Reviews

THE SHADOW OF THE GODS (The Bloodsworn Saga #1), by John Gwynne

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

A Time of Dread was the book that helped me discover author John Gwynne, that first book in the amazing Of Blood and Bone trilogy then leading me to retrace his narrative path with the previous series The Faithful and the Fallen, of which I still have two books to explore. When this new work was announced I was beyond eager to see where Mr. Gwynne would take us next and also certain that I would enjoy this story as I did the other ones: well, The Shadow of the Gods managed not only to surpass my expectations, it even outclassed his other novels I read so far – and they were already outstanding works in their own rights! 

This will be a spoiler-free review, because I was fortunate enough to read the e-ARC some time before the expected publication, and I don’t want to deprive potential readers of the sheer joy of discovering this amazing story on their own. Still, I can talk freely about this extraordinary world and the awesome characters peopling it, to give you an idea of the breath-taking journey that’s in store for you. Since the Bloodsworn Saga is based on Norse lore and mythology, I had an advantage thanks to my recent experience with the TV series Vikings, being already familiar with some of the terms and above all with the appearance of the characters, so it was easy for me to picture people and backgrounds and I felt at home practically from page one.

The land of Vigrid was once dominated by the gods, who wrecked the world in the war they waged against each other: in the new world born out of the ashes of the old one, the bones of the dead gods hold special power and are therefore much sought after by overlords seeking to extend their dominions. There are monsters as well in Vigrid, called vaesen and lying in wait for the unwary traveller or trying to attack unprotected homesteads – and then there are the Tainted, humans in whose veins runs some of the gods’ blood, gifting them with special powers: they are either hunted down like animals, or captured, enslaved and exploited.  

Three are the main characters of the story: Orka, once a renowned warrior and now making her living as a huntress, together with her husband and young child; Varg, a former thrall (slave) on the run from his old master and driven by the need to avenge the death of his sister; and Elvar, the daughter of a powerful jarl, who renounced a life of privilege to join the warband of the Battle-Grim, in search of fame and glory. I was certain that these three separate threads would converge sooner or later, since there seems to be something brewing in the world, something sinister that starts with brutal attacks on isolated homesteads and the kidnapping of young children, so that Orka’s search for her own stolen child slowly but surely moves toward the meeting with the Bloodsworn – the warband in which Varg has been accepted and that took on a perilous but well-paid assignment – and probably with the Battle-Grim, whose need for wealth has taken them toward the most dangerous, monster-infested part of the world. The Shadow of the Gods is but the prelude to what promises to be an engrossing story, and reaching the last page left me eager to see where this amazing new saga would take me next.

John Gwynne’s novels always achieve a well-balanced mix between plot and characterization – one of the reasons they always prove so satisfying – and this new work is a case in point: as the characters engage in their individual journeys we are made familiar with the land of Vigrid and with its history, we are presented with wide plains and rocky expanses, with river marshes and frigid tundra, and we feel as if we shared the characters’ paths and the difficulties they entail. We are also able to visit a city built inside the huge skeleton of a fallen god, a place of constant twilight that made me feel quite uneasy (and with good reason…), and then we travel by sea, sharing the effort of warriors who lay down their weapons for a while to take up the oars and guide their ship through perilous seas. There is a constant cinematic aspect to the descriptions here that makes the storytelling vivid and three-dimensional, without losing the “fireside tale” quality that for me has become the author’s trademark. And of course I can’t forget the battles: with John Gwynne’s novels I never skip the description of battles because they are realistically detailed and – no matter the brutality of the clash – always dramatically fascinating.

But of course, even in this stunning background, the characters are the elements that make these stories truly shine, and in The Shadow of the Gods both main and secondary ones are responsible for breathing memorable life into the novel.  I needed some time to warm up to Orka at first, mostly because she comes across as somewhat harsh and demanding in her dealings with her son, while her husband looks like the softer one of the two. But once Orka’s mother instinct is put to the test, it’s easy to understand how her apparent sternness is only a means of steeling young Breca against the world’s dangers, and her determination and ferociousness in rescuing him from his kidnappers are as white-hot as her love for him.   Elvar, on the other hand, looks like she’s still evolving and trying to find her destiny: refusing to be used as a pawn in her powerful father’s political dealings, she choose to join a warband as a form of freedom and rebellion at the same time: what she’s still learning is that, no matter what one’s life choices are, there is always a price to pay for them. And finally Varg, who like Orka is desperately trying to fulfill an oath: his life as a slave has been a harsh, lonely one, and the loss of his sister – the only person he could trust – has turned him into a haunted, mistrustful person, to the point that the most difficult task he faces with the Bloodsworn is to accept friendship and camaraderie, truly a heart-breaking side of his character, and one that offers some poignant insights once he starts to fraternize with his new companions.

The beauty of these characters is that they are all inherently flawed and probably not “hero material” in the usual meaning of the term, but I have come to care deeply for them (and particularly for Orka and Varg) because they are driven by the strength of their love for friends and family, and because they have the ability to create a bond – as strong as the one of blood – with the people they live and fight with. This is one of the themes at the core of John Gwynne’s novels, the backbone of loyalty and devotion that can bind individuals tied by a common goal, and here it’s present in a superbly gritty and emotional form. It might be a little early to say that his might be my best read for 2021, but I’m not sure I will find others capable to bring out the immersive delight I experienced with The Shadow of the Gods – and this is only the beginning of the whole story…

My Rating:

Reviews

BEST SERVED COLD (First Law #4), by Joe Abercrombie

While I’m not in the habit of re-reading books – mostly because book blogging and a huge TBR compel me to look forward rather than back –  I decided to make an exception for this first stand-alone novel in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series: back in 2011 Best Served Cold was my introduction to this author and to the concept of grimdark fantasy (and although I enjoyed it, it took me an unfortunate long time before I read the three books that precede this one) and what this re-read taught me is that, apart from the core concept of the novel, I had practically forgotten the majority of narrative details, so that my drive to re-acquaint myself with the story ended up feeling like a first encounter.

Monza Murcatto and her brother Benna are the leaders of the Thousand Swords, the huge mercenary band in the employ of Duke Orso of Talins: Monza’s successful leadership contributed to Orso’s sweeping conquest of a huge part of Styria, and as the book starts the siblings are headed toward the ducal palace to report on their latest victory.  Unfortunately, Orso is alarmed by Monza’s growing popularity, and fearing a power grab from the mercenary he orders her and her brother brutally killed. Against all odds, Monza survives: broken and maimed in body and spirit, the only thing keeping her alive is her desire for revenge against Orso and the other six people present at the murder scene. Gathering a band of misfits, Monza sets out to seek and kill – in the bloodiest and cruelest way possible – these seven people, moving ever closer to Orso and laying a trail of destruction in her wake.

While the previous three novels in the First Law sequence were rife with bloodshed and violence, these elements were however balanced out with some dry humor that made things easier for the readers: here that kind of humor is overwhelmed by the savagery of the story and by Monza’s unwavering focus on revenge, a goal that ends up consuming whatever humanity she and her crew possess. Even when the plan she sets in motion should end up in a “surgical” kill, quite a number of innocent bystanders are hurt or lose their lives, and Monza’s companions are not exempt from it, as well, sometimes suffering horribly.

I have often encountered a comment about there being no journey of redemption for Abercrombie’s characters, and this is particularly true here where Monza’s single-minded focus seems to pull everyone in a downward spiral from which there is no turning back: her desire for revenge taints whatever shred of humanity her companions might possess and more often than not I considered how that desire consumed Monza from the inside, compelling her to turn the others into a mirror image of herself – a twisted interpretation of the maxim about misery wanting company…

This is particularly true for Caul Shivers, a character from the First Law trilogy: at the start of the book we see him reaching Styria from the far North, driven by the desire to become a better man, to leave violence and bloodshed behind. The reality he encounters is quite different from that rosy dream and dire circumstances force him to become Monza’s main henchman, to find himself once again drenched in blood and violence until little by little he re-discovers the savage joy of brutality for its own sake. Shivers, and not Monza, is the truly tragic figure here: not unlike his old enemy Logen Ninefingers he comes to realize that there is no running away from one’s brutal destiny and in the end he fully embraces what he had left the North to escape. His is a long road, painful in many ways – not only for the body, on account of the often grievous damage he suffers, but also for the mind, when he understands that Monza is using him like a tool, one to either be wielded as a weapon or employed for a brief moment of physical respite.

Shivers is the mirror through which Monza’s character can be observed – and judged: true, she was used and discarded (She was the spider they had to suffer in their larder to rid them of their flies. And once the flies are dealt with, who wants a spider in their salad?) and for this she wants revenge, but to obtain that revenge she becomes herself a user, one who treats her allies as she was treated and displays no qualms, no moments of reflection on the brutally selfish drive that consumes her and all those who surround her. Even the flashbacks to her previous life, showing how she became the person she is at present, do little to justify her current attitude: while other characters might strive, however briefly, toward redemption, there is no such drive in Monza, and for this reason I constantly failed to cheer for her even though I admired the author’s skill in her portrayal.

While there are other very interesting characters in this story – like the master poisoner Morveer, whose acerbic personality and complicated plots often seemed to border on the comedic; or ex-inmate Friendly, the sociopath with an almost autistic penchant for numbers and counting, the one who truly shines here is Nicomo Cosca, who made a few sporadic appearances in the previous trilogy and here manages to steal the scene every time he comes under the spotlight.  Once the leader of the Thousand Swords, he was ousted by Monza herself and became a drunkard and a wastrel: he’s the only one in the group who really seems intentioned to change his life for the better, and indeed he does – in his own way. Cosca might be unreliable and sneaky, totally untrustworthy as a true mercenary should be (Loyalty on a mercenary is like armor on a swimmer), but he’s also quite complex, showing layers upon layers that make him unpredictable and totally delightful to observe. After a while, witnessing his oh-so-easily shifting loyalties paired with a whimsical personality, I came to see him as the equivalent of another favorite character, Sand dan Glokta: the two are as different as apples and oranges, but what they share is a captivating blend of opposing traits that make them compellingly irresistible.

Best Served Cold is not however only about the characters’ journey, fascinating as it is, but also about how the consequences of an individual’s choice come to encompass a whole country: Monza’s desire for vengeance becomes like the proverbial pebble that starts an avalanche, so that her actions turn from their fairly limited milieu into a world-wide state of warfare with vast political consequences that bring, once again, a massive upheaval in a land where peace is but a fleeting dream.  By now I’m more than used to Joe Abercrombie’s bleak view on humanity, but this time around I felt the pressing need, once finished the book, to turn toward something more optimistic – even though I thoroughly enjoyed this new journey in his world.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE TROUBLE WITH PEACE (The Age of Madness #2), by Joe Abercrombie

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

When I read A Little Hatred, the first volume in Joe Abercrombie’s new saga, I had not yet fulfilled the long-standing promise to myself to read his First Law trilogy, yet still I managed to enjoy the new story very much, despite missing the connection with past events and characters contained in the previous books. Now that I have managed to catch up with that past, I am finally able to appreciate all the subtler nuances of story and characterization that make this world one of the best creations in the genre.  And what an amazing journey this was!

As the title suggests, peace is not an enduring status in the Circle of the World: the political  scene in the Union is still in flux and the newly named king Orso finds himself hemmed in between the rock of social unrest and the hard place of his own advisory council, whose disdain for his ruling abilities is barely concealed. Savine dan Glockta lost much of her prestige after the harrowing experiences of the Breakers’ revolt, and her need to regain the standing she enjoyed compels her to make alliances whose wisdom might not survive the harsh light of day.  Leo dan Brock, Lord Governor of Angland – the buffer state between the Union and the “barbaric” North – still pines for triumphs and glorious battles and is far too easily drawn into a dangerous conspiracy by shrewd politicians harnessing his brawn in service of their subtly nefarious brains.

Things are hardly better in the North, where the self-declared king Stour Nightfall is bent on attacking again the Union to expand his territories, meanwhile bolstering his rule through violence and cruelty, not only against opponents but also against those of his own men foolish enough to raise objections.  As a first step he sets again his sights on Uffrith, the domain of the Dogman, where Rikke, the old hero’s daughter, is trying to come to terms with her prescient gift – the Long Eye – and is ready to undergo the most harrowing of rituals to harness that power and put it to the service of her people.

This is the bare-bones premise from which The Trouble With Peace takes flight, developing into a tale of convoluted political schemes, social unrest, conspiracies, revolution and, above all, an engrossing examination of the human soul filtered through conflicting desires and shameful or tragic paths.  Where the action scenes remain among the most engagingly cinematic I ever encountered – alternatively focusing on heroic feats and very human moments of pure terror and cowardice – Joe Abercrombie’s storytelling shines the brightest when he shapes his characters, be they the main ones or the secondary figures, who get just as much attention and detail as everyone else, contributing to the richness of the narrative canvas.  A shining example of this careful design comes from the portrayal of a bloody act of sabotage that is relayed several times from the point of view of a number of different people: the repetition of events helps to create a three-dimensional picture not just of the fact itself, but of the societal medium in which it happens and the way its members figure into it.

What’s most extraordinary in this story is that the moral ambiguity of the characters works both ways, with no clear definition of right or wrong, and the main examples of this grey area are King Orso and Leo dan Brock: while the narrative focus is on either one of them, it’s easy for the reader to sympathize with him, to see his reasons or at least to understand where they come from, but once the point of view shifts to the other one, the same happens, making us realize that truth and righteousness are simply a matter of perspective. Both characters have their merits, narratively speaking, because if on one side Orso seems to grow into his role, finding strength and the foundations of his role through the troubles he has to deal with, 

He sometimes could hardly face breakfast, was alarmed by the notion of choosing a shirt, but epic disaster appeared to have finally brought out the best in him.

on the other Leo comes across as an ultimately tragic character, one who is driven by high ideals toward a very dangerous, very uncertain path. 

Savine dan Glokta’s journey continues on the controlling and manipulative trail that was her peculiar modus operandi from book 1, but a part of her ruthless self did get lost during the Breakers’ tumults and the traumatic experiences she endured, so it appears here as if she lost both the edge and the keen foresight that once allowed her to be always five moves ahead of her opponents. Despite a constant show of willpower, and a relentless drive that propels her toward any goal, it’s clear that some key element of her personality is now missing, exposing her to fate’s vagaries in an unprecedented way.

Rikke’s character arc, on the other hand, moves in the opposite direction: from the half-savage, tormented girl plagued by unwanted and uncontrollable visions of the future, she grows here into her own woman – and one ready to pay the price necessary to harness her gift and turn it into the tool she needs to lead her people. She became my favorite character in this book, both for the combination of strength and gallows humor that allows Abercrombie’s peculiar narrative style to shine even more, and for the way she transforms into a crafty leader, the perfect embodiment of this world’s survivor, one who knows that shrewd manipulation and back-stabbing politics are the best weapons she can wield.

If the main protagonists do indeed carry the story on their proverbial backs, the secondary figures are just as fascinating, offering complementary points of view and enhancing the sense of full immersion created by the novel: Caul Shivers, Broad, Isern-i-Phail or Vick dan Teufel – just to name a few – enjoy their own share of the limelight, adding depth to the events being carefully built before our own eyes, and the biggest surprise, toward the end of the book, comes exactly from two of those “lesser” players. As the novel seems ready for an epilogue, with the narrative threads brought to what looks like a neat wrap-up that made me wonder if this was not set as a duology, the end is carried by two of those secondary figures – one from the previous trilogy and one from the newest arc – whose actions open the door to what promises to be an amazing, gloriously devastating finale I can hardly wait for.

Thankfully, I still have the stand-alone books in this saga to sustain me while I bide my time…

My Rating:

Reviews

MR. MERCEDES (Bill Hodges Trilogy #1), by Stephen King

 

After a long hiatus due to a mild disenchantment with Stephen King’s works, I found my way back to his novels through The Outsider and the more recent – and for me far more successful – The Institute. So I decided to retrace my steps and see what other good stories I missed in those “years of disappointment” and settled on the Bill Hodges series, starting with Mr. Mercedes: this trilogy marks a change of pace from King’s usual offerings, since it’s a crime/thriller novel with no elements of horror or supernatural activities, but as I’ve often found out we hardly need monsters to inspire dread, when the darkest depths of the human soul offer more than enough material in that sense…

Mr. Mercedes proves this theory from the very start: in 2009, as the world suffers in the grip of widespread recession, a sizable crowd forms around a stadium where the next morning a job fair will open its doors. Hundreds of hopefuls queue up in the chilling nighttime fog waiting for an opportunity, when a high-end Mercedes sedan plunges at full speed over the crowd, killing eight innocents and maiming twice as much.  Roughly one year afterwards Bill Hodges, one of the detectives working the case of the Mercedes Killings, finds himself in a deep depression brought on by his retirement and the ghosts of the cases he could not solve: he spends most of his days drinking, sitting in front of the TV watching trashy shows, and at times contemplating suicide. All this changes when he receives a letter from the killer, calling himself Mr. Mercedes, and urging the detective to put an end to his life. Forced out of his inertia, Hodges engages in a progressively more dangerous game of cat and mouse with Brady Hartsfield, the killer, teaming up with some unconventional helpers like Jerome, a tech-savvy teenager; Janey Patterson, the sister of the Mercedes’ guilt-ridden owner, driven to suicide by the killer himself; and finally Holly Gibney, Janey’s niece and a character I met in The Outsider, making her first appearance here.

Much as I enjoyed this novel, which turned out to be a compulsive read, I ended up being of two minds about it: on one side the story moved along at a fairly relentless pace and with the stakes getting progressively higher I found it practically impossible to put the book down, on the other, once all was said and done and the proverbial dust settled, my “inner nitpicker” surfaced and started pointing out several inconsistencies that I was able to overlook while I was engaged in reading, but came back to bother me afterwards.

What I liked: as usual, Stephen King’s main strength comes from characterization, and Mr. Mercedes offers many opportunities for the detailed creation of outstanding figures, starting with Bill Hodges himself, who might look like something of a cliché in that he’s the classical former detective, overweight and lonesome, who gave his all in the course of a long career paying the price in terms of family ties, and now feels useless and adrift, but ultimately shows unexpected resilience once he’s presented with the opportunity of getting closure on a case still preying on his mind for several reasons. There is a kind of twisted humor in the way Hodges evolves along the way, because the action that in the killer’s intentions should have driven him over the edge is exactly the one that revives the ex-detective’s interest in life and compels him to get out of the well of melancholy and lethargy that had enveloped him up to that point. This unexpected outcome works well within King’s overall tendency toward dark humor, which is evident both through some tongue-in-cheek references to his previous works (like IT or Pet Sematary) and through a few unexpected developments that keep frustrating the killer’s plans in a way that is, at the same time, dramatic and reminiscent of poor Wile E. Coyote’s major failures.

Brady Hartsfied stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, of course, not only because he’s the villain here, but because he’s the worst, most despicable kind of villain one could ever imagine: a person with a history of abuse, granted, but also one who is a completely abominable creature filled with the need to make his own mark on history, to be seen beyond the drab anonymity of his life, and who chooses to do so by hurting people –  not just physically hurt them, but to torture them psychologically as he does with the owner of the stolen car he used for the massacre, or with Hodges himself. There is a well of hate in Brady – directed both inward and outward – that seeks release by striking toward those he sees as more “fortunate”, and he does so with such a gleeful abandon that wipes out any trace of compassion one might feel for the damaging experiences of his past. There is a chilling, inescapable consideration that comes to mind when reading his sections in the novel: that there are, and have been, many Brady Harstfields in the real world, that a substantial number of them have doled out death and pain, and that any one of them might do so again…

Where the characters and the story-flow worked quite well for me, there are however some narrative choices that did not: for example, Hodges’ dogged determination to solve the case without involving the police. If there is a believable reason, in the beginning, to keep the new evidence and the killer’s missives to himself, and if it’s understandable how Hodges might want this “last hurrah” for himself, this rationale stops being credible once Brady raises the stakes in an… explosive way (pun intended, sorry…) and shows that the theory of the dangerous wounded animal is more than sound. The reasoning behind Hodges’ decision, that the police department is busy dealing with a huge weapons raid, sounds far too convenient to be completely believable and looks like an aberrant deus-ex-machina created to allow the “heroes” to shine on their own.

Still, the final part of the novel is such a breakneck run against time and impossible odds that it’s easy to momentarily set aside any misgivings and to let oneself be carried away toward the ending. While I might not completely appreciate the method, I enjoyed the thrill of the ride and that’s what ultimately mattered. And of course I’m now curious to see where Stephen King will take his characters in the next two novels of the series.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS (The First Law #3), by Joe Abercrombie

 

The long buildup created in the first two books of this series finds its amazing epilogue in this third volume, and in keeping with the style and overall mood of the story does not offer readers an upbeat ending – but that hardly matters as the characters’ journey is so compelling that it works just as well.

War and strife come from many fronts toward the Union and its capital Adua, where most of the action takes place: the Northmen, led by ruthless King Bethod, are moving steadily southward and the Union’s army finds it difficult to contain the barbarians’ forward momentum, despite the help from Bethod’s old enemies Dogman and Logen Ninefinger; the Gurkish are marching from the south to lay siege to Adua, where the sudden death of the king adds a further layer of trouble to a political situation in which complex machinations and back stabbing plots go on regardless of the impending danger.

Logen Ninefingers, together with the Dogman and his other comrades, has chosen to help Colonel West and the Union army in the fight against Bethod, his ultimate goal being to exact bloody revenge against the king of the Northmen, once his friend and now his bitter enemy. Jezal dan Luthar has returned to Adua a changed man, one whose greater desire is for a quiet life together with the woman he loves, but he’s unaware that a very different destiny waits for him in the city he calls home. Superior Glokta finds himself enmeshed in a many-layered web of intrigue in which the political maneuverings for the election of the new king are only the tip of the iceberg as he realizes that his very survival might be at stake. And Bayaz, the First of the Magi, seems to be everywhere, his long reach leaving nothing and no one safe from his mysterious goals…

There is so much that happens in this final novel of the First Law trilogy that certainly takes great skill to keep all the narrative threads and character journeys balanced, and Abercrombie manages that with apparent lack of effort as the situation drives inexorably toward the final showdown: the way the author moves between the various points of view and situations makes for a compulsive read that at times turns into oxygen-depriving anxiety, particularly during battle scenes, or a certain very realistic, very bloody duel where the tension almost transforms into physical discomfort.  While the outcome of the various plotlines remains uncertain until the very end and is reached through a series of twists and unexpected surprises, no one truly gets what they wanted or hoped for, as the old maxim about being careful regarding one’s desires shows its accuracy in several circumstances. Truly, no one comes out of this story unscathed, because events either overwhelm them, or change them profoundly, for good or bad: there is less humor in this final installment of the trilogy, even the gallows humor Abercrombie used all throughout the story, which here touches its bleakest moments. And yet it remains just as powerful and fascinating because of the underlying reality of its premise.

As far as characters go, I realized what a sorrowful one Logen Ninefingers is: a man whose destiny seems to lie in endless fights, both because of the nature of the world he lives in and because of his own nature and that of his… alter ego the Bloody Nine, but still a man with enough powers of introspection to understand that this is not a way of life, even as he acknowledges that there could not be a different one for him, no matter how much he might wish for something different.

He could’ve gone far away, and started new, and been whoever he wanted. But he’d tried that once already, and it had done him no good. The past was always right behind him, breathing on his neck.

There is a fascinating dichotomy in Logen: on the surface he’s the epitome of the savage warrior, a man who looks like a brute and who’s able to launch into mindless killing sprees; on the inside he’s gifted with great powers of understanding, of himself and those around him, that drive the ruthless self-analysis with which he recognizes the limited choices his former life left him: either go on with the endless, brutal struggle for survival, or to give in and accept the death he has been cheating for so long with the “still alive” mantra he recites after each bloody encounter.

Jezal dan Luthar is the character who sees the greatest transformation in the course of the story: he begins as a boorish dandy, interested only in drinking, womanizing and looking fashionable and wishing for glory and recognition. Where he partially adjusts his outlook through danger and hardship, he still retains some of his old flightiness until a massive, unexpected change in life shows him that the prestige and appreciation he craved for are only the outward trappings of duty and responsibility and that he needs to grow into the role that fell on him, or be crushed by it.  Much as I despised the Jezal of old, his capriciousness and shallowness, I was compelled to pity the man he becomes toward the end, because of the price he has to pay for it, something that reminded me of a very impassioned quote from my beloved Babylon 5, where Londo Mollari says: “When we first met I had no power and all the choices I could ever want. And now I have all the power I could ever want and no choices at all. No choice at all.” Tragic indeed…

As usual I left my very favorite individual for last – Sand dan Glokta. This potentially despicable character is instead the most relatable of them all, a man who was broken in body but not in mind and who has learned the fine art of survival in the most terrible of circumstances. Faithful to the dual nature of Abercrombie’s characters, he lives and breathes cynicism while secretly yearning for some of the joy that circumstances denied him, all the while trying to stay afloat in the poisonous atmosphere of Adua’s political circles.

The one good thing about every step being an ordeal. You soon learn how to tread carefully.

Friends are people one pretends to like in order to make life bearable. Men like us have no need of such indulgences. It is our enemies by which we are measured.

And that duality shows ever more clearly in the most dangerous circumstances, when his survival hangs by a thread and he appears ready to finally let go of the burden of his painfully crippled body, yet he welcomes any unexpected reprieve with phlegmatic relief: in a way I’ve come to believe that his continued survival, while certainly due to his ability to navigate the toxic circles he moves in, comes mostly from his apparent lack of fear for death, outwardly considered as a relief.   In a similar way, Glokta’s cynical approach is belied by his kind-hearted interest for the misfortunes of Ardee, his friend Colonel West’s sister, and the way the two of them become close by sharing a penchant for masking their deepest emotions with sarcastically delightful repartees: it’s through those interactions, and the way they affect their shared story, that the author offers the only glimmer of light and hope in the overall grimness of the story – a glimmer that feels both right and well deserved.

I’m glad I have still more books to explore in this world created by Joe Abercrombie, not to mention the upcoming ones in the new Age of Madness series, whose first volume A Little Hatred finally compelled me to read The First Law. This is a harsh, cruel world, granted, but it’s such a compelling one that making the effort to look past the blood and violence to the wonderfully crafted characters that people it becomes no effort at all.

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

THE OBSIDIAN TOWER (Rooks and Ruin #1), by Melissa Caruso

 

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

Having greatly enjoyed Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy, I was quite eager to sample her new work, and also curious to see her world from the point of view of the Raverran Serene Empire’s adversaries from previous books. Where the magic present in Raverra is controlled by placing jesses – i.e. restraining bracelets – on people endowed with magical powers, in Vaskandar mages are free to exert their powers, and the strongest among them rule over the realms to which they are intimately connected, engaging in endless strife for supremacy with their neighbors.  In Swords and Fire, looking at Vaskandar through Raverran eyes, this country seemed to pose a constant threat: military aggression against diplomacy; undisciplined magic against tight control of powers; authoritarian rule against the compromise of politics.  The Obsidian Tower looks on Vaskandar from the inside, and shows us that it’s indeed all a matter of perspective…

For four thousand years, the castle of Gloaminguard stood as protection over a magically sealed black tower: the family’s lore stresses emphatically that its door must remain closed at all costs. Ryx is the latest descendant of the family holding Gloaminguard, appointed warden of the castle by her grandmother, a powerful Witch Lord called the Lady of Owls. Ryx is however burdened by the impossibility of wielding her magic: in a family of vivomancers, mages with the ability to interact with the flora and fauna of their territories, the young woman is cursed by a killing touch – every living thing that comes into close contact with her is doomed to wither and die. As Gloaminguard is getting ready to host a meeting between Raverran and Vaskandran emissaries for the peaceful solution of a controversy, one of the envoys tries to circumvent the tower’s safeguards and is accidentally killed by Ryx as she tries to stop the ill-advised attempt of her guest.

Faced with the intricate task of juggling the consequences of the accident, the volatile political situation and the survival of her grandmother’s realm, Ryx finds herself enmeshed in a progressively dangerous game in which every new discovery leads to unexpected pitfalls and impossible choices, as the old menace from the newly-awakened Tower looms closer and threatens to plunge the whole world in a maelstrom of destruction.

The Obsidian Tower is a thoroughly captivating read, where the constantly raising stakes keep increasing the pressure, which at times becomes unbearable, because we see the situation unfold from Ryx’s point of view, so that the concatenation of events and the discoveries she makes along the way put her in an untenable position better described as “damned if I do, damned if I don’t”, and make the possible outcome quite unpredictable. Ryx is a brilliantly designed character, one that makes it easy to root for her: a mysterious childhood illness caused her blossoming vivomancy powers to deteriorate, turning into a life-sucking force that prevents her from any contact with living creatures – only a powerful mage, preparing for the onslaught of her magic, can survive her touch and so Ryx grew up in physical isolation, feared by everyone and needing to be on constant alert against any kind of proximity.

The sympathy Ryx engenders in the readers does not come from compassion for her plight, but from admiration for her inner strength and for her will to still be an effective member of her family despite the lethal handicap she suffers.  As the situation in Gloaminguard becomes more and more complicated, she draws from the well of strength and wisdom she built over the years and shows her worth as a balancing element despite the opposing political plays of the two nations and the unhelpful interference from some of her family members.  The only moments when she succumbs to wistfulness are those in which she observes the interactions between the members of the Rookery – a sort of super partes agency dealing with magical phenomena – and sees the easy camaraderie, the subliminal understanding born of shared experiences, and realizes how empty and bleak her existence has been, but still she refuses to let such feelings dominate her.

As for the Rookery, they represent the lighter side of the story: a combination of magical investigators and spies wielding gadgets that would be the envy of 007, they are a team composed by disparate individuals whose peculiarities contribute to the success of the group. We have a leader who is both bookish and action-oriented; a science enthusiast saddled with a terrible past; an infiltration agent gifted by a delightfully roguish personality; and a warrior who at times needs to be told that her sword is not necessarily the only answer.  The Rookery’s easy acceptance of Ryx, despite the danger she poses, is a breath of fresh air not only for the young woman herself, but for the reader as well, because it’s painful to see how she’s feared and shunned even by people who saw her grow up and seem unable to avoid the automatic warding sign they make at her passage.  Since the series’ title mentions Rooks, it is my strong hope that I will see much more of the Rookery’s antics in the next books.

Story-wise this novel is the intriguing introduction to a further exploration of the world created by Melissa Caruso: much as I enjoyed visiting Raverra and its Venice Republic-like world of politics and compromise, this glimpse of Vaskandar is even more appealing thanks to the unruly quality of its magic, the constant warfare (declared or not) between realms and the fascinating concept of connection between mages and their territory, so that nature itself, when necessary, can intervene over humans, either helping or hindering them. Or worse – there is a scene in The Obsidian Tower, involving a mad Witch Lord and thorny bushes, that had me wincing in sympathetic pain…

On this background are set interesting issues as friendship and trust, responsibility and duty, all rolled up with enigmatic prophecies from the past which can still have impact on the present – and probably the future, since this story is only at its beginning. And with such a strong beginning, we can only predict that the best is still to come.

 
 
My Rating:

 

Reviews

THE SIEGE OF TILPUR (Powder Mage 0.1), by Brian McClellan

 

This novella from Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage series was an unexpected surprise, because I thought I had explored them all, so as soon as I saw this title I wasted no time to acquire and read it: the end of the saga left me somewhat pining for this world, and going back to it, even for a short number of pages, felt like a treat.

This is set in the far past of Field Marshal Tamas, at the time when he was a young sergeant in the Adran army, just 19 years old but already burning with the ambition to scale the ranks despite the apparently insurmountable obstacle of being low-born and therefore having little or no chances to rise beyond a certain level.

The Adrans have been laying siege to the enemy fortress of Tilpur for a long time, sacrificing a great number of soldiers against its strong, magic-enhanced walls, and after the latest bloody charge, one that still made no dent in the enemy’s defenses, Tamas is trying to find a way to breach them without losing too many lives and at the same time putting himself in the limelight that will finally show his mettle.

This younger Tamas is as driven as the older one I encountered in Promise of Blood, but he still has to develop the deep loathing for the nobles’ privileges that will inspire his later revolution: it’s here, however, that probably for the first time his ambition clashes with the… glass ceiling of those privileges and maybe sets him on the path that will make him the man we’ll know in the trilogy.

The Siege of Tilpur is both a social commentary on Adran society at the time of Tamas’ youth and a very engrossing tale of a commando-style incursion that will keep you glued to the pages until its very end.  Very recommended for every fan of McClellan’s work.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE LAST EMPEROX (The Interdependency #3), by John Scalzi

 

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

A series’ ending might probably be one of the most difficult tasks an author faces: readers’ expectations, narrative twists and resolutions, characters’ paths – it all must come together at the end, and I also imagine it might not be easy to let go of a world that one has so carefully built over time. Well, The Last Emperox turned out to be a very satisfactory ending to the Interdependency series, and did so by also being a compelling and fun read from the very start, where it offered a sort of recap of what went before by observing a character’s thoughts as his ship comes under attack. Not only did this choice avoid any dangers of info-dumping, it also managed to turn into entertaining recollections what could very well have been the last, terrified considerations of an endangered individual. After all, this is a work from John Scalzi, and one must expect some playful rule-breaking…

So, the Interdependency is a galaxy-spanning civilization whose settlements are connected by the Flow, a system of wormhole-like paths that allow ships to cover vast distances in a relatively short time. The Flow has been in operation for centuries, but recently scientists have discovered that the whole system is going to collapse, therefore isolating these far-flung settlements and very likely dooming the inhabitants to death, since only one planet in the whole confederation is able to sustain life in an Earth-like environment and all the others are artificial habitats depending heavily on Flow-driven commerce. Such catastrophic news brings out the best and worst in humanity, as it’s wont to do: some of the  great  merchant Houses try to speculate by amassing even more riches and power, others try to help in maintaining a level of civilization and the newly elected Emperox, Grayland II, finds herself dealing with a difficult situation, several attempts on her life and the conflicting agendas of various Houses.

Despite the light, playful tone, this series deals with several quite serious subjects, like the way people react when confronted with an imminent catastrophe – considering the moment in which I read this book, with humanity facing a worldwide crisis, I thought it was very spot-on and I was glad for the author’s trademark lightness because observing the various fictional players it was impossible not to make disheartening comparisons with actual events. The series, and The Last Emperox in particular, shows how personal advantage is paramount for power-hungry individuals and how sowing distrust and misinformation helps drive their agendas, while the general population is divided between the few who plan in advance against a worst-case scenario and those lulled into the complacent belief that those in power will find a solution before the inevitable becomes a reality.

Where I found the second book in this series, The Consuming Fire, somewhat uneven in pacing due to the shift between the quicker-flowing sections and the long chunks of exposition dialogue, this final installment turned into a swift, riveting read as the antagonists’ plots battled against the Emperox’s and her allies’ countermeasures, generating a constant race against time, fueled by shrewdness and political expediency that kept the story lively and the tension high.  Most of this narrative tension rests on the three main characters: Grayland II, whose desire to be a good and just ruler needs to be balanced against the challenging decisions she must take in the face of the forthcoming Flow collapse; Nadashe Nohamapetan, the very embodiment of the evil lady, the dastardly plotter whose ambitions are surpassed only by her ruthlessness; and Kiva Lagos, the foul-mouthed, crafty ally of the Emperox who remains my favorite character and one of the best sources of humor in the whole series.

It’s worth noting how these three women are not only at the very center of things, but also the most striking figures among the various personalities peopling this series: for example, if Nadashe is a vile adversary who stops at nothing to fulfill her goals, she ultimately does not come across as totally bad, if that makes any sense. As I saw her labyrinthine plans taking shape, I was torn between wanting them to fail and at the same time feeling sorry if they didn’t: in a way I ended up envisioning her as poor Wile E. Coyote, who concocted equally convoluted and far-reaching plans to win over Road Runner, only to be always spectacularly defeated in the end – and that never failed to elicit some form of sympathy from me.  On the other hand, there was no ambiguity in my cheering for Kiva’s success, and although at some point she managed to set in motion a series of events whose serendipity might appear totally unbelievable, it all worked within the over-the-top setup of her character, making it easy to suspend my disbelief and equally easy to observe her antics with an amused smile. Grayland looks less intense in comparison with these two formidable figures, her apparent candor masking instead a firm determination and a core of integrity that seems to be sorely lacking in the Interdependency, and that’s the main reason I was surprised – or rather stunned – at her unexpected choice for solving the quandary and giving her subjects a new direction and a hope for the future. I must say I did not expect the direction the story took and that in this instance the author managed to drop a very unpredictable twist on me here.

Where The Last Emperox draws all the narrative threads of the series to a good close, I find myself sorry to have to leave this universe, and I hope that John Scalzi might decide in the future to return here, maybe to show us how the former Interdependency fares in a post-collapse of the Flow future.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED (The First Law #2), by Joe Abercrombie

 

More than once I have admitted my lack of patience when confronted with long set-ups, a flaw that probably made me miss on a few good books because I could not wait for the story to finally take flight, but with the first book of this trilogy I was not only able to curb my usual impatience, I was eager to learn where the author was taking me (and quite enjoying the ride), so now I’m happy to say I was very richly rewarded with this second installment in Joe Abercrombie’s debut work. Here the seeds planted in The Blade Itself come to fruition and grow into a multi-faceted tale that promises to flow into an equally enthralling final book.

The characters we got to know in the previous novel are now traveling all over the world: Bayaz, the first of the Magi, has taken his company – Logen Ninefingers, Jezal dan Luthar, Ferro and a few others – toward the west, and the mysterious quest for which he needs their peculiar abilities, as the group ends up facing harrowing dangers and hardships to fulfill a mission whose details only their leader knows; Colonel West marches North with the Union army to fight agains the invading northern barbarians led by Bethod, and is saddled with the handling of crown prince Ladisla, a complete idiot in love with the idea of battle and glory, and totally unsuited to the task at hand; and Sand dan Glokta, inquisitor extraordinaire, is promoted to Superior and tasked with the defense of the southern city of Dagoska, under siege by the Gurkish – the old foe who once captured and tortured him, turning him into the cripple he is now.

While there is decidedly more action in Before They Are Hanged, what with hazardous journeys, bloody battles and a doomed siege whose problems are compounded by treachery and personal agendas, the characters remain the central focus of the story, growing in depth and facets and at the same time showing their humanity in all its high and low points: in the space of these two books in the series, Joe Abercrombie’s characters have turned from fictional creations into flesh and blood people it’s easy to believe in, care about (or despise, in some instances) and root for.  Maybe the only one for whom the jury’s still out is Jezal dan Luthar, the dandy swordsman with a superiority complex, the one who keeps sneering at this traveling companions: grievously wounded in a skirmish, he realizes the importance of team work, of respecting one’s companions, of reaching out to them as people and not as objects of contempt. The change that comes over Jezal with this epiphany seems too quick, too radical to feel truly plausible, but I have faith in the author and look forward to seeing where this individual’s path will lead.

Logen Ninefingers took little time to become one of my favorite characters in Book 1 and here he becomes more definite, more solid: on the surface, Logen might look like an uncouth barbarian, a man with little depth and a brutish disposition, but there is much more to him than meets the eye at first sight. Both in his personal reflections and in the interactions with his traveling companions he shows a talent for introspection and wisdom that belies the surface coarseness he presents to the world, as is the case of this campfire observation:

He and Bayaz were close enough to the fire, but the others were further than comfort would have put them. Drawn close by the wind, and the cold, and the damp night, pushed further out by each other.

The advice he offers Jezal, and his steadfast friendship overtures toward Ferro – the former Gurkish slave turned into a formidable, perpetually scowling warrior – point toward a different side of Logen’s character, one I’m not sure I can label as gentler, but certainly far more human and sympathetic than what the rest of the group shows to each other.  If at some point the unlikely company shapes into something more than a band of strangers, and becomes a team ready to watch each other’s backs, much comes from Logen’s relentless attempts at bonding, which can either move into humorous territory, as in the scene where the group discusses battle scars, or turn to starkly profound musings:

A family? I did have one. And now I’ve got another. You don’t pick your family, you take what you’re given and you make the best of it.

Colonel West undergoes some big changes as well: the man so easily annoyed, and weighted with a huge chip on the shoulder due to his lowborn origins, is forced to curb his annoyance and anger when having to deal with prince Ladisla and his cronies, their complete inadequacy in managing an army and their bloodily ineffective handling of Bethod’s onslaught. The man who built his career on adherence to rules, to a strict moral code of conduct, finds himself in a grim situation where he will need to delve into the brutal side of his personality to survive. West’s transition toward a more savage frame of mind is an interesting – if at times terrifying – journey and one clearly inspired by the Northmen allies he finds along the way, who are Logen’s long-lost friends and also very interesting characters I hope to see more of in the next book.

As was the case with The Blade Itself, I kept the best for last – Sand dan Glokta: much as I enjoy reading about Logen Ninefingers, Glokta remains my favorite character, because he’s the best defined and the most intriguing creation that Joe Abercrombie brought to life. The core of my attraction for Glokta comes from his dual nature: a savagely crippled individual who seeks and finds beauty where he can; a professional torturer who knows intimately the meaning of pain, and yet does not enjoy inflicting it; a man who professes outward cynicism while adhering to a unique moral compass. It’s Glokta’s complexity that makes him such a fascinating individual, that and the dichotomy between his inner musings and his outward utterances. He might say:

As for being a good man, that ship sailed long ago, and I wasn’t even there to wave it off.

yet he risks a great deal to show mercy to a powerful adversary; or again he can freely admit:

You could not even guess at the things that I have done. Awful, evil, obscene, the telling of them alone could make you puke. […] I push it all into the dark corners of my mind, and it’s incredible the room back there. Amazing what one can live with.

yet when he becomes aware of a young woman in distress he applies his considerable influence to rectify her situation, and enjoys the feeling of having accomplished a good deed. Glokta’s principles might be colored in shades of grey, and that’s indeed the main reason for his appeal, one he shares with most of the other characters in this series – all of them of the “dirty, ugly and mean” kind, but still made interesting by the author’s narrative skills.

It took me a long time before finally reading this amazing series, but now that I have I can place it at the very top of my favorite reads. And there’s still more to explore…

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

A TIME OF COURAGE (Of Blood and Bone #3), by John Gwynne

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

Since this is the third and final volume of the trilogy, and given its high narrative stakes, this will be a spoiler-free review, so that you will be able to fully enjoy the climax of the story once you get to it.

Once again I discovered how easy it is to go back to this complex, multi-layered world and the characters who people it: unlike previous times, however, there was also a heightened sense of uncertainty because here the story reaches its final showdown, and previous experience taught me that nobody could be considered safe here, so I was very anxious for the survival of the characters I had come to appreciate and love.  To sum up my experience with A Time of Courage in a few words, I have come across a new definition of epic fantasy, indeed.

The ages-long strife between the Ben-Elim and the Kadoshim, between good and evil, is about to reach its decisive battle and things are indeed looking grim for the people of the Banished Lands: through the artful planning of the Kadoshim and their allies, Asroth – lord of the demonic creatures – has been freed from his decades-long confinement and is about to command his army of evil creatures and twisted humans in the war for dominance. For their part, the Ben-Elim, the Order of the Bright Star and their own allies are opposing a strenuous resistance, but their adversaries are too many and hard to vanquish – and some of these defenders are more interested in power and dominance struggles rather than in combining their forces to insure the survival of humanity.

These might sound like standard plot elements in the genre, and in a way they are: what makes them different, what makes this series stand out from the rest, however, is the strong, compelling characterization carried out across the whole spectrum of personalities – from the undeniably good to the perversely evil – together with the unrelenting pace and the breath-taking descriptions of battles fought either on the ground or in the air whenever winged creatures from both sides engage each other. Starting from here, I have to confess that battle scenes rarely hold any appeal for me, but I always can make an exception for those described by John Gwynne, who possesses the very rare talent of bringing you in the very midst of it all, blending the physical action with the emotional commitment of the characters and turning these elements into scenes of such cinematic quality that they compel you to follow every word with the kind of concentration that makes you forget the rest of the world around you. This was particularly true for the “battle to end all battles” representing the climax of this novel and of the books that preceded it, a sequence that roughly takes the last twenty percent of the page count and that went on unrelentingly, alternating victories and defeats for the heroes, to the point that I had to often remind myself to breathe, because I was in such a state of stress I don’t remember ever experiencing with a book.

In these times when epic fantasy seems to have reached a wider audience, thanks to the largely successful small-screen portrayal of another genre saga, many have wondered what the next “blockbuster” might be: well, if a mythical creature like a far-seeing, perceptive network executive truly exists, they should look no further than this epic, that started with the four-book series The Faithful and the Fallen and closes its narrative cycle with the three books of Of Blood and Bone. If handled with the care and respect that this story deserves, it could easily surpass anything we have seen until now.

The characters represent the other strength of the series: after a while I realized that they had taken hold of my imagination, regardless of their position in the scheme of things – even the ones pledging their alliance to Asroth have their reasons for doing so, and while unable to “forgive” them for that choice, I could see where they came from, what made them choose that path, and this understanding turned them into people rather than mere adversaries, into flesh-and-blood creatures that felt quite real, as did the feelings animating them.  The moments in which Gwynne’s characterization excels are not those linked with battles though, but rather the quieter moments, the lulls between skirmishes when our heroes take the time to encourage or comfort each other, when they share the pain for the loss of a fallen comrade or reaffirm the bonds of friendship and loyalty tying them together: in these moments we finally understand that they are not only fighting to combat evil, and certainly not to seek glory, but because of the sense of kinship, of family, they have come to share.  In the overall grimness of the situation, while facing impossible odds and the possibility of annihilation, hope, love and friendship are the best weapons they can wield and also the armor shielding them from the encroaching darkness.

And while I am on the subject of love and friendship, I want to reserve a special mention for the animals fighting alongside people: wolvens, bears and talking crows whose devotion, loyalty and courage often sheds a ray of light in the darkest of circumstances: these creatures are crafted with the same passionate care reserved to people, and it takes little time to grow attached to them just as much as with their human counterparts.

This is such an immersive world that it’s a pleasure and a joy to lose oneself in it, and although I got to know it in this second phase of its history – the one represented by Of Blood and Bone, whose events follow those of the previous series The Faithful and the Fallen by more than a century – I had no difficulty in finding my bearings in it. However, after reading the first novel of this trilogy, A Time of Dread, I backtracked and so far managed to read two of the four books in the previous saga, and will try to complete the other two as soon as I can so that I can have a comprehensive picture of this amazing creation that literally stole my imagination from the very first chapters of that first book. The Banished Lands, despite the evil plaguing them, are a fascinating place to visit, and I intend to get to know them as well as they deserve.

My Rating: