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Review: THE BOY ON THE BRIDGE, by M.R. Carey

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

When I heard that M.R. Carey was writing another novel in the same world he created for The Girl With All the Gifts, I was quite thrilled: post-apocalyptic scenarios are always fascinating, and this author had already delivered a compelling, chillingly believable one on the premise of an infection by  the parasitic fungus Cordyceps, that turned affected humans into a sort of zombies, or “hungries”.

This new novel is set a few years before the events of its predecessor, and shows the changed world in wider details, although it shares the same enclosed, claustrophobic feeling of its companion story: here a mixed crew of military and scientists travels across devastated Britain on board an armored vehicle, the Rosalind Franklin (or “Rosie”), following the tracks of a previous expedition that never made it back to the relatively safe haven of Beacon.  Rosie’s crew is tasked with the retrieval of the tissue cultures left by their unfortunate colleagues, in the hope of gleaning some information that might lead to a cure for the Cordyceps plague.

The difficult interaction between the science team and the soldiers escorting them is not helped by the cramped conditions aboard Rosie, a mix between a tank and a mobile lab, while the lack of any appreciable results in the search sets a pall of hopelessness over the general mood. The divide between the two groups is further stressed by the different personalities of their respective leaders, forced to share command of the expedition: colonel Carlisle is a tainted hero of the Breakdown, the time when the plague effectively ended civilization, and he’s weighted down by the memories of what he had to do under orders; while doctor Fournier is a mix between scientist and bureaucrat, more the latter than the former in truth, and a man with scarce-to-absent people skills.

Further friction comes from the presence of the youngest member of the team, teenaged Stephen Greaves: he’s an orphan possessed of a brilliant, if disturbed, mind – despite his young age he’s the inventor of the blocking gel that hides humans’ scent from the keen sense of smell of the hungries, but his introvert, almost autistic behavior had the crew nicknaming him “the Robot”.  The only person truly close to him, and the one who insisted on his presence for the expedition, is doctor Samrina Kahn, who has somehow adopted Stephen and managed to establish with him a relationship based on mutual trust.  Kahn, however, is now plagued by a problem that might prove damaging for the mission and everyone’s safety: she discovered she’s pregnant…

Where The Girl With All the Gifts dealt with the interaction between the uninfected humans and a group of second-generation contaminated children still in possession of their mental faculties, here the focus is solely on humans; and if the first novel was set in a time in which the Breakdown was already one generation removed, here it’s still a fresh, painful memory: people still remember vividly the life they led before, and this adds to their behavior a poignancy that was almost absent in the people managing the base where Melanie and her companions were being studied. The world that was is dramatically present in the awareness of these survivors, allowing the readers to see more about its collapse and the birth of the new, fragile attempt at a new society that is still in the throes of its birth.

It would be legitimate to believe, or hope, that in the face of such a tragedy the remnants of humanity would regroup and form a more cohesive community, but that’s indeed wishful thinking, as the coalitions aboard Rosie – and the political maneuvering in Beacon – show with tragic clarity: even in the face of mass extinction individuals look for more power, or the assertion of their worth; for supreme leadership or the meaningless praise of academia. The end of this world might be hastened by the Cordyceps infection, but its people can inflict just as much harm as the hordes of hungries roaming the land.

As with the first novel, hope seems to reside with younger people: here much rests on the shoulders of Stephen Greaves, a teenager whose brilliance is offset by enormous difficulties in interacting with others, either physically or verbally – and the brief flashes about his past leave us wondering weather his condition was congenital or the result of the horrifying event that orphaned him. That same removal, however, is coupled with great powers of observation that enable him to somehow figure out his traveling companions and to adopt behavioral patterns that allow him to coexist with them in the stifling confines of Rosie.  Stephen ultimately becomes the interface between the humans and the new breed of children born after the plague’s spread, feral creatures that are nonetheless able to create societal rules and to work together – he does not truly belong with either group, and therefore is the one who can attempt to bridge the gap: I’ve wondered more than once if this was the real meaning of the book’s title, rather than the one offered by the circumstances of Stephen’s rescue…

Although Stephen figures prominently in the story, the overall mood of the novel is choral, as the various events are observed through the eyes of several of Rosie’s crew, and this multi-faceted observation helps move the story along especially in the first part of the book, where the going looks a little slow and not much seems to happen: the characters come across in sharp definition and the frictions that move through Rosie like unstable currents make this novel just as much a study of human psychology as a post-apocalyptic drama.  Once events start rolling, though, they move at a steady, unrelenting pace toward the final showdown, one that kept me on the edge of the proverbial seat because I was aware of the multiplicity of scenarios that could come into being: what really happens in the end is filled with such moving intensity that I could not help being affected by it, and I realized it was an even more powerful ending than the one of The Girl With All the Gifts.

And as if that were not enough, there is an even more compelling epilogue where the past represented by this story meets the “present” of Melanie’s story and segues into the future, tying all the narrative threads into an amazing, awe-inspiring finale.   Should Mr. Carey choose to return to this world for more stories, I will be more than delighted to read them…

My Rating: 

Review: BLACK CITY DEMON, by Richard A. Knaak (Black City Saint #2)

I received this book from Pyr/Prometheus Books in exchange for an honest review.

Last year I had the opportunity of reading and reviewing the first book in this series, Black City Saint, discovering a quite unusual mix of Urban Fantasy and noir detective fiction: the main character Nick Medea is a special kind of private investigator, because he helps clients who believe their homes are haunted, or prey to malicious infestations.  In truth Nick is no other than legendary Saint George, the dragon slayer, but with a slight twist to the tale: the dragon he vanquished was the guardian of the Gate standing between our mundane world and the realm of Faerie, and in suppressing the creature George/Nick let the door literally open to the passage of dangerous beings from Faerie.  Since then he’s taken upon himself, and with the endorsement of Queen Titania, the task of keeping the Wyld at bay, and he’s somewhat melded with the dragon, who can lend him his power and strength at need, sometimes with unforeseeable and terrifying effects: for example, the great fire that ravaged the city of Chicago in 1871 was caused by the dragon as he and Nick were battling Oberon, Titania’s husband and rival.

For sixteen centuries the alliance between man and dragon has kept Faerie’s Wyld from having their way, even though it entails a constant struggle for Nick to keep the dragon from gaining the upper hand, or, as he defines it at some point: “…an eternal war for dominance with moments of tentative alliance when others tried to do us in. And sometimes, even those dangers weren’t enough to keep him from trying to betray me.”  This is indeed the nature of Nick’s allies, like the shape-shifter Fetch, a Faerie expatriate who looks like a dog and peppers his speech with the slang of the ’20s, in a quite amusing way of…. well, blending in I guess; or mysterious Kravayik, an elf who used to be the master assassin for the Faerie Court and has now found religion, in the attempt to atone for his past sins.  Both of them repeatedly profess their allegiance to Nick Medea, but it’s clear they both can pursue other agendas, and are anything but trustworthy.

Last but not less important in the list of people revolving around Nick is Cleolinda, the woman he loved and lost to the dragon: she always came back during the long centuries of his vigil, with another name and unaware of her past, but always ended in the same way.  The present incarnation, Claryce, has shown amazing powers of resilience and courage – even aiding Nick in his final battle against Oberon – and while the investigator desires nothing more than to keep her close, he’s afraid that this very closeness will lead to her death, once again.  As this story starts, Nick is trying to keep her at arm’s length while a series of alarming events makes gang-troubled Chicago an even more dangerous place than ever: the defeat and death of Oberon has not put an end to the danger, because the wake of the Frost Moon is giving strength and substance to creatures touched by magic, not least a ruthless serial killer bent on coming back from the dead and gaining enough power to shape the world to his desires.

Black City Demon, like its predecessor, is a quick and captivating read, mixing a very specific time period – that of the Prohibition era – with the typical themes of Urban Fantasy, like magic, weird creatures and outlandish dangers: in this case the threat comes from a very human-derived foe, even though the forces of Faerie are involved and Nick Medea needs to unravel a complicated maze of clues and misdirections to reach the heart of the problem and put a stop to it.  His journey is not an easy one: as I remarked in the case of the first book, in a few instances he seems to take some time in putting two and two together, giving the appearance of not being the smartest of players, despite his long years of service. Granted, worry about Claryce’s safety and the guilt over the loss of her previous incarnations can be quite distracting, but he also seems oblivious to the fact that Claryce is perfectly able to fend for herself – just look at the sang froid with which she wields a gun, more often than not saving Nick’s hide in the process – and that she can be a valid partner in his ventures.  In that respect Fetch is several steps ahead of his master: the unabashedly sincere devotion he shows Claryce is the proof of her effectiveness as an ally, while it helps to showcase Fetch’s personality in a delightful way, making him a more interesting character than ever.

It seems to me that the non-human individuals in this series are fleshed out in better relief than the purely human ones: Fetch is such an example, as is Kravayik – about whom we learn a great deal in this book, transforming him from the disturbing figure of his first appearance into a deeply tormented being worthy of at least some pity.  Queen Titania, even in her brief appearance, projects an aura of dispassionate cruelty that makes all the legends about the cold wickedness of the Elves come true in a very palpable way; and the various minions she and her underlings employ in the convoluted play for dominance are fascinating and creepy in equal measure.

Much as I appreciated this novel, however, I had some issues with it: as with the first book, the pacing seemed uneven at times, with the story meandering a little as if in search of the proper direction, and if the final resolution came thanks to a very compelling journey through a maze that was both physical and mental, partly based in the real world and partly in a different, crazy dimension, getting there required a little struggle now and then.  The biggest problem, though, came from the need to root this story in a specific time period: while it’s understood that events happen during the 1920s, there are often brief asides quoting situations or incidents that add more details to the background, indeed, but are expressed in such a way and in such circumstances as to prove distracting to the narrative flow. Not as distracting, though, as the anachronistic misstep I found in one of the final chapters, one that somewhat soured the whole experience for me: a small thing, granted, but even a little speck can mar a good picture…

I’m sorry I’m unable to rate this book as high as I hoped, but at the same time I’m still curious to see if the overall story will be able to reach its full potential in the next installments.

My Rating: 

Review: SINS OF EMPIRE (Gods of Blood and Powder #1), by Brian McClellan

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

A few years ago, I read – and enjoyed – Brian McClellan’s first volume of his Powder Mage trilogy, Promise of Blood.  It was a good and engaging start to a new fantasy series, but for some reason – mainly the fact that I get far too easily distracted by any new title that catches my attention – I did not read the two remaining volumes.  With the passing of time, my recollection of the events and characters in Promise of Blood faded considerably, so that I knew I would have to re-read book 1 first once I decided to pick up the series again.

When I saw Sins of Empire and realized it was set some ten years after the time-frame for the first trilogy, I knew it offered me an opportunity to get back into this world, one where magic shows peculiar features: besides wielders of more “conventional” magic, called Privileged, there are Powder Mages, people graced with exceptional strength, speed and endurance through the use of gunpowder, besides having the ability to detonate it from a distance.  Then there are people gifted with a knack, a lesser talent – like needing little or no sleep, or sensing the presence and use of magic – that can nonetheless be quite useful.  This much I remembered from my past reading of Promise of Blood, and it helped me settle into this world with no effort, but I should not have worried about it anyway, because the time and place removal of this novel from the original trilogy makes it a totally new start anyone can enjoy, and the author shows a great skill in inserting a few useful snippets of information that refer to the past, and help ground the narrative, without slowing the pace of the story at all.

The nation of Fatrasta gained its independence through a bloody war and is now on the way toward an economic boom, although not everything works smoothly: the Palo natives are marginalized by the Fatrastans and there is unrest brewing both on the frontier and in the capital city of Landfall, administered with an iron fist by Chancellor Lindet and her Blackhat secret police. In the outreaches of Fatrasta, lady Vlora Flint (a character from the original trilogy) and her Riflejack mercenary army are battling against Palo insurgents when they are called back to Landfall as additional manpower against the brewing rebellion carried out in the name of the mysterious Mama Palo, a dissident leader hiding in the warrens of Greenfire Depths, the capital’s Palo enclave where even the Blackhats fear to walk. Michel Bravis, a Blackhat Iron Rose (which means a high-lever officer), is given the task of rooting out the revolutionary clique responsible for the printing and distribution of an anti-government pamphlet, and finds himself, in case of failure, in the unenviable position of losing his status and any hope of acquiring the prestigious Gold Rose that will secure his standing. And last but not least, Ben Styke, former commander of the Mad Lancers, a famed Fatrastan assault battalion, has been languishing in a labor camp for ten years with little hope of getting out alive, when a mysterious lawyer manages his release in exchange for a peculiar request…

These are the three main storylines that give life to Sins of Empire, alternating chapters between the various characters while building them little by little: this is the main reason for the quick pace of this novel that caught my interest and imagination from page one, and never let go. There is much more going on, however, because Landfall is shortly revealed as a power keg waiting only for the right spark, and there are many different currents moving in the background and slowly but inexorably building toward the final showdown. Characters are indeed the driving force of the story, and my absolute favorite is Mad Ben Styke (the “mad” moniker more than amply justified…): a hulking bear of a man prone to violence and with more than a few shadows in his past, but nonetheless the kind of person anyone would want guarding their back in a dangerous situation, and one capable of the most unexpected tenderness and care, as shown with his taking charge of young Celine, a street urchin he met in the labor camp.  And Celine is a great character on her own as well, her youth and innocence offset by street-wise expediency and her utter admiration for Ben’s killer instincts.

Vlora Flint, who I remember vaguely from my first foray into McClellan’s storytelling, is a well-rounded, ass-kicking lady hardened by military campaigns and the mistakes of her past (whose hints made me decide I must not wait any further to explore the original trilogy), who nonetheless still cares about decency and fairness, and above all wants the best for the men under her command.  If the world described in these books is a welcome variation on the usual fantasy setting, with its end-of-18th / beginning of 19th century feeling, Vlora is a few steps removed from the typical heroines of the genre, even the most empowered ones, because her courage is also supported by pragmatism and a strong sense of responsibility.  Knowing more about what makes her tick and what created the person I encountered in this book has now become an imperative.

The character I found most difficult to approach is that of Michel Bravis, particularly because of a few personality quirks – like the habit of keeping long conversations with himself while debating plans and strategies – that puzzled me no end. I could however relate to his need to keep afloat in the difficult milieu of the Blackhats, especially after meeting their commander in chief Fidelis Jes, a real psychopath if there ever was one, and most importantly after a huge revelation shifted my opinion of Michel a nice 180 degrees, while at the same time changing the rules of the game in a major way.

And remarkable revelations do indeed abound in this novel, especially concerning identity and goals, to the point I was often reminded of a quote from my beloved Babylon5: “no one here is exactly what they appear”. The surprises that the author sprung on me along the road were both unexpected and momentous, and added to my enjoyment of the story, one that starts deceptively slowly but builds with inexorable momentum toward the final showdown – a battle of epic proportions that kept me on tenterhooks the whole time.  In this regard, I must reveal that I usually don’t do well with battle scenes, since I find them both confused and confusing: not so here, where the crystal-clear cinematic quality of the writing made those scenes come alive in my mind’s eye.

Despite being the first book in a new series, Sins of Empire does not end in a true cliffhanger (which is something I greatly appreciate), but still lays the groundwork for some very intriguing developments, the most important of them being a danger coming from far away, something steeped in legends and the half-remembered past.  Only the awareness I can now backtrack through Brian McClellan’s previous works will help me weather the wait for the next installment.

My Rating: 

Review: IMPERIAL TOWERS (Book of Never #5), by Ashley Capes

33302288I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

With this fifth novella (and one that is quite close to book length at that), Never’s journey seems to have reached its completion: I use the word ‘seems’ because there are a few open threads that imply the possibility of future developments, and besides the GoodReads page for this series indicates that six books are planned, but as far as Never’s search for his past and his heritage is concerned, Imperial Towers finally gives the reader a number of long-awaited answers.

Starting right after the momentous ending of the previous book, The Peaks of Autumn, this new installment in the story sees Never and friends in a difficult situation, with Luis gravely wounded and people hunting them through a landscape that’s becoming more dangerous with every passing day, since war has explosively broken out and everyone seems bent on fighting everyone else.  And Snow, Never’s estranged brother, looks like the lynchpin of it all…

From the very beginning of this serialized story, it was clear that Never was not an ordinary man: his peculiar ability to use his own blood as a weapon and the lack of information about his past both pointed toward a mysterious origin, so that as his journey of discovery progressed and the clues piled up (albeit in frustratingly small increments…) it became clear he descended from the fabled, half-forgotten Amouni, a more advanced race of beings possessed of extraordinary powers and superior knowledge.   Here, all the accumulated information finally coalesces into a clearer picture, as Snow’s plans come into focus and Never’s determination to stop his brother hardens into the resolve to do so no matter what.

The narrative core of Imperial Towers revolves around Never’s contrasting needs: on one side he knows he must prevent Snow from fulfilling his designs, because he understands the inherent dangers of absolute power and the blindness to human suffering that trails behind it; on the other he wants to recapture the bond that tied the two brothers in the past, the sense of family they shared and that was lost in the intervening years.  Never wants his brother back, he wants

the boy who had always tried to take the first blow whenever a villager threw a stone, the boy who had been the one to pull Never back to his feet, the boy who had been sure their curse did not have to damn them to a life of loneliness and hate

Unfortunately, this desire is at the root of Never’s ultimate weakness wherever Snow is concerned, and it allows Snow to coerce his brother into helping him, too often pulling him into his schemes against Never’s will with a cold ruthlessness that more than once made me wonder what had happened to the boy who used to be a protector and a shield.  And when the answer comes, it’s a very poignant one indeed.

The bright side of it all comes from the friends (the surrogate family) Never has gathered around himself: Luis, who has been his traveling companion from the very start; young Tsolde, even Elina – whose difficult position forces her to shift from ally to enemy and back to ally – and others.   For someone who has been forced by circumstances to live his life alone, Never makes friends quite easily thanks to his loyalty and capacity for self-sacrifice, both traits that belie his sometimes gruff and standoffish manners.  Now that part of the shadows hiding his true self have been lifted, it would be interesting to see what kind of man he might evolve into…

And speaking of revelations and discovered truths, I would like to close this review by showing how the covers for this story’s installments have slowly but surely evolved from the darkness of the first one to the light of the present book: a sort of visual clue to the expanding understanding of the readers as information piles up. Quite a nice touch, indeed!

My Rating:


 

never

Review: BINDINGS & SPINES, by R.M. Ridley (White Dragon Black #2)

33226908I received the e-ARC of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

Since reading the first volume of this Urban Fantasy series, Tomorrow Wendell, and the short stories collection set in the same world, Blondes, Books and Bourbon, I’ve wanted to know more about the main character’s journey, so that when the author offered me the opportunity of reading the ARC for this second book, I was more than delighted to accept.

The main character of this series, Jonathan Alvey, is a private investigator and a practitioner, i.e. a magic wielder. In the course of his chosen work he therefore deals more frequently with the occult than with run-of-the-mill cases of stolen objects or unfaithful spouses, although even some of the more mundane assignments he handles sometimes turn out to be anything but.

There is something that distinguishes Alvey from the other PIs in any Urban Fantasy context: the use of magic not only saps energy from the wielders, but also makes them addicts and ultimately kills them. So Alvey, like his brethren, must be very careful in channeling the powers at his disposal a.k.a. the White Dragon, to avoid falling prey to the deadly demands of its counterpart, the Dragon Black. These two opposing forces are represented by the well-known yin-yang symbol, the one that marks every practitioner.

As Binding & Spines opens, Jonathan Alvey does not find himself in a very good place: his long-time friend Mary, worried for his health, has convinced (or rather, strong-armed) him into refraining from the use of magic, and he’s now deep into the throes of withdrawal. Just like it happens to any substance abuser, his body is reacting violently to abstinence, with devastating physical and psychological side effects that all but make him unable to function normally. The only means Alvey has to stave off the worst of the symptoms are the ones he uses to keep the need to use magic at bay: chain-smoking and heavy drinking, whose long-term consequences are just as bad as those of magic itself.   Just imagine someone who indulges in terrible (and even disgusting…) habits like preparing instant coffee with bourbon in place of water, or eats his cereals with beer in place of milk – this man really knows how to punish himself…

If use of magic is bound to have deadly consequences on his body, it’s also true that the alcohol and nicotine abuse he employs as a countermeasure are just as lethal: while I at first thought that the costs of wielding magic were a nice counterbalance to the character’s abilities, here I felt there was an unavoidable downward spiral to his journey that was really painful to witness, especially when coupled with the pervasive feelings of hopelessness and resignation that seemed to have ensconced themselves deeply in Alvey’s behavior.  I previously remarked on the character’s apparent self-destructive attitude, but while before it felt more like the cynical attitude typical of his chosen profession, here it looked like he’d given up and didn’t care what happened to him either way.

Luckily, two new cases come knocking on Alvey’s door, with the promise of a fleeting distraction from his troubles: a man hires him to confirm his suspicions on his wife’s infidelity, and a series of botched resurrections of the dead points to a new necromancer in town, one who could create a great deal of trouble.  Hampered by the impossibility to use his powers, the detective struggles in search of clues while battling with the treacherous reactions of his magic-starved body, while the two seemingly unrelated cases start showing some possible points of contact, especially when a much sought-after grimoire makes its appearance on the scene.

As the investigation progresses (and as a reader it was fun to “connect the dots” together with Alvey) a little more light is shed on the life of practitioners, the spells they use and the outlandish materials needed to complete the task, adding more substance and detail to the city of New Hades where the action unfolds: as a fictional location, New Hades is an interesting mix of modern and weird, where everyday activities like restaurants or libraries coexist with places such as the Blacklight, an area where I would not feel safe even in an armored tank. The overall mood of these stories always makes me imagine these locations in sepia tones, never in color: New Hades seems to live in perpetual twilight, even in the middle of the day – or at least this is how I keep perceiving it while immersed in the story.

There is no lack of humor in these pages, however: it’s of the subdued kind, so as not to contrast with the overall dark mood, but for this very reason it’s even more effective. We go from small touches as the street names, like Marlowe Avenue or Lorre Way, that give an amused nod to the two genres this series takes inspiration from, to the Redcaps infestation plaguing Alvey’s office building. Redcaps are small, vicious creatures that remind me of the garden trolls you sometimes find on unfortunate lawns, and the dichotomy between the small size of the creatures and the very nasty danger they represent – not to mention the creative ways employed by the detective to keep them at arm’s length – is the very reason Alvey’s encounters with them offer the necessary relief from the darker aspects of the story.

While this new case is successfully brought to a close, it’s clear from a few details that further and darker clouds loom on the character’s horizon, especially after the warning from a dead man who tells Alvey that “beyond even the darkness through which I traveled to return, somethings howls your name“. He will need all his wits, and all his staunch friends, to face those dangers and survive another day.

I, for one, will welcome more stories from New Hades and this very peculiar detective.

 

My Rating:


Review: GREATMASK, by Ashley Capes (The Bone Mask Trilogy #3)

greatmask-2016smallI received the e-ARC of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

This epic fantasy trilogy reached its conclusion with the final book, one that nonetheless leaves the door open for a possible sequel: should that not be the author’s intent, the sense of “unfinished business” from the last chapter still is a welcome change from a more conventional ending, one where all the narrative threads are nicely tied up.

At the end of book 2, the main characters were all scattered to the four winds, contact between them lost and each one forced to deal with their problems, some of which were of a quite deadly nature: Notch and Sofia managed to escape from the Sap Born, but were separated in the forest, he fighting for his and Nia’s life and she running away with her father and the Sap Born’s freed prisoners. Ain was traveling back to his people, together with his companion and King Oseto’s peace envoy, only to meet with a deadly, formless foe. And King Oseto himself faced the threat of a Renovar invasion, only to discover that a new, unknown force was at his doorstep: the Ecsoli, the ancient people from whom the Anaskari originated, arriving from the sea to conquer the city, and steal its precious bones.

Now, as the third book starts, we follow  each individual group as they struggle to overcome the mounting difficulties: at the beginning this fracturing of narrative threads makes for an apparently disjointed storytelling, but little by little the pieces start to come together to build the main tapestry, non unlike smaller streams that flow into a wider river, and we understand that each single incident is part of an overall – and ominous – picture.    And once our “heroes” manage to regroup, the story takes on speed, driving toward a breathless fight for survival.

What becomes clear is that ancient bones are indeed the key to this world’s magic, and that there is an untapped well of power in them: this must be the main reason the Ecsoli are collecting them with a ruthlessness that seems born of desperation – or great need. One of the most gripping parts of the story comes indeed from the description of occupied Anaskar, of the profoundly changed life in the beleaguered city, where people are trying to survive in the streets filled by the rubble from the attack, or patrolled by the Ecsoli who seem quite keen in enjoying bloody sport.

More intriguingly, the bone masks themselves transition from mere tools to characters, showing what kind of unimaginable powers can be drawn from them – and what kind of price they exact from their wearers: I was fascinated by the hints of personality that were shown this way, and by the almost neutral nature (for want of a better word) they display, neither good nor bad, but still frightening in its uniqueness.

We learn more from the characters as well, a few hints from their past and – more important – the changes wrought by the dire situation on their personalities: King Oseto, and the shocking bargain he seals with the ancient mask Chelona is the most relevant example of this, as is Sofia’s continuing journey toward maturity and the ability to make harder and harder decisions, showing a strength of spirit that had only been hinted at up to this point.

There is a huge change in tone toward the end and the final showdown: the author’s usual discursive style transforms here into pure narration, describing the story’s climatic events in a breath-taking scene that would make wonderful cinematic material, and whose conclusion was surprising for the bold – if sad – choice he made there.  I must admit I was taken unaware by the turn of events, but once the consternation wore off I understood that this bittersweet conclusion was much more satisfying than a more conventional one where everyone marched to the proverbial happy end.

Not all questions are answered at the end of Greatmask, and that’s the main reason that made me mention “unfinished business”, but I like to have some unsolved mysteries, to know that not everything has been explained: making one’s own assumptions is part of the fun after all…

All in all, a very satisfying conclusion to an intriguing story.

My Rating:

 

I would like to take a little time here to talk about the cover: what I used at the top of the review is going to be the one for the published book, but as I was waiting for the “go ahead” from the author for the posting of my review, I was made aware of some problems with the cover itself, that might not have been ready for the publication date.  Mr. Capes kindly sent me the alternate cover, that I’m sharing here just as a matter of curiosity and because I loved the colors and the sense of impending doom that comes from it.  What do you think? Which one is your favorite?

greatmask-pre

Review: THE PEAKS OF AUTUMN by Ashley Capes (Book of Never #4)

31822092I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

Never’s adventurous quest in search of his lost heritage, and the answers to the many questions plaguing him about his nature and past, goes on.  Together with faithful Luis, the former treasure hunter, and Tsolde, a young woman who joined the company in the previous installment of the series, he continues in his perilous journey across a world that seems to reserve the most incredible – and sometimes frightening – surprises just for him, as if the rest of humanity were blissfully unaware of the weirdness that lives just outside of their collective sight.

With this new segment in Never’s series I felt more clearly than before the videogame-like quality of this story: although I’m no gamer, I am aware of the structure of role-playing quests, so that each new encounter, each new danger that the group faces does indeed feel like a new level in a game, with the stakes being raised after every successful accomplishment, and new skills being called into play.  This impression is strengthened by the narrative structure, by the box-within-a-box sequence of episodes where the solution to the riddle does not bring success, but rather a new – and more difficult – challenge to overcome.

As I said before, this can be both compelling and frustrating, because the intelligence Never so painfully gathers seems to lead him nowhere, except toward new tasks and new trials.  The narrative structure does not help in defeating the aggravation either, because the serialized form of this novel subjects the reader to longish waits between installments, that always end in a more or less harrowing cliffhanger.  After the end of this fourth chapter in The Book of Never, I reached the conclusion that the author does indeed enjoy torturing his readers…  🙂

If, until now, the characters have not enjoyed a thorough characterization, since the story is more plot-driven than character-oriented, in The Peaks of Autumn I saw something change in Never, and in a major way: his companions become something more precious for him than simple travel mates, and Never feels the huge burden of responsibility for their fate. This looks like a mixed blessing, because until recently Never was used to fend for himself alone, and to hell with the consequences, but now he’s been entrusted with the lives of two people, two persons he cares about quite deeply, and this seems to somehow weaken him, making him more vulnerable. Yet, at the same time, this new-found awareness makes him more human and approachable, and at the same time gives a new, interesting layer to his personality.

Finally, I would like to spend a few words for the cover: I’ve been enthusiastic about every cover for this serialized novel, but this new one surpasses all the preceding ones, both in subject and in color choice: it’s very dramatic and eye-catching, and it complements very well the book’s contents.  If it’s true that you should never judge a book by its cover, it’s also true that a good cover can be a powerful enticement….

The Peaks of Autumn will reach the shelves today, so I’m more than happy to celebrate its arrival, looking forward to knowing more about Never and his companions in the future installments of the story.

My Rating:


Review: VICK’S VULTURES, by Scott Warren

31019075I received this book from Parvus Press, in exchange for an honest review.

Just a few days ago I was reading a fellow blogger’s reasons for not accepting submissions from indie authors any longer, and I could sympathize with those reasons: more often than not, the writing and editing quality of these books is not exactly stellar, or the premise and promise of the stories don’t hold up against closer scrutiny. And that not even taking into account personal reading preferences and biases.  My own experience is that only one book in ten doesn’t end in the DNF pile, if I’m lucky, so I appreciate why some would choose to concentrate on more tested and tried offerings – I’ve held that thought myself several times, especially after a particularly disheartening encounter.

Then I “meet” books like this one, and I understand the reason why I have not given up yet: because otherwise I would miss out on exciting discoveries.  Vick’s Vultures is precisely the example of the kind of potential that could get lost in the huge crowd of emerging authors struggling for recognition, if it couldn’t get under a helpful spotlight: it’s a good, solid, entertaining story, and even if it’s not a world-changing reading experience, it’s an enormously enjoyable book, and sometimes that’s all we look for.

The best feature of Vick’s Vultures is its premise: once humanity ventures beyond the Solar System it discovers that the Galaxy is peopled by a great number of alien races, all of them far more advanced and far more belligerent and dangerous than Earthers. Starting out with such a handicap, humanity chooses to keep a low profile, forging alliances with lesser civilizations, while trying to acquire technological improvements in the most unobtrusive way.  This is the origin of the privateers, to all intents and purposes scavenger crews who gather scraps of alien tech in the wake of the endless conflicts between the major races: retro-engineering this alien technology, Earth is able to further its own advancement while staying out of sight of the big guys – and out of harm’s way – as much as possible.

The Condor, under the command of Captain Victoria Marin, is one of these privateers: as the novel opens, Vick is worried by the lack of valuable finds that has plagued her crew in recent times – she needs a sizable profit, something truly outstanding, to keep her ship afloat both financially and morale-wise.  Fate brings the Condor across the wreck of a Malagath ship, drifting in space after a battle with their arch-enemies the Dirregaunt: the salvaged materials alone could be a dream come true for Vick and her people, but the real bonus comes with the Malagath survivors she finds on board, because one of them is First Prince Tavram, the heir to the throne. Taking him home will be a great coup, and coupled with what the Condor will bring back in alien tech, it will mean a great deal for the Vultures and their captain’ future as privateers.

Trouble is, the Dirregaunt – in accordance with their wolf-like appearance and predatory nature – are not ready to give up on their quarry, and this starts a dangerous hunt for the prince and the ship that rescued him, a hide-and-seek chase through interstellar space that will take its toll on the already stressed Condor and its crew, pitting Captain Marin’s willpower and cunning against that of a very determined, very savage enemy.

This premise results in a fast-paced, at times breathless story that makes for a compelling reading while laying the background for the author’s vision of the future, one that is quite believable in its lack of glamorous technological advancement for Earth, whose people try to carve their own niche in the grander scheme of things, despite the obvious disadvantages they started out with.  You will not find exotic and hard-to-believe (or comprehend…) technobabble here: Earth ships all but forge on through makeshift repairs, inventive use of purloined technology and a good dose of human stubborn resourcefulness, which make it quite easy to root for the characters.

Captain Marin is a good example of this: a strong, determined woman who cares deeply about her ship and crew – and shows it through action rather than words, which is a very welcome change. A woman who has learned the hard way how to survive in the doubly hostile milieu of space, where environment and people lie in wait for that single moment of distraction which will mean one’s death.  Vick knows what she wants, and knows how to take it, be it precious salvage, a tactical opportunity or a moment of passion to make her forget the heavy demands of her position.  As far as female characters go in this genre, she’s sound and believable, and does not need to be beautiful and alluring, or dark and tormented (or one of the possible permutations…) to stand out: she’s a capable, reliable professional, and she has charisma – it’s more than enough.

This novel is not immune from a few problems, however, but they are indeed minor and do not detract from the overall experience of the book: the background information, for example, is pared down to the essentials but at times it intrudes on the narrative flow in such a way as to prove mildly distracting. While I understand the need to flesh out the author’s vision and to offer useful details on this imagined future, there are times when the didactic nature of this information feels a little too much – at least for me. Then there is the characterization, that is not explored in great depth, although the adventurous nature of the story requires a tighter focus on action, rather than introspection. And again there is a thread about two Earth marines playing infiltrators where the suspension of disbelief is stretched somewhat thinly.  Still, these are considerations that did not spoil my enjoyment of the story or took me out of the narrative “bubble”, and are quite superseded by some intriguing, unusual details that make a difference: for example the fact that the few colonies Earth managed to establish are largely ignored by alien expansion because the oxygen atmosphere humans need is not in great demand with other species.  It’s a small thing, but to me it speaks of an active imagination capable of intriguing lateral thinking.

Vick’s Vultures will be available from October 4th: if you feel the need for an engaging, adventure-filled story and the beginning to what could turn out to be a good series, you need look no further.

My Rating:


Review: CONGRESS OF SECRETS, by Stephanie Burgis

28953200I received this book from Pyr Books through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to them both for the opportunity to read this novel.

If I enjoyed Stephanie Burgis’ previous book, Masks and Shadows, this one went well beyond any expectations I had, after my first encounter with this writer. Congress of Secrets is far richer and multi-faceted than its predecessor and I enjoyed it very much, as the levels of tension and intrigue kept me glued to the pages until the end.  The story is set a few decades after the events of Masks and Shadows, and follows new characters, although there is a passing mention of Marie Dommaier, the young maid-turned-opera singer, who seems to have become very famous and whose role appears to be the handing of the narrative baton to the new players.

Caroline Wyndham, a wealthy English widow, hides a secret: she was born Karolina Vögl, daughter of a Viennese printer arrested by the secret police twenty-five years previously for his illegal anti-establishment pamphlets. Karolina herself was a prisoner of Count Pergen, the head of the secret police, who held her – and other equally forgotten victims – as a subject for his experiments in dark magic and alchemy for several years.  She is now back in Vienna, with the pretext of following the Congress being held on the wake of Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat: her real goal is to find a way to free her father, the only one of Pergen’s inmates still to be released.

Michael Steinhüller is a professional con artist, and his latest scheme involves passing himself as a dispossessed Russian noble come to Vienna to obtain reparations for the losses suffered during Bonaparte’s campaigns of conquest. He’s no stranger to Caroline, either, since he was her father’s apprentice when the police came to arrest them all, and her last image of him – and Michael’s recurring shameful memory – is of Michael running for his life as the printer’s shop was torched.  When he meets Karolina/Caroline again, the past threatens to infringe on their respective plans and to intrude with uncomfortable memories and unspoken feelings.

Around these two main characters moves a number of either fictional or historical figures, making once more this novel a rich tale that intrigues with its core story and stimulates curiosity toward the events being depicted: if Peter Riesenbeck, the leader of an acting troupe traveling to Vienna in search of success and fame, is an imaginary construct, and the unwitting lynchpin around which part of the drama unfolds, there are also some very real people moving across the stage and weaving seamlessly between reality and fantasy. There is Emperor Francis and the dark secrets he shares with evil Count Pergen, another all too true figure from the past; or we encounter famous politicians as Talleyrand and Metternich; or again my favorite among the secondary players, the Prince de Ligne, who I discovered was a flesh-and-blood person, widely known for his wit and his scorn of political expedience: his friendship with Caroline and his avuncular curiosity toward her, and the mystery she represents, is one of the highlights of the story.

Of course much revolves around Caroline and Michael’s meeting, the emotional undercurrents of their past and present and the misunderstandings that threaten to drive them further apart: once more I commend Ms. Burgis for not placing the romance at the center of the story, but using it simply as part of the plot, leaving the daring schemes of the two under the spotlight.  Caroline herself is an intriguing character: like her virtual “sister” Charlotte von Steinbeck in Masks and Shadows, she works within the era’s social conventions, but manages to wield whatever power she can muster with skill and courage, driven by the need to free her father and the guilt she feels for the long years she was forced to abandon him to his destiny.  Caroline is no innocent – her truncated childhood saw to that in no small measure – and she’s not an angel either, able as she is to employ her feminine wiles to advantage, but at the same time her past experiences and the deals she had to make have not hardened her completely, and she retains a core of vulnerability that gives her personality a delightful complexity.

The magic elements of the novel are just as intriguing – and frightening: the darkness that inhabits count Pergen and allows him to draw energies from his victims, shifting them to himself or other recipients not unlike a blood transfusion, seems to have a connection with the dark, formless shapes that we saw in Masks and Shadows, and maybe is a sort of evolution of that entity, or a side manifestation. Much is left to the imagination and not explained completely (something I approve of) and the very insubstantial nature of the phenomenon is what makes it so terrifying and believable, especially in the final scenes of the unfolding drama.

If the story seems to end with a somewhat easy “and they lived happily thereafter”, it does so in a very satisfactory way – and after the horror and anguish visited on the characters for most of the time, I think they deserve it, and so do the readers.  The added value in this novel, even more than in its predecessor, lies in the curiosity that the author manages to instigate in her audience about the historical period in which the action is set, and in the real-life figures presented there. As always, a book that makes me think, besides its entertainment value, is a good one.

Very, very highly recommended.

My Rating:


Review: CHILDREN OF THE DIFFERENT, by S.C. Flynn

29864261I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review: unlike other submissions I accepted in the past, this one took a different path. The author is also a fellow blogger, and he built some anticipation for his book by sharing first an excerpt and then the cover art, an interesting – if puzzling, at the time – image that further piqued my curiosity.

Children of the Different is a post-apocalyptic novel dealing with the aftermath of the Great Madness, a wave of murderous, virus-driven insanity that swept the globe some twenty years previously, whose victims fell prey to an unstoppable killing instinct.  Apart from a number of people who proved to be immune – as it often happens with any kind of plague – the only ones to avoid the Madness’ effects were those who had previously exhibited mental problems of various gravity: they not only survived the infection, but their afflictions were cured. Those who did not fall into either category became Ferals: as the name suggests, they are little more than beasts attacking other people, killing them and feasting on their flesh.

Now, all children born after the Madness undergo, once they reach puberty, a process called “the Changing”: they enter a comatose state in which they experience the Dreamland, a place of the mind capable of affecting the body as well, so that an injury sustained there shows in all its painful tangibility in the waking world. The Changing can bestow unique powers on those youths, or transform them into Ferals, who are driven away from the communities where they grew up.

As the novel opens, young Arika just started her Changing, observed with huge trepidation by her twin brother Narrah, who is alternately worried for his sister and for the ordeal that will shortly claim him as well. The story unfolds following the twins’ experiences – both in the Changeland and in reality – while they slowly discover more about the world they live in, as it once was and as it is now: until their Changing they lived a very sheltered life in an isolated settlement, the only information about the outside provided by the elders of the community, and therefore lacking many important details that they need to complete the puzzle.

Arika and Narrah’s path is both a coming-of-age journey and a quest, and a fascinating one at that, since it develops on several planes, due to the intermingling of reality and dream-state, without forgetting the peculiar powers that both of them gain from their Changing: here is where I finally comprehended the full meaning of the cover image, and where I understood my feelings of dread when I observed the figure of the echidna, the Ant-eater that keeps plaguing the young protagonists both in the material world and the dream state. The malevolent countenance and the red eyes of this creature struck me as totally evil on the cover, so that when it appeared in the Changeland, threatening the twins, it appeared even more of a danger than it would have from description alone.

As far as dystopian novels go, this one was quite unlike my previous experiences, and it was a very welcome change: for starters, the Australian setting is unusual for the genre, and it adds a further dimension to the post-apocalyptic landscape, imbued as it is with some Aboriginal wisdom and customs, which give it a distinctive flavor in respect of similarly set novels.  Then there are the main characters: forget the much-used (and abused) tropes of angsty youngsters, whining about the unfairness of the world or dealing with the equally ubiquitous love triangles – Arika and Narrah feel like real, flesh-and-blood teenagers, eager to take their place in the world and at the same time plagued with doubts and uncertainties, but strong enough to want to face any obstacle before them. Their courage comes from the awareness of the responsibilities they carry toward each other first, and then toward their community and, later on, the wider world; the love and the strong bond they share is the power that drives them forward through hardships and terror, and it’s a delightful and very real emotion to behold.   

The interweaving of reality and mind-scape is another fascinating side of this story, because it helps focus on the changes that the Great Madness brought to what remains of humankind: if the real world is scary enough, what with the constant threat of Ferals, or other humans preying on the weak, the Changeland is much worse, if nothing else because of its unpredictability and the opportunity for other, stronger minds, to affect it and create nightmarish dangers.  Following the twins during their Changings, or the later visits they are compelled to pay to this dream-state, can be a disturbing experience, one that personally made me hold my breath more than once, such was the power of the images I found there.

This is a novel primarily directed at a young audience, and as such it suffers a bit from the need of detailed exposition and the reiteration of a few basic concepts – both instances probably aimed at strengthening the understanding and attention span of its intended target, though slightly jarring for a more… mature reader. That notwithstanding, the story is a fascinating one, and the characters very easy to relate to and care about, so that I feel perfectly comfortable in recommending this novel to everyone who wants to hear a new voice in the speculative fiction panorama.

My Rating: