TOP TEN TUESDAY: Ten Signs I’m a Book Lover

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday (created and hosted by  The Broke and Bookish) is now being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here.  This week’s topic is:




This was an easy one… 🙂


1) I’m a book blogger! Enough said…

2) I never leave the house without the e-reader in my handbag

3) I look at pictures of wall-to-wall bookshelves as I would look at works of art

4) I have a file listing the books I want to read and keep updating it with new items

Which means I have an actual TBR made of books I already own, plus a “virtual” TBR made of books I would like to own, and certainly will in the near future. Sometimes I think about counting them, then give up because on that path lies madness… 😀


5) I set alerts on my computer for the publication date of books I’m eager to read

And there goes another reason I love ebooks: instant gratification. See, shop, download, read.  😉


6) I spend more on books than on anything not related to actual survival, like food

7) When I see people marking their place in a book by folding a corner of the page, I shudder in horror

8) My book-hoarding habit has become unmanageable since I turned digital and stopped having problems with space

(space, the final frontier…)

9) When I visit someone’s house I always take a peek at the bookshelves

10) When thinking about a gift, I always think about books first


What about you? What are your signs?


BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED (The First Law #2), by Joe Abercrombie


More than once I have admitted my lack of patience when confronted with long set-ups, a flaw that probably made me miss on a few good books because I could not wait for the story to finally take flight, but with the first book of this trilogy I was not only able to curb my usual impatience, I was eager to learn where the author was taking me (and quite enjoying the ride), so now I’m happy to say I was very richly rewarded with this second installment in Joe Abercrombie’s debut work. Here the seeds planted in The Blade Itself come to fruition and grow into a multi-faceted tale that promises to flow into an equally enthralling final book.

The characters we got to know in the previous novel are now traveling all over the world: Bayaz, the first of the Magi, has taken his company – Logen Ninefingers, Jezal dan Luthar, Ferro and a few others – toward the west, and the mysterious quest for which he needs their peculiar abilities, as the group ends up facing harrowing dangers and hardships to fulfill a mission whose details only their leader knows; Colonel West marches North with the Union army to fight agains the invading northern barbarians led by Bethod, and is saddled with the handling of crown prince Ladisla, a complete idiot in love with the idea of battle and glory, and totally unsuited to the task at hand; and Sand dan Glokta, inquisitor extraordinaire, is promoted to Superior and tasked with the defense of the southern city of Dagoska, under siege by the Gurkish – the old foe who once captured and tortured him, turning him into the cripple he is now.

While there is decidedly more action in Before They Are Hanged, what with hazardous journeys, bloody battles and a doomed siege whose problems are compounded by treachery and personal agendas, the characters remain the central focus of the story, growing in depth and facets and at the same time showing their humanity in all its high and low points: in the space of these two books in the series, Joe Abercrombie’s characters have turned from fictional creations into flesh and blood people it’s easy to believe in, care about (or despise, in some instances) and root for.  Maybe the only one for whom the jury’s still out is Jezal dan Luthar, the dandy swordsman with a superiority complex, the one who keeps sneering at this traveling companions: grievously wounded in a skirmish, he realizes the importance of team work, of respecting one’s companions, of reaching out to them as people and not as objects of contempt. The change that comes over Jezal with this epiphany seems too quick, too radical to feel truly plausible, but I have faith in the author and look forward to seeing where this individual’s path will lead.

Logen Ninefingers took little time to become one of my favorite characters in Book 1 and here he becomes more definite, more solid: on the surface, Logen might look like an uncouth barbarian, a man with little depth and a brutish disposition, but there is much more to him than meets the eye at first sight. Both in his personal reflections and in the interactions with his traveling companions he shows a talent for introspection and wisdom that belies the surface coarseness he presents to the world, as is the case of this campfire observation:

He and Bayaz were close enough to the fire, but the others were further than comfort would have put them. Drawn close by the wind, and the cold, and the damp night, pushed further out by each other.

The advice he offers Jezal, and his steadfast friendship overtures toward Ferro – the former Gurkish slave turned into a formidable, perpetually scowling warrior – point toward a different side of Logen’s character, one I’m not sure I can label as gentler, but certainly far more human and sympathetic than what the rest of the group shows to each other.  If at some point the unlikely company shapes into something more than a band of strangers, and becomes a team ready to watch each other’s backs, much comes from Logen’s relentless attempts at bonding, which can either move into humorous territory, as in the scene where the group discusses battle scars, or turn to starkly profound musings:

A family? I did have one. And now I’ve got another. You don’t pick your family, you take what you’re given and you make the best of it.

Colonel West undergoes some big changes as well: the man so easily annoyed, and weighted with a huge chip on the shoulder due to his lowborn origins, is forced to curb his annoyance and anger when having to deal with prince Ladisla and his cronies, their complete inadequacy in managing an army and their bloodily ineffective handling of Bethod’s onslaught. The man who built his career on adherence to rules, to a strict moral code of conduct, finds himself in a grim situation where he will need to delve into the brutal side of his personality to survive. West’s transition toward a more savage frame of mind is an interesting – if at times terrifying – journey and one clearly inspired by the Northmen allies he finds along the way, who are Logen’s long-lost friends and also very interesting characters I hope to see more of in the next book.

As was the case with The Blade Itself, I kept the best for last – Sand dan Glokta: much as I enjoy reading about Logen Ninefingers, Glokta remains my favorite character, because he’s the best defined and the most intriguing creation that Joe Abercrombie brought to life. The core of my attraction for Glokta comes from his dual nature: a savagely crippled individual who seeks and finds beauty where he can; a professional torturer who knows intimately the meaning of pain, and yet does not enjoy inflicting it; a man who professes outward cynicism while adhering to a unique moral compass. It’s Glokta’s complexity that makes him such a fascinating individual, that and the dichotomy between his inner musings and his outward utterances. He might say:

As for being a good man, that ship sailed long ago, and I wasn’t even there to wave it off.

yet he risks a great deal to show mercy to a powerful adversary; or again he can freely admit:

You could not even guess at the things that I have done. Awful, evil, obscene, the telling of them alone could make you puke. […] I push it all into the dark corners of my mind, and it’s incredible the room back there. Amazing what one can live with.

yet when he becomes aware of a young woman in distress he applies his considerable influence to rectify her situation, and enjoys the feeling of having accomplished a good deed. Glokta’s principles might be colored in shades of grey, and that’s indeed the main reason for his appeal, one he shares with most of the other characters in this series – all of them of the “dirty, ugly and mean” kind, but still made interesting by the author’s narrative skills.

It took me a long time before finally reading this amazing series, but now that I have I can place it at the very top of my favorite reads. And there’s still more to explore…


My Rating:  


TOP TEN TUESDAY – SFF Series starters that were instant hits

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday (created and hosted by  The Broke and Bookish) is now being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here.  This week’s topic is a genre freebie, so I decided to showcase my favorite first books in a series.



The vast majority of stories being published these days consists of series: a minimum of three books in most cases, while some run for a longer span, and sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of them all or manage to finish them because – let’s face it – how many of us are able to resist the lure of a new saga, especially when the core concept calls us with a siren song?

So, instead of dissuading you from adding any more sagas to your already busy TBRs, I will share the series openers that caused me to get embroiled into more long-term commitments. Trust me, they were worth it…

(The titles are numbered on a casual basis, just as they came to my attention when I looked at my virtual shelves – I loved them all with the same level of intensity)


The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie (1st Law Trilogy)

This first book in the series that probably started the “grimdark” trend in fantasy languished for a long time on my TBR and finally found its way on my e-reader after I had the opportunity to read Abercrombie’s new series starter, A Little Hatred, whose story was an ideal continuation of this one.  This world, and its amazing characters, took hold of my imagination in no time at all: it’s an ugly, dirty and nasty world, but also a compelling one…


The Tethered Mage – Melissa Caruso (Swords and Fire)

What a discovery this was, indeed! It’s rare for a debut work to turn me into an instant fan, but that’s exactly what happened with this book, set in a context reminiscent of 17th Century Venice, where cut-throat politics, winds of war and magic (in a very unusual declination) shape an intriguing story peopled by remarkable characters. Even the slight touches of romance turned out to be an agreeable element in the story, and for me that means a great deal.


Age of Assassins – R.J. Barker (The Wounded Kingdom)

Here goes another book that became a favorite, and a compelling read, from the very first chapters – and like the previous one it was a debut work, which makes it even more exceptional.  The Wounded Kingdom has been ravaged by the misuse of magic in the past, so that now everyone suspected of wielding it is instantly put to death: the main character is not only one of those magic-marked people, he’s in training to become an assassin for hire. If this does not pique your curiosity, I don’t know what would, indeed.


Kings of the Wyld – Nicholas Eames (The Band)

Also a debut novel like the two previous novels, and an instant success not only for me but for every other fellow book blogger who reviewed this title. A delightful balance between adventure, drama and humor carried by a group of former comrades in arms who get together once more to help one of them rescue his daughter from a city under siege. This novel made me laugh and also kept me on the edge of my seat, but above all it held me in thrall from start to finish, because it had everything I like to find in a book.


Embers of War – Gareth Powell (Embers of War)

From Fantasy to Science Fiction: I picked this one up because the synopsis spoke of a sentient ship and that’s one of the themes that never fail to get my attention. What I found here was much more than I bargained for, because the ship Trouble Dog does not only enjoy sentience but is also one of the narrative’s points of view, and we are made privy to its past story and feelings, the massive burden of guilt it carries for its past actions in a bloody war and its desire to atone for them by helping those in need. What’s not to love?


Outpost – Michael W. Gear (Donovan)

Another of my favorite SF themes is that of the colonization of alien planets, and few get to be as alien as Donovan, a lush, promising world that has all the numbers to be a new home for humanity – besides being rich in precious metals, that is. But there is a catch, and it’s a deadly one, because everything on Donovan, flora and fauna alike, is out for blood and will kill the unwary at the slightest opportunity.  The battle of the colonists for their survival first, and then against the corporation that wants to gain from its investment, makes for most of the action here, while the descriptions of this beautiful but cruel planet fire the imagination in a delightful way.


Dreamer’s Pool – Juliet Marillier (Blackthorn & Grim)

To say that this book bewitched me would only be the truth. In my review I called it “a book with many souls” and it’s true that while presenting a captivating story of injustice, revenge and redemption, it also offers an in-depth look on two amazing characters trying to rebuild their life by helping each other while being quite unlikely friends and allies on the surface. I loved both crusty Blackthorn and silent Grim and they still hold a special place in my heart, and they helped in making Juliet Marillier a favorite author from this very first book I read.


A Time of Dread – John Gwynne (Of Blood and Bone)

Epic fantasy can sometimes be overwhelming with its scope and huge number of characters, but John Gwynne has a way of drawing his readers in a little at a time, revealing his world with an unhurried pace – and once you start to see the bigger picture, you discover you’re committed to it, and have started to care for the people inhabiting it.  In my reviews of his works I have often likened this author to a storyteller of old, recounting his sagas around a campfire, and that’s what happened to me with this first (but certainly not the last!) book in his sweeping series: for me there is nothing I enjoy as much as sitting close to that “fire” and keep listening…


Illuminae – Jay Kristoff & Amie Kaufman (The Illuminae Files)

Who would have thought that I would fall so hard for a story featuring mainly YA characters? Before this book I would have scoffed at the notion, but Kristoff and Kaufman have created such believable, relatable young people that my heart went out to them as I read of their hardships and desperate endurance after a brutal attack on their colony left few survivors on a handful of ships. What’s more, this novel is presented in a peculiar form, adding found footage, messages and memos to the story, and enhancing it in a very unusual way.


Velocity Weapon – Megan O’Keefe (The Protectorate)

An interstellar war; two old enemies bent on mutual annihilation; sentient AIs running ships that elude human control. These elements alone would turn this into a compelling read, but there is much more in Velocity Weapon, because the story follows different timelines and also hides many surprises and unexpected twists, not to mention a female main character who is both strong and compassionate, determined and playful and managed to engage my sympathy in no time at all – just as the ship’s AI did.


A TIME OF COURAGE (Of Blood and Bone #3), by John Gwynne

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

Since this is the third and final volume of the trilogy, and given its high narrative stakes, this will be a spoiler-free review, so that you will be able to fully enjoy the climax of the story once you get to it.

Once again I discovered how easy it is to go back to this complex, multi-layered world and the characters who people it: unlike previous times, however, there was also a heightened sense of uncertainty because here the story reaches its final showdown, and previous experience taught me that nobody could be considered safe here, so I was very anxious for the survival of the characters I had come to appreciate and love.  To sum up my experience with A Time of Courage in a few words, I have come across a new definition of epic fantasy, indeed.

The ages-long strife between the Ben-Elim and the Kadoshim, between good and evil, is about to reach its decisive battle and things are indeed looking grim for the people of the Banished Lands: through the artful planning of the Kadoshim and their allies, Asroth – lord of the demonic creatures – has been freed from his decades-long confinement and is about to command his army of evil creatures and twisted humans in the war for dominance. For their part, the Ben-Elim, the Order of the Bright Star and their own allies are opposing a strenuous resistance, but their adversaries are too many and hard to vanquish – and some of these defenders are more interested in power and dominance struggles rather than in combining their forces to insure the survival of humanity.

These might sound like standard plot elements in the genre, and in a way they are: what makes them different, what makes this series stand out from the rest, however, is the strong, compelling characterization carried out across the whole spectrum of personalities – from the undeniably good to the perversely evil – together with the unrelenting pace and the breath-taking descriptions of battles fought either on the ground or in the air whenever winged creatures from both sides engage each other. Starting from here, I have to confess that battle scenes rarely hold any appeal for me, but I always can make an exception for those described by John Gwynne, who possesses the very rare talent of bringing you in the very midst of it all, blending the physical action with the emotional commitment of the characters and turning these elements into scenes of such cinematic quality that they compel you to follow every word with the kind of concentration that makes you forget the rest of the world around you. This was particularly true for the “battle to end all battles” representing the climax of this novel and of the books that preceded it, a sequence that roughly takes the last twenty percent of the page count and that went on unrelentingly, alternating victories and defeats for the heroes, to the point that I had to often remind myself to breathe, because I was in such a state of stress I don’t remember ever experiencing with a book.

In these times when epic fantasy seems to have reached a wider audience, thanks to the largely successful small-screen portrayal of another genre saga, many have wondered what the next “blockbuster” might be: well, if a mythical creature like a far-seeing, perceptive network executive truly exists, they should look no further than this epic, that started with the four-book series The Faithful and the Fallen and closes its narrative cycle with the three books of Of Blood and Bone. If handled with the care and respect that this story deserves, it could easily surpass anything we have seen until now.

The characters represent the other strength of the series: after a while I realized that they had taken hold of my imagination, regardless of their position in the scheme of things – even the ones pledging their alliance to Asroth have their reasons for doing so, and while unable to “forgive” them for that choice, I could see where they came from, what made them choose that path, and this understanding turned them into people rather than mere adversaries, into flesh-and-blood creatures that felt quite real, as did the feelings animating them.  The moments in which Gwynne’s characterization excels are not those linked with battles though, but rather the quieter moments, the lulls between skirmishes when our heroes take the time to encourage or comfort each other, when they share the pain for the loss of a fallen comrade or reaffirm the bonds of friendship and loyalty tying them together: in these moments we finally understand that they are not only fighting to combat evil, and certainly not to seek glory, but because of the sense of kinship, of family, they have come to share.  In the overall grimness of the situation, while facing impossible odds and the possibility of annihilation, hope, love and friendship are the best weapons they can wield and also the armor shielding them from the encroaching darkness.

And while I am on the subject of love and friendship, I want to reserve a special mention for the animals fighting alongside people: wolvens, bears and talking crows whose devotion, loyalty and courage often sheds a ray of light in the darkest of circumstances: these creatures are crafted with the same passionate care reserved to people, and it takes little time to grow attached to them just as much as with their human counterparts.

This is such an immersive world that it’s a pleasure and a joy to lose oneself in it, and although I got to know it in this second phase of its history – the one represented by Of Blood and Bone, whose events follow those of the previous series The Faithful and the Fallen by more than a century – I had no difficulty in finding my bearings in it. However, after reading the first novel of this trilogy, A Time of Dread, I backtracked and so far managed to read two of the four books in the previous saga, and will try to complete the other two as soon as I can so that I can have a comprehensive picture of this amazing creation that literally stole my imagination from the very first chapters of that first book. The Banished Lands, despite the evil plaguing them, are a fascinating place to visit, and I intend to get to know them as well as they deserve.

My Rating:    


COME TUMBLING DOWN (Wayward Children #5), by Seanan McGuire


This new installment in McGuire’s Wayward Children series held the double incentive of following up on a previous story, Down Among the Sticks and Bones – one of my favorites – and I was eager to move back to the world of the Moors, its delightful Hammer Horror mood and the characters of twins Jack and Jill.

The last time we saw them, Jack was carrying back to the Moors the body of her sister Jill, that she herself had killed (not that death is exactly final there…); now the novella opens on Eleanor West’s Home and the arrival, after a lightning storm, of Alexis (one of the Moors’ dwellers) with an unconscious Jill in her arms – only it’s not exactly Jill, since there has been an exchange of bodies between the two sisters. Jack-as-Jill asks her former schoolmates to follow her to her world and help her regain her body, one of the compelling reasons for it being that otherwise the carefully maintained balance in the Moors will be thoroughly upset.

That’s as much as I feel entitled to share, since both the group’s journey and the quest’s final outcome must be explored without spoilers, so I prefer to concentrate on the story’s main components – and to get it all off my chest right away, I’m sorry to report that Come Tumbling Down ended being something of a disappointment. Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoyed reading it and I still look forward to the next novellas in the series, but in this case – not unlike what happened with Beneath the Sugar Sky – the overall result fell a little short of the mark.

The writing was as good as ever, as was the world-building, but the characterization seemed to lack the in-depth look I’ve come to expect from Seanan McGuire: as was the case with the third novella of the series, this is a choral story and this choice seems to have diluted the strength in characterization that’s typical of this author when she concentrates on one or two individuals only.

The writing style is as mesmerizing as expected, moving from weirdness to gallows humor to drama with seamless transitions, and it’s the true glue that keeps the various elements together. The further look into the world of the Moors is both fascinating and scary: we shift from the dual perspective of the main players – the vampire lord and the mad scientist – to see other parts of the realm, and learn that other kinds of monsters dwell here. The peek into the domain of the Drowned Gods and its human-inhabited village is truly horrifying and it carries some delightfully fearsome Lovecraftian vibes (Innsmouth, anyone? 🙂 ), that together with the march of resurrected skeletons at the height of the story makes for the highest point of the tale.

The core concept of identity at the root of the series is still strong: the young people at Eleanor West’s academy share a feeling of alienation with our primary world and can find fulfillment and a sense of belonging only by crossing the magical doors leading them to the various alternate worlds they inhabit for a while. Here that quest for identity gains a new layer of meaning: the body exchange perpetrated by Jill and suffered by Jack might not look like such a tragedy from the outside, since they are identical twins, but through Jack’s own words we learn that what we do with out bodies, and how much our minds form connections with them, creates unique bonds that go way beyond simple muscle memory, and whose severing causes intense trauma.

Where all of the above created a strong foundation for the story, the characters felt a little unsubstantial this time: I could not connect emotionally with any of them, not even when some truly horrifying things happened, and what’s worse I’m still puzzling over the need for the whole group to travel to the Moors, since their contribution to Jack’s “mission” was quite minimal, if any, especially during the final showdown – something that happened far too quickly and with the kind of ease that belied Jack’s passionate request for help.

The other major point of contention comes from the concept that in the Moors death is not a permanent state: we go from Frankenstein-like electrically induced revivals, to the unexpected resurrection of people who seemed to tragically lose their lives, and what it all comes down to – at least for me – is the fundamental irrelevance of any dramatic turn of events. Granted, there is always a price to be paid for a return to life (or something approaching it), but in the end it removes personal stakes or any emotional impact attached to the loss of a given character.

While somewhat frustrated by the way this much-looked-for installment turned out, I still hope that the next one will be more in keeping with the series’ overall tone and mood.


My Rating:


STRANGE PRACTICE (Dr. Greta Helsing #1), by Vivian Shaw


Urban Fantasy is one of the hybrid genres I enjoy, although it’s difficult to find books or series offering a different take from the much-used theme of the private investigator (either with or without special powers) dealing with an underworld peopled by fae and/or supernatural creatures: Strange Practice, the first novel in the Dr. Greta Helsing series, offers such a breath of fresh air, depicting a very human main character working as a physician for these weird beings, who live in our world while managing to keep hidden in plain sight from the public.

Latest in a line of healers descended from the famous Dr. Van Helsing out of the Dracula myth, Greta is very dedicated to her London clinic whose patients include banshees and ghouls, mummies and vampires, and any other kind of imaginable (or unimaginable) otherworldly creature. Greta’s busy but interesting routine is upset when she’s summoned by one of her closest friends, the vampire Ruthven, who is sheltering another vampire he literally found on his doorstep seeking help after a brutal assault.

The attack on Varney, the victim, seems closely related to a series of murders that’s worrying the authorities and creating sensationalist ripples in the public for the bizarre ritual connected to them: each of the victims was found with a cheap plastic rosary in their mouths, and it took no time for the tabloids to dub the series of killings with the name of Rosary Murders. Varney’s assailants wore what looked like monk robes, muttered outlandish chants and hit him with a cross-shaped dagger covered with an unknown poison apparently able to hinder a vampire’s quick healing powers.

The mystery deepens when Greta herself is attacked in her car by a scary individual, also dressed as a monk and uttering incoherent Bible quotes, with a face scarred by fire and strangely-glowing blue eyes. Moving to Ruthven’s house for safety, Dr. Helsing is soon joined by the other members of what will soon become a sort of investigative team set on finding the dangerous “monks” and removing the threat to the supernatural community: Fastitocalon is a mysterious being who was Greta’s father’s friend and acts a sort of uncle to the doctor, while she tries to make him take better care of himself – the true nature of Fastitocalon (Fass, for short, which is a blessing considering how stumble-worthy that name is….) will be revealed in the course of the story, and it’s a very, very intriguing one, indeed. And finally there’s the only other human of the group, young Cranswell from the British Museum: he’s aware of the existence of these extraordinary beings and delights in the possibility of delving into their lore – an enthusiastic, if at times naïve, person who offers a needed counterpoint to the weirdness of the… differently human characters.

Where the overall story is interesting and at times gripping, as it develops across the city of London and through the mazes of its underground, it often takes second place to the characters and their interactions: the narrative style itself is a quaint one, relying very much on an old-fashioned expressive mode that at first seems to place the novel in the Victorian era, and only reveals its modern background at the mention of cars, wi-fi connections and so forth. After a while I became convinced that the unusual choices of phrase were due to the fact that most of the supernaturals are very ancient beings, and therefore still tied to an older way of expression: the clearest example of this dichotomy is Ruthven, a man – pardon, a vampire – who enjoys the comforts of modern living, including a state-of-the-art expresso machine, but still loves to surround himself with the vestiges of the past.

Bizarrely enough, Greta does not feel like the strongest character in this novel: she is of course admirable in her dedication to her peculiar patients, and one of her best moments happens when she is asked why she cares so much about “monsters” and she replies that to her they are people – no more, no less. Yet to me she appears much less substantial than the strange and scary creatures surrounding her, who literally stole the scene, from the mummy whose bones are falling apart and needs a few replacement pieces fashioned from a 3D printer, to the ghouls who gather in close-knit family clans, including a baby ghoul who remains cute even as we learn that he’s being fed sewer rats.

The best, however, remain Ruthven and Fastitocalon, and both of them quickly became my favorite characters and managed to overshadow Greta thanks to their peculiarities and the way they both related to the doctor, each in his own way: Fass is confidant and protector, the person who somehow filled the void left by Greta’s father’s death; Ruthven is the go-to-friend, unfailing in his support and generosity and a very suave gentleman to boot. That on the surface, of course, because they also enjoy very intriguing talents: Fass can all but disappear from notice, masking other people’s presence as well – as is the case when he helps Cranswell replace some important books from the Museum after he purloined them for research into the monkish sect; Ruthven, as a vampire, can thrall people to do his bidding, and he avoids looking menacing thanks to his laid-back attitude toward his nature, something I will leave to his own words:

The easiest thing is to think of me as a large well-dressed mosquito, only with more developed social graces and without the disease-vector aspect.


He didn’t even own a coffin, let alone sleep in one; there simply wasn’t room to roll over, even in the newer, wider models, and anyway the mattresses were a complete joke and played merry hell with one’s back.

This is indeed one of the peculiarities of Strange Practice: the distinctive sense of humor that might not be for everyone: in my case it worked very well, due to its light-handed nature, offering some needed respite in the most tense moments. Respite that also comes in those quiet passages where the group of characters takes a moment to discuss the situation over cups of tea or glasses of something stronger: these more intimate interludes help to better understand what makes these individual tick, and in the end they proved to be some of my favorite sequences.

Strange Practice is a very promising first book in this new-to-me series, whose unusual take on the genre’s themes might turn it into one of my favorite reads. Hopefully I will not wait too long before getting to the other two volumes published so far…



My Rating:


THE EXPANSE – Season 4


Watching this new season of The Expanse felt like a double gift this time, first because it’s always a pleasure to watch this awesome space opera saga translated to the screen, and second because the narrowly averted danger of having it canceled after Season 3 made me realize how well it complements the books that inspired it, and how much I enjoy seeing these characters and backgrounds brought to life before my eyes.

Season 4 follows the events of the fourth book in James S.A. Corey’s series, Cibola Burn, and marks a number of changes in the narrative scope, broadened by the discovery – at the end of Season 3 – of the massive ring-gates system leading to a great number of new worlds in which humanity can expand. Here we set eyes on an extra-solar planet, and for one of the Rocinante’s crew this also represents the chance of setting actual feet on a world, after having lived only on ships and space stations. There is little time to enjoy the view, however, since Ilus – the planet in question – has been settled by a group of Belters who found it rich in minerals they can trade: an Earth corporation, however, wants to seize Ilus’ mining rights, so the conflict with the Belters becomes inevitable despite the mediation mission the Roci’s crew has been tasked with by U.N. Secretary Avasarala.

As the drama on Ilus unfolds, helped along by the reappearance of Miller’s ghost, the rest of humanity is dealing with other troubles: Martians are not so keen on terraforming anymore, since the discovery of inhabitable worlds has made all previous efforts meaningless, and there’s a despondent mood running through the population that translates in the rise of petty (or not so petty) crime and in the loss of the singular focus that used to drive them. Belters, on the other hand, have gained a seat at the “big table” but are still trying to find the balance between the previous individualistic attitude and the need to conform to different standards, which is creating a rift between various factions.

These are the main plot points from which the season’s story takes flight, but as usual I prefer to concentrate on the characters and the various questions raised by the situations they find themselves in. The main focus is on the matter of property and rights involved in the colonization process: does it work on a “first come, first served” basis, or does the strongest, better equipped (and armed) team get to exploit a new planet’s resources? Once again we see Belters trying to claim a place as their own, only to see Earth-based corporations swoop in and challenge their rights: where it’s easy to sympathize with the Belters’ plight, particularly because the Earth enforcers and their leader Murtry are not pillars of morality and fair play, it’s also true that the extreme measures employed by the colonists to assert their rights place them in the wrong.

This is one of the reasons The Expanse is markedly different from other portrayals of humanity’s future, because it takes into account our frailties, our darkness, the inability to shut down the baser instincts that have accompanied us from the dawn of time – and if it’s a disheartening look at ourselves (when we realize that even leaving the confines of Mother Earth we will be unable to leave behind the evil side of our soul) it’s also a very lucid contemplation of what we are and it reserves room for hope as well, as it should. There is a scene between Naomi and Lucia, one of the Belter colonists, in which the latter is crushed by guilt for her previous actions, and Naomi relays her own story of past mistakes and redemption: it shows that for all our flaws we can decide to change for the better and to move past our faults.

None of the characters we have come to know so far remains untouched by the paradigm shift (to borrow the title of a previous episode…) created by the ring gates and the potential for exploration and exploitation inherent in the discovery of so many habitable worlds: UN Secretary Avasarala finds her position threatened by a young opponent set on winning the chair at the next elections, and the crafty politician must walk a fine line between the needs of Earth and those of her career; former Martian marine Bobbie Draper went back to a home she does not recognize anymore, her uneasiness compounded by the difficult adjustments she must undergo in her life as a civilian: it was very painful to see Bobbie so uncertain, so out of her depth and forced to accept compromises that she would never have dreamed of before. Camina Drummer faces some hard choices as well, with the need to balance her Belter roots with the realpolitik requirements of the new – if still uneasy – alliance with the “Inners”: her exchanges with Ashford (a character I felt myself liking more and more as the story progressed) are among the best pieces of dialogue offered by this season.

But of course, it’s the Roci’s crew that goes through the wringer, and in more ways than one. Naomi wants to follow her crew-mates on Ilus and so she undergoes a punishing regime of medication and exercise to adapt her low-gravity physiology to ground-level conditions: the scene in which she sets foot on the planet is one imbued with both great emotion and a sense of wonder – the moment in which, exiting the air-lock, she stumbles, either in consequence of the gravity differential or a touch of agoraphobia, is dialogue-free but conveys a number of conflicting feelings very well.

Holden, typically, tries to do the right thing and ends up making the situation worse – this time, in truth, he’s not completely to blame, but still… Unlike past instances, however, he does not take the moral high ground and realizes his fallibility, which in turn makes him much more human and relatable: a definite improvement on the previous seasons, indeed, helped along by Ilus, the kind of planet that does its best to show people how small and frail they are, and how easy it is to snuff them out. It’s a lesson that Amos learns the hard way too, when he’s put in a situation of extreme vulnerability, one where his killer instincts are useless and his proverbial nonchalance is severely tested. Which does not mean that we are not treated to a few delightful “Amos moments”, like the one in which the despicable Murtry predicts they will eventually come to blows and Amos replies “I’m free now”.

Season 4 of The Expanse starts somewhat slowly, as if unsure of its footing: I wondered if the change of “home” for the show was a mirror for this uncertainty and it needed to find its new balance. But once the pieces are set on the board, the story takes flight and turns once again in the gripping narrative we have come to expect, ending on a massive cliffhanger that introduces the dramatic events of Nemesis Games: if you know what I’m talking about, those last images are an ominous reminder, if you don’t…. well, expect something truly impressive.



My Rating:



DARKDAWN (The Nevernight Chronicle #3), by Jay Kristoff



Expectations can often turn into a double-edged sword, and – to remain with the metaphor – cut you deeply: this was the case with Darkdawn for me, and even though I did enjoy the book and thought it brought Mia’s journey to a fitting conclusion, it felt unconvincing in places and I’m unable to ignore the unfocused dissatisfaction that’s still plaguing me as I write these words, conscious as I am of having lost part of the “magic” that sustained me until now.

Mia Corvere’s path toward vengeance for her murdered family and shattered life has been going on for eight years now: in the first book of the series she learned how to become a skilled assassin, so that she could avenge herself on Itreya’s two most powerful figures, Scaeva and Duomo; in the second book, the discovery of the Red Church’s betrayal and real affiliation brought Mia to the bloody sands of the arena, turning her into a fearsome gladiator for the chance of meeting her two targets in person; with this final volume, the revelation about her true origins force her to change her plans once more and to embark on a bloody journey whose outcome is far from predictable and where the twists and turns ensue at such a breakneck pace that keeping up with them feels almost impossible.

One of the elements that make this book different from its predecessors is the slide into mysticism – for want of a better word: Mia’s nature as darkin is further explored here and its full significance revealed, but I’m still not sure I fully accept those revelations about our heroine’s calling, or that I like the way they changed the nature of the story. Vengeance tales are always intriguing – or at least they are for me – and reality is very different from what she believed for most of her life: the long years of toil within the Red Church, and the recent times when she joined the gladiatii slaves in the arena, moved toward one goal only, and it was that goal that carried her through the hardships, pain and loss she endured. Now we learn, together with all the other momentous revelations, that she is something else, that she’s slated to fulfill a higher destiny, and that all she withstood in the past was somehow a means to prepare her for this role: it’s difficult to explain my reaction without spoiling one of the novel’s main surprises, but I can safely say that the balance between the ‘magic’ present in this world and the more down-to-earth reality turns in favor of the former and, from my point of view, robs Mia of some of the agency that made her such an amazing character so far.

This partial disappointment is however offset by the author’s choice of placing other characters in the limelight, therefore allowing us to see the developing story through their eyes, and so we are offered Mercurio’s point of view, for example, which to me was a real treat since I always liked Mia’s old, crusty former mentor: discovering the depth of his affection for the young woman, and the lengths he’s ready to go to help her succeed was a real joy, even more so after the discovery of the Red Church’s leaders’ duplicity. The same goes for the survivors of Mia’s gladiatii cadre: now freed from their slave bonds, they are finally able to show their real faces behind the fighters’ masks, the faults and weaknesses that come to the surface making them more human than they looked before. Together with some new players, like the roguish smuggler Cloud Corleone (the man sporting a four-bastards grin), they compensate for the overall grimness of the tale with some well-placed humor that lightens the mood, as do the unendingly sarcastic repartees between Mia’s shadowy passengers, Mr. Kindly and Eclipse.

The real breath of fresh air comes from the interactions between Mia and her long-lost brother Jonnen: not an easy road that one, not by a long way since it starts with profound hatred and contempt on his part and requires Mia to exert all her patience – not something she possesses a huge supply of. But I liked very much how the author was able to portray a child who’s been forcibly taken from his former life and saddled with harsh revelations that would have been troubling for anyone, let alone a nine-year-old kid. And in the end it helped showcase the softer side of Mia, the one ready to give everything for family – and in Jonnen’s case for the only surviving member of her blood relatives. Sadly, the other presence that offers Mia some comfort from the harshness of her life does not feel as authentic as it used to be: despite their past bloody enmity, the relationship between Mia and Ashlinn that came to life in Godsgrave had the flavor of a meeting of minds and souls, of people who had been through a lot and understood each other at a core level. Now, the fiery encounters between the two of them look only like an opportunity for some erotic interludes between battles, sadly devoid of any sense of the passion that animated them before and sometimes at odds with the situation at hand.

The storytelling follows this same pattern of ups and downs: exciting and breathlessly engrossing at times, slow and cumbersome in others, to the point that I found myself hoping, in some places, that a sword-wielding editor had cut the unnecessary baggage with the same savage glee exhibited by Mia in the arena. Such ambivalence on my part lasted until the conclusion where my expectations for the outcome warred with a weariness brought on by too much carried out for too long, and even though the ending did prove satisfactory, it was deprived of any real sense of accomplishment.

In the end, I’m glad I read this series and pleased by the way it turned out, but at the same time disappointed at my own lukewarm reaction to its ending.


My Rating:


Short Story: HELLO, HELLO, by Seanan Mcguire


Click on the link to read the story online


I never know what to expect from a Seanan McGuire’s short story: the examples I found until now touched such a wide range of subjects that each time it’s like opening a surprise package. The only constant is that the package’s contents are always intriguing.

In this case we follow the story of a neuro-linguist who designed a computer program able to turn spoken words into sign language and vice-versa, its first goal to keep an open communication channel with her deaf sister. This way anyone can talk with Tasha, the sister, through a computer-generated avatar and the persons on the other end might never know their counterpart has a speech and hearing impairment, and one of the benefits of the system – besides ease of communication between the sisters – is that the scientists’ children are growing up quite fluent in both regular speech and in ASL.

One day though, the woman finds her older child Billie talking to an unknown woman on the computer – a randomly generated avatar talking from Tasha’s home and apparently able to say only “Hello” over and over again. At first everyone is convinced that one of Tasha’s guests might have used the system without permission, and then they worry that something might have happened to Tasha herself – that is, until they finally speak with her and she says that nothing untoward happened in her home.  Meanwhile, the mystery calls keep happening at random, and each time the strange woman’s speech seems to improve – but the family’s puzzlement and worry reaches new levels, making them think about hackers or worse.

The truth comes out in the end and it’s an incredible, marvelous revelation – and a very unexpected one. I will leave you to discover it on your own….

McGuire did it again!