Reviews

Review: THE BEAUTIFUL ONES, by Silvia Moreno Garcia

This book has been on my TBR pile for quite some time, but I never seemed to find the right time to get around to it: after greatly enjoying Certain Dark Things, I was more than curious to see how the author dealt with a totally different genre, but at the same time I was also a little wary about the romance angle in this story, since it’s not one of my favorite themes. So it was with great surprise that I found myself enjoying The Beautiful Ones even beyond my expectations.

The novel’s core focuses on Nina Beaulieu, a young woman from the country who came to live in the big, fashionable city of Loisail for the Season – the opportunity for all unmarried women to catch a suitable husband. A guest in the home of her cousin Gaetan, she’s chaperoned by Gaetan’s wife Valerie, one of the city’s trend-setters and a woman with little patience toward her charge: Nina has little interest for the conventions of Loisail’s polite society, causing no end of embarrassment to her chaperone, and what’s worse she possesses some raw telekinetic talents that often manifest themselves in untimely circumstances, thus dramatically diminishing her chances to make a good match.

Valerie’s irritation comes from deeper roots than that, however: she married wealthy Gaetan at the urging of her impoverished family, giving up her dreams of a future with penniless telekinetic performer Hector Auvray. While she enjoys the status the marriage conferred her, she buried those old dreams under a thick cover of strict adherence to society’s rules, and Nina’s lack of interest in them grates on her nerves just as much as the open affection Gaetan displays for his young cousin and the rest of her family. The situation becomes even more complicated with the arrival of Hector Auvray in Loisail: he’s now a successful artist, and he’s come back to try and win Valerie away from her marriage, because his feelings have not changed in the decade he’s been away.

The three of them become entangled in a complicated, dangerous and heart-wrenching game that shows their true personalities – and more often than not it’s far from an inspiring spectacle: Hector starts courting Nina as a way to get close to Valerie; Nina finds herself in the throes of her first love and throws what little caution she possesses to the four winds; and Valerie comes to the fore as the proverbial wicked witch we all love to hate.  Described this way, the story might look like a classical love triangle, fraught with all the shades of emotional turmoil you might imagine – and it is that, too – something that usually would have me running screaming for the hills, but under the skillful handling of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, this becomes a compelling story, a study of characters under the most stressful situations, and in this it finds its true strength and the reason it’s such a fascinating read.

Nina appears as an innocent – and up to a point she is – but there is much more under that surface layer, and that’s why it’s easy to root for her, even when she behaves like a moon-struck idiot and I want to shake her so hard that her bones rattle: unlike other girls of her age, the Beautiful Ones moving through Loisail’s whirlwind of social occasions, she is curious about the world, she cultivates many interests that keep her mind alive beyond the superficial needs of parties and balls. Nina stands out not so much because her manners might not be as refined as Valerie wishes, nor because of her telekinetic powers, but because she never truly embraces the shallow tenets of the city’s society: Loisail (and Valerie) despise her because for all her naiveté she feels more authentic than the rest of them.

They might have been more accepting if, perhaps, she’d shown herself meek and solicitous […] They saw a determined spark [,,,] that they classified as insolence, a lack of artifice that struck them as boorish, a capacity to remain unimpressed […]

That inner strength, that capacity to lift herself by the bootstraps, is what keeps her from shattering when her world comes crashing down around her, destroying her youthful fantasies, and that’s the moment she grows into a stronger, self-determined woman:

They had likely expected her to die of heartbreak, to wither and grow gray, but Nina thought she would not give them the satisfaction. Not to the silly folk who made jokes about her, nor to Valerie […]

Valerie, though being the undisputed villain of the story – and she makes no effort to disavow the readers of this notion – is ultimately a creature to be pitied, up to a certain point: used as a bargaining chip by her family, she submits to their needs negating her own wishes, and becomes so enmeshed with the rules she was forced to obey that she is unable to see beyond them, her hate for Nina stemming from the awareness that the younger woman does not care for those same rules and is ready to scorn them for love – as she was unable, or unwilling, to do.  Whatever pity I might have harbored for Valerie, though, quickly evaporates in the face of her decision to bring others to the same depths of despair she wallows in, out of pure spite  – if she is unable to have something, no one should as well…

As for Hector, he’s as far from a noble figure as one might conceive: obsessed with Valerie to the point he can’t see neither of them is the same person as they were ten years before, he concocts a plan to get close to her, not realizing until it’s too late that he’s fallen victim to his own machinations – even once he finally opens his eyes and tries to make amends, he comes across as something of a weakling, and indeed I see him as the less substantial personality of them all.

Re-reading my notes about this novel, I realized that I’ve been ensnared by a story that contains too many of the elements I actively avoid in my reading material, and I wondered why: there was too little fantasy here and too much romance – how could I be so enthralled by The Beautiful Ones?  The only answer I can find is that Silvia Moreno-Garcia is such a skilled writer that she can mesmerize me with her tales even agains my usual dislikes. And that’s the mark of an author to keep on my radar, no matter what…

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Short Story Review: AND MEN WILL MINE THE MOUNTAIN FOR OUR SOULS, by Seanan McGuire

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

I don’t remember if I ever read a story or a novel from the point of view of dragons, and if I did it certainly did not made an impact on me as this short tale from Seanan McGuire, although I should not be surprised at all, considering the narrative skills of this author.

The dragons’ civilization, as depicted here, is indeed a cruel one, where the rulers become such by eating of the flesh and hearts of their predecessors, and there are always two of them: a prince, to lead the subjects and guide them into war, and a princess whose task is to dream of the future, and offer advice.  The dreams of the princesses are terrible and they consume the dreamers, aware of the inescapable fact that “…what a princess dreamt, she must dream true. Always.”

And what these princesses dream of is the end of the dragons, their total annihilation at the hand of men: no matter how brutal and merciless the dragons are, here they are shown as magnificent creatures whose blood turns into rubies, and flesh into diamonds and precious metals, thus tying the narrative in a novel way to the legend about dragons sleeping over hoards of riches. No matter how vicious they look, the dragons here take on the role of victim, of a civilization destined to fall under the sword of men bent on exterminating them and reaping the bounty hidden in their mountain dwellings, so that it’s impossible not to feel compassion for their end and rage for the greedy ignorance of men who are destroying such irreplaceable creatures.

But as the princess’ dreams prophesized long ago, it was all written and the dragons “never had a choice, not since the very beginnings of the world”.  A poignant, amazing tale that you don’t want to miss…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: BLOODY ROSE (The Band #2), by Nicholas Eames

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

Bloody Rose‘s predecessor, Kings of the Wyld, was one of the best debuts I read last year, and one I still think about with great fondness, so that I was looking forward to its sequel, especially since I knew it would not feature the same characters as the first book in the series and therefore I could look forward to meeting a totally new set of people, which made this story even more intriguing.

Tam Hashford has heard of the epic feats of traveling bands all her life: her own parents were part of one, and her mother died at the hands (or paws, or claws, or whatever…) of one of the monsters her band faced. Because of this, Tam’s father chose to lead a quieter life, trying to erase from his daughter any yearning for adventures and heroic gestures, being tragically aware of the kind of price exacted by those ‘adventures’.  But it’s difficult to steer away a young person from dreams of heroic deeds: on the contrary, any kind of interference can only manage to steel their resolve, so that when Fable, the band led by Bloody Rose, comes to Tam’s village, she manages to get enrolled as their bard.

The members of Fable are a mixed and intriguing bunch: there is Rose of course, whose fate in besieged Castia caused her father Gabe to reunite his old band Saga to save her; Rose’s right hand and lover is the druin Stormcloud, while the rest of the group is made up by Roderick (a satyr trying to hide his nature under outlandish clothes), Cura (an inkwitch, able to summon the most incredible creatures from the tattoos drawn on her skin), and Brune, the shaman (meaning he can sham into an animal shape, apparently a bear – even though the story is more complicated here…).

The world changed considerably in the years after the events depicted in Kings of the Wyld though, and the exploits of bands don’t concern the removal of dangerous creatures anymore: the bands now fight only in the arenas, and more often than not it’s more of an act than a true fight, where the “monsters” are mostly underfed mongrels, all bark and almost no bite, captured for the purpose of making the bands look good, especially through the bards’ retelling and embellishments.  This makes for a very different kind of tone in respect of the previous book: where Kings of the Wyld was a delightfully weird romp focused on putting the members of Saga back together, and their adventures always had a patina of tongue-in-cheek fun despite the seriousness of their goal, here the story is pervaded by a creeping sense of melancholy, of the awareness of a world gone forever that tries to cling to its past glories but only manages to show the surface appearance of it, without real underlying substance.

It takes only a few days on the road to start divesting Tam of all her starry-eyed notions about the life of a band, and soon enough the days all seem like a boring repetition, just like the story seems to move at a very slow pace, in what felt for me like a very different experience from the previous book: Iittle by little, however, I started to get to know these characters, and to perceive their strong bond, the sense of family that kept them together.  I believe that the sense of detachment I experienced at first came from Tam’s p.o.v.: she is of course the outsider – just as the reader is – and she needs to integrate in the group, to know them and to be known by them in turn.  That’s the moment when I became truly invested in the story, and that was also the moment when it took a very serious turn, a deadly serious turn, indeed…

I’ve come to believe that with the slow-burn beginning the author choose quite craftily to lull his readers into a false sense of sameness, so that he could better spring his surprise, a terrifying surprise that imbued the story with such a sense of inescapable doom that I literally flew through the rest of the novel in the attempt to relieve the anxiety I felt for the fate of the characters – therefore realizing that I had come to care for each of them deeply.  That’s why it was so hard for me to come to terms with the high price that some of the events entailed – I will not say more about it, since it’s a huge spoiler, but I confess I did not expect it, and it still hurts…

Bloody Rose probes into several important issues, like perception of self and the need to fulfill one’s goals irrespective of whatever kind of pressure (parental or otherwise) is exerted on an individual; or again the concept of courage and the necessity to find it inside us rather than trying to borrow it from external sources. But where this story truly excels is in depicting the sense of family, of a group of people who are each scarred in their own way by past experiences, and yet manage to turn their flaws into a useful tool for the good of the group, understanding that the family they found among themselves is worth any kind of sacrifice, no matter how high.

In the end, everybody is transformed – either because they have changed in the course of the story (like Tam, who goes from a self-effacing village girl to a more assertive person), or because they have changed in the eyes of the reader, who comes to know – and appreciate – them better, and if that development takes a harrowing journey that leaves too many casualties along the way, it’s a trip worth making thanks to the skills of the storyteller.  Which is the reason I will forgive him for bringing tears to my eyes with the final surprise at the end of the book….

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE TALE OF THE WICKED, by John Scalzi

 

 

This is another chance discovery that I made while searching for another work from author John Scalzi: the story focuses on a space battle between a Confederation ship, the Wicked, and a Tarin battle cruiser, one of the many engagement in what looks like a long, drawn-out conflict.

Both ships have been fighting for several days, and sustained heavy damage, but the Tarin ship is in worse shape and the last jump it effected seems to have spent all of their power, so that the captain of the Wicked decides to try one final assault and follows in hot pursuit.  That’s when something unexpected happens: both ships find themselves hanging in space, unable to start their engines or fire weapons, and that’s the work of the ships’ artificial intelligences, a new model capable of independent thought.  The A.I. of the Wicked encountered Asimov’s three Laws of Robotics and decided to apply them, taking the course of the engagement out of the humans’ hands, unless they choose to resolve the conflict with the Tarin in a less destructive manner – and it has enrolled the Tarin ship’s A.I. as well…

This short story has all the flavor of old-fashioned science fiction, and it could not be otherwise since it’s a clear homage to one of the stars of the genre, Isaac Asimov, and his most famous creation, the Laws of Robotics that postulate that an artificial construct cannot harm a human being, that said A.I. must obey a human’s orders, unless it implies harming another human, and finally that it must protect itself, unless this action contradicts the first two rules.  The way in which the Wicked’s central brain decided to apply these rules to the ongoing conflict is a delightful show of logic mixed with a very peculiar sense of humor, showing that a higher-function artificial intelligence does not develop only consciousness, but also other human characteristics.   It’s not only an amusing point of view, it’s a refreshing look on the trope of the computer-turned-rogue that becomes a danger, a very far cry from 2001’s HAL 9000.

Recommended for all Scalzi fans, but not only them…

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: KING OF ASSASSINS (Wounded Kingdom #3), by R.J. Barker

 

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

King of Assassins is without doubt the best installment in a trilogy that was both an amazing discovery and an engrossing read from the very beginning, although it saddens me to acknowledge the fact that there will be no more stories about Girton Clubfoot and his journey.

Looking back, I now see how each book gave us a different version of Girton in his evolution as a person: at first he was an almost innocent boy, schooled in the subtle ways of the assassins, granted, but still very naïve where interactions with other people were concerned, and I warmed instantly to him, particularly in light of the flashbacks to his early childhood; in the second volume he was more of a sullen teenager, the weight of his nature keeping him apart from others and adding an unwelcome surliness and a stubborn streak that often made me want to slap him; and finally, in this last book, he’s a grown man, more at peace with himself and the magic abilities he must hide, but at the same time very world-weary and burdened by a veneer of sadness that I found quite touching.

Set several years after Blood of Assassins, the story opens with the preparations for the assembly that will decide the coronation of the next High King, after the death of the former ruler in the aftermath of the Forgetting Plague: this scourge left a further painful mark on the Tired Lands, so that tensions run high due to the political infighting between the contenders and the rise of new powers that threaten the already fragile equilibrium of the land.  King Rufra intends to gather his allies and make his play for the seat of the High King, convinced that the reforms he was able to effect in his own realm must be extended to everyone, but knows he’s walking on an uphill road, since not everyone is onboard with his new course.  Moreover, the years have not been kind to him: his first wife died in childbirth, and even though a new spouse just gave him another heir, he’s suffering from that loss, the physical injuries sustained in battle and the weight of his office.

Once more, Girton finds himself torn between his loyalty to Rufra, his duty as the king’s heartblade and assassin, and the need to keep the magic inside himself concealed even when he chooses to use it: it’s not an easy balancing act, especially since the dynamics between Girton and Rufra have changed, and not for the better.  Already, in the previous book, I was able to observe some distance growing between the two friends, mostly due to some misunderstandings and Girton’s morose attitude, but here it’s something deeper and far more damaging for the friendship that bound these two people since their youth.  If Rufra’s duties require that he keeps himself aloof even from his most trusted advisers, the way he relates to Girton makes it plain that there is more than the need to be king first and friend second: it’s plain that there is a form of resentment there, poisoning Rufra’s mindset, and it seems to come from acknowledging his need for Girton’s assassin skills while begrudging this very necessity because it runs contrary to his principles.  This comes to light quite clearly when Rufra requires that Girton act as he was trained, but does not openly ask for that, maybe as a form of plausible deniability, granted, but also because he hates himself for needing that kind of intervention, and therefore places the loathing for it on the man who executes the unspoken orders rather than the one who issued them.   It’s all very convoluted – and very human – but still it hurt me to see how their friendship is soured by this necessity, and even more seeing how Girton acknowledges this with sad acceptance.

The coldness in the relationship with Rufra is however balanced by another reversal in behavior, one that started in the previous book and here reaches its completion: Aydor began his journey as the heir of Manyadoc’s ruler, an uncouth, cruel bully who delighted in inflicting pain and humiliation on others, but after being ousted by Rufra he changed and slowly but surely transformed into an ally.  In Blood of Assassins, Girton was wary of this transformation, and kept Aydor at a distance, but in this last book the intervening years have changed that, and theirs is a friendship based on trust, on shared dangers and on Aydor’s boisterous  geniality that acts as a wonderful counterpart to Girton’s surliness.  I was surprised at the depth of my sympathy for Aydor and even more at the ease with which the author was able to change my feelings for this character while presenting his evolution in a believable, organic way: it’s far from easy to effect such a transformation with plausible effectiveness, and R.J. Barker managed the feat with admirable skill, as Aydor’s segments of the story ended up being like the proverbial rays of light in a dark, stormy background.

And this time around the main narrative thread is indeed darker than usual: in the aftermath of the High King’s death there is not just the customary unrest due to the disappearance of a ruler, nor are either the political maneuvering or some of its bloodier applications anything new or particularly shocking; what’s really troublesome is the feeling that some sinister forces are at play here and that their success will plunge the Tired Lands into an even worse situation than the one they are already suffering from.  Girton’s job appears more difficult than before, and the price to be paid for any mistake far higher than it could have been before, which makes for a quite compelling reading until the very end, where some unexpected revelations shed a completely different light on past events.

There is another element that captivated me deeply, and it’s Merela’s back story, given in bits and pieces in the customary interludes between chapters: one of the reasons for my fascination for her character was the aura of mystery surrounding her, and here we are finally afforded a look into her past and a better understanding of the person she became, both as an assassin and as Girton’s mentor. Placing this information here, at the end of the series, makes some of the events take on deeper meaning and it’s also the source of the most emotionally wrenching moment of all three books: just thinking about it still brings tears to my eyes, and I’m not usually prone to crying…

Despite the heartache, and the sadness I already mentioned for the end of the series, this was an enormously engrossing read, and one I cannot recommend enough to all lovers of fantasy.

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE PRESIDENT’S BRAIN IS MISSING, by John Scalzi

 

I stumbled by pure chance on this short story by John Scalzi while searching for one of his earlier books that I missed, The Android’s Dream, and of course there was no doubt that I would read this brief work as well: the title was indeed intriguing, and knowing the author’s penchant for humor I expected to be amused by it – and indeed I was.

Part of the fun in this story comes from my familiarity with shows like The West Wing and its ‘dark side’ twin House of Cards, detailing the dynamics of the White House behind the closed doors the public never crosses, especially where appearances and public image are concerned.

In this particular case however the presidential aides are faced with an unconceivable situation: an MRI scan on the President reveals that his brain has disappeared, and yet the man is still alive and functioning – well, apart from the impossibility to submerge his head in the pool, since every time he tries, the head “pops back up like a cork”.  This is the premise from which the short, hilarious story starts, poking some fun at the intricacies of politics and the dichotomy between appearance and reality: even though the staff’s descriptions don’t give a shining picture of the President – a man who is not exactly brilliant and who won the election because his opponent was involved in a sex scandal during the campaign – they worry about the possibility of a situation they might be unable to deal with, and so they start to search for the cause of the mysterious disappearance, and of a possible solution.

Quick, entertaining and in line with what I’ve come to expect from a Scalzi divertissment.

 

My Rating: 

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NEVERNIGHT (The Nevernight Chronicle #1), by Jay Kristoff

 

 

Jay Kristoff is one half of the writing team that brought us The Illuminae Files, a science fiction series that went a long way toward curing me of my distrust for YA characters, so that I did not think twice about tackling this solo work by Kristoff once I learned that the protagonist is a teenager – and my leap of faith was more than rewarded, indeed…

Young Mia Corvere lost everything when she was just ten years old: her father, one of the most prominent figures in the Itreyan Republic, was hanged after his failed coup against the Republic’s ruling body; her mother and baby brother imprisoned in the foulest place imaginable; and Mia herself destined to be drowned on the order of the consul her father was unable to unseat.  In the worst moment of her life, however, Mia discovered an ally she never knew she had: a feline-shaped creature made of shadows, that helped her escape her captors and showed her how she could manipulate darkness herself.

Landing by chance in the shop of old Mercurio, who is affiliated to the Red Church (what you might call a school for assassins), Mia starts to learn the skills she will need to exact her vengeance against all those who destroyed her family: six years later, she is ready to be enrolled in the Red Church, where her abilities will be honed to perfection – provided she survives, of course.  Yes, because this… academy for killers is no picnic: imagine a teaching body who does not care if their pupils die in training, or who choose to impart stern lessons by actually maiming the students!

The challenges Mia faces at the Red Church are not just about physical prowess, the ability to use poisons or her ninja skills, but also – and more importantly – about how she relates to other people and the rest of the world, and the way she sees herself in light of her ultimate goal.  Not to mention the deadly perils and the slowly brewing conspiracy that she will have to face…

Nevernight turned out to be a deeply fascinating book on many levels: first, the background, a world where three suns always burn in the sky so that true night falls only once every two years or thereabouts, having therefore given birth to a belief system in which Light won its long battle against Darkness, so that everything connected to the latter is viewed with fear and distrust (and, not surprisingly, the Red Church adepts who worship the Goddess of Night, are marked as heretics).  Then there is the city of Godsgrave, built over the very bones of a fallen god: the overall feel is something of a cross between imperial Rome and ancient Venice, a place where broad plazas and shadowed alleys compete in an allegory of the light and darkness at the basis of the whole civilization. Last, but not least, the Red Church, a fortified keep that can be reached either by crossing an unforgiving desert, filled with hungry monsters that look like a cross between the hydra and Dune’s sandworms, or through a blood-filled portal: the most fascinating detail about this school for killers is that it dwells in perpetual night, as if it were not on the same planet – or plane of existence – as the rest of the world. Another mystery that begs for answers…

Besides this amazing world-building, there is the story itself: I simply love a good vengeance theme, and Mia’s journey toward the fulfillment of her oath had my undivided attention, especially since the author revealed his cards very, very slowly, adding the hints with the painstaking precision of someone building a mosaic tile by tile.  More than once my mind went to another favorite character, that of Arya Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire: both young girls are torn from their families at a very early age, and both of them need to learn first the art of survival and then that of skilled murder, being forced to give up their innocence and the gentler side of their souls along the way.  Given the similarity, it was impossible for me not to root for Mia, especially when she had to face harrowing choices, aware of the price to be paid for them, but faithful to her mantra: “Never flinch. Never fear. And never, ever forget.”

And here we come to the major strength of this novel, the characters: Mia herself is a well-crafted anti-heroine, one who has embraced darkness (and not just metaphorically) and made it her best weapon – her association with Mr. Kindly, the catlike being hiding in her shadow, is a symbiotic relationship based both in mutual need and humorous affection.  The barbed repartees the two exchange, often in what look like the least auspicious circumstances for humor, help break the tension and at the same time show us the strength of the bond that the years of coexistence have built between them.

Then there are the teachers and the other pupils at the Red Church: the former are a very weird group (and I mean truly weird…) of instructors who must believe quite firmly in the maxim that goes “what does not kill us makes us stronger”, but are quite fascinating at the same time; while the latter follow the range of personalities one might expect from a group of people in training – and in competition with each other – but fortunately don’t fall into any of the trope-laden traps I might have feared.

Nevernight, for all that I greatly enjoyed it, is however not a perfect book: the main annoyance comes from the footnotes that help shore up the world-building, a fact I was aware of from other reviews I read.  They would probably not have proven so distracting if I had been reading a physical book, but in my electronic copy they were placed at the end, therefore requiring a sort of back-and-forth every time a signpost appeared: after a while I gave up on them, fully conscious that I was missing some useful detail, but also aware that they were breaking my concentration and the story flow, and once I was enthralled by Mia’s journey I wanted no distractions whatsoever.  In the end, I hope I did not miss anything vital, although some of the curiosity remains…

I don’t believe I will wait too long to start Nevernight‘s sequel, Godsgrave, that is already out, and learn of Mia’s continued journey toward her vengeance.

My Rating: