Reviews

THE LAST SMILE IN SUNDER CITY, by Luke Arnold

 

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

Urban Fantasy scenarios often share several common elements: a city where supernatural creatures exist side-by-side with humans, either in plain sight or hidden; the presence of magic; an atmosphere typical of noir movies; and a P.I. engaged in a complex investigation. The Last Smile in Sunder City does possess these elements, granted, but sets them in an unusual background that gives the story and its characters a new, intriguing perspective.

The world in which the story is set was imbued with magic once, but a catastrophic event named The Coda closed off its source with tragic consequences, and now the city of Sunder, once a flourishing center of industry, is just a ghost of its former self, as are its supernatural inhabitants, stripped like their world of any magical attribute that made them what they were. Fetch Phillips is a human Man For Hire, eking out a meagre living by accepting odd jobs, just enough to pay the rent and fuel his drinking habit – he does not work for his fellow humans though, out of a deep-seated sense of anger and guilt whose roots are explored in the course of the story.

Tasked with looking into the disappearance of a teacher from the city’s multi-species academy, Fetch finds himself caught in the kind of complex tangle of misdirections and threats that is to be expected in a story’s investigative thread, but this inciting incident is only the pretext to explore the world and its inhabitants as they try to pick up the pieces of the past and to build a new life out of the ashes of the old one. Fantasy novels more often than not rely on magic, but here instead we explore a culture that has to deal with the sudden death of it, and what this means in the everyday existence of Sunder’s citizens: the sad, grey, hopeless mood of the story often reminded me of Tolkien’s Elves’ long defeat, a battle with no hope of victory that is however still fought because the idea of surrendering to the inevitable is even more loathsome.

The world building in The Last Smile in Sunder City is its best feature, indeed. The image of Sunder City that I built in my mind reminds me of a town in the throes of the Big Depression, where people have to find new ways to survive not so much out of financial troubles (although they are a factor in many instances), but out of the disappearance of the magic that helped run many of the activities, like the streets deprived of wizardry-powered electricity and barely lighted by torches or fires. Then there are the dreadful physical transformations brought on by the Coda: werewolves frozen in the transition from wolf to man, formerly immortal Elves who aged overnight or even crumbled to dust, vampires who lost their teeth and the ability to thrive on blood – the description of what happens to the majority of those supernatural beings at the very moment in which the Coda happens is something both nightmarish and imbued with profound emotional impact.

The social changes in the post-Coda world have taken another, uglier facet as well: the connection to the world’s magic was severed by humans in an underhanded attempt at harnessing that power – humans were the only ones unable to tap it, and it was their intention to put themselves on the same level as the magically-able creatures. Now that supernatural beings have been stripped of their edge, humans feel entitled to take over: their technology, the mechanical means by which their civilization moves, are the only ones that work now, which puts them in the position of superiority they craved for a long time. Not a pretty spectacle at all…

In all of this, Fetch Phillips keeps his distance from everything and everyone, a loner by personal history and by choice, nursing his deep guilt with the same care he nurses the endless bottles of liquor and the drugs that barely help him go through the days: at face value this personality traits, and attitude, would have made me dislike him immediately, but for some reason I felt pity for him, which increased as his story was revealed through the flashbacks showing how he came to be the individual he is now. Fetch Phillips seems destined from a very young age to be alone, even in the company of others, of being the one looking in from the outside, never being part of something, never feeling accepted, and this shapes both his psychological profile – past and present – and the string of bad choices that ultimately bring him to the momentous decision whose outcome will weigh him with endless guilt and regret. He is a man possessed by a strong death wish, uncaring of the damage he sustains as a result of his actions, but at the same time he does not seem to really want that end, because it would also mean the end of his self-inflicted penance – and also the end of what little good he might do to atone for his past mistakes.

I’m aware that all of the above might sound depressing and excessively gloomy, but in reality it’s not as grim as it might seem and it’s also quite compelling, not to mention that the small, very small glimmer of light that can be perceived toward the end promises that things might not look so hopeless in the next book, or books, of this series.

As a debut novel The Last Smile in Sunder City is not a perfect one: there are some pacing issues, particularly in Fetch’s flashbacks that could have been tightened a little to avoid the loss of focus on the issues of the present, and there are times when the search for the missing vampire teacher seems to become irrelevant, instead of being the connecting element of the story. Yet, the narrative remains engaging throughout, and that’s definitely a plus: I will look forward to seeing how Sunder City – and Fetch – will fare in the next installments.

 

 

My Rating:

 

Reviews

Short Story: PRECIOUS LITTLE THINGS, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 

Click on the link to read the story online

 

While looking online for interesting short stories, my attention was of course drawn by the name of Adrian Tchaikovsky, whose Children of Time was one of my most interesting discoveries, and by the little note about this story being a sort of prequel for the novel Made Things, a review of which recently appeared on Tammy’s blog.   And what an intriguing story this one turned out to be!

I find myself wary of sharing the details of Precious Little Things, because it’s filled with amazing surprises, so I will try and remain vague about it, hoping at the same time to pique your curiosity and compel you to read this story, which is quite different from Tchaikovsky’s previous work I sampled before.

For starters it’s more fantasy oriented, and there is a good deal of magic in it, the kind of magic that can breathe life into the most unusual things, and so create an incredible civilization as different as possible from anything one might imagine: there is a flavor here that reminded me of fairy stories, where humans are of little consequence and other creatures take the center stage – now that I think about it, the characters portrayed here are not so unlike the spiders in Children of Time, and their society is as singular and as enthralling as that of the arachnids.

It’s also a story about discoveries and the courage to look beyond the limits of one’s world and to imagine first and explore later what lies out there, because – as one character tells us at some point – “boundaries [are] things to be overcome, not lived within”.

My initial curiosity toward the longer work Made Things has now solidified into great interest thanks to this delightful story.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

HOW RORY THORNE DESTROYED THE MULTIVERSE (The Thorne Chronicles #1), by K. Eason

 

The first word that comes to mind when thinking about this book is ‘surprising’: any kind of expectation I might have harbored from reading its synopsis and the reviews published by some of my fellow bloggers was subverted by what I found in the story itself. And those surprises were quite delightful.

Rory Thorne starts as a fairy-tale retelling: the first girl child born after generations of male heirs to the Thorne dynasty, Rory becomes the center of a christening ceremony involving the blessing of fairies, which is sort of unheard-of because no one believes in the existence of fairies any more and because the story is set in the distant future and the Thorne Consortium is an alliance of planets “in a galaxy far, far away”. The fairies do come to the ceremony however, present the child with many gifts and even cause some intriguing ripples when the uninvited thirteenth fairy crashes the party and lays her own gift on Rory: not a proper curse, no, but the ability to see through lies – which turns out to be a mixed but useful blessing.  After that, the fairies disappear and are never seen again, having fulfilled their role in the economy of the story, that becomes some kind of space opera intrigue, finely balanced between drama and tongue-in-cheek humor.

As Rory grows, and a male heir is born to the Thorne dynasty, all that is expected of her is a politically advantageous marriage and conformity to the rules, but events and Rory’s own determination defy those assumptions in more ways than one: a terrorist attack changes the balance of power, so that the young princess finds herself a pawn to a power-hungry villain’s plots and to political expediency, but things will not exactly go as planned…  I don’t want to share more of the story since I believe it’s best enjoyed if approached with no preconceived notions, especially because you will discover that nothing follows expected parameters here – which is one of the novel’s best strengths.

Rory Thorne’s world-building is quite interesting, being a mix between science fiction and fairy tale material: we have galaxy-spanning coalitions of planets, inhabited both by humans and aliens, and interstellar travel and space stations on one side; we also get fairies, and the intriguing concepts of arithmancy and hexes. In this universe, science and magic combine in the form of arithmancy, which allows its practitioners to influence the laws of nature, or the functioning of technological items, through the application of specific hexes, whose complexity varies according to the wielder’s abilities and training. Not much is explained (thankfully, from my point of view) and the concept is filtered and elaborated through the reader’s imagination and (at least for me) with the assistance of the famous Arthur Clarke’s sentence about sufficiently advanced science being indistinguishable from magic. Rory is of course quite apt in arithmancy, which proves very useful in her experiences.

Where the world is engaging, the characters are what make it work: Rory herself is young, barely sixteen when she’s sent to Urse station in preparation for the political marriage she’s being groomed for, but she’s very far from the usual YA characters we often encounter, another important point in favor of this story. She is clever, but never annoyingly so; she’s determined and sometimes stubborn, and yet she balances that with a thoughtfulness that belies her years; more important, she knows when to follow her own instincts, when to listen to her advisors and when to walk the fine line between these two directions. It was easy for me to feel sympathy for Rory, because despite being a prisoner of her role she never complains about it, never falls prey to the usual angst that seems the prerogative of YA characters, but rather accepts it as fact of life and moves on, doing her best to carve her path with what she has:

… [a princess] did not take casual strolls with her friends, because a princess did not have friends. She had body-maids, guards, teachers, viziers. She had never thought of herself as alone, until now. It was a revelation.

And yet, if not exactly friends, the people closest to her become allies and co-conspirators through the sheer force of her conviction, her self-confidence and her hard-earned wisdom. Speaking of Rory’s closest associates, they are very enjoyable creations: Vizier Rupert and Deme Grytt could not be more different persons – the former is Rory’s steadfast advisor, a man of controlled emotions and careful thoughts, the latter a former soldier sporting cyborg implants and a “shoot first and ask questions later” attitude, but they are united in their affection for their young charge and offer many entertaining interludes when debating from opposing points of view about how to best take care of her.  Similarly different are the two female bodyguards assigned to Rory, Thorsdottir and Zhang: one composed and reserved, the other more exuberant, but both equally dedicated to the mission of protecting the princess and – though unexpressed – of being the friends she needs.

The main villain, Regent Moss, might look stereotyped – all he lacks is a mustache to be twirled – but he feels perfect for the role and the right foil for Rory’s cat-and-mouse games where she does her best to outwit an opponent who seems to hold all the winning cards. One of the best parts of the overall story is the subversion of the traditional tale of the princess in danger who needs to be rescued by the handsome prince, because here Rory is the one doing the saving, and the prince she is slated to marry the one who needs to be saved. Please allow me to spend a few words on Prince Ivar, because – apart from the role reversal – he offers one of the amusing angles of the story, at least for me: you might be aware that “Ivar” is the name of an IKEA line of furniture, and the prince’s constantly wooden disposition always made me think that there was a tongue-in-cheek joke from the author’s part. If the young man is depicted as ineffective and weak, all his mentions never failed to elicit a smile from me when I thought his name could not be a coincidence, an impression strengthened by the way the tale is relayed though an omniscient narrator who enjoys offering humorous asides and somehow making a joke of its own reliability.

How Rory Thorne destroyed the Multiverse turned out to be a swift, compelling read in a weird, but intriguing, mashup of genres: it is my understanding this is the first half of a duology, so that I’m quite looking forward to the second book and the discovery of the rest of Rory’s adventures.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

MOONTANGLED (The Harwood Spellbook 2.5), by Stephanie Burgis

 

My thanks to Stephanie Burgis for reaching out to me and asking to read and review her latest novella in the Harwood Spellbook series: I’m always happy for any new story in this delightful saga, my only complaint being that this time it was a short one, and it ended far too soon…

The Harwood Spellbook sequence  focuses on a Regency era alternate version of Britain where history diverged from the one we know when Queen Boudicca found a way to defeat the Roman invaders by allying herself with a powerful mage who later became her husband. Since then, the political power in Angland has been wielded by women and entrusted to the body called the Boudiccate, while magic has remained the jurisdiction of men, the partnership strengthened by marriage between these two branches of society. There are always exceptions, though, and one of them is Cassandra Harwood, gifted with the ability to handle magic with great skill: in the past, Cassandra wanted to establish herself as a formidable mage, and in so doing forgot the safety limits and lost her powers, but fortunately not the competence to teach other young women, equally gifted, what she knows.

Moontangled takes place in the school where – as we learned from previous novels and novellas – Cassandra has been able, not without overcoming many social and practical obstacles, to gather the first group of young lady mages, and is now ready to present them officially to Angland’s society, to gain further backing.  There is one problem lurking in the background, however, represented by the secret engagement between Juliana Banks, one of the pupils, and Caroline Fennell, one of the most promising candidates for the Boudiccate: they are waiting for society’s recognition of women mages and for Caroline’s entry in the ruling body before making their relationship public, but recent events (explained in Thornbound, book 2 of the series) have turned Miss Fennell into something of a social outcast, and she’s ready to free Juliana from their bond to avoid tainting her future career.  What ensues is both a comedy of errors and a light-hearted romance that works very well within the magical background of Thornfell and its woodland fey dwellers.  And if I could enjoy this romantic interlude, despite my usual avoidance of the theme, you can be assured that it’s a charming one, indeed.

There are some serious themes at play here, as well, not least the emotional hardships suffered by some of these girls in the past, when they became aware of their magical abilities and had to hide or suppress them because of societal or familiar pressures – or both.  Here, at the school, they are finally free to express their full potential and to create the sense of family and belonging that so far has been denied them, as they promote the kind of change in society that can only come from inside and from example.

[…] because for the first time ever, she was surrounded by a sisterhood of women who valued her for who she truly was, flaws included.

Together with the romantic misunderstanding at the core of Moontangled, this is what makes this story a pleasure to read, creating an enjoyable balance between its… fluffier aspects and the character exploration that I’ve come to expect from Ms. Burgis’ works.  And a special mention must be made for the gorgeous cover that perfectly complements the contents and is only the latest in a series of equally beautiful illustrations for the series.

Moontangled will be available from February 3rd: it can be read as a stand-alone, of course, but if you want to enjoy the full experience, I strongly advise you to seek the other novels and novellas in the series, first – and happy reading!

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE GREY BASTARDS, by Jonathan French (DNF)

 

This book sat for some time on my TBR before I finally picked it up, despite my curiosity to sample it given the many enthusiastic reviews from my fellow bloggers and the promise of a different kind of fantasy story, one where the proverbial bad guys – in this case half-orcs – were the heroes and not the villains.

The novel approach was indeed a welcome change from the usual narrative tracks, but unfortunately the delivery did not work for me: to be honest I kept trying to remember that with a debut work I should have given this book a wider latitude and exercised more patience, but when I reached the point of “too much is indeed too much” I saw no other option than to give up reading and move toward greener pastures.

The Lot Lands are a harsh, dangerous place where – after long conflicts and a devastating plague – a multitude of creatures has come to live: reclusive Elves, rampaging Centaurs, a smattering of Humans and the half-orcs, the product of a forced mating between humans and full-blooded orcs. The latter now and then still trespass into the area in search of plunder, and that’s where the half-orc bands – or hoofs – come into play as a defensive force, mounted on specially bred wild pigs called barbarians whose loyalty and intelligence are highly valued.

Jackal, Oats and Fetching (the only female of the Grey Bastards hoof – and probably the only female ever admitted into a band) are very close comrades, and at the very beginning of the book they clash with a troop of human soldiers killing one of them and setting in motion an unpredictable chain of events whose consequences might be ranging even farther than they can imagine, or that I could imagine, since I chose to desist at roughly one-third of the way.

As I said, the premise is an interesting one, even though the story went all over the place with no indication of a precise concatenation of events: it’s quite possible that the disparate situations DID come to a confluence at some point, but since I lacked the willpower to reach it I guess I will never know…. What turned me away from The Grey Bastards was a growing annoyance with two of its major components, one being the foul language used with irrepressible glee: granted, in the kind of background and company described in the book, profanity would be a major ingredient, but the frequency with which it was used went well beyond any reasonable narrative need and quickly turned into the kind of fixation for repeating a newly-learned four-letter word we see children indulge in, using and abusing it for its shock value. I am far from prudish and understand that harsh language and a harsh world go hand in hand, but the effectiveness of vulgarity is inversely proportional to its frequency, so that the profusion of f-bombs, crude sexual references and their many combinations quickly went from colorful to bothersome, and a distraction from the story itself. More than once I was reminded of something a wise friend told me once about the excessive use of coarse expletives in any conversation: that it’s a filler for the lack of appropriate language to express one’s thoughts, and ultimately the indication of a lack of thoughts as well. Not exactly the best endorsement for any story…

My other point of contention comes from the portrayal of women: again, I know that the chosen background is far from conducive to female agency, but why are the women in this story relegated to the roles of either caregiver (just one, as far as I went) or whore? No, that’s not right: there are also one woman warrior, with a chip on her shoulder that’s even bigger than the hog she rides on, and an elf who was the prisoner of a foul creature and the victim of orkish rape, which resulted in a pregnancy. Not the best kind of representation, from my point of view. The proverbial “oldest job” appears to be the only one ever considered for women, because in this world there seems to be no place for, I don’t know, a village baker or vegetable grower: if one does not find employment in the orphanage where youngsters are raised, all she has to look forward to is the brothel, or the bunk of a warrior as his personal bedwarmer. That’s all, and it’s a dismal summation, indeed – hopefully just an over-the-top description of this world and not the author’s view on life…

Before posting this review I re-read the ones from my fellow bloggers that compelled me to try The Grey Bastards, and came to the conclusion that this might be a classic case of “it’s not you, it’s me”. Not my kind of book, sorry.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BLADE ITSELF (The First Law Trilogy #1), by Joe Abercrombie

 

Joe Abercrombie’s famous trilogy has been languishing on my TBR for a long, long time: I kept promising myself I would read it “one of these days”, but also kept being distracted by other titles – that is, until his new work was announced and I was lucky enough to be able to read A Little Hatred, the first book in a new series set a few decades after the events of the First Law. Far from finding myself lost in the “next generation” setup of the new story, I was so intrigued about the past of this world that I did not waste any more time in finally fulfilling that long-ago promise to myself – and you know what? Reading A Little Hatred did not spoil my enjoyment of this prequel story, but rather enhanced it because having met some of these characters or their offspring, it felt as if I already knew them well, and wanted to know more.

The Blade Itself is both a character study and a way to set the background for what will certainly come in the next two books: on hindsight it almost looks as if nothing much happens, and yet this book turned into a compelling read, made even more extraordinary once I discovered this was Abercrombie’s debut work – not that it feels like one, on the contrary. The main setting is in the Union and its capital city Adua: a place of culture and refinement, but also of political machinations and unrest, especially since the Union is threatened from the expansionist moves of the Gurkish Empire in the South, and from the northern barbarian tribes now united (more or less forcefully) under the self-proclaimed king Bethod. And this just to name the two more powerful opponents…

 

They are jealous of one another, all those people. It may be a union in name, but they fight each other tooth and nail. The lowly squabble over trifles. The great wage secret wars for power and wealth, and they call it government.

 

In this troubled scenario we meet several characters, defined by ambiguous morals, unclear goals and even uncontrollable violence, which nonetheless manage in a few short chapters to capture the readers’ attention and in some case to make them genuinely care for the outcome of their journey. These characters are indeed where Abercrombie excels, managing to present us with people who might be scary, or unlikable, while at the same time showing some different side to them that makes us question our first judgment, and compels us to learn more.

The first one we meet is Logen Ninefingers – so called because he lost one of them in a battle: a Northern barbarian, once the champion of King Bethod, he’s now on the run from his former ruler and from the savage Shanka who murdered his family. Separated from his band of comrades he now believes dead – and who believe him dead in turn – he moves south trying to leave behind the violence that’s been such a huge part of his life, trying to build himself into a different man and to stay alive as long as possible.

 

To fight my enemies I need friends behind me, and I’m clean out of friends.[…] It’s been a while since my ambitions went beyond getting through each day alive.

 

But struggle and strife seem to follow him like a shadow, and even away from his old haunts he must keep fighting, at some point revealing where the moniker “Bloody Nine” comes from, and it has nothing to do with the number of his fingers…

Then there is Bayaz, an ageless mage with an unfathomable agenda: through him the author gives us a peek into this world’s past and its legends (but are they, really?) of godlike beings battling with each other and laying the foundations of the present. This character seems to hover on the dividing line between a fraud and the real thing, just as his temper swings from the jovial to the thunderously dangerous, and while it’s clear he does possess some uncanny powers and has a goal in mind, given that he’s gathering a number of people for some nebulous quest, it remains to be seen what that goal is and where it will take the story.

More down-to-Earth is young, brash captain Jezal dan Luthar, training for the annual combat Contest that should grant him the respect he craves, although he prefers to spend his days drinking, gaming and chasing women. Only the encounter with his comrade Collem West’s sister, Ardee, will prompt him to seriously train and finally make something of himself, although curing his entitled selfishness might take something more than the desire to shine in the girl’s eyes… Jezal is the only one of the main characters I could not truly warm to, and even the few insightful peeks into his personality failed to change my mind, therefore so far he remains the one I love to despise.

Last but by no means least, Sand dan Glokta. Once a proud, valiant warrior, he was captured by the Gurkish and tortured for years, only to be returned to his country broken and crippled. Military career over, he’s now a torturer for the Inquisition – and who better than a man who suffered unspeakable pain to administer it to the King’s enemies? Glokta should have been a loathsome character, and yet he’s the one I ended caring for more than others: a man living in constant pain, moving with extreme difficulty (his thoughts about the daily battle with stairs are darkly and delightfully whimsical) he’s quite resentful of healthy, vigorous people like Jezal, who represent everything he’s lost, but the person he hates most is himself, his helplessness, and that to me is his saving grace, together with the wicked sense of humor he applies indiscriminately to himself and others. Moreover, despite being a skilled torturer, he does not enjoy what he does – yes, he relishes the inevitable results of his work, but not the means with which he obtains them. And there is something of a soft spot in him, which comes to light in a specific circumstance, that speaks of the man’s complexity and layers and makes him very intriguing. Together with Logen, he’s the character I will look for in the next books with heightened interest.

The minor characters are equally compelling, even though their allotted time is shorter, and this is especially true for Logen’s lost companions, some of which – like the Dogman – I’ve come to know in the first book of the new saga, while storywise The Blade Itself achieves the same degree of skilled balance between grimness and humor, drama and amusement that I found so compelling in A Little Hatred: the interactions between characters, the battle scenes, or a breath-taking chase through the streets of Adua, all come across with such a vibrant quality that the story takes life in your mind’s eye with cinematic quality. And leaves you wanting for more…

 

My Rating:

 

Reviews

BLOOD OF EMPIRE (Gods of Blood and Powder #3), by Brian McClellan

 

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

And once more it’s time to say goodbye to a series and a world that have grown on me with each new installment, and from what I hear it might be a definitive farewell, unless Mr. McClellan changes his mind and decides to go back to his extremely successful flintlock fantasy creation and the amazing characters peopling it. I for one dearly hope so…

Story-wise, the already high stakes from the previous books, Sins of Empire and Wrath of Empire, have reached their peak here: the Dynize invasion force has settled in Landfall, trying to win the hearts and minds of the Palo by freeing them from the Fatrastan oppression and playing on their distant common origins. Unknown to the many, however, the Dynize leader Ka-Sedial is exploiting them to further his goal of godhood: as he gathers the godstones he will need to perform the ritual, he mercilessly uses the Palo population in the most horrible way.  Michel Bravis, former Blackhat (the Fatrastan secret police) and undercover Palo mole, went into deep hiding after the invasion of Landfall and must now walk on the thin, dangerous line between necessary action and common safety, aided by an unexpected ally – Ichtracia, Ka-Sedial’s granddaughter and also the long-lost sister of Ka-poel.

The latter is assisting Mad Ben Styke and his Lancers in their mission to enter the heart of the Dynize empire and destroy the godstone set in the center of its capital: it sounds like a suicide mission indeed – the kind Ben seems to prefer – and it encounters many unforeseen obstacles and changes in plans, but it’s also a way to bring the readers to the very core of Dynize civilization and to learn more about this seemingly unstoppable force of conquest, and about what makes its people tick.

Last but not in any measure least, Vlora Flint: after the bloody battle at the end of Wrath of Empire she’s recovering from her grievous wounds and must also deal with the loss of her powder sorcery, which no one knows whether it’s temporary or permanent. That, and the rift with her second in command and lover Olem, leaves her unbalanced and riddled with doubt, but there is no time to dwell on personal troubles, because her army must advance toward Landfall to bring Ka-Sedial’s plans to ruin.

These are, in short, the main narrative threads of this final novel in the trilogy, and as much as they are engaging and often breath-stopping in their development – and as much as the skillful interweaving of these three threads keeps the story-flow at a relentless pace – what really drives Blood of Empire are the characters and their compelling journey.  Michel Bravis is the one who changed my perspective the most: for the greater part of the first book in the series I did not like him – all that the author showed us on the surface of this character was his ambition to scale the ranks of the Blackhats, and to hell with any collateral damage. Then, little by little, his real nature came to the surface and I saw the initial misdirection for what it truly was, but it’s here that I came to truly care for Michel and for the strangest of reasons: here we see how leading the life of a double agent, of an individual who needs to wear different masks at a moment’s notice, has undermined his sense of self, his core identity, and he feels weakened by the realization that he’s not sure about who he really is anymore. It was this very weakness, this very human failing that ended up endearing him to me as it had never happened before.

As far as weakness goes, poor Vlora is indeed in a bad place: the wounds she suffered and which took her almost to the brink of death are not healing as quickly as she wishes, and the loss of her powder magic turns her into the equivalent of a person who lost a limb. Yet she discovers that she can still be a strong person, a solid commander, because she has not lost her cunning and experience: Vlora is the true heir of Tamas’ military teachings, and in this situation we see how they were ingrained in her experiences as a soldier first and then as a leader, helping her in devising the necessary strategies to defeat her enemies. One of the lessons Vlora learns from her impairment is that she can – and must – delegate, and lean on trusted advisers when necessary: in this the presence of Privileged Borbador, another former ward of Tamas, proves invaluable, not just for his powers but for the advice he can offer in the form or offhand comments that never failed to bring a smile to my face.

Bo deserves a special mention, because he’s a very atypical Privileged: every single one of them we encountered in the course of both trilogies was clearly corrupted by the power they possessed, turning them into callous creatures with delusions of godhood – not so for Bo, who has retained his humanity and even though he indulges in the licentiousness that’s part and parcel of Privileged life, he never falls into depravity and is always able to apply some self-effacing humor to himself. I like to think that it was Tamas’ example that kept Bo from turning into the kind of Privileged the Field Marshal wanted to eradicate.

Mad Ben Styke: it might seem strange to feel such sympathy for a character who gained his moniker through an insane penchant for bloody fighting, for reckless carnage. A person who acts first, in the most violent manner, and thinks later, if ever. And yet Ben Styke is the kind of person that gets under your skin and gains your affection because he’s very honest about himself and his faults – and because under the coarse skin of the berserker warrior there is a man of deep loyalty and deeper feelings, which come out in his caring for the men under his command and for the young orphan Celine, whom he has taken as a daughter. And it’s through Celine (a very skillful depiction of a child who had to grow quickly through adversity, while still able to walk the difficult line between childish ebullience and hard-earned wisdom) that we see the true Ben Styke come to the surface, and what I see in those moments is what makes me like him very much.

Blood of Empire brings this trilogy to a very satisfactory conclusion, blending adventure and politics, warfare and character growth with a skill that has been constantly improving since the first book of the Powder Mage series. My only complaint is that it’s the end – at least for now – of this magnificent saga: there are some elements in the final chapter that might be turned into a continuation of the overall story, and there lies my hope that this might be only a temporary ending. In any case, it’s been an amazing journey….

 

My Rating: