Reviews

Review: THE UNBOUND EMPIRE (Swords and Fire #3), by Melissa Caruso

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

The third and final installment in Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy is the brilliant finale of a remarkable series, but for me it also firmly places the author in my personal “buy sight unseen” category – which looks even more extraordinary if you consider that this is her debut work.  While I was captivated by this series and its characters since Book 1, I had the pleasure of being more and more engaged in the story with each new volume, her mastery of pacing, dialogue and characterization growing literally from chapter to chapter, and The Unbound Empire represents indeed the culmination of this journey.

Storywise, the events take place a short time after Amalia Cornaro’s harrowing experiences in the hostile territory of Vaskandar, where she participated in the Witch Lords’ Conclave, called by the powerful Lord Ruven attempting to create an alliance against Amalia’s own Raverra.  Taking advantage of the short respite before the storm, the young Cornaro heiress works to make her Falcon Reform Act a reality: the mage-marked of the Empire will not be subjected to forced conscription anymore and will be able to live wherever they want, provided that they are willing to help their country in time of need.

Amalia’s elation at this success is however short-lived: Ruven launches the first phase of his attack at the very heart of Raverra, undermining the Empire’s political stability with the intent of weakening it from the inside before launching the actual military assault. It will fall on Amalia to implement the first line of defense against the Witch Lord, and to try and remove his threat at any cost, so that in this final battle she will have to learn which lines she is prepared to cross as she balances the survival of her home against that of the people she loves.

When reviewers say they find it difficult to set any given novel aside for a moment, it might seem a hyperbole, but this was certainly not the case with The Unbound Empire: personally I begrudged every single moment in which I had to close my reader to attend to life’s everyday requirements, and in those moments I kept wondering what else would be in store for me once I could reopen the book and keep on reading.  The pace is artfully calibrated and increases exponentially as the stakes and dangers keep mounting and the situation takes on the most bleak of overtones: even taking into account the general ruthlessness of Witch Lords, whose powers tend to divest them of many, if not all, of the usual factors that make humans human, Ruven’s callousness surpasses that of his peers by many orders of magnitude.   

Moreover, Amalia often finds herself fighting on two fronts, because the political maneuverings in Raverra look as coldblooded as the Witch Lords’ schemes: now that she is gaining political clout and is starting to make her own path in the powerful circles to which she is destined, it becomes clear that she must harden herself to any eventuality and lose the scholar’s naiveté and self-absorption that used to be her comfort zone at the beginning of the story. I have to confess that I was hard-pressed to remind myself that Amalia is a young woman not yet out of her teens: one of my strongest contentions when dealing with YA characters is that they seem condemned to be depicted as whiny, prone to temper tantrums and moody inner dialogue, but Amalia Cornaro is nothing of the sort. Hardships and tragedy only serve to strengthen her resolve, and any sacrifice, any tough decision she is forced to make may grievously wound her soul but they never weaken her spirit.

One of the main themes of this series is the need for a balance between love, friendship and one’s duty – especially in dangerous times – and I enjoyed the way Melissa Caruso was able to blend all these elements into a cohesive and engaging whole, investing me with the intricacies of the sentimental triangle of sorts in which Amalia becomes involved. Again, what in lesser hands could have turned into somewhat annoying angst, does instead give life to several considerations about the weight of commitment to duty against the leanings of the heart, so that both the narrative developments and the characterization come out enhanced by the detours into “romance territory”, so to speak, instead of being weakened by them. And the unspoken but clearly highlighted notion that it’s possible to love two different people with the same depth of devotion, though expressed in different shades, is a great and enjoyable step forward in the exploration of this subject.

As I said in a previous review of this series, Marcello – the captain of the Falconers to whom Amalia is attracted – and Kathe – the mage lord whose courtship Amalia accepted for political expediency before becoming fascinated by his mercurial personality – represent the dual leanings of Amalia’s soul: Marcello is the safe harbor, the dependable, gentle person she could spend the rest of her life with; Kathe is both unfathomable and dangerous, yet here some hidden, more sensitive sides of his personality come into light, forcing Amalia to reassert her previous views on the man.  If anything, the uncertainty of the choice she will have to make between these two opposites serves to strengthen Amalia’s character and to show that despite the inevitable heartbreak she is capable to set aside the inclinations of her soul and to listen to the harsh necessities of her mind: I don’t want to spoil the details for you, but there are moments when having to decide between “want” and “must” she is able to weigh all the possibilities – like the true scientist she was at the beginning – and to pick the path that will fulfill the mission she was tasked with.  Not without pain, granted, but with an outstanding and admirable clarity of mind.

In this Amalia is supported by her Falcon Zaira, the young woman who can master balefire – the best weapon Raverra possesses against its enemies.  The slowly evolving, grudging friendship between them is one of the highlights of the overall story if not its best element.  Zaira herself is a fascinating character, one who had to survive on her wits alone while having to deal with the terrifying powers she possesses and which have already caused a great deal of grief in the past. For this reason Zaira tries to avoid any kind of emotional connection, afraid that the slightest lessening of her guard might cause harm to the people she cares for despite herself, and the brittle, skittish personality that comes from this is compounded by a propensity for sarcastic remarks that are both amusing and poignant, because they open a window on Zaira’s bruised soul.

Some of the best moments in this series come out of the interactions between Zaira and Amalia, and I enjoyed the way their friendship evolved – slowly and grudgingly – as these two persons who come from the opposite sides of the social scale move toward each other and become each other’s support in the traumatic events unfolding around them. It’s the guilt they have to deal with – Zaira for the tragic consequences of her unharnessed balefire; Amalia for the deaths caused by the necessities of war – that brings them together and forms a bond neither of them is willing to mention openly but still is a delightful sight to behold.

The Swords and Fire trilogy wraps up nicely with this third volume while leaving the door open for possible sequels, and I for one hope that Melissa Caruso will allow us to return to this world, because I think there are still many stories to be explored in here, and greatly enjoyed just as these three books were.

My Rating:

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Reviews

GRR Martin’s ASOIAF: A Gentle Nudge from New Zealand…

It’s no news that readers of GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire have been dealing with the author’s long gestating times between books with varying degrees of patience – or lack thereof, and the not-quite-satisfactory way in which the overall story was wrapped up by the TV series Game of Thrones did little to assuage the readers’ curiosity and their need to see the story and the characters’ journeys developed with the depth they expect from the books published until now.

Over the years some voices have been raised in a less than civilized way, literally demanding the next book in line as if it were their unalienable right, and lately I heard that a silly rumor was being circulated that Martin had actually finished the saga but was keeping the books under wraps as a favor to the TV show, which sounds totally foolish but still needed a public rebuttal by the author.  Which proves that rumors spread faster than a pandemic, and are just as dangerous.

Replying to such absurdity with humor is always the best choice, to the point that playful creations like this one go a long way toward keeping the tone light:

 

 

And that’s the reason I enjoyed immensely this video created by Air New Zealand, which encourages George Martin to find a place where his creativity would flow uninterrupted, inviting him to visit their country.  It’s a delightful way to express the readers’ eagerness to see the next book hit the stands, and it’s full of amusing tongue-in-cheek quips, my favorite being the one about “being nervous as a Stark with a wedding invite”.

Enjoy!  🙂

 

Reviews

Review: ABANDONED (Donovan Trilogy #2), by W. Michael Gear

 

Approaching the second book in a series, when I’ve greatly enjoyed the first one, always causes me some hesitation, because sometimes it means embarking on the road to disappointment: such was definitely not the case with Abandoned, Michael W. Gear’s second volume in his Donovan Trilogy following and expanding on the footsteps of its predecessor Outpost.  I’ve always been partial to novels dealing with the colonization of alien planets, and in this particular case the world of Donovan is a fascinating one.

Imagine a wild, quasi-tropical world graced with a variety of flora and fauna that would be a dream come true for any scientist and a virtual paradise for any colonist: this is indeed Donovan, although the other side of the coin is a deadly one.  Nature on this planet is aggressive in a major way: the animal life is more often than not of the predatory kind, starting with the quetzals – a sort of dragon-lizards gifted with incredible speed and an insatiable hunger, situated at the very top of the food chain; vegetal life, on the other hand, tends to constantly encroach on human habitation, making any kind of cultivation a constant struggle – that is, when people are not falling prey to moving constrictor vines and similar other dangers.

Since the first waves of colonization, the Donovanians have been more or less on their own, due to the dangers of space travel and the strong possibility for a ship to be lost in the inter-dimensional medium it uses to cover vast distances.  Their numbers have been dwindling constantly, as have their resources, and the survivors have developed a very independent, very strong-willed society that has grown distant from the Corporation that financed their expedition: when in Outpost a ship finally reaches Donovan, the clash between the colonists and the Corporation representative Kalico Aguila adds a new level of danger to the harsh life of Donovan.

In Abandoned, after the departure of the Corporation ship Turalon – going back to Earth to report on the progress of the colony – we see Aguila trying to extract the planet’s abundant mineral resources while having to adapt to a society she was not ready for. For their part, the colony’s leaders are dealing with the usual survival problems in addition to those created by the influx of new colonists, among whom there are several unsavory characters, first of them the insidious Dan Wirth, the psychopath who turned from colony recruit to property owner in the blink of an eye, mostly thanks to his ruthlessness.

What makes Abandoned a worthy sequel is the author’s choice to split the narrative focus between the known characters and situations in Port Authority – the main landing site – and a new point of view, that of former marine Mark Talbot: together with two comrades, he finds himself lost in Donovan’s jungle and at the death of his friends has to face alone the dangers of the wild until he reaches shelter in a research base situated deep in the forest and thought abandoned by everyone.  Here Talbot finds not only a family but also a group of people who have learned how to survive – not fighting against the planet ecology, but trying to reach a symbiotic relationship.

This is truly the main theme of this story, the need to adapt to a new environment rather than trying to bend it to one’s needs, to use your energies trying to build something rather than constantly fighting against obstacles: Aguila’s losing battle against the encroaching forest that keeps growing back despite the herculean efforts of her people is the emblematic proof that Donovan has a mind of its own and it’s not going to change it, no matter what the “invaders” do, while the people living at isolated Mundo station have understood long ago that a sort of compromise with the planet is the key to survival – a lesson that takes a terrible turn for the worse once that fragile balance is shattered because of a mean-spirited action from one of the Marines.

Characters remain a strong element in these novels, and the way they change over time and with the influx of new experiences makes reading them just as compelling as following the events themselves: while Talina Perez, the colony’s  security chief, is not the central focus here as she was in Book 1, we see her dealing with loss and grief and with the unexpected consequences of sharing the DNA of the quetzal who attacked her; what feels like an invasion, and a constant alien presence in the back of her mind, turns out to be something else and it will be interesting to see how this pans out in the long run, especially in light of the other discoveries we made about Donovan’s forms of life.  Kalico Aguila is the one who exhibits the strongest changes, and I like the way the author shows the slow progression of her attitude from distant Corporation executive to full member of the community, as I like the way she and Talina are growing toward… well, becoming frenemies rather than remaining all-out adversaries.

The new point of view of Mark Talbot is one that simply begs to sympathize with him, thanks to the descriptions of his struggles to just stay alive in the jungle, and his growing despair as he has to face Donovan’s perils all alone. It’s just as easy then to share his puzzlement once he reaches the safety of Mundo station and is met with a nine years old child who acts like an adult and treats him like an idiot before introducing him to her extend family – and safety.   Young Kylee, and her pet quetzal Rocket, are both a mystery and one of the keys to the humans’ possible survival on Donovan, and the way events develop (or rather crash and burn) for this part of the story have thrown a huge pall of concern over me because of the implications for the future.

Which is the main reason that the third and final book in this trilogy will not be published soon enough for me, and let’s not forget that in the whirlwind of all that transpired in Abandoned, there is one huge missing piece of the puzzle that has been shuffled to the sidelines: what happened to the ghost ship Freelander, now in orbit around Donovan with his cargo of bones from its passengers and crew.  Something tells me that this proverbial “elephant in the room” will play a part in what’s to come next, and I can’t wait to see where the author will lead us next.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: EXIT STRATEGY (The MurderBot Diaries #4), by Martha Wells

The adventures of our beloved SecUnit have come to an end – at least as far as this cycle of novellas is concerned, since a full-length novel has been announced, to the utter delight of all us MurderBot fans. So Exit Strategy does not mark the final farewell to a character that has grown in complexity and facets as the overall story progressed, but on the other hand it marks the closing of the circle, so to speak, because MurderBot moves once more into the sphere of the former clients it protected in All Systems Red, and completes the mission it had tasked itself with once it decided to turn rogue.

In the previous installment, MB had managed to collect some incriminating evidence that might enable it to uncover the deadly, illegal activities of GrayCris, and its intention was to take it to Dr. Mensah, the scientist who had seen beyond the unit’s detached façade and wanted to give it freedom and equal status. Learning however that GrayCris is fighting back on two levels – openly in court, attacking Mensah, and more stealthily by later abducting Mensa herself – it decides to launch into a rescue operation and joins with Mensah’s colleagues, offering its help and specialized skills.

The result is a breathtakingly humorous tale of a battle with the corporation’s operatives that is fought on many levels: there are a few physical engagements, granted, but most of MurderBot’s strategy is geared toward system hacking and misdirection, with a wide variety of tactics that made me often think of some of the most famous cinematic heists, like Ocean’s Eleven and its brethren, with the difference that instead of a group of skilled individuals acting in concert, here we have a lone SecUnit that has raised multitasking to an exquisite art form.

And here comes the first admission that MurderBot’s experiences have wrought important changes to its mental structure, that working and thinking “outside the box” has expanded its limits, or what it perceived as such:

[…] all this coding and working with different systems on the fly had opened up some new neural pathways and processing space.

Not only that, but its observation of humans – both in real life and through the media that MB consumes with voracity –  taught it to discern between behavioral patterns, to the point that it’s able to spot the corporation operatives as they try to pass for normal tourists in a crowded station, while their affected nonchalance is evident to the SecUnit, thanks to its studies on the body language it tried to mimic in its attempt to pass as an enhanced human.

With such awareness comes however the far more uncomfortable one about the SecUnit’s potential where feelings are concerned, something that it kept trying to deny with ever-dwindling conviction, something it has to finally deal with here and acknowledge it’s part of its own makeup, a side of its personality that has nothing to do with the programming it received but comes straight from what – and who – MurderBot is:

“It was too late for you to help them, then.” […] “But you wanted to.”

“I’m programmed to help humans.”

Eyebrow lift again. ”You’re not programmed to watch media.”

She had a point.

It’s the first, uneasy admission that it might be more than the mere assembly of organic and mechanic parts that constitute a SecUnit, and that the bothersome feelings that were the cause of much anxiety and stress in the past, and of extreme dislike when they manifested themselves, might be part and parcel of the new entity that still calls itself MurderBot, but is not anymore. The first glimmers of that reluctant acceptance can be seen when it meets with Mensah’s former colleagues and they greet it as an old friend, but the real moment of truth comes as it reunites with Mensah, the first person who saw MurderBot as a person (as uncomfortable as that was back then): in what looks like a spur-of-the-moment concession, no matter all the justifications it gives itself, the SecUnit gives Mensah permission to touch it:

I braced myself and made the ultimate sacrifice. “Uh, you can hug me if you need to.”

She started to laugh, then her face did something complicated and she hugged me. I upped the temperature in my chest and told myself it was like first aid.

It was such a delightful scene, and to me it was the first voluntary step toward the Big Unknown represented by the feelings that MurderBot had always kept away from, not out of sheer refusal, but out of fear:

I hadn’t ben afraid that she wasn’t my friend, I had been afraid that she was, and what it did to me.

With this momentous scene Exit Strategy seals the end of MurderBot’s first phase of change, one that through the first four novellas showed the slow but unavoidable development of a creature that for some reason was able to overcome its programming and moved in an unexpected direction. Now that the transformations in its outward appearance have enhanced its organic (human…) side, and that it has accepted the feelings that it started experiencing vicariously through its beloved media shows, it will be fascinating to see where Martha Wells will take it and what further surprises MurderBot has in store for us.

And I can’t wait…

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: TIAMAT’S WRATH (The Expanse #8), by James S.A. Corey (spoiler free)

 

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

While there might be spoilers for the previous books in the series, I will try my best to avoid any in this review: to do otherwise would be a huge disservice to anyone reading this.

More than many of its predecessors, this new installment in The Expanse series took me through an emotional rollercoaster that left me breathless, and often reeling in shock – starting with the opening sentence that is nothing short of a violent punch in the gut.     And I freely admit feeling more than a little incensed at the authors for leading with that

Story-wise, the galaxy is far from a happy place: granted, it was no unicorns and rainbows before, when Earth, Mars and the Belt were at each other’s throat and the protomolecule ran amok throughout the Solar System, but after the all-to-brief respite enjoyed by humanity in the hiatus between Babylon’s Ashes and Persepolis Rising, the arrival of Duarte’s fleet and the founding of the Laconian Empire with its dictatorial iron fist have plunged mankind’s origin worlds and its many colonies into dark times indeed. The situation becomes even grimmer when the Laconians’ drive for expansion and dominance meets once again with the mysterious entity that once vanquished the protomolecule engineers: the show of force dictated by Duarte provokes a dramatic reaction that threatens the humans’ tenuous foothold on the many worlds beyond the alien gates and their continued survival, while giving the underground resistance a feeble chance to strike the kind of blow that might change the balance of power.

As for the Roci’s crew, they are scattered to the four winds: Holden is Duarte’s prisoner on Laconia; Bobbi and Alex, who have signed up with the resistance, are playing a dangerous game of sneak attacks on the enemy fleet; Naomi is doing her part by keeping the rebel network functioning and thriving, and Amos has been out of touch after undertaking a dangerous mission following Clarissa’s death.  Our heroes are quite aware of the David vs. Goliath nature of their struggle, and sometimes the temptation to leave it all behind, to find some quiet place to burrow down and live the rest of their lives in peace, makes itself felt and causes some tension among them, but never in such a measure as to bring them apart despite the wear and tear of life on the trenches.  For his part, Holden is not resigned to his prisoner-disguised-as guest situation, and still manages some small measure of defiance that shows he has not given up either on the struggle or the hope of one day being instrumental in the downfall of Laconia.

What becomes clear, as we follow the main characters’ individual journeys, is that the sense of family they built by living and working together for so long is too strong to succumb to the separation imposed by vast distances and the different paths taken: even when they are million of miles apart it’s as if they still shared space on the Roci, so that they still quote an absent friend’s catchphrase at the appropriate moment, or recollect their gestures or expressions in the face of similar occurrences. It’s a way to keep alive the memory of those who are far away and to show that the bonds that tie them together are strong and vital: I found myself deeply touched reading such passages, not just because they worked so well in the economy of the story, but because the Roci’s crew has grown on me so much that I have long since stopped envisioning them simply as fictional characters, and they have become living and breathing people I keep caring about.

Alongside our old friends we see the story through some new – or newfound – points of view: Elvi Okoye, the scientist we met in Cibola Burn, is now working for the Laconian military in what she believes is a mission of discovery beyond the alien gates and instead turns out to be something quite different.  Much as I did not care overmuch for her character in that first encounter, here I greatly enjoyed her point of view, mainly the fine line she and her husband have to walk, balancing the needs of scientific study with the goals of the hierarchy, especially the Laconian expansionist and merciless military.  Looking through her eyes gives us a measure of what it means living under an oppressive regime that likes to paint itself as benevolent and enlightened while it conducts appalling experiments on human subjects, and I managed to sympathize with her dilemma between the drive of scientific curiosity and the need to adhere to ethical standards: Elvi gains a good number of facets here, and I always welcomed her p.o.v. chapters with great interest.

The new addition is represented by Teresa Duarte, the teenaged daughter of the High Consul and the heir-in-training to the empire: her path takes her from basking in the illusion of a charmed life to waking up to far starker reality that forces her to grow up much faster than her already peculiar position previously required her to.  Teresa is an interesting character and in some way her journey mirrors Elvi’s in reverse: having been indoctrinated from birth to believe that Laconia is a force for good, she has to wake up to reality bit by bit, and probably the major factor in this change of perspective comes from a dramatic event that undermines the belief in freedom of choice she had given for granted until that moment.  I realize how cryptic this sounds, but there is a huge spoiler here, and all I can say about it is that this narrative thread was another of those gut-punches I mentioned before, one of the many that the authors deliver in this latest Expanse installment.

But of course my favorite character remains Naomi Nagata: I’ve always envisioned her as a mixture of strength and wistfulness, the latter tied to past experiences and mistakes that still prey on her mind, and in this novel she still tries to temper the underground’s penchant for violent action by being the voice of reason. It’s clear that this desire comes both from the weight of her past and the need to keep faith with Holden’s vision – a means to keep his legacy alive and to lessen the sting of his absence: for this reason Naomi chooses to isolate herself, to work in a sort of bubble – both physical and mental – that page after page takes on the aspect of a chrysalis in which she undergoes a change, one that will become evident as the events unfold and will transform her in a very unexpected way. Again, I apologize for the vagueness with which I’m expressing this, but I want you to enjoy this journey on your own, and if you are Team Naomi like I am, you will certainly want to explore this with as little prior knowledge as possible. You will not be disappointed.

If the characters, old and new, are the backbone of the story, the story itself is a constant escalation of events that become more and more pressing as the stakes pile up in a breath-stealing progression that moves inexorably toward the final showdown, and a further change of perspective in a series that bases its very strength in such changes. Be prepared for some painful shocks as well, and a constant worry about what is going to happen next: given the premises carried from the past installments and those contained in Tiamat’s Wrath,  the ninth and final book in this amazing series will certainly blow our minds.

And I can’t wait to read it…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: OBSIDIO (The Illuminae Files #3), by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

 

Before launching into my review of the third and final volume of the Illuminae Files, I would like to share a detail of my “history” with this series: since most, if not all, of my reading happens through ebooks, I acquired the first two installments of the series in that format, and although I enjoyed the story immensely I was also aware that the peculiar narrative form chosen by the authors – which includes memos, transcripts, graphics and even sentences deployed in strange and convoluted patterns – did not work as well on an e-reader as it would on a printed page. For this reason I also bought the physical books for Illuminae and Gemina to see what I had missed, and once the date of publication for Obsidio was announced, I decided to directly acquire the physical book and read the story in the… old-fashioned way.  And it was indeed a good decision, because this is an amazing way of telling a story.

Please be aware that this review might contain spoilers for the first two books: if you have not read them, don’t go any further!

Obsidio closes the circle that started in Illuminae with the assault on the mining colony of Kerenza, perpetrated by BeiTech Corporation against what they deemed an illegal operation: in the first book we followed the survivors of the attack as they attempted to flee on a handful of ships to reach the Heimdall transit station; the second volume focused on BeiTech’s attempt to eliminate them, and therefore any witness to the massacre, by taking control of Heimdall.  Here, the few who escaped both assaults – now crowded aboard the very stressed-out Hypatia and the newly acquire Mao – have decided that going back to Kerenza is the only viable choice, which becomes all the more imperative once they learn that BeiTech intends to kill the remaining miners on the planet once they have extracted the precious hermium that is the planet’s main resource, leaving no trace of their heinous crime.

All the characters we encountered along the road are present here: Kady and Ezra, Hanna and Nik and Nik’s cousin Ella, as well as the other people (those still alive, that is…) who shared their journey.  Their trials on the crowded ships, their plans for the coming battle and their hopes and fears act as a counterpoint to the events on Kerenza itself, where we make the acquaintance of Asha Grant (Kady’s cousin) and her ex boyfriend Rhys, now one of the BeiTech “ground pounders” from the occupying force.  I must say that I found the planet-bound sections quite fascinating, both in terms of narrative impact and of character exploration: even though the previous relationship between the two youngsters feels a little convenient (in my opinion it would have worked just as well if they had been complete strangers), it helps in highlighting the dire situation of the miners on one side and of the soldiers on the other, showing how extreme circumstance can bring to the surface both the best and the worst in human beings.

The miners know their life expectancy is limited, and are doing their best to try and draw out that timeline in the hope of rescue, as improbable as it might look, so that we can witness acts of courage and self sacrifice as well as foolish choices driven by rage, despair and the burning need for vengeance.  The BeiTech soldiers, for their part, range from the “just following orders” kind – some of them even enjoying the power of life and death they are given over their victims – to those who are painfully aware of the atrocities they are committing, but are unable to act differently because they know any kind of defiance would be futile.  There are some scenes where these soldiers try to forget the unpleasantness of their duties by spending time in endless card games interspersed with heavy banter, but one can somehow feel the desperate effort this is, and in some way perceive the humanity that the robot-like armor encasing them cannot completely conceal.

As fascinating as all of the above was, the events transpiring aboard the ship headed for Kerenza were the ones that drew my more intense focus, because they mixed the efforts at survival with the frantic plans to overcome BeiTech’s stranglehold on Kerenza – a David vs. Goliath kind of struggle that was fraught with uncertainty and the ever-present awareness of potential failure.  The young people who were at the center of previous events, forced by circumstances to grow up quickly and make harrowing choices, here must wage a war on two fronts: one represented by the might of BeiTech and its aggressive power, and one represented by several adults who are unable – or unwilling – to give them the credit they are due and still view them as children, underestimating them and forcing them to prove themselves time and again.  This thread adds a very frustrating element to the story, but also one that was both electrifying and suspenseful.

And last but not least I must mention AIDAN, the insane, murderous AI with a conscience (much as that might appear as a contradiction!) who despite the horrible acts of the past, and the present, keeps growing in his understanding and acceptance of human emotions. There is a section, here in Obsidio, where AIDAN makes a hard choice that is both appalling and necessary, fully aware of the consequences but also aware that not to act would be a worse option:

And in the end, I suppose it will not matter what they name me. […] And it does not matter what they believe. […]  I am not good. Nor am I evil. I am no hero. Nor am I villain. I am AIDAN.

It’s a bleak choice, and the dispassionate (?) way in which AIDAN observes it stresses even more the AI’s loneliness, one that never fails to tug at my heart because – no matter how many deaths he’s responsible for – AIDAN strikes me as the proverbial child looking into a warm home from the outside cold, knowing that he will never be part of it.  The fact I have used “he” and not “it” to speak about AIDAN is a clear indication of what I feel about this character and his journey, one that should be discovered on its own…

As the conclusive book in what has been an electrifying trilogy, Obsidio works quite well and manages to keep the suspense and uncertainty about the outcome until the very end, and if it cheats a little in one particular regard (spoiler territory, so I apologize for being cryptic), I can forgive it in the name of the amazing narrative tension that carried me from start to finish.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: THE TYRANT’S LAW (The Dagger and the Coin #3), by Daniel Abraham

 

Once again I managed to let a long time elapse between this book and its predecessor, but once I returned to this world I discovered that my memory of it was as fresh and sharp as if I had finished Book 2 just yesterday, and this can show you the measure of Daniel Abraham’s skill as a storyteller and the impact of his characters on a reader’s imagination.

When considering epic fantasy it’s easy to think about grand, sweeping stories that encompass vast expanses of territory and a huge cast of characters, and while Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin series does take place in such a background, it manages to advance the plot through a limited number of P.O.V. characters, namely four, and to switch seamlessly between them keeping a constant rhythm that helps you fly through the novel and find yourself at the end of the book wanting for more.  Granted, The Tyrant’s Law is in the unenviable position of being the middle book in a series of five, and there are moments when it seems to lag a little, but it’s just an impression, and an incorrect one, since in the end I saw what the author was doing here, which is build some momentum that will certainly propel the final two books toward their intended goal.

The world in which this story grows has never been a peaceful one: legends speak of bloody conflicts in the past – an era in which dragons ruled, the only sign of their existence in present times represented by the jade-paved roads that connect the cities – and the co-existence among the thirteen races who roam through the lands is not an easy one; moreover, in the first book readers witnessed the wanton destruction of a flourishing city and the slaughter of its inhabitants.  Now, however, those conflicts seem to have been rekindled with a vengeance, and the unrest that fueled a civil war in the imperial city of Camnipol is spreading throughout the world, taking on the ugly new face of a bid for power masked under a cultural, religious and racial battle for supremacy through conquest and submission.

The new, rising power is represented by the spider goddess’ priests and their goal to subjugate everyone under the goddess’ banner: after securing themselves a position of supremacy by backing the former nobody Geder Palliako, they proceed to focus their conquering drive by finding a convenient scapegoat in the form of one of the thirteen races, the Timzinae, and conducting a genocidal campaign of hate and distrust that justifies any action they take.  It’s nothing new either in the imagined or in the real world, and this awareness keeps imbuing the story with chilling overtones that feel even more terrifying for their historical familiarity.

Two of the main characters, Captain Marcus Wester and Master Kit (former priest now turned apostate and hiding as an actor troupe leader) try to find a weapon against the encroaching power of the goddess and her priesthood, and embark on a long, dangerous journey in search of a powerful artifact that might destroy the goddess herself.  I already remarked, in my review of the previous book, how diminished Marcus Wester looked once he stepped away from his role as a military leader, and here he still has not regained that former strength that had made him stand out as a character at the beginning of the narrative arc. Even through the hardships he and Kit have to face, and despite the great resilience he shows in the course of their quest, I found it difficult to really feel interested in Marcus’ journey, and I have to admit that I found his P.O.V. chapters the less engaging of the book, at least in comparison with what happens to the other characters.   The last segment where he appears, though, holds the promise of a big change, and I look forward to seeing what will happen with the amazing discovery he and Master Kit are faced with at the end of the novel.

Despite being confined somewhat in the sidelines here, Cithrin enjoys a much more interesting character arc: after demonstrating to her employers, the Medean bank, that she is an able businesswoman, she is officially apprenticed to an important branch in Timzinae territory, and finds herself a little lost, and disappointed.  The harsh experiences that tempered her in the fateful escape from Vanai led her to believe she could do anything, and made her not a little self-centered: here she must deal with the knowledge that she still has a great deal to learn, especially where the real value of money is concerned.  When Geder’s army takes control of the city and starts its cruel oppression of the Timzinae, she realizes what the true power of money is, and it’s the kind of revelation that is bound to change her outlook and thought processes in a major way – this becomes clear in a fateful choice she makes that will certainly have major repercussions along the way, and I can’t wait to see which will be the direction that Daniel Abraham has chosen for this girl who is finally starting to perceive the realities beyond the bank’s ledgers.

As for Geder… well, he is a wonderful character in the sense that he’s complex and unpredictable at the same time, but he’s also a horrible one. While reviewing the two previous books I already commented on his decisions to mete unthinking destruction with the same lack of empathy one might reserve for insects, but it’s the changes through which he is going that prove to be the most appalling. The man who started out as a bumbling, book-loving nerd, finds himself suddenly gifted with great power, flattered and bowed to by the same people who used to despise and ridicule him, and while he does not gloat about his change of fortunes, there is a deep well of unexpressed resentment in him, of desire for retribution, that drives his actions in the most nasty and shocking of directions.  The person who best describes him is indeed Cithrin, with whom he fell in love as they hid in a basement during the worst of the civil unrest in Camnipol:

“Geder’s not a cunning man,” Cithrin said. “He’s… he’s just a man of too little wisdom and too much power.”

“He is a terrible person, you know. But he’s also not. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who managed to make himself so alone.”

And it’s Geder’s infatuation for Cithrin which might be the proverbial straw that will snap his last, feeble ties with reason and humanity and send him further down the road to hell.  Whether I will still pity him in the future, as I did in the past… only time will tell.

I’ve saved discussing my favorite character for last, because her chapters were the ones I most looked forward to, and her arc the most intriguing and fascinating of the whole saga: Clara Kalliam, former lady of substance in the community of Camnipol, is now the widow of a traitor and has fallen down to the bottom of social standing, but being the dragon lady she is, she might be powerless but she is not broken. I totally loved how she maintains appearances and keeps working her contacts, a true spider weaving a complex web geared toward the fulfillment of her plan – because she has one, and it’s both ambitious and far-reaching.  Where other women might have fallen prey to despair and given up the fight, she understands that her reduced standing has given her a freedom of movement that she did not possess when she had to conform to society’s strict rules:

Her actions and opinions were impotent, and so they could be anything. She was already fallen, and so she’d been freed.

What Clara has set in motion will certainly change the fate of many, and I am beyond eager to see where her machinations will take the rest of the story: the simple fact that the next book’s title is The Widow’s House sounds very, very promising…

As a middle book in the narrative arc, The Tyrant’s Law might deceptively look like a transition novel, but in the end it proved to be the beginning of a huge game change, one that will keep me reading on with keen interest.

 

My Rating: