Reviews

Review: PROMISE OF BLOOD (Powder Mage #1), by Brian McClellan

When a few years ago I saw this book mentioned on one of the periodic showcase posts on John Scalzi’s blog, I was immediately intrigued and did not waste any time in seeing for myself what this novel was about. Despite enjoying both the story and the writing, however, I never managed to move forward with the series, rekindling my interest only when a couple of months ago Orbit Books offered me the chance of reading and reviewing the first volume in Brian McClellan’s new series, Sin of Empire.    

On hindsight, I believe I now understand the reasons for my procrastinating, but they have been completely vanquished by this author’s new novel and the fresh enthusiasm for his world engendered both by Sins of Empire and some of the prequel novellas I’ve read since then.  So it was only fitting that I start again with the first book in the Powder Mage series, and I must admit that re-reading Promise of Blood, after getting to know better some characters and their background, was a much more satisfying experience.

This is an unusual world for fantasy, because it’s not based on a medieval-like setting, but rather a period reminiscent of the late 18th/early 19th Century, although it does possess its own forms of magic: at the top of the pyramid stand the Privileged, whose ability in mastering the elements makes them quite powerful – they offer support to the king’s rule and form powerful alliances called ‘cabals’, that are considered nearly invincible.  Then there are the Powder Mages, to whom gunpowder lends great stamina and skills, not least the ability of floating a bullet well past its normal trajectory, and of directing it with accuracy. Last are the Knacked, people with minor abilities that can however turn quite useful, if correctly employed.

As the story in Promise of Blood starts, Field Marshal Tamas brings to fruition the coup he’s been orchestrating with his allies: the present king’s rule brought the realm of Adro to the brink of disaster, with poverty and hunger beleaguering the people, while the forthcoming Accords with neighboring Kez will place Adro under the Kez political and financial thumb.  In one fell swoop, Tamas is able to kill most of the royal cabal of Privileged and to summarily judge and execute the king and the higher ranks of nobility: the use of guillotines for this final stage of the coup is what lends a strong French Revolution flavor to the novel.    Changing a country is however a difficult business and Tamas finds himself battling on several fronts while trying to resurrect his country’s economy, keeping the Kez and their expansionism at bay and thwarting some attempts on his life, the latter pointing at a traitor among his allies.  The Field Marshal therefore employs the services of former inspector Adamat (a man with the knack of eidetic memory) and sends his own son Taniel, a highly skilled powder mage, in pursuit of the last surviving king’s Privileged, while dealing with the problems of running a country and unraveling long-standing mysteries, again mixing mundane matters with magic in a compelling blend.

The background for Promise of Blood is a very interesting one, thanks to the combination of ordinary and supernatural I mentioned above: we have people wielding magic alongside common soldiers and servants, merchants and accountants, and through the various phases of Inspector Adamat’s investigation we have the opportunity of a closer look to Adran society where, for example, one of the major players is a workers’ union (something almost unheard of in the historical period that inspired the novel); or a powerful guild of assassins, the Black Street Barbers known for its silent efficiency, who are allowed to operate unhindered.  One of the elements I most enjoyed was the balance in the abilities afforded by gunpowder: a powder mage can draw great strength and resistance, or improved sight, from consuming it, not to mention the possibility of literally guiding a bullet well past the trajectory imposed by mere ballistics. And yet there are counterweights to this: not only in the fact that weapons are of the flintlock kind, and therefore able to shoot only one bullet at a time, so that a powder mage’s skills cannot be turned into a convenient deus ex machina, but also the use of powder can become addictive, not unlike any other drug.

As far as characters go, Field Marshal Tamas quickly became my favorite: he’s a somewhat hard, uncompromising man, but he also possesses a strong sense of justice and the willingness to make difficult choices for the common good. Having learned more about him and what makes him tick through the novellas I’ve read, it’s easier to understand his anger toward the former ruling class of Adro, although most of the times it’s a coldly calculated anger he knows how to channel, both for himself and the people he wants to lead toward a different future:

The people want blood right now, not words. They’ve wanted it for years. I’ve felt it. You’ve felt it. That’s why we came together to pull Manhouch from his throne.

His son Taniel is more difficult to relate to: both now and on my first read I saw him as something of a whiner, a boy looking for his father’s approval, and inclined to sulk when he doesn’t receive it in sufficient amount. If on one side I understand how difficult it would be to be the son of such a man, and to find oneself walking in such renowned footsteps, on the other I constantly felt the need to slap some sense into Taniel, especially when he pitched himself deeper into his powder addiction to numb the pains of the world, both the real and the merely perceived ones.

The pace of the story is fairly quick, alternating between Inspector Adamat’s investigation, political maneuvering in Adro, the looming Kez invasion and the obscure threat of god Kresimir’s return on the wings of an old prophecy that some Privileged seem determined to bring to fruition: the story flows pretty quickly between these different events and builds to a spectacular climax that however leaves many doors open for future developments.  With such a premise, as I said, it seems strange I did not feel compelled to continue sooner with the series, and I believe now that the main reason is the imbalance in characterization: unlike the first novel of the new series, or the prequel novellas, Promise of Blood does not seem to care much for female characters, and in a world where women can even choose to enroll in the military this does not come across too well.

Let’s examine some of the women who people this novel: Lady Winceslav, one of Tamas’ co-conspirators, is an influential person and the head of the mercenary group The Wings of Adom, and yet she’s easily duped by a young suitor; officer Vlora, Taniel’s fiancée and the central figure in Sins of Empire, causes the break of their engagement when he finds her in bed with another man; Ka-Poel, Taniel’s Fatrastan ally, is a powerful mage and a fearless fighter, but she’s mute; Privileged Julene is the quintessence of the Dark Lady, cruel and power-mad. And so on… I might be wrong, but I see a pattern here, one that might have subliminally influenced my decision to wait in discovering how the story progressed.  Thankfully, I can now see how the author changed this course along the way, and I must admit that reading the new novel before returning to this older trilogy had a very positive impact on my point of view of the overall story, one that promises to lead me on a very interesting path.

This time around I will not wait long before moving forward…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

WESTEROS IN MILAN…

As the start of season 7 for Game of Thrones, the TV series based on George R.R. Martin’s saga A Song of Ice and Fire, approaches – with the premiere slated for the evening of July 16th – so does the fans’ excitement to see how the story will move forward, now that the all-out war between the various warring factions is about to begin (although I will admit that I will take it all under advisement, while I wait for the next books to come out, since I’m pretty certain that GRR Martin has some surprises in store for us readers and has kept a few cards close to his chest, without revealing them to the show’s creators…)

Nonetheless, the hype is at its highest levels, and many events are being staged to keep it that way: I recently discovered that one of them has been set up here in Milan in the inner courtyard of the Sforza Castle, a 15th Century fortress located in what is now the heart of the city. Here is a brief video that will give you an idea of the location:

 

A few days ago I learned that a presentation of the world depicted in Martin’s saga and the HBO series would be held on this weekend, culminating in a public showing of the first episode of season 7 at 3 a.m. on Monday, July 17th, at the same time as the USA airing. Thankfully I will not have to observe such an ungodly hour to see the episode, since Sky Italy will be airing it and, as a subscriber, I will be able to record it and watch it at a more humanly convenient time 🙂

I was however curious about the presentation, my curiosity increased by the huge billboards covering the walls of the Duomo subway station I have been seeing all week long on my way to and from work, and announcing that “Winter has come”, or asking if we were “ready for it”, the more impressive one being a scene of the sword duel between Jon Snow and the King of the Others – a very impressive scene, indeed. So this morning, since I was in the area, I decided to see for myself: in truth, it looked more like a display aimed at younger audiences, especially with the big, bronze-like dragon everyone wanted to be photographed with, and the copy of the Iron Throne with a long queue of people waiting for their picture to be taken while sitting on it – and my heart went to the poor guy dressed like a Wildling standing beside the throne and looking fierce: with a 32 C temperature (that makes it close to 90F) and a 35-40% humidity, it must have been hell to stand there in such heavy clothing!

 

 

The best feature was indeed the fountain in front of the main entrance: it has been dressed to look as if part of it is frozen (after all “Winter has come”!) and despite the July mid-morning brightness it looks good.

The light of day might not be the best to observe the presentation, though, and I believe that at night, with some strategically placed illumination to enhance the location and the displays (and to keep away the darkness and the terrors Melisandre is so fond of mentioning) the castle’s courtyard will take on the properly magical atmosphere required by the event. For those fortunate – or bold – enough to brave the wait until 3 a.m. on Monday morning it will certainly be an amazing experience to see the brand new episode surrounded by the ancient walls of the castle.

For the rest of us, especially those waiting with impatience to know the date of issue for The Winds of Winter, the trailer for the new season will have to be enough.

Are you ready? 😀

Reviews

Review: ISLAND OF EXILES (The Ryogan Chronicles #1), by Erica Cameron

It’s practically impossible for me to resist a deep desert setting, not since Frank Herbert’s Dune became one of my favorite books, so when I read the first reviews for Island of Exiles I knew it would not be long before I saw for myself what this story had to offer.

Life on the island of Shiara is hard and unforgiving: set in the middle of a turbulent ocean, the island’s climate alternates between periods of intense, searing heat and seasonal storms that can annihilate everything in their path. The city in which the novel is set is an enclave of relative comfort in such a harsh environment, but requires total dedication from its citizens, whose main goal must be the survival of the tribe, even before that of the individual.

The city’s society is divided into three layers: the nyshin – or warriors/hunters, who provide security and forage for whatever other foodstuffs the island can provide, besides what can be cultivated on the plateau; the ahdo, who are a sort of teachers and administrators; and the yonin, the lowest possible rank: these are people who were unable to manifest any magic ability during the rite of passage into adulthood, and are therefore kept inside the city walls and set on any kind of menial work – there is no overt contempt displayed toward the yonin in this society, but the writing on the wall is quite clear about their station.  At the top of the power pyramid, however, stand the Miriseh, a group of long-lived (or maybe immortal) people who act as protectors to the city’s population, and are regarded as the ultimate source of reverence.

Khya is a nyshin warrior, brave, highly respected and dedicated: she wants to get to the very top and become one day part of the council of advisors to the Miriseh, just as her blood-parents did, and it’s her most fervent hope that her younger brother Yorri might share that honor with her, but so far Yorri has shown no magical ability, and she’s afraid he might end up among the yonin, as happened to his lover Sanii. Training him in secret, she finds the way to unlock Yorri’s magic – a very powerful, very rare kind of magic – and everything seems to move according to her plans when tragedy strikes, and on its aftermath Khya starts making unpleasant discoveries that will turn her world and beliefs upside down, and lead her toward an unexpected path.

The world described by Erica Cameron is a fascinating one: enclosed in a relatively small space, hemmed in by cruel nature, the people of Shiara have managed to create a flourishing society, one that displays many interesting facets, and a few shadows as well.  For example, if on one side we can observe the existence of three sexes (male, female and a neuter called ebet) and a total freedom about the choice of partners, with no distinction between genders, on the other we have a rigid caste system that puts at its lower tier the yonin: the outward reason for keeping them in the city is that they need the protection of the walls, since they have no magic that could shield them from the elements or any enemy they might face. The truth, however, is that the yonin are pariahs, people to whom little value is attached (as witnessed by the lack of mourning when accidents take their life), people who are not deemed worthy of a liaison with the upper strata of society, and are best kept out of the collective sight: they serve in silence, their work required but not acknowledged.  To me, this was the first sign that not everything was as it looked on Shiara, so that once the revelation about long-kept secrets and lies surfaced, I was not overly surprised.

The downside of such a fascinating premise, however, is that there is too much of it: as a reader I felt virtually assaulted by a huge amount of new terms, most of them without explanation, that required my utmost concentration on these details, concentration that was stolen from the story itself.  I’ve often said that I like to work through what I read, that I don’t like to be spoon-fed by excessively enthusiastic authors, but to me Island of Exiles went completely the other way, burdening the narrative with a plethora of terms that proved more distracting than informative, more on the side of telling the readers about the differences in this society, rather than showing them.    In a similar way, the moment in which the truth behind the careful façade is revealed is less of an enlightenment and more of a full stop in the forward momentum: again too much information is given in a rather pedantic way and it takes the wind from the novel’s sails, where a slow accumulation of clues might have worked far better.

Fortunately, the characters’ journey more than compensates for this problem, even though it’s hard at first to connect with the central figure of Khya: she’s so driven, so focused on her goals, that she often dangerously comes close to be an overbearing zealot – her desire to see Yorri excel and join her in the advisors’ inner circle carries her like a bulldozer over her younger brother’s eventual aspirations, never once taking into account that he might want something different.  She loves him deeply, and yet she does not know him, not fully: indeed the discovery of Yorri’s desire to bond with Sanii – thwarted by Sanii’s failure in the rite of passage – comes as a huge surprise, as if Khya considered Yorri’s life an appendage of her own, without needs or drives she has not contemplated.  Only loss will force Khya to look inside herself as she tries to unravel the island’s mysteries, and those observations will lead her to understand the error of her ways, to really grow both as a person and a fictional character: it’s not something you find often in YA-oriented novels, and it finally gives meaning to the coming-of-age journey that tends to be at the center of this kind of story.   In a similar manner, the romantic thread of the narrative is developed in a believable, organic way (and there’s no love triangle, which is always a plus with me…): fellow warrior Tessen could not be farthest from Khya’s interest – they have known each other since childhood, but she resents him because she believes he stole from her the opportunity of advancement in the nyshin ranks. Khya’s wariness gives slowly way to growing trust when Tessen proves time and again his reliability and steadfastness, creating a slow-burn romantic entanglement that does not take over the story proper, but instead offers a nice counterpoint that is never overdone.

Despite a few objections, I rather enjoyed Island of Exiles, and it’s my hope that the “wrinkles” I encountered might be straightened out in the next installments: the story, and its future developments, are indeed worth keeping the faith.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: SOUL OF THE WORLD (Ascension Cycle #1), by David Mealing

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

Books have a mysterious way of catching my attention, and Soul of the World was no exception: something in the cover kept drawing my eye, and the catchphrase on it – Three Must Fight, Three Must Die, Three Must Rise – added to my curiosity.  What little synopsis was there was also quite intriguing, promising a world on the brink of both war and change, while unrest and social troubles are running rampant.  How could I resist?

The world described here feels almost like an alternate timeline: the colony of New Sarresant has an inescapable New World flavor, although the dominant culture from the continent of origin is French rather than British, and what seems like a mirror of the French Revolution era is also mixed with the seeds of civil war against the Gand southern invaders.  In the northern reaches of the continent dwell primitive tribes not unlike Native Americans, in a land where dangerous predators roam free and are kept away from the colonized lands through a sort of magical barrier that keeps them confined.

Yes, the magic: there are many forms of magic in this world, and although at times they can seem overwhelmingly convoluted, they remain downright fascinating: from the animistic kind of the tribes, whose shamans and Guardians can take the powers from slain beasts and employ them at need, to the elemental magic of the colonists, tied to the leylines and manifesting in paranormal-like powers that can go from the ability to hide oneself from sight to the gift of taking over another’s consciousness over vast distances.

The story unfolds from the perspective of three points of view (again the number three coming to the fore…): young Sarine is an orphan surviving in the poverty-stricken Maw district by selling the sketches of the nobility she draws by observing their fetes unseen; Sarine however hides a secret, that of her invisible companion (or should I say ‘familiar’?) Zi, a creature that seems to enhance her ability to tap the leylines, so that her powers will soon become pivotal in the growing unrest that’s bound to end into all-out war.  Erris D’Arrent is a career military trained in the use of leyline magic and driven by the need to excel in spite of her lowly origins: she will find herself in the position of doing much more than that as the situation escalates and dangers besiege New Sarresant from many sides.  And lastly Arak’Jur, Guardian of the Sinari: a man gifted with deep understanding of his world who finds himself faced with challenges that seem too big, yet never shies away from doing his duty to the people he’s committed to.

This choice of alternating chapters between these three points of view keeps the story flowing at a good pace, despite what looked to me like a slow beginning: I understand now how the author was building the background and the events at the core of the story with a leisurely pace, giving readers the time to acclimate themselves with a world that’s very complex and multi-layered, but still I admit that at first I asked myself several times where all those scattered breadcrumbs were going to lead.  I’m very glad that I persevered though, because at some point those threads coalesced into an organic whole, the story literally taking flight and never slowing down again.

As for the characters, Sarine looked from the start the most interesting one, and the one who was easier to grow attached to: she is both a protagonist and our eye into New Sarresant’s society, so that through her we learn the hows and whys of this world and about the huge chasm between the nobility and the commoners, one that parallels the situation that gave rise to the French Revolution in our real world.

[…] watching the nobles eating, laughing and playing at their games when half the city couldn’t be certain where they’d find tomorrow’s meals. This was supposed to be a land of promise, a land of freedom and purpose – a new World.

Sarine is strong, determined and possesses a reservoir of bravery that comes out in the most unexpected moments, one that never takes into account the possible consequences that might befell her: hers is not the unthinking courage of the foolish, but the strength of the selfless hero, and that’s one of the reasons why she takes so little time to worm her way into our hearts.   

Erris is an equally fascinating character, what with her need to rise through the ranks and distance herself from her humble origins as a form of vindication: because of my recent re-read of Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, it was easy to draw a parallel between Erris and Field Marshal Tamas, which endeared her to me all the more, particularly when she entertains this kind of thought:

All her career she’d served in an army of lions led by dogs, made to bark and yip for the sake of fools. In the moment she felt no better, but she knew they saw in her a lion. For their sake, for New Sarresant, she could roar, and go into defeat with pride.

Erris’ point of view is however somewhat marred by the abundant use of military tactics – necessary in consideration of her chosen profession, but of little interest to me – and that spoiled a little my appreciation for her journey, but not enough to make me lose interest in it.  The character that took me more time to truly appreciate was that of Arak’Jur: at first he appeared like a good man through and through, and I like to see some darkness in a character’s psychological makeup, so that at first his chapters were those that required some effort to hold my attention.  With the progression of the story, though, I could see how he was tied to the other two main figures and once again the “power of the three” managed to draw me in as soon as the unfolding events reached their peak and Arak’Jur’s true strengths came to the fore.

Strong characters and the increasing pace of the story make this novel a compelling read, one that’s all the more extraordinary since it’s a debut work: rarely I encountered such a level of narrative control and sophistication in a first novel, and if you consider that this is just the introduction to this world, with much more to come in the next installments, you can appreciate the author’s daring and his skills in handling such a complex, multi-layered tapestry.

I’m already looking forward to seeing how this will move forward…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: RAT CATCHER, by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s  October Daye novels are by far my favorite UF series, both for the fascinating juxtaposition of the fae realms with our own world and for the amazing characters moving through both. And if protagonist October is a joy to read as her journey continues through the series, there are some other characters I’ve come to deeply care about, the foremost being Tybalt, King of Cats.  So imagine my delighted surprise when, scanning the stories on offer at LightSpeed Magazine, I came across this one, where Tybalt is the absolute star: the opportunity to learn more about him and his past is not one to be passed by, indeed. Because, you know… TYBALT!   🙂

So here it is:

 

RAT CATCHER, by Seanan McGuire

(click on the link above to read the story)

 

It’s the Year of the Lord 1666 in London, and Rand – the one who will later be known as Tybalt – is summoned by his father, the King of Cats, to attend a convocation at the Fae court of Londinium, to hear some important news. In fact, it will turn out to be a prophecy by the Roane, who have foreseen the burning of the city (the great fire that ravaged London in the September of that year) and urge the fae of Londinium to leave the place, or risk perishing in the flames.    Rand’s father Ainmire, though, is not willing to listen – mostly because he feels that the Court of Cats unattended might undermine his power, a power he holds on to not through wisdom and strength, but with ferocious, stubborn cruelty: as a King of Cats, he rules through fear and intimidation, and does not care about the consequences that might befell his subjects.

This story, besides showing the kind of person Tybalt used to be, helps us understand the kind of King (and person) he is in present times, and how his strength as a King of Cats comes from the respect he earned from his people: this younger version of Tybalt is something of a dreamer, someone who enjoys watching acting troupes perform the works of Shakespeare, someone who feels an affinity for humans that will carry on though the centuries and inform his attitude toward mortals and changelings alike.  One of the best moments of the story is the one where he bids goodbye – in cat form – to those actors, who have somehow adopted him as the theater’s resident feline: there is a depth of feeling in there that says a great deal about how Rand/Tybalt sees his life as a prince in the Court of Cats: “these men, who had never exchanged a word with me and knew nothing of my place or station . . . these men were some of the truest friends I had ever known.”

Another fascinating element is Rand’s growing confidence with the Shadow Roads, the dark, cold spaces between worlds that act as shortcuts for longer distances: in the series, we see Tybalt as a master of these dangerous by-ways, but it was not always so, and here he struggles with his lack of knowledge and resistance, sometimes coming within an inch of his life before reaching a destination, that more often than not is purely random. There is an interesting observation he makes at some point that again says a great deal about the individual he will become: “for the first time, the shadows did not fight me. I had faced them without fear, fought through them to a chosen destination, and now, at last, they conceded my authority”.

This is a beautiful, if cruel, story and one of the best (if not THE best) I’ve read among the corner-filling tales in the October Daye universe: for that alone it’s worth reading, but it takes a special value if you are a Tybalt fan – and in my experience, every reader of this series is a Tybalt fan….

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: KINGS OF THE WYLD, by Nicholas Eames (The Band #1)

The first time I heard about this book, it sounded intriguingly different from the usual fantasy settings, and when reviews started to appear from fellow bloggers whose judgement I trust, I knew I had to read Kings of the Wyld as soon as possible.

The deciding factor was a visit to the author’s site, where I saw a map of his imagined world: maps always fascinate me, and they help me visualize the place where the story unfolds.  This particular map caught my attention because it looked similar in style to the ones you can find in many editions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and when I discovered, in the text just below the image, how much the author loves the Professor’s work, I knew I was in the right place.

The story is a quite straightforward quest: Clay, Gabriel, Matrick, Moog and Ganelon were famous mercenaries whose band, Saga, reached unsurpassed heights of fame and glory. As the story starts, some twenty years after they split the band and went their separate ways, forging new lives for themselves, Clay Cooper seems to be the one who is better off: he has a wife and a young daughter and if his work on the city watch in the small village of Coverdale is neither glamorous nor exciting, Clay feels reasonably happy.  The bubble is shattered by the arrival of his old friend Gabriel, seeking help: Gabe’s daughter, Rose, has embraced her father’s lifestyle and become a mercenary and is now in besieged Castia, where a host of creatures from the Wyld tries to break this last bastion of resistance against a monster invasion.   Gabriel begs Clay to help him reconnect with the rest of the band and save his daughter: the plan seems hopeless, but a friend is a friend, and Clay decides to go with Gabriel, if nothing else for old times’ sake.

What starts at this point is an amazing romp through a bizarre land where strange creatures – some sentient, some… well, less so – share space with humans, who range from peaceful villagers to highwaymen (and women!) and adventurers. As Clay and Gabriel seek to hook up with the other members of Saga, we learn more about this world and, more important, about the past that the group of friends shared. And how I loved meeting each of the former band members!  What I most appreciated in their creation is that the outward appearance, be it Matrick’s boisterous drunkenness, or Moog’s inventive absentmindedness, just to quote two examples, always hides some personal pain or tragedy, and shows how Saga’s back history is not just one of brave fights and epic adventures, but also one in which darkness has its place and left its mark.

This balance is mirrored in the whole narrative, where a fine vein of humor runs throughout the story, in a seamless blend that supports the equally balanced pace of the novel: humor is a difficult beast to handle, and there’s always the danger of it working against the story – either because it falls flat on its face, or because there is too much of it, and it stops being funny.  Kings of the Wyld finds – and maintains throughout – the perfect formula, and that confers the novel the special quality that makes it such an enjoyable read.

The other lynchpin on which the story hinges is the relationship between the characters: there is a great deal of history binding these five men, not just shared glory and adventures, but also some betrayals and a few instances of petty behavior, and the beauty of it is that these men honestly acknowledge it all, and are able to move past it, because what really matters is the bond they created over the years, that same bond that compels Clay to leave home and family to save his friend’s daughter; or Ganelon to forgive his mates for abandoning him to his fate when he was convicted of murder and sentenced to be turned to stone as punishment.  Saving Rose from Castia’s siege is the outward reason for recreating the band, but the one coming from inside is their sheer joy in being together again, reconnecting with their past as they reconnect with each other.  And that’s a delightful thing to behold, indeed.

As the re-formed band of Saga moves toward Castia – with great difficulty, granted, given that they encounter many obstacles (some of them amusingly preposterous) – the readers discover places, peoples and bizarre creatures that speak of an amazingly inventive imagination: from friendly cannibals to deadly beasts, passing through an animated door knocker talking with a lisp (or course, since it’s holding the brass ring in its mouth…), the world Nicholas Eames created is one that’s full of wonders, dangers and fun, and this last comes up in the most unexpected moments and unlikely places, often offering delightful “easter eggs” for the discerning reader. As an example I’d like to quote a brief passage about a kobold (a sort of ratlike creature) that Saga meets at some point, and in particular about its lair:

“It was a kobold’s hovel, and that meant shithole.”

This call-back to The Hobbit is only one of the many enjoyable tongue-in-cheek references spread throughout the book (and I’m certain I missed a few!) and contributing to its overall mood, together with some wonderful characterizations that enrich the story with depth and feeling: among them I need to point out Jain and her Silk Arrows, a band of female robbers who manage to relieve Clay and Gabriel of their possessions not once, but twice, with an easy matter-of-factness that would make Robin Hood and his Merry Men hide in shame.  Or bounty hunter and paid killer Larkspur, a dark lady indeed from head to toe to feather points, who proves to be an interesting – and surprising – antagonist for a good portion of the novel. Or again the ettin, the humanoid creature gifted with two heads who delivers an interesting counterpoint to the humor in the story: one of these weird twins is blind, and the other brightens his brother’s dark world with fictional descriptions of their surroundings that belie even the direst of circumstances, offsetting the merry-go-lucky adventures of the main characters with a deeply poignant element.

Kings of the Wyld is not just an amazing find, it’s a book that in turns entertains and makes you think, exploring in a deceptively offhand manner the meaning of relationships and the power of friendship. As the first volume of a trilogy it’s a great introduction to this world and also works as a stand-alone book, but one that leaves you wanting to know more about these characters and the background they move in.  And as a debut work it’s an incredible discovery, because it looks like the endeavor of a much more seasoned writer: as such it deserves the highest of praises.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE VALIANT, by Lesley Livingston

Since my first brush with historical fantasy I’ve discovered a genre quite suited to my tastes, not only for the kind of stories it can offer, but also because it leads me to explore in more depth any given historical period in which the novel is set.  So it was a given that I would read this one, as soon as I saw the first reviews popping up on fellow bloggers’ sites.

Fallon, the main character, is the daughter of the king of the Cantii, a fierce Celtic tribe: in a culture where women fight alongside their men, she’s training to be a warrior in her father’s army (such as it is) and to follow in the footsteps of her older sister Sorcha, who died in the battle that freed their father from his Roman captors.  On the eve of her acceptance in the king’s war band, she discovers to her dismay that her father has promised her to the leader of a neighboring tribe, the brother of the young man she just discovered herself in love with. A series of circumstances brings Fallon to be captured by slavers, brought to Rome and be sold to a female gladiators’ school, where she will be trained to fight in the arena for the delight of the crowds.

There was a lot in favor of this story, starting with the premise of female gladiators, whose existence is a relatively new discovery by the archeological community, and with the possibility of exploration of two cultures – the Celtic tribes in northern Europe and the conquest-prone Roman empire – pitted against each other.  Moreover, the book promised a fearless heroine bent on regaining her freedom, even if that meant risking life and limb in the bloody sport of a gladiatorial arena.  Sadly, it fell short on every count, at least from my point of view.

The cultural and historical background is barely sketched, and if on one hand I might understand the need to focus on plot developments, they might have worked just as well in any imagined fantasy culture as the ones we meet daily: fantasy readers don’t need a tie to any given existing culture to accept a plot such as this (a female warrior fighting for her freedom), so the scant details inserted for both civilizations seem to be there as mere lip service to the chosen background, rather than a desire to give a concrete feeling for it.  Celtic culture was more than beer-laden feasts and blue tattoos, and Roman culture was more than gladiators, purple-striped togas and political intrigue.

Along similar lines, the circumstances leading to Fallon’s capture sound rushed and contrived, less an organic chain of events and more like plot devices needed to bring her where the author wanted her – in Rome as a slave gladiator (even though there is precious little time devoted to the details of training and actual combat) – and the speed at which everything happens kept me somewhat removed from the overall story, and I never felt any real sense of danger or any sense of reality whatsoever.

My greatest contention, however, is with Fallon herself: throughout the novel she failed to make a connection as a character, as a person, and the almost childish impetus she employs to move through her life seemed to point at a fatal shallowness and a lack of maturity, something I would never have expected in someone with her background and experiences.  Fallon’s greatest failing as a character, in my opinion, is the huge dichotomy between her statements about being a trained warrior and the constant need to be saved from unpleasant situations.

A few examples? Back in her house, after she’s been informed she will be married off to her love interest’s brother, she peevishly throws all adornments into a brazier, including her knife, so when her prospective husband comes in, somewhat drunk and with amorous intentions, she is powerless to defend herself and the impasse is solved by the lucky arrival of her almost-boyfriend.  On the slaver ship headed toward Rome, Fallon becomes the object of unwanted attentions from a crewman, and of course she’s saved, once more, by slave master Charon. And again, once in Rome and on her way to become a gladiatrix, she sneaks to a party in a patrician villa (an event that shouted “danger!” to the high heavens to everyone but her…) and finds herself in such a situation that requires her rescue by the handsome Roman decurion that has become her new love interest. If these are the marks of a fierce warrior fighting for her freedom… well, something is sorely missing.

As if that were not enough (and I will mercifully spend no words on the insta-love issues that seem a mandatory requirement in this kind of story), Fallon appears quite childish in her reactions, especially concerning a particular discovery I can’t describe (spoiler!) that should have made her ecstatic with joy and instead plunges her into new depths of petulance, that to me appeared quite uncalled for, given both past and present circumstances. In a possible attempt at balancing out this querulousness, we are told about her surges of sisterhood feelings for her fellow gladiatrices, for example, sentiments that seem to come out of nowhere since the only true friend Fallon makes along the way is fellow captive Elka, while in several cases she seems to ignore even the names of some of the other girls in the training school, identifying them with the animals depicted on their shields rather that with their names.  A main character should be someone we root for, someone we establish a connection with, but sadly Fallon did not come even near that goal for me.

Even though I’m honest enough to understand that most of my objections stem from the fact I’m a crusty old curmudgeon  🙂 there is the fact of the huge divide between the premise of this story and the actual delivery of it, between the promise of a certain kind of character and the disappointment about what I encountered.  The Valiant is not a bad book, not at all, but even as “popcorn entertainment” it fails to meet some of the criteria I look for in a story I want to care for, and I can sum it up as a missed opportunity.

 

My Rating: