Reviews

Review: VALOUR (The Faithful and the Fallen #2), by John Gwynne

 

After the cliffhanger ending of the first book in this epic fantasy series I was keen to learn the fate of the characters I cared about, since most of them had not been left in a comfortable position by the end of Malice, so I was happy to see that Valour started exactly where its predecessor had left off, almost as if this were a new chapter in the story.

What I was not prepared to accept, however, was the leisurely way in which the author placed his pieces on the complicated chessboard of this series: much as the previous volume (and the other Gwynne book I read) the story starts with a deliberate pace that I have now come to recognize as the author’s modus operandi, and this kind of pace requires some patience from the readers, a quality I don’t possess in great amount, unfortunately, and that in this case was hindered by my eagerness to move forward with the story.  This experience taught that with a John Gwynne novel one must be patient, and that such restraint will always be rewarded in the end.

War has come to the Banished Lands: high king Nathair, persuaded that he’s the Bright Star, the champion of light who must fight against the encroaching darkness, has launched his plan of conquest, blind to the deviousness of his allies and the harm he’s inflicting on the ever-dwindling decent rulers of the land.  Young Corban, the true champion of good, is on the run with princess Edana and a few trusty companions, and suffering the double burden of the loss of his father and sister on one side and the awareness of being special on the other, a notion he’s not ready to accept.  Cywen, Corban’s sister who has been left for dead in the assault on Dun Carreg, is taken prisoner by Nathair’s war-band, her attempts at escape thwarted time and again, as are her attempts to convince Veradis – Nathair’s first sword – of her brother’s innocence: Veradis is indeed as blind to outside influence as his king…  And last but not least, warrior Maquin (one of my favorite secondary characters in Malice) finds himself prisoner of the Vin Thalun pirates and is forced to set aside his principles and humanity as he’s compelled to fight for his life in their slave pits.

These are only the highlights of a very complex story that slowly but surely gains momentum as it expands to encompass an ever-widening playing field and cast of characters: each of them is given room to grow and the chance of offering their point of view to the readers through alternating chapters that are often quite brief, as if to underline both the intricacy of the plot and the scope of the events.  One of the points that these characters’ journey underscores repeatedly is that the line of demarcation between good and evil is thin and often blurred: the “bad guys” are more often than not mislaid by the true enemies who use their insecurities or their flaws as leverage to accomplish their dark goals, so that the readers can see these people are not inherently evil but more simply misguided; just as the “good guys” find themselves repeatedly forced to be vicious in order to survive, needing to forget the rules of honor and fairness that have been at the root of their nature until then.

As a counterpoint to this element, however, there is a wonderful stress on the feelings of friendship, of belonging to an extended family that does not rely only on ties of blood but rather on the those forged in adversity, which end up being stronger than any blood relationship might be. We see this often – with the most notable example being that of former brigand Camlin, who for the first time in his life perceives this sense of belonging once he discovers he’s prepared to give his life for people he once might have preyed upon. It’s one of the few rays of hope in what looks like a dire, sometimes hopeless background.

Be they good or evil, invested with a mission or duped into wrongdoing, these characters – all of them – are the real backbone of the story, here even more than in the previous novel because we can see how they have evolved and can perceive where they might be headed; what’s more, the addition of new characters adds more layers to the ones we already know, because it’s through these interactions that an individual’s true nature comes to the fore. And here lies the most difficult hurdle to be overcome by us readers, because one way or another we come to care for these characters, to see them as flesh and blood creatures, and when the author needs to remove them from the playing field it’s always a shock, and one that’s not always easy to metabolize.   Epic fantasy should have prepared us to endure these losses: from the death of poor Boromir to the cruel slaying of Ned Stark, just to name two of the most famous ones, we should know that being one of the “good guys” is no guarantee of survival, and yet every time that happens we feel the same pain of… betrayal and are reminded of the bitter lesson of war, that no one is safe.  The only comfort offered by John Gwynne’s portrayal of these deaths is that they always seem to fulfill some higher purpose, that we can see how that particular life was not wasted on a whim – it might not be much, but it’s enough.

And speaking of war, I noticed how Valour contains an impressive number of battle or duel sequences, from war skirmishes to gladiatorial arena combat: in every instance you can find a precision of detail, a sort of choreography to the action that turns these scenes into quite cinematic portrayals.  For someone like me, who usually skips across this kind of description, this is indeed an amazing approach.

Much as Valour might have started somewhat slowly for my tastes, by the end it developed into a breathtaking narrative with higher and higher stakes, and totally unpredictable developments: if Malice laid the ground for the encroaching of evil, and Valour showed the kind of sacrifices required by the battle against it, I wonder what the next book’s title – Ruin – will mean in terms of story progress. What I know is that it will be another enthralling journey.

 

My Rating:

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Reviews

Novella Review: THORNBOUND (The Harwood Spellbook #2), by Stephanie Burgis

 

I received this novella from the author, in exchange for an honest review, and I was thrilled to be able to go back to Ms. Burgis’ new series combining alternate history with magic.

Stephanie Burgis’ digression from the historical fiction of her previous novels (Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets) into “pure” fantasy is proving to be just as intriguing as her other works: the alternate Regency England – here called Angland – introduced with Snowspelled is further developed here and gains new facets and a deeper look into the characters, while offering a fast-paced and engrossing story that offers some gloomier, more intriguing shades to the established background.

Present-day Angland is the result of the successful war waged by Queen Boudicca against the Roman invaders, whom she was able to drive away thanks to the alliance with her magician husband, thus setting the mold for a society in which women hold the political power and men exercise their magic abilities for the good of the country, a situation that has endured for centuries.  That is, until Cassandra Harwood, daughter of one of the most influential members of the Boudiccate, chose to forgo a political career on the path traced by her mother in favor of the practice of magic in which she excelled, causing significant ripples in the established status quo.

When we met Cassandra in Snowspelled, we learned that the desire to prove her worth had caused a grievous accident that almost claimed her life and left her unable to cast any spell, and at the end of that story she had found new purpose in the foundation of a magic school for the teaching of other young women who wanted to cast off the shackles imposed by society as she had done.

As Thornboud starts, the school at Thornfell, the Harwoods’ ancestral home, is about to open, the first nine pupils have just arrived, and the Boudiccate has sent a surprise inspection team to assess the school and the teaching program.  Cassandra has indeed her hands full, having to deal with the preparations, the inspectors and her problems with the staff, not to mention that she is plagued by horrible nightmares and suffers the absence of her newly-wed husband, who has been called away on Boudiccate business on the very same day of their wedding. As if all of the above were not enough, strange occurrences and a dismal discovery seem to point toward a malicious plot to cause the school’s failure…

Thornbound’s overall tone is slightly darker than that of its predecessor and I found that it fit well with Cassandra’s problems and more importantly with the doubts about her ability to fulfill her dream, not to mention the anguish she feels in realizing that her choices might have seriously impaired both her sister in law’s and her husband’s prospects for their future careers. It’s a very subdued Cassandra that I found at the beginning of this story, and I felt for her, but was overjoyed to see her rise to the challenge and summon her inner strength to overcome the trials in front of her.

Still, the major pleasure in this novella comes from the theme of mutual support and the bond it can create between people, especially women: in this tale of intriguing role reversal, women appear still hampered by social conventions and unable to express their full potential, any attempt they make to break out of the mold harshly criticized by their peers when it’s not the object of scandal and shunning. It’s a very actual theme that for all of its placement into a fantasy Regency background can however resonate with our modern sensibilities, as does the other important and equally modern subject about balancing one’s own career aspiration with the needs and requirements of marriage and family.

All these elements are set into a compelling story – a real page-turner, to use an expression typical of back-cover blurbs – where magic and everyday practicality blend into a seamless and highly entertaining whole.  I hope that many more of these novellas will come forth in the future, because they are truly a delightful read.

Highly recommended.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE TYRANT’S LAW (The Dagger and the Coin #3), by Daniel Abraham

 

Once again I managed to let a long time elapse between this book and its predecessor, but once I returned to this world I discovered that my memory of it was as fresh and sharp as if I had finished Book 2 just yesterday, and this can show you the measure of Daniel Abraham’s skill as a storyteller and the impact of his characters on a reader’s imagination.

When considering epic fantasy it’s easy to think about grand, sweeping stories that encompass vast expanses of territory and a huge cast of characters, and while Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin series does take place in such a background, it manages to advance the plot through a limited number of P.O.V. characters, namely four, and to switch seamlessly between them keeping a constant rhythm that helps you fly through the novel and find yourself at the end of the book wanting for more.  Granted, The Tyrant’s Law is in the unenviable position of being the middle book in a series of five, and there are moments when it seems to lag a little, but it’s just an impression, and an incorrect one, since in the end I saw what the author was doing here, which is build some momentum that will certainly propel the final two books toward their intended goal.

The world in which this story grows has never been a peaceful one: legends speak of bloody conflicts in the past – an era in which dragons ruled, the only sign of their existence in present times represented by the jade-paved roads that connect the cities – and the co-existence among the thirteen races who roam through the lands is not an easy one; moreover, in the first book readers witnessed the wanton destruction of a flourishing city and the slaughter of its inhabitants.  Now, however, those conflicts seem to have been rekindled with a vengeance, and the unrest that fueled a civil war in the imperial city of Camnipol is spreading throughout the world, taking on the ugly new face of a bid for power masked under a cultural, religious and racial battle for supremacy through conquest and submission.

The new, rising power is represented by the spider goddess’ priests and their goal to subjugate everyone under the goddess’ banner: after securing themselves a position of supremacy by backing the former nobody Geder Palliako, they proceed to focus their conquering drive by finding a convenient scapegoat in the form of one of the thirteen races, the Timzinae, and conducting a genocidal campaign of hate and distrust that justifies any action they take.  It’s nothing new either in the imagined or in the real world, and this awareness keeps imbuing the story with chilling overtones that feel even more terrifying for their historical familiarity.

Two of the main characters, Captain Marcus Wester and Master Kit (former priest now turned apostate and hiding as an actor troupe leader) try to find a weapon against the encroaching power of the goddess and her priesthood, and embark on a long, dangerous journey in search of a powerful artifact that might destroy the goddess herself.  I already remarked, in my review of the previous book, how diminished Marcus Wester looked once he stepped away from his role as a military leader, and here he still has not regained that former strength that had made him stand out as a character at the beginning of the narrative arc. Even through the hardships he and Kit have to face, and despite the great resilience he shows in the course of their quest, I found it difficult to really feel interested in Marcus’ journey, and I have to admit that I found his P.O.V. chapters the less engaging of the book, at least in comparison with what happens to the other characters.   The last segment where he appears, though, holds the promise of a big change, and I look forward to seeing what will happen with the amazing discovery he and Master Kit are faced with at the end of the novel.

Despite being confined somewhat in the sidelines here, Cithrin enjoys a much more interesting character arc: after demonstrating to her employers, the Medean bank, that she is an able businesswoman, she is officially apprenticed to an important branch in Timzinae territory, and finds herself a little lost, and disappointed.  The harsh experiences that tempered her in the fateful escape from Vanai led her to believe she could do anything, and made her not a little self-centered: here she must deal with the knowledge that she still has a great deal to learn, especially where the real value of money is concerned.  When Geder’s army takes control of the city and starts its cruel oppression of the Timzinae, she realizes what the true power of money is, and it’s the kind of revelation that is bound to change her outlook and thought processes in a major way – this becomes clear in a fateful choice she makes that will certainly have major repercussions along the way, and I can’t wait to see which will be the direction that Daniel Abraham has chosen for this girl who is finally starting to perceive the realities beyond the bank’s ledgers.

As for Geder… well, he is a wonderful character in the sense that he’s complex and unpredictable at the same time, but he’s also a horrible one. While reviewing the two previous books I already commented on his decisions to mete unthinking destruction with the same lack of empathy one might reserve for insects, but it’s the changes through which he is going that prove to be the most appalling. The man who started out as a bumbling, book-loving nerd, finds himself suddenly gifted with great power, flattered and bowed to by the same people who used to despise and ridicule him, and while he does not gloat about his change of fortunes, there is a deep well of unexpressed resentment in him, of desire for retribution, that drives his actions in the most nasty and shocking of directions.  The person who best describes him is indeed Cithrin, with whom he fell in love as they hid in a basement during the worst of the civil unrest in Camnipol:

“Geder’s not a cunning man,” Cithrin said. “He’s… he’s just a man of too little wisdom and too much power.”

“He is a terrible person, you know. But he’s also not. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who managed to make himself so alone.”

And it’s Geder’s infatuation for Cithrin which might be the proverbial straw that will snap his last, feeble ties with reason and humanity and send him further down the road to hell.  Whether I will still pity him in the future, as I did in the past… only time will tell.

I’ve saved discussing my favorite character for last, because her chapters were the ones I most looked forward to, and her arc the most intriguing and fascinating of the whole saga: Clara Kalliam, former lady of substance in the community of Camnipol, is now the widow of a traitor and has fallen down to the bottom of social standing, but being the dragon lady she is, she might be powerless but she is not broken. I totally loved how she maintains appearances and keeps working her contacts, a true spider weaving a complex web geared toward the fulfillment of her plan – because she has one, and it’s both ambitious and far-reaching.  Where other women might have fallen prey to despair and given up the fight, she understands that her reduced standing has given her a freedom of movement that she did not possess when she had to conform to society’s strict rules:

Her actions and opinions were impotent, and so they could be anything. She was already fallen, and so she’d been freed.

What Clara has set in motion will certainly change the fate of many, and I am beyond eager to see where her machinations will take the rest of the story: the simple fact that the next book’s title is The Widow’s House sounds very, very promising…

As a middle book in the narrative arc, The Tyrant’s Law might deceptively look like a transition novel, but in the end it proved to be the beginning of a huge game change, one that will keep me reading on with keen interest.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: ARTIFICIAL CONDITION (The Murderbot Diaries #2), by Martha Wells

 

The theme of rogue A.I.s is one of the classics of science fiction, and most of the times – if not always – the rogue goes on a rampage, killing humans with gleeful abandon, or its cybernetic equivalent. And even though this unescapable trope, in a delightful meta reference, fills much of the serialized fiction Murderbot so enjoys, this is not the case with our Sec Unit character: yes, it has gone rogue after being liberated by the humans it saved in All Systems Red, but the reason for the escape lies in its desire to better understand its nature and to explore the roots of the incident in which it allegedly killed the people it was entrusted to protect.

Artificial Condition sees a further step in Murderbot’s evolution: where the first installment was all about gaining some measure of freedom from the centralized control, a feat made possible by the Sec Unit’s hack of its governor module so that Murderbot could enjoy its favorite soap operas when not actively engaged in a task, now the outlaw construct wants to learn what truly happened in that fateful mission in which it might have turned against its human charges – Murderbot possesses few information about it due to the system wipe sustained after the incident, but it’s determined to go to the roots of the matter and learn what it can.

Thanks to a few exterior modifications that might make it pass as an augmented human, Murderbot hops between systems hacking the software of unmanned transports, so as to leave no traces, but it finally finds its match in ART, the evolved A.I. of a science shuttle: ART (an acronym created by Murderbot on the basis of its perceived attitude, and whose meaning you should discover for yourselves 🙂 ) quickly bonds with Murderbot through a shared enjoyment of its favorite serials, Sanctuary Moon and Worldhoppers, and soon becomes invested in the Sec Unit’s search for the truth, helping it blend more successfully with humans and giving it pointers on the best ways to avoid standing out in a crowd.

The sarcastic, often scornful conversations between the two A.I.s are indeed the best part of this novella, with ART somehow being Professor Higgins to Murderbot’s Eliza Doolittle thanks to its more experienced worldview and badly hidden sense of superiority, which irks the Sec Unit to no end.  It’s also fascinating to observe their different opinions about humans: where ART is clearly fond of them, as testified by its rapid attachment to the serials’ characters and its profound distress when something bad happens to them in the course of the saga, Murderbot is more wary of them and tries to have as little to do with them as it can, even though I still maintain it’s a self-imposed distance, because once it takes a cover job to more easily access a space station, it shows – again – a deep commitment to its charges, one that in my opinion goes well beyond any kind of programming as a Sec Unit.

But they were clients. Even after I’d hacked my governor module, I’d found it impossible to abandon clients I hadn’t chosen. I’m made my agreement with these clients as a free agent. I couldn’t leave.

The fact that Murderbot loves to lose itself in fictional series portraying humans shows its deep – if unconscious – fascination with them, something that goes beyond the need to interact with them, something that seems connected to the organic components of the construct and is in constant strife with the artificial parts: there is a sentence that I found quite enlightening and that to me showed clearly that conflict, one that I still wonder if it’s typical of all Sec Units or just of this particular Sec Unit – when Murderbot undergoes further modifications to better pass as an augmented human, it looks at its new self and realizes that the changes were very effective, and that it finds it difficult to accept them because “it would make it harder to me to pretend not to be a person”.

Murderbot’s struggle with its identity goes hand in hand with the difficult, painstaking search for clues about the incident that caused its system wipe, and the two threads seem to be interconnected, because discovering what really happened might offer important clues about why Murderbot is different from other Sec Units, and ultimately what led to its decision to hack the governor module – a device we already saw could be used offensively and not just as control software.  Given what Murderbot discovers on the space station, and the events portrayed in All Systems Red, it’s not hard to imagine some kind of far-reaching conspiracy whose goal is still nebulous – and I’ve been wondering time and again if the governor module hack was not a way for Murderbot to distance itself from it all, even though the A.I. gives completely different, more mundane reasons for it, which is hardly surprising considering the inner dissembling it is often prone to.

The jury is still out on this detail, though, and hopefully we’ll learn more in the next installments of this series that is turning out to be both intriguing and delightfully amusing. My hope is also that ART might reappear at some later date, because I loved it for its snarky sense of humor and its wonderful interactions with Murderbot.

Thankfully, the wait for the next novella is not long…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: BLOODY ROSE (The Band #2), by Nicholas Eames

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

Bloody Rose‘s predecessor, Kings of the Wyld, was one of the best debuts I read last year, and one I still think about with great fondness, so that I was looking forward to its sequel, especially since I knew it would not feature the same characters as the first book in the series and therefore I could look forward to meeting a totally new set of people, which made this story even more intriguing.

Tam Hashford has heard of the epic feats of traveling bands all her life: her own parents were part of one, and her mother died at the hands (or paws, or claws, or whatever…) of one of the monsters her band faced. Because of this, Tam’s father chose to lead a quieter life, trying to erase from his daughter any yearning for adventures and heroic gestures, being tragically aware of the kind of price exacted by those ‘adventures’.  But it’s difficult to steer away a young person from dreams of heroic deeds: on the contrary, any kind of interference can only manage to steel their resolve, so that when Fable, the band led by Bloody Rose, comes to Tam’s village, she manages to get enrolled as their bard.

The members of Fable are a mixed and intriguing bunch: there is Rose of course, whose fate in besieged Castia caused her father Gabe to reunite his old band Saga to save her; Rose’s right hand and lover is the druin Stormcloud, while the rest of the group is made up by Roderick (a satyr trying to hide his nature under outlandish clothes), Cura (an inkwitch, able to summon the most incredible creatures from the tattoos drawn on her skin), and Brune, the shaman (meaning he can sham into an animal shape, apparently a bear – even though the story is more complicated here…).

The world changed considerably in the years after the events depicted in Kings of the Wyld though, and the exploits of bands don’t concern the removal of dangerous creatures anymore: the bands now fight only in the arenas, and more often than not it’s more of an act than a true fight, where the “monsters” are mostly underfed mongrels, all bark and almost no bite, captured for the purpose of making the bands look good, especially through the bards’ retelling and embellishments.  This makes for a very different kind of tone in respect of the previous book: where Kings of the Wyld was a delightfully weird romp focused on putting the members of Saga back together, and their adventures always had a patina of tongue-in-cheek fun despite the seriousness of their goal, here the story is pervaded by a creeping sense of melancholy, of the awareness of a world gone forever that tries to cling to its past glories but only manages to show the surface appearance of it, without real underlying substance.

It takes only a few days on the road to start divesting Tam of all her starry-eyed notions about the life of a band, and soon enough the days all seem like a boring repetition, just like the story seems to move at a very slow pace, in what felt for me like a very different experience from the previous book: Iittle by little, however, I started to get to know these characters, and to perceive their strong bond, the sense of family that kept them together.  I believe that the sense of detachment I experienced at first came from Tam’s p.o.v.: she is of course the outsider – just as the reader is – and she needs to integrate in the group, to know them and to be known by them in turn.  That’s the moment when I became truly invested in the story, and that was also the moment when it took a very serious turn, a deadly serious turn, indeed…

I’ve come to believe that with the slow-burn beginning the author choose quite craftily to lull his readers into a false sense of sameness, so that he could better spring his surprise, a terrifying surprise that imbued the story with such a sense of inescapable doom that I literally flew through the rest of the novel in the attempt to relieve the anxiety I felt for the fate of the characters – therefore realizing that I had come to care for each of them deeply.  That’s why it was so hard for me to come to terms with the high price that some of the events entailed – I will not say more about it, since it’s a huge spoiler, but I confess I did not expect it, and it still hurts…

Bloody Rose probes into several important issues, like perception of self and the need to fulfill one’s goals irrespective of whatever kind of pressure (parental or otherwise) is exerted on an individual; or again the concept of courage and the necessity to find it inside us rather than trying to borrow it from external sources. But where this story truly excels is in depicting the sense of family, of a group of people who are each scarred in their own way by past experiences, and yet manage to turn their flaws into a useful tool for the good of the group, understanding that the family they found among themselves is worth any kind of sacrifice, no matter how high.

In the end, everybody is transformed – either because they have changed in the course of the story (like Tam, who goes from a self-effacing village girl to a more assertive person), or because they have changed in the eyes of the reader, who comes to know – and appreciate – them better, and if that development takes a harrowing journey that leaves too many casualties along the way, it’s a trip worth making thanks to the skills of the storyteller.  Which is the reason I will forgive him for bringing tears to my eyes with the final surprise at the end of the book….

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: INTO THE FIRE (Vatta’s Peace #2), by Elizabeth Moon

 

 

In the previous book of this new series featuring Kylara Vatta, we saw the character returning home after her successful campaign against the pirates that were wreaking havoc on the interstellar shipping lines: instead of receiving the deserved hero’s welcome though, Ky found herself, and the crew of the shuttle ferrying her on-planet, battling for their survival on an isolated, barren continent.  The discovery of a hidden base on that continent, and of the conspiracy to keep its existence hidden from general knowledge, confirmed the presence of a number of corrupted elements in Slotter Key’s government and military, a discovery that should have brought on a massive cleanup.

What instead happens here is the attempt at a massive cover up: the soldiers rescued together with Ky from Miksland are bundled off on the pretense of medical checks and completely isolated from the rest of the world, their families being told that they are all incapacitated due to a pathogen infection, while Ky, unaware of their fate, is hounded on very trumped up charges of expiration of her citizen rights, just as Rafe and his right-hand man Teague’s visitor visas are called off.  For her own part, Ky would not be aware of the fate of her fellow survivors if not for the successful escape of three of them, who seek shelter at her home and reveal the existence of the devious plot.

Into the Fire, unlike its predecessors, becomes then more of a political thriller than a space opera story, as Ky and her friends and family try to stay abreast of the attempts to silence and possibly kill them – not just in relation to the cover up involving Miksland and the secret base, but also because that purpose becomes entangled with some other individuals’ desire for revenge against Vattas, all of them. This last is probably the weaker thread in the narrative, because the long-held grudge looks all out of proportion when compared with the intended retribution, and the opponents little more than cardboard nasties.

On the other hand, the conspiracy involving Miksland, tied as it is to the possible financial gain from the continent’s rich resources and to a play for independence whose roots go back several decades, makes for a very compelling narrative, especially when Ky’s adversaries move from bureaucracy to outright slaughter as they try to remove her from the playing field.  This deeper look into Slotter Key’s society is quite unsettling when one stops to consider that home assault and assassination seem to be part and parcel of this culture and that the need for an escort, bodyguards and a fortified home are normal facts of life where prominent figures are concerned.  More than once, as I read along, I found myself wondering at this future version of mankind, one where the finer points of bureaucracy, whose pedantry can outgun plain good sense at every turn, exist side by side with home invasions by trained commandoes or murder by poison gas: it’s a bizarre dichotomy indeed, and certainly one more suited to a Game-of-Thrones-like society rather than an advanced civilization that colonized space.

It makes however for a very engaging read, and if this new installment of Kylara Vatta’s adventures does not offer much in the way of expanded characterization, it more than makes up for it by sheer suspense, especially in the latter part of the book, when the rescue operation to free the remaining prisoners is carried out with the same military precision that Ky used to combat the pirates in space.  We are also afforded a deeper look into some characters’ back story, especially Ky’s formidable aunt Grace, whose mysterious past, that was hinted at several times in previous books, is revealed in all its unsettling details.

And here lies what for some readers might be a problem with this story: for those who started following Ky’s adventures only from Cold Welcome, as it happened with fellow blogger Mogsy at Bibliosanctum, the connection to the various hints scattered over the course of the five books of Vatta’s War might look somewhat uninteresting, even distracting, while for me it finally shed some light in several dark corners that had me wondering at past goings-on.  What’s more, the perceived brusque turn from the journey of survival in Cold Welcome to the more… mundane developments here might feel like a slowing of the rhythm, while in the original series the author often made her readers privy to the financial and political side of the Vattas, and to their complicated family dynamics, so that here these details don’t look like they came out of the blue.

That said, this novel is not completely problem-free: my main point of contention with it comes from the author’s habit of repeating known facts several times during the course of the narrative, which in the end becomes quite annoying.  It’s one thing to briefly mention past happenings to remind old readers, or to inform new ones about them, but it’s quite another to rehash information they already possess, over and over again. When we are told, for example, that Ky’s citizenship has been revoked because she was away from Slotter Key for a certain number of years, we don’t need to have this information repeated – in all its minute detail – every time the narrative requires another character to be apprised of the fact. It’s a pattern that I noticed in the other books as well, but here at times it reaches embarrassing proportions, and this kind of…. redundancy only manages to slow down the pace of the novel, feeling at times more like padding than anything else, where this story should be about more than a simple word count, in my opinion.

Still, I did enjoy Into the Fire because I am by now invested in Kylara Vatta’s journey and look forward to learning more about it, especially now that the bulk of past issues seems resolved, so that I’m curious to see where the story will head next. I’m sorry that, for the reason I expressed above, I’m unable to give it a higher rating, but I trust this author to do better in the next installments, and I will wait for them with great anticipation.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: BENEATH THE SUGAR SKY (Wayward Children #3), by Seanan McGuire

 

 

This third installment in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series takes us in a very different direction if compared with its predecessors: where the other stories were based on oddity and darkness, Beneath the Sugar Sky strives for a lighter mood even though the core concept still carries a dramatic vein, but for this reason it does not seem to work as well as the previous tales, at least from my point of view.

We’re back at Eleanor West’s school where we meet a new character, Cora, who used to dwell in the Trenches as a mermaid: together with her friend Nadya – who comes from a different water world – she’s spending time near the school’s pond when a girl literally splashes out of nowhere in its waters. She’s Rini, daughter of the former pupil Sumi, who was killed in Every Heart a Doorway: due to the nature of Nonsense worlds, Sumi was able to give birth to a daughter before she died (and even before she was old enough to become a mother, at that), but now that Rini has become aware of her mother’s demise, she’s becoming the victim of entropy and disappearing bit by bit.  Asking and obtaining the help of her mother’s fellow students, Rini proceeds to recover Sumi’s bones from the Halls of the Dead – where we meet again Nancy, happily back in her role as a fleshy statue – and then moves to her home world of Confection to find Sumi’s heart and soul and make her whole again, so that Rini can go on living.

Confection is a world entirely made of sugar, gingerbread and candy, but it hides a darker side because of the Queen of Cakes’ cruel rule, as she tries to bend reality to her own twisted desires; the Queen’s attempt to stop the group of friends from attaining their goal proves to be one of the biggest obstacles in their quest, and it almost costs them dearly, but still it’s not enough to imbue the story with the kind of drama that is this series’ trademark.

The spun-sugar and candy nature of Confection might have been an attempt to lighten the mood of the series, and the group’s adventures – despite the seriousness of the almost-impossible task they set themselves to – follow a strange, outlandish pattern that looks more confused than anything else and robs it of much of the urgency inherent in the quest itself: Rini’s piecemeal disappearance and her need to have her mother back feel more like narrative devices than the emotional signposts they should be, and I never truly felt any commitment to the kids’ mission or its final outcome.

If the narrative somewhat suffers from this change of tone, losing some of the smoothness I have come to expect from Seanan McGuire’s works, the characters fare no better: with the exception maybe of Christopher, about whom we learn a little more, the other “old hands” see practically no evolution in the course of the story, and the new ones like Cora become mere allegories for the issues the author wants to explore, which is a change of pace and intensity in McGuire’s usual way to address them.   Until now I have always admired the way in which this writer choose to discuss important topics like diversity, perception of self, and so on, in a way that never felt preachy or heavy-handed, just laying down the basics and leaving to the readers the welcome task of thinking about them.    Here though, Cora has to deal with the fact that she’s overweight and has always been stigmatized and mistreated because of it: this detail is mentioned practically every time she is the p.o.v. character, so that instead of being an issue that should lead us to deeper considerations, it becomes an annoying repetition that adds nothing to Cora’s psychological makeup as a person and in the end makes her appear as whiny, and shallow.   

I missed the effortless dignity with which Seanan McGuire usually tackles the matters she cares about and drives home her message, and I believe this is one of the reasons I enjoyed Beneath the Sugar Sky less than I expected and less than it deserved.  My hope is that this might be just a small bump along the road and that the next installments in this series will return to the kind of quality I’ve come to associate with this author.

My Rating: