Reviews

Novella Review: SUFFER A SEA CHANGE (October Daye #12.1), by Seanan McGuire

 

At the end of October Daye’s latest novel, Night and Silence, there was a welcome surprise, the novella Suffer a Sea Change which explores at some length (and promises more for the future, hopefully) one of the most poignant narrative elements of its parent novel.

A synopsis is out of the question, since it would spoil both the main book and the enjoyment of this novella, so what I can share is that it deals with a very interesting point of view character: Gillian, October’s daughter, the daughter that for so many years felt abandoned and betrayed by her mother, not knowing the real reason for Toby’s prolonged absence and her choice not to be part of Gillian’s life anymore.

One of the details I immediately noticed was how Gillian’s inner ‘voice’ is similar to Toby’s: finding herself in a scary, unusual situation, she often resorts to that form of dry sarcasm that is her mother’s way of dealing with fear and helplessness.

Gillian’s nature might be closer to her mother’s than she suspects, and this might be one of the elements that could bring them together – and considering what a weak, contemptible person Cliff turned out to be in Night and Silence, or in light of the discovery of step mother Miranda’s not-so-crystalline motivations, I believe that an intelligent young woman like Gillian might be able to see the whole picture once she’s been given all the elements she needs.

My hope for a reconciliation lies mostly in some considerations from Gillian, like this one:

 

I hadn’t quite been able to work up the energy to hate her. When I thought about her, it made me sad, not angry […]

 

or this one:

 

I had spent so much of my life hating my biological mother that it was like a physical pain in my gut to realize that she might not be the villain of the piece after all.

 

It’s clear that Gillian needs to come to terms with her confused feelings about her mother, but first she will have to work through her own problems, and adapt to a different outlook on life, and that is the promise that comes across in this short story: that she will not be alone in doing so and that the greatest help might come from the Luidaeg brings me to hope for some very interesting developments where the Sea Witch is concerned, especially in relation to Toby and the people she cares about.

There is a great deal of emotion and character development in this short story, but I can safely say it’s one of the best I read among the companion tales to October’s main journey: the promise is there, all we have to do is for it to be fulfilled – in time.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: NIGHT AND SILENCE (October Daye #12), by Seanan McGuire

 

Even risking to sound like a broken record, I need to stress once more how this series keeps raising the stakes from one book to the next, how far it is from generating any kind of “reader fatigue” and how much I keep feeling invested, as a reader and a huge fan, in the ongoing story of October and friends.

More than in previous instances, this will be a difficult book to review because talking about it without giving away any spoilers is going to be a monumental feat, but I will try anyway, focusing rather on the character development and the emotional responses engendered by this twelfth installment in what I consider one of the best Urban Fantasy series of these years.

Since the blurb on GoodReads or other sites already mentions it, I feel safe in reporting that the main focus of Night and Silence is the kidnapping of Gillian, Toby’s estranged daughter, who disappeared from the Berkley campus leaving only an empty car and some traces of blood.  After the events of the previous book, Toby and her extended family are not in the best of shape: Tybalt and Jazz are dealing with their own version of PTSD, the King of Cats more than Jazz, and the distance he’s put between himself and Toby is hurting them both, leaving them unbalanced and vulnerable.  The appearance of Cliff, Toby’s former lover and Gillian’s father, and of Miranda, Cliff’s new wife, at Toby’s door, accusing her of the girl’s disappearance, launches a breakneck chase all over San Francisco, both in the mundane parts of the city and in the fae encroaching realms – a chase that will bring to light many unexpected revelations and a couple of actual narrative bombshells.  Not to mention a lot of shed blood – and I mean a lot: this might very well be the book in which October bleeds more than in any previous installment of the series…

 

“You lost a great deal of blood.”
“I didn’t lose it,” I said. “I know exactly where it is.”

I will freely admit that at first I was not completely sold on the kidnapping angle, since this particular story-line had already been explored in a previous book, but I should not have worried – as I soon became aware – because Seanan McGuire had no intention to retread old paths and managed to lead both her characters and her readers on a breathless adventure that paves the way for a number of unpredictable scenarios that will be the fuel for the next volumes.

What Night and Silence does very well is make us think about the meaning of family, and family ties, and the detail that comes to the fore with dramatic intensity is the contrast between what I might call Toby’s ‘original’, human-oriented family, made of Cliff and Gillian, and the one she built around herself with May, Tybalt, Quentin and all the other friends she’s made along the way.  Once more we are reminded of the fact that when October came back from her involuntary 14-year stint as a fish in a pond, Cliff did not even give her the chance to explain (hard as that might have been without revealing the existence of Faerie), and literally slammed the door in her face. He does not come across as a very nice or considerate person, and here he appears as completely subjected to his wife Miranda’s will: together they have done their best (or rather, their worst) to fuel Gillian’s pain and lack of understanding for Toby’s disappearance into a full-fledged hate of the girl’s natural mother.  And once a huge revelation about Miranda’s history and motivations becomes clear, the extent of their combined efforts takes on a sinister light that made me despise them even more, particularly when I kept witnessing Toby’s resigned acceptance of Gillian’s rejection: she can fight like an enraged lioness for the sake of her child, but she will not try to change the young woman’s point of view, and that’s quite painful to see.  On the other hand, there is a very intense conversation with Cliff, at some point, where finally October makes him face his responsibilities, and it’s a welcome exchange. Much welcome.

The only bright lights in this quite bleak panorama come from Tybalt and the Luidaeg: the King of Cats might be still recovering (and it looks like it’s going to be a long, long road) from his ordeal at the hands of Amandine, he might feel diminished in his ability to be an effective ruler, but when October is in dire need of his help he does not hesitate and shows that the strength of old is still there, ready to be deployed for the sake of the woman he loves.   I make no mystery that I’m not exactly partial to romance in my reading material, but in the case of October and Tybalt I’m always ready to make an exception, and I believe that’s because their relationship feels very real, with no need for the usual frills of a romantic entanglement: they are not simply lovers, they are friends and comrades who have learned their mutual strengths and weaknesses and know how to support each other when need arises.  The combination of Toby’s cynical approach to life and Tybalt’s old-world manner of expression makes for many delightful exchanges that always bring a smile to my face.

As for the Luidaeg… well, my favorite character after October truly shines here in Night and Silence: she is her usual gruff and abrasive self of course, and that’s to be expected, but she also shows her deep capacity for love and affection that the brusque manner she uses as a cover does not mask very well. Among the many revelations offered by this book, there are some concerning the Luidaeg that shine a new light on her character and, most important, on her past and the circumstances that made her who she is, that is, besides what we already knew about her…     What the Luidaeg does here for October and her own is the proof (as if we needed one…) of her deep affection for this changeling and also of the feeling of responsibility she harbors for Toby – I would be tempted to say that she is more of a mother than Amandine could ever be, even though I can almost hear her vehement denial of this conclusion…

If The Brightest Fell ended with many unresolved question and a dark pall hanging over the characters, Night and Silence offers a slight glimmer of hope for the future: it might not look much, at face value, but the potential for the righting of some wrongs in there, even though we already know that October and her friends’ path will never be smooth or easy.  But we would not want it any other way…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE AUTUMN REPUBLIC (Powder Mage #3), by Brian McClellan

 

My long and meandering way through this series has come to an end, and it was a very satisfying one, both story- and emotion-wise.  I used the words ‘long and meandering’ because I read the first volume Promise of Blood not long after it was published, and although I did like it, I did not feel strongly compelled to move forward with the series, since I had some slight issues with the book, mostly concerning the pacing and some characterizations.  Then some time ago I had the lucky opportunity of reading the ARC for the first volume of the sequel trilogy, Gods of Blood and Power, and I found there a more mature, more masterful control of story and characters, so that I decided to go back to… the origins so to speak, and discovered that hindsight helped me through the little ‘hiccups’ of the first book, so that once I reached the second, The Crimson Campaign, and this third installment, I could enjoy the tighter narrative and far more engaging storytelling. By now, Brian McClellan has become one of my favorite fantasy authors, one whose books I can always look forward to.

This final segment of the trilogy brings to a conclusion many of the threads that have been developing until now, bringing to a cusp the aftermath of Tamas’ revolution, the renewed conflict with the Kez and the resurgence of the ancient gods, and it does so with a sustained pace that never knows a moment of dullness. As enthralling as the events are, I would prefer to focus my review on the characters that move through them, because in The Autumn Republic they are explored in greater depth, and from new angles.  The only one I’m still unable, after three books, to really warm up to is Inspector Adamat: if I can sympathize with his past and present troubles and his ardent desire to keep his family safe, his segments are the ones that elicit the least interest in me as a reader, since I have been constantly incapable of forming any kind of attachment to this character.

It’s quite a different song for all the others, some of which we get to know better in this book, particularly Nila, the young laundress who recently discovered her Privileged powers: if at the beginning I wondered what part she was destined to play in the overall arc, here she fits wonderfully as the foil for Borbador, the only surviving member of the Adran cabal and Taniel’s long-time friend. Bo’s sometimes cavalier attitude toward his Privileged status and abilities might be tempered by what is basically a good nature and his affection for Taniel, but in the end he comes across as something of a spoiled child, and it falls on Nila, who he has taken on as an apprentice, to remind him of his duties as a human being and to cut him down to size when necessary.  I enjoyed quite a bit the interactions between the two of them and the way they end up supporting each other: what becomes clear at some point is Bo’s loneliness, and his yearning for the carefree days when he was part of Tamas’ family, so that I want to see this developing relationship between Bo and Nila as a way to re-create that sense of family he so clearly misses.

Vlora’s character enjoys some defining scenes in The Autumn Republic, and knowing the direction of her narrative arc in the following trilogy made me appreciate the hints of the more assertive personality she will develop later: here she is still trying to make amends for her past mistakes, and not for the first time I wondered at some of the comments I read about her not coming across as a very likable person, since I felt great sympathy for her since day one. Granted, she acted improperly and caused a great deal of grief, but almost no one (either readers or other characters) seemed to take into account her sense of loneliness and neglect that others manipulated for their own purposes, and that’s the reason I always felt more inclined to forgive her lapse.  Here she is able to mend her fences with both Tamas and Taniel, and at the same time starts on the road toward becoming her own woman instead of someone else’s protégée or betrothed, the beginning of a newfound independence that I can only approve of.    

Taniel, for his part, looks far more human than in previous instances: maybe being separated from Ka-poel (whose absence through most of the book is my only real complaint concerning this third volume) and his final admission about his feelings for her managed to shed a better light on him from my perspective. The whiny boy seems to be gone at last, and even though I still see some shadows in his character, he looks like a more grounded person, one who can recognize his failings and start to work on them. This becomes clear in his exchanges with Tamas, where for the first time in the series they actually speak to each other like father and son and not like two estranged acquaintances: their reciprocal admission of love, and the unspoken forgiveness for their past mistakes, is one of the more emotional passages in The Autumn Republic, one I realize I had been waiting for since book 1 and one that the author was able to convey with admirable deftness, down to a wonderful shared laugh that melts all the old misunderstandings and brings them together more than any words could.

Which finally brings me to Tamas, who has remained my favorite character throughout the story – faults included.  Here he sees his years-long planning nearing its conclusion, even though he’s aware that this does not mark the end of the struggle or that things did not turn out exactly as he envisioned them. There is a definite sense of needing to finally pass the reins to someone else, to give in to the weight of the years and the big and small injuries sustained during a long, hard career and the tight focus on his goal.  Tamas started taking stock of his past since the previous book, where he was assailed by some doubts about his ability to lead, so now that he sees himself at a crossroads and understands he left many things unsaid and undone, he feels compelled to correct any mistake he made along the way. Much as I enjoyed reading about his brilliant military strategy and his unwavering faith in the mission he set for himself, this softer side of Tamas complements wonderfully what was shown of the man until now, making him a more rounded and even more likable character – the true star of the narrative arc.

If I had read this trilogy when it came out, I would now be feeling quite bereft because I developed a deep fondness for this new fantasy genre and even more for the world Brian McClellan created, but as luck would have it, there is now more to be discovered in the next trio of books – and hopefully in many more that could follow.  The conclusion to the Powder Mage trilogy felt perfect in its promise for what is yet to come, but even more in the deeply touching feelings it engendered, even though they were tinged with sorrow: unfortunately this end is a bittersweet one, and if I understand the need for some of the author’s choices, I’m still in mourning for some of them – Brian McClellan has shown time and again he never pulls his punches, but when he sacrifices his characters he does so in a way that’s so balanced, in description and emotions, that I can forgive him for the pain we have to deal with…

The Powder Mage trilogy has now taken its place among my favorite stories, and it’s a world I will always enjoy visiting, in any form the author chooses.

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

Novella Review: GHOSTS OF THE TRISTAN BASIN (Powder Mage #0.8), by Brian McClellan

In my first search for short stories that complemented Brian McClellan’s epic about powder mages, I must have missed a few, and only a recent search unearthed other works I knew nothing about: it goes without saying that I would not think twice about reading them as well…

 

 

Set a few months before the events in Promise of Blood, this novella offers a double bonus: one that allows us to see more of Taniel’s deeds during the Fatrastan war for independence from the Kez, and one where we are introduced to a beloved character from Gods of Blood and Powder, none other than Mad Ben Styke.   As the story begins, the Tristan Basin Irregulars – the Fatrastan militia Taniel and Ka-poel have attached themselves to – have been harassing the Kez in the inhospitable swamps that cover the Basin, keeping them quite occupied with guerrilla warfare.

Returning to their base camp, they learn about new orders: the city of Planth, where Governor Lindet has retreated to regroup her forces, is threatened by a Kez army, and the Irregulars must get there quickly to shore up the city’s defenses. As grim as the situation appears, since the rebels are vastly outnumbered, a slim ray of hope is represented by the arrival of Colonel Ben Styke and his Mad Lancers, an elite troop that seems to be made out of warriors as berserker as their leader – and Planth will need their madness if the citizens want to survive…

As I said, there were two main points of interest in this story: for starters, I enjoyed seeing a very different Taniel from the one I met in the Powder Mage books. Much as he’s still trying to get out of the shadow of his very famous father, Taniel here appears like a more sympathetic character, a young man driven by the ideal of helping the region’s inhabitants gain their freedom from the Kez, whom he hates deeply since they were responsible for the execution of his mother.   He’s honing his skills in the conflict, and he’s also strengthening the ties with his local guide Ka-poel, the young mute woman whose weird abilities he’s just starting to know.  The only trait he shares with the older Taniel is his aversion to authority, especially when Lindet’s orders concerning the fate of Planth clash against his sense of duty.

That’s probably the main reason he seems to form a sort of bond with Ben Styke, the mountain of a man leading the Mad Lancers: the Ben Styke we meet here is also a very different person from the one appearing in Sins of Empire, since he has yet to endure the physical and psychological abuse of his long years in the prison camp, so that it’s a pleasure to witness the depths of joyful abandon as he launches himself in the activity he loves most – fight.  And fight he must, together with his Lancers and the Irregulars, if he wants to save the city, against almost insurmountable odds, yet there is more to him than just a practically invincible warrior, because here he exhibits humor, and cunning and courage, all wrapped into a carefree attitude that makes it impossible not to like him, and enjoy the pages that focus on him.

Losing myself in this story was a wonderful experience, and I strongly recommend it both to all McClellan fans and to those who still don’t know this author and series: you will not be disappointed…

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

Novella Review: RETURN TO HONOR (Powder Mage #1.5), by Brian McClellan

In my first search for short stories that complemented Brian McClellan’s epic about powder mages, I must have missed a few, and only a recent search unearthed other works I knew nothing about: it goes without saying that I would not think twice about reading them as well…

 

This story was quite a delightful find, not only because it features Vlora, but because it goes some way toward filling the empty narrative space between the events in Promise of Blood (where we learn of her dalliance with another officer and the breakup with Taniel) and her welcome return as Lady Flint in Sins of Empire.

Return to Honor begins shortly after the end of Promise of Blood, when Vlora is still very much a pariah because of her indiscretion, and also mourning the death of Sabon, one of Tamas’ closest friends and Vlora’s mentor.  A still-very-angry Tamas orders her to seek and capture a traitor who intends to defect to the enemy carrying important intelligence with him: what remains unspoken is that success might work a long way toward restoring, at least in part, the Field Marshal’s respect.   As encouraging as this might sound, the prospect of failure still hangs over Vlora, and what’s more she must do it alone, because Tamas does not intend to spare anyone to help her.

It’s impossible not to feel deeply for Vlora here: she’s conscious of her mistake and bitterly regrets it, but the worse part of the situation comes from the attitude of her fellow soldiers since they – either for personal inclination or to curry favor with Tamas – treat her like the worst kind of trash, even those that used to be her friends.  That’s when unexpected help comes in the person of the Field Marshal’s bodyguard, Captain Olem…

My knowledge of the shared history between Vlora and Olem in Gods of Blood and Powder enhanced my appreciation of this first encounter between them, where I could witness the ease with which they manage to work well together despite barely knowing each other, and more importantly where Olem’s laid back attitude acts like a balm on Vlora’s damaged soul, taking her out of her misery and bringing the sunnier side of her character to the fore.

One of the best Powder Mage short stories to date, indeed….

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: GREEN-EYED VIPERS (Powder Mage #0.6), by Brian McClellan

In my first search for short stories that complemented Brian McClellan’s epic about powder mages, I must have missed a few, and only a recent search unearthed other works I knew nothing about: it goes without saying that I would not think twice about reading them as well…

Green-eyed vipers is set eight years before the events in Promise of Blood, as Field Marshal Tamas is still collecting allies in his plan to overthrow the Adran monarchy, and it opens on one of the many parties held by the nobility, where politics and personal liaisons move side by side in a complicated dance.  The lady of Skyline Palace, Petara, is a famous (or maybe infamous) widow well known for her wealth, influence and also for the habit of successfully wooing any man she sets her eyes on.  In this particular evening her sights are set on Tamas, a widower himself, and not for the first time: we learn that she has admired, and wanted, him for a long time, but like any good strategist she is patiently waiting for her plan to unfold, savoring every moment.

For his part, the Field Marshal does not seem averse to a little dalliance: he’s famous (or again infamous) for his ability to court young women, and there is a moment in the course of the story where Petara observes the worry of a noble as Tamas kisses his young daughter’s hand.  So everything seems to lead toward the widowed lady’s ultimate goal but… there is always a ‘but’, of course, because we are made privy to an important detail, one that will turn the tables in a most dramatic way.

To say more would be a huge disservice: this story and the surprises it holds must be enjoyed without prior knowledge – although at some point the writing on the wall becomes quite clear…

A great addition to the short works featuring this world, and one that feels quite satisfying.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: KING OF ASSASSINS (Wounded Kingdom #3), 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.

King of Assassins is without doubt the best installment in a trilogy that was both an amazing discovery and an engrossing read from the very beginning, although it saddens me to acknowledge the fact that there will be no more stories about Girton Clubfoot and his journey.

Looking back, I now see how each book gave us a different version of Girton in his evolution as a person: at first he was an almost innocent boy, schooled in the subtle ways of the assassins, granted, but still very naïve where interactions with other people were concerned, and I warmed instantly to him, particularly in light of the flashbacks to his early childhood; in the second volume he was more of a sullen teenager, the weight of his nature keeping him apart from others and adding an unwelcome surliness and a stubborn streak that often made me want to slap him; and finally, in this last book, he’s a grown man, more at peace with himself and the magic abilities he must hide, but at the same time very world-weary and burdened by a veneer of sadness that I found quite touching.

Set several years after Blood of Assassins, the story opens with the preparations for the assembly that will decide the coronation of the next High King, after the death of the former ruler in the aftermath of the Forgetting Plague: this scourge left a further painful mark on the Tired Lands, so that tensions run high due to the political infighting between the contenders and the rise of new powers that threaten the already fragile equilibrium of the land.  King Rufra intends to gather his allies and make his play for the seat of the High King, convinced that the reforms he was able to effect in his own realm must be extended to everyone, but knows he’s walking on an uphill road, since not everyone is onboard with his new course.  Moreover, the years have not been kind to him: his first wife died in childbirth, and even though a new spouse just gave him another heir, he’s suffering from that loss, the physical injuries sustained in battle and the weight of his office.

Once more, Girton finds himself torn between his loyalty to Rufra, his duty as the king’s heartblade and assassin, and the need to keep the magic inside himself concealed even when he chooses to use it: it’s not an easy balancing act, especially since the dynamics between Girton and Rufra have changed, and not for the better.  Already, in the previous book, I was able to observe some distance growing between the two friends, mostly due to some misunderstandings and Girton’s morose attitude, but here it’s something deeper and far more damaging for the friendship that bound these two people since their youth.  If Rufra’s duties require that he keeps himself aloof even from his most trusted advisers, the way he relates to Girton makes it plain that there is more than the need to be king first and friend second: it’s plain that there is a form of resentment there, poisoning Rufra’s mindset, and it seems to come from acknowledging his need for Girton’s assassin skills while begrudging this very necessity because it runs contrary to his principles.  This comes to light quite clearly when Rufra requires that Girton act as he was trained, but does not openly ask for that, maybe as a form of plausible deniability, granted, but also because he hates himself for needing that kind of intervention, and therefore places the loathing for it on the man who executes the unspoken orders rather than the one who issued them.   It’s all very convoluted – and very human – but still it hurt me to see how their friendship is soured by this necessity, and even more seeing how Girton acknowledges this with sad acceptance.

The coldness in the relationship with Rufra is however balanced by another reversal in behavior, one that started in the previous book and here reaches its completion: Aydor began his journey as the heir of Manyadoc’s ruler, an uncouth, cruel bully who delighted in inflicting pain and humiliation on others, but after being ousted by Rufra he changed and slowly but surely transformed into an ally.  In Blood of Assassins, Girton was wary of this transformation, and kept Aydor at a distance, but in this last book the intervening years have changed that, and theirs is a friendship based on trust, on shared dangers and on Aydor’s boisterous  geniality that acts as a wonderful counterpart to Girton’s surliness.  I was surprised at the depth of my sympathy for Aydor and even more at the ease with which the author was able to change my feelings for this character while presenting his evolution in a believable, organic way: it’s far from easy to effect such a transformation with plausible effectiveness, and R.J. Barker managed the feat with admirable skill, as Aydor’s segments of the story ended up being like the proverbial rays of light in a dark, stormy background.

And this time around the main narrative thread is indeed darker than usual: in the aftermath of the High King’s death there is not just the customary unrest due to the disappearance of a ruler, nor are either the political maneuvering or some of its bloodier applications anything new or particularly shocking; what’s really troublesome is the feeling that some sinister forces are at play here and that their success will plunge the Tired Lands into an even worse situation than the one they are already suffering from.  Girton’s job appears more difficult than before, and the price to be paid for any mistake far higher than it could have been before, which makes for a quite compelling reading until the very end, where some unexpected revelations shed a completely different light on past events.

There is another element that captivated me deeply, and it’s Merela’s back story, given in bits and pieces in the customary interludes between chapters: one of the reasons for my fascination for her character was the aura of mystery surrounding her, and here we are finally afforded a look into her past and a better understanding of the person she became, both as an assassin and as Girton’s mentor. Placing this information here, at the end of the series, makes some of the events take on deeper meaning and it’s also the source of the most emotionally wrenching moment of all three books: just thinking about it still brings tears to my eyes, and I’m not usually prone to crying…

Despite the heartache, and the sadness I already mentioned for the end of the series, this was an enormously engrossing read, and one I cannot recommend enough to all lovers of fantasy.

 

My Rating: