Reviews

Review: A LITTLE HATRED (The Age of Madness #1), by Joe Abercrombie

 

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

My very first Joe Abercrombie novel was Best Served Cold, a tale of revenge that introduced me to the concept of grimdark as well as a story that had a profound impact on my imagination. Since then I meant to read his widely acclaimed First Law trilogy, but so far I kept being distracted by other titles, although all three books have been sitting on my e-reader for a long time, gathering virtual dust.

When A Little Hatred was announced, I was both intrigued and worried, because I wondered how much my lack of knowledge of previous events would curtail my enjoyment of this new novel: well, I need not have been concerned – granted, I’m aware I’ve certainly missed the subtler narrative nuances that readers of The First Law will no doubt perceive, but when an author is as good as Joe Abercrombie you can pick up a sequel series and find yourself right at home. It’s what happened to me with Brian McClellan’s second flintlock series, with John Gwynne now-running new trilogy, and now with The Age of Madness, and that’s the mark of an outstanding writer. This does not mean of course that I have abandoned the idea of filling that gap, on the contrary I now feel more motivated than ever…

The realm of Angland, never the most peaceful of territories, is once again in turmoil: wars of conquest are ongoing between various portions of the domain, with all the expected trappings of brutal skirmishes, looting and torched villages. But there is something else as well, something that’s unusual in a fantasy novel and which adds an intriguing angle to the story: the industrial revolution has come to Angland and while farmlands are being repossessed and smallholders turned away from their homes, the cities become the fulcrum of activity, with factories cropping up everywhere.

If a country enmeshed in war is a dismal sight, one where the… fires of industry burn day and night, polluting the air and absorbing an endless stream of laborers, is a far gloomier one, indeed. There is an almost Dickensian quality in the descriptions of these grim factories where people toil day and night in appalling conditions, only to go home to dirty hovels with no other prospect than more of the same the next day, and all for meager wages. Such a situation is bound to foment rebellion, carried out mainly by two factions called Breakers and Burners, whose names clearly point out to the intentions of their members, so that between the distant wars and the festering discontent there is an ominous atmosphere running throughout this story, even though it’s cleverly balanced with that sort of gallows humor I have come to expect from this author.

[…] an enterprising fellow had devised a system whereby prisoners could be dropped through the scaffold floor at a touch upon a lever. There was an invention to make everything more efficient these days, after all. Why would killing people be an exception?

Where the background is an intriguing one, the characters are the true element shining through so much darkness: I’ve come to understand that they represent the “next generation” from the First Law trilogy and here is where I most perceived my lack of knowledge of previous events, because knowing about their roots would certainly have helped me to appreciate them more, but still they are the best part of the story and I ended up loving them all, flaws included – especially the flaws, I dare say…  The men, with a few exceptions, seem to be either old geezers past their prime and their former glories or ignorant savages bent on killing for the pure pleasure of it, while the two main characters look both like children still waiting to reconcile themselves with the fact they have grown up.

Both Prince Orso, the heir to the crown, and Leo dan Brock, son of a powerful chieftain, seem to struggle under the pressures of their domineering mothers, the former because he refuses to give up his unending drinking and womanizing in favor of settling down with a wife and start producing children for the continuation of the dynasty; the latter because he wants to cover himself in glory on the battlefield, but was prevented from gaining direct combat experience and is more in love with the idea of fame than anything else.  Both of them will get the opportunity to come into their own and prove their worth but the encounter with reality will prove bitterly disappointing and painful – in one case physically painful, indeed – and they will have to reconcile themselves with the notion that the legends of old, which have fueled their ambitions, never talked of the less savory aspects of the road to fame.

The women fare much better, and I loved both the two main female characters – so different and yet with so much in common, as an entertaining conversation between them reveals in the second half of the book, providing one of the best narrative highlights of the story.  Savine dan Glokta is the daughter of most feared man in the realm (I remember when his name was mentioned with profound dread in Best Served Cold) and having inherited his ruthlessness has turned it into a drive for cut-throat business: there is no activity, no enterprise she has not a share in, and she looks like the kind of predator no prey can escape.  And yet Savine’s privileged, wealthy life left her unprepared to face the awful events she finds herself enmeshed in, teaching her that powerlessness is the worst state to be in.

Rikke, daughter of a northern chieftain, turned out to be my absolute favorite character here: brash, uncouth, foul-mouthed, she is a wonderful contrast to courtly daintiness or city refinement, and her ongoing journey from coddled mascot for a bunch of grizzled warriors to a hard, fearless warrior herself is a joy to behold, enhanced by the peculiar gift of prophecy she must learn to harness and control. Awareness of her failings and the outspoken way she talks about them are among her better qualities, and there is a core of plain common sense in Rikke that’s both refreshing and amusing:

Why folk insisted on singing about great warriors all the time, Rikke couldn’t have said. Why not sing about really good fishermen, or bakers, or roofers, or some other folk who actually left the world a better place, rather than heaping up corpses and setting fire to things? Was that behavior to encourage?

As for the story, all I can safely say without spoiling your enjoyment of it is that it moves at a very brisk pace, shifting between the different points of view as the brutal, merciless plot proceeds like an unstoppable avalanche that also offers two breath-stopping, very cinematic moments, during a bloody uprising and a single combat, that will keep you glued to the pages in horrified anticipation.

Where readers of the First Law trilogy will find themselves happily at home with this new saga, new readers will be intrigued by this cruel, unforgiving world and feel the need to learn more as they wait for the next book in this series.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: GHOSTER, by Jason Arnopp

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 synopsis for Ghoster promised an interesting mix between horror and social media technology, so that it was too appealing a premise to let such a story slide by: it’s impossible not to notice how many people are absorbed, compulsively so, by their phones’ screens – on public transport, on sidewalks, even in restaurants where interaction with other tablemates has been replaced by fixed stares at those screens – and I was curious to see how the horror element would dovetail with this widespread phenomenon.

Kate Collins is a senior paramedic and she’s addicted to social media – or rather was: after her manic absorption caused her work partner some grievous damage, she decided that the best cure for her obsession would be to revert back to a basic model of phone, one where actual calls and text messaging are the only way to connect with the rest of the world.  While participating in a “techno detox” retreat, Kate meets Scott Palmer, who quickly turns out to be the man of her dreams: after less than three months, Scott asks her to move in with him, and Kate leaves her job and life in Leeds behind to relocate with Scott in Brighton.  When the day for the big move comes, however, Kate discovers that Scott’s flat is completely empty, the man does not answer her increasingly frantic messages and the only thing he left behind is his smartphone.

Needing to know what happened, Kate finds the way to unlock Scott’s phone and discovers the man seems to have built their relationship – such as it was – on a mountain of lies and things left unsaid: the Scott that comes out of his phone bears little resemblance to the one Kate fell in love with, and what’s worse, the empty apartment, where power has been disconnected, is haunted by ghostly presences that leave mysterious and disturbing scratches on the inner surface of the front door.  Kate’s downward spiral, compounded by the return of her addiction to social media, is unstoppable and each new discovery drags her deeper and deeper into what looks like a descent into madness.

Ghoster turned out to be a book whose two components – the story and the characterization – seem to be at odds with each other: while the first works well, because the need to understand what really happened remains a constant drive, the latter did not work well for me, mainly because I could not connect with Kate and found her increasingly vexing if not downright stupid.  At some point we learn that Kate has been working as a paramedic for fifteen years, so postulating that she started as early as eighteen, she must be thirty-three years old at least: however, the person we get to know in the book thinks and acts more like a thirteen year old – and I’m certain there are far more mature and responsible thirteen year olds in the world than this woman.

Kate is selfish and self-absorbed, an adult displaying all the worst traits to be found in those paint-by-the-numbers teenage characters giving YA fiction its bad reputation. Constantly complaining about the unfairness of life in general, she often looks prone to lay the blame on others, and when she admits her own failings she does so in a superficial, semi-serious way that belies the earnestness of the acknowledgment.  This frivolous approach represents one of my main contentions with Kate as a character: even in the most grim of situations, she always resorts to some pun, or pop-culture reference that has no place in that context and often made me wonder about the real “mood” the author wanted to impart to the story.  If Kate Collins was to be the embodiment of addiction to technology (or addiction at large), she does indeed display many of the symptoms – as denial of the problem, distance from the people wanting to help her, out-of-proportion reactions when faced with the naked truth – but in the end that offhand attitude, the false self-deprecatory jokes, spoil the desired effect and turn Kate into a caricature rather than a character we can believe in or relate to.

On the other hand, the story itself fares much better, because there is such a weirdly terrifying escalation in the discoveries Kate makes through the contents of Scott’s phone – not only the fact that he’s not the man she believed him to be, or that he seemed to entertain other relationships while they were dating and getting more serious, but the disturbing pictures and videos stored on the device.  And of course there are the ghosts appearing in the empty flat, which are frightening on their own and even more so when Kate finds their living pictures in the phone’s memory bank, or the weird scratches on the front door, or the definite sensation of being watched. The build-up, through false leads and shocking discoveries, takes us toward a surprise revelation that is unexpected and at the same time makes a chilling sort of sense, the kind of scenario whose deepest horror lies in its surface appearance of normality.

Sadly, the reveal takes what feels like a long time to get there – what with having to wade through the quagmire of Kate’s constant whining, foolish antics and outlandish theories – and when it happens, its intended impact has been dulled by this improbable heroine and her preposterous behavior.  Once I reached that final chapter I had the definite impression that the novel’s core concept might have started its life as a short story – a compact, imaginative, delightfully scary story on the dangers of technology addiction – and that it was later padded, quite unnecessarily in my opinion, with Kate Collins’ journey of discovery.  Which on hindsight looks somewhat wasteful…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

RJ Barker talks about THE BONE SHIPS

Thanks to Angela Man at Orbit Books, I have become aware of a short video by RJ Barker, author of the amazing Wounded Kingdom Trilogy and now back on the shelves with his new work, The Bone Ships, which I reviewed recently.

The video, a delightfully humorous lecture on “everything we always wanted to know about sailships, but were afraid to  ask”  😀 is available both at its Twitter link and as a YouTube video. Enjoy!

And if you have not read the book yet (or the Wounded Kingdom Trilogy), what are you waiting for?

TWITTER LINK

 

And here is the YouTube video:

Reviews

Review: BLOOD OF AN EXILE (The Dragons of Terra #1), by Brian Naslund

 

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

Fantasy stories tend to gravitate toward a number of “classic” themes like the quest and the hero’s journey and in this Blood of an Exile is no exception, but experience taught me that what truly matters is the way that journey or quest is told, and how the characters can reach out to the readers and make them care: Brian Naslund’s debut novel accomplished this goal by creating an intriguing background that stems from the usual fantasy elements, then enriches them with some unexpected angles, and by shaping equally intriguing characters that grow on you slowly but surely, their flaws more captivating than their strengths.

In Almira, one of the kingdoms of Terra, criminals are punished by being charged with the slaying of dragons, and Silas Bershad – once an Almiran noble now fallen in disgrace – was so sentenced: life expectancy for dragon slayers is quite short, not surprising in consideration of their deadly prey, but Bershad has been enduring his sentence for fourteen years, slaying dozens of dragons and becoming something of a folk hero. Still, he’s an outcast, marked by the infamy tattoos on his face and easily recognizable by the symbols of those killings that are branded on his arms.  He’s offered a chance for redemption though: king Malgrave, the man who condemned him and the father of his former lover, princess Ashlyn, offers him a full pardon if he will travel to the neighboring realm of Balaria to rescue the king’s younger daughter Kira, who was kidnapped, and also kill the Balarian ruler.

After some initial reluctance, Bershad agrees to the mission and leaves with a small group of people: his faithful companion Rowan and the inseparable donkey Alfonso; a noble from the Almiran court who’s there to expedite passage through the land; Vera, a widow, i.e. a female warrior trained in the most fierce of martial arts, and condemned thief Felgor, whose sneaky ways will prove invaluable once they reach their destination. The journey is of course fraught with perils, double dealings and revelations, and while the group is en route to Balaria the situation in Almira becomes quite complicated as political intrigues and long-standing plots finally come to fruition, offering an interesting counterpoint to the disparate travelers’ mission and expanding the readers’ knowledge of the land and its history, as the tension escalates toward its edge-of-the seat ending and promises more to come in the following books.

On the surface, Blood of an Exile might appear like your run of the mill fantasy novel, but there are some elements that set it apart from its brethren, and the story’s background is one of them, particularly when you take into account the dichotomy between Almira and Balaria: the former offers the standard medieval context of a primitive land with basic living conditions, where ignorance and superstition rules – the inhabitants’ response to any problem or ailment is to shape mud statues as an offering to the gods, and princess Ashlyn’s interest for natural studies is considered odd and tainted by witchcraft – while the latter is more technologically oriented in what looks like a steampunk society, and the capital city is shaped like a clockwork-driven mechanism requiring great quantities of dragon oil to function.

Linked to that is a very intriguing – and new to the genre – angle on environment and the way its delicate balance can be upset by inconsiderate choices: Ashlyn’s studies have brought her to understand that kind of balance and how it’s all linked to the dragons – how decimating them, either to assuage the people’s fears or to obtain their precious oil, is causing some of their natural preys to overbreed and in turn lead to crop failures or widespread disease. There is a thought-provoking passage in which the Balarian ruler offers a deaf ear to Ashlyn’s warnings about the fragility of the whole system, saying he’s not afraid to go against the “natural order of things” as long as he can keep his people comfortable and happy: it’s a very contemporary, very widespread attitude, that of thinking only about the present and not caring about the future….

As far as the characters go, the chosen theme of throwing together a mismatched band of people to accomplish a given task is one that always intrigues me, because it helps showcasing their characters and makes for a compelling narrative, especially when danger starts rearing up its ugly head and everyone is forced to abandon the mask they present to the world at large. Along the journey I became quite fond of some of these characters and in the end it proved a mixed blessing, because here I must warn you not to become too attached to anyone, since there is no certainty of survival for all of them – that was one of the most devastating surprises in a story that is certainly filled with violence and hardship, but also proved unexpectedly cruel to some of its players.

Of course Bershad takes the lion’s share of the story, and if at first he’s the epitome of the anti-hero, moving from one dragon slaying to another and drowning himself in wine between assignments, his past is revealed bit by bit and we understand how guilt for his actions and resentment for his fate have come into play, while the uncanny way in which he heals from the wounds sustained in his craft seems to go against what I could see as nothing else but a death wish – unexpressed, but clearly latent.  This narrative element will come to present a compelling angle in the overall story and it’s clear it will be at the roots of its continuation: I for one am looking forward to see the direction it will take in the future installments.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE BONE SHIPS (The Tide Child #1), by R.J. Barker

 

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

R.J. Barker’s previous work, the Wounded Kingdom trilogy, was one of my best recent discoveries, so that once I learned of this new novel, the start of another series, I was beyond eager to read it: once the book became available through the Orbit newsletter I wasted no time in requesting it, and abandoned the story I was reading then in favor of this one.

If the world presented in the Wounded Kingdom is a desolate one, with huge extensions of the land made barren by the indiscriminate use of magic, and people often living on the doorstep of starvation, the one depicted in The Bone Ships is far bleaker and disheartening, not so much because of any environmental concerns, but rather because of the inhabitants’ customs and attitude.

This is a world where seas cover most of the surface, what little land there is formed by groups of islands whose dwellers have split over time into two factions in constant war with each other, a conflict whose origins seem to have been forgotten but that still goes on because of the ingrained hatred between opponents. Where seas rules, wars are fought with ships, and here they are built with the bones of dragons for their strength and buoyancy, but now that the dragons have been hunted to extinction, what few bones remain are prized above all else.   As for the people, islanders’ customs decree that anyone born with a physical defect, or from a mother who died in childbirth, is tainted with weak blood and cannot be part of the dominant class, while any firstborn child is always offered in sacrifice and set on a ship as a corpselight – a concept that still gives me chills no matter how many times I read it.

The overall darkness of the background is the main reason I struggled at first with The Bone Ships: I now understand, with hindsight, that the author was setting the stage for the story and that it was important for us readers to see where the characters came from and what made them what they are, but still the first few chapters seemed to drag and what I pictured in my mind’s eye was all in drab, unappealing sepia tones.  I know I am not the most patient individual in the world, and that I need to feel an instant connection with a story and its characters to truly enjoy a novel, so I can offer this little morsel of advice: if you get that same disheartening impression, just keep going, because your perseverance will be more than rewarded.

Joron Twiner used to be a fisherman but now circumstances have made him an outcast, and as is the customs of the Isles he’s been assigned to one of the Black Ships, the ships of the dead – vessels that are old and ill-maintained, and whose crews are destined to serve and die for the good of the Isles.  Joron is made shipwife (i.e. the captain) of the Tide Child, one of the black ships, a despondent and drunken captain who asks nothing of his equally miserable crew but to be ignored as he ignores them, until the day in which ‘Lucky’ Meas Gilbryn, a famous boneship shipwife now fallen in disgrace, challenges him for the captaincy of the Child and vows to shape him and the rest of the complement into a crew worthy of respect. Meas has been given a mission: what could possibly be the last dragon in the world has been sighted, and the Tide Child tasked with the difficult – and maybe impossible – mission to secure it and in so doing possibly change the balance of war. Success might even mean the lifting of the sentence that condemned them all to a ship of the dead.

From here on the story blends two separate threads, the breath-taking adventure of the search for the Arakeesian – the fabled dragon – and the characters’ journey from a motley band of uncaring individuals to a cohesive, proud crew. The sea voyage itself is a joy to follow, with vibrant descriptions that turn the strong sea breezes, the smell of the salty spray and the creak of the ship’s bones into almost physical experiences, enhanced by the exotic terms used to describe the vessel’s sections or the crew’s roles – as an example, a ship, contrary to normal usage, is referred to as “he” and therefore the captain becomes a “shipwife”, irrespective of gender.  And then there are the strange, dangerous sea beasts that mean certain death for any sailor fallen overboard, or the weird avian creature, the gullaime, who summons the winds to fill the ship’s sails, not to mention the dragons themselves, creatures of beauty and grace who seem to possess an uncanny intelligence.

Unsurprisingly, characters remain the strong point of the story though, even when they require some time to make themselves understood and appreciated: Joron is a prime example of this instance, because of his initial attitude, the certainty of his worthlessness, the lack of interest in others beyond the misery he wrapped around himself. And yet there is a small part of him that wants to believe, that is kindled by Meas’ rough handling and blazes into confidence – in himself first and then in the crew, in the sense of belonging and mutual loyalty that the shipwife can inspire in each and every one of them, teaching them they can be much more than the sum of their parts.  It will be fascinating to see where his journey will lead him as the story progresses, and how far he will travel from the morose young man wasting his days in idleness and drink.

But of course it’s Meas who held the greater part of my attention: strong, capable and with an abrasive demeanor that goes well with her scruffy appearance and hides a keen mind and an iron will, but also a capacity for understanding and compassion she keeps under tight control – although at times it surfaces together with one or her rare smiles.  A true creature of the seas, she lives for and breathes with her ship and crew, and through her example – that of a woman born to the highest rank and now lowered to the captaincy of a Black Ship – they learn how to take pride in their accomplishments and the fulfilment of their duty. She is called “Lucky Meas” and at some point we learn how she gained that nickname, and yet what she teaches her people is that their fame, their luck if you want, is not something they can expect to be given, but must take – earn – for themselves.  A character larger than life at time, perhaps, but one I will enjoy meeting again in the next books.

I would like to close this review by mentioning the beautiful images – miniatures in truth – decorating the beginning of each chapter, that add a special quality to the story itself, and to advise you to keep your eyes (and ears…) open for the arrival of Black Orris. You will know what I mean once you get there  😉

If you are already fans of R.J. Barker’s works, you will enjoy this; if you are not… what are you waiting for?

 

Reviews

Review: OUR WAR, by Craig DiLouie

 

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

My first encounter with Craig DiLouie’s work was through his previous novel, One of Us, a tale about children gifted with peculiar abilities, segregated from the rest of humanity and cruelly exploited.  Our War focuses on children as well, young people finding themselves enmeshed in war and having to fight, literally fight, to survive.

The premise states that an impeached president of the USA refuses to step down, starting a civil war between the opposing factions of his loyalist base and the Congress supporters who are asking for his resignation. The whole country is plunged in bloody strife and transforms into a series of war zones, with refugees trying to escape to marginally safer places, and bitter skirmishes happening along a very fluid, very dangerous battle line.

Ten-year- old Hannah and sixteen-year-old Alex Miller are brother and sister, running away from home with their terrified parents in search of an uncertain shelter from the warring parties: Alex, already a troubled teenager, runs from the family car in a surge of unfocused anger about the life he’s forced to leave behind, and ends up among the rebel forces loyal to the president, while the death of the father leaves Hannah and her mother to fend for themselves. When her mother is also killed by a sniper bullet, Hannah finds sanctuary with the Free Women militia, on the opposite side of the conflict.  Both kids, like many others, will learn how to wield weapons and kill – not just for survival but for a desperate need to find a place to belong in a world gone mad.

The adult point of view comes from Aubrey, a dedicated journalist working for the Indianapolis Chronicle, and from Gabrielle, a Canadian UNICEF worker bringing some much-needed humanitarian aid in the war-torn country. Both of them are very interesting characters – Aubrey tries not to succumb to fear and cynicism, and finds an unexpected well of courage in the goal of showing the world what is happening to children enrolled in the militia, and Gabrielle braves the dangers of the war to pay forward the debt she owes to the man who saved her life when she was little – but the real focus of the story is, of course, on the two young siblings, on the other kids they meet in their respective groups and on the way the horrors of war can shape (and twist) a young mindset and soul.

My previous experience with Craig DiLouie’s work should have prepared me for this starkly lucid depiction of a country in the throes of war and the consequences visited upon its people, especially the young ones, but Our War went well beyond anything I might have foreseen, hitting me with unexpected strength: there is such a heart-wrenching quality to the story being told here, that I too often felt breathless with the chilling impact of it all.  The suddenness with which society crumbles, once the conflict starts, reveals how thin our veneer of civilization is, how the savage side of our collective mind is always lurking beneath that surface layer: what’s truly terrifying, in the devastated world depicted in this book, is that it looks all too plausible, that the way politics have changed in the last handful of years have made the scenario in Our War a troublesome possibility rather than a flight of the imagination.

The way we approach politics these days, no matter the country one lives in, has turned away from a debate, however heated, of ideas, to become a constant barrage of insults, viciousness and other unsavory ingredients that have corrupted what should be a healthy exchange into a free-for-all where the warped logic of “us vs. them” has replaced any other kind of interaction.  We seem to have become too easily enmeshed in the kind of mob mentality that sees those with a different outlook (be it political, religious or whatever) not as someone with a divergent perspective but as blood enemies to be crushed. The step from partisan shouting to civil war appears all too brief and too easily taken, and this story highlights with terrible clarity the kind of steep incline we might all slide down on one of these days if we don’t re-learn some mutual respect and the ability to listen without being deafened and blinded by prejudice.

Our War shows us the possible consequences of underestimating that danger, consequences that would be mostly visited on the vulnerable ones, like children: Alex and Hannah quickly lose the carefree innocence that should be their right as they learn how to kill.  For both of them, what started as a form of defense transforms all too soon into an offensive stance: in Alex’s case because he finds himself attached to a group of people where many enjoy senseless violence for the sake of it, and he becomes somewhat addicted to the need for their approval, so that the only way the young boy has to obtain it is to become as trigger-happy as they are. Hannah, on the other hand, finds shelter with the Free Women and also the sense of family she lost as her loved ones disappeared one by one, therefore turning herself into a killer means being able to defend her newfound family and the protection – physical and mental – they provide.

Our War gives us a bleak picture of a possible (all too possible…) future, one that must compel us to seriously consider the dangers inherent in the habit of turning our differences into unsurmountable chasms, when even the slight glimmer of hope we find at the end does not seem enough to dispel the darkness left by looking into this potential abyss. 

Still, I would not have missed reading it for the world…

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: THE RAGE OF DRAGONS (The Burning #1), by Evan Winter

 

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 first time I heard about The Rage of Dragons, through a fellow blogger’s review, I was beyond intrigued when learning that the book takes a different approach to the usual fantasy themes by basing the story on an African-like background, which is indeed new and refreshing in the genre. Besides, how could I resist a tale of vengeance? Since my long-ago encounter with The Count of Montecristo I always found revenge stories to be quite compelling, so there was no doubt that this would be an intriguing read.

At the start of the story we meet the Omehi people, refugees in search of a place to settle in and re-build their society: they just landed in a promising location, but the natives’ fierce resistance forces them into a bitter conflict that is still ongoing some two hundred years later, when we encounter the novel’s main character, Tau.  In a society geared for endless war, everyone must be trained for combat, but Tau is not very sanguine about that and his goal is to finish his mandatory warrior training and then injure himself in a way that will allow him to still be a productive member of society in a non-belligerent role.

Fate, however, brings such an upheaval to Tau’s life that it sends him on a very different path, one that will turn him into the fierce warrior he never meant to be, so he can carry out his vengeance against those who wronged him.  And as Tau pursues that aim, the conflict with the Xideen keeps escalating and the future for the Omehi looks increasingly bleaker…

The Rage of Dragons started out in a very promising way for me, with its original approach and setting, but ultimately it failed to engage me fully, which saddened me quite a bit since I had hoped for more – or maybe set those expectations too high.  For example, the background is a potentially fascinating one: the novel is marketed as an African-inspired story and there is indeed an intriguing feeling in the descriptions of the scorched, unforgiving land settled by the Omehi, of the relentless sun beating down on people and their activities. The language is permeated by terms calling out to the African culture, and even though they sometimes overwhelm the readers, asking them for an effort of memory to place them in the right context, they enhance the difference from the more traditional fantasy storytelling. Still, I could not avoid the sensation that those elements of originality were only skin deep, because none of them helped in making me perceive the depth and complexity of such a different culture.

From the opening we learn that Omehi society is divided into two castes, nobles and commoners, assigned by matrilineal descent, and that women hold the highest powers: the ruler is a Queen and the magic wielders are women, which would lay the ground for a strong female presence throughout the story, and yet the narrative evidence is contradictory.  As far as the caste system is concerned, for example, we only know it’s there and that the nobles often misuse their influence for personal gain, but there is nothing more here aside from the perception of the inherent injustice of this social structure. Female figures, what few there are, hardly impact the storyline, giving me the unwelcome sensation that their apparent agency in Omehi culture is more a token one than the real thing.

Still, these misgivings would be minor ones, and easily ascribed to the “growing pains” of a debut work, if it were not for what turned out to be my major contention with The Rage of Dragons, which was its main focus – Tau. It was difficult, not to say impossible, to find a connection with the character: at first he comes across as a variation on the theme of the reluctant hero: he has no heart for fighting, which in a military culture is a huge problem indeed (those who are unwilling to fight are relegated to the role of ‘drudge’, little more than slaves forced to serve the community in the more menial and demanding tasks), while his plan for a self-inflicted injury, which would free him from military service while maintaining his status and freedom, sounds mildly cowardly and did little to endear him to me. Then tragedy strikes and Tau spins in the very opposite direction, training hard and succeeding quite shortly in becoming a fearsome warrior, which is somewhat difficult to believe given his initial lack of interest for warfare – even taking into account the powerful drive offered by his thirst for revenge, it’s a change I struggled to accept.

That desire for revenge (an element, as I said, that can powerfully drive any story) leads Tau to a single-mindedness that further alienated him from me, because it was not so much a tight focus on a goal but rather a tunnel vision to the exclusion of all else, be it the bonding with his comrades or the consequences of rash choices – and Tau is quite prone to the latter, to the point that I often wondered if he was stupidly foolish rather than powerfully driven. Moreover, the emphasis on hand-to-hand combat, which takes a considerable space in the overall narrative, turned out to be too much – at least for my tastes – and those descriptions, no matter their cinematic detail that would work very well on screen, felt boring and repetitive after the umpteenth flashing of bronze swords.

When all is said and done, I would not label The Rage of Dragons as a bad book, because it’s not, but in the end it felt to me as an unfulfilled promise, a story with a great potential that remained mostly untapped, and that’s the main reason for my overall disappointment. Which does not mean that this story could not get better along the way…

 

My Rating: