Reviews

INTO THE BLACK NOWHERE (Unsub #2), by Meg Gardiner

When, not long ago, I discovered Meg Gardiner as a crime/thriller writer, I vowed to read more of her works soon, and for once I was able to fulfill this promise to myself. Into the Black Nowhere is the second novel in the Unsub series, and once again it deals with the hunt for a serial killer – in this case, as I’ve since learned, one tailored on the heinous deeds of Ted Bundy.

Caitlin Hendrix, the protagonist of the search for the so-called Prophet, the serial murderer whose actions were portrayed in Unsub, is now working as the latest addition to the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit: at the start of the book the team is sent to Texas where a series of disturbing killings is plaguing the small town of Solace.  On Saturday nights women are disappearing literally into thin air, with practically no sign of a struggle, and when their bodies are found they are all dressed in nightgowns, fully made up and surrounded by Polaroid pictures of other victims – many, many more than the accounted-for recent disappearances.

When similar victims are targeted outside of town, it becomes clear that the FBI is dealing not only with a very clever perpetrator, but also one who is fully prepared to play a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with his pursuers, certain that he will prove smarter than them, and untouchable.  Thanks to some unexpected information provided by a woman who may have crossed paths with the killer in the past, and has been living in abject fear since then, the team sets their sights on an individual who seems to enjoy taunting them, and it will take all of Caitlin’s physical and mental stamina to gain the upper hand and stop the escalating killing spree.

Law enforcement procedures are front and center here, even more than they were in Unsub, which makes for an enthralling read – and one where the “gore factor” is kept to a minimum, focusing instead on the methods employed to build the different clues into as clear a picture as possible: what I liked most is the fact that we, as readers, are privy to the same level of information as the police forces, so that it feels as we are right in the center of the action and not observing it from an all-knowing, vantage position, which makes for a more intriguing story and one that moves with a breathless, relentless pace.  Even though at some point the identity of the killer ceases to be a mystery, the story never loses its momentum, turning from a fierce hunt for a nameless, faceless man, into a battle of wills and wits between opposing forces – a battle whose outcome is not certain until the very end, which offers many exciting action sequences and a constant adrenaline flow.

Character-wise, it was interesting meeting Caitlin again and seeing how her past experiences – those of her troubled youth and the more recent ones in the hunt for the Prophet – have left their mark on her and are coloring her present attitude: where in the first book she was out to prove that she could be an effective police officer despite her family’s heavy past, here she is the “rookie”, and needs to demonstrate that her previous success was not a fluke and that she could rightly belong in the FBI’s elite team.  Still, she is a flawed individual, one who is deeply scarred both physically and emotionally, and this factor is the one that lends her the human quality that many so-called kickass heroines lack: deep-seated insecurities play a pivotal role in her psychological makeup, but at the same time they prove (in this particular context) to be an asset of sorts when she decides to confront the killer on his hunting ground – an asset but also a danger, because her adversary is a cunning individual, ready to perceive and exploit any sign of weakness in his potential victims.  

These confrontations offer several moments of hair-raising uncertainty because there is no assurance that the outcome will be the hoped-for one.  Which brings me to the window opened by the author on the mind of the serial killer, whose trains of thought and motivations are showcased with no recourse to morbid detail or – worse – mustache-twirling inner musings: you see a man determined to pursue his murderous instincts but at the same time able to project a suave, non-threatening exterior that becomes even more terrifying when compared to the evil lurking beneath, and made me wonder more than once how many of these monsters are hiding under the façade of normalcy we see every day. It’s a chilling thought indeed…

Back to the characters, there is one who deserves a special mention: special agent Rainey is one of the senior officers in Caitlin’s team, and I very much enjoyed her no-nonsense attitude first, and then the fact that she acts as a form of distant mentor for Caitlin, guiding her with a delightful dry humor through the obstacles and pitfalls of her new profession. Rainey is both an experienced agent and a mother, combining her professional and personal lives into a seamless, apparently effortless whole: it’s the kind of depiction that can only reinforce a concept that fiction still has some troubles dealing with.

This second, riveting book from an author I only recently discovered can only persuade me to explore more of Meg Gardiner’s works (and I saw there is a good number of them): as samples of her writing skills both Unsub and Into the Black Nowhere are very encouraging for my future explorations of her novels, of which the third volume in this series will certainly be the next one – and soon.

My Rating:

Reviews

INTERGALACTIC BOOK TAG

Time for another of my beloved tags, taken from THIS very useful list: this one probably intended to use the space inspiration only as an inspirational guideline, but since SciFi Month is quickly approaching and I want to remind everyone that it’s one of the most intriguing events in the blogosphere, I will focus my answers on SF books only. Take it as an “appetizer” for the great SF “meal” that will start on November 1st.

SPACE: NAME A BOOK THAT IS OUT OF THIS WORLD – THAT TAKES PLACE IN A WORLD DIFFERENT FROM OUR OWN.

That’s an easy one for a dedicated SF reader, since a great number of stories takes place away from Earth, but if I had to choose one particular extra-terrestrial world I would pick Donovan, one of the most dangerous, scary and awe-inspiring places I ever read about.

BLACK HOLE: NAME A BOOK THAT COMPLETELY SUCKED YOU IN.

Again, there is a long list of books that fulfill this requirement, and among them there is certainly the Red Rising trilogy, one of the most gripping, hair-raising stories I remember reading.

LIGHTSPEED: NAME A BOOK YOU ARE ANTICIPATING SO MUCH THAT YOU WISH YOU COULD TRAVEL AT LIGHTSPEED TO GET TO IT.

No need to think it over on this one: the final installment in The Expanse, my favorite space opera series. Leviathan Falls will come out next month, but it seems far too long a wait all the same…

NEBULA: NAME A BOOK WITH A BEAUTIFUL COVER.

Too many of these to be able to pick only one, but I have to say that among those that stand out there is The Doors of Eden, a multi-layered adventure from the very prolific mind of Adrian Tchaikovski.

GRAVITY: NAME YOUR FAVORITE ROMANTIC PAIRING THAT SEEMS TO HAVE GRAVITATIONAL PULL TO EACH OTHER.

*OUCH* this is a difficult one, since I’m somewhat allergic to romance in my reading, but if I have to mention a couple I enjoy reading about it could be Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan, created by Lois McMaster’s Bujold: their story is devoid of the usual trappings of romantic involvement and for that reason it feels real and believable. And to top it all, they are the parents of the incomparable Miles!

THE BIG BANG: NAME THE BOOK THAT GOT YOU STARTED ON READING.

Oh my! That’s an impossible question: from what I’ve been told, I’ve always had my nose in a book as soon as I learned reading, so I have no idea where I started. But it must have been a good one, since I never stopped 😀

ASTEROID: NAME A SHORT STORY OR NOVELLA THAT YOU LOVE.

Any one from the Murderbot Diaries. To know Murderbot is to fall in love with this series-loving, grumpy sec-unit learning what it means to be a person.

GALAXY: NAME A BOOK WITH MULTIPLE POVS.

One of the best series I recently read dividing its focus on various characters (one of them a delightful sentient spaceship) is Gareth Powell’s Embers of War: if you have not read it yet, I can highly recommend it 🙂

SPACESHIP: NAME A BOOK TITLE THAT WOULD BE A GREAT NAME FOR A SPACESHIP.

Megan O’Keefe’s The First Omega: it sounds both intriguing and ominous and it somehow reminds me of the spaceship names found in Iain Banks’ Culture novels…

And now it’s your turn: sounds like a good way to summon the right mood for SciFi Month, doesn’t it? 😉

Reviews

THE BLACKTONGUE THIEF (Blacktongue #1), by Christopher Buehlman

When an author I’ve previously read decides to write in a different genre I’m always more than curious, and this foray into fantasy from horror author Christopher Buehlman was no exception: a few fellow bloggers who read The Blacktongue Thief before me mentioned the appealing mix between humor and grimness, which led me to think the book’s overall tone would be in the same range as Joe Abercrombie’s, but once I started the novel I found something quite different, while equally enjoyable. If you’ve read Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld, you will know what I mean when I describe Buehlman’s approach to narrative as a fine balance between adventure, bleakness and humor, a mix fueled by the main character’s unique voice and his happy-go-lucky, irreverent attitude that endeared him to me from the very start and turned him into an entertaining, delightful protagonist who hogs the limelight with no effort at all.

Kinch Na Shannack is a member of the Takers Guild, which means he’s a thief, but sadly for him a very indebted one: the tuition fees he owes to the Guild have not been paid in full, and until he does – devolving his hard-earned profits to them – he must go around with a tattoo on his cheek that makes him the object of sonorous slaps in every tavern: those who hit him can get a free drink, courtesy of the Guild.  Hard-pressed to pay back his… ahem… student loan, Kinch falls in with a group of highwaymen, and the first victim they pick is quite the wrong one: Galva is a skilled warrior and she dispatches the would-be thieves without breaking a sweat.  Tasked by the Guild to attach himself to Galva, who is on a mission of rescue, Kinch strikes a bargain with her and the two embark on a journey through a land infested by giants, goblins and assorted monsters, gathering a young witch and a former countryman of Kinch along the way. Oh, and let’s not forget Galva’s quite impressive war corvid and the adorable Bully, blind cat with some surprises under his whiskers! 😀

Kinch is a thief indeed, not only because that’s his chosen profession, but because he literally steals the scene from the get go, relaying his adventures – and those of his companions – with a flippant, often profane delivery that nonetheless manages to convey a great deal of information about his world. And what a world this is, indeed… One that is barely recovering from a number of wars with flesh-eating goblins, and is now facing the very real possibility of an invasion by giants; a world where magic is present in many forms and can be learned and used though careful training – Kinch himself has acquired and can use a trick or two. And then there is the Takers’ Guild: not the only guild on the territory, but certainly the most powerful, and clearly willing to amass even more influence through ruthless political maneuvering and a spy system that would be the envy of many such entities in our very real world.

The quest involving Kinch and Galva, together with young witch Norrigal and the thief’s old pal Malk should be a noble one, at least in the intention of Galva the knight, who is on a mission to rescue her queen, but thanks to the uneven mix of the group it turns into a riotous adventure punctuated by weird meetings, bizarre happenings and a few truly scary encounters that pay due homage to the author’s roots in the horror genre. And here is one of the true achievements of the story, Buehlman’s ability to seamlessly blend Kinch’s devil-may-care delivery of the journey with a few moments of blood-chilling dread: it takes great skill to depict a scene in which sea-faring goblins are butchering a human captive for their meal and turn it into a song-driven affirmation of courage and life; or to showcase what looks like a game of tug-of-war and suddenly turn it into a deadly affair resulting in a very unexpected loss – if you’ve read the book and know what I’m referring to, I can tell you that I’m still reeling at the way that scene ended.

The whole story revolves around Kinch Na Shannack, of course, partly because he’s the – sometimes unreliable – narrator of it, but mostly because it’s a sort of coming of age journey: the thief is a grown man, as far as age is concerned, but he’s still trying to learn who he is, what he wants (apart from repaying his debt to the Guild, that is…) and where his loyalties lie. He might depict himself as a foul-mouthed, unscrupulous individual:

If honor decided to attend our adventures, I only hoped I’d recognize her; she’d been pointed out to me a few times, but we’d never really gotten acquainted.

or offer his more juvenile, irritating behavior in many situations:

The lead dog […] huffed two low barks. I barked back at him. I don’t know what I said, but it might have involved his mother, because he began to growl.

but under these masks he wears he’s basically a good person, and Kinch shows that when trouble and danger come knocking at the party’s door and his actions belie his outward flippant attitude.  He is… well, a heroic anti-hero, for want of a better definition, and that’s one of the reasons he captures the readers’ attention and keeps it firmly focused – and in so doing decrees the success of this story.

Perversely enough, this intense focus on Kinch – no matter how rewarding in the overall economy of the story – is the reason the other characters suffer a little and don’t get the space they deserve: they are well fleshed-out, granted, and offer the perfect foil to our reckless protagonist, but still they are somewhat relegated to the sidelines, and that bothered me a little because I would have loved to learn more about silently heroic Galva or impishly delightful Norrigal, but still I quite enjoyed this novel – particularly when the breathless finale kept me on the edge of my seat – and I more than look forward to seeing what Christopher Buehlman has in store for his brazen thief, and for us readers.

My Rating:

Reviews

GIVEN TO DARKNESS (The Ikiri Duology #2), by Phil Williams

The previous book in this duology introduced me to a new set of troubles afflicting this version of our world, in which the weird and supernatural coexist with everyday life, as introduced in Phil Williams’ Sunken City trilogy based in the fictional city of Ordshaw. 

Where the weirdness surfacing in Ordshaw remained more or less confined to the city itself, and more precisely to its subterranean levels, in the Ikiri Duology upheavals manifest in a very public and quite bloody way, requiring the shady Ministry for Environmental Energy to stretch its resources to find plausible explanations for the sudden, tragic bouts of violence erupting worldwide, and to keep the consequences under wraps as much as possible.

In Kept from Cages we met MEE agent Sean Tasker trying to deal with the situation and finding an unexpected – and weird – ally in Katryzna, a young woman with a violently unpredictable attitude. On the other side of the world, a band of criminally-inclined musicians met with a strange child, Zip, who soon proved to be the key to the strange events plaguing the world. Once the two groups met, the story truly launched into its inexorable path…

The unlikely allies are now faced with the need to go to the source of the disturbance, a place deep in Congo’s forest called Ikiri, from which the spreading corruption seems to originate and where dark mysteries need to be solved, both for the sake of the world at large and for young Zip’s safety in particular, since too many people seem intent on killing her.

With the scene being set in book 1, and the characters introduced, Given to Darkness can finally embark, unfettered, into the adventure proper: not that Kept from Cages was a restful story, of course, but here the author could finally indulge into the breathless journey he must have envisioned from the start, while also enjoying the space to let his characters grow and take on new facets while they deal with the unending string of dangers and threats peppering their path. 

For instance I liked very much the way outlaw musicians Reece and Leigh-Ann become even more protective of young Zip, whose emotional growth is driven forward by circumstances that are far too complex and harrowing to be heaped on the shoulders of a child: the way they almost become substitute parents, and the comparison with Zip’s real father – a heartlessly manipulative individual who is quite easy to hate – makes the goodness of their hearts shine even brighter. 

Agent Tasker turns out to be a decidedly more human face for the Ministry, whose ways – as often seen in the Sunken City trilogy – can be quite callous, and I have to admit he grew up on me, while in the first book I was not too sanguine about him.

Still, the character that truly shone for me in this novel is that of Katryzna, mostly because we are finally allowed a deeper glance into her personality beyond the external armor of cold-blooded violence she likes to wear: getting to know her better, and learning about the person behind the mask of the brutal killer was a very intriguing – and at times emotional – journey which left me with a very different outlook on this ruthlessly determined figure.

What can you expect from this book – and from the whole duology as well? Certainly a great deal of non-stop action sprinkled with humor, even though the darkness in the title is a definite, and often suffocating, presence. If you are looking for adventure, mystery and a good measure of fantasy elements, you need look no further than this book and its predecessor.

Given to Darkness will be available from October 19th, which is exactly a week from today: the conclusion to this engaging series is indeed just around the corner, so… happy reading!

My Rating:

Reviews

THE POET (Jack McEvoy #1), by Michael Connelly

Since my riveting binge of the TV show Bosch during last year’s lockdown, I’ve started reading Michael Connelly’s books focused on his most successful character and reached volume nr. 6 so far, but I’ve become aware that this very prolific author has written a good number of other standalone novels or series, so I decided to expand my search in a wider circle: once I found out that The Poet, first book in the Jack McEvoy series, is also connected to one of the next books for Harry Bosch, I decided to try it – learning that the story was about the search for a serial killer was also a strong motivator.

Jack McEvoy is a journalist specialized in the analysis of violent crimes: when his twin brother Sean, a detective with the Denver PD, takes his own life, Jack is shocked but led to think, along everyone else, that Sean was depressed because of his inability to solve a brutal murder he was working on. Searching for details on the case, Jack finds some evidence that seems to indicate Sean’s death could have been a murder disguised as a suicide, and so he starts a search that points toward a serial killer whose actions have eluded the attention of the police and also of the FBI, that is now called into action to uncover the truth under a so-far ignored chain of police officers’ “suicides”. With the help of FBI agent Rachel Walling, Jack joins the pursuit of the killer nicknamed “The Poet” from the Edgar Allan Poe quotes found on the murder scenes: the journalist is driven by the need to discover the truth about what happened to Sean, of course, but there is also the possibility of a huge scoop on the horizon, because discovery and capture of the Poet will gain nationwide attention…

The Poet starts in a quiet, almost sedate way, but once the narrative gears are set in motion the story takes on the speed of an avalanche, inexorably advancing toward the final showdown (which works also as a “to be continued” because not everything is resolved here): I have by now become familiar with Connelly’s narrative style and his successful way of taking the readers through wrong turns and blind alleys, or to trick them with some misleading clues, but here he literally does it with a vengeance, delivering a compulsive read that I found difficult to put down. One of the winning elements in this novel is the change in POV, which alternates between Jack McEvoy (presented in third person) and William Gladden, the killer (presented in first person): where Jack’s segments prove quite intriguing, because the cat-and-mouse game between law enforcement and its prey is based on the collection of clues and a desperate battle against time, Gladden’s sections take us into the mind of this man who is not only a cold-blooded murderer, but also a very organized pedophile, which adds an element of horror to the whole story – not the horror of supernatural monsters, which we can easily dismiss because we subconsciously know they don’t exist, but the horror of a very real, dangerous and disturbed mind.

Considering the subject matter and the kind of emotional triggers it involves, I admired the author’s very light hand in dealing with it and in focusing more on the psychological aspects of the issue rather than on its more shocking ones, while refraining from any kind of moral judgment. On one hand we learn that Gladden was the victim of abuse in his childhood, but on the other we cannot forget that he’s become in turn the monster whose victims have suffered the same kind of abuse before being murdered: both facts are presented as starkly and unemotionally as possible, leaving any form of further consideration to the readers themselves, which is a choice I always appreciate.

Strangely enough, while I literally devoured the novel, I could never feel any kind of attachment to the main character: with any other story this might have proved counterproductive, but in this case the excitement of the chase ended up offering the kind of balance I needed to counteract my displeasure with McEvoy. What I did not like in him is the kind of duality at the roots of his character: of course he wants to know the truth of what happened to his brother, of course he wants justice for him and all the other victims, but underneath it all there is always the need to turn it into the next Great Story, to win the fame and acclaim he craves, even if he does not consciously admit it.  Connelly’s characters are more often than not flawed, which makes them human and relatable, but I found Jack’s flaws irritating, and his desire to glean the hard facts for the sake of a Pulitzer-worthy series of articles feels… sinful, for want of a better word, because the victim who started the whole search was his brother, and from where I stand gaining fame and recognition from the death of a loved one feels like an empty accomplishment, if not a vile one. 

FBI agent Rachel Walling is, on the other hand, an intriguing character who I believe deserved more narrative space, so I hope that her return in the Harry Bosch novel linked to this one will offer further insights into her personality. What we see here is an individual who is both driven and ambitious, but holds some darkness from the past, and I look forward to learning more about her.  Her romantic relationship with McEvoy in The Poet never convinced me fully, partly because of my expressed prejudice against him, and partly because it seemed to evolve too quickly, just as it ended equally quickly, and since there is no POV from Rachel it’s impossible to get into her mind and see what makes her tick.

If, toward the end, the novel falters a little as it falls into the time-honored device of having the bad guy offer a long, drawn-out explanation to McEvoy before trying to kill him, it picks up by leaving the door open for the further exploits of the Poet, to which I certainly look forward. Given my lack of empathy with the main character, I doubt I will read other books in the Jack McEvoy series, but on the other hand The Poet confirmed that Michael Connelly is the first of my go-to authors when I am in the mood for a good thriller or a crime novel.  And there’s still a lot of ground of explore there…

My Rating:

Reviews

DUNE 2021 – Part One: movie review

When asked by a friend to summarize with just one word my reactions to the newest Dune screen incarnation, I replied “Finally!”, because that’s how I felt once the movie was over: finally, Frank Herbert’s work has been translated on the big screen with as much accuracy in respect of the original material as the change in mediums allows.

It’s not perfect, granted, mostly because we were prevented from appreciating the whole story due to a deplorable lack of faith from the industry which led to the filming of just one half of the story before committing to the project in its entirety, but I appreciated and enjoyed Denis Villeneuve’s vision in a way I was unable to with the previous attempts.

And before launching into the review proper, I feel the need to address the proverbial elephant in the room, i.e. the comparison with the 1984 movie directed by David Lynch (I prefer to forget the existence of the 2000 TV mini-series for a number of reasons I will not list here).  I rewatched Lynch’s Dune a couple of weeks before the new movie’s theatrical release, and while I still maintain that it is visually amazing, I could see more clearly its shortcomings, which have less to do with the changes in viewers’ tastes and styles of cinematography than with the director’s “imprint”.

The 1984 movie feels excessively burdened by the huge amount of inner musings employed to convey Herbert’s complex world-building,  and it suffers from unequal pacing since it follows more or less faithfully the original material in its first half, only to rush far too quickly in the second. Moreover, some of the acting – particularly where the Harkonnens are concerned – is way over the top, as if screenwriter and director feared that the audience would be unable to understand they were the “bad guys”: the choice to have them constantly laugh maniacally and to add a good portion of blood and gore to their scenes had the effect – at least from my point of view – of turning them into caricatures rather than figures to be feared. I’m not completely onboard with the way the character of Paul Atreides was written and performed, as well, but I don’t want to indulge in a prolonged nitpicking session…

As far as visuals go, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune looks more… pared down to essentials, for lack of a better definition: buildings and ships lean toward stark geometric forms, costumes tend more to the utilitarian than the flashy and the overall photography shows a preference for darker, primal shades – the greys, blues and blacks of Caladan and the earth and sand tones of Arrakis.  This choice had the effect, for me, to enhance my concentration on the characters and my immersion in the images and the story which, no matter how familiar I am with it, remains a compelling one: after all, that’s what we look for in works of the imagination – for an absorbing tale, one that can take us away from everyday reality for a while.

Equally pared-down, but still able to convey the necessary information, is the world-building: I tried to put myself in the shoes of a viewer not familiar with Herbert’s work and found that the story is quite understandable even without the huge voiceover info-dumps of its predecessor: I know for a fact that SFF audiences possess the kind of mental agility that allows them to connect the dots without need for external help, and it looks as if Villeneuve relies on this very assumption as he presents this future background without offering footnotes, or just hinting at them in a few brief snippets of dialogue.

And last but not least, I appreciated how the character of Paul Atreides was portrayed: not the carefree young man who finds himself invested with the promise of godhood and in the end totally embraces it, but rather a teenager quite unsure of his role in life who discovers he’s been maneuvered toward a path not of his own choosing, which in the end will cause first a profound breach with the mother who shaped him so and then will leave him somewhat distrustful of the future role he’s called to play.  This is the way I always envisioned Paul in the book, and I hope that Part 2 of the movie – if it will be filmed – will focus more on this aspect of his personality rather than on the “hero’s journey” side of his narrative arc, which to me is far less relevant than the existential turmoil that’s part of his psychological makeup.

It’s difficult to review what is essentially half a story, and I have to admit that at the end of the 2 and a half hours of screen time I felt the incompleteness of it all – even though the movie ends in such a way as to organically support the infamous “to be continued” – but rather than be disappointed for the lack of closure, I prefer to remain optimistic that the public will acknowledge the validity of this first installment and reward it with the success necessary to allow its completion.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE WISDOM OF CROWDS (The Age of Madness #3), by Joe Abercrombie

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

Lord Grimdark did it again: with The Age of Madness he gave us a new, immersive trilogy set in the world of the First Law, and while he kept us all glued to the story with the two previous installment, he literally ended this narrative cycle with much, much more than a proverbial “bang” (or rather, a whole lot of them…).

The widespread turmoil on which the first two books in this series were focused, reaches here its bloody peak: previously, in Adua King Orso’s popularity was at its all-time low and the conspiracy mounted against him – led by his former friend and ally Leo dan Brock, together with Leo’s wife Savine dan Glokta – failed only thanks to a timely warning.  What should have been the rebels’ decisive battle ended with Orso as the winner, Leo losing the gamble and some body parts, and he and a heavily pregnant Savine as prisoners in the city they hoped to rule.  In the North, Rikke was sitting on her father’s chair, but still faced the encroaching armies of Black Calder and his brutal son Stour Nightfall, while trying to consolidate her power, forge new alliances and avoid constant betrayals.

As the final book opens, Orso has little time to enjoy his victory: after decades of bad, myopic management from the ruling council, the city of Adua is now a powder keg ready to explode, and explode it does in the throes of the Great Change – think of it as a bloodier, far scarier version of the French Revolution, complete with its own reign of Terror and mass executions carried out through worse means than the guillotine. Angry mobs sweep the city, destroying everything in their path, killing indiscriminately and taking the king prisoner, while Leo and Savine find themselves hailed as heroes.  And in the North, Rikke seems on the verge of losing it all, as her allies dwindle and Black Calder keeps amassing a force capable of sweeping the land and crowning him as its sole ruler…

The above gives just the bare bones of the complex interweaving of narrative threads and character journeys that turn this novel into a compulsive – if often horrifying – read: there are many more POVs than the main ones I mentioned, and each one moves the story forward without overshadowing the others, reinforcing instead the perception of a building avalanche that moves inexorably toward its intended destination. Not that it’s easy to see what exactly this destination is, particularly once readers are faced with some massive revelations – like the big one toward the end – and a constant barrage of betrayals and treachery that is guaranteed to have your head spinning wildly.

The Wisdom of Crowds is mainly a study of the effects of long-suppressed rage at widespread injustice, and of what happens when exasperation’s fires are fed beyond their conflagration point: the wisdom in the title is used in a darkly sarcastic way, of course, because what we witness in the course of the Great Change is the total obliteration of any civilized rule and a plunge into the kind of collective madness that occurs when the baser animalistic instincts take the place of the oh-so-thin veneer of civilization draped over them.  

As usual, Joe Abercrombie manages to seamlessly blend his peculiar brand of humor into the most appalling situations, managing to elicit a smile – or even a laugh – when least you expect it, while pointing out how far easier it is to destroy what does not work anymore than to find the means to build something better.  We are treated to several scenes in which the new government spends inordinate amounts of time foolishly debating the wording of those changes without actually implementing any, while nearby the madwoman named Judge sends hundreds of people – guilty and innocents alike – to their death.

Such upheavals are of course bound to impart profound changes on the characters we have come to know, and it’s hardly surprising that some of them end up being quite different from the people they were at the beginning of the story.  Savine is certainly a case in point: while she retains some of her former drive for power and self-preservation, her harrowing encounters with danger and death, and her recent motherhood, seem to have awakened her conscience, slightly tempering her ambition and making her more human. It’s not a complete turnover, of course, not given her established personality and the teachings imparted by her father Sand dan Glokta, but it’s a definite improvement over the ruthless socialite bent on profit at any cost that she was at the beginning.

King Orso and Leo dan Brock seem to exchange their respective roles here: the former was a reluctant ruler who preferred drinking and womanizing over learning the rules of kinghood, the latter was the highly praised warrior and hero with a bright destiny in his future. Events transform them profoundly, and where Orso becomes a true king in his captivity, submitting to it with humorous gallantry and ultimately showing a kind of subdued bravery that moved me deeply, Leo turns into an embittered, violence-prone individual more focused on the lost glories of the past than on the needs of the present.

A truly tragic figure is that of Gunnar Broad, the former soldier who keeps promising – to himself and his family – that he’s through with bloody violence: events keep proving him wrong and he finds himself constantly enmeshed in situations that force him to rely on his darker instincts. In a way he reminds me of the Bloody Nine, who strove to be a better man without ever managing to fulfill this vow.

I’ve left my favorite character for last: Rikke. As the daughter of the Dogman, all her life she’s been weighted down by her father’s legend and the need to prove herself, a girl, in the world of these Northern hard warriors – and by the heavy toll of her unpredictable precognitive ability.  Here she comes into her own, successfully managing to balance the ruthless strength necessary to rule (“make your heart a stone”) with the desire to act for the best of her people. You will encounter many surprises along Rikke’s journey, together with the heartwarming relationships with her two closest advisors, the cunningly uncouth hill woman Isern-i-Phail and the grizzled Caul Shivers, who seems to have found some inner balance here, if confronted with the man I came to know in Best Served Cold.

Joe Abercrombie’s novels always prove such an immersive experience that it’s hard to move out of his world and return to reality: my only solace is represented by the standalone First Law books I have still to read and the implied promise of this one that the story is not over, that there are some still-hanging threads that might, one day, turn into other equally engrossing books. Time will tell…

My Rating:

Reviews

SCALES AND SENSIBILITY (Regency Dragons #1), by Stephanie Burgis

I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to her for this opportunity.

While I usually tend to shy away from romance-imbued stories, I’m always happy to make an exception for Stephanie Burgis’ works, because her take on the subject is always permeated with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor, and Scales and Sensibility, the first volume in her new, Regency-inspired saga, passed the test with flying colors.  When a book starts with this kind of sentence:

It was a truth universally acknowledged that any young lady without a dragon was doomed to social failure.

I know I’m in in for a delightful journey – particularly since the mere mention of dragons never fails to pique my curiosity…

Elinor Tregarth is an orphaned “poor relation”: her parents lost all their money at the hands of unscrupulous profiteers, then died in a carriage incident, leaving Elinor and her two younger sisters alone and penniless. The three girls were sent to live with various relatives, and Elinor clearly drew the short straw: her uncle Lord Heathergill is a pompous twit, his wife never utters a word, and Elinor’s cousin Penelope is a spoiled brat whose only interest lies in her society debut and grabbing a worthy husband. Oh, and in showing off her newly-acquired dragon, Sir Jessamyn – unfortunately, her horrid temper and shrill voice only have the effect of terrorizing the poor creature, which often leads to loose-bowels-related noxious effects.

After the umpteenth temper tantrum from Penelope, Elinor cannot keep to her meek demeanor any longer, and after (finally!) speaking her mind to her horrified cousin, she leaves Heathergill Hall, taking Sir Jessamyn with her.  Alone and penniless, and thrown into a ditch by a passing carriage, Elinor discovers that dragons can work a peculiar kind of magic, of which she takes advantage to try and forge a new path for herself – not that it will be an easy feat, what with having to deal with some very convoluted situations and her growing affection for a gentleman whose fortune-hunting intentions might not be as nefarious as they look…

I had a great time with Scales and Sensibility, which turned out to be a fast-paced comedy of manners with a good dose of magic and fantasy elements, carried by entertaining characters in whose depiction one can clearly feel the author’s delight in poking fun at the stereotypes of the Regency era: from the venomous vapidity of Penelope and her close friends to the obtuse snobbery of Lord Heathergill; from the scholarly blindness for social graces of dragon-expert Aubrey (one of my favorite characters) to the sly viciousness of the Armitages, a couple of mysterious highly-placed socialites, without forgetting the formidable Mrs. De Lacey, one of the queens of the London scene, who features prominently in the story – but in a very unexpected way – everyone plays a role in the intricate plot that mixes mistaken identities, strict social rules, nascent love stories and magic in a spellbinding tale that we know will lead to a foregone happy conclusion but that we enjoy following to the end because the cast makes the journey more than worthwhile.

My favorite element? It was the relationship between Elinor and the dragon Sir Jessamyn: it’s much more detailed and even more intriguing than the actual romantic plot, which is extraordinary since the dragon does not talk, except by warbling quite meaningfully and exchanging expressive glances with Elinor.  It’s not just because I’m quite partial toward dragons: Sir Jessamyn is an adorable creature (well, as long as he’s not upset, since that tends to create embarrassing consequences…) and a totally engaging creation.

Every time I have the pleasure of reviewing one of Stephanie Burgis’ works I feel the need to mention their covers, which remains constantly gorgeous throughout her production: the cover for Scales and Sensibility is no exception and works perfectly as a companion for a captivating and charming story whose next installments look already more than promising.

My Rating:

Reviews

SIX OF CROWS (Six of Crows #1), by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows has been languishing on my TBR for quite a long time, and it probably would have remained there to gather more virtual dust if it had not been for the appearance of the Netflix show Shadow and Bone, inspired by another work from this author: once I learned that the most intriguing sections of the show – those dedicated to the street thugs band of the Crows – were drawn from this book, I finally found the drive to pick it up, and now I’m berating myself for having waited that long.

Watching the first season of the show also gave me the necessary background to find myself immediately at home in the story, set in a world vaguely reminiscent of tsarist Russia from the 19th Century, where people gifted with the ability to manipulate elements, the Grisha, are both revered and feared – and in some cases hunted and killed, or exploited for their gifts.  Kaz Brekker is the leader of a band of young gangsters and he’s offered the opportunity for the heist that will make their fortune: he must go deep into the territory of the Fjerdans, whose hatred of Grisha compels them to hunt, prosecute and kill the gifted without mercy, to retrieve a scientist who created a drug capable of enhancing Grisha powers in a way that’s destructive both for the world and for those using such a compound.

The crew Kaz gathers consists of Inej, spy and infiltrator of such incredible skill that she’s been nicknamed “the Wraith”, and who could give any ninja a run for their money; Jesper, the sharpshooter whose expertise with guns unfortunately does not extend to gambling; Nina, a Grisha Heartrender, who can play the human body like a musical instrument; Matthias, once a Fjerdan Grisha-hunter and now unsure of his loyalties; and Wylan, explosive expert and a runaway from his privileged home.  Kaz himself is a hard, ruthless taskmaster whose lack of people skills hides a very traumatic past. 

The six of them are all very young, and that’s why the novel might be labeled as YA – probably one of the reasons I was somewhat wary about reading it – but to my relief, and enjoyment, I discovered that their youth does not make them prone to the overused clichés of the genre, because the harsh lessons life imparted to each one of them forced these people to grow way beyond their years and to acquire the kind of stark maturity that turned them into intriguing and very relatable characters.  Even the brief forays into romantic entanglement did not prove distracting or, worse, annoying, because they were filtered through the characters’ personal experiences and therefore felt quite organic in their development and very true in their expression: even though I usually don’t enjoy romance in my stories, both threads proved to be quite appealing and even emotionally touching.

The story itself is a breath-taking rollercoaster, littered with surprising twists, dramatic setbacks and adrenaline-laden situations that made putting down the book a massive effort every time I was forced to do so, but it also offers many flashbacks on the past history of each character that helped to flesh them out and make me understand what makes them tick: the transitions between present and past are quite smooth and I never felt for one moment jarred out of the main story – on the contrary, the more I learned about each one of the Crows, the more I wanted to know, even though that meant abandoning for a moment the excitement of the heist.  And the six protagonists are indeed the soul of this novel: their personalities and the way they bond – not without difficulties – into a formidable team, turn this story into something quite special, something that goes well beyond the mere enjoyment of a daring adventure.

A gambler, a convict, a wayward son, a lost Grisha, a Suli girl who had become a killer, a boy from the Barrel who had become something worse.

I love this quote because it describes perfectly the essence of each of them, long before we get to know them more intimately in the course of the book.  Kaz at first comes across as heartless and manipulative, but as his past is slowly revealed, with its terrible baggage of tragedy and loss, it’s easy to change one’s mind about him and to see the victim behind the protective screen of the criminal mastermind.  Jesper was my favorite on screen, and I was delighted to see that the mini-series kept faith with the book version of the gambling gunman with a penchant for witticism.  Matthias is an intriguing character because we see him dwelling on the cusp between his past convictions (or should I say ‘indoctrination’?) and the discoveries he’s making in the course of the adventure: there is great potential for him and I’m curious to see how he will evolve in the next book.

Inej and Nina might outwardly look like polar opposites: where Inej is still battling with the demons of a dreadful past of slavery and exploitation, Nina looks sunnier and more carefree, given as she is to reckless, humorous flirting and bald-faced optimism. Still the two of them form a strong bond of friendship, a mutual acknowledgement of sisterhood which goes beyond different extractions and experiences and that is a pure joy to behold. Their interactions represent another huge difference from the usual YA protocols, where they would be expected to be rivals, to bicker and constantly undermine each other, and even to fight for the attentions of the same man.  Thankfully, Inej and Nina recognize each other’s strengths and come to appreciate and support each other, offering one of the many rays of light and playfulness that run through this dark story, counterbalancing the tension and the darkness of the adventure.

Story-wise, what at first looks like a classic heist punctuated by nasty surprises and setbacks, soon turns out to be something deeper, dealing with drug trafficking and shady politics, with the double standard of a moral high ground offset by ruthless exploitation, with thirst for power and the lengths people will go to grab it and keep it.  There are also areas touching on the subject of trauma – both physical and psychological – the way if affects people and the means they employ to overcome it, or merely hide it from the world. There are various levels of approach to this novel, and I appreciated them all individually and in the way they combine to create a gripping story that stayed with me long after I went past the end – and on this subject I have to add that the only positive side of my long wait before reading Six of Crows comes from the fact that it ends in a cliffhanger for which I will not have to suffer until the next books comes out, because it’s already available.

And I need to know what comes next…

My Rating:

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Fall TBR

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:

BOOKS ON MY FALL 2021 TO-READ LIST

We are all painfully aware of how even the best reading plans can be subverted by the appearance of a new, intriguing book or the desire to move forward with a favorite series, or… well, you know the drill 😀

So, even though there is a number of books I’ve ben wanting to read for some time, I know that any kind of promise I make to myself does not stand on very solid ground – but I can at least try.  Today’s list is equally split between Fantasy and Science Fiction, and starting with Fantasy, here are the books I plan (or rather hope…) to read this fall:

Only time will tell, of course….

Science fiction books have a slightly better chance of making it into my TBR, since SciFi November is approaching rapidly and I need to stock up on SF reads to be able to contribute adequately to one of my two favorite blogging events of the year.  Here are my choices:

A couple of these are already loaded on my e-reader, so I am almost certain they will make the list. Other than that, I can only cross my fingers and hope that no other shiny titles will come to distract me from this… ahem… righteous path 😀

What about you? What are your reading plans for this fall?