Reviews

THE OBSIDIAN TOWER (Rooks and Ruin #1), by Melissa Caruso

 

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

Having greatly enjoyed Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy, I was quite eager to sample her new work, and also curious to see her world from the point of view of the Raverran Serene Empire’s adversaries from previous books. Where the magic present in Raverra is controlled by placing jesses – i.e. restraining bracelets – on people endowed with magical powers, in Vaskandar mages are free to exert their powers, and the strongest among them rule over the realms to which they are intimately connected, engaging in endless strife for supremacy with their neighbors.  In Swords and Fire, looking at Vaskandar through Raverran eyes, this country seemed to pose a constant threat: military aggression against diplomacy; undisciplined magic against tight control of powers; authoritarian rule against the compromise of politics.  The Obsidian Tower looks on Vaskandar from the inside, and shows us that it’s indeed all a matter of perspective…

For four thousand years, the castle of Gloaminguard stood as protection over a magically sealed black tower: the family’s lore stresses emphatically that its door must remain closed at all costs. Ryx is the latest descendant of the family holding Gloaminguard, appointed warden of the castle by her grandmother, a powerful Witch Lord called the Lady of Owls. Ryx is however burdened by the impossibility of wielding her magic: in a family of vivomancers, mages with the ability to interact with the flora and fauna of their territories, the young woman is cursed by a killing touch – every living thing that comes into close contact with her is doomed to wither and die. As Gloaminguard is getting ready to host a meeting between Raverran and Vaskandran emissaries for the peaceful solution of a controversy, one of the envoys tries to circumvent the tower’s safeguards and is accidentally killed by Ryx as she tries to stop the ill-advised attempt of her guest.

Faced with the intricate task of juggling the consequences of the accident, the volatile political situation and the survival of her grandmother’s realm, Ryx finds herself enmeshed in a progressively dangerous game in which every new discovery leads to unexpected pitfalls and impossible choices, as the old menace from the newly-awakened Tower looms closer and threatens to plunge the whole world in a maelstrom of destruction.

The Obsidian Tower is a thoroughly captivating read, where the constantly raising stakes keep increasing the pressure, which at times becomes unbearable, because we see the situation unfold from Ryx’s point of view, so that the concatenation of events and the discoveries she makes along the way put her in an untenable position better described as “damned if I do, damned if I don’t”, and make the possible outcome quite unpredictable. Ryx is a brilliantly designed character, one that makes it easy to root for her: a mysterious childhood illness caused her blossoming vivomancy powers to deteriorate, turning into a life-sucking force that prevents her from any contact with living creatures – only a powerful mage, preparing for the onslaught of her magic, can survive her touch and so Ryx grew up in physical isolation, feared by everyone and needing to be on constant alert against any kind of proximity.

The sympathy Ryx engenders in the readers does not come from compassion for her plight, but from admiration for her inner strength and for her will to still be an effective member of her family despite the lethal handicap she suffers.  As the situation in Gloaminguard becomes more and more complicated, she draws from the well of strength and wisdom she built over the years and shows her worth as a balancing element despite the opposing political plays of the two nations and the unhelpful interference from some of her family members.  The only moments when she succumbs to wistfulness are those in which she observes the interactions between the members of the Rookery – a sort of super partes agency dealing with magical phenomena – and sees the easy camaraderie, the subliminal understanding born of shared experiences, and realizes how empty and bleak her existence has been, but still she refuses to let such feelings dominate her.

As for the Rookery, they represent the lighter side of the story: a combination of magical investigators and spies wielding gadgets that would be the envy of 007, they are a team composed by disparate individuals whose peculiarities contribute to the success of the group. We have a leader who is both bookish and action-oriented; a science enthusiast saddled with a terrible past; an infiltration agent gifted by a delightfully roguish personality; and a warrior who at times needs to be told that her sword is not necessarily the only answer.  The Rookery’s easy acceptance of Ryx, despite the danger she poses, is a breath of fresh air not only for the young woman herself, but for the reader as well, because it’s painful to see how she’s feared and shunned even by people who saw her grow up and seem unable to avoid the automatic warding sign they make at her passage.  Since the series’ title mentions Rooks, it is my strong hope that I will see much more of the Rookery’s antics in the next books.

Story-wise this novel is the intriguing introduction to a further exploration of the world created by Melissa Caruso: much as I enjoyed visiting Raverra and its Venice Republic-like world of politics and compromise, this glimpse of Vaskandar is even more appealing thanks to the unruly quality of its magic, the constant warfare (declared or not) between realms and the fascinating concept of connection between mages and their territory, so that nature itself, when necessary, can intervene over humans, either helping or hindering them. Or worse – there is a scene in The Obsidian Tower, involving a mad Witch Lord and thorny bushes, that had me wincing in sympathetic pain…

On this background are set interesting issues as friendship and trust, responsibility and duty, all rolled up with enigmatic prophecies from the past which can still have impact on the present – and probably the future, since this story is only at its beginning. And with such a strong beginning, we can only predict that the best is still to come.

 
 
My Rating:

 

Reviews

THE DOORS OF EDEN, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 

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

This book was one hell of a rollercoaster ride, indeed: there is something to be said about starting a novel with little or no idea, or expectations, about what you’re going to find, and it’s like embarking on a journey into a strange land, not knowing what kind of peoples or beasts you will find. The Doors of Eden is exactly like that, and not just in a figurative way, because the phrase “worlds enough and time” – which ends up being quoted at some point – describes perfectly the core concept of the story.

It all starts like a mystery, with two girls – Lee and Mal – taking a trip in search of outlandish creatures and with Mal disappearing into what looks like the portal into a strange, impossible world, the disappearance being recorded by the authorities like an accident and Lee having to deal with survivor’s guilt and the burden of being a witness to something that defies reason.  That is, until four years later, when Mal reappears out of the blue while freakish events start sending the world into turmoil, adding new elements – science fiction, pure science, thriller, just to name a few – to the narrative mix.

At the same time, MI5 agents Julian and Allison are investigating the home incursion on renowned physicist Kay Amal Khan, and soon find themselves facing inexplicable episodes like untraceable phone calls or information windows appearing on computers disconnected from power.  Not to mention some equally eerie matters like the strange individuals, looking like one of the discarded branches of humanity, popping up here and there, or the shady activities of tycoon Rove, whose figurative fingerprints seem to be all over the place.

What it all boils down to, as it’s evident from the incident of Mal’s disappearance, is that the theory of parallel worlds, where evolution took widely different paths, is not a theory at all and for some reason the barriers between these worlds are getting thinner, with an ever-increasing risk of intrusions between realities. Dr. Kahn’s theoretical work postulated this possibility, but now that it’s become a dangerous, potentially deadly reality, everyone is after her – either to fix or exploit the situation…

If Adrian Tchaikowsky’s previous book, Children of Time, put me in connection with his notions on the path of evolution of creatures different from mankind, this new novel takes that concept and multiplies it for what looks like an infinite number of instances: between the chapters dedicated to the core events and characters, there are interludes written in the form of an academic lecture on parallel evolution, where every possible permutation of intelligent life is shown with an abundance of fascinating detail. Where at first I saw that these… interruptions as a distraction from the story, after a while I understood they were an integral part of it, better still, they were the way to introduce the crucial idea at the basis of the novel –  and to show how these endless shifts were the result of small changes growing into an avalanche effect.

The logical progress from the primordial ooze to these mind-boggling alternate Earths is mind-blowing and nothing short of fascinating: the way Tchaikowsky turns the words on the page into a cinematic depiction of steamy jungles or endless seas, peopled by the most bizarre creatures, is nothing short of riveting while being at the same time an informative and easily understandable presentation of the infinite possibilities of evolution. I can make no claim on scientific knowledge of the processes of evolution, but reading those sections of the book was no struggle at all, while it proved equally fascinating and a close look into this author’s scope of imagination.

The characters are as carefully drawn as the background in which they move: Julian and Allison have something of a Mulder & Scully vibe, in that they are attracted by the spookier aspects of their investigation and are not afraid of getting their proverbial feet wet, while the antithesis between her willingness to take the weirdest of clues at face value and his very British adherence to propriety serves to define them well and make them quite relatable.  One of my favorite characters is that of Dr. Kahn: highly intelligent and amusingly sarcastic, she’s quite different from the prototype of the brilliant-but-detached scientist in that she’s very rooted in reality and possesses a huge capacity for empathy, particularly when she finds herself among non-human creatures (I will come back to them in a short while) and realizes, after the first understandable moments of revulsion, that no matter the shape, people are still people with all of their fears, desires and needs. And she, being a transgender and the continued object of hostility and scorn, is best qualified to see beyond mere outward appearances.

The “bad guys” are given as much depth as the “heroes” and if it’s simply impossible to share Rove’s world-view or his ultimate goal – particularly when the plan is revealed in its complexity, ruthlessness and longtime preparation – it’s also easy to see where he comes from and what shaped his mindset, not least because his kind finds far too many real-life examples in the present world.  Rove’s main henchman Lucas is also an interesting character, balanced between opportunistic choices and some faint glimmers of a conscience, which gift him with more facets than one would expect from someone in his position and… career choice.

I want to reserve a special mention to the non-human creatures I spoke of before, from one of the many Earths: once again Adrian Tchaikowsky managed to offer a different point of view on animals I find absolutely repulsive, and to turn them into beings I could empathize with. If it looked difficult with the spiders from Children of Time, here it seemed impossible, because we’re talking about rats – yes, critters that manage to make those spiders look like house pets and who come on the scene Hobbit-sized and even more revolting for their humanlike appearance:

They were hunched, half the size of a man, wearing rubbery black uniforms with gas masks and goggles and wielding ugly-looking weapons designed for use up close against crowds, because that was their entire life where they came from.

If you add the detail of their world being literally swarming with them due to unchecked breeding, the picture being painted here is something straight from the worst of nightmares. And yet the author is able to humanize these rats, give them distinct personalities and add poignancy to their appearance: much of it is due to the character of Dr. Rat, but also to a scene in which a whole family group runs for safety bringing all their worldly possession with them.  Ludicrous as this might sound, in that moment I thought of the cute rats in Disney’s Cinderella, and stopped seeing these as the scurrying vermin that would otherwise have me run for cover. Yes, Adrian Tchaikowsky did it again…

Prepare for a full immersion in a huge story teeming with amazing ideas and graced with as much heart in it as there is science. It might feel like far too much at times, but it’s a journey totally worth taking.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BOOK OF KOLI (Rampart Trilogy #1), by M.R. Carey

 

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

There was no doubt whatsoever that I would enjoy this new work from M.R. Carey: after being enthralled by The Girl With All the Gifts, The Boy on the Bridge and Someone Like Me, I knew I would be in for another fascinating journey, but The Book of Koli went beyond any expectations I might have held, and confirmed its author as a skilled storyteller in the post-apocalyptic genre.

Civilization fell a long time ago – probably centuries – so that the glories of the past have become more myth than remembrance for most: it’s not specified what happened, but it would seem that a series of climate upheavals and devastating wars destroyed the world as we know it, and what now remains of humanity is confined to small, enclosed villages leading a hardscrabble existence.  Nature now rules rather than mankind: some genetic modifications introduced in flora have turned the trees into aggressive, murderous creatures that sunlight can wake from a light slumber, and fauna is just as dangerous, if nothing else because of its increased size and inherent hostility.

Koli, the story’s POV voice, is a boy in his mid-teens living in the village of Mythen Rood, a 200-odd souls settlement that’s considered quite big for the usual standards, which shows how humanity has indeed dwindled in numbers after the fall. Koli is ready to face the testing ceremony that will mark his passage into adulthood and which consist in attempting to “wake” the pieces of old tech in possession of the village. The defense of Mythen Rood is based on four pieces of still-functioning old technology salvaged from the past: those able to activate and wield them are called Ramparts – their role of protectors also making them the de facto rulers or the community.

As every young person undergoing the testing, Koli dreams of becoming a Rampart, youthful imagination and his interest for a girl fueling those desires into something of an obsession that leads him to break the rules and come into the illegal possession of a dormant piece of tech he’s able to wake: a DreamSleeve. The object and its AI interface Monono Aware will open Koli’s mind to unexpected possibilities but also bring about the beginning of a dangerous adventure that will change his life forever.

The changed Earth we see depicted here is both a strange and fearsome place, and seeing it through Koli’s eyes – and his limited vision – shows how people’s look has turned inwards for fear of the outside: enclaves are protected by barriers, the world beyond them filled with real dangers but also by less physical ones brought on by ignorance, which is encouraged and enforced from those in power through mechanisms that are as old as the universe. It’s no surprise that Ursala, a sort of wandering doctor who travels between settlements with her drudge – for all purposes a mobile first aid/defense unit – is welcomed for her skills but considered with suspicion by the leaders, because her considerable knowledge and the news she brings from ‘out there’ might pose a threat to their authority and the aura of superiority they need to project to assert their power.

Koli’s experience in the outside world is a coming of age story, of course, and a hero’s journey as well, but it’s also a way of showing that world and how it mutated from the one we know: being on his own is certainly a harrowing situation, but it also illustrates how limiting an existence based simply on survival can be.  The most striking narrative detail here comes from the language and the way it adapted over time, becoming simpler, less concerned with grammar and syntax: I saw a few comments declaring how this aspect of the story interfered with some readers’ experience and made their progress through it more difficult, but to me it was instead the perfect way of driving home the changes people went through from a flourishing, technology-rich society to a more primitive life. Far from bothering me, this less-refined language was the perfect complement for the background the author created and added a level of poignancy to the story that would be lacking with a more polished form of expression. Anyone who read Flowers for Algernon and remembers the language progression in the protagonist’s diaries knows what I mean…

At the start of the novel, Koli is your typical teenager, preferring the carefree company of his friends to the drudgery of the work all villagers must share, and dreaming of a brighter future, one where he might be able to add the qualifier of Rampart to his name, and as such he makes ill-advised decisions dictated by inexperience and hormones, and yet he does not come across as foolish because he’s always guiltily aware of the possible consequences of his actions, and of the often illogical motivations driving them. There is a sort of mature candor (for want of a better definition) that makes him very relatable, the kind of protagonist it’s easy to root for, and his world-view, in spite of the simplified language – or maybe because of it – shows a wisdom that goes well beyond his actual age.

[…] it seemed like nothing would ever happen to change it. But it’s when you think such thoughts that change is most like to come. You let your guard down, almost, and life comes running at you on your blind side.

Yet it’s through his encounter with Monono Aware that his personality truly takes flight, this interaction between two creatures coming from very different worlds and times who nonetheless find the way to build a bridge between them, one who changes and enhances them equally through the bond of an improbable friendship that’s a pure joy to behold.  I don’t want to spend too many words on Monono because she must be encountered with as little prior knowledge as possible, but let me tell you that her liveliness, her ebullient glee and her expressive mode are the elements that make a huge difference in this story.

Where the first part of this novel was an intriguing introduction to a strange world and to wonderful characters, in the end I realized it was only the foundation of a larger adventure that will certainly develop in depth and scope in the following books, and I can hardly wait to see where Mr. Carey will lead us next. Please let us not wait too long….

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE LAST EMPEROX (The Interdependency #3), by John Scalzi

 

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

A series’ ending might probably be one of the most difficult tasks an author faces: readers’ expectations, narrative twists and resolutions, characters’ paths – it all must come together at the end, and I also imagine it might not be easy to let go of a world that one has so carefully built over time. Well, The Last Emperox turned out to be a very satisfactory ending to the Interdependency series, and did so by also being a compelling and fun read from the very start, where it offered a sort of recap of what went before by observing a character’s thoughts as his ship comes under attack. Not only did this choice avoid any dangers of info-dumping, it also managed to turn into entertaining recollections what could very well have been the last, terrified considerations of an endangered individual. After all, this is a work from John Scalzi, and one must expect some playful rule-breaking…

So, the Interdependency is a galaxy-spanning civilization whose settlements are connected by the Flow, a system of wormhole-like paths that allow ships to cover vast distances in a relatively short time. The Flow has been in operation for centuries, but recently scientists have discovered that the whole system is going to collapse, therefore isolating these far-flung settlements and very likely dooming the inhabitants to death, since only one planet in the whole confederation is able to sustain life in an Earth-like environment and all the others are artificial habitats depending heavily on Flow-driven commerce. Such catastrophic news brings out the best and worst in humanity, as it’s wont to do: some of the  great  merchant Houses try to speculate by amassing even more riches and power, others try to help in maintaining a level of civilization and the newly elected Emperox, Grayland II, finds herself dealing with a difficult situation, several attempts on her life and the conflicting agendas of various Houses.

Despite the light, playful tone, this series deals with several quite serious subjects, like the way people react when confronted with an imminent catastrophe – considering the moment in which I read this book, with humanity facing a worldwide crisis, I thought it was very spot-on and I was glad for the author’s trademark lightness because observing the various fictional players it was impossible not to make disheartening comparisons with actual events. The series, and The Last Emperox in particular, shows how personal advantage is paramount for power-hungry individuals and how sowing distrust and misinformation helps drive their agendas, while the general population is divided between the few who plan in advance against a worst-case scenario and those lulled into the complacent belief that those in power will find a solution before the inevitable becomes a reality.

Where I found the second book in this series, The Consuming Fire, somewhat uneven in pacing due to the shift between the quicker-flowing sections and the long chunks of exposition dialogue, this final installment turned into a swift, riveting read as the antagonists’ plots battled against the Emperox’s and her allies’ countermeasures, generating a constant race against time, fueled by shrewdness and political expediency that kept the story lively and the tension high.  Most of this narrative tension rests on the three main characters: Grayland II, whose desire to be a good and just ruler needs to be balanced against the challenging decisions she must take in the face of the forthcoming Flow collapse; Nadashe Nohamapetan, the very embodiment of the evil lady, the dastardly plotter whose ambitions are surpassed only by her ruthlessness; and Kiva Lagos, the foul-mouthed, crafty ally of the Emperox who remains my favorite character and one of the best sources of humor in the whole series.

It’s worth noting how these three women are not only at the very center of things, but also the most striking figures among the various personalities peopling this series: for example, if Nadashe is a vile adversary who stops at nothing to fulfill her goals, she ultimately does not come across as totally bad, if that makes any sense. As I saw her labyrinthine plans taking shape, I was torn between wanting them to fail and at the same time feeling sorry if they didn’t: in a way I ended up envisioning her as poor Wile E. Coyote, who concocted equally convoluted and far-reaching plans to win over Road Runner, only to be always spectacularly defeated in the end – and that never failed to elicit some form of sympathy from me.  On the other hand, there was no ambiguity in my cheering for Kiva’s success, and although at some point she managed to set in motion a series of events whose serendipity might appear totally unbelievable, it all worked within the over-the-top setup of her character, making it easy to suspend my disbelief and equally easy to observe her antics with an amused smile. Grayland looks less intense in comparison with these two formidable figures, her apparent candor masking instead a firm determination and a core of integrity that seems to be sorely lacking in the Interdependency, and that’s the main reason I was surprised – or rather stunned – at her unexpected choice for solving the quandary and giving her subjects a new direction and a hope for the future. I must say I did not expect the direction the story took and that in this instance the author managed to drop a very unpredictable twist on me here.

Where The Last Emperox draws all the narrative threads of the series to a good close, I find myself sorry to have to leave this universe, and I hope that John Scalzi might decide in the future to return here, maybe to show us how the former Interdependency fares in a post-collapse of the Flow future.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

A TIME OF COURAGE (Of Blood and Bone #3), by John Gwynne

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

Since this is the third and final volume of the trilogy, and given its high narrative stakes, this will be a spoiler-free review, so that you will be able to fully enjoy the climax of the story once you get to it.

Once again I discovered how easy it is to go back to this complex, multi-layered world and the characters who people it: unlike previous times, however, there was also a heightened sense of uncertainty because here the story reaches its final showdown, and previous experience taught me that nobody could be considered safe here, so I was very anxious for the survival of the characters I had come to appreciate and love.  To sum up my experience with A Time of Courage in a few words, I have come across a new definition of epic fantasy, indeed.

The ages-long strife between the Ben-Elim and the Kadoshim, between good and evil, is about to reach its decisive battle and things are indeed looking grim for the people of the Banished Lands: through the artful planning of the Kadoshim and their allies, Asroth – lord of the demonic creatures – has been freed from his decades-long confinement and is about to command his army of evil creatures and twisted humans in the war for dominance. For their part, the Ben-Elim, the Order of the Bright Star and their own allies are opposing a strenuous resistance, but their adversaries are too many and hard to vanquish – and some of these defenders are more interested in power and dominance struggles rather than in combining their forces to insure the survival of humanity.

These might sound like standard plot elements in the genre, and in a way they are: what makes them different, what makes this series stand out from the rest, however, is the strong, compelling characterization carried out across the whole spectrum of personalities – from the undeniably good to the perversely evil – together with the unrelenting pace and the breath-taking descriptions of battles fought either on the ground or in the air whenever winged creatures from both sides engage each other. Starting from here, I have to confess that battle scenes rarely hold any appeal for me, but I always can make an exception for those described by John Gwynne, who possesses the very rare talent of bringing you in the very midst of it all, blending the physical action with the emotional commitment of the characters and turning these elements into scenes of such cinematic quality that they compel you to follow every word with the kind of concentration that makes you forget the rest of the world around you. This was particularly true for the “battle to end all battles” representing the climax of this novel and of the books that preceded it, a sequence that roughly takes the last twenty percent of the page count and that went on unrelentingly, alternating victories and defeats for the heroes, to the point that I had to often remind myself to breathe, because I was in such a state of stress I don’t remember ever experiencing with a book.

In these times when epic fantasy seems to have reached a wider audience, thanks to the largely successful small-screen portrayal of another genre saga, many have wondered what the next “blockbuster” might be: well, if a mythical creature like a far-seeing, perceptive network executive truly exists, they should look no further than this epic, that started with the four-book series The Faithful and the Fallen and closes its narrative cycle with the three books of Of Blood and Bone. If handled with the care and respect that this story deserves, it could easily surpass anything we have seen until now.

The characters represent the other strength of the series: after a while I realized that they had taken hold of my imagination, regardless of their position in the scheme of things – even the ones pledging their alliance to Asroth have their reasons for doing so, and while unable to “forgive” them for that choice, I could see where they came from, what made them choose that path, and this understanding turned them into people rather than mere adversaries, into flesh-and-blood creatures that felt quite real, as did the feelings animating them.  The moments in which Gwynne’s characterization excels are not those linked with battles though, but rather the quieter moments, the lulls between skirmishes when our heroes take the time to encourage or comfort each other, when they share the pain for the loss of a fallen comrade or reaffirm the bonds of friendship and loyalty tying them together: in these moments we finally understand that they are not only fighting to combat evil, and certainly not to seek glory, but because of the sense of kinship, of family, they have come to share.  In the overall grimness of the situation, while facing impossible odds and the possibility of annihilation, hope, love and friendship are the best weapons they can wield and also the armor shielding them from the encroaching darkness.

And while I am on the subject of love and friendship, I want to reserve a special mention for the animals fighting alongside people: wolvens, bears and talking crows whose devotion, loyalty and courage often sheds a ray of light in the darkest of circumstances: these creatures are crafted with the same passionate care reserved to people, and it takes little time to grow attached to them just as much as with their human counterparts.

This is such an immersive world that it’s a pleasure and a joy to lose oneself in it, and although I got to know it in this second phase of its history – the one represented by Of Blood and Bone, whose events follow those of the previous series The Faithful and the Fallen by more than a century – I had no difficulty in finding my bearings in it. However, after reading the first novel of this trilogy, A Time of Dread, I backtracked and so far managed to read two of the four books in the previous saga, and will try to complete the other two as soon as I can so that I can have a comprehensive picture of this amazing creation that literally stole my imagination from the very first chapters of that first book. The Banished Lands, despite the evil plaguing them, are a fascinating place to visit, and I intend to get to know them as well as they deserve.

My Rating:    

Reviews

THE LAST SMILE IN SUNDER CITY, by Luke Arnold

 

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

Urban Fantasy scenarios often share several common elements: a city where supernatural creatures exist side-by-side with humans, either in plain sight or hidden; the presence of magic; an atmosphere typical of noir movies; and a P.I. engaged in a complex investigation. The Last Smile in Sunder City does possess these elements, granted, but sets them in an unusual background that gives the story and its characters a new, intriguing perspective.

The world in which the story is set was imbued with magic once, but a catastrophic event named The Coda closed off its source with tragic consequences, and now the city of Sunder, once a flourishing center of industry, is just a ghost of its former self, as are its supernatural inhabitants, stripped like their world of any magical attribute that made them what they were. Fetch Phillips is a human Man For Hire, eking out a meagre living by accepting odd jobs, just enough to pay the rent and fuel his drinking habit – he does not work for his fellow humans though, out of a deep-seated sense of anger and guilt whose roots are explored in the course of the story.

Tasked with looking into the disappearance of a teacher from the city’s multi-species academy, Fetch finds himself caught in the kind of complex tangle of misdirections and threats that is to be expected in a story’s investigative thread, but this inciting incident is only the pretext to explore the world and its inhabitants as they try to pick up the pieces of the past and to build a new life out of the ashes of the old one. Fantasy novels more often than not rely on magic, but here instead we explore a culture that has to deal with the sudden death of it, and what this means in the everyday existence of Sunder’s citizens: the sad, grey, hopeless mood of the story often reminded me of Tolkien’s Elves’ long defeat, a battle with no hope of victory that is however still fought because the idea of surrendering to the inevitable is even more loathsome.

The world building in The Last Smile in Sunder City is its best feature, indeed. The image of Sunder City that I built in my mind reminds me of a town in the throes of the Big Depression, where people have to find new ways to survive not so much out of financial troubles (although they are a factor in many instances), but out of the disappearance of the magic that helped run many of the activities, like the streets deprived of wizardry-powered electricity and barely lighted by torches or fires. Then there are the dreadful physical transformations brought on by the Coda: werewolves frozen in the transition from wolf to man, formerly immortal Elves who aged overnight or even crumbled to dust, vampires who lost their teeth and the ability to thrive on blood – the description of what happens to the majority of those supernatural beings at the very moment in which the Coda happens is something both nightmarish and imbued with profound emotional impact.

The social changes in the post-Coda world have taken another, uglier facet as well: the connection to the world’s magic was severed by humans in an underhanded attempt at harnessing that power – humans were the only ones unable to tap it, and it was their intention to put themselves on the same level as the magically-able creatures. Now that supernatural beings have been stripped of their edge, humans feel entitled to take over: their technology, the mechanical means by which their civilization moves, are the only ones that work now, which puts them in the position of superiority they craved for a long time. Not a pretty spectacle at all…

In all of this, Fetch Phillips keeps his distance from everything and everyone, a loner by personal history and by choice, nursing his deep guilt with the same care he nurses the endless bottles of liquor and the drugs that barely help him go through the days: at face value this personality traits, and attitude, would have made me dislike him immediately, but for some reason I felt pity for him, which increased as his story was revealed through the flashbacks showing how he came to be the individual he is now. Fetch Phillips seems destined from a very young age to be alone, even in the company of others, of being the one looking in from the outside, never being part of something, never feeling accepted, and this shapes both his psychological profile – past and present – and the string of bad choices that ultimately bring him to the momentous decision whose outcome will weigh him with endless guilt and regret. He is a man possessed by a strong death wish, uncaring of the damage he sustains as a result of his actions, but at the same time he does not seem to really want that end, because it would also mean the end of his self-inflicted penance – and also the end of what little good he might do to atone for his past mistakes.

I’m aware that all of the above might sound depressing and excessively gloomy, but in reality it’s not as grim as it might seem and it’s also quite compelling, not to mention that the small, very small glimmer of light that can be perceived toward the end promises that things might not look so hopeless in the next book, or books, of this series.

As a debut novel The Last Smile in Sunder City is not a perfect one: there are some pacing issues, particularly in Fetch’s flashbacks that could have been tightened a little to avoid the loss of focus on the issues of the present, and there are times when the search for the missing vampire teacher seems to become irrelevant, instead of being the connecting element of the story. Yet, the narrative remains engaging throughout, and that’s definitely a plus: I will look forward to seeing how Sunder City – and Fetch – will fare in the next installments.

 

 

My Rating:

 

Reviews

BLOOD OF EMPIRE (Gods of Blood and Powder #3), by Brian McClellan

 

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

And once more it’s time to say goodbye to a series and a world that have grown on me with each new installment, and from what I hear it might be a definitive farewell, unless Mr. McClellan changes his mind and decides to go back to his extremely successful flintlock fantasy creation and the amazing characters peopling it. I for one dearly hope so…

Story-wise, the already high stakes from the previous books, Sins of Empire and Wrath of Empire, have reached their peak here: the Dynize invasion force has settled in Landfall, trying to win the hearts and minds of the Palo by freeing them from the Fatrastan oppression and playing on their distant common origins. Unknown to the many, however, the Dynize leader Ka-Sedial is exploiting them to further his goal of godhood: as he gathers the godstones he will need to perform the ritual, he mercilessly uses the Palo population in the most horrible way.  Michel Bravis, former Blackhat (the Fatrastan secret police) and undercover Palo mole, went into deep hiding after the invasion of Landfall and must now walk on the thin, dangerous line between necessary action and common safety, aided by an unexpected ally – Ichtracia, Ka-Sedial’s granddaughter and also the long-lost sister of Ka-poel.

The latter is assisting Mad Ben Styke and his Lancers in their mission to enter the heart of the Dynize empire and destroy the godstone set in the center of its capital: it sounds like a suicide mission indeed – the kind Ben seems to prefer – and it encounters many unforeseen obstacles and changes in plans, but it’s also a way to bring the readers to the very core of Dynize civilization and to learn more about this seemingly unstoppable force of conquest, and about what makes its people tick.

Last but not in any measure least, Vlora Flint: after the bloody battle at the end of Wrath of Empire she’s recovering from her grievous wounds and must also deal with the loss of her powder sorcery, which no one knows whether it’s temporary or permanent. That, and the rift with her second in command and lover Olem, leaves her unbalanced and riddled with doubt, but there is no time to dwell on personal troubles, because her army must advance toward Landfall to bring Ka-Sedial’s plans to ruin.

These are, in short, the main narrative threads of this final novel in the trilogy, and as much as they are engaging and often breath-stopping in their development – and as much as the skillful interweaving of these three threads keeps the story-flow at a relentless pace – what really drives Blood of Empire are the characters and their compelling journey.  Michel Bravis is the one who changed my perspective the most: for the greater part of the first book in the series I did not like him – all that the author showed us on the surface of this character was his ambition to scale the ranks of the Blackhats, and to hell with any collateral damage. Then, little by little, his real nature came to the surface and I saw the initial misdirection for what it truly was, but it’s here that I came to truly care for Michel and for the strangest of reasons: here we see how leading the life of a double agent, of an individual who needs to wear different masks at a moment’s notice, has undermined his sense of self, his core identity, and he feels weakened by the realization that he’s not sure about who he really is anymore. It was this very weakness, this very human failing that ended up endearing him to me as it had never happened before.

As far as weakness goes, poor Vlora is indeed in a bad place: the wounds she suffered and which took her almost to the brink of death are not healing as quickly as she wishes, and the loss of her powder magic turns her into the equivalent of a person who lost a limb. Yet she discovers that she can still be a strong person, a solid commander, because she has not lost her cunning and experience: Vlora is the true heir of Tamas’ military teachings, and in this situation we see how they were ingrained in her experiences as a soldier first and then as a leader, helping her in devising the necessary strategies to defeat her enemies. One of the lessons Vlora learns from her impairment is that she can – and must – delegate, and lean on trusted advisers when necessary: in this the presence of Privileged Borbador, another former ward of Tamas, proves invaluable, not just for his powers but for the advice he can offer in the form or offhand comments that never failed to bring a smile to my face.

Bo deserves a special mention, because he’s a very atypical Privileged: every single one of them we encountered in the course of both trilogies was clearly corrupted by the power they possessed, turning them into callous creatures with delusions of godhood – not so for Bo, who has retained his humanity and even though he indulges in the licentiousness that’s part and parcel of Privileged life, he never falls into depravity and is always able to apply some self-effacing humor to himself. I like to think that it was Tamas’ example that kept Bo from turning into the kind of Privileged the Field Marshal wanted to eradicate.

Mad Ben Styke: it might seem strange to feel such sympathy for a character who gained his moniker through an insane penchant for bloody fighting, for reckless carnage. A person who acts first, in the most violent manner, and thinks later, if ever. And yet Ben Styke is the kind of person that gets under your skin and gains your affection because he’s very honest about himself and his faults – and because under the coarse skin of the berserker warrior there is a man of deep loyalty and deeper feelings, which come out in his caring for the men under his command and for the young orphan Celine, whom he has taken as a daughter. And it’s through Celine (a very skillful depiction of a child who had to grow quickly through adversity, while still able to walk the difficult line between childish ebullience and hard-earned wisdom) that we see the true Ben Styke come to the surface, and what I see in those moments is what makes me like him very much.

Blood of Empire brings this trilogy to a very satisfactory conclusion, blending adventure and politics, warfare and character growth with a skill that has been constantly improving since the first book of the Powder Mage series. My only complaint is that it’s the end – at least for now – of this magnificent saga: there are some elements in the final chapter that might be turned into a continuation of the overall story, and there lies my hope that this might be only a temporary ending. In any case, it’s been an amazing journey….

 

My Rating:

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: