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: 

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Reviews

Review: ENGAGING THE ENEMY (Vatta’s War #3), by Elizabeth Moon

After the partial disappointment of the second volume in Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series, I was eager to see whether that less-than-stellar book was just a fluke, or if the initial promise had really been so sadly reduced: I’m quite happy to share that the third volume in the series, Engaging the Enemy, rolls back on track in a very appealing way.

The story resumes straight from the point it had left off in Marque and Reprisal, making me realize that this is not exactly a series, but rather a long novel divided into five sections, and as such it might have its “down” moments, like it happened with book 2, while taken as a whole it creates an immersive story, one that deals with space opera themes from a different point of view.  There are space battles of course, and intrigue, double dealings and betrayals (and pirates! Let’s not forget the pirates…), but above it all there are the economics lying at the basis of a space-faring civilization and they are explained through the day-by-day challenges faced by Ky Vatta and her crew,  avoiding the danger of boring the reader with what might be otherwise dry facts.  And of course there is a good deal of character exploration…

In the wake of the brutal attacks targeting Vatta headquarters and its ships, their commercial empire stands on the brink of failure, and it’s up to Ky and her cousin Stella to try and gather as many surviving vessels as possible to resume trade and put the company back on its feet, while back home Ky’s formidable aunt Grace (the true revelation of this book, character-wise) deals with the aftermath of the assault and takes the necessary steps to bring the perpetrators and their accomplishes to justice.    For her part, Ky just realized that the attack on her homeworld of Slotter Key was only the first move of the pirate organization bent on controlling the galaxy’s trade routes, and at the same time she needs to deal with her newly-discovered killer instincts (born out of necessity, granted, but still worrisome in their intensity) and with Stella’s malcontent in having to play second fiddle to her younger cousin.  As if that were not enough – and let’s not forget that the threats on the life of any surviving Vatta are still a clear and present danger – Ky encounters a great deal of resistance to her plan of gathering other privateers, possessing like she does letters of marque from their own governments, and creating a force able to deal with the pirates and protect the shipping lanes.

There is a huge amount of problems laying on Ky Vatta’s plate in this novel – from the mundane needs to refuel her ships and procure new and reliable crew, to the political obstacles she encounters in her dealings with various governments, to her own personal issues – and it’s good to see her practical, and sometimes ruthless, approach to them all, just as it is to finally witness some emotional fallout after the grievous losses of family and relatives, something that I sadly missed in the previous book.  Despite her young age, and relative inexperience, Ky never forgets her duty as a commanding officer, and always presents a firm, competent front to her crew, keeping her inner troubles and doubts to herself, while at the same time she is not afraid of asking advice from more competent people when she needs it.  It’s a well-balanced attitude that helped restore my confidence in the character, in the way she is handled, and to find her both believable and relatable, especially when she faces some ethical questions: in this respect there is a very interesting conversation she holds with Rafe, concerning the needs for self-defense and the ensuing violence, and the way they can affect a personality – or damage it – that serves both to illustrate the theme at hand (one that cannot find an easy answer of course) and to shed some light on Rafe himself, on what makes him tick, which ultimately helped to shift my viewpoint on him.  Time will tell if that was only an isolated occurrence or if it’s the beginning of his evolution from a stereotypical lovable rogue to a more solid character.

Stella, on the other hand, seems to lose some of her previous charm: in Marque and Reprisal she came across as a capable individual hiding her remarkable skills under the guise of the clichéd vapid beauty, and back then it seemed as if the pooling of the two cousins’ very different resources would make for an almost invincible team. Here, though, Stella seems to suffer a slight meltdown as the childhood rivalries between herself and Ky resurface and cause her to act in a somewhat immature way – and all that happens long before some revelation on Stella’s past hits like a bomb, causing further damage.  Perversely, it’s that shattering revelation that helps bring the barriers down between the two cousins and puts them on the path toward mending their fences, as they finally realize that different talents can be put to use in synergy and not in opposition. Still, it’s the younger Ky who finds the strength to act like a balanced adult, while Stella succumbs to temper tantrums: I very much look forward to the return of the woman we met in book 2, because I liked her a great deal more…

Story-wise, Engaging the Enemy is a novel with many souls: even though the title suggests a focus on space battles, this happens only toward the last quarter of the book, while the previous segments deal instead with a wide range of subjects from interstellar politics to commercial transaction to peculiar planetary rituals, and yet it never feels boring.  Sometimes dealing with bureaucracy can feel as daunting a deep space adventure, as fraught with dangers as a trip into uncharted territories, and this is what happens to Ky when she needs to stand up to hard-headed functionaries or to prove her identity in the face of malicious accusations.  This is what I believe Elizabeth Moon excels in: incorporate the mundane into her stories and make it appealing by adding some little human touches that transform those potentially dull details into something fascinating, and at times even scary, like the heavy stress on courtesy that’s at the basis of Cascadian civilization, for example, a side note that starts as a humorous commentary and in the end generates a chillingly unpredictable effect for a certain individual.

This third novel in the Vatta’s War series has the definite flavor of a story that has found its right course and promises to develop in exciting and engrossing directions: if the second book, from my point of view, did not fulfill all the promises of the series’ beginning, this one holds all the chances to turn it into a spectacular journey, one I’ll be happy to stay on board to discover.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: PAPER AND FIRE (The Great Library #2), by Rachel Caine

I quite looked forward to this second book in Rachel Caine’s Great Library trilogy, and I was not disappointed: the story advances toward what I envision as the final showdown between the Library and those who feel the need to break the shackles it imposes, and there are a good many breath-taking moments and harrowing escapes, not to mention a few important revelations. Yet I did not feel the same level of involvement as I enjoyed with the first volume, and for a number of reasons that taken singly do not amount to much, but all together do indeed cast some shadows on an otherwise engaging story.

The book starts a brief time after the end of its predecessor, showing how the group of Library postulants we got to know in volume one is trying to settle into the new roles assigned to them after graduation: Jess and Glain have been enrolled in the Garda, the Library’s military arm, while Khalila and Dario are on their way to become full-fledged scholars; their former teacher Scholar Wolfe and his partner Garda Captain Santi, who played such a pivotal role in the postulants’ education, have somewhat faded into the background.  The glaring absence of Thomas, arrested by order of the Library for the “sin” of having designed a printing press, and now presumed dead, and that of Morgan, relegated in the Obscurists’ Tower because of her abilities, weighs heavily on everyone’s mind – and most notably on Jess’.

The possibility first and then the certainty that Thomas is alive, imprisoned and most surely tortured (as it happened to Wolfe in the past), drives Jess and Co. to mount a rescue operation that will see them facing extraordinary risks and, what’s more important, becoming fully aware that the Library is quite different from the image of the shining beacon of knowledge it presents to the world: for Jess, the scion of a family of book smugglers, this realization comes as a lesser shock in comparison to his friends, particularly when they come to understand – in one of the most powerful scenes of the book, set in the Black Archives – that the work of the Library in the last centuries has rather been that of suppressing knowledge, rather than protecting it.

 

“This is the graveyard where they buried our future.”

“How many? How many times was this created and cut down? They’ve been destroying it over and over, all this time. All the time.”

 

In a parallel with the growth arc of a young person, where Ink and Bone was, for the characters, a journey of discovery and the first step toward maturity, Paper and Fire embodies the age of rebellion, the need to move against preconceived notions and rules imposed from above, to obey the commands of heart and conscience rather than the laws whose profound injustice becomes clearer with every passing moment.  And indeed, what the group of friends learns along the way is that the Library has no regard for human life, even well beyond the maxim about a book being more valuable than a single person: from the barbarous suppression of knowledge and technologies that might undermine the Library’s power, to the appalling practice of segregating Obscurists and trying to generate more, and more powerful ones, through selective breeding, the Library comes across in all its heartless devotion to its own survival, and the will to dominate, rather than to be the protector of human wisdom.

Given all the above, it might look strange that I did not enjoy this second volume as much as I did the first, but there were a few details that kept bothering me at a subliminal level, interposing some distance between me and the story instead of the total immersion I enjoyed with book 1.  For starters, in the first 25-30 percent of the book the pace seems to be dragging a little: granted, Jess and his friends are trying to collect clues about Thomas’ survival and the possible location of his prison, so they face some virtual blind alleys and spend a great deal of time speculating on what little they already possess, which is not very conducive to fast-paced action.  Still, it looked to me as if the story was unable to find its right path.

Then the characters: we learn nothing new about them, about how their respective experiences in the “real” world have changed them.  Khalila is still serious and driven; Dario is the usual smart-mouth with delusions of grandeur; Glain the solid warrior who seldom speaks; Morgan the tormented soul prisoner of her own Obscurist powers. Scholar Wolfe is as scathingly cynical as always, masking his inner torment, while Santi stands there as his rock.   And Jess, the one on whom the story focuses the most – sometimes to the detriment of the others’ development – still feels like an outsider looking in, the imprinting derived from his family’s careless treatment affecting his determination to open his heart to others.  The only exception to this are his resolve to rescue Thomas, the only person he feels comfortable in calling ‘friend’, and his newfound… ninja powers concerning the Library’s automatons – something that could have been awesome for one or two instances, but sadly loses its impact with each new repetition, no matter how dangerous it is for Jess, or how daring he appears.

My reservations notwithstanding, Paper and Fire is an enjoyable read, particularly in the second half where the stakes are raised higher and higher and our group of rebels – because this is what they were fated to become from the start – has to choose whether to close their eyes to blatant injustice or to act against it, and therefore against the Library: going back to my comparison about the coming-of-age journey, their decision is tantamount to defiance toward one’s parents, and as such it cannot be undertaken lightly or without dramatic consequences.

This second book in the Great Library series ends in a huge cliffhanger, one that managed to counteract the mild dissatisfaction I felt for the story and to rekindle my eagerness to move ahead toward what promises to be a stormy finale. Now that the “middle book syndrome” is over and done with, the road can only get smoother…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE FACE IN THE WINDOW (Powder Mage 0.7), by Brian McClellan

Another fateful meeting is at the core of this story, that between Taniel and Ka-poel, two of the main characters from the original trilogy: Field Marshal Tamas’ son lands on the coast of Fatrasta (the land we get to know better in the new novel Sins of Empire) to learn more about the world, presumably, but no sooner has he set foot on solid ground that he learns Fatrasta has rebelled against the Kez in search of independence, and Taniel promptly enlists in the army to fight the Kez, against whom he holds a bloody grudge, and also to prove his mettle.

The Fatrastan rebels don’t fare so well against their oppressors at first, and the only advantage they have is the chosen battle ground: the Tristan Basin is a huge expanse of treacherous, deadly marshland peopled by fierce beast like swamp dragons – reptiles as big as a horse, capable of snapping a man in two with their powerful jaws.  Unfortunately the Kez are in greater numbers, they are better prepared and – worse – they have a Privileged sorceress with them, which turns Taniel’s first encounter with them into a life-and-death confrontation.  Only his training and the help of the mute red-haired girl he’ll later know as Ka-poel can make the difference in his chances for survival.  Taniel’s goal of killing the Privileged through his powder mage ability of aiming truly at a great distance will be the turning point of this initial skirmish, and will also be his first success as a magic-enhanced sharp-shooter.

I found this story very interesting on several levels: first, I learned more about Fatrasta and the road toward the independence that is a given fact by the time in which Sins of Empire takes place. There are a few details here that will be expanded in Brian McClellan’s latest novel, not least the first glimpse about the Palo inhabitants of the marshland, and the fierce determination of the oppressed Fatrastans.    Even more appealing is the encounter between Taniel and Ka-poel, one that starts on the wrong footing as the young man is initially unable to determine if this strange girl is a friend or a foe; as their understanding of each other grows, despite Ka-poel’s inability to speak, the bond that starts to form between them is forged through the need to defeat a common enemy and a slowly building trust.

What most caught my attention, though, was a closer look into Taniel’s personality: my first impression after reading the first book of the saga, Promise of Blood, is that of a somewhat objectionable person, one with a tendency toward… well, not exactly whining, but still one with some huge chips on his shoulder.  Now that I’ve learned more about what made him the person we later meet in the full novel, I think there is much more to Taniel than meets the eye and having by now read the second volume, The Crimson Campaign, I feel more inclined to cut him some slack.    Clearly, one of his problems might stem from the fact that it’s not easy to be the son of such a famous man as Field Marshal Tamas, and that he wants to prove himself because of his own qualities instead of enjoying some reflected light from his father.  And a very enlightening look at his developing personality comes from the very end of this story, where he contemplates his first kill and the effect it had on him:

 

You’ll feel guilty about that first cold, calculating kill. […] You’ll feel guilty on the second one, too, said his father’s voice. And the next. I lost that guilt around my twentieth, and I think part of my humanity died with it. Hopefully, my boy, you’ll keep it longer than I did.

“I didn’t,” Taniel whispered.

 

It’s always a pleasant surprise when I find my opinions changed by some new information, and more than ever I’m intrigued by this series and its fascinating facets.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: MARQUE AND REPRISAL (Vatta’s War #2), by Elizabeth Moon

After the delightful discovery of this series with the first book, Trading in Danger, I did not wait too long to read the second volume in Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War, because my curiosity about the main character’s continuing journey needed to be satisfied.  Sadly, Marque and Reprisal proved to be something of a disappointment, or maybe the victim of excessive expectations, because it did not meet the standards of its predecessor.

In the aftermath of the adventures in book 1, Kylara Vatta does not have time to enjoy her new-found independence and to settle into the role of commercial captain: violent, murderous attacks on all Vatta holdings throughout the galaxy hit Ky’s family’s commercial empire, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction, enhanced by the extended sabotage of the ansible net, the faster-than-light communication system, which leaves isolated planets at the mercy of lack of information and wild rumors.

Ky finds herself cut off from any kind of help and must rely on her wits, her small crew and the help of the few friends she can find, namely the mercenaries she met in the previous novel and her cousin Stella, the family infamous black sheep: surviving the attempts on her life while staying financially afloat, and finding clues about the attacks and the people behind them, will require an even more difficult balancing act, and Kylara will need to grow a thicker hide and quicker wits if she wants to keep herself and what remains of Vatta in one piece.

With this kind of premise and the high stakes of such a situation, there was room for both action and some character exploration, but what I found was far less than I would have liked: for example, Ky’s family suffers brutally from the first wave of attacks on Vatta, but the drama of it is observed in a detached manner – for want of a better definition – lacking the emotional impact that such a tragedy entails.  Granted, on Ky’s home planet of Slotter Key the remaining members of her family find themselves with little time to mourn the losses, because they must concentrate on keeping the business alive and on possibly removing the threat before it’s too late; and Ky herself learns of the attack after some time, due to the ansible sabotage, and therefore the impact of it all is lessened by the time factor, but still I would have liked to see some more evidence of grief and loss, instead of being simply told about their existence.

Stella’s introduction, on the other hand, is an interesting choice because it compares the different attitudes of the family’s two “failures”: Stella had been cut off from Vatta’s affairs after a massive indiscretion, and now – not unlike Kylara – is trying to demonstrate she’s outgrown her youthful silliness.  While Ky works to show her competence has not been impaired by the good-faith mistake that had her thrown out of the Academy, and that she can learn from that mistake and better herself, Stella has learned to use her fiasco as a form of deception, as a mask for the cunning and skills she has honed since then.  The moments in which the two cousins are able to compare notes, and to start understanding each other better, are among the best in the novel.

Unfortunately, the arrival of Stella includes that of Rafe, her former lover, and here the characterization fails a little, at least from my point of view: Rafe is the stereotype of the lovable rascal, the consummate ladies’ man no one seems able to resist; he’s the bad boy with his heart in the right place, the kind of guy every lady knows she should avoid, but is unable to. If you feel like rolling your eyes in exasperation, please do: I will join you gladly.   What’s worse, Rafe is soon revealed as a skilled agent in disguise whose abilities would make the famous Swiss Army knife quite envious: think of an hybrid between James Bond, Montgomery Scott and Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver, and you will have an idea of his talents.  Over the top does not even start to cover it…

As far as the story itself is concerned, if on one side there are some intriguing observations about people’s reactions in times of stress, on the other there are a few truly appalling conversations that are both infuriating and cringe-worthy, that gave the narrative its distinct unbalanced feeling.  What I enjoyed was the general attitude of planetary governments and private contractors toward Kylara and her crew: once it becomes clear that Vatta is the target of an organization capable of extreme violence, everyone turns their backs on her and her family, as if afraid of being tainted by proximity.  Nothing seems to penetrate this ostrich-like behavior, not even Ky’s quite lucid conclusion that the attacks on Vatta might be only the beginning and that others might find themselves in the same position sooner or later, that strength resides in banding together rather than closing one’s eyes and waiting for the storm to pass. As distasteful as it is from an observer’s point if view, this is also a reaction grounded in reality, and as such it’s an interesting commentary on human nature.

What annoyed me, on the other hand, is the paternalistic attitude that Ky is forced to endure from many sides: in her first voyage as a newly-minted captain it would have been understandable, particularly since an impulsive choice had been the reason for her banishment from the Academy, but now she has a successful – and very difficult – first run under her belt, one where she was able to show her mettle and the ability of thinking on her feet.  And yet, more than once, she is confronted with the wrongly perceived inability to resist the lure of a pretty face, therefore losing any capacity for rational judgment: in particular there is a conversation with the mercenary commander, whose paternalistic attitude had me grinding my teeth in frustration, that made me wonder about the author’s intentions with that scene, because if it wanted to be humorous it failed completely for me.

It’s exactly this dissonance that prevented me from enjoying Marque and Reprisal as I did the first book in the series, the perception that somehow the standards achieved in book 1 had been… diluted.  Still, I don’t want to give up on it, in the hope that the next books will recapture the “magic” that charmed me with Trading in Danger.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE GIRL FROM HRUSH AVENUE (Powder Mage 0.5), by Brian McClellan

My exploration of Brian McClellan’s stories that act as prequels to Promise of Blood continues…

This is the story of how Taniel (Field Marshal Tamas’ son) and Vlora (Tamas’ ward and later on Taniel’s fiancée) met for the first time as children.  Vlora was, to my deepest chagrin, something of a secondary character in Promise of Blood, while she was quite in the foreground in the first book of the new series, Sins of Empire, and since I liked her quite a bit I was of course curious to know more about her.  Interesting as it is, this short story felt somewhat weaker than its predecessors, and did not involve me like the other ones.

Ten year old orphan Vlora is living in a sort of foster home, with other girls like her, but she’s hardly interested in ‘normal’ girlish activities: what truly attracts her are the weapons displayed outside gun smithies, and she relishes the smell of gunpowder, whose acrid taste fills her senses in a strange way.  The area of the Old City where Vlora lives has been marked as the territory of the Bulldog Twins, a couple of bullies who enjoy tormenting smaller and weaker kids: Vlora’s previous encounters with them taught her to avoid the two at any cost, and that’s the reason she is surprised when a kid her own age, whose books have been thrown in the gutter by the twins, decides to react and fight back.  The boy is Taniel, and he’s the one who will first speak to her about powder mages and their abilities.

If the story itself seemed more of a whimsy than a background filler, I liked the glimpses it offered of the city of Adopest and its seedier corners: as I’ve now come to expect from McClellan’s writing, the scenery takes shape before our eyes with cinematic quality and the reader can see the winding cobbled streets, the crowds milling about avoiding horses and carriages, the shopkeepers minding their wares.  Young Vlora knows this world intimately and its harshness has taught her how to survive: I could see here where her amazing resiliency comes from and it added a few more details to her character as I’ve come to know it from Sins of Empire, but still there is not much more to this short tale than that.

Still, this world remains a fascinating one and I’m certain that these little bits of information will enhance my enjoyment of the Powder Mage trilogy, while they certainly make me look forward to starting on The Crimson Campaign, the second volume of the series.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: DRAGON COAST (Daniel Blackland #3), by Greg Van Eekhout

It’s been a while since I read the previous book in the Daniel Blackland series, and although it ended with an amazing cliffhanger that simply begged to be brought to a conclusion, I kept procrastinating the reading of Dragon Coast for no other reason that I did not want to close the door on this series, whose peculiar brand of Urban Fantasy  was one of my best discoveries in recent times.

But since all good things come to an end, here I am with the third and final (?) novel in the series. A spoiler warning for the events of the two previous books applies here, so read at your own peril…

Daniel Blackland, a powerful osteomancer (someone who draws magic from bones, either of more-or-less mythical beasts or other magic practitioners), managed to destroy Southern California’s cruel hierarch, the man who had killed and literally consumed Daniel’s father, and since then he has tried to keep under everyone’s radar while raising Sam, the hierarch’s golem – a teenaged kid he’s taken as his own son. Unfortunately, Daniel’s own golem-brother Paul conspired to create a fire-drake, a creature of immense power: to stop him, Sam sacrificed his life, and his consciousness now resides in the uncontrollable firedrake, that is laying to waste everything it encounters.  Daniel, together with his friends and allies, concocts a desperate plan to rescue Sam and remove the danger from the creature.

To say I literally drank this novel would be a massive understatement: if book 1 was very much Daniel’s story (both his past and the present, including the daring heist he plans with his friends), and book 2 was more focused on Sam (a character I liked and cared for from the very start), here we have a multiplicity of points of view, including returning water mage Gabriel Argent and the very welcome reappearance of some figures from the past, particularly Moth and Max (more about them later).

What looked plain to me from book 1 was that Daniel Blackland suffered from a streak of selfishness – understandable, since he had been orphaned at a very young age, and life taught him early on, and in the hardest way, that survival is of paramount importance – but here we can see how much he has been changed by caring for Sam, and trying to keep him safe from the predators who would have taken his bones for the hierarch’s magic contained in them.   True, Daniel can still be callous and worry less about collateral damage if that will fulfill his goal, but now he’s doing it all for someone else – for Sam – and this gives him the strength to carry on his plan, and awareness of the price he and/or others will have to pay.  Sam has changed him, made him finally touch his own humanity, and turned him into a better person: the feelings he holds for Paul’s daughter (Daniel’s almost-daughter, I was tempted to say…) are a proof of this change.  And speaking of Paul, or rather the fact that Daniel must impersonate him, learning about his golem-brother and the cold calculation of his choices does indeed play an equally important part in Daniel’s shift of perspective.

As a counterpoint, Gabriel Argent – who until now had come across as a “good guy”, or as good as the circumstances and his station allow, that is – seems hardened, either because of his past experiences, or because of the power he acquired; his role as a team player is less assured than it was before and it falls to Max (former osteomantically created human hound) to keep him straight and true.  Max is a wonderful secondary character: hounds, despite being humans, are trained in kennels just like dogs, their lives short and brutal. Having been assigned to Gabriel in the previous book, he has grown from tool into friend – probably the only trusted friend Argent can enjoy – and some of the best, most delightful passages in the novel come from their exchanges and the juxtaposition between Gabriel’s cool appraisal of situations and Max’s street-wise humor, one that comes to the fore even when he must make a difficult decision for his master/friend’s own good:

 

“I am your friend, Gabriel. If I wasn’t, I’d have shot you from behind. But I am your friend, and I have been for a long time now. I’m trying to make sure you don’t become a monster.”

 

What Max is for Gabriel, Moth is for Daniel: Moth is a special kind of man, because he cannot die – no matter the kind of injury he sustains (and there have been times where those injuries were nothing short of horrific), he always comes back. Indestructible, though not immune from pain: coarse and rude on the surface, Moth is a deep, clever thinker who, not unlike Max, can provide balance and a different, clarifying point of view to his longtime friend. That is, when he’s not being delightfully funny:

 

“That’s it? A friend?  What about brother? Am I not more like a brother? I would have said brother, if I were the one getting all goopy.”

“I killed my brother.”

“Friend is okay, then. Friend is fine […]”

 

The third point of the character triad is represented by Sam and his continuing journey of discovery while he literally dwells in the belly of the beast and tries to come to terms about who he is (and was, considering he is the hierarch’s golem), and who he wants to be, striving to reach a point that is all Sam’s and not the product of someone else’s drives and magic.  To me, he comes across as a very sympathetic character, one who feels like a true teenager (not of the whiny, brooding kind, thank you very much!) undergoing the struggles of growing up while also carrying the heavy burden of his origins.

Add to all that a new, difficult, multi-pronged heist, and you will understand why I breezed through this book in no time at all, even though I was aware that there would be no more adventures from Daniel and his associates – which saddens me greatly.  Unless there is some room for hope….?

 

My Rating: