Reviews

THE SHADOW OF THE GODS (The Bloodsworn Saga #1), by John Gwynne

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

A Time of Dread was the book that helped me discover author John Gwynne, that first book in the amazing Of Blood and Bone trilogy then leading me to retrace his narrative path with the previous series The Faithful and the Fallen, of which I still have two books to explore. When this new work was announced I was beyond eager to see where Mr. Gwynne would take us next and also certain that I would enjoy this story as I did the other ones: well, The Shadow of the Gods managed not only to surpass my expectations, it even outclassed his other novels I read so far – and they were already outstanding works in their own rights! 

This will be a spoiler-free review, because I was fortunate enough to read the e-ARC some time before the expected publication, and I don’t want to deprive potential readers of the sheer joy of discovering this amazing story on their own. Still, I can talk freely about this extraordinary world and the awesome characters peopling it, to give you an idea of the breath-taking journey that’s in store for you. Since the Bloodsworn Saga is based on Norse lore and mythology, I had an advantage thanks to my recent experience with the TV series Vikings, being already familiar with some of the terms and above all with the appearance of the characters, so it was easy for me to picture people and backgrounds and I felt at home practically from page one.

The land of Vigrid was once dominated by the gods, who wrecked the world in the war they waged against each other: in the new world born out of the ashes of the old one, the bones of the dead gods hold special power and are therefore much sought after by overlords seeking to extend their dominions. There are monsters as well in Vigrid, called vaesen and lying in wait for the unwary traveller or trying to attack unprotected homesteads – and then there are the Tainted, humans in whose veins runs some of the gods’ blood, gifting them with special powers: they are either hunted down like animals, or captured, enslaved and exploited.  

Three are the main characters of the story: Orka, once a renowned warrior and now making her living as a huntress, together with her husband and young child; Varg, a former thrall (slave) on the run from his old master and driven by the need to avenge the death of his sister; and Elvar, the daughter of a powerful jarl, who renounced a life of privilege to join the warband of the Battle-Grim, in search of fame and glory. I was certain that these three separate threads would converge sooner or later, since there seems to be something brewing in the world, something sinister that starts with brutal attacks on isolated homesteads and the kidnapping of young children, so that Orka’s search for her own stolen child slowly but surely moves toward the meeting with the Bloodsworn – the warband in which Varg has been accepted and that took on a perilous but well-paid assignment – and probably with the Battle-Grim, whose need for wealth has taken them toward the most dangerous, monster-infested part of the world. The Shadow of the Gods is but the prelude to what promises to be an engrossing story, and reaching the last page left me eager to see where this amazing new saga would take me next.

John Gwynne’s novels always achieve a well-balanced mix between plot and characterization – one of the reasons they always prove so satisfying – and this new work is a case in point: as the characters engage in their individual journeys we are made familiar with the land of Vigrid and with its history, we are presented with wide plains and rocky expanses, with river marshes and frigid tundra, and we feel as if we shared the characters’ paths and the difficulties they entail. We are also able to visit a city built inside the huge skeleton of a fallen god, a place of constant twilight that made me feel quite uneasy (and with good reason…), and then we travel by sea, sharing the effort of warriors who lay down their weapons for a while to take up the oars and guide their ship through perilous seas. There is a constant cinematic aspect to the descriptions here that makes the storytelling vivid and three-dimensional, without losing the “fireside tale” quality that for me has become the author’s trademark. And of course I can’t forget the battles: with John Gwynne’s novels I never skip the description of battles because they are realistically detailed and – no matter the brutality of the clash – always dramatically fascinating.

But of course, even in this stunning background, the characters are the elements that make these stories truly shine, and in The Shadow of the Gods both main and secondary ones are responsible for breathing memorable life into the novel.  I needed some time to warm up to Orka at first, mostly because she comes across as somewhat harsh and demanding in her dealings with her son, while her husband looks like the softer one of the two. But once Orka’s mother instinct is put to the test, it’s easy to understand how her apparent sternness is only a means of steeling young Breca against the world’s dangers, and her determination and ferociousness in rescuing him from his kidnappers are as white-hot as her love for him.   Elvar, on the other hand, looks like she’s still evolving and trying to find her destiny: refusing to be used as a pawn in her powerful father’s political dealings, she choose to join a warband as a form of freedom and rebellion at the same time: what she’s still learning is that, no matter what one’s life choices are, there is always a price to pay for them. And finally Varg, who like Orka is desperately trying to fulfill an oath: his life as a slave has been a harsh, lonely one, and the loss of his sister – the only person he could trust – has turned him into a haunted, mistrustful person, to the point that the most difficult task he faces with the Bloodsworn is to accept friendship and camaraderie, truly a heart-breaking side of his character, and one that offers some poignant insights once he starts to fraternize with his new companions.

The beauty of these characters is that they are all inherently flawed and probably not “hero material” in the usual meaning of the term, but I have come to care deeply for them (and particularly for Orka and Varg) because they are driven by the strength of their love for friends and family, and because they have the ability to create a bond – as strong as the one of blood – with the people they live and fight with. This is one of the themes at the core of John Gwynne’s novels, the backbone of loyalty and devotion that can bind individuals tied by a common goal, and here it’s present in a superbly gritty and emotional form. It might be a little early to say that his might be my best read for 2021, but I’m not sure I will find others capable to bring out the immersive delight I experienced with The Shadow of the Gods – and this is only the beginning of the whole story…

My Rating:

Reviews

BEST SERVED COLD (First Law #4), by Joe Abercrombie

While I’m not in the habit of re-reading books – mostly because book blogging and a huge TBR compel me to look forward rather than back –  I decided to make an exception for this first stand-alone novel in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series: back in 2011 Best Served Cold was my introduction to this author and to the concept of grimdark fantasy (and although I enjoyed it, it took me an unfortunate long time before I read the three books that precede this one) and what this re-read taught me is that, apart from the core concept of the novel, I had practically forgotten the majority of narrative details, so that my drive to re-acquaint myself with the story ended up feeling like a first encounter.

Monza Murcatto and her brother Benna are the leaders of the Thousand Swords, the huge mercenary band in the employ of Duke Orso of Talins: Monza’s successful leadership contributed to Orso’s sweeping conquest of a huge part of Styria, and as the book starts the siblings are headed toward the ducal palace to report on their latest victory.  Unfortunately, Orso is alarmed by Monza’s growing popularity, and fearing a power grab from the mercenary he orders her and her brother brutally killed. Against all odds, Monza survives: broken and maimed in body and spirit, the only thing keeping her alive is her desire for revenge against Orso and the other six people present at the murder scene. Gathering a band of misfits, Monza sets out to seek and kill – in the bloodiest and cruelest way possible – these seven people, moving ever closer to Orso and laying a trail of destruction in her wake.

While the previous three novels in the First Law sequence were rife with bloodshed and violence, these elements were however balanced out with some dry humor that made things easier for the readers: here that kind of humor is overwhelmed by the savagery of the story and by Monza’s unwavering focus on revenge, a goal that ends up consuming whatever humanity she and her crew possess. Even when the plan she sets in motion should end up in a “surgical” kill, quite a number of innocent bystanders are hurt or lose their lives, and Monza’s companions are not exempt from it, as well, sometimes suffering horribly.

I have often encountered a comment about there being no journey of redemption for Abercrombie’s characters, and this is particularly true here where Monza’s single-minded focus seems to pull everyone in a downward spiral from which there is no turning back: her desire for revenge taints whatever shred of humanity her companions might possess and more often than not I considered how that desire consumed Monza from the inside, compelling her to turn the others into a mirror image of herself – a twisted interpretation of the maxim about misery wanting company…

This is particularly true for Caul Shivers, a character from the First Law trilogy: at the start of the book we see him reaching Styria from the far North, driven by the desire to become a better man, to leave violence and bloodshed behind. The reality he encounters is quite different from that rosy dream and dire circumstances force him to become Monza’s main henchman, to find himself once again drenched in blood and violence until little by little he re-discovers the savage joy of brutality for its own sake. Shivers, and not Monza, is the truly tragic figure here: not unlike his old enemy Logen Ninefingers he comes to realize that there is no running away from one’s brutal destiny and in the end he fully embraces what he had left the North to escape. His is a long road, painful in many ways – not only for the body, on account of the often grievous damage he suffers, but also for the mind, when he understands that Monza is using him like a tool, one to either be wielded as a weapon or employed for a brief moment of physical respite.

Shivers is the mirror through which Monza’s character can be observed – and judged: true, she was used and discarded (She was the spider they had to suffer in their larder to rid them of their flies. And once the flies are dealt with, who wants a spider in their salad?) and for this she wants revenge, but to obtain that revenge she becomes herself a user, one who treats her allies as she was treated and displays no qualms, no moments of reflection on the brutally selfish drive that consumes her and all those who surround her. Even the flashbacks to her previous life, showing how she became the person she is at present, do little to justify her current attitude: while other characters might strive, however briefly, toward redemption, there is no such drive in Monza, and for this reason I constantly failed to cheer for her even though I admired the author’s skill in her portrayal.

While there are other very interesting characters in this story – like the master poisoner Morveer, whose acerbic personality and complicated plots often seemed to border on the comedic; or ex-inmate Friendly, the sociopath with an almost autistic penchant for numbers and counting, the one who truly shines here is Nicomo Cosca, who made a few sporadic appearances in the previous trilogy and here manages to steal the scene every time he comes under the spotlight.  Once the leader of the Thousand Swords, he was ousted by Monza herself and became a drunkard and a wastrel: he’s the only one in the group who really seems intentioned to change his life for the better, and indeed he does – in his own way. Cosca might be unreliable and sneaky, totally untrustworthy as a true mercenary should be (Loyalty on a mercenary is like armor on a swimmer), but he’s also quite complex, showing layers upon layers that make him unpredictable and totally delightful to observe. After a while, witnessing his oh-so-easily shifting loyalties paired with a whimsical personality, I came to see him as the equivalent of another favorite character, Sand dan Glokta: the two are as different as apples and oranges, but what they share is a captivating blend of opposing traits that make them compellingly irresistible.

Best Served Cold is not however only about the characters’ journey, fascinating as it is, but also about how the consequences of an individual’s choice come to encompass a whole country: Monza’s desire for vengeance becomes like the proverbial pebble that starts an avalanche, so that her actions turn from their fairly limited milieu into a world-wide state of warfare with vast political consequences that bring, once again, a massive upheaval in a land where peace is but a fleeting dream.  By now I’m more than used to Joe Abercrombie’s bleak view on humanity, but this time around I felt the pressing need, once finished the book, to turn toward something more optimistic – even though I thoroughly enjoyed this new journey in his world.

My Rating:

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Bookish Valentine’s Day

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point, ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday (created and hosted by  The Broke and Bookish) is now being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here. 

Even though romance is quite low on the list of themes I enjoy in my books, I wanted to find a way to follow the parameters of this week’s Love Freebie in honor of Valentine’s Day, and after some thought I decided that listing the book series that are closer to my reader’s heart would be a more than acceptable compromise.

So I picked up 5 each among my favorite Fantasy and Science Fiction series, to balance out the mix. For Fantasy the winners are:

Powder Mage – Brian McClellan

The Wounded Kingdom – RJ Barker

Blackthorn and Grim – Juliet Marillier

The First Law – Joe Abercrombie

Of Blood and Bone – John Gwynne

On the whole these are all quite… energetic series, with a good share of battles, duels and recklessly spilled blood, which might not look very fitting for a Valentine’s Day celebration, but they all managed to transport me in another time and place and made me care for their characters, which is reason enough to sustain my deep affection for these stories.

Moving over to Science Fiction, my choice fell on these:

The Expanse – James S.A. Corey

Donovan – W. Michael Gear

The Murderbot Diaries – Martha Wells

Embers of War – Gareth Powell

Vorkosigan Saga – Lois McMaster Bujold

There is a little more lightness here, mostly thanks to the tongue-in-cheek humor coming from Murderbot and to Miles Vorkosigan’s happy recklessness, but these series still delight me for their wonderful combination of drama and humor and I know they will always be at the top of my lists.

And now it’s your turn: where did you lose your bookish hearts? 😉

Reviews

THE MASK OF MIRRORS (Rook & Rose #1), by M.A. Carrick

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

When I first became aware of The Mask of Mirrors I was intrigued because it promised to portray many of the elements I enjoy in a story, like a daring confidence game, many political maneuverings and an interesting social background. The book contains all of that and much more, delivering a story that went well beyond my initial expectations.

The city of Nadezra, formerly the center of the Vraszenian culture, has been for several generations under Liganti domination, the original inhabitants looked on by the conquerors as second-class citizens: in the past, the stipulation of the Accords created a sort of truce between the two factions, but social and political unrest are always ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. Ren, a former Vraszenian street urchin now graduated to successful con artist, has concocted a daring plan to insinuate herself in the powerful Traementis family posing as Renata Viraudax, the daughter of a relative who left Nadezra long ago: once accepted by these Liganti nobles she hopes to be able to enjoy all the comforts of wealth for herself and her adopted sister Tess, now posing as Renata’s maid.

Unfortunately, the Traementis are not as influential or wealthy as they used to be, and Ren finds herself enmeshed in ever-convoluted political schemes geared toward helping the Traementis regain their former status so that she can help herself in turn. This plot-within-plot game, however, turns out to be more than Ren could possibly handle, because it dovetails with someone’s malicious strategy to foment a Vraszenian insurrection whose short- and far-reaching consequences are worryingly unclear….

While I am reluctant to reveal more about the plot to avoid spoiling your pleasure in uncovering it as the story develops, I can enjoy much more freedom in the description of the fascinating background in which the novel is set, and of the wide range of characters peopling it: these two elements blend in a captivating whole, and if the pacing feels slightly on the slow side at the start of the book, I can assure you that once the avalanche starts its inexorable downward shift, it gains speed at a breakneck, breath-stealing pace until the conclusion.

Nadezra is a fascinating place: a city built on a series of islands connected by bridges and waterways, its Venice-like quality enhanced by the description of dark alleys and wide plazas, of canals hosting floating markets or covered by impenetrable fogs that conceal both beauty and misdeeds. It’s also a place of glaring contradictions where the mansions of the affluent give way to the poorest hovels or to the crumbling buildings from which  crime lords direct their armies of young thugs.  And where magic permeates many of the aspects of everyday life.

The two coexisting cultures engage in different kinds of magic: the Liganti employ numinatria, which requires channeling power through a form of numerology focused by special geometrical shapes, while the Vraszenian prefer a form of Tarot based on a deck of cards that show the pattern shaping any given individual’s life. Moreover, objects can be imbued, i.e. gifted with special properties that make them more effective in their everyday use. In this world magic is so pervasive as to be almost mundane at times, but it also plays a pivotal role in the story arc, and with literally mind-bending effects and consequences.

In such a fascinating background, the characters are equally intriguing, starting with Arenza or Ren, both as herself and in the assumed persona of Renata Viraudax: she is a consummate con artist with a harsh past, playing a dangerous scheme to ensure a comfortable future for herself and her adopted sister Tess. Ren is the perfect representative of Nadezran society, one where playing a part, saying a thing while thinking another, is the rule, and she manages this feat with consummate ability. It took me a little while to warm up to Ren (even though I enjoyed her character from page one) because of the callous way in which she acts, but as the story progressed I was able to see her frailties and insecurities, to learn the horrors of her past and to understand where she comes from, emotionally.  

The perfect (and quite enjoyable) foil for Ren is represented by Derossi Vargo, a powerful mobster whose ambitions of cleaning up his act and joining respectable society make him an interesting, multi-layered character whose very unpredictability is his most fascinating quality. To call him ambiguous would be a massive understatement, and he maintains this ambiguity to the very end, where an important revelation enhanced my expectations for the next book in the series, particularly in respect of my deep curiosity about the identity and role of a certain Alsius – if you read the book, you know what I mean… 

On the opposite side of the personality spectrum is Grey Serrado, a Vraszenian who joined the the city’s law enforcement ranks and is forced to walk a fine line between the pull of his origins and the need to bring order and justice to a city where both concepts are too often mistreated if not ignored: the tight rope of conflicting loyalties he’s forced to walk soon managed to earn my sympathy, and I hope he will be given more narrative space in the next installments, because I feel there is still an untapped potential there, one that the final section of the novel seems to point at.

And then there is the Rook, a mysterious, hooded and masked figure whose acts in defense of the poor and the weak have become legendary – and have been for some two hundred years, hinting at a series of people taking up that mantle over time.

These are the major players, but there are other figures I was able to appreciate, like Donaia Traementis, the iron lady at the head of the failing house, whose strength of character, even in the face of many adversities, is a delight to behold; or young Tess, Ren’s sidekick, accomplice and moral support, whose skills with needle and fabric offer many delightful descriptions of the gorgeous clothes that are such a great part of the story’s background. But the list does not end here, of course…

I had a great deal of fun with The Mask of Mirrors, its skillful blend of adventure, mystery and drawing-room verbal battles creating a rich, multi-layered story I enjoyed losing myself in: the seamless transitions from day-to-day life to vicious political battles, from high-end social gatherings to drug-induced, reality-bending nightmares, proved to be so compelling that it was hard to put the book down, and I hope that authors Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms – working here under the pen name of M.A. Carrick – will not make us wait too long for the next installment in this very promising series.

My Rating:

Reviews

CALL OF THE BONE SHIPS (The Tide Child #2), by R.J. Barker

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

From the very first book in RJ Barker’s The Wounded Kingdom series I knew I had encountered a talented new voice in the fantasy genre, so I should not have been surprised that his new saga The Tide Child would follow on the same footsteps, but once again I discovered how this author is able to surpass himself with each new work he publishes: Call of the Bone Ships is the gripping sequel to an outstanding first volume, and it drew me into this world even more deeply than its predecessor did.

We’re back aboard the Tide Child, the black ship of the forsaken among the islanders peopling this world, and her captain – pardon me, shipwife – Meas Gilbryn is bent on ending the long war between her people, the dwellers of the Hundred Isles, and the Gaunt Islanders, and to this effect she had a hand in the creation of a place, Safeharbour, where both groups could live together. It’s a short-lived dream, however, and soon enough Meas, her second Joron and the whole crew must face both the threat to their own existence and the mystery of the mass abductions of weak and powerless people, carried in slave ships to an unknown destination and killed for some dark, loathsome purpose. This is as much of the story as I feel comfortable in sharing, because to say more would deprive any reader of the joy and terror of discovering what this book has in store for them.

With Call of the Bone Ships you don’t need to choose between a character- or plot-driven story, because you can have both: there are long sea chases, battles, mutinies and a dreadful mystery to be solved in what at times becomes an undercover operation, complete with double-dealing agents; there are the delightful details of everyday life at sea on a very peculiar ship that’s crafted out of dragon bones; and again one can meet amazing creatures, or terrifying ones. But what carries this novel more than anything else is the strength of its characters: in the series’ opener they were introduced and we got to know them a little, together with the fascinating world they inhabit, but here – now that the needs for background have been fulfilled – they are given more than enough room to expand. And shine.

“Lucky” Meas moves a little to the sidelines here, although she remains the strong, determined leader capable of taking a motley group of rejects and turning them into a loyal and proud crew: one might say that she is the heart and soul of the ship and the inspiration that drives them to move forward even in the face of certain death. But here she leaves more room for Joron Twiner, her deck-keeper or first officer, to grow into a more rounded, many-faceted character.  Where he started his journey as a despondent, defeated individual, he slowly gained more confidence in himself and a measure of pride in his accomplishments under Meas’ tutelage: in this book we see him not only reach new levels of self-respect and wisdom, but also inspire the same feelings in the rest of the crew as he earns their own consideration and loyalty.

Perversely enough, though, this newfound connection with the rest of the crew and the way he has come to care for them – shown in many little gestures of appreciation and understanding – leave him exposed, vulnerable: now that he has something worthwhile to lose, he’s bound to suffer under the cruel blows of chance as he was not when he had nothing of value he could call his own. And in the course of the story Joron will lose much, in more ways than one, which will remind us that this is a harsh, unforgiving world, that always exacts a price for the small favors it chooses to bestow on people.

Together with Joron, we gain a better understanding of a few secondary characters aboard the Tide Child, and if some of them are not exactly friendly or trustworthy, it all adds to the delightful variety offered by this crew and enhances the story with little and big details that build on its substance. Among these characters, however, the one that stands out more is that of the Gullaime, the avian creature able to summon the winds necessary to propel the ship, or to tame the fury of storms.  The first glimpse we were given of the Gullaime in the first book was that of a wretched creature, kept in the darkness of the hold and summoned only when need arose, but otherwise considered as a useful tool rather than a living being: the different outlook imposed by Meas has now morphed the Tide Child’s Gullaime into an assertive, curious individual and a valued member of the ship’s complement, but it’s in his interactions with Joron that the Windtalker sparkles with intriguing life and opens the way to a number of questions that simply beg to find an answer. There is a so-far barely explained bond between the Gullaime and Joron, one that takes the form of a pervasive song whose effects have been touched on but not completely disclosed, and yet this takes second place to the emotional connection between the two of them that seems to go beyond the confines of mere respect and friendship. I am eager to have this mystery unveiled, but for now I count myself very happy to have witnessed the many, meaningful interactions between the two of them.

There is a great amount of emotional content in Call of the Bone Ships because it offers a number of poignant personal interactions, made even more so by the contrast with the harsh shipboard life and the drama of the quest in which Meas, Joron and the crew are involved. Together with the captivating descriptions of life at sea, of powerful storms and creature-infested waters, these moments gift the book with a lyrical quality that runs seamlessly throughout the story and turns it into a compelling and exciting read. If you have not read The Tide Child series yet, do yourselves a favor and pick it up: you will not regret it.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE DREAMY BOOK COVER TAG

Time for another tag from the “supply” I’ve accumulated over the past weeks thanks to my fellow bloggers: I saw this one on Way Too Fantasy (thanks for the inspiration Lisa!) and it was too good to pass up. And of course it’s only fair to mention the original creator for the tag,  @The book raven 

And now for the questions…

No idea but in things: A book cover that perfectly expresses the novel inside of it

The Doors of Eden, by Adrian Tchaikowsky

Nothing says “portal” as the amazing image portrayed on this cover, and the novel is indeed a portal toward endless worlds and civilizations: if you’re looking for a good dose of sense of wonder, you need look no further.

Sugary sweet: A cover that is so sweet you want to give it a hug

Moontangled, by Stephanie Burgis

The covers for Stephanie Burgis’ novels are all amazing, but this one – from her latest book – wins the first prize: the colors, the flowing dresses, the total sense of magic come across delightfully loudly here.

The simple aesthetic: A book that stuns with the most minimalistic of designs

Artemis, by Andy Weir

The Moon is one of the starkest, more barren places I could think of, although it’s also a fascinating one, so the cover for this novel set on the Moon reflects perfectly that barrenness but at the same time the feel of mystery, adventure and danger at the core of the story.

Cover envy: A book cover you wish you had on your shelf but you don’t

Lack of space, among other reasons, compelled me to turn almost completely digital in my reading for the past few years, which means that the most beautiful covers of the books I own are visible only in black and white. One of the many amazing covers I would love to display on my bookshelf is this one:

The Tyrant’s Law, by Daniel Abraham

Travelling Abroad; A book cover that features a country outside of your own

Acadie, by Dave Hutchinson

Nothing portrays a country outside my own as the depths of space, and to represent that I’ve chosen this novella, whose cover shows an alien world, some ships orbiting it and what looks like space debris, or maybe a part of an asteroid field. Amazing, indeed…

Color wheel: A book that showcases one of your favorite colors

Half a War, by Joe Abercrombie

The red-gold-orange of flames over a dark background never fails to draw my attention, and this cover is one of the best examples of this combination. Very, very effective.

Switching gears: A cover change you absolutely adore

I tend to grow fond of the covers of the books I own, and yet there are some instances where a different cover ends up looking even better than the original one. The most recent case in point is the alternate cover for Bradley Beaulieu’s debut novel: the new image is infinitely more powerful and evocative than the one I’m used to.

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, by Bradley Beaulieu

‘Oldie but Goodie’: A favorite cover of your favorite classic

Unsurprisingly, my all-time favorite, the book that will always have my unreserved love, is JRR Tolkien’s masterpiece, and among the myriad covers designed for this timeless book, the one I think of when it’s mentioned is the one of the copy of own: I love the colors, I love the sense of motions it conveys and above all I love that Gandalf is there with his powerful presence.

The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien

And the winner is: Which cover above is your favorite?

Given what I just said above, should you really ask? 😉

If you enjoyed this tag, jump in and share your covers!

Reviews

THE TROUBLE WITH PEACE (The Age of Madness #2), by Joe Abercrombie

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

When I read A Little Hatred, the first volume in Joe Abercrombie’s new saga, I had not yet fulfilled the long-standing promise to myself to read his First Law trilogy, yet still I managed to enjoy the new story very much, despite missing the connection with past events and characters contained in the previous books. Now that I have managed to catch up with that past, I am finally able to appreciate all the subtler nuances of story and characterization that make this world one of the best creations in the genre.  And what an amazing journey this was!

As the title suggests, peace is not an enduring status in the Circle of the World: the political  scene in the Union is still in flux and the newly named king Orso finds himself hemmed in between the rock of social unrest and the hard place of his own advisory council, whose disdain for his ruling abilities is barely concealed. Savine dan Glockta lost much of her prestige after the harrowing experiences of the Breakers’ revolt, and her need to regain the standing she enjoyed compels her to make alliances whose wisdom might not survive the harsh light of day.  Leo dan Brock, Lord Governor of Angland – the buffer state between the Union and the “barbaric” North – still pines for triumphs and glorious battles and is far too easily drawn into a dangerous conspiracy by shrewd politicians harnessing his brawn in service of their subtly nefarious brains.

Things are hardly better in the North, where the self-declared king Stour Nightfall is bent on attacking again the Union to expand his territories, meanwhile bolstering his rule through violence and cruelty, not only against opponents but also against those of his own men foolish enough to raise objections.  As a first step he sets again his sights on Uffrith, the domain of the Dogman, where Rikke, the old hero’s daughter, is trying to come to terms with her prescient gift – the Long Eye – and is ready to undergo the most harrowing of rituals to harness that power and put it to the service of her people.

This is the bare-bones premise from which The Trouble With Peace takes flight, developing into a tale of convoluted political schemes, social unrest, conspiracies, revolution and, above all, an engrossing examination of the human soul filtered through conflicting desires and shameful or tragic paths.  Where the action scenes remain among the most engagingly cinematic I ever encountered – alternatively focusing on heroic feats and very human moments of pure terror and cowardice – Joe Abercrombie’s storytelling shines the brightest when he shapes his characters, be they the main ones or the secondary figures, who get just as much attention and detail as everyone else, contributing to the richness of the narrative canvas.  A shining example of this careful design comes from the portrayal of a bloody act of sabotage that is relayed several times from the point of view of a number of different people: the repetition of events helps to create a three-dimensional picture not just of the fact itself, but of the societal medium in which it happens and the way its members figure into it.

What’s most extraordinary in this story is that the moral ambiguity of the characters works both ways, with no clear definition of right or wrong, and the main examples of this grey area are King Orso and Leo dan Brock: while the narrative focus is on either one of them, it’s easy for the reader to sympathize with him, to see his reasons or at least to understand where they come from, but once the point of view shifts to the other one, the same happens, making us realize that truth and righteousness are simply a matter of perspective. Both characters have their merits, narratively speaking, because if on one side Orso seems to grow into his role, finding strength and the foundations of his role through the troubles he has to deal with, 

He sometimes could hardly face breakfast, was alarmed by the notion of choosing a shirt, but epic disaster appeared to have finally brought out the best in him.

on the other Leo comes across as an ultimately tragic character, one who is driven by high ideals toward a very dangerous, very uncertain path. 

Savine dan Glokta’s journey continues on the controlling and manipulative trail that was her peculiar modus operandi from book 1, but a part of her ruthless self did get lost during the Breakers’ tumults and the traumatic experiences she endured, so it appears here as if she lost both the edge and the keen foresight that once allowed her to be always five moves ahead of her opponents. Despite a constant show of willpower, and a relentless drive that propels her toward any goal, it’s clear that some key element of her personality is now missing, exposing her to fate’s vagaries in an unprecedented way.

Rikke’s character arc, on the other hand, moves in the opposite direction: from the half-savage, tormented girl plagued by unwanted and uncontrollable visions of the future, she grows here into her own woman – and one ready to pay the price necessary to harness her gift and turn it into the tool she needs to lead her people. She became my favorite character in this book, both for the combination of strength and gallows humor that allows Abercrombie’s peculiar narrative style to shine even more, and for the way she transforms into a crafty leader, the perfect embodiment of this world’s survivor, one who knows that shrewd manipulation and back-stabbing politics are the best weapons she can wield.

If the main protagonists do indeed carry the story on their proverbial backs, the secondary figures are just as fascinating, offering complementary points of view and enhancing the sense of full immersion created by the novel: Caul Shivers, Broad, Isern-i-Phail or Vick dan Teufel – just to name a few – enjoy their own share of the limelight, adding depth to the events being carefully built before our own eyes, and the biggest surprise, toward the end of the book, comes exactly from two of those “lesser” players. As the novel seems ready for an epilogue, with the narrative threads brought to what looks like a neat wrap-up that made me wonder if this was not set as a duology, the end is carried by two of those secondary figures – one from the previous trilogy and one from the newest arc – whose actions open the door to what promises to be an amazing, gloriously devastating finale I can hardly wait for.

Thankfully, I still have the stand-alone books in this saga to sustain me while I bide my time…

My Rating:

Reviews

HOW TO RULE AN EMPIRE AND GET AWAY WITH IT (The Siege #2), by K.J. Parker

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

I enjoyed reading K.J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, therefore I was very curious to see how the story would be carried forward with a new main character: from the very start Notker, the protagonist of this novel, spoke with a very unique, very entertaining voice and made this new sojourn in the city a delightful time.

The city is now in its seventh year of the (so far not very successful) siege by the ever-growing army of the so-called milkfaces: the blue-skinned Robur ruled over this part of the world for a long time, placing the light-skinned inhabitants in a practically and culturally subservient position. Once the oppressed decided to put an end to the Robur dominion, the siege of the city began and, as we saw in the previous book, it was thanks to the milkface engineer Orhan if the invading army’s attempts at overruling its defenses did not succeed.  As the story opens, we learn that the Robur, not exactly happy to acknowledge Orhan’s endeavors, have tweaked history a bit and heaped the glory for their salvation on the shoulders of Lysimachus – Orhan’s former bodyguard and a far more acceptable Robur – making him the public face of government.

Unfortunately, one of the stones regularly launched by the invaders’ trebuchets falls on on a building where Lysimachus and other officials are present, killing him instantly: the effect on public morale would be devastating, so the city’s de-facto rulers decide to employ a body double to keep Lysimachus alive in the eyes of the citizens. Enter Notker, a struggling actor and playwright, whose skills as an impersonator are well known: he’s enrolled for the charade despite his deep misgivings, and day after day he surprises even himself by growing so well into the role that at times he finds it hard to avoid blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction.  He becomes so good in his role that his personality – at least on the surface – undergoes important changes, as do his goals, or at least that’s what he seems to convey…

Indeed “seems” is the pivotal word here: where Orhan was an unreliable narrator simply because we saw events only from his point of view, Notker is even more unreliable because he’s a professional liar – after all what are actors if not people who can don many personalities as they would do with clothes?  So in his case we not only witness events from his angle, we know he is putting on a mask, playing a role, and this adds a further layer of misdirection on anything he says or does. What’s more, Notker seems to enjoy being Lysimachus, not just for the power he finds himself able to wield, but because he has such a low esteem for himself that he seems to prefer living a lie than showing the real person underneath:

[…] being me has never been easy. And on balance I’d far rather be anybody else but me.

If Notker is clearly unreliable, on the other hand he’s witty and funny and – veteran actor that he is – he manages to infuse a light note in everything he describes, be it a political conspiracy, a particularly bloody assault on the walls or a difficult negotiation with the Themes, the two factions that run the city’s working class and are in constant, fierce competition with each other. What emerges from his light-hearted chronicles, however, is a sort of moral code, no matter how heavily disguised, that adds an intriguing facet to Notker’s character and slowly turns him from the initial lovable rogue into a sympathetic character: if absolute power can corrupt, it can also sometimes change people for the better, make them care for something beyond their immediate needs.  Or, to use Notker’s own words:

[…] that’s the risk with staying in character. Sooner or later the character stays in you.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn more about our protagonist and his difficult childhood under the wing of an overbearing father with a penchant for violence that the man channeled into a career as a Theme enforcer: despite Notker’s almost-fond recollections of those fatherly lessons, we can perceive his desire to detach himself from such an heritage, and that’s another reason it’s easy to empathize with him and to understand his need to forge his own destiny, but also to do something good once he finds himself in the position to do so.

Unlike Orhan, who remained front and center in his version of the story, Notker is paired with another interesting character, fellow actress and onetime lover Hodda: the author often mentions, with tongue-in-cheek humor, that one of the main requirements for a successful play is the presence of a strong female character and Hodda fits this specification to perfection, not only because she’s a determined, independent woman who brings these qualities to her roles, but also because she’s practical and resolute and faces life with a no-nonsense attitude that’s very refreshing. Her dealings with Notker, even when circumstances bring them very close, are always based on those traits, and she often acts as the voice of reason (a voice laced with a strong dose of scorn, granted) tempering Notker’s wildest flights of fancy.  Both in this story and the previous one the author brought to life this kind of female character – women who combine a sharp tongue with an even sharper intellect, who take no flak from men and know what they want from life and how to get it, and Hodda here is their rightful representative.

How to Rule an Empire… like its companion novel is a fun journey that nonetheless compels you to seriously think about people and what drives them, that successfully mixes drama and comedy always keeping a good balance between these elements and that presents you with memorable characters while telling a fast-paced story able to hold your attention from start to finish. For me, a perfect combination….

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BOOK PREDICTIONS TAG

 

Thanks to Way Too Fantasy here is another fun, book-oriented tag post, originally created by @bookprincessreviews 

What this tag needs is for me to dust off my crystal ball and share the predictions for my…

 

NEXT READ

This is an easy one: author Phil Williams – whose Sunken City novels I had the pleasure of reviewing – contacted me with the news of his next book, whose publication is slated for the second half of September.  Kept From Cages is, in Mr. Williams’ own words, a “fast-paced supernatural action-thriller” peopled with new characters but still tied to the Ordshaw world. My curiosity was quite piqued by his mention of “criminal jazz musicians” and I will start reading as soon as I finish my current book, which means in the next handful of days…

 

NEXT 5 STAR READ

Another easy prediction: I was overjoyed in receiving the bi-monthly Orbit newsletter and learning that the new Age of Madness book from Joe Abercrombie, The Trouble with Peace, is included in the September/October NetGalley releases. There is absolutely no doubt that this will turn into a 5-star read as have all the previous Abercrombie novels I have enjoyed in the past.

 

NEXT 1 STAR READ

Well… No one would pick a book with the foreknowledge that it will turn out into such a disappointing read – and picking up a book with so little promise, to say the least, would sound like an exercise in masochism, so I’m going to focus on my unwavering optimism and predict that there will be no such black marks on the next books I will pick up.

 

NEXT LOVE INTEREST OR CHARACTER THAT SEEMS REALLY COOL

I will go with “character that seems really cool” and name Circe, from the protagonist of Madeline Miller’s novel with the same title: the book promises to deliver an new and interesting angle on the mythical figure who, according to legend, imprisoned men transforming them into pigs. My love of mythology goes back to my school days, so it will certainly be a fascinating experience to revisit this story from a different point of view.

 

NEXT BOOK I WILL BE BUYING

To Be Taught, if Fortunate, by Becky Chambers: I have already acquire the first book from this author, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet thanks to the enthusiastic reviews from many of my fellow bloggers, but on a recent post I learned about this novella, that can be read on its own, and I decided to start the… experiment with a shorter work, so that my curiosity will be satisfied sooner.

 

It’s your turn now: wave your magic wands, peer into your enchanted mirrors, and let us know what your bookish future looks like!

 

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY:  Books I Loved but Never Reviewed

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point, ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday (created and hosted by  The Broke and Bookish) is now being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here.  

 

 

Since I started blogging in 2014 there is a huge amount of books I read, enjoyed but never had the chance to review, and I’m very happy of this Top Ten Tuesday prompt that will give me the opportunity of talking a little about them.

 

Of course the pride of place goes to J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, which I often mentioned but never examined in depth – and here is a thought for the future, when I might decide to finally write down my considerations, after a thorough reread of course. So, ladies and gentlemen, here are THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT, by JRR Tolkien

 

Another constant feature of my exchanges with fellow bloggers is of course DUNE, by Frank Herbert, that for me is the SF equivalent of Tolkien’s works as far as the impact on my imagination goes.

 

Moving to a different genre, there is THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, by Frederick Forsyth, one of my “blasts from the past, the high adrenaline story (probably fictional, but who knows?) of a skilled marksman and killer-for-hire whose target is nothing else but Charles de Gaulle. The man is a shadow, and as elusive as smoke, and the story of the hunt for this man is one of the best thrillers I ever read.

 

EYE OF THE NEEDLE, by Ken Follett is another novel that took my breath away: it follows a German spy working undercover in England during WWII and collecting information on the Allies’ defenses and troops deployment. He is called The Needle because of his penchant for a stiletto as a weapon of choice.  This novel is a successful blend of thriller and historical fiction, and a compulsive read as well.

 

THE HUNGER GAMES, by Suzanne Collins: I read this one on the recommendation of a friend and I enjoyed the dystopian setting as well as the main character, who shortly became a sort of template for many YA heroines – not always as successful in characterization as Katniss was.

 

HEROES DIE, by Matthew Woodring Stover is a very peculiar novel, because it starts as epic fantasy, following the adventures of Caine, the Blade of Tyshalle, a fearless hero, only to reveal at some point that the fantasy setting is an alternate world in which actors like Caine are sent to playact their exploits as a form of entertainment for the viewers of our modern world. It’s a weirdly hybrid premise, but it works very well…

 

WARCHILD, by Karin Lowachee is one of the most poignant stories I ever read: young Jos is enslaved by pirates who capture the ship he was traveling on, killing all the adults. To survive in such an abusive world he will have to go to horrible extremes and suffer the anguish of torn loyalties. A highly emotional story and one that literally tore at my soul.

 

Vampires are among my favorite supernatural creatures, and the main reason I’m so fascinated by them is that SALEM’S LOT, by Stephen King, is the first book I read focusing on them, and one I still consider a fundamental story in the genre. And that scene of the young, freshly turned boy, calling to his friend from beyond the window, is one that I will never forget.

 

CHASM CITY, by Alastair Reynolds, was my introduction to the author’s Revelation Space saga: it introduced me to his rich universe and to the horrifying concept fo the Melding Plague, a virus attacking nanotechnology and from there infecting the organic material in human bodies with implants. A city so ravaged by the Plague is the background for a nightmarish search for vengeance…

 

Are there some… unsung favorites in your bookcases?