Reviews

THE COURT OF BROKEN KNIVES (Empires of Dust #1), by Anna Smith Spark

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

As far as I know, grimdark has until now been the province of male writers – that is, until Anna Smith Spark penned this amazing debut novel.  It was a delightfully weird read, mostly because the harshness of plot, landscape and characters is delivered with such elegant writing that creates an incredible contrast and carries this story forward with remarkable strength.  Where novels are defined as being either plot- or character-driven, The Court of Broken Knives is both, although the story itself appears less important than the characters inhabiting it, as they move across an unforgiving land that seems bent on destroying life just as much as weapon-wielding people do.

The main focal point of the novel is the city of Sorlost, the center of the Sekemleth Empire: once a powerful political entity, the empire seems headed toward its unavoidable decay. To stop the decline and try to counteract the advance of neighboring lesser states bent on expansion, lord Orhan, a high-placed nobleman of the empire, concocts a coup that will wipe out the emperor and his whole court, allowing Orhan to start afresh and restore some of the former glory and power. Enter Tobias, the leader of the mercenary band employed by Orhan to carry out his plan: probably my favorite character, he’s a level-headed, practical man gifted with a sort of skewed integrity and determination that quickly endeared him to me. The most bizarre element in his band is young Marith, the latest recruit, a boy possessed of an almost otherworldly beauty and manners that speak of a higher station in life: once Marith single-handedly slays a dragon (yes, a dragon!) that was happily wreaking havoc in the mercenaries’ camp, something seems to free him of any self-imposed restraints he might have been working under, and he starts to change, revealing a ruthless, murderous nature fueled both by his bloody ancestry and the drug addiction that destroyed his former life and led him away from his past.   Last but not least among the main characters is Thalia, high priestess of Sorlost’s god of life and death – a god who requires human sacrifices to be performed daily, and whose celebrant is destined to be killed by her successor, just like she did when her turn came.

The overall mood of the novel is one of extreme pessimism: Orhan dreams of changing the power balance in the empire, but is also aware of the unavoidable decline of his world, one that still decks itself in silks and jewels but is quite rotten underneath.  At times I thought that his desire for social and political change came from the extreme dissatisfaction for his own life: married to a woman he does not love, yearning to be with the man that was his soul mate since their youth, Orhan finds himself trapped in the command role he sought and obtained through terrible bloodshed, and realizes that he’s now at risk just as much as his predecessor was, if not more considering the spreading unrest.

Thalia is a deeply damaged soul unable to realize how much that damage has spread: forced into the role of high priestess of a blood-thirsty god whose preferred sacrifice are children, she seems to have adapted to her temple prison and to the prospect of falling under the knife of her already-designated successor, unaware of the vastness of the outside world and its wonders (and perils), yet when the opportunity arises to leave her gilded cage she takes it. I’ve often wondered, following her narrative arc, whether she didn’t fall from the proverbial frying pan to the fire, because her fascination with Marith sounds more like a journey through hell than an infatuation – I find it very hard to call it ‘love’….

As for Marith, he’s equally pitiable and loathsome: seeing his anguish at the effects of the drug that was forced on him and made him an incurable addict, made me pity him, especially since a few flashbacks hinted at a great personal tragedy that’s revealed at some point; but his way of denying the drug’s pull is to give himself over to a killing frenzy, reveling in blood and destruction in the name of the ancient god Amrath from whom he descends – and in whose name he’s able to draw others in that same unthinking paroxysm – so this revelation worked a great deal toward cooling my initial sympathy.  Still, he remains a fascinating character and I can’t wait to see where his path will lead him in the next books.

I find it quite difficult to delve deeper into this story without falling into a… spoiler trap, but what I can say freely is that The Court of Broken Knives surprised me at every turn, not only because of unexpected revelations or shocking turns, but more than anything because it feels like the work of a consummate writer and not a first novel: if this is what the author can offer as her debut, we must indeed keep an eye on her and her next works. In the book’s preface, there is a quote from Michael Fletcher, calling her “the queen of grim dark fantasy”: the title, and compliment, are more than deserved.  All hail the queen!

 

My Rating: 

Advertisements
Reviews

Review: DEADLANDS:BONEYARD, by Seanan McGuire

I received this novel from Macmillan-Tor/Forge through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to all of them for this opportunity.

As a fan of author Seanan McGuire, I could not let myself miss this new book that promised to be something different from her usual Urban Fantasy offerings: from GoodReads I learned that the Deadlands book series is derived from a role-playing game, and since I know nothing of the gaming world I wondered if this might have somehow prevented me from fully enjoying the story, but I should not have worried because Boneyard walks quite surely on its own legs and what’s more it’s the kind of story that draws you in and does not let you come up for air until the end.  Which is hardly surprising at all, since it’s Seanan McGuire we’re talking about after all and, no matter how biased this might sound, her craft as a storyteller is such that she can draw you in and keep you there, not in spite of the darkness and the fear, but because in her hands these elements can become as mesmerizing as more light-hearted ones.

What’s more, the story’s background is set in the Wild West, in the era of bold settlers forging their way over uncharted territory to build a new life, but with the added spice of a supernatural/horror theme (and some steampunk elements as well): what could be more attractive, particularly since I read the book in the days just before Halloween?  For this very reason I decided that posting this review today would be quite appropriate 🙂

The story in short: the Blackstone Family Circus faces some difficult decisions, since winter is approaching and the show has not gathered enough income with their tour to survive comfortably during the cold season, so they are debating whether to accept a potentially remunerative gig in the Oregon settlement of the Clearing, a place where some companies are rumored to have reaped good earnings while others suffered unexplainable losses.  Annie Pearl is the keeper of the “oddities”, bizarre and often deadly creatures that she gathered all over the country, like the nibblers – piranha-like fish cursed with perpetual hunger and terrible teeth that jut “out at all angles, making it impossible for the fish to feed without biting themselves”: Annie has been with the circus for several years, and we soon learn that she escaped with her mute daughter Adeline from the house of her worse-than-abusive husband, and has been hiding with the circus ever since.  Once the company reaches the Clearing, a bowl-like hollow surrounded by a dense, strangely looming forest, they find the settlers less than welcoming and prone to bizarre behavior, to say the least.

The very first night after their arrival, the circus people find themselves fighting fire, nightmarish predatory creatures and the hostile indifference of the townies, and it falls on Annie – desperately searching for Adeline in the treacherous woods – to uncover the Clearing’s horrible secrets while also facing the long-dreaded return of her husband Michael bent on reclaiming what he considers his properties.  The main action develops over that long, horror-filled night that seems to go on forever, both for the characters and in the reader’s perception: to call this a compulsive read would indeed be the understatement of the century…

On the surface Boneyard is a story about horror and the supernatural, focused on surviving in a hostile environment that’s splendidly represented by the forest surrounding the Clearing, a place where trees seem to possess a life of their own and a malicious will, and shadows can take shape and form, pressing on the unwary travelers to sap their energy and life. Yet, on a deeper level, it’s a tale about facing one’s fears and refusing to succumb to them, about never giving in to despair to the point it might consume us: the legend of the wendigo that’s so skillfully employed here is indeed a case in point, where the hunger-stricken colonists give in to their deprivation and become the beast, devoured by a craving for flesh that can never be sated because it goes beyond the mere material plane and ends destroying one’s soul.

Annie has indeed been hiding for a long time, her sole goal that to protect Adeline: she left her home town of Deseret with literally only the clothes on her back, her infant daughter and the lynx Tranquility and we see through the artfully inserted interludes what she left behind – a man whose unwavering faith in science and in his god-given right to own her, body and soul, reveal him as a true monster.  Despite her need for concealment, however, Annie has grown stronger: caring for the “oddities” in her wagon she has learned to master different kinds and levels of fear and when push comes to shove she understands that she needs to take survival into her own hands and be the aggressor so that she will not become the victim.  Her example helps others find their own courage and the will to fight against the darkness: in this young Martin and his girlfriend Sophia are wonderful examples of timid people who, once faced with the prospect of annihilation, prefer to go down fighting rather than cower in fear waiting for the monsters to kill them.

The other great element of this story is the unstated but always present question about the nature of monsters and how the worst of them always start in human form: the wendigo I already quoted looks like a nightmarish beast, its appearance nothing but the outward manifestation of the shadier, more horrifying sides of our soul; the inhabitants of the Clearing have accepted the price to be paid to the flesh-eating creatures in the woods turning into willing accomplishes, even the younger among them – as shown by the kids who willfully send Adeline into the woods knowing what might find her.  The worst monster however remains Michael Murphy, Annie’s husband, whose depths of depravity and madness I will refrain from describing, leaving this discovery to my fellow readers.

By comparison, the creatures that Annie shows to the paying customers, the “oddities” meant to engender fear and revulsion, end up looking like friendly beings, the danger they represent merely coming from inescapable nature and not from the exertion of a twisted will – and their contribution to the story’s development does nothing but reinforce this notion, particularly in the case of Tranquility the lynx, who deserves a special mention.

Once more Seanan McGuire reveals her skills as writer, offering us a gripping story and some unforgettable characters: no matter the tale she chooses to reveal, rest assured that it will be an amazing experience.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: PAPER AND FIRE (The Great Library #2), by Rachel Caine

I quite looked forward to this second book in Rachel Caine’s Great Library trilogy, and I was not disappointed: the story advances toward what I envision as the final showdown between the Library and those who feel the need to break the shackles it imposes, and there are a good many breath-taking moments and harrowing escapes, not to mention a few important revelations. Yet I did not feel the same level of involvement as I enjoyed with the first volume, and for a number of reasons that taken singly do not amount to much, but all together do indeed cast some shadows on an otherwise engaging story.

The book starts a brief time after the end of its predecessor, showing how the group of Library postulants we got to know in volume one is trying to settle into the new roles assigned to them after graduation: Jess and Glain have been enrolled in the Garda, the Library’s military arm, while Khalila and Dario are on their way to become full-fledged scholars; their former teacher Scholar Wolfe and his partner Garda Captain Santi, who played such a pivotal role in the postulants’ education, have somewhat faded into the background.  The glaring absence of Thomas, arrested by order of the Library for the “sin” of having designed a printing press, and now presumed dead, and that of Morgan, relegated in the Obscurists’ Tower because of her abilities, weighs heavily on everyone’s mind – and most notably on Jess’.

The possibility first and then the certainty that Thomas is alive, imprisoned and most surely tortured (as it happened to Wolfe in the past), drives Jess and Co. to mount a rescue operation that will see them facing extraordinary risks and, what’s more important, becoming fully aware that the Library is quite different from the image of the shining beacon of knowledge it presents to the world: for Jess, the scion of a family of book smugglers, this realization comes as a lesser shock in comparison to his friends, particularly when they come to understand – in one of the most powerful scenes of the book, set in the Black Archives – that the work of the Library in the last centuries has rather been that of suppressing knowledge, rather than protecting it.

 

“This is the graveyard where they buried our future.”

“How many? How many times was this created and cut down? They’ve been destroying it over and over, all this time. All the time.”

 

In a parallel with the growth arc of a young person, where Ink and Bone was, for the characters, a journey of discovery and the first step toward maturity, Paper and Fire embodies the age of rebellion, the need to move against preconceived notions and rules imposed from above, to obey the commands of heart and conscience rather than the laws whose profound injustice becomes clearer with every passing moment.  And indeed, what the group of friends learns along the way is that the Library has no regard for human life, even well beyond the maxim about a book being more valuable than a single person: from the barbarous suppression of knowledge and technologies that might undermine the Library’s power, to the appalling practice of segregating Obscurists and trying to generate more, and more powerful ones, through selective breeding, the Library comes across in all its heartless devotion to its own survival, and the will to dominate, rather than to be the protector of human wisdom.

Given all the above, it might look strange that I did not enjoy this second volume as much as I did the first, but there were a few details that kept bothering me at a subliminal level, interposing some distance between me and the story instead of the total immersion I enjoyed with book 1.  For starters, in the first 25-30 percent of the book the pace seems to be dragging a little: granted, Jess and his friends are trying to collect clues about Thomas’ survival and the possible location of his prison, so they face some virtual blind alleys and spend a great deal of time speculating on what little they already possess, which is not very conducive to fast-paced action.  Still, it looked to me as if the story was unable to find its right path.

Then the characters: we learn nothing new about them, about how their respective experiences in the “real” world have changed them.  Khalila is still serious and driven; Dario is the usual smart-mouth with delusions of grandeur; Glain the solid warrior who seldom speaks; Morgan the tormented soul prisoner of her own Obscurist powers. Scholar Wolfe is as scathingly cynical as always, masking his inner torment, while Santi stands there as his rock.   And Jess, the one on whom the story focuses the most – sometimes to the detriment of the others’ development – still feels like an outsider looking in, the imprinting derived from his family’s careless treatment affecting his determination to open his heart to others.  The only exception to this are his resolve to rescue Thomas, the only person he feels comfortable in calling ‘friend’, and his newfound… ninja powers concerning the Library’s automatons – something that could have been awesome for one or two instances, but sadly loses its impact with each new repetition, no matter how dangerous it is for Jess, or how daring he appears.

My reservations notwithstanding, Paper and Fire is an enjoyable read, particularly in the second half where the stakes are raised higher and higher and our group of rebels – because this is what they were fated to become from the start – has to choose whether to close their eyes to blatant injustice or to act against it, and therefore against the Library: going back to my comparison about the coming-of-age journey, their decision is tantamount to defiance toward one’s parents, and as such it cannot be undertaken lightly or without dramatic consequences.

This second book in the Great Library series ends in a huge cliffhanger, one that managed to counteract the mild dissatisfaction I felt for the story and to rekindle my eagerness to move ahead toward what promises to be a stormy finale. Now that the “middle book syndrome” is over and done with, the road can only get smoother…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE FACE IN THE WINDOW (Powder Mage 0.7), by Brian McClellan

Another fateful meeting is at the core of this story, that between Taniel and Ka-poel, two of the main characters from the original trilogy: Field Marshal Tamas’ son lands on the coast of Fatrasta (the land we get to know better in the new novel Sins of Empire) to learn more about the world, presumably, but no sooner has he set foot on solid ground that he learns Fatrasta has rebelled against the Kez in search of independence, and Taniel promptly enlists in the army to fight the Kez, against whom he holds a bloody grudge, and also to prove his mettle.

The Fatrastan rebels don’t fare so well against their oppressors at first, and the only advantage they have is the chosen battle ground: the Tristan Basin is a huge expanse of treacherous, deadly marshland peopled by fierce beast like swamp dragons – reptiles as big as a horse, capable of snapping a man in two with their powerful jaws.  Unfortunately the Kez are in greater numbers, they are better prepared and – worse – they have a Privileged sorceress with them, which turns Taniel’s first encounter with them into a life-and-death confrontation.  Only his training and the help of the mute red-haired girl he’ll later know as Ka-poel can make the difference in his chances for survival.  Taniel’s goal of killing the Privileged through his powder mage ability of aiming truly at a great distance will be the turning point of this initial skirmish, and will also be his first success as a magic-enhanced sharp-shooter.

I found this story very interesting on several levels: first, I learned more about Fatrasta and the road toward the independence that is a given fact by the time in which Sins of Empire takes place. There are a few details here that will be expanded in Brian McClellan’s latest novel, not least the first glimpse about the Palo inhabitants of the marshland, and the fierce determination of the oppressed Fatrastans.    Even more appealing is the encounter between Taniel and Ka-poel, one that starts on the wrong footing as the young man is initially unable to determine if this strange girl is a friend or a foe; as their understanding of each other grows, despite Ka-poel’s inability to speak, the bond that starts to form between them is forged through the need to defeat a common enemy and a slowly building trust.

What most caught my attention, though, was a closer look into Taniel’s personality: my first impression after reading the first book of the saga, Promise of Blood, is that of a somewhat objectionable person, one with a tendency toward… well, not exactly whining, but still one with some huge chips on his shoulder.  Now that I’ve learned more about what made him the person we later meet in the full novel, I think there is much more to Taniel than meets the eye and having by now read the second volume, The Crimson Campaign, I feel more inclined to cut him some slack.    Clearly, one of his problems might stem from the fact that it’s not easy to be the son of such a famous man as Field Marshal Tamas, and that he wants to prove himself because of his own qualities instead of enjoying some reflected light from his father.  And a very enlightening look at his developing personality comes from the very end of this story, where he contemplates his first kill and the effect it had on him:

 

You’ll feel guilty about that first cold, calculating kill. […] You’ll feel guilty on the second one, too, said his father’s voice. And the next. I lost that guilt around my twentieth, and I think part of my humanity died with it. Hopefully, my boy, you’ll keep it longer than I did.

“I didn’t,” Taniel whispered.

 

It’s always a pleasant surprise when I find my opinions changed by some new information, and more than ever I’m intrigued by this series and its fascinating facets.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE KING’S BLOOD (The Dagger and the Coin #2), by Daniel Abraham

Despite my best intentions (road to Hell and paving stones…) I waited almost a whole year before returning to Daniel Abraham’s fantasy series, and now that I’ve read this second volume I hope I will not make this mistake again, because what looked quite promising in book 1 has turned here into a well-crafted, compelling story peopled with characters whose further definition becomes pure reader’s delight.

The King’s Blood resumes where The Dragon’s Path left, following the characters that were our eyes and ears in this world, although none find themselves at ease in their own circumstances: Cithrin bel Sarcour, the former ward of the Medean bank, has managed to create her own branch in Porte Oliva – thanks to the funds successfully saved from the destruction of the Vanai branch – but finds herself under the thumb of an auditor from the central headquarters, a woman with an accountant’s small mind and no flair for the risks that have made Cithrin such a formidable banker. Marcus Wester, former soldier and now Cithrin’s bodyguard and protector, is also chafing in the role of enforcer for the Porte Oliva branch, and while he’s devoted to Cithrin and her well-being, he’s somewhat unhappy, victim of a formless restlessness he’s not yet ready to acknowledge. Dawson Kalliam, one of the chief advisors of Antean king Simeon, has managed to prevent the coup that would have killed the king’s son and heir and put Antea at the mercy of their nearest neighbor, but Simeon’s failing health and the shifting political landscape force him to revisit his loyalties and question his principles.  And Geder Palliako, the young, ridiculed nobody that proved instrumental in defusing the attempted coup, and who rose to an unpredictable position of power, finds himself with an even heavier burden on his not-so-strong shoulders…

More than the first volume of this series, this second installment drew me into the world Daniel Abraham created: where The Dragon’s Path had the responsibility of introducing the readers to Antea and the main characters, The King’s Blood is able to solidify this background, conferring it a much-needed width and depth, and it does so not so much through lengthy descriptions and verbose information, but by having the characters interact with the world itself, by allowing the reader to observe it through their eyes and their different points of view.  Following their journey, being part of their thoughts and experiences, we see this place in all its complex richness and in its different aspects: from the bustling commercial chaos of Porte Oliva to the royal seat of Camnipol to the open vistas of the wilderness marked by the ancient jade dragon roads, this is a place that comes to life as if it were another character, with its changes in personality and looks.

And characters are indeed the strong point of the series, carrying and advancing the plot in a beautifully organic way, and always surprising the reader, the case in point being represented by Dawson Kalliam: in the first book I had him pinned as something of an authoritarian, someone with an eye always turned toward past and traditions, but as the story progressed I felt some growing sympathy for him, understanding how his attachment to honor and duty defined him.  Here he finds himself faced with some difficult decisions and a very questionable choice that – despite its dire consequences – invests him with the deep humanity that I felt was somehow missing from his makeup.  Much of it came of course from the interactions with his wife Clara, whose direct POV is introduced in this novel to my great appreciation: Clara is an amazing character, because while she adopts the deferential role assigned to women in this society, she is a very able and subtle mover and shaker, and finally in this book her skills and intelligence are showcased as she deserves.  There is a sentence where the author seems to foreshadow this, and it’s one that made me smile in appreciation when he wrote that “smoke seeped out of her nostrils like she was some ancient dragon hidden in a woman’s flesh”. Clara is indeed a dragon lady, and I look forward to seeing how her story will move forward.

On the other hand, Marcus Wester feels… diminished, for want of a better word: here is a man who needs a mission to truly feel alive, and he now feels that Cithrin has no further need of his protection, so that he’s now almost adrift in a sort of limbo.  It does not help that he has not resolved his feelings toward her, because if he started seeing her as the image of his long-dead daughter, there are moments when he seems to view her in a different way.  This inner conflict results in a rash decision subverting his long-held principles and pitting him against his second-in-command and longtime friend Yardem: what will come out of this development still remains to be seen.  And Cithrin herself is in a state of flux: no more the sheltered ward of the Medean bank, no more the frightened young woman protecting the precious cargo from doomed Vanai, she needs to grow into her own skin and finds herself hemmed in between the contemptuous attitude of the bank’s auditor and Marcus’ solicitous protectiveness, and is clearly chafing at both. Her solution to the impasse will bring her on a path that, so far, only planted a few seeds whose growth I’m eager to see.

But of course the main focus of interest remains Geder Palliako: there is nothing more dangerous than a man with a grudge given a position of power, and Geder possesses a long list of grudges indeed. If in book 1 I saw the danger of his giving in to the need for retribution, here he positively frightened me: he is a man who has lived most of his life in loneliness, and with little experience of the outside world, and now he wields enormous power, a power he’s afraid of, making him the easy prey of advisors with their own agenda. It’s difficult to pinpoint my feelings for Geder, because if at times I feel deep compassion for him, for what his life was before, and if I see the profound loneliness afflicting him – one that’s expressed in his easy, almost-brotherly relationship with young prince Aster, probably the only person he feels comfortable with – still I can’t help but recoiling at the unthinking carelessness about the consequences of his often merciless decisions. On one side there is the frightened, isolated young man, and on the other the dangerous monster he’s becoming, and as a reader I kept oscillating between these two extremes without being able to choose how I really felt.

As these amazing characters move forward with their individual journeys, the story keeps building up details, both big and small, that are clearly going to have far reaching consequences: the best feature of this series, as far as I can tell after the first two books, is the sensation that the author is placing his pieces on the board and that the game will gain in complexity and depth as it progresses.  Already The King’s Blood feels more complex and more focused than its predecessor: if this trend keeps up, I know that there is an engrossing story waiting down the line – and this time I will do all that I can to discover it as quickly as possible.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: AGE OF ASSASSINS, by R.J. Barker (The Wounded Kingdom #1)

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

Age of Assassins is a definite example of what I’ve come to call “book vibes”, that impossible-to-define combination of factors that draws me to a book on the basis of little or no information about it: over the years I’ve learned to listen to this subliminal urging (or its opposite twin that warns me about a book I might not enjoy), because 99 times out of 100 it proves absolutely right.  When I glanced at Age of Assassins’ synopsis I felt that vibe, and after the first chapter I knew it had guided me well once again.

The story’s background is a fascinating one – even more so because it begs for more information about it, something that I hope will be offered in the next installments of this series: the Tired Lands, as the name suggests, are a place where farming and livestock raising are extremely difficult, because the soil has been depleted by the magic wielded by sorcerers during some brutal war.  In this world, the use of magic requires that power be drawn from nature itself, draining it of its life force, so that now most of the places where sorcerers fought for dominance are either barren wastes or covered in yellowish, withered grass: this makes for a brutal, unforgiving land, one where anyone suspected of using magic is killed, their blood spilled on the ground as a form of compensation for what was taken from it.    Breeding livestock is just as difficult as farming, since lack of pastures make the raising of cows quite costly, and people have turned to sheep, goats and mostly pigs – the latter far too often being fed the remains of caught criminals, or unlucky enemies.

Such a ruthless landscape makes for equally ruthless people, divided into three social groups – or rather castes: the Blessed, the aristocracy of the land, those who can wield their power unchecked and do so with cruel indifference; the Living, or the equivalent of a middle class, like shopkeepers and artisans; and the Thankful, who have really very little to be thankful for, eking out a meagre existence under the heel of their “betters” and the watchful eye of the priesthood.  There are however people who don’t belong to a specific caste, moving free and unseen among the populace – they are the Assassins, skilled and highly trained killers for hire, as reviled as they are sought after.

Young Girton Clubfoot is the 15-year old apprentice of master assassin Merela Karn and we meet them as they are infiltrating castle Maniyadoc on the summons of Queen Adran, sneaking in rather than passing through the main door because their kind is not welcome, even when their skills are required.  Soon Girton and Merela learn of their task: finding the assassin, and his employer, whose target is Ardor the queen’s son and soon-to-be king.  An assassin’s skills are such that only one of them can catch another, and Adran needs to resolve this quickly: the old king is dying (not from natural causes, which comes across as hardly surprising) and the queen has a very detailed political scheme hinging on her son’s survival and ascension to the throne.   Girton and his Master will have to blend in with the castle’s population to be effective, so that Merela poses as the court’s Death Jester, and Girton is sent with the other squires in training: day after day, the two assassins discover that there is much more than meets the eye in Maniyadoc, and that conspiracies can be more convoluted than they first thought.  Navigating the court’s intrigues and many dangers will prove quite difficult, and young Girton will need to balance his devotion to his Master with the first signs of adulthood and an unexpected discovery about himself that will turn his world upside down.

Many are the themes explored in Age of Assassins besides the immediate mystery at the core of the story, that acts as a thread binding it all together: there is the coming-of-age premise, of course, that is not limited to Girton alone, but involves all the castle’s squires and embraces other topics as peer pressure, cliques and the universal delight in bullying the weaker that seems to be a constant wherever young males are grouped together. Besides being the newcomer, Girton Clubfoot – as his name indicates – is a cripple, and if this has not factored in at all in his assassin training, nor made him self-conscious about it, he needs to tone down his abilities and look as non-threatening as possible, so that he has to suffer the insults and the rough handling of the other squires, who delight in finding a new target. And no one is as determined as  Ardor, a loutish, cowardly brute who is aware of Girton’s identity and purpose and wastes no opportunity to assert his power, as bullies are wont to do.   

Still, such bleakness is relieved by Girton’s nature, which offers a delightful counterpoint to the story’s dreary background, because for the first time in his sheltered life he’s able to give in to the need for friendship and to savor the first flutters of young love: much as Merela offered him shelter and a way to forge his path through life, she kept him somewhat apart from the rest of the world and Girton had little or no opportunities to be a teenager and to enjoy both the good and the bad that his age entails.  It’s here that we discover how his training has not hardened or soured him: yes, Girton is a very efficient assassin when need be, and we can often see how his Master’s lesson have borne fruit, but at the same time he is an innocent, and still able to look at the world with the kind of wonder that only the young can attain.   The best, most fascinating part of the story is indeed this, witnessing Girton opening for the first time to the real world, and enjoying the new awareness that comes from growing up. This does not mean that the core mystery is less interesting, because it leads to some daring feats and a final showdown that often left me in doubt of the outcome, but all of this plays as a background to the young man’s discoveries – both the good and the bad ones.

As a series opener, Age of Assassins works beautifully in introducing this world and it’s a revelation on many levels, not least because it’s a debut novel: rarely I have found such skill and mastery of the story in a first work, and R.J. Barker is indeed an author I will keep on my radar – especially because I look forward to learning more about Girton’s journey.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: CRYSTAL HOLLOWAY AND THE FORGOTTEN PASSAGE, by Seanan McGuire

 

Every time I start a story by Seanan McGuire I know there are good chances that she will be able to rip my heart to pieces: her shorter works seem to concentrate and distill the feelings she wants to convey into a more powerful, more effective mix, and “Crystal Holloway” is no exception.

CRYSTAL HOLLOWAY AND THE FORGOTTEN PASSAGE

(click on the link to read the story online)

It’s a story about finding secret passages to other worlds, or dimensions, something McGuire has explored more deeply in her recent “Wayward Children” series, but here the place where the protagonist Crystal finds herself is less dark, more conventionally magical: at some point the character mentions C.S. Lewis’ world of Narnia, and the comparison holds, since the land of Otherways is more like a fairyland than a dark mirror of our own primary world.

There are dangers here, granted, and young Crystal has become a sort of super-hero for the land, battling evil creatures like the dire bats we see in the opening of the story, and fighting side by side with humanoid rabbit Chester and the arachnoid Naamen.  She’s been able to move back and forth between worlds, but now that she is reaching her sixteenth year she feels the pull of this magical place, “a strange, beautiful, terrible world, with its talking spiders and its deadly, scheming roses” and she’s considering whether to stay permanently or return to her old life.  That is, until something happens that changes things – and Crystal – forever…

This story delves into the old dilemma between reality and fiction, between the need to believe in magic and the pressures from everyday responsibilities, and it resonates deeply with people, like me, who love being taken elsewhere by the skilled words of a storyteller.  How many times we, lovers of speculative fiction, have been told that we “need to stick to reality”?  How many times our reading choices have been branded as childish and silly?

That’s what this short story wants to show, that no one should have to make that choice, that we should be able to move freely between worlds – the imagined and the real – with the same ease as when we move from one room to another.  That there is no stigma attached to the need for dreams.

Sadly, there seem always to be some Truth Fairies, ready to warn us that “You can’t be part of two worlds forever. The heart doesn’t work like that. There isn’t room, any more than there’s room in a mouth for two sets of teeth. Baby teeth fall out. Childhoods end. That’s how adult teeth, and adult lives, find the space to grow.”

And Truth Fairies can be cruel indeed….

 

My Rating: