Reviews

Review: DEN OF WOLVES (Blackthorn and Grim #3), by Juliet Marillier

It’s never easy to say farewell to a beloved series and its characters, and the final book in Juliet Marillier’s Blackthorn and Grim saga makes that even more difficult, because – in my opinion – it’s the best and most poignant of the three.   Granted, I’ve read some news about the possibility of continuing the series, should the author’s publisher be interested, but for now the stark reality is that there will be no more stories about these two wonderful characters, and I find that quite saddening…

Some time has elapsed after the events of Tower of Thorns, and Blackthorn and Grim have settled a little more comfortably into their new home, even though the ghosts of the past still come to haunt them both, and in this instance they are hard-pressed to keep them at bay since circumstances place the two of them apart for long stretches of time, putting their inner balance to a serious test: Grim has been hired by a neighboring landowner, Master Tóla, to build a special kind of house, and Blackthorn is entrusted with the care of Tóla’s daughter, Cara, a problematic girl which her father wants away from home while the building is in progress, so he foists her with little ceremony on Oran and Flidais’ household.

It’s clear from the beginning that there is more here than meets the eye: Cara exhibits some uncanny abilities – like communing with birds and trees – and suffers greatly the forcible removal from her home, where she is treated like someone precious, indeed, but at the same time as a dim-witted child in need of constant supervision; her inability to express herself properly with some people speaks loudly about a deeper trouble, and it does not take long for the reader to suspect that the heart of it resides in Cara’s own home, since Blackthorn’s gruff ministrations manage to easily bring the girl out of her speech impediment in no time at all.

Just as quickly it becomes evident that Master Tóla is not simply a brusque, unpleasant person, but that he harbors a few secrets: the magical house he wants built on his land, one that requires the use of every kind of available wood to exert its beneficial properties, is not the first Tóla requested.  Fifteen years prior he commissioned the work to Bardàn, a talented builder with a little fey blood in his veins, but before completing the assignment the man disappeared from the face of the earth and has returned, as if from the dead, only recently – with maimed hands and an addled mind, but still in possession of the know-how for Tóla’s project.  Enters Grim, in his capacity as skilled builder, under Bardàn’s instructions, and also as the wild man’s keeper, since Tóla makes it quite clear he does not trust the poor man, and suffers his presence only out of necessity.

As the past is revealed bit by painstaking bit, we start perceiving the complicated web of lies surrounding Tóla’s domain of Wolf Glen, while both Blackthorn and Grim work to unravel the complex tangle of deception and silence that surrounds the events of fifteen years before. As an added complication, unexpected developments concerning Mathuin of Laois, the cruel chieftain that was their jailer and tormentor, come to light re-awakening Blackthorn’s never-tamed need for vengeance and the pain from the scars on her soul.

Much as this narrative thread stands at the basis of the series, and sees its fruition in this book, Den of Wolves is very much Grim’s story in my opinion: if I loved his character before, I totally fell for him here, where the depths of his soul and the fundamental goodness of his heart come to the fore, belying once and for all the outward appearance of the lumbering simpleton that the shallow-minded use to define him.  Once Grim gets to know Bardàn, he sees a man tormented by old ghosts and deep guilt, a man who could be a mirror of his older self and one who needs a helping hand to come out of such darkness.  I was deeply touched to see how Grim goes out of his way – and against Tóla’s express orders – to connect to the remaining sane part of Bardàn’s mind and help him find himself again: in a way, Grim is also trying to compensate for the lack of Blackthorn’s presence – the two of them have been helping each other face their nightmares, and having someone else to comfort is vital to the big man’s still-delicate hold on balance.  His use of fairy stories as a means of reaching Bardàn is both a poignant choice and the way to show how Grim’s thought processes work, how he can perceive the bigger picture and its implications:

Tales from prisoners and down-trodden women and ordinary working folk. Like a lot of threads, frayed and weak, they might be woven into something big and strong and beautiful. And powerful.

Blackthorn, on the other hand, appears as her crusty old self – not that I want to complain about that, I love her exactly for that reason, because she breaks out of the usual mold for the genre’s heroines – but at the same time she has become more thoughtful, more settled: where at the beginning she was so consumed with the need for vengeance that she did not care about consequences, both for herself or others, she is now able, and willing, to consider those consequences and to adjust her needs accordingly. Where the pain of her loss made her self-centered and blind to the needs of other people, she has learned to look beyond herself and to accept self-sacrifice for the good of those she cares about.   That’s the main reason the resolution of the past injustices feels fully earned and right, even more so thanks to Grim’s encouragement and blessing given with a short sentence that summed up their past history and moved me beyond words even more than any other emotional circumstance:

“Go on, Lady. Do it for all of us.”

These three books have managed to turn me into a huge fan of Juliet Marillier, and I look forward to reading more of her works: I don’t know if they will be as engaging as Blackthorn and Grim’s volumes have been, but I know that her writing will ensnare me once more into her wonderful worlds, and I believe that will be enough.

 

My Rating:   

 

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Reviews

Short Story Review: SEVENTH FALL, by Alexander Irvine

My continuing search for short stories to read between full-size books continues, and this time I’m not writing about stories I’ve read online, but about a few I found in an anthology, THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW SF – 23 (edited by Gardner Dozois): the authors’ names I saw on the table of contents for this one were enough to pique my curiosity, either because I already read them in the past, or because they were writers I was eager to sample.   As it often happens with anthologies, there were good stories, so-and-so stories and works that did not “speak” to me at all, and I’m sorry to report that the overall impression was not a very encouraging one, despite the presence of many talented authors in the list.

Still, there were a few stories that did reach out and leave a lasting impression, and the one I’ve decided to showcase this week is one of them.

SEVENTH FALL  is a riveting tale of a post-apocalyptic Earth, one that was torn by a devastating meteor impact, while the survivors struggle on through the following lesser impacts. As civilization crumbles and the new generations grow with no notion of the world before the tragedy, the loss of human arts is the most tragic: the protagonist, Varner, is a sort of traveling performer, entertaining the members of the various communities he meets on his journeys with his memory of stories he learned from his father.

Over the years, he’s been focused on a peculiar mission, finding a whole copy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a play he used to act in with his father’s troupe, and one he possesses only in incomplete form.  Books are indeed a rare commodity in this torn world, not only because the various Falls (so the meteor impacts have been named) and their consequences, but also because of the Brotherhood of the Book, a sect of religious fanatics bent on burning every book in existence – and their owners too, if they don’t surrender the precious volumes.

It’s a sad, poignant story – and for a book lover like me also a terrifying one, because the thought of the wanton destruction of humanity’s literature is one that chills me to the bone – but there is a small ray of light at the end, a hint of defiance in the face of natural and man-made disasters that more than compensates for the overall sadness.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: COMMAND DECISION (Vatta’s War #4), by Elizabeth Moon

Book after book this series is taking shape and substance and this installment went a long way toward helping me forget the slight disappointment of volume 2, that I’m now regarding more as a case of “growing pains” than anything else.  Despite a few residual niggles, truly too small to spoil my enjoyment of the story, Command Decision turned out to be a solid, entertaining read.

In previous books, Kylara Vatta, whose family made a fortune with their interstellar transport business, was expelled from the SpaceForce Academy in the aftermath of an unfortunate mishap and went back into the family’s fold trying to re-invent herself as a merchant captain. An unprecedented attack on her home world resulted in the death of a huge portion of Ky’s family so she resorted to try and resurrect the family business while fighting the encroaching expansion of a pirate consortium.  In Command Decision, we saw Ky working to consolidate her small but growing coalition of merchant captains who choose to stand up to the pirates, but we are also afforded a wider view of the overall situation, discovering alongside the characters that the pirates are only a part of the problem, one that involves hostile corporate takeovers, political maneuvers and a generalized regression in the galaxy’s civilized dealings.

The shifting focus between the various situations keeps the pace lively and the story interesting, and in some cases it changed my opinion of previously encountered characters: a case in point is represented by Rafe, whose earlier appearance seemed to point toward a Gary Stu kind of figure, while here he takes on some much-needed depth and morphs into a very intriguing person.   It’s through Rafe’s segment of the story that we start perceiving the scope of what looks like a huge conspiracy to change the political and economical face of the galaxy: having lost contact with his family, he travels in incognito to his homeworld only to discover that his parents and siblings have disappeared and any inquiry on their whereabouts raises the interest of some unsavory characters.  There is a subtle irony in the fact that Rafe was sent away from home because of a dramatic incident that changed him profoundly, and now he’s his family’s only hope for freedom and safety: as I saw him struggle to resolve the situation without endangering their chances for survival, and while I learned what it meant to him to be perceived as a monster, I slowly warmed up to him and started to see the real person under the rakish façade, someone who can forget any bitterness at the unfair treatment received and risk everything for those he holds dear.  In a way, I believe that Rafe’s back story runs on a similar course to Kylara, since both of them needed to re-invent themselves after a traumatic experience, and that this element, rather than any form of mutual attraction, could be the basis for the future relationship that is at times hinted at as a possibility in the course of the story.

Stella, Ky’s cousin, is also slowly emerging from a trauma of her own, one that disrupted her sense of identity and belonging to the Vatta clan: while some residue from that shock might understandably linger, in this book Stella goes back to her earlier appearance, that of a well-grounded, no-nonsense person with a good head for business and the courage to try untraveled roads.  Having been invested with the position of CEO for Vatta Enterprises, she throws herself into the work leaving little or no space for doubts and self-recriminations, and the need to care for the underage Toby – another survivor of the merciless attacks on the family – seems to be what she needs for her newfound balance.   The most interesting comment on Stella’s transformation comes from Aunt Grace, the clan’s matriarch and a character I never see enough of, when she considers how those changes went even beyond Grace’s expectations, or anyone else’s for that matter.

But of course the main focus remains on Ky, even though she equally shares it with the others here, offsetting any danger of looking like the cliché do-it-all-by-herself heroine: she is still on a learning curve, but she’s gaining in assuredness with every challenge faced and overcome, and she’s also acquiring some of the toughness that’s required by her position, as demonstrated by the swift, uncompromising way in which she deals with the situation at Gretna station, whose inhabitants – already infamous for their racist viewpoints – have turned to fraud and slavery to increment their resources; or when she accepts Captain Ransome’s ships as part of the convoy, knowing that their inexperienced enthusiasm might prove fatal, but accepting the necessity of some “cannon fodder” on the front lines.   More importantly, Ky’s storyline serves to showcase the foolishness of corporate mentality and the blindness that can impair the smooth workings of a galaxy-wide service (like ISC, the owners of the communication network), making it the far-too-easy target of anyone armed with the will to take advantage of it: this is what makes this series different from other space opera settings, the mixing of the required adventure with some economic considerations and a few social commentaries that spice up the narrative and at the same time set it firmly into a very believable background.

Command Decision does still suffer from some slight problems, like a few repetitions of known facts and the tendency to slide into undue exposition; or again the instances (thankfully less marked here) in which Ky is accused – because of her youth and perceived inexperience – of being susceptible to girlish infatuations: the latter is what makes me grind my teeth in frustration every time I encounter it, making me wonder why the author keeps undermining her character this way.  That said, Vatta’s War is still shaping up nicely for what I hope will be a satisfactory ending, and a good introduction to the next series, whose first book I sampled before retracing my steps to the beginning.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE TETHERED MAGE (Swords and Fire #1), by Melissa Caruso

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

Lately I have been particularly lucky when choosing debut novels to read, and The Tethered Mage was one such great find: the story is set in what looks like an alternate version of 18th Century Venice, with the city of Raverra and its canals and waterways as the playing field; my past visits to the real Venice helped me to see the city being described here, adding to the enjoyment of a well-painted background. Raverra has extended its influence over the surrounding countries, particularly the neighboring city of Ardence, whose restless nobility feels the ever-increasing need for more independence, the fires of freedom further kindled by the powerful realm of Vaskandar whose ambitions are equal only to its ruthlessness. Raverra, however, has been able to maintain its standing thanks to the strong politics of its Council and ruling Doge and to its ability to exploit the magic of gifted individuals.

And it’s indeed with the magic system that this novel forges an interesting path, because the rare and precious mages that are Raverra’s strength and deterrent are carefully screened since infancy for the tell-tale colored ring around their irises, and once discovered are corralled to the island enclave of the Mews, where their powers are harnessed through a bracelet called jess. The jess tethers each mage (or Falcon) to their handler the Falconer, in a partnership that only death can dissolve: according to a person’s point of view, such an arrangement can be seen either as slavery or symbiosis and that is one of the story’s main themes, the ethics of channeling useful or potentially dangerous abilities by effectively placing a gifted person under life-long tutelage.

Zaira is a formidable and quite unique fire mage, the most dangerous kind, and she’s been able to move under the Falconers’ radar for a long time until she’s forced to unleash her powers in self-defense: that’s when Falconer captain Verdi enrolls the help of a young woman to put a jess on Zaira, not knowing that his improvised assistant is Amalia Cornaro, heir to the most powerful woman in the Raverran council. Amalia finds herself saddled with the responsibilities of a Falconer, a duty that clashes with those imposed on her status as The Contessa’s daughter, and what’s more her Falcon deeply resents her both as a Falconer and as a representative of the pampered ruling class.

The dichotomy between these two young women, so very different in origins and character, is one of the supporting themes in The Tethered Mage and makes for a very interesting journey in which both of them have a great deal to discover by getting to know each other, overcoming diffidence and prejudices: the trope of very different people thrown together by fate and having to learn how to cooperate is one I’ve always found interesting, and in this case I appreciated it even more because it avoided the clichéd pitfall of the man/woman pairing that turns from hate to love. By linking these two girls and having them cooperate through a crisis, we learn more about the society they live in and at the same time we get to know and like them as characters – with the added bonus that the increased understanding of each other does not change who they basically are but more simply the way they perceive their counterpart.

I found Zaira to be the most fascinating of the two – not least because there is so much about her that is barely glimpsed, leaving a great deal of mystery about her past: she’s strongly independent, although the choice of keeping apart from others stems from some dark, dramatic roots, and she’s also brash and outspoken, and quite proud of that – to the point that contact with the higher strata of society fails to compel her to soften that approach, with quite amusing results. On the other hand Amalia, despite being the first-person narrator, comes across as slightly less interesting because of the shades of predictability that weigh on her character: if I liked the fact that she’s what we would nowadays call a “nerd”, due to her preference to magical and technical studies over politics or fancy parties, I felt that part of her journey was overshadowed by the required romantic entanglement and her role as the problem-solving heroine.

What makes Amalia stand out, however, is the relationship with her formidable mother: the two women are often in disagreement over Amalia’s life choices and her mother’s need to groom her as a successor, but instead of taking the path of all-out conflict they bridge their differences through mutual respect and a deep love that comes across quite strongly even if it remains mostly unexpressed. If anything, this novel is a showcase for strong female characters that know how to work with difficult situations and overcome many obstacles: as I said, Amalia is less effective in this field if compared with her mother or Zaira (or the Contessa’s right-hand helper Ciardha, a character I hope will get more narrative space in the next novels, because she’s beyond intriguing), but her willingness to put herself to the test and not give up, even in the face of unsurmountable odds, more than makes up for that.

Apart from the characters’ journey, The Tethered Mage is enriched by the fascinating power plays that constitute its backbone, a complicated dance of political expediency, back-room plotting and outright betrayals that speed up the pace in the second half of the novel and that kept me glued to the pages until I reached the resolution. And if the “bad guys” sometimes feel a little over the top (especially when they tend to explain their dastardly plot to a soon-to-be-killed-captive, as in the oldest narrative tradition), or if their identity is too easily gleaned, the story is so exciting that it’s not difficult to put the Inner Critic to sleep so that we can lay back and enjoy the adventure, one that I will be happy to follow in the next installments.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: TRAVELERS, by Rich Larson

 

This is a mix between a thriller and a science fiction story and one that reminded me strongly of the recent movie Passengers, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, to the point that I wondered if this short work had been used as a template for the movie script. The premise is quite similar, a sleeper ship and a woman waking up from suspended animation (here called ‘torpor’) to discover that the automated systems brought her out of sleep because of health concerns. When she checks the ship’s status she finds out that their destination is still 32 years away, and that she can’t access the medbay, either to check on her status or to attempt a return to hibernation, but also that she’s not alone: a man has built a nest of blankets in an airlock and he’s playing guitar.

The differences with the movie I mentioned start from here (including the fact that the ship is not on a pleasure cruise, but is rather carrying survivor from an unspecified event), and it’s worth exploring them, particularly where morals are concerned: in the movie, the decision of waking up another passenger, though it was a step not taken lightly, was ultimately condoned. The young woman’s rage about seeing her life and plans shattered because of a selfish act – and not matter the mitigating reasons, it was a selfish act – all but disappear when shared danger and mutual attraction manage to change her mind. This was of course a predictable outcome, because Hollywood rules would not have allowed anything else, but in this short story things are quite different: more realistic, for starters, far darker and much more terrifying.

Don’t expect friendly robot bartenders dispensing alcoholic beverages and easy wisdom, nor good-looking characters destined to a happy-ever-after: this is far closer to the truth of the given premise, and far more gruesome…

But worth a look…

You can read the story online here

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: JADE CITY (The Green Bone Saga #1), by Fonda Lee

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

In recent times I have been quite fortunate when taking chances with authors either unknown to me or publishing their first book, and Jade City was no exception: I read that the author Fonda Lee published a few YA stories before branching out into adult fiction and into this very peculiar genre that is a mix between urban fantasy and a noir, and I must say that the attempt was not just very successful, but also resulted in a deeply engaging story, one that drew me in completely and kept my imagination captive for the whole journey.

The background of Jade City has a fascinating Far Eastern flavor and it’s coupled with a time setting that reminded me of the early ‘60s, conferring to the story a unique feel that is part of its appeal, even though the lion’s share goes to the story itself and the characters. The island of Kekon rests on huge deposits of jade, mined not for its ornamental qualities but because it confers extraordinary powers to those who are able to harness its energy: Green Bones, as they are called, are capable of incredible physical and mental feats – as an individual’s tolerance to jade increases with use, so do the abilities he or she can employ.

One could say that jade has shaped Kekonese society: at its top are Green Bones, of course, organized in clans governed by a rigid set of rules and gaining or losing influence according to the economic power wielded over the big and small businesses of “common” citizens, those who are unable to wear jade. A clan is ruled by the Pillar, whose immediate lieutenants are the Weatherman (who advises the Pillar on matters of policy) and the Horn, the enforcer, who through the Fists and Fingers deals with any circumstance requiring a show of strength – or violence. The two major clans on the island are the Mountain and No Peak, the latter ruled by the Kaul family, who are at the center of the events: Lan, the Pillar; Hilo, the Horn, and their younger sister Shae, who some years before gave up all her privileges and jade to go live among foreigners and try to forge a different kind of life for herself. Her return home coincides with a series of events that will bring her clan to open war with the Mountain and force the Kaul siblings toward paths no one of them would have expected.

As I said, this novel is a very engaging one, and it took little time for me to be enfolded by the story while learning the fascinating details of Kekon’s past and the Kaul family history. The impression one derives from the narrative is that until recently Kekon was very similar to a feudal holding, moving into a more modern outlook only in the last few decades, after a bloody independence war sanctioned its freedom from foreign occupation: modern conveniences like cars or television sets seem like a novelty that’s slowly spreading through the populace, while many of the older customs and ways of thinking still linger on and still inform everyday dealings. The parallel with Japan after the end of WWII is quite striking and serves very well to illustrate the uneasy transition between the older and younger generation: in the Kaul family, for example, the aged, ailing patriarch still clings to older methods of conducting business and interacting with competitors, while his grandsons either try to balance the old with the new, or seek different paths for the changing times. Then there is Shae, who falls somehow in the middle, having tried to sever ties with her past, only to return home and find herself entangled in family business and deadly feuds.

The beauty of these characters is that they are all flawed in one way or another, and those flaws help in making them more human despite the incredible abilities bestowed on jade wearers, powers that allow them to channel enormous strength for physical feats, or to create shields out of thin air, or again to perceive other people’s thoughts and emotions. Without these flaws they might have looked like cartoonish characters, but instead they suffer, and bleed, and make terrible mistakes, and through it all they grow and evolve: Lan is a man of peace, maybe not the best choice for Pillar of No Peak since he lacks the aggressiveness that’s sometimes necessary to withstand the Mountain’s plays for power, and yet there is such a depth of honesty to him that it’s impossible not to understand where his attitude comes from, just as it’s impossible to mistake it for weakness as others do. His brother Hilo is quite the opposite, brash and violent on the outside, but fiercely loyal on the inside and capable of enormous acts of generosity: I must admit that I liked Hilo quite a bit, especially when he finds himself forced to juggle his deeper instincts and the need for shrewdness required by the clan war.

And last, but not least, Shae and Hilo’s lover Wen: being a woman in Kekonese society is not easy, given the cultural restrictions imposed on them by past customs that are not evolving as rapidly as one might wish. And yet – each in a different way – they manage to leave their mark on the people around them and to show that strength is not a quality that comes from jade or physical prowess, but from the depths of one’s soul. These two women are perhaps the best indicators of the slow but inexorable changes that are starting to take root in Kekon, and it will be interesting to see how these first seeds of change will bloom in the next books for this series.

In short, Jade City was such an immersive reading experience that I often found myself needing a conscious effort to transition back to the real world: to me, that’s the mark of strong writing and expert storytelling, elements that make me want to explore more of this author’s works.

Highly recommended.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

PLANETARY AWARDS 2017

It’s again time to vote for the Planetary Awards, the chance to nominate your favorite novel and shorter story for last year.

 

 

The contest is promoted by PLANETARY DEFENSE COMMAND and you can go HERE and learn how to list and promote your “darlings” – which is quite easy on the technical side, and not so easy where the actual choice is concerned.

I discovered this hard truth by looking at my 5-star reviews for 2017: picking one for the full-length novel was the hardest choice of all, so I started with an elimination process that excluded the authors in my “buy sight unseen” list, for the simple reason that they are all well-known, much acclaimed authors and since this year I had the incredible luck of discovering several amazing debut novels, I wanted to spotlight them, so their authors could get some more visibility.

Not that this made my choice any easier… So I had to resort to the time-honored, if not scientifically sound, method of writing the titles of these novels on pieces of paper, mixing them in a box and picking one with my eyes closed. Then I repeated the process for the shorter works, just to keep feeling… solomonic.

So ((loud drum roll)) I’m very pleased to announce the winners and my nominees for the 2017 Planetary Awards:

     Full Length Novel: AGE OF ASSASSINS, by R. J. Barker

    Short Story or Novella: ACADIE, by Dave Hutchinson

Go and vote for your favorite authors/stories: it’s another way of showing our gratitude for the many wonderful hours we spend immersed in some other world…

My thanks for Planetary Defense Command for hosting the awards!