While searching for the titles of Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy, I discovered that the author had written a number of prequel novellas, and since I’m already backtracking my steps after reading Sins of Empire, the first book in the new series set in the same background, I decided to start from a… more remote past, so to speak.
Forsworn is the first of these novellas and deals with the story of Erika ja Leora, a young noblewoman from Kez, a place where powder mages are hunted down like dangerous animals. Erika is a powder mage herself, but her noble birth saved her from that fate: she has however taken an oath not to use her powers – the Forsworn from the title are indeed people who can wield powder magic but renounce them publicly.
The chance encounter in the woods with a runaway child, Norrine, will change Erika’s life forever: Norrine (a character I encountered as an adult Riflejack mercenary in Sins of Empire) escaped from the prison where she was being held as a powder mage, after being denounced by her own parents in exchange for money, and on meeting her Erika sees what her own fate would have been if her station had not prevented it. Choosing to help young Norrine is an act of dangerous defiance, especially since a Privileged sorcerer is on the runaway’s trail and pursues the prey and anyone ready to help her with dogged determination.
The world being depicted here is a cruel one: of course that’s a given in this genre, but there is something more brutal at play here, especially since it highlights the strife between the more “conventional” magic of the Privileged, and that of the powder mages, with the former clearly fearing the latter’s encroachment of their position of power, especially with the ruling class. And just how ruthless the Privileged can be becomes evident during the long chase through the mountains toward the safety of neighboring Adro, where powder mages can live without fear: Erika will need all her strength and courage to survive and escape with Norrine from the pursuit of Duke Nikslaus and the King’s Longdogs, the aptly named power mage hunters.
As a first introduction in this world, this was a very promising one, and the surprise appearance, at the very end, of a well-known character from the original trilogy was very welcome, almost like a sign I’m going to enjoy losing myself in this series.
Given that Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was one of last year’s biggest revelations for me, I was naturally eager to read its sequel, and in that respect With Blood Upon the Sand did not disappoint, expanding on the world and characters whose foundations had been laid in the first book.
The story resumes with a high-adrenaline scene in which we see the protagonist Çeda trying to assassinate another one of the Kings ruling Sharakhai: the discovery of a terrifying piece of the puzzle she’s attempting to unravel leads to failure, and to a harrowing escape through the city’s meandering alleys she knows so well from her past as a street urchin. It’s a great way of reconnecting to Çeda, a wonderful character that captivated me from the very start with her mixture of strength and frailties, determination and failings brought on by a sometimes too-narrow focus on her goal.
The first book was centered on Çeda’s meticulous work toward infiltrating the Blade Maidens – the elite fighters protecting the Kings – so she could be nearer the people responsible for her mother’s death, and close enough to carry out her plans for vengeance; here she has finally obtained her place among the Maidens and moves the first steps toward acceptance as her training progresses, and this causes the first cracks in her armor, raising many doubts that force Çeda to question, if not her motives, her perception of the people she has always viewed as enemies.
As a street rogue, and later as a fighter in the pits where she gained her fame as the unbeatable White Wolf, Çeda had always been able to count on the support of allies and comrades, and on the unfailing closeness of her childhood friend Emre; now she is doubly isolated, as a newcomer in an elite regiment where she has to prove herself day after day, and as a double agent needing to hide her goals, and this weighs heavily on her mind – not least because some of the overtures she receives from her fellow Maidens are sincerely offered, causing Çeda to examine herself under a different light. This adds new, welcome facets to the character as her dilemma is complicated further by exposure to a Maiden’s daily duties, that bring Çeda to see different aspects of life in Sharakhai: for example, when the Moonless Host – a resistance movement bent on destroying the Kings, and therefore aligned in some ways with Çeda’s purpose – effects a shocking attack on the city’s Collegia scholars, she sees firsthand the suffering brought on by the Host’s actions and is forced to witness the price that others have to pay for freedom from the tyranny of the Kings, and to wonder if her need for vengeance might not have to take second place to more pressing and more important concerns.
It’s a fascinating analysis, and the kind of dilemma that many revolutionary fighters have brought to the table in the real world as well – and for Çeda the problem is compounded by a new factor: once bonded, as custom requires, with the asirim, the fell creatures used by the Kings as shock troops (where ‘shock’ and ‘terror’ are not mere words…), she learns more about their origins – one of the most staggering revelations of this story – and finds herself attuned to their pain and rage for the prolonged slavery the asirim have endured, to the point that at times she ends being controlled by those feelings instead of being the one controlling and channeling that very anger. Loss of certainties, loss of focus, and the awareness that the world cannot be reduced to black-or-white convictions, seem to pile many doubts on Çeda’s shoulders, and as the situation becomes more complicated we learn more about the world in which the novels are set.
Once Çeda’s role in the story has been firmly established, the author widens his scope in this book to encompass other people and other places: first, the Kings come to the fore as something other than semi-mythical figures whose alliance with the gods granted them eternal life and unimaginable powers. They are revealed here as people who don’t always work in synchrony, but rather have hidden agendas whose byzantine ramifications reach far and wide: at some point, a quite unexpected revelation changes any perceptions we might have held until then, and sheds a very different light on the way the Kings assumed power. Never has the maxim about history being rewritten by the victors been more true…
Other players come on stage as well: the Moonless Host and its leader Macide; the powerful blood mage Hamzakiir; and old acquaintances as Juvaan, or Rahmad with his sister in law Meryam, take on added substance and depth as they play more pivotal roles in the unfolding story.
The narrative remains as fascinating as ever, its very difference from the usual fantasy settings being the foremost quality that sets it apart from the others: the unforgiving desert surrounding the cities, the ships that travel on the sands, their sails wind-driven, the fascinating – and dangerous – creatures that people the endless waste, all contribute to paint an enthralling background that comes alive under the reader’s eyes. Unfortunately, some of that same wind seems to elude the story’s virtual sails toward the middle of the book: more than once I found myself struggling with the pace in that section of the novel, where the momentum that had carried it so far appeared to have been mired in quicksand. For a moment I thought – I feared – that the story might not pick up its former speed and would fall victim of the dreaded “middle book syndrome”, but to my relief the events evolved in such a way that they regained their former energy, leading to a breath-taking finale that was both exhilarating and satisfying.
Now that some of the characters, especially Çeda, have come to find themselves quite far from their planned routes, my curiosity and eagerness for the next book are at even higher levels than they were at the end of the first volume. This is indeed a series not to be missed…
Vampires have been long used (and sometimes over-used) in horror/paranormal literature, so that at times it seems that nothing new can arise from that corner of the genre. Then books like Certain Dark Things come along, and new life is breathed into the concept.
For starters, this story is set in Mexico City – quite a far cry from the usual mid-European foggy wilderness one would expect whenever vampires are concerned – and this gives the novel a very peculiar quality, enhanced by the discovery that there are several kinds of vampires, each with their own unique appearance and customs: in keeping with the various world-wide legends about a blood-sucking creature that preys on humans, the novel postulates that vampires are not all alike and they don’t necessarily look like pale-faced Count Dracula.
While the existence of vampires is a well-known fact in the history of the world as depicted by the author, their presence is not tolerated everywhere, and Mexico City is indeed one of the places where they are unwelcome, with “sanitation squads” making regular checks, not unlike those of the police in a totalitarian state, to root out and deport – or exterminate – any stowaway blood-sucker. Mexico City is, at least on the surface, a place where only drug cartels and other kinds of criminal groups can operate, but among the widespread corruption and the tired indifference of the authorities there are always dark areas where the occasional vampire can slip into the cracks.
This is what happens with Atl, the only surviving member of a clan of vampires whose roots go back to the Aztec civilization: her family was exterminated by a rival gang of Necros – which are a more “classical” variety of vampires – and she’s trying to bide her time until she can cross over to Bolivia where she will have better chances of survival. The Godoy family, here represented by brash, young Nick with his human sidekick Rodrigo, is on Atl’s tracks with the goal of eliminating the last survivor of the competition, although Nick has a further agenda, that of exacting vengeance on her for humiliating him when she managed to escape capture. Quite unexpectedly, Atl gains an improbable ally when she meets Domingo, a homeless teenager who survives by selling useful objects he searches for in trash dumps: at first she sees him only as a blood source and an errand runner (a “Renfield” in the vampire speak quite ironically derived from Bram Stoker), but his status will change as the danger increases and her enemies close in. The last point of view of this quick-paced, fascinating story is represented by Ana Aguirre, a police officer trying to do her job as honorably as possible in a city where dishonesty and lack of care are the rule.
The background for Certain Dark Things is wonderfully detailed, the characters well-drawn and believable – especially the “bad guys” whose ruthlessness and lack of any moral code is drawn with the skilled finesse they require – and the whole vampire culture is an intriguing revelation, but for me the real focus of this story is young Domingo: everything revolves around him, to the point that all the other characters, on every side of the fence, acquire depths and facets only in relation to him. In a way, he is a catalyst, and as it happens with every chemical reaction, his presence changes things.
On the surface, Domingo is a discard of society, not unlike the garbage he collects in search of valuable articles: his family rejected him, the rag-tag band of street kids he first joined treated him badly, and he now lives alone in the abandoned tunnels of the subway, leading a hand-to-mouth existence that nonetheless affords him a modicum of freedom and self-respect. With these premises, one could expect him to be angry, hateful, cynical – not so: Domingo is a gentle soul full of dreams, gifted with guileless innocence and an awkward goofiness that is quite charming. He’s fascinated by vampires and possesses a collection of graphic novels that taught him all he knows about them, or rather all he believes he knows: when he first sees Atl and her guard dog on the subway, far from realizing what she is, he simply sees a figure from those novels – a stark, black and white living illustration from those comic books, and that’s how the reader perceives her too, because Domingo is indeed our eyes and ears, allowing us to see the world through his perspective.
No one can remain indifferent to Domingo’s view of the world, nor to his loyalty: what starts as a sort of inescapable fascination for Atl, who has no other plan but to use and discard him in the fashion of her people, becomes steadfast devotion and unshakable support even in the face of mortal danger. The harrowing few days in which Domingo and Atl try to stay one step ahead of their pursuers, while seeking the means to leave Mexico City, see the young man’s change from unprepossessing street urchin to protector and shield: where he could not find the strength to stand up to those who mistreated him in the past, he now can find it for Atl, giving himself up to whatever awaits him down the line.
There is a point when a man may swim back to shore, but he was past it. There was nothing left than to be swallowed by the enormity of the sea.
And for her part Atl cannot remain indifferent to Domingo’s attitude and starts to see him as a person, if not an equal, going against everything she has been taught and the warnings of Bernardino, the ancient, creepy Revenant who accepts to help her. The feelings she starts to develop toward Domingo don’t come out of the blue but stem from the realization that, being alone and the last of her clan, she needs not follow the ancient rules but can forge some new ones, be a law unto herself. Even Bernardino, for all his ancient cunning and the dire warnings he imparts on Atl, seems to recognize something in Domingo, a quality that distances him from mere food and cannon fodder: there is a hint of acknowledgement, almost respect, in the old vampire that remains unexpressed but is however there.
At some point, during the course of the novel, the fascination exerted by vampires on human is likened to the attraction of the moth to a flame: in the same way, the reader is irresistibly drawn into this story, caught by the relentless pace of the action and held there by the fascinating characters and their journey. An amazing find, indeed.