Reviews

THE QUICKSILVER COURT (Rooks & Ruin #2), by Melissa Caruso

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

With her Swords and Fire trilogy, Melissa Caruso quickly became one of my read-sight-unseen authors, and the start of her new Rooks and Ruins saga, The Obsidian Tower, happily propelled me into a new adventure set in the same world.  In that first book I enjoyed discovering her new central character, Ryx, whose “broken” magic kept her from any kind of human contact because her touch drains any kind of living energy: at the end of The Obsidian Tower, Ryx had been accepted in the found family of the Rookery, a group of secret agents of sorts, dedicated to fighting unruly magic use, but had also unwittingly allowed the escape of some demons so far locked up in the prison guarded by Ryx’s ancestral home of Gloaminguard.

As The Quicksilver Court starts, the already tense situation caused by the demonic escape heightened the political turmoil between the long-time opponents of Raverra and Vaskandar, and the Rookery is tasked with the mission of finding a terribly powerful artifact that could be hidden in a realm where politics are a quite slippery affair and every move could lead to disaster. As Ryx and her friends try to deal with the delicate situation, they are made aware that the escaped demons are further complicating the already knotty circumstances and that the Summer Palace in the realm of Loreice might prove a deadly trap. I don’t want to share more of the story because The Quicksilver Court offers such an almost unending stream of surprises, revelations and twists that to anticipate even the smallest of them would be very unfair to potential readers.

Plot-wise, the backbone of this story feels like one of those escape games where the players must find their way out in a constantly changing maze where unexpected dangers lurk, and no one can anticipate what awaits around the next (usually dark) corner: the overall effect is quite sinister, conferring to the novel a suffocating sense of impending doom that’s made even more ominous by the contrast with the chiseled beauty of the setting and the elegance of the denizens of Loreice’s Summer Palace, a place where fashion is used as a political statement.   Faced with a set of equally impossible choices, the Rookery needs to deal with terribly high stakes that end up transcending the “merely” political and move over the treacherous and apparently invincible terrain of demonic power.

Indeed, Ryx and the Rookery are put to the test in the most harrowing ways imaginable, which brings the revelation of many long-held secrets that might fracture their bond, and as far as Ryx herself is concerned those revelations bring forth a discovery that affects both her past and her future: to say that I was completely floored by this epiphany would be a huge understatement and at the same time I’m eager to see how this will affect her involvement in the Rookery for the next book.

The trials our protagonists are put through offer however a powerful way of expanding their characters and showing us more of their personalities and their past: there are some heartbreaking moments in which I felt for them deeply, because so far Melissa Caruso had presented them in a light-hearted fashion, even when they were facing difficult circumstances and almost-impossible tasks – the affectionate banter between them was one of the delights of the story, and seeing them so exposed and deeply wounded was difficult and painful to bear.  And yet, nothing brings characters into sharper relief than pushing them to the limits of their endurance, and seeing what they are truly made of: all of the Rookery members came through with flying colors, their inner dynamics certainly changed but in an interesting way that promises intriguing developments for the future.

As for Ryx, if I felt great empathy for her in the previous book, here she had my total admiration because she showed once and for all that despite the cruel drawbacks life heaped on her she has grown into a strong, determined individual who is unwilling to sacrifice her personal integrity, no matter the cost. For someone who was forced to live a sheltered life, she keeps showing a degree of flexibility and strength in the face of adversity that promise to turn her into a formidable person whose unbreakable core of humanity can temper any negative influence she might suffer.

Once again Melissa Caruso confutes the notion that the middle book of a trilogy is usually the flimsy one: with The Quicksilver Court she considerably raised the stakes in a narrative background that was already delightfully complicated, all the while adding intriguing facets to her characters and their internal relationships. My expectations for the final installment in the Rooks and Ruins trilogy (and for her future production) are quite high and I know they will not be disappointed.

All I have to do is just wait…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BLACKTONGUE THIEF (Blacktongue #1), by Christopher Buehlman

When an author I’ve previously read decides to write in a different genre I’m always more than curious, and this foray into fantasy from horror author Christopher Buehlman was no exception: a few fellow bloggers who read The Blacktongue Thief before me mentioned the appealing mix between humor and grimness, which led me to think the book’s overall tone would be in the same range as Joe Abercrombie’s, but once I started the novel I found something quite different, while equally enjoyable. If you’ve read Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld, you will know what I mean when I describe Buehlman’s approach to narrative as a fine balance between adventure, bleakness and humor, a mix fueled by the main character’s unique voice and his happy-go-lucky, irreverent attitude that endeared him to me from the very start and turned him into an entertaining, delightful protagonist who hogs the limelight with no effort at all.

Kinch Na Shannack is a member of the Takers Guild, which means he’s a thief, but sadly for him a very indebted one: the tuition fees he owes to the Guild have not been paid in full, and until he does – devolving his hard-earned profits to them – he must go around with a tattoo on his cheek that makes him the object of sonorous slaps in every tavern: those who hit him can get a free drink, courtesy of the Guild.  Hard-pressed to pay back his… ahem… student loan, Kinch falls in with a group of highwaymen, and the first victim they pick is quite the wrong one: Galva is a skilled warrior and she dispatches the would-be thieves without breaking a sweat.  Tasked by the Guild to attach himself to Galva, who is on a mission of rescue, Kinch strikes a bargain with her and the two embark on a journey through a land infested by giants, goblins and assorted monsters, gathering a young witch and a former countryman of Kinch along the way. Oh, and let’s not forget Galva’s quite impressive war corvid and the adorable Bully, blind cat with some surprises under his whiskers! 😀

Kinch is a thief indeed, not only because that’s his chosen profession, but because he literally steals the scene from the get go, relaying his adventures – and those of his companions – with a flippant, often profane delivery that nonetheless manages to convey a great deal of information about his world. And what a world this is, indeed… One that is barely recovering from a number of wars with flesh-eating goblins, and is now facing the very real possibility of an invasion by giants; a world where magic is present in many forms and can be learned and used though careful training – Kinch himself has acquired and can use a trick or two. And then there is the Takers’ Guild: not the only guild on the territory, but certainly the most powerful, and clearly willing to amass even more influence through ruthless political maneuvering and a spy system that would be the envy of many such entities in our very real world.

The quest involving Kinch and Galva, together with young witch Norrigal and the thief’s old pal Malk should be a noble one, at least in the intention of Galva the knight, who is on a mission to rescue her queen, but thanks to the uneven mix of the group it turns into a riotous adventure punctuated by weird meetings, bizarre happenings and a few truly scary encounters that pay due homage to the author’s roots in the horror genre. And here is one of the true achievements of the story, Buehlman’s ability to seamlessly blend Kinch’s devil-may-care delivery of the journey with a few moments of blood-chilling dread: it takes great skill to depict a scene in which sea-faring goblins are butchering a human captive for their meal and turn it into a song-driven affirmation of courage and life; or to showcase what looks like a game of tug-of-war and suddenly turn it into a deadly affair resulting in a very unexpected loss – if you’ve read the book and know what I’m referring to, I can tell you that I’m still reeling at the way that scene ended.

The whole story revolves around Kinch Na Shannack, of course, partly because he’s the – sometimes unreliable – narrator of it, but mostly because it’s a sort of coming of age journey: the thief is a grown man, as far as age is concerned, but he’s still trying to learn who he is, what he wants (apart from repaying his debt to the Guild, that is…) and where his loyalties lie. He might depict himself as a foul-mouthed, unscrupulous individual:

If honor decided to attend our adventures, I only hoped I’d recognize her; she’d been pointed out to me a few times, but we’d never really gotten acquainted.

or offer his more juvenile, irritating behavior in many situations:

The lead dog […] huffed two low barks. I barked back at him. I don’t know what I said, but it might have involved his mother, because he began to growl.

but under these masks he wears he’s basically a good person, and Kinch shows that when trouble and danger come knocking at the party’s door and his actions belie his outward flippant attitude.  He is… well, a heroic anti-hero, for want of a better definition, and that’s one of the reasons he captures the readers’ attention and keeps it firmly focused – and in so doing decrees the success of this story.

Perversely enough, this intense focus on Kinch – no matter how rewarding in the overall economy of the story – is the reason the other characters suffer a little and don’t get the space they deserve: they are well fleshed-out, granted, and offer the perfect foil to our reckless protagonist, but still they are somewhat relegated to the sidelines, and that bothered me a little because I would have loved to learn more about silently heroic Galva or impishly delightful Norrigal, but still I quite enjoyed this novel – particularly when the breathless finale kept me on the edge of my seat – and I more than look forward to seeing what Christopher Buehlman has in store for his brazen thief, and for us readers.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE WISDOM OF CROWDS (The Age of Madness #3), by Joe Abercrombie

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

Lord Grimdark did it again: with The Age of Madness he gave us a new, immersive trilogy set in the world of the First Law, and while he kept us all glued to the story with the two previous installment, he literally ended this narrative cycle with much, much more than a proverbial “bang” (or rather, a whole lot of them…).

The widespread turmoil on which the first two books in this series were focused, reaches here its bloody peak: previously, in Adua King Orso’s popularity was at its all-time low and the conspiracy mounted against him – led by his former friend and ally Leo dan Brock, together with Leo’s wife Savine dan Glokta – failed only thanks to a timely warning.  What should have been the rebels’ decisive battle ended with Orso as the winner, Leo losing the gamble and some body parts, and he and a heavily pregnant Savine as prisoners in the city they hoped to rule.  In the North, Rikke was sitting on her father’s chair, but still faced the encroaching armies of Black Calder and his brutal son Stour Nightfall, while trying to consolidate her power, forge new alliances and avoid constant betrayals.

As the final book opens, Orso has little time to enjoy his victory: after decades of bad, myopic management from the ruling council, the city of Adua is now a powder keg ready to explode, and explode it does in the throes of the Great Change – think of it as a bloodier, far scarier version of the French Revolution, complete with its own reign of Terror and mass executions carried out through worse means than the guillotine. Angry mobs sweep the city, destroying everything in their path, killing indiscriminately and taking the king prisoner, while Leo and Savine find themselves hailed as heroes.  And in the North, Rikke seems on the verge of losing it all, as her allies dwindle and Black Calder keeps amassing a force capable of sweeping the land and crowning him as its sole ruler…

The above gives just the bare bones of the complex interweaving of narrative threads and character journeys that turn this novel into a compulsive – if often horrifying – read: there are many more POVs than the main ones I mentioned, and each one moves the story forward without overshadowing the others, reinforcing instead the perception of a building avalanche that moves inexorably toward its intended destination. Not that it’s easy to see what exactly this destination is, particularly once readers are faced with some massive revelations – like the big one toward the end – and a constant barrage of betrayals and treachery that is guaranteed to have your head spinning wildly.

The Wisdom of Crowds is mainly a study of the effects of long-suppressed rage at widespread injustice, and of what happens when exasperation’s fires are fed beyond their conflagration point: the wisdom in the title is used in a darkly sarcastic way, of course, because what we witness in the course of the Great Change is the total obliteration of any civilized rule and a plunge into the kind of collective madness that occurs when the baser animalistic instincts take the place of the oh-so-thin veneer of civilization draped over them.  

As usual, Joe Abercrombie manages to seamlessly blend his peculiar brand of humor into the most appalling situations, managing to elicit a smile – or even a laugh – when least you expect it, while pointing out how far easier it is to destroy what does not work anymore than to find the means to build something better.  We are treated to several scenes in which the new government spends inordinate amounts of time foolishly debating the wording of those changes without actually implementing any, while nearby the madwoman named Judge sends hundreds of people – guilty and innocents alike – to their death.

Such upheavals are of course bound to impart profound changes on the characters we have come to know, and it’s hardly surprising that some of them end up being quite different from the people they were at the beginning of the story.  Savine is certainly a case in point: while she retains some of her former drive for power and self-preservation, her harrowing encounters with danger and death, and her recent motherhood, seem to have awakened her conscience, slightly tempering her ambition and making her more human. It’s not a complete turnover, of course, not given her established personality and the teachings imparted by her father Sand dan Glokta, but it’s a definite improvement over the ruthless socialite bent on profit at any cost that she was at the beginning.

King Orso and Leo dan Brock seem to exchange their respective roles here: the former was a reluctant ruler who preferred drinking and womanizing over learning the rules of kinghood, the latter was the highly praised warrior and hero with a bright destiny in his future. Events transform them profoundly, and where Orso becomes a true king in his captivity, submitting to it with humorous gallantry and ultimately showing a kind of subdued bravery that moved me deeply, Leo turns into an embittered, violence-prone individual more focused on the lost glories of the past than on the needs of the present.

A truly tragic figure is that of Gunnar Broad, the former soldier who keeps promising – to himself and his family – that he’s through with bloody violence: events keep proving him wrong and he finds himself constantly enmeshed in situations that force him to rely on his darker instincts. In a way he reminds me of the Bloody Nine, who strove to be a better man without ever managing to fulfill this vow.

I’ve left my favorite character for last: Rikke. As the daughter of the Dogman, all her life she’s been weighted down by her father’s legend and the need to prove herself, a girl, in the world of these Northern hard warriors – and by the heavy toll of her unpredictable precognitive ability.  Here she comes into her own, successfully managing to balance the ruthless strength necessary to rule (“make your heart a stone”) with the desire to act for the best of her people. You will encounter many surprises along Rikke’s journey, together with the heartwarming relationships with her two closest advisors, the cunningly uncouth hill woman Isern-i-Phail and the grizzled Caul Shivers, who seems to have found some inner balance here, if confronted with the man I came to know in Best Served Cold.

Joe Abercrombie’s novels always prove such an immersive experience that it’s hard to move out of his world and return to reality: my only solace is represented by the standalone First Law books I have still to read and the implied promise of this one that the story is not over, that there are some still-hanging threads that might, one day, turn into other equally engrossing books. Time will tell…

My Rating:

Reviews

SCALES AND SENSIBILITY (Regency Dragons #1), by Stephanie Burgis

I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to her for this opportunity.

While I usually tend to shy away from romance-imbued stories, I’m always happy to make an exception for Stephanie Burgis’ works, because her take on the subject is always permeated with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor, and Scales and Sensibility, the first volume in her new, Regency-inspired saga, passed the test with flying colors.  When a book starts with this kind of sentence:

It was a truth universally acknowledged that any young lady without a dragon was doomed to social failure.

I know I’m in in for a delightful journey – particularly since the mere mention of dragons never fails to pique my curiosity…

Elinor Tregarth is an orphaned “poor relation”: her parents lost all their money at the hands of unscrupulous profiteers, then died in a carriage incident, leaving Elinor and her two younger sisters alone and penniless. The three girls were sent to live with various relatives, and Elinor clearly drew the short straw: her uncle Lord Heathergill is a pompous twit, his wife never utters a word, and Elinor’s cousin Penelope is a spoiled brat whose only interest lies in her society debut and grabbing a worthy husband. Oh, and in showing off her newly-acquired dragon, Sir Jessamyn – unfortunately, her horrid temper and shrill voice only have the effect of terrorizing the poor creature, which often leads to loose-bowels-related noxious effects.

After the umpteenth temper tantrum from Penelope, Elinor cannot keep to her meek demeanor any longer, and after (finally!) speaking her mind to her horrified cousin, she leaves Heathergill Hall, taking Sir Jessamyn with her.  Alone and penniless, and thrown into a ditch by a passing carriage, Elinor discovers that dragons can work a peculiar kind of magic, of which she takes advantage to try and forge a new path for herself – not that it will be an easy feat, what with having to deal with some very convoluted situations and her growing affection for a gentleman whose fortune-hunting intentions might not be as nefarious as they look…

I had a great time with Scales and Sensibility, which turned out to be a fast-paced comedy of manners with a good dose of magic and fantasy elements, carried by entertaining characters in whose depiction one can clearly feel the author’s delight in poking fun at the stereotypes of the Regency era: from the venomous vapidity of Penelope and her close friends to the obtuse snobbery of Lord Heathergill; from the scholarly blindness for social graces of dragon-expert Aubrey (one of my favorite characters) to the sly viciousness of the Armitages, a couple of mysterious highly-placed socialites, without forgetting the formidable Mrs. De Lacey, one of the queens of the London scene, who features prominently in the story – but in a very unexpected way – everyone plays a role in the intricate plot that mixes mistaken identities, strict social rules, nascent love stories and magic in a spellbinding tale that we know will lead to a foregone happy conclusion but that we enjoy following to the end because the cast makes the journey more than worthwhile.

My favorite element? It was the relationship between Elinor and the dragon Sir Jessamyn: it’s much more detailed and even more intriguing than the actual romantic plot, which is extraordinary since the dragon does not talk, except by warbling quite meaningfully and exchanging expressive glances with Elinor.  It’s not just because I’m quite partial toward dragons: Sir Jessamyn is an adorable creature (well, as long as he’s not upset, since that tends to create embarrassing consequences…) and a totally engaging creation.

Every time I have the pleasure of reviewing one of Stephanie Burgis’ works I feel the need to mention their covers, which remains constantly gorgeous throughout her production: the cover for Scales and Sensibility is no exception and works perfectly as a companion for a captivating and charming story whose next installments look already more than promising.

My Rating:

Reviews

SIX OF CROWS (Six of Crows #1), by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows has been languishing on my TBR for quite a long time, and it probably would have remained there to gather more virtual dust if it had not been for the appearance of the Netflix show Shadow and Bone, inspired by another work from this author: once I learned that the most intriguing sections of the show – those dedicated to the street thugs band of the Crows – were drawn from this book, I finally found the drive to pick it up, and now I’m berating myself for having waited that long.

Watching the first season of the show also gave me the necessary background to find myself immediately at home in the story, set in a world vaguely reminiscent of tsarist Russia from the 19th Century, where people gifted with the ability to manipulate elements, the Grisha, are both revered and feared – and in some cases hunted and killed, or exploited for their gifts.  Kaz Brekker is the leader of a band of young gangsters and he’s offered the opportunity for the heist that will make their fortune: he must go deep into the territory of the Fjerdans, whose hatred of Grisha compels them to hunt, prosecute and kill the gifted without mercy, to retrieve a scientist who created a drug capable of enhancing Grisha powers in a way that’s destructive both for the world and for those using such a compound.

The crew Kaz gathers consists of Inej, spy and infiltrator of such incredible skill that she’s been nicknamed “the Wraith”, and who could give any ninja a run for their money; Jesper, the sharpshooter whose expertise with guns unfortunately does not extend to gambling; Nina, a Grisha Heartrender, who can play the human body like a musical instrument; Matthias, once a Fjerdan Grisha-hunter and now unsure of his loyalties; and Wylan, explosive expert and a runaway from his privileged home.  Kaz himself is a hard, ruthless taskmaster whose lack of people skills hides a very traumatic past. 

The six of them are all very young, and that’s why the novel might be labeled as YA – probably one of the reasons I was somewhat wary about reading it – but to my relief, and enjoyment, I discovered that their youth does not make them prone to the overused clichés of the genre, because the harsh lessons life imparted to each one of them forced these people to grow way beyond their years and to acquire the kind of stark maturity that turned them into intriguing and very relatable characters.  Even the brief forays into romantic entanglement did not prove distracting or, worse, annoying, because they were filtered through the characters’ personal experiences and therefore felt quite organic in their development and very true in their expression: even though I usually don’t enjoy romance in my stories, both threads proved to be quite appealing and even emotionally touching.

The story itself is a breath-taking rollercoaster, littered with surprising twists, dramatic setbacks and adrenaline-laden situations that made putting down the book a massive effort every time I was forced to do so, but it also offers many flashbacks on the past history of each character that helped to flesh them out and make me understand what makes them tick: the transitions between present and past are quite smooth and I never felt for one moment jarred out of the main story – on the contrary, the more I learned about each one of the Crows, the more I wanted to know, even though that meant abandoning for a moment the excitement of the heist.  And the six protagonists are indeed the soul of this novel: their personalities and the way they bond – not without difficulties – into a formidable team, turn this story into something quite special, something that goes well beyond the mere enjoyment of a daring adventure.

A gambler, a convict, a wayward son, a lost Grisha, a Suli girl who had become a killer, a boy from the Barrel who had become something worse.

I love this quote because it describes perfectly the essence of each of them, long before we get to know them more intimately in the course of the book.  Kaz at first comes across as heartless and manipulative, but as his past is slowly revealed, with its terrible baggage of tragedy and loss, it’s easy to change one’s mind about him and to see the victim behind the protective screen of the criminal mastermind.  Jesper was my favorite on screen, and I was delighted to see that the mini-series kept faith with the book version of the gambling gunman with a penchant for witticism.  Matthias is an intriguing character because we see him dwelling on the cusp between his past convictions (or should I say ‘indoctrination’?) and the discoveries he’s making in the course of the adventure: there is great potential for him and I’m curious to see how he will evolve in the next book.

Inej and Nina might outwardly look like polar opposites: where Inej is still battling with the demons of a dreadful past of slavery and exploitation, Nina looks sunnier and more carefree, given as she is to reckless, humorous flirting and bald-faced optimism. Still the two of them form a strong bond of friendship, a mutual acknowledgement of sisterhood which goes beyond different extractions and experiences and that is a pure joy to behold. Their interactions represent another huge difference from the usual YA protocols, where they would be expected to be rivals, to bicker and constantly undermine each other, and even to fight for the attentions of the same man.  Thankfully, Inej and Nina recognize each other’s strengths and come to appreciate and support each other, offering one of the many rays of light and playfulness that run through this dark story, counterbalancing the tension and the darkness of the adventure.

Story-wise, what at first looks like a classic heist punctuated by nasty surprises and setbacks, soon turns out to be something deeper, dealing with drug trafficking and shady politics, with the double standard of a moral high ground offset by ruthless exploitation, with thirst for power and the lengths people will go to grab it and keep it.  There are also areas touching on the subject of trauma – both physical and psychological – the way if affects people and the means they employ to overcome it, or merely hide it from the world. There are various levels of approach to this novel, and I appreciated them all individually and in the way they combine to create a gripping story that stayed with me long after I went past the end – and on this subject I have to add that the only positive side of my long wait before reading Six of Crows comes from the fact that it ends in a cliffhanger for which I will not have to suffer until the next books comes out, because it’s already available.

And I need to know what comes next…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BONE SHIP’S WAKE (The Tide Child #3), by R.J. Barker

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

The Bone Ship’s Wake is the amazing conclusion of a sea-faring adventure that’s both dark and hopeful, one that led me through an emotional rollercoaster in whose aftermath I’m still trying to deal with the mixed feelings of wonder and anguish it engendered: hopefully I will be able to convert them into an organic – and spoiler-free! – review…

When we previously left the crew of the Tide Child, they were suffering from many kinds of losses: crew-mates had perished, people had been grievously wounded, and worse still, ship-wife Meas had been taken prisoner, her dream of uniting the folks from the Hundred and Gaunt Isles into a better kind of life apparently doomed.  Hurt but not beaten, Meas’ deck-keeper Joron Twiner turns the rebel fleet into a pirate armada, with the double goal of weakening the Hundred Isles’ power and of gaining intelligence on Meas’ fate – and if possible of freeing her.  But despite the bloody successes and the dire fame he’s gained as the Black Pirate, Joron knows that his time is running out: the fleet under his command is losing irreplaceable ships, despite the victories; he’s being consumed by the unforgiving Keyshan’s Rot, that will ultimately lead him to madness and death; and his hopes of finding Meas alive diminish with every passing day.

As I noted in the previous reviews for this series, there is a perfect balance between plot and characterization here, both halves of the story sustaining and enhancing each other in a perfect blend that offers both impeccable pacing and outstanding character journeys that kept me reading on until all hours: this is the kind of book where you keep promising yourself “just one more chapter”, and before you realize it, it’s 2 a.m.  Or even later…

Story-wise there is a definite sensation of both time running out and of impending doom, fueled by the long, suspenseful sea chases that see the crew of Tide Child forced to play a game of wits and endurance with more powerful (but certainly not more cunning!) foes: here is where we can see more than ever the depth and breadth of the author’s imagination as he conceived of this sea-faring world, traveled by ships built out of dragon bones, whose depiction required the creation of a whole new set of naval terms that establish the alienness and the unending wonder of this background while reminding us at the same time of more familiarly sounding shipboard tales. Where the hardships of the situation are described in stark relief, there is still a heart-warming sense of common purpose in the Tide Child’s crew, one that looks even more extraordinary when recalling that they, like all black ships’ complements, are condemned criminals, their service aboard such vessels nothing more than a delayed death sentence: still, through Meas’ past example and Joron’s constantly growing leadership skills, these convicts have turned into a tight crew, one that’s proud of its own accomplishments and is able to work as a single, well-coordinated entity toward their goal.

In this final volume, the secondary characters we have already come to know well come more directly into the light, shining with added depth and pathos as their arcs move along an inexorably established path: people like Cwell, Mevans, Farys, Solemn Muffaz – just to name a few – become more rounded and also more dear to us as the story progresses and we are painfully aware that while this author is hardly tender toward his creations, we are unable to force ourselves not to care for them and their destiny.

But it’s the main characters who keep stealing our hearts and minds, and The Bone Ship’s Wake does its very best to break our hearts as it shows their continuing journey. Meas figures prominently in the very first chapter, one that’s quite hard to read and which sees her stripped of all the strength and assurance that made her such a formidable ship-wife and such an inspirational leader: proud, “lucky” Meas is apparently robbed of all the attributes that made her such a famous and respected captain, only to learn, once she sees herself as vulnerable and diminished, that her legend is still capable of arousing deep loyalty and faith in her crew, even in those who have not met her yet.  There is a scene, toward the end, involving a very special flag, that symbolized this earnest devotion and which I found deeply touching.

As for Joron, he continues to grow into a very capable commander, even though he still thinks of himself as a mere caretaker for the rule of Tide Child: for Joron, the one and only worthy ship-wife remains Meas, even as he takes the reins of the rebel fleet and scours the seas in search of information – or vengeance.  This is a man who is resigned to his mortality and that of his companions, but still wants every sacrifice to count for something: when I think back to the person he was at the start of the series, of the way the crew ignored him – or worse – I realize he’s done an incredible work on himself, much as he wants to deny it, and this reflects on the people around him, who are ready to sacrifice everything in the name of the esprit de corps that he and Meas have nurtured as a replacement for the careless waste of lives that the cruel laws of the Hundred Isles implemented for so long.

And last but not least – not by a long way – the Gullaime: from the first book I felt an immediate kinship with this birdlike creature capable of summoning the winds, whose fate appears inextricably linked with Joron’s. Their subdued friendship, the way they took to one another beyond the need for words, has so far been one of the brightest lights in this grim background, but here their bond takes on such a poignant depth that I found myself on the verge of tears more than once – and I don’t cry easily… This final book brings about a number of revelations about the Gullaime and the role of the Tide Child’s windtalker in the grand scheme of things, but for me the most touching moment is the one where the Gullaime uses the word friend in addressing Joron: more than the fulfillment of the prophecy that we’ve learned unites the man and the bird, and which carries its own heavy emotional baggage, it’s that moment that will always remain in my mind every time I will think about the Gullaime, one of the best and most “real” fantasy creatures I ever encountered in my bookish travels.

Where the Wounded Kingdom series marked for me the discovery of a new, powerful voice in the fantasy genre, the Tide Child saga confirms its author as an outstanding writer, one capable of beguiling you with his stories as he uses them to break your heart. But that’s all right, nonetheless…

My Rating:

Reviews

CIRCE, by Madeline Miller – #Wyrdandwonder

My old love of the classics and my fascination with Greek myths found new enthusiasm thanks to this book which offers a new perspective on the figure of Circe, or rather gives a convincing background for the deeds she is most known for.  Daughter of the sun god Helios and the naiad Perse, she was the object of disdain among the other gods and goddesses because of her plain looks and human-sounding voice: her parents themselves favored her other siblings over her, condemning Circe to a life on the margins of such exalted company.

At first we see Circe as the proverbial wallflower, trying to fit in among her peers but always being the loner, but little by little a form of defiance comes to the surface, first by offering comfort to a tortured Prometeus, guilty of having gifted humanity with fire, and then by discovering and wielding her magical skills, for which she is banished forever to the island of Aiaia to live in perpetual solitude. And yet this is the moment when Circe truly starts to thrive, turning loneliness into the exercise of utter freedom and the chance to learn the herb lore and incantations for which she will become known. And to be her own woman, one who will ultimately be able to stand up to the gods, like mighty Athena, because Circe’s power is something gained through willpower and application and not something unthinkingly given at birth and taken for granted.

Myths have taught us that the gods of the Greek pantheon were fickle and cruel creatures, whose favorite pastime was to drive mortal men toward conflict or to seduce mortal women, but the gods portrayed in Circe go way beyond the depiction of legends and show all their heartless cruelty and mockery for humankind – or for their own kind when perceived as weak.  Distance offers Circe this kind of understanding, the ability to see beyond the projected aura of glory and to find these beings wanting and ultimately contemptible, as she does when considering her own father’s attitude:

So many years I had spent as a child sifting his bright features for his thoughts, trying to glimpse among them one that bore my name. But he was a harp with one string, and the note it played was himself.

Circe’s banishment will not keep her isolated forever, though, and the story shows her meeting many of the figures of legend that have become household names, like Daedalus or Medea or Odysseus, whose sojourn on the island will mark a huge turning point for her growth as an individual. But before that happens, Circe will go through some harrowing experiences that will shape her into the figure passed on by myth: her infamous ability of transforming men into pigs has its roots into her gift of altering people by bringing their true nature to the surface – just as she did in the past by turning the cruel naiad Scylla into the monster of legend. The group of shipwrecked sailors Circe welcomes into her home first thank her for the help, but then they start to ask about “the man of the house”, so to speak, demanding to know where her husband, or father or brothers might be: learning she is alone they proceed to have their way with her, because the lack of male authority or protection just robbed her of any consideration or respect. When she retaliates by transforming them into pigs, she is just bringing their true nature to the surface.

By observing Circe’s myth from this angle – which some might define feminist – the author wants to offer a new point of view on these female figures from mythology, understanding that their portrayal has been constantly filtered through a male perspective, where women’s agency was seen as something dangerous: painting them as witches, monsters, or simply femmes fatales who instigated wars and ruin, must have been a way of giving a “safe” context to such exercises of freedom. Again Circe’s considerations come into play when she says that “humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets”, in a clear reference to the way Homer described her and others like her, by showing them as a danger to be overcome, an enemy to be brought down.

Here Circe’s dealings with Odysseus, during his long stay on Aiaia, stand on an equal footing – not the total submission sung by Homer – and although she comes to love him, she is never blind to his shortcomings or to the fact that love does not entail ownership – something she will learn the hard, painful way with their son, Telegonus. Motherhood is indeed the ultimate growth factor in Circe’s emotional and personal journey, because she finds herself dealing with a totally new experience without outside help or previous knowledge: her strength is put to the test through sleepless nights and fears for the child’s safety, concerns that any mother will certainly be able to relate to, as they will with the selfless dedication that brings her to create a magical shield over the island to keep him safe, one that exhausts her and yet is never acknowledged as such:

For sixteen years I had been holding up the sky, and he had not noticed.

In the end, Circe’s exile does not only separate her physically from her godlike peers and the toxic influence of the realm where she grew up, it distances her from their inability to grow through experience, or even suffering: such is the destiny of mortals, however, and in the end it’s through mortality that she achieves a sense of her own worth and of her place in the world. Madeline Miller’s novel did create a magnificent character out of the myth, and one that feels not only relatable but also real, the protagonist of a poignantly emotional journey.

My Rating:

image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com
Reviews

THE GAME OF THRONES BOOK TAG – #Wyrdandwonder

image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

I found this delightful tag on this treasure trove of ideas, and immediately thought that it would be perfect for Wyrd & Wonder: listing fantasy books with a connection to the ruling families of another fantasy saga sounded like the kind of challenge I enjoy, so here we go…

HOUSE LANNISTER: “HEAR ME ROAR!”

Name a book you were certain you would love, but later realized that it wasn’t so great after all.

Besieged by Rowena Cory Daniells

There were many details in this book that I fond intriguing – the complex world divided into three races which gave rise to a layered society, the complex politics and the foreshadowing of a possible bloody conflict on the horizon – but at some point the writing became somewhat sloppy and despite my curiosity to see where the story would lead, I never felt compelled to move forward with the series.

HOUSE STARK: “WINTER IS COMING”

Name your most anticipated book release for 2021

The Wisdom of Crowds (Age of Madness #3) by Joe Abercrombie

Take the First Law world, add a layer of industrial revolution and a number of new players vying for power and concocting complex plots, and you have a winning combination: if I were not already a staunch fan of Joe Abercrombie, this series would have turned me into one, and the final book in this series cannot be published soon enough for me…

HOUSE TARGARYEN: “FIRE AND BLOOD”

Name a book that you felt completely slayed with fantastic characters, plot, pacing, etc.

The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

It took only one book to appreciate John Gwynne’s amazing storytelling, but with this first book in his new series he managed to surpass himself – and that’s no mean feat from where I stand. A world inspired by Norse myths and peopled with strong, intriguing characters embroiled in a multi-layered quest that held my spellbound attention from start to finish. Probably one of the best books I’ve read this year, and we’re not at the midpoint of it yet!

HOUSE BARATHEON: “OURS IS THE FURY”

Name a book that ended with a cliffhanger ending that genuinely pissed you off

The Wicked King by Holly Black

Much as I enjoyed Holly Black’s series The Folk of the Air, the way she closed this second book in the saga, playing a terrible “prank” on her main character and leaving me – as well as other readers, I’m sure, stranded and unsure of what would happen next, was NOT appreciated at all. The trilogy ended in a satisfactory way, granted, but still, the sting of this cliffhanger has left its mark…

HOUSE MARTELL: “UNBOWED, UNBENT, UNBROKEN”

Name a book, or book series, that’s been on your TBR since the dawn of time

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Yes, ok, sue me: I must be one of the two or three people who still has to read anything by the highly acclaimed Brandon Sanderson. Should I hire a defense lawyer? 😉

HOUSE BOLTON: “OUR BLADES ARE SHARP”

Name the most graphic or disturbing book that you’ve ever read

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

This book was my introduction to the tragedy of the Donner Party: despite the horror of what happened to the colonists headed toward California and stranded in the Sierra Nevada during a particularly harsh winter, what I found most distressing was the way in which events drove people to forget much of their moral behavior, showing that civilization is indeed a very thin, easily removed veneer.

HOUSE TYRELL: GROWING STRONG

Name a book, or book series, that gets better and better with every re-read (or by simple recollection of its story…)

Well, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would be the obvious answer for me, so I chose to look elsewhere – if nothing else because I’ve mentioned this book far too often… Once upon a time I would have named GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, but the ever-lengthening waits between books has considerably cooled my enthusiasm for this series so, after long consideration – there is a LOT of great book/series I recall with great fondness – I’ve decided to name

Juliet Marillier’s Blackthorn and Grim

a story that will always hold a special place in my heart. 

ASOIAF fans, what are the Game of Thrones books in your bookcase? 😉

Reviews

BLACK SUN (Between Earth and Sky #1), by Rebecca Roanhorse – #Wyrdandwonder

Thanks to the previous two books I read by Rebecca Roanhorse, both part of her Sixth World series, I had come to expect a good, absorbing story from her newest work, but Black Sun proved to be so much more than I had anticipated and it took me completely by surprise. An enthralling, delightful surprise.  Set in a world that takes inspiration from pre-colombian cultures and then adds many original details, combining them into a fascinating, complex background, Black Sun follows the journey of four main characters destined to converge in the city of Tova on a very special day, as yearly festivities and an ominous prophecy will merge with unpredictable results.

Xiala is a mercenary sea captain and a Teek, which means she comes from a matriarchal seafaring society from which she was exiled after a tragic event: imprisoned after a violent altercation with her former employer and a drunken night on the town, she is released after accepting to transport a young man to the city of Tova in time for Convergence, the winter solstice that this year will also see the alignment of Earth, Sun and Moon. The passenger is Serapio, molded from infancy to be the vessel of a vengeful god and for this reason deeply scarred and blinded – but not helpless, not at all.  Naranpa is the highest priest in the city of Tova, but her role is in constant jeopardy because of the inner political maneuvers inside the priesthood, and their inability to accept her humble origins. And then there is Okoa, son of the Carrion Crow clan’s matron: back in Tova from the military academy, he finds himself dealing with family problems and uneasy alliances.

The novel unfolds through time jumps that don’t feel at all confusing as they are wielded with great skill and keep adding new information to the very complex tapestry that is this story: seeing this world through the different points of view also confers great depth to it and its history, turning it into a vivid, three-dimensional creation that is very easy to slip into, just as it’s difficult to move out of, because it tends to entangle you into its awesome complexity. Moreover, the time jumps keep enhancing the sense of impending doom that becomes more and more palpable as the day of Convergence draws near.

The setting is indeed fascinating, not just because of the different locations visited as the characters engage in their travels, but because it’s created through a blend of vivid descriptions and fascinating legends that shape the world into something tangible and vibrant, gifted with a definite cinematic quality. If this is true for all descriptions in the novel, it is even more so where the city of Tova is concerned: a place of high peaks and deep chasms spanned by aerial bridges that can give you vertigo by proxy, a city teeming with life and at the same time rife with the danger of death, a death that can come through accidents – like slipping down an icy bridge into a bottomless ravine – or through malice – like being killed by a hired assassin or the member of a rival clan.  There is a definite sense of urgency in Tovan day-to-day activities, be they the comfortable kind enjoyed by the elite or the hand-to-mouth existence of the dwellers in the Maw, the lowest level of the city where poverty, crime and the offer of illicit pleasures are a way of life. It does not take long for the reader to perceive that Tova is like a pressure cooker ready to explode, that social strain and the priesthood’s iron rule and inner conflicts, together with never-ending clan rivalries, are bringing that pressure to the boiling point: add to that the long-held thirst for revenge harbored by Carrion Crow for the Night of Knives, when the priesthood tried to exterminate the clan, and you know it’s all fated to end in blood.

In this tense but intriguing situation the characters shine and add a further level of allure to the story, even though Okoa is mostly kept on the sidelines in favor of the other three, with some hope he will play a bigger role as the story moves forward. Naranpa is the one who required more time for me to truly appreciate her, but I guess it was mostly because I was still orienting myself in this world: once I got to know her better I could only admire her tenacity in clinging to her exalted post, despite her own self-doubts and the insecurities carried over from an impoverished childhood. Nara, as she’s often called, does not care so much for power in itself or for politics, but rather for the good of the city: she understands that to bring peace and prosperity to Tova things have to change, and for that she is challenged every step of the way by her fellow priests, when she is not actually threatened with death. Nara’s journey throughout Black Sun is a hard one, and while many times I felt frustrated in witnessing the obstacles she had to face, I cannot wait to see what Rebecca Roanhorse has in store for her along the way.

If Nara is an outsider with little chances of ever blending in, Xiala and Serapio are just as isolated, even though in different ways. I liked Xiala from the very beginning: her personality is a mix of defiance and vulnerability, accentuated by the way people relate to her as a Teek, a woman whose mysterious Song can placate stormy waters, call favorable winds and keep at bay dangerous creatures. For this reason Teeks are highly sought after, but at the same time despised and feared, and even killed for their precious bones gifted with magical properties: all this comes to the fore in the course of the sea voyage to Tova, when Xiala shows a very peculiar talent and the crew mutinies out of fear.  It’s therefore not surprising when she forms a bond with Serapio, an outcast like herself, and that they can understand each other on a deeper level, as shown by the exchange of stories and myths during the long nights over the sea.

Serapio might very well be the central character here, a sort of anti-hero who is at the same time powerful and vulnerable: shaped from childhood to be an instrument of vengeance, leading a loveless life as he was being molded into the desired weapon, he nonetheless shows a form of quiet humanity, a sort of sad gentleness that managed to break my heart, particularly when he contemplates what will be his ultimate destiny, 

[he] hoped that the pain would not be too great. He had made friends with it, yes, but it was a wary friendship.

a destiny he did not choose himself but at the same time one he has accepted as the only possible one. The author describes his journey in such a way that even as he fulfills his preordained role in a frenzied dance of violence and blood I could not help myself and felt only pity for him.

When all is said and done, Black Sun will certainly attract you because of the exotic background that sets it apart from the usual epic fantasy offerings, but it’s through the strength and human depth of its characters that it will keep you coming back for more. 

My Rating:

image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

Reviews

SHADOW AND BONE SEASON 1 (Netflix series) – #Wyrdandwonder

Before embarking in the review for the first season of the series inspired by Leigh Bardugo’s trilogy I need to state that I have not read her books, so I came to this story in total ignorance of its background and characters, which makes me unable to compare the two mediums – although, from what I was able to gather on various comments online, it would seem that the translation from books to screen was reasonably faithful to the source material.  I also learned that the script is a mix between the Shadow and Bone trilogy proper and the story portrayed in the Six of Crows duology, which for me added a nice counterpoint to the core narrative (and compelled me to finally add Six of Crows to my reading queue, after leaving it to languish on my TBR for far too long).

The story, in a nutshell: the kingdom of Ravka (which bears an uncanny resemblance to Tsarist Russia from the 19th Century) is split in two by a phenomenon called the Fold, an area of turbulent darkness inhabited by the Volcra, ravenous and nightmarish creatures. The kingdom is further divided by the separation between its mundane inhabitants and the Grisha, people with the ability to manipulate elemental forces, and for this reason both feared and despised. Young Alina Starkov, an orphan serving in the military, discovers that she holds a unique power, that of summoning light – a power that might vanquish the Fold and its terrible creatures forever: for this reason Alina finds herself at the center of a power struggle whose main strings are connected to General Kirigan, also a powerful Grisha, whose goals might not be completely straightforward…

As I said, I came to this series with no previous background, and at first I was a little lost in trying to connect all the dots, particularly because there are three main narrative lines in the story: the one focused on Alina, the one following the Crows (a band of thieves looking for the heist that will make their fortune) and the one about a Grisha who’s been kidnapped by enemies of Ravka.  Once I got my bearings however, I was able to enjoy the story and get invested in it, although I have to admit that sometimes it felt as if the viewers were forced to bite off more than they could chew: my lack of knowledge of the books series played a part in this, of course, but I had the impression that a couple more episodes, besides the eight slated for this first season, might have given the narrative more room to breathe.  The crowded storylines, while offering the possibility of moving across Ravka with the change of POW and therefore exploring the setting in its different locations, left little room to truly grow attached to the characters who seemed to me more like archetypes than living and breathing creations with which to establish the necessary emotional connection.

And indeed the archetypes abound in this first segment of the story: Alina is the classic orphan, shunned and underrated, who is later discovered as the holder of a vital power that will turn her into the proverbial Chosen One. She moves through all the required stages of… chosenhood (is that a word? 😀 ), from denial to wonder to acceptance and for most of the time she lets herself go with the flow, sometimes making ill-advised choices or trusting the wrong people, in what are the established canons of YA literature. There is also the hint of a love triangle that – to my enormous relief – did not last long, momentarily shifting Alina’s affections from her childhood friend Mal to the enigmatic General Kirigan, the Shadow Summoner.  This latter represents another YA firm staple, that of the darkly brooding character who serves as the antithesis to the shining wholesomeness of Mal, who in turn is not exempt from the expected mix of courage and willing sacrifice.

The three Crows, while following some of the genre’s criteria, appear more intriguing, mostly because we are shown only the surface of their personality and perceive that there is much more in their backgrounds worth exploring: Kaz, their leader, clearly suffered some tragedy in his past, which forced him to don a cynical protective armor; Inej is a former slave with the skills of a ninja and a powerful drive for freedom; and Jesper (my absolute favorite) is a sharp-shooter and a lovable maverick.  I liked very much how their narrative threads intersected with Alina’s and even more the fact that they might feature more prominently in the seasons to come: nothing like a good crew ready to launch into a daring heist to keep my attention focused, even more than the main events did, at times.

If the characters still need more room to grow and expand, the series’ settings are its best feature so far: from the hints about the social and racial divides at the roots of Ravkan society to the gorgeous costumes to the amazing visuals, all contribute to paint this world quite vividly and turn it into a believable reality.  The scenes alternate between the bright light of some interior settings to the outside panoramas of chilly, snowbound vistas that give way to the fearsome darkness of the Fold, in my opinion one of the best CGI creations of the series: when the characters travel through this area where thunder rumbles constantly, you are instantly assailed by the ominous sensation that something terrible is about to happen, and the choice of not fully showing the predatory Volcra, but rather offering only swift, almost subliminal glimpses of their appearance, makes them even more terrifying than a full manifestation and intensifies the sense of fear they must inspire. 

This first season of Shadow and Bone might not have been perfect, and was certainly too brief for the huge amount of information it had to deliver, but when all is said and done it shows great promise that I hope to see fulfilled in the seasons yet to come, and I’m looking forward to them with great interest.

My Rating:

image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com