Reviews

Review: BENEATH THE SUGAR SKY (Wayward Children #3), by Seanan McGuire

 

 

This third installment in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series takes us in a very different direction if compared with its predecessors: where the other stories were based on oddity and darkness, Beneath the Sugar Sky strives for a lighter mood even though the core concept still carries a dramatic vein, but for this reason it does not seem to work as well as the previous tales, at least from my point of view.

We’re back at Eleanor West’s school where we meet a new character, Cora, who used to dwell in the Trenches as a mermaid: together with her friend Nadya – who comes from a different water world – she’s spending time near the school’s pond when a girl literally splashes out of nowhere in its waters. She’s Rini, daughter of the former pupil Sumi, who was killed in Every Heart a Doorway: due to the nature of Nonsense worlds, Sumi was able to give birth to a daughter before she died (and even before she was old enough to become a mother, at that), but now that Rini has become aware of her mother’s demise, she’s becoming the victim of entropy and disappearing bit by bit.  Asking and obtaining the help of her mother’s fellow students, Rini proceeds to recover Sumi’s bones from the Halls of the Dead – where we meet again Nancy, happily back in her role as a fleshy statue – and then moves to her home world of Confection to find Sumi’s heart and soul and make her whole again, so that Rini can go on living.

Confection is a world entirely made of sugar, gingerbread and candy, but it hides a darker side because of the Queen of Cakes’ cruel rule, as she tries to bend reality to her own twisted desires; the Queen’s attempt to stop the group of friends from attaining their goal proves to be one of the biggest obstacles in their quest, and it almost costs them dearly, but still it’s not enough to imbue the story with the kind of drama that is this series’ trademark.

The spun-sugar and candy nature of Confection might have been an attempt to lighten the mood of the series, and the group’s adventures – despite the seriousness of the almost-impossible task they set themselves to – follow a strange, outlandish pattern that looks more confused than anything else and robs it of much of the urgency inherent in the quest itself: Rini’s piecemeal disappearance and her need to have her mother back feel more like narrative devices than the emotional signposts they should be, and I never truly felt any commitment to the kids’ mission or its final outcome.

If the narrative somewhat suffers from this change of tone, losing some of the smoothness I have come to expect from Seanan McGuire’s works, the characters fare no better: with the exception maybe of Christopher, about whom we learn a little more, the other “old hands” see practically no evolution in the course of the story, and the new ones like Cora become mere allegories for the issues the author wants to explore, which is a change of pace and intensity in McGuire’s usual way to address them.   Until now I have always admired the way in which this writer choose to discuss important topics like diversity, perception of self, and so on, in a way that never felt preachy or heavy-handed, just laying down the basics and leaving to the readers the welcome task of thinking about them.    Here though, Cora has to deal with the fact that she’s overweight and has always been stigmatized and mistreated because of it: this detail is mentioned practically every time she is the p.o.v. character, so that instead of being an issue that should lead us to deeper considerations, it becomes an annoying repetition that adds nothing to Cora’s psychological makeup as a person and in the end makes her appear as whiny, and shallow.   

I missed the effortless dignity with which Seanan McGuire usually tackles the matters she cares about and drives home her message, and I believe this is one of the reasons I enjoyed Beneath the Sugar Sky less than I expected and less than it deserved.  My hope is that this might be just a small bump along the road and that the next installments in this series will return to the kind of quality I’ve come to associate with this author.

My Rating: 

Advertisements
Reviews

Review: THE DEFIANT HEIR (Swords & Fire #2), by Melissa Caruso

 

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

The previous book in this series, The Tethered Mage, proved to be a delightful discovery in many ways: the magic system, in which people with peculiar abilities, or Falcons, are bound for life to a sort of companion/guardian, or Falconer; the background, where the Serene Empire of Raverra reminded me strongly of 18th Century Venice, complete with shady political maneuverings and complicated plots; and the characters, of course, mainly young Amalia Cornaro, the heir to a very influent Raverran family and the unwitting Falconer to equally young Zaira, a Falcon gifted (or better, cursed) with the rare ability to master balefire, a powerful, dangerous weapon that might prove useful in the brewing war against Raverra’s enemies.   Following their journey, as they got to know each other while trying to unravel a threatening conspiracy, was a charming experience, but with this second volume of the series both the narrative stakes and my enjoyment of the story took flight toward new heights.

The action starts several months after the events of book 1, and while Amalia and Zaira can now work together on easier terms, moving with baby steps toward a better understanding of each other if not actual friendship, the political situation has taken a turn for the worse: their Vaskandar neighbors, ruled by a caste of skilled magicians called Witch Lords, are once again on the move to expand their territory, threatening the Raverran Empire. Amalia finds herself in the role of envoy first, as she is sent to reassure the Empire’s allies and muster their defenses against any possible attack, and of ambassador later, when she is invited to the Conclave, the Witch Lords’ assembly that will decide whether to start a war with Raverra.  To say that pace and tension keep increasing with each page would indeed be a massive understatement: where The Tethered Mage was more of an introduction to this world and what made it tick, The Defiant Heir takes us into the heat of battle, and it hardly matters that it’s one fought with words and cunning and magic rather than conventional weapons, because the outcome is just as uncertain and bloody.

The increased rhythm is mirrored by a widening of our perspective of the world of Eruvia, as we are led first to Callamorne – Raverra’s closest neighbor and ally – where some of Amalia’s relatives live and where we learn a few details about her past and, more important, her bloodline: a discovery that will prove instrumental in the unfolding events and might have interesting ramifications in the future. The journey to Vaskandar is instead imbued with danger that does not come only from the prospect of an invasion and a war that the Empire might very well lose, but from the magic wielded by the Witch Lords, who are able to extend their control over beasts and plants alike: the instances where trees take on a semblance of life (and quite hostile life at that…) attacking Amalia’s party, are among the most terrifying scenes one could imagine, and will stand in your mind just as much as the Lady of Spiders’ dress, which is enough to give nightmares to any arachnofobe…

However the characters and their development remain the most fascinating feature of the story, starting with Zaira who still retains her more evident abrasive qualities and intolerance for regulations, but has also learned to look beyond her immediate wants and needs to take into account the well-being of others, or the possibility of employing her terrifying powers for the common good. Although she still dreams of her freedom, she has come to understand that there are worse situations than being bound to Raverra and her Falconer, and that outside of the apparently stifling world of the Mews there are people who don’t think twice about exploiting a Falcon’s powers, with or without their consent – and more often than not, without.  Zaira is learning the basics of compromise, and that sometimes you have to give up something to obtain something of even greater value, but more than anything else she is learning that friendship and loyalty are more than worthy of some sacrifice: she has just begun to travel on that road, and her feet still move reluctantly, but it’s a joy to observe her progress and the way the discoveries she makes along the way change her, little by little.

Amalia, for her part, evolves much more quickly and palpably: gone is the bookish girl who wanted nothing else but to study the intricacies of artifice, and in her place a skilled politician is growing slowly but surely. As it happens for all growing processes, this one is not exempt from pain: her infatuation for Captain Marcello Verdi had to be put aside in favor of the possibility of a politically advantageous marriage, and even though the relationship hardly had any time to truly coalesce, the feelings Amalia and Marcello share are strong and difficult to ignore. This situation is further complicated by the appearance of the Crow Lord Kathe, a Vaskandran who might be an ally: when Amalia accepts his courtship she is torn between her yearning for Marcello and the undeniable attraction toward Kathe, with whom she plays an interesting game of subtle double entendres and dangerous flirting, never fully knowing whether this Witch Lord is truly a potential associate or someone who will knife her in the back, but still feeling the pull of Kathe’s mercurial personality.

What I appreciated about this not-quite-triangle is that rather than focusing on the turmoil of indecision and angst, it showcases the crossroads where Amalia stands: Marcello represents the security of her old life, the potential for quiet happiness and scholarly pursuits, while Kathe carries with him the danger and uncertainties inherent in the new role of political player and influencer her mother is steering her toward – and the undeniable attraction exerted by the proverbial bad boy.   And this is not the most difficult hurdle Amalia must overcome, because terrible choices lie in wait for her in the course of the dangerous mission she’s been assigned, decisions that teach her the kind of price one must pay for playing the role she so reluctantly accepted: how this dreadful awareness will factor in her future decisions is something I’m eager to discover in the next book (or books…).  If the narrative progression I observed between the first and second book keeps up, I know it will be an amazing read.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE PHOENIX OF KIYMAKO (Book of Never #6), by Ashley Capes

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

Never’s story gains another chapter in his journey of discovery, and change: after the massive revelations of the last two installments, which saw not only Never’s unexpected transformation but also his disillusionment and grief, our hero embarks on a new quest in the search of a sister whose existence he did not suspect until recently, and in so doing takes us to a remote part of the world that is quite different from his usual stomping grounds.

Kiymako is an island far away from the mainland where Never’s previous adventures took place, and it has a decidedly far-Eastern flavor, both in environment and culture: from the plains and mountain ranges of old we are taken to a lush jungle-like territory, where bamboo and rice paddies share space with tropical forests. Thanks to their isolation, the inhabitants have developed a very different culture, one more geared toward mysticism and a heightened sense of spirituality, as testified by the temples dotting the island and the great number of monks that seem to present in every settlement.

This does not mean that our hero faces an easy task, because he soon discovers that the place is rife with plots within plots and that power games are being played at any latitude: as he starts to inquire on the whereabouts of the young woman to whom he might be related, Never must guard his back carefully and be even more wary than usual. Thankfully though, he also manages to make some friends, something that seems to be his true advantage in any situation: for a man who has always lived alone and counted only on himself, he has this uncanny ability to engender friendship and loyalty in the decent people he meets, so that his quest is facilitated by some much-needed allies.

As I have come to expect by now, Never’s search is a long theory of discoveries that lead to puzzles to be solved, which in turn help him unearth some new clue that will guide his steps forward: this kind of storytelling will certainly appeal to readers who also enjoy playing games because, as I have noted before, the narrative looks like a series of levels of increased difficulty to be unlocked before Never can move to the next challenge.  Unlike previous stories in his journey, though, there is a difference here: due to the sometimes unpleasant truths he finds, Never becomes progressively disillusioned with his origins, understanding as he does that he, his late brother and now his newfound sister were nothing more than pawns in their father’s far-reaching plans.  And it’s for this very reason that his encounter with innocent Ayuni gives him hope for a better future, and for a family tie that is finally free of ulterior motives.

Unfortunately, the name our protagonist goes under seems to determine his fate and never looks like the final word for every one of his goals, as he’s forced to continue in his quest for the heritage that gave him great powers, but also – as the saying goes – great responsibilities, and also exposes him and all those of his blood to great dangers.

And so the adventures go on…

The Phoenix of Kiymako will be published next June: if you want to get up to date with Never’s previous journeys, HERE is a complete list of the titles.

 

My Rating: 

 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE LAVENDER PALADIN, by Shawn Snider

The Baen Free Library is a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  During one of my visits, I discovered the existence of a series of short stories collections, grouped by year of publication: as it often happens, anthologies can be mixed bags, but I found a few stories that truly caught my attention: in my next posts dedicated to shorter works I will review the ones that I liked most in this collection from the best of 2016.

THE LAVENDER PALADIN

This was a quite unusual story, on many levels: it might be labeled as Fantasy since it depicts knights in armor and their attendants, but at the same time those knights are considered gods and addressed as “deus” by those same companions; and each of them travels with a bird-sized dragon, whose venomous bite can confer a wide range of powers.  Yet there is not indication about the origin of these ‘gods’, so that for all we know they might as well be human-looking aliens coming from a far-off world; what is certain is that they seem to be at odds with each other – at least the two portrayed in this story are, to the point that one of them is pursuing the other and not stopping at anything to capture his enemy.

The most unusual detail of The Lavender Paladin, though, is the setting: while the story follows many of the traditional guidelines of a fantasy tale, the background, the names and description of the characters and the general feel of the narrative point to an African-like context, which makes for a very different flavor – and a very welcome difference, at that, since it’s something you rarely find in this genre.

Young Nia, the main point of view of the story, is quite taken with the unexpected guests in her mother’s house, the blind god Astonaris and his paladin Kwambo, the latter wearing the titular lavender armor: the two are enjoying a moment of respite in their flight from Saegon, another god and Astonaris’ enemy, and little do they know about the consequences this visit will have on Nia’s little family.  Once they learn about them, the two men will have to decide whether to survive or do the right thing, knowing that each choice will require a price…

I was quite taken by this story, not least because I would love to learn more about this world and how it came to be: this is indeed one of those instances where a novel-sized narrative would be very welcome…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE UNDERWATER BALLROOM SOCIETY, edited by Stephanie Burgis & Tiffany Trent

When Stephanie Burgis contacted me to propose I read and review this collection of short stories from various authors, I was quite intrigued: I had enjoyed both her two historical fantasy novels (Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets) and her novella Snowspelled, with its alternate version of Regency England where magic is as common as teapots, so that I was fairly certain I would appreciate these short works centered on the shared theme of an underwater ballroom.

The location itself would have been enticement enough as a narrative lynchpin, but once I learned from the preface that an underwater ballroom does indeed exist as the remnant of a once-lavish estate, my curiosity did skyrocket: I have by now learned that Ms. Burgis loves to employ true historical details as her writing’s cornerstones, and the fact that she proposed the same core theme to other writers, to do as they pleased within their stories, made for a potentially fascinating journey.  And that’s what this collection was, indeed.

Each story is wildly different, ranging from steampunk fantasy to what I labelled as “fairy stories for grown-ups”, but each of them features the famous underwater ballroom in one way or another, and the overall effect is a delightful one. Now, if it were only remotely possible to experience at least one of these amazing ballrooms, that would be nothing short of perfect…

In “The Queen of Life” by Ysabeau S. Wilce, we see the unusual juxtaposition of the fae  world with our own reality, exploring the concepts of music and immortality, and of the meaninglessness of a long life devoid of the rich pleasures we can only find in the mortal sphere.

“Twelve Sisters” by Y. S. Lee is what made me think of the definition of ‘fairy stories for adults’: in fairy tales, once the hero does the deed and wins the princess’ hand, the focus fades into the usual ‘happy ever after’, while here we see how that same ever after could be anything but happy, and the hero… well, anything but heroic.  It’s one of the more poignant offerings of the anthology, and the one that was able to better blend fantasy with some modern harsh reality.

“Penhallow Amidst Passing Things” by Iona Datt Sharma is a story about smugglers and law enforcers in a very peculiar 18th century setting, one where both roles are given to quite fascinating female characters. Seriously, I would not mind a full novel describing this kind of world in deeper detail…

“Mermaids, Singing” by Tiffany Trent is the story from Ms. Burgis’ co-editor, a dark fairy tale in which a mistreated hound, forced to perform in a cruel circus, discovers the truth about its true nature and that of its fellow prisoners, while at the same time offering a look into 19th century London and an aspect of its life that comes from history: clearly Ms. Trent shares her co-editor’s penchant for inserting real-life details into stories, which affords some more depth to the tale.

“A Brand New Thing” by Jenny Moss will no doubt appeal to all book lovers, since it focuses on a young woman from the early years of the 20th century, who prefers to lose herself in the stories she reads rather than facing a somewhat dreary reality.  Still, fiction can be satisfying only to a certain extent…

“Four Revelations from the Rusalka’s Ball”, by Cassandra Khaw is probably the weirdest, darkest offering of the whole collection, one I’m somewhat still trying to recover from, and wrap my mind around. Which means it was quite effective.

“Spellswept” by Stephanie Burgis takes us back to the author’s alternate England – or rather Angland – a country where men wield magic and women dictate politics, a wonderful topsy-turvy look into a staid society where gender roles are reversed in so many delightful ways.  If you wondered, while reading Snowspelled, about the tantalizing hints given about Jonathan Harwood and his wife Amy, here you will find all the answers you wanted, besides getting a glimpse into main character Cassandra and her beginnings as a magic-wielding female, the true scandal of the times.

Laura Ann Gilman is an author that’s been long on my radar, so I welcomed the opportunity to sample her writing in this anthology: her “The River Always Wins” is a bizarre, intriguing story about the strange friendship between a Siren and an Erinyes, or Fury, and of a night spent in their old haunt of a peculiar nightclub, where old, buried memories will surface again with dramatic intensity.

“The Amethyst Deceiver” by Shveta Thakrar is probably one of the strangest stories I remember reading, and I’m still trying to come to terms with her concept of… well… mushroom people.  Weirdness can indeed take so many shapes where creativity is involved!

And last but not least, “A Spy in the Deep” by Patrick Samphire takes us to a steampunk version of Mars, colonized by the British Empire and rife with dastardly plots and untold secrets.  The flavor of this story reminded me somehow of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate, but with a more serious bent to it and a charming heroine I would like to encounter again in other stories – or a full-fledged novel.

Short stories can be tricky creatures, and I know several of my fellow bloggers are quite wary of them because they don’t always offer the same involvement as a book, but the fact that these particular stories strive to cater to our sense of wonder, to our desire for the magical, the uncanny, the bizarre, makes them perfect even for the most contrary of book lovers.  Try them out and take a spin in the underwater ballroom, you never know what might be waiting for you there…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: TOUCHSTONE, by Sonia Orin Lyris

The Baen Free Library is a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  During one of my visits, I discovered the existence of a series of short stories collections, grouped by year of publication: as it often happens, anthologies can be mixed bags, but I found a few stories that truly caught my attention: in my next posts dedicated to shorter works I will review the ones that I liked most in this collection from the best of 2016.

TOUCHSTONE

A quite unexpected fantasy tale in a collection where I believed I would find only SF stories, and one that I enjoyed very much.  It focuses on two young brothers whose father, one of the king’s trusted generals, leaves for war and never comes back, though he won the decisive battle.

As a form of compensation, the king decides to accept the two kids’ oath of fealty and enrolls them into the Cohort, the group of children from which one day will come Princess Cern’s closest advisers. It’s a move that raises more than one eyebrow, since the two youngsters – Pohut and Innel – come from a commoner family and have no backing whatsoever at court.  Worse still, the Cohort, a sort of college for the chosen of the highborn families, is a place where the children should learn how to handle life at court – in other words, they tend to practice prevarication, ruthlessness and duplicity.

The two brothers find themselves out of their element in more ways than they can count, or, as the author describes it, “they were dropped into the world of the Cohort like a pine cone onto a thundering river”, but the elder Pohut – mindful of his father’s last words to him before leaving for war, “make me proud” – decides that they will face all hardships together and refuses to bow to the widespread propensity for nastiness, keeping a low profile and biding his time.  I leave to you the pleasure of discovering the rest of the story…

This is a delightful, touching tale that I enjoyed very much and that has compelled me to look for more works from this author.

My Rating:  

Reviews

The Book of Never Kickstarter

Ashley Capes is a prolific Australian author writing mainly fantasy, with a few forays into other genres like mystery and horror – and he’s also a poet: a true Renaissance writer, indeed…

Among my reviews of his works you will find his continuing story of the adventurer Never, published in a series of five novellas; if you don’t remember them, here is a quick link to Never’s first five adventures:

THE AMBER ISLE

A FOREST OF EYES

THE RIVER GOD

THE PEAKS OF AUTUMN

IMPERIAL TOWERS

Today I’m happy to spotlight Never’s journey once again, since Mr. Capes has launched a Kickstarter project for the sixth book in the series – click on the link below to learn more about the project and how you can participate:

BOOK OF NEVER #6 KICKSTARTER

And as a further enticement, here is a preview of the cover for the book, whose title is The Phoenix of Kiymako: as usual the art of these covers is truly amazing.

Here’s to Never, and his continuing adventures!