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Review: BLACK CITY DEMON, by Richard A. Knaak (Black City Saint #2)

I received this book from Pyr/Prometheus Books in exchange for an honest review.

Last year I had the opportunity of reading and reviewing the first book in this series, Black City Saint, discovering a quite unusual mix of Urban Fantasy and noir detective fiction: the main character Nick Medea is a special kind of private investigator, because he helps clients who believe their homes are haunted, or prey to malicious infestations.  In truth Nick is no other than legendary Saint George, the dragon slayer, but with a slight twist to the tale: the dragon he vanquished was the guardian of the Gate standing between our mundane world and the realm of Faerie, and in suppressing the creature George/Nick let the door literally open to the passage of dangerous beings from Faerie.  Since then he’s taken upon himself, and with the endorsement of Queen Titania, the task of keeping the Wyld at bay, and he’s somewhat melded with the dragon, who can lend him his power and strength at need, sometimes with unforeseeable and terrifying effects: for example, the great fire that ravaged the city of Chicago in 1871 was caused by the dragon as he and Nick were battling Oberon, Titania’s husband and rival.

For sixteen centuries the alliance between man and dragon has kept Faerie’s Wyld from having their way, even though it entails a constant struggle for Nick to keep the dragon from gaining the upper hand, or, as he defines it at some point: “…an eternal war for dominance with moments of tentative alliance when others tried to do us in. And sometimes, even those dangers weren’t enough to keep him from trying to betray me.”  This is indeed the nature of Nick’s allies, like the shape-shifter Fetch, a Faerie expatriate who looks like a dog and peppers his speech with the slang of the ’20s, in a quite amusing way of…. well, blending in I guess; or mysterious Kravayik, an elf who used to be the master assassin for the Faerie Court and has now found religion, in the attempt to atone for his past sins.  Both of them repeatedly profess their allegiance to Nick Medea, but it’s clear they both can pursue other agendas, and are anything but trustworthy.

Last but not less important in the list of people revolving around Nick is Cleolinda, the woman he loved and lost to the dragon: she always came back during the long centuries of his vigil, with another name and unaware of her past, but always ended in the same way.  The present incarnation, Claryce, has shown amazing powers of resilience and courage – even aiding Nick in his final battle against Oberon – and while the investigator desires nothing more than to keep her close, he’s afraid that this very closeness will lead to her death, once again.  As this story starts, Nick is trying to keep her at arm’s length while a series of alarming events makes gang-troubled Chicago an even more dangerous place than ever: the defeat and death of Oberon has not put an end to the danger, because the wake of the Frost Moon is giving strength and substance to creatures touched by magic, not least a ruthless serial killer bent on coming back from the dead and gaining enough power to shape the world to his desires.

Black City Demon, like its predecessor, is a quick and captivating read, mixing a very specific time period – that of the Prohibition era – with the typical themes of Urban Fantasy, like magic, weird creatures and outlandish dangers: in this case the threat comes from a very human-derived foe, even though the forces of Faerie are involved and Nick Medea needs to unravel a complicated maze of clues and misdirections to reach the heart of the problem and put a stop to it.  His journey is not an easy one: as I remarked in the case of the first book, in a few instances he seems to take some time in putting two and two together, giving the appearance of not being the smartest of players, despite his long years of service. Granted, worry about Claryce’s safety and the guilt over the loss of her previous incarnations can be quite distracting, but he also seems oblivious to the fact that Claryce is perfectly able to fend for herself – just look at the sang froid with which she wields a gun, more often than not saving Nick’s hide in the process – and that she can be a valid partner in his ventures.  In that respect Fetch is several steps ahead of his master: the unabashedly sincere devotion he shows Claryce is the proof of her effectiveness as an ally, while it helps to showcase Fetch’s personality in a delightful way, making him a more interesting character than ever.

It seems to me that the non-human individuals in this series are fleshed out in better relief than the purely human ones: Fetch is such an example, as is Kravayik – about whom we learn a great deal in this book, transforming him from the disturbing figure of his first appearance into a deeply tormented being worthy of at least some pity.  Queen Titania, even in her brief appearance, projects an aura of dispassionate cruelty that makes all the legends about the cold wickedness of the Elves come true in a very palpable way; and the various minions she and her underlings employ in the convoluted play for dominance are fascinating and creepy in equal measure.

Much as I appreciated this novel, however, I had some issues with it: as with the first book, the pacing seemed uneven at times, with the story meandering a little as if in search of the proper direction, and if the final resolution came thanks to a very compelling journey through a maze that was both physical and mental, partly based in the real world and partly in a different, crazy dimension, getting there required a little struggle now and then.  The biggest problem, though, came from the need to root this story in a specific time period: while it’s understood that events happen during the 1920s, there are often brief asides quoting situations or incidents that add more details to the background, indeed, but are expressed in such a way and in such circumstances as to prove distracting to the narrative flow. Not as distracting, though, as the anachronistic misstep I found in one of the final chapters, one that somewhat soured the whole experience for me: a small thing, granted, but even a little speck can mar a good picture…

I’m sorry I’m unable to rate this book as high as I hoped, but at the same time I’m still curious to see if the overall story will be able to reach its full potential in the next installments.

My Rating: 

Review: THE GATES OF HELL, by Michael Livingston (The Shards of Heaven #2)

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.

My Rating: 

Review: SINS OF EMPIRE (Gods of Blood and Powder #1), by Brian McClellan

I received this novel from Orbit Books in exchange for an honest review.

A few years ago, I read – and enjoyed – Brian McClellan’s first volume of his Powder Mage trilogy, Promise of Blood.  It was a good and engaging start to a new fantasy series, but for some reason – mainly the fact that I get far too easily distracted by any new title that catches my attention – I did not read the two remaining volumes.  With the passing of time, my recollection of the events and characters in Promise of Blood faded considerably, so that I knew I would have to re-read book 1 first once I decided to pick up the series again.

When I saw Sins of Empire and realized it was set some ten years after the time-frame for the first trilogy, I knew it offered me an opportunity to get back into this world, one where magic shows peculiar features: besides wielders of more “conventional” magic, called Privileged, there are Powder Mages, people graced with exceptional strength, speed and endurance through the use of gunpowder, besides having the ability to detonate it from a distance.  Then there are people gifted with a knack, a lesser talent – like needing little or no sleep, or sensing the presence and use of magic – that can nonetheless be quite useful.  This much I remembered from my past reading of Promise of Blood, and it helped me settle into this world with no effort, but I should not have worried about it anyway, because the time and place removal of this novel from the original trilogy makes it a totally new start anyone can enjoy, and the author shows a great skill in inserting a few useful snippets of information that refer to the past, and help ground the narrative, without slowing the pace of the story at all.

The nation of Fatrasta gained its independence through a bloody war and is now on the way toward an economic boom, although not everything works smoothly: the Palo natives are marginalized by the Fatrastans and there is unrest brewing both on the frontier and in the capital city of Landfall, administered with an iron fist by Chancellor Lindet and her Blackhat secret police. In the outreaches of Fatrasta, lady Vlora Flint (a character from the original trilogy) and her Riflejack mercenary army are battling against Palo insurgents when they are called back to Landfall as additional manpower against the brewing rebellion carried out in the name of the mysterious Mama Palo, a dissident leader hiding in the warrens of Greenfire Depths, the capital’s Palo enclave where even the Blackhats fear to walk. Michel Bravis, a Blackhat Iron Rose (which means a high-lever officer), is given the task of rooting out the revolutionary clique responsible for the printing and distribution of an anti-government pamphlet, and finds himself, in case of failure, in the unenviable position of losing his status and any hope of acquiring the prestigious Gold Rose that will secure his standing. And last but not least, Ben Styke, former commander of the Mad Lancers, a famed Fatrastan assault battalion, has been languishing in a labor camp for ten years with little hope of getting out alive, when a mysterious lawyer manages his release in exchange for a peculiar request…

These are the three main storylines that give life to Sins of Empire, alternating chapters between the various characters while building them little by little: this is the main reason for the quick pace of this novel that caught my interest and imagination from page one, and never let go. There is much more going on, however, because Landfall is shortly revealed as a power keg waiting only for the right spark, and there are many different currents moving in the background and slowly but inexorably building toward the final showdown. Characters are indeed the driving force of the story, and my absolute favorite is Mad Ben Styke (the “mad” moniker more than amply justified…): a hulking bear of a man prone to violence and with more than a few shadows in his past, but nonetheless the kind of person anyone would want guarding their back in a dangerous situation, and one capable of the most unexpected tenderness and care, as shown with his taking charge of young Celine, a street urchin he met in the labor camp.  And Celine is a great character on her own as well, her youth and innocence offset by street-wise expediency and her utter admiration for Ben’s killer instincts.

Vlora Flint, who I remember vaguely from my first foray into McClellan’s storytelling, is a well-rounded, ass-kicking lady hardened by military campaigns and the mistakes of her past (whose hints made me decide I must not wait any further to explore the original trilogy), who nonetheless still cares about decency and fairness, and above all wants the best for the men under her command.  If the world described in these books is a welcome variation on the usual fantasy setting, with its end-of-18th / beginning of 19th century feeling, Vlora is a few steps removed from the typical heroines of the genre, even the most empowered ones, because her courage is also supported by pragmatism and a strong sense of responsibility.  Knowing more about what makes her tick and what created the person I encountered in this book has now become an imperative.

The character I found most difficult to approach is that of Michel Bravis, particularly because of a few personality quirks – like the habit of keeping long conversations with himself while debating plans and strategies – that puzzled me no end. I could however relate to his need to keep afloat in the difficult milieu of the Blackhats, especially after meeting their commander in chief Fidelis Jes, a real psychopath if there ever was one, and most importantly after a huge revelation shifted my opinion of Michel a nice 180 degrees, while at the same time changing the rules of the game in a major way.

And remarkable revelations do indeed abound in this novel, especially concerning identity and goals, to the point I was often reminded of a quote from my beloved Babylon5: “no one here is exactly what they appear”. The surprises that the author sprung on me along the road were both unexpected and momentous, and added to my enjoyment of the story, one that starts deceptively slowly but builds with inexorable momentum toward the final showdown – a battle of epic proportions that kept me on tenterhooks the whole time.  In this regard, I must reveal that I usually don’t do well with battle scenes, since I find them both confused and confusing: not so here, where the crystal-clear cinematic quality of the writing made those scenes come alive in my mind’s eye.

Despite being the first book in a new series, Sins of Empire does not end in a true cliffhanger (which is something I greatly appreciate), but still lays the groundwork for some very intriguing developments, the most important of them being a danger coming from far away, something steeped in legends and the half-remembered past.  Only the awareness I can now backtrack through Brian McClellan’s previous works will help me weather the wait for the next installment.

My Rating: 

DUSK OR DARK OR DAWN OR DAY by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is not only one my favorite authors, she is a natural-born storyteller – and that might be the very reason I enjoy her powerful writing so much. This is her second novel I’ve read that deals with ghosts (the first being Sparrow Hill Road), and although there is no connection between the two stories – except for the presence of ghosts, of course – the tie binding them together is the way McGuire handles the emotions connected to death and the afterlife.  The stark directness of her descriptions, the lack of any concession to morbid thoughts or easy sentimentality, make this story compelling and its characters unforgettable.

Ghosts are created when people die before their allotted life-span, so that they still move among the living – often in deceptively corporeal form, enough to be undistinguishable from the rest of humanity – until they have reached the amount of years pre-programmed, so to speak, into their existence: ghosts possess the ability to take time from the living, so prolonging an individual’s permanence on the Earth and at the same time shortening the giving ghost’s stay in limbo; they can also give time back, though, as a form of punishment for those who are deemed undeserving.

This intriguing premise has a negative side, though: witches (yes, there are witches moving among us, and some of them are bad) can trap ghosts inside mirrors and use them as a veritable fountain of youth, either for themselves or for anyone willing to pay for the chance of many more healthy, vigorous years. Even being dead does not free one from the dangers of human greed, it would seem…

Jenna is a ghost: once a small-town girl, she literally ran to her death shortly after her beloved sister Patty’s funeral.  Patty had moved to New York in search of a better life and, like many other disillusioned young women before her, choose suicide as a way of escape from her broken dreams.  Once dead, Jenna did not meet again with Patty – who, in all probability, was fated to die when she did – so she’s now going on as a ghost, working as a part-time waitress and as a volunteer at a suicide help line, where she earns time by helping people at the end of their endurance.   Decades of this routine almost-existence are profoundly shaken when it becomes clear that all ghosts in New York have disappeared, and Jenna decides to take action, shaking herself out of her unconscious complacency and finally facing her own… well, ghosts.

The actual plot at the core of this novel felt less important, to me, than the intriguing ideas and characters that supported it, starting with the whole concept of ghosts as indentured workers needing to serve their whole time before being set free: life is somehow compared to a form of duty one needs to fulfill before being allowed to move on.  That felt like one of the strongest arguments against suicide I remember reading, one that feels both right on its own merit and devastatingly clear in its simplicity.   Indeed Jenna, who still mourns the loss of her sister Patty, understands how her own accidental death squandered her potential, so that she feels the need to earn every single minute of time she gains, and more often than not chooses to donate it to someone in need.

Jenna is an intriguing character, because all throughout the story she appears somewhat detached from it all – not because she is a ghost among the living, but because it seems that she’s trying to protect herself from feeling too much: the loss of Patty, of the strongest emotional bond she had while living, left her apparently unable to form any meaningful connection with other people, either living or dead. It would be easy to classify her as cold and aloof, if it were not for the small group of friends she has gathered around her, the real mirrors of her personality: fellow ghost Delia, the landlady of the building Jenna lives in, a sort of mother figure for both living and dead in the community; corn-witch Brenda, the guitar-playing manager of the coffee shop Jenna visits regularly; or homeless Sophie, her muttered ramblings a cover for something deeper.  All of these equally fascinating characters show us who the real Jenna is by reacting to her with care and sympathy, making us understand that there is more to Jenna than meets the eye, even if she is the one telling the story and therefore being something of an unreliable narrator, up to a point.

What ultimately Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is, is a contemplation of life an death, of the meaning of both, and the way we face them.  There is a quote that showcases what I most appreciate in this author:

Statistically, women are more likely to go for poisons than men are. We don’t like to leave a mess. We spend our whole lives learning how to be… how to be as neat and tidy and unobtrusive as possible, and then we go out the same way.

No preaching, no lengthy sermons, but a simply effective bluntness that’s one of McGuire’s landmarks and the reason I’ve become such a staunch fan in a relatively short time.  This might not be one of the “happiest” stories you might find, but it’s one that will make you think, and that’s always a plus in my book.

My Rating:


Review: IMPERIAL TOWERS (Book of Never #5), by Ashley Capes

33302288I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

With this fifth novella (and one that is quite close to book length at that), Never’s journey seems to have reached its completion: I use the word ‘seems’ because there are a few open threads that imply the possibility of future developments, and besides the GoodReads page for this series indicates that six books are planned, but as far as Never’s search for his past and his heritage is concerned, Imperial Towers finally gives the reader a number of long-awaited answers.

Starting right after the momentous ending of the previous book, The Peaks of Autumn, this new installment in the story sees Never and friends in a difficult situation, with Luis gravely wounded and people hunting them through a landscape that’s becoming more dangerous with every passing day, since war has explosively broken out and everyone seems bent on fighting everyone else.  And Snow, Never’s estranged brother, looks like the lynchpin of it all…

From the very beginning of this serialized story, it was clear that Never was not an ordinary man: his peculiar ability to use his own blood as a weapon and the lack of information about his past both pointed toward a mysterious origin, so that as his journey of discovery progressed and the clues piled up (albeit in frustratingly small increments…) it became clear he descended from the fabled, half-forgotten Amouni, a more advanced race of beings possessed of extraordinary powers and superior knowledge.   Here, all the accumulated information finally coalesces into a clearer picture, as Snow’s plans come into focus and Never’s determination to stop his brother hardens into the resolve to do so no matter what.

The narrative core of Imperial Towers revolves around Never’s contrasting needs: on one side he knows he must prevent Snow from fulfilling his designs, because he understands the inherent dangers of absolute power and the blindness to human suffering that trails behind it; on the other he wants to recapture the bond that tied the two brothers in the past, the sense of family they shared and that was lost in the intervening years.  Never wants his brother back, he wants

the boy who had always tried to take the first blow whenever a villager threw a stone, the boy who had been the one to pull Never back to his feet, the boy who had been sure their curse did not have to damn them to a life of loneliness and hate

Unfortunately, this desire is at the root of Never’s ultimate weakness wherever Snow is concerned, and it allows Snow to coerce his brother into helping him, too often pulling him into his schemes against Never’s will with a cold ruthlessness that more than once made me wonder what had happened to the boy who used to be a protector and a shield.  And when the answer comes, it’s a very poignant one indeed.

The bright side of it all comes from the friends (the surrogate family) Never has gathered around himself: Luis, who has been his traveling companion from the very start; young Tsolde, even Elina – whose difficult position forces her to shift from ally to enemy and back to ally – and others.   For someone who has been forced by circumstances to live his life alone, Never makes friends quite easily thanks to his loyalty and capacity for self-sacrifice, both traits that belie his sometimes gruff and standoffish manners.  Now that part of the shadows hiding his true self have been lifted, it would be interesting to see what kind of man he might evolve into…

And speaking of revelations and discovered truths, I would like to close this review by showing how the covers for this story’s installments have slowly but surely evolved from the darkness of the first one to the light of the present book: a sort of visual clue to the expanding understanding of the readers as information piles up. Quite a nice touch, indeed!

My Rating:


 

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Review: TOWER OF THORNS, by Juliet Marillier (Blackthorn & Grim #2)

22567177Tackling the second book in a series can be a tricky business when the first one happened to be an amazing read: I’m often afraid that the “magic” will not be there with the same strength as it was in that first, remarkable read, so that I tend to postpone my approach to the next volume. Well, I should not have done that with Juliet Marillier’s Blackthorn and Grim, because this second book is even better than the first – and consider that Dreamer’s Pool was already an incredible find.

Tower of Thorns starts some time after the events of Dreamer’s Pool, showing how wise woman Blackthorn and her companion Grim seem to be quite settled in their life at Winterfalls: despite Blackthorn’s prickly character and Grim’s broody silence, the two have integrated well into their life in Prince Oran’s household, finding a modicum of peace, although the ghosts of their respective pasts still haunt them.  This quite fragile equilibrium is unbalanced by the move of the Prince’s retinue to the king’s palace, due to a temporary absence of the sovereign: leaving what the two have come to think of as their safe place is not easy, but the advanced pregnancy of Lady Flidais, the Prince’s wife, compels Blackthorn to insure her presence – and it’s clear that, despite her grumblings, the healer has developed a strong attachment to the community she lives in, while Grim has gone even beyond that.

Neither of them has much time to adapt to their new surroundings when two things happen that upset once more the status quo: Lady Geileis, the ruler of a nearby land, comes asking for help against a creature that has taken residence in an abandoned tower, its day-long wails upsetting both the people’s  spirits and the health of crops and cattle; and Flannan, an old friend of Blackthorn and a wandering scholar, makes his appearance, stirring up old ghosts and the healer’s never mastered need for vengeance.  Blackthorn’s acceptance of Lady Geileis appeal for help – the monster’s curse might be lifted by a wise woman – is simply the means to leave the court and explore the possibility of following Flannan south and connecting with a net of rebels bent on exposing Mathuin’s wrongdoings and finally bringing him to justice.

This story is told in what I have come to envision as expanding concentric circles, each new one adding some more information to the plot, and this is particularly true with the mystery of Geileis and her wailing monster, imprisoned in a tower protected by an impenetrable barrier of thorns. The flashbacks to what appears to be a classic fairy story offer more and more information about the terrible curse weighing on Geileis’ land, and her own part in it: it’s a fascinating tale, one that provides some much-needed clues to what basically is a very mysterious character, one who appears from the start to have an hidden agenda, and the will to bring her plans to fruition, no matter the cost.  As I learned the details of her past, I was caught between pity and dislike: on one side Geileis is a tragic figure, considering the heavy curse hanging over her domain, with a tower-bound monster howling all day long throughout the summer, its cries dredging the saddest thoughts from the listeners’ minds and sometimes bringing them to extreme acts, even affecting the cattle and the crops.  On the other, there is a core of ruthlessness in her that renders her uncaring of any consequences might be visited on those who choose to help her: the glimpses we see of the younger Geileis made me think that probably she never grew out of her teenage selfishness, so that her plight did not touch me as deeply as it should probably have.

Despite being at the core of the inciting incident for this story, Geileis is far less central to its economy than Blackthorn and Grim, especially the latter who – in my opinion – often takes the center stage here, while part of his past his revealed.   Blackthorn is a woman caught between two powerful forces: the need to see justice done for the wrongs Mathuin visited on her and other helpless victims, and the equally strong need to keep true to her pact with the fae Conmael. The arrival of Flannan makes the latter’s pull less strong, and day by day her need to throw caution to the four winds becomes more compelling, tempered only by the curiosity toward the riddle she wants to solve and – even more important – her loyalty toward Grim.  The relationship between Blackthorn and Grim keeps being the beating heart of this series, and here, where it’s sorely tested, it shines even more brightly: should she decide to follow Flannan south, toward vengeance, she knows she has to deceive Grim in order to keep him from following her toward what Blackthorn believes will be a sure death, and this causes her great anguish because complete honesty lies at the root of their relationship, one forged not on romantic attachment but on the kind of trust that only family can engender.

For his part, Grim perceives the distance that has come between himself and Blackthorn and while he can only guess at its reasons – and is hurt by it – he refuses to forsake the role of protector, confidant and friend that he needs to exercise just as much as Blackthorn knows she needs it herself. To say that my heart went out to him in these circumstances would be a massive understatement, especially when observing other people’s dismissive reaction to his silences and his oh-so-deceptive simple-mindedness, that under its surface hides a keen mind and a deep capacity for selflessness.  Whatever compassion I might have felt toward Grim’s character, however, went several steps further once the massive disclosure about his past came to the fore: it’s a huge, earth-shattering revelation that completely upends any theory I had about his background and shines a very different light on his personality, and his soul.  Tower of Thorns is very much Grim’s story more than anyone else’s, and the pages where we learn about the events that destroyed his past and shaped him into the man he is are among the very best of the novel, the intensity of feelings described with a sort of lucid compassion that is nothing short of breath-taking.

In Tower of Thorns both Blackthorn and Grim appear to have mastered some of the ghosts from their past, or at very least to have come to more comfortable terms with them, and even though it’s clear they still have a long road before them, it’s also clear they know – with the absolute certainty they had not reached until now – they can totally depend on one another, that despite their flaws they can count on each other for support, and strength.

There’s an intensity of feeling in Blackthorn and Grim’s relationship that touched my heart in such a deep way I have not experienced in a long time: to me this is the mark of stellar writing.  With the first book I discovered an amazing author, but with this second I have become a staunch fan.

My Rating:


2016 PLANETARY AWARDS

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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!

Review: THE CLOUD ROADS, by Martha Wells (Books of the Raksura #1)

9461562I’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.

My Rating:


Review: INK AND BONE, by Rachel Caine (The Great Library #1)

20643052This 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…

My Rating:


Review: BINDINGS & SPINES, by R.M. Ridley (White Dragon Black #2)

33226908I received the e-ARC of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

Since reading the first volume of this Urban Fantasy series, Tomorrow Wendell, and the short stories collection set in the same world, Blondes, Books and Bourbon, I’ve wanted to know more about the main character’s journey, so that when the author offered me the opportunity of reading the ARC for this second book, I was more than delighted to accept.

The main character of this series, Jonathan Alvey, is a private investigator and a practitioner, i.e. a magic wielder. In the course of his chosen work he therefore deals more frequently with the occult than with run-of-the-mill cases of stolen objects or unfaithful spouses, although even some of the more mundane assignments he handles sometimes turn out to be anything but.

There is something that distinguishes Alvey from the other PIs in any Urban Fantasy context: the use of magic not only saps energy from the wielders, but also makes them addicts and ultimately kills them. So Alvey, like his brethren, must be very careful in channeling the powers at his disposal a.k.a. the White Dragon, to avoid falling prey to the deadly demands of its counterpart, the Dragon Black. These two opposing forces are represented by the well-known yin-yang symbol, the one that marks every practitioner.

As Binding & Spines opens, Jonathan Alvey does not find himself in a very good place: his long-time friend Mary, worried for his health, has convinced (or rather, strong-armed) him into refraining from the use of magic, and he’s now deep into the throes of withdrawal. Just like it happens to any substance abuser, his body is reacting violently to abstinence, with devastating physical and psychological side effects that all but make him unable to function normally. The only means Alvey has to stave off the worst of the symptoms are the ones he uses to keep the need to use magic at bay: chain-smoking and heavy drinking, whose long-term consequences are just as bad as those of magic itself.   Just imagine someone who indulges in terrible (and even disgusting…) habits like preparing instant coffee with bourbon in place of water, or eats his cereals with beer in place of milk – this man really knows how to punish himself…

If use of magic is bound to have deadly consequences on his body, it’s also true that the alcohol and nicotine abuse he employs as a countermeasure are just as lethal: while I at first thought that the costs of wielding magic were a nice counterbalance to the character’s abilities, here I felt there was an unavoidable downward spiral to his journey that was really painful to witness, especially when coupled with the pervasive feelings of hopelessness and resignation that seemed to have ensconced themselves deeply in Alvey’s behavior.  I previously remarked on the character’s apparent self-destructive attitude, but while before it felt more like the cynical attitude typical of his chosen profession, here it looked like he’d given up and didn’t care what happened to him either way.

Luckily, two new cases come knocking on Alvey’s door, with the promise of a fleeting distraction from his troubles: a man hires him to confirm his suspicions on his wife’s infidelity, and a series of botched resurrections of the dead points to a new necromancer in town, one who could create a great deal of trouble.  Hampered by the impossibility to use his powers, the detective struggles in search of clues while battling with the treacherous reactions of his magic-starved body, while the two seemingly unrelated cases start showing some possible points of contact, especially when a much sought-after grimoire makes its appearance on the scene.

As the investigation progresses (and as a reader it was fun to “connect the dots” together with Alvey) a little more light is shed on the life of practitioners, the spells they use and the outlandish materials needed to complete the task, adding more substance and detail to the city of New Hades where the action unfolds: as a fictional location, New Hades is an interesting mix of modern and weird, where everyday activities like restaurants or libraries coexist with places such as the Blacklight, an area where I would not feel safe even in an armored tank. The overall mood of these stories always makes me imagine these locations in sepia tones, never in color: New Hades seems to live in perpetual twilight, even in the middle of the day – or at least this is how I keep perceiving it while immersed in the story.

There is no lack of humor in these pages, however: it’s of the subdued kind, so as not to contrast with the overall dark mood, but for this very reason it’s even more effective. We go from small touches as the street names, like Marlowe Avenue or Lorre Way, that give an amused nod to the two genres this series takes inspiration from, to the Redcaps infestation plaguing Alvey’s office building. Redcaps are small, vicious creatures that remind me of the garden trolls you sometimes find on unfortunate lawns, and the dichotomy between the small size of the creatures and the very nasty danger they represent – not to mention the creative ways employed by the detective to keep them at arm’s length – is the very reason Alvey’s encounters with them offer the necessary relief from the darker aspects of the story.

While this new case is successfully brought to a close, it’s clear from a few details that further and darker clouds loom on the character’s horizon, especially after the warning from a dead man who tells Alvey that “beyond even the darkness through which I traveled to return, somethings howls your name“. He will need all his wits, and all his staunch friends, to face those dangers and survive another day.

I, for one, will welcome more stories from New Hades and this very peculiar detective.

 

My Rating: