One of the more intriguing fantasy stories I remember reading, and one that will stay with me for a long time. While the core elements of the background are drawn from a more classic fantasy stile – a realm in turmoil at the death of its king; the proverbial villain who takes power through deadly force; the reign of terror that ensues – the narrative moves along a very unusual path.
Saffron is the wife of a village baker, a very talented young man whose breads and sweetmeats have gathered a faithful clientele who knows to always expect something surprising from brilliant Danny.In recent times Danny, who likes to experiment with his ingredients, has found a way to draw forth emotions from his special confectionery, and word of his gift has reached the Traitor King’s ear, with the awful consequence that Danny has been forcibly recruited as head pastry chief at the castle, and Saffron, not wanting to be separated from him, offered her services as confection taster – another word for poison detector.
As the story opens, a special banquet is underway, a Temporal Confections dinner in which the usurper and his court will taste Danny’s special sweets that will elicit buried memories in the guests.The tension in the air is quite palpable, not only because of the ruler’s proverbial cruelty and his mercurial temper, but because it becomes soon clear that something is going to happen, something that literally vibrates under the faked air of conviviality in the banquet hall…
I will leave you to discover this remarkable tale for yourselves, to do otherwise would spoil the effect, but I want to share some of the names of Danny’s unusual pastries in the hopes of piquing your curiosity: Fennel Flatbread of Sunlit Days Gone By, or Rose-Pepper Shortbread of Sweetness Lost, or again Lemon Tart of Profound Regret.
And now I feel a strong need to find something sweet to eat…😉
Sidekicks are often the unsung heroes of the stories we read, their deeds somewhat overshadowed by the actions of the main characters and the focus on them, which just as often makes us forget that the hero or heroine could never have achieved what they did without the help – and sometimes sacrifice – of their faithful sidekicks. So I will celebrate not one, but several of my favorites.
Sam Gamgee (The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien)
There was little doubt in my mind about the character that would be showcased first in this post: Samwise Gamgee is the one who stood at Frodo Baggins’ side all along their perilous journey to Mount Doom, often going without food to keep Frodo’s strength up (and we all know what food means to a Hobbit…), and it was Sam’s moral support that carried Frodo through the worst moments when he felt that his quest was impossible.Unlike many sidekicks, however, Sam received all the credit he deserved, not least by Frodo who called him friend of friends.
Jean Tannen (Gentlemen Bastards, Scott Lynch)
Although being a wallflower is not exactly Jean Tannen’s modus operandi, his personality appears less ebullient than that of his longtime friend and partner in crime Locke Lamora. The two seem perfectly matched, Jean being the voice of reason that tries to counterbalance the insanity of some of Locke’s plans, even though he’s certainly not a timid personality – just think about his weapons of choice, a pair if lethal hatchets he has named The Wicked Sisters. Still, I believe that without Jean Locke would have met some terrible fate long ago, and fortunately he knows and appreciates that.
Suzume Hollis (Generation V, M.L. Brennan)
More than a sidekick, Suzume is an ass-kicker, and more often than not the behind she needs to kick is that of her partner Fortitude Scott, a vampire in the making who does not enjoy the idea of being a blood-sucker from a renowned family. Suzume is a kitsune, or – in her own words – a fox who can shapeshift into a woman, and one of her joys in life consists in embarrassing Fortitude out of his despondency. Her mischievousness is nothing short of delightful, but it also serves as a cover for her friendship and sense of protectiveness toward Fort.
Mr.Kindly (The Nevernight Chronicle, Jay Kristoff)
This is one of the most mysterious and eerie characters I ever encountered, because it’s not a solid one, but rather a shadow taking the shape of a cat: Mia Corvere, the protagonist of Jay Kristoff’s series, meets Mr. Kindly on the day her family is destroyed and she finds herself running for her life. The cat-shaped shadow not only helps her survive but becomes a sort of familiar, drinking away her fears and turning her into a formidable adversary. What I most love about Mr. Kindly are the barbed quips it exchanges with Mia, and the way it acts as… well, not so much her conscience as a devil’s advocate in many circumstances.
Nymeria and Ghost (A Song of Ice and Fire, GRR Martin)
When the Stark children, at the beginning of the first novel, bring home the direwolf pups they found alongside their dead mother’s corpse, they establish a strong bond with these creatures that are bigger, stronger and more ferocious than ordinary wolves, and in time we learn of their extraordinary capabilities of melding with their humans and allowing them a… different perspective, so to speak.Up to the last book written (and also in the TV series which is drawing to a close) only two of them survive: Nymeria, Arya’s direwolf (although the two had to part company long ago) and Ghost, who is Jon Snow’s faithful companion, but all of them showed a ferocious determination to protect the human they were linked with.
Hodor (A Song of Ice and Fire, GRR Martin)
This would not be a true sidekick celebration without mentioning Hodor, the feeble-minded giant who acts as Bran Stark’s guardian and protector (and carrier, since the boy is paralyzed).Unable to speak, he only utters the word “Hodor” in a variety of intonations, and only in Season 6 of the TV series we learn the origin of the word that became the man’s name: it’s one of the most terrible and poignant scenes I have ever witnessed, and it shed a heartbreaking light on this character.
Ka-Poel (Powder Mage, Brian McClellan)
Young, diminutive and mute, the silent companion of powder mage Taniel might easily be overlooked, but she’s a powerful wielder of magic – and of a kind that I find disturbing, since it often involves the creation of voodoo-like dolls through which Ka-Poel can work her enchantments on the chosen victim.Despite her lack of voice, she always comes across as a though character, one whose loyalty and strength are never in doubt, and one I always liked to read about, even more than I did with Taniel.
And here we go with the first Wyrd & Wonder prompt that struck my fancy! You can find the complete list HERE
Stand-alone books have become quite rare in fantasy: now its seems almost impossible to write a story in this genre that can be contained in a single volume and multi-book series have become the norm.Sometimes this is a wonderful thing, since it allows the authors to expand on their creations and to engage in delightful character growth, but other times it’s a curse – either because there are a LOT of sagas to keep abreast of and our TBRs are always filled beyond capacity, or because some of them expand into more books we can handle. Or again the authors make us wait far too long for the next book… (and yes, I’m looking straight at a certain writer right now, stamping my foot in sheer frustration).
Choosing some titles for this post has not been easy, because I’ve noticed that some of the series I’m following have gone beyond the three-volume mark required for this prompt, while I know nothing (yet) about others that would be perfect but I still have to read. So here are my choices, even though I’m sadly aware I’ve just skimmed the surface of this vast ocean…
J.R.R. TOLKIEN: THE LORD OF THE RINGS
Strictly speaking, this is not a trilogy, but rather a whole book divided into three sections (The Fellowships of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King), but the publishing “adventure” it underwent at the time somehow turned it into a trilogy, or rather THE trilogy.No need to expound on the story and characters, we all know what it’s about: it’s a classic in every meaning of the term and it has set many of the rules for modern fantasy, becoming the template for many of the works that followed.
Needless to say, this is and remains my favorite fantasy story, my very first foray into the genre, and the book I love to return to, now and then, to reconnect with the characters and the places that are forever engraved on my imagination. And my heart.
R.J. BARKER: THE WOUNDED KINGDOM
From the origins to the present: R.J. Barker’s debut work is one of the best fantasy works I have read, a story set in a tormented land where havoc has been wrought by the inconsiderate use of magic, to the point that mage-wielders are hunted and killed, their blood spilled on the ground to give back some of the life-force taken from it by the forces of magic. In the three books of this series – Age of Assassins, Blood of Assassins, King of Assassins – we follow the adventures of Girton Club-Foot, a young man who is being trained as a skilled assassin but is also trying to hide his magical abilities in a world where such discovery would cost him his life.Intense, powerful and poignant, this is a series everyone should read, and I dare you not to fall for either Girton or any of the amazing characters that people these books.
JULIET MARILLIER: BLACKTHORN AND GRIM
Of a totally different mood are the three books from Juliet Marlier that compose this saga: Dreamer’s Pool, Tower or Thorns and Den of Wolves were my first works from this author, but they will definitely not be the last.Blackthorn is an embittered woman whose husband and child have been killed in a fire caused by the local overlord, who later imprisoned her on a false accusation and condemned her to death. While languishing in prison she meets another inmate, the closemouthed Grim, and when both find a way out of the prison and away from the gallows, circumstances make an unlikely – but very compelling – pair as they try and fulfill the obligations set on them by their rescuer, a mysterious fae.
A poetic, poignant story that made me a fan of this author after a scant handful of chapters…
BRIANMcCLELLAN: POWDER MAGE
Before reading the first book in this series I had never heard of the term flintlock fantasy, but after a somewhat difficult start I fell in love with it and with this series set in a world vaguely reminiscent of 18th century Europe and starting with a bloody military coup with overtones of the French Revolution. Promise of Blood, The Crimson Campaign and The Autumn Republic follow the deeds of Field Marshal Tamas, bent on overthrowing the corrupt monarchy of Adro and establishing a new government. One of the most unusual elements of this saga is the use of gunpowder to enhance the skills of certain gifted individuals who enjoy better sight, improved strength and the ability to guide bullets toward their targets well beyond the limits imposed by ballistics.
It’s an imaginative, unique take on the usual fantasy themes, and one filled with great characters and awesome deeds: if you have not read it until now, know that you should, because it will prove to be worth of your time.
GREG VAN EEKHOUT: DANIEL BLACKLAND
I stumbled on this Urban Fantasy series almost by accident, but it was a very lucky one: the first book, California Bones, conquered me completely and I did not wait too long to read the two sequels, Pacific Fire and Dragon Coast. In this alternate version of our modern world, the political landscape is quite different and Southern California is a ruthlessly managed kingdom: any kind of magic employed here comes from the consumption of bones, especially those of the weird creatures that lived in this world’s past, like dragons and griffins and so on.Osteomancy, however, exposes its wielder to the greed of other practitioners of this magic, because the consumptions of another osteomancer’s bones gifts the… receiver with all the abilities taken on by the victim, which leads to some gruesome narrative threads.
This is a very different kind of story, and one that stands out because of this very uncommon element.
Like last year, this month of May will see an unabashed celebration of all things fantasy, in every possible declination (and probably in some unforeseen ones – after all, why place fetters on our imagination?).
This event, co-hosted by Imyril, Lisa and Jorie, will take us through magical realms, call us to fulfill arduous quests, or make us face incredible creatures. Just go our hosts’ sites to learn how to participate and, above all, how to have FUN while we get lost in the books we love.
Today is the day we start on this amazing journey so… hop on the back of your dragon and join us in the adventure!