Reviews

Short Story: SHARDS, by Ian Rogers – #wyrdandwonder

Image art by chic2view on 123RF.com

Read the story online

A very creepy, quite disturbing tale made even more so by the lack of any explanation about the hows and whys of what happens.

The story starts, quite similarly to many horror movies, with a group of teenagers driving toward a secluded cabin in the woods to celebrate their upcoming graduation and to have some fun. There are many elements that are familiar to followers of the genre: the dilapidated cabin, the isolated location, and a mysterious trapdoor leading toward a dark basement… And yet, the way this story develops leads toward some quite unexpected paths, making the reader constantly wonder what’s at play here.

The very first sentence points toward a tragedy, no mystery here: we know from the start that something horrible will happen here, and that makes the cheer and fun of the outing that the group is enjoying even more poignant, particularly because it’s easy to see these people are very comfortable with each other since they grew up together and have developed a very close relationship.

If the dread of what happens in the cabin is bad enough, what the survivors have to endure afterwards is even more ghastly, because it becomes quite apparent that the evil in the cellar did not remain there, and it wants more of what it obtained. And it does not end with death…

Thoroughly chilling, and quite compelling.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE HUNGER OF THE GODS (The Bloodsworn Saga #2), by John Gwynne #wyrdandwonder

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

The Hunger of the Gods was one of the books I was most looking forward to this year, given that its predecessor, The Shadow of the Gods, was one of the best novels I read in 2021 and I was eager to find myself again in the company of the characters I had come to love in this Norse-inspired saga.

First things first, I need to express my appreciation for author John Gwynne’s choice to place at the start of the book not only a list of characters but a very useful synopsis of the events so far: even though I still had a good recollection of the previous novel, many details had by now escaped me, so it was important for me to regain my footing in the story before diving into the second volume. 

The action starts where we left it in book 1: the dragon goddess Lik-Rifa has been resurrected and her followers, the Raven Feeders, start with her the journey to reclaim the rule of the land and free the so-called Tainted – humans in whose veins runs the blood of gods – from their servitude; to that end they are training the Tainted children who have been kidnapped from their families in the use of powers bestowed by that blood.  Lik-Rifa is not, however, the only resurrected god, because the Battle Grim, led by Elvar, bring back to life the wolf-god Ulfrir with the goal of battling Lik-Rifa and freeing young Bjarn, the son of witch Uspa to whom Elvar has pledged a binding oath. And former warrior Orka, whose own son Breca is among the kidnapped children, is still in pursuit of the Raven Feeders, and reconnects with her old company of the Bloodsworn, the Tainted warriors she left long ago to raise a family and live in peace; young former thrall Varg is with them as well and he’s learning to master his powers as he seeks his own vengeance for the murder of his sister.

In this second book, these three main POVs are joined by some new ones, which offer a different perspective to the story while balancing the characters’ range with some… less positive traits: Bjorr – formerly attached to the Battle Grim – has been revealed as a mole for the Raven Feeders, and has now returned to them, but does not feel totally comfortable anymore with his old companions, memories of the camaraderie he shared with the Battle Grim, and guilt over his murder of the former band leader, often intruding in his thoughts, while the suffering of the kidnapped children never fails to weigh on his conscience. The dichotomy showed by Bjorr makes him a very interesting character, one with still a foot in his previous life: even though his stint with the Battle Grim was done in service of his goddess, he seems unable to completely accept her harsh rule and the methods she employs to reclaim power, turning him into a potential lynchpin for future events. 

Gudvarr, on the other hand, is another matter: his failure in capturing Orka after her incursion in Queen Helka’s hall has put him in a difficult position and he needs to establish his usefulness, while seeking glory and recognition – unfortunately he’s something of a coward, and the dichotomy between his outward behavior and his inner thoughts reveals this quite clearly: what I found surprising, given the pettiness of the character, is that I enjoyed reading about his exploits and his undeniable skill in taking advantage of situations. For starters, he represents a necessary balance to the heroism and endurance of the main characters, and then his ability to land on his feet more often than not is a very enjoyable counterpoint to his less-than-palatable attitude.

But of course the original trio of Orka, Elvar and Varg still enjoys the limelight here, as they travel on their individual paths toward the goals they set themselves: Orka is probably the one who exhibits the less changes, but it’s not surprising when considering that her focus is only on freeing Breca and avenging the murder of her husband at the hands of the kidnappers. All of Orca’s energy is concentrated in the fierce determination that keeps propelling her over hardships and dangers, and there is little room for anything else, apart perhaps from the growing gruff affection toward traveling companion Lif, who is slowly evolving from village fisherman toward warrior.  Things might change in the next book, however, given that Orka is at the root of the truly massive cliffhanger that ends this second installment – and which left me both stunned and not a little exasperated…

Varg, former thrall and now part of the Bloodsworn, is gaining confidence in his newly discovered abilities, but even more he’s getting settled in this found family that is both teaching him how to be a warrior and how to be part of a loving, caring group. He’s growing in confidence just as much as he grows closer to his companions, and it’s poignant to see how much this lonesome individual is thriving in the company of the Bloodsworn, even though the love they show him is more often than not of the though kind. Again, the story shows great balance here, juxtaposing the ferocious battle scenes, which are depicted in the usual cinematic way you can expect from John Gwynne, and the quieter moments when affectionate hazing or discussions about cheese (yes, I kid you not) serve to strengthen the bonds among these people.

In the first book of this series, Elvar was the one I felt less attached to, even though I recognized the potential in this character, a young woman who had given up a life of privilege to be free and gain some glory for herself: now that she’s stepped into the role of chief of the Battle Grim, she needs to re-think her approach – the responsibilities that the position heaped on her shoulder weigh heavily on her and help mature her, turning Elvar into a more thoughtful – but also more effective – person than she was at the beginning. And I have to admit that the chapter focusing on her return to her ancestral home was both gripping and emotionally satisfying, and I look forward to seeing how her journey will continue.

Where the characters proved extremely rewarding in their continued path, the story itself seemed to suffer a little from the “middle book syndrome”, in that the characters’ constant travels looked a bit meandering, slowing the pace and at times making me feel the compulsion to skip ahead – something that never happened to me with John Gwynne’s novels. With hindsight, I can see that it was a way of positioning the game pieces on the board – so to speak – and preparing the events for the final showdown, and I can say that I enjoyed the final chapters very much, given the adrenaline-infused series of events that they portray.  The slight lull I perceived might very well be the calm that precedes the storm we will certainly witness in the final book of the trilogy – one I’m bracing for and looking forward to with great expectations.

My Rating:

Image art by chic2view on 123RF.com

Reviews

WYRD & WONDER 2022: Give Me Five! #wyrdandwonder

Image art by chic2view on 123RF.com

The congratulatory gesture is more than called for since this is the fifth iteration of the month-long event celebrating all things fantasy: for the occasion, our Fairy Godmothers Imyril, Lisa and Jorie are joined by Ariana and Annemieke, bringing their total to five. Neat! 🙂

If you’re old hands at this, you already know everything there is to know about our neverending party where Elves can safely mix with vampires and enjoy the buffet alongside wherewolves and wizards, but if this is your first time don’t fear: our Fairy Godmothers have thought of everything.

Sign up HERE

Learn all about Wyrd & Wonder HERE (where you will also find the amazing banners to showcase on your posts)

And don’t forget to update the grimoire… pardon me, the Master Schedule of Posts HERE

So, let’s don our pointy hats, give the last stirring to the boiling cauldron and prepare to unleash our magical potions on the world! Now, if only I could remember where I last parked my flying broom….

Reviews

THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 (Dead Djinn Universe #0.3), by P. Djèlì Clark

My third foray into P. Djèlí Clark’s alternate Egypt, and the return to the workings of Cairo’s Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities,  proved to be even better than my experience with A Dead Djinn in Cairo, particularly once I overcame the slight disappointment provoked by the absence of investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the main character of the first novella – although she does make a cameo appearance here, toward the end.

In Haunting the supernatural detectives for the Ministry are two: sedate and formal veteran Hamed al-Nasri and the enthusiastic rookie Agent Onsi – quite different characters that, despite those differences, manage to create an effective team while dealing with the present emergency, the haunting of one of the many aerial tram cars traversing the skies of Egypt’s capital. The Ministry was summoned by Superintendent Bashir, who appears quite distraught by the presence of what looks to be a djinn that took possession of said tram car, terrifying the passengers and forcing Bashir to take it out of the regular runs.  Once the investigation goes underway, however, the two investigators understand that the infestation has nothing to do with djinns and is instead something different and far more malevolent, so they are forced to seek more specialized help, finding it in a very unexpected quarter…

The previous story featuring Fatma merely laid the foundations of this alternate world, one where the border between the mundane and the supernatural had been pierced, allowing otherworldly creatures to enter our reality and coexist with humans; this novella deepens and enriches our knowledge of this changed reality, a background where elements of magic and steampunk details turn our journey into a very intriguing one, and in this specific case add the theme of social change to the mix, offering a chance both for reflection and for some amusing interludes.

Characters are better defined in Haunting, something I felt was slightly missing from my first experience with this series, and I have to admit that I took an instant liking to the Hamed/Onsi duo, which helped me to offset the initial surprise at the shift in perspective from Fatma’s.  Hamed at first comes across as a very matter-of-fact person whose experience in magical matters placed something of a disenchanted attitude on him, so that he observes Onsi’s ebullient joy at being in the field with a touch of amused annoyance.  Onsi, on the other hand, is not only very eager – as newbies are inclined to be – he’s also very much book-oriented, but has little experience of fieldwork. This disparity might have influenced their effectiveness in dealing with this difficult case, but instead the two of them are able to find some common ground – each giving in to the other a little – and turn out to be a great team, not only where their mission is concerned, but also where their work styles are involved.

Even though the main protagonists here are men, there is an intriguing focus on women, both as individuals – the mysteriously knowledgeable waitress Abla and the sheikha Nadiyaa, performer of magical arts – and as a group, i.e. the members of the movement for suffrage, the Egyptian Feminist Sisterhood. Cairo, and probably the whole of Egypt, is on the verge of huge social changes through the implementation of the right of vote for women and this is reflected in the substantial female presence on the scene and in the narrative thread that sees a particular magic rite – performed only by women – as the key to solving the tram’s infestation. This need for change, not only in politics, but also in the attitude toward women, is subtly addressed while discussing the malevolent spirit inhabiting Car 015, which appears either as a child or a hideous crone:

That spirit was just a formless being minding its own business. Then, it encountered men. And they decided to make it this beautiful woman or this monstrous crone, because that’s the only way many men can even view women

For all his outward adherence to protocol, Hamed is a very versatile individual and he’s soon able to acknowledge that exceptional circumstances require exceptional solutions, and he wastes no time in implementing them, also accepting with grace and humor the very unusual… ahem… camouflage he and Onsi must don to fool the spirit. I ended up liking him very much, and understood that the formal exterior hides an intriguing, multifaceted personality I would not mind seeing explored in depth – maybe teamed up with Fatma, with whom he has an interesting conversation once the dust of the chase has settled.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 offered a more comprehensive look into this parallel reality, and I enjoyed the world-building even more than with the previous story: there is such a richness of detail here that the background comes alive with all its colors and smells and the views of teeming streets that make the city come alive in quite a cinematic way. Returning here through the full-length novel that awaits me down the line will certainly be an equally delightful experience.

My Rating:

Reviews

A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO CONQUERING THE WORLD (The Siege #3), by K.J. Parker

The third book in K.J. Parker’s The Siege presents once again a story set in the same world as the two previous volumes, but this time not in the City we have come to know through the chronicles of Orhan the engineer and Notker the actor turned leader: here the protagonist is Felix (the lucky), a Robur national sent as a diplomatic envoy and translator to the Echmen empire. 

Felix ended there under a cloud of disgrace caused by an ill-considered liaison which cost him dearly, both physically and socially, and all he wants now is to keep a low profile and read books: easier said than done though, because first he ends up saving the life of a Hus princess-hostage, who was going to be executed because of a grammatical misunderstanding, and then he’s in turn saved by that same princess once it seems that the Robur nation has been obliterated and that Felix is its only survivor. From that moment on, Felix – and the princess – will embark on a journey across the wide world that will lead them to meet its many different peoples, as the former translator starts what can only be termed as an incredible revolution that will change the balance of power through the application of an apparently unplanned conquest strategy.

The protagonists of Parker’s novels, despite their differences, share a common unreliability as narrators, and what’s more they make no mystery of it – Felix is indeed the one who seems to be the most open on the subject, in respect of his predecessors:

I really don’t understand why people go on about how wonderful the truth is. In my experience, all it does is make trouble.

This is even more true here because, as the story moves forward, we learn that what appears as a series of unconnected and unplanned choices ends up generating very serendipitous results that point toward a carefully orchestrated plan. Felix’s narration makes it all look quite accidental, or at the very least the product of inspiration drawn from one of the many books he’s read, but after a while it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that he’s not “encouraging” the outcome from the sidelines.  Especially when he says things like this:

Everything I’ve touched I’ve translated, into one thing or the other.

To further muddy the waters, at some point he makes a mention of his offhand humorous approach to situations, drawing a parallel between it and the ink squids use as camouflage against predators, and adding that under the layers of that protective humor he’s quite scared, but given his unreliability as a narrator it’s not so easy to fully believe him. 

All of the above turns Felix into a character that is difficult to relate to, and there are times when I felt quite annoyed with him – in a half-amused way, granted, but still annoyed, so that I could quite sympathize with the princess when she berated him and looked ready to use physical violence.  And yet, the relationship between the two of them (which cannot turn into a romantic pairing because of Felix’s… unfortunate situation) is one of the narrative delights of the story, with the two of them forming a complicated partnership that nonetheless works on many levels and offers some very amusing scenes, like the ones where Felix translates her profanity-laden speeches into something more diplomatically appropriate.

What truly differentiates this book from its predecessors is that the story follows a journey/quest model rather than being set in the City, which offers the author the chance to have a lot of fun with the different names and customs of the many tribes our two fugitive travelers meet: the travelogue might look somewhat confusing because the book does not have a map, which might have made things more visually understandable, but it’s a minor inconvenience after all, because Felix’s tongue-in-cheek descriptions of these peoples, their history and above all their quirks, makes for an amusing sketch of this world and its inhabitants who, despite the outward cultural differences, seem to share a deep distrust of strangers – but also the inability to resist the translator’s quick tongue and powers of conviction.

At times, the long lists of places and tribes – complete with details about customs and laws – feels like too much information and one could be tempted to skip forward to get back to the main story, but I don’t recommend it, because you might lose some entertaining detail. Granted, these finer points might not be indispensable in the Grand Scheme of Things, but they are often too funny to be missed, like the long, drawn-out story about a man who wanted to make money by selling camels. And in the end, camels DO prove to be quite effective in battle… 😉

In the end I had great fun with the Practical Guide, even though the third iteration of this series reserved little surprises as far as the outcome would be, but like the story it tells, what truly matters here is the characters’ journey and not its end, and in the course of that journey there is great room for fun and a few laughs – and we all need that, from time to time.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE ANGEL OF KHAN el-KHALILI (Dead Djinn Universe # 0.2), by P. Djelì Clark

While searching for a short story to act as “intermission” between books, I saw this second short offering in P. Djèlí Clark’s Dead Djinn series (you can read it online on Tor.com) and the first paragraph totally captured me with its mysteriously evocative tone: written in an unusual second person POV, it details the journey of young Aliaa searching for a miracle to save her sister, the victim of a factory fire and now dying of her grievous injuries.

Knowing that the granting of such a momentous wish from a djinn would carry its own uncertainties, since djinns are fickle creatures, Aliaa seeks the help of an angel, one of the enigmatic beings who hide inside huge,  human-shaped constructs, and to do so she roams the bazaar’s streets at night.  The description of the deserted night-time market, in opposition to its bustling daytime activity, is one of the best parts of this story: as it happened with the previous one set in this same world, I am in awe of Clark’s descriptive skills that not only paint a picture of this sector of Cairo, but bring to life the sounds and smells of it, making it the perfect setting to Aliaa’s desperate search and to her fears and insecurities.

Once she finds herself in the presence of the angel, the young girl discovers that the payment for the requested miracle might be more than she is ready to pay, and that it will require a painful soul-searching that translates into actual physical pain: the main theme here is that of revealing one’s secrets and guilt, of bringing them to the surface and – maybe – letting go of them, even though the process of gifting them to the angel sounds both painful and gruesomely mechanical.

Mixed with the personal details of Aliaa’s life there are some intriguing peeks into Cairo’s evolving society, one where women are striving for emancipation and the right to superior learning, but are also struggling to turn those dreams into reality by working themselves ragged in factories, where laborers’ conditions are dreadful and accidents a daily occurrence.  Aliaa – and her sister Aisha, or their co-workers – are the other side of the coin represented by the more emancipated Fatma el-Sha’arawi, so that, through these two loosely connected stories, we gain a more detailed knowledge of the social background of a city whose eyes are turned to the future but whose roots are still firmly set into the past.

I am quite intrigued by this series of short stories, and very much look forward to the others that await me down the line…

My Rating:

Reviews

A DEAD DJINN IN CAIRO, by P. Djeli Clark

I’ve been meaning to read some more works from P. Djèlí Clark after greatly appreciating his Ring Shout, and I finally did thanks to fellow blogger Maryam at the Curious SFF Reader: when she reviewed Clark’s A Master of Djinn, which I found intriguing, she advised me to read the short stories that precede this full novel, and so I started with A Dead Djinn in Cairo, which can be read online on Tor.com

This is a completely different kind of story if compared  with my previous experience with this author: set in an alternate Egypt of 1912, it portrays a city of Cairo in which the supernatural and the mundane coexist side by side, as a consequence of the opening of a portal between our world and one filled with otherworldly creatures. For that reason, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities must supervise any kind of manifestation through its investigators.

In Dead Djinn we follow Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi as she deals with the sudden death of a djinn (in Eastern lore they are supernatural beings which can be either benign or evil, according to circumstances): in this particular, and extraordinary, case, it looks as if the death can be attributed to suicide, and as Fatma follows the leads she finds herself facing mechanical angels, flesh-eating ghouls and other assorted dangers.

The story is short and somewhat light in characterization, but it’s a fascinating journey through the mysteries of Cairo and – more important – through the details of this weird world that might look like our own but is quite different, not just because it sports a plethora of supernatural beings, but because of its fascinating steampunk flavor, highlighted by the mention of flying trams, dirigibles and human-shaped mechanical constructs.

Fatma is an intriguing character, a person with a difficult job made even more arduous by her disregard for the period’s expectations of a woman’s role and appearance – her manner of dress is, well, quite unusual 😀  – and in the short number of pages of this story she shows great promise that I hope will be fulfilled in the next short stories and full novel.

As it is, A Dead Djinn in Cairo is a intriguing introduction to this world, enough to compel me to learn more as soon as possible.

My Rating:

Reviews

GOOD NEIGHBORS (The Full Collection), by Stephanie Burgis

I received this story collection from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

It’s always a welcome surprise when Ms. Burgis so kindly asks me to read and review her new works, because I know that I will always discover delightful stories where a thread of magic is woven with one of romance that even this grumpy old curmudgeon cannot find fault with 😉   (as a matter of fact, I quite enjoy these light-hearted forays into romantic territory…)

Magic is indeed a focal theme in this collection of stories set on a parallel version of 19th Century England, one where this element is commonplace, as in Ms. Burgis’ equally engaging Harwood Spellbook series, but with the difference that here magic is not an integral part of society: anyone caught with such abilities or marked as “unnatural” is either ostracized or wiped out, depending on the mood of the neighborhood.  

Young Mia, the main character, is an inventor with a special knack for metal to which she can apply her peculiar kind of magic, but her skills have already exacted a heavy toll when her former fellow citizens discovered her true nature and turned against her and her father, burning their home to the ground and grievously wounding the man.  Now that the two of them have found a new place to live, Mia is firmly set in keeping her abilities well hidden, but she did not take into account the persistence of her next-door neighbor, necromancer Leander, whose misshapen undead minions she keeps finding on her doorstep…

Given the shortness of the four stories that compose this collection (Good Neighbors, Deadly Courtesies, Fine Deceptions, Fierce Company) I don’t want to dwell any longer on the actual plot, which despite its light, humorous tone is also able to touch on some very serious themes like the fear of anything we perceive as different or the double standards of people in power.  I can however concentrate on the character of Mia who, like many of Stephanie Burgis’ heroines, presents a captivatingly grouchy disposition on the outside that hides a generous, selfless soul ready to help those in need – be they human or otherwise.  Previous events – and the consequences they visited on her father – made Mia quite wary of outside contact and a virtual recluse, which forces dashing Leander to launch a well-organized campaign to tear those barriers down and turn the two of them first into allies and then into… well, something else. And he has a lot of ground to cover because, in Mia’s own words:

I was not some fluff-headed flibbertigibbet who could be flustered by a bit of close darkness and a handsome, teasing necromancer.

While the first two stories, which are also the shorter ones in the collection, remain on the light side, the longer third and fourth deal with some quite dramatic issues concerning the frame of mind of the so-called “good citizens” of a nearby town (I always shudder whenever the word “purity” is used as it is in this instance) and Leander’s harrowing past. There is clearly a thematic progression here that moves from the introductory stories where the characters are presented, to the more complex, more layered study of the world they live in, a world in which “normal” people feel threatened by supernatural creatures for no other reason that they are different – and no matter how much fanciful humor is laced throughout the story, there are several thought-provoking issues here that belie the apparent lightness of the collection.

These four short stories were previously presented on Stephanie Burgis’ Patreon between 2020 and 2021 and are now collected in a single volume that will be available from February 2nd, 2022. My hope, after reading them, is that the author will write some more to expand both on this intriguing world and on Mia and Leander’s story. I will look forward to them.

My Rating:

Reviews

AGE OF ASH (Kithamar #1), by Daniel Abraham

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

I’m quite familiar with Daniel Abraham’s fantasy production, having greatly enjoyed both The Long Price Quartet and The Dagger and the Coin series, and of course I know that under the shared pen name of James S.A. Corey he’s the co-author, together with Ty Franck, of the successful SF series The Expanse, so that when the start of this new fantasy saga was announced I was more than eager to see for myself what it was about.

The city of Kithamar has a long history of power and prosperity, but also of violence and strife: as the novel starts, the uneasy peace between the two ethnic groups living in the city is shaken by the death of the former ruler and the ascendance of his successor – many wonder, given the troubled times, how long he will be able to remain in his place. But Age of Ash is not so much the tale of people in power, but rather of the city’s inhabitants: first we meet Alys, a very proficient member in a band of thieves, one of the most lucrative occupations among Kithamar’s underprivileged. The murder of her brother sends her on a very different path, however: searching for answers first and then for vengeance, Alys finds herself enmeshed with convoluted political maneuvers and the dark, ancient secret behind Kithamar’s rule – a secret that might claim her life.  Sammish is another member of the dsmr band, her skill in being inconspicuous a very valuable one for thieving, but a hindrance in her desire to be noticed by Alys on whom she has a crush: when Alys’ focus on vengeance becomes all-encompassing and takes her into the orbit of some shady characters, and once the mysterious Saffa – a woman searching desperately for her kidnapped child – opens Sammish’s eyes on the evil undercurrents of powers in Kithamar, the girl will have to deal with conflicting loyalties and a newfound awareness of the world she’s living in.  The third main POV comes from Andomaka, a noblewoman with great aspirations to power and the member of a weird religious cult holding the secret behind the workings of the power handout between rulers: she is strong, ambitious and ruthless, the true representative of the caste that has been governing Kithamar throughout the centuries.

The slow burn of Age of Ash might have proved discouraging if I had not been prepared: previous experience with Daniel Abraham’s novels taught me that he likes to carefully prepare the playing field and that the beginnings of his series require a little patience, which is always rewarded in the end. In this particular case, the “preliminary” work serves to create the image of a living, breathing city in all its colorful detail: shopkeepers and artisans plying their trade in the winding streets and alleys of Kithamar, urchins running underfoot and thieves moving like smoke in crowded areas; the various districts, looking like enclaves where the two ethnicities coexist in a delicate balance, giving way to the mansions of the more affluent citizens and of the nobility – these elements are pictured in such a vivid manner that after a while they feel three-dimensional, to the point that it’s almost possible to hear the sounds and perceive the smells. We are led through the city in its better times, like the harvest, which brings abundance of food and a festive atmosphere, when street revelries offer the chance for celebration and great thieving opportunities in the crowded passages; and we see it in the bitter cold of winter, when food is scarce and ice covers the ground and hangs from the roofs in big icicles, when the poorest have to choose between eating or warming their homes, a time when darkness and gloom prey heavily on everyone’s mind.

While I enjoyed such richness in the world-building, I found myself somewhat distanced from the characters, particularly where Alys is concerned: the single-minded focus on her quest leaves little space for any kind of emotional connection or feeling of sympathy. Even her grief at the loss of her brother shows this kind of hard edge (for want of a better definition) that turns it into something cold and soulless, devoid of any spark of humanity.  I ended up feeling greater empathy with Sammish, not least because she exhibits a greater capacity for emotional and psychological growth throughout the story and because what looks like childish infatuation morphs, in the end, into a willingness to help her friend and to do the right thing, not just for Alys but for the city as well. The unassuming girl who can move through crowds unnoticed shows more courage and heart, in the end, than the one who should be the main focus of the story, and this comparison did not help me at all in my reflections on Alys’ character: this is however only the first book in a series so I’m also suspending my judgment while waiting to see how the story progresses and what kind of surprises the author has in store for his readers.

And speaking of the plot itself, there are many unresolved threads here – particularly where Andomaka’s actions and her connection with the religious cult are concerned – that will certainly be further explored in the next books: there is a lot of intrigue, with longtime ramifications, that simply begs to be developed more fully. The complex, creepy layers of Kithamar’s power management and its handling through the generations are barely touched here and I can hardly wait to see how the continuation of the story will deal with them, and with Andomaka’s plans, about which I can’t afford to say more because that way lie some massive spoilers.

The start of this new series is indeed a very promising one, and I can’t shake the feeling that this first installment barely scratched the surface of a story that holds many more surprises in store for me. Time, of course, will tell what they are…

My Rating:

Reviews

THRONE OF LEAVES (Book of Never #8), by Ashley Capes

I received this novel from the author in exchange for an honest review.

As I remarked in one of my previous posts for this series, the main character’s name, Never, seems to be closely linked to his destiny, that of never finding peace – both in his search for answers about the past and the uncanny abilities bestowed by his heritage, and in his life: the previous book ended with the threat posed by a god-like creature, the Burnished King, laying waste to the land in his quest for domination, and Throne of Leaves starts by showing the readers how the Stone Plague is devastating both people and the territories it encroaches on.

In his afterword, author Ashley Capes remarks about the oddity of such a narrative choice: while the previous installment in the series was completed in 2019, before the very real Covid pandemic hit, he describes here the made-up plague at the center of this story and considers the strangeness of the parallel between worrisome reality and equally disquieting fiction.  Sometimes reality and fantasy have a strange way of coexisting…

Back to Never’s adventures, there is something of a change in the way he’s perceived now: while before his weird powers and his appearance were met with awe and suspicion in equal measure, his recent actions have gained him the well-deserved qualification of “hero”, and if the awe is still present, he’s often welcomed and his help both sought after and appreciated.  It’s interesting to observe how he’s not totally comfortable with that, but at the same time he’s more inclined to open himself to friendships and to accept the fact that he’s not bound to be a loner, that he can find people to share his path – and its dangers – with.

This is particularly true in Throne of Leaves because Never’s ally Rikeva – a sort of warrior priestess gifted with abilities of her own – seems to be more than just a passing companion and possesses all the qualities to become a permanent comrade, or even something more.  While I’m always wary of emotional entanglements in the stories I read, I quite enjoyed the very slow burn of what might turn into a romantic liaison, and this might also prove to be a positive turn for a loner like Never. Moreover, Rikeva is a great character: strong, determined, courageous, but also compassionate and gifted with a delightful sense of humor which might very well compensate for Never’s deep seriousness.

Story-wise, Throne of Leaves continues in the series’ tradition of leading Never through a quest where he needs to unlock mysteries and face various dangers: once again I’m reminded of strategy computer games (even though I’m no gamer at all) where the players must complete increasingly difficult levels before reaching the goal. Here Never does so by also revisiting previous locations where other adventures took place and – more important – reconnecting with old acquaintances and friends he met along the way. This proved to be one of my favorite sections of the book because I enjoyed the appearance of some familiar faces, and also because it was nice to see Never appreciate the reunion:

[…] halfway through the meal he’d found himself wishing time would pass slower. 

A moment of peace and joy that, together with the reminders of past adventures, made me think Never’s journey might be nearing a closing circle – but of course it was a totally wrong impression because the very last sentence of the book hints at an even greater danger looming over the horizon. Something that will certainly be explored in the continuation of this series…

My Rating: