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:  

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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:  

Reviews

Review: THE FLOWERS OF VASHNOI (Vorkosigan Saga #14.1), by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

 

After reading Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, I had to deal with the sad certainty that no more stories from the Vorkosiverse would be forthcoming: that latest novel had the flavor of finality, of the author having closed the door on those characters and their lives, leaving them to continue unobserved by prying eyes.   So I was happily surprised when fellow blogger SJ HIGBEE showcased this novella, a very welcome and quite unexpected find, one I might have missed for a longer time if not for her post, for which I’m very grateful.

The focus here is not so much on Miles as on his wife Ekaterin, which brings an interesting change of pace and also the possibility of observing Miles from an external point of view – and I must say that sharing Ekaterin’s observations about her rambunctious husband, as he engages with their children in target practice with food against the house cat, is just as entertaining as following any of Miles’ adventures, not to mention that it shows how the passing of years and the weight of responsibility have not changed him at all. Thankfully…

The district of Vorkosigan Vashnoi has been mentioned often in the course of the saga, and it’s an interdicted zone due to high levels of radioactivity dating back to the heavy bombardment from a past Cetagandan invasion: the place had been bequeathed to Miles from his grandfather Piotr, probably as a form of not-so-subtle sarcasm considering what the old man thought of the deformed grandson he tried to murder in his crib.  As the story begins, the radiation levels have started to subside, and Ekaterin has enrolled the Escobaran scientist Enrique Burgos – the creator of the (in)famous butterbugs first appearing in A Civil Campaign – to help in the requalification of the area.

Doctor Burgos has bio-engineered a new kind of butterbugs – the radbugs – whose function is to ingest the contaminated flora and soil of the Vashnoi territory, incorporating the radiation into their bodies and slowly but surely taking away the pollutants, so that the region can be made habitable again.  During one of their tours of inspection of the test area where the first generation of radbugs has been released, Ekaterin, Enrique and their ranger escort make an amazing discovery: the area is not deserted, on the contrary there are clear signs of habitation – and someone has been stealing a good number of radbugs…

This very enjoyable novella felt to me like some sort of mirror image of Miles’ adventure in The Mountains of Mourning, where he had to confront the harsh reality of what happened to children born with radiation-induced malformations: however, where Miles had to deal with some tragic revelations that felt much more dramatic due to his own physical problems, Ekaterin’s discovery runs on a lighter path, one where the inherent drama is tempered by humor and the acknowledgement of the fact that Barrayar’s outlook toward those who are not perfect is changing, and for the better.

As always, it was a delight to go back to these characters and place, so that my hope is that this will not be an isolated occurrence and that Ms. Bujold will opt to return again – even in this brief form – to what I consider her best creation.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: WRATH OF EMPIRE (Gods of Blood and Powder #2), by Brian McClellan

 

 

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

My appreciation of Brian McClellan’s storytelling started as something of a slow burn, as I read and liked Promise of Blood but did not feel greatly compelled to move forward with the series – at least not until I had the opportunity to read the first book of this new series, Sins of Empire, and found myself totally engaged with the story and characters, to the point that I went back to the Powder Mage trilogy and started retracing my steps.  Wrath of Empire is not only a worthy sequel to its predecessor, it’s also a huge game changer in the overall narrative sequence and the kind of story that consumes the reader with the sheer need to know what happens next.

Starting straight where Sins of Empire left, this second book of the Gods of Blood and Powder series takes us once again to the continent of Fatrasta, now in the throes of the Dynize invasion: as the attackers try to consolidate their hold on the capital of Landfall, they are also searching for the godstones, the powerful artifacts that will help them resurrect a god as a means of uniting their peoples once more.  Clearly they have not learned anything from the past mistakes of others….   Two of the godstones might be found at the farthest corners of the territory, so our heroes are compelled to divide their forces in the attempt of finding and possibly destroying the artifacts before the Dynize can acquire them: Vlora and her Riflejacks, together with Taniel, head north toward the secluded valleys where gold mining operations are underway, having to balance the need for speed with the secrecy surrounding their mission, which makes things all the more difficult considering the natural suspicion of the miners concerning their claims and profits.  Mad Ben Styke and the Lancers, with the addition of Ka-poel, travel in the opposite direction, constantly fighting with the encroaching Dynize army, while Ben tries to carry on his personal vendetta against the former comrades who betrayed him and sent him to the labor camps.  And lastly, Michel Bravis, former Blackhat and Taniel’s fifth column in Landfall, must remain in the occupied city trying to find one of Taniel’s informants and bring her to safety before she’s discovered.

The three separate narrative threads are interwoven with such skill that the novel quickly becomes a compulsive reading with never a moment of respite, and pervaded with a mounting sense of urgency and dread as the clues pile up and we are made privy to the invaders’ plans and witness the defenders’ apparently impossible task in the face of such odds.  At the same time we see more of Fatrasta: where Sins of Empire, with its focus on the city of Landfall, might have felt more cramped, so to speak, here our knowledge of the land and its history expands as the characters travel through it – and of course the characters are those who get the lion’s share of the narrative, taking on more facets and depth as the story goes on.

Ben Styke is the one who undergoes the greater changes: we first knew him as a mountain of a man gifted with enormous aggressive potential and the kind of physical stamina that made him appear almost invincible, more berserker than simply fearless. His interactions with Celine, the orphan child he befriended in the camps and became his ward, have changed him however, because he finds himself thinking more and more about what consequences his eventual death might have for his young ward. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg: apart from the delightful exchanges between the two of them, where the interaction of grizzled warrior and not-quite-innocent child gives way to several amusing passages, it’s Ben’s quest for vengeance on the men who betrayed him that transforms him and, more importantly, forces him to think about himself and his motivations.  There is something approaching inner pain in Ben’s musings when he considers how his past actions have shaped both his personality and his “legend”, and it’s only in the acceptance of his failings as an individual, and the acknowledgement of old age, that he gets closer to his own long-lost humanity.

The other character who gains more interesting facets is Michel Bravis, who infiltrated the Blackhats for Taniel, playing a dangerous double game in which he was forced to compartmentalize his mind to work more efficiently in his role.  Asked to remain in occupied Landfall, he’s walking on a razor’s edge as he works with his former colleagues to smuggle the families of other Blackhats out of the grasp of the Dynize, while trying to keep those same colleagues from learning that he was a traitor. This difficult balancing act is rendered even more dangerous by Taniel’s request to extract a precious informant about which Michel has very little information: forced to align himself with the Dynize, poor Michel finds his loyalties sorely tested once he realizes that not all of the invaders are bad people and that among them he can find the kind of human connection that his previous work always denied him. This is a man who had to keep to himself as much as possible so as not to blow his cover, and it’s here that we see his profound loneliness and the strong need to belong: if I found this character interesting before, it was this book that made me sympathize with him quite deeply.

Last but not least, Taniel and Vlora enjoy their own limelight as they engage in a spying mission without the support of the Riflejacks: there is something that reminded me of classic westerns as I followed their progress in the isolated mining community near the hiding place of one of the godstones, and if I still have some reservations about Taniel (he started out as a somewhat whiny young man with big daddy issues to morph into an inscrutable person with uncanny powers, who has no qualms about using others to attain his goals), I greatly enjoyed the focus on Vlora as her courage and capacity for self-sacrifice were showcased in the latter part of the story.  I might have had some complaints about the author’s treatment of female characters at the beginning of the Powder Mage trilogy, but I acknowledge that he changed course as the story unfolded and made me completely forget those early objections.

Add to all of that a few momentous revelations (and no, I’m not telling you about whom, it would be quite unfair to even hint anything!) and a final section that literally took my breath away as I feared for the survival of some of the characters, and you will understand why I used the phrase ‘consumed by the need to know’ at the beginning of this review.   The scene is all set for what promises to be a spectacular conclusion to this trilogy, one I will wait for with barely contained impatience.

Well done indeed…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: COLD WELCOME (Vatta’s Peace #1), by Elizabeth Moon

After backtracking through the five novels of Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series, I was finally able to get back to Cold Welcome, the first volume in the author’s new cycle called Vatta’s Peace, one that I started reading some time ago before realizing that I was missing too much back-story for my comfort.

Granted, one could start with Cold Welcome without undue problems – and I know many have done so – since the author leaves some well-placed signposts that help the readers orient themselves, but getting to this point after learning to know Kylara Vatta and the way she grew, as a person and as a commander, through the previous series, is a different kind of experience, a more rounded, deep-reaching one.

The book starts a few years after the events in Victory Conditions: following the decisive success against Turek’s pirates, Admiral Kylara Vatta has expanded and consolidated her Space Defense fleet, shaping it into a solid and respected organization.  Returning for the first time to her home planet at the request of her formidable Aunt Grance, Slotter Key’s Rector of Defense, Ky boards a connecting shuttle with her former Academy commander, the man who expelled her after a diplomatic incident, and from the very start something looks suspicious: the shuttle must perform unplanned course corrections due to a strong weather front, and some unexpected technical problems force the pilots to effect an emergency landing.  From that point on, all hell breaks loose and Ky finds herself and the survivors of the crash marooned in a harsh, desolated land marked as “terraforming failure” by the planetary charts.  It becomes immediately clear that the crash was the result of an act of sabotage (or rather several acts, since the perpetrators wanted to be certain of reaching their goal), so that Ky and her surviving comrades are not only fighting against tough environmental conditions – first on life rafts and then on an Arctic-like tundra – but against intentional damage on their survival gear.  Not to mention the traitor (or traitors) hidden in the group…

This is where, I believe, knowledge of the events that shaped Ky Vatta into the person we see in this novel is essential, because otherwise she might come across as a know-it-all kind of Mary Sue instead of the individual who managed to overcome a long chain of difficulties and personal losses, becoming a capable, level-headed leader.  Knowing what Ky went through in the past, first with her unjust (and very possibly contrived) expulsion from the Academy, and then as a merchanter-turned-soldier as she fought Gammis Turek’s pirates, helps in contextualizing her actions and the hard decisions she must take for the survival of the group.  Again, Moon does a good job in providing the new readers with all the necessary clues without cluttering the narrative with long exposition, but there is a great difference between being told about certain occurrences and reading them as they happen in Ky’s life, changing her outlook, shaping her personality and building some much-needed experience.

And that experience is what she and her group need, badly, in what looks like a desperate situation, worsened by some instances that appear more and more suspicious as the clues build up: the area where the shuttle crash-lands is one where surveillance satellites and communications don’t seem to work; some of the emergency supplies for the life rafts are either incomplete or damaged; and the behavior of some of the survivors doesn’t always add up. Never has Ky been so alone in her previous undertakings: before she always had a loyal crew to support her, and friends or family within reach, while now she must shape a group of strangers into a cohesive unit working together to survive, and the only known entity she can count on is her aide, a very uptight woman more focused on proper behavior and military decorum than on what really matters in such a situation. Not the best start, indeed…

The extreme conditions with which the group must deal offer a great chance for character exploration, so that the departure from the usual space opera or military SF themes one might expect leaves room for a very different kind of story, one where we can watch how people react to punishing environmental conditions and the very concrete possibility of death before any rescue can be effected. In this Moon truly excels, because she sketches the various personalities through the hardships they go through, and also manages to gift us with some surprising developments: there are a few scenes where the undercurrents of personality clashes come to the fore, and I enjoyed both the verbal skirmishes those entailed and Ky’s reactions, that were always quite collected despite the personal strain she was enduring at the moment.

If the narrative thread of the survivors is a fascinating one – especially when they make a quite unexpected discovery on a supposedly barren and uninhabited landmass – there is an equally intriguing storyline where Ky’s family and friends and the local authorities are concerned: even in the face of the grim odds presented about the survival of the shuttle passengers, Grace, Stella and the rest of the family are not ready to give up the search, so that when Rafe is able to confirm that Ky is indeed alive, thanks to their ansible connection, the Vattas resume their attempts to reach the survivors, finding several obstacles on their path.   Clearly, the recent purge has not rooted out all the rotten apples from Slotter Key’s management structure, so that Grace, Rafe & Co. need to move with quiet stealth to avoid being thwarted in their efforts.  There is a mounting sense of dread running through both narrative paths, which makes for a compelling read and a very engrossing story.

All of the above would be enough for a very satisfying read, but it’s not all one can find in Cold Welcome, because of the discovery Ky and the other survivors make in the not-so-deserted wasteland where they crashed: it’s a puzzle that will need to be unraveled (and probably the focus of the next books) and that promises to be as fraught with danger as the previous pirate chase has been.  Something I’m happily looking forward to.

 

My Rating: