying today, a long time after the cancellation.

For this reason, any opportunity to enjoy new stories focused on the crew of the ship Serenity is still welcome, so that when I learned of the publication of this book (thank you Tammy!!!) I made it a point to check it out as soon as I could, despite a few misgivings: over the years I had tried some fan-written stories, but I was never lucky enough to find any that truly could bring the old ‘magic’ back, so I approached Big Damn Hero with some trepidation.  Well, as it turned out I should not have worried, because this novel is the closest I ever came to the true spirit of the TV show and its characters.

Shiny! 🙂

The story starts more or less where the last episode of Firefly left off, which is a double bonus, since it works as a continuation of the show and allows me to avoid dealing with the painful losses suffered by the crew in the movie Serenity: the old gang’s all here, and they are a sight for sore eyes… Of course they are in trouble, but that’s nothing new: with finances at an all-time low, and with the ship needing constant repairs, Captain Reynolds must accept a cargo from the disreputable Badger, the crafty boss of Persephone’s criminal underworld.  This time the shipment carries an added problem, since it consists of several crates of highly volatile explosives, destined to a mining operation, which must be delivered in a short time frame, or they might blow up in transit.  In an attempt to kill two birds with a stone, Mal also takes on another commission, an apparently easy task whose destination lies on the same course as the main job – and since in this part of the ‘verse “easy” often equates with “tricky”, the meeting with the mysterious client ends up with Reynolds being attacked, kidnapped, and taken off-planet for destination unknown.

What follows is a fast story running on parallel tracks: the crew must deal with the dangerous shipment and take it to destination before it – and Serenity – are blown to smithereens, while trying to find out what happened to their Captain, the only certainty being that he’s in danger and that time is of the essence. Meanwhile, the Alliance is on their tracks, again, searching for their two most-wanted passengers, Simon and his disturbed sister River, and tempers aboard ship are becoming as volatile as the explosives in the cargo bay. As these threads develop, we discover some interesting details about Malcom Reynolds’ past and that of Shepherd Book, one of the most mysterious members of Serenity’s crew, while we renew our acquaintance with each one of the characters we learned to appreciate and love in the past, as every one of them enjoys some screen time.

Zöe gets indeed the lion’s share of the focus here, and it’s a narrative choice I greatly appreciated since she’s always been my favorite character: if on the show she distinguished herself for her no-nonsense attitude and short, caustic utterances, here we are able to get into her mind and see what makes her tick. Her unfailing loyalty to Mal plays as a nice counterpoint to Jayne’s selfishness and matter-of-fact acceptance of the possible loss of their captain, and it’s in the interactions between the two of them that I found the true spirit of Firefly in this book.  The brisk pace of the novel does not permit the same level of depth for the other members of the crew, although there are a few moments in which River’s uncanny powers play a significant role and we can perceive the hidden layers of her formidable but deranged mind, and in those moments I could very easily hear her voice and its peculiar cadence.  The true discovery in Big Damn Hero is reserved for Shepherd Book however, and the hints (too few, granted, but better than the continuing mystery) about his more… energetic past: it’s interesting to see him in a more active role and I liked how he was able to balance the compassion required by his calling with the ability to meet physical threats.

The “meat” of the story, though, comes from Reynolds’ abduction and the reasons at the root of it: these reach far into his past and focus on his youth and the later war experiences, giving the readers a chance to witness some of the events that molded him into the present individual. This thread also takes a closer look at what it means to be a former Browncoat in a world now firmly ruled by the victorious Alliance, and how the bitterness of that defeat can still prey on the minds of those who lost the fight – sometimes with toxic effects.  Another interesting side of this narrative theme comes from the fact that the crew is forced to scatter in different directions, as some of them try to fulfill their job and others need to stay and investigate Mal’s disappearance: the main strength of Serenity’s complement comes from their being an actual family, and the lack of one member – especially the pivotal Captain Reynolds who is their glue – deeply unsettles them, besides being a source of deep worry for his safety.  I was reminded in several instances of one of my favorite episodes, Out of Gas, where a life support malfunction forced them to abandon ship leaving Mal alone aboard as he tried to restore the systems: as it happened in that episode, the crew’s separation mines their confidence and for a while makes them unable to effectively react to the situation at hand.  But once they do, their synergy is a joy to behold…

Big Damn Hero might not be a perfect novel, since it sports some quirks and weaknesses, but they are negligible when compared with the sheer joy of being immersed once again in this ‘verse and meeting again these beloved characters.  A joy I expect to renew with the next book in this welcome revival series.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: BLACK FRIDAY, by Alex Irvine

 

(click on the LINK to read the story online)

 

Try to imagine the combination of the Black Friday madness in a shopping mall with the Hunger Games and you might get an idea of what this short, brutal story is about.  In a twisted, bloody version of Thanksgiving celebration, family groups engage in battle inside a shopping mall to acquire desired goods and eventually the prizes that have been hidden like Easter eggs in various locations.

The story follows the Anderson family – calling themselves The Mugs – composed by father Caleb and three teenage children, respectively fifteen, fourteen and twelve years old, as they furtively enter the Greenleaf mall armed to the teeth, ready to claim their goals. It becomes immediately clear that this kind of event is followed by television networks all over the country, as drones follow the progress of the groups and newscasters comment with various degrees of excitement as they would for a sports match – with the hideous difference that in this case the match involves the wounding or killing of one’s opponents. That’s where the comparison with the Hunger Games comes to the fore in all its chilling evidence, especially when it illustrates the backing and publicity-seeking of many sponsors…

The competition is ruthless and savage, and the mention of rules to be followed seems more like lip service to a hazy idea of fairness than anything else: these people are there to get what they want and to do so are prepared to roll over the opposition with any means at their disposal, while no one seems interested in forcing adherence to those rules. At some point we learn that

 

The more predatory teams would be hunting for the wounded, aiming to finish them off under the pretext of checking items off their lists. This is known as vulturing.

 

showing that the actual goal is not so much the acquisition of a particular object but rather the vicious joy of destroying other lives: that young people, children, are involved in this, trained from an early age to kill without the slightest qualm, and to do it efficiently, makes this story all the more petrifying, especially at the unexpected turn of events in the end.

This is not an easy read, granted, but I wonder if it might not prove helpful in giving some much-needed context – and a chance for reflection – in the running debate about guns…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: TIAMAT’S WRATH (The Expanse #8), by James S.A. Corey (spoiler free)

 

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

While there might be spoilers for the previous books in the series, I will try my best to avoid any in this review: to do otherwise would be a huge disservice to anyone reading this.

More than many of its predecessors, this new installment in The Expanse series took me through an emotional rollercoaster that left me breathless, and often reeling in shock – starting with the opening sentence that is nothing short of a violent punch in the gut.     And I freely admit feeling more than a little incensed at the authors for leading with that

Story-wise, the galaxy is far from a happy place: granted, it was no unicorns and rainbows before, when Earth, Mars and the Belt were at each other’s throat and the protomolecule ran amok throughout the Solar System, but after the all-to-brief respite enjoyed by humanity in the hiatus between Babylon’s Ashes and Persepolis Rising, the arrival of Duarte’s fleet and the founding of the Laconian Empire with its dictatorial iron fist have plunged mankind’s origin worlds and its many colonies into dark times indeed. The situation becomes even grimmer when the Laconians’ drive for expansion and dominance meets once again with the mysterious entity that once vanquished the protomolecule engineers: the show of force dictated by Duarte provokes a dramatic reaction that threatens the humans’ tenuous foothold on the many worlds beyond the alien gates and their continued survival, while giving the underground resistance a feeble chance to strike the kind of blow that might change the balance of power.

As for the Roci’s crew, they are scattered to the four winds: Holden is Duarte’s prisoner on Laconia; Bobbi and Alex, who have signed up with the resistance, are playing a dangerous game of sneak attacks on the enemy fleet; Naomi is doing her part by keeping the rebel network functioning and thriving, and Amos has been out of touch after undertaking a dangerous mission following Clarissa’s death.  Our heroes are quite aware of the David vs. Goliath nature of their struggle, and sometimes the temptation to leave it all behind, to find some quiet place to burrow down and live the rest of their lives in peace, makes itself felt and causes some tension among them, but never in such a measure as to bring them apart despite the wear and tear of life on the trenches.  For his part, Holden is not resigned to his prisoner-disguised-as guest situation, and still manages some small measure of defiance that shows he has not given up either on the struggle or the hope of one day being instrumental in the downfall of Laconia.

What becomes clear, as we follow the main characters’ individual journeys, is that the sense of family they built by living and working together for so long is too strong to succumb to the separation imposed by vast distances and the different paths taken: even when they are million of miles apart it’s as if they still shared space on the Roci, so that they still quote an absent friend’s catchphrase at the appropriate moment, or recollect their gestures or expressions in the face of similar occurrences. It’s a way to keep alive the memory of those who are far away and to show that the bonds that tie them together are strong and vital: I found myself deeply touched reading such passages, not just because they worked so well in the economy of the story, but because the Roci’s crew has grown on me so much that I have long since stopped envisioning them simply as fictional characters, and they have become living and breathing people I keep caring about.

Alongside our old friends we see the story through some new – or newfound – points of view: Elvi Okoye, the scientist we met in Cibola Burn, is now working for the Laconian military in what she believes is a mission of discovery beyond the alien gates and instead turns out to be something quite different.  Much as I did not care overmuch for her character in that first encounter, here I greatly enjoyed her point of view, mainly the fine line she and her husband have to walk, balancing the needs of scientific study with the goals of the hierarchy, especially the Laconian expansionist and merciless military.  Looking through her eyes gives us a measure of what it means living under an oppressive regime that likes to paint itself as benevolent and enlightened while it conducts appalling experiments on human subjects, and I managed to sympathize with her dilemma between the drive of scientific curiosity and the need to adhere to ethical standards: Elvi gains a good number of facets here, and I always welcomed her p.o.v. chapters with great interest.

The new addition is represented by Teresa Duarte, the teenaged daughter of the High Consul and the heir-in-training to the empire: her path takes her from basking in the illusion of a charmed life to waking up to far starker reality that forces her to grow up much faster than her already peculiar position previously required her to.  Teresa is an interesting character and in some way her journey mirrors Elvi’s in reverse: having been indoctrinated from birth to believe that Laconia is a force for good, she has to wake up to reality bit by bit, and probably the major factor in this change of perspective comes from a dramatic event that undermines the belief in freedom of choice she had given for granted until that moment.  I realize how cryptic this sounds, but there is a huge spoiler here, and all I can say about it is that this narrative thread was another of those gut-punches I mentioned before, one of the many that the authors deliver in this latest Expanse installment.

But of course my favorite character remains Naomi Nagata: I’ve always envisioned her as a mixture of strength and wistfulness, the latter tied to past experiences and mistakes that still prey on her mind, and in this novel she still tries to temper the underground’s penchant for violent action by being the voice of reason. It’s clear that this desire comes both from the weight of her past and the need to keep faith with Holden’s vision – a means to keep his legacy alive and to lessen the sting of his absence: for this reason Naomi chooses to isolate herself, to work in a sort of bubble – both physical and mental – that page after page takes on the aspect of a chrysalis in which she undergoes a change, one that will become evident as the events unfold and will transform her in a very unexpected way. Again, I apologize for the vagueness with which I’m expressing this, but I want you to enjoy this journey on your own, and if you are Team Naomi like I am, you will certainly want to explore this with as little prior knowledge as possible. You will not be disappointed.

If the characters, old and new, are the backbone of the story, the story itself is a constant escalation of events that become more and more pressing as the stakes pile up in a breath-stealing progression that moves inexorably toward the final showdown, and a further change of perspective in a series that bases its very strength in such changes. Be prepared for some painful shocks as well, and a constant worry about what is going to happen next: given the premises carried from the past installments and those contained in Tiamat’s Wrath,  the ninth and final book in this amazing series will certainly blow our minds.

And I can’t wait to read it…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: UNDER ORDSHAW, by Phil Williams

 

I received this novel from the author in exchange for an honest review: despite having closed my blog to indie submissions a while ago, I was intrigued by the premise of this book since I read LYNN’s review of it for the 2019 SPBO event, so that when the author contacted me I was happy to make an exception.

Under Ordshaw is an Urban Fantasy story that follows the genre’s parameters only up to a certain point: we have a modern city setting coexisting with a paranormal reality made of fae and monsters – the latter haunting an underground system of galleries – but the similarities stop here. The main character is neither a detective, nor is she a specially gifted person (both being common occurrences in UF): on the contrary she’s a quite ordinary girl who is forced to face extraordinary circumstances despite her best efforts not to.

Pax Kuranes is a skilled card player living off her winnings: as we meet her she’s just gained a considerable sum in a poker game, one that will allow her not only to pay the almost-overdue rent, but to buy her place in a high-stakes tournament whose earnings might go a long way toward offering some security for the future.  Pax’s elation is short-lived though, because a young man in a bar swipes the money from her pocket even as he’s being arrested by a government official: angry and frantic about the money, and curious about the thief’s mutterings about a minotaur, Pax does a little digging and finds a strange, hand-drawn book in the man’s hideout – a book representing weird, creepy creatures that seem to come out of the worst Lovecraftian nightmare.

This is only the beginning of Pax’s eerie adventure, as she’s introduced to the mysteries of Ordshaw’s underground and to the existence of a terrifying and secret world peopled by monsters, fairies and agents of good and evil, whose line of demarcation is quite fluid and changes more than once in the course of the story: the man from the shady Ministry of Environmental Energy, Casaria, is definitely a creepy individual, especially when his p.o.v. chapters make the reader privy to his dreams on a future working partnership with Pax, which he hopes might evolve into something deeper. On the side of the “good guys” there is Barton, a man who stumbled by pure chance on the secrets of the underground and tried to keep its dangers at bay by acting in something of a Don-Quixote-like quest, but he looks more dedicated than effective, and pays the price of his self-imposed mission with injuries and the damage to his family ties.

And then there are the fae, winged creatures only a few inches tall, who nonetheless prove quite aggressive and sometimes lethal – if someone ever needed a confirmation of the maxim about size being unimportant, they would need to look no further than Ordshaw’s fae, especially Letty, the leader of a small, mutinous group and my absolute favorite character in the novel.  Letty is brash, aggressive and foul-mouthed, and yet she turned out to be the best drawn player on the scene, and one I had no trouble picturing in my mind’s eye, from her gossamer wings to the middle finger she keeps flaunting at the slightest provocation.

What lurks in the bowels of the city has been dwelling there for a long time, and has been the object of a tug-of-war between the fae, with their nomadic city, and the humans on the surface, both groups at odds and competing for the possession of a bizarre artifact that might change the balance of power in both realms, and the story builds – despite some “hiccups” in pacing – toward a climatic chase in the underground tunnels as the various characters try to shift the balance of power and to stay alive at the same time, since the horde of dreadful creatures of the depths has been roused and is out for blood. And flesh. And other assorted body parts…

I enjoyed Under Ordshaw, mostly because of the almost-relentless pace at which Pax and her allies and enemies find themselves facing the events, and I liked how she must work to gain some understanding of what is happening, as her view of the world is subjected to a few extraordinary revelations that will change her outlook forever. As far as Urban Fantasy series go, this book is merely an introduction of background and characters and also a promise of more to come with future installments, where hopefully the reader’s perception and knowledge will be expanded, and as such I’m aware that any problem in both narrative and characterization is bound to be straightened out in the future.  Still, there are a few details that puzzled me, and somewhat marred what might have been a total immersion in this world.

For starters, throughout the course of the book I had the distinct impression that there was something eluding me, that there might have been some other information about past events that was not shared with the readers: in several instances I felt as if I had jumped midway into a TV serial and struggled to make head or tails of the story because I had missed the previous episodes.  It was frustrating at times, and also distracting: while I can understand the need to avoid the dreaded “infodumps”, I would have enjoyed a more organic development of the playing field, so to speak, that might allow me to place the characters’ actions in a more understandable context.

And speaking of characters, sometimes I struggled a little with their depiction: quixotic Barton and his estranged wife Holly, for example, are at odds with each other because of his nocturnal forays in the underground and her suspicions about his infidelity, but I failed to see some genuine drama there, and their interactions felt stilted at times, well beyond the uneasiness of two people driven apart by secrets and doubts.  Then there is Pax, who is introduced as a fiercely independent person who tries not to be weighted down by any kind of tie, and yet we see her constantly enmeshed into other peoples’ troubles, the prime example of this being represented by Rufaizu, the thief whose actions draw Pax into the terrifying world of the underground: most of Pax’s choices in the story stem from her need to know Rufaizu’s fate after his arrest, and her determination in that respect feels at odds with the brevity of their encounter and the simple fact that their whole “relationship” is based on his theft of her hard-won money.

Still, Under Ordshaw offers a promising peek into a bizarre world that just begs to be further developed, and as such deserves to be given the chance to grow.

 

Reviews

Review: VALOUR (The Faithful and the Fallen #2), by John Gwynne

 

After the cliffhanger ending of the first book in this epic fantasy series I was keen to learn the fate of the characters I cared about, since most of them had not been left in a comfortable position by the end of Malice, so I was happy to see that Valour started exactly where its predecessor had left off, almost as if this were a new chapter in the story.

What I was not prepared to accept, however, was the leisurely way in which the author placed his pieces on the complicated chessboard of this series: much as the previous volume (and the other Gwynne book I read) the story starts with a deliberate pace that I have now come to recognize as the author’s modus operandi, and this kind of pace requires some patience from the readers, a quality I don’t possess in great amount, unfortunately, and that in this case was hindered by my eagerness to move forward with the story.  This experience taught that with a John Gwynne novel one must be patient, and that such restraint will always be rewarded in the end.

War has come to the Banished Lands: high king Nathair, persuaded that he’s the Bright Star, the champion of light who must fight against the encroaching darkness, has launched his plan of conquest, blind to the deviousness of his allies and the harm he’s inflicting on the ever-dwindling decent rulers of the land.  Young Corban, the true champion of good, is on the run with princess Edana and a few trusty companions, and suffering the double burden of the loss of his father and sister on one side and the awareness of being special on the other, a notion he’s not ready to accept.  Cywen, Corban’s sister who has been left for dead in the assault on Dun Carreg, is taken prisoner by Nathair’s war-band, her attempts at escape thwarted time and again, as are her attempts to convince Veradis – Nathair’s first sword – of her brother’s innocence: Veradis is indeed as blind to outside influence as his king…  And last but not least, warrior Maquin (one of my favorite secondary characters in Malice) finds himself prisoner of the Vin Thalun pirates and is forced to set aside his principles and humanity as he’s compelled to fight for his life in their slave pits.

These are only the highlights of a very complex story that slowly but surely gains momentum as it expands to encompass an ever-widening playing field and cast of characters: each of them is given room to grow and the chance of offering their point of view to the readers through alternating chapters that are often quite brief, as if to underline both the intricacy of the plot and the scope of the events.  One of the points that these characters’ journey underscores repeatedly is that the line of demarcation between good and evil is thin and often blurred: the “bad guys” are more often than not mislaid by the true enemies who use their insecurities or their flaws as leverage to accomplish their dark goals, so that the readers can see these people are not inherently evil but more simply misguided; just as the “good guys” find themselves repeatedly forced to be vicious in order to survive, needing to forget the rules of honor and fairness that have been at the root of their nature until then.

As a counterpoint to this element, however, there is a wonderful stress on the feelings of friendship, of belonging to an extended family that does not rely only on ties of blood but rather on the those forged in adversity, which end up being stronger than any blood relationship might be. We see this often – with the most notable example being that of former brigand Camlin, who for the first time in his life perceives this sense of belonging once he discovers he’s prepared to give his life for people he once might have preyed upon. It’s one of the few rays of hope in what looks like a dire, sometimes hopeless background.

Be they good or evil, invested with a mission or duped into wrongdoing, these characters – all of them – are the real backbone of the story, here even more than in the previous novel because we can see how they have evolved and can perceive where they might be headed; what’s more, the addition of new characters adds more layers to the ones we already know, because it’s through these interactions that an individual’s true nature comes to the fore. And here lies the most difficult hurdle to be overcome by us readers, because one way or another we come to care for these characters, to see them as flesh and blood creatures, and when the author needs to remove them from the playing field it’s always a shock, and one that’s not always easy to metabolize.   Epic fantasy should have prepared us to endure these losses: from the death of poor Boromir to the cruel slaying of Ned Stark, just to name two of the most famous ones, we should know that being one of the “good guys” is no guarantee of survival, and yet every time that happens we feel the same pain of… betrayal and are reminded of the bitter lesson of war, that no one is safe.  The only comfort offered by John Gwynne’s portrayal of these deaths is that they always seem to fulfill some higher purpose, that we can see how that particular life was not wasted on a whim – it might not be much, but it’s enough.

And speaking of war, I noticed how Valour contains an impressive number of battle or duel sequences, from war skirmishes to gladiatorial arena combat: in every instance you can find a precision of detail, a sort of choreography to the action that turns these scenes into quite cinematic portrayals.  For someone like me, who usually skips across this kind of description, this is indeed an amazing approach.

Much as Valour might have started somewhat slowly for my tastes, by the end it developed into a breathtaking narrative with higher and higher stakes, and totally unpredictable developments: if Malice laid the ground for the encroaching of evil, and Valour showed the kind of sacrifices required by the battle against it, I wonder what the next book’s title – Ruin – will mean in terms of story progress. What I know is that it will be another enthralling journey.

 

My Rating: