Reviews

THE QUICKSILVER COURT (Rooks & Ruin #2), by Melissa Caruso

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

With her Swords and Fire trilogy, Melissa Caruso quickly became one of my read-sight-unseen authors, and the start of her new Rooks and Ruins saga, The Obsidian Tower, happily propelled me into a new adventure set in the same world.  In that first book I enjoyed discovering her new central character, Ryx, whose “broken” magic kept her from any kind of human contact because her touch drains any kind of living energy: at the end of The Obsidian Tower, Ryx had been accepted in the found family of the Rookery, a group of secret agents of sorts, dedicated to fighting unruly magic use, but had also unwittingly allowed the escape of some demons so far locked up in the prison guarded by Ryx’s ancestral home of Gloaminguard.

As The Quicksilver Court starts, the already tense situation caused by the demonic escape heightened the political turmoil between the long-time opponents of Raverra and Vaskandar, and the Rookery is tasked with the mission of finding a terribly powerful artifact that could be hidden in a realm where politics are a quite slippery affair and every move could lead to disaster. As Ryx and her friends try to deal with the delicate situation, they are made aware that the escaped demons are further complicating the already knotty circumstances and that the Summer Palace in the realm of Loreice might prove a deadly trap. I don’t want to share more of the story because The Quicksilver Court offers such an almost unending stream of surprises, revelations and twists that to anticipate even the smallest of them would be very unfair to potential readers.

Plot-wise, the backbone of this story feels like one of those escape games where the players must find their way out in a constantly changing maze where unexpected dangers lurk, and no one can anticipate what awaits around the next (usually dark) corner: the overall effect is quite sinister, conferring to the novel a suffocating sense of impending doom that’s made even more ominous by the contrast with the chiseled beauty of the setting and the elegance of the denizens of Loreice’s Summer Palace, a place where fashion is used as a political statement.   Faced with a set of equally impossible choices, the Rookery needs to deal with terribly high stakes that end up transcending the “merely” political and move over the treacherous and apparently invincible terrain of demonic power.

Indeed, Ryx and the Rookery are put to the test in the most harrowing ways imaginable, which brings the revelation of many long-held secrets that might fracture their bond, and as far as Ryx herself is concerned those revelations bring forth a discovery that affects both her past and her future: to say that I was completely floored by this epiphany would be a huge understatement and at the same time I’m eager to see how this will affect her involvement in the Rookery for the next book.

The trials our protagonists are put through offer however a powerful way of expanding their characters and showing us more of their personalities and their past: there are some heartbreaking moments in which I felt for them deeply, because so far Melissa Caruso had presented them in a light-hearted fashion, even when they were facing difficult circumstances and almost-impossible tasks – the affectionate banter between them was one of the delights of the story, and seeing them so exposed and deeply wounded was difficult and painful to bear.  And yet, nothing brings characters into sharper relief than pushing them to the limits of their endurance, and seeing what they are truly made of: all of the Rookery members came through with flying colors, their inner dynamics certainly changed but in an interesting way that promises intriguing developments for the future.

As for Ryx, if I felt great empathy for her in the previous book, here she had my total admiration because she showed once and for all that despite the cruel drawbacks life heaped on her she has grown into a strong, determined individual who is unwilling to sacrifice her personal integrity, no matter the cost. For someone who was forced to live a sheltered life, she keeps showing a degree of flexibility and strength in the face of adversity that promise to turn her into a formidable person whose unbreakable core of humanity can temper any negative influence she might suffer.

Once again Melissa Caruso confutes the notion that the middle book of a trilogy is usually the flimsy one: with The Quicksilver Court she considerably raised the stakes in a narrative background that was already delightfully complicated, all the while adding intriguing facets to her characters and their internal relationships. My expectations for the final installment in the Rooks and Ruins trilogy (and for her future production) are quite high and I know they will not be disappointed.

All I have to do is just wait…

My Rating:

Reviews

INHIBITOR PHASE (A Revelation Space novel), by Alastair Reynolds – #SciFiMonth

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

It’s been a long time since I read Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy and I have to admit that I approached this new installment with some trepidation, because I know my memory of details and characters might be faulty: I saw that the author said Inhibitor Phase can be read as a standalone, and that’s partly true, because any reference to the previous works (and also the previous timeline of events) is offered in such a way as to provide enough information without need for lengthy and distracting explanations. 

Still, there is a number of details that surface now and then that can shed more light on the background if you are familiar with Revelation Space, and I was pleasantly surprised by the discovery that I remembered much more than I thought possible, which added to my enjoyment of the story.  Think of the difference in approach – according to your knowledge of Revelation Space or lack of it – as watching a movie in which the production hid some Easter eggs: old-time fans will recognize them and be delighted, but newcomers will enjoy the story nonetheless.

In the distant future envisioned by Alastair Reynolds, humanity scattered among the stars and made great progress, but encountered two huge dangers in its path: first the Melding Plague, a nanotech virus attacking both machinery and implants with horrifying consequences, particularly for those humans who had chosen to modify their bodies with augmentations. Centuries later, a worse threat manifested itself, that of the Inhibitors, also called “wolves”: hive-mind machines whose only goal was to annihilate any sentient life reaching beyond a certain level of technology. Inhibitor Phase starts a few decades after a devastating war that saw most of humanity succumb.

On the inhospitable world of Michaelmas, Miguel de Ruyter leads a small group of survivors living under the surface, hiding from Inhibitors by leaving as small a tech imprint as possible: when a ship in distress enters the system, Miguel tries to meet and destroy it before the wolves become aware of human activity, but the encounter propels him instead on a dangerous quest across the galaxy in search of a weapon that might one day tilt the balance in favor of humans and remove the Inhibitor threat once and for all. Miguel’s journey starts with something of a leisurely pace, but gains momentum and raises its stakes as it progresses, offering such surprises and revelations that often made me unsure about where the story would take me next – this is the main reason I’m struggling a little with this review because I don’t want to spoil anything: facing this novel with… innocence is indeed the best way to enjoy it.

Story-wise, Inhibitor Phase looks like a cross between a classic quest and a heist: the characters’ final goal is to procure a weapon from the secretive Nestbuilders, a weapon which might prove decisive in the battle against the Inhibitors, but to get there they need other items first, and some of them can only be obtained through dangers and sacrifice, which at times adds a layer of deep pathos to the adventure. There are elements of horror as well, particularly in the section in which the characters need to effect a dangerous exchange among the ruins of Chasm City, which was the background for a previous novel in the series: this encounter with the crime overlord – or rather lady, if you can use such term for this barbarous butcheress and her bloodthirsty Court of Miracles – is one of the most tense, most hair-raising passages in the whole novel.

Still, the adventure, the technological wonders and the obstacles to be overcome take second place in comparison with the personal journey facing the characters: identity is the main theme here, either hidden for personal reasons or convenience, or voluntarily suppressed to forget a dark past – I know I’m being cryptic here, but a few of the characters are not who they look on the surface, or who they think they are… Just as much as the quest for the Nestbuilders’ weapon forces the group to piece together information and parts, so the discovery of who they are, or were, is also a puzzle working slowly but steadily toward showing the reader the complete picture. What ties these different people together – even when they are wary or distrustful of each other – is their willingness to give everything they have to fulfill the goal of ridding the galaxy of the Inhibitor threat, and that spirit of sacrifice shows how much they value the survival of humanity and the potential for hope.

And speaking of humanity, be aware that this term has a far wider meaning here, because the people that once took off from Earth to venture into space have taken many forms in Reynolds’ universe, from the mind-linked Conjoiners to the cyborg-like Ultras. And yet one of the most human characters I encountered in Inhibitor Phase is a hyperpig, the result of past genetic manipulation and part of a race used for menial and dangerous tasks: Pinky (even though that’s not his real name) turned out to be my favorite, not in spite of but because of his gruff attitude that hid the psychological scars of a terrible past, and a great capacity for courage and selflessness. There is a magnificent sentence that defines Pinky perfectly: “You don’t have to be human to be people”, and it’s one that moved me deeply.

While I found that reading Revelation Space was a very immersive experience, sometimes it used to feel too much: too many characters to keep track of, too many narrative threads to follow, too much information – no matter how intriguing – to digest. This new novel in the saga appears almost streamlined when confronted with my recollection of the past, with a tighter pacing and only the barest details: in the end it makes for an enhanced reading experience and a totally engrossing story. I have no idea whether Reynolds intends to move forward with this story – although these premises are just begging to be developed – but if he decides to do so, I will be more than happy to see where he takes me next.

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

SWEET TOOTH (Netflix Series – Season 1) – #SciFiMonth

When I first saw Sweet Tooth showcased among the various Netflix offerings, the mere mention of a worldwide pandemic as the inciting incident in the story was enough to turn me away: like many of us, I’ve had enough of the grim reality of this past year and a half to want to look for a fictional version of it in any medium.  But some time later someone wrote a very positive comment about it in the Facebook group of SFF lovers I follow, so I decided to give it a chance, and once again I find myself indebted to a fellow consumer of speculative fiction for a great discovery.

As the story begins we are told that a lethal pandemic swept the world at a time in which strange babies were being born, hybrid children showing animal features in varying degrees: it did not take long for the belief that the two events were connected to take root, so that these strange children were hunted mercilessly while the world as we know it collapsed. Gus, a mix between human and deer, is one such child: taken to live in the wilderness by the man who raised him like a father, he grew up with the conviction that the outside world was a burned wasteland, and that he should never, ever, go beyond the borders of the place where he grew up. 

Like in all fairy tales however (because Sweet Tooth feels a little like a fairy tale, mostly thanks to Gus’ innocent outlook) something happens that forces the child to leave his comfort zone and face the outside world as he starts a journey of discovery and growth across a profoundly changed Earth. He’s not alone, not for long, as he later meets first with Jeppard (a.k.a. Big Man), a former football player plagued by the darkness in his recent past, and then with Bear, a teenaged girl who had to grow up fast in the changed world. There are a few other points of view in the story, like that of Aimee, who made a new life for herself and her adopted daughter in a zoo, or Dr. Singh, desperately trying to find a cure for the virus so he can save his wife. And then there is mysterious General Abbot, the leader of the Last Men, a quasi-military organization dedicated to the hunt and extermination of the hybrid children.

Still, it’s Gus who steals the focus here with his candid point of view and the deep curiosity he shows as he discovers the world, even when it presents its ugliest face: much of the success of this character is certainly due to the young actor playing him with a mixture of sweetness and wonder that never falls into sappiness and offers a delightful counterpoint to Big Man’s gruffness and to the world’s dangers and horrors. Gus is such an engaging protagonist that any time the focus shifted to other characters I felt something akin to annoyance – no matter how their POV could be intriguing – because I was invested in his journey so deeply that I did not need, or want, other distractions.

Like most series nowadays, Sweet Tooth is a short one, only eight episodes, and once the viewer is caught up in it, it feels too short and leaves you wanting more – particularly considering the dire cliffhanger ending – so my advice would be to savor it slowly and take your time to appreciate the tale it wants to tell and the beautiful scenery of an Earth where human presence is so diminished as to allow nature to reclaim its dominion over the landscape.  

This is a story with a big heart and a great potential to be explored further, beyond the handful of themes already placed on the table: my hope is that the next season(s) will not be too long in the making. If you’re looking for a viewing experience with a good balance between dramatic presentation and “feel good” vibes, you will certainly find it here – enjoy 🙂

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

THE WRONG STARS (Axiom #1), by Tim Pratt – #SciFiMonth

The Wrong Stars is the first volume in a space opera series dealing with the far future of humankind and focusing on the ragtag crew of the White Raven, whose salvage & law enforcement operations are conducted under the aegis of the Trans-Neptune Authority, one of the political entities ruling human-controlled space.

During one of their explorations, Captain Callie Machedo and her crew encounter the wreck of an ancient Earth spaceship, part of the Goldilocks fleet – slow vessels equipped with cryosleep units to allow the bridging of vast distances – sent centuries before in search of habitable planets: only one onboard cryopod is still in operation, holding Dr. Elena Oh who, once revived, warns her rescuers about the threat of a dangerous alien life form she and her lost crew-mates encountered.  Callie and her people are mystified, since the only alien race humanity came across so far are the squid-like Liars who are certainly untrustworthy, as the name they came to be known by hints at, but quite far from a deadly menace. 

As the salvage operation turns into the attempted rescue of Elena’s trapped crew-mates, new revelations bring to light the existence of another, far more ancient alien race – the Axiom – which once ruled the galaxy and might still represent a deadly threat for humans and Liars alike, so that Callie and her people find themselves enmeshed into an action-packed race to discover the truth and, if possible, avert the doom that a return of the Axiom could entail.

As with most books, The Wrong Stars stands on the double supports of plot and characterization, with the former being the strongest element. There is hardly a moment’s respite in the breathless sequence of events and plot twists that creates the backbone of the story, enhanced by a series of progressive revelations that do little to ease the burden of impending catastrophe hanging over the characters’ heads, but instead keep raising the stakes for the group of intrepid explorers.  The universe in which the story is set is an intriguing one, and the author manages to give us a good picture of it without need for lengthy exposition, also conveying the notion that humanity has changed a great deal, both socially and physically – as indicated, for example, by the presence of engineer Ashok, who is a cyborg constantly on the lookout for further modifications and enhancements. Moreover, there is a vein of light humor running throughout the story, carried by the constant quips exchanged among the crew, that mitigates the seemingly endless adrenaline rush of the events, and offers a welcome respite during the tenser moments.

Unfortunately, the characters suffer from such a tight focus on the plot, and they looked to me rather like… signposts (for want of a better word) of what actual characters should be, with not enough depth for me to truly connect with any of them.  As I read I kept thinking that the potential for each character was not fully explored, particularly where the already mentioned Ashok is concerned, or the weirdly inseparable duo of Janice and Drake, or again the alien Liar named Lantern who at some point joins the team: they all looked to me more paint-by-the-numbers aspects of diversity than anything else, which proved disappointing in light of the hints at trans-humanity and post-humanity inhabiting this future universe, not to mention the potentially intriguing race of the Liars.

Another source of frustration comes from the excessively carefree attitude with which the crew launches into unknown dangers – and into a situation that could lead to the total annihilation of humankind: their lives are constantly at stake, but I never perceived their acknowledgment of this fact, and was in turn surprised and annoyed at the way they faced mortal dangers as if they were embarking in one of their routine missions. This kind of portrayal failed to make me worry about their survival – both as individuals and as a group – because the way the story is told clearly implicates that they will survive anything: the fact that they always manage to overcome any danger, no matter how dire, and beat the worst odds, robs any of their endeavors of the suspense necessary to make such actions believable.

And on top of it all, there is an equally unbelievable insta-love between Captain Callie and Dr. Elena: first of all, I was somewhat creeped out by the fact that Callie feels the pangs of physical attraction for Elena when first observing her frozen body in the cryo-pod – my suspension of disbelief did not pass this stress test, which later colored my consideration of the told-but-not-shown mutual attraction between the two of them.  Add the unnatural ease with which Elena accepts the fact that she’s been frozen for a few centuries and that the world she knew is no more, an ease that never takes into account the element of “future shock” one should expect in such a situation, and you will understand my problems with the characterization of this novel.

Still, the core concept of an ancient alien race poised to return and wreak havoc in the galaxy is an intriguing one, and it might be the encouragement I need to try the second book in the series – if nothing else to see if some of the problems I encountered here have been straightened out.

My Rating:

Reviews

INTO THE BLACK NOWHERE (Unsub #2), by Meg Gardiner

When, not long ago, I discovered Meg Gardiner as a crime/thriller writer, I vowed to read more of her works soon, and for once I was able to fulfill this promise to myself. Into the Black Nowhere is the second novel in the Unsub series, and once again it deals with the hunt for a serial killer – in this case, as I’ve since learned, one tailored on the heinous deeds of Ted Bundy.

Caitlin Hendrix, the protagonist of the search for the so-called Prophet, the serial murderer whose actions were portrayed in Unsub, is now working as the latest addition to the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit: at the start of the book the team is sent to Texas where a series of disturbing killings is plaguing the small town of Solace.  On Saturday nights women are disappearing literally into thin air, with practically no sign of a struggle, and when their bodies are found they are all dressed in nightgowns, fully made up and surrounded by Polaroid pictures of other victims – many, many more than the accounted-for recent disappearances.

When similar victims are targeted outside of town, it becomes clear that the FBI is dealing not only with a very clever perpetrator, but also one who is fully prepared to play a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with his pursuers, certain that he will prove smarter than them, and untouchable.  Thanks to some unexpected information provided by a woman who may have crossed paths with the killer in the past, and has been living in abject fear since then, the team sets their sights on an individual who seems to enjoy taunting them, and it will take all of Caitlin’s physical and mental stamina to gain the upper hand and stop the escalating killing spree.

Law enforcement procedures are front and center here, even more than they were in Unsub, which makes for an enthralling read – and one where the “gore factor” is kept to a minimum, focusing instead on the methods employed to build the different clues into as clear a picture as possible: what I liked most is the fact that we, as readers, are privy to the same level of information as the police forces, so that it feels as we are right in the center of the action and not observing it from an all-knowing, vantage position, which makes for a more intriguing story and one that moves with a breathless, relentless pace.  Even though at some point the identity of the killer ceases to be a mystery, the story never loses its momentum, turning from a fierce hunt for a nameless, faceless man, into a battle of wills and wits between opposing forces – a battle whose outcome is not certain until the very end, which offers many exciting action sequences and a constant adrenaline flow.

Character-wise, it was interesting meeting Caitlin again and seeing how her past experiences – those of her troubled youth and the more recent ones in the hunt for the Prophet – have left their mark on her and are coloring her present attitude: where in the first book she was out to prove that she could be an effective police officer despite her family’s heavy past, here she is the “rookie”, and needs to demonstrate that her previous success was not a fluke and that she could rightly belong in the FBI’s elite team.  Still, she is a flawed individual, one who is deeply scarred both physically and emotionally, and this factor is the one that lends her the human quality that many so-called kickass heroines lack: deep-seated insecurities play a pivotal role in her psychological makeup, but at the same time they prove (in this particular context) to be an asset of sorts when she decides to confront the killer on his hunting ground – an asset but also a danger, because her adversary is a cunning individual, ready to perceive and exploit any sign of weakness in his potential victims.  

These confrontations offer several moments of hair-raising uncertainty because there is no assurance that the outcome will be the hoped-for one.  Which brings me to the window opened by the author on the mind of the serial killer, whose trains of thought and motivations are showcased with no recourse to morbid detail or – worse – mustache-twirling inner musings: you see a man determined to pursue his murderous instincts but at the same time able to project a suave, non-threatening exterior that becomes even more terrifying when compared to the evil lurking beneath, and made me wonder more than once how many of these monsters are hiding under the façade of normalcy we see every day. It’s a chilling thought indeed…

Back to the characters, there is one who deserves a special mention: special agent Rainey is one of the senior officers in Caitlin’s team, and I very much enjoyed her no-nonsense attitude first, and then the fact that she acts as a form of distant mentor for Caitlin, guiding her with a delightful dry humor through the obstacles and pitfalls of her new profession. Rainey is both an experienced agent and a mother, combining her professional and personal lives into a seamless, apparently effortless whole: it’s the kind of depiction that can only reinforce a concept that fiction still has some troubles dealing with.

This second, riveting book from an author I only recently discovered can only persuade me to explore more of Meg Gardiner’s works (and I saw there is a good number of them): as samples of her writing skills both Unsub and Into the Black Nowhere are very encouraging for my future explorations of her novels, of which the third volume in this series will certainly be the next one – and soon.

My Rating:

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THE BLACKTONGUE THIEF (Blacktongue #1), by Christopher Buehlman

When an author I’ve previously read decides to write in a different genre I’m always more than curious, and this foray into fantasy from horror author Christopher Buehlman was no exception: a few fellow bloggers who read The Blacktongue Thief before me mentioned the appealing mix between humor and grimness, which led me to think the book’s overall tone would be in the same range as Joe Abercrombie’s, but once I started the novel I found something quite different, while equally enjoyable. If you’ve read Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld, you will know what I mean when I describe Buehlman’s approach to narrative as a fine balance between adventure, bleakness and humor, a mix fueled by the main character’s unique voice and his happy-go-lucky, irreverent attitude that endeared him to me from the very start and turned him into an entertaining, delightful protagonist who hogs the limelight with no effort at all.

Kinch Na Shannack is a member of the Takers Guild, which means he’s a thief, but sadly for him a very indebted one: the tuition fees he owes to the Guild have not been paid in full, and until he does – devolving his hard-earned profits to them – he must go around with a tattoo on his cheek that makes him the object of sonorous slaps in every tavern: those who hit him can get a free drink, courtesy of the Guild.  Hard-pressed to pay back his… ahem… student loan, Kinch falls in with a group of highwaymen, and the first victim they pick is quite the wrong one: Galva is a skilled warrior and she dispatches the would-be thieves without breaking a sweat.  Tasked by the Guild to attach himself to Galva, who is on a mission of rescue, Kinch strikes a bargain with her and the two embark on a journey through a land infested by giants, goblins and assorted monsters, gathering a young witch and a former countryman of Kinch along the way. Oh, and let’s not forget Galva’s quite impressive war corvid and the adorable Bully, blind cat with some surprises under his whiskers! 😀

Kinch is a thief indeed, not only because that’s his chosen profession, but because he literally steals the scene from the get go, relaying his adventures – and those of his companions – with a flippant, often profane delivery that nonetheless manages to convey a great deal of information about his world. And what a world this is, indeed… One that is barely recovering from a number of wars with flesh-eating goblins, and is now facing the very real possibility of an invasion by giants; a world where magic is present in many forms and can be learned and used though careful training – Kinch himself has acquired and can use a trick or two. And then there is the Takers’ Guild: not the only guild on the territory, but certainly the most powerful, and clearly willing to amass even more influence through ruthless political maneuvering and a spy system that would be the envy of many such entities in our very real world.

The quest involving Kinch and Galva, together with young witch Norrigal and the thief’s old pal Malk should be a noble one, at least in the intention of Galva the knight, who is on a mission to rescue her queen, but thanks to the uneven mix of the group it turns into a riotous adventure punctuated by weird meetings, bizarre happenings and a few truly scary encounters that pay due homage to the author’s roots in the horror genre. And here is one of the true achievements of the story, Buehlman’s ability to seamlessly blend Kinch’s devil-may-care delivery of the journey with a few moments of blood-chilling dread: it takes great skill to depict a scene in which sea-faring goblins are butchering a human captive for their meal and turn it into a song-driven affirmation of courage and life; or to showcase what looks like a game of tug-of-war and suddenly turn it into a deadly affair resulting in a very unexpected loss – if you’ve read the book and know what I’m referring to, I can tell you that I’m still reeling at the way that scene ended.

The whole story revolves around Kinch Na Shannack, of course, partly because he’s the – sometimes unreliable – narrator of it, but mostly because it’s a sort of coming of age journey: the thief is a grown man, as far as age is concerned, but he’s still trying to learn who he is, what he wants (apart from repaying his debt to the Guild, that is…) and where his loyalties lie. He might depict himself as a foul-mouthed, unscrupulous individual:

If honor decided to attend our adventures, I only hoped I’d recognize her; she’d been pointed out to me a few times, but we’d never really gotten acquainted.

or offer his more juvenile, irritating behavior in many situations:

The lead dog […] huffed two low barks. I barked back at him. I don’t know what I said, but it might have involved his mother, because he began to growl.

but under these masks he wears he’s basically a good person, and Kinch shows that when trouble and danger come knocking at the party’s door and his actions belie his outward flippant attitude.  He is… well, a heroic anti-hero, for want of a better definition, and that’s one of the reasons he captures the readers’ attention and keeps it firmly focused – and in so doing decrees the success of this story.

Perversely enough, this intense focus on Kinch – no matter how rewarding in the overall economy of the story – is the reason the other characters suffer a little and don’t get the space they deserve: they are well fleshed-out, granted, and offer the perfect foil to our reckless protagonist, but still they are somewhat relegated to the sidelines, and that bothered me a little because I would have loved to learn more about silently heroic Galva or impishly delightful Norrigal, but still I quite enjoyed this novel – particularly when the breathless finale kept me on the edge of my seat – and I more than look forward to seeing what Christopher Buehlman has in store for his brazen thief, and for us readers.

My Rating:

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GIVEN TO DARKNESS (The Ikiri Duology #2), by Phil Williams

The previous book in this duology introduced me to a new set of troubles afflicting this version of our world, in which the weird and supernatural coexist with everyday life, as introduced in Phil Williams’ Sunken City trilogy based in the fictional city of Ordshaw. 

Where the weirdness surfacing in Ordshaw remained more or less confined to the city itself, and more precisely to its subterranean levels, in the Ikiri Duology upheavals manifest in a very public and quite bloody way, requiring the shady Ministry for Environmental Energy to stretch its resources to find plausible explanations for the sudden, tragic bouts of violence erupting worldwide, and to keep the consequences under wraps as much as possible.

In Kept from Cages we met MEE agent Sean Tasker trying to deal with the situation and finding an unexpected – and weird – ally in Katryzna, a young woman with a violently unpredictable attitude. On the other side of the world, a band of criminally-inclined musicians met with a strange child, Zip, who soon proved to be the key to the strange events plaguing the world. Once the two groups met, the story truly launched into its inexorable path…

The unlikely allies are now faced with the need to go to the source of the disturbance, a place deep in Congo’s forest called Ikiri, from which the spreading corruption seems to originate and where dark mysteries need to be solved, both for the sake of the world at large and for young Zip’s safety in particular, since too many people seem intent on killing her.

With the scene being set in book 1, and the characters introduced, Given to Darkness can finally embark, unfettered, into the adventure proper: not that Kept from Cages was a restful story, of course, but here the author could finally indulge into the breathless journey he must have envisioned from the start, while also enjoying the space to let his characters grow and take on new facets while they deal with the unending string of dangers and threats peppering their path. 

For instance I liked very much the way outlaw musicians Reece and Leigh-Ann become even more protective of young Zip, whose emotional growth is driven forward by circumstances that are far too complex and harrowing to be heaped on the shoulders of a child: the way they almost become substitute parents, and the comparison with Zip’s real father – a heartlessly manipulative individual who is quite easy to hate – makes the goodness of their hearts shine even brighter. 

Agent Tasker turns out to be a decidedly more human face for the Ministry, whose ways – as often seen in the Sunken City trilogy – can be quite callous, and I have to admit he grew up on me, while in the first book I was not too sanguine about him.

Still, the character that truly shone for me in this novel is that of Katryzna, mostly because we are finally allowed a deeper glance into her personality beyond the external armor of cold-blooded violence she likes to wear: getting to know her better, and learning about the person behind the mask of the brutal killer was a very intriguing – and at times emotional – journey which left me with a very different outlook on this ruthlessly determined figure.

What can you expect from this book – and from the whole duology as well? Certainly a great deal of non-stop action sprinkled with humor, even though the darkness in the title is a definite, and often suffocating, presence. If you are looking for adventure, mystery and a good measure of fantasy elements, you need look no further than this book and its predecessor.

Given to Darkness will be available from October 19th, which is exactly a week from today: the conclusion to this engaging series is indeed just around the corner, so… happy reading!

My Rating:

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THE POET (Jack McEvoy #1), by Michael Connelly

Since my riveting binge of the TV show Bosch during last year’s lockdown, I’ve started reading Michael Connelly’s books focused on his most successful character and reached volume nr. 6 so far, but I’ve become aware that this very prolific author has written a good number of other standalone novels or series, so I decided to expand my search in a wider circle: once I found out that The Poet, first book in the Jack McEvoy series, is also connected to one of the next books for Harry Bosch, I decided to try it – learning that the story was about the search for a serial killer was also a strong motivator.

Jack McEvoy is a journalist specialized in the analysis of violent crimes: when his twin brother Sean, a detective with the Denver PD, takes his own life, Jack is shocked but led to think, along everyone else, that Sean was depressed because of his inability to solve a brutal murder he was working on. Searching for details on the case, Jack finds some evidence that seems to indicate Sean’s death could have been a murder disguised as a suicide, and so he starts a search that points toward a serial killer whose actions have eluded the attention of the police and also of the FBI, that is now called into action to uncover the truth under a so-far ignored chain of police officers’ “suicides”. With the help of FBI agent Rachel Walling, Jack joins the pursuit of the killer nicknamed “The Poet” from the Edgar Allan Poe quotes found on the murder scenes: the journalist is driven by the need to discover the truth about what happened to Sean, of course, but there is also the possibility of a huge scoop on the horizon, because discovery and capture of the Poet will gain nationwide attention…

The Poet starts in a quiet, almost sedate way, but once the narrative gears are set in motion the story takes on the speed of an avalanche, inexorably advancing toward the final showdown (which works also as a “to be continued” because not everything is resolved here): I have by now become familiar with Connelly’s narrative style and his successful way of taking the readers through wrong turns and blind alleys, or to trick them with some misleading clues, but here he literally does it with a vengeance, delivering a compulsive read that I found difficult to put down. One of the winning elements in this novel is the change in POV, which alternates between Jack McEvoy (presented in third person) and William Gladden, the killer (presented in first person): where Jack’s segments prove quite intriguing, because the cat-and-mouse game between law enforcement and its prey is based on the collection of clues and a desperate battle against time, Gladden’s sections take us into the mind of this man who is not only a cold-blooded murderer, but also a very organized pedophile, which adds an element of horror to the whole story – not the horror of supernatural monsters, which we can easily dismiss because we subconsciously know they don’t exist, but the horror of a very real, dangerous and disturbed mind.

Considering the subject matter and the kind of emotional triggers it involves, I admired the author’s very light hand in dealing with it and in focusing more on the psychological aspects of the issue rather than on its more shocking ones, while refraining from any kind of moral judgment. On one hand we learn that Gladden was the victim of abuse in his childhood, but on the other we cannot forget that he’s become in turn the monster whose victims have suffered the same kind of abuse before being murdered: both facts are presented as starkly and unemotionally as possible, leaving any form of further consideration to the readers themselves, which is a choice I always appreciate.

Strangely enough, while I literally devoured the novel, I could never feel any kind of attachment to the main character: with any other story this might have proved counterproductive, but in this case the excitement of the chase ended up offering the kind of balance I needed to counteract my displeasure with McEvoy. What I did not like in him is the kind of duality at the roots of his character: of course he wants to know the truth of what happened to his brother, of course he wants justice for him and all the other victims, but underneath it all there is always the need to turn it into the next Great Story, to win the fame and acclaim he craves, even if he does not consciously admit it.  Connelly’s characters are more often than not flawed, which makes them human and relatable, but I found Jack’s flaws irritating, and his desire to glean the hard facts for the sake of a Pulitzer-worthy series of articles feels… sinful, for want of a better word, because the victim who started the whole search was his brother, and from where I stand gaining fame and recognition from the death of a loved one feels like an empty accomplishment, if not a vile one. 

FBI agent Rachel Walling is, on the other hand, an intriguing character who I believe deserved more narrative space, so I hope that her return in the Harry Bosch novel linked to this one will offer further insights into her personality. What we see here is an individual who is both driven and ambitious, but holds some darkness from the past, and I look forward to learning more about her.  Her romantic relationship with McEvoy in The Poet never convinced me fully, partly because of my expressed prejudice against him, and partly because it seemed to evolve too quickly, just as it ended equally quickly, and since there is no POV from Rachel it’s impossible to get into her mind and see what makes her tick.

If, toward the end, the novel falters a little as it falls into the time-honored device of having the bad guy offer a long, drawn-out explanation to McEvoy before trying to kill him, it picks up by leaving the door open for the further exploits of the Poet, to which I certainly look forward. Given my lack of empathy with the main character, I doubt I will read other books in the Jack McEvoy series, but on the other hand The Poet confirmed that Michael Connelly is the first of my go-to authors when I am in the mood for a good thriller or a crime novel.  And there’s still a lot of ground of explore there…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE WISDOM OF CROWDS (The Age of Madness #3), by Joe Abercrombie

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

Lord Grimdark did it again: with The Age of Madness he gave us a new, immersive trilogy set in the world of the First Law, and while he kept us all glued to the story with the two previous installment, he literally ended this narrative cycle with much, much more than a proverbial “bang” (or rather, a whole lot of them…).

The widespread turmoil on which the first two books in this series were focused, reaches here its bloody peak: previously, in Adua King Orso’s popularity was at its all-time low and the conspiracy mounted against him – led by his former friend and ally Leo dan Brock, together with Leo’s wife Savine dan Glokta – failed only thanks to a timely warning.  What should have been the rebels’ decisive battle ended with Orso as the winner, Leo losing the gamble and some body parts, and he and a heavily pregnant Savine as prisoners in the city they hoped to rule.  In the North, Rikke was sitting on her father’s chair, but still faced the encroaching armies of Black Calder and his brutal son Stour Nightfall, while trying to consolidate her power, forge new alliances and avoid constant betrayals.

As the final book opens, Orso has little time to enjoy his victory: after decades of bad, myopic management from the ruling council, the city of Adua is now a powder keg ready to explode, and explode it does in the throes of the Great Change – think of it as a bloodier, far scarier version of the French Revolution, complete with its own reign of Terror and mass executions carried out through worse means than the guillotine. Angry mobs sweep the city, destroying everything in their path, killing indiscriminately and taking the king prisoner, while Leo and Savine find themselves hailed as heroes.  And in the North, Rikke seems on the verge of losing it all, as her allies dwindle and Black Calder keeps amassing a force capable of sweeping the land and crowning him as its sole ruler…

The above gives just the bare bones of the complex interweaving of narrative threads and character journeys that turn this novel into a compulsive – if often horrifying – read: there are many more POVs than the main ones I mentioned, and each one moves the story forward without overshadowing the others, reinforcing instead the perception of a building avalanche that moves inexorably toward its intended destination. Not that it’s easy to see what exactly this destination is, particularly once readers are faced with some massive revelations – like the big one toward the end – and a constant barrage of betrayals and treachery that is guaranteed to have your head spinning wildly.

The Wisdom of Crowds is mainly a study of the effects of long-suppressed rage at widespread injustice, and of what happens when exasperation’s fires are fed beyond their conflagration point: the wisdom in the title is used in a darkly sarcastic way, of course, because what we witness in the course of the Great Change is the total obliteration of any civilized rule and a plunge into the kind of collective madness that occurs when the baser animalistic instincts take the place of the oh-so-thin veneer of civilization draped over them.  

As usual, Joe Abercrombie manages to seamlessly blend his peculiar brand of humor into the most appalling situations, managing to elicit a smile – or even a laugh – when least you expect it, while pointing out how far easier it is to destroy what does not work anymore than to find the means to build something better.  We are treated to several scenes in which the new government spends inordinate amounts of time foolishly debating the wording of those changes without actually implementing any, while nearby the madwoman named Judge sends hundreds of people – guilty and innocents alike – to their death.

Such upheavals are of course bound to impart profound changes on the characters we have come to know, and it’s hardly surprising that some of them end up being quite different from the people they were at the beginning of the story.  Savine is certainly a case in point: while she retains some of her former drive for power and self-preservation, her harrowing encounters with danger and death, and her recent motherhood, seem to have awakened her conscience, slightly tempering her ambition and making her more human. It’s not a complete turnover, of course, not given her established personality and the teachings imparted by her father Sand dan Glokta, but it’s a definite improvement over the ruthless socialite bent on profit at any cost that she was at the beginning.

King Orso and Leo dan Brock seem to exchange their respective roles here: the former was a reluctant ruler who preferred drinking and womanizing over learning the rules of kinghood, the latter was the highly praised warrior and hero with a bright destiny in his future. Events transform them profoundly, and where Orso becomes a true king in his captivity, submitting to it with humorous gallantry and ultimately showing a kind of subdued bravery that moved me deeply, Leo turns into an embittered, violence-prone individual more focused on the lost glories of the past than on the needs of the present.

A truly tragic figure is that of Gunnar Broad, the former soldier who keeps promising – to himself and his family – that he’s through with bloody violence: events keep proving him wrong and he finds himself constantly enmeshed in situations that force him to rely on his darker instincts. In a way he reminds me of the Bloody Nine, who strove to be a better man without ever managing to fulfill this vow.

I’ve left my favorite character for last: Rikke. As the daughter of the Dogman, all her life she’s been weighted down by her father’s legend and the need to prove herself, a girl, in the world of these Northern hard warriors – and by the heavy toll of her unpredictable precognitive ability.  Here she comes into her own, successfully managing to balance the ruthless strength necessary to rule (“make your heart a stone”) with the desire to act for the best of her people. You will encounter many surprises along Rikke’s journey, together with the heartwarming relationships with her two closest advisors, the cunningly uncouth hill woman Isern-i-Phail and the grizzled Caul Shivers, who seems to have found some inner balance here, if confronted with the man I came to know in Best Served Cold.

Joe Abercrombie’s novels always prove such an immersive experience that it’s hard to move out of his world and return to reality: my only solace is represented by the standalone First Law books I have still to read and the implied promise of this one that the story is not over, that there are some still-hanging threads that might, one day, turn into other equally engrossing books. Time will tell…

My Rating:

Reviews

SCALES AND SENSIBILITY (Regency Dragons #1), by Stephanie Burgis

I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to her for this opportunity.

While I usually tend to shy away from romance-imbued stories, I’m always happy to make an exception for Stephanie Burgis’ works, because her take on the subject is always permeated with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor, and Scales and Sensibility, the first volume in her new, Regency-inspired saga, passed the test with flying colors.  When a book starts with this kind of sentence:

It was a truth universally acknowledged that any young lady without a dragon was doomed to social failure.

I know I’m in in for a delightful journey – particularly since the mere mention of dragons never fails to pique my curiosity…

Elinor Tregarth is an orphaned “poor relation”: her parents lost all their money at the hands of unscrupulous profiteers, then died in a carriage incident, leaving Elinor and her two younger sisters alone and penniless. The three girls were sent to live with various relatives, and Elinor clearly drew the short straw: her uncle Lord Heathergill is a pompous twit, his wife never utters a word, and Elinor’s cousin Penelope is a spoiled brat whose only interest lies in her society debut and grabbing a worthy husband. Oh, and in showing off her newly-acquired dragon, Sir Jessamyn – unfortunately, her horrid temper and shrill voice only have the effect of terrorizing the poor creature, which often leads to loose-bowels-related noxious effects.

After the umpteenth temper tantrum from Penelope, Elinor cannot keep to her meek demeanor any longer, and after (finally!) speaking her mind to her horrified cousin, she leaves Heathergill Hall, taking Sir Jessamyn with her.  Alone and penniless, and thrown into a ditch by a passing carriage, Elinor discovers that dragons can work a peculiar kind of magic, of which she takes advantage to try and forge a new path for herself – not that it will be an easy feat, what with having to deal with some very convoluted situations and her growing affection for a gentleman whose fortune-hunting intentions might not be as nefarious as they look…

I had a great time with Scales and Sensibility, which turned out to be a fast-paced comedy of manners with a good dose of magic and fantasy elements, carried by entertaining characters in whose depiction one can clearly feel the author’s delight in poking fun at the stereotypes of the Regency era: from the venomous vapidity of Penelope and her close friends to the obtuse snobbery of Lord Heathergill; from the scholarly blindness for social graces of dragon-expert Aubrey (one of my favorite characters) to the sly viciousness of the Armitages, a couple of mysterious highly-placed socialites, without forgetting the formidable Mrs. De Lacey, one of the queens of the London scene, who features prominently in the story – but in a very unexpected way – everyone plays a role in the intricate plot that mixes mistaken identities, strict social rules, nascent love stories and magic in a spellbinding tale that we know will lead to a foregone happy conclusion but that we enjoy following to the end because the cast makes the journey more than worthwhile.

My favorite element? It was the relationship between Elinor and the dragon Sir Jessamyn: it’s much more detailed and even more intriguing than the actual romantic plot, which is extraordinary since the dragon does not talk, except by warbling quite meaningfully and exchanging expressive glances with Elinor.  It’s not just because I’m quite partial toward dragons: Sir Jessamyn is an adorable creature (well, as long as he’s not upset, since that tends to create embarrassing consequences…) and a totally engaging creation.

Every time I have the pleasure of reviewing one of Stephanie Burgis’ works I feel the need to mention their covers, which remains constantly gorgeous throughout her production: the cover for Scales and Sensibility is no exception and works perfectly as a companion for a captivating and charming story whose next installments look already more than promising.

My Rating: