Reviews

Review: MOON CALLED (Mercy Thompson #1), by Patricia Briggs

After encountering several favorable mentions about this Urban Fantasy series, I finally decided to see for myself what it was like, though not without a small measure of… trepidation, for want of a better word: my favorite series in this genre is Seanan McGuire’s October Daye, and that’s what sets the standards for me – a main character who’s strong but not superhuman, whose flaws don’t include reckless stupidity, and a story that gains new facets from book to book. Just to name the most important ones…

Well, Mercy Thompson promises to move along these lines, and even if this first volume was not a game changing experience, it piqued my interest enough that I’m willing to follow the protagonist’s journey: with a good number of books to look forward to, there is certainly room for all the improvements I can wish for.

Mercedes “Mercy” Thompson is a car mechanic and a very independent woman, but she’s also something else: a shapeshifter who can take the form of a coyote.  In Patricia Briggs’ version of the world, supernatural creatures have always existed side by side with baseline humans and only in recent times some of them have come out of hiding, albeit with mixed results: once the dust settled, and the wonder wore off, humans resorted to their usual way of dealing with the diverse – they gave free rein to fear, ignorance and bigotry.

 

It was all right for a fae to be an entertainer or a tourist attraction, but […] no one wanted a fae for a teacher, a mechanic, or a neighbor.

 

Those unfortunate enough to have come out in the open had to make themselves scarce, or go live in reservations – out of sight, out of mind. Business as usual on planet Earth…

Among those who did not expose themselves, besides the highest fae, are werewolves and shapeshifters like Mercy, although she’s a pretty rare specimen. Raised by an adoptive family of werewolves, Mercy knows a great deal about their social structures and behavioral patterns, so that she’s in the best position to offer aid to young Mac, a newly-minted teenage werewolf still dealing with his change and with other more pressing problems.

Asking her neighbor Adam, the Alpha wolf of the local pack, to help Mac, brings about a series of events that will put Mercy’s policy of “live and let live” to a serious test: an attack on Adam’s compound and the kidnapping of his teenage daughter Jesse will draw Mercy into a complex situation that will force her to re-evaluate her position and to face some unresolved issues from her past, while she tries to uncover what looks like a dangerous conspiracy.

The world-building in Moon Called is a fascinating one: the nature and pack mentality of the werewolves are explored at length as various characters come into play, and it all flows quite naturally alongside the story without interference from lengthy info-dumps or any slowing of the pace.   These creatures are not the mindless beasts we might have expected because they don’t lose control at each full moon (or at least they don’t once they have grown comfortable into their own… well, skin) but rather draw strength from it – in both human and wolf shape – and always fight to keep a balance between the two sides of their nature.  That fight has given birth to a set of rules that are ruthlessly implemented, because control has become the key to the survival of the species and to insure that their existence remains a secret.

This strict adherence to the rules has unfortunately fostered something of a backward mentality in the werewolves, the kind of mindset that can still be observed in some strata of the human population – through Mercy, the author does enjoy poking some fun at it, even though the smile is somewhat bitter:

 

Women’s liberation hadn’t made much headway in the world of werewolves. A mated female took her pack position from her mate, but unmated females were always lower than males …

OR

A lone wolf is a male who either declines to join a pack or cannot find a pack who will take him in. The females, I might add, are not allowed that option.

 

In this world, Mercy is something of a free agent: not only because of her nature, but mostly because she values her independence, the need to make her own choices. I often wondered if early exposure to the life of a werewolf pack was responsible for this, since she refuses to be cast into any mold, to follow a set of rules that is not her own.  This attitude also colors her sentimental life, which I found quite refreshing: the presence of two attractive, powerful males who are interested in her does not lead – at least in this first novel – to any romantic triangle, and Mercy’s response to the two men’s possessive overtures, no matter how restrained they are, is to re-affirm her self-reliance and self-determination.  My hope is that, should a romantic thread develop in the future, this mindset will remain unchanged.

In short, I did enjoy Moon Called quite a bit: it was a quick, fun read and it managed to engage me even though I realize it was only laying the foundations for a more complex story, one that I expect will expand on the many seeds planted here, from the higher fae (or Gray Lords) urging the lesser ones to come clean while they stayed safely in hiding, to the vampires and their shady goals to werewolves’ politics and power plays.

There are really few criticisms I feel like expressing, namely the overly complex motivations at the roots of the mystery to be solved, which required some lengthy exposition I found slightly tiresome, and the cover art, that in my opinion did not catch at all Mercy’s character, her essence or the nature of the story itself – a look at the covers for the following novels shows that this is a recurring theme, one that seems to draw the attention away from the inner strengths of the character and instead focus it on the… outward ones.

I realize that it’s a matter of market dynamics, but still I can’t avoid thinking that it’s something of a misdirection, and that though it’s not an end-of-the-world issue, it should be addressed now and then.   Ok, getting off the soapbox now…  🙂

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: PERSEPOLIS RISING (The Expanse #7), by James S.A. Corey

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for the opportunity to read this new installment in my very favorite space opera series.

Apart from a brief synopsis of the story, something you could find on GoodReads or the back cover of the book, there will be no spoilers in this review: more than any other, this is a novel that must be enjoyed with a minimum of foreknowledge.

At the end of Babylon’s Ashes, as many narrative threads seemed to have come to a conclusion, I wondered where the authors would next take the story, and after reading the novella Strange Dogs I had an inkling that the focus might be shifted toward the colonies established in the worlds beyond the alien portals accessed through Medina station. In a way, I was both right and wrong: the colonies – or rather, the world of Laconia, which figured prominently on that novella – are there, but not in the way I imagined.

For starters, the action takes places some 30 years after the events of Babylon’s Ashes, showing how the balance of power and the political landscape have changed in the aftermath of Marco Inaros’ faction’s attack on Earth: the home planet of humanity has recovered from the massive upheavals caused by the asteroid impacts, but its influence has somewhat lessened and is now shared between the inner worlds and the Transport Union, the successor of the OPA, now a legitimate association that monitors traffic to and from the colonies beyond the portals, with Belters having finally reached equal status with the rest of the system. The social and political balance might not be perfect, but they are certainly better than they were in the past.

The crew of the Rocinante has gained two permanent members, ex marine Bobbie Draper and Clarissa “Peaches” Mao, once their adversary and now Amos’ engineering buddy. Through the years in which they worked for the Union the six have coalesced into an easy family, so that Holden and Naomi’s announcement that they are going to retire, and leave the ship to the others, is received with a mix of happiness for the couple and the well-deserved rest they’ve earned, and sadness at the loss of a piece of their group.  It was something that troubled me, as well, because I wondered how removing these two from the equation would change the dynamics aboard the ship – and the narrative as well.

A worry quickly forgotten, though, since the Solar System finds itself faced with an unforeseen menace: in the decades since he carried a third of Mars’ naval forces (and a protomolecule sample) through the Laconia gate, former Admiral Duarte – now self-elected High Consul – has created a powerful empire that he means to extend to the rest of the explored worlds, starting with the Sol system through a surprise attack on Medina station, with a giant ship that’s a hybrid between Martian technology and applied protomolecule tech.  What follows is a huge game change, a series of events that transform the face of the story as we knew it until now: if, in the tv series inspired by these books, the dividing line between the events of books 1 and 2 was titled “Paradigm Shift”, here we encounter another shift, one of massive proportions that will in all probability encompass the final two volumes of The Expanse.

Change is indeed the focus of the story here, and primarily the changes in the characters: the people of the Roci have grown comfortable with each other, and of course they have grown older, so that a good portion of their thoughts or good-natured exchanges focus on the small indignities of advancing age that seem to afflict both people and ship, as if they were one and the same.  Seeing them affected by the passing of time was something of a surprise for me, because we tend to think about characters as somewhat physically immutable, but these people accept it with equanimity and with the awareness that they can overcome anything as long as they keep taking care of each other and of the Roci, because – as a bulkhead plaque reminds them – doing that will ensure that they will always come home.  It was the slightly melancholic, bittersweet mood that accompanies these first glimpses of the Rocinante crew that made me realize how fond I’ve grown of them, how they have become real to me, not unlike flesh and blood people, and how much I care about what happens to them. And trust me, here a LOT happens to them…

However, the original crew does not enjoy the spotlight here, at least not all of the time, since the point of view shifts between them and some new characters, most notably Drummer and Singh.  The former we already met as second-in-command to Fred Johnson at Tycho station, while here she’s the president of the Transport Union, a very influential woman facing some hard choices once the Laconian invasion starts.  I quite liked Drummer, her no-nonsense approach to power that comes both from her origins as a Belter and her past as an OPA operative, and I felt for her when she had to compromise some of her hard-won principles for the greater good.  For Drummer, the only bright light in this gloomy situation comes from the shrewd advice of a greatly beloved character who manages to steal the brief scenes where she appears, her keen intelligence and foul-mouthed expletives undimmed by age: the verbal confrontation between the two women, different in age, background and political views are nothing short of delightful.

Colonel Singh, on the other hand, is a newcomer to the Expanse’s cast: a bright young Laconian officer on the rise, he’s sent to Medina to act as governor and facilitate the “transition” in government.  He’s a very interesting person, mostly because of the dichotomy between his kindness as loving husband and doting father and the hardness he needs to exert as a soldier of the conquering empire.  His story-arc brought me to alternate between compassion and hostility, even though I understood that the less savory aspects of his personality were the product of his indoctrination.  In this he’s very much like the other Laconians, not much different from anybody else on the surface, but dramatically so in outlook and psychology: the few glimpses of the society built by Duarte on Laconia offer a quite chilling context for the way these people think and act, for the deeply rooted certainty they harbor about being right, about being able to win over the rest of humanity to their way of seeing things.

This new story-arc in The Expanse series promises to rise in intensity far above the previous ones, and considering how outstandingly amazing they have been so far, we are in for a remarkable journey: given the total, not-coming-up-for-air immersion I enjoyed here, I know the remaining two volumes will prove even better.  And I can hardly wait…

 

My Rating:   

Reviews

Review: THE BRIGHTEST FELL (October Daye #11), by Seanan McGuire

Eleven books down the road, and this story still feels fresh, intriguing and engrossing: I don’t know how many series can claim such a record, but surely Seanan McGuire’s October Daye saga deserves this tribute – even from a very biased reader, and fan, like me.

As The Brightest Fell starts we see October in a very happy place: the people in her extended family have brought her (somewhat forcibly, in truth) to a karaoke bar where they are throwing her a bachelorette party prior to the marriage with Tybalt, the handsome King of Cats. Letting go of her worries is not easy, but the sheer enthusiasm of the people she loves, and who love her back, is such that in the end she finds the right track and enjoys herself: how could she not when even the Luidaeg goes on-stage to sing?  (yes, you read that correctly: the Luidaeg sings!)  Yet, October’s misgivings were justified, as old-time readers might have expected from page one, because once she’s back home she receives a startling and rather unwelcome visit: her mother Amandine has come out of her seclusion to require that October find her older sister August, who has been missing for over a century, and to insure her changeling daughter’s cooperation Amandine proceeds to force both Tybalt and Jazz into their animal forms, taking them away as hostages until October has fulfilled her task.

Faced with such a difficult, near-impossible mission, October is forced to seek the assistance of the most improbable ally: Simon Torquill, August’s father, and also the man who turned October into a fish for fourteen years as she was looking for clues in the disappearance of Sylvester Torquill’s wife and daughter.  The deal is not exempt from suspicions and old resentments from both sides, but it seems to work well enough once the two of them understand that they are teamed up for the good of the people they love, and the shared hazards of the journey manage to create a bond of sorts – under the watchful eye of Quentin, October’s squire, who is not as inclined as she is to grant Simon the benefit of the doubt.

The love of family is indeed the backbone of this story: the hardships October is ready to endure for her loved ones lead her to understand how Simon’s crimes were the result of his desperate search for August, and how much his journey into wickedness moved along a road paved with the best of intentions. This story sees Simon’s fight for redemption, his desperate attempts to make amends for his past crimes, and as this happens we get several glimpses of a very different person from the one we believed we knew: it was an unforeseen discovery, and one that often made me sympathize with him once I realized that there are times when we make horrible mistakes in the name of love, and that the price we have to pay is our own soul.

The other side of this coin is represented by October’s family – as in her blood relatives, of course, not the ones she gathered along the way and who constitute her real family.  Amandine, the mysterious creature we always heard about but never truly saw, finally makes her appearance: until now she was a remote figure, one who preferred to stay away from everyone for her own purposes, and we might have been mistaken into believing she just wanted to keep her distance for some good reason, although her intervention to save October’s life by changing the balance of her blood pointed to an active interest in her changeling daughter. Well, we were quite mistaken. Amandine is not remote, she is contemptuous; she’s not just coldly distant as fae can be, she is a heartless manipulator bent on obtaining what she wants – and to hell with collateral damage, a concept that does not even cross her attention threshold.

The fae in Seanan McGuire’s world are not very good at empathy, granted: even people like Sylvester Torquill, for all his fairness and honesty, can’t avoid the feeling of superiority, of entitlement, that comes with their nature, and we have seen cases where this attitude was brought to the worst heights (or should I say “depths”?).  But Amandine is quite another thing: she wants what she wants, and she does not care who or what she tramples as she seeks to get it: her desire is to be finally reunited with her lost daughter – her true daughter – and she feels no qualms in blackmailing her other daughter, the substandard, despised one, threatening the lives of people she cares about to ensure her compliance.

And if Amandine is a cold-blooded bitch, August fares no better, because she is a true fae – in the most negative sense of the word – as bigoted and short-sighted as the worst of them: not that I expected a warm sisterly reunion (I know by now how McGuire’s mind works), but for a while I thought that “old” Simon’s influence would have played a role in her psychological makeup. I could not have been more wrong.  In the end, as far as character and personality go, October’s mother and sister fare a lot worse than her arch-enemy Simon, especially in light of what I learned about him in this novel.

As for Toby, I guess she was rarely so alone as she is here: except for Quentin, she is forced by circumstances to leave her support group behind and this of course heightens her feeling of isolation, exacerbated by Simon’s presence and the memory of everything she lost due to his past actions.  McGuire never pulled any punches with October in the course of the series, but here she puts her character through an even worse wringer because it’s an emotional rather than a physical one: this time Toby does not bleed even once – as she half-jokingly remarks at some point – but the emotional pain she must endure looks worse than any bodily damage she sustained before.  The brunt of it all comes from her interactions with Amandine of course: despite having given up on her mother a long time ago, it’s clear that a part of her still yearns for – if not affection – at least recognition, for a sense of belonging, and once it becomes evident that she will never get it, not from Amandine, we can feel the unexpressed pain and betrayal that this realization carries, we can feel the new scars forming on top of the old ones:

For years, I’d blocked out how she had hurt me, refusing to think about it, refusing to even remember that it had happened […]

If at the end of The Brightest Fell we don’t all end deeply hating Amandine, I’d be very surprised…

This book does represent a huge turning point in the narrative arc, as the author says in the preface, and events all work toward showing this change and laying the basis for more, and on top of that there is a huge difference with previous installments, because the small ray of hope at the end is marred by the realization that it’s only temporary, that the game has shifted and the consequences are unpredictable.  While all this was implied before, now it’s stated openly, and makes me wonder what the future holds for Toby and her family:

What we had here wasn’t safety. It was just the illusion of safety, it was still the only thing we had and, by Oberon, I was going to cling to it.

Whatever it is, I can’t wait to see it.  The next book cannot arrive soon enough…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: PENRIC’S DEMON (Penric and Desdemona #1), by Lois McMaster Bujold

I must thank fellow blogger Mogsy, from Bibliosanctum, for mentioning this series in a post: Bujold is the author of one of my favorite SF sagas, the Vorkosigan Series, but so far I have not been as fortunate when I sampled her fantasy works with The Curse of Chalion.  So, when I heard about this cycle of novellas that promised at least some of the humor I had come to expect from the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, albeit in a fantasy setting, I did not hesitate to try it out, and it turned out to be a winner.

The main character, Penric, is the younger son of a minor noble, on his way to a neighboring fiefdom for his formal betrothal to that lord’s daughter. While on the road, he and his retinue happen on a group of distressed people: their charge, a priestess of the Bastard god, has fallen suddenly ill and they are seeking help.  Penric, a person of good disposition, kneels near the dying woman and tries to comfort her by holding her hand, not knowing that elder Ruchia is host to a powerful demon who gets transferred to Penric as Ruchia dies.

Being the host of a demon means a huge upheaval in Penric’s life, not because demons are inherently evil, but because now the young man will be able to work magic and as such, for example, he’s not good husband material anymore. While he tries to come to terms with this and the other changes, Penric gets to know his newly acquired demon, who is a mixture of the personalities of all previous hosts (including two animals, by the way): the only thing all these personalities, that survive through the demon as a sort of collection of memories, share is that they were all female, and the fact that Penric is not gives way to a number of humorous – and for him highly embarrassing – situations.

The element that I most enjoyed in this delightful novella is the juxtaposition between Desdemona (the name bestowed on the Demon by Penric, with a gesture that is unheard of and quite appreciated by the recipient) and the young protagonist: the demon’s great store of experiences gathered while moving from body to body and Penric’s essential naiveté make for a great contrast that fuels most of the narrative and helps define his character in a very promising way.

As a beginning to the two unlikely companions’ adventures, Penric’s Demon looks quite promising, and more than worth some further exploration.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: PORTAL OF A THOUSAND WORLDS, by Dave Duncan

Portal of a Thousand Worlds was my first approach to Dave Duncan’s prolific production, and it ended up being a surprisingly involving read. The novel can be labeled as historical fantasy and is set in an alternate version of China, probably in the late 19th, early 20th Century: the rebellion of the Bamboo Banner adepts sounds quite similar to the real Boxer rebellion that flared up between 1899 and 1901, and here it serves as a useful time indicator.

The story follows several narrative strands that move, slowly but inexorably, toward the final confluence: one of the first characters we meet is Tug, a malnourished street urchin who is taken in by the Grey Helpers, a quasi-religious brotherhood dedicated to the handling of the dead and their speedy transition to a higher plane of existence.  What the Grey Brothers really are, however, resembles more a secret society with financial and political goals and the patience to wait even for generations to accomplish them: here the former hungry child, who will later on take the name of Silky, learns how to deal with the dead – including how to remove the valuables placed by relatives on the bodies to secure their passage of the dear departed to the next level of existence – but also how to read and write, to cheat without being discovered, to change one’s appearance. And above all, how to kill without leaving a trace.

There is a sort of cheerful viciousness in the Grey Helpers that helps mitigate the truly horrible crimes they carry out, and I was often surprised at the way in which I was rooting for them – and particularly for Silky – to succeed in their endeavors: in a world where cruel exploitation and the lack of care for the less fortunate is the way of living, the Brotherhood almost takes on a Robin-Hood-like aura that is bound to elicit the reader’s sympathies, even taking into account that they steal to help themselves and not the poor…  Silky himself possesses a kind of roguish nonchalance in everything he does, that makes it easier to forget how exploitative he gets – especially with women – in the pursuit of his goals: it’s something one tends to realize after the fact, while as the story is unfolding he’s able to focus the readers’ sympathies.

Another Grey Helper, novice Horse, earns his place in the spotlight as he finds himself enmeshed in a massive hoax, that of impersonating the current Emperor, a young man with serious mental damage who has been kept in seclusion by his mother, after she ruthlessly eliminated everyone who might have revealed that secret and who has been ruling the country from behind the virtually empty throne.  The Empress finds herself in a quandary though, because the realms needs the heir her son is unable to produce, so she concocts the scheme that will bring Horse – who has gained the name of Butterfly Sword – to the imperial palace, playing a game that might see him dead once his usefulness comes to an end.   This was one of the most fascinating threads in Portal of a Thousand Worlds, because it showed the political and power maneuvering that goes on in the imperial court, a contest of wills and strengths that could become quite deadly, but still is couched in the flowery prose and refined manners required by etiquette.  You can hide a knife in an embroidered silk scarf, but it still remains a knife…

The third main point of view in the story is that of Sunlight the Urfather, a mystical being who is constantly reborn and retains the memories of all his previous lives: he’s closely tied to the titular Portal, a passage toward other realms that opens at certain intervals and always signals the end of the ruling dynasty and a period of upheaval.   Sunlight (this is the name he uses in this particular incarnation) is currently a young man, imprisoned by the Emperor and forced, through torture and deprivation, to reveal the Portal’s secrets, but he always refuses, at great personal cost, until he is freed by a set of fortuitous circumstances and starts a journey across the land toward his ultimate destiny.

These narrative threads, carried by effective writing and a nice sense of pacing, are the backbone of the story and move it forward without a single slow moment, and are bolstered by a few side excursions into the journey of some minor characters, or the proceedings in the army of rebel Bamboo, who seeks to overthrow the ruling line and place himself in power. As the story progresses, we learn much about this fantasy version of old China, its politics, its customs and its peoples, and if not all that we learn is a pleasant discovery – the condition of women in particular was a sore point with me, because even taking into account the historical accuracy of it, it irritated me to see them devoid of any agency not closely tied to the use of sexual favors – nevertheless, we are carried along with an ease that makes this book a very positive reading experience.

That is… until the very end.

For starters, the end feels very abrupt in comparison with the massive buildup that preceded it: much of the story centers on the approaching opening of the Portal, and on the signs and portents that herald it – including a devastating earthquake that wreaks havoc across the land, laying the basis for famine and further death. The characters all act on the strength of this promised upheaval, whose precedents have been chronicled in the past, and in the end we see two huge armies, the Emperor’s and Bamboo’s, ready to engage in the battle of all battles in the plain facing the portal, with the future of the land resting in the victor’s hands.  The characters’ journeys, the events that brought them all to this place and in this moment of time, create enormous expectations of a huge showdown, or an equally huge revelation, or both.

Sadly, none of this occurs: I can’t get into the details without incurring in a spoiler, but I can freely say that the “bang” I was expecting turned out to be less than the proverbial whimper, even the more-or-less happily-ever-after of the surviving characters being dealt with quite summarily, almost as an afterthought.  To be quite honest, I felt cheated, not unlike those instances in which convoluted events turn out to have been just a dream, as many cheap TV shows have done in the past.  On reflection, I considered that the author might have wanted to show the futility of human endeavors, the pointlessness of recorded history, the silliness of our desire for everlasting power – even if that was his intention, I did not appreciate the way he chose to showcase it.

So, it pains me to report that the solid 4-star read this book was until that moment, lost some points because of that choice.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Stories Review: THE LIVING DEAD 2 Sampler, edited by John Joseph Adams

The zombie theme has never been more actual as it is these days, with literature and both screens – the big and the small one – often employing it for stories, although it’s difficult to find tales that try to look beyond the far-too-easy shock of blood and gore, focusing rather on the psychology of characters and their reaction to the apocalypse they are desperately trying to survive.   Recently I discovered this BAEN FREE LIBRARY book showcasing some of the stories contained in one of two larger anthologies dedicated to the living dead, and decided to take a look: some of the offerings were quite weird – like the one that sees events from the point of view of an Amish community (“Rural Dead” by Bret Hammond), or the one whose premise is that all of humanity dies and wakes up as zombies, and follows the plight of a family as they try to get on with their non-lives as much as they can (“Who We Used to Be” by David Moody) – but a few truly left their mark on my imagination, my favorites being the two I’ve chosen to showcase in this review.

The reason they appealed to me is that in both instances we can still see the humanity in these living dead, because, as the editor reminds us in the preface, zombies might become our enemies, but they are “enemy that used to be us, that we can become at any time”, and as such they should not be only something to fear.

FLOTSAM & JETSAM by Carrie Ryan (the author of The Forest of Hands and Teeth, a book I’ve often seen mentioned and been curious about) deals with the beginning of the zombie plague, and as such piqued my interest, since I find origin tales much more fascinating than the actual aftermath, probably because of the early imprinting due to Stephen King’s The Stand.     In the editor’s preface to the story, we learn that Ryan wanted to show the outbreak from an enclosed point of view, a claustrophobic one I’m tempted to say, so that from the initial idea of a plane being constantly turned away from airports, the author moved to a lifeboat from a cruise ship, and the two survivors in it.

We are given to understand that the zombie plague hit as the two young men were on a cruise, together with friends, and that when all hell broke loose they found their way on the raft, which at the beginning of the story is still drifting near the ship, with the fugitives hoping against hope that the carnage going on aboard the ship might be brought under control.   As the days go on, dwindling supplies and increasing despair take their toll on the two men, particularly because one of them was bitten during the mad dash toward safety, and he acknowledges – after an understandable period of denial – that he will turn and become a danger to his friend.

The story is focused on hope, and on the way it can be a two-edged sword: what made it stand out from the other offerings was the stark, lucid observation of the characters’ feelings and reactions, and particularly of the way in which the initial aversion, fueled by the close quarters, turns into something quite different. It’s not a happy story, or one with a happy ending, either, but it’s very much worth reading.

My Rating:  

THE DAYS OF FLAMING MOTORCYCLES by Catherynne M. Valente, besides being an amazingly unexpected story, represents my first sample of this author’s writing and makes me understand why so many fellow bloggers speak so highly of her works.     In the author’s own words, the idea of this story came from the notion of the “quiet apocalypse”, not so much the raging inferno that seems to be mandatory in this kind of account, but rather “an apocalypse you just have to live through and find a way to co-exist with”.

The main (and only, to say the truth) character here is Caitlin Zielinski, a young woman living in deserted Augusta, Maine, a virtual ghost town where only the zombies remain: she has chosen to stay because of her zombified father, a man who was, when alive, violent and irascible, and now seems only a pitiable creature, one that still dwells in the house they shared and tries, with mournful moaning that seems more lament than menace, to call out the name of his daughter, as a last thread of the humanity he doesn’t want to let go of.

Valente’s zombies are indeed a different breed: they try to attack the living, of course, but one can escape them with sufficient nimbleness and speed – what differentiates these living dead from the more widely known variety is the spark of humanity that seems to be still present in them, compelling them to remain close to the places they frequented when alive, and even showing a sort of melancholic yearning for their past lives, and loved ones: the pivotal scene where Valente shows a sort of… communal service (for want of a better word), in which the zombies seem to mourn all they have lost, is a very powerful one, and it moved me to compassion in a way that I would never have thought possible for these creatures.  It’s a scene best read on one’s own rather than described, and it changed my perception of zombies in a major way.

Touching, poignant and wonderfully written.

My Rating: 

Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Rating: