PRINCE OF FOOLS (The Red Queen’s War #1), by Mark Lawrence #WyrdAndWonder

My first, and so far only encounter with Mark Lawrence’s works was with Prince of Thorns and while I liked the story I did not exactly enjoy it: not so much because of the grimness, with which I’m already familiar thanks to writers like Martin or Abercrombie, but because the main character, Jorg, was so steeped in his search for vengeance that I could not find in him any redeeming quality. Those feelings were so overwhelming that I could not bring myself to move forward with the series – or to read anything else by this author. Until now.  Exactly ten years after my not-so-happy encounter with Jorg, and after reading so many positive reviews from fellow bloggers, I decided to try again with a novel from Mark Lawrence and settled on Prince of Fools – and this choice proved quite felicitous…

Prince Jalan, tenth in the line of succession in the realm of Red March, does not care for power: his only interests are wine, women and gambling – the latter putting him more often than not in serious trouble, as does his flitting from one willing female to the next. In the course of his umpteenth mad dash to avoid the enraged relative of one such female, he barely escapes a deadly trap set by the Silent Sister, the crone who sits besides the queen’s throne and that few can see, and in so doing he becomes inextricably and magically entangled with Snorri, a Viking warrior brought to Red March as a prisoner.  The two of them set off for a quest across the world looking for the means to undo the spell – a quest that also entails Snorri’s search for the fate of his family.  As their journey progresses, they become aware of the impending danger from the Dead King and his army of reanimated corpses, and of the fact that the spell binding the two of them might be more than a “simple” inconvenience…

The tone and mood of Prince of Fools conquered me immediately: where Jorg’s journey represented something of a dark descent into hell, Jalan’s story – even though it is not always sunny and fun – was a more relaxing blend of drama and humor, mostly due to the happy-go-luck attitude of the protagonist.  Jalan is quite open about his shortcomings, almost proud of them, a self-centered guy affected by Peter Pan Syndrome who is quite happy about this state of affairs, and hoping for it to go on indefinitely.  He is therefore the perfect foil for Norse warrior Snorri, a man firmly set in his honor code and totally filled with a love for adventure and battle that Jalan cannot comprehend.  In the young prince’s own words:

With Snorri troubles were always put front and centre and dealt with. My style was more shove them under the rug until the floor got too uneven to navigate, and then to move home.

This difference is further stressed once they are bound by the spell that forces them to stay together (increasing the distance between them causes enormous discomfort and might even lead to death) and that’s expressed with encroaching darkness for Snorri and blinding light for Jalan. Two halves of the same whole, different and yet complementary – and probably destined to some higher purpose.  But the journey, either the physical one or the road toward mutual understanding and friendship, is not an easy one and their travels are punctuated by Snorri’s cheerful acceptance of hardships and Jalan’s constant whining about lack of comforts. Or willing women…

More than once I was somehow reminded of that older movie, The Defiant Ones, starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, where two escaped convicts bound by a chain are forced to cooperate to survive. Jalan and Snorri are equally bound to each other and observing their forced companionship turn first into grudging acceptance and then respect and friendship constitutes the main delight of this story. The journey also reveals their true characters behind the outward mask they are both wearing: Snorri’s bluster hides a deep-seated pain mixed with regrets, and under Jalan’s self-absorption there is a good person, capable of kindness and empathy, mostly revealed through his reactions to Snorri’s tale of woe.

Characters always represent what makes or breaks a story for me, and in this respect Prince of Fools is a winner, but in this case the world-building works just as well because I found this imaginary world both intriguing and fun.  Looking at an online map for the novel, I discovered that the background is loosely based on the European continent, with Jalan’s Red March taking a space that includes the westernmost part of Northern Italy and the southern coast of France: mentions of Rome and Florence further strengthen the resemblance, as do, for example, the names for the realm of Rhone (which roughly corresponds to central France) or the descriptions of the northern territories from which Snorri comes, that are clearly the area constituted by Sweden and Norway.   The constant references to the ancient Builders and the destructive event of the Thousand Suns clearly point to this world as being a post-apocalyptic one in which memory of the past has been all but erased, the few surviving notions twisted and turned into legends that open the road for some tongue-in-cheek humor, like the mention of the train, which has now become some sort of mythical beast or that of a famous Viking ship whose name was “Ikea”…

Even though this novel lost me for a short while, when the start of Jalan and Snorri’s journey felt somewhat erratic and lacking some focus, it still managed to keep me reading on because of the constantly evolving relationship between the two main characters, and once the story reached its climatic peak I was totally onboard and fully invested in it – I might have waited a decade to get back to this author’s works, but now he has my full attention and my eagerness to see where the journey goes.  And maybe – who knows? – I might even give Jorg another chance….  😉

My Rating:


LOVE WILL TEAR US APART (The Stranger Times #3), by C.K. McDonnell #WyrdAndWonder

This third installment of what has quickly become my favorite Urban Fantasy series played with some of the narrative threads explored in the previous books and moved forward in a very intriguing and quite satisfactory way, offering the by now familiar mix of humor and drama while at the same time delving deeper into some of the main characters, bringing to the surface a few unexpected facets of their personalities.

The team at the Stranger Times is undergoing a period of unsettling changes: Hannah Willis, the assistant editor who was carving her own niche at the paper, just resigned abruptly, with no other explanation that she’s considering going back to her cheating husband – and to better gather her thoughts on the matter, she booked a stay at a new-age-oriented, exclusive spa where she will learn how to put her life into perspective.   The newspaper’s owner sends a very strange lady, Betty Cavendish, to replace Hannah and Betty promptly asserts her rule by fending off easily editor Banecroft’s bullying attitude and keeping poor Grace occupied (or rather distressed) by requiring a financial inventory.  But it’s chief editor Vincent Banecroft who shows the biggest changes, because he’s become obsessed with his wife’s ghost, whose voice calls to him through the apparition of another ghost, young hopeful Simon, and asks him for help: consumed with the need to contact her and convinced that she might still be alive, Banecroft loses any interest in the Stranger Times’ proceedings and sets on a road to hell that might cost him much more than the paper he manages…

Unlike the previous two books in the series, Love Will Tear Us Apart does not follow the team as a whole but rather sends them all in different directions, engaged in different adventures, and that gives them a chance to experience some individual growth as characters: such is the case, for example, of shrouded-in-mystery Stella whose bizarrely awkward partnership with Betty takes her for once out of the confines of the paper – even though it’s for a very harrowing grave-robbing expedition; she also turns into a more hands-on member of the team when the infamous Loon Day comes around once again and the Stranger Times is literally inundated by a mob of more or less crazy people eager to share their tales of the uncanny with the staff.

Hannah herself is undergoing some momentous changes: her meeting with a very different ex-husband Karl ends with her booking a stay at the Pinter Institute, an exclusive retreat where she experiences a very shaky start by falling flat on her face. The Institute is a strange place, to say the least, run by plastic-faced personnel that are just a half-step short of being robotic, and poor Hannah is subjected to the strangest remedies that go from hot yoga to other… ahem… intrusive therapies that should help her “find herself” but sound too weird even to someone used to the madness of the Stranger Times.

As for Banecroft, he is a man obsessed: since making contact with the voice of his departed wife, he has been so concentrated on unraveling this mystery that he left everything else unravel around him, including his own well-being. I have to admit that I felt deep compassion for this loudmouthed, uncouth character whose manners are as inexcusable as his own personal hygiene, and I followed the narrative thread concerning his quest with great trepidation.  This search brings him into contact with a couple of previously encountered characters – Cogs, the compulsive truth-teller living on a boat and his talking dog Zeke, who are given a good deal of narrative space here and offer some of the most amusing pages in a story that walks on the uneasy balance between mystery and fun.

If it might seem that all these diverging narrative threads could be a recipe for a confusing read, think again, because CK McDonnell does weave them quite masterfully into a cohesive whole that evolves into a veritable page-turner once the story establishes its “legs”: the shortish chapters, which move from one character to the other, encourage you to keep reading, and as the questions and the revelations pile up it becomes almost impossible not to let oneself be swept up in the current of events.  Thankfully, there are some stops where readers can catch their proverbial breath, because in this third book of the series you will find the very welcome return of the “sensationalist articles” encountered  in the firs volume: from the “discovery” of the origin of spam telephone calls in outer space to an accusation of plagiarism directed at Stephen King, these newsflashes offer the chance for a relaxing laugh before delving again into the plot’s twists and turns.

And as far as the plot is concerned, I’m aware I said next to nothing about it, but to do so would run the risk of spoiling your enjoyment, so I will only say that some of the threads that started in the previous two books reach here their – quite satisfactory – fruition, and prepare the ground, or so I hope, for future stories set in the quirkiest newspaper I ever learned about. And I will welcome those stories with unabashed delight….

My Rating:


WE RIDE THE STORM (The Reborn Empire #1), by Devin Madson #WyrdAndWonder

For this year’s Wyrd & Wonder I wanted to take the opportunity to read some of the fantasy books that have been languishing for a while on my TBR, and the first that came to my attention is this first volume in Devin Madson’s Reborn Empire series: with hindsight, I can’t believe I waited so long before losing myself in this magnificent saga that from the very start proved to be a compelling read peopled with amazing characters.  The novel seems to throw the readers into the middle of things and it takes a while to get one’s bearings: a brief search taught me that there is a prequel trilogy to this series and that explains the sense of “missing information” one feels at the beginning, but don’t fear – the author has a way of conveying the necessary details through some well-placed dialogue that brings readers up to speed quickly and allows them to connect with the narrative with no problem at all.

The story is told through three different POVs which represent the three main cultures sharing this world – not only that, but each of them is narrated in the first person, gifting the characters with very distinctive personalities that in turn help depict the different milieus they come from, three civilizations that have been at odds with each other for a long time.  Through the eyes of Princess Miko we experience the Kisian empire, a realm reminiscent of feudal Japan: Miko and her brother Tanaka are the children of the ruling Kisian emperor – or rather that’s the cover story, since they are in reality the offspring of the previous ruler, whose actions caused him to be branded a traitor and be killed. The two are waiting for Tanaka to be named heir and meanwhile have to navigate the dangerous waters of court intrigue; an impulsive act from Tanaka causes a political upheaval that rekindles the hostility with neighboring Chiltae, launching both countries on the path of war and forcing Miko to act against her cultural and social boundaries and take her destiny – and that of Kisia – into her own hands.

Chiltae offers the well-known medieval fantasy setting, complete with a powerful clergy and their dangerous Blessed Guards.  Cassandra Marius is a Chiltaen citizen and a prostitute who also doubles as a hired assassin: there is something very mysterious, and also very wrong with her, since there is a constant, nagging voice in her head that seems to come from a very different personality, one capable at times to take control of her body. Add to that the fact that she can hear the “call” of the dead and you have a very fractured personality that, however, seems able to function well enough to ensure her survival.  Hired by an enigmatic individual to assassinate two people in exchange for the promise of a cure for her “ailment”, Cassandra accepts only to discover that her target is a highly placed one, and that she is a quite expendable pawn in a convoluted political game. 

Rah e’Torin is the captain of a band of Levanti, nomadic tribes of the plains living in virtual symbiosis with their horses. He and his people have been exiled like many others before them and in their search for a place to call their own they are captured by the Chiltaens who forcibly enroll them in their war against Kisia.  Once reached the main camp, Rah discovers that his old friend and mentor Gideon is at the head of the Levanti conscripts, which forces the younger man to come to terms with the compromises their new condition imposes on the old way of life, and to choose between survival and the adherence to Levanti codes of conduct.

When novels are written with multiple POVs, it’s easy to find one or more who are the reader’s favorites at the expense of the others, but such was not the case with We Ride the Storm, because I enjoyed all three characters in equal measure, and the constantly raising stakes of their different destinies made me care for them in a way I seldom experience: as the buildup of events carried them forward, showing more and more nuances in their psychological makeup and turning their individual situation ever more difficult, I found myself unable to stop turning the pages to learn what would happen next.

Even though I enjoyed all three POVs, Miko is the character who shows a major evolution in the course of the book: her culture requires women to defer to men in all matters, and although she can envision a future as ruler of Kisia, she is ready to accept a secondary role to her brother Tanaka, and it’s only when disaster strikes that she finds the moral  and physical strength necessary to lead her people in the struggle against the Chiltaen invasion.  

[…] I had lived in a prison made of people with more power. I did not want to be afraid anymore. I wanted to sit on the throne of my ancestors and make them proud.

Cassandra is a complicated person in many ways and – sadly – her chapters don’t enjoy the same narrative space as the other two protagonists (although with three more books in the series my hope of learning more is still strong) but what little we see is quite intriguing and also offers one more mystery to be explored in the person of the weird Witchdoctor, who might be the one to solve the puzzle of the mysterious “She” who shares Cassandra consciousness.

Rah is the character for whom I felt a great deal of compassion: both as the leader of his band of outcasts, and then as a conscripted soldier for the supercilious Chiltaen, he desperately tries not to compromise his principles, finding it ever so difficult when even his hero Gideon seems to have bargained his honor in exchange for vague promises of freedom.  Rah’s faithfulness to his moral compass is both admirable and sad, because it’s clear that he’s living through a time of change and one has to wonder if that change is going to trample him it its wake.

As a series opener, We Ride the Storm is an amazing story that wonderfully blends excellent characterization and masterful world-building, but it’s also a very emotional journey through the experiences of three very different people who in the course of the story become so alive and real that it’s almost impossible to forget they are fictional characters.  At the end of this first volume, all three are left on the brink of… something – be it good or bad – that compels me not to wait too long before moving forward with their journey.  I have rarely felt so impressed by a new discovery as I have been with Devin Madson’s writing, and I know I have just found a new favorite author for my reading “adventures”.

My Rating:


PALADIN’S GRACE (The Saint of Steel #1), by T. Kingfisher #WyrdAndWonder

There was another book by T. Kingfisher already lined up for my Wyrd&Wonder reading materials, but when I saw fellow blogger Susy’s enthusiastic review of Paladin’s Grace I could not resist, previous experience having taught me that, no matter which book I pick up from this author, I can be assured of a wonderful read. And that’s exactly what happened here.

Paladins are soldiers (holy berserkers) called to the service of various gods, or Saints, and Stephen is one of those serving the Saint of Steel: one day his god dies, and Stephen, alongside his comrades, falls prey to blind rage and starts attacking everyone in sight. Only a handful of these paladins survive the ordeal, and they are always on guard for the return of the madness; presently, three years later, these surviving Paladins are affiliated to the Temple of the White Rat, an order dedicated to public services like law and medicine, where they hope to remain useful while dealing with the heavy psychological consequences of their god’s death.

One night Stephen meets, in very… well, awkward circumstances, a woman fleeing from the acolytes of the Hanged Mother cult: her name is Grace, she is a talented perfumer and a person with whom the paladin feels immediately at ease, able to forget for a while the heavy burden of his past.  Grace also has a painful past to deal with, and the two of them meet again in weird circumstances while their mutual attraction grows despite the constant comedy of errors plaguing their encounters. All the while, the city lives in fear of a brutal assassin who leaves severed heads (and no bodies) in his wake and political intrigue further muddies the waters, adding to the burden of troubles for the two would-be lovers.

I had a lot of fun with Paladin’s Grace: it was all that I’ve come to expect from a story by T. Kingfisher, and more. It even surprised me by putting a romance at the core of the novel and making me enjoy it, which is so very unusual since it’a a theme I tend to avoid, but the growing relationship between Stephen and Grace was so fun to follow that I felt completely invested in it and ended up rooting for these two people so badly hurt by life’s hard blows that they deserved some happiness… 

Grace is the typical Kingfisher heroine: a very human, very relatable mix of strength and vulnerability, someone who has learned to fend for herself in a world that too often proved hostile and cruel, always ready to take away what she had managed to gain through hardship and sacrifice. Despite the difficult baggage that she carries, Grace is still capable of humor that comes delightfully across in her inner musings, and she also learned the kind of self-sufficiency that turned her into a very independent woman – granted, she’s terribly shy and still suffers from a certain sense of inadequacy, but she knows to rely only on herself:

Rescue was bad. People who wanted you to be vulnerable and grateful tended to get very angry when you stopped being vulnerable and didn’t act grateful enough.

Which makes Stephen’s not-so-smooth attempts at taking care of her all the harder. He’s laboring under some heavy baggage himself, constantly battling with the depression caused by the death of his saint and with the underlying fear of going berserk again and wreaking irreparable havoc. The only moments when he feels that burden lifted are those he spends with Grace: one might say they are both broken people who find in each other the possibility of healing their wounds and becoming whole again – and that’s probably the reason I found the romance in this story so intriguing, so real and worthy of cheering on.

Secondary characters are just as captivating as the main ones, particularly the members of the Temple of the Rat: from brother Francis the healer, whom we meet at the start of the novel, to Bishop Beartongue, an older woman whose no-nonsense attitude blends with tongue-in-cheek humor that made me happy for every scene in which she appeared, to lawyer Zale whose apparent offhand attitude hides a keen intellect, they all incarnate an ideal of service to others that counterbalances the darkness of the social and political background in which the story is set. Getting to know them, and their attitude toward humanity, it’s not surprising that they were the ones to offer the broken paladins a home and a reason to go on living.   Fellow paladin Istvhan is another wonderful character I enjoyed reading about: a mix of brotherly concern and hands-on advice, he’s the perfect foil for Stephen’s uncertainties – not to mention one of the recipients of his brother-in-arms’ knitted socks.  Yes, you read me correctly, Stephen knits socks in his spare time: after all even warriors need a hobby, don’t they?  And let’s not forget either Marguerite, Grace’s landlady, friend and accomplished spy in incognito, and Grace’s pet – something of a cross between a cat and a ferret, as far as I understand it – which fills the by-now-expected role of animal companion that seems to be a fixed element in all Kingfisher books.

There is a great deal to enjoy in Paladin’s Grace besides the amorous fumblings from Grace and Stephen: the required political games typical of the setting offer an interesting background that at some point morphs into intense courtroom drama, and the dreadful mystery about the severed heads is not fully resolved, making me hope that more will be explained in the next two books of the series, but what comes to the fore more intensely is the message that even damaged people can find a way of overcoming the injuries from the past and find in others the strength to face the future – hopefully a better one.  It’s indeed a powerful message, one that makes this already enjoyable story something more than just a story…

My Rating:


SISTERS OF THE FORSAKEN STARS (Our Lady of Endless Worlds #2), by Lina Rather

It took me some time to get back to this future world in which living ships forge the vast interstellar distances and work as “traveling convents” for the nuns aboard, bringing help and comfort to those in need, but after the first few pages I felt again comfortable in this universe.

The sisters of the order of Saint Rita are dealing with the aftermath of the events from Sisters of the Vast Black, at the end of which they suffered heavy losses, both human and non-human, considering the death of their living ship-convent, named Our Lady of Impossible Constellations.  Presently the nuns are traveling on a new ship, but it’s still a youngling so it needs constant care and nutrients, and since they broke any ties with the Church and Earth government funds are scarce and they have to keep a low profile and make do with what they can scrounge along the way.

Much of the story in Forsaken Stars hinges around these difficulties and the even greater threat of discovery: the nuns’ actions in revealing Earth’s responsibility in the deadly plague hitting rebellious colonies have turned them into a sort of heroic figures, taken as example and inspiration by those who are eager to shake off the yoke of Earth Governance, and they are constantly debating about how to travel the thin line separating their mission of help to those in need from the danger of becoming figureheads.  The uncertainty weighing on the sisters is further enhanced by the arrival of two new people: Kristen, a young postulant asking to join the convent and Eris, the long-lost sister of Ewostatewos: the former represents the unknown factor that might unsettle the fragile balance aboard the ship, the latter is like an unwelcome spotlight shining on them because she is clearly on the run, and therefore a wanted individual.

Unlike the first book in the series, Forsaken Stars seems a little less…cohesive, for want of a better word, somewhat meandering at times, but with hindsight I can see how this uncertainty in plot is a mirror for the uncertainty plaguing the nuns who have lost their support system and have to forge a completely new way of doing things – and surviving – which might take some time before it’s ironed out into the precise mechanism it used to be with Our Lady of Impossible Constellations.  Moreover, the nuns are dealing with the emotional fallout of their losses – even though not all of them are due to death, since former  Sister Gemma left the convent to join her lover Vauca, an engineer on the deadship (i.e. a conventional construct) Cheng I Sao, where they try to nurture the failed shiplings in the hope of creating something new when they are not viable as future liveships.

If the plot feels a little meandering, what remains steady and strong is the sense of community among the nuns, particularly where external forces are trying to change (or co-opt) them or when personal issues threaten to intrude on their concept of faith, which here seems to be more oriented toward belief in the rightness of good works rather than adherence to dogma – and here I have to say that I appreciated how these nuns’ faith stands on the willingness to do good, to help the needy and, if possible, prevent the cruelty humans enjoy inflicting each other. 

There are a few passing references to the difference between these space-faring nuns and the ones living on planets and conducting a more traditional monastic life of prayer and contemplation, references that I interpreted as respect for the kind of hands-on approach exhibited by the protagonists.  It must also be said that physical distance from the Church – even before the nuns cut their ties with it and Earth – already prompted the nuns to find their own way to deal with spiritual matters, showing how doctrine cannot remain unchanged when the conditions for its applicability change due to the unpredictability of life away from humanity’s home planet.

Where the start of this second installment shows the nuns in a state of flux, the dramatic events happening toward the end of the book bring it out of the perceived middle-book syndrome and point toward a road fraught with dangers, yes, but also with great possibilities: while the short form of this novella suffers from a certain lack of development that cries out for a longer narrative span, it also leaves ample room for the expansion of the story in many possible directions.  It will be interesting to see where it will lead us next….

My Rating:


DESCENDANT MACHINE (Continuance #2), by Gareth Powell

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

I was looking forward to the continuation of this series, where the author Gareth Powell portrays a wandering humanity relocated on huge ark-ships by the powerful aliens called Angels of Benevolence. Descendant Machine is not exactly the direct continuation of the first book, Stars and Bones, since it takes place some fifty years after the events depicted there, and as such it can be read as a stand-alone, although I would recommend reading the first volume as well, to better appreciate the nuances of characters and backgrounds.  Before delving into my review I would like to share a detail about the writing of this book: in the Afterword, Mr. Powell speaks about the difficult genesis of Descendant Machine, since the first draft was completely lost due to some technical problems, and he had to start again from scratch. Everyone who lost some important file to computers’ quirks understands what kind of blow that must have been, so this book also stands as the proof that no situation is unsurmountable, no matter how dire it looks – and in light of the events that constitute the core of this novel, I wonder how much of this realization went into the crafting of the story itself…

Nicola Mafalda is the pilot of the scout ship Frontier Chic, belonging to the Vanguard – the exploratory arm of the Continuance, the vast fleet of ark ships on which humanity has been forging the vastness of space for the past 125 years.  At the start of the novel, Nicola is ferrying passengers to Jzat, a planet inhabited by furry, four-armed humanoids who have been studying for generations a mysterious object orbiting their planet: the Grand Mechanism – the same size as Saturn’s rings, the object has been the source of endless debate about its origins and function, and there is a growing faction on Jzat that’s set on opening the Mechanism to uncover its secrets and, hopefully, reap the rewards that its superior technology might offer.

What started as a pretty routine run ends quite badly for Nicola and the Frontier Chic (I will let you discover how badly on your own…) and when we see her again she’s recuperating from the ordeal on one of the arks: contacted by her superiors, she is sent – not exactly willingly – to look for a Jzat mystic, the Rav’nah Abelisk, the latest in a long line of custodians of the Mechanism’s secrets, to obtain his help in avoiding the disasters that might follow the opening of the construct. Fighting against time and the Jzat faction bent on harnessing the Mechanism’s powers, Nicola faces dangers, betrayals and a threat to the end of the universe as we know it, in a non-stop, enthralling story whose stakes keep mounting from one chapter to the next.

Descendant Machine is written in alternating POV chapters belonging respectively to Nicola Mafalda, to the Frontier Chic’s envoy (envoys are the ships’ avatars) and to Orlando Walden, a young, bright scientist whose letters to his lover Ramona are a delightful mix of purple prose and self-centeredness.  This narrative choice keeps the novel moving along at a swift pace, turning it into a compulsive read once the pieces are all set on the board and the action rolls on with unstoppable momentum, without however forgetting a good number of well-placed sparkles of humor and a few forays into emotions that feel natural and organically developed and contribute to the excellent narrative balance of this story.

I enjoyed Nicola’s portrayal very much: she possesses a delightfully snarky disposition that does not shy away from a consistent use of profanity, but which also hides the self-doubt and vulnerabilities that round up her character into a very relatable one.  If she can be all business when performing her tasks, it’s in her dealings with the Chic’s envoy that we are able to see the real Nicola: here lies one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel, because we learn that Vanguard’s navigators and their envoys are somewhat mentally linked to better travel the intricacies of the Substrate (or hyperspace), and therefore share a bond that is as deep as it is unique.  The voice of the Chic’s envoy is an equal mixture of intelligence, humor and shrewdness that works as the perfect foil for Nicola’s prickly attitude and the exchanges between the two of them are among my favorite sections of the book, particularly where the undeniable affection underlying their relationship comes to the fore.

The chapters devoted to Orlando Walden are of a very different nature for two reasons: on one side they explore his personality through the impassioned letters sent to Ramona, his love for her expressed in a flowery and childish way that’s quite funny; on the other they afford readers a peek into the mindset of the Openers – the faction set on uncovering the Mechanism’s secrets – and in particular of their leader Aulco, whose speeches pave the road for some humorous pokes at the sectarian kinds of politics we have seen crop up in recent years.   

Narratively speaking, Descendant Machine enjoys a lighter tone in respect of its predecessor, even though it does not lack for drama or the levels of tension that accompany the possibility of seeing the universe as we know it vanish in a puff of smoke – from my point of view, it’s space opera of the most gratifying kind, where alongside the more adventurous themes you will find deeper considerations about life and death, love and friendship, the strength to accept one’s end for a higher purpose, and much more.  Once again I can rest assured that Mr. Powell is very comfortable in this genre, as well as skilled, and that I will welcome every new book of his with great expectations.

My Rating:


PARADISE-1, by David Wellington

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

Despite a very intriguing premise, Paradise-1 proved to be a disappointing, and at times frustrating, read. This novel had so much potential, at least judging by the synopsis, but unfortunately the execution fell quite short of my expectations and I managed to finish the book only thanks to sheer willpower and a small measure of curiosity to see where the story would go. It was an uphill struggle all the way, and more than once I was tempted to DNF the novel, but I feel guilty doing so with review books, so I managed to keep reading till the (bitter?) end…

Firewatch Lieutenant Petrova, Dr. Lei Zhang and pilot Parker are rudely awakened from cryo-sleep as their ship, Artemis, is attacked by an unknown foe as they are nearing their destination, the colony named Paradise-1.  Once reached the safety of the only intact section of the vessel, the three discover that their onboard AI is malfunctioning, that there are a lot of unresponsive ships in orbit around Paradise-1, and that one of them is firing against Artemis using a mass driver.   This is only the first of the dangers the trio will have to face, because ships’ AIs and humans alike have fallen victims to something dangerously invasive whose nature they will have to discover if they hope to fight it – and to stay alive.

The beginning of Paradise-1 offers an intriguing, adrenaline-infused introduction to the story, and depicts very well the sense of disorientation suffered by characters who are so rudely awakened from suspended animation into a potentially fatal situation, but as soon as the three manage to reach the relative safety of the ship’s bridge and try to assess the situation, the “narrative troubles” start – or at least that’s the way it was for me.  The fast pace with which the novel had started becomes mired in weirdly absurd dialogue and an overall tone that seems unsure about where to settle, whether on drama or light humor, while the addition of some hints at romance looks as if inserted to check a required box, rather than being an organically developed situation.

I guess that the proverbial “bubble” burst for me with the discovery of a recorded message illustrating the goal of the mission: the crew of Artemis was sent to Paradise-1 to investigate the disappearance of a great number of ships, but the powers that be chose not to warn the three of them about what they could expect and, worse, the ship was sent at the same coordinates of the previous disappearances. This compelled me to take a step back and wonder: what could be accomplished by sending another crew in, blind and ignorant, instead of making a more cautions approach, arming the crew with the relevant information?   It seemed such an absurd waste of people and material as far the story’s internal logic was concerned, and such an absurdity if translated into “real” decision making , that it pulled me out of the narrative rhythm. After that, I stated to notice details that made no sense, when they were not simply ludicrous: as an example I will mention the medical laser, one powered by a cord inserted into an actual outlet, that’s used outside Artemis as a defensive weapon against an approaching ship – that must have required one hell of an extension cord!  Granted, these are not end-of-the-world details, but they were enough to break my suspension of disbelief and to wake the Grumpy Nitpicker that’s always lurking in the background, ready to pounce…

At this point the story veers into all-out horror: to keep spoilers to the minimum I will only say that something manages to drive crews and ships’ AIs to utter madness, which manifests in disturbingly bloody ways. Sadly, the horror factor is more than overdone, resulting not so much into shocking scenes, but rather into grotesque episodes that made me think of those horror B-movies where you laugh at the scary parts as you reach for more popcorn.  One example?  A twisted AI wants to consume its victims and to be able to do so constructs a sort of metal mouth (equipped with vicious teeth) connected to a digestive system….    Worse still, the crew of Artemis find themselves in this kind of hairy situation not once, but three times, just in case we had not been scared enough the first one. I regret to say I wasn’t.

At the end of the 700+ pages of the book, an end I reached with difficulty because I had lost all interest in the characters’ journey or their fate, I hoped to find at least an explanation for the whole, confused mess, but I was not so lucky. For the third (and blessedly final) time our heroes are subjected to horrific experiences – now the terror is only psychological rather than physical, but that does not render the repetition more palatable – and finally reach planetfall. Where I hoped some answers would be provided – spoiler: they are not, because the novel ends quite abruptly in the worst kind of cliffhanger.

I’m aware that this ended up being more of a rant than a review, but I feel somewhat entitled to it after slogging through the absurd mess that Paradise-1 was for me.  I know a few of my fellow bloggers have this book on their TBR and I can’t wait to compare notes…

My Rating:




That’s the term I would choose if I were to give a one-word definition for Grady Hendrix’s latest offering: I had first encountered this author with The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, a story I enjoyed very much, and I expected this new work to be equally engrossing, but How To Sell a Haunted House surpassed every expectation I had for it.

When Louise receives a succinct phone call from her brother announcing the sudden death of their parents in a car accident, the past she had kept at arm’s length, by going to live in California and keeping away from her family, suddenly comes rushing back.  Grudgingly leaving her five-years-old daughter in the care of the child’s father, she flies to Charleston and immediately clashes with her brother Mark about funeral arrangements and, later on, about the dispositions of the will, which leaves everything to Mark, with the exception of her mother’s beloved puppets.

As the fights between the two siblings become more and more heated, something weird seems to be happening in the house: dolls change places without anyone having touched them, strange noises come from the attic and other, far more creepy phenomena plague the home: Louise and Mark will have to overcome their differences if they want to understand what is truly happening and to prepare the house for a sale that seems more and more difficult as the eerie happenings point to some haunting presences…

As it’s clear from the title, the family home where Louise and Mark grew up is plagued by something otherworldly, but I don’t want to dwell too much on the details because it will be far better if you discover them on your own. What’s really creepy here, and in a major way, is the presence of an enormous amount of dolls and puppets that the siblings’ mother hand-crafted for pleasure and for her activities in the puppet ministry.  Which is not something invented for the novel but a real thing – the definition I found online says that it’s a team dedicated to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with your church community and the world using stories, songs, and humor through the art of puppetry.  Louise’s mother was very active in these circles, as shown during the funeral where other puppeteers make an appearance, turning the ceremony into something of a show where the memories of the departed are linked to many puppet-related events.

Apart from the quirkiness of this detail, a good portion of the dread that permeates the story comes indeed from the plethora of puppets literally filling every nook and cranny of the house, including two life-sized dolls that represent the child versions of Louise and Mark. Many horror stories – and movies! – have played on the scary factor offered by dolls (or mannequins) whose apparent lifelessness is used to great effect as a fear-inducing prop. Here this factor is employed very effectively because at first Louise is convinced (or tries to convince herself) that the apparent motions of the various dolls come from Mark’s attempts at scaring her away – that is, until a hair-raising encounter with a Nativity set made with squirrels shows her that something other than human malice is at play here. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous, alarming Pupkin which brings back nasty memories from Louise’s childhood and sheds some dreadful light on a very important, quite ominous sentence:

[…]puppets. Put one on and your posture changes, your voice alters, and you can feel what it wants, you can feel what it’s scared of, you know what it needs. You don’t wear the puppet. The puppet wears you.

And yet the spooky happenings, which slowly but surely turn from creepy to life-threatening, take second place in respect of the unfolding discoveries about the siblings’ past – a long journey down memory lane that reveals layers within layers like one of those dolls (what else?) that nest one into the other. At first Louise and Mark appear as well-defined characters: she the reasonably successful woman rearing a child on her own, dependable and responsible and with a firm grasp of what she wants from life; he the eternal Peter Pan, flitting from one job to another, never making much of himself and often acting as a jerk when dealing with his sister.

However, as the present unfolds with its mystery to be solved, we get to know the family’s past through a series of incremental flashbacks, which shed their light on Louise and Mark’s childhood and the roots for their antagonistic attitude: at first I was ready to despise Mark – his uncouth manners, the way he related to Louise and their relatives, the details of his life as shared by his sister, all added up to a very unlikable personality, but one of the flashbacks I mentioned made all the difference, revealing an important detail that changed the scene completely.  No spoilers here, but keep in mind that both Louise and Mark might have a foot in Unreliable Narrator territory….

The family dynamics are completed by the appearance of a good number of relatives, some of them exhibiting peculiar personality traits (Aunt Honey more than others!) that helped add a note of humor to a steadily darkening atmosphere that toward the end of the book turns into downright horror – a compelling, bone-chilling finale that kept me on the edge of the seat until the end.  It was a hard journey, because at times the evil that had taken hold of the house seemed inescapable and I have to acknowledge Grady Hendrix’s skill in his ability to maintain the razor-edge tension for so long and through so many truly horrific manifestations and long-buried family secrets.

This is one of those rare books where the border between reality and fiction becomes so permeable that characters and situations become quite real and I lose myself completely in the story: well done indeed, Mr. Hendrix!

My Rating:

Horror · Reviews

GHOSTWRITTEN, by Ronald Malfi

My exploration of Ronald Malfi’s works continues with this collection of four short stories that are loosely linked to each other through the mention of an element present in the previous one and also through the common denominator of books, since all four of them revolve around a book in some way.

THE SKIN OF HER TEETH focuses on the frantic attempts of book agent Gloria to bring to completion a movie script adapted from a successful novel. Not having heard any news from the writer, McElroy, she decides to visit him in his remote retreat and here she finds the man well beyond the verge of madness because he’s convinced that the original book possesses an evil will of its own and does not want any of its narrative details to be changed.  With the deadline looming ever closer, Gloria decides to take the matter into her own hands, only to discover that probably McElroy was not crazy at all….

Cursed books are nothing new in fiction, but The Skin of her Teeth (the fictional book that gives this story its title) is something quite different, and the way it manages to assert its own will is both creepy and intriguing, although I have to admit that I was even more appalled by Gloria’s attitude toward any obstacle on her path and the way she manipulates people with little or no though about their feelings, particularly where her life partner is concerned.

For me the true horror in this story did not come from the “things that go bump in the night”, although there is a good measure of that in here, but rather from the callous way in which Gloria goes about in life practically steamrolling over other people – and here I have to admit that I would not have minded seeing her getting her just deserts….

THE DARK BROTHERS’ LAST RIDE was a weird, almost psychedelic experience: it tells the story of Danny and Tommy Drake, petty criminals who are hired to deliver a rare, precious book to a mysterious client in a remote location, following a precise – if circuitous – itinerary. The warning they receive about not opening the briefcase containing the book, ever, does not agree with Tommy, the more volatile of the two, so that when he finally gives in to the temptation things start going from bad to worse for the two of them, transforming the trip into something of a journey to hell.

Where the strange, freaky places visited and events witnessed by the two brothers are the “meat” of this story, its backbone is represented by the exploration of Danny and Tommy’s personalities and of their shared past, which also includes a drug-crazed, abusive father who still looms like a specter just out of the corner of the eye.  The relationship between them is not an easy one, what with Tommy always being on a short fuse and often compromising their “jobs”, and with Danny who does care for his wayward brother but still feels like his weight is dragging him down.  There is a poignant quality in this relationship that at times feels more important than the actual task at hand and the oh-so-outlandish discoveries the brothers make on the journey.

THIS BOOK BELONGS TO OLO focuses on the creepiest kid I even encountered on my bookish travels: Bartholomew (“Olo”) Tiptree is a 10-year old child clearly suffering from the neglect of his super-busy parents and left to fend for himself in the vastnes of Helix House.  When he approaches other kids at a nearby park inviting them to his birthday party, we understand immediately that something is terribly wrong with Olo and with the strange “book” he put together himself.  It’s therefore surprising to see a good number of these children accepting the invitation, and the atmosphere becomes all the more disturbing thanks to the strange mannequins adorning Olo’s lawn and the news about the recent disappearance of his at-home teacher.  What happens during the birthday party, however, takes on the shades of a veritable nightmare.

I must confess I struggled with my feelings about Olo’s character because if on one side I could sympathize for his loneliness and the detached way his parents interacted with him, on the other his actions are those of a consummated psychopath who turned his loneliness into a form of self-centered absorption that left me thoroughly chilled – not to mention claustrophobic: read the story and you will understand why…

THE STORY does not focus on an actual book like its predecessors, but rather on the concept of storytelling – although in a unique way. Taking inspiration from the famous “choose your adventure” games it takes main character Grady into a spiral of disorientation and madness as his life seems to unravel before his very eyes.  An unexpected call informs Grady that his friend Taryn took her own life: trying to understand what happened to her to bring her to such an extreme act, Grady discovers her involvement into The Story, a sort of real-life game where the players’ choices impact the reality of their existence; determined to understand what happened during Taryn’s last days, Grady enters the game as well (or rather, the Story finds him…) with unpredictable results.

It’s impossible to say more about this story without incurring in spoilers, but it’s one of the mind mind-bending tales I happened to read, one where you end up questioning the fabric of reality and the worth of personal choices – provided that such a thing exists… 😉

Another demonstration of Ronald Malfi’s creative skills, this collection is an incredible journey through the fantastic and the scary, blended with some intriguing human elements. To be sure, not the last of my forays into this author’s production.

My Rating:


INFINITY GATE (Pandominion #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.

Every book I read, so far, from M.R. Carey proved to be an intriguing, engrossing journey, so when I saw Infinity Gate showcased on the monthly Orbit newsletter I requested it without even taking a look at the synopsis. Once again I found myself totally immersed in a story whose only downside was that it ended too soon.

Infinity Gate starts from the premise of the existence of an uncounted number of Earths, a multiverse where each iteration can be either quite close to the reality we’re familiar with, or so wildly different as to be unrecognizable.  Scientist Hadiz Tambuwal lives in what we might consider as our primary Earth, but one where resources are almost depleted and wars are being fought for whatever’s left.  Finding herself practically alone in the university complex near Lagos, in Nigeria, she spends her time perfecting her studies and one day stumbles on an amazing discovery: the possibility to jump from one reality to another – and therefore a chance for a better life, even for a way to save her own dying planet.  

With the help of Rupshe, a self-aware A.I. residing on the university grounds, Hadiz starts exploring the almost infinite versions of Earth, but in so doing she catches the attention of the Pandominion, a coalition of Earth-like worlds linked by the discovery of the Step plates, the means of jumping from one reality to another.  The Pandominion is at war with another aggregation of worlds, the Ansurrection: these are planets ruled by machine intelligence and so far the war has claimed many victims and many worlds; fearing that Hadiz’s jumps might be related to the Ansurrection’s encroaching, the Pandominion sets its armed force, called the Cielo, on her tracks.

Hadiz’s storyline runs parallel to that of Essien Nkanika, living in a world not much different from hers, and the meeting between them will change Essien’s life – one that has already seen much suffering and deprivation – in a very dramatic way.  The third main character in the novel is that of  Topaz Tourmaline FiveHills, a young girl living on Ut, an Earth-like planet where the dominant life form descends from rabbits: Topaz – or Paz as she likes to be called – will see her life upturned by a devastating event and will have to make some hard choices she was not prepared for.

Curiously enough, for a story told through multiple POVs, Infinity Gate chooses the unusual way of following these three characters in a linear way instead of alternating chapters between them: at first this choice felt weird, because each time the reader must start anew with a different perspective that seems to have no connection with the previous one, but in the end it was revealed as a very clever way of making the reader invested in each character’s journey and at the same time of exploring the Pandominion in its many facets without need for long and distracting info-dumps.

The Pandominion looks, on the surface, as a conglomeration of advanced worlds graced by an utopian life-style, but as soon as the focus moves on its inner workings it’s easy to see that it’s not like Star Trek’s Federation at all: some of the people at the top are quite ruthless and the existence of the Cielo, the inter-planetary army whose armor-clad soldiers elicit apprehension with their sole presence, points toward a rule that’s quite far from benevolent.  The Ansurrection, on the other hand, seems driven by an apparently unthinking drive to replicate its machines and the discovery of several worlds where any form of life has been obliterated does not bode well for their intentions.

The characters who move on this intriguing – if slightly unsettling – background are wonderfully depicted and fully fleshed: Hadiz Tambuwal looks like a single-focus-driven scientist who is more at ease among the instruments of her laboratory than among people, and yet there is a poignant streak of vulnerability in her that comes across in the course of her meeting with Essien Nkanika, a young man who has learned to stop at nothing to ensure his own survival, like accepting to join the Cielo where his humanity risks to be taken away from him piece by piece.  My favorite character, however, remains Paz, a young girl (rabbit-shaped, granted, but still a girl) who finds herself dealing with exceptional events she was not prepared for: the way she finds a well of courage and resiliency she did not know she possesses, while still remaining true to herself, gives way to a character journey I found both compelling and heart-wrenching.

It’s not going to be a spoiler when I say that these three are destined to meet: the greater attraction in this novel stands in the expectation of that encounter and in the different, often difficult paths they travel before that can happen.  This first book in the series merely lays the ground for what will develop into the main story, and yet it does not feel like a simple setting of the playing field because you can almost hear the various pieces clicking into place, each new addition boosting the tension level to new heights, particularly where Paz’s experiences are concerned: there is a long, tense segment dealing with them, toward the final part of the novel, where I was literally unable to put the book down because the various moving parts were in such a state of flux that anything could happen and failure seemed like a chilling possibility.   It’s difficult to describe this book without giving away precious – and spoilery! – details, but trust me when I tell you that reading it without any prior knowledge is indeed the best way to go.

Infinity Gate closes with the equivalent of a “…to be continued” but at the same time it ends this part of the story neatly: previous experience with M.R. Carey’s other series tells me that the next books will come along with infallible cadence, and I already look forward to seeing where the story will take us next.

My Rating: