Reviews

Review: THE DEFIANT HEIR (Swords & Fire #2), 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.

The previous book in this series, The Tethered Mage, proved to be a delightful discovery in many ways: the magic system, in which people with peculiar abilities, or Falcons, are bound for life to a sort of companion/guardian, or Falconer; the background, where the Serene Empire of Raverra reminded me strongly of 18th Century Venice, complete with shady political maneuverings and complicated plots; and the characters, of course, mainly young Amalia Cornaro, the heir to a very influent Raverran family and the unwitting Falconer to equally young Zaira, a Falcon gifted (or better, cursed) with the rare ability to master balefire, a powerful, dangerous weapon that might prove useful in the brewing war against Raverra’s enemies.   Following their journey, as they got to know each other while trying to unravel a threatening conspiracy, was a charming experience, but with this second volume of the series both the narrative stakes and my enjoyment of the story took flight toward new heights.

The action starts several months after the events of book 1, and while Amalia and Zaira can now work together on easier terms, moving with baby steps toward a better understanding of each other if not actual friendship, the political situation has taken a turn for the worse: their Vaskandar neighbors, ruled by a caste of skilled magicians called Witch Lords, are once again on the move to expand their territory, threatening the Raverran Empire. Amalia finds herself in the role of envoy first, as she is sent to reassure the Empire’s allies and muster their defenses against any possible attack, and of ambassador later, when she is invited to the Conclave, the Witch Lords’ assembly that will decide whether to start a war with Raverra.  To say that pace and tension keep increasing with each page would indeed be a massive understatement: where The Tethered Mage was more of an introduction to this world and what made it tick, The Defiant Heir takes us into the heat of battle, and it hardly matters that it’s one fought with words and cunning and magic rather than conventional weapons, because the outcome is just as uncertain and bloody.

The increased rhythm is mirrored by a widening of our perspective of the world of Eruvia, as we are led first to Callamorne – Raverra’s closest neighbor and ally – where some of Amalia’s relatives live and where we learn a few details about her past and, more important, her bloodline: a discovery that will prove instrumental in the unfolding events and might have interesting ramifications in the future. The journey to Vaskandar is instead imbued with danger that does not come only from the prospect of an invasion and a war that the Empire might very well lose, but from the magic wielded by the Witch Lords, who are able to extend their control over beasts and plants alike: the instances where trees take on a semblance of life (and quite hostile life at that…) attacking Amalia’s party, are among the most terrifying scenes one could imagine, and will stand in your mind just as much as the Lady of Spiders’ dress, which is enough to give nightmares to any arachnofobe…

However the characters and their development remain the most fascinating feature of the story, starting with Zaira who still retains her more evident abrasive qualities and intolerance for regulations, but has also learned to look beyond her immediate wants and needs to take into account the well-being of others, or the possibility of employing her terrifying powers for the common good. Although she still dreams of her freedom, she has come to understand that there are worse situations than being bound to Raverra and her Falconer, and that outside of the apparently stifling world of the Mews there are people who don’t think twice about exploiting a Falcon’s powers, with or without their consent – and more often than not, without.  Zaira is learning the basics of compromise, and that sometimes you have to give up something to obtain something of even greater value, but more than anything else she is learning that friendship and loyalty are more than worthy of some sacrifice: she has just begun to travel on that road, and her feet still move reluctantly, but it’s a joy to observe her progress and the way the discoveries she makes along the way change her, little by little.

Amalia, for her part, evolves much more quickly and palpably: gone is the bookish girl who wanted nothing else but to study the intricacies of artifice, and in her place a skilled politician is growing slowly but surely. As it happens for all growing processes, this one is not exempt from pain: her infatuation for Captain Marcello Verdi had to be put aside in favor of the possibility of a politically advantageous marriage, and even though the relationship hardly had any time to truly coalesce, the feelings Amalia and Marcello share are strong and difficult to ignore. This situation is further complicated by the appearance of the Crow Lord Kathe, a Vaskandran who might be an ally: when Amalia accepts his courtship she is torn between her yearning for Marcello and the undeniable attraction toward Kathe, with whom she plays an interesting game of subtle double entendres and dangerous flirting, never fully knowing whether this Witch Lord is truly a potential associate or someone who will knife her in the back, but still feeling the pull of Kathe’s mercurial personality.

What I appreciated about this not-quite-triangle is that rather than focusing on the turmoil of indecision and angst, it showcases the crossroads where Amalia stands: Marcello represents the security of her old life, the potential for quiet happiness and scholarly pursuits, while Kathe carries with him the danger and uncertainties inherent in the new role of political player and influencer her mother is steering her toward – and the undeniable attraction exerted by the proverbial bad boy.   And this is not the most difficult hurdle Amalia must overcome, because terrible choices lie in wait for her in the course of the dangerous mission she’s been assigned, decisions that teach her the kind of price one must pay for playing the role she so reluctantly accepted: how this dreadful awareness will factor in her future decisions is something I’m eager to discover in the next book (or books…).  If the narrative progression I observed between the first and second book keeps up, I know it will be an amazing read.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: HEAD ON (Lock In #2), by John Scalzi

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

Readers of my blog will know by now that John Scalzi is one of those authors whose books I grab almost without looking at the back cover blurb, and this was no exception, especially considering that I enjoyed its predecessor Lock In very much. Once more I found myself caught in a captivating story that expands on the previously established background: for those who have not read Lock In and the prequel novella Unlocked, Scalzi postulates that a particularly virulent strain of flu sweeps around the world killing many and leaving a percentage of the survivors locked in their own bodies – brains alive and functioning, but unable to move or to communicate with the outside world.  Haden’s Syndrome (so called from the USA First Lady, probably the most notorious victim of the virus) spurs the international community to find a way to bring the people afflicted back into contact with the rest of the world: first a neural net is devised that allows Hadens to communicate with each other in the virtual space of the Agora, then a sort of robotic, remotely controlled body (or threep) is implemented to grant them mobility and the possibility to interact with non-Hadens, leading as normal a life as possible.

Like its predecessor, Head On focuses of Chris Shane, a Haden and an FBI agent, paired with the more experienced detective Vann: after reading the first book, I discovered from online discussions that John Scalzi had left out on purpose any indication about Shane’s gender, to stress how it doesn’t necessarily define a character, or what they can do. To say the truth, while reading Lock In I thought about Chris as male for no other reason that it made sense to pair a younger, inexperienced male rookie agent with a more seasoned, more pragmatic female partner like Vann, but on hindsight I realized that it didn’t make that much of a difference in their working and interpersonal dynamic.  With this new novel I was ready to see how the lack of information on Chris’ gender would play in my perception of the story, and after a while I realized that it worked no matter what, that I cared only about Chris’ journey as the current investigation developed, and that was all that truly counted in the end.

The action starts some time after the events depicted in the previous book, and it does indeed begin with a tragic occurrence: a well-known sports player dies in mysterious circumstances during an important match, and the fact that the event is being aired and the players’ vital statistics uploaded for everyone to see, gives the start to a veritable avalanche of outlandish speculation. The match was no ordinary sports event, since it concerned Hilketa, a cross between rugby and the most ferocious gladiatorial games – a sport played by Hadens with their threeps, and one that is acquiring more and more attention not only from the Haden community, but also from the non-afflicted public and players, with increasing talk about including non-Hadens in threeps as Hilketa players.  The threeps are an important part of the game itself, since the physical damage incurred by the participants is heavy, and because one of the rules requires that a player be labeled as “goat”, and their head forcibly detached from the body so that it can be used as a score-signing part by the opponent team – clearly not something one could do with a flesh-and-blood individual.    When Duane Chapman, the rising star of the Boston Bays, loses his threep’s head for the third time in the same game, it becomes quickly clear that something is wrong with his physical body, and once he falls prey to seizures, death ensues in a matter of minutes.

How could the damage inflicted on the threep have repercussions on Chapman’s body is the first question facing the investigative team, and as Shane and Vann launch into their inquiry they discover several layers of financial and political implications underlying the structure of the Hilketa sports league, and here I must stress how John Scalzi managed to keep my attention focused on a topic that would normally not interest me, to put it mildly.  I’m not a fan of spectator sports, and often think that the hype surrounding sport events sounds somewhat exaggerated and the emphasis of commentators quite over the top, even though I acknowledge the fact that my lack of interest might play a major part in that assessment: with Head On, though, the background theme did not bother me at all, and I found any mention of Hilketa and its surrounding apparatus quite interesting, which means that the author was able to draw me in despite my issues. Well done indeed…

The most interesting part of the story, however, is the one concerned with Hadens, especially in the way they are still adapting to a continuously evolving society that has partly lost the connection with the emotional impact of their tragedy – as it happens with many instances when they become a common fact of life.  In a way, Hadens and their threeps are now an almost mundane fact of life, and the positive side of this is that there is no more question of their acceptance; on the other hand, however, this has led to the withdrawal of a good portion of government funding for afflicted people, so that many of them face economic difficulties in the maintenance of expensive threeps and in the much more costly maintenance of their immobile bodies, that still need to be cared for.  It struck me deeply to see how the threeps, while affording Hadens the chance of interacting normally with the rest of humanity, have in some way robbed the syndrome’s victims of the recognition of their basic helplessness, of their continued need for specialized medical care.

And that’s not all, because aside from ordinary and extraordinary ‘creature comforts’, so to speak, the needs of Hadens concern human companionship too, something that is denied their paralyzed bodies as well as their threep “vehicles”: there is a moment where Shane’s parents are talking with their offspring through the threep, while at the same time Chris’ mother busies herself with some hair trimming on the actual, paralyzed body, as a way of still connecting physically with her child.  In this instance Chris comments about the need for human touch that Hadens experience, the necessity to still feel connected, feel part of their families and of the outside world.  It’s a very moving moment, one where we are brought to realize, once again, how our perceptions might lead us astray and rob us, and others, of some essential connection with our fellow humans, especially when they suffer from some kind of affliction.

There are many, many layers to this story underlying the surface of the investigation on the player’s death, and they are all intriguing and thought-provoking, which is something I’ve come to expect from a Scalzi novel, and once more I was not disappointed. The pace was brisk, the humor well-balanced, the characters believable: one could not really ask for more.   Highly recommended.

My Rating: 

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: 

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: