Reviews

Review: BEHIND HER EYES, by Sarah Pinborough

 

Only a short time ago, while reviewing Sarah Pinborough’s 13 Minutes, I wrote that previous experience had taught me to expect only the best from this author, but my enthusiasm suffered a nasty blow with Behind Her Eyes, not enough to prevent me from reading her other works of course, yet enough to make me a little wary before plunging straight into another one of her novels.  But let’s proceed with order…

Behind Her Eyes starts out as a psychological thriller, and one that shortly becomes a quite compulsive read: the story is told through the alternating P.O.V.s of Adele and Louise.  The former is the fragile wife of psychiatrist David, a man prone to mood swings that seem to hint at an irritable, maybe violent nature; it’s clear from the start that there is something wrong in their marriage, although Adele does her best to present a perfect front to the outside world, and even at home she goes out of her way to please her husband and offer him the most impeccable kind of home life.   

Louise is instead recently divorced from her cheating husband and is raising alone their 6 years old son Adam: battling with loneliness and the existential problems of a single mother, not to mention the night terrors and sleepwalking episodes that occur practically every night, Louise finds a moment’s joy in the encounter with a handsome stranger in a bar, and the two of them share a kiss. Only the next morning, though, the woman discovers to her horror that the man is David, her new boss in the medical clinic where she works as a secretary.

To compound Louise’s confusion and dread, she literally bumps into Adele, David’s wife, and the two women move from a spur-or-the-moment chat over coffee to a friendship that is fraught with guilt and doubts on Louise’s side, because despite their best intentions she and David have meanwhile become lovers, and she’s quite taken with him, although the sides of his personality that she’s inferring from what Adele tries to gloss over make her think he might be a harsh control freak who terrorizes his submissive wife.

From here on the story becomes quite tangled as the narrative points of view are revealed as unreliable, one of them being shown as having an unfathomable agenda: it’s thanks to Pinborough’s writing skills that this surprise did not rob me of the thrill of discovery, because my need to understand this character’s true goal was what drove me to keep turning the pages, as the often contradictory clues piled up and seemed to move in a certain direction, only to defy my expectations time and again.

And those same skills also kept me interested in the characters’ journey although I found all of them to be quite unlikable, especially Louise: she collects bad choices as other people collect shells on the beach, and she seems unable to learn from her mistakes. Not only that, but she is a walking mass of contradictions: she knows that her affair with David is a huge mistake, not only because he’s a married man, but because she’s friends with his wife, and yet every time she finds him at her door she cannot find the strength to send him away.  And what about her alleged maternal feelings for her son? She seems to have built her life around him, but once he’s away on vacation with his father (a vacation she was at first strongly opposed to), she feels free to enjoy her illicit fling and hardly seems to reserve a though for her child except for the moments when he phones her.  And let’s not go over her massive intake of wine at the slightest drop of a hat…

Still, I could not tear myself away from the story because the author had put me under her spell, and I wanted, I needed to see where all this buildup was headed: I am not going to give any details here, because to do so would mean to offer a massive spoiler, but suffice it to say that once the fantastical element of lucid dreaming was introduced, changing the course of what had until that moment been a “simple” psychological thriller, the narrative took a whole new direction and finally moved toward the massive twist at the end, one that required the recovery of my jaw from the floor where it had fallen. Because it would have been impossible to foresee it, not until the very last second.

If the story had ended at that point, it would have been perfect – an incredible buildup leading the readers through a maze of baffles and dead ends concocted to confuse them so that they could not guess what was the author’s true intention. But unfortunately the novel did not stop at that first twist, that unpredictable revelation – no, there was a second one, and that ruined the overall effect of the story for me, because in my opinion it was an overkill: just imagine being in a fancy restaurant, and the chef comes at your table with a special dessert that he presents with a lot of flourish and a few moves not unlike those of a stage magician. Once he has your full attention he sets that dessert on fire and you marvel at the spectacle and enjoy the end result – it should end there and then but no, because the chef cuts the dessert in half and from it a flock of birds takes flight. Makes no sense, does it?  That’s exactly how I felt after that second, totally farfetched revelation.

Up until that moment I was more than willing to accept the whole chain of events that led to it, including some of the more improbable ones, but the need to overdo the… shock factor, for want of a better word, was what lost me in the end, since I am a firm believer of the philosophy of “less is more“, and that second surprise ruined the overall effect for me. Pity…

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Novella Review: THORNBOUND (The Harwood Spellbook #2), by Stephanie Burgis

 

I received this novella from the author, in exchange for an honest review, and I was thrilled to be able to go back to Ms. Burgis’ new series combining alternate history with magic.

Stephanie Burgis’ digression from the historical fiction of her previous novels (Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets) into “pure” fantasy is proving to be just as intriguing as her other works: the alternate Regency England – here called Angland – introduced with Snowspelled is further developed here and gains new facets and a deeper look into the characters, while offering a fast-paced and engrossing story that offers some gloomier, more intriguing shades to the established background.

Present-day Angland is the result of the successful war waged by Queen Boudicca against the Roman invaders, whom she was able to drive away thanks to the alliance with her magician husband, thus setting the mold for a society in which women hold the political power and men exercise their magic abilities for the good of the country, a situation that has endured for centuries.  That is, until Cassandra Harwood, daughter of one of the most influential members of the Boudiccate, chose to forgo a political career on the path traced by her mother in favor of the practice of magic in which she excelled, causing significant ripples in the established status quo.

When we met Cassandra in Snowspelled, we learned that the desire to prove her worth had caused a grievous accident that almost claimed her life and left her unable to cast any spell, and at the end of that story she had found new purpose in the foundation of a magic school for the teaching of other young women who wanted to cast off the shackles imposed by society as she had done.

As Thornboud starts, the school at Thornfell, the Harwoods’ ancestral home, is about to open, the first nine pupils have just arrived, and the Boudiccate has sent a surprise inspection team to assess the school and the teaching program.  Cassandra has indeed her hands full, having to deal with the preparations, the inspectors and her problems with the staff, not to mention that she is plagued by horrible nightmares and suffers the absence of her newly-wed husband, who has been called away on Boudiccate business on the very same day of their wedding. As if all of the above were not enough, strange occurrences and a dismal discovery seem to point toward a malicious plot to cause the school’s failure…

Thornbound’s overall tone is slightly darker than that of its predecessor and I found that it fit well with Cassandra’s problems and more importantly with the doubts about her ability to fulfill her dream, not to mention the anguish she feels in realizing that her choices might have seriously impaired both her sister in law’s and her husband’s prospects for their future careers. It’s a very subdued Cassandra that I found at the beginning of this story, and I felt for her, but was overjoyed to see her rise to the challenge and summon her inner strength to overcome the trials in front of her.

Still, the major pleasure in this novella comes from the theme of mutual support and the bond it can create between people, especially women: in this tale of intriguing role reversal, women appear still hampered by social conventions and unable to express their full potential, any attempt they make to break out of the mold harshly criticized by their peers when it’s not the object of scandal and shunning. It’s a very actual theme that for all of its placement into a fantasy Regency background can however resonate with our modern sensibilities, as does the other important and equally modern subject about balancing one’s own career aspiration with the needs and requirements of marriage and family.

All these elements are set into a compelling story – a real page-turner, to use an expression typical of back-cover blurbs – where magic and everyday practicality blend into a seamless and highly entertaining whole.  I hope that many more of these novellas will come forth in the future, because they are truly a delightful read.

Highly recommended.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE HUNGER, by Alma Katsu

 

While the fateful journey of the Donner Party is a matter of record for American history, it’s not as well known outside of the U.S.A. so I was not familiar with this event apart from having heard it mentioned once or twice in passing, and as soon as I encountered the first reviews for Alma Katsu’s book I went in search of more information about it: what I found was a tale of hardship and horror whose reality seemed to surpass any fictional tale of the supernatural I might have read until now.

The Donner Party was a group of hopeful pioneers headed to California to start a new life in what was the new frontier for the times, the middle of the 19th Century: they set out from Missouri in the late spring of 1846, but instead of following the tried and tested trail other adventurers had successfully traveled on, they decided to attempt the newest Hastings Cutoff, named after the explorer who had first opened it.

Unfortunately, Hastings had not specified either that the cutoff would add a considerable number of miles to the trek, or that the way was more suited to men on horseback rather than oxen-driven wagons loaded with supplies, so that a series of accidents and drawbacks cost the travelers precious time – not to mention the loss of several animals and even wagons – and at the start of a particularly hard winter they were stranded and snowbound on the Sierra Nevada, as their supplies ran out and they found themselves with little shelter and no food.  The survivors who were rescued by a search party in the early spring of 1847 had had to resort to eating the flesh of their dead to keep alive.

The historical events of the Donner Party look horrific enough in their stark reality, and yet the author decided to insert a supernatural twist to the story, in the form of a disturbing presence stalking the wagons from the very start and at times grabbing some hapless victim whose remains hinted at something inhuman and terrifying at play.  While this choice added a further (and maybe unnecessary) layer of dread to an already ghastly situation, it worked as a sort of mirror for the overall darkness that progressively fell on the colonists, one that seemed to come from them rather than from the outside, a force that was freed once the people were removed from the moral and spiritual boundaries of civilization.

From the very start we see how the relationships among the 90-odd people of the caravan are subject to strain, mostly due to the different social backgrounds and mindset of the various individuals, so that they fall prey to arguments that end up dividing the group into smaller factions, at odds with each other.  Once the true adversities start piling up on them, these divergences flare up, sometimes with dramatic consequences.  George Donner’s wife Tamsen, for example, is a practitioner of natural medicine though her knowledge of herbs and remedies, and therefore the subject of mistrust that quickly turns into the belief she might be a witch, with the consequence that the Donners are shunned and treated like pariahs.  Or once the supplies start dwindling, those with more refuse to share with the less fortunate, all too easily forgetting the principles of Christian charity that everybody seemed to profess.

As the journey becomes more harrowing and takes its toll on people, animals and supplies – the crossing of the salt desert being one of the most heartbreaking segments – whatever shred of humanity the group might have held on to seems to disappear, each wagon, each individual becoming a world unto itself, focused on its own survival to the exclusion of anything, and anyone, else. And once that humanity dwindles or is silenced forever, once any residue of acceptable social behavior evaporates under the hardships, it looks far too easy for the pioneers to let go of their more enlightened habits and to fall back to more primitive patterns.  First they stop caring about appearances:

They were all starting to neglect themselves, losing the will to keep themselves clean and tidy. To remain civilized. Day by day they grew wilder, filthier, more animal.

Then there is a scene in which the starved group is forced to kill one head of cattle to have some food, and the people partaking of that flesh look more like a bunch of cavemen rather than city born and bred individuals:

 

..no laughter or songs or shared bottles of whiskey […] Now it was just the sound of ravenous eating, the smack of lips and teeth tearing flesh off bone.

 

With this particular sentence I was strongly reminded of Tolkien’s description of Gollum, about his “furtive eating and resentful remembering”, and it was a chilly comparison, one that emphasized the regression of these pioneers to a more primeval state, one that was much more horrifying than the shadowy beings haunting the group from the encroaching darkness.  And for this very reason, once the supernatural element in the story is revealed, it looks almost mundane, far less frightening than the mindless savagery consuming the group of settlers.

The Hunger is not an easy book, and certainly not an uplifting read, but despite its bleakness I could not tear myself from it: the author has a way of relaying even the most horrific of details with a blunt clarity that never slips into morbid gratification, and for this reason offers a compelling tale of the heights and pitfalls of the human soul when subjected to intolerable stress.  Like the colonists’ own, this was not an easy journey, but it taught me a great deal about humanity, and I would not have missed it for the world.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: NUMBER THIRTY-NINE SKINK, by Suzanne Palmer

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is the last one of the stories from this anthology that I chose to review:

NUMBER THIRTY-NINE SKINK

If you are a fan of Martha Wells’ MurderBot and of sweet Wall-E like I am, you will enjoy this story very much: it’s a bittersweet tale of a mechanical construct that was part of an expedition on an alien planet, seeding it (through a process that somehow made me think of laser printing) with appropriate life to establish a suitable eco system for human settlers.

Something must have gone wrong, though, and Kadey (the nickname for KED-5) recollects how its crew suddenly abandoned it, with the exception of mechanic Mike who remained on planet until illness took him away: puzzled for the desertion, and still feeling the loss of Mike, Kadey still goes on with its work, introducing newly-minted fauna into this this world during the day, and going into energy-conservation mode at night – see where I derived my resemblance with Wall-E?   And like the little garbage collecting unit from the animated movie, Kadey does feel the loneliness, in its own way, especially now that there is no Mike to share thoughts with and to make sense of the details that escape a too-logical mind.  At some point it needs to be awake at night to check on some strange happenings, and it’s on this occasion that it notices the stars in the alien world’s sky, and decides to give the constellations a designation “I name one group The Wrench, and another Coffee Mug. Mike would have approved; I rarely saw him without one or the other in hand.”  If that is not enough to make you root for Kadey, I have no idea what would…

But the unnamed planet is not as bereft of life as the expedition crew believed, and curiosity sends Kadey on a journey of discovery that will give it more answers than it’s able to process, and also offer a few unexpected, incredible revelations.

I loved this little story quite a bit, and I hope to see Suzanne Palmer’s name again, maybe on a longer work: something tells me it will be a very enjoyable experience.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE TYRANT’S LAW (The Dagger and the Coin #3), by Daniel Abraham

 

Once again I managed to let a long time elapse between this book and its predecessor, but once I returned to this world I discovered that my memory of it was as fresh and sharp as if I had finished Book 2 just yesterday, and this can show you the measure of Daniel Abraham’s skill as a storyteller and the impact of his characters on a reader’s imagination.

When considering epic fantasy it’s easy to think about grand, sweeping stories that encompass vast expanses of territory and a huge cast of characters, and while Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin series does take place in such a background, it manages to advance the plot through a limited number of P.O.V. characters, namely four, and to switch seamlessly between them keeping a constant rhythm that helps you fly through the novel and find yourself at the end of the book wanting for more.  Granted, The Tyrant’s Law is in the unenviable position of being the middle book in a series of five, and there are moments when it seems to lag a little, but it’s just an impression, and an incorrect one, since in the end I saw what the author was doing here, which is build some momentum that will certainly propel the final two books toward their intended goal.

The world in which this story grows has never been a peaceful one: legends speak of bloody conflicts in the past – an era in which dragons ruled, the only sign of their existence in present times represented by the jade-paved roads that connect the cities – and the co-existence among the thirteen races who roam through the lands is not an easy one; moreover, in the first book readers witnessed the wanton destruction of a flourishing city and the slaughter of its inhabitants.  Now, however, those conflicts seem to have been rekindled with a vengeance, and the unrest that fueled a civil war in the imperial city of Camnipol is spreading throughout the world, taking on the ugly new face of a bid for power masked under a cultural, religious and racial battle for supremacy through conquest and submission.

The new, rising power is represented by the spider goddess’ priests and their goal to subjugate everyone under the goddess’ banner: after securing themselves a position of supremacy by backing the former nobody Geder Palliako, they proceed to focus their conquering drive by finding a convenient scapegoat in the form of one of the thirteen races, the Timzinae, and conducting a genocidal campaign of hate and distrust that justifies any action they take.  It’s nothing new either in the imagined or in the real world, and this awareness keeps imbuing the story with chilling overtones that feel even more terrifying for their historical familiarity.

Two of the main characters, Captain Marcus Wester and Master Kit (former priest now turned apostate and hiding as an actor troupe leader) try to find a weapon against the encroaching power of the goddess and her priesthood, and embark on a long, dangerous journey in search of a powerful artifact that might destroy the goddess herself.  I already remarked, in my review of the previous book, how diminished Marcus Wester looked once he stepped away from his role as a military leader, and here he still has not regained that former strength that had made him stand out as a character at the beginning of the narrative arc. Even through the hardships he and Kit have to face, and despite the great resilience he shows in the course of their quest, I found it difficult to really feel interested in Marcus’ journey, and I have to admit that I found his P.O.V. chapters the less engaging of the book, at least in comparison with what happens to the other characters.   The last segment where he appears, though, holds the promise of a big change, and I look forward to seeing what will happen with the amazing discovery he and Master Kit are faced with at the end of the novel.

Despite being confined somewhat in the sidelines here, Cithrin enjoys a much more interesting character arc: after demonstrating to her employers, the Medean bank, that she is an able businesswoman, she is officially apprenticed to an important branch in Timzinae territory, and finds herself a little lost, and disappointed.  The harsh experiences that tempered her in the fateful escape from Vanai led her to believe she could do anything, and made her not a little self-centered: here she must deal with the knowledge that she still has a great deal to learn, especially where the real value of money is concerned.  When Geder’s army takes control of the city and starts its cruel oppression of the Timzinae, she realizes what the true power of money is, and it’s the kind of revelation that is bound to change her outlook and thought processes in a major way – this becomes clear in a fateful choice she makes that will certainly have major repercussions along the way, and I can’t wait to see which will be the direction that Daniel Abraham has chosen for this girl who is finally starting to perceive the realities beyond the bank’s ledgers.

As for Geder… well, he is a wonderful character in the sense that he’s complex and unpredictable at the same time, but he’s also a horrible one. While reviewing the two previous books I already commented on his decisions to mete unthinking destruction with the same lack of empathy one might reserve for insects, but it’s the changes through which he is going that prove to be the most appalling. The man who started out as a bumbling, book-loving nerd, finds himself suddenly gifted with great power, flattered and bowed to by the same people who used to despise and ridicule him, and while he does not gloat about his change of fortunes, there is a deep well of unexpressed resentment in him, of desire for retribution, that drives his actions in the most nasty and shocking of directions.  The person who best describes him is indeed Cithrin, with whom he fell in love as they hid in a basement during the worst of the civil unrest in Camnipol:

“Geder’s not a cunning man,” Cithrin said. “He’s… he’s just a man of too little wisdom and too much power.”

“He is a terrible person, you know. But he’s also not. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who managed to make himself so alone.”

And it’s Geder’s infatuation for Cithrin which might be the proverbial straw that will snap his last, feeble ties with reason and humanity and send him further down the road to hell.  Whether I will still pity him in the future, as I did in the past… only time will tell.

I’ve saved discussing my favorite character for last, because her chapters were the ones I most looked forward to, and her arc the most intriguing and fascinating of the whole saga: Clara Kalliam, former lady of substance in the community of Camnipol, is now the widow of a traitor and has fallen down to the bottom of social standing, but being the dragon lady she is, she might be powerless but she is not broken. I totally loved how she maintains appearances and keeps working her contacts, a true spider weaving a complex web geared toward the fulfillment of her plan – because she has one, and it’s both ambitious and far-reaching.  Where other women might have fallen prey to despair and given up the fight, she understands that her reduced standing has given her a freedom of movement that she did not possess when she had to conform to society’s strict rules:

Her actions and opinions were impotent, and so they could be anything. She was already fallen, and so she’d been freed.

What Clara has set in motion will certainly change the fate of many, and I am beyond eager to see where her machinations will take the rest of the story: the simple fact that the next book’s title is The Widow’s House sounds very, very promising…

As a middle book in the narrative arc, The Tyrant’s Law might deceptively look like a transition novel, but in the end it proved to be the beginning of a huge game change, one that will keep me reading on with keen interest.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: DEATH ON MARS, by Madeline Ashby

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

DEATH ON MARS

I don’t know exactly what I expected from this story given its highly dramatic title, maybe a tale of something going horribly wrong, or one of a desperate struggle for survival against unforgiving odds – but in the end it caught my eye because of the word ‘Mars’: the red planet has returned with a (welcome) vengeance in speculative fiction these days, probably because the first manned mission seems to be looming closer and our curiosity and expectations for what we will find have reached new heights.

And yet, Death on Mars managed to surprise me because it was not even close to what I had imagined – it was better than I anticipated and it also was a deeply emotional journey, one that moved me beyond words.

A group of women has been sent on a station orbiting Mars to study in depth the planet and prepare the ground for the first ground mission and settlement: they have been chosen because of their greater adaptability to enclosed spaces and the ability to sustain the great and small annoyances of a long-term assignment. And also for their lesser body mass and reduced caloric needs, as one of them remarks with sarcastic clarity.   Over time they have developed a close relationship, almost a family bond, and as the story starts they are waiting for the arrival of a technician who will help solve a problem with the sampling drills downplanet: the group wonders if this new addition – a young man – will upset the balance they have managed to build over time, and in fact Cody’s appearance does bring a huge disturbance, not so much because of his presence, or his personality, but rather because of something he carries with him from Earth, something he brought for one of them…

The dramatic revelation this engenders seems to upset the balance that the group reached with dedication and effort, and for a while the atmosphere aboard the station feels quite tense, until a technical problem offers what looks like the perfect – if heart-wrenching – solution.  The last part of the story affected me deeply, and made me wonder if Madeline Ashby’s longer works will hit me in the same powerful way: I guess there is only one way to discover it…

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE GUTTER PRAYER (The Black Iron Legacy #1), by Gareth Hanrahan

 

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

In the past few days, The Gutter Prayer has been reviewed all over the place, so let’s join the fun…

This is the kind of book that requires extreme flexibility of mind from its readers, because it throws them into the thick of things from page one, and from there it keeps a constant, swift pace for most of its length, leaving them almost no time to metabolize the events or to consider them in depth – which in a way encapsulates both the pros and cons of this story.  If that breakneck speed works well for the progress of the story itself, which is built upon a series of twists and turns, discoveries and betrayals, it goes to the detriment of character development, because in the end it seems we never get to know those people well, or at least that was the impression I received.

The city of Guerdon is something of a safe port in a sea of turmoil, while the rest of the world is in the throes of the God War, a conflict in which divine entities battle for supremacy, generating hordes of refugees fleeing from mayhem and destruction. Guerdon avoided this fate some time before by taming its deities and turning them into the Kept Gods, beings whose powers are greatly diminished and only wielded through “saints”, ordinary people imbued with special faculties who act on the gods’ behalf.  This does not mean, however, that the city is a quiet place: the secular powers running Guerdon keep contending with each other for dominance, and it soon becomes clear that someone has been working in secret to tap the buried energies of the old gods to achieve that goal. In this scenario, the three main characters find themselves swept away by events that seem bigger than they are and that will test their powers for endurance and growth.

Carillon Thay, or Cari, is the only survivor of a once-influential family whose members where slaughtered when she was a small child. Trusted into the care of relatives, she ran away but was forced to return to Guerdon – penniless and desperate – and try to eke out a living among the thieves of the less-savory quarters of the city.  We meet her in the middle of a heist she’s working on with her friends Spar and Rat, and from that moment on she falls prey to terrifying visions that hint at something dark and dreadful at work.   Spar is the son of the former head of the Thieves’ guild, or Brotherhood, and he lives in the shadow of his famous father who died in prison without revealing the Brotherhood’s secrets despite beatings and torture: Spar wants nothing more than to follow in his father’s footsteps, but his dreams are crushed when he contracts the Stone Plague, an illness that turns its victims into pieces of rock.  And finally there’s Rat, a ghoul who tries desperately not to succumb too soon to his people’s inescapable drive for dead flesh and underground dwellings, staying near the surface as long as he can. The friendship between these three people, the bond they forge in spite of their differences, is indeed the brightest light in the grim scenario of The Gutter Prayer, and something that manages to withstand the worst kinds of test.

As the story progresses, we are taken through various parts of the city and learn of its structure and history, of its day-to-day workings and its horrors, especially the horrors: the Alchemists’ guild is one of the strongest powers in Guerdon, and among their creations are the Tallowmen, unfortunate people – mostly criminals and low-lives – who have been rendered into waxy shapes animated by a lit wick in the head; or the Gullheads, whose mere sight can inspire deep terror in the onlookers. But there are even worse players at large, like the Ravellers – nightmarish creatures who consume their victims and are able to take on their appearance so as to ensnare other targets; or the Crawling Ones, masses of worms that can mimic the human shape of the people whose soul they have eaten.

With such horrors as background and the revelation of the dirty political maneuverings that are the heart and blood of the city, Guerdon takes its rightful place among the flesh-and-blood characters and becomes more than a simple theater for events; more than once I was reminded of another city where darkness was stronger than light, China Mieville’s New Crobuzon from Perdido Street Station, but with an important difference: where the depiction of New Crobuzon stressed the element of decay almost to the point of basking in it – one of the reasons I did not enjoy that novel – here the negative aspects play as counterpoint to the story’s saving graces, and in particular to the themes of friendship and loyalty that are embodied in Cari, Spar and Rat.  Cari in particular looks like a whimsical creature, one whose fight-or-flight instinct tends toward the latter rather than the former, a person who at first seems superficial and self-centered but who slowly reveals her deep commitment to her friends, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for them. And if Spar’s nobility is clear from the very start, something that together with his stoic acceptance of the illness’ unavoidable progression quickly endeared him to me, Rat comes across as a more complex creature, one whose nature and leanings bring him to live always on the edge.

What we can learn about these characters and the many others that people the story, however, looks more like fleeting glimpses, and the reckless speed of the narrative often denies the possibility of delving deeper into their nature, of knowing them better, which unfortunately leads to an overall effect of detachment that is one of my main contentions with this novel: I need to feel invested in characters – either for good or bad – to really connect with a book, and The Gutter Prayer never fully let me do this, keeping me at arm’s length, so to speak.

There is nothing wrong in a plot-driven story, of course, but it seems… wasteful to build such intriguing characters only to employ them as little more than extras – and here comes my other big problem with this novel: a good number of these people ends up dead, and that in itself would not be so unexpected considering how the story unfolds, but all these deaths seem devoid of any emotional connection since they happen far too quickly and are immediately washed away by the tsunami of other events. Two are the instances where this narrative choice bothered me greatly: in one case it’s an heroic act that allows other people to escape, and it happens off-screen, only a flash in the darkness marking the character’s ultimate sacrifice; in the other the person falls from a great height and is seen no more, and even if there are momentous consequences in the wake of that fall, it’s as if the individual did not matter anymore. In both cases it felt as if the characters were only little motes in the grand scheme of things, and given my sympathy for both of them that was quite hard to accept.

Still, The Gutter Prayer is a solid, very enjoyable novel and as debuts go a reasonably well-crafted one, and I can certainly recommend it to all lovers of the genre.

 

 

My Rating: