Reviews

CIRCE, by Madeline Miller – #Wyrdandwonder

My old love of the classics and my fascination with Greek myths found new enthusiasm thanks to this book which offers a new perspective on the figure of Circe, or rather gives a convincing background for the deeds she is most known for.  Daughter of the sun god Helios and the naiad Perse, she was the object of disdain among the other gods and goddesses because of her plain looks and human-sounding voice: her parents themselves favored her other siblings over her, condemning Circe to a life on the margins of such exalted company.

At first we see Circe as the proverbial wallflower, trying to fit in among her peers but always being the loner, but little by little a form of defiance comes to the surface, first by offering comfort to a tortured Prometeus, guilty of having gifted humanity with fire, and then by discovering and wielding her magical skills, for which she is banished forever to the island of Aiaia to live in perpetual solitude. And yet this is the moment when Circe truly starts to thrive, turning loneliness into the exercise of utter freedom and the chance to learn the herb lore and incantations for which she will become known. And to be her own woman, one who will ultimately be able to stand up to the gods, like mighty Athena, because Circe’s power is something gained through willpower and application and not something unthinkingly given at birth and taken for granted.

Myths have taught us that the gods of the Greek pantheon were fickle and cruel creatures, whose favorite pastime was to drive mortal men toward conflict or to seduce mortal women, but the gods portrayed in Circe go way beyond the depiction of legends and show all their heartless cruelty and mockery for humankind – or for their own kind when perceived as weak.  Distance offers Circe this kind of understanding, the ability to see beyond the projected aura of glory and to find these beings wanting and ultimately contemptible, as she does when considering her own father’s attitude:

So many years I had spent as a child sifting his bright features for his thoughts, trying to glimpse among them one that bore my name. But he was a harp with one string, and the note it played was himself.

Circe’s banishment will not keep her isolated forever, though, and the story shows her meeting many of the figures of legend that have become household names, like Daedalus or Medea or Odysseus, whose sojourn on the island will mark a huge turning point for her growth as an individual. But before that happens, Circe will go through some harrowing experiences that will shape her into the figure passed on by myth: her infamous ability of transforming men into pigs has its roots into her gift of altering people by bringing their true nature to the surface – just as she did in the past by turning the cruel naiad Scylla into the monster of legend. The group of shipwrecked sailors Circe welcomes into her home first thank her for the help, but then they start to ask about “the man of the house”, so to speak, demanding to know where her husband, or father or brothers might be: learning she is alone they proceed to have their way with her, because the lack of male authority or protection just robbed her of any consideration or respect. When she retaliates by transforming them into pigs, she is just bringing their true nature to the surface.

By observing Circe’s myth from this angle – which some might define feminist – the author wants to offer a new point of view on these female figures from mythology, understanding that their portrayal has been constantly filtered through a male perspective, where women’s agency was seen as something dangerous: painting them as witches, monsters, or simply femmes fatales who instigated wars and ruin, must have been a way of giving a “safe” context to such exercises of freedom. Again Circe’s considerations come into play when she says that “humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets”, in a clear reference to the way Homer described her and others like her, by showing them as a danger to be overcome, an enemy to be brought down.

Here Circe’s dealings with Odysseus, during his long stay on Aiaia, stand on an equal footing – not the total submission sung by Homer – and although she comes to love him, she is never blind to his shortcomings or to the fact that love does not entail ownership – something she will learn the hard, painful way with their son, Telegonus. Motherhood is indeed the ultimate growth factor in Circe’s emotional and personal journey, because she finds herself dealing with a totally new experience without outside help or previous knowledge: her strength is put to the test through sleepless nights and fears for the child’s safety, concerns that any mother will certainly be able to relate to, as they will with the selfless dedication that brings her to create a magical shield over the island to keep him safe, one that exhausts her and yet is never acknowledged as such:

For sixteen years I had been holding up the sky, and he had not noticed.

In the end, Circe’s exile does not only separate her physically from her godlike peers and the toxic influence of the realm where she grew up, it distances her from their inability to grow through experience, or even suffering: such is the destiny of mortals, however, and in the end it’s through mortality that she achieves a sense of her own worth and of her place in the world. Madeline Miller’s novel did create a magnificent character out of the myth, and one that feels not only relatable but also real, the protagonist of a poignantly emotional journey.

My Rating:

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Reviews

THE GAME OF THRONES BOOK TAG – #Wyrdandwonder

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I found this delightful tag on this treasure trove of ideas, and immediately thought that it would be perfect for Wyrd & Wonder: listing fantasy books with a connection to the ruling families of another fantasy saga sounded like the kind of challenge I enjoy, so here we go…

HOUSE LANNISTER: “HEAR ME ROAR!”

Name a book you were certain you would love, but later realized that it wasn’t so great after all.

Besieged by Rowena Cory Daniells

There were many details in this book that I fond intriguing – the complex world divided into three races which gave rise to a layered society, the complex politics and the foreshadowing of a possible bloody conflict on the horizon – but at some point the writing became somewhat sloppy and despite my curiosity to see where the story would lead, I never felt compelled to move forward with the series.

HOUSE STARK: “WINTER IS COMING”

Name your most anticipated book release for 2021

The Wisdom of Crowds (Age of Madness #3) by Joe Abercrombie

Take the First Law world, add a layer of industrial revolution and a number of new players vying for power and concocting complex plots, and you have a winning combination: if I were not already a staunch fan of Joe Abercrombie, this series would have turned me into one, and the final book in this series cannot be published soon enough for me…

HOUSE TARGARYEN: “FIRE AND BLOOD”

Name a book that you felt completely slayed with fantastic characters, plot, pacing, etc.

The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

It took only one book to appreciate John Gwynne’s amazing storytelling, but with this first book in his new series he managed to surpass himself – and that’s no mean feat from where I stand. A world inspired by Norse myths and peopled with strong, intriguing characters embroiled in a multi-layered quest that held my spellbound attention from start to finish. Probably one of the best books I’ve read this year, and we’re not at the midpoint of it yet!

HOUSE BARATHEON: “OURS IS THE FURY”

Name a book that ended with a cliffhanger ending that genuinely pissed you off

The Wicked King by Holly Black

Much as I enjoyed Holly Black’s series The Folk of the Air, the way she closed this second book in the saga, playing a terrible “prank” on her main character and leaving me – as well as other readers, I’m sure, stranded and unsure of what would happen next, was NOT appreciated at all. The trilogy ended in a satisfactory way, granted, but still, the sting of this cliffhanger has left its mark…

HOUSE MARTELL: “UNBOWED, UNBENT, UNBROKEN”

Name a book, or book series, that’s been on your TBR since the dawn of time

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Yes, ok, sue me: I must be one of the two or three people who still has to read anything by the highly acclaimed Brandon Sanderson. Should I hire a defense lawyer? 😉

HOUSE BOLTON: “OUR BLADES ARE SHARP”

Name the most graphic or disturbing book that you’ve ever read

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

This book was my introduction to the tragedy of the Donner Party: despite the horror of what happened to the colonists headed toward California and stranded in the Sierra Nevada during a particularly harsh winter, what I found most distressing was the way in which events drove people to forget much of their moral behavior, showing that civilization is indeed a very thin, easily removed veneer.

HOUSE TYRELL: GROWING STRONG

Name a book, or book series, that gets better and better with every re-read (or by simple recollection of its story…)

Well, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would be the obvious answer for me, so I chose to look elsewhere – if nothing else because I’ve mentioned this book far too often… Once upon a time I would have named GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, but the ever-lengthening waits between books has considerably cooled my enthusiasm for this series so, after long consideration – there is a LOT of great book/series I recall with great fondness – I’ve decided to name

Juliet Marillier’s Blackthorn and Grim

a story that will always hold a special place in my heart. 

ASOIAF fans, what are the Game of Thrones books in your bookcase? 😉

Reviews

BLACK SUN (Between Earth and Sky #1), by Rebecca Roanhorse – #Wyrdandwonder

Thanks to the previous two books I read by Rebecca Roanhorse, both part of her Sixth World series, I had come to expect a good, absorbing story from her newest work, but Black Sun proved to be so much more than I had anticipated and it took me completely by surprise. An enthralling, delightful surprise.  Set in a world that takes inspiration from pre-colombian cultures and then adds many original details, combining them into a fascinating, complex background, Black Sun follows the journey of four main characters destined to converge in the city of Tova on a very special day, as yearly festivities and an ominous prophecy will merge with unpredictable results.

Xiala is a mercenary sea captain and a Teek, which means she comes from a matriarchal seafaring society from which she was exiled after a tragic event: imprisoned after a violent altercation with her former employer and a drunken night on the town, she is released after accepting to transport a young man to the city of Tova in time for Convergence, the winter solstice that this year will also see the alignment of Earth, Sun and Moon. The passenger is Serapio, molded from infancy to be the vessel of a vengeful god and for this reason deeply scarred and blinded – but not helpless, not at all.  Naranpa is the highest priest in the city of Tova, but her role is in constant jeopardy because of the inner political maneuvers inside the priesthood, and their inability to accept her humble origins. And then there is Okoa, son of the Carrion Crow clan’s matron: back in Tova from the military academy, he finds himself dealing with family problems and uneasy alliances.

The novel unfolds through time jumps that don’t feel at all confusing as they are wielded with great skill and keep adding new information to the very complex tapestry that is this story: seeing this world through the different points of view also confers great depth to it and its history, turning it into a vivid, three-dimensional creation that is very easy to slip into, just as it’s difficult to move out of, because it tends to entangle you into its awesome complexity. Moreover, the time jumps keep enhancing the sense of impending doom that becomes more and more palpable as the day of Convergence draws near.

The setting is indeed fascinating, not just because of the different locations visited as the characters engage in their travels, but because it’s created through a blend of vivid descriptions and fascinating legends that shape the world into something tangible and vibrant, gifted with a definite cinematic quality. If this is true for all descriptions in the novel, it is even more so where the city of Tova is concerned: a place of high peaks and deep chasms spanned by aerial bridges that can give you vertigo by proxy, a city teeming with life and at the same time rife with the danger of death, a death that can come through accidents – like slipping down an icy bridge into a bottomless ravine – or through malice – like being killed by a hired assassin or the member of a rival clan.  There is a definite sense of urgency in Tovan day-to-day activities, be they the comfortable kind enjoyed by the elite or the hand-to-mouth existence of the dwellers in the Maw, the lowest level of the city where poverty, crime and the offer of illicit pleasures are a way of life. It does not take long for the reader to perceive that Tova is like a pressure cooker ready to explode, that social strain and the priesthood’s iron rule and inner conflicts, together with never-ending clan rivalries, are bringing that pressure to the boiling point: add to that the long-held thirst for revenge harbored by Carrion Crow for the Night of Knives, when the priesthood tried to exterminate the clan, and you know it’s all fated to end in blood.

In this tense but intriguing situation the characters shine and add a further level of allure to the story, even though Okoa is mostly kept on the sidelines in favor of the other three, with some hope he will play a bigger role as the story moves forward. Naranpa is the one who required more time for me to truly appreciate her, but I guess it was mostly because I was still orienting myself in this world: once I got to know her better I could only admire her tenacity in clinging to her exalted post, despite her own self-doubts and the insecurities carried over from an impoverished childhood. Nara, as she’s often called, does not care so much for power in itself or for politics, but rather for the good of the city: she understands that to bring peace and prosperity to Tova things have to change, and for that she is challenged every step of the way by her fellow priests, when she is not actually threatened with death. Nara’s journey throughout Black Sun is a hard one, and while many times I felt frustrated in witnessing the obstacles she had to face, I cannot wait to see what Rebecca Roanhorse has in store for her along the way.

If Nara is an outsider with little chances of ever blending in, Xiala and Serapio are just as isolated, even though in different ways. I liked Xiala from the very beginning: her personality is a mix of defiance and vulnerability, accentuated by the way people relate to her as a Teek, a woman whose mysterious Song can placate stormy waters, call favorable winds and keep at bay dangerous creatures. For this reason Teeks are highly sought after, but at the same time despised and feared, and even killed for their precious bones gifted with magical properties: all this comes to the fore in the course of the sea voyage to Tova, when Xiala shows a very peculiar talent and the crew mutinies out of fear.  It’s therefore not surprising when she forms a bond with Serapio, an outcast like herself, and that they can understand each other on a deeper level, as shown by the exchange of stories and myths during the long nights over the sea.

Serapio might very well be the central character here, a sort of anti-hero who is at the same time powerful and vulnerable: shaped from childhood to be an instrument of vengeance, leading a loveless life as he was being molded into the desired weapon, he nonetheless shows a form of quiet humanity, a sort of sad gentleness that managed to break my heart, particularly when he contemplates what will be his ultimate destiny, 

[he] hoped that the pain would not be too great. He had made friends with it, yes, but it was a wary friendship.

a destiny he did not choose himself but at the same time one he has accepted as the only possible one. The author describes his journey in such a way that even as he fulfills his preordained role in a frenzied dance of violence and blood I could not help myself and felt only pity for him.

When all is said and done, Black Sun will certainly attract you because of the exotic background that sets it apart from the usual epic fantasy offerings, but it’s through the strength and human depth of its characters that it will keep you coming back for more. 

My Rating:

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Reviews

SHADOW AND BONE SEASON 1 (Netflix series) – #Wyrdandwonder

Before embarking in the review for the first season of the series inspired by Leigh Bardugo’s trilogy I need to state that I have not read her books, so I came to this story in total ignorance of its background and characters, which makes me unable to compare the two mediums – although, from what I was able to gather on various comments online, it would seem that the translation from books to screen was reasonably faithful to the source material.  I also learned that the script is a mix between the Shadow and Bone trilogy proper and the story portrayed in the Six of Crows duology, which for me added a nice counterpoint to the core narrative (and compelled me to finally add Six of Crows to my reading queue, after leaving it to languish on my TBR for far too long).

The story, in a nutshell: the kingdom of Ravka (which bears an uncanny resemblance to Tsarist Russia from the 19th Century) is split in two by a phenomenon called the Fold, an area of turbulent darkness inhabited by the Volcra, ravenous and nightmarish creatures. The kingdom is further divided by the separation between its mundane inhabitants and the Grisha, people with the ability to manipulate elemental forces, and for this reason both feared and despised. Young Alina Starkov, an orphan serving in the military, discovers that she holds a unique power, that of summoning light – a power that might vanquish the Fold and its terrible creatures forever: for this reason Alina finds herself at the center of a power struggle whose main strings are connected to General Kirigan, also a powerful Grisha, whose goals might not be completely straightforward…

As I said, I came to this series with no previous background, and at first I was a little lost in trying to connect all the dots, particularly because there are three main narrative lines in the story: the one focused on Alina, the one following the Crows (a band of thieves looking for the heist that will make their fortune) and the one about a Grisha who’s been kidnapped by enemies of Ravka.  Once I got my bearings however, I was able to enjoy the story and get invested in it, although I have to admit that sometimes it felt as if the viewers were forced to bite off more than they could chew: my lack of knowledge of the books series played a part in this, of course, but I had the impression that a couple more episodes, besides the eight slated for this first season, might have given the narrative more room to breathe.  The crowded storylines, while offering the possibility of moving across Ravka with the change of POW and therefore exploring the setting in its different locations, left little room to truly grow attached to the characters who seemed to me more like archetypes than living and breathing creations with which to establish the necessary emotional connection.

And indeed the archetypes abound in this first segment of the story: Alina is the classic orphan, shunned and underrated, who is later discovered as the holder of a vital power that will turn her into the proverbial Chosen One. She moves through all the required stages of… chosenhood (is that a word? 😀 ), from denial to wonder to acceptance and for most of the time she lets herself go with the flow, sometimes making ill-advised choices or trusting the wrong people, in what are the established canons of YA literature. There is also the hint of a love triangle that – to my enormous relief – did not last long, momentarily shifting Alina’s affections from her childhood friend Mal to the enigmatic General Kirigan, the Shadow Summoner.  This latter represents another YA firm staple, that of the darkly brooding character who serves as the antithesis to the shining wholesomeness of Mal, who in turn is not exempt from the expected mix of courage and willing sacrifice.

The three Crows, while following some of the genre’s criteria, appear more intriguing, mostly because we are shown only the surface of their personality and perceive that there is much more in their backgrounds worth exploring: Kaz, their leader, clearly suffered some tragedy in his past, which forced him to don a cynical protective armor; Inej is a former slave with the skills of a ninja and a powerful drive for freedom; and Jesper (my absolute favorite) is a sharp-shooter and a lovable maverick.  I liked very much how their narrative threads intersected with Alina’s and even more the fact that they might feature more prominently in the seasons to come: nothing like a good crew ready to launch into a daring heist to keep my attention focused, even more than the main events did, at times.

If the characters still need more room to grow and expand, the series’ settings are its best feature so far: from the hints about the social and racial divides at the roots of Ravkan society to the gorgeous costumes to the amazing visuals, all contribute to paint this world quite vividly and turn it into a believable reality.  The scenes alternate between the bright light of some interior settings to the outside panoramas of chilly, snowbound vistas that give way to the fearsome darkness of the Fold, in my opinion one of the best CGI creations of the series: when the characters travel through this area where thunder rumbles constantly, you are instantly assailed by the ominous sensation that something terrible is about to happen, and the choice of not fully showing the predatory Volcra, but rather offering only swift, almost subliminal glimpses of their appearance, makes them even more terrifying than a full manifestation and intensifies the sense of fear they must inspire. 

This first season of Shadow and Bone might not have been perfect, and was certainly too brief for the huge amount of information it had to deliver, but when all is said and done it shows great promise that I hope to see fulfilled in the seasons yet to come, and I’m looking forward to them with great interest.

My Rating:

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Reviews

THE SPIDER’S WAR (The Dagger and the Coin #5), by Daniel Abraham – #Wyrdandwonder

Despite my best intentions, it took me over four years to come to the conclusion of this five-book saga, mostly because other titles kept distracting me from the goal, but now that I have finally reached the end I can say it was a very engaging and very satisfying read. 

The central theme of the series, as indicated by its name, is the duality of power: exerted by armies on one side and by the laws of economy on the other, in a constantly shifting tug-of-war that in the course of the whole story sees lands ravaged by conflict and struggling to resurface from its devastation. 

As the previous book, The Widow’s House, reached its end, the army from Antea was continuing its campaign of conquest and annexation under the banner of the Spider Goddess: Geder Palliako, the former nobody risen to the position of Regent for young Antean king Aster, still trusts the counsel of priest Basrahip but at the same time is unable to deny any longer the inner turmoil that comes from the realization that Antea is dealing with a war on too many fronts, and that even the evil power of persuasion of the priests’ voices can do little for tired, overtaxed and ill-supplied soldiers.

Geder’s adversaries – Cithrin bel Sarcour and the Medan bank; former mercenary Marcus Wester; Clara Kalliam, the widow of one of Geder’s first political victims, just to name a few – are pooling their forces to try and overthrow the Antean invasion and defeat the Goddess’ masterminds. It’s a multi-pronged assault, one which sees Cithrin on one side concocting a daring scheme based on “war gold”, which is nothing more than the invention of paper currency, and Marcus on the other planning to use the last surviving dragon, Inys, to strike the final blow. Clara, for her part, plays a subtle and dangerous double game from inside the enemy’s lines as the conspirators set up a daring scheme that involves suborning Geder himself.

It’s hard to summarize a story that has been running for five books and which sees here, in its final installment, a series of twists and turns that flow into a hair-raising epilogue – one that includes a dragon breathing fire and destruction – and to say the truth, the story itself looks less important than the characters driving it: throughout the series we saw these characters change – some for the best, some for the very worst – and the focus on their struggles always held my attention more than anything else. Daniel Abraham’s characters feel like flesh-and-blood people and particularly in this last book I felt myself invested in their individual journeys and I enjoyed the author’s way of not closing neatly those journeys but rather showing that they still had a long road to travel, even though it’s not one we will be able to follow.

Marcus Wester might be the archetype of the tired warrior carrying a painful baggage from his past, and at times he looked nothing more than that, but in the end he comes across as much more through his interactions with other characters, like Master Kit, the former spider priest turned actor, or like Yardem Hane, fellow soldier and laconic “conscience” whose sparsely worded replies have been a constant source of delightful humor throughout the story. Wester’s steadfastness is one of the rocks on which Cithrin’s growth can stand: from scared girl saddled with an important assignment to confident banker able to make or break the destinies of a country, Cithrin is the coin to Wester’s dagger, just as their dealings are the representation of the series’ dual view of the world.

My sympathies, however, have mostly focused on Clara Kalliam: I’ve been fascinated with her character from her appearance in the first book, and her elevation to POV figure made me quite happy because this lady is one of the players who enjoys the best focus in the course of the saga. At the start of her story-arc she is the accomplished wife and mother, the quiet, unassuming strength behind her husband’s power, and she fully comes to her real potential only by passing through the fire of tragedy and loss: far from diminishing her, the downfall allows her to shed the chains of convention and to play different roles – behind-the-scenes politician, revolutionary, spy – all the while hiding behind the masks of court socialite or frail old woman, and setting in motion many of the events that ultimately change the course of history.

The theme of roleplaying is indeed a recurrent one in The Dagger and the Coin: although some real actors are actual characters in the story, and their leader Master Kit is quite proficient at hiding in plain sight, everyone sooner or later must play a role – or many – and not just Clara. Cithrin starts by pretending to be older and more accomplished than she is, and then goes on affecting a brash certainty she does not possess; Marcus Wester charms Inys by feigning submission, and so on. In this world where the Goddess’ priests are able to detect lies, deception requires subtlety and often means walking on a tightrope over the abyss…

And then there is Geder: I don’t remember changing my mind about a fictional character as much as I did for Geder – where at first he elicited my sympathies, given how he started his journey as the proverbial fish out of water, his personality took some unexpected directions that made him loathsome. If he had simply turned into a villain, it would have been easy to hate him outright, but even when he is responsible for the worst atrocities, he finds a way to justify those choices as necessary and unavoidable, showing that he is as much a victim of circumstances as he is their enabler – a willing pawn, granted, but one who clearly enjoys the better consequences of those choices….  Here in The Spider’s War he goes way overboard, burning away any remaining dregs of pity I might have harbored because of his past: his desire for recognition, for respect, and the price he’s ready to pay to get them, turned him into a monster – a bumbling, insecure and troubled one, true, but still a monster. And for this very reason the way his narrative journey ends does not feel completely believable: I can’t say much about it because I want to avoid spoilers, but to me what happens does not have the “flavor” of an organic development.

This dissonance, and the way the ending winds down – almost with the proverbial whimper instead of the expected “bang” – are the reasons I can’t rate this final book as high as its predecessors, although I still consider The Dagger and the Coin one of the best fantasy series I have read so far, and Daniel Abraham as a very, very accomplished author.

My Rating:

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Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Wyrd & Wonder Edition – #Wyrdandwonder

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point, ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday (created and hosted by  The Broke and Bookish) is now being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here.  This week’s topic concerned the ten most recent reads – possibly with a one-line comment about the story – and I decided to adapt it for Wyrd & Wonder, showcasing the ten fantasy books I most enjoyed in the past few months.

THE SHADOW OF THE GODS, by John Gwynne

A breath-taking story of loyalty and courage in a fascinating Norse setting.

THE FALL OF KOLI, by M.R. Carey

The poignant end to a coming of age story and journey of discovery in a post-apocalyptic world.

BEST SERVED COLD, by Joe Abercrombie

Revenge does not warm your heart and it steals your soul, but makes for a gripping story…

THE MASK OF MIRRORS, by M.A. Carrick

Adventure and treachery, conspiracies and politics – and a city steeped in magic.

CALL OF THE BONE SHIPS, by R.J. Barker

Sailing ships made of dragon bones, avian windcallers and crews you come to love and care for.

HOW TO RULE AND EMPIRE AND GET AWAY WITH IT, by K.J. Parker

From mediocre playwright to city ruler: sometimes destiny has a strange sense of humor…

THE OBSIDIAN TOWER, by Melissa Caruso

Her touch is death, but her heart is in the right place, and friends can make a huge difference.

FOUNDRYSIDE, by Robert Jackson Bennett

A ninja-like thief and a talking key for a once-in-a-lifetime heist.

MOONTANGLED, by Stephanie Burgis

Another adventure in the alternate England where women rule and man practice magic – but not always.

BLOOD OF EMPIRE, by Brian McClellan

The last (?) book about the Powder Mages: a bittersweet goodbye to a great saga.

Reviews

THE SHADOW OF THE GODS (The Bloodsworn Saga #1), by John Gwynne

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

A Time of Dread was the book that helped me discover author John Gwynne, that first book in the amazing Of Blood and Bone trilogy then leading me to retrace his narrative path with the previous series The Faithful and the Fallen, of which I still have two books to explore. When this new work was announced I was beyond eager to see where Mr. Gwynne would take us next and also certain that I would enjoy this story as I did the other ones: well, The Shadow of the Gods managed not only to surpass my expectations, it even outclassed his other novels I read so far – and they were already outstanding works in their own rights! 

This will be a spoiler-free review, because I was fortunate enough to read the e-ARC some time before the expected publication, and I don’t want to deprive potential readers of the sheer joy of discovering this amazing story on their own. Still, I can talk freely about this extraordinary world and the awesome characters peopling it, to give you an idea of the breath-taking journey that’s in store for you. Since the Bloodsworn Saga is based on Norse lore and mythology, I had an advantage thanks to my recent experience with the TV series Vikings, being already familiar with some of the terms and above all with the appearance of the characters, so it was easy for me to picture people and backgrounds and I felt at home practically from page one.

The land of Vigrid was once dominated by the gods, who wrecked the world in the war they waged against each other: in the new world born out of the ashes of the old one, the bones of the dead gods hold special power and are therefore much sought after by overlords seeking to extend their dominions. There are monsters as well in Vigrid, called vaesen and lying in wait for the unwary traveller or trying to attack unprotected homesteads – and then there are the Tainted, humans in whose veins runs some of the gods’ blood, gifting them with special powers: they are either hunted down like animals, or captured, enslaved and exploited.  

Three are the main characters of the story: Orka, once a renowned warrior and now making her living as a huntress, together with her husband and young child; Varg, a former thrall (slave) on the run from his old master and driven by the need to avenge the death of his sister; and Elvar, the daughter of a powerful jarl, who renounced a life of privilege to join the warband of the Battle-Grim, in search of fame and glory. I was certain that these three separate threads would converge sooner or later, since there seems to be something brewing in the world, something sinister that starts with brutal attacks on isolated homesteads and the kidnapping of young children, so that Orka’s search for her own stolen child slowly but surely moves toward the meeting with the Bloodsworn – the warband in which Varg has been accepted and that took on a perilous but well-paid assignment – and probably with the Battle-Grim, whose need for wealth has taken them toward the most dangerous, monster-infested part of the world. The Shadow of the Gods is but the prelude to what promises to be an engrossing story, and reaching the last page left me eager to see where this amazing new saga would take me next.

John Gwynne’s novels always achieve a well-balanced mix between plot and characterization – one of the reasons they always prove so satisfying – and this new work is a case in point: as the characters engage in their individual journeys we are made familiar with the land of Vigrid and with its history, we are presented with wide plains and rocky expanses, with river marshes and frigid tundra, and we feel as if we shared the characters’ paths and the difficulties they entail. We are also able to visit a city built inside the huge skeleton of a fallen god, a place of constant twilight that made me feel quite uneasy (and with good reason…), and then we travel by sea, sharing the effort of warriors who lay down their weapons for a while to take up the oars and guide their ship through perilous seas. There is a constant cinematic aspect to the descriptions here that makes the storytelling vivid and three-dimensional, without losing the “fireside tale” quality that for me has become the author’s trademark. And of course I can’t forget the battles: with John Gwynne’s novels I never skip the description of battles because they are realistically detailed and – no matter the brutality of the clash – always dramatically fascinating.

But of course, even in this stunning background, the characters are the elements that make these stories truly shine, and in The Shadow of the Gods both main and secondary ones are responsible for breathing memorable life into the novel.  I needed some time to warm up to Orka at first, mostly because she comes across as somewhat harsh and demanding in her dealings with her son, while her husband looks like the softer one of the two. But once Orka’s mother instinct is put to the test, it’s easy to understand how her apparent sternness is only a means of steeling young Breca against the world’s dangers, and her determination and ferociousness in rescuing him from his kidnappers are as white-hot as her love for him.   Elvar, on the other hand, looks like she’s still evolving and trying to find her destiny: refusing to be used as a pawn in her powerful father’s political dealings, she choose to join a warband as a form of freedom and rebellion at the same time: what she’s still learning is that, no matter what one’s life choices are, there is always a price to pay for them. And finally Varg, who like Orka is desperately trying to fulfill an oath: his life as a slave has been a harsh, lonely one, and the loss of his sister – the only person he could trust – has turned him into a haunted, mistrustful person, to the point that the most difficult task he faces with the Bloodsworn is to accept friendship and camaraderie, truly a heart-breaking side of his character, and one that offers some poignant insights once he starts to fraternize with his new companions.

The beauty of these characters is that they are all inherently flawed and probably not “hero material” in the usual meaning of the term, but I have come to care deeply for them (and particularly for Orka and Varg) because they are driven by the strength of their love for friends and family, and because they have the ability to create a bond – as strong as the one of blood – with the people they live and fight with. This is one of the themes at the core of John Gwynne’s novels, the backbone of loyalty and devotion that can bind individuals tied by a common goal, and here it’s present in a superbly gritty and emotional form. It might be a little early to say that his might be my best read for 2021, but I’m not sure I will find others capable to bring out the immersive delight I experienced with The Shadow of the Gods – and this is only the beginning of the whole story…

My Rating:

Reviews

BEST SERVED COLD (First Law #4), by Joe Abercrombie

While I’m not in the habit of re-reading books – mostly because book blogging and a huge TBR compel me to look forward rather than back –  I decided to make an exception for this first stand-alone novel in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series: back in 2011 Best Served Cold was my introduction to this author and to the concept of grimdark fantasy (and although I enjoyed it, it took me an unfortunate long time before I read the three books that precede this one) and what this re-read taught me is that, apart from the core concept of the novel, I had practically forgotten the majority of narrative details, so that my drive to re-acquaint myself with the story ended up feeling like a first encounter.

Monza Murcatto and her brother Benna are the leaders of the Thousand Swords, the huge mercenary band in the employ of Duke Orso of Talins: Monza’s successful leadership contributed to Orso’s sweeping conquest of a huge part of Styria, and as the book starts the siblings are headed toward the ducal palace to report on their latest victory.  Unfortunately, Orso is alarmed by Monza’s growing popularity, and fearing a power grab from the mercenary he orders her and her brother brutally killed. Against all odds, Monza survives: broken and maimed in body and spirit, the only thing keeping her alive is her desire for revenge against Orso and the other six people present at the murder scene. Gathering a band of misfits, Monza sets out to seek and kill – in the bloodiest and cruelest way possible – these seven people, moving ever closer to Orso and laying a trail of destruction in her wake.

While the previous three novels in the First Law sequence were rife with bloodshed and violence, these elements were however balanced out with some dry humor that made things easier for the readers: here that kind of humor is overwhelmed by the savagery of the story and by Monza’s unwavering focus on revenge, a goal that ends up consuming whatever humanity she and her crew possess. Even when the plan she sets in motion should end up in a “surgical” kill, quite a number of innocent bystanders are hurt or lose their lives, and Monza’s companions are not exempt from it, as well, sometimes suffering horribly.

I have often encountered a comment about there being no journey of redemption for Abercrombie’s characters, and this is particularly true here where Monza’s single-minded focus seems to pull everyone in a downward spiral from which there is no turning back: her desire for revenge taints whatever shred of humanity her companions might possess and more often than not I considered how that desire consumed Monza from the inside, compelling her to turn the others into a mirror image of herself – a twisted interpretation of the maxim about misery wanting company…

This is particularly true for Caul Shivers, a character from the First Law trilogy: at the start of the book we see him reaching Styria from the far North, driven by the desire to become a better man, to leave violence and bloodshed behind. The reality he encounters is quite different from that rosy dream and dire circumstances force him to become Monza’s main henchman, to find himself once again drenched in blood and violence until little by little he re-discovers the savage joy of brutality for its own sake. Shivers, and not Monza, is the truly tragic figure here: not unlike his old enemy Logen Ninefingers he comes to realize that there is no running away from one’s brutal destiny and in the end he fully embraces what he had left the North to escape. His is a long road, painful in many ways – not only for the body, on account of the often grievous damage he suffers, but also for the mind, when he understands that Monza is using him like a tool, one to either be wielded as a weapon or employed for a brief moment of physical respite.

Shivers is the mirror through which Monza’s character can be observed – and judged: true, she was used and discarded (She was the spider they had to suffer in their larder to rid them of their flies. And once the flies are dealt with, who wants a spider in their salad?) and for this she wants revenge, but to obtain that revenge she becomes herself a user, one who treats her allies as she was treated and displays no qualms, no moments of reflection on the brutally selfish drive that consumes her and all those who surround her. Even the flashbacks to her previous life, showing how she became the person she is at present, do little to justify her current attitude: while other characters might strive, however briefly, toward redemption, there is no such drive in Monza, and for this reason I constantly failed to cheer for her even though I admired the author’s skill in her portrayal.

While there are other very interesting characters in this story – like the master poisoner Morveer, whose acerbic personality and complicated plots often seemed to border on the comedic; or ex-inmate Friendly, the sociopath with an almost autistic penchant for numbers and counting, the one who truly shines here is Nicomo Cosca, who made a few sporadic appearances in the previous trilogy and here manages to steal the scene every time he comes under the spotlight.  Once the leader of the Thousand Swords, he was ousted by Monza herself and became a drunkard and a wastrel: he’s the only one in the group who really seems intentioned to change his life for the better, and indeed he does – in his own way. Cosca might be unreliable and sneaky, totally untrustworthy as a true mercenary should be (Loyalty on a mercenary is like armor on a swimmer), but he’s also quite complex, showing layers upon layers that make him unpredictable and totally delightful to observe. After a while, witnessing his oh-so-easily shifting loyalties paired with a whimsical personality, I came to see him as the equivalent of another favorite character, Sand dan Glokta: the two are as different as apples and oranges, but what they share is a captivating blend of opposing traits that make them compellingly irresistible.

Best Served Cold is not however only about the characters’ journey, fascinating as it is, but also about how the consequences of an individual’s choice come to encompass a whole country: Monza’s desire for vengeance becomes like the proverbial pebble that starts an avalanche, so that her actions turn from their fairly limited milieu into a world-wide state of warfare with vast political consequences that bring, once again, a massive upheaval in a land where peace is but a fleeting dream.  By now I’m more than used to Joe Abercrombie’s bleak view on humanity, but this time around I felt the pressing need, once finished the book, to turn toward something more optimistic – even though I thoroughly enjoyed this new journey in his world.

My Rating:

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Bookish Valentine’s Day

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point, ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday (created and hosted by  The Broke and Bookish) is now being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here. 

Even though romance is quite low on the list of themes I enjoy in my books, I wanted to find a way to follow the parameters of this week’s Love Freebie in honor of Valentine’s Day, and after some thought I decided that listing the book series that are closer to my reader’s heart would be a more than acceptable compromise.

So I picked up 5 each among my favorite Fantasy and Science Fiction series, to balance out the mix. For Fantasy the winners are:

Powder Mage – Brian McClellan

The Wounded Kingdom – RJ Barker

Blackthorn and Grim – Juliet Marillier

The First Law – Joe Abercrombie

Of Blood and Bone – John Gwynne

On the whole these are all quite… energetic series, with a good share of battles, duels and recklessly spilled blood, which might not look very fitting for a Valentine’s Day celebration, but they all managed to transport me in another time and place and made me care for their characters, which is reason enough to sustain my deep affection for these stories.

Moving over to Science Fiction, my choice fell on these:

The Expanse – James S.A. Corey

Donovan – W. Michael Gear

The Murderbot Diaries – Martha Wells

Embers of War – Gareth Powell

Vorkosigan Saga – Lois McMaster Bujold

There is a little more lightness here, mostly thanks to the tongue-in-cheek humor coming from Murderbot and to Miles Vorkosigan’s happy recklessness, but these series still delight me for their wonderful combination of drama and humor and I know they will always be at the top of my lists.

And now it’s your turn: where did you lose your bookish hearts? 😉

Reviews

THE MASK OF MIRRORS (Rook & Rose #1), by M.A. Carrick

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

When I first became aware of The Mask of Mirrors I was intrigued because it promised to portray many of the elements I enjoy in a story, like a daring confidence game, many political maneuverings and an interesting social background. The book contains all of that and much more, delivering a story that went well beyond my initial expectations.

The city of Nadezra, formerly the center of the Vraszenian culture, has been for several generations under Liganti domination, the original inhabitants looked on by the conquerors as second-class citizens: in the past, the stipulation of the Accords created a sort of truce between the two factions, but social and political unrest are always ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. Ren, a former Vraszenian street urchin now graduated to successful con artist, has concocted a daring plan to insinuate herself in the powerful Traementis family posing as Renata Viraudax, the daughter of a relative who left Nadezra long ago: once accepted by these Liganti nobles she hopes to be able to enjoy all the comforts of wealth for herself and her adopted sister Tess, now posing as Renata’s maid.

Unfortunately, the Traementis are not as influential or wealthy as they used to be, and Ren finds herself enmeshed in ever-convoluted political schemes geared toward helping the Traementis regain their former status so that she can help herself in turn. This plot-within-plot game, however, turns out to be more than Ren could possibly handle, because it dovetails with someone’s malicious strategy to foment a Vraszenian insurrection whose short- and far-reaching consequences are worryingly unclear….

While I am reluctant to reveal more about the plot to avoid spoiling your pleasure in uncovering it as the story develops, I can enjoy much more freedom in the description of the fascinating background in which the novel is set, and of the wide range of characters peopling it: these two elements blend in a captivating whole, and if the pacing feels slightly on the slow side at the start of the book, I can assure you that once the avalanche starts its inexorable downward shift, it gains speed at a breakneck, breath-stealing pace until the conclusion.

Nadezra is a fascinating place: a city built on a series of islands connected by bridges and waterways, its Venice-like quality enhanced by the description of dark alleys and wide plazas, of canals hosting floating markets or covered by impenetrable fogs that conceal both beauty and misdeeds. It’s also a place of glaring contradictions where the mansions of the affluent give way to the poorest hovels or to the crumbling buildings from which  crime lords direct their armies of young thugs.  And where magic permeates many of the aspects of everyday life.

The two coexisting cultures engage in different kinds of magic: the Liganti employ numinatria, which requires channeling power through a form of numerology focused by special geometrical shapes, while the Vraszenian prefer a form of Tarot based on a deck of cards that show the pattern shaping any given individual’s life. Moreover, objects can be imbued, i.e. gifted with special properties that make them more effective in their everyday use. In this world magic is so pervasive as to be almost mundane at times, but it also plays a pivotal role in the story arc, and with literally mind-bending effects and consequences.

In such a fascinating background, the characters are equally intriguing, starting with Arenza or Ren, both as herself and in the assumed persona of Renata Viraudax: she is a consummate con artist with a harsh past, playing a dangerous scheme to ensure a comfortable future for herself and her adopted sister Tess. Ren is the perfect representative of Nadezran society, one where playing a part, saying a thing while thinking another, is the rule, and she manages this feat with consummate ability. It took me a little while to warm up to Ren (even though I enjoyed her character from page one) because of the callous way in which she acts, but as the story progressed I was able to see her frailties and insecurities, to learn the horrors of her past and to understand where she comes from, emotionally.  

The perfect (and quite enjoyable) foil for Ren is represented by Derossi Vargo, a powerful mobster whose ambitions of cleaning up his act and joining respectable society make him an interesting, multi-layered character whose very unpredictability is his most fascinating quality. To call him ambiguous would be a massive understatement, and he maintains this ambiguity to the very end, where an important revelation enhanced my expectations for the next book in the series, particularly in respect of my deep curiosity about the identity and role of a certain Alsius – if you read the book, you know what I mean… 

On the opposite side of the personality spectrum is Grey Serrado, a Vraszenian who joined the the city’s law enforcement ranks and is forced to walk a fine line between the pull of his origins and the need to bring order and justice to a city where both concepts are too often mistreated if not ignored: the tight rope of conflicting loyalties he’s forced to walk soon managed to earn my sympathy, and I hope he will be given more narrative space in the next installments, because I feel there is still an untapped potential there, one that the final section of the novel seems to point at.

And then there is the Rook, a mysterious, hooded and masked figure whose acts in defense of the poor and the weak have become legendary – and have been for some two hundred years, hinting at a series of people taking up that mantle over time.

These are the major players, but there are other figures I was able to appreciate, like Donaia Traementis, the iron lady at the head of the failing house, whose strength of character, even in the face of many adversities, is a delight to behold; or young Tess, Ren’s sidekick, accomplice and moral support, whose skills with needle and fabric offer many delightful descriptions of the gorgeous clothes that are such a great part of the story’s background. But the list does not end here, of course…

I had a great deal of fun with The Mask of Mirrors, its skillful blend of adventure, mystery and drawing-room verbal battles creating a rich, multi-layered story I enjoyed losing myself in: the seamless transitions from day-to-day life to vicious political battles, from high-end social gatherings to drug-induced, reality-bending nightmares, proved to be so compelling that it was hard to put the book down, and I hope that authors Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms – working here under the pen name of M.A. Carrick – will not make us wait too long for the next installment in this very promising series.

My Rating: