Would you be surprised if I told you that visiting the ‘fiction’ section of the Tor.com site and seeing Seanan McGuire’s name caused me to stop there and then to read this story?No, I know you won’t… 😀 And as usual I found an intriguing, immersive tale whose only drawback was that it ended too soon.
The premise is a well-known one, the existence of parallel universes, but the story itself is a journey where witty remarks and horrifying glimpses coexist in perfect balance: the crew of the airship Her Majesty’s Stalwart Trumpet of Glory (or Stubby for brevity, one of the ships of the Cartography Corps) travels through these alternate realities to chart them while looking for artifacts to bring home.This particular crew has been assigned to the North American area, and as the story starts they are approaching this world’s version of New York, relieved to find a recognizable landmark in the famous Flatiron Building.
Captain Isabel Langford, the Stubby’s captain, lost all her sense of wonder for what awaits her and her crew in each new reality: having seen it all, she seems to have grown jaded by it and she more than looks forward to the time when she will be able to enjoy a more stable life. Not that the overall tone of the story is one of gloom, of course, because there is instead a definite veneer of sarcasm running through it, from the description of the ragtag crew and their rambunctious ways, to the glimpses of past encounters in other realities – like the one where the inhabitants of New York had to take shelter in the subway tunnels because the pigeons had turned “carnivorous and bloodthirsty”.
What awaits Langford and crew in this version of New York will be a surprise, indeed, and one that seems to give these explorers a newfound perspective in their work.
I enjoyed Any Way The Wind Blows, but I would have loved to see this premise expanded into a longer work: there is a great deal of potential in this story and in the small glimpses we are offered here and I hope that Seanan McGuire might decide one day to turn this into a full-fledged novel.
I received this novel from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
The third and final installment in Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy is the brilliant finale of a remarkable series, but for me it also firmly places the author in my personal “buy sight unseen” category – which looks even more extraordinary if you consider that this is her debut work.While I was captivated by this series and its characters since Book 1, I had the pleasure of being more and more engaged in the story with each new volume, her mastery of pacing, dialogue and characterization growing literally from chapter to chapter, and The Unbound Empire represents indeed the culmination of this journey.
Storywise, the events take place a short time after Amalia Cornaro’s harrowing experiences in the hostile territory of Vaskandar, where she participated in the Witch Lords’ Conclave, called by the powerful Lord Ruven attempting to create an alliance against Amalia’s own Raverra.Taking advantage of the short respite before the storm, the young Cornaro heiress works to make her Falcon Reform Act a reality: the mage-marked of the Empire will not be subjected to forced conscription anymore and will be able to live wherever they want, provided that they are willing to help their country in time of need.
Amalia’s elation at this success is however short-lived: Ruven launches the first phase of his attack at the very heart of Raverra, undermining the Empire’s political stability with the intent of weakening it from the inside before launching the actual military assault. It will fall on Amalia to implement the first line of defense against the Witch Lord, and to try and remove his threat at any cost, so that in this final battle she will have to learn which lines she is prepared to cross as she balances the survival of her home against that of the people she loves.
When reviewers say they find it difficult to set any given novel aside for a moment, it might seem a hyperbole, but this was certainly not the case with The Unbound Empire: personally I begrudged every single moment in which I had to close my reader to attend to life’s everyday requirements, and in those moments I kept wondering what else would be in store for me once I could reopen the book and keep on reading.The pace is artfully calibrated and increases exponentially as the stakes and dangers keep mounting and the situation takes on the most bleak of overtones: even taking into account the general ruthlessness of Witch Lords, whose powers tend to divest them of many, if not all, of the usual factors that make humans human, Ruven’s callousness surpasses that of his peers by many orders of magnitude.
Moreover, Amalia often finds herself fighting on two fronts, because the political maneuverings in Raverra look as coldblooded as the Witch Lords’ schemes: now that she is gaining political clout and is starting to make her own path in the powerful circles to which she is destined, it becomes clear that she must harden herself to any eventuality and lose the scholar’s naiveté and self-absorption that used to be her comfort zone at the beginning of the story. I have to confess that I was hard-pressed to remind myself that Amalia is a young woman not yet out of her teens: one of my strongest contentions when dealing with YA characters is that they seem condemned to be depicted as whiny, prone to temper tantrums and moody inner dialogue, but Amalia Cornaro is nothing of the sort. Hardships and tragedy only serve to strengthen her resolve, and any sacrifice, any tough decision she is forced to make may grievously wound her soul but they never weaken her spirit.
One of the main themes of this series is the need for a balance between love, friendship and one’s duty – especially in dangerous times – and I enjoyed the way Melissa Caruso was able to blend all these elements into a cohesive and engaging whole, investing me with the intricacies of the sentimental triangle of sorts in which Amalia becomes involved. Again, what in lesser hands could have turned into somewhat annoying angst, does instead give life to several considerations about the weight of commitment to duty against the leanings of the heart, so that both the narrative developments and the characterization come out enhanced by the detours into “romance territory”, so to speak, instead of being weakened by them. And the unspoken but clearly highlighted notion that it’s possible to love two different people with the same depth of devotion, though expressed in different shades, is a great and enjoyable step forward in the exploration of this subject.
As I said in a previous review of this series, Marcello – the captain of the Falconers to whom Amalia is attracted – and Kathe – the mage lord whose courtship Amalia accepted for political expediency before becoming fascinated by his mercurial personality – represent the dual leanings of Amalia’s soul: Marcello is the safe harbor, the dependable, gentle person she could spend the rest of her life with; Kathe is both unfathomable and dangerous, yet here some hidden, more sensitive sides of his personality come into light, forcing Amalia to reassert her previous views on the man.If anything, the uncertainty of the choice she will have to make between these two opposites serves to strengthen Amalia’s character and to show that despite the inevitable heartbreak she is capable to set aside the inclinations of her soul and to listen to the harsh necessities of her mind: I don’t want to spoil the details for you, but there are moments when having to decide between “want” and “must” she is able to weigh all the possibilities – like the true scientist she was at the beginning – and to pick the path that will fulfill the mission she was tasked with.Not without pain, granted, but with an outstanding and admirable clarity of mind.
In this Amalia is supported by her Falcon Zaira, the young woman who can master balefire – the best weapon Raverra possesses against its enemies.The slowly evolving, grudging friendship between them is one of the highlights of the overall story if not its best element.Zaira herself is a fascinating character, one who had to survive on her wits alone while having to deal with the terrifying powers she possesses and which have already caused a great deal of grief in the past. For this reason Zaira tries to avoid any kind of emotional connection, afraid that the slightest lessening of her guard might cause harm to the people she cares for despite herself, and the brittle, skittish personality that comes from this is compounded by a propensity for sarcastic remarks that are both amusing and poignant, because they open a window on Zaira’s bruised soul.
Some of the best moments in this series come out of the interactions between Zaira and Amalia, and I enjoyed the way their friendship evolved – slowly and grudgingly – as these two persons who come from the opposite sides of the social scale move toward each other and become each other’s support in the traumatic events unfolding around them. It’s the guilt they have to deal with – Zaira for the tragic consequences of her unharnessed balefire; Amalia for the deaths caused by the necessities of war – that brings them together and forms a bond neither of them is willing to mention openly but still is a delightful sight to behold.
The Swords and Fire trilogy wraps up nicely with this third volume while leaving the door open for possible sequels, and I for one hope that Melissa Caruso will allow us to return to this world, because I think there are still many stories to be explored in here, and greatly enjoyed just as these three books were.
It’s no news that readers of GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire have been dealing with the author’s long gestating times between books with varying degrees of patience – or lack thereof, and the not-quite-satisfactory way in which the overall story was wrapped up by the TV series Game of Thrones did little to assuage the readers’ curiosity and their need to see the story and the characters’ journeys developed with the depth they expect from the books published until now.
Over the years some voices have been raised in a less than civilized way, literally demanding the next book in line as if it were their unalienable right, and lately I heard that a silly rumor was being circulated that Martin had actually finished the saga but was keeping the books under wraps as a favor to the TV show, which sounds totally foolish but still needed a public rebuttal by the author. Which proves that rumors spread faster than a pandemic, and are just as dangerous.
Replying to such absurdity with humor is always the best choice, to the point that playful creations like this one go a long way toward keeping the tone light:
And that’s the reason I enjoyed immensely this video created by Air New Zealand, which encourages George Martin to find a place where his creativity would flow uninterrupted, inviting him to visit their country. It’s a delightful way to express the readers’ eagerness to see the next book hit the stands, and it’s full of amusing tongue-in-cheek quips, my favorite being the one about “being nervous as a Stark with a wedding invite”.
I received this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
My very first book by John Gwynne was this novel’s predecessor, A Time of Dread, and it revealed to me not just an author who has rapidly become one of my favorites, but a complex world that simply begged to be explored: for this reason I backtracked to Gwynne’s first series, The Faithful and the Fallen, and now that I have read its first two books I am getting a more detailed picture of the historical background for this new series titled Of Blood and Bone.As I said in my review for A Time of Dread, it’s not necessary to have read the four volumes of The Faithful and the Fallen to enjoy this new saga, but having walked through half of that journey helped me to appreciate this new story more, and every time there is a mention of characters or events from the past, it feels like meeting some old friends.
Unlike all other books I read from this author, who likes to prepare the scene at a leisurely stride, A Time of Blood starts at a high speed and never, ever stops, increasing its pace all throughout the story with almost no respite at all: the playing field has been set, the pieces are all in their places, and now there seems to be room only for action. The forces of evil are on the move, and as we learned previously, they have been preparing for a long time for their comeback, yet what’s terrifying is how they prepared: not just by working secretly for their return, but by forging alliances and increasing their numbers in ways that go well beyond the simple act of recruiting troops. Prepare to be shocked, terrified and revolted at the same time…
As for the forces of good… well, in some instances they have unwittingly moved in directions that might ultimately aid the ancient enemy: the Order of the Bright Star and the Ben-Elim are still allies, of course, but somewhat uneasy ones, and their different perspectives on how to prepare for the battle against the never-vanquished Kadoshim often generate the kind of attrition that undermines such alliances. The members of the Order are proud of their past history and present accomplishments, and don’t look too favorably on the Ben-Elim lording it over everything and everyone, posing as the sole saviors of humanity.There is a definite feel of political strife here that counterbalances nicely the physical battles and adds a worrisome note to what might be the outcome of the final struggle that looms ever closer on the horizon.And where politics are concerned, there is always the possibility of deceit and betrayal, which in a few instances come completely out of the blue and leave you reeling in shock.
A Time of Blood is indeed a book in which revelations abound, either concerning characters or present and past events, and it’s because of these surprises that the quick pacing of the story becomes more like a flood against which we have no other recourse but to go with the flow and see where it takes us. As if this were not enough, the novel contains an amazing number of battle scenes described with such a cinematic quality that it feels as if we were watching one of those complex action movies where the different clashes are choreographed with great skill and allow you to follow the single skirmishes together with the overall battle, without losing any detail. If this story were ever to be transposed either to the big or the small screen, these would be epic scenes, indeed, and once more I’m in awe of the author’s technique in blending the descriptions of weapons wielding with the characters’ feelings as they fight, adding the human side of the equation to what might otherwise be a simple portrayal of clashing steel.
The term epic is indeed the only one that can be correctly applied to this story where the brewing conflicts of Book 1 have come out into the open, encompassing a whole world, and we witness the bloody combat in which men and giants, angels and devils fight against each other together with their own allies – bears and wolvens and hellish creatures that are the stuff of nightmares. A title as A Time of Blood hardly prepares you to the level of violence described here, although it must be said that it’s never gratuitous and always serves the narrative purposes of the overall story, not to mention that it’s wonderfully balanced by the themes of hope and love, of friendship and loyalty that have often been the only light in this encroaching darkness.Still, John Gwynne is not the kind of author who cossets his characters, so they are more often than not put through the grinder, to the point that there is never the absolute certainty of their survival – and previous experience with his writing has taught me that no one is truly safe, which adds another layer to the high level of tension that runs through this book.
Speaking of the characters, they continue to shine and to gain new facets as their journey moves forward: my favorite remains young Drem – the hero of this tale – as he moves from the naive boy who lived in the wilderness with his father and had little experience of the world, to a determined warrior who knows he has to find his courage and fulfill his role in the coming war. It came natural for me to draw a parallel between Drem and Corban, the main character from The Faithful and the Fallen: in my musings about the latter I wrote that he gave off some “reluctant Chosen One” vibes I did not particularly enjoy, since he seemed at time prone to the why me? kind of whining that annoys me a little. While I’m aware that I don’t know Corban’s whole story yet, and therefore I know that I should suspend my judgement, I can’t help but feeling more partial toward Drem who does not show any of the usual signs of the fictional hero, but is rather an ordinary person called to deal with extraordinary events and doing his best to face them with bravery and determination.
What is very enjoyable in the characters of this saga (and the one that preceded it) is that they are equally flawed, be it because of pride, or arrogance, or the penchant for evil, but they all share one common trait: they believe in what they do, even the villains, they have a reason for being what they are, and even though there is no way I can sympathize with some of the “bad guys”, I can see where they come from, and this makes them real, and relatable just as much as the heroes of the story. And this is one of the elements that makes these novels so intriguing and riveting.
Did I find any fault in this second book? Yes, one: it ended too soon and did so on a massive cliffhanger which makes me wish I could read the final installment right now.
But it’s not really a fault – it’s an encouragement. As if I needed one… 🙂
Oh my, where to start in describing this novel? And how to do it without revealing too much and therefore spoiling your enjoyment the story?Well, let’s begin with the cover, one that would have drawn my attention even without the name of Seanan McGuire, one of my favorite authors, acting like a magnet. That hand-shaped candle with the burning wicks at the end of each finger carries such an ominous overtone that I could not wait to learn what it meant – by the way, it’s a Hand of Glory, it features prominently from a certain point onwards, and “ominous” barely scratches the surface as far as I’m concerned…
The beginning of Middlegame might seem a little confusing, but my advice is to go with the flow and trust the author to carry you where she intends to: everything will become clear in no time at all.Even though the story is set in modern times, it shows some intriguing anachronisms: in the beginning we meet James Reed, an alchemist and at the same time a Frankenstein-like construct created by another famous alchemist, Asphodel Baker, whose dream was to harness the Doctrine, the fundamental force ruling the world, to shape it according to her vision.Baker never reached such a goal, hindered as she was by the Alchemical Congress, but Reed intends to continue his creator’s work – not so much to bring her legacy to fruition, but rather to gain absolute power.Reed’s way to make the Doctrine pliable to his will is to channel it in living flesh, embodying its constituent elements in twin children, each of whom will receive half of this energy.
Roger and Dodger are two such twins (not the only ones, though…), brought to life in Reed’s lab and infused, respectively, with the gift of language and mathematics, the two halves of the whole Doctrine. They are then separated and given to foster families, to grow as normal children until maturity will turn them into the tools Reed needs to wield.They are not normal children however, because their talents go well beyond the usual range to move into genius territory: Roger possesses an uncanny gift for languages, and Dodger plays with numbers as other girls do with dolls. One day, despite being hundreds of miles apart, they connect with each other, establishing a mind link that will indelibly shape their lives and their future, while at the same time mitigating in part their essential loneliness.As much as their creator and his minders try to keep them apart, to prevent them from reaching the desired peak too early, Roger and Dodger move through the years in a complicated dance of closeness and distance, friendship and hurt, mutual comfort and profound misunderstandings that will culminate one day in their actual meeting and the start of an unpredictable chain of events, involving time flow and the fabric of reality.
There are so many levels to this story that on hindsight I’ve come to acknowledge the fact that the core concepts of the Doctrine and Reed’s megalomaniac plans become secondary to the evolution of Roger and Dodger as persons: they are wonderfully depicted characters, their journey from childhood to maturity a fascinating progress that has little to do with their uncanny abilities and more with their sense of kinship, that bond which unites them from early on and is never broken even through separation and fallings-out.If there is a topic in which Seanan McGuire excels is the exploration of the human soul and the hurts children suffer as they grow up: Roger and Dodger are essentially lonely children, excluded by their nature and upbringing from their peers’ usual activities, always “on the outside looking in” and more often than not unable to understand the reasons for this rift.
There is a very poignant quality in the awareness of their isolation, which leads to the easy acceptance of the voice each of them hears inside their heads as the first contact is made and both children understand on some basic level that they have met their complement – the missing half, the part that completes them just as language and math, heart and reason, complete each other. Through them we explore the themes of friendship and family, of the connections we establish with other people and how deeply they can run, of the way our abilities can shape us and direct our lives.But above all we come to care for these odd twins and the way their respective orbits move around the center represented by their need to be together in order to be complete, and that’s the kind of story that compelled me to keep reading and made me resent every moment when I had to put the book down.
One of the reasons Middlegame is so absorbing comes from its peculiar narrative style, one that does not care too much about linearity and starts at what looks like an ending, and a shocking one at that: “There is so much blood.”, a sentence that informs the overall mood of the novel and keeps the reader mired in uncertainty about the fate of the main characters. From here the story moves haphazardly from past to future to past, the only navigational directions coming from the time and date given at the beginning of each chapter: such fluidity has its roots in one of the novel’s core themes, which is also an astounding discovery of the twins’ powers.I have often remarked how the vagaries of time can be a tricky subject where I am concerned, but here it all made a lot of sense, not to mention that it increased my perception of the stakes at hand, and just for once I did not care for the intricacies of time-hopping and its inherent contradictions because McGuire made it all appear so natural, so understandable in its very impossibility, that I could only accept and enjoy it.
The other characters in the story are truly secondary when compared with Roger and Dodger, so that the main villain Reed is not drawn too precisely, for example, although that turned out to be of little importance to me because in the end he was a little like Tolkien’s Sauron – a dire, evil presence in the background, mentioned but hardly seen.A little more definite is Reed’s henchwoman Leslie, another alchemical construct assembled from parts of dead women (which is a thoroughly chilling concept): her penchant for murder, mayhem and the suffering of others plays an interesting contrast with Reed’s detached cruelty. But the one who most drew my attention, in a strange mixture of dislike and pity, is Erin, the surviving half of another pair of experimental twins, and Leslie’s deputy of sorts: hers is an intriguing journey and one that I don’t want to spoil – discovering her depths and facets is one of the fascinating surprises of this novel.
Much as I always enjoy works penned by Seanan McGuire, I have to acknowledge that Middlegame feels like a further step up in her writing, plotting and character exploration skills, certainly the best book I have read so far from this author.Don’t let it pass you by, or you will miss an amazing story.
Author Seanan McGuire never fails to surprise me with the different moods and unique quality of her writing: from the emotion-laden drama of the October Daye series to the balance between seriousness and humor of the Incryptid novels to the stark dread inherent in the Newsflesh cycle she writes as Mira Grant, this author can use a wide variety of voices, making each book an engaging surprise. With the Wayward Children series McGuire delves into the realm of fairy tale, employing a language more suited to this genre, more… poetic for want of a better word, and with In An Absent Dream she reaches lyrical heights that touched me deeply and made this book the best of the series so far.
The premise at the core of the Wayward Children setting is that there are doors that open toward weird, fantastical realms, and they open only for children whose roots in our primary world are not as deep as others’: in these places they might develop their potential in a way that the “real” world would never allow them to, but sometimes – either by accident or because of homesickness – they find their way back and are unable to adjust to their old reality.For this reason the school created by Ms. West (herself once a returned child) exists to help these youngsters adapt back to our world, or find again the way back to those realms, if they are lucky, the understanding being that once the innocence of youth is lost, once the gift of wild imagination dwindles in the face of more adult responsibilities, the doors stay closed and never appear again, effectively stranding the child forever.
Katherine Lundy is the middle child of a well-to-do family, but also a lonely one: her father being the school’s principal prevents her from forming any friendship with her school mates, so she takes refuge in books and the certainties offered by the rules she loves to obey.While she’s not outwardly unhappy – at some point we see how she’s unable to even entertain the concept of unhappiness – something is indeed missing deep inside, so that when one day a door appears in a gnarled tree on her path, she turns the knob and finds herself in the colorful, unruly and wildly amazing Goblin Market, a place at the opposite side of the spectrum of her quietly ordered life.The economy, if such a term can be applied, of the Goblin Market is based on the concept of fair value, an intriguing kind of barter system which sees the people incurring in too many unpaid debts transformed into birds. Tutored by the Archivist and helped by Moon, the first real friend in Lundy’s existence, she spends a year in the Market, leaving it only in the aftermath of a tragedy. Since Lundy is still a child (her first foray happens when she’s nine years old), the rules of the Market allow her to return time and time again until her eighteenth birthday, when she will have to make the choice to either stay or go away forever.Despite realizing that only in the realm beyond the magical door she can truly be herself, she feels the pull of her original family and finds herself torn between two equally powerful claims on her commitment, knowing that either choice will mean pain and loss.
Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series is her most pathos-laden work to date, not only because young people are at the center of it and their distress feels more poignant than it would if the characters were grown-ups, but because of its focus on the need to fit in, to belong – a feeling that everyone experiences sooner or later and that is more emphasized when it concerns kids, whose coping mechanisms are far less developed than those of adults.The author reminds us often that the doors don’t manifest themselves if the children have no real need for a different world than the one they live in, but this also means that those who walk through the doors sooner or later will have to face some hard choices. This is Lundy’s case, when she goes home for the last time to say goodbye to her family: her now-grown younger sister Diana lays her claim to Lundy because she wants the sister she never had, and Lundy must choose between the family of her blood and that of her heart.
Of all the enchanted worlds shown so far in this series, the Goblin Market is the most detailed one, painted with vivid images and peopled by lively characters, the place “where dreamers go when they don’t fit in with the dreams their homes think worth dreaming”: where until now we only saw glimpses of other realms, here we get a living, breathing place where colors are more vibrant and smells more pervasive – and I dare anyone deny that their mouths did not water at all those mentions of fruit and meat pies that Lundy buys from the centaur baker… The Market is also a stark contrast with Lundy’s drab home life, made of distant parents and a painful lack of friends, while the rest of the world expects her to sacrifice her drives and expectations on the altar of conformity: if her first venture into the Market is the product of accident and curiosity, the second time Lundy chooses to go there as an act of rebellion once she understands that she was “living in a world that told her, day after day after grinding, demoralizing day, that adventures were only for boys; that girls had better things to worry about, like making sure those same boys had a safe harbor to come home to”.
Choosing to follow the calling of her heart and dwell forever in the Goblin Market, Lundy will have to sacrifice her sister Diana’s happiness, her desire to get to know the sister she knew she had but never had a chance to share her life with; on the other hand, choosing to follow the call of blood, Lundy will have to sacrifice herself – her dreams, her hopes, her true being.Here the starkest meaning of fair value comes to the fore with dramatic clarity, because it stresses the difference between wanting and needing, and as the Archivist told Lundy once, “When you need, it’s important that the people around you not be looking to take advantage”.And having to choose between wanting and needing can tear a person apart…
Poignant, heart-wrenching and powerfully evocative, In An Absent Dream is one of Seanan McGuire’s strongest offerings to date, and a very recommended reading.
Finding a story by Seanan McGuire is always a treat, particularly because I never know, going in, what I will find, although I’m also aware at the same time that it will be an intriguing journey – and this was no exception.
The tale is told in the form of a diary from Amelia Whitmore, who in the latter part of the 19th Century mounts an expedition to explore the depths of the Bolton Strid, a body of water wreathed in mystery, a deceptively lovely place with hidden depths and murderous currents that never gave back the bodies of the unfortunates that dived in it.Long ago Amelia’s grandfather Carlton found a strange woman on the banks of the Strid, with pale, glittering skin and no knowledge of the world, and named her Molly; after her death, he vowed to look for her family to tell them of what had happened, but was unable to, and now Amelia wants to fulfill that promise, and explore the mysteries of the Strid. What Amelia will find is beyond her wildest thoughts, and filled with terrible discoveries…
The tone of this story is an intriguing one because it uses a language and expressive mode that’s typical of the period in which the tale is set, something that reminded me of the sense of wonder of Jules Verne and the terror of the unknown from Lovecraft’s works: the latter is particularly true at the closing part of the story, when the ultimate truth hits like a scorpion’s sting.Which is a typical Seanan McGuire’s ending…