Reviews

Review: THE WOLF (Under the Northern Sky #1), by Leo Carew

I received this novel from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

My luck with debut novels seems to keep holding strong, and Leo Carew’s The Wolf is the latest in this string of fortunate encounters, an epic fantasy story set in what looks like an alternate version of Britain, called Albion, where baseline humans and outlandish warrior races compete for primacy through bloody wars.

Readers are plunged straight into the midst of one of these wars, pitting the Sutherners against the Anakim, a northern tribe of veritable giants, long-lived and quite strong thanks to the inner bone plates that armor their chests: knowing that superior numbers will not be enough against the Anakim’s battle prowess, the Sutherners devise a trap that works successfully, forcing their foes into an unheard-of retreat after their leader, the Black Lord, is killed in action leaving his 18-year old son Roper in command of the army.  The defeat weighs heavily on the Anakim’s morale and gives Uvoren, the highest-placed general and a renowned hero, the opportunity to lay the blame on Roper and seize the leadership: Roper will have to learn the subtleties of politics and authority very quickly as he fights a war on two fronts – the inner one, where his clash with Uvoren fast escalates into deadly territory, and the outward one, as the Sutherners, emboldened by the recent victory, rekindle their expansionist plans.

The Wolf is a novel that satisfies both in world-building and in characterization: in the island of Albion the river Abus works as a demarcation between the Sutherners and the Anakim, the former viewing the latter as monsters, fallen angels, barbarous savages, while the Anakim see their historical opponents as weak and lacking in honor.  Both are wrong, of course, mostly because of ignorance on either side: we readers instead enjoy the opportunity to get to know them better, and to see how land and living conditions can shape a people and forge their mindset.

The South enjoys a more agreeable climate, fertile lands, and therefore its inhabitants have created a more laid-back society, but also one in need of demographics-related expansion, so they inevitably turn their gaze toward the territory of their long-time enemy and, through the old strategy of demonizing the adversary, mount a campaign of invasion, plunder and destruction with the goal of beating the Anakim into submission. The northern warriors, on the other hand, have built their society on military prowess and on a strong link with the land they dwell in, a symbiotic bond that in some cases prevents them from giving in to the invading army, choosing death rather than relinquishing their foothold.   

A the heart of the Black Lands, the Anakim territory, lies the Hindrunn fortress, a massive construct of stone that no enemy could breach and inside which the Anakim seek not so much a form of security as a way of isolating themselves from the rest of the world, the microcosm in which they feel truly attuned to the land in which they live.  The glimpses we are afforded inside the Hindrunn’s walls speak of a complex, lively society that belies the Sutherners’ prejudice about the Anakim’s savagery.

On this fascinating background move some interesting figures, drawn with such skill that the main antagonists – Roper the fledgling Black Lord and Bellamus, the upstart who gained command of the Sutherner army – come across as equally sympathetic so that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to pick a favorite.     Roper is young and quite inexperienced: his father enjoys little narrative space before his demise in battle, but he seems like a harsh, unforgiving man and one not too prone on passing on some wisdom to his son.  So being both inexperienced and young, Roper initially flounders in his role as ruler of the Black Lands and risks to be easy prey to Uvoren’s power play; he rebounds quite easily though, finding a few allies and heeding any sensible advice that his directed his way.  He learns on the fly, and he’s as ready to treasure what he learns just as he’s ready to acknowledge his mistakes: as ruthless as he needs to be, he remains able to elicit the reader’s sympathy all throughout the book, growing in depth and complexity as the story progresses.

Bellamus, for his part, must struggle against his humble origins to emerge in a society that pays more attention to circumstances of birth rather than skills: his liaison with Queen Aramilla plays an important part in his ascent toward command of the Sutherner army, but he reaches the goal through sheer determination and a years-long study of the Anakim, for whom he harbors more than the interest of a military commander analyzing his adversary.  There is an uncommon form of respect, almost fascination, in Bellamus’ keen interest in all things Anakim, so that, once he realizes than despite the long years of study he only scratched the surface of this adversaries’ culture, and did not understand what the Anakim soul truly is, the ensuing frustration weighs more heavily than any defeat.

With such focus on battles and military prowess one might think there is little or no space for women in The Wolf, but although they are not exactly prominent, what we see of them in Anakim society makes for intriguing glimpses I hope will be given more space in the next novels.  While Sutherner women seem relegated in the traditional roles this medieval-like milieu allows them, Anakim women, though apparently enjoying only a supporting position in their society, are afforded more freedom and are shown repeatedly as its backbone: one of the glimpses I was talking about concerns the office of Historian, the women to whom the totally oral traditions and past of the Anakim are entrusted, since they have no written language worthy of that name; they are the holders of their people’s collective memory and so the custodians of all that makes the Anakim what they are.

And then there is Keturah, the woman Roper marries to sign a political pact and who quickly becomes his partner, his confidante and his best ally: when we first meet her we see her as quite outspoken and bold, then we slowly learn about her cunning political sense and her ability to create a web of useful relationships.  The fact that she’s universally treated with respect and even affection by her peers speaks loudly about this side of Anakim society, and is another detail that begs a deeper look.

All of the above might seem like scattered notions, and in a way they are because it’s difficult to take in all of the complexities of this novel and the story it tells, but I believe that The Wolf must be enjoyed as I did, with as little information – or preconceptions – as possible: this way it will be easier to get happily lost in this fascinating world. And to come out of it with a strong desire to know more.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: A TIME OF DREAD (Of Blood and Bone #1), by John Gwynne

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

I’ve spoken often of what I call “book vibes”, the strong pull that an unknown-to-me story exerts on my imagination from the first time I see its cover: I have no idea what it is that calls out to me so strongly – after all a cover is nothing but an image – but still, nine times out of ten, that siren song leads me toward a story I end up loving.  This was the case with A Time of Dread, and it’s an even more extraordinary event because this novel’s core theme is about the conflict between angelic and demonic figures, a subject I’ve always been somewhat wary about, and what’s more this story comes as a sequel to a previous series, so I feared finding myself lost in a strange land.  Well, I should not have worried on either count, because this book literally swept me off my feet and left me wanting for more – and deeply curious about the previous series, that I mean to read as soon as possible.

First things first, if you are a John Gwynne newbie like me, you should not worry about getting your bearings in this story: the beginning of the book and its leisurely pace seem tailor-made for readers who have no prior knowledge of previous events, so that characters’ recollections and dialogues can ease you into the history of this world, and what came before.  What’s even more important, from my point of view, is that the “good vs. evil” battle is not so clean cut as its main players might make you believe: if the Kadoshim, the devil-like creatures threatening to overcome the land through evil, are a clear enemy, the Ben-Elim, the “angels”, are not quite perfect, leaving plenty of room for some grey areas in their characterization and objectives.

The Land of the Faithful is enjoying a relative peace after the brutal conflicts of several decades before, when the Ben-Elim and their human and giant allies defeated the Kadoshim and their leader Asroth, now frozen in a metal-like substance in Drassil, the Ben-Elim’s main fortress. Still, an enemy who was not completely vanquished is fated to return, and the titular dread is indeed a pervasive feeling as many apparently unrelated occurrences stir trouble and lead the guardians of the land toward preparations for a new war.  Through the four main point-of-view characters, the situation unfolds under the readers’ eyes, steering them toward the momentous climax that brought as many revelations as clues for the story’s future developments.   All four points of view were equally engaging, and the skillful management of their individual threads made for an accelerating pace that often made it difficult to close the book, but even though they were all on an equal footing, I could not avoid picking favorites…

Riv is a young warrior-in-training with the White Wings, the Ben-Elim’s elite fighting force. Strong and determined to emulate her mother and older sister in military prowess, she tries too hard and ends up failing the final test that would have marked her official enlistment in the army. Prone to bouts of blinding anger, she struggles between the need to belong to the forces of good and the powerful drive to explore some strange occurrences, a curiosity that, together with her anger-management issues, might cost her the goal she’s been pursuing all her life.  Much as I was interested in Riv’s journey, given that her inquisitive nature allowed me to discover more of this world, I struggled to warm up to her because of some personality traits that felt too much YA-oriented for my comfort, especially in her attraction to Bleda and the pointed rivalry with Jin, Bleda’s future wife.  Nevertheless, the last chapter of the novel opens a new road for her, one I can’t wait to explore and see where it leads and that might help me overcome my (albeit slight) misgivings.

Bleda is another character with some YA overtones, but I found it less difficult to like him than I did with Riv: he’s the only surviving son of a war chieftain, taken to Drassil by the Ben-Elim as a hostage to insure the continuing truce between his people and their neighbors. He is an interesting character, because he starts as a virtual prisoner of the Ben-Elim, at first resenting them for taking him away from a life of freedom in the wilderness, then learning to see their merits and finally risking his life in their defense during a surprise attack by the Kadoshim and their followers, and this causes him to doubt his loyalty to his people and to question himself and his motives.  Not unlike Riv, Bleda is driven by the need to fit in, to find his place in the world, and his being in a state of flux might bring unexpected developments I am eager to learn.

As for Sig, the giantess allied to the Ben-Elim, who rides to battle atop a huge bear, I liked her immediately, always looking forward to her p.o.v. chapters: long-lived like all her people, she has accumulated a store of wisdom that she blends with subdued humor, two traits that make her character an instantly likable one, especially in the dealings with some of her more enthusiastic human comrades in arms. Sig is like a window on the past, and through her I was able to glimpse what came before and to understand how the present alliance for good is not exactly one based on blind faith, but rather on necessity borne of the need to battle a greater evil.

The other character I most cared about is Drem, little more than a boy who grew up in the wilderness with his father, trapping animals for their skins. Drem is an interesting mix of guileless innocence and strength, of deep sense of integrity and fierceness that it’s impossible not to like him, to suffer for his losses, share in his desire for justice or more simply to feel a deep kinship with him.

While these main characters, and the secondary ones that move alongside them, are the backbone of the story, what truly drew me in was the constant, relentless buildup leading toward the breathless final part of the novel: it was like listening to a crescendo of suspenseful string music, the kind we know heralds great portents, or great tragedies.  A Time of Dread offers both, thanks to a story that is epic in scope and at the same time quite focused on individuals and their journey. If you have not yet read anything by John Gwynne, be prepared to be (happily) ambushed by this story and to be taken captive – not that I feel any need to escape, because I’m firmly on-board for the duration and can’t wait to know what will happen next.

 

My Rating:   

Reviews

Review: BLOOD OF ASSASSINS (The Wounded Kingdom #2), 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.

In 2017 I placed the first volume of this trilogy, Age of Assassins, among the best debuts of the year and also my favorite reads, so I had great expectations for this follow-up novel: let me say up front that those expectations were more than exceeded by Blood of Assassins, that is not only a worthy sequel but also an amazing story on its own.

Five years have elapsed since the end of the first book, and they have not been easy years either for the world or for assassin-in-training Girton Clubfoot: the political situation has degenerated into all-out war between the three pretenders to the throne of the Tired Lands – Aydor, the former queen’s son, ousted by young Rufra, Girton’s friend, and finally pretender Tomas.  War is never good news, but in a land still suffering from the sorcerer-enhanced conflicts of the past, that brought great devastations with them, this new war is adding a further layer of misery to an already grim situation.  Girton and his master, Merela Karn, have fared no better: to escape from the bounty hunters set on their tracks, they have been forced to abandon their trade and attach themselves to mercenary bands, where Girton’s exquisite skills as an assassins have been replaced by a more brutal approach to killing, namely the use of a war hammer.

Ambushed by a band of savages, the two barely effect an escape toward Castle Maniyadoc – theater of Girton’s previous adventures – but Merela has been poisoned and hovers on the brink of death, leaving her apprentice bereft of her balancing advice and cooler thinking.  What’s worse, Girton’s ability to wield magic – a dangerous skill in the Tired Lands, one that could sentence him to death – is growing stronger, and the scars that Merela tattooed on his skin to keep them at bay are not working as expected, so that the young man must battle daily against the impulse of unleashing such deadly power.

Reunited with his friend Rufra, now King, Girton has little time to enjoy the meeting, because he learns of a plot to kill his friend, orchestrated by a spy that must have worked its way among Rufra’s closest advisers: tasked with this apparently impossible job (Rufra does not seem to worry too much about the possibility of treason), and in constant worry about Merela’s chances for recovery, Girton faces the most difficult time of his young life, one where conflicting emotions and needs threaten to overwhelm him and make him lose everything he holds dear.

Blood of Assassins is a deeply compelling story, one where the details we previously learned about this world fall into a wider and more fascinating context: we come to understand that the central power, the one held by the remote figure of the High King, could not care less about what happens in the outskirts of the realm, where wars are fought, won and lost while the supreme ruler prefers to wallow in his court’s more or less dubious pleasures.

There is a definite sense of lawlessness in the Tired Lands, of the rule of the strongest, that makes the suffering of the peoples dwelling there all the more poignant: the Landsmen, that could be compared to a sort of official army, are more interested in rooting out sorcerers – be they real or simply imagined – and their allegiance often hangs on the whim of their current leader.  The recent turmoil has given rise to a peculiar band of outlaws, calling themselves the Nonmen, who delight in berserker attacks and in the vicious torture of their victims – and sometimes of their own members, with a sort of reckless, bloody abandon that speaks of madness, and worse.  And last but not least the priesthood, that already did not come out with shining colors in the previous book, here looks like an added complication – both moral and political – to a very dire situation.

All this comes together in a story that kept me on my toes for the whole length of the book, among unexpected twists and turns, discoveries and betrayals, and a final battle that left me literally breathless with suspense. Add to that a powerful writing that manages to remain almost lyrical even while describing bloody skirmishes or to-the-death duels, and you will understand why I found this book so enthralling.

As fascinating as all of the above is, the focal point of Blood of Assassins remains Girton: he is a very different person from the one we left at the end of Book 1, and to say that here he’s in a bad place would be a massive understatement.   The five years spent as a mercenary (and with Landsmen, no less, with all the added dangers that his potential for sorcery entails) have both hardened and unraveled him, taking him away from his training as an assassin and teaching him far too much about brute force.  His relationship with Merela has changed as well: there is a thread of resentment toward her, that remains however mostly unexplored due to the fact she’s out of the picture for most of the book, and that comes from the necessity of the scars she must carve on his body to keep the magic at bay. This necessity seems to have placed some cracks in their mutual trust and generated a deep conflict in Girton, who still feels the strong pull of his loyalty – his love – for Merela, while battling with the impulse to rebel against all she taught him.

Losing Merela’s support so early in the story proves almost catastrophic for Girton: she is not only his teacher, his surrogate mother and the only person he used to trust implicitly, even before himself, she is also the one who guides his logical process, and his moral compass, so that her absence makes itself dramatically clear in the sequence of bad decisions Girton takes while pursuing his task for Rufra.  Seeing him so unhinged is a painful experience, because if sometimes I felt like shaking some sense into him, my prevailing emotion was compassion because I could not forget the heavy amount of damage he had to go through in a relatively short life.  And what further damage might be visited on him in the course of the story: as with the previous book, we are given to understand here that we are reading an older Girton’s memoirs, and given as well a few hints of more tragedies to come.  As harrowing as that might be, I know I would not give up this opportunity, because I’m deeply invested in this character and his journey: at the end of this book I saw that the third and final volume already has a title – King of Assassins – and that GoodReads shows its cover, so I imagine my curiosity will be satisfied before long.  Still it will feel like a too-long wait….

 

 

My Rating:   

Reviews

Review: THE TETHERED MAGE (Swords and Fire #1), by Melissa Caruso

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

Lately I have been particularly lucky when choosing debut novels to read, and The Tethered Mage was one such great find: the story is set in what looks like an alternate version of 18th Century Venice, with the city of Raverra and its canals and waterways as the playing field; my past visits to the real Venice helped me to see the city being described here, adding to the enjoyment of a well-painted background. Raverra has extended its influence over the surrounding countries, particularly the neighboring city of Ardence, whose restless nobility feels the ever-increasing need for more independence, the fires of freedom further kindled by the powerful realm of Vaskandar whose ambitions are equal only to its ruthlessness. Raverra, however, has been able to maintain its standing thanks to the strong politics of its Council and ruling Doge and to its ability to exploit the magic of gifted individuals.

And it’s indeed with the magic system that this novel forges an interesting path, because the rare and precious mages that are Raverra’s strength and deterrent are carefully screened since infancy for the tell-tale colored ring around their irises, and once discovered are corralled to the island enclave of the Mews, where their powers are harnessed through a bracelet called jess. The jess tethers each mage (or Falcon) to their handler the Falconer, in a partnership that only death can dissolve: according to a person’s point of view, such an arrangement can be seen either as slavery or symbiosis and that is one of the story’s main themes, the ethics of channeling useful or potentially dangerous abilities by effectively placing a gifted person under life-long tutelage.

Zaira is a formidable and quite unique fire mage, the most dangerous kind, and she’s been able to move under the Falconers’ radar for a long time until she’s forced to unleash her powers in self-defense: that’s when Falconer captain Verdi enrolls the help of a young woman to put a jess on Zaira, not knowing that his improvised assistant is Amalia Cornaro, heir to the most powerful woman in the Raverran council. Amalia finds herself saddled with the responsibilities of a Falconer, a duty that clashes with those imposed on her status as The Contessa’s daughter, and what’s more her Falcon deeply resents her both as a Falconer and as a representative of the pampered ruling class.

The dichotomy between these two young women, so very different in origins and character, is one of the supporting themes in The Tethered Mage and makes for a very interesting journey in which both of them have a great deal to discover by getting to know each other, overcoming diffidence and prejudices: the trope of very different people thrown together by fate and having to learn how to cooperate is one I’ve always found interesting, and in this case I appreciated it even more because it avoided the clichéd pitfall of the man/woman pairing that turns from hate to love. By linking these two girls and having them cooperate through a crisis, we learn more about the society they live in and at the same time we get to know and like them as characters – with the added bonus that the increased understanding of each other does not change who they basically are but more simply the way they perceive their counterpart.

I found Zaira to be the most fascinating of the two – not least because there is so much about her that is barely glimpsed, leaving a great deal of mystery about her past: she’s strongly independent, although the choice of keeping apart from others stems from some dark, dramatic roots, and she’s also brash and outspoken, and quite proud of that – to the point that contact with the higher strata of society fails to compel her to soften that approach, with quite amusing results. On the other hand Amalia, despite being the first-person narrator, comes across as slightly less interesting because of the shades of predictability that weigh on her character: if I liked the fact that she’s what we would nowadays call a “nerd”, due to her preference to magical and technical studies over politics or fancy parties, I felt that part of her journey was overshadowed by the required romantic entanglement and her role as the problem-solving heroine.

What makes Amalia stand out, however, is the relationship with her formidable mother: the two women are often in disagreement over Amalia’s life choices and her mother’s need to groom her as a successor, but instead of taking the path of all-out conflict they bridge their differences through mutual respect and a deep love that comes across quite strongly even if it remains mostly unexpressed. If anything, this novel is a showcase for strong female characters that know how to work with difficult situations and overcome many obstacles: as I said, Amalia is less effective in this field if compared with her mother or Zaira (or the Contessa’s right-hand helper Ciardha, a character I hope will get more narrative space in the next novels, because she’s beyond intriguing), but her willingness to put herself to the test and not give up, even in the face of unsurmountable odds, more than makes up for that.

Apart from the characters’ journey, The Tethered Mage is enriched by the fascinating power plays that constitute its backbone, a complicated dance of political expediency, back-room plotting and outright betrayals that speed up the pace in the second half of the novel and that kept me glued to the pages until I reached the resolution. And if the “bad guys” sometimes feel a little over the top (especially when they tend to explain their dastardly plot to a soon-to-be-killed-captive, as in the oldest narrative tradition), or if their identity is too easily gleaned, the story is so exciting that it’s not difficult to put the Inner Critic to sleep so that we can lay back and enjoy the adventure, one that I will be happy to follow in the next installments.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: JADE CITY (The Green Bone Saga #1), by Fonda Lee

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

In recent times I have been quite fortunate when taking chances with authors either unknown to me or publishing their first book, and Jade City was no exception: I read that the author Fonda Lee published a few YA stories before branching out into adult fiction and into this very peculiar genre that is a mix between urban fantasy and a noir, and I must say that the attempt was not just very successful, but also resulted in a deeply engaging story, one that drew me in completely and kept my imagination captive for the whole journey.

The background of Jade City has a fascinating Far Eastern flavor and it’s coupled with a time setting that reminded me of the early ‘60s, conferring to the story a unique feel that is part of its appeal, even though the lion’s share goes to the story itself and the characters. The island of Kekon rests on huge deposits of jade, mined not for its ornamental qualities but because it confers extraordinary powers to those who are able to harness its energy: Green Bones, as they are called, are capable of incredible physical and mental feats – as an individual’s tolerance to jade increases with use, so do the abilities he or she can employ.

One could say that jade has shaped Kekonese society: at its top are Green Bones, of course, organized in clans governed by a rigid set of rules and gaining or losing influence according to the economic power wielded over the big and small businesses of “common” citizens, those who are unable to wear jade. A clan is ruled by the Pillar, whose immediate lieutenants are the Weatherman (who advises the Pillar on matters of policy) and the Horn, the enforcer, who through the Fists and Fingers deals with any circumstance requiring a show of strength – or violence. The two major clans on the island are the Mountain and No Peak, the latter ruled by the Kaul family, who are at the center of the events: Lan, the Pillar; Hilo, the Horn, and their younger sister Shae, who some years before gave up all her privileges and jade to go live among foreigners and try to forge a different kind of life for herself. Her return home coincides with a series of events that will bring her clan to open war with the Mountain and force the Kaul siblings toward paths no one of them would have expected.

As I said, this novel is a very engaging one, and it took little time for me to be enfolded by the story while learning the fascinating details of Kekon’s past and the Kaul family history. The impression one derives from the narrative is that until recently Kekon was very similar to a feudal holding, moving into a more modern outlook only in the last few decades, after a bloody independence war sanctioned its freedom from foreign occupation: modern conveniences like cars or television sets seem like a novelty that’s slowly spreading through the populace, while many of the older customs and ways of thinking still linger on and still inform everyday dealings. The parallel with Japan after the end of WWII is quite striking and serves very well to illustrate the uneasy transition between the older and younger generation: in the Kaul family, for example, the aged, ailing patriarch still clings to older methods of conducting business and interacting with competitors, while his grandsons either try to balance the old with the new, or seek different paths for the changing times. Then there is Shae, who falls somehow in the middle, having tried to sever ties with her past, only to return home and find herself entangled in family business and deadly feuds.

The beauty of these characters is that they are all flawed in one way or another, and those flaws help in making them more human despite the incredible abilities bestowed on jade wearers, powers that allow them to channel enormous strength for physical feats, or to create shields out of thin air, or again to perceive other people’s thoughts and emotions. Without these flaws they might have looked like cartoonish characters, but instead they suffer, and bleed, and make terrible mistakes, and through it all they grow and evolve: Lan is a man of peace, maybe not the best choice for Pillar of No Peak since he lacks the aggressiveness that’s sometimes necessary to withstand the Mountain’s plays for power, and yet there is such a depth of honesty to him that it’s impossible not to understand where his attitude comes from, just as it’s impossible to mistake it for weakness as others do. His brother Hilo is quite the opposite, brash and violent on the outside, but fiercely loyal on the inside and capable of enormous acts of generosity: I must admit that I liked Hilo quite a bit, especially when he finds himself forced to juggle his deeper instincts and the need for shrewdness required by the clan war.

And last, but not least, Shae and Hilo’s lover Wen: being a woman in Kekonese society is not easy, given the cultural restrictions imposed on them by past customs that are not evolving as rapidly as one might wish. And yet – each in a different way – they manage to leave their mark on the people around them and to show that strength is not a quality that comes from jade or physical prowess, but from the depths of one’s soul. These two women are perhaps the best indicators of the slow but inexorable changes that are starting to take root in Kekon, and it will be interesting to see how these first seeds of change will bloom in the next books for this series.

In short, Jade City was such an immersive reading experience that I often found myself needing a conscious effort to transition back to the real world: to me, that’s the mark of strong writing and expert storytelling, elements that make me want to explore more of this author’s works.

Highly recommended.

 

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

THE COURT OF BROKEN KNIVES (Empires of Dust #1), by Anna Smith Spark

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

As far as I know, grimdark has until now been the province of male writers – that is, until Anna Smith Spark penned this amazing debut novel.  It was a delightfully weird read, mostly because the harshness of plot, landscape and characters is delivered with such elegant writing that creates an incredible contrast and carries this story forward with remarkable strength.  Where novels are defined as being either plot- or character-driven, The Court of Broken Knives is both, although the story itself appears less important than the characters inhabiting it, as they move across an unforgiving land that seems bent on destroying life just as much as weapon-wielding people do.

The main focal point of the novel is the city of Sorlost, the center of the Sekemleth Empire: once a powerful political entity, the empire seems headed toward its unavoidable decay. To stop the decline and try to counteract the advance of neighboring lesser states bent on expansion, lord Orhan, a high-placed nobleman of the empire, concocts a coup that will wipe out the emperor and his whole court, allowing Orhan to start afresh and restore some of the former glory and power. Enter Tobias, the leader of the mercenary band employed by Orhan to carry out his plan: probably my favorite character, he’s a level-headed, practical man gifted with a sort of skewed integrity and determination that quickly endeared him to me. The most bizarre element in his band is young Marith, the latest recruit, a boy possessed of an almost otherworldly beauty and manners that speak of a higher station in life: once Marith single-handedly slays a dragon (yes, a dragon!) that was happily wreaking havoc in the mercenaries’ camp, something seems to free him of any self-imposed restraints he might have been working under, and he starts to change, revealing a ruthless, murderous nature fueled both by his bloody ancestry and the drug addiction that destroyed his former life and led him away from his past.   Last but not least among the main characters is Thalia, high priestess of Sorlost’s god of life and death – a god who requires human sacrifices to be performed daily, and whose celebrant is destined to be killed by her successor, just like she did when her turn came.

The overall mood of the novel is one of extreme pessimism: Orhan dreams of changing the power balance in the empire, but is also aware of the unavoidable decline of his world, one that still decks itself in silks and jewels but is quite rotten underneath.  At times I thought that his desire for social and political change came from the extreme dissatisfaction for his own life: married to a woman he does not love, yearning to be with the man that was his soul mate since their youth, Orhan finds himself trapped in the command role he sought and obtained through terrible bloodshed, and realizes that he’s now at risk just as much as his predecessor was, if not more considering the spreading unrest.

Thalia is a deeply damaged soul unable to realize how much that damage has spread: forced into the role of high priestess of a blood-thirsty god whose preferred sacrifice are children, she seems to have adapted to her temple prison and to the prospect of falling under the knife of her already-designated successor, unaware of the vastness of the outside world and its wonders (and perils), yet when the opportunity arises to leave her gilded cage she takes it. I’ve often wondered, following her narrative arc, whether she didn’t fall from the proverbial frying pan to the fire, because her fascination with Marith sounds more like a journey through hell than an infatuation – I find it very hard to call it ‘love’….

As for Marith, he’s equally pitiable and loathsome: seeing his anguish at the effects of the drug that was forced on him and made him an incurable addict, made me pity him, especially since a few flashbacks hinted at a great personal tragedy that’s revealed at some point; but his way of denying the drug’s pull is to give himself over to a killing frenzy, reveling in blood and destruction in the name of the ancient god Amrath from whom he descends – and in whose name he’s able to draw others in that same unthinking paroxysm – so this revelation worked a great deal toward cooling my initial sympathy.  Still, he remains a fascinating character and I can’t wait to see where his path will lead him in the next books.

I find it quite difficult to delve deeper into this story without falling into a… spoiler trap, but what I can say freely is that The Court of Broken Knives surprised me at every turn, not only because of unexpected revelations or shocking turns, but more than anything because it feels like the work of a consummate writer and not a first novel: if this is what the author can offer as her debut, we must indeed keep an eye on her and her next works. In the book’s preface, there is a quote from Michael Fletcher, calling her “the queen of grim dark fantasy”: the title, and compliment, are more than deserved.  All hail the queen!

 

My Rating: