Reviews

Review: SIXTEEN WAYS TO DEFEND A WALLED CITY, by K.J. PARKER

 

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

Sometimes a book surprises you because it turns out to be completely different from what you expected, and in this case that surprise was a delightful one, indeed: I picked up this book on impulse, despite the scant information offered by the synopsis, because that unfathomable instinct that I’ve come to call “book vibes” was strongly drawn to it, and once again it proved to be right on target.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is the story of a siege, and also the story of the man defending the besieged city from the unknown assailants who are cutting through the Robur Empire’s territory like a hot knife through butter. Orhan is a colonel in the engineering corps of the Robur army despite being a “milkface”: the Robur, blue skinned and aggressive, have conquered Orhan’s people and look down on them as inferior, unworthy of consideration, the prime targets for slavery and abuse, but Orhan’s engineering skills have brought him to this favored position that allows him a modicum of freedom of movement and independence.

When a few pirate-like sorties against Robur military depots turn out to be a bold move by an unknown enemy, who is able to provision his army and turn the stolen ordnance and weapons against their former owners, Orhan understands that something dire is afoot and manages to close the gates of the empire’s main city before the invaders can storm the walls.  Not a military man by a long stretch (his favorite catchphrase is “I’m just an engineer”), he is however able to shore up the City’s defenses and to give it a chance of surviving beyond the mere hours that would have been the foregone conclusion if the assailants’ ruse had worked – and he manages this feat despite the ineffective short-sightedness of the ranking officials and the social turmoil always brewing under the surface.

Orhan’s success in what looks like a desperate undertaking comes from the fact that besides his engineering skills, which are quite remarkable, he’s a self-declared liar and a cheat, and he knows how to deal with all layers of society acting as a middleman between apparently incompatible parties, as testified by his greatest feat, the truce he forces on the two rival underground factions, the Blues and the Greens, compelling them to work together for the common survival and making them see reason beyond the age-old enmities, at least for a while; he also knows how to turn to his advantage the scant resources at his disposal, paying for them with somewhat counterfeit coins and carrying on through misinformation and double dealing, which seem to come to him as second nature.  A man more attached to the values of honor and integrity would not have managed to accomplish as much, while Orhan’s flexible standards grant him a far wider leeway – and success.

What’s truly amazing in Orhan’s achievement is that he keeps saving the City despite its inhabitants, who keep seeing him as a milkface interloper, an upstart who should know better than to try and rise above his station, and yet they end up being swept along by the man’s sheer force of conviction – and sometimes his fists, when needed.  One of the driving themes of the story is that of racism and rigid social stratification, and despite the lightly humorous tone employed by Orhan’s first-person narrative it’s not difficult to see how the Robur rule has created the kind of social order in which the dehumanization of some strata of the empire has become an accepted fact of life, even by those who are its main victims.   This is an element that plays an important part in the motivations of the invading enemy and in Orhan’s inner conflict once he learns the nature and identity of said enemy: I don’t want to delve deeper into this side of the story because it should be discovered on its own, but it’s interesting to note how the engineer’s apparently carefree approach to the question offers a great deal of food for thought and discussion on the subject of loyalty, even toward those who don’t deserve it.

Orhan’s personality is a deceptively simple one: on the surface, all he cares about is building things, his pride lays in a work well done and one that endures through time, so that the narrative of the siege is carried out in a humorous, self-deprecating tone that belies his true nature and his past history.  In the course of events, we are made privy to the facts and incidents that made Orhan the man he is now, and as the details pile up we begin to understand that there is more under the façade of the “simple engineer”, including something of a mean streak – not that it comes as a surprise, in consideration of his lying and cheating, but some of those instances shed a very peculiar light on him.  Ultimately, it becomes evident that Orhan is an unreliable narrator, not least because he’s the one dictating the story we are reading, and by his own admission he’s not averse to embellishing some of the facts to shine a more positive light on himself. Orhan gives a whole new meaning to the concept of reluctant hero, since he does not seem to mind embellishing some his deeds, but on the other hand he’s trying his best to avoid the trouble that comes from doing what needs to be done.

One of the best features in this book is its narrative quality, a lightly witty mood that’s kept constant all throughout the story and attains that right balance that’s often so difficult to manage and that K.J. Parker handles with no apparent effort. This, together with a steady pace, made breezing through the book a joy, marred only by what seems an abrupt ending, one that left me with too many unanswered questions and a strong desire to know what happened next. It’s the only blemish I can think of in this story that turned out to be so much more than I bargained for.

 

My Rating:

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Reviews

Short Story Review: UNDER THE SEA OF STARS, by Seanan Mcguire

 

click on the LINK to read the story online

 

Finding a story by Seanan McGuire is always a treat, particularly because I never know, going in, what I will find, although I’m also aware at the same time that it will be an intriguing journey – and this was no exception.

The tale is told in the form of a diary from Amelia Whitmore, who in the latter part of the 19th Century mounts an expedition to explore the depths of the Bolton Strid, a body of water wreathed in mystery, a deceptively lovely place with hidden depths and murderous currents that never gave back the bodies of the unfortunates that dived in it.  Long ago Amelia’s grandfather Carlton found a strange woman on the banks of the Strid, with pale, glittering skin and no knowledge of the world, and named her Molly; after her death, he vowed to look for her family to tell them of what had happened, but was unable to, and now Amelia wants to fulfill that promise, and explore the mysteries of the Strid. What Amelia will find is beyond her wildest thoughts, and filled with terrible discoveries…

The tone of this story is an intriguing one because it uses a language and expressive mode that’s typical of the period in which the tale is set, something that reminded me of the sense of wonder of Jules Verne and the terror of the unknown from Lovecraft’s works: the latter is particularly true at the closing part of the story, when the ultimate truth hits like a scorpion’s sting.  Which is a typical Seanan McGuire’s ending…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: UNDER ORDSHAW, by Phil Williams

 

I received this novel from the author in exchange for an honest review: despite having closed my blog to indie submissions a while ago, I was intrigued by the premise of this book since I read LYNN’s review of it for the 2019 SPBO event, so that when the author contacted me I was happy to make an exception.

Under Ordshaw is an Urban Fantasy story that follows the genre’s parameters only up to a certain point: we have a modern city setting coexisting with a paranormal reality made of fae and monsters – the latter haunting an underground system of galleries – but the similarities stop here. The main character is neither a detective, nor is she a specially gifted person (both being common occurrences in UF): on the contrary she’s a quite ordinary girl who is forced to face extraordinary circumstances despite her best efforts not to.

Pax Kuranes is a skilled card player living off her winnings: as we meet her she’s just gained a considerable sum in a poker game, one that will allow her not only to pay the almost-overdue rent, but to buy her place in a high-stakes tournament whose earnings might go a long way toward offering some security for the future.  Pax’s elation is short-lived though, because a young man in a bar swipes the money from her pocket even as he’s being arrested by a government official: angry and frantic about the money, and curious about the thief’s mutterings about a minotaur, Pax does a little digging and finds a strange, hand-drawn book in the man’s hideout – a book representing weird, creepy creatures that seem to come out of the worst Lovecraftian nightmare.

This is only the beginning of Pax’s eerie adventure, as she’s introduced to the mysteries of Ordshaw’s underground and to the existence of a terrifying and secret world peopled by monsters, fairies and agents of good and evil, whose line of demarcation is quite fluid and changes more than once in the course of the story: the man from the shady Ministry of Environmental Energy, Casaria, is definitely a creepy individual, especially when his p.o.v. chapters make the reader privy to his dreams on a future working partnership with Pax, which he hopes might evolve into something deeper. On the side of the “good guys” there is Barton, a man who stumbled by pure chance on the secrets of the underground and tried to keep its dangers at bay by acting in something of a Don-Quixote-like quest, but he looks more dedicated than effective, and pays the price of his self-imposed mission with injuries and the damage to his family ties.

And then there are the fae, winged creatures only a few inches tall, who nonetheless prove quite aggressive and sometimes lethal – if someone ever needed a confirmation of the maxim about size being unimportant, they would need to look no further than Ordshaw’s fae, especially Letty, the leader of a small, mutinous group and my absolute favorite character in the novel.  Letty is brash, aggressive and foul-mouthed, and yet she turned out to be the best drawn player on the scene, and one I had no trouble picturing in my mind’s eye, from her gossamer wings to the middle finger she keeps flaunting at the slightest provocation.

What lurks in the bowels of the city has been dwelling there for a long time, and has been the object of a tug-of-war between the fae, with their nomadic city, and the humans on the surface, both groups at odds and competing for the possession of a bizarre artifact that might change the balance of power in both realms, and the story builds – despite some “hiccups” in pacing – toward a climatic chase in the underground tunnels as the various characters try to shift the balance of power and to stay alive at the same time, since the horde of dreadful creatures of the depths has been roused and is out for blood. And flesh. And other assorted body parts…

I enjoyed Under Ordshaw, mostly because of the almost-relentless pace at which Pax and her allies and enemies find themselves facing the events, and I liked how she must work to gain some understanding of what is happening, as her view of the world is subjected to a few extraordinary revelations that will change her outlook forever. As far as Urban Fantasy series go, this book is merely an introduction of background and characters and also a promise of more to come with future installments, where hopefully the reader’s perception and knowledge will be expanded, and as such I’m aware that any problem in both narrative and characterization is bound to be straightened out in the future.  Still, there are a few details that puzzled me, and somewhat marred what might have been a total immersion in this world.

For starters, throughout the course of the book I had the distinct impression that there was something eluding me, that there might have been some other information about past events that was not shared with the readers: in several instances I felt as if I had jumped midway into a TV serial and struggled to make head or tails of the story because I had missed the previous episodes.  It was frustrating at times, and also distracting: while I can understand the need to avoid the dreaded “infodumps”, I would have enjoyed a more organic development of the playing field, so to speak, that might allow me to place the characters’ actions in a more understandable context.

And speaking of characters, sometimes I struggled a little with their depiction: quixotic Barton and his estranged wife Holly, for example, are at odds with each other because of his nocturnal forays in the underground and her suspicions about his infidelity, but I failed to see some genuine drama there, and their interactions felt stilted at times, well beyond the uneasiness of two people driven apart by secrets and doubts.  Then there is Pax, who is introduced as a fiercely independent person who tries not to be weighted down by any kind of tie, and yet we see her constantly enmeshed into other peoples’ troubles, the prime example of this being represented by Rufaizu, the thief whose actions draw Pax into the terrifying world of the underground: most of Pax’s choices in the story stem from her need to know Rufaizu’s fate after his arrest, and her determination in that respect feels at odds with the brevity of their encounter and the simple fact that their whole “relationship” is based on his theft of her hard-won money.

Still, Under Ordshaw offers a promising peek into a bizarre world that just begs to be further developed, and as such deserves to be given the chance to grow.

 

Reviews

Review: VALOUR (The Faithful and the Fallen #2), by John Gwynne

 

After the cliffhanger ending of the first book in this epic fantasy series I was keen to learn the fate of the characters I cared about, since most of them had not been left in a comfortable position by the end of Malice, so I was happy to see that Valour started exactly where its predecessor had left off, almost as if this were a new chapter in the story.

What I was not prepared to accept, however, was the leisurely way in which the author placed his pieces on the complicated chessboard of this series: much as the previous volume (and the other Gwynne book I read) the story starts with a deliberate pace that I have now come to recognize as the author’s modus operandi, and this kind of pace requires some patience from the readers, a quality I don’t possess in great amount, unfortunately, and that in this case was hindered by my eagerness to move forward with the story.  This experience taught that with a John Gwynne novel one must be patient, and that such restraint will always be rewarded in the end.

War has come to the Banished Lands: high king Nathair, persuaded that he’s the Bright Star, the champion of light who must fight against the encroaching darkness, has launched his plan of conquest, blind to the deviousness of his allies and the harm he’s inflicting on the ever-dwindling decent rulers of the land.  Young Corban, the true champion of good, is on the run with princess Edana and a few trusty companions, and suffering the double burden of the loss of his father and sister on one side and the awareness of being special on the other, a notion he’s not ready to accept.  Cywen, Corban’s sister who has been left for dead in the assault on Dun Carreg, is taken prisoner by Nathair’s war-band, her attempts at escape thwarted time and again, as are her attempts to convince Veradis – Nathair’s first sword – of her brother’s innocence: Veradis is indeed as blind to outside influence as his king…  And last but not least, warrior Maquin (one of my favorite secondary characters in Malice) finds himself prisoner of the Vin Thalun pirates and is forced to set aside his principles and humanity as he’s compelled to fight for his life in their slave pits.

These are only the highlights of a very complex story that slowly but surely gains momentum as it expands to encompass an ever-widening playing field and cast of characters: each of them is given room to grow and the chance of offering their point of view to the readers through alternating chapters that are often quite brief, as if to underline both the intricacy of the plot and the scope of the events.  One of the points that these characters’ journey underscores repeatedly is that the line of demarcation between good and evil is thin and often blurred: the “bad guys” are more often than not mislaid by the true enemies who use their insecurities or their flaws as leverage to accomplish their dark goals, so that the readers can see these people are not inherently evil but more simply misguided; just as the “good guys” find themselves repeatedly forced to be vicious in order to survive, needing to forget the rules of honor and fairness that have been at the root of their nature until then.

As a counterpoint to this element, however, there is a wonderful stress on the feelings of friendship, of belonging to an extended family that does not rely only on ties of blood but rather on the those forged in adversity, which end up being stronger than any blood relationship might be. We see this often – with the most notable example being that of former brigand Camlin, who for the first time in his life perceives this sense of belonging once he discovers he’s prepared to give his life for people he once might have preyed upon. It’s one of the few rays of hope in what looks like a dire, sometimes hopeless background.

Be they good or evil, invested with a mission or duped into wrongdoing, these characters – all of them – are the real backbone of the story, here even more than in the previous novel because we can see how they have evolved and can perceive where they might be headed; what’s more, the addition of new characters adds more layers to the ones we already know, because it’s through these interactions that an individual’s true nature comes to the fore. And here lies the most difficult hurdle to be overcome by us readers, because one way or another we come to care for these characters, to see them as flesh and blood creatures, and when the author needs to remove them from the playing field it’s always a shock, and one that’s not always easy to metabolize.   Epic fantasy should have prepared us to endure these losses: from the death of poor Boromir to the cruel slaying of Ned Stark, just to name two of the most famous ones, we should know that being one of the “good guys” is no guarantee of survival, and yet every time that happens we feel the same pain of… betrayal and are reminded of the bitter lesson of war, that no one is safe.  The only comfort offered by John Gwynne’s portrayal of these deaths is that they always seem to fulfill some higher purpose, that we can see how that particular life was not wasted on a whim – it might not be much, but it’s enough.

And speaking of war, I noticed how Valour contains an impressive number of battle or duel sequences, from war skirmishes to gladiatorial arena combat: in every instance you can find a precision of detail, a sort of choreography to the action that turns these scenes into quite cinematic portrayals.  For someone like me, who usually skips across this kind of description, this is indeed an amazing approach.

Much as Valour might have started somewhat slowly for my tastes, by the end it developed into a breathtaking narrative with higher and higher stakes, and totally unpredictable developments: if Malice laid the ground for the encroaching of evil, and Valour showed the kind of sacrifices required by the battle against it, I wonder what the next book’s title – Ruin – will mean in terms of story progress. What I know is that it will be another enthralling journey.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: SOULKEEPER, by David Dalglish

 

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

It saddens me to acknowledge the fact that I could not manage to finish reading Soulkeeper: this story started in a very promising way and maybe it created too many expectations from that beginning, leading me on the path to disappointment.  This is NOT a bad book in any way, I want to make this clear up front, only it’s not a book that agrees with me. Sometimes it happens…

Devin Eveson is a Soulkeeper, a mix between a warrior and a priest called to solve dire emergencies all over the Cradle, the realm where the story is set, and to dispatch the souls of the deceased toward the heavens.  As we meet him, he has just reached a village where a terrible plague with an inexorable fatality rate is decimating the people.  The plague is only one of the terrifying portents happening all over the Cradle: a flood of unstoppable black water brings decay to the buildings and crops it flows over, and turns the people caught in it into something resembling ferocious zombies; creatures of the wild, like wolves, attack unwary travelers and show the ability to speak, expressing malicious intent; mountains move threatening anything on their path, and mythical creatures, that so far were relegated to the realm of fantasy, make themselves known.

Even in the city of Londheim, Devin’s home base, things are looking bleak, indeed: the looming mountain at its door is the first sign of the changing times, but other clues show that is only the beginning.  The roof gargoyles become night predators seeking human flesh, and gigantic owls fall from the skies on careless citizens, but the most terrible fiend comes in the guise of Janus, a twisted creature who names himself “artist”, one who carves his works not in stone or wood, but using human flesh that it transforms and twists with cruel delight.

Thankfully, there is a sort of balance to all these dire omens: some people find themselves able to wield magic, which for some gifted individuals turns into the ability to heal the most cruel injuries or the most lethal illnesses: it’s a sign that the three Goddesses who watch over the cradle still battle in favor of humanity as the old evil that was never truly vanquished tries to reassert its hold on the world.

All these elements should have been enough to keep me glued to the book and read on in a compulsive manner, but unfortunately the pacing of the story proved to be somewhat uneven, alternating moments of high dramatic suspense with others where lightness rules, but the transitions did not feel quite smooth and I often found myself wondering where the story truly wanted to go or what its overall tone was meant to be.  While it’s true that it’s quite impossible to maintain a constant sense of impending dread and that some “breathing room” is necessary in the flow of a story, I confess I found it quite impossible to accept, for example, the juxtaposition of Janus’ brutality, whose depiction often had me reeling in horror, with the airy demeanor of Tesmarie, an onyx fairy who strongly reminded me of Disney’s Tinkerbell, or the wordless, Baby-Groot-cuteness of Puffy, a flame creature who Devin meets on his travels.

Other elements are presented but never fully fleshed: a prime example of this is offered by the Soulless, people who are born – as the word indicates – without a soul, and therefore incapable of independent thought or will.  These unfortunates are either employed as cheap labor in factories or, much worse, used as playthings by the more depraved elements of society.  One of the manifestations of the changing times is the return of the soul to many – if not all – of the soulless, with what could have been an interesting character exploration, since a Soulless is one of the people we encounter in the course of the story and she finds herself suddenly able to exercise her own will for the first time in her life.  Once again, though, this character’s journey of discovery feels far too superficial to be truly interesting, or poignant – or maybe once again I set my expectations too high to be happy with what I read.

Once I started skipping through the novel in search of the true “meat” of this story, which proved quite elusive to me, I realized that my interest kept diminishing and I could not hope to find any true connection with either the book or the characters, and even though I was already at seventy percent through I decided to give up, not without a hint of regret for what felt like an unfulfilled promise.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE MAIDEN THIEF, by Melissa Marr

THE MAIDEN THIEF

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

This moving story possesses all the qualities of fairy tales of old: we have a village where life follows the usual patterns of such tales, and an event that regularly blights the inhabitants’ peaceful rhythms – each year, at the onset of autumn, a girl disappears, never to be seen again.  Everyone knows that the Maiden Thief is responsible for the disappearances, just as everyone is powerless to prevent them, or to know who the thief is.

Verena is the younger daughter of a man embittered by the harsh blows life dealt him: his wife and only son died in a terrible accident that left the man lame, incapable of providing adequate income for his three surviving daughters. Amina, the eldest, has taken the role of mother for her younger siblings, and Karis, the middle one, tends the garden that supplies most of their scarce foodstuffs. Verena is the only one attending school in an attempt of being what her dead brother should have been, but soon is forced to leave: a paper she wrote about the Maiden Thief angered her father, and the subsequent disappearance of Karis shortly after convinces the man that Verena’s words directed the mysterious abductor’s attentions on them.

What follows is a slow descent from dark fairy tale to horror story, as the details about the Thief’s identity keep collecting and what seems like Verena’s unavoidable destiny looms closer: the girl’s spirit, however, will not suffer under her fate’s blows for long, and she will walk on a very unexpected path.  To say more would be to spoil what was a highly engaging and riveting story, one I can’t recommend enough.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Novella Review: THORNBOUND (The Harwood Spellbook #2), by Stephanie Burgis

 

I received this novella from the author, in exchange for an honest review, and I was thrilled to be able to go back to Ms. Burgis’ new series combining alternate history with magic.

Stephanie Burgis’ digression from the historical fiction of her previous novels (Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets) into “pure” fantasy is proving to be just as intriguing as her other works: the alternate Regency England – here called Angland – introduced with Snowspelled is further developed here and gains new facets and a deeper look into the characters, while offering a fast-paced and engrossing story that offers some gloomier, more intriguing shades to the established background.

Present-day Angland is the result of the successful war waged by Queen Boudicca against the Roman invaders, whom she was able to drive away thanks to the alliance with her magician husband, thus setting the mold for a society in which women hold the political power and men exercise their magic abilities for the good of the country, a situation that has endured for centuries.  That is, until Cassandra Harwood, daughter of one of the most influential members of the Boudiccate, chose to forgo a political career on the path traced by her mother in favor of the practice of magic in which she excelled, causing significant ripples in the established status quo.

When we met Cassandra in Snowspelled, we learned that the desire to prove her worth had caused a grievous accident that almost claimed her life and left her unable to cast any spell, and at the end of that story she had found new purpose in the foundation of a magic school for the teaching of other young women who wanted to cast off the shackles imposed by society as she had done.

As Thornboud starts, the school at Thornfell, the Harwoods’ ancestral home, is about to open, the first nine pupils have just arrived, and the Boudiccate has sent a surprise inspection team to assess the school and the teaching program.  Cassandra has indeed her hands full, having to deal with the preparations, the inspectors and her problems with the staff, not to mention that she is plagued by horrible nightmares and suffers the absence of her newly-wed husband, who has been called away on Boudiccate business on the very same day of their wedding. As if all of the above were not enough, strange occurrences and a dismal discovery seem to point toward a malicious plot to cause the school’s failure…

Thornbound’s overall tone is slightly darker than that of its predecessor and I found that it fit well with Cassandra’s problems and more importantly with the doubts about her ability to fulfill her dream, not to mention the anguish she feels in realizing that her choices might have seriously impaired both her sister in law’s and her husband’s prospects for their future careers. It’s a very subdued Cassandra that I found at the beginning of this story, and I felt for her, but was overjoyed to see her rise to the challenge and summon her inner strength to overcome the trials in front of her.

Still, the major pleasure in this novella comes from the theme of mutual support and the bond it can create between people, especially women: in this tale of intriguing role reversal, women appear still hampered by social conventions and unable to express their full potential, any attempt they make to break out of the mold harshly criticized by their peers when it’s not the object of scandal and shunning. It’s a very actual theme that for all of its placement into a fantasy Regency background can however resonate with our modern sensibilities, as does the other important and equally modern subject about balancing one’s own career aspiration with the needs and requirements of marriage and family.

All these elements are set into a compelling story – a real page-turner, to use an expression typical of back-cover blurbs – where magic and everyday practicality blend into a seamless and highly entertaining whole.  I hope that many more of these novellas will come forth in the future, because they are truly a delightful read.

Highly recommended.

 

 

My Rating: