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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:


2016 PLANETARY AWARDS

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Like last year, Planetary Defense Command promotes this award for our favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy works (and I’d like to add my thanks for the timely reminder I received today, since I almost forgot that time was running out to post my choices).

HERE you will find all the necessary information: the deadline for the nomination is February 14th, at 11:59PM US Pacific time.  So there is still time to choose and post your nominations!

The 2016 Awards require we nominate two categories (instead of the three that were available last year):

1) Shorter story (under 40,000 words/160 paperback pages)
2) Traditionally published novel

My thanks to Planetary Defense Command for this opportunity to list my 2016 favorite reads!

And here are my choices, which were quite difficult, because I read a great number of shorter works and full novels that I enjoyed very much, so I had to go to my 5-star ratings and choose from them, to try and restrict the… playing field.  Still, it was far from easy…

For Shorter Story my choice fell on GRR Martin’s THE GLASS FLOWER, a SF story about death, rebirth and the search for eternal life, and perfection. It’s a tale that’s both wonderful and chilling – in perfect keeping with Martin’s style – and one that can be both enjoyed in writing and in the amazing audio version read by Australian actress Claudia Black.

For Traditionally Published Novel my choice goes to James S.A. Corey BABYLON’S ASHES, the sixth volume in the Expanse saga: I’ve come to anxiously wait for each new installment of this engrossing space opera series, that has quite redefined my parameters for what I most enjoy in the genre.

So I’m done – in the nick of time…  And now let’s see how it goes!

Review: THE CLOUD ROADS, by Martha Wells (Books of the Raksura #1)

9461562I’ve been aware of this series since the appearance of the first book, and I’ve kept reminding myself to see what it was all about every time I saw news about the release of a new installment or a positive review, but as it often happens I kept procrastinating in favor of other books: now, mostly thanks to the enthusiastic review of a fellow blogger, I’ve decided it was high time.

The first volume of this series introduces the readers to a peculiar world divided into three realms and peopled by a wide variety of beings: all of them are humanoid looking but show some differences in coloring and appearance that make us realize quite soon there are no humans as such on this world, a place where plains and mountains give way to rivers and seas and even offer the breathtaking spectacle of floating islands, that reminded me of some amazing vistas from James Cameron’s Avatar.  Apart from the weird creatures that can be found on land, water or air, there are two big groups of sentients: the groundlings, those who most resemble baseline humans, and the Raksura, winged and tailed crosses between lizard and human, who can shape-change from flying configuration to a wingless, groundling-like form.

Moon is a Raksura, but he’s not aware of his true nature: he’s been living on his own since the rest of his family group was killed by predators, and he has tried to live with groundlings, only to have his shape-shifting ability revealed every time, so that he ended up being evicted from the groups he had tried to blend in. The conflict between his desire not to be alone and the fear of inevitable discovery has shaped his attitude into a sort of bitter disillusionment that manages to keep him apart from others, even when he’s temporarily part of a community: for this reason, once he comes into contact with another Raksura for the first time, he’s quite distrustful about accepting the stranger’s offer of joining a proper court and finally be with his own people.  Stone, that’s the name of the scout sent by Indigo Cloud court in search of new members to refresh the bloodlines, does not take Moon’s initial ‘no’ for an answer and urges him to at least see for himself what he’s missed until now. Unfortunately, the two’s visit to a neighboring court reveals the threat from the Fell, a kind of feral Raksura with a cruel, predatory attitude.

This event, in addition to Moon’s earlier encounter with the Fell, and the painful memories tied to it, about which we will learn much later in the course of the story, convinces Moon to lend his aid to Indigo Cloud, at least temporarily: part of his unwillingness to offer a permanent commitment comes from his ingrained diffidence, but there’s another factor weighing in, the discovery of his nature as a consort, the rare kind of Raksura who can mate with a queen to give birth to other Raksura or their wingless brethren, the Arbora.   There’s an interesting consideration to be made here, and it’s one of the fascinating aspects of this story: Raksuran society hinges on a role reversal, where the queens hold all the power (even that of keeping individuals from shifting into winged shape) and the male consorts possess a role quite similar to that of concubines in a harem. The courts’ organization closely resembles that of an ant- or bee-hive, with the different roles – mentors, warriors and so on – established by birth.

The depiction of Raksuran society, together with the vivid descriptions of the world in which the story unfolds, are the backbone of this novel and the most fascinating aspect of it, while the steady pace keeps the story flowing at a good speed. What’s interesting here is that we see it all through Moon’s eyes, and since it’s all new to him, we share in both his wonder and puzzlement.  The author has managed to convey the same insights one might gain from a first-person perspective while keeping the narrative in the third person, although tightly focused on Moon’s point of view.  He is an interesting character, a grown adult – at some point we learn he’s around 35 – but possessed of some traits belonging to a younger person: it’s clear that his life of solitude has not allowed for a full psychological development and that he’s still searching for himself, more than for a stable home. That’s why, I think, the discovery of his possible role as consort seems fraught with negatives: while solitude has been a burden throughout his existence, Moon does not look ready to give up his independence in favor of a permanent home and some creature comforts, and his first meeting with Pearl, the ruling queen of Indigo Cloud, does not help his skittishness at all.   The impending threat from the Fell puts these troubles on the back burner, however, and Moon finds himself confronted with the need to help his newfound allies (and maybe family) deal with a danger that swiftly turns into “clear and present” mode.

While I totally enjoyed the book, and will certainly read on, the story is far from perfect: the action is swift and engrossing, the world-building amazing and at times quite cinematic, but characterization – apart from the central figure of Moon – feels somewhat sketchy.  For example, Stone, Moon’s mentor and guide, or Jade, queen-in-training and possible mate, are not fully fleshed out but seem to be there only as props for Moon’s journey of discovery of his true nature: I could not get a sense of the persons behind the characters, and that made me feel as if something important was sorely missing.  I wanted to know what made them the way they were, how they had come to that point, just as I could more easily understand what makes Moon tick.

Apart from this small disappointment, that I hope will be assuaged in the future course of the story, The Cloud Roads is a fascinating tale set in an intriguing universe, one that I will certainly enjoy exploring further.

My Rating:


Review: INK AND BONE, by Rachel Caine (The Great Library #1)

20643052This is the kind of book that exerts an undeniable appeal on book lovers and compulsive readers like me. Appeal as well as horror, because the idea that books and their contents would be subject to a superior authority empowered to decide who can access the information and what kind of information can be accessed, is indeed the stuff of nightmares.

The premise: in Ink and Bone’s alternate history, the Great Library in Alexandria was never destroyed, all its precious cache of works and knowledge surviving and spreading all around the world with the creation of daughter-libraries. Sadly, a surplus of knowledge does not bring either wisdom or enlightenment: on the contrary the Library has become the most powerful entity in the world, ruling through intimidation and the influence accrued over the centuries.  This… bibliocracy, for want of a better word, has banned the individual property of books, whose ownership is reserved to the Library and its representative delegations: books are still handwritten, since the development of the press never occurred – Gutenberg, and any other inventor ever to approach the idea of mass-produced books, having been mercilessly suppressed as dangerous heretics.

Written works can be read through blanks, devices resembling modern tablets or e-readers and whose contents are owned only temporarily and strictly controlled by the Library, of course. This detail forced me to consider the role of e-readers in our time: useful and practical as they are, they still are a far cry from the effective ownership of a book, or the simple pleasure of holding a cherished volume in one’s hands, of enjoying its smell and texture.  E-books don’t carry the same definitive aura of possession, and this story has done much to strengthen my determination to always keep a backup copy of every e-book I’ve ever bought – just in case. But I digress…

Jess Brightwell belongs to an influential family that has made a sizeable fortune by smuggling books to wealthy customers who can afford the price – and the risk of discovery: when we meet him he’s just a child, and yet his stern, uncompromising father sends him out as a runner, disguised among other children as decoys.  The Garda, the feared Library police, is constantly on the lookout for the young smugglers, often aided by “concerned citizens” ready to point out anything untoward.  Capture might entail death, as already happened to Jess’ older brother Liam, who choose capital punishment rather than betray his family.  Still, Jess’ father sends his child on these missions with apparent disregard for his safety; at some point, Jess recalls those moments with poignant clarity:

[…] He remembered how it had felt in that awful moment of clarity in his childhood, knowing his father would let him die.

A few years later, Brightwell Sr. sends Jess as a postulant to the Library once he turns sixteen: should he succeed in being accepted, he will be able to act as a spy and fifth column for his family – failure to graduate and gain a place in the… enemy camp will leave Jess on his own, because his father is not going to pamper a son who loves books for themselves rather than as a valuable commodity.

These two incidents managed to quickly endear young Jess to me: I have often stressed my lack of patience for trope-laden YA characters who do little but sulk, whine and bemoan the cruelty of the world or their situation – not so with Jess Brightwell, or the other postulants he meets once he reaches the hallowed grounds of the Library.  These are teenagers, yes, but they are depicted with all the true exuberance and hope of youth, the need to excel and to prove themselves to their peers, the drive to learn and make a mark on the world. In other words, they feel real, and completely relatable: the harsh trials they undergo once in Alexandria help to showcase their characters, their strengths and liabilities, and the way they are growing as persons.

What Jess and his fellow postulants soon discover is that the Great Library is not the beacon of knowledge they believed, but rather a brutal tyrant imposing its will by force, both on nations and on individuals: even the high-placed Scholars are not protected from this inflexible rule, on the contrary they are the subjects of intense scrutiny at every moment of their lives.  As the young students forge their way through the lessons, we learn more about this alternate – and dystopian – world, one where steam-driven carriages coexist with the equivalent of tablets, although these are powered by alchemy; a world where fast trains that reminded me of the most advanced mag-lev conveyances stand side-by-side with greek fire and guardian automata.  And a world where bloody wars are waged, like the one between England and Wales: one of the most harrowing passages in this fast-moving, totally absorbing story, covers the baptism of fire mission in which Jess and his friends are called into besieged Oxford to try and save the books stored there before the fall of the city.

Parallel to the story itself, there is a narrative thread carried out through the “Ephemera”, short chapters showcasing bits of Library correspondence exchanged throughout the centuries and giving information on the course of history and on what happens behind the scenes.  Some of the contents of these Ephemera are quite chilling and reveal the pervasive presence of the Library in everyone’s life, and the extremes reached in the pursuit of power.

I’ve often thought that there are shades of Orwell’s 1984 in the Library’s reach into individual lives and in the pursuit of absolute control, in the will to shape the minds of its subjects and to drive home the awareness of the institution’s unlimited power: nothing can be hidden from the Library, not even one’s innermost thoughts and desires.  It’s a very compelling theme, and it’s explored with a great control of pacing and character development: from the young students to their proctor Wolfe to the figures who hold the highest ranks, everyone is painted with subtle strokes and cleverly developed, making the readers care for each of them, making us love or hate them as the story requires.

This might well be one of the most fascinating books I’ve read so far, one that has done a great deal toward curing me of my mistrust toward YA-oriented fiction, and one whose story I more than look forward to reading on.  And Book 2 already beckons from the (virtual) shelf…

My Rating:


Review: BINDINGS & SPINES, by R.M. Ridley (White Dragon Black #2)

33226908I received the e-ARC of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

Since reading the first volume of this Urban Fantasy series, Tomorrow Wendell, and the short stories collection set in the same world, Blondes, Books and Bourbon, I’ve wanted to know more about the main character’s journey, so that when the author offered me the opportunity of reading the ARC for this second book, I was more than delighted to accept.

The main character of this series, Jonathan Alvey, is a private investigator and a practitioner, i.e. a magic wielder. In the course of his chosen work he therefore deals more frequently with the occult than with run-of-the-mill cases of stolen objects or unfaithful spouses, although even some of the more mundane assignments he handles sometimes turn out to be anything but.

There is something that distinguishes Alvey from the other PIs in any Urban Fantasy context: the use of magic not only saps energy from the wielders, but also makes them addicts and ultimately kills them. So Alvey, like his brethren, must be very careful in channeling the powers at his disposal a.k.a. the White Dragon, to avoid falling prey to the deadly demands of its counterpart, the Dragon Black. These two opposing forces are represented by the well-known yin-yang symbol, the one that marks every practitioner.

As Binding & Spines opens, Jonathan Alvey does not find himself in a very good place: his long-time friend Mary, worried for his health, has convinced (or rather, strong-armed) him into refraining from the use of magic, and he’s now deep into the throes of withdrawal. Just like it happens to any substance abuser, his body is reacting violently to abstinence, with devastating physical and psychological side effects that all but make him unable to function normally. The only means Alvey has to stave off the worst of the symptoms are the ones he uses to keep the need to use magic at bay: chain-smoking and heavy drinking, whose long-term consequences are just as bad as those of magic itself.   Just imagine someone who indulges in terrible (and even disgusting…) habits like preparing instant coffee with bourbon in place of water, or eats his cereals with beer in place of milk – this man really knows how to punish himself…

If use of magic is bound to have deadly consequences on his body, it’s also true that the alcohol and nicotine abuse he employs as a countermeasure are just as lethal: while I at first thought that the costs of wielding magic were a nice counterbalance to the character’s abilities, here I felt there was an unavoidable downward spiral to his journey that was really painful to witness, especially when coupled with the pervasive feelings of hopelessness and resignation that seemed to have ensconced themselves deeply in Alvey’s behavior.  I previously remarked on the character’s apparent self-destructive attitude, but while before it felt more like the cynical attitude typical of his chosen profession, here it looked like he’d given up and didn’t care what happened to him either way.

Luckily, two new cases come knocking on Alvey’s door, with the promise of a fleeting distraction from his troubles: a man hires him to confirm his suspicions on his wife’s infidelity, and a series of botched resurrections of the dead points to a new necromancer in town, one who could create a great deal of trouble.  Hampered by the impossibility to use his powers, the detective struggles in search of clues while battling with the treacherous reactions of his magic-starved body, while the two seemingly unrelated cases start showing some possible points of contact, especially when a much sought-after grimoire makes its appearance on the scene.

As the investigation progresses (and as a reader it was fun to “connect the dots” together with Alvey) a little more light is shed on the life of practitioners, the spells they use and the outlandish materials needed to complete the task, adding more substance and detail to the city of New Hades where the action unfolds: as a fictional location, New Hades is an interesting mix of modern and weird, where everyday activities like restaurants or libraries coexist with places such as the Blacklight, an area where I would not feel safe even in an armored tank. The overall mood of these stories always makes me imagine these locations in sepia tones, never in color: New Hades seems to live in perpetual twilight, even in the middle of the day – or at least this is how I keep perceiving it while immersed in the story.

There is no lack of humor in these pages, however: it’s of the subdued kind, so as not to contrast with the overall dark mood, but for this very reason it’s even more effective. We go from small touches as the street names, like Marlowe Avenue or Lorre Way, that give an amused nod to the two genres this series takes inspiration from, to the Redcaps infestation plaguing Alvey’s office building. Redcaps are small, vicious creatures that remind me of the garden trolls you sometimes find on unfortunate lawns, and the dichotomy between the small size of the creatures and the very nasty danger they represent – not to mention the creative ways employed by the detective to keep them at arm’s length – is the very reason Alvey’s encounters with them offer the necessary relief from the darker aspects of the story.

While this new case is successfully brought to a close, it’s clear from a few details that further and darker clouds loom on the character’s horizon, especially after the warning from a dead man who tells Alvey that “beyond even the darkness through which I traveled to return, somethings howls your name“. He will need all his wits, and all his staunch friends, to face those dangers and survive another day.

I, for one, will welcome more stories from New Hades and this very peculiar detective.

 

My Rating:


TEASER TUESDAY

Teaser Tuesday is an intriguing meme started by Ambrosia over at The Purple Booker.

All you have to do is:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other Teaser Tuesday participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Teaser Tuesday

I have waited too long to start the second volume of Juliet Marillier’s wonderful Blackthorn and Grim Saga, TOWER OF THORNS, but now that I have I’m loving it even more than Dreamer’s Pool – and that was an amazing discovery indeed.

In this new book, Blackthorn and her brooding companion Grim seem to have settled quite nicely in Darlriada, and both their lives appear more secure, but neither of them has forgotten the horrors of their pasts or the most recent terrible experiences as prisoners of Mathuin.  And Blackthorn still nurses her powerful need for vengeance.

But a new challenge faces them, that of a mysterious creature that haunts a nearby land with its anguished wails, so that the wise woman and her silent friend accept the task of trying to understand what it’s all about…

[…] the four of us set off together: the scholar and the monk, the so-called wise woman and… If this were an old tale, what name would I give Grim? The bodyguard? The companion? The protector, the keeper? The friend?  He was all of those and more.

This little quote highlight what is one of the most engaging elements in this series, the relationship between Blackthorn and Grim, something that seems to go even beyond ties of friendship and family, and is the truly fascinating core of the story.

Review: TWO SERPENTS RISE, by Max Gladstone (Craft Sequence #2)

16059411A few years ago I read, and greatly enjoyed, Max Gladstone’s THREE PARTS DEAD, a totally new take on fantasy and magic, and afterwards I kept reminding myself to read more of this series – especially when I learned about the new books being published – but such are the fluctuating “currents” of my TBR pile that this second volume was being constantly shifted back.  Now that I’ve finally read it, I’m struggling with a creeping feeling of disappointment, as if something that I had greatly appreciated in the first book was sadly missing here.

The story does not take place in Alt Coulumb, like book 1, but rather in Dresediel Lex, a city whose past seems to hint at an Atzec-like culture, made of stone pyramids, winged serpents and human sacrifices to the gods. The latter have been taken out of the equation after an equally bloody war in which the gods were vanquished and supplanted by deathless kings and a form of magic that uses soul as currency, although many still worship the decades-gone gods and look with longing at the times when blood was freely spent to garner the favor of those divinities.

Despite this more secular imprint on society, life in Dresediel Lex can be hard: the place sits in a dry, desert-like area (it could somehow remind me of Las Vegas, if it weren’t for its proximity to the sea) and water supply is the main problem the inhabitants have to face, since the ever-growing population’s needs have already run the nearest sources dry.  Caleb Altemoc is a senior risk manager at Red King Consolidated, the corporation that actually runs the city and delivers its water through a complicated net of pipes and Craft, a combination of technology and magic that uses some of the now-subjugated gods as power sources.

When the water from the current reservoir becomes poisoned by Tzimet – fanged, demon-like creatures that can come out of the faucets and attack the citizens – Caleb is called to investigate and his suspicions are equally divided between his father Temoc, one of the last priests supporting the old religion, forced to live in hiding, and Mal, a mysterious woman Caleb saw running over the structure of the reservoir.  Mal is also tied to Heartstone, a firm that RKC is going to acquire to expand its power base and its reach in the services offered to the city, and so Caleb’s attraction to her becomes mixed with the investigation and the number of unanswered questions circling around Mal.

The investigation brings Caleb into a maze of ancient secrets, long-held grudges and the ever-growing threat of seeing everything that RKC and the King in Red did, to unshackle the citizens from the need to appease the gods with human sacrifice, turn to ashes: the fact that the path RKC has taken is crumbling under the law of diminishing returns gives the loyalist of the “old regime” the lever they need to try and bring it all back to reinstate the old ways.   There is much to keep one’s attention in this story, not least the increasing sense of impending doom that comes from Caleb’s discoveries, that in turn climax into a scene of city-wide mayhem in which the titular Serpents play a focal role.

The main question is a complex one, whether it is preferable to stick to the old ways – ensuring the prolonged survival of the city through human sacrifice – or embrace the new ones, which however do not guarantee the same kind of continuity.   Someone would be made to suffer either way, and the only choice allowed is to pick the victim: a sacrifice on the altar to buy the gods’ favor, or a war with other cities for their resources once the ones at hand are depleted.  As the author writes at some point:

“You seem to think it’s different if we kill for gods or for water; either way the victim dies at the end.”

Despite the fascinating conundrum, the sense of incompleteness I was mentioning before did linger all throughout the book, and in the end I believe it was because Caleb  feels a bit thin – especially if compared to other, more interesting and fleshed-out figures, like Caleb’s friend Teo, with her sharp, world-wise attitude and staunch attachment to the people she cares about;  or his father Temoc, whose love for his son cannot be separated from the loyalty he feel for his gods and the tenets of his faith.  Caleb is indeed the child of two worlds, the old and the new, and he dwells in a no-man’s-land of uncertainty that, sadly, spreads into the area of character development: besides the obsession for the elusive Mal and his gambling, there is not much to make him stand out, and at the end of the story he’s not much different from the man he was at the beginning – at least from my point of view.

I did ultimately enjoy the book, but not as much as I’d hoped after the great experience that was Three Parts Dead: the perceived weakness of the main character, and the less intriguing background (I found Alt Coulumb much more fascinating a place than Dresediel Lex) were something of a letdown. Still, I’m curious about the world of the Craft Sequence, and will certainly read other books in this series, in the hope of finding again the… magic of the first volume.

 

My Rating:

TOP TEN TUESDAY #4

TOP TEN TUESDAY is a meme created at The Broke and The Bookish, with the aim of sharing Top Ten lists of our favorites – mostly book related.

toptentuesday

For this last week of the year, the topic is: Top Ten Best Books of 2016

When the time comes to draw up a list like this, I find myself faced with some hard choices, because most of the books I’ve reviewed – and for 2016 they amount to a round 60, which is something of a record for me, given the limited time I can devote to reading – are books I liked quite a bit.

I spoke of reviewed books, rather than simply read, because some of the titles I picked up ended in the DNF  pile, and of these I reviewed only a few – those for which I felt a very strong need to share the reasons  I didn’t like them, although I managed to soldier on past the 25% mark that for me is the “make or break” point.   Which means there are a few more that didn’t even make the list because I could not connect with either story or characters and moved on quite swiftly.

So, of these 60 books, only 3 were abandoned before the end, and I had to pick my favorite 10 out of the remaining 57: as I said, not an easy feat, and that’s the reason I’m not going to list my ten favorite titles in any particular order of preference, but rather in the order I read them. It’s the most Solomonic solution I could come up with…

 

THE FIFTH HOUSE OF THE HEART, by Ben Tripp

ILLUMINAE, by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

DREAMER’S POOL, by Juliet Marillier

A RED ROSE CHAIN & ONCE BROKEN FAITH, by Seanan McGuire  (I could not pick just one of them…)

MORNING STAR, by Pierce Brown

THE LESSER DEAD, by Christopher Buehlman

DARK ASCENSIONS, by M.L. Brennan

THE DRAGON’S PATH, by Daniel Abraham

HOUSE OF SUNS, by Alastair Reynolds

BABYLON’S ASHES, by James S.A. Corey  (forthcoming review)

 

Ok, the count really goes to 11 titles, but I can bend the rules a little if I consider that the books in the October Daye series are all parts of the same whole. Can I?

And what about you?  What are your favorite reads for this year?

Review: THE BLOODBOUND, by Erin Lindsey (Bloodbound #1)

20949421The very enthusiastic reviews I kept reading about this novel since it came out compelled me to add it to my reading queue, but I finally got to it only recently, when the other two books of the trilogy have already been published: the bad news is that until this moment I missed out on a solid, compulsive read; the good news is that I will not have to wait long to read the other two installments in the series.  So I can take some measure of comfort in my lateness to the party…

The Bloodbound starts in what deceptively looks like a well-known pattern: the kingdom of Aldea is at war with the invading Oridians, and in the middle of a crucial battle, part of the Aldean forces, led by the king’s brother, leave the field allowing the enemy to attempt a decisive blow.  King Erik himself is about to be killed when one of the scouts – the young noblewoman Alix Black – saves his life by unseating him from his horse. And breaking his leg in the process.

This is the first departure from the expected norm of the genre: women are not only allowed, but required – like everyone else in Aldea – to serve in the army for at least a two-years stint.  And if they are mostly employed as scouts rather than actual warriors, this does not mean they are exempt from risk or physical harm.  It’s a refreshing attitude, and one that gives the author the opportunity of showing some female characters with actual agency, who gather the respect and admiration of their peers.

Alix is indeed one the best scouts in the Aldean army: she’s nimble, able to move unheard and unseen in the most difficult of terrains, and her courage is unquestioned – but she’s also headstrong, impulsive and prone to mistakes due to her recklessness. Unlike similar characters, she’s not trying to prove anything, nor is she driven by a desire to emerge: she acts before she thinks, and that’s what makes her commanding officer, General Green, so furious – but also what allows her to save the life of the king, who promotes her as his personal bodyguard on the field.

This is where the romantic thread of the narrative pops up, because if Alix has strong feelings for her fellow scout Liam (feelings that are not socially acceptable, since he’s a fatherless bastard), the closeness to king Erik brings her to enjoy his company and respond in kind to her ruler’s very gentlemanly advances.   When this part of the story surfaced I was instantly on my guard: I’m not very partial to romance in my reading, and I try to avoid love triangles as much as I can – blame it on my encounters with some trope-laden YA stories that made me violently allergic to these two themes.

Well, I’m very happy to say that my unease was groundless: Erin Lindsey managed to treat the subject matter with a very light hand and with very well developed emotional responses on the part of the three involved people – you will not find any artificial angst over unrequited love, or tormented inner dialogue in the most inappropriate moments, or childlike behavior of the kind that makes me want to slap the characters senseless.  No, what we see here are three people having to deal with very complicated feelings that encompass love, respect, friendship and duty, and do it in a very adult way, to the point that I could not be more partial toward any one of the three involved characters, but felt sympathy and compassion for all of them: the very impossibility of a simple resolution for the complicated entanglement of these three lives is what makes the dilemma real and approachable – from the reader’s standpoint – and what turns a potentially destructive narrative thread into one around which the story’s major events develop seamlessly.

The backbone of The Bloodbound is a compelling one: there is a war going on, but it’s not treated simply as a clash of armies – there is that of course, and also some politics and treachery, but more substantial themes are explored, like the meaning of rule, the qualities that make a good king versus a bad, distant one.  If Alix is somehow the main character here, and her journey of inner growth is often at the forefront, king Erik is also closely observed as he transforms from a happy-go-lucky monarch and commander to a more mature, responsible and hardened person, one who comes to understand the price of power and is ready to pay it, no matter how painful the cost.

If Alix, Erik and Liam are often in the spotlight, this does not mean that the characters surrounding them are simple props put there just for background color: there is a good number of people, some of them fleshed out more fully than others, who at times bring a choral flavor to the story, enriching it and making its scope broader and multi-layered. At the same time, the various dramatic threads, like the war and the sacrifices it requires, are offset by sparks of humor that dovetail seamlessly into the most serious events, balancing the overall effect in a very pleasing way.

Last but not least the magic: it’s there, but not in an intrusive way and it adds the necessary pinch of spice to the mix. Most interesting is the bloodbond established between a weapon (be it a sword, a knife or a bow) and its wielder, that makes it an integral part of its owner: wielding a weapon so magically linked to the person using it, makes for a lighter feel, and an almost subconscious integration with the body. The most intelligent choice in this aspect of the story is that the bloodbond can be reached with difficulty, since it’s a rare craft whose experts are dwindling in number, so avoiding the risk of making it a deux-ex-machina prop.

Then there is the dark art able to transform people into almost invincible zombies – again, a kind of witchcraft requiring blood to work, in what looks like a pattern in this world’s magic system – and that creates a terrifying host of unfeeling soldiers launched against the Aldean army. The attempt at neutralizing this looming danger gives us some of the most breath-stopping pages of the whole story, one that practically read itself, thanks to the almost compulsory quality of the narrative.

I’m quite happy to have finally started this series, and I know I will not wait too long before reading the other two installments. On the contrary, I’m quite eager to see how the story progresses.

 

My Rating:

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY #12

This GoodReads group proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.

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This week’s theme: SERIES THAT GOT WORSE WITH EACH BOOK/SEASON

This week’s topic is an interesting one, since it allows us to mix book and Tv series: we all had one or more experiences of quite promising series that started with the proverbial bang and then tapered out with the equally proverbial whimper. There is no malicious glee in pointing them out, because disappointments burn both ways…

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I will start with Peter Brett’s Demon Cycle: the first book, The Warded Man, was an amazing, exciting discovery – imagine a world where the fall of darkness means that demonic creatures emerge from the very ground, bent on destroying the hapless humans they find on their way, unless people shelter behind wards, powerful symbols capable of keeping these hellish creatures at bay. I literally consumed the book, and went looking for more, although the second volume, The Desert Spear, suffered from a little repetition and a few instances of… characterization hiccups, for want of a better word. Still, the story managed to make me forget these small disturbances and move on to book 3 – and that’s where the trouble started in earnest: The Daylight War not only managed to retread old narrative paths (in some cases for the third time) but degraded toward a soap-opera-like style of storytelling that completely alienated me from what had started as a very promising tale. Not the kind of journey I had hoped to make…

I know that my next choice will prove highly unpopular, but I have to mention Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time: I received the first volume of this saga, The Eye of the World, as a birthday gift a couple of years after its initial publication and I remember enjoying this epic tale of the struggle between Good and Evil and its vast cast of characters.  Yes, there were a few similarities with Tolkien I had perceived, namely those creatures (I can’t remember their name, it’s been a few years…) whose mere presence caused paralyzing fear in their victims, and that strongly reminded me of the Ringwraiths; or the journey through The Ways, that seemed like a combination between Moria and the Paths of the Dead.    Sadly, with the following books, the narrative appeared more and more bloated with long, excruciating descriptions that left little room for plot advancement; there were constant repetitions of annoying characters’ behavior (after a few hundred braid-chewings by a particular character I was ready to scream in frustration), and what’s worse, those annoying similarities kept cropping up and waving at me: just as an example, I will mention the Aes Sedai, a women-only powerful order bent on shaping humanity through age-long intervention; and the Aiel, a desert-dwelling people whose combat skills are known and feared, waiting for the proverbial Chosen One to lead them to victory.  Dune fans, do they both remind you of something?
If the novels had been leaner, the pace swifter, I might have overlooked it all, but the combination of what I perceived like derivative elements with the glacial progression of the story made me abandon the saga midway through book 4.

Some time ago I read, and enjoyed, Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax SF series, so when I learned she had started a new one, Razorland, I wasted no time in acquiring book 1, Enclave.  It possessed many of the elements I appreciate in a post-apocalyptic tale: humanity has been decimated by a plague whose surviving victims turn into feral creatures called Freaks.  What remains of humankind had to take shelter into underground tunnels, where life is short and brutal, and where most knowledge of the outside world has been lost or transformed into a myth. Young Deuce, a huntress for her clan, will have to face a dangerous journey on the surface in search of the hope for a better life.  So far, so good, despite the clear YA bent of this story: the first volume being more focused on the changed world outside of the tunnels, it made for a fascinating reading, and equally interesting were the changes in society and mentality brought on by the need to live in darkness.  But unfortunately with book 2, Outpost, the unavoidable (?) YA tropes kept cropping up at an alarming rate: love triangles, pouting teenagers who know better than more experienced adults, and so on.  Book 2 ended in the DNF pile, with my deep regrets for the many lost opportunities.

Moving from books to TV I’m going to express another unpopular opinion by mentioning the show Battlestar Galactica, the reboot that aired between 2004 and 2009 after a successful return with a short miniseries in 2003.

The miniseries was nothing short of amazing: after being almost wiped out by the Cylons, the cybernetic constructs they created, the survivors of the Twelve Colonies regroup aboard a handful of vessels, led by the capital ship Galactica, running away in search of a new home and relentlessly pursued by the murdering Cylons.  There was much to enjoy in this revival of an older, cheesy show of the ’80s: the Cylons were both robot-like creations and human-looking creatures, giving them the possibility of infiltrating the human survivor groups and therefore creating a constant atmosphere of suspicion on the vessels where the remnants of civilization tried to hold on day by day, with constant threat of annihilation and of the mechanical failures of old, overtaxed ships.  Older, less advanced technology had to be abandoned in favor of more primitive versions that could not be hacked or infiltrated by the Cylons, leading to a mix of space-age and WWII submarine warfare quality to the story being presented on screen, one of the most fascinating aspects of the reboot.
The first two seasons aired after the miniseries were on the same level of narrative quality and managed to keep the story flowing and the tension high, but with season 3 the first cracks started to appear: unlike the Cylons, who we were constantly told had a plan, the series’ creators seemed to meander as aimlessly as the hapless survivors (or maybe more…), and the moral and existential dilemmas that had made the beginning of this revisitation so appealing, were shifted to the side in favor of entanglements with quasi-religious myths and subplots that ended up twisting on themselves and ultimately ending nowhere.  Even though I struggled on to the very end, I had lost interest in the plight of the survivors, and kept watching only to see what it was all about: in this, as well, I was disappointed, because the ending made as little sense as what had preceded it; worse still, the sort of epilogue that rolled on the screen in the last few minutes managed to completely overshadow what I think would have been a fitting finale – that image of Admiral Adama sitting on a hill beside a grave (I’m not going to spoil whose, just in case…) and looking over the horizon of the new world, a poetic, poignant image that would at least have counterbalanced the nonsense before it.  Missed opportunities, indeed.

Vampires are one of the staunchest pillars of the horror genre, especially when they are bloody and mean – no sparklers needing to apply, thank you very much – so when I learned that Guillermo del Toro had contributed to the creation of this show, taken from a book trilogy penned by del Toro himself with Chuck Hogan, I was quite excited.  The Strain tells the tale of a vampire infestation starting in New York with the arrival of a plane with everyone on board dead; a mysterious casket from the plane’s hold is brought into the city and the horror begins, in an atmosphere and with a premise that both nod at and honor Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  At first the victims are believed to be prey to a mysterious illness, but soon it appears that something far more terrible than a mere virus is at work.
So far, so good, indeed: the vampires depicted here are quite scary, and the tension builds up to breathless levels, and if sometimes the scenes veer toward excessive levels of grossness, one could take it all in stride – after all we’re talking about blood-sucking creatures!  Where the show completely fails, though, is in characterization, especially with the protagonist Dr. Ephraim Goodweather: I can’t remember a less sympathetic, less endearing main character, one I constantly felt in need of slapping hard to try and put some sense and empathy into, or to move him to act with some sense instead of blundering around like a headless chicken.  His lines seem to be taken out of a bad B-movie and his actions make even less sense than his behavior: when I realized that I kept hoping that the “big bad guys” would remove him from the scene in a bloody, painful way, I understood there was something very wrong with the story, the writing, or both and therefore I did not go past the first season.