Reviews

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

Illustration -Old locomotive at night seeing moon and smoke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you waiting for?

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go on, Lady. Do it for all of us.”

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

 

My Rating:   

 

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: 

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

Review: THE KING’S BLOOD (The Dagger and the Coin #2), by Daniel Abraham

Despite my best intentions (road to Hell and paving stones…) I waited almost a whole year before returning to Daniel Abraham’s fantasy series, and now that I’ve read this second volume I hope I will not make this mistake again, because what looked quite promising in book 1 has turned here into a well-crafted, compelling story peopled with characters whose further definition becomes pure reader’s delight.

The King’s Blood resumes where The Dragon’s Path left, following the characters that were our eyes and ears in this world, although none find themselves at ease in their own circumstances: Cithrin bel Sarcour, the former ward of the Medean bank, has managed to create her own branch in Porte Oliva – thanks to the funds successfully saved from the destruction of the Vanai branch – but finds herself under the thumb of an auditor from the central headquarters, a woman with an accountant’s small mind and no flair for the risks that have made Cithrin such a formidable banker. Marcus Wester, former soldier and now Cithrin’s bodyguard and protector, is also chafing in the role of enforcer for the Porte Oliva branch, and while he’s devoted to Cithrin and her well-being, he’s somewhat unhappy, victim of a formless restlessness he’s not yet ready to acknowledge. Dawson Kalliam, one of the chief advisors of Antean king Simeon, has managed to prevent the coup that would have killed the king’s son and heir and put Antea at the mercy of their nearest neighbor, but Simeon’s failing health and the shifting political landscape force him to revisit his loyalties and question his principles.  And Geder Palliako, the young, ridiculed nobody that proved instrumental in defusing the attempted coup, and who rose to an unpredictable position of power, finds himself with an even heavier burden on his not-so-strong shoulders…

More than the first volume of this series, this second installment drew me into the world Daniel Abraham created: where The Dragon’s Path had the responsibility of introducing the readers to Antea and the main characters, The King’s Blood is able to solidify this background, conferring it a much-needed width and depth, and it does so not so much through lengthy descriptions and verbose information, but by having the characters interact with the world itself, by allowing the reader to observe it through their eyes and their different points of view.  Following their journey, being part of their thoughts and experiences, we see this place in all its complex richness and in its different aspects: from the bustling commercial chaos of Porte Oliva to the royal seat of Camnipol to the open vistas of the wilderness marked by the ancient jade dragon roads, this is a place that comes to life as if it were another character, with its changes in personality and looks.

And characters are indeed the strong point of the series, carrying and advancing the plot in a beautifully organic way, and always surprising the reader, the case in point being represented by Dawson Kalliam: in the first book I had him pinned as something of an authoritarian, someone with an eye always turned toward past and traditions, but as the story progressed I felt some growing sympathy for him, understanding how his attachment to honor and duty defined him.  Here he finds himself faced with some difficult decisions and a very questionable choice that – despite its dire consequences – invests him with the deep humanity that I felt was somehow missing from his makeup.  Much of it came of course from the interactions with his wife Clara, whose direct POV is introduced in this novel to my great appreciation: Clara is an amazing character, because while she adopts the deferential role assigned to women in this society, she is a very able and subtle mover and shaker, and finally in this book her skills and intelligence are showcased as she deserves.  There is a sentence where the author seems to foreshadow this, and it’s one that made me smile in appreciation when he wrote that “smoke seeped out of her nostrils like she was some ancient dragon hidden in a woman’s flesh”. Clara is indeed a dragon lady, and I look forward to seeing how her story will move forward.

On the other hand, Marcus Wester feels… diminished, for want of a better word: here is a man who needs a mission to truly feel alive, and he now feels that Cithrin has no further need of his protection, so that he’s now almost adrift in a sort of limbo.  It does not help that he has not resolved his feelings toward her, because if he started seeing her as the image of his long-dead daughter, there are moments when he seems to view her in a different way.  This inner conflict results in a rash decision subverting his long-held principles and pitting him against his second-in-command and longtime friend Yardem: what will come out of this development still remains to be seen.  And Cithrin herself is in a state of flux: no more the sheltered ward of the Medean bank, no more the frightened young woman protecting the precious cargo from doomed Vanai, she needs to grow into her own skin and finds herself hemmed in between the contemptuous attitude of the bank’s auditor and Marcus’ solicitous protectiveness, and is clearly chafing at both. Her solution to the impasse will bring her on a path that, so far, only planted a few seeds whose growth I’m eager to see.

But of course the main focus of interest remains Geder Palliako: there is nothing more dangerous than a man with a grudge given a position of power, and Geder possesses a long list of grudges indeed. If in book 1 I saw the danger of his giving in to the need for retribution, here he positively frightened me: he is a man who has lived most of his life in loneliness, and with little experience of the outside world, and now he wields enormous power, a power he’s afraid of, making him the easy prey of advisors with their own agenda. It’s difficult to pinpoint my feelings for Geder, because if at times I feel deep compassion for him, for what his life was before, and if I see the profound loneliness afflicting him – one that’s expressed in his easy, almost-brotherly relationship with young prince Aster, probably the only person he feels comfortable with – still I can’t help but recoiling at the unthinking carelessness about the consequences of his often merciless decisions. On one side there is the frightened, isolated young man, and on the other the dangerous monster he’s becoming, and as a reader I kept oscillating between these two extremes without being able to choose how I really felt.

As these amazing characters move forward with their individual journeys, the story keeps building up details, both big and small, that are clearly going to have far reaching consequences: the best feature of this series, as far as I can tell after the first two books, is the sensation that the author is placing his pieces on the board and that the game will gain in complexity and depth as it progresses.  Already The King’s Blood feels more complex and more focused than its predecessor: if this trend keeps up, I know that there is an engrossing story waiting down the line – and this time I will do all that I can to discover it as quickly as possible.

 

My Rating: