Through The Shards of Heaven, the first book in this series, I discovered a new sub-genre I enjoy quite a bit: historical fantasy, a way to blend entertaining reading with some real history – and to pique one’s curiosity about learning more about the time period in which the story is set. For these reasons I was more than looking forward to continuing with Michael Livingston’s series, and The Gates of Hell did not disappoint.
A few years have elapsed since the fall of Alexandria and the conquest of Egypt by Rome: after the deaths of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, their children are either dead, in hiding or, like Selene, prisoners of Octavian, now self-styled Caesar Augustus, emperor. Selene Cleopatra, has been taken into Octavian family’s fold and married off to Juba II, son of the deceased king of Numidia, a double tie that should keep her under control. But Selene being Selene, she remains quite unbowed and although her marriage to Juba proves to be a happy one – where respect and friendship quickly turn into love – the need for vengeance is never far from her thoughts, doubly so because in this as well she finds a kindred spirit in her husband. With the help of the Shards they acquired – the Aegis of Zeus that Juba obtained in Alexandria, and the one hidden into a statue Selene stole from the temple of the Vestals – they work to master the power of the artifacts, with the goal of one day bring about the destruction of Rome.
Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Cesarion – son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, and Selene’s half-brother – has gone deep underground to avoid capture and to help preserve the very powerful Shard hidden inside the Ark of the Covenant. When former legionnaire Vorenus visits the Head Librarian Didymus to inquire about the Ark’s apparent loss of power, their conversation is overheard by disgruntled ex librarian Thrasyllus, who concocts a plan to put himself in Didymus’ exalted position and gain the favor of the Roman occupants.
These are the main narrative threads at the heart of Gates of Hell, and they carry the story forward at a steady pace while expanding on the characters we met in Book 1: the preferred focus is on Selene and Juba, of course, and their increasing mastery of the Shards in their possession. There is an intriguing form of character osmosis – for want of a better word – between the two of them: Juba has become more reflexive, more inclined to think his way through and to consider every possible facet of a problem, while Selene has lost some of her merry-go-lucky youthful attitude (which is understandable, considering the heart-rending losses she endured) and she is the one who seems to be goading her husband toward their shared objective.
What’s truly fascinating is the change in Octavian: I remarked on his cold cruelty in my review of Book 1, and how different he looked there in respect of the image that has come to us through time. I wondered if, in his case, the author was stressing the concept about history being written – and therefore shaped – by the victors. That’s why I was surprised to see a softer side of the newly crowned emperor, that of a man who cares about the people he calls family and is very aware of the sacrifices he might call them to accept in the name of the grand dream he nurtures, that of a huge, peaceful empire. This change, one that comes along in small, organic increments until it blossoms into an amazingly selfless act, was not only a surprise for me as a reader but also for the character of Juba, who starts to question his and Selene’s goal of vengeance and to lean toward a different path:
Was the Peace of Rome a truly horrible dream? Or was it perhaps something real, something tangible that was worth setting aside their need to avenge the fallen members of their families?
Some harrowing circumstances cause both Juba and Selene to review their stance and to accept a more peaceful path for their future, a fresh start that will allow them to forget the pain and loss in their past. But if Octavian has mellowed out in this second volume of the series, another historical figure – that of Tiberius – has taken the role of the antagonist here, and it will be the long reach of his actions that will determine the developments of the last part of the book, where the meaning of the title becomes horribly clear. As Selene and Juba battle with their inner demons (and not only those), Caesarion and his steadfast allies Vorenus and Pullo face a different kind of danger that will climax in a bloody battle fraught with heartbreaking losses.
The Gates of Hell proved to be a swift, sometimes breathless read, and it certainly paves the way for some huge developments: there were some… hiccups along the way, like the author’s need to involve his characters in long philosophical discussions that were certainly interesting but that somehow broke the rhythm of the story; or the often-repeated information about the Shards, that at times sounds just a little pedantic. But apart from these very small blemishes, I enjoyed the book very much and I’m now waiting for the next installment with great expectation.
Like last year, Planetary Defense Command promotes this award for our favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy works (and I’d like to add my thanks for the timely reminder I received today, since I almost forgot that time was running out to post my choices).
HERE you will find all the necessary information: the deadline for the nomination is February 14th, at 11:59PM US Pacific time. So there is still time to choose and post your nominations!
The 2016 Awards require we nominate two categories (instead of the three that were available last year):
1) Shorter story (under 40,000 words/160 paperback pages)
2) Traditionally published novel
My thanks to Planetary Defense Command for this opportunity to list my 2016 favorite reads!
And here are my choices, which were quite difficult, because I read a great number of shorter works and full novels that I enjoyed very much, so I had to go to my 5-star ratings and choose from them, to try and restrict the… playing field. Still, it was far from easy…
For Shorter Story my choice fell on GRR Martin’s THE GLASS FLOWER, a SF story about death, rebirth and the search for eternal life, and perfection. It’s a tale that’s both wonderful and chilling – in perfect keeping with Martin’s style – and one that can be both enjoyed in writing and in the amazing audio version read by Australian actress Claudia Black.
For Traditionally Published Novel my choice goes to James S.A. Corey BABYLON’S ASHES, the sixth volume in the Expanse saga: I’ve come to anxiously wait for each new installment of this engrossing space opera series, that has quite redefined my parameters for what I most enjoy in the genre.
So I’m done – in the nick of time… And now let’s see how it goes!
I’ve been aware of this series since the appearance of the first book, and I’ve kept reminding myself to see what it was all about every time I saw news about the release of a new installment or a positive review, but as it often happens I kept procrastinating in favor of other books: now, mostly thanks to the enthusiastic review of a fellow blogger, I’ve decided it was high time.
The first volume of this series introduces the readers to a peculiar world divided into three realms and peopled by a wide variety of beings: all of them are humanoid looking but show some differences in coloring and appearance that make us realize quite soon there are no humans as such on this world, a place where plains and mountains give way to rivers and seas and even offer the breathtaking spectacle of floating islands, that reminded me of some amazing vistas from James Cameron’s Avatar. Apart from the weird creatures that can be found on land, water or air, there are two big groups of sentients: the groundlings, those who most resemble baseline humans, and the Raksura, winged and tailed crosses between lizard and human, who can shape-change from flying configuration to a wingless, groundling-like form.
Moon is a Raksura, but he’s not aware of his true nature: he’s been living on his own since the rest of his family group was killed by predators, and he has tried to live with groundlings, only to have his shape-shifting ability revealed every time, so that he ended up being evicted from the groups he had tried to blend in. The conflict between his desire not to be alone and the fear of inevitable discovery has shaped his attitude into a sort of bitter disillusionment that manages to keep him apart from others, even when he’s temporarily part of a community: for this reason, once he comes into contact with another Raksura for the first time, he’s quite distrustful about accepting the stranger’s offer of joining a proper court and finally be with his own people. Stone, that’s the name of the scout sent by Indigo Cloud court in search of new members to refresh the bloodlines, does not take Moon’s initial ‘no’ for an answer and urges him to at least see for himself what he’s missed until now. Unfortunately, the two’s visit to a neighboring court reveals the threat from the Fell, a kind of feral Raksura with a cruel, predatory attitude.
This event, in addition to Moon’s earlier encounter with the Fell, and the painful memories tied to it, about which we will learn much later in the course of the story, convinces Moon to lend his aid to Indigo Cloud, at least temporarily: part of his unwillingness to offer a permanent commitment comes from his ingrained diffidence, but there’s another factor weighing in, the discovery of his nature as a consort, the rare kind of Raksura who can mate with a queen to give birth to other Raksura or their wingless brethren, the Arbora. There’s an interesting consideration to be made here, and it’s one of the fascinating aspects of this story: Raksuran society hinges on a role reversal, where the queens hold all the power (even that of keeping individuals from shifting into winged shape) and the male consorts possess a role quite similar to that of concubines in a harem. The courts’ organization closely resembles that of an ant- or bee-hive, with the different roles – mentors, warriors and so on – established by birth.
The depiction of Raksuran society, together with the vivid descriptions of the world in which the story unfolds, are the backbone of this novel and the most fascinating aspect of it, while the steady pace keeps the story flowing at a good speed. What’s interesting here is that we see it all through Moon’s eyes, and since it’s all new to him, we share in both his wonder and puzzlement. The author has managed to convey the same insights one might gain from a first-person perspective while keeping the narrative in the third person, although tightly focused on Moon’s point of view. He is an interesting character, a grown adult – at some point we learn he’s around 35 – but possessed of some traits belonging to a younger person: it’s clear that his life of solitude has not allowed for a full psychological development and that he’s still searching for himself, more than for a stable home. That’s why, I think, the discovery of his possible role as consort seems fraught with negatives: while solitude has been a burden throughout his existence, Moon does not look ready to give up his independence in favor of a permanent home and some creature comforts, and his first meeting with Pearl, the ruling queen of Indigo Cloud, does not help his skittishness at all. The impending threat from the Fell puts these troubles on the back burner, however, and Moon finds himself confronted with the need to help his newfound allies (and maybe family) deal with a danger that swiftly turns into “clear and present” mode.
While I totally enjoyed the book, and will certainly read on, the story is far from perfect: the action is swift and engrossing, the world-building amazing and at times quite cinematic, but characterization – apart from the central figure of Moon – feels somewhat sketchy. For example, Stone, Moon’s mentor and guide, or Jade, queen-in-training and possible mate, are not fully fleshed out but seem to be there only as props for Moon’s journey of discovery of his true nature: I could not get a sense of the persons behind the characters, and that made me feel as if something important was sorely missing. I wanted to know what made them the way they were, how they had come to that point, just as I could more easily understand what makes Moon tick.
Apart from this small disappointment, that I hope will be assuaged in the future course of the story, The Cloud Roads is a fascinating tale set in an intriguing universe, one that I will certainly enjoy exploring further.
This is the kind of book that exerts an undeniable appeal on book lovers and compulsive readers like me. Appeal as well as horror, because the idea that books and their contents would be subject to a superior authority empowered to decide who can access the information and what kind of information can be accessed, is indeed the stuff of nightmares.
The premise: in Ink and Bone’s alternate history, the Great Library in Alexandria was never destroyed, all its precious cache of works and knowledge surviving and spreading all around the world with the creation of daughter-libraries. Sadly, a surplus of knowledge does not bring either wisdom or enlightenment: on the contrary the Library has become the most powerful entity in the world, ruling through intimidation and the influence accrued over the centuries. This… bibliocracy, for want of a better word, has banned the individual property of books, whose ownership is reserved to the Library and its representative delegations: books are still handwritten, since the development of the press never occurred – Gutenberg, and any other inventor ever to approach the idea of mass-produced books, having been mercilessly suppressed as dangerous heretics.
Written works can be read through blanks, devices resembling modern tablets or e-readers and whose contents are owned only temporarily and strictly controlled by the Library, of course. This detail forced me to consider the role of e-readers in our time: useful and practical as they are, they still are a far cry from the effective ownership of a book, or the simple pleasure of holding a cherished volume in one’s hands, of enjoying its smell and texture. E-books don’t carry the same definitive aura of possession, and this story has done much to strengthen my determination to always keep a backup copy of every e-book I’ve ever bought – just in case. But I digress…
Jess Brightwell belongs to an influential family that has made a sizeable fortune by smuggling books to wealthy customers who can afford the price – and the risk of discovery: when we meet him he’s just a child, and yet his stern, uncompromising father sends him out as a runner, disguised among other children as decoys. The Garda, the feared Library police, is constantly on the lookout for the young smugglers, often aided by “concerned citizens” ready to point out anything untoward. Capture might entail death, as already happened to Jess’ older brother Liam, who choose capital punishment rather than betray his family. Still, Jess’ father sends his child on these missions with apparent disregard for his safety; at some point, Jess recalls those moments with poignant clarity:
[…] He remembered how it had felt in that awful moment of clarity in his childhood, knowing his father would let him die.
A few years later, Brightwell Sr. sends Jess as a postulant to the Library once he turns sixteen: should he succeed in being accepted, he will be able to act as a spy and fifth column for his family – failure to graduate and gain a place in the… enemy camp will leave Jess on his own, because his father is not going to pamper a son who loves books for themselves rather than as a valuable commodity.
These two incidents managed to quickly endear young Jess to me: I have often stressed my lack of patience for trope-laden YA characters who do little but sulk, whine and bemoan the cruelty of the world or their situation – not so with Jess Brightwell, or the other postulants he meets once he reaches the hallowed grounds of the Library. These are teenagers, yes, but they are depicted with all the true exuberance and hope of youth, the need to excel and to prove themselves to their peers, the drive to learn and make a mark on the world. In other words, they feel real, and completely relatable: the harsh trials they undergo once in Alexandria help to showcase their characters, their strengths and liabilities, and the way they are growing as persons.
What Jess and his fellow postulants soon discover is that the Great Library is not the beacon of knowledge they believed, but rather a brutal tyrant imposing its will by force, both on nations and on individuals: even the high-placed Scholars are not protected from this inflexible rule, on the contrary they are the subjects of intense scrutiny at every moment of their lives. As the young students forge their way through the lessons, we learn more about this alternate – and dystopian – world, one where steam-driven carriages coexist with the equivalent of tablets, although these are powered by alchemy; a world where fast trains that reminded me of the most advanced mag-lev conveyances stand side-by-side with greek fire and guardian automata. And a world where bloody wars are waged, like the one between England and Wales: one of the most harrowing passages in this fast-moving, totally absorbing story, covers the baptism of fire mission in which Jess and his friends are called into besieged Oxford to try and save the books stored there before the fall of the city.
Parallel to the story itself, there is a narrative thread carried out through the “Ephemera”, short chapters showcasing bits of Library correspondence exchanged throughout the centuries and giving information on the course of history and on what happens behind the scenes. Some of the contents of these Ephemera are quite chilling and reveal the pervasive presence of the Library in everyone’s life, and the extremes reached in the pursuit of power.
I’ve often thought that there are shades of Orwell’s 1984 in the Library’s reach into individual lives and in the pursuit of absolute control, in the will to shape the minds of its subjects and to drive home the awareness of the institution’s unlimited power: nothing can be hidden from the Library, not even one’s innermost thoughts and desires. It’s a very compelling theme, and it’s explored with a great control of pacing and character development: from the young students to their proctor Wolfe to the figures who hold the highest ranks, everyone is painted with subtle strokes and cleverly developed, making the readers care for each of them, making us love or hate them as the story requires.
This might well be one of the most fascinating books I’ve read so far, one that has done a great deal toward curing me of my mistrust toward YA-oriented fiction, and one whose story I more than look forward to reading on. And Book 2 already beckons from the (virtual) shelf…