PRINCE OF FOOLS (The Red Queen’s War #1), by Mark Lawrence #WyrdAndWonder

My first, and so far only encounter with Mark Lawrence’s works was with Prince of Thorns and while I liked the story I did not exactly enjoy it: not so much because of the grimness, with which I’m already familiar thanks to writers like Martin or Abercrombie, but because the main character, Jorg, was so steeped in his search for vengeance that I could not find in him any redeeming quality. Those feelings were so overwhelming that I could not bring myself to move forward with the series – or to read anything else by this author. Until now.  Exactly ten years after my not-so-happy encounter with Jorg, and after reading so many positive reviews from fellow bloggers, I decided to try again with a novel from Mark Lawrence and settled on Prince of Fools – and this choice proved quite felicitous…

Prince Jalan, tenth in the line of succession in the realm of Red March, does not care for power: his only interests are wine, women and gambling – the latter putting him more often than not in serious trouble, as does his flitting from one willing female to the next. In the course of his umpteenth mad dash to avoid the enraged relative of one such female, he barely escapes a deadly trap set by the Silent Sister, the crone who sits besides the queen’s throne and that few can see, and in so doing he becomes inextricably and magically entangled with Snorri, a Viking warrior brought to Red March as a prisoner.  The two of them set off for a quest across the world looking for the means to undo the spell – a quest that also entails Snorri’s search for the fate of his family.  As their journey progresses, they become aware of the impending danger from the Dead King and his army of reanimated corpses, and of the fact that the spell binding the two of them might be more than a “simple” inconvenience…

The tone and mood of Prince of Fools conquered me immediately: where Jorg’s journey represented something of a dark descent into hell, Jalan’s story – even though it is not always sunny and fun – was a more relaxing blend of drama and humor, mostly due to the happy-go-luck attitude of the protagonist.  Jalan is quite open about his shortcomings, almost proud of them, a self-centered guy affected by Peter Pan Syndrome who is quite happy about this state of affairs, and hoping for it to go on indefinitely.  He is therefore the perfect foil for Norse warrior Snorri, a man firmly set in his honor code and totally filled with a love for adventure and battle that Jalan cannot comprehend.  In the young prince’s own words:

With Snorri troubles were always put front and centre and dealt with. My style was more shove them under the rug until the floor got too uneven to navigate, and then to move home.

This difference is further stressed once they are bound by the spell that forces them to stay together (increasing the distance between them causes enormous discomfort and might even lead to death) and that’s expressed with encroaching darkness for Snorri and blinding light for Jalan. Two halves of the same whole, different and yet complementary – and probably destined to some higher purpose.  But the journey, either the physical one or the road toward mutual understanding and friendship, is not an easy one and their travels are punctuated by Snorri’s cheerful acceptance of hardships and Jalan’s constant whining about lack of comforts. Or willing women…

More than once I was somehow reminded of that older movie, The Defiant Ones, starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, where two escaped convicts bound by a chain are forced to cooperate to survive. Jalan and Snorri are equally bound to each other and observing their forced companionship turn first into grudging acceptance and then respect and friendship constitutes the main delight of this story. The journey also reveals their true characters behind the outward mask they are both wearing: Snorri’s bluster hides a deep-seated pain mixed with regrets, and under Jalan’s self-absorption there is a good person, capable of kindness and empathy, mostly revealed through his reactions to Snorri’s tale of woe.

Characters always represent what makes or breaks a story for me, and in this respect Prince of Fools is a winner, but in this case the world-building works just as well because I found this imaginary world both intriguing and fun.  Looking at an online map for the novel, I discovered that the background is loosely based on the European continent, with Jalan’s Red March taking a space that includes the westernmost part of Northern Italy and the southern coast of France: mentions of Rome and Florence further strengthen the resemblance, as do, for example, the names for the realm of Rhone (which roughly corresponds to central France) or the descriptions of the northern territories from which Snorri comes, that are clearly the area constituted by Sweden and Norway.   The constant references to the ancient Builders and the destructive event of the Thousand Suns clearly point to this world as being a post-apocalyptic one in which memory of the past has been all but erased, the few surviving notions twisted and turned into legends that open the road for some tongue-in-cheek humor, like the mention of the train, which has now become some sort of mythical beast or that of a famous Viking ship whose name was “Ikea”…

Even though this novel lost me for a short while, when the start of Jalan and Snorri’s journey felt somewhat erratic and lacking some focus, it still managed to keep me reading on because of the constantly evolving relationship between the two main characters, and once the story reached its climatic peak I was totally onboard and fully invested in it – I might have waited a decade to get back to this author’s works, but now he has my full attention and my eagerness to see where the journey goes.  And maybe – who knows? – I might even give Jorg another chance….  😉

My Rating:


LOVE WILL TEAR US APART (The Stranger Times #3), by C.K. McDonnell #WyrdAndWonder

This third installment of what has quickly become my favorite Urban Fantasy series played with some of the narrative threads explored in the previous books and moved forward in a very intriguing and quite satisfactory way, offering the by now familiar mix of humor and drama while at the same time delving deeper into some of the main characters, bringing to the surface a few unexpected facets of their personalities.

The team at the Stranger Times is undergoing a period of unsettling changes: Hannah Willis, the assistant editor who was carving her own niche at the paper, just resigned abruptly, with no other explanation that she’s considering going back to her cheating husband – and to better gather her thoughts on the matter, she booked a stay at a new-age-oriented, exclusive spa where she will learn how to put her life into perspective.   The newspaper’s owner sends a very strange lady, Betty Cavendish, to replace Hannah and Betty promptly asserts her rule by fending off easily editor Banecroft’s bullying attitude and keeping poor Grace occupied (or rather distressed) by requiring a financial inventory.  But it’s chief editor Vincent Banecroft who shows the biggest changes, because he’s become obsessed with his wife’s ghost, whose voice calls to him through the apparition of another ghost, young hopeful Simon, and asks him for help: consumed with the need to contact her and convinced that she might still be alive, Banecroft loses any interest in the Stranger Times’ proceedings and sets on a road to hell that might cost him much more than the paper he manages…

Unlike the previous two books in the series, Love Will Tear Us Apart does not follow the team as a whole but rather sends them all in different directions, engaged in different adventures, and that gives them a chance to experience some individual growth as characters: such is the case, for example, of shrouded-in-mystery Stella whose bizarrely awkward partnership with Betty takes her for once out of the confines of the paper – even though it’s for a very harrowing grave-robbing expedition; she also turns into a more hands-on member of the team when the infamous Loon Day comes around once again and the Stranger Times is literally inundated by a mob of more or less crazy people eager to share their tales of the uncanny with the staff.

Hannah herself is undergoing some momentous changes: her meeting with a very different ex-husband Karl ends with her booking a stay at the Pinter Institute, an exclusive retreat where she experiences a very shaky start by falling flat on her face. The Institute is a strange place, to say the least, run by plastic-faced personnel that are just a half-step short of being robotic, and poor Hannah is subjected to the strangest remedies that go from hot yoga to other… ahem… intrusive therapies that should help her “find herself” but sound too weird even to someone used to the madness of the Stranger Times.

As for Banecroft, he is a man obsessed: since making contact with the voice of his departed wife, he has been so concentrated on unraveling this mystery that he left everything else unravel around him, including his own well-being. I have to admit that I felt deep compassion for this loudmouthed, uncouth character whose manners are as inexcusable as his own personal hygiene, and I followed the narrative thread concerning his quest with great trepidation.  This search brings him into contact with a couple of previously encountered characters – Cogs, the compulsive truth-teller living on a boat and his talking dog Zeke, who are given a good deal of narrative space here and offer some of the most amusing pages in a story that walks on the uneasy balance between mystery and fun.

If it might seem that all these diverging narrative threads could be a recipe for a confusing read, think again, because CK McDonnell does weave them quite masterfully into a cohesive whole that evolves into a veritable page-turner once the story establishes its “legs”: the shortish chapters, which move from one character to the other, encourage you to keep reading, and as the questions and the revelations pile up it becomes almost impossible not to let oneself be swept up in the current of events.  Thankfully, there are some stops where readers can catch their proverbial breath, because in this third book of the series you will find the very welcome return of the “sensationalist articles” encountered  in the firs volume: from the “discovery” of the origin of spam telephone calls in outer space to an accusation of plagiarism directed at Stephen King, these newsflashes offer the chance for a relaxing laugh before delving again into the plot’s twists and turns.

And as far as the plot is concerned, I’m aware I said next to nothing about it, but to do so would run the risk of spoiling your enjoyment, so I will only say that some of the threads that started in the previous two books reach here their – quite satisfactory – fruition, and prepare the ground, or so I hope, for future stories set in the quirkiest newspaper I ever learned about. And I will welcome those stories with unabashed delight….

My Rating:


WE RIDE THE STORM (The Reborn Empire #1), by Devin Madson #WyrdAndWonder

For this year’s Wyrd & Wonder I wanted to take the opportunity to read some of the fantasy books that have been languishing for a while on my TBR, and the first that came to my attention is this first volume in Devin Madson’s Reborn Empire series: with hindsight, I can’t believe I waited so long before losing myself in this magnificent saga that from the very start proved to be a compelling read peopled with amazing characters.  The novel seems to throw the readers into the middle of things and it takes a while to get one’s bearings: a brief search taught me that there is a prequel trilogy to this series and that explains the sense of “missing information” one feels at the beginning, but don’t fear – the author has a way of conveying the necessary details through some well-placed dialogue that brings readers up to speed quickly and allows them to connect with the narrative with no problem at all.

The story is told through three different POVs which represent the three main cultures sharing this world – not only that, but each of them is narrated in the first person, gifting the characters with very distinctive personalities that in turn help depict the different milieus they come from, three civilizations that have been at odds with each other for a long time.  Through the eyes of Princess Miko we experience the Kisian empire, a realm reminiscent of feudal Japan: Miko and her brother Tanaka are the children of the ruling Kisian emperor – or rather that’s the cover story, since they are in reality the offspring of the previous ruler, whose actions caused him to be branded a traitor and be killed. The two are waiting for Tanaka to be named heir and meanwhile have to navigate the dangerous waters of court intrigue; an impulsive act from Tanaka causes a political upheaval that rekindles the hostility with neighboring Chiltae, launching both countries on the path of war and forcing Miko to act against her cultural and social boundaries and take her destiny – and that of Kisia – into her own hands.

Chiltae offers the well-known medieval fantasy setting, complete with a powerful clergy and their dangerous Blessed Guards.  Cassandra Marius is a Chiltaen citizen and a prostitute who also doubles as a hired assassin: there is something very mysterious, and also very wrong with her, since there is a constant, nagging voice in her head that seems to come from a very different personality, one capable at times to take control of her body. Add to that the fact that she can hear the “call” of the dead and you have a very fractured personality that, however, seems able to function well enough to ensure her survival.  Hired by an enigmatic individual to assassinate two people in exchange for the promise of a cure for her “ailment”, Cassandra accepts only to discover that her target is a highly placed one, and that she is a quite expendable pawn in a convoluted political game. 

Rah e’Torin is the captain of a band of Levanti, nomadic tribes of the plains living in virtual symbiosis with their horses. He and his people have been exiled like many others before them and in their search for a place to call their own they are captured by the Chiltaens who forcibly enroll them in their war against Kisia.  Once reached the main camp, Rah discovers that his old friend and mentor Gideon is at the head of the Levanti conscripts, which forces the younger man to come to terms with the compromises their new condition imposes on the old way of life, and to choose between survival and the adherence to Levanti codes of conduct.

When novels are written with multiple POVs, it’s easy to find one or more who are the reader’s favorites at the expense of the others, but such was not the case with We Ride the Storm, because I enjoyed all three characters in equal measure, and the constantly raising stakes of their different destinies made me care for them in a way I seldom experience: as the buildup of events carried them forward, showing more and more nuances in their psychological makeup and turning their individual situation ever more difficult, I found myself unable to stop turning the pages to learn what would happen next.

Even though I enjoyed all three POVs, Miko is the character who shows a major evolution in the course of the book: her culture requires women to defer to men in all matters, and although she can envision a future as ruler of Kisia, she is ready to accept a secondary role to her brother Tanaka, and it’s only when disaster strikes that she finds the moral  and physical strength necessary to lead her people in the struggle against the Chiltaen invasion.  

[…] I had lived in a prison made of people with more power. I did not want to be afraid anymore. I wanted to sit on the throne of my ancestors and make them proud.

Cassandra is a complicated person in many ways and – sadly – her chapters don’t enjoy the same narrative space as the other two protagonists (although with three more books in the series my hope of learning more is still strong) but what little we see is quite intriguing and also offers one more mystery to be explored in the person of the weird Witchdoctor, who might be the one to solve the puzzle of the mysterious “She” who shares Cassandra consciousness.

Rah is the character for whom I felt a great deal of compassion: both as the leader of his band of outcasts, and then as a conscripted soldier for the supercilious Chiltaen, he desperately tries not to compromise his principles, finding it ever so difficult when even his hero Gideon seems to have bargained his honor in exchange for vague promises of freedom.  Rah’s faithfulness to his moral compass is both admirable and sad, because it’s clear that he’s living through a time of change and one has to wonder if that change is going to trample him it its wake.

As a series opener, We Ride the Storm is an amazing story that wonderfully blends excellent characterization and masterful world-building, but it’s also a very emotional journey through the experiences of three very different people who in the course of the story become so alive and real that it’s almost impossible to forget they are fictional characters.  At the end of this first volume, all three are left on the brink of… something – be it good or bad – that compels me not to wait too long before moving forward with their journey.  I have rarely felt so impressed by a new discovery as I have been with Devin Madson’s writing, and I know I have just found a new favorite author for my reading “adventures”.

My Rating:


PALADIN’S GRACE (The Saint of Steel #1), by T. Kingfisher #WyrdAndWonder

There was another book by T. Kingfisher already lined up for my Wyrd&Wonder reading materials, but when I saw fellow blogger Susy’s enthusiastic review of Paladin’s Grace I could not resist, previous experience having taught me that, no matter which book I pick up from this author, I can be assured of a wonderful read. And that’s exactly what happened here.

Paladins are soldiers (holy berserkers) called to the service of various gods, or Saints, and Stephen is one of those serving the Saint of Steel: one day his god dies, and Stephen, alongside his comrades, falls prey to blind rage and starts attacking everyone in sight. Only a handful of these paladins survive the ordeal, and they are always on guard for the return of the madness; presently, three years later, these surviving Paladins are affiliated to the Temple of the White Rat, an order dedicated to public services like law and medicine, where they hope to remain useful while dealing with the heavy psychological consequences of their god’s death.

One night Stephen meets, in very… well, awkward circumstances, a woman fleeing from the acolytes of the Hanged Mother cult: her name is Grace, she is a talented perfumer and a person with whom the paladin feels immediately at ease, able to forget for a while the heavy burden of his past.  Grace also has a painful past to deal with, and the two of them meet again in weird circumstances while their mutual attraction grows despite the constant comedy of errors plaguing their encounters. All the while, the city lives in fear of a brutal assassin who leaves severed heads (and no bodies) in his wake and political intrigue further muddies the waters, adding to the burden of troubles for the two would-be lovers.

I had a lot of fun with Paladin’s Grace: it was all that I’ve come to expect from a story by T. Kingfisher, and more. It even surprised me by putting a romance at the core of the novel and making me enjoy it, which is so very unusual since it’a a theme I tend to avoid, but the growing relationship between Stephen and Grace was so fun to follow that I felt completely invested in it and ended up rooting for these two people so badly hurt by life’s hard blows that they deserved some happiness… 

Grace is the typical Kingfisher heroine: a very human, very relatable mix of strength and vulnerability, someone who has learned to fend for herself in a world that too often proved hostile and cruel, always ready to take away what she had managed to gain through hardship and sacrifice. Despite the difficult baggage that she carries, Grace is still capable of humor that comes delightfully across in her inner musings, and she also learned the kind of self-sufficiency that turned her into a very independent woman – granted, she’s terribly shy and still suffers from a certain sense of inadequacy, but she knows to rely only on herself:

Rescue was bad. People who wanted you to be vulnerable and grateful tended to get very angry when you stopped being vulnerable and didn’t act grateful enough.

Which makes Stephen’s not-so-smooth attempts at taking care of her all the harder. He’s laboring under some heavy baggage himself, constantly battling with the depression caused by the death of his saint and with the underlying fear of going berserk again and wreaking irreparable havoc. The only moments when he feels that burden lifted are those he spends with Grace: one might say they are both broken people who find in each other the possibility of healing their wounds and becoming whole again – and that’s probably the reason I found the romance in this story so intriguing, so real and worthy of cheering on.

Secondary characters are just as captivating as the main ones, particularly the members of the Temple of the Rat: from brother Francis the healer, whom we meet at the start of the novel, to Bishop Beartongue, an older woman whose no-nonsense attitude blends with tongue-in-cheek humor that made me happy for every scene in which she appeared, to lawyer Zale whose apparent offhand attitude hides a keen intellect, they all incarnate an ideal of service to others that counterbalances the darkness of the social and political background in which the story is set. Getting to know them, and their attitude toward humanity, it’s not surprising that they were the ones to offer the broken paladins a home and a reason to go on living.   Fellow paladin Istvhan is another wonderful character I enjoyed reading about: a mix of brotherly concern and hands-on advice, he’s the perfect foil for Stephen’s uncertainties – not to mention one of the recipients of his brother-in-arms’ knitted socks.  Yes, you read me correctly, Stephen knits socks in his spare time: after all even warriors need a hobby, don’t they?  And let’s not forget either Marguerite, Grace’s landlady, friend and accomplished spy in incognito, and Grace’s pet – something of a cross between a cat and a ferret, as far as I understand it – which fills the by-now-expected role of animal companion that seems to be a fixed element in all Kingfisher books.

There is a great deal to enjoy in Paladin’s Grace besides the amorous fumblings from Grace and Stephen: the required political games typical of the setting offer an interesting background that at some point morphs into intense courtroom drama, and the dreadful mystery about the severed heads is not fully resolved, making me hope that more will be explained in the next two books of the series, but what comes to the fore more intensely is the message that even damaged people can find a way of overcoming the injuries from the past and find in others the strength to face the future – hopefully a better one.  It’s indeed a powerful message, one that makes this already enjoyable story something more than just a story…

My Rating:


WYRD & WONDER 2023: Let’s do some magic….

And now that spring seems to have taken roots once again, it’s time for the first of the yearly bookish events I most enjoy: Wyrd & Wonder, a month-long celebration of all things fantasy.

This year’s theme is MAGIC and I think that nothing is as magical as the wonderful images chosen to represent W&W for this 2023, like the one I chose to use for my posts during this month.

Our indefatigable hosts are Ariana of The Book Nook, Annemieke of A Dance With BooksJorie Loves A Story, Lisa of Dear Geek Place and Imyril of There Is Always Room for One More  Check their blogs to learn more about Wyrd & Wonder 2023 and all the amazing challenges and read-alongs that will be part of this year’s fantasy celebration.

As for my plans, this year I’m somewhat behind my preparations: real life kept me a little busy and I’m not as ready as I used to be – books to read… reviews to write… But I’ll get there, hopefully.

See you beyond the magic portal!


THE SEVENTH BRIDE, by T. Kingfisher

It is now my firm conviction that I can’t go wrong with any T. Kingfisher book I pick up: this is my third foray into her stories and once again I’m amazed at the way she can weave drama and humor into compelling tales that keep me riveted from start to finish.

The Seventh Bride is a reimagining of the Bluebeard myth, but it adds many intriguing elements to the classic fairy tale, turning it into something delightfully new. Rhea is the daughter of the village’s miller, her only troubles in life coming from the slight drudgery of repetitive work and the fierce battles she wages with a bellicose swan fixed on depriving her of her lunch.  When the local ruler, Lord Crevan, asks for her hand in marriage, Rhea is both surprised and worried, because royalty never marries into the common folk, so something must certainly be wrong with both the proposal and the man.  Equally startling is Crevan’s invitation to visit his castle before the wedding; once there (and not before gathering an unlikely companion in the form of a very special hedgehog) she makes an awful discovery: there have been six other wives before her, and some of them have been either killed or horribly mutilated.  For his part, Crevan sets Rhea a series of tasks: failure to complete them before each dawn will lead to the inevitability of marriage – something that Rhea now completely dreads.

Rhea’s horrific journey toward Crevan’s castle and her sojourn there, not to mention the increasingly difficult tasks that also reveal the depths of cruelty of her future husband, make for a very immersive read, one that reveals the girl’s strength of character: instead of succumbing to the fear of what future might have in store for her, she grows in her determination to avoid the fate of her predecessors while safeguarding the life and livelihood of her family, not-so-subtly threatened by the intended groom.  I enjoyed Rhea’s show of courage, her practical nature managing to tame the primal fear engendered by the horrific discoveries she makes in Crevan’s house, her willingness to face head-on the man’s cruel, manipulative attitude.

Where the book truly excels, however, is in the strong bonds Rhea forms with some of the surviving wives, and her feelings of compassion for the one who seems to have fully embraced a sort of Stockholm Syndrome with their captor.  Once she realizes that she’s not alone in the plight of becoming a victim to Crevan’s nasty plans, she finds the courage to defy him, and even challenge him on his own playing field.  Unlike other fairy tales’ protagonists, the miller’s daughter does not wait to be saved but rather goes on the offensive, armed with even more tenacity than we witnessed at the start of the story when battling that dastardly swan in defense of her lunch.

The subtle humor pervading this novel effectively counters the sense of horror the readers feel through Rhea’s reactions when she witnesses the brutal, callous injuries perpetrated on some of Crevan’s wives – the ones still alive, that is –  and yet that humor is not enough to erase our anger at the man’s inhuman treatment of them. Lord Crevan becomes the embodiment of every abusive husband we learn about in the real world, and more than once I wondered if the author chose that name as the scrambled version of “craven”, because that’s what he ultimately is, an empowered coward who steals women’s choices (together with their magic, or their sight, or their voice) simply because he enjoys doing so.  Which makes Rhea’s rebellious and proactive choices all the more worthy of cheering on.

A special mention goes for the oh-so-cute hedgehog that acts as Rhea’s unlikely but effective companion: once again T. Kingfisher chooses to pair her protagonist with a representative from the animal kingdom, in what seems to me like a recurring theme – and one that I hope will be present in her other stories as well, since I enjoy them immensely.  The hedgehog is not only a delightful creature or a sort of talisman for the young girl, who seems to draw courage from its presence in the pocket of her dress, it’s also something of a conduit for help when Rhea most needs it, and a charming, sunny element in the overall darkness of the tale.

Despite that darkness, however, The Seventh Bride is a refreshing story of courage and determination and of the strength that can come from bonds of friendship and – in this specific case – of sisterhood forged in adversity.  It will leave you with a satisfactorily pleasant taste, and the urge to explore more of this author’s works – at least it did for me…

My Rating:



Readers of my blog may have seen past reviews concerning the works of Australian author Ashley Capes, whose novels are mainly focused on epic fantasy. Remember the Book of Never? This time I’m doing something different because Mr. Capes asked me to promote his kickstarter for the new series he’s working on: the Exiles Trilogy.

You will be able to find all information pertinent to the kickstarter HERE but I want to pique your curiosity with some intriguing details.  From the author’s own words, the trilogy is centered on the journey of four POV characters and their struggles after being exiled from their land, their homes and their loved ones. 

Each of them will have to deal with their own demons before it’s too late to come together and face down rapidly spreading darkness of the Moon Father, a pervasive creature behind the chaos in their lives.

These four characters sound quite intriguing, indeed:

Iggy was born without a face, forcing him to use his family’s psychokinesis on a perilous search to find a powerful deity who can help… at a cost.

Mei is desperate to protect her brother Iggy but as she follows him into banishment she finds herself tormented by divided loyalties. 

Anyo (known as the “beggar prince”) fights to win back his honour in bloodthirsty nation contemptuous of those who seek peace. 

Rokura, nobleman and assassin, must chase down rebels who have kidnapped a bastard prince, but soon finds he can no longer trust his King.

Books 1 and 2 of the saga are already in the advanced editing stage, while Book 3 still needs to be written: the expected publication date for the series is August 2023, and that’s where the kickstarted program comes into play, contributing to the editing costs and to the creation of the outstanding artwork that always accompanies Ashley Capes’ books.

Curious about those covers? Here is a preview peek at the artwork for Books 1 and 2:

The kickstarter campaign for the Exiles Trilogy ends on February 16th, so the clock is indeed ticking!  I hope that the goal will be met and that by August of this year we’ll be able to get to know these adventurous characters and their intriguing (if harsh…) world.

So I encourage you to visit the kickstarter link for this project and help turn it into reality. Thank you! 🙂


FAIRY TALE, by Stephen King

Dear Mr. King,

I used to be one of your constant readers until several years ago, when a couple of disappointing books turned me away from your works, although I returned recently – mostly thanks to some reviews of your latest stories from my fellow bloggers – having discovered that you seemed to be back once again in the splendid form I enjoyed in the past.   So when your latest novel came out I did not think twice about adding it to my TBR, only to suffer an unwelcome return of that old deep disappointment.

Fairy Tale starts in a very promising manner, mostly because you choose to focus on one of the themes in which you excel, the friendship between a young boy and his crusty old neighbor: the juxtaposition between the naïveté of youth and the prickly wisdom of old age, here personified by 17-year old Charlie Reade and the elderly Mr. Bowditch, is portrayed in your usual wonderful, humorous way, and here the bond between them is also represented by Bowditch’s dog Radar, well-loved by both characters and a lovely addition to the story’s cast.  Charlie takes on the care of Mr. Bowditch after the latter’s hospitalization following a bad fall, a task the young man chooses to shoulder because of an earnest promise made in the past (and also as a form of atonement for some childish pranks he was responsible for). Fairly soon, however,  he notices that there is something weird going on in the closed shed located at the back of the garden, and after Mr. Bowditch’s demise, and the discovery that the old man willed his earthly possession to Charlie, the youth starts on a fantastical journey to another world accessed through a hole in the shed: Charlie and an ailing Radar travel to Empis in search of a magical sundial that’s able to turn back time and rejuvenate the old dog, but at the same time Charlie finds out that Empis is an imperiled world suffering under the rule of evil, and the boy is thrown into the role of Chosen One and savior of the realm…

You see, Mr. King, the first 150 pages of so of the novel were delightfully typical of your writing: I enjoyed Charlie’s back story, his need to grow up faster because of his mother’s early death and his father turning to drink to drown his despair, as I enjoyed the growing rapport between Charlie and Bowditch, the love for adorable Radar, the generational clash of two very different people who nonetheless manage to find a common ground and a basis for affection. I could have gone on reading about them for the whole length of the book, even though the weird noises coming from that shed did pique my curiosity and I looked forward to learning what kind of mystery – or horror – hid behind those doors.   And the first part of Charlie’s journey through that strange world still held my attention, mostly because I wanted him to succeed, to reach the magical sundial in time and save dear Radar.  But once that part of the quest was accomplished, things went rapidly downhill, and I felt as if I was reading a different book, written by a different author, not by you.

I’m very aware, Mr. King, that your novels tend to be lengthy, that you take your time in creating the scenery before letting us readers sink our proverbial teeth into the story proper, but the length of time and pages dedicated to Charlie’s unfortunate detention in Empis’ dungeons, waiting to be employed in some sort of perverted gladiatorial games, was frankly too much. Far too much.  And what about the emphasis about the dirtiness and squalor of the prison, or the guards’ cruelty?  We all know that dungeons are filthy, dark and horrible places, but was it really necessary to dwell so much on the… ahem… scarcity of sanitary implements in the cells, and the details of how the prisoners had to cope with what little was provided?  We all know that prison guards, particularly those in the employ of your usual Evil Lord, are quite unsavory characters, but was it really necessary to have them bask in their peculiar brand of jolly cruelty that only lacked a mustache to be twirled to complete such trite picture?  And what about some of the evil characters roaming in the doomed city? I found that your perseverance in the description of their bodily fluids or the obnoxious noises produced by any and all orifices went beyond grossness: if it wanted to be a means to stress the horror of the situation… well, what it did for me was to make me forget the horror and see only the base crudeness of it all.  Did you maybe want to make fun of those tropes Mr. King? Sorry, but to have a chance to work for me, irony should be light and pointed, and this was NOT the case…

And what about Charlie himself? Was it that same misplaced wish to parody some Fantasy themes that made you turn Charlie (who was already a bit too perfect to ring true) into a cut and dried Gary Stu? So much the fairytale hero that even his hair changed color and turned blonde to better fit the stereotype of the Savior Prince? Seriously?

And last but not least, there is one detail that truly bothered me: when Charlie reaches the realm of Empis, he finds out that he must be speaking another language, one more suited to a fantasy environment and therefore devoid of some terms and expressions typical of our day and age. All well and good, we SFF readers can accept something like that without batting an eyelash, since we’re used to suspend our disbelief: so why did you feel such a compelling need, Mr. King, to remind us so many times that Charlie uttered one specific word only to have it magically translated into Empis-speak?  Two or three examples would have been more than enough, because your readers are bright, imaginative people and know how to connect the dots: having them connected for them throughout the whole book is not simply annoying, it’s an insult to our intelligence.

I have to confess that when I reached past the middle of the book I started skipping ahead because I wanted to see how the story ended, but did not want to endure the whole journey, and when that still proved not to be enough, I skipped over the last 100-odd pages straight to the Epilogue, relieved to be literally out of the woods.  I’m sorry, Mr. King, because I wanted to like this book, I did indeed like it at the beginning, but once it turned into a crazy mess I could not take it anymore.  This does not mean that I will not read your next one, of course, only that I will try to be more careful with my expectations, in the hope that this is only a small bump in the road.

My Rating:


IN THE SHADOW OF LIGHTNING (Glass Immortals #1), by Brian McClellan

A new series by Brian McClellan was more than enough to make me pay attention: my only doubt – before starting this first book – was about how it would compare with his Powder Mage world and if I would miss the richly intriguing background of that famous saga.  To my relief, I soon discovered that this world stands very well on its own and it proved to be just as engrossing as the author’s older creation.

In this world, glass (or rather godglass) can be imbued with magic properties that confer special abilities to wearers: added strength and stamina, curative powers, enhanced sight – the list seems almost endless. Then there are the glassdancers, gifted individuals who can actually command glass and perform incredible feats with it: Demir Grappo is such an individual, and the scion of one of the ruling families in the nation of Ossa. When we meet him at the start of the novel, he’s gained a high rank in the Ossan army at a very young age, and just obtained a decisive victory in war, which bestowed him the title of Lightning Prince. Something goes wrong with the chain of command, however, and the newly conquered city is brutally sacked despite Demir’s orders to the contrary and so, ridden by profound guilt and horror for the atrocities he witnessed, he choses voluntary exile from his home country.  Only several years later he returns home, called back to his family’s duties after the assassination of his mother: what Demir will have to deal with is not only the investigation in his mother’s murder, but a number of political machinations and an encroaching threat that might change the world forever.

Demir’s journey crosses with that of Thessa, a siliceer or godglass forger, swept up by the tides of war into a situation that will put to the test her abilities and her strength of character; of Kizzie Vorcien, the bastard daughter of a powerful family ruler and a capable enforcer; and of Idrian, a breacher, which is something of a glass-strengthened super soldier.  Last but not least, among the main characters figures Baby Montego, a retired champion of cudgel fighting (a bloody sport very popular in Ossa) and Demir’s childhood friend.

The novel’s background is what I’ve come to expect from Brian McClellan: an 18th Century-inspired world where the Industrial Revolution is in its infancy and where glass-derived magic permeates all strata of society with various levels of intensity due to the strict class system on which said society is based – which of course leaves ample room for political maneuvering, conspiracies and convoluted plots that don’t stop even before murder or the kindling of a senseless war to reach the desired goals.  Glass magic is an intriguing element of the story, particularly because (not unlike the overuse of gunpowder in McClellan’s other world) there are aftereffects to take into account, from the loss of efficacy, over time, of single pieces of magic-imbued glass to the much more dire glassrot, an affliction that plagues people when they exceed the limits of glass use, and which could also lead to deterioration and death.

Narrative threads and characters interweave in an increasingly convoluted plot that reserves many surprises for the readers, including the final twist which left me not a little perplexed for its SF overtones – something I had not expected and which leaves me very curious to see where the author will take us next. But of course my most intense focus remained on the characters themselves.  Demir is something of a damaged hero, a complex personality, energetic and mercurial on one side – the one he offers to the world – and profoundly wounded on the more private other, since he’s still dealing with the aftermath of the wartime episode that affected his life and career. Where he appears to the world as a functional leader, certain of his skills and completely in control, he’s plagued by what looks like PTSD symptoms when he’s alone and the ghosts of the past weigh heavily on him.  Still, he manages to remain a very caring person where the people he feels responsible for are concerned, and unlike other members of the higher strata of society he struggles to do the right thing – probably in the constant search of atonement for what he perceives as his guilt in past events.

His old-time friends Kizzie and Baby Montego ended up being my favorite characters: as the bastard of the powerful Vorcien patriarch, she keeps looking for the way to fit in, juggling her need to belong with an inner core of integrity, a trait that together with her amazing fighting skills earned my respect and fondness from the get go.  Baby Montego (the ‘baby’ part of his name being a clear tongue-in-cheek quip) is a larger than life person in both the actual and the figurative sense: there is a delightful duality in this man who made his name practicing a violent, bloody sport and yet remains outwardly sweet and gentle – unless his friends are threatened, of course. The two of them are Demir’s older friends, their relationship going back to their childhood, and I enjoyed their interactions immensely – truly one of the joys of this novel.   Breacher Idrian is also a multi-faceted character: a powerful soldier, well respected by superiors and troops alike, but dealing with a form of encroaching madness barely kept at bay through his godglass artificial eye, something that indeed erodes his outward strength but at the same time humanizes him profoundly.

On the other hand, while Thessa earned my sympathy for her plight, particularly in the first half of the novel, she never managed to completely captivate me despite being Demir’s narrative counterpart: I could admire her strength, resourcefulness and courage and the fact that she could seamlessly blend her kind disposition with a fierceness that knows no obstacles. And yet in the end she left me a bit cold, probably because she is depicted as unfailingly brilliant and that might have led me to see some “Mary Sue” shades in her personality that did not agree with me. Nonetheless, the jury is still out and I’m looking forward to seeing where her path will take her: it would not be the first time that Brian McClellan ends up surprising me with some unexpected character development…

In the Shadow of Lightning won me over with its fast pace, layers of intrigues and relatable characters, and I’m more than looking forward to the next books in the series: once again Brian McClellan proved to be a skilled storyteller whose novels have by now become a “must read” no matter what.

My Rating:


ELDER RACE, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This Adrian Tchaikovsky novella packs several themes in a successful mix between science fiction and fantasy that I found delightfully entertaining. The story is equally divided between two points of view: Lynesse Fourth Daughter is the wayward scion of the realm of Lannesite, more interested in the lore and legends of her people than in the practical duties of a queen’s daughter, and so she’s always getting into trouble and harshly reprimanded by her mother and elder sisters.  Nyr Illim Tevitch is a lowly anthropologist assigned to study Lynesse’s society, a distant offshoot of human colonization: he’s been left alone to monitor the culture, since his companions returned to Earth some time ago and never came back, prompting Nyr to accept the dire fact they might never do so and that he might end his last days alone.

Rumors of a demon plaguing the nearby lands have reached the court and been dismissed by the queen as nothing more than the peasants’ excessive fantasy, while Lynesse is convinced that the realm might be threatened by a danger similar to that faced by her ancestress Astresse Once Regent, who successfully vanquished it with the help of the sorcerer Nyrgoth Elder.  So, against her mother’s wishes, she takes the long journey toward the wizard’s tower to ask for his help on the strength of the ancient compact signed with her great-grandmother.  The “wizard” is of course the anthropologist who long ago, and against the rule that prohibited the observing scientists to have any contact with the locals, lent his help to Astresse, and is now whiling away the long, empty years in suspended animation.

Lynesse’s resemblance with her ancestress – for whom it’s clear that Nyr harbored some very strong feelings – and her impassioned request for help clash with the scientist’s deeply settled despondency and depression, not to mention the sense of guilt for having already broken the rules once, and his unwillingness about doing so again, even though it’s become clear by now that there will be no retribution from back home,  given the too-long silence from Earth.  Still, the young woman’s determination and some curiosity to inspect the disconcerting phenomenon that Lynesse describes as a “demon”, ultimately convince Nyr to travel with her and her companion Esha Free Mark to the affected lands, in a journey that will prove enlightening for both of them.

The clash of different cultures has long been one of the main themes in science fiction, but here in Elder Race the conflict – and ensuing misunderstandings – come from two different lines of evolution of the same people, just as the two points of view, Lynesse and Nyr, represent the two genres merged in this story.  From the fantasy-inspired outlook of Lynesse, Nyr’s abilities and technological tools are nothing short of magic, and serve only to reinforce her faith in the powers of the aloof wizard, and in his ability to find and vanquish the demon infesting the land.  For his part, Nyr is battling with his own conscience and the contrasting feelings engendered by the bizarre situation, and keeping them at bay with the Dissociative Cognition System, or DCS, an implant that allows him to disconnect himself from his feelings so that he can conduct his observations with emotionless detachment – the only downside of the DCS being that he must turn it off at regular intervals to avoid a dangerous accumulation of repressed emotions, a practice that ends up enhancing the aura of mystery surrounding him from the locals’ perspective.

The theme of the Heroical Quest is played to the hilt in Elder Race, and with no small amount of tongue-in-cheek humor, particularly where the language barrier comes into play, giving way to an amusing “comedy of errors” flavor that reaches its peak as Nyr tries to explain the hard reality to Lynesse, only to see technical details turned into fairytale terms by a translation that shares very little ground with the common language once employed by the original colonists.  There is a chapter where the two versions are given side by side, and the gap between the actual reality and the one perceived by Lynesse shows, in a quite amusing way, the chasm that has opened between the two cultures, so that, for example, the term “scientist” used by Nyr becomes “wizard” in Lynesse’s tongue, taking the reader straight to Arthur Clarke’s famous sentence about advanced technology and magic…

Nyr’s frustration, and Lynesse’s difficulty in connecting with him, are not only the product of the changes in language but also of the changes in the way one looks at the world: where the anthropologist (especially when he engages the DCS) bases his observation on hard science and provable facts, Lynesse is driven by the stories she heard from early childhood, stories of heroic deeds and slain monsters, of weird magic and amazing feats, so that the two of them are kept apart not only by the terms that are lost in translation, but more importantly by a legendarium that for the girl is as close as humanly possible to reality while for the scientists it’s an unexplored land.  If you have seen that superb Star Trek: TNG episode titled Darmok, you will know what it means to be unable to understand someone whose language is so steeped in legends as to be totally incomprehensible.

And yet, despite these seemingly unsurmountable obstacles, the two manage to form an effective team: where words fail them, actions and – above all else – faith in each other’s commitment to the quest end up creating a bond that is a delight to behold and that adds a touch of sweetness to the mix of adventure and humor that are the main ingredients of the story, a story that despite its shortness ended up being even more enjoyable than Adrian Tchaikovsky’s longer and more complex books.

My Rating: