Reviews

THE HUNGER OF THE GODS (The Bloodsworn Saga #2), by John Gwynne #wyrdandwonder

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

The Hunger of the Gods was one of the books I was most looking forward to this year, given that its predecessor, The Shadow of the Gods, was one of the best novels I read in 2021 and I was eager to find myself again in the company of the characters I had come to love in this Norse-inspired saga.

First things first, I need to express my appreciation for author John Gwynne’s choice to place at the start of the book not only a list of characters but a very useful synopsis of the events so far: even though I still had a good recollection of the previous novel, many details had by now escaped me, so it was important for me to regain my footing in the story before diving into the second volume. 

The action starts where we left it in book 1: the dragon goddess Lik-Rifa has been resurrected and her followers, the Raven Feeders, start with her the journey to reclaim the rule of the land and free the so-called Tainted – humans in whose veins runs the blood of gods – from their servitude; to that end they are training the Tainted children who have been kidnapped from their families in the use of powers bestowed by that blood.  Lik-Rifa is not, however, the only resurrected god, because the Battle Grim, led by Elvar, bring back to life the wolf-god Ulfrir with the goal of battling Lik-Rifa and freeing young Bjarn, the son of witch Uspa to whom Elvar has pledged a binding oath. And former warrior Orka, whose own son Breca is among the kidnapped children, is still in pursuit of the Raven Feeders, and reconnects with her old company of the Bloodsworn, the Tainted warriors she left long ago to raise a family and live in peace; young former thrall Varg is with them as well and he’s learning to master his powers as he seeks his own vengeance for the murder of his sister.

In this second book, these three main POVs are joined by some new ones, which offer a different perspective to the story while balancing the characters’ range with some… less positive traits: Bjorr – formerly attached to the Battle Grim – has been revealed as a mole for the Raven Feeders, and has now returned to them, but does not feel totally comfortable anymore with his old companions, memories of the camaraderie he shared with the Battle Grim, and guilt over his murder of the former band leader, often intruding in his thoughts, while the suffering of the kidnapped children never fails to weigh on his conscience. The dichotomy showed by Bjorr makes him a very interesting character, one with still a foot in his previous life: even though his stint with the Battle Grim was done in service of his goddess, he seems unable to completely accept her harsh rule and the methods she employs to reclaim power, turning him into a potential lynchpin for future events. 

Gudvarr, on the other hand, is another matter: his failure in capturing Orka after her incursion in Queen Helka’s hall has put him in a difficult position and he needs to establish his usefulness, while seeking glory and recognition – unfortunately he’s something of a coward, and the dichotomy between his outward behavior and his inner thoughts reveals this quite clearly: what I found surprising, given the pettiness of the character, is that I enjoyed reading about his exploits and his undeniable skill in taking advantage of situations. For starters, he represents a necessary balance to the heroism and endurance of the main characters, and then his ability to land on his feet more often than not is a very enjoyable counterpoint to his less-than-palatable attitude.

But of course the original trio of Orka, Elvar and Varg still enjoys the limelight here, as they travel on their individual paths toward the goals they set themselves: Orka is probably the one who exhibits the less changes, but it’s not surprising when considering that her focus is only on freeing Breca and avenging the murder of her husband at the hands of the kidnappers. All of Orca’s energy is concentrated in the fierce determination that keeps propelling her over hardships and dangers, and there is little room for anything else, apart perhaps from the growing gruff affection toward traveling companion Lif, who is slowly evolving from village fisherman toward warrior.  Things might change in the next book, however, given that Orka is at the root of the truly massive cliffhanger that ends this second installment – and which left me both stunned and not a little exasperated…

Varg, former thrall and now part of the Bloodsworn, is gaining confidence in his newly discovered abilities, but even more he’s getting settled in this found family that is both teaching him how to be a warrior and how to be part of a loving, caring group. He’s growing in confidence just as much as he grows closer to his companions, and it’s poignant to see how much this lonesome individual is thriving in the company of the Bloodsworn, even though the love they show him is more often than not of the though kind. Again, the story shows great balance here, juxtaposing the ferocious battle scenes, which are depicted in the usual cinematic way you can expect from John Gwynne, and the quieter moments when affectionate hazing or discussions about cheese (yes, I kid you not) serve to strengthen the bonds among these people.

In the first book of this series, Elvar was the one I felt less attached to, even though I recognized the potential in this character, a young woman who had given up a life of privilege to be free and gain some glory for herself: now that she’s stepped into the role of chief of the Battle Grim, she needs to re-think her approach – the responsibilities that the position heaped on her shoulder weigh heavily on her and help mature her, turning Elvar into a more thoughtful – but also more effective – person than she was at the beginning. And I have to admit that the chapter focusing on her return to her ancestral home was both gripping and emotionally satisfying, and I look forward to seeing how her journey will continue.

Where the characters proved extremely rewarding in their continued path, the story itself seemed to suffer a little from the “middle book syndrome”, in that the characters’ constant travels looked a bit meandering, slowing the pace and at times making me feel the compulsion to skip ahead – something that never happened to me with John Gwynne’s novels. With hindsight, I can see that it was a way of positioning the game pieces on the board – so to speak – and preparing the events for the final showdown, and I can say that I enjoyed the final chapters very much, given the adrenaline-infused series of events that they portray.  The slight lull I perceived might very well be the calm that precedes the storm we will certainly witness in the final book of the trilogy – one I’m bracing for and looking forward to with great expectations.

My Rating:

Image art by chic2view on 123RF.com

Reviews

END OF WATCH (Bill Hodges #3), by Stephen King

While I enjoyed the two previous books in this series, where Stephen King explores the terrain of crime fiction rather than his trademark horror, I did feel that something was missing – i.e. the supernatural element for which this author is famous. It’s possible, as I surmised in my review of the previous installment, that King himself might have felt the need to go back to his narrative roots, because toward the end of Finders Keepers he prepared the ground for this return.

Brady Hartsfield, the deranged individual also known as the Mercedes Killer, has languished in a mental hospital for several years, reduced to a catatonic state by a traumatic head injury inflicted by Holly Gibney – Bill Hodges’ assistant – to stop him from detonating a bomb in a crowded auditorium.  But Brady – either thanks to some unforeseeable recuperative powers, or to seedy Dr. Babineau’s experimental therapy – has regained control of his mind, if not of his body, and shown some telekinetic abilities that allow him to set in motion a chain of terrifying events, including the ability to seize control of other people’s minds through an apparently inoffensive game console.

Hodges, now retired and managing an investigative agency with his friends Holly and Jerome, never believed that Brady was as harmless as he looked, and when a series of strange suicides targets people who survived Hartsfield’s road carnage, he is more determined than ever to get to the truth, further motivated by the discovery that his time is running out, due to a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer.

As I said, End of Watch sees the return of the supernatural elements that King’s readers have come to expect from his works and where, as it so often happens in his stories, the most innocent-looking objects can turn into powerful instruments of mayhem and devastation: in this case the Zappit – the game console from a now-failed firm that Brady’s minions are offering for free to potential victims – becomes the conduit for Hartsfield’s mind-control thanks to an unforeseen, hypnosis-inducing feature in one of the game demos.   Mr. Mercedes, the first book in the series, introduced us to this utterly despicable individual, one totally devoid of any moral compass, whose desire to emerge from anonymity is mated with a deep, unfocused rage toward the world and a desire for revenge, which is here compounded by the long years spent as a virtual vegetable in the hospital.  

As we follow Brady’s steps in extending his influence beyond the walls of his prison, carefully plotting his scheme and taking gleeful satisfaction in the first “field tests”, it’s impossible not to be affected by the sense of impending doom and by the fear that Hodges & Co. might not manage to collect all the clues into a complete picture and stop Hartsfield’s plans.  The added element of Hodges’ impending death adds a further  emotional layer to the mix, particularly where the distressed reactions of Holly and Jerome are concerned: the three of them have become as close as family, and in the case of Holly and Hodges the only family they can count on for affection and support, making their interactions quite poignant, and a necessary balance to the spreading evil orchestrated by Hartsfield.

One of the themes that can be often found in King’s novels is that of the hurt visited on young people, on the loss of the innocence that should be their armor, and End of Watch is no exception: Brady’s mind control exerted through the Zappits tends to push the teenagers who received them toward suicide, working on their insecurities and vulnerabilities. There are some heart-wrenching sequences in which we are made privy to these young people’s inner turmoil, and seeing the way in which Brady exploits them brings the true horror of this story to the surface: the supernatural element of the novel allowed him to connect with these troubled minds, but what he does to them to ensnare them in his “suicide ring” is as real as it is loathsome and for me it rekindled the all-encompassing hate I felt for this character and his utterly unredeemable inclinations.

For this reason, the sense of family that comes from Hodges & Co. feels even more important than ever, and leaves room for some character evolution that I felt was somewhat missing from the previous novel: Hodges himself has come a long way from the man we saw at the start of the series, when he was depressed and despondent – even the awareness of his approaching end does not generate any bitterness, but rather the knowledge that he’s ultimately led a good life, and that he’s leaving an important legacy through Holly and Jerome. And Holly herself – a character I have come to be very fond of – might still be battling her profound insecurities, but you can see how Hodges’ and Jerome’s support set her on a path of independence and self-assurance that can teach her to make a positive use of what others might perceive as obsessive behavior.

As a series ender, this third novel leads us through a breath-stopping chase that kept me on the edge of my seat, but what’s more important here is the sense of a closing circle, of wrapping up the events started by Brady’s road-rage killing spree in the first book: the mass murder at the job fair constantly informs the narrative throughout the series, and we are shown how it affected both individuals and the community as a whole, so it’s important to have closure in this final book,  particularly where Brady Hartsfield is concerned, because the poetic justice inherent in his end feels not only satisfying, but also quite right

The Bill Hodges trilogy was indeed a different reading experience for me, as far as Stephen King’s works are concerned, but also an intriguing one, and it helped to rekindle my interest in this author after a long hiatus. I guess more optimism for future reads is quite justified…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 (Dead Djinn Universe #0.3), by P. Djèlì Clark

My third foray into P. Djèlí Clark’s alternate Egypt, and the return to the workings of Cairo’s Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities,  proved to be even better than my experience with A Dead Djinn in Cairo, particularly once I overcame the slight disappointment provoked by the absence of investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the main character of the first novella – although she does make a cameo appearance here, toward the end.

In Haunting the supernatural detectives for the Ministry are two: sedate and formal veteran Hamed al-Nasri and the enthusiastic rookie Agent Onsi – quite different characters that, despite those differences, manage to create an effective team while dealing with the present emergency, the haunting of one of the many aerial tram cars traversing the skies of Egypt’s capital. The Ministry was summoned by Superintendent Bashir, who appears quite distraught by the presence of what looks to be a djinn that took possession of said tram car, terrifying the passengers and forcing Bashir to take it out of the regular runs.  Once the investigation goes underway, however, the two investigators understand that the infestation has nothing to do with djinns and is instead something different and far more malevolent, so they are forced to seek more specialized help, finding it in a very unexpected quarter…

The previous story featuring Fatma merely laid the foundations of this alternate world, one where the border between the mundane and the supernatural had been pierced, allowing otherworldly creatures to enter our reality and coexist with humans; this novella deepens and enriches our knowledge of this changed reality, a background where elements of magic and steampunk details turn our journey into a very intriguing one, and in this specific case add the theme of social change to the mix, offering a chance both for reflection and for some amusing interludes.

Characters are better defined in Haunting, something I felt was slightly missing from my first experience with this series, and I have to admit that I took an instant liking to the Hamed/Onsi duo, which helped me to offset the initial surprise at the shift in perspective from Fatma’s.  Hamed at first comes across as a very matter-of-fact person whose experience in magical matters placed something of a disenchanted attitude on him, so that he observes Onsi’s ebullient joy at being in the field with a touch of amused annoyance.  Onsi, on the other hand, is not only very eager – as newbies are inclined to be – he’s also very much book-oriented, but has little experience of fieldwork. This disparity might have influenced their effectiveness in dealing with this difficult case, but instead the two of them are able to find some common ground – each giving in to the other a little – and turn out to be a great team, not only where their mission is concerned, but also where their work styles are involved.

Even though the main protagonists here are men, there is an intriguing focus on women, both as individuals – the mysteriously knowledgeable waitress Abla and the sheikha Nadiyaa, performer of magical arts – and as a group, i.e. the members of the movement for suffrage, the Egyptian Feminist Sisterhood. Cairo, and probably the whole of Egypt, is on the verge of huge social changes through the implementation of the right of vote for women and this is reflected in the substantial female presence on the scene and in the narrative thread that sees a particular magic rite – performed only by women – as the key to solving the tram’s infestation. This need for change, not only in politics, but also in the attitude toward women, is subtly addressed while discussing the malevolent spirit inhabiting Car 015, which appears either as a child or a hideous crone:

That spirit was just a formless being minding its own business. Then, it encountered men. And they decided to make it this beautiful woman or this monstrous crone, because that’s the only way many men can even view women

For all his outward adherence to protocol, Hamed is a very versatile individual and he’s soon able to acknowledge that exceptional circumstances require exceptional solutions, and he wastes no time in implementing them, also accepting with grace and humor the very unusual… ahem… camouflage he and Onsi must don to fool the spirit. I ended up liking him very much, and understood that the formal exterior hides an intriguing, multifaceted personality I would not mind seeing explored in depth – maybe teamed up with Fatma, with whom he has an interesting conversation once the dust of the chase has settled.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 offered a more comprehensive look into this parallel reality, and I enjoyed the world-building even more than with the previous story: there is such a richness of detail here that the background comes alive with all its colors and smells and the views of teeming streets that make the city come alive in quite a cinematic way. Returning here through the full-length novel that awaits me down the line will certainly be an equally delightful experience.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE DARK CORNERS OF THE NIGHT (Unsub #3), by Meg Gardiner

This is my third foray into Meg Gardiner’s Unsub series, and the one which showcases its constant improvement both story- and character-wise.  My renewed interest in crime fiction can now rely on two excellent authors: Michael Connelly and Meg Gardiner.

In this new case, former detective and now FBI agent Caitlin Hendrix has been called to Los Angeles to investigate a series of brutal home invasions: the unsub (short for Unknown Subject) committing the crimes targets houses where families with children live, viciously kills the parents and terrorizes the children, often leaving crude messages or pictures of eyes on the walls.  The press has taken to call him the Midnight Man, because that’s the hour when he’s liable to strike, when everyone in the house is sleeping and therefore more defenseless.  As both the police and the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit struggle to pinpoint the identity and the personality of the killer – who is extremely careful not to leave clues or recognizable images on surveillance cameras – the Midnight Man makes his first mistake by attacking young Hannah’s house: the girl manages not only to give the alarm and therefore save her parents’ life, she is also able to offer some important information to the investigators, turning into a pivotal witness for law enforcement but also painting a target on her own back because the killer is deadly set in removing the danger, and the intolerable failure, she represents.

The Dark Corners of the Night turned out to be not only the most gripping novel in the series so far, but also one that affected me quite deeply in an unexpected way: while I was reading the book, I was awakened one night by a noise – with all probability one of the not-so-careful people living one floor above moving around with no consideration for  the late hour or their neighbors’ rest. At any other time I might simply have grumbled and tried to go back to sleep, but the power of the story I was reading was such that I had to take a tour of the apartment and check that the door was locked, even though I kept berating myself for such silliness: I’ve read a good number of thrillers, I’ve read horror stories, for pity’s sake, and I’ve never given any though to “monsters” lurking in the dark, but this time I did – that’s the extent of my emotional involvement with this book.

This novel is indeed a compulsive read that will keep you on the edge of your seat for most of the time: the descriptions of the killer’s incursions, the urgent search for any clue or piece of information that might lead to his capture, and the final, adrenaline-infused chase through the city, all combine to create a breathless atmosphere of suspense that will keep you enthralled from start to finish. Even the relatively quieter moments, when details are examined and we are made privy to the intriguing aspects of law enforcement procedures, feel like part of that pressing need to know what motivates this unsub, who he is and what can be done to find and stop his killing spree.  The greater attraction here comes from following the police and FBI’s steps in collating the evidence, slowly but surely piecing together the various elements of the puzzle: as readers we get the same information that law enforcements has and therefore we feel like we’re moving alongside them in this journey, with no privileged outlook that might lead us to get the whole picture before the characters. Plot-wise, this is my preferred method of exploring a story, because I love being surprised and discovering that any hunch I might have had was totally wrong.

Meg Gardiner’s novels don’t rely on plot alone, though, because she always manages to achieve a good balance between that and character development.  Caitlin Hendrix is of course the one under the brighter spotlight, and here we see how the search for the Midnight Man and his elusive trail ends up affecting her: while this book can be read as a stand-alone, it would be better to be aware of Caitlin’s difficult journey and the emotional scars from both her past, and the more recent events, to fully comprehend some of her reactions to the stress of the chase, particularly when she falls back to some compulsive habits that plagued her youth. Since fiction has accustomed us to see law enforcement officers as tough, unyielding individuals, we tend to forget they are human beings as well, and therefore subject to human frailties, which might sometimes reduce their field effectiveness but helps greatly in sympathizing with them and seeing them as people: this is the case with Caitlin’s flaws, which don’t demean her but instead offer a balanced counterpoint to her investigating skills.

Dark Corners also offers an intriguing character study with young Hannah: gifted with great courage and observational skills well beyond her years, she offers the intriguing portrait of a child who goes through some harrowing experiences but has the strength and presence of mind to fight against her fears and offer the police the means to apprehend the killer. I quite enjoyed the interactions between Hannah and Caitlin, with the latter probably seeing in the young girl a mirror of herself, of a victim who refuses to be relegated in that role and acts proactively with every means at her disposal.  On the opposite side of the spectrum there is the Midnight Man: as his profile becomes less hazy and we start to understand what makes him tick and what propelled him toward his killing spree, it’s impossible not to be chilled by the realization that there might be many like him living literally next door, and that it might take only a little shift in their precarious balance to tip them off toward such darkness.

As the novel neared its conclusion I was already mourning the fact that Caitlin’s story seemed to be headed toward a final wrap, because I have been enjoying these novels very much, but I was glad to discover that the final paragraphs hint toward new developments though the possible return of an old adversary, which means that a fourth book might very well be in the works as I write this. If that’s the case I am surely on board for more, and as I wait I can always explore some other works from Meg Gardiner who is – happily for me – a very prolific author.

My Rating:

Reviews

A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO CONQUERING THE WORLD (The Siege #3), by K.J. Parker

The third book in K.J. Parker’s The Siege presents once again a story set in the same world as the two previous volumes, but this time not in the City we have come to know through the chronicles of Orhan the engineer and Notker the actor turned leader: here the protagonist is Felix (the lucky), a Robur national sent as a diplomatic envoy and translator to the Echmen empire. 

Felix ended there under a cloud of disgrace caused by an ill-considered liaison which cost him dearly, both physically and socially, and all he wants now is to keep a low profile and read books: easier said than done though, because first he ends up saving the life of a Hus princess-hostage, who was going to be executed because of a grammatical misunderstanding, and then he’s in turn saved by that same princess once it seems that the Robur nation has been obliterated and that Felix is its only survivor. From that moment on, Felix – and the princess – will embark on a journey across the wide world that will lead them to meet its many different peoples, as the former translator starts what can only be termed as an incredible revolution that will change the balance of power through the application of an apparently unplanned conquest strategy.

The protagonists of Parker’s novels, despite their differences, share a common unreliability as narrators, and what’s more they make no mystery of it – Felix is indeed the one who seems to be the most open on the subject, in respect of his predecessors:

I really don’t understand why people go on about how wonderful the truth is. In my experience, all it does is make trouble.

This is even more true here because, as the story moves forward, we learn that what appears as a series of unconnected and unplanned choices ends up generating very serendipitous results that point toward a carefully orchestrated plan. Felix’s narration makes it all look quite accidental, or at the very least the product of inspiration drawn from one of the many books he’s read, but after a while it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that he’s not “encouraging” the outcome from the sidelines.  Especially when he says things like this:

Everything I’ve touched I’ve translated, into one thing or the other.

To further muddy the waters, at some point he makes a mention of his offhand humorous approach to situations, drawing a parallel between it and the ink squids use as camouflage against predators, and adding that under the layers of that protective humor he’s quite scared, but given his unreliability as a narrator it’s not so easy to fully believe him. 

All of the above turns Felix into a character that is difficult to relate to, and there are times when I felt quite annoyed with him – in a half-amused way, granted, but still annoyed, so that I could quite sympathize with the princess when she berated him and looked ready to use physical violence.  And yet, the relationship between the two of them (which cannot turn into a romantic pairing because of Felix’s… unfortunate situation) is one of the narrative delights of the story, with the two of them forming a complicated partnership that nonetheless works on many levels and offers some very amusing scenes, like the ones where Felix translates her profanity-laden speeches into something more diplomatically appropriate.

What truly differentiates this book from its predecessors is that the story follows a journey/quest model rather than being set in the City, which offers the author the chance to have a lot of fun with the different names and customs of the many tribes our two fugitive travelers meet: the travelogue might look somewhat confusing because the book does not have a map, which might have made things more visually understandable, but it’s a minor inconvenience after all, because Felix’s tongue-in-cheek descriptions of these peoples, their history and above all their quirks, makes for an amusing sketch of this world and its inhabitants who, despite the outward cultural differences, seem to share a deep distrust of strangers – but also the inability to resist the translator’s quick tongue and powers of conviction.

At times, the long lists of places and tribes – complete with details about customs and laws – feels like too much information and one could be tempted to skip forward to get back to the main story, but I don’t recommend it, because you might lose some entertaining detail. Granted, these finer points might not be indispensable in the Grand Scheme of Things, but they are often too funny to be missed, like the long, drawn-out story about a man who wanted to make money by selling camels. And in the end, camels DO prove to be quite effective in battle… 😉

In the end I had great fun with the Practical Guide, even though the third iteration of this series reserved little surprises as far as the outcome would be, but like the story it tells, what truly matters here is the characters’ journey and not its end, and in the course of that journey there is great room for fun and a few laughs – and we all need that, from time to time.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE ANGEL OF KHAN el-KHALILI (Dead Djinn Universe # 0.2), by P. Djelì Clark

While searching for a short story to act as “intermission” between books, I saw this second short offering in P. Djèlí Clark’s Dead Djinn series (you can read it online on Tor.com) and the first paragraph totally captured me with its mysteriously evocative tone: written in an unusual second person POV, it details the journey of young Aliaa searching for a miracle to save her sister, the victim of a factory fire and now dying of her grievous injuries.

Knowing that the granting of such a momentous wish from a djinn would carry its own uncertainties, since djinns are fickle creatures, Aliaa seeks the help of an angel, one of the enigmatic beings who hide inside huge,  human-shaped constructs, and to do so she roams the bazaar’s streets at night.  The description of the deserted night-time market, in opposition to its bustling daytime activity, is one of the best parts of this story: as it happened with the previous one set in this same world, I am in awe of Clark’s descriptive skills that not only paint a picture of this sector of Cairo, but bring to life the sounds and smells of it, making it the perfect setting to Aliaa’s desperate search and to her fears and insecurities.

Once she finds herself in the presence of the angel, the young girl discovers that the payment for the requested miracle might be more than she is ready to pay, and that it will require a painful soul-searching that translates into actual physical pain: the main theme here is that of revealing one’s secrets and guilt, of bringing them to the surface and – maybe – letting go of them, even though the process of gifting them to the angel sounds both painful and gruesomely mechanical.

Mixed with the personal details of Aliaa’s life there are some intriguing peeks into Cairo’s evolving society, one where women are striving for emancipation and the right to superior learning, but are also struggling to turn those dreams into reality by working themselves ragged in factories, where laborers’ conditions are dreadful and accidents a daily occurrence.  Aliaa – and her sister Aisha, or their co-workers – are the other side of the coin represented by the more emancipated Fatma el-Sha’arawi, so that, through these two loosely connected stories, we gain a more detailed knowledge of the social background of a city whose eyes are turned to the future but whose roots are still firmly set into the past.

I am quite intrigued by this series of short stories, and very much look forward to the others that await me down the line…

My Rating:

Reviews

AGE OF ASH (Kithamar #1), by Daniel Abraham

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

I’m quite familiar with Daniel Abraham’s fantasy production, having greatly enjoyed both The Long Price Quartet and The Dagger and the Coin series, and of course I know that under the shared pen name of James S.A. Corey he’s the co-author, together with Ty Franck, of the successful SF series The Expanse, so that when the start of this new fantasy saga was announced I was more than eager to see for myself what it was about.

The city of Kithamar has a long history of power and prosperity, but also of violence and strife: as the novel starts, the uneasy peace between the two ethnic groups living in the city is shaken by the death of the former ruler and the ascendance of his successor – many wonder, given the troubled times, how long he will be able to remain in his place. But Age of Ash is not so much the tale of people in power, but rather of the city’s inhabitants: first we meet Alys, a very proficient member in a band of thieves, one of the most lucrative occupations among Kithamar’s underprivileged. The murder of her brother sends her on a very different path, however: searching for answers first and then for vengeance, Alys finds herself enmeshed with convoluted political maneuvers and the dark, ancient secret behind Kithamar’s rule – a secret that might claim her life.  Sammish is another member of the dsmr band, her skill in being inconspicuous a very valuable one for thieving, but a hindrance in her desire to be noticed by Alys on whom she has a crush: when Alys’ focus on vengeance becomes all-encompassing and takes her into the orbit of some shady characters, and once the mysterious Saffa – a woman searching desperately for her kidnapped child – opens Sammish’s eyes on the evil undercurrents of powers in Kithamar, the girl will have to deal with conflicting loyalties and a newfound awareness of the world she’s living in.  The third main POV comes from Andomaka, a noblewoman with great aspirations to power and the member of a weird religious cult holding the secret behind the workings of the power handout between rulers: she is strong, ambitious and ruthless, the true representative of the caste that has been governing Kithamar throughout the centuries.

The slow burn of Age of Ash might have proved discouraging if I had not been prepared: previous experience with Daniel Abraham’s novels taught me that he likes to carefully prepare the playing field and that the beginnings of his series require a little patience, which is always rewarded in the end. In this particular case, the “preliminary” work serves to create the image of a living, breathing city in all its colorful detail: shopkeepers and artisans plying their trade in the winding streets and alleys of Kithamar, urchins running underfoot and thieves moving like smoke in crowded areas; the various districts, looking like enclaves where the two ethnicities coexist in a delicate balance, giving way to the mansions of the more affluent citizens and of the nobility – these elements are pictured in such a vivid manner that after a while they feel three-dimensional, to the point that it’s almost possible to hear the sounds and perceive the smells. We are led through the city in its better times, like the harvest, which brings abundance of food and a festive atmosphere, when street revelries offer the chance for celebration and great thieving opportunities in the crowded passages; and we see it in the bitter cold of winter, when food is scarce and ice covers the ground and hangs from the roofs in big icicles, when the poorest have to choose between eating or warming their homes, a time when darkness and gloom prey heavily on everyone’s mind.

While I enjoyed such richness in the world-building, I found myself somewhat distanced from the characters, particularly where Alys is concerned: the single-minded focus on her quest leaves little space for any kind of emotional connection or feeling of sympathy. Even her grief at the loss of her brother shows this kind of hard edge (for want of a better definition) that turns it into something cold and soulless, devoid of any spark of humanity.  I ended up feeling greater empathy with Sammish, not least because she exhibits a greater capacity for emotional and psychological growth throughout the story and because what looks like childish infatuation morphs, in the end, into a willingness to help her friend and to do the right thing, not just for Alys but for the city as well. The unassuming girl who can move through crowds unnoticed shows more courage and heart, in the end, than the one who should be the main focus of the story, and this comparison did not help me at all in my reflections on Alys’ character: this is however only the first book in a series so I’m also suspending my judgment while waiting to see how the story progresses and what kind of surprises the author has in store for his readers.

And speaking of the plot itself, there are many unresolved threads here – particularly where Andomaka’s actions and her connection with the religious cult are concerned – that will certainly be further explored in the next books: there is a lot of intrigue, with longtime ramifications, that simply begs to be developed more fully. The complex, creepy layers of Kithamar’s power management and its handling through the generations are barely touched here and I can hardly wait to see how the continuation of the story will deal with them, and with Andomaka’s plans, about which I can’t afford to say more because that way lie some massive spoilers.

The start of this new series is indeed a very promising one, and I can’t shake the feeling that this first installment barely scratched the surface of a story that holds many more surprises in store for me. Time, of course, will tell what they are…

My Rating:

Reviews

THRONE OF LEAVES (Book of Never #8), by Ashley Capes

I received this novel from the author in exchange for an honest review.

As I remarked in one of my previous posts for this series, the main character’s name, Never, seems to be closely linked to his destiny, that of never finding peace – both in his search for answers about the past and the uncanny abilities bestowed by his heritage, and in his life: the previous book ended with the threat posed by a god-like creature, the Burnished King, laying waste to the land in his quest for domination, and Throne of Leaves starts by showing the readers how the Stone Plague is devastating both people and the territories it encroaches on.

In his afterword, author Ashley Capes remarks about the oddity of such a narrative choice: while the previous installment in the series was completed in 2019, before the very real Covid pandemic hit, he describes here the made-up plague at the center of this story and considers the strangeness of the parallel between worrisome reality and equally disquieting fiction.  Sometimes reality and fantasy have a strange way of coexisting…

Back to Never’s adventures, there is something of a change in the way he’s perceived now: while before his weird powers and his appearance were met with awe and suspicion in equal measure, his recent actions have gained him the well-deserved qualification of “hero”, and if the awe is still present, he’s often welcomed and his help both sought after and appreciated.  It’s interesting to observe how he’s not totally comfortable with that, but at the same time he’s more inclined to open himself to friendships and to accept the fact that he’s not bound to be a loner, that he can find people to share his path – and its dangers – with.

This is particularly true in Throne of Leaves because Never’s ally Rikeva – a sort of warrior priestess gifted with abilities of her own – seems to be more than just a passing companion and possesses all the qualities to become a permanent comrade, or even something more.  While I’m always wary of emotional entanglements in the stories I read, I quite enjoyed the very slow burn of what might turn into a romantic liaison, and this might also prove to be a positive turn for a loner like Never. Moreover, Rikeva is a great character: strong, determined, courageous, but also compassionate and gifted with a delightful sense of humor which might very well compensate for Never’s deep seriousness.

Story-wise, Throne of Leaves continues in the series’ tradition of leading Never through a quest where he needs to unlock mysteries and face various dangers: once again I’m reminded of strategy computer games (even though I’m no gamer at all) where the players must complete increasingly difficult levels before reaching the goal. Here Never does so by also revisiting previous locations where other adventures took place and – more important – reconnecting with old acquaintances and friends he met along the way. This proved to be one of my favorite sections of the book because I enjoyed the appearance of some familiar faces, and also because it was nice to see Never appreciate the reunion:

[…] halfway through the meal he’d found himself wishing time would pass slower. 

A moment of peace and joy that, together with the reminders of past adventures, made me think Never’s journey might be nearing a closing circle – but of course it was a totally wrong impression because the very last sentence of the book hints at an even greater danger looming over the horizon. Something that will certainly be explored in the continuation of this series…

My Rating:

Reviews

EMPIRE OF THE VAMPIRE (Empire of the Vampire #1), by Jay Kristoff

I have learned to appreciate Jay Kristoff’s works with the SF series Illuminae Files, written together with Amie Kaufman, and later on with his dark fantasy series The Nevernight Chronicles, so you can imagine my excitement at the publication of this new book, where I was sure he would successfully combine his writing skills with one of my favorite themes in the genre – vampires. This first volume in what promises to be an amazing trilogy proved to be everything I was expecting and more, and also a fascinating read that kept me turning the pages despite the darkness permeating it – on this subject I have to acknowledge that reading The Nevernight Chronicles some time ago was a good preparation for what awaited me in Empire of the Vampire, where such darkness does not come only from the story itself, but is an integral part of its background.

The premise of the saga is that, some thirty years prior to the beginning of the story, sunlight was obliterated by daysdeath, a mysterious obscuring of the skies that turned the world into a permanently crepuscular landscape, allowing the vampires to safely come out of their hiding places and start feeding on humans, constantly encroaching on their lands and moving ever onward in what looked like an unstoppable tide.  The only true defense against vampires is represented by Silversaints, a holy order of warrior priests whose peculiar abilities allow them to battle the bloodsuckers on an almost even ground: Gabriel de Léon, the novel’s main character, is one of these Silversaints – actually the last of them – and when we meet him he’s the prisoner of a vampire queen who wants to chronicle his story before reaping her vengeance on him for all her brethren lost to his sword.

What follows is a tale told through several different timelines: the present, where Gabriel relates his story to a vampire chronicler; the far past, showing the Silversaint’s childhood and the dramatic events that brought him to the brotherhood; Gabriel’s formative years, as he learns his skills and encounters the people who most matter in his life; and the more recent times, when he embarks on a dangerous quest that might bring the end of the vampires’ reign of bloody terror.  The various timelines are not presented in a linear way, with jumps from one to another that might look erratic (and here I enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek shows of displeasure from the chronicler in his desire for a more orderly recounting) but instead create a sense of foreboding by hinting at some big tragedy that impacted Gabriel’s personality in a profound way.

De Léon is a brilliantly crafted character who breaks all the narrative “rules” required by the figure of the proverbial hero, since in his youth he’s both bold and reckless and tends to rush headlong into risky situations, more often than not making them worse; and in his maturity we can see him as cynical, world-weary and quite sarcastic of the mystique surrounding his person: 

“You weep like a child over a dead horse, but shoot an innocent woman in the back and leave God-fearing men to be slaughtered by foulbloods. […]  What kind of hero are you?”

“Who the f* told you I was a hero?”

The story of his life is also the story of an individual who, through heartache and dreadful loss, comes to a sort of found family that gives him a firm purpose in life, and a faith in the power for good he can wield agains the encroaching tide of the vampires, but it’s also the story of how certain events bring him to disillusionment and the loss of that all-encompassing faith, turning him into the “fallen hero” we meet at the start of the novel.  The older Gabriel possesses all the characteristics of a man we might despise: he drinks, he swears profusely, he does not care about the collateral damage his actions might bring about, he’s an addict – and here I digress by saying that sanctum, the substance he’s in constant need of, is something strictly linked to his nature and not a drug of choice (for want of a better definition), but I’m wary of saying more because it’s one of those details best discovered by reading the book. And yet, despite all these nasty traits, Gabriel comes across as a very relatable character, because we are able to see all the agony and grief he suffers in the course of his life and in the end we develop a bond with this man and come to care deeply for him – not least because we see how family is important to him, both the one he was born into and the one(s) he builds in the course of his life, creating ties of love and brotherhood that help him keep his humanity burning bright.

Gabriel is not alone here, however, and he’s surrounded by a number of equally well-defined characters that enrich the story and offer different points of view for the reader on this world and the way it has changed from a “normal” one since daysdeath abruptly fell on it. And of course there are the vampires: besides being the blood-craving creatures we can expect from the myth created around them, Kristoff’s vampires are particularly cruel, even sadistic, all their previous humanity burned away by their virtual immortality and the need for blood. Still, these creatures go even beyond such already ruthless limits, often showing a perverse pleasure in inflicting demeaning kinds of torture on their slaves, in an outward show of the inner hideousness that at times even translates into their appearance.

Empire of the Vampire is a grim, bloody book where hope rarely makes its appearance, where the heavily filtered sunlight struggles to battle the darkness and the coldness of the land, and yet it’s also a compelling story where courage and love, faith and determination can sometimes bring a light and make it all more tolerable.  It’s also a fascinating tale that will keep you turning the pages and leave you wanting for more once you reach the end of this first volume. And no darkness will banish my hope that the next one might not be too far down the road…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE LATE SHOW (Renée Ballard #01), by Michael Connelly

In my continuing exploration of Michael Connelly’s vast body of work I was intrigued by this book, whose main character is Detective Renée Ballard, and as I started to read I wondered whether she might end up being Harry Bosch’s successor: The Late Show was published in 2017, a good number of years after my latest Bosch book – 2001 – where the more famous detective is portrayed as middle aged, so it only stands to reason that, narratively speaking, as the years go by he might not be as active and energetic as in the stories I’m reading now, and a need for passing over his legacy might become unavoidable for his creator.  What’s interesting – and refreshing – here is that Ballard is not a female version of Bosch: of course she’s a dedicated investigator nurturing a strong sense of justice, but the similarities end here, and I’ve both enjoyed and welcomed Connelly’s decision to craft her character.

Renée Ballard is a LAPD detective who has been sent to the night shift (sarcastically nicknamed “the late show”) after her accusations of sexual harassment by a superior officers have come to nothing, also thanks to the guilty silence of her former partner. So Renée is now relegated to the graveyard shift, her cases destined to be assigned to the daytime detectives for the real work: the assignment is a career-ender and the place where the unwanted troublemakers are buried and forgotten. Still, Renée wants to do her job as best as she can, and so one night she’s faced with three cases, a credit card fraud, the savage beating of a transgender hooker and a nightclub shooting that left five victims on the ground: unable to let go what look like intriguing clues, she keeps on investigating even when the brass – in the person of Lt. Olivas, the man who harassed her – make it clear she must stay away from the cases.  Renée’s determination to do what’s right for the victims brings her dangerously close to being reprimanded – or worse – but she still keeps on going, finding herself in mortal danger and uncovering a thread of corruption inside the police department.

I liked Renée Ballard very much, both for her strengths and her frailties: a tragedy in her early life left her scarred but not broken and she’s unwilling to give in to the frustrations of a dead-end job by doing her very best day after day. What I found intriguing is the way she practically lives a homeless life, spending her free time on the beach together with her dog Lola and periodically visiting her grandmother for “laundry duty”: this choice ends up giving her a great deal of freedom, which seems to be her greater need in life. Moreover, despite the way she’s been treated she has not given in to bitter resentment and actively cares for the victims, granting them the dignity that’s often denied them when the job turns many law enforcers into jaded and cynical individuals: this is particularly true in Renée’s dealings with the transgender victim, who she’s not ready to cruelly dismiss as some of her colleagues do. And last but not least, her interactions with Lt. Olivas, even in the face of the sarcasm he wields, from the position of strength of the male privilege he wears as armor, are professionally dignified and made me respect her even more – particularly during a fantastic exchange near the end of the book.

Story-wise, The Late Show is pure Connelly magic: the three cases are interwoven through a good use of suspense, adrenaline-infused action scenes and a few quite unexpected twists and turns: one in particular caught me totally by surprise, since all clues seemed to point in a very definite direction, so that when the revelation came along I had to recover my jaw from the floor because nothing would have made me suspect that particular character.  But that’s part and parcel of this author’s trademark writing…

The usual Los Angeles background is present here as in the other novels – the hillside homes and the seediest areas, the ‘in’ nigthclubs and the streets where hookers ply their trade – but in here there is a very welcome addition coming from the beaches where Ballard goes in her off hours surfing on a paddle board (in reminiscence of the childhood she spent in Hawaii) and spending time with her dog – a delightful side character herself.

Ballard is a wonderful and successful addition to Michael Connelly’s creations and the proof that he does not fall prey to formulaic writing and character design: even though I’ve barely made a dent in his vast bibliography, it’s clear that I can expect the unexpected with each new book I approach, and I look forward to meeting again his new creature, particularly because I’ve learned that she will be back in the Bosch series by pairing with the author’s famous detective in a book some twelve titles down the road from where I stand now. It will be more than interesting to see these two work together…

My Rating: