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Review: THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY, by Genevieve Cogman (The Invisible Library #1)

What a fun read this was! Novels dealing with books exert a strong appeal on a compulsive reader, and this one is no exception: what’s more, the titular Invisible Library is a fascinating entity in and of itself. First, because it’s a huge repository for incredible amounts of books, and second because of its location: the story postulates that there are many parallel realities coexisting next to one another, and the Library is located in a place belonging to none of them, a location where space and time have practically no meaning.  Dusty volumes fill up row upon row of shelves, while modern computers are strategically placed where Librarians might need them, and from the occasional window one can at times see cobble-paved streets lit by gas-lamps.  As I said, fascinating…

Irene is a junior Librarian tasked with retrieving a particular book the Library wants, and following the last phase of her planned heist drops us straight into the heart of the story, through a narrow escape from animated stone gargoyles and hounds from Hell that carries the same kind of thrill as a dive into deep waters. Here we learn one of the most important peculiarities about Librarians: they can use Language (a special speech construct that is constantly adapted and modified to suit Librarians’ needs) to force inanimate objects like door locks to obey their commands – it’s not exactly magic as we usually consider it, but it’s an interesting detail and, at times, a very useful tool.

Having managed a successful extraction from this particular alternate world, Irene looks forward to some well-earned rest to be spent doing what she enjoys most – reading books. This was what caused my instant connection with the character, even though she was not fully fleshed yet: Irene might be a thief/spy/adventuress, but above all else she is a reader, one who in the end wants only “to shut the rest of the world out and have nothing to worry about except the next page of whatever she was reading”.  The author could not have found a better way to endear her to us readers than this, indeed.

There is no rest for the weary though, and Irene’s superior Coppelia sends her on a new mission to retrieve a precious volume of Grimm’s tales from an alternate London that’s usually off-limits because of its chaos contamination, which means that magic and technology clash in unpredictable and dangerous ways. And on top of that, she must take an apprentice with her, a young man named Kai, both an unknown quantity and a departure from Irene’s usual solo missions – not to mention that Kai seems to harbor some secrets…

There is little time for Irene to dwell on all this, however, since the version of London in which the two find themselves presents several obstacles to the assignment: a late nineteenth Century alternate with steampunk overtones – think of Zeppelins and steam-powered machines – where Fae, vampires and werewolves coexist alongside normal humans. On top of that, the book Irene is looking for has just been stolen after the murder of its latest owner, and she finds herself working alongside Detective Vale (this world’s version of Sherlock Holmes) battling with steam centipedes, clockwork alligators and various other contraptions, while supernatural creatures drive forth their own agendas and a dark figure from the Library’s past – the mythical Alberich – extends his murderous shadow over everything and everyone.

This unstoppable flow of surprises and death-cheating adventures keeps the story going with good momentum and at the same time serves to flesh out Irene’s character more: what I like about her (apart from her love of books, of course) is that she’s skilled but not overconfident (unlike her previous teacher and sometimes competitor Bradamant) and she takes her mentoring duties toward Kai quite seriously, trying to avoid the mistakes Bradamant made with her, when she hogged all the praise and heaped any blame on Irene. Moreover, she’s ready to face the dangers inherent in her chosen work – and more than once, in the course of the story, she suffers damage of some sort – but she’s not reckless or stupid, nor does she fall into the “heroine needing help” narrative trap.  Irene feels quite real as a character, because she’s driven and willing to better her position in the Library, but at the same time she’s aware of her limitations and knows when to move aside in favor of people with more experience.

On the other hand, the other characters are somewhat less defined: we learn something more about Kai along the way, granted, and we get interesting glimpses about Vale and Bradamant, but they are still… in flux, so to speak, probably waiting for the next installments in the series to get some more flesh on their proverbial bones. The same happens to the concept of the Library itself: we see a few quick flashes of its long corridors filled with books, we learn that there are endless passages and junctions – and this reminded me a little of some kind of multi-dimensional puzzle in which one could get too easily lost – but we know nothing about the creation of the Library, and how it developed over the centuries, and across the worlds.  But this will probably be detailed more in the next books…

The overall mood of The Invisible Library reminded me a little of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series: the coexistence of werewolves and vampires, the steampunk elements, the mysteries hiding behind every corner, but where Carriger’s work is a headless romp carried by tongue-in-cheek wit, Cogman’s brand of humor is more subdued and far less outrageous – unless she decides to have a refined party crashed by mechanical alligators, that is.  The light-hearted fun mixed with more dramatic events creates a good blend that makes for a swift, entertaining read: it might be a little on the thin side, as far as the plot is concerned, yet there are times when some lightness is not only welcome, but rather necessary for a change of pace, and I believe this series might become one of my go-to stories when I want to… take a breath from more intense reads.

There are a few elements that detract from the overall positive experience though: for example, the moments when the characters fall prey to the need for lengthy exposition, going over previous occurrences and recapping them in painstaking detail – to me these segments felt like wading through quicksand where a moment before I was flying on a dirigible.  And the Language – fascinating concept that it is – seems to be used too liberally, to the point that it takes on the shape of a convenient plot device rather than a tool to be employed in the direst of circumstances: as if to drive this point home, it seemed to me that Irene’s skills were brought in better light when she was momentarily unable to use Language, rather than when she wielded it as a weapon at the drop of a hat.

These little snags notwithstanding, I enjoyed The Invisible Library quite a bit, and will look forward to the next installments in the series, one that I can recommend for its high entertainment value.

My Rating: 

Short Story Review: FORSWORN, by Brian McClellan (Powder Mage 0.1)

While searching for the titles of Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy, I discovered that the author had written a number of prequel novellas, and since I’m already backtracking my steps after reading Sins of Empire, the first book in the new series set in the same background, I decided to start from a… more remote past, so to speak.

Forsworn is the first of these novellas and deals with the story of Erika ja Leora, a young noblewoman from Kez, a place where powder mages are hunted down like dangerous animals.  Erika is a powder mage herself, but her noble birth saved her from that fate: she has however taken an oath not to use her powers – the Forsworn from the title are indeed people who can wield powder magic but renounce them publicly.

The chance encounter in the woods with a runaway child, Norrine, will change Erika’s life forever: Norrine (a character I encountered as an adult Riflejack mercenary in Sins of Empire) escaped from the prison where she was being held as a powder mage, after being denounced by her own parents in exchange for money, and on meeting her Erika sees what her own fate would have been if her station had not prevented it.  Choosing to help young Norrine is an act of dangerous defiance, especially since a Privileged sorcerer is on the runaway’s trail and pursues the prey and anyone ready to help her with dogged determination.

The world being depicted here is a cruel one: of course that’s a given in this genre, but there is something more brutal at play here, especially since it highlights the strife between the more “conventional” magic of the Privileged, and that of the powder mages, with the former clearly fearing the latter’s encroachment of their position of power, especially with the ruling class.  And just how ruthless the Privileged can be becomes evident during the long chase through the mountains toward the safety of neighboring Adro, where powder mages can live without fear: Erika will need all her strength and courage to survive and escape with Norrine from the pursuit of Duke Nikslaus and the King’s Longdogs, the aptly named power mage hunters.

As a first introduction in this world, this was a very promising one, and the surprise appearance, at the very end, of a well-known character from the original trilogy was very welcome, almost like a sign I’m going to enjoy losing myself in this series.

My Rating:

Salva

Review: WITH BLOOD UPON THE SAND, by Bradley Beaulieu (Song of the Shattered Sands #2)

Given that Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was one of last year’s biggest revelations for me, I was naturally eager to read its sequel, and in that respect With Blood Upon the Sand did not disappoint, expanding on the world and characters whose foundations had been laid in the first book.

The story resumes with a high-adrenaline scene in which we see the protagonist Çeda trying to assassinate another one of the Kings ruling Sharakhai: the discovery of a terrifying piece of the puzzle she’s attempting to unravel leads to failure, and to a harrowing escape through the city’s meandering alleys she knows so well from her past as a street urchin.  It’s a great way of reconnecting to Çeda, a wonderful character that captivated me from the very start with her mixture of strength and frailties, determination and failings brought on by a sometimes too-narrow focus on her goal.

The first book was centered on Çeda’s meticulous work toward infiltrating the Blade Maidens – the elite fighters protecting the Kings – so she could be nearer the people responsible for her mother’s death, and close enough to carry out her plans for vengeance; here she has finally obtained her place among the Maidens and moves the first steps toward acceptance as her training progresses, and this causes the first cracks in her armor, raising many doubts that force Çeda to question, if not her motives, her perception of the people she has always viewed as enemies.

As a street rogue, and later as a fighter in the pits where she gained her fame as the unbeatable White Wolf, Çeda had always been able to count on the support of allies and comrades, and on the unfailing closeness of her childhood friend Emre; now she is doubly isolated, as a newcomer in an elite regiment where she has to prove herself day after day, and as a double agent needing to hide her goals, and this weighs heavily on her mind – not least because some of the overtures she receives from her fellow Maidens are sincerely offered, causing Çeda to examine herself under a different light.  This adds new, welcome facets to the character as her dilemma is complicated further by exposure to a Maiden’s daily duties, that bring Çeda to see different aspects of life in Sharakhai: for example, when the Moonless Host – a resistance movement bent on destroying the Kings, and therefore aligned in some ways with Çeda’s purpose – effects a shocking attack on the city’s Collegia scholars, she sees firsthand the suffering brought on by the Host’s actions and is forced to witness the price that others have to pay for freedom from the tyranny of the Kings, and to wonder if her need for vengeance might not have to take second place to more pressing and more important concerns.

It’s a fascinating analysis, and the kind of dilemma that many revolutionary fighters have brought to the table in the real world as well – and for Çeda the problem is compounded by a new factor: once bonded, as custom requires, with the asirim, the fell creatures used by the Kings as shock troops (where ‘shock’ and ‘terror’ are not mere words…), she learns more about their origins – one of the most staggering revelations of this story – and finds herself attuned to their pain and rage for the prolonged slavery the asirim have endured, to the point that at times she ends being controlled by those feelings instead of being the one controlling and channeling that very anger.  Loss of certainties, loss of focus, and the awareness that the world cannot be reduced to black-or-white convictions, seem to pile many doubts on Çeda’s shoulders, and as the situation becomes more complicated we learn more about the world in which the novels are set.

Once Çeda’s role in the story has been firmly established, the author widens his scope in this book to encompass other people and other places: first, the Kings come to the fore as something other than semi-mythical figures whose alliance with the gods granted them eternal life and unimaginable powers.  They are revealed here as people who don’t always work in synchrony, but rather have hidden agendas whose byzantine ramifications reach far and wide: at some point, a quite unexpected revelation changes any perceptions we might have held until then, and sheds a very different light on the way the Kings assumed power.  Never has the maxim about history being rewritten by the victors been more true…
Other players come on stage as well: the Moonless Host and its leader Macide; the powerful blood mage Hamzakiir; and old acquaintances as  Juvaan, or Rahmad with his sister in law Meryam, take on added substance and depth as they play more pivotal roles in the unfolding story.

The narrative remains as fascinating as ever, its very difference from the usual fantasy settings being the foremost quality that sets it apart from the others: the unforgiving desert surrounding the cities, the ships that travel on the sands, their sails wind-driven, the fascinating – and dangerous – creatures that people the endless waste, all contribute to paint an enthralling background that comes alive under the reader’s eyes.  Unfortunately, some of that same wind seems to elude the story’s virtual sails toward the middle of the book: more than once I found myself struggling with the pace in that section of the novel, where the momentum that had carried it so far appeared to have been mired in quicksand.  For a moment I thought – I feared – that the story might not pick up its former speed and would fall victim of the dreaded “middle book syndrome”, but to my relief the events evolved in such a way that they regained their former energy, leading to a breath-taking finale that was both exhilarating and satisfying.

Now that some of the characters, especially Çeda, have come to find themselves quite far from their planned routes, my curiosity and eagerness for the next book are at even higher levels than they were at the end of the first volume.  This is indeed a series not to be missed…

My Rating:

Salva

The BOOK OF NEVER box-set and Author Interview

Serialized novels are becoming more and more frequent these days, in a sort of call-back to the 19th century, when books were issued in weekly installments. Australian author Ashley Capes choose to do so with his Book of Never, and I now understand how those enthralled readers must have felt back then, as they waited to know what happened next.

Never’s story is both an adventure and a quest, and follows the journey of this intriguing character as he moves across a colorful and dangerous imaginary world in search of answers about his identity and his past, while the current civilization stands on the brink of war, a conflict that seems to be instigated by mysterious forces beyond anyone’s control.

There are many indications, along the way, that Never’s world used to host a more advanced civilization, one whose remnants are either puzzling mysteries or dangerous places, and our hero braves those dangers as he’s collecting the pieces of that puzzle to discover who and what he is and what his destiny might be. Even though I’m not a gamer, it was easy for me to see how Never’s quest resembles a game’s structure, with increasing levels of difficulty to be overcome while solving the riddles left by those fabled predecessors.

I’m therefore happy to announce that you can now enjoy the entire Book of Never sequence through the complete box-set that was recently issued, and if you want to know more about this story here are the links to my reviews of books 1 to 5.

The Amber Isle

A Forest of Eyes

The River God

The Peaks of Autumn

Imperial Towers

This event was a great opportunity for me to finally launch into an author interview, so it’s with great enthusiasm that I pass a virtual microphone to author Ashley Capes, so he can tell us more about himself and his work.

Hello Ashley, and welcome to Space and Sorcery! First things first, please tell us something about yourself.

Thanks, great to be here as a guest! Okay, I’ll try and make this at least somewhat interesting 🙂

I’m a poet, novelist and teacher from Australia – where I’ve been told the spiders are terrifyingly huge and I suppose it’s at least half true, they are pretty big. Aside from writing I love music production along with volleyball and also film. Lately I’ve been re-watching a lot of Hitchcock and 90s anime like Cowboy Bebop and Trigun.

I love travel and was once very, very lucky to actually visit Italy – it was amazing! My wife and I think about it nearly every day, mostly about how much we miss it. And not just the amazing food, about everything, right down to the scent of the stones.

Well, as an Italian, I’m thrilled that you enjoyed my country so much, and I hope you and your family will be able to visit again soon. I saw, by reading your Bone Mask trilogy, that Italy has somewhat influenced your characterization and background creation, so I’m certain that another visit will spur some more fascinating stories. And speaking of that, how did your writing career start, and what motivated it?

Like a lot of writers I started young, making my own picture books in primary school, and was lucky to have supportive teachers, parents and friends along the way. Specifically, I think it’s easiest to trace back to high school and being asked to join a band. I couldn’t sing of course (still can’t, really!) but my friends knew I wrote poetry so they thought I’d be good at lyrics. At the time, I remember being influenced by the acerbic nature of Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) but I also owe a debt to Jim Morrison for leading me to The Beat Poets.

Poetry was actually where I got my first publishing success, with several small publishers here in Australia, some years later, but it wasn’t until 2014 that I really started moving forward with my fiction. Again, I was fortunate to receive invaluable advice from my fav Australian fantasy writer, Jennifer Fallon. She helped a lot.

In terms of motivating me to write fantasy fiction I think it was in part reading The Hobbit at a young age and in part just the joy of exploration, the joy of wonder and awe. I felt those things so often when reading my favourite books, seeing my favourite films and even travelling, or walking the bush lands around my small country town. And to jump back to the Bone Mask books, I still remember seeing Amalfi clinging to the coastline, the lemon groves and the calm sea – and thinking that the same sea must have once been so ferocious on the day it swallowed the historical city.

As a long-time admirer of the works of Professor Tolkien, I can perfectly understand the fascination of stepping out of your door and looking for wonders and adventure in a setting that shares so much with fantastic literature!

Your writings, however, move across several genres: there is mainstream with a touch of magic as in THE FAIRY WREN, mystery and inexplicable occurrences in CROSSINGS and ghostly appearances in A WHISPER OF LEAVES, but your heart seems to be firmly rooted in fantasy. You recently published the third (and final?) book of the BONE MASK TRILOGY, would you tell us more about your inspiration for this story and how it came to be?

Yes, I’m a little restless in some ways – I like to try writing almost everything but can’t help adding just a little bit of magic or ‘otherworldly’ elements to my fiction 🙂

And absolutely, I tend to return to the epic/sword and sorcery fantasy stories without fail. I think it’s very immersive for me as a writer to spend time in those bigger, wider worlds. When I’m writing books like the Bone Mask Trilogy (especially the first draft of one of them) it’s almost like watching a movie – but a movie that lasts for months, and one that I’m both in control of and surprised by.

And I suspect that Greatmask (Book 3) won’t be the last time readers will see those characters – there’s a lot of story left, I think enough for a second trilogy. I hope to actually have the first book out late next year and it’s tentative title is The Last Sea God.

Wonderful news! I more than look forward to returning to that world and finding some of the answers to the many questions left unsolved: there are so many fascinating narrative threads in that story, and I for one would love to know more.

Since you mentioned restlessness, there is no one more restless than a world-roaming adventurer, like your latest character Never, from THE BOOK OF NEVER: what prompted you to publish it in serial form?

Speed mostly I think. I wanted folks to be able to read the story quicker than normal, so I wrote Never’s adventures in novella and short novel installments, so that I could release them across the duration of a single year (March 2016 – March 2017). I’d both written and had three novellas edited before I released the first one, allowing me to spread releases quite evenly over the months while working on book 4 and book 5 at the same time.

When I compare this to the three years it took to release all three parts of The Bone Mask Trilogy, I knew my readers would have to wait a much shorter time between stories when it came to The Book of Never. And while it’s true that anticipation is valuable in and of itself, I also wanted to be more ‘visible’ by having regular releases. I know that personally, when I have to wait years and years (or even only a single year sometimes) between releases from my favourite authors I tend to forget when they have a new release.

So true! And from someone who does not enjoy waiting too long, I must say that the serialized form works better, especially since Never’s adventures are – most of the times – self-contained and therefore not prone to cause reader’s frustration. Maybe with the exception of the passage between books 4 and 5, that is…

What about future projects? What can we expect in the next few months?

Sorry about the ending to book 4 there 😀

I’m hoping to release another short novel, perhaps the length of The Peaks of Autumn or maybe The Fairy Wren, by September this year. It’s a Steampunk title and it follows characters I introduced in a short story called Esmeralda, which can be found in a steampunk fairy tale anthology I’m part of.

I love the idea of steampunk because it’s a tough genre in some ways – for instance, there’s usually a historically-specific level of technology that is expected and then expanded upon, along with fantastical elements and of course the key, that ‘punk’ element – suggesting rebellion or an oppressive force needing to be resisted. It makes for great, inbuilt conflict and I really hope that The Red Hourglass will execute that feeling without losing the sense of adventure I like to put in most of my stories.

In the reasonably more distant future I’d love to write another Never story but I think The Last Sea God will be released prior, though I’m still not that far into the writing of it. Still, plenty of time left to get cracking on that one 😀

Of course, and it’s great to know that your schedule is so full, with so many planned projects: I more than look forward to what will come next. I’ve read a sample of your steampunk novel and I’m very, very intrigued, and eager to know more, since it’s happily only a few months away from publication, and the steampunk element is blended with some post-apocalyptic overtones that make for a quite promising story.

Thank you so much, Ashley for taking the time to share your work and your future plans with us. It’s been a pleasure to host you here on Space and Sorcery!

You can read all about Ashley Capes and his works at these sites: http://ashleycapes.com/ and http://www.cityofmasks.com/

Salva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: 

Review: THE GATES OF HELL, by Michael Livingston (The Shards of Heaven #2)

Through The Shards of Heaven, the first book in this series, I discovered a new sub-genre I enjoy quite a bit: historical fantasy, a way to blend entertaining reading with some real history – and to pique one’s curiosity about learning more about the time period in which the story is set. For these reasons I was more than looking forward to continuing with Michael Livingston’s series, and The Gates of Hell did not disappoint.

A few years have elapsed since the fall of Alexandria and the conquest of Egypt by Rome: after the deaths of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, their children are either dead, in hiding or, like Selene, prisoners of Octavian, now self-styled Caesar Augustus, emperor. Selene Cleopatra, has been taken into Octavian family’s fold and married off to Juba II, son of the deceased king of Numidia, a double tie that should keep her under control.  But Selene being Selene, she remains quite unbowed and although her marriage to Juba proves to be a happy one – where respect and friendship quickly turn into love – the need for vengeance is never far from her thoughts, doubly so because in this as well she finds a kindred spirit in her husband.  With the help of the Shards they acquired – the Aegis of Zeus that Juba obtained in Alexandria, and the one hidden into a statue Selene stole from the temple of the Vestals – they work to master the power of the artifacts, with the goal of one day bring about the destruction of Rome.

Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Cesarion – son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, and Selene’s half-brother – has gone deep underground to avoid capture and to help preserve the very powerful Shard hidden inside the Ark of the Covenant. When former legionnaire Vorenus visits the Head Librarian Didymus to inquire about the Ark’s apparent loss of power, their conversation is overheard by disgruntled ex librarian Thrasyllus, who concocts a plan to put himself in Didymus’ exalted position and gain the favor of the Roman occupants.

These are the main narrative threads at the heart of Gates of Hell, and they carry the story forward at a steady pace while expanding on the characters we met in Book 1: the preferred focus is on Selene and Juba, of course, and their increasing mastery of the Shards in their possession. There is an intriguing form of character osmosis – for want of a better word – between the two of them: Juba has become more reflexive, more inclined to think his way through and to consider every possible facet of a problem, while Selene has lost some of her merry-go-lucky youthful attitude (which is understandable, considering the heart-rending losses she endured) and she is the one who seems to be goading her husband toward their shared objective.

What’s truly fascinating is the change in Octavian: I remarked on his cold cruelty in my review of Book 1, and how different he looked there in respect of the image that has come to us through time. I wondered if, in his case, the author was stressing the concept about history being written – and therefore shaped – by the victors. That’s why I was surprised to see a softer side of the newly crowned emperor, that of a man who cares about the people he calls family and is very aware of the sacrifices he might call them to accept in the name of the grand dream he nurtures, that of a huge, peaceful empire.   This change, one that comes along in small, organic increments until it blossoms into an amazingly selfless act, was not only a surprise for me as a reader but also for the character of Juba, who starts to question his and Selene’s goal of vengeance and to lean toward a different path:

Was the Peace of Rome a truly horrible dream? Or was it perhaps something real, something tangible that was worth setting aside their need to avenge the fallen members of their families?

Some harrowing circumstances cause both Juba and Selene to review their stance and to accept a more peaceful path for their future, a fresh start that will allow them to forget the pain and loss in their past. But if Octavian has mellowed out in this second volume of the series, another historical figure – that of Tiberius – has taken the role of the antagonist here, and it will be the long reach of his actions that will determine the developments of the last part of the book, where the meaning of the title becomes horribly clear.   As Selene and Juba battle with their inner demons (and not only those), Caesarion and his steadfast allies Vorenus and Pullo face a different kind of danger that will climax in a bloody battle fraught with heartbreaking losses.

The Gates of Hell proved to be a swift, sometimes breathless read, and it certainly paves the way for some huge developments: there were some… hiccups along the way, like the author’s need to involve his characters in long philosophical discussions that were certainly interesting but that somehow broke the rhythm of the story; or the often-repeated information about the Shards, that at times sounds just a little pedantic.  But apart from these very small blemishes, I enjoyed the book very much and I’m now waiting for the next installment with great expectation.

My Rating: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: 

DUSK OR DARK OR DAWN OR DAY by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is not only one my favorite authors, she is a natural-born storyteller – and that might be the very reason I enjoy her powerful writing so much. This is her second novel I’ve read that deals with ghosts (the first being Sparrow Hill Road), and although there is no connection between the two stories – except for the presence of ghosts, of course – the tie binding them together is the way McGuire handles the emotions connected to death and the afterlife.  The stark directness of her descriptions, the lack of any concession to morbid thoughts or easy sentimentality, make this story compelling and its characters unforgettable.

Ghosts are created when people die before their allotted life-span, so that they still move among the living – often in deceptively corporeal form, enough to be undistinguishable from the rest of humanity – until they have reached the amount of years pre-programmed, so to speak, into their existence: ghosts possess the ability to take time from the living, so prolonging an individual’s permanence on the Earth and at the same time shortening the giving ghost’s stay in limbo; they can also give time back, though, as a form of punishment for those who are deemed undeserving.

This intriguing premise has a negative side, though: witches (yes, there are witches moving among us, and some of them are bad) can trap ghosts inside mirrors and use them as a veritable fountain of youth, either for themselves or for anyone willing to pay for the chance of many more healthy, vigorous years. Even being dead does not free one from the dangers of human greed, it would seem…

Jenna is a ghost: once a small-town girl, she literally ran to her death shortly after her beloved sister Patty’s funeral.  Patty had moved to New York in search of a better life and, like many other disillusioned young women before her, choose suicide as a way of escape from her broken dreams.  Once dead, Jenna did not meet again with Patty – who, in all probability, was fated to die when she did – so she’s now going on as a ghost, working as a part-time waitress and as a volunteer at a suicide help line, where she earns time by helping people at the end of their endurance.   Decades of this routine almost-existence are profoundly shaken when it becomes clear that all ghosts in New York have disappeared, and Jenna decides to take action, shaking herself out of her unconscious complacency and finally facing her own… well, ghosts.

The actual plot at the core of this novel felt less important, to me, than the intriguing ideas and characters that supported it, starting with the whole concept of ghosts as indentured workers needing to serve their whole time before being set free: life is somehow compared to a form of duty one needs to fulfill before being allowed to move on.  That felt like one of the strongest arguments against suicide I remember reading, one that feels both right on its own merit and devastatingly clear in its simplicity.   Indeed Jenna, who still mourns the loss of her sister Patty, understands how her own accidental death squandered her potential, so that she feels the need to earn every single minute of time she gains, and more often than not chooses to donate it to someone in need.

Jenna is an intriguing character, because all throughout the story she appears somewhat detached from it all – not because she is a ghost among the living, but because it seems that she’s trying to protect herself from feeling too much: the loss of Patty, of the strongest emotional bond she had while living, left her apparently unable to form any meaningful connection with other people, either living or dead. It would be easy to classify her as cold and aloof, if it were not for the small group of friends she has gathered around her, the real mirrors of her personality: fellow ghost Delia, the landlady of the building Jenna lives in, a sort of mother figure for both living and dead in the community; corn-witch Brenda, the guitar-playing manager of the coffee shop Jenna visits regularly; or homeless Sophie, her muttered ramblings a cover for something deeper.  All of these equally fascinating characters show us who the real Jenna is by reacting to her with care and sympathy, making us understand that there is more to Jenna than meets the eye, even if she is the one telling the story and therefore being something of an unreliable narrator, up to a point.

What ultimately Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is, is a contemplation of life an death, of the meaning of both, and the way we face them.  There is a quote that showcases what I most appreciate in this author:

Statistically, women are more likely to go for poisons than men are. We don’t like to leave a mess. We spend our whole lives learning how to be… how to be as neat and tidy and unobtrusive as possible, and then we go out the same way.

No preaching, no lengthy sermons, but a simply effective bluntness that’s one of McGuire’s landmarks and the reason I’ve become such a staunch fan in a relatively short time.  This might not be one of the “happiest” stories you might find, but it’s one that will make you think, and that’s always a plus in my book.

My Rating:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:


 

never

Review: TOWER OF THORNS, by Juliet Marillier (Blackthorn & Grim #2)

22567177Tackling the second book in a series can be a tricky business when the first one happened to be an amazing read: I’m often afraid that the “magic” will not be there with the same strength as it was in that first, remarkable read, so that I tend to postpone my approach to the next volume. Well, I should not have done that with Juliet Marillier’s Blackthorn and Grim, because this second book is even better than the first – and consider that Dreamer’s Pool was already an incredible find.

Tower of Thorns starts some time after the events of Dreamer’s Pool, showing how wise woman Blackthorn and her companion Grim seem to be quite settled in their life at Winterfalls: despite Blackthorn’s prickly character and Grim’s broody silence, the two have integrated well into their life in Prince Oran’s household, finding a modicum of peace, although the ghosts of their respective pasts still haunt them.  This quite fragile equilibrium is unbalanced by the move of the Prince’s retinue to the king’s palace, due to a temporary absence of the sovereign: leaving what the two have come to think of as their safe place is not easy, but the advanced pregnancy of Lady Flidais, the Prince’s wife, compels Blackthorn to insure her presence – and it’s clear that, despite her grumblings, the healer has developed a strong attachment to the community she lives in, while Grim has gone even beyond that.

Neither of them has much time to adapt to their new surroundings when two things happen that upset once more the status quo: Lady Geileis, the ruler of a nearby land, comes asking for help against a creature that has taken residence in an abandoned tower, its day-long wails upsetting both the people’s  spirits and the health of crops and cattle; and Flannan, an old friend of Blackthorn and a wandering scholar, makes his appearance, stirring up old ghosts and the healer’s never mastered need for vengeance.  Blackthorn’s acceptance of Lady Geileis appeal for help – the monster’s curse might be lifted by a wise woman – is simply the means to leave the court and explore the possibility of following Flannan south and connecting with a net of rebels bent on exposing Mathuin’s wrongdoings and finally bringing him to justice.

This story is told in what I have come to envision as expanding concentric circles, each new one adding some more information to the plot, and this is particularly true with the mystery of Geileis and her wailing monster, imprisoned in a tower protected by an impenetrable barrier of thorns. The flashbacks to what appears to be a classic fairy story offer more and more information about the terrible curse weighing on Geileis’ land, and her own part in it: it’s a fascinating tale, one that provides some much-needed clues to what basically is a very mysterious character, one who appears from the start to have an hidden agenda, and the will to bring her plans to fruition, no matter the cost.  As I learned the details of her past, I was caught between pity and dislike: on one side Geileis is a tragic figure, considering the heavy curse hanging over her domain, with a tower-bound monster howling all day long throughout the summer, its cries dredging the saddest thoughts from the listeners’ minds and sometimes bringing them to extreme acts, even affecting the cattle and the crops.  On the other, there is a core of ruthlessness in her that renders her uncaring of any consequences might be visited on those who choose to help her: the glimpses we see of the younger Geileis made me think that probably she never grew out of her teenage selfishness, so that her plight did not touch me as deeply as it should probably have.

Despite being at the core of the inciting incident for this story, Geileis is far less central to its economy than Blackthorn and Grim, especially the latter who – in my opinion – often takes the center stage here, while part of his past his revealed.   Blackthorn is a woman caught between two powerful forces: the need to see justice done for the wrongs Mathuin visited on her and other helpless victims, and the equally strong need to keep true to her pact with the fae Conmael. The arrival of Flannan makes the latter’s pull less strong, and day by day her need to throw caution to the four winds becomes more compelling, tempered only by the curiosity toward the riddle she wants to solve and – even more important – her loyalty toward Grim.  The relationship between Blackthorn and Grim keeps being the beating heart of this series, and here, where it’s sorely tested, it shines even more brightly: should she decide to follow Flannan south, toward vengeance, she knows she has to deceive Grim in order to keep him from following her toward what Blackthorn believes will be a sure death, and this causes her great anguish because complete honesty lies at the root of their relationship, one forged not on romantic attachment but on the kind of trust that only family can engender.

For his part, Grim perceives the distance that has come between himself and Blackthorn and while he can only guess at its reasons – and is hurt by it – he refuses to forsake the role of protector, confidant and friend that he needs to exercise just as much as Blackthorn knows she needs it herself. To say that my heart went out to him in these circumstances would be a massive understatement, especially when observing other people’s dismissive reaction to his silences and his oh-so-deceptive simple-mindedness, that under its surface hides a keen mind and a deep capacity for selflessness.  Whatever compassion I might have felt toward Grim’s character, however, went several steps further once the massive disclosure about his past came to the fore: it’s a huge, earth-shattering revelation that completely upends any theory I had about his background and shines a very different light on his personality, and his soul.  Tower of Thorns is very much Grim’s story more than anyone else’s, and the pages where we learn about the events that destroyed his past and shaped him into the man he is are among the very best of the novel, the intensity of feelings described with a sort of lucid compassion that is nothing short of breath-taking.

In Tower of Thorns both Blackthorn and Grim appear to have mastered some of the ghosts from their past, or at very least to have come to more comfortable terms with them, and even though it’s clear they still have a long road before them, it’s also clear they know – with the absolute certainty they had not reached until now – they can totally depend on one another, that despite their flaws they can count on each other for support, and strength.

There’s an intensity of feeling in Blackthorn and Grim’s relationship that touched my heart in such a deep way I have not experienced in a long time: to me this is the mark of stellar writing.  With the first book I discovered an amazing author, but with this second I have become a staunch fan.

My Rating: