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: 

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Reviews

Review: THE TYRANT’S LAW (The Dagger and the Coin #3), by Daniel Abraham

 

Once again I managed to let a long time elapse between this book and its predecessor, but once I returned to this world I discovered that my memory of it was as fresh and sharp as if I had finished Book 2 just yesterday, and this can show you the measure of Daniel Abraham’s skill as a storyteller and the impact of his characters on a reader’s imagination.

When considering epic fantasy it’s easy to think about grand, sweeping stories that encompass vast expanses of territory and a huge cast of characters, and while Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin series does take place in such a background, it manages to advance the plot through a limited number of P.O.V. characters, namely four, and to switch seamlessly between them keeping a constant rhythm that helps you fly through the novel and find yourself at the end of the book wanting for more.  Granted, The Tyrant’s Law is in the unenviable position of being the middle book in a series of five, and there are moments when it seems to lag a little, but it’s just an impression, and an incorrect one, since in the end I saw what the author was doing here, which is build some momentum that will certainly propel the final two books toward their intended goal.

The world in which this story grows has never been a peaceful one: legends speak of bloody conflicts in the past – an era in which dragons ruled, the only sign of their existence in present times represented by the jade-paved roads that connect the cities – and the co-existence among the thirteen races who roam through the lands is not an easy one; moreover, in the first book readers witnessed the wanton destruction of a flourishing city and the slaughter of its inhabitants.  Now, however, those conflicts seem to have been rekindled with a vengeance, and the unrest that fueled a civil war in the imperial city of Camnipol is spreading throughout the world, taking on the ugly new face of a bid for power masked under a cultural, religious and racial battle for supremacy through conquest and submission.

The new, rising power is represented by the spider goddess’ priests and their goal to subjugate everyone under the goddess’ banner: after securing themselves a position of supremacy by backing the former nobody Geder Palliako, they proceed to focus their conquering drive by finding a convenient scapegoat in the form of one of the thirteen races, the Timzinae, and conducting a genocidal campaign of hate and distrust that justifies any action they take.  It’s nothing new either in the imagined or in the real world, and this awareness keeps imbuing the story with chilling overtones that feel even more terrifying for their historical familiarity.

Two of the main characters, Captain Marcus Wester and Master Kit (former priest now turned apostate and hiding as an actor troupe leader) try to find a weapon against the encroaching power of the goddess and her priesthood, and embark on a long, dangerous journey in search of a powerful artifact that might destroy the goddess herself.  I already remarked, in my review of the previous book, how diminished Marcus Wester looked once he stepped away from his role as a military leader, and here he still has not regained that former strength that had made him stand out as a character at the beginning of the narrative arc. Even through the hardships he and Kit have to face, and despite the great resilience he shows in the course of their quest, I found it difficult to really feel interested in Marcus’ journey, and I have to admit that I found his P.O.V. chapters the less engaging of the book, at least in comparison with what happens to the other characters.   The last segment where he appears, though, holds the promise of a big change, and I look forward to seeing what will happen with the amazing discovery he and Master Kit are faced with at the end of the novel.

Despite being confined somewhat in the sidelines here, Cithrin enjoys a much more interesting character arc: after demonstrating to her employers, the Medean bank, that she is an able businesswoman, she is officially apprenticed to an important branch in Timzinae territory, and finds herself a little lost, and disappointed.  The harsh experiences that tempered her in the fateful escape from Vanai led her to believe she could do anything, and made her not a little self-centered: here she must deal with the knowledge that she still has a great deal to learn, especially where the real value of money is concerned.  When Geder’s army takes control of the city and starts its cruel oppression of the Timzinae, she realizes what the true power of money is, and it’s the kind of revelation that is bound to change her outlook and thought processes in a major way – this becomes clear in a fateful choice she makes that will certainly have major repercussions along the way, and I can’t wait to see which will be the direction that Daniel Abraham has chosen for this girl who is finally starting to perceive the realities beyond the bank’s ledgers.

As for Geder… well, he is a wonderful character in the sense that he’s complex and unpredictable at the same time, but he’s also a horrible one. While reviewing the two previous books I already commented on his decisions to mete unthinking destruction with the same lack of empathy one might reserve for insects, but it’s the changes through which he is going that prove to be the most appalling. The man who started out as a bumbling, book-loving nerd, finds himself suddenly gifted with great power, flattered and bowed to by the same people who used to despise and ridicule him, and while he does not gloat about his change of fortunes, there is a deep well of unexpressed resentment in him, of desire for retribution, that drives his actions in the most nasty and shocking of directions.  The person who best describes him is indeed Cithrin, with whom he fell in love as they hid in a basement during the worst of the civil unrest in Camnipol:

“Geder’s not a cunning man,” Cithrin said. “He’s… he’s just a man of too little wisdom and too much power.”

“He is a terrible person, you know. But he’s also not. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who managed to make himself so alone.”

And it’s Geder’s infatuation for Cithrin which might be the proverbial straw that will snap his last, feeble ties with reason and humanity and send him further down the road to hell.  Whether I will still pity him in the future, as I did in the past… only time will tell.

I’ve saved discussing my favorite character for last, because her chapters were the ones I most looked forward to, and her arc the most intriguing and fascinating of the whole saga: Clara Kalliam, former lady of substance in the community of Camnipol, is now the widow of a traitor and has fallen down to the bottom of social standing, but being the dragon lady she is, she might be powerless but she is not broken. I totally loved how she maintains appearances and keeps working her contacts, a true spider weaving a complex web geared toward the fulfillment of her plan – because she has one, and it’s both ambitious and far-reaching.  Where other women might have fallen prey to despair and given up the fight, she understands that her reduced standing has given her a freedom of movement that she did not possess when she had to conform to society’s strict rules:

Her actions and opinions were impotent, and so they could be anything. She was already fallen, and so she’d been freed.

What Clara has set in motion will certainly change the fate of many, and I am beyond eager to see where her machinations will take the rest of the story: the simple fact that the next book’s title is The Widow’s House sounds very, very promising…

As a middle book in the narrative arc, The Tyrant’s Law might deceptively look like a transition novel, but in the end it proved to be the beginning of a huge game change, one that will keep me reading on with keen interest.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE GUTTER PRAYER (The Black Iron Legacy #1), by Gareth Hanrahan

 

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

In the past few days, The Gutter Prayer has been reviewed all over the place, so let’s join the fun…

This is the kind of book that requires extreme flexibility of mind from its readers, because it throws them into the thick of things from page one, and from there it keeps a constant, swift pace for most of its length, leaving them almost no time to metabolize the events or to consider them in depth – which in a way encapsulates both the pros and cons of this story.  If that breakneck speed works well for the progress of the story itself, which is built upon a series of twists and turns, discoveries and betrayals, it goes to the detriment of character development, because in the end it seems we never get to know those people well, or at least that was the impression I received.

The city of Guerdon is something of a safe port in a sea of turmoil, while the rest of the world is in the throes of the God War, a conflict in which divine entities battle for supremacy, generating hordes of refugees fleeing from mayhem and destruction. Guerdon avoided this fate some time before by taming its deities and turning them into the Kept Gods, beings whose powers are greatly diminished and only wielded through “saints”, ordinary people imbued with special faculties who act on the gods’ behalf.  This does not mean, however, that the city is a quiet place: the secular powers running Guerdon keep contending with each other for dominance, and it soon becomes clear that someone has been working in secret to tap the buried energies of the old gods to achieve that goal. In this scenario, the three main characters find themselves swept away by events that seem bigger than they are and that will test their powers for endurance and growth.

Carillon Thay, or Cari, is the only survivor of a once-influential family whose members where slaughtered when she was a small child. Trusted into the care of relatives, she ran away but was forced to return to Guerdon – penniless and desperate – and try to eke out a living among the thieves of the less-savory quarters of the city.  We meet her in the middle of a heist she’s working on with her friends Spar and Rat, and from that moment on she falls prey to terrifying visions that hint at something dark and dreadful at work.   Spar is the son of the former head of the Thieves’ guild, or Brotherhood, and he lives in the shadow of his famous father who died in prison without revealing the Brotherhood’s secrets despite beatings and torture: Spar wants nothing more than to follow in his father’s footsteps, but his dreams are crushed when he contracts the Stone Plague, an illness that turns its victims into pieces of rock.  And finally there’s Rat, a ghoul who tries desperately not to succumb too soon to his people’s inescapable drive for dead flesh and underground dwellings, staying near the surface as long as he can. The friendship between these three people, the bond they forge in spite of their differences, is indeed the brightest light in the grim scenario of The Gutter Prayer, and something that manages to withstand the worst kinds of test.

As the story progresses, we are taken through various parts of the city and learn of its structure and history, of its day-to-day workings and its horrors, especially the horrors: the Alchemists’ guild is one of the strongest powers in Guerdon, and among their creations are the Tallowmen, unfortunate people – mostly criminals and low-lives – who have been rendered into waxy shapes animated by a lit wick in the head; or the Gullheads, whose mere sight can inspire deep terror in the onlookers. But there are even worse players at large, like the Ravellers – nightmarish creatures who consume their victims and are able to take on their appearance so as to ensnare other targets; or the Crawling Ones, masses of worms that can mimic the human shape of the people whose soul they have eaten.

With such horrors as background and the revelation of the dirty political maneuverings that are the heart and blood of the city, Guerdon takes its rightful place among the flesh-and-blood characters and becomes more than a simple theater for events; more than once I was reminded of another city where darkness was stronger than light, China Mieville’s New Crobuzon from Perdido Street Station, but with an important difference: where the depiction of New Crobuzon stressed the element of decay almost to the point of basking in it – one of the reasons I did not enjoy that novel – here the negative aspects play as counterpoint to the story’s saving graces, and in particular to the themes of friendship and loyalty that are embodied in Cari, Spar and Rat.  Cari in particular looks like a whimsical creature, one whose fight-or-flight instinct tends toward the latter rather than the former, a person who at first seems superficial and self-centered but who slowly reveals her deep commitment to her friends, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for them. And if Spar’s nobility is clear from the very start, something that together with his stoic acceptance of the illness’ unavoidable progression quickly endeared him to me, Rat comes across as a more complex creature, one whose nature and leanings bring him to live always on the edge.

What we can learn about these characters and the many others that people the story, however, looks more like fleeting glimpses, and the reckless speed of the narrative often denies the possibility of delving deeper into their nature, of knowing them better, which unfortunately leads to an overall effect of detachment that is one of my main contentions with this novel: I need to feel invested in characters – either for good or bad – to really connect with a book, and The Gutter Prayer never fully let me do this, keeping me at arm’s length, so to speak.

There is nothing wrong in a plot-driven story, of course, but it seems… wasteful to build such intriguing characters only to employ them as little more than extras – and here comes my other big problem with this novel: a good number of these people ends up dead, and that in itself would not be so unexpected considering how the story unfolds, but all these deaths seem devoid of any emotional connection since they happen far too quickly and are immediately washed away by the tsunami of other events. Two are the instances where this narrative choice bothered me greatly: in one case it’s an heroic act that allows other people to escape, and it happens off-screen, only a flash in the darkness marking the character’s ultimate sacrifice; in the other the person falls from a great height and is seen no more, and even if there are momentous consequences in the wake of that fall, it’s as if the individual did not matter anymore. In both cases it felt as if the characters were only little motes in the grand scheme of things, and given my sympathy for both of them that was quite hard to accept.

Still, The Gutter Prayer is a solid, very enjoyable novel and as debuts go a reasonably well-crafted one, and I can certainly recommend it to all lovers of the genre.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

PLANETARY AWARDS: Nominations for the best of 2018

 

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

At the beginning of each year bloggers are called to vote for the Planetary Awards, a chance to showcase your favorite novel and shorter story from last year’s readings.

The contest is promoted by PLANETARY DEFENSE COMMAND and you can go HERE and learn how to list and promote the titles that caught your imagination more than others, or that were amazing discoveries from so-far-unknown authors.

Once again I went through my 5-star-rated books to choose, and once again was reminded how difficult that choice can be when you can nominate only one title in both categories, the Full Length Novel and the Short Story. Last year I picked my nominees by letting blind chance decide, but this year I wanted to do something different, so I decided to choose an unknown to me author and a well-known one, so that I could feel a sort of… balance in the process.

So the winners and my nominees for the 2018 Planetary Awards turn out to be:

 

Full Length Novel: A TIME OF DREAD, by John Gwynne (my new discovery)

 

Short Story or Novella: THE FLOWERS OF VASHNOI, by Lois McMaster Bujold (an old-time favorite)

 

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

And as usual, my thanks for Planetary Defense Command for hosting the awards!

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE INFLUENCE MACHINE, by Sean McMullen

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

THE INFLUENCE MACHINE, by Sean McMullen

A delightful tale with some steampunk overtones, set in Victorian England (or maybe an alternate version of it) in which Scotland Yard inspector Albert Grant finds himself confronted with extraordinary events and an equally extraordinary young woman who makes him change his outlook on the world.

Despite his young age – he’s twenty-four years old – Grant is as cynical as they get: the son of an impoverished family, he was sent to the best schools where he learned modern scientific methods to be applied to police work. Despised and ridiculed by his peers for his family’s misfortune and kept at a distance by his colleagues because of his superior education, he lives in a sort of cocoon made of loneliness and contempt that at times turns to disappointment when he realizes that there is no amount of scientific knowledge that can outdo the street-wise experience of a beat policeman.

So, when he’s called to investigate the case of Lisa Elliot, a young lady who was arrested on suspicion of illegal activities, he finds in her a kindred spirit and someone with whom he can discuss scientific facts with the certainty of being understood. For her part Miss Elliot shows him an incredible device that can afford a glimpse into the future or maybe an alternate reality, something that instantly draws the attention of the powers that be and sets in motion an unpleasant chain of events.

Among the details I most enjoyed in this story are the underlying comment about the Victorian era’s mindset, especially toward women, and the tentative friendship between Grant and Constable Duncan, a man that the inspector first treats with his usual disdain, only to slowly change his opinion and start forming a working relationship based on mutual respect.

A very pleasant read, indeed…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: A VEIL OF SPEARS (A Song of the Shattered Sands #3), by Bradley Beaulieu

 

It took me a while to finally get to this third installment in Bradley Beaulieu’s Song of the Shattered Sands, but I finally managed to learn what happened after the ending of book 2, where many narrative threads were left in a state of flux, and to satisfy my burning curiosity.

Over the course of the previous two books in this series, whose scope has now grown from the initial three to six volumes, the focus broadened from Çeda’s revenge quest to a more complex political scenario of alliances and betrayals, political maneuvering and old mysteries, just as the background expanded from the fascinating city of Sharakhai to the outlying desert wastes and neighboring realms.   While this has enriched the narrative, adding many more facets to it, it has also proved to be something of a mixed blessing, because at times I felt quite lost by the number of players and their conflicting or interlacing agendas, and by the revelations that came to light as Çeda’s journey progressed, so that once the gods and demons of the story’s pantheon came into play as well, interfering in a more direct way with the warring humans and their plans, I could not avoid being somewhat overwhelmed by something approaching sensory overload.

On one hand I understand how the story could not be sustained only by Çeda’s mission, since that particular narrative thread had a limited scope and it would have been difficult to carry it forward for the now increased number of books, but on the other I could not avoid the sensation – less apparent in book 2 and much stronger here – that the story sometimes takes a meandering path that feels a little… wasteful, for want of a better word: the tight pacing I encountered in Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, one of the many reasons I loved that book deeply, faltered a little in the second volume and it does so a bit more in this one – at least in my perception – and I could not keep myself from worrying that the extension of the series to six volumes might ultimately weaken the strong concept at the basis of this work and also the role of the main character.

Yes, because Çeda surrenders the limelight here even more often than in book 2, and I have to admit that I missed her strong presence and her determined focus every time the point of view shifted to another character, no matter how interesting: granted, the difficult path walked by Ramahd as he aids Queen Meryam in her schemes while trying to hold on to his own humanity and basic decency is a fascinating one, just to name one example; just as the first cracks appearing in what used to be the Kings’ united front, now that the first deaths have started to upset the balance of power, look like a prelude to their downfall; or again it’s good to see how Emre, Çeda’s longtime friend and once-lover, continues his growth from a street thief to a warrior inspired by an ideal bigger than himself.  Still, not one of them holds for me the same relevance as Çeda does, and every time she has to step aside and let other stories take center stage, my interest does flag a little…

That said, Çeda still remains the lynchpin on which much of the plot revolves, thanks to the inner strength that is tougher than her doubts, to her fierce loyalty and single-mindedness, even more so in this book where many of the separate factions working to undermine the Kings’ merciless rule start uniting in a common purpose, a development that promises to bring exciting consequences in the next books – especially as we get closer to the final showdown.  Moreover, it’s through Çeda that we learn other anguishing aspects of the asirim’s tragedy, of the callous lie that ensnared them and led to their transformation, and of the huge reservoir of anger and hatred that moves them: as terrifying as they are, now that I know about their origins I cannot avoid a deep sense of pity for all that they have lost.   And again, Çeda’s meeting with the branch of the family she never knew, because of her mother’s estrangement from them, offers a delightful pause in her harrowing search, and gives her some much needed roots to anchor her down and lessen her feeling of isolation.

These more… personal elements, however, end up being a little lost in the grander scheme of things that is taking shape as the story unfolds in all its complexity, and that’s the main reason of my slight – but unavoidable – disappointment with book 3 and the persistent sensation that ‘more’ is not necessarily ‘better’: while the scope of the battle was confined to a limited number of characters, it was easier to keep abreast of them, their plots and schemes and endeavors, but now that the players on stage are more numerous, and have been joined by gods, demons, sand wyrms and whatnot, I feel a little lost and confused and wonder if what started as a good vengeance and political upheaval story will not morph into something else…

Still, I know I’m looking forward to the next installment for this series: my desire to see Çeda succeed in her quest is indeed stronger than any of the doubts I expressed above.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: MALICE (The Faithful and the Fallen #1), by John Gwynne

 

When earlier this year I read John Gwynne’s A Time of Dread, the first volume in his new saga titled Of Blood and Bone, I was immediately captivated by the author’s storytelling and the complex background of the novel, so that once I learned of the existence of a previous loosely connected series, I knew I would not wait long before reading it. Which brings me to Malice, the start of The Faithful and the Fallen epic.

On the surface, Malice looks like a classic good vs. evil tale, and in truth it employs several traditional elements of the genre, like the prophecy of an impending conflict between the champions of light and darkness, or the coming of age of a young man destined to greatness, but it does so with such narrative skill that it’s impossible not to be absorbed by the story and enjoy its rhythm and subtle buildup.  I have come to envision the author as a bard of old, of the kind who once gathered people around a fire as he recounted tales that everyone was familiar with, but that gained new depth and meaning with clever storytelling, one where the journey matters more than the end.  As a longtime admirer of JRR Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings, I found here the same kind of epic tale I love to lose myself in.

As far as the background is concerned, the novel takes place in the Banished Lands, a region where people retreated after the devastating war between the gods of good and evil, Elyon and Asroth, and where humans dwell in uneasy balance together with giants, wyrms and other outworldly creatures. High King Aquilus, who oversees the various realms in which the Banished Lands are divided, has been warned about the prophecy that heralds a new war between the opposing forces of light and darkness and the final battle between their champions, the Bright Star and the Black Sun: when he calls the other rulers to council, asking for an alliance against the coming darkness, his proposal is mostly met with uncertainty and disbelief, since the forces of evil have already begun to sow their seeds, so that what should have been a united front is fractured by mistrust and competing shows of strength.

I’m not going to delve further into the story because I think it must be enjoyed on its own: no matter how familiar the premise might sound, it’s the kind of tale that takes hold of your imagination and carries you, slowly but surely, toward its stirring climax: Malice works very much as an introduction, and as such it takes its time to gather clues and build them up, requiring some patience from the reader, but that patience is more than rewarded in the last segment of the novel, when events are brought to a peak that leads toward the next book in the series.

The real backbone of the book comes however from the characters: Mr. Gwynne gives us a good number of points of view, alternating them between chapters so that the story flows easily from one to the other: here lies my only contention with this novel, because we make the acquaintance of too many characters all at once, and that might prove a little daunting since we are not given enough time to get to know them properly before moving on to the next one. Aside from this little snag – that I overcame by taking notes to fix their traits in my mind – observing these individuals’ evolution in the course of the story was indeed a fascinating exercise.

The main point of view belongs to young Corban, a village smith’s son: he’s looking forward with some trepidation to the warrior training that all village boys undergo, especially since the local bully does his best to undermine Corban’s faith in himself and his abilities. It does not help that his fiery sister Cywen often comes to his rescue, somehow giving strength to the bully’s claim about Corban’s cowardice: it’s at this point that the mysterious stablemaster Gar offers his services as a combat instructor, mentoring the boy in what look like unusual techniques geared to face worse danger than what the usual village defender encounters.  The relationship with the wolven Storm, a wild creature everyone else is wary of, lends a further patina of mystery to Corban’s destiny, and makes for some wonderful passages of bonding between boy and animal, that were among my favorite segments.

On the opposite side of the social spectrum there is Nathair, heir to King Aquilus: he’s eager to prove his worth and somewhat stifled by his father’s caution and his mother’s fear for his safety. The prince’s determination to show his mettle takes him toward a path where darkness rules more often than light does, and in so doing carries along with him another young noble, Veradis, enrolled in Nathair’s personal guard and looking for the recognition that his father always denied him.  The theme of a remote father whose absence or lack of interest – which in some cases becomes outright hostility – drives the son away in search of respect encompasses another character, that of Kastell, whose path is however different because he puts himself to the service of the land, joining a specialized cadre of warriors who battle the dangerous creatures roaming the Banished Lands: Kastell’s journey is one of my favorite narrative threads, mostly because I enjoyed his relationship with older Maquin, who acts as a mentor and protector to the younger man.   Last but not least is Evnis, the counsellor of King Brenin (one of the lesser rulers under Aquilus), who is painted from the very start as the true villain of the story since he sells his soul to evil Asroth in search of vengeance – and yet he’s not a totally negative character because there are somewhat valid reasons for his actions, although the choices he makes lead him on a dark path.

The character list is by no means limited to the ones I quoted of course: there is a great number of minor figures who enrich the variegated tapestry of this story and add interesting points of view that deepen our understanding of this world – I’d like to quote healer Brina here, because her caustic demeanor and sarcastic wisdom were among the highlights of Malice, to the point that I hope she will be present in the next volumes as well.  All these figures contribute the immersive experience of the novel, one where the themes of courage and deception, of selflessness and wickedness, of friendship and hate all contribute to create a lively, believable background that is brought to life piece by piece as the complex mosaic of the story comes together.     When taking into account the fact that this first volume of The Faithful and the Fallen is the author’s debut novel, Malice looks an even more extraordinary feat, one I know blossomed into the successful A Time of Dread, and one that makes me quite eager to continue exploring this saga.

My Rating: