Reviews

Review: THE RUBY HEART (Slaves of the New World #2), by Ashely Capes

 

 

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

The two siblings Thomas and Mia we got to know in the previous book in this series, The Red Hourglass, continue on their path in search of freedom and of answers about their past.  Set in a dystopian version of what I believe used to be Australia and is now a dry wasteland ruled by a dynasty of self-proclaimed kings, the Williams, the story is centered on Thomas and Mia, former slaves in king Williams’ retinue, who have managed to escape and are now on the run from the king’s relentless hounds.

In the first book, we got to know the two siblings a little: Mia is blind but possesses some precognitive powers and the ability to summon a mysterious creature of light that acts as a sort of protector, while Thomas shows a strong affinity with steel, that he can bend and shape through his superhuman strength.  There were hints about some sort of manipulation worked on them by the king’s chief Alchemist, Silas, but that’s one of the many mysteries still surrounding the couple while showing that the story’s background, despite its clear steampunk vibes, also offers some touches of magic and the evidence of a former higher civilization that is now more myth than actual memory.

After the breakneck pace of the first book, when Thomas and Mia’s energies were focused on staying alive and out of reach of their main pursuer, the lady Elizabeth and her monstrous SandHog, a steam-powered behemoth able to travel over any kind of terrain, The Ruby Heart allows us a closer look on the siblings’ characterization, something that until now suffered a little because of the need to advance the plot in their endless flight, and it does so by separating Thomas and Mia and setting them on different courses: the sense of pressure is still high, granted, but here we learn more about what makes the two tick, besides the abilities that define them.

The discovery of an organized rebellion against the Williams’ iron-fisted rule and of the Clara, an airship that might help them achieve their escape, compels the two fugitives and their new friend Ethan to find someone able to pilot the ship, and while looking for clues toward that goal, the two are found by lady Elizabeth’s men: Mia and Ethan manage to escape while Thomas is taken prisoner aboard the SandHog. As the stakes get higher for both narrative threads, the focus shifts often on the personalities of Thomas and Mia, allowing us a deeper look into their mind-set, and that’s where I felt a substantial change in my perception of them.

Until now Mia seemed the weaker of the two, not just because of her blindness or the often paralyzing visions that offered more question than answers, but because of her total reliance on her brother for physical and moral support.  Thomas’ absence now forces Mia to count more on her own capabilities and to trust her inner strength with more assurance: of course her blindness requires guidance, which Ethan provides, but as far as decision making or facing the dangers that challenge them – either in the real world or in the dreamscape that she keeps visiting more and more, as if her psychical powers were growing as well – Mia appears to advance toward being her own woman, and not her brother’s subordinate

On the other hand, Thomas almost seems to flounder: captivity and the uncertainty about Mia’s fate do of course undermine his spirit, but his forced stay on the SandHog hints at the beginning of a Stockholm’s Syndrome, especially once Elizabeth makes some advances in his direction and Thomas – despite the loathing for his implacable pursuer – is unable to remain indifferent to the woman’s charms.  On his defense it’s necessary to point out that Elizabeth appears to follow her own agenda, one that is not exactly consistent with king Williams’ goals, and that might allow some ground for confusion, but it was my definite impression that Thomas’ physical strength – which here plays a pivotal role in the SandHog’s quest – does not go hand-in-hand with an equal strength of character, something that becomes dramatically clear with the huge, appalling blunder he makes at the end of the novel, one that fuels the cliff-hanger with which the novel closes and one that might bring dramatic changes to the course of events.

It will be interesting to see how the story plays out in the next installment, now that some of the notions I had seem to have been overturned and that more questions than answers lie on the table, waiting to be resolved…

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: THE PHOENIX OF KIYMAKO (Book of Never #6), by Ashley Capes

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

Never’s story gains another chapter in his journey of discovery, and change: after the massive revelations of the last two installments, which saw not only Never’s unexpected transformation but also his disillusionment and grief, our hero embarks on a new quest in the search of a sister whose existence he did not suspect until recently, and in so doing takes us to a remote part of the world that is quite different from his usual stomping grounds.

Kiymako is an island far away from the mainland where Never’s previous adventures took place, and it has a decidedly far-Eastern flavor, both in environment and culture: from the plains and mountain ranges of old we are taken to a lush jungle-like territory, where bamboo and rice paddies share space with tropical forests. Thanks to their isolation, the inhabitants have developed a very different culture, one more geared toward mysticism and a heightened sense of spirituality, as testified by the temples dotting the island and the great number of monks that seem to present in every settlement.

This does not mean that our hero faces an easy task, because he soon discovers that the place is rife with plots within plots and that power games are being played at any latitude: as he starts to inquire on the whereabouts of the young woman to whom he might be related, Never must guard his back carefully and be even more wary than usual. Thankfully though, he also manages to make some friends, something that seems to be his true advantage in any situation: for a man who has always lived alone and counted only on himself, he has this uncanny ability to engender friendship and loyalty in the decent people he meets, so that his quest is facilitated by some much-needed allies.

As I have come to expect by now, Never’s search is a long theory of discoveries that lead to puzzles to be solved, which in turn help him unearth some new clue that will guide his steps forward: this kind of storytelling will certainly appeal to readers who also enjoy playing games because, as I have noted before, the narrative looks like a series of levels of increased difficulty to be unlocked before Never can move to the next challenge.  Unlike previous stories in his journey, though, there is a difference here: due to the sometimes unpleasant truths he finds, Never becomes progressively disillusioned with his origins, understanding as he does that he, his late brother and now his newfound sister were nothing more than pawns in their father’s far-reaching plans.  And it’s for this very reason that his encounter with innocent Ayuni gives him hope for a better future, and for a family tie that is finally free of ulterior motives.

Unfortunately, the name our protagonist goes under seems to determine his fate and never looks like the final word for every one of his goals, as he’s forced to continue in his quest for the heritage that gave him great powers, but also – as the saying goes – great responsibilities, and also exposes him and all those of his blood to great dangers.

And so the adventures go on…

The Phoenix of Kiymako will be published next June: if you want to get up to date with Never’s previous journeys, HERE is a complete list of the titles.

 

My Rating: 

 

Reviews

Review: THE UNDERWATER BALLROOM SOCIETY, edited by Stephanie Burgis & Tiffany Trent

When Stephanie Burgis contacted me to propose I read and review this collection of short stories from various authors, I was quite intrigued: I had enjoyed both her two historical fantasy novels (Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets) and her novella Snowspelled, with its alternate version of Regency England where magic is as common as teapots, so that I was fairly certain I would appreciate these short works centered on the shared theme of an underwater ballroom.

The location itself would have been enticement enough as a narrative lynchpin, but once I learned from the preface that an underwater ballroom does indeed exist as the remnant of a once-lavish estate, my curiosity did skyrocket: I have by now learned that Ms. Burgis loves to employ true historical details as her writing’s cornerstones, and the fact that she proposed the same core theme to other writers, to do as they pleased within their stories, made for a potentially fascinating journey.  And that’s what this collection was, indeed.

Each story is wildly different, ranging from steampunk fantasy to what I labelled as “fairy stories for grown-ups”, but each of them features the famous underwater ballroom in one way or another, and the overall effect is a delightful one. Now, if it were only remotely possible to experience at least one of these amazing ballrooms, that would be nothing short of perfect…

In “The Queen of Life” by Ysabeau S. Wilce, we see the unusual juxtaposition of the fae  world with our own reality, exploring the concepts of music and immortality, and of the meaninglessness of a long life devoid of the rich pleasures we can only find in the mortal sphere.

“Twelve Sisters” by Y. S. Lee is what made me think of the definition of ‘fairy stories for adults’: in fairy tales, once the hero does the deed and wins the princess’ hand, the focus fades into the usual ‘happy ever after’, while here we see how that same ever after could be anything but happy, and the hero… well, anything but heroic.  It’s one of the more poignant offerings of the anthology, and the one that was able to better blend fantasy with some modern harsh reality.

“Penhallow Amidst Passing Things” by Iona Datt Sharma is a story about smugglers and law enforcers in a very peculiar 18th century setting, one where both roles are given to quite fascinating female characters. Seriously, I would not mind a full novel describing this kind of world in deeper detail…

“Mermaids, Singing” by Tiffany Trent is the story from Ms. Burgis’ co-editor, a dark fairy tale in which a mistreated hound, forced to perform in a cruel circus, discovers the truth about its true nature and that of its fellow prisoners, while at the same time offering a look into 19th century London and an aspect of its life that comes from history: clearly Ms. Trent shares her co-editor’s penchant for inserting real-life details into stories, which affords some more depth to the tale.

“A Brand New Thing” by Jenny Moss will no doubt appeal to all book lovers, since it focuses on a young woman from the early years of the 20th century, who prefers to lose herself in the stories she reads rather than facing a somewhat dreary reality.  Still, fiction can be satisfying only to a certain extent…

“Four Revelations from the Rusalka’s Ball”, by Cassandra Khaw is probably the weirdest, darkest offering of the whole collection, one I’m somewhat still trying to recover from, and wrap my mind around. Which means it was quite effective.

“Spellswept” by Stephanie Burgis takes us back to the author’s alternate England – or rather Angland – a country where men wield magic and women dictate politics, a wonderful topsy-turvy look into a staid society where gender roles are reversed in so many delightful ways.  If you wondered, while reading Snowspelled, about the tantalizing hints given about Jonathan Harwood and his wife Amy, here you will find all the answers you wanted, besides getting a glimpse into main character Cassandra and her beginnings as a magic-wielding female, the true scandal of the times.

Laura Ann Gilman is an author that’s been long on my radar, so I welcomed the opportunity to sample her writing in this anthology: her “The River Always Wins” is a bizarre, intriguing story about the strange friendship between a Siren and an Erinyes, or Fury, and of a night spent in their old haunt of a peculiar nightclub, where old, buried memories will surface again with dramatic intensity.

“The Amethyst Deceiver” by Shveta Thakrar is probably one of the strangest stories I remember reading, and I’m still trying to come to terms with her concept of… well… mushroom people.  Weirdness can indeed take so many shapes where creativity is involved!

And last but not least, “A Spy in the Deep” by Patrick Samphire takes us to a steampunk version of Mars, colonized by the British Empire and rife with dastardly plots and untold secrets.  The flavor of this story reminded me somehow of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate, but with a more serious bent to it and a charming heroine I would like to encounter again in other stories – or a full-fledged novel.

Short stories can be tricky creatures, and I know several of my fellow bloggers are quite wary of them because they don’t always offer the same involvement as a book, but the fact that these particular stories strive to cater to our sense of wonder, to our desire for the magical, the uncanny, the bizarre, makes them perfect even for the most contrary of book lovers.  Try them out and take a spin in the underwater ballroom, you never know what might be waiting for you there…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE LAST SEA GOD (The Bone War #1), by Ashley Capes

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

In truth, I did not know whether the story spanning the books in the Bone Mask trilogy would move toward a sequel: at the end of the final volume, many threads had been carried to conclusion – some of them with a tragic epilogue – and the world seemed destined to find its way toward a sort of new balance after the widespread turmoil that had shaken it.  Still, other narrative paths had been left hanging, and from there this new Bone War trilogy takes its start: even though it’s a brand new narrative trail, I would not recommend starting from here, because its roots dig quite deep into what went before, and you will need that knowledge to move easily in this new territory.

Unlike the previous installments of the story, The Last Sea God follows a good number of points of view, some well-known, some new. Notch, the former soldier-turned-adventurer who played one of the central roles in the Bone Mask trilogy, does not find himself in a very good place: at the beginning, we meet him as he’s plagued by guilt for Sofia’s ultimate sacrifice, and tries to drown his sorrow in alcohol – quite a departure from the determined character we learned to know in the past.  The only way he can get out of his despondency is by launching himself into what looks like an impossible task: traveling to the Ecsoli’s land and find a way to reverse the Sacrifice required by powerful masks, so that he can assuage his remorse over having failed his duty to Sofia.  What he and his companion Alosus (a character I’ve come to care for quite a bit) will find there will be much more than he bargained for, both in the matter of acquired knowledge and in the way of what we might call foreign politics…

Flir, Notch’s long-time comrade, takes a journey back to her home of Renovar, to convey King Seto’s peace overtures after the failed invasion from a group of her own compatriots, and also to acquire some more powerful bones to replenish Anaskar’s stores, that have been almost completely depleted by the war with the Ecsoli – with the exception of old Argeon.  This path down memory lane is quite difficult for Flir, especially where her peculiar abilities are concerned, but this relatively minor discomfort is overshadowed by the discoveries she makes about her old home.  Her ambassadorial duties must soon be placed on a back burner when she finds out that there is something quite sinister going on, something that more than hints at sorcery, or worse.

Pathfinder Ain, of the desert-dwelling Medah, makes a welcome return here: after the first book, where he enjoyed one of the three main points of view, he was later afforded far less space than I would have liked, so finding him again here, and seeing him face a deadly threat to his people, more than made up for the past.   Having brokered an alliance between the Medah and Anaskari, he’s leading the extraction of more precious bones from the desert, when his village is attacked by a veritable horde of weird people, bent on stealing the bones he and his compatriots have excavated: it will fall to him, true to his Pathfinder duties, to forge a new road toward salvation and the solution of a new, terrifying mystery.

King Seto, for his part, looks like the living proof for the famous Shakespearian quote about the uneasiness of the head wearing a crown: Anaskar is still suffering from the Ecsoli invasion’s aftermath, and something nasty is brewing in the background, something that seems well beyond Seto’s ability to fully comprehend or stop.

The newcomers on the scene are Nia, of the grove dwellers, who we encountered before but too briefly to get to know her well, and Fiore, a Storm Singer in training, who despite her your age might prove pivotal toward solving the riddles that the new conspiracy based in Anaskar is laying on King Seto’s path.  Both of them provide further insights into what is happening, either in the grove or in Anaskar, where dark forces are clearly bent on subverting the attempts to return to a normal life.

There is indeed much to take in while reading The Last Sea God, and I needed all of my powers of recollection and concentration to juggle the myriad details that compose this story like a very convoluted puzzle.  The increased number of points of view did not help, either, and I must admit it felt as if the narrative focus became somewhat diluted if compared with the more contained solutions previously adopted.  The characters are literally scattered all over the world, where strange, often weird events involve them and create separate and apparently unconnected story-lines, and this time more than ever I had to “battle” with the difficulties presented by author’s narrative style, that is more discursive than descriptive, and therefore required me to pay increased attention to avoid being distracted and missing vital clues.

Of course this does not mean I did not enjoy the story, because I certainly did, but at the end of the volume I felt as if I had been presented with only a glimpse of things to come – a great number of things, to be precise – but no hint about how they all individually fit into the grand scheme of events, or where they were headed, and I confess that this left me a little frustrated, despite the certainty that in the end all will become clear. Sadly, patience is not one my virtues…  🙂

So, to end on a more upbeat note and remove that hint of frustration I mentioned, I want to spend a few words about the book’s cover, which is a departure from the previously adopted style, and shows a simple background – like fractured marble – on which the title draws all of the attention. From my point of view it’s quite eye-catching and it somehow sums up the core of the story, that of a world on the verge of breaking down because of a series of treacherous events. As they say, an image can be as powerful as words, if not more.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

VICK AND HER VULTURES ARE COMING BACK!

 

Last year I had the opportunity of reading the first volume in Scott Warren’s Union Earth Privateers series, kindly offered for review by the publisher Parvus Press. Vick’s Vultures proved to be a fast-paced, quite entertaining story about a band of privateers, space crews sent to retrieve any kind of alien tech that Earth would be able to retro-engineer and use to keep abreast with the more advanced races peopling the galaxy, while at the same time keeping a low profile.

One of the book’s best features was indeed Victoria Marin, the captain of the Condor, a strong, well-rounded character whose practical determination quickly won my sympathy: once I closed the book I knew I would look forward to learning more about her and her Vultures.

Soon I will have this opportunity: Parvus Press contacted me with the kind offer of reading and reviewing Book 2 in the series, To Fall Among Vultures, that will be published at the beginning of October. I am of course eager to learn what new adventures are waiting for the Condor and its crew, and equally eager to share my findings with you, so while we wait I’m very happy to share the link to the giveaway for Book 1 that is currently running and will enable you to catch up with Vick’s first adventures and to prepare for the new ones.

Just follow the link below and fire your engines! The journey starts here…

 

VICK’S VULTURES GIVEAWAY

Reviews

Review: THE RED HOURGLASS (Slaves of the New World #1), by Ashley Capes

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

I’ve often reviewed the works of Australian author Ashley Capes, whose writing range goes from fantasy to magical mystery to (albeit mild) horror: this time he’s tackling another genre, steampunk – but with a touch of magic thrown into the mix.

The siblings Mia and Thomas are running from pursuers across a desert landscape: they just buried their deceased old protector and guide David, and their prospects look quite bleak, since over the horizon a dust cloud signals the approach of the hunters looking for them.  Mia and Thomas are escaped slaves, the condition indicated by the hourglass tattoo on their arms: in this future or alternate history, slavery has returned – at least in Australia, so that the country has been isolated from the rest of the world because of this – and the siblings were the property of self-proclaimed King Williams, who wants them back because of their special gifts.

The clues in the narrative point to a classic steampunk background: steam-powered vehicles, the mention of airships (although this particular technology seems to have been lost by the ruling dynasty) and so on, and yet there are a few tantalizing mentions of a more advanced past, one that has now become more legend than actual memory. On top of that, however, there is magic: Mia shows a sort of precognitive ability, paired with her almost total blindness, and the knack of summoning a powerful creature with destructive powers; while later on Thomas discovers an affinity for steel, which he can bend or break with the sole strength of his muscles.

The world in which they move is an intriguing one: even though it’s not immediately mentioned, we soon understand the action is based in Australia – if the author’s origins were not an obvious clue, there is at one point a mention of an iron fountain shaped like a kangaroo to make this clear. The country appears different from the one we all know, the desert encroaching on the fewer livable spaces, red dust creeping forward like a tide that covers abandoned cities and chokes everything and everyone.  It’s not clear what happened, but at some point major environmental and political upheavals must have combined to create the present situation, one that nobody in power seems to care about.

As the two siblings run for their life and freedom, while searching for answers about the past they seem not to remember – including the bewildering changes worked on them by the mysterious Alchemist, something they have no memory of, as well – we get to know this cruel, harsh world and its few islands of respite, like the colony established by former slaves on the shores of the ocean, or the rebel camp where a handful of fighters tries to subvert the rule of King Williams’ dynasty, or the freemen of the mangrove village no one seems to know about.    I have to admit that these proved something of a frustration to me, because they were more like fleeting glimpses rather than deeper explorations of these enclaves, where I might have learned more about the past and the events that brought on the current situation.  The same happens with King Williams’ capital city, a place of hard labor in the smoke-belching factories and of fear of terrible retribution for those who cross the ruler’s wishes: I would have loved to know more, and to see more than the quick peeks the novel afforded.

On the other hand, this is a story carried by motion, the constant, running motion of the two fugitives trying to stay at least one step ahead of their pursuers, so I understand how it would have been difficult to… stop and smell the roses, so to speak: still there is that nagging voice, asking for more, that is not so easily silenced. My hope is that the next installments in the series will shed more light on the whole scenario and bring about a few answers as well.

As an introduction to this world, The Red Hourglass is an intriguing offering that promises to develop into a quite exciting story, one whose follow-up I’m looking forward with great interest.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: SNOWSPELLED, by Stephanie Burgis

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

The two novels penned by Stephanie Burgis that I previously read – Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets – were both delightful finds, creating a very successful mix between historical events and magic-driven fantasy: not only were they enjoyable books, but they compelled me to search for more information on the history of the times chosen as background, so that I was able to learn details that were previously unknown to me, which is always a plus from my point of view.

You can therefore imagine how thrilled I was when Ms. Burgis contacted me to read and review the first of a series of novellas titled The Harwood Spellbook, set in an alternate Regency England, one where magic is quite commonplace.  This historical period is one I enjoy reading about, since it brings back fond memories of the times I shared Georgette Heyer’s books with my mother, and the premise for Ms. Burgis’ setting sounded quite fascinating, so I did not waste any time in accepting.

England – here named Angland – is a country where humans, elves, trolls and other creatures coexist more or less in peace, mostly through treaties stipulated after the bloody wars of the past. The country is ruled by women through the Boudiccate (so named after Queen Boudicca, who in this alternate history did manage to overcome the Roman invaders), while men are tasked with the exercise of magic, relinquishing every political power to their wives, mothers, sisters and so on.  The most amusing aspect of this social background comes from the overturned customs: men seem more inclined to gossip and trivial pursuits, while women deal with the responsibilities of government and the rule of the land.

Cassandra Harwood is a rule-breaker: to the chagrin of her mother, one of the Boudiccate’s more powerful members, she was never interested in politics, preferring to explore her potential for magic and therefore going against every social convention of the country. Her drive brought her to be accepted in the Great Library, the male academy teaching the finer points of magic, where she distinguished herself and where she met Wexham, a magician of equally strong powers and ultimately her fiancé.  As the story starts, however, Cassandra is recovering from the effects of a spell she should never have tried alone, and as a consequence she is forbidden to practice any kind of magic: to do so would mean courting death.

Cassandra feels her life is all but over, and hardly tolerates the sympathy of friends and family members, seeing in it a veiled reproach for the unconventional life choices of the past: for this reason she has broken her engagement with Wexham and is not looking forward to meeting him again at the formal reception in the Cosgrave estate, where the pacts with the Elf kingdom will be renewed. Other concerns will however claim Cassandra’s attention – among them an unseasonable and strangely intense snowfall that all but forces the guests to stay indoors – and she will be compelled to fight for her freedom without the help of the magic that until recently was her second nature.

I read the story in one sitting, unable to let go of the charming atmosphere depicted by the author, one where a subtle vein of humor runs throughout the pages thanks to the upside-down social customs of this alternate version of Regency England. The verbal skirmishes, the strict adherence to conventions, the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle…) snubs exercised by the guests, all the details I expected from interactions based on this historical period were there, but artfully shifted to encompass the differences created by the premise. Here are two delightful examples:

It was a truth universally acknowledged that women were the more pragmatic sex; that was why we were expected to run the government, while the men attended to the more mystical and imaginative realm of magic.

The gentlemen, of course, were expected to remain at the table, until a maid was sent to notify them that it was safe for them to join us in the parlor, meaning that the political conversations were officially finished for the night.

Cassandra is a very enjoyable heroine, stubborn enough to want to pursue her own goals in spite of conventions, but still prone to the weaknesses of the heart, whose existence she outwardly denies only to be constantly reminded – with loving humor – by her brother and sister-in-law, two other characters I liked from the very start.  And she can also be courageously strong when the time comes to face dangers or the creepy (oh, so creepy!) Elf lord who challenges her.

As a beginning to a new series, Snowspelled is a very promising one and also a departure from what this author’s previous novels led me to expect, a change of pace that I found totally enjoyable: where Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets held a darker core to their background, here the tone is lighter, more a divertissment than anything else, the kind of story that can take my mind off more serious concerns and leave me with the definite sense of having breathed some fresh, invigorating air.  Something we all sorely need now and then…

I certainly will look forward to more adventures from Cassandra & friends.

 

My Rating: