Reviews

THE EXILES TRILOGY KICKSTARTER

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

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

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

These four characters sound quite intriguing, indeed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews

FAIRY TALE, by Stephen King

Dear Mr. King,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

ELDER RACE, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

OUR CROOKED HEARTS, by Melissa Albert

I’ve kept postponing the actual writing of this review for several days before finally sitting down to do it, because even now I’m not sure whether I really enjoyed Our Crooked Hearts or not: on one side, I was curious to see where the story would lead me, on the other I had the feeling that something was missing from it – and even now I’m not completely sure about what it was.

The premise is an intriguing one: the dual-timeline tale of a mother and daughter discovering, each in her own way, the power of magic and being affected by it and the unavoidable consequences.  The opening scene, with teenage Ivy and her boyfriend almost running their car over a young naked woman coming out of the woods, is the mere introduction to a string of weird events that make Ivy question everything she knew – or thought she knew – about her mother and her own past, just as we learn through a series of flashbacks how Dana, Ivy’s mother, became enmeshed in the wielding of magic.

Dana, her best friend Fee and their new acquaintance Marion ended up playing with forces way beyond their control when delving into the secrets of an old grimoire found by Marion: their reckless pursuit of the powers gifted by the book’s spells led them to try something beyond their ability to control it, something that ended in  catastrophe and that cast a pall of danger on both of them and – years later – on Ivy herself as the teenager had to face the mysterious actions of her mother and deal with the threat posed by the spooky girl encountered in the woods.

What I really liked: the dual timeline, which juxtaposes Dana’s discovery of magic and its potential – as well as its pitfalls – with Ivy’s findings about her mother and her search for the reasons she always felt distant as a parent.  The mother/daughter relationship here suffers from the usual troubles inherent in the differences between parents and their teenaged kids, but it’s burdened by the added weight of the secrets Dana kept close to her chest and which Ivy is slowly uncovering in her quest to understand what is happening.   There are also some truly creepy moments, particularly where the remains of dead bunnies crop us as a form of dire warning, or when Ivy feels certain that someone is shadowing her steps, even turning up into her own house.

The approach of the two women to magic is also interesting, because where Ivy sees it as something wondrous, something to be explored as it leads to ever-new discoveries, Dana knows everything about its dark side and the price it exacts – particularly because she has first-hand experience of the terrible aftermath of spells getting out of hand. The way the story is told shows how the choices of the past can influence the events of the present, turning Ivy’s journey into something almost pre-ordained by her mother’s past actions.

The pacing of the plot is well done, and the story kept my attention focused from start to finish, although the downside of it is that the characters suffered a little from what I perceived as an unbalanced focus, Ivy most of all.  Which leads me to what I did not like much: as I said, characterization suffers a little in this mainly plot-driven story, and the writing often seems a little… flowery, for lack of a better word, where a more streamlined narrative might have worked better – in my opinion – to carry the tension forward. Speaking of which, the ending felt a bit like a letdown, when compared with the previous buildup, thanks to a too-quick resolution. Moreover, there was the added element of young romance – heavily hindered by the intervention of magic – that did not sit well with me, because of my aversion to YA relationships that made me look at this element as something that was pasted on, rather than naturally developed, and therefore unnecessary.

In the end, I guess that while it was easy to get through this book – if nothing else because I wanted to see how the author solved the plot – it was not the kind of story that would stick with me in a particular way. Or as they say: “it’s not you, it’s me”….

My Rating:

Reviews

THE IVORY TOMB (Rooks & Ruin #3), by Melissa Caruso

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

Now that this second trilogy from author Melissa Caruso has reached its end it’s become clear to me that she likes to deliver her maximum narrative impact with the final book: the first two volumes in the Rooks & Ruin series set the playing field and shaped the main characters, and were certainly supported by a good dose of dramatic moments and momentous revelations, but The Ivory Tomb brings all those elements toward such a harrowing climax that at times I felt emotionally drained – and I say this in the most complimentary way possible.

Please be aware that this review will contain spoilers for the first two books in the series, so if you have not read them yet, you risk learning about important details that you had better discover on you own…

When we first met Ryx, the protagonist of the story, she led a forcibly sequestered life because her “tainted” magic made her touch deadly for any living thing, and it was only her meeting with the Rookery – a group of special agents dealing with out-of-bound magical phenomena – that she was allowed to interact with others in a normal way thanks to a jess (a sort of controlling bracelet) that muted her powers.  Not long after she became part of the Rookery, Ryx could not enjoy her period of grace for long, because the escape of several demons, held captive in the prison to which her castle guarded the portal, threw the world into renewed turmoil, further weighted by the double revelation that Ryx had long been the host for the demon of Disaster and that her beloved grandmother was now hosting the demon of Discord.  

The freed demons – particularly Carnage, Corruption and Hunger – are on a rampage in The Ivory Tomb, laying waste to everything and everyone they encounter on their path and doing their worst to compound such devastation by setting the Raverran and Vaskandar empires on the warpath through misinformation and the skillful rekindling of old grudges.  Poor Ryx finds herself torn in more than one direction as she tries to help her friends defuse the situation, capture the escaped demons and save the people she loves from becoming victims of the ravages of war. Not to mention avoid being imprisoned (or worse) herself because of the demon to which she has long been a vessel…

My sympathy for Ryx was born in the first volume of the series as I discovered how despite the harsh circumstances of her existence she managed to forge a character that was both kind and resilient, compassionate and determined, but here she truly shines brightly because she is faced with such odds that would have defeated the strongest of personalities, and yet she still finds the courage and the strength to move forward, to face whatever hurdle circumstances set on her path, while struggling with the dreadful revelation about her true nature and with the danger of being subsumed by Disaster and the avalanche of memories collected by the demon during its time through other hosts.

One of the most intriguing narrative elements in this series, and in particular in this final book, is the revelation that not all demons are… well, demonic, and that some of them are – or have been – capable of mastering their nature thanks to the people they interacted with: this is very true for Disaster’s past history which is revealed in a series of flashbacks as the barriers between the demon and Ryx become more permeable. Intriguing as they are, these flashbacks ended up being a little distracting for me, taking me away from the dire situation that was developing in the ‘present’, as Ryx and the Rookery tried to stay abreast of the havoc meted out by the other demons: it’s not the book’s fault, I want that to be clear, but simply my reaction at having to set aside for a moment what for me was the main – and more important – narrative thread.

The other element that bothered me a little was the lessened focus on the Rookery members, whose characterization and interactions had always been very enjoyable for me: again, I understand how it was necessary for the story to concentrate on other narrative paths, and I can rationally see the reason for this choice, but emotionally I felt a little… cheated, for want of a better word, for not being able to see them as much as I wanted.

On the other hand, I have to acknowledge Melissa Caruso’s wonderful skill in weaving a romantic thread in her narrative without making me roll my eyes in annoyance: she might very well be one of the few authors who are able to present a developing romantic relationship in their stories and to make me appreciate it despite my usual aversion to the theme.  Ryx and Severin make a delightful couple and their slow-burn romance feels appealing and true, their interactions are always consistent with their characters and the situations in which they develop, so that – let’s admit it – I was rooting for them all the time and hoping that they would enjoy a happy end.  Well done, Ms. Caruso, indeed…. 😉

The Ivory Tomb is not only the magnificent conclusion to a well-crafted saga, it’s above all a breathless, heart-stopping marathon through a series of events whose increasing stakes will compel you to turn the pages as quickly as you can. As for myself, I can only look forward to seeing what Melissa Caruso will have in store for her readers in the future: one thing is certain, it will be another great ride.

My Rating:

Reviews

A DOWRY OF BLOOD (A Dowry of Blood #1), by S. T. Gibson

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

Vampire lore states that these creatures can mesmerize their victims, leaving them powerless to resist the lure of their captor: well, like a vampire, this book managed to mesmerize me from start to finish, making it almost impossible for me to put it down – I lost count of the number of times I told myself “just one more chapter, then I’ll stop”, only to keep reading on…

The vampire myth is one of my favorite themes in horror, so once I learned that A Dowry of Blood focused on a retelling of the story of Dracula and his brides it was a given that I would read it, but what I found was a very unexpected tale told in an equally unexpected narrative style, which added to my enjoyment of the book.  The narrator is Constanta, one of the famous vampire’s brides as she relates her story in an impassioned letter to her sire who, as we learn from the very first sentence in the book, she killed in an act that she describes as possessing “its own sort of inevitability”.

Constanta’s first encounter with the creature who will change her existence happens outside a Romanian village devastated by a brutal attack: she lies dying on the ground, images of her family’s massacre mixing with the awareness of her imminent demise, when this fascinating stranger makes her an offer that seems like salvation but which will lead her on a very unpredictable path. Her beginnings as the vampire’s bride flow in a mix of fascination and discovery that appear all the more extraordinary given Constanta’s origin as a poor peasant girl, but as time elapses it becomes increasingly clear that her husband/master’s outer veneer of charm hides a volatile, domineering disposition that becomes even more marked when their “family” comes to include the presence of Magdalena, a beautiful Spanish heiress, and later on of young Alexi, a penniless Russian actor.

More than being another story about vampires, A Dowry of Blood represents the deconstruction of their myth as it shows the other side of the coin represented by the fascinating lure of an immortal predator: here Dracula (even though his name is never actually mentioned) comes across as an abusive despot, a creature of fickle disposition, easily angered and possessed of a mean streak.   At first Constanta accepts it all as part and parcel of her new life, never having had the opportunity for a comparison – either in her previous life or in her new, immortal one – and living as she does in almost total isolation with her sire.  Things however change when Magdalena joins their “family”: the transition from jealousy to attraction to complicity allows Constanta to put her existence into perspective and to observe their lord’s treatment of his brides from an equidistant position, therefore bringing to light his manipulative and control-oriented tactics.  The situation worsens when starving actor Alexi is brought into their midsts, his lust for life and human companionship undiminished by the changes in his body: the younger man’s desire to keep a foot in both worlds – the living and the undead – takes the vampire lord’s stranglehold on his “family” to new heights, ultimately laying the foundations for his (untimely?) end.

Even though I’m usually not very comfortable with allegories, I can view this novel as one about toxic relationships –  and who better than a blood-sucking vampire to epitomize the draining of agency, self-worth and freedom caused by an abusive spouse?   Constanta is the classic example of the naive woman who finds herself married to a control freak who does everything in his power to establish his authority on her, either cutting off any chance of outside contact, or constantly belittling her, or both, in what she labels as “the cycle of brutality and tenderness” than informs their relationship.  She is only an extension of himself, something he created for his own ends, not for her benefit:

[…] I don’t think you ever truly saw me as a whole woman. I was always a student. A project. An accessory in the legal and decorative sense.

In the end, the mistake of the vampire lord comes from the choice to increase his entourage, because instead of adding more “accessories” to his dominion he unwittingly lays the basis for a found family: the strength of the bonds that unite Constanta, Magdalena and Alexi is what ultimately allows them to see their sire for what he truly is, and to find the courage to sever the ties linking them to him and to regain their freedom.  What finally struck me, once I finished the book, was the realization that in never using her husband’s name in the story (only hinting at his true identity in an oblique reference to the “troublesome Harkers”) Constanta took back the agency she was robbed of for so many centuries: in denying him his identity, his name, she exacted the perfect kind of vengeance against the constant theft of power and self-determination he visited on his brides.

I described A Dowry of Blood as a mesmerizing book, and the greatest part of such effect comes from the narrative style and the almost lyrical prose that took hold of my imagination and created a rich, three-dimensional picture of these characters and their surroundings: there is a gothic flavor to this story that nevertheless does not lapse into purple prose, blending the quaint and the modern into a seamless whole. If, like it seems, this is only the first volume in a saga, I more than look forward to what the author has in store for us in the next books…

My Rating:

Reviews

WHAT MOVES THE DEAD, by T. Kingfisher

It was only a few weeks ago when I reviewed T. Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone, and here I am with another of her books, one that confirmed my intention of adding as many of them as possible to my TBR, because she is an amazing storyteller indeed.

I knew, thanks to my fellow bloggers’ reviews, that What Moves the Dead would take me on a gothic horror journey – and more specifically a retelling of Poe’s The Fall of House of Usher – and I was also made aware that the terror elements would be expressed in some wildly ghastly way, thanks to the cover illustration with its gruesome implications of body horror. Still, I found much more than I bargained for, because the dreadful elements are quite successfully blended with a peculiar brand of tongue-in-cheek humor that I’ve come to suspect might be T. Kingfisher’s trademark.

Alex Easton, the first-person narrator, is a non-binary former soldier who has been summoned by Madeline Usher, an old friend living with her twin brother (who used to be Easton’s comrade in arms) in a dilapidated house on the shores of a sinister-looking lake. According to the letter she sent to Easton, her health is failing and she also mentions her brother’s fears that she might be dying: worried for the sake of both friends, Easton comes to the mansion, where they are met by the siblings who appear aged beyond their years, emaciated and quite mentally troubled.  The dark, decrepit house and its environs fare no better than the Ushers: where inside one can see dust, cobwebs and peeling wallpaper, on the outside the lake’s waters appear unusually still and coated with something of an oily film which at night sports a weird luminescence. And creepier still, the local fauna – particularly the hares – shows unusual behavioral patterns, while strange fungal growths seem to thrive on the ground as far as the eye can see.

Worried for the plight of the almost-unrecognizable childhood friends, Easton tries to enroll the help of Denton, an American doctor also living at the manor, and of Miss Potter, a dedicated mycologist and illustrator, to try and understand what might be affecting the siblings and Madeline in particular, whose night-time cataleptic wanderings always take her to the lake’s shores. Unfortunately, events move rapidly toward tragedy, as a nameless menace hovers above the collapsing house of the Ushers…

While Poe’s tale might have been the inspiration for this novella, T. Kingfisher imbues it with its unique sense of dread and impending doom, enhanced by the villagers’ dire warnings and by the clues that the author seeds along the path to lead her readers toward the conclusion: I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of the story, so I will keep any hint to a minimum – suffice it to say that other novels, some recent, some less so, have used that same narrative element but, in my opinion, not as successfully as Kingfisher did here.  There is a disturbing escalation of clues in What Moves the Dead that makes the horror palpable, rendering it so very easy to put oneself in Easton’s shoes as they walk through the crumbling rooms or fear for the Ushers’ failing physical and mental health at the same time as the former soldier tries to unravel the mystery of the house and its nearby lake.

Still, the story is not totally oriented toward gothic horror, because the author inserts a welcome vein of whimsical humor that takes some weight out of the narrative and offers a welcome respite: in my previous encounter with Nettle and Bone I enjoyed this element and I was glad to find it again here.  For starters, Easton is a delightfully no-nonsense, self-deprecating character who is hardly prone to flights of fancy, and therefore the right person to investigate the strange happenings of the house without being unduly affected by them: there is an interesting digression about the custom of Gallacia – Easton’s country of origin – whose linguistic flexibility extends to pronouns, which are assigned on the basis of situation rather than gender, so that for example a sworn soldier like Easton is referred to with the pronouns of ka and kan. This detour, together with some fun references to Gallacian propensity toward turnips, or to spoiling its national liquor with the addition of lichen, helps keep the overall tone from becoming too dreary even as the story progresses toward its dramatic climax.

The supporting characters, much as it also happened in Nettle and Bone, are explored with equal care and serve as a solid counterpoint to the main roles: Miss Potter, the spirited mycologist and naturalistic illustrator, is a delightful figure imbued with an indomitable spirit and a pointed view of the male-dominated scientific world, while Easton’s longtime footman Angus is there to offer his grouchy advice (whether one wants it or not…) and a steadfast support in times of trouble. And this review would not be complete without a special mention of Hob, Easton’s horse who, while not gifted with speech, is nonetheless able to comment on various situations in its own horsey way, delightfully reminding me of the demon-infested chicken from my first Kingfisher read. I now wonder if her other novels will sport more opinionated animal companions, because that’s an addition I enjoyed very much.

What Moves the Dead turned out to be another extremely engaging read and the confirmation that I just discovered a new-to-me author whose books I intend to explore as much as my overcrowded TBR will allow…

My Rating:

Reviews

NETTLE AND BONE, by T. Kingfisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

INSOMNIA, by Sarah Pinborough

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

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

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

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

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

And I certainly had fun with this book….

My Rating: