Reviews

NETTLE AND BONE, by T. Kingfisher

My first T. Kingfisher book, and certainly not my last, since with this one the author turned me into an instant fan – and with good reason, given that I found the combination of fairy tale elements, tongue-in-cheek humor and delightful characters quite irresistible.

Marra is a princess in a small but pivotal realm set between two larger ones that are in a constant state of conflict: as the youngest of three daughters, she sees her eldest sister Damia married off, for political expediency, to the son of the northern realm king’s, only to learn that a few months into the marriage she died as the result of a fall from a horse.  Her middle sister, Kania, is then chosen to marry that same prince Vorling, in the hope that an heir will seal the alliance between the two realms; then, to prevent the possibility that a child from Marra’s eventual marriage might upset the balance, she is sent to live in a convent.

Rejoining her family for the christening of Kania’s daughter, Marra discovers – to her horror – that her sister is living in a nightmarish situation with a violent, abusive husband whose only goal is to produce a male heir, after which Kania’s life might become worthless: fearing for her sister’s life, and enraged by Vorling’s treatment of her, Marra decides to remove him from the equation, and to fulfill that goal she seeks the aid of a dust-wife (a sort of sorceress dealing with the dead) who sets her on three apparently impossible tasks before lending her help.  On the course of her journey of vengeance, Marra ends up collecting a ragtag group of allies, consisting of the aforementioned dust-wife (and her demon-infested chicken), an apparently goofy godmother who is everything but, a former soldier enslaved to a merchant in the goblin market, and a dog made of bones – oh, and a chick endowed with a sort of magical GPS qualities 😉

Nettle and Bone mixes the classical elements of the quest with those of the found family, wrapping the result in an atmosphere that blends seamlessly darkness and humor, fear and whimsy, and that turns what might look like a “been there, done that” reading experience into something unique and compelling. Most of the credit goes of course to the characters, both as individuals and as members of the group: as they get to know each other in the course of the journey, they also learn to trust their respective gifts and put them to use toward the final goal, and in this way allow the reader to see what makes them tick and appreciate the skill with which the author trust them together.

Marra might not have a high opinion of herself, probably because her family never considered her of great use (except as a second-hand replacement for her older sisters), but when we meet her she’s already more than halfway through the tasks set by the dust-wife, and we are immediately presented with her determination and resilience, qualities that endeared her to me from the very start.  I like the author’s choice of introducing her in medias res and then backtracking to the past and the road that brought her to that point: it’s an excellent way to showcase her emotional and personal growth from the contented almost-nun, who found joy in the simple pleasures of embroidery and tapestry making, to the resolute avenger of her sisters. There is a sentence that encapsulates that transformation very well, and shows how even the more unassuming, self-effacing person can find the courage to act when necessity arises:

[…] watched Vorling’s face and realized that she had never hated before now. This must be what this new feeling was. It took up so much space in her chest that she did not know if she could breathe around it.

Marra might be burdened by self-doubt, fears – mainly fostered by her family’s treatment of her as something of an afterthought, or an inconvenience – and by an overwhelming guilt for not having understood sooner the danger represented by Vorling, but she compensates those traits by not giving up even in the face of apparently impossible obstacles, and in the end she becomes a surprisingly (for the times and background in which the story is set) feminist character, particularly when she understands how women are endangered by the role that this world has saddled them with:

[…] the history of the world was written in women’s wombs and women’s blood 

a consideration that I found even more pertinent in these recent times….

The dust-wife and Agnes the godmother earned my instant sympathy, and not only because they are older women (Crone Power!!!  😀 ) but because the combination of dry humor from the first and apparent absent-mindedness from the second offered many occasions for amusement – and here I feel compelled to mention the demon-infested chicken that’s the dust-wife’s constant companion and whose pointed squawking calls often underline a given situation in a delightfully fun way.  A special place must however be reserved for Bonedog, who literally stole my heart and was one of the best non-human additions to the story.

I did not expect to enjoy this story so much: what on the surface might have seemed a fairy-tale retelling ended up being a compelling adventure with a lot of heart at its core, and it’s my hope that other books from T. Kingfisher will prove equally engrossing and satisfying in what will be my own journey of discovery through this author’s works.

My Rating:

Reviews

INSOMNIA, by Sarah Pinborough

My history with Sarah Pinborough’s novels is somewhat uneven, since I quite enjoyed the first two books I read – Murder and Mayhem – and liked 13 Minutes well enough, but was baffled, to say the least, by Behind her Eyes, which made me a little wary of her narrative themes. Now that I know I must always expect the unexpected from her novels, I feel more comfortable with whatever storytelling path she chooses to travel, and that’s why I was able to immerse myself fully into Insomnia.

Emma Averell seems to have everything working for her: a gratifying job as a divorce attorney, a stay-at-home husband who can take care of the children – a teenager girl and a younger boy; a beautiful home, a good life. But as the focus moves closer, we are able to see some cracks in this apparently perfect picture, not least her approaching 40th birthday: not so much as an indication of the passage of time, but because of her family history. When Emma’s mother turned 40 she started becoming unhinged, mostly from lack of sleep, and in the end she tried to kill Emma’s older sister Phoebe, so that she was committed to a mental hospital and the two girls were given to foster care. With that fateful birthday fast approaching, Phoebe comes back into Emma’s life by telling her that their mother hurt herself seriously and is not expected to survive long, bringing a lot of Emma’s buried past to the surface, and what’s worse, she starts to experience a debilitating form of insomnia that is resistant to any pharmacological help and that brings about worrisome fugue states that might be the indication Emma is headed in the same direction as her mother.  And so her “perfect” world starts to crumble, piece by piece, around her… 

The central theme of this story is without doubt Emma’s sudden inability to sleep, a phenomenon that manifests itself out of the blue and is at the root of the character’s slow but inexorable descent into a nightmarish experience in which everything and everyone she had counted on falls apart, leaving her alone and in doubt of her own actions, of reality itself – to the extent that as a reader I wondered more than once if there was some “gaslighting” plan in operation.  The strong pull the novel was able to exert on my imagination comes from the fact that I know how unsettling insomnia can be: of course I never experienced it to Emma’s same, dramatic extent, but I know what it’s like to be unable to fall asleep, even when you badly need the rest, and I’ve had my share of totally sleepless nights, when being awake makes you feel somehow alienated from the rest of the world.  So I was able to sympathize with Emma’s plight, up to a certain point, although after a while some of her actions and decision looked far too much “out there” to enable me to maintain that same level of empathy.

And it’s here that my familiarity with Sarah Pinborough’s style came into play, because my most recent reads taught me that her characters are often complicated and not completely likable, no matter how much one can rationalize their motives and actions: on one side, the paranoia brought on by lack of sleep and by the progressive alienation from family and friends turned Emma into this somewhat crazed person who acted in unpredictable and often senseless ways; on the other, seeing how her immediate family seemed more concerned with the results of her problems, rather than with the causes, helped me feel more sensitive to her plight. The husband’s mid-life crisis, the teenage daughter’s rebelliousness and the boy’s behavioral problems, piled on top of Emma’s sleeplessness and fear of losing her mind, create such an impending sense of doom, such a claustrophobic environment that I literally devoured the novel in search of the solution to the mystery.

Speaking of which, be prepared because it’s a somewhat weird one: with this author you have to accept the intrusion of the uncanny into the mundane; if that acceptance works, so does the story – I’ve learned this lesson with Behind Her Eyes (and it took me a little while, and a revisitation of the story through its televised version, before I accepted that reveal) and that’s helped me here, together with the fact that the novel is conceived in such a way that most everyone in Emma’s life becomes a suspect sooner or later, leading you through a series of proverbial red herrings that turn this already engrossing enigma into quite the page-turner.  Discovering that your assumptions were wrong is indeed a great part of the fun in reading Insomnia.

And I certainly had fun with this book….

My Rating:

Reviews

DYER STREET PUNK WITCHES (Ordshaw #7), by Phil Williams

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

And so we’re back to the fictional city of Ordshaw, where magic lurks just beyond the corner of your eye, after the slight “detour” which brought us around the world with Phil William’s Ikiri Duology, even though that story also showed some connection to this main site of weird phenomena.

Kit Fadoulous used to be the leader of the punk rock band of the Dire Grrls together with her friends Madison and Clover, and at some point in their career they found online Betsy Burdock’s Book of Spells, a sort of do-it-yourself grimoire which changed their lives, teaching them to enhance their music with spells.  As the story starts, it’s a few decades after those “golden years” and Kit has taken on the job of editor for an independent paper focused on pointing out local authorities’ failings and on promoting worthy enterprises. She now lives in one of Ordshaw’s worst areas, one that is both crime ridden and abandoned to its own devices, and lost contact with her former friends: still surrounded by an aura of mystery and a whiff of witchcraft, Kit barely manages to keep he publication afloat, and her situation becomes even more complicated when a friend from the past warns her about the return of an old foe, bent on resurrecting the ancient gang wars – and he seems to have enrolled someone able to summon magic…

As is often the case with the Ordshaw series, saying too much about the plot would spoil the enjoyment of the story, and there is much to be discovered here, particularly because each chapter begins with a look at the past of Kit and her band – and how their art mixed with witchcraft and the gangs’ territorial wars, often with unpredictable and dramatic results – and then proceeds to add more details to the overall picture of the present, moving with a swift pace toward some final revelations that end up being quite surprising.  What’s different here, in respect of the other books in the series, is that the weirdness does not come from otherworldly phenomena or creatures, but from the wielding of magic through spells which are reinforced by the mixing of very, very strange elements: the excerpts from Betsy Burdock’s book are both intriguing and fun, enhanced by the fictional author’s unique brand of humor, and I enjoyed them very much.

Kit is an intriguing character (one, I have to admit, I was curious about since this book’s cover reveal some time ago): still very much tied to her punk rock singer persona in the manner of dress and the way she relates to others, there is a definite layer of wisdom through adversity added to her personality that instantly endeared her to me, a reaction that deepened as I understood that she carries a heavy burden from the past and from the fracturing of what used to be a very strong bond with her bandmates.  Every reference to that past is tinged with poignant regret and a sense of guilt that Kit probably tries to assuage through her tireless work in favor of the community: using magic imbued the three girls with a heady sense of power, but Kit has come to realize that the payoff was far too steep – there is one instance in which she warns about the consequences of that carelessly wielded magic, summarizing its noxious effects:

We don’t know how to heal things. Only how to break them.

Other characters, like Ellie – Kit’s virtual second in command at the paper – or newcomer Aaron, a young man who seems scared of his own shadow until he reveals unexpected talents, move around Kit like planets around the sun, helping to better define her psychological makeup and to underline her strengths and frailties. 

And of course there is always the city of Ordshaw acting as both background and character: as I often commented, talking about this series, there is a storytelling quality to these books that makes me imagine this city as colored in sepia tones, or immersed in a sort of perennial dusk: here that sensation is enhanced by the descriptions of the area where Kit operates, the community of St. Alphege, a once lively but now run-down sector where organized crime put some very deep roots and where the distraction of local authorities did nothing to improve the citizens’ living conditions.

[…] bare brick walls and windows barred like a prison, roads pocked with holes and pavements dotted with weeds. Even the sky’s blanket grey conspired to give the estate a miserable appearance.

Dyer Street Punk Witches (which is available from today) is loosely related to the rest of the series, so it can be read as a stand-alone, but if it can make you curious about the other Ordshaw stories, know that this unusual Urban Fantasy saga will prove both intriguing and entertaining in its peculiar weirdness…

My Rating:

Reviews

THIS CHARMING MAN (The Stranger Times #2), by C.K. McDonnell

The second installment in this Urban Fantasy series cemented the impression I derived from The Stranger Times: that CK McDonnell’s take on the genre is a winning one, moving away from its usual mix of magic, darkness and characters’ inner demons to create a blend where humor and the uncanny fuse into a story that remains engaging and entertaining from start to finish, even when actual monsters come into play.

In the first volume the author introduced the motley group of people working at the Stranger Times, the paper reporting on weird occurrences not so much as a way of lending them credit but rather of exploring the supernatural as a duty to the public.  We therefore were able to know the chief editor, Vincent Banecroft – on the surface an unpleasant individual given to heavy drinking and scarce personal hygiene; his long-suffering secretary Grace and her daily battles against her boss’ endless streams of profanity; the intern Stella, a young woman whose origins (and powers) are shrouded in mystery; reporters Reggie and Ox, peculiar but lovable people. The new addition to the staff, Hannah, came to work for the paper as a last resort after facing the troubles of a messy divorce.

At the start of This Charming Man, some time has elapsed but the paper’s troubles keep piling on: the latest problem coming from the realization that the workers renovating the building’s facilities have also installed a secret trapdoor, most certainly as a first step in kidnapping Stella, whose supernatural abilities make her a coveted target. But that’s not everything, because the city of Manchester, where these stories are set, seems to be plagued by a series of vampiric attacks, in dramatic contrast with the tenet – accepted both by mundane and supernatural circles – that vampires don’t exist…. On top of that (did you think the above could be more than enough? Well, think again!) Ox has some serious financial problems, of the kind that involves gambling debts and unsavory characters – those of bodily harm persuasion; Hanna is dealing with her as-yet-to-be-determined feelings for a police inspector with…er… an undisclosed passenger in his head; and we get to know some new players, among them a man who can answer only in the most unadulterated truth, and lives on a boat together with a talking dog. 

One of the best elements in This Charming Man is that the main characters grow in depth and facets, so that  we get to know them better – or to change our first impression of them: this is mainly the case for Vincent Banecroft, whose abrasive outward attitude hides an inner pain for the loss of his wife, whose spirit he tries to contact through the help – as flimsy and difficult to handle as it is – of the ghost of Simon, the young man who wanted to work for Banecroft but lost his life in the previous book.  Seeing the Stranger Times’ editor literally grasp at moonbeams to reconnect with his dead wife changed my perspective on his personality and while I cannot say that I now view him with sympathy – because he’s foul-mouthed, foul-tempered and despotic as ever – I can see where he comes from, and many of his attitudes make more sense.

Hannah also improved a great deal: she is far less of a fish out of water than she was in the first book – or at least she is where her work at the paper is concerned, because when it comes to dealing with Inspector Sturgess and her as-yet unformed feelings about him it’s another matter. But when she has to deal with Banecroft, his temper and his idiosyncrasies, Hannah can turn into something of a dragon, and she has no qualms in battling with him word for word: their heated exchanges are among the best sections of the story, and I like to see – or rather, to perceive – how her boss must secretly enjoy this new facet from his newest acquisition.   There are also moments in which we see Hannah bonding with her colleagues, particularly Reggie with whom she teams up during an investigation: in this way even Reggie’s character is given a chance to gain more depth and to come more into the light.

As for the story itself, I could not help but be intrigued by the appearance of vampires, and the way they are portrayed here – as a form of mysterious infection rather than the mere product of an attack – adds to the attraction of the story, where both the Founders and the Folk (the movers and shakers working behind the scenes) have an interest in the proceedings, an interest that is not exactly benign…  Not every question gets an answer in this second book, and the still-hanging narrative threads look very promising so that I can look forward with great interest to the next volume in the series, knowing that it will prove as intriguing and amusing as the previous ones: what I saw so far of this continuing story offers a delightful mix of humor and weirdness and enjoyable character that makes The Stranger Times a more than welcome addition to my TBR.

My Rating:

Reviews

LOW TOWN (Low Town #1), by Daniel Polansky

Grimdark fantasy requires a anti-hero at its core, and in Daniel Polansky’s Low Town this role is fulfilled by Warden, the de facto ruler of the worst part of the city of Rigus, the titular Low Town: Warden is a drug dealer (and user), a crime lord and violent enforcer, someone who often pays the corruptible officials to look the other way. On the surface, there would be little to no appeal in such such a character, but the way Polansky paints him, giving the readers access to his inner thoughts through first-person narrative, changes our perspective soon enough.

Warden’s life was never an easy one: orphaned at a tender age when the Great Plague decimated the population of Rigus, he quickly learned to fend for himself acquiring street wisdom and cunning, and once he was old enough he enlisted in the army where he distinguished himself in war. On his return to civilian life he became a law enforcer, once again leaving his mark in the feared secret police branch of Black House, but something happened that made him quit and return to his old turf, where he became the man he is today: ruthless, cynical and with self-destructive tendencies.  As the story starts, however, we see a different side of Warden as Low Town is plagued by the disappearance of a number of children, whose desecrated bodies are later found, to the horror of the community: set on finding the perpetrators of these hideous acts, Warden sets on a personal crusade that will take him into contact with the seediest corners of the city as well as the higher spheres of society, in a journey peppered with false starts and red herrings, and also touched by this world’s peculiar kind of magic.

The story’s background is depicted quite vividly through Warden’s movements across the city: dirty, chaotic, dangerous, and yet quite alive in its noir vibe that is one of the compelling elements of the novel; it’s the perfect breeding ground for drug dealers and violent gangs, and this widespread corruption is not limited to the slums, because the higher-ups are just as bad as the people they rule upon, making this city a place where survival requires strength and viciousness – or, to quote Warden’s own words:

It’s a cold world. I’ve adjusted to the temperature.

And yet, despite his cynicism and the brutality he employs against rivals and people who cross his path, Warden does have some redeeming qualities which show, more than through his actions or his thoughts, through the kind of company he keeps when he’s not fulfilling his role as crime lord: Alphonsus and his wife, who manage the Staggering Earl, the pub that is Warden’s home and refuge, and who both look after him with a kind of disconsolate acceptance of the man’s dangerous life-style; the Crane, the elderly, ailing magician who used to be his point of reference in his days as a street-wise dweller; Wren, the savvy urchin he takes on as an apprentice and deals with through a form of tough love that speaks louder than any words.

Given this premise, it’s not surprising to see Warden launch himself in the hunt for the monster who is abducting and killing children in Low Town, in a quest that reminded me of the lonely adventures of the private detectives that noir literature made us familiar with: and indeed Rigus and the enclave of Low Town don’t feel that different – despite the medieval-like background – from any description of New York or Los Angeles in the ’40s and ’50s where those crime thrillers were set.   And like those modern detectives, Warden often risks his life and is assaulted and viciously beaten by people who don’t appreciate his nosy attitude or more simply see the opportunity of settling old scores.  It’s in these circumstances – like a breathtaking chase through the alleys and canals of the city – that Warden’s gritty determination shines through, together with the desire to do justice for those young, innocent victims who have no one to speak for them: though unexpressed, the reasoning for such persistence is clear, since he must see himself reflected in them, just as he sees something of himself in young Wren.  And that’s the main redeeming quality for this character, who might appear despicable at a superficial glance, but who ends up showing a good heart and something approaching a conscience, despite the constant, cynical denial that does not manage to completely mask what’s underneath.

My “graduation” from Daniel Polansky’s short fiction to this full-length novel proved to be a very immersive, quite compelling journey and the discovery of a character who might not make it easy to relate to him, but still is too intriguing to simply dismiss as a “crusty bad guy”. There are many untraveled areas in his past and in his psychological makeup that I’m certain will make for some interesting exploration in the next novels of the series. Hopefully, I will be able to return to the fascinating seediness of Low Town soon…

My Rating:

Reviews

TOUCHSTONES: A COLLECTION, by Stephanie Burgis

I received this story collection from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

This time around, the delightful surprise in receiving Stephanie Burgis’ new work to read and review was compounded by the discovery that it was a collection of short stories and, more important still, that they went in quite unexpected directions – narratively speaking – from this author’s usually light and playful style.  Which does not mean, of course, that you will not find some of her spirited and plucky heroines here, or that you will not travel through some of her Regency-inspired worlds: there is that, of course, but also some darker stories and themes that follow the time-honored fairy tale pattern of mixing darkness and light for added narrative depth.

And speaking of fairy tales, Touchstones contains not one but two retellings of the Cinderella myth, a longer one where the girl in question is quite reluctant to accept her destiny, and a shorter story that takes a very, very unexpected direction: in both instances I was thoroughly amused at the way Ms. Burgis turned the well known fable upside down, particularly in The Wrong Foot where we get a closer look at the famous Prince Charming only to discover that he’s… well, no, find out for yourselves! 😉

Staying with the lighter mood of the collection, The Disastrous Debut of Agatha Tremain is a fun romp through the idiosyncrasies of Regency society thanks to a spirited girl and her evil aunt, very much in line with the author’s previous offerings, while The Art of Deception follows a somewhat unlikely sword master and his friend as they move through the treacherous waters of a magical academy.  On the other hand, Love You, Flatmate is set in our present world during the Covid outbreak, but it will make you smile as you consider the effects of forced cohabitation between… ahem… different species.

For the darker themes, I would like to mention Dreaming Harry, in which we discover that a child’s imagination, when fueled by the wrong images (and a particular accident at the time of birth…) can be a quite dangerous thing.  Dancing in the Dark is a very poignant story about loss and the way a friendly ghost can assuage it. And again, True Names will take you on the harrowing path traveled by a young woman whose unexpected visitor brings a deadly threat.  My favorite story, however, is House of Secrets: the dark journey of a very special girl whose distant father you will come to hate and despise as much as I did.

Once again, Stephanie Burgis managed to take me out of this world into her special realms, in a variegated tour that proved to be both amusing and shocking, whimsical and weird, but always, always totally engaging:  I mentioned only a handful of the stories included in this collection, but there are many more that will take you down unusual paths and fuel your imagination.

If you already encountered her works, you will find in Touchstones her trademark narrative skills; if she’s a new-to-you author, this anthology might very well be the way to get to know her writing. In each case, it will be a reading experience not to be missed…

My Rating:

Reviews

OGRES, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I’ve read only a handful of books by Adrian Tchaikovsky so far, but enough to expect a change in style and narrative perspective in each new work I pick up, and Ogres is no different, indeed. And while it would be difficult to pin this story down to a specific genre, there is the right amount or sheer weirdness in it that I feel it would be appropriate to classify it in one of its own.

Ogres starts like a fantasy tale, both in descriptions and mood: Torquell is the son of the village headman, and is what’s usually termed as a ‘lovable rogue’; he’s known for his scarce attitude toward learning or following in his father’s footsteps and even more for his reckless pranks, which are more often than not viewed with indulgent annoyance and the hope that he might one day grow into his expected role. Even his forays into the forest visiting the outlaws led by a certain Roben (here the tongue-in-cheek authorial divertissement is quite plain) is viewed as nothing more than the kind of youthful enthusiasm Torquell will one day outgrow. Hopefully.

But such an idyllic setting is marred as soon as we learn about the ogres: the real rulers of the world, the Masters everyone must obey and pay homage – and taxes – to. Ogres are bigger and meaner than actual humans (or monkeys, as they are scornfully called by their masters), their rule of the land a divinely bestowed right, their powers and appetites larger than life – sometimes extending to human flesh.  The arrival of Sir Peter, the village landlord, with his son Gerald, is the spark that will ignite once again Torquell’s fiery temper, leading him to an act that will forever change his life and propel him on a journey of discovery and change.

It’s with the appearance of the Ogres that the questions about this world start popping up: what, until that point, looked like a rural fantasy setting, moves toward a more modern territory with the appearance of cars, teeming cities and clearly advanced technology, so that I wondered about the Ogres’ nature and the true narrative placement of the story. Should it be considered a parallel, dystopian reality, or a SF story in which the Ogres are nothing more than aliens ruling the enslaved humans? Adrian Tchaikovsky dances around this issue for a long time, offering small details that manage to fill a little – but never completely – the picture: that is, until Torquell himself has gathered all the clues and finally arrives at the dreadful answer.

Torquell’s evolution, as a person, is the backbone of this novella, which feels quite tightly packed with information despite its brevity: he goes from happy-go-lucky, carefree youth to reluctant hero to charismatic leader, embracing the knowledge and thirst for learning that he had always spurned in the past, the process turning from a small pebble to an unstoppable avalanche and mirroring his rise as a leader with a growing following that threatens the status quo.  His journey allows the reader a closer look at this world, one where the huge social divide between the Ogres and their human subject is borne out of exploitation and fear, a world where failure to perform one’s assigned tasks results in savage mistreatment at best, or ends on an ogre’s table at worst. There are passages in which Torquell witnesses teeming slums, filled with hopeless people being worked to death, which might remind the readers of some Dickensian description of the industrial revolution, and others in which ogres fight senseless wars using humans as chess pieces on a board, their equally senseless deaths being nothing more than a game played by their masters.

All these revelations, everything that Torquell witnesses and learns, create an expanding picture that moves, slowly but surely, toward the final resolution, one that’s reached forging through a constant, oppressive sense of doom that is not lifted even when our “hero” amasses success after success, threatening the Ogres’ supremacy.  If there is any glimmer of hope visible at the end of this story, it’s a very remote one, and heavily dependent on our nature as people and on the troublesome realization that it might ultimately drive us to the extremes – and their consequences – depicted in this story.

My last, but by no means least, consideration about Ogres concerns the author’s use of the second person throughout the narrative – an unusual method, granted, but one which for me confers a feel of immediacy to the story that made it more real, more tangible: and in the end, where we learn who is addressing Torquell with that constant “you”, we are hit with the final, most unexpected twist in the whole story, one that would be a huge understatement to call ’surprising’. And one that proved to be the proverbial “cherry on top” of an irresistible narrative “cake”.  Superbly done indeed…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE PEACEKEEPER (The Good Lands #1), by B.L. Blanchard

I received this novel from 47North through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

The narrative core of The Peacekeeper comes from the blending of two elements: a classic whodunit investigation and an alternate version of our world in which the American continent was not colonized by European explorers, so that the Native populations were able to thrive and progress toward their own form of modern society.  No explanation is given about the historical “hiccup” which prompted the creation of this ramification from our reality (although I hope that the next books in the series will answer this question), but the result is a society which pays more attention to nature and its conservation, one that created a very interesting set of laws, a theme I will explore in more detail later on.

Such a well-balanced society is not, however, immune from acts of violence.  The novel’s main character is Chibenashi, the titular Peacekeeper (i.e. a police officer) in the small village of Baawitigong: his mother was brutally killed twenty years before, at the height of the Manoomin harvest festival, by her husband, who freely admitted his guilt for the murder and has been locked up in prison ever since.  Chibenashi, who at the time was a teenager and feels guilty for having indulged in drink that night, and therefore could not be there to save his mother, is carrying the heavy burden of caring for his younger sister Ashwiya, who never recovered from the trauma of the murder and is heavily dependent on her brother who is her only practical and emotional contact with the rest of the world.

On the twentieth anniversary of the tragedy, as the present Manoomin harvest is being celebrated, a new murder shakes the small community, and this time the victim is Meoquanee, Chibenashi’s neighbor and helper, and his mother’s closest friend. The modus operandi looks the same as the one from twenty years prior, and this casts heavy doubts on Chibenashi father’s guilt, prompting the Peacekeeper to travel to Shikaakwa (Chicago? I’ve been wondering ever since…) to examine the clues through the more advanced means offered by the big city.  Once there, Chibenashi will have to confront his past – and himself – in many ways, and the journey of discovery will take him on unexpected and quite harrowing paths…

The Peacekeeper can be enjoyed on more than one level: there is of course the alternate history section which shows a world that is at the same technological level of our own, with computers, smartphones and sophisticated investigative techniques, but that developed in such a way as to not overly stress the planet’s resources, in keeping with the Native Americans’ way of integrating with nature so that a balance can always be achieved.  This outlook is what also created a very intriguing justice system which does not rely on punishment but rather on rehabilitation through reparatory actions toward the victims, who need to be “made whole” again after their suffering.  It’s a utopian point of view – and the story itself shows how the system does not always work – but it’s a fascinating one and it’s showcased quite a bit throughout the story, turning it into one of its more captivating aspects.

Where the murder investigation is quite appealing, it’s not the focal point of the novel: I have to admit that early on I started suspecting a certain individual who in the end is revealed as the real killer, but the lack of surprise on this front did not detract from my eagerness in discovering the truth of it as Chibenashi follows the often contradictory clues from both murders – even though I had no doubt about the identity of the murderer, I wanted to know why, and how both killings were perpetrated. What really held my attention here is Chibenashi’s journey of discovery, not only of the mystery he’s investigating, but of himself and of what drives him.

Chibenashi is not an easy character to connect with, given that he’s somewhat depressed and isolated, but once I understood where his attitude came from, the almost impossible burden he toils under, I could not avoid feeling a great deal of sympathy for him and was able to forgive the sometimes abrasive way he deals with the people he comes in contact with, particularly once he finds himself as the proverbial fish out of water in Shikaakwa. Even though he never says it out loud – even to himself – Chibenashi is a trapped individual: trapped by his responsibility toward what’s left of his family, by the stigma of being the son of a murderer, by his inability to envision a life beyond the limited (and stifling?) confines of Baawitigong.  He is so used to the self-imposed limitations of his life, that he’s unable to conceive of anything else:

[…] you get so used to the pain that you don’t even notice it anymore […] You would only notice its absence.

That’s the reason I was able to root for him even when he took some questionable decisions, because I wanted to see him break free of the chains holding him down, and that’s why the difficult, painful journey that he takes as he investigates the case, turned into a very compelling read I feel confident in recommending if you want to read a mystery with a very unique slant.

Probably the resolution is the part where the story faltered a little for me, due to the real killer’s long, drawn-out explanation that for me took some of the wind out of the story’s proverbial sails, but it’s a very small “incident” in what proved to be an otherwise smooth and intriguing road. And I will certainly welcome more stories set in this fascinating version of our world.

My Rating:

Reviews

A DRINK BEFORE WE DIE (Low Town #0.5), by Daniel Polansky – #wyrdandwonder

Read the story online

For the last day of Wyrd&Wonder 2022, I’m glad to celebrate it with my latest happy discovery: a short while ago I reviewed a short story by Daniel Polansky, an author I had previously encountered through some other short offerings, and a comment from fellow blogger Sarah led me to learn more about Polansky’s Low Town series, which Sarah mentioned with great fondness. Luckily for me I was able to get my proverbial feet wet with this prequel story which I was able to find online, and which prompted me to acquire the first book in the series immediately afterwards.

In the imaginary city portrayed in this story, Low Town is one of its seediest areas, under the control of a local crime lord who goes by the name of Warden, and is the first-person narrator as well. In Low Town anything goes: drug trade, liquor trade, every kind of more or less illicit trade one can imagine, and Warden rules it all through a deceptively nonchalant attitude – that is, until a rival consortium starts trying to undermine his rule and not-so-gently remove him from his place, so Warden goes on the offensive – but in a very crafty, very offhand way that belies both his determination and his underlying ruthlessness.

I was quite surprised at how I “clicked” with the character of Warden, given that he’s a hardened criminal who does not balk at bloodily removing any obstacle on his path, and does so in the perfect spirit of the place he rules:

”…the locals are unfriendly, unfriendly by the standards of an unfriendly city in an unfriendly world, and the local guard know better than to waste their time trying to police the place, like a doctor knows better than to bandage a corpse”

And yet, the combination of Warden’s laid-back attitude (which is anything but, in truth) with a peculiar kind of humor, that sometimes becomes of the self-deprecating kind, managed to endear him to me very quickly, and to make me want to learn more about him and the world he lives in. And so Low Town is now comfortably sitting on my e-reader, and I’m very much enjoying this story as well, which I’m reading as I write this review…

With my sincerest thanks to fellow blogger Sarah for the recommendation! 🙂

My Rating:

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Reviews

THE JUSTICE OF KINGS (Empire of the Wolf #1), by Richard Swan – #wyrdandwonder

Much as I was intrigued by the synopsis for this book, what I found in it went well beyond my expectations, offering a fascinatingly different point of view on a medieval-analogue background undergoing far-reaching changes.  Sir Konrad Vonvalt is an Emperor’s Justice, a traveling judge performing his circuit throughout his allotted slice of the Sovan empire and acting not only as judge but also as jury and, if required, as executioner whenever crimes are committed.  

Vonvalt is accompanied in such travels by his guard/factotum Bressinger and by his clerk (and potential judge in training) Helena, and the tale is indeed told through a much older Helena’s memoirs. As the story starts, Vonvalt and his small retinue are trying to shed some light on the murder of a noblewoman, and in the course of the investigation discover that the case is tied to a far-reaching chain of events that might lead to the unraveling of the empire’s fabric, and to the very end of the Imperial Justice system.

I appreciated the choice of having Helena as a chronicler, because the wisdom (and some disillusionment) of the older woman help put the account into perspective and turn her into a quite reliable narrator, observing the facts – and her own past self – through the lens of experience. The three main characters form an interesting team: Sir Konrad is a serious, and at times moody, individual but he also possesses an inner core of conviction and respect for the law that he tries to transmit to Helena, whom he clearly envisions as his successor; his usual sternness does not always manage to cover a fatherly attitude that at times comes through but is almost never perceived as such by the younger woman, so that the sometimes strained relationship between the two of them often reminded me of Merela and Girton in the Wounded Kingdom saga.  Bressinger, on the other hand, represents a more approachable adult for Helena, and despite his gruff, world-weary approach and his shifting moods, he’s the one she feels more inclined to confide in.  

Helena herself is what you might call a survivor: orphaned by one of the many wars of annexation that gave birth to the Sovan empire, she learned at a very tender age to fend for herself, and was rescued by Sir Konrad who saw the promise in the young woman and decided to give her a chance for a better future. The Helena described in the story is a mixture of innocence and strength, determination and uncertainty: it’s clear that her childhood left her somewhat emotionally stunted, and she does not know yet what she wants to do with her life – following in Sir Konrad’s footsteps would certainly give her the status and security she did not have in her early life, but Helena is not sure that this is what she truly wants, and she’s often chafing at the restraints that her present role is imposing on her.

These interesting character dynamics take place in an equally interesting background: the Sovan empire is the result of some bloody wars – Sir Konrad himself did fight in one – and the judicial system put in place by the emperor is viewed as the glue that should hold it all together, which is the reason Vonvalt is always so meticulous in weighing all the aspects of his profession and authority, careful that the meting out of justice never turns into mere vengeance or an expression of unchecked power.  And that’s where the unrest running throughout the empire stands: a struggle is brewing between the religious and secular powers, hinted at for the first time through the opposing views of Sir Konrad and the priest Claver over the behavior of some villagers, which the former chooses to simply reprimand while the latter would like to kill as an example to the rest of the world. The clash between Vonvalt’s concept of justice and Claver’s excess of zeal looks like the spark that might ignite the empire – and in truth we understand this is more than a possibility thanks to the opening sentence of the novel, in which the events at the small village where the two men battle are foreshadowed as the spark for the coming upheaval.

But such a spark must find a consistent amount of kindling to start the proverbial fire, and that comes to light in the course of Sir Konrad’s investigation, which proves to be the microcosm of what is brewing in the empire: the murder mystery (which is an intriguing addition to the fantasy setting) allows the readers to get a close-up view of Sovan society in the merchant town of Galen’s Vale, with its intricate political ties and the buried secrets of a small community which – as so often happens in such investigations, no matter the time frame in which they happen – come unraveled as Sir Konrad leaves no stone unturned in his search for truth and for the murderer.   

The murder inquiry also offers the chance for the introduction of the only “magical” elements present in the story: Justices like Vonvalt are empowered by special skills, like the Emperor’s Voice, which compels anyone subjected to it to speak the truth, no matter what; and then there is the much darker element of necromancy, the ability to connect to a recently dead individual to learn either the details of their deaths or the secrets they carried to the grave. This latter skill is disturbing – in one occasion Helena participates in the ritual and is grievously affected by it – and also taxing for the individual performing it, introducing a welcome limitation to what might otherwise have been a deus-ex-machina narrative device: the concept here is that such powers must be used sparingly and only in the direst of circumstances, both to prevent the tainting of one’s soul and the corruption of one’s skills in pursuing truth and justice.  

In the end, The Justice of Kings proved to be a compelling story of a world in the early throes of disruption, and if sometimes the pace falters between the detail-rich murder investigation and the echoes of developing unrest, the narrative remains consistently fascinating and the characters worthy of further exploration. Given this premise, I more than look forward to the next installment in the series.

My Rating:

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