Reviews

Novella Review: OF THINGS UNKNOWN, by Seanan McGuire

At the back of The Brightest Fell, the eleventh volume in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, I found a welcome surprise, a novella set in the same world and tied to the events of the second book, A Local Habitation.  Even though the finer details of that story had become slightly fuzzy with the passage of time, I found myself remembering it all thanks to the author’s dropped hints that brought it all back in no time at all.

The protagonist here is April O’Leary, a very unusual kind of fae: she used to be a Dryad, a tree-dweller, and she had come to be adopted by January O’Leary, the Countess of Tamed Lightning, an equally unusual knowe for fae standards, one where magic and computer technology could exist side by side, enhancing each other in new and peculiar ways.  At the end of A Local Habitation, the death of January had left April as the heir to Tamed Lightning, and as caretaker for the people whose mental/spiritual/whatever energy had been drained from their bodies and electronically stored into a server.

Now, a few years after the facts, a way has been found to restore those people’s vitality to their bodies, through a ritual that, not uncommonly for Tamed Lightning, is part computer programming and part magic, and will require October Daye’s contribution to work.  The only victim not to be restored will be January, April’s adoptive mother, because her body was damaged beyond repair, and both April and January’s widow Li Quin struggle to come to terms with this, while rejoicing for the possibility of bringing back their long-lost friends.

While April and Li Quin battle with their still-fresh grief and the uncertainties about the future, April makes a mind-boggling discovery…

I enjoyed this story quite a bit, both because it represented a sort of… soft exit from October Daye’s world after the end of The Brightest Fell, one of the most intense novels of the series, and also because it explored April’s character with some added depth: she is quite fascinating, because she is not exactly alive, being a virtual creature who exists in the data streams of Tamed Lightning’s computer banks.  It was the only way for her to survive, after the death of her tree, and this kind of existence has changed April’s outlook in a dramatic way: she thinks like a software, she looks at the world and at people as if they were programs, or strings of code, and this colors both her thought processes and the way she understand people – or tries to.

There is a delightfully fascinating consideration about Toby that showcases April’s way of looking at things and people:

Sir October Daye is a knight errant of the realm. She is an irregular command in the code, a roving antivirus entering compromised systems and repairing what she can before moving on to the next crisis.

I loved it, because it was not only a way to understand what makes April tick, but it also felt so very fitting for October and the way she is. And now the wait for our favorite changeling’s next adventures goes on…

 

My Rating: 

Advertisements
Reviews

Review: INTO THE DROWNING DEEP (Rolling in the Deep #1), by Mira Grant

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

Readers of this blog know by now that I’m a great fan of author Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant, so it would come as no surprise that I was eager to see what she would do with this new facet of her vast repertoire of creatures that goes from fae and changelings to zombies and onwards to various other fascinating and/or scary beings.  If curiosity was my prime motivator, I was on the other hand slightly worried that this novel might retrace the steps of its prequel novella Rolling in the Deep, and therefore offer little in the way of story or characterization: this being Mira Grant, however, I should not have been concerned, because she not only expanded on the core concept of that first foray into mermaid territory, but she also gave us a gripping, breath-stopping story that kept me on edge until the very end.

Several years before the start of Into the Drowning Deep, the entertainment network Imagine had financed an expedition to the Mariana Trench in search of mermaids, following once more the sensationalist path of Imagine’s usual programming. A small group of scientists and entertainment people had embarked on the Atargatis with the goal of proving the existence of these mythical creatures, and in the end they did find what they were looking for: reality, however turned out to be much worse than any fancy concept, and the ship was later recovered, adrift and empty, save for a few snippets of footage that showed something terrible and incredible – so incredible that it was labelled as a hoax.

As the story starts, Imagine decides to mount a second, more well-equipped expedition, with the goal of proving the truth of that much-reviled footage and to recover the network’s credibility. For a number of the new expedition’s members, however, the voyage will be a way of putting to rest the ghosts of friends or loved ones lost with the Atargatis, or to find revenge for their untimely death.  This is the case for scientist Victoria “Tory” Stewart, whose sister Anne was the media face of that fateful voyage, while Doctor Jillian Toth – who choose at the last moment not to join the previous expedition – wants to find definitive proof of the mermaids’ existence and somehow assuage her guilt over the tragedy that befell the unlucky ship.  Aboard the Melusine, a state of the art sailing vessel equipped with the latest in scientific research and protection against eventual attacks, Imagine has collected various teams of scientist, a group of security guards for their safety, and a husband-and-wife team of professional hunters, creating a quite volatile mix of personalities that promises from the start to make this venture into the deep ocean a difficult one, even without the dangers posed by the creatures in the found footage.

Thanks to my knowledge of what happened aboard the Atargatis, my sense of impending doom started immediately and was not improved by some of the details offered now and then in an almost off-hand manner, like the information about the shielding plates installed to protect Melusine’s passengers from external attacks, shields that fail the test runs effected by the crew.  Being aware of what was coming made the constant bickering between the scientists – competing with each other for visibility and fame – and the difficult relations between them and the hunters, look even more petty and superficial: in this respect Mira Grant gives us a wide range of personalities from both sides of the spectrum, their interactions contributing to the growing feel of disaster on the make that is the backbone of this novel.  And so we get Olivia, the new poster-girl for Imagine, who presents an airy, happy-go-lucky face to the world while hiding both profound insecurities and some unexpected depths of courage that will surface in the direst moments; or Luis, Tory’s friend and science partner, whose support and friendship toward Victoria are indeed a bright light in the overall darkness of the story; or again the abrasive manners of Dr. Toth, who uses her scientific detachment and practical approach as a cover for what looks like a sort of death wish.

The book offers an interesting commentary on humanity as well, on our approach to the strange and uncanny: once the clips from the Atargatis’ tragedy are released, the public at large refuses to believe such evidence, calling it a hoax and blaming the entertainment network for the death of passengers and crew. What does this say about modern audiences, used to special effects and world-wide media coverage? Probably that we have become accustomed to it all and have somehow lost our sense of wonder – and Grant seems to warn us that turning a deaf ear on legends might in the end be our downfall, because nature still has many ways in which to surprise us. Or worse.

The mermaids are indeed the central focus here, not simply a bloody incident, since the author has created for them a whole background that’s in equal parts fascinating and terrifying: where they looked like mindless predators in Rolling in the Deep, here they are shown as part of a complex society, one shaped by the environment in which they live and by the constant hunger that drives their actions. In popular lore mermaids have always been pictured as half fish, half alluring woman, their perceived beauty and lovely songs able to draw unwary sailors to a watery grave; here they appear as nightmarish monsters whose true appearance has been glossed over by a myth that painted them as seductive, conveniently forgetting the “surprisingly sensual mouth brimming with needled teeth”, or the fact that their tantalizing song was nothing else but a very evolved form of mimicry, used to lure the unsuspecting prey.  That was to me the most horrifying side of these creatures, not the fact that they can successfully assault a modern ship and kill its occupants with surprising ease, nor the fact that they feed on humans just as they feed on fish, but that they can imitate a person’s voice, or any noise, with uncanny accuracy, knowing it will bait the trap they are so efficient in laying.

Worse still, the nightmare does not seem to end here, because Into the Rolling Deep leaves a great deal of hanging threads and an open door for a sequel: there is a revelation toward the end that there might be something ever more terrifying lying in wait in the depths of the ocean, something barely perceived but still mind-shattering enough to prompt a character into an almost Lovecraftian exclamation: “The light, the light, oh God the light!”.  Whatever that might be, I look forward to discovering it with the next book(s) in the series, while I will try to remember the warning Mira Grant issues at the end of her Acknowledgements section:

“Watch out for the water. You never know what might be down there”.

I guess I will take my next vacation on very dry land…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE CRIMSON CAMPAIGN (Powder Mage #2), by Brian McClellan

Where Book 1 of the Powder Mage trilogy piqued my interest for its novel take on a fantasy setting, Book 2 literally swept me away transforming me from interested spectator to invested fan of this amazing story that certainly has many surprises still in store for me.

The Crimson Campaign opens just a short while after the events of Promise of Blood, and mostly follows the path of the same three main characters, Field Marshal Tamas, his son Taniel, and Inspector Adamat, but with enormously raised stakes and no time to enjoy the brief respite in the war with Kez brought on by Taniel’s apparent killing of the summoned god Kremisir.

Undaunted by their first defeat, the Kez are mounting a new assault on Adro’s borders and the staggering numbers amassing at the foot of the Adran stronghold at Budwiel convince Tamas that he needs to stage a surprise attack at the enemy’s rear guard. To that end, he moves into their territory, through an underground passage, with two of his best divisions, only to discover himself stranded on hostile ground with no supply train and with the Kez army hot on his heels.

Taniel and his companion Ka-poel, the savage girl gifted with extraordinary magical abilities, lie in a coma after playing their vital part in the vanquishing of Kresimir, and when they finally come out of it, Taniel is much the worse for wear, suffering from the equivalent of PTSD and trying to drown the recurring memories of the encounter with Kresimir through the smoking of mala, this world’s opium-like substance.  Only the news of his father’s failed stratagem and the possibility of his death – a notion that many seem to take for certain – manage to snap him out of drug addiction and despondency,  and bring him to the front line where he will find himself fighting not only the Kez, but the blind hostility of his superiors and the possibility of a traitor in their midst.

Inspector Adamat, for his part, is desperately trying to free his family, that was taken hostage by the craftily cruel Lord Vetas, and he spares himself no danger or injury to reach that goal, gathering some surprising allies along the way and showing us more of Adran society and the way it works as he desperately seeks to break Vetas’ web of evil, whose ramifications seem to go wider and deeper than the mere search for personal power.   This time around I managed to connect better with Adamat’s character, who I previously found interesting but for some reason not very likable: his focus on the frantic search for his loved ones finally shows the man under the policeman’s coat, so to speak, and the lengths he’s ready to go to save them help bring him into sharper focus.   This is a man who gave himself fully to his work, and only through grief and loss has discovered what really matters in life, and that he’s ready to pay any price to keep it – even coming to terms with his until-now unbreakable integrity.

As fascinating as Adamat’s journey is, still the narrative threads concerning Tamas and Taniel remained the most appealing ones for me, although I must acknowledge that this time around I found pacing and plot more evenly balanced and felt no hurry to read through a less-engaging POV to reach the ones I cared most about, since the flow of the story was such that I did not want to rush over anything for fear of missing some important clue.  In this respect, and not this alone, The Crimson Campaign shows a definite improvement over its predecessor and a qualitative boost in all its elements.

In the first installment of this trilogy, Field Marshal Tamas quickly became my favorite character: at times harsh and abrasive, his real nature came into focus through the deep respect and admiration of his subordinates and troops. I could see that he was a man of deep passions that were fiercely curbed by the needs of his position, and what I further learned about him, from the short prequel stories I managed to read, just reinforced my liking of this character. In this second book, however, we see a somewhat different Tamas: he’s still a capable and daring leader, and there is no doubt that the dangerous march through enemy territory would have seen far higher losses without his keen strategic sense, but here we see him besieged by doubts, and by the awareness of impending old age that is not just impairing his physical strength but might also be dulling his ability to react.  If outwardly he’s still the same hard and uncompromising soldier, the one whose name is enough to strike fear in his enemies, Tamas cannot avoid second-guessing himself and wondering if he’s reached the end of his road, and instead of diminishing him, these doubts make him more human and approachable, and in the end an even more enjoyable character.

Taniel is however the one exhibiting the most remarkable changes: in Promise of Blood, where he came across as something of a whiner afflicted by too many daddy issues, I did not like him very much even though I understood where his problems came from.  Having someone like Field Marshal Tamas for a father meant that young Taniel had a difficult model to follow and one whose approval he constantly sought without really getting what he wanted, so the relationship between father and son was often strained and resulted in Taniel developing a strong streak of mulish stubbornness. Here Taniel starts on that same note – worse, he chooses to wallow in a sea of self-pity and despondency that even Ka-poel seems unable to drag him out of, and it takes the news of Tamas’ failed plan and probable death to clear the fog he’s drowning into.  Faced with the unexplainable behavior of the army’s leaders, who keep retreating before the Kez onslaught at the cost of uncountable lives, he tries almost single-handedly to bolster the troops’ courage and his example seems to be working – that is, until he’s arrested and tried for insubordination.   This was one of the most interesting and at the same time frustrating narrative threads of this book, and it helped me to finally look beyond Taniel’s willfulness and to see his determination and capacity for self-sacrifice, something that was previously obscured by other less savory aspects of his character. I also loved how he kept the faith about Tamas’ survival chances, refusing to believe that someone as larger than life as his father could be killed, the prospect of Tamas’ demise having apparently removed any self-imposed deception on Taniel’s feelings, allowing him to acknowledge love and admiration for his father.

Apart from these central figures, others had the chance to grow and gain in depth and detail in The Crimson Campaign, particularly Ka-poel and, in a smaller measure, Vlora.  The former manages to shine despite her inability to speak – or maybe because of it, since she seems to command the reader’s attention every time she’s mentioned – and her strength and determination, tempered by a subtle veneer of humor that the author was able to convey quite clearly, make her stand out despite the relatively small narrative space she enjoys.  Vlora, on the other hand, still moves on the sidelines, and I acknowledge that my desire to see more or her comes from my enjoyment of her role in Sins of Empire, so I can bide my time and wait for better opportunities to get to know her.  And last but not least, I need to mention Olem, Tamas’ bodyguard (another character I greatly appreciated in Sins of Empire and who moves his first steps in this trilogy): I love his laid-back attitude and the kind of relationship he established with Tamas – respectful but not awed, and at times bordering on the kind of insolence that Tamas publicly scoffs at but seems to secretly appreciate.

Do I have any complaints about this book?  Yes, that like its predecessor it ended with several narrative threads still hanging and waiting for their resolution in the third and final book of the series – but it’s a relatively small complaint, because I can move to The Autumn Republic as soon as I want, and learn all that I need to know. Having come late to this series does indeed have its advantages…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: PERSEPOLIS RISING (The Expanse #7), by James S.A. Corey

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for the opportunity to read this new installment in my very favorite space opera series.

Apart from a brief synopsis of the story, something you could find on GoodReads or the back cover of the book, there will be no spoilers in this review: more than any other, this is a novel that must be enjoyed with a minimum of foreknowledge.

At the end of Babylon’s Ashes, as many narrative threads seemed to have come to a conclusion, I wondered where the authors would next take the story, and after reading the novella Strange Dogs I had an inkling that the focus might be shifted toward the colonies established in the worlds beyond the alien portals accessed through Medina station. In a way, I was both right and wrong: the colonies – or rather, the world of Laconia, which figured prominently on that novella – are there, but not in the way I imagined.

For starters, the action takes places some 30 years after the events of Babylon’s Ashes, showing how the balance of power and the political landscape have changed in the aftermath of Marco Inaros’ faction’s attack on Earth: the home planet of humanity has recovered from the massive upheavals caused by the asteroid impacts, but its influence has somewhat lessened and is now shared between the inner worlds and the Transport Union, the successor of the OPA, now a legitimate association that monitors traffic to and from the colonies beyond the portals, with Belters having finally reached equal status with the rest of the system. The social and political balance might not be perfect, but they are certainly better than they were in the past.

The crew of the Rocinante has gained two permanent members, ex marine Bobbie Draper and Clarissa “Peaches” Mao, once their adversary and now Amos’ engineering buddy. Through the years in which they worked for the Union the six have coalesced into an easy family, so that Holden and Naomi’s announcement that they are going to retire, and leave the ship to the others, is received with a mix of happiness for the couple and the well-deserved rest they’ve earned, and sadness at the loss of a piece of their group.  It was something that troubled me, as well, because I wondered how removing these two from the equation would change the dynamics aboard the ship – and the narrative as well.

A worry quickly forgotten, though, since the Solar System finds itself faced with an unforeseen menace: in the decades since he carried a third of Mars’ naval forces (and a protomolecule sample) through the Laconia gate, former Admiral Duarte – now self-elected High Consul – has created a powerful empire that he means to extend to the rest of the explored worlds, starting with the Sol system through a surprise attack on Medina station, with a giant ship that’s a hybrid between Martian technology and applied protomolecule tech.  What follows is a huge game change, a series of events that transform the face of the story as we knew it until now: if, in the tv series inspired by these books, the dividing line between the events of books 1 and 2 was titled “Paradigm Shift”, here we encounter another shift, one of massive proportions that will in all probability encompass the final two volumes of The Expanse.

Change is indeed the focus of the story here, and primarily the changes in the characters: the people of the Roci have grown comfortable with each other, and of course they have grown older, so that a good portion of their thoughts or good-natured exchanges focus on the small indignities of advancing age that seem to afflict both people and ship, as if they were one and the same.  Seeing them affected by the passing of time was something of a surprise for me, because we tend to think about characters as somewhat physically immutable, but these people accept it with equanimity and with the awareness that they can overcome anything as long as they keep taking care of each other and of the Roci, because – as a bulkhead plaque reminds them – doing that will ensure that they will always come home.  It was the slightly melancholic, bittersweet mood that accompanies these first glimpses of the Rocinante crew that made me realize how fond I’ve grown of them, how they have become real to me, not unlike flesh and blood people, and how much I care about what happens to them. And trust me, here a LOT happens to them…

However, the original crew does not enjoy the spotlight here, at least not all of the time, since the point of view shifts between them and some new characters, most notably Drummer and Singh.  The former we already met as second-in-command to Fred Johnson at Tycho station, while here she’s the president of the Transport Union, a very influential woman facing some hard choices once the Laconian invasion starts.  I quite liked Drummer, her no-nonsense approach to power that comes both from her origins as a Belter and her past as an OPA operative, and I felt for her when she had to compromise some of her hard-won principles for the greater good.  For Drummer, the only bright light in this gloomy situation comes from the shrewd advice of a greatly beloved character who manages to steal the brief scenes where she appears, her keen intelligence and foul-mouthed expletives undimmed by age: the verbal confrontation between the two women, different in age, background and political views are nothing short of delightful.

Colonel Singh, on the other hand, is a newcomer to the Expanse’s cast: a bright young Laconian officer on the rise, he’s sent to Medina to act as governor and facilitate the “transition” in government.  He’s a very interesting person, mostly because of the dichotomy between his kindness as loving husband and doting father and the hardness he needs to exert as a soldier of the conquering empire.  His story-arc brought me to alternate between compassion and hostility, even though I understood that the less savory aspects of his personality were the product of his indoctrination.  In this he’s very much like the other Laconians, not much different from anybody else on the surface, but dramatically so in outlook and psychology: the few glimpses of the society built by Duarte on Laconia offer a quite chilling context for the way these people think and act, for the deeply rooted certainty they harbor about being right, about being able to win over the rest of humanity to their way of seeing things.

This new story-arc in The Expanse series promises to rise in intensity far above the previous ones, and considering how outstandingly amazing they have been so far, we are in for a remarkable journey: given the total, not-coming-up-for-air immersion I enjoyed here, I know the remaining two volumes will prove even better.  And I can hardly wait…

 

My Rating:   

Reviews

Review: THE BRIGHTEST FELL (October Daye #11), by Seanan McGuire

Eleven books down the road, and this story still feels fresh, intriguing and engrossing: I don’t know how many series can claim such a record, but surely Seanan McGuire’s October Daye saga deserves this tribute – even from a very biased reader, and fan, like me.

As The Brightest Fell starts we see October in a very happy place: the people in her extended family have brought her (somewhat forcibly, in truth) to a karaoke bar where they are throwing her a bachelorette party prior to the marriage with Tybalt, the handsome King of Cats. Letting go of her worries is not easy, but the sheer enthusiasm of the people she loves, and who love her back, is such that in the end she finds the right track and enjoys herself: how could she not when even the Luidaeg goes on-stage to sing?  (yes, you read that correctly: the Luidaeg sings!)  Yet, October’s misgivings were justified, as old-time readers might have expected from page one, because once she’s back home she receives a startling and rather unwelcome visit: her mother Amandine has come out of her seclusion to require that October find her older sister August, who has been missing for over a century, and to insure her changeling daughter’s cooperation Amandine proceeds to force both Tybalt and Jazz into their animal forms, taking them away as hostages until October has fulfilled her task.

Faced with such a difficult, near-impossible mission, October is forced to seek the assistance of the most improbable ally: Simon Torquill, August’s father, and also the man who turned October into a fish for fourteen years as she was looking for clues in the disappearance of Sylvester Torquill’s wife and daughter.  The deal is not exempt from suspicions and old resentments from both sides, but it seems to work well enough once the two of them understand that they are teamed up for the good of the people they love, and the shared hazards of the journey manage to create a bond of sorts – under the watchful eye of Quentin, October’s squire, who is not as inclined as she is to grant Simon the benefit of the doubt.

The love of family is indeed the backbone of this story: the hardships October is ready to endure for her loved ones lead her to understand how Simon’s crimes were the result of his desperate search for August, and how much his journey into wickedness moved along a road paved with the best of intentions. This story sees Simon’s fight for redemption, his desperate attempts to make amends for his past crimes, and as this happens we get several glimpses of a very different person from the one we believed we knew: it was an unforeseen discovery, and one that often made me sympathize with him once I realized that there are times when we make horrible mistakes in the name of love, and that the price we have to pay is our own soul.

The other side of this coin is represented by October’s family – as in her blood relatives, of course, not the ones she gathered along the way and who constitute her real family.  Amandine, the mysterious creature we always heard about but never truly saw, finally makes her appearance: until now she was a remote figure, one who preferred to stay away from everyone for her own purposes, and we might have been mistaken into believing she just wanted to keep her distance for some good reason, although her intervention to save October’s life by changing the balance of her blood pointed to an active interest in her changeling daughter. Well, we were quite mistaken. Amandine is not remote, she is contemptuous; she’s not just coldly distant as fae can be, she is a heartless manipulator bent on obtaining what she wants – and to hell with collateral damage, a concept that does not even cross her attention threshold.

The fae in Seanan McGuire’s world are not very good at empathy, granted: even people like Sylvester Torquill, for all his fairness and honesty, can’t avoid the feeling of superiority, of entitlement, that comes with their nature, and we have seen cases where this attitude was brought to the worst heights (or should I say “depths”?).  But Amandine is quite another thing: she wants what she wants, and she does not care who or what she tramples as she seeks to get it: her desire is to be finally reunited with her lost daughter – her true daughter – and she feels no qualms in blackmailing her other daughter, the substandard, despised one, threatening the lives of people she cares about to ensure her compliance.

And if Amandine is a cold-blooded bitch, August fares no better, because she is a true fae – in the most negative sense of the word – as bigoted and short-sighted as the worst of them: not that I expected a warm sisterly reunion (I know by now how McGuire’s mind works), but for a while I thought that “old” Simon’s influence would have played a role in her psychological makeup. I could not have been more wrong.  In the end, as far as character and personality go, October’s mother and sister fare a lot worse than her arch-enemy Simon, especially in light of what I learned about him in this novel.

As for Toby, I guess she was rarely so alone as she is here: except for Quentin, she is forced by circumstances to leave her support group behind and this of course heightens her feeling of isolation, exacerbated by Simon’s presence and the memory of everything she lost due to his past actions.  McGuire never pulled any punches with October in the course of the series, but here she puts her character through an even worse wringer because it’s an emotional rather than a physical one: this time Toby does not bleed even once – as she half-jokingly remarks at some point – but the emotional pain she must endure looks worse than any bodily damage she sustained before.  The brunt of it all comes from her interactions with Amandine of course: despite having given up on her mother a long time ago, it’s clear that a part of her still yearns for – if not affection – at least recognition, for a sense of belonging, and once it becomes evident that she will never get it, not from Amandine, we can feel the unexpressed pain and betrayal that this realization carries, we can feel the new scars forming on top of the old ones:

For years, I’d blocked out how she had hurt me, refusing to think about it, refusing to even remember that it had happened […]

If at the end of The Brightest Fell we don’t all end deeply hating Amandine, I’d be very surprised…

This book does represent a huge turning point in the narrative arc, as the author says in the preface, and events all work toward showing this change and laying the basis for more, and on top of that there is a huge difference with previous installments, because the small ray of hope at the end is marred by the realization that it’s only temporary, that the game has shifted and the consequences are unpredictable.  While all this was implied before, now it’s stated openly, and makes me wonder what the future holds for Toby and her family:

What we had here wasn’t safety. It was just the illusion of safety, it was still the only thing we had and, by Oberon, I was going to cling to it.

Whatever it is, I can’t wait to see it.  The next book cannot arrive soon enough…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: PENRIC’S DEMON (Penric and Desdemona #1), by Lois McMaster Bujold

I must thank fellow blogger Mogsy, from Bibliosanctum, for mentioning this series in a post: Bujold is the author of one of my favorite SF sagas, the Vorkosigan Series, but so far I have not been as fortunate when I sampled her fantasy works with The Curse of Chalion.  So, when I heard about this cycle of novellas that promised at least some of the humor I had come to expect from the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, albeit in a fantasy setting, I did not hesitate to try it out, and it turned out to be a winner.

The main character, Penric, is the younger son of a minor noble, on his way to a neighboring fiefdom for his formal betrothal to that lord’s daughter. While on the road, he and his retinue happen on a group of distressed people: their charge, a priestess of the Bastard god, has fallen suddenly ill and they are seeking help.  Penric, a person of good disposition, kneels near the dying woman and tries to comfort her by holding her hand, not knowing that elder Ruchia is host to a powerful demon who gets transferred to Penric as Ruchia dies.

Being the host of a demon means a huge upheaval in Penric’s life, not because demons are inherently evil, but because now the young man will be able to work magic and as such, for example, he’s not good husband material anymore. While he tries to come to terms with this and the other changes, Penric gets to know his newly acquired demon, who is a mixture of the personalities of all previous hosts (including two animals, by the way): the only thing all these personalities, that survive through the demon as a sort of collection of memories, share is that they were all female, and the fact that Penric is not gives way to a number of humorous – and for him highly embarrassing – situations.

The element that I most enjoyed in this delightful novella is the juxtaposition between Desdemona (the name bestowed on the Demon by Penric, with a gesture that is unheard of and quite appreciated by the recipient) and the young protagonist: the demon’s great store of experiences gathered while moving from body to body and Penric’s essential naiveté make for a great contrast that fuels most of the narrative and helps define his character in a very promising way.

As a beginning to the two unlikely companions’ adventures, Penric’s Demon looks quite promising, and more than worth some further exploration.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: DEADLANDS:BONEYARD, by Seanan McGuire

I received this novel from Macmillan-Tor/Forge through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to all of them for this opportunity.

As a fan of author Seanan McGuire, I could not let myself miss this new book that promised to be something different from her usual Urban Fantasy offerings: from GoodReads I learned that the Deadlands book series is derived from a role-playing game, and since I know nothing of the gaming world I wondered if this might have somehow prevented me from fully enjoying the story, but I should not have worried because Boneyard walks quite surely on its own legs and what’s more it’s the kind of story that draws you in and does not let you come up for air until the end.  Which is hardly surprising at all, since it’s Seanan McGuire we’re talking about after all and, no matter how biased this might sound, her craft as a storyteller is such that she can draw you in and keep you there, not in spite of the darkness and the fear, but because in her hands these elements can become as mesmerizing as more light-hearted ones.

What’s more, the story’s background is set in the Wild West, in the era of bold settlers forging their way over uncharted territory to build a new life, but with the added spice of a supernatural/horror theme (and some steampunk elements as well): what could be more attractive, particularly since I read the book in the days just before Halloween?  For this very reason I decided that posting this review today would be quite appropriate 🙂

The story in short: the Blackstone Family Circus faces some difficult decisions, since winter is approaching and the show has not gathered enough income with their tour to survive comfortably during the cold season, so they are debating whether to accept a potentially remunerative gig in the Oregon settlement of the Clearing, a place where some companies are rumored to have reaped good earnings while others suffered unexplainable losses.  Annie Pearl is the keeper of the “oddities”, bizarre and often deadly creatures that she gathered all over the country, like the nibblers – piranha-like fish cursed with perpetual hunger and terrible teeth that jut “out at all angles, making it impossible for the fish to feed without biting themselves”: Annie has been with the circus for several years, and we soon learn that she escaped with her mute daughter Adeline from the house of her worse-than-abusive husband, and has been hiding with the circus ever since.  Once the company reaches the Clearing, a bowl-like hollow surrounded by a dense, strangely looming forest, they find the settlers less than welcoming and prone to bizarre behavior, to say the least.

The very first night after their arrival, the circus people find themselves fighting fire, nightmarish predatory creatures and the hostile indifference of the townies, and it falls on Annie – desperately searching for Adeline in the treacherous woods – to uncover the Clearing’s horrible secrets while also facing the long-dreaded return of her husband Michael bent on reclaiming what he considers his properties.  The main action develops over that long, horror-filled night that seems to go on forever, both for the characters and in the reader’s perception: to call this a compulsive read would indeed be the understatement of the century…

On the surface Boneyard is a story about horror and the supernatural, focused on surviving in a hostile environment that’s splendidly represented by the forest surrounding the Clearing, a place where trees seem to possess a life of their own and a malicious will, and shadows can take shape and form, pressing on the unwary travelers to sap their energy and life. Yet, on a deeper level, it’s a tale about facing one’s fears and refusing to succumb to them, about never giving in to despair to the point it might consume us: the legend of the wendigo that’s so skillfully employed here is indeed a case in point, where the hunger-stricken colonists give in to their deprivation and become the beast, devoured by a craving for flesh that can never be sated because it goes beyond the mere material plane and ends destroying one’s soul.

Annie has indeed been hiding for a long time, her sole goal that to protect Adeline: she left her home town of Deseret with literally only the clothes on her back, her infant daughter and the lynx Tranquility and we see through the artfully inserted interludes what she left behind – a man whose unwavering faith in science and in his god-given right to own her, body and soul, reveal him as a true monster.  Despite her need for concealment, however, Annie has grown stronger: caring for the “oddities” in her wagon she has learned to master different kinds and levels of fear and when push comes to shove she understands that she needs to take survival into her own hands and be the aggressor so that she will not become the victim.  Her example helps others find their own courage and the will to fight against the darkness: in this young Martin and his girlfriend Sophia are wonderful examples of timid people who, once faced with the prospect of annihilation, prefer to go down fighting rather than cower in fear waiting for the monsters to kill them.

The other great element of this story is the unstated but always present question about the nature of monsters and how the worst of them always start in human form: the wendigo I already quoted looks like a nightmarish beast, its appearance nothing but the outward manifestation of the shadier, more horrifying sides of our soul; the inhabitants of the Clearing have accepted the price to be paid to the flesh-eating creatures in the woods turning into willing accomplishes, even the younger among them – as shown by the kids who willfully send Adeline into the woods knowing what might find her.  The worst monster however remains Michael Murphy, Annie’s husband, whose depths of depravity and madness I will refrain from describing, leaving this discovery to my fellow readers.

By comparison, the creatures that Annie shows to the paying customers, the “oddities” meant to engender fear and revulsion, end up looking like friendly beings, the danger they represent merely coming from inescapable nature and not from the exertion of a twisted will – and their contribution to the story’s development does nothing but reinforce this notion, particularly in the case of Tranquility the lynx, who deserves a special mention.

Once more Seanan McGuire reveals her skills as writer, offering us a gripping story and some unforgettable characters: no matter the tale she chooses to reveal, rest assured that it will be an amazing experience.

 

My Rating: