Short Story Review: THE FIXED STARS (An October Daye Story), by Seanan McGuire


Finding a complementary short story to Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series is always a pleasant discovery, and it’s an even better one when, as is the case of this short work I found in the Baen Free Library, it deals with events and people other than Toby and her circle of friends and family, widening the background of this complex and many-faceted Urban Fantasy series.

(click on the link to read the story online)

It took me a little while to find my bearings in The Fixed Stars, until I understood that it tells of an old battle between Faerie’s firstborns and their changeling descendants, here called merlins – the reason for which I understood once their leader came on-stage, a powerful, revered warrior named Emrys.  The story is told from the point of view of a firstborn, watching the besieging merlin army camped under the walls of Broceliande castle before what will be the decisive battle.  The narrating firstborn goes here under the name of Nimue but says this is only one of many, and when at the end of the story her brother calls her “Annie”, my theory about her real identity was confirmed (and my pleasure at being right and meeting her here): compelled to always tell the truth, Nimue plays a dangerous gamble in the bloody game between the fae and their mixed-blood descendants, one that will end badly no matter what, since she’s aware that “the nobility […] was eager to wet their swords on merlin blood. The fact that the men outside our walls were our distant descendants didn’t matter to them. My brothers and sisters had raised their children to believe that nothing outside of Faerie had value”.

The leanings of Nimue’s heart are quite clear here, and they go a long way toward explaining her attitude in later times, when she will often lend her gruff but precious help to a certain changeling…

A sad and lovely story, and one I’m very happy to have found.


My Rating: 


Short Story Review: LOST, by Seanan Mcguire


Read the story online


Reading this shortly after my encounter with Christina Henry’s “Lost Boy”, this story resonated with me in a deeper way that it would have otherwise: it’s a tale about eternal childhood and adventures and it speaks of the need for both, and also the price that it entails.

The story is told from the point of view of Daniel, now well into adulthood and probably old age, and he recalls what happened when he was just past his fifteenth birthday and the children of the world, those younger than him – including his sister Torrey – started looking fixedly at the night sky and humming a strange, compelling song.  Shortly afterwards, in one fateful night, all those children disappeared, never to be seen again.

This is a bittersweet story – more bitter than sweet since poor Daniel is marked by the awareness that he had whatever touched his sister and all the others within his grasp, but just because of an accident of birth he could not take part in what happened. And he’s one of the few who is unable to put a different face on this kind of rapture and call it an epidemic, like the rest of the world does to cover its shared incomprehension of the event.

The theme of innocence needing to go on beyond the time when adulthood sets in and takes away our dreams, our capacity for them, seems to be one that’s very dear to the author, and here she managed to convey it in a way that I found deeply moving, even in the unavoidable cruelty toward those who remained behind.



My Rating: 


Short Story Review: HOMECOMING, by Seanan Mcguire

Oh, what a surprise! Another Seanan McGuire story!  🙂
Bear with me, I do like her writing…





This was an incredibly weird story, one that had me puzzled until the very end when everything became clear – still the weirdness was deeply compelling and never for a moment I thought about not seeing it through until I understood what it was all about.

It all starts in a locker room where two groups of cheerleaders prepare for their show of support to their respective football teams: it’s the night of THE big game, and they are both nervous and excited. Nothing strange about it all, until the girls reach the playing field and we see that the players of both teams are wearing white, non-descript uniforms, nothing like the red and rust of the Falcons or the blue and silver of the Ravens, as the girls are wearing.   More stranger still, the players start wearing more proper uniforms only when their names are given, and as we learn that they are transported to the stadium on the moment of their death…

I’m loathe to say more, because this is the kind of story that must be read – and appreciated – with a minimum of prior information: what I can safely share is that it’s a deeply compelling story, one that drew me in like a spell, and let me tell you that it was a powerful one since it kept me glued to the pages despite the core theme, that of team sports, which holds little or no interest to me…

On hindsight, I believe that only someone as talented as Seanan McGuire, whose storytelling skills often border on the uncanny, could have taken hold of my imagination in this way and kept it there until the final, poignant reveal.

Quite a ride, indeed…


My Rating: 


Short Story Review: EACH TO EACH, by Seanan McGuire


(click on the link to read the story online)



Those who have read “Drowning in the Deep” and/or “Into the Drowning Deep” by Seanan McGuire, will probably something more intriguing in this short story than readers who never encountered the author’s version of the mermaid myth. Still, I would recommend it to all her fans and even to those who have not sampled her works yet, because I believe it’s a good, engaging example of her storytelling style.

The premise for “Each to Each” is that global warming has caused water levels to rise so that dry land has become scarce and humanity turned to the sea to try and create a new living environment, while seeking as-yet-untapped resources in the depths.  To do so, and to be able to live underwater, some drastic physical changes are necessary, and a literally new breed of sailors is enlisted to survey the oceans in a way that baseline humans would be unable to: this marks the launch of Project Amphitrite, also known  as Mermaids for the Military – the recruits being all women.

The choice is made at first because the genetically mutated humans would be living in submarines, and women are statistically more tolerant of restricted living conditions, very rarely – if ever – resorting to violence when suffering from ‘cabin fever’. Yet with time another reason for the choice comes to the fore: these women are the pioneers for what might be the future of humanity, and to present that future in the best possible way, to convince ‘drylanders’ that they must accept the change, that inevitable choice must be given a pleasant face and a compelling look, no matter how that might clash with mutated physiology, or an individual’s discomfort:


“we’re living advertisements for the world yet to come […] still they see us as fantasies given flesh[…] How easy is it to fear something that you’ve been seeing in cartoons and coloring books since you were born?”

“All this work, all these changes to the sailors, and they still can’t change our required uniforms – not when we still have things that can be called “feet” or “legs” and shoved into the standard-issue boots or trousers.”


Yet such drastic changes as these women undergo – changes that bring along pain and suffering for the body and profound adjustments for the mind – lead to an inevitable alteration in outlook and mindset, and little by little these pioneers feel detached from baseline humanity and progressively unable to tolerate the surface world from which they come, or the rigid rules imposed on people that have little or no connection with the beings they used to be, or the organization that enlisted them – because, as the narrator says,  “the chain of command dissolves under the pressure of the crushing deep.”

I found this to be a deeply emotional tale, even though McGuire, as usual, keeps her narration very terse and never gives in to easy sentimentality: this is the kind of story that stays on my mind for a long time after I finish reading it, and one I will not forget to easily.


My Rating: 


Review: BLOOD OF ASSASSINS (The Wounded Kingdom #2), by R.J. Barker

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

In 2017 I placed the first volume of this trilogy, Age of Assassins, among the best debuts of the year and also my favorite reads, so I had great expectations for this follow-up novel: let me say up front that those expectations were more than exceeded by Blood of Assassins, that is not only a worthy sequel but also an amazing story on its own.

Five years have elapsed since the end of the first book, and they have not been easy years either for the world or for assassin-in-training Girton Clubfoot: the political situation has degenerated into all-out war between the three pretenders to the throne of the Tired Lands – Aydor, the former queen’s son, ousted by young Rufra, Girton’s friend, and finally pretender Tomas.  War is never good news, but in a land still suffering from the sorcerer-enhanced conflicts of the past, that brought great devastations with them, this new war is adding a further layer of misery to an already grim situation.  Girton and his master, Merela Karn, have fared no better: to escape from the bounty hunters set on their tracks, they have been forced to abandon their trade and attach themselves to mercenary bands, where Girton’s exquisite skills as an assassins have been replaced by a more brutal approach to killing, namely the use of a war hammer.

Ambushed by a band of savages, the two barely effect an escape toward Castle Maniyadoc – theater of Girton’s previous adventures – but Merela has been poisoned and hovers on the brink of death, leaving her apprentice bereft of her balancing advice and cooler thinking.  What’s worse, Girton’s ability to wield magic – a dangerous skill in the Tired Lands, one that could sentence him to death – is growing stronger, and the scars that Merela tattooed on his skin to keep them at bay are not working as expected, so that the young man must battle daily against the impulse of unleashing such deadly power.

Reunited with his friend Rufra, now King, Girton has little time to enjoy the meeting, because he learns of a plot to kill his friend, orchestrated by a spy that must have worked its way among Rufra’s closest advisers: tasked with this apparently impossible job (Rufra does not seem to worry too much about the possibility of treason), and in constant worry about Merela’s chances for recovery, Girton faces the most difficult time of his young life, one where conflicting emotions and needs threaten to overwhelm him and make him lose everything he holds dear.

Blood of Assassins is a deeply compelling story, one where the details we previously learned about this world fall into a wider and more fascinating context: we come to understand that the central power, the one held by the remote figure of the High King, could not care less about what happens in the outskirts of the realm, where wars are fought, won and lost while the supreme ruler prefers to wallow in his court’s more or less dubious pleasures.

There is a definite sense of lawlessness in the Tired Lands, of the rule of the strongest, that makes the suffering of the peoples dwelling there all the more poignant: the Landsmen, that could be compared to a sort of official army, are more interested in rooting out sorcerers – be they real or simply imagined – and their allegiance often hangs on the whim of their current leader.  The recent turmoil has given rise to a peculiar band of outlaws, calling themselves the Nonmen, who delight in berserker attacks and in the vicious torture of their victims – and sometimes of their own members, with a sort of reckless, bloody abandon that speaks of madness, and worse.  And last but not least the priesthood, that already did not come out with shining colors in the previous book, here looks like an added complication – both moral and political – to a very dire situation.

All this comes together in a story that kept me on my toes for the whole length of the book, among unexpected twists and turns, discoveries and betrayals, and a final battle that left me literally breathless with suspense. Add to that a powerful writing that manages to remain almost lyrical even while describing bloody skirmishes or to-the-death duels, and you will understand why I found this book so enthralling.

As fascinating as all of the above is, the focal point of Blood of Assassins remains Girton: he is a very different person from the one we left at the end of Book 1, and to say that here he’s in a bad place would be a massive understatement.   The five years spent as a mercenary (and with Landsmen, no less, with all the added dangers that his potential for sorcery entails) have both hardened and unraveled him, taking him away from his training as an assassin and teaching him far too much about brute force.  His relationship with Merela has changed as well: there is a thread of resentment toward her, that remains however mostly unexplored due to the fact she’s out of the picture for most of the book, and that comes from the necessity of the scars she must carve on his body to keep the magic at bay. This necessity seems to have placed some cracks in their mutual trust and generated a deep conflict in Girton, who still feels the strong pull of his loyalty – his love – for Merela, while battling with the impulse to rebel against all she taught him.

Losing Merela’s support so early in the story proves almost catastrophic for Girton: she is not only his teacher, his surrogate mother and the only person he used to trust implicitly, even before himself, she is also the one who guides his logical process, and his moral compass, so that her absence makes itself dramatically clear in the sequence of bad decisions Girton takes while pursuing his task for Rufra.  Seeing him so unhinged is a painful experience, because if sometimes I felt like shaking some sense into him, my prevailing emotion was compassion because I could not forget the heavy amount of damage he had to go through in a relatively short life.  And what further damage might be visited on him in the course of the story: as with the previous book, we are given to understand here that we are reading an older Girton’s memoirs, and given as well a few hints of more tragedies to come.  As harrowing as that might be, I know I would not give up this opportunity, because I’m deeply invested in this character and his journey: at the end of this book I saw that the third and final volume already has a title – King of Assassins – and that GoodReads shows its cover, so I imagine my curiosity will be satisfied before long.  Still it will feel like a too-long wait….



My Rating:   


Short Story Review: NO SOONER MET (An October Daye short story), by Seanan McGuire

Illustration -Old locomotive at night seeing moon and smoke

Readers of Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series all agree on their appreciation of Tybalt, King of Cats and – for some time now – Toby’s love interest, a relationship that has grown and matured over the course of several novels, developing in a delightfully organic way.  It was therefore a lovely surprise to discover this short story, available for free download on the author’s site, focusing on October and Tybalt’s first date.  You can find the story HERE (it’s the sixth down the page, and you can download it in various formats).

This being Seanan McGuire, you will not find a saccharine-laden tale of two people enjoying a romantic dinner, there will be no overly sweet, cringe-worthy dialogue between them, nor rainbows and unicorns and all the tropes that could apply to such a situation.

No, this dinner between Toby and the King of Cats, their first foray into the outside world since they acknowledged their mutual interest, is carried out on the strength of intelligent humor, on the interplay between two people who have been friends and allies before becoming lovers, who have learned to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and how to play them to mutual advantage.

Oh, and there’s an attempted assassination as well, but I guess that’s all part and parcel of who they are, too…

What I most enjoyed here was the juxtaposition of Toby’s more modern point of view and Tybalt’s centuries-old courtly attitude, a contrast made clearer by the fact that the story is told from his point of view (a welcome change from the Toby-centric narrative of the rest of the series).  Tybalt’s earnestness is both the product of his own character and of the times he was born in, and it results in a delightful speech pattern that lends more depth to the concepts he expresses.  There is a passage in the story that’s a good example of that, and is worth quoting:

“I won’t pretend that you do not have the capacity to break my heart. The fact that I would trust you enough to risk the breaking of it is a compliment […]  Would I sulk for a time, years perhaps? Yes. I am only a man. But I would return to you with my hat in my hands and ask that my friend take me back, even if my lover had journeyed forever into that strange and distant country known as ‘Memory,’ where never a living soul may go.”

Even someone as little romantically-inclined as myself can’t remain indifferent to such intense, and yet contained, emotions: in less skilled hands, the concepts expressed by Tybalt might have come out as stuffy or hyperbolic, but here they sound just… perfect.  As perfect and balanced as this story – a must-read for all Toby admirers.

What are you waiting for?


My Rating: 


Review: DEN OF WOLVES (Blackthorn and Grim #3), by Juliet Marillier

It’s never easy to say farewell to a beloved series and its characters, and the final book in Juliet Marillier’s Blackthorn and Grim saga makes that even more difficult, because – in my opinion – it’s the best and most poignant of the three.   Granted, I’ve read some news about the possibility of continuing the series, should the author’s publisher be interested, but for now the stark reality is that there will be no more stories about these two wonderful characters, and I find that quite saddening…

Some time has elapsed after the events of Tower of Thorns, and Blackthorn and Grim have settled a little more comfortably into their new home, even though the ghosts of the past still come to haunt them both, and in this instance they are hard-pressed to keep them at bay since circumstances place the two of them apart for long stretches of time, putting their inner balance to a serious test: Grim has been hired by a neighboring landowner, Master Tóla, to build a special kind of house, and Blackthorn is entrusted with the care of Tóla’s daughter, Cara, a problematic girl which her father wants away from home while the building is in progress, so he foists her with little ceremony on Oran and Flidais’ household.

It’s clear from the beginning that there is more here than meets the eye: Cara exhibits some uncanny abilities – like communing with birds and trees – and suffers greatly the forcible removal from her home, where she is treated like someone precious, indeed, but at the same time as a dim-witted child in need of constant supervision; her inability to express herself properly with some people speaks loudly about a deeper trouble, and it does not take long for the reader to suspect that the heart of it resides in Cara’s own home, since Blackthorn’s gruff ministrations manage to easily bring the girl out of her speech impediment in no time at all.

Just as quickly it becomes evident that Master Tóla is not simply a brusque, unpleasant person, but that he harbors a few secrets: the magical house he wants built on his land, one that requires the use of every kind of available wood to exert its beneficial properties, is not the first Tóla requested.  Fifteen years prior he commissioned the work to Bardàn, a talented builder with a little fey blood in his veins, but before completing the assignment the man disappeared from the face of the earth and has returned, as if from the dead, only recently – with maimed hands and an addled mind, but still in possession of the know-how for Tóla’s project.  Enters Grim, in his capacity as skilled builder, under Bardàn’s instructions, and also as the wild man’s keeper, since Tóla makes it quite clear he does not trust the poor man, and suffers his presence only out of necessity.

As the past is revealed bit by painstaking bit, we start perceiving the complicated web of lies surrounding Tóla’s domain of Wolf Glen, while both Blackthorn and Grim work to unravel the complex tangle of deception and silence that surrounds the events of fifteen years before. As an added complication, unexpected developments concerning Mathuin of Laois, the cruel chieftain that was their jailer and tormentor, come to light re-awakening Blackthorn’s never-tamed need for vengeance and the pain from the scars on her soul.

Much as this narrative thread stands at the basis of the series, and sees its fruition in this book, Den of Wolves is very much Grim’s story in my opinion: if I loved his character before, I totally fell for him here, where the depths of his soul and the fundamental goodness of his heart come to the fore, belying once and for all the outward appearance of the lumbering simpleton that the shallow-minded use to define him.  Once Grim gets to know Bardàn, he sees a man tormented by old ghosts and deep guilt, a man who could be a mirror of his older self and one who needs a helping hand to come out of such darkness.  I was deeply touched to see how Grim goes out of his way – and against Tóla’s express orders – to connect to the remaining sane part of Bardàn’s mind and help him find himself again: in a way, Grim is also trying to compensate for the lack of Blackthorn’s presence – the two of them have been helping each other face their nightmares, and having someone else to comfort is vital to the big man’s still-delicate hold on balance.  His use of fairy stories as a means of reaching Bardàn is both a poignant choice and the way to show how Grim’s thought processes work, how he can perceive the bigger picture and its implications:

Tales from prisoners and down-trodden women and ordinary working folk. Like a lot of threads, frayed and weak, they might be woven into something big and strong and beautiful. And powerful.

Blackthorn, on the other hand, appears as her crusty old self – not that I want to complain about that, I love her exactly for that reason, because she breaks out of the usual mold for the genre’s heroines – but at the same time she has become more thoughtful, more settled: where at the beginning she was so consumed with the need for vengeance that she did not care about consequences, both for herself or others, she is now able, and willing, to consider those consequences and to adjust her needs accordingly. Where the pain of her loss made her self-centered and blind to the needs of other people, she has learned to look beyond herself and to accept self-sacrifice for the good of those she cares about.   That’s the main reason the resolution of the past injustices feels fully earned and right, even more so thanks to Grim’s encouragement and blessing given with a short sentence that summed up their past history and moved me beyond words even more than any other emotional circumstance:

“Go on, Lady. Do it for all of us.”

These three books have managed to turn me into a huge fan of Juliet Marillier, and I look forward to reading more of her works: I don’t know if they will be as engaging as Blackthorn and Grim’s volumes have been, but I know that her writing will ensnare me once more into her wonderful worlds, and I believe that will be enough.


My Rating: