Reviews

Review: DOWN AMONG THE STICKS AND BONES (Wayward Children #2), by Seanan McGuire

If Every Heart a Doorway was a great revelation – not so much of Seanan McGuire’s writing skills, since for me they are a given, but rather of her amazing range in storytelling – this new installment in her Wayward Children series subverted, again, my expectations.

I might have looked for more detail on Ms. Eleanor West’s home and its pupils, or on the stories of their long road to recovery after coming back to our primary world, but what I found instead was a sort of of… upside-down tale, if you want, one where the “before” has just as much impact on the characters as the time in the world beyond the doorway, or the difficult adaptation once the protagonist find themselves back in their place of origin.

This is mainly a story about abused childhood, not in the sense of physical or mental torture, but – worse still – about the way in which parental expectations can mold children, bending them in shapes and directions contrary to their true nature and leanings.  That such shaping can be carried out in the name of the kids’ own good, therefore hiding (or giving an alibi to) the parents’ selfish desires, makes this story all the more poignant in its subtly understated cruelty.

Chester and Serena are not parent material by a long shot: wrapped in their individual worlds – work, career and social standing – that sometimes overlap giving a sort of meaning to their marriage, they at some point decide that to complete the perfect picture presented to they world they need a child. Serena wants the perfect girl, one to be dressed and pampered like a favorite doll; Chester wants a boy, one with whom he can share sports and manly pursuits. They are however gifted with twin girls, Jacqueline and Jillian, so promptly proceed to shape them into the mold each one desires, in an ultimate show of unconscious defiance against fate: Jacqueline ends up being the doll, frozen into her perfect dresses that must not be mussed or dirtied, while Jillian is driven toward sports and a more carefree, boyish attitude.  This creates a rift between the sisters, one that effects their actual separation once they stumble into the magical world accessed through their grandmother’s trunk in the attic, and this rift will have terrible consequences…

While I was reading Jacqueline and Jillian’s formative journey, I was struck by what came across as barely repressed anger and contempt toward these selfishly distant parents, wondering more than once whether the author was drawing her models from some real life example she witnessed firsthand: my experience with her writing has helped me learn that McGuire never “preaches” to her audience, letting the story speak for itself (something I greatly appreciate), and this is the case here as well, but still the depth and intensity of feelings – that quickly took hold of my own reactions as well – goes quite beyond the usual scale, hinting at something more profound and with higher emotional impact.

Like bonsai being trained into shape by an assiduous gardener, they were growing into the geometry of their parents’ desires, and it was pushing them further and further away from one another. One day, perhaps, one of them would reach across the gulf and find that there was no one there.

The “monsters” the two sisters encounter once in the Moors, beyond the doorway, are indeed scary – the Master much more than Dr. Bleak, and that’s all I’m going to say, because they must be discovered on their own – and require the two girls to change and adapt to survive in the weirdly frightening environment, but at the same time they give Jacqueline and Jillian the freedom to choose what they want to be, to take steps in the direction they want to go.  You could say that both the Master and Dr. Bleak love their wards, and care for them – even in the twisted way that’s the norm in the Moors – just as their real parents don’t: Chester and Serena’s great sin is to be incapable of love, and – as McGuire tells us in what sounds like an open accusation – to have taken that ability from their daughters.

“It must be awful to have such a dorky sister,” said the girls in their class to Jacqueline, who felt like she should defend her sister, but didn’t know how. Her parents had never given her the tools for loyalty, for sticking up or standing up […]

This is a story that insinuates in your mind and soul and leaves deep traces (or should I call them ‘scars’?), whether Jack and Jill’s plight has a personal resonance for you or more simply draws you in because of its compelling development.  At times, it broke my heart, but I would not have missed it for anything in the world: no one can pull you into their worlds like Seanan McGuire, indeed.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

VICK AND HER VULTURES ARE COMING BACK!

 

Last year I had the opportunity of reading the first volume in Scott Warren’s Union Earth Privateers series, kindly offered for review by the publisher Parvus Press. Vick’s Vultures proved to be a fast-paced, quite entertaining story about a band of privateers, space crews sent to retrieve any kind of alien tech that Earth would be able to retro-engineer and use to keep abreast with the more advanced races peopling the galaxy, while at the same time keeping a low profile.

One of the book’s best features was indeed Victoria Marin, the captain of the Condor, a strong, well-rounded character whose practical determination quickly won my sympathy: once I closed the book I knew I would look forward to learning more about her and her Vultures.

Soon I will have this opportunity: Parvus Press contacted me with the kind offer of reading and reviewing Book 2 in the series, To Fall Among Vultures, that will be published at the beginning of October. I am of course eager to learn what new adventures are waiting for the Condor and its crew, and equally eager to share my findings with you, so while we wait I’m very happy to share the link to the giveaway for Book 1 that is currently running and will enable you to catch up with Vick’s first adventures and to prepare for the new ones.

Just follow the link below and fire your engines! The journey starts here…

 

VICK’S VULTURES GIVEAWAY

Reviews

Review: PROMISE OF BLOOD (Powder Mage #1), by Brian McClellan

When a few years ago I saw this book mentioned on one of the periodic showcase posts on John Scalzi’s blog, I was immediately intrigued and did not waste any time in seeing for myself what this novel was about. Despite enjoying both the story and the writing, however, I never managed to move forward with the series, rekindling my interest only when a couple of months ago Orbit Books offered me the chance of reading and reviewing the first volume in Brian McClellan’s new series, Sin of Empire.    

On hindsight, I believe I now understand the reasons for my procrastinating, but they have been completely vanquished by this author’s new novel and the fresh enthusiasm for his world engendered both by Sins of Empire and some of the prequel novellas I’ve read since then.  So it was only fitting that I start again with the first book in the Powder Mage series, and I must admit that re-reading Promise of Blood, after getting to know better some characters and their background, was a much more satisfying experience.

This is an unusual world for fantasy, because it’s not based on a medieval-like setting, but rather a period reminiscent of the late 18th/early 19th Century, although it does possess its own forms of magic: at the top of the pyramid stand the Privileged, whose ability in mastering the elements makes them quite powerful – they offer support to the king’s rule and form powerful alliances called ‘cabals’, that are considered nearly invincible.  Then there are the Powder Mages, to whom gunpowder lends great stamina and skills, not least the ability of floating a bullet well past its normal trajectory, and of directing it with accuracy. Last are the Knacked, people with minor abilities that can however turn quite useful, if correctly employed.

As the story in Promise of Blood starts, Field Marshal Tamas brings to fruition the coup he’s been orchestrating with his allies: the present king’s rule brought the realm of Adro to the brink of disaster, with poverty and hunger beleaguering the people, while the forthcoming Accords with neighboring Kez will place Adro under the Kez political and financial thumb.  In one fell swoop, Tamas is able to kill most of the royal cabal of Privileged and to summarily judge and execute the king and the higher ranks of nobility: the use of guillotines for this final stage of the coup is what lends a strong French Revolution flavor to the novel.    Changing a country is however a difficult business and Tamas finds himself battling on several fronts while trying to resurrect his country’s economy, keeping the Kez and their expansionism at bay and thwarting some attempts on his life, the latter pointing at a traitor among his allies.  The Field Marshal therefore employs the services of former inspector Adamat (a man with the knack of eidetic memory) and sends his own son Taniel, a highly skilled powder mage, in pursuit of the last surviving king’s Privileged, while dealing with the problems of running a country and unraveling long-standing mysteries, again mixing mundane matters with magic in a compelling blend.

The background for Promise of Blood is a very interesting one, thanks to the combination of ordinary and supernatural I mentioned above: we have people wielding magic alongside common soldiers and servants, merchants and accountants, and through the various phases of Inspector Adamat’s investigation we have the opportunity of a closer look to Adran society where, for example, one of the major players is a workers’ union (something almost unheard of in the historical period that inspired the novel); or a powerful guild of assassins, the Black Street Barbers known for its silent efficiency, who are allowed to operate unhindered.  One of the elements I most enjoyed was the balance in the abilities afforded by gunpowder: a powder mage can draw great strength and resistance, or improved sight, from consuming it, not to mention the possibility of literally guiding a bullet well past the trajectory imposed by mere ballistics. And yet there are counterweights to this: not only in the fact that weapons are of the flintlock kind, and therefore able to shoot only one bullet at a time, so that a powder mage’s skills cannot be turned into a convenient deus ex machina, but also the use of powder can become addictive, not unlike any other drug.

As far as characters go, Field Marshal Tamas quickly became my favorite: he’s a somewhat hard, uncompromising man, but he also possesses a strong sense of justice and the willingness to make difficult choices for the common good. Having learned more about him and what makes him tick through the novellas I’ve read, it’s easier to understand his anger toward the former ruling class of Adro, although most of the times it’s a coldly calculated anger he knows how to channel, both for himself and the people he wants to lead toward a different future:

The people want blood right now, not words. They’ve wanted it for years. I’ve felt it. You’ve felt it. That’s why we came together to pull Manhouch from his throne.

His son Taniel is more difficult to relate to: both now and on my first read I saw him as something of a whiner, a boy looking for his father’s approval, and inclined to sulk when he doesn’t receive it in sufficient amount. If on one side I understand how difficult it would be to be the son of such a man, and to find oneself walking in such renowned footsteps, on the other I constantly felt the need to slap some sense into Taniel, especially when he pitched himself deeper into his powder addiction to numb the pains of the world, both the real and the merely perceived ones.

The pace of the story is fairly quick, alternating between Inspector Adamat’s investigation, political maneuvering in Adro, the looming Kez invasion and the obscure threat of god Kresimir’s return on the wings of an old prophecy that some Privileged seem determined to bring to fruition: the story flows pretty quickly between these different events and builds to a spectacular climax that however leaves many doors open for future developments.  With such a premise, as I said, it seems strange I did not feel compelled to continue sooner with the series, and I believe now that the main reason is the imbalance in characterization: unlike the first novel of the new series, or the prequel novellas, Promise of Blood does not seem to care much for female characters, and in a world where women can even choose to enroll in the military this does not come across too well.

Let’s examine some of the women who people this novel: Lady Winceslav, one of Tamas’ co-conspirators, is an influential person and the head of the mercenary group The Wings of Adom, and yet she’s easily duped by a young suitor; officer Vlora, Taniel’s fiancée and the central figure in Sins of Empire, causes the break of their engagement when he finds her in bed with another man; Ka-Poel, Taniel’s Fatrastan ally, is a powerful mage and a fearless fighter, but she’s mute; Privileged Julene is the quintessence of the Dark Lady, cruel and power-mad. And so on… I might be wrong, but I see a pattern here, one that might have subliminally influenced my decision to wait in discovering how the story progressed.  Thankfully, I can now see how the author changed this course along the way, and I must admit that reading the new novel before returning to this older trilogy had a very positive impact on my point of view of the overall story, one that promises to lead me on a very interesting path.

This time around I will not wait long before moving forward…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: SERVANT OF THE CROWN, by Brian McClellan (Powder Mage 0.2)

As the main character in the Powder Mages trilogy, Field Marshal Tamas comes across immediately as a strong, intriguing figure, and not just because of his connection to this peculiar brand of magic.  Finding more about his past, and what made him the person we meet for the first time in Promise of Blood, is a fascinating journey: we saw a glimpse of him at the end of the first novella I reviewed, Forsworn, but here he takes center stage in a story that dovetails nicely with that first prequel and happens shortly after those events.

Young Captain Tamas is a commoner who rose in the army’s ranks through courageous feats in battle and dogged determination, but his road has not been an easy one: in the realm of Adro, military prowess is not enough for a man to overcome his origins, and Tamas finds himself having to defend his honor (or rather deal with the huge chip on his shoulder…) through duels.  The latest one, where he nicked a nobleman son’s earlobe as a gesture of contempt, has frozen his appointment to major and is heading him straight toward a board of inquiry, where his career hopes might be dashed forever.    While he tries to clear his name, he finds himself enmeshed in the struggle between the King and the Privileged cabal, whose thirst for power has the ruler of Adro more than willing to play a dangerous game with Tamas as the main pawn.  The only positive side of the whole situation comes from Tamas’ meeting with Erika ja Leora, and the relationship that slowly builds between these two practitioners of powder magic, the seasoned soldier and the young, headstrong noblewoman.

The best part of their encounter – apart from the verbal skirmishes and the personality clashes – comes from Tamas’ reluctant acknowledgment that not all nobles are arrogant, self-centered creatures who enjoy looking down on him and making him the object of their scorn, but that there are people who care about others and value them for what they are.   Erika’s selflessness in the rescue of Norrine, makes Tamas realize that this young woman might have lost everything – including her life – to save a virtual stranger, and he feels diminished by her gallantry, when he understands that “he battled primarily for his own gain and honor”, while Erika had far higher goals in mind.   For her part, Erika comes across as a strong personality, one graced with both courage and an impish sense of humor – not to mention an aptitude for ruthlessness when necessary – that slowly but surely breach the seasoned soldier’s armor and move him away from his self-imposed grimness, and loneliness.

The more I learn about this world, the more I’m fascinated by it and feel compelled to explore it at length: Brian McClellan is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors, and I berate myself for having waited so long before finally learning more about his works.  But I’m getting there…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: FORSWORN, by Brian McClellan (Powder Mage 0.1)

While searching for the titles of Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy, I discovered that the author had written a number of prequel novellas, and since I’m already backtracking my steps after reading Sins of Empire, the first book in the new series set in the same background, I decided to start from a… more remote past, so to speak.

Forsworn is the first of these novellas and deals with the story of Erika ja Leora, a young noblewoman from Kez, a place where powder mages are hunted down like dangerous animals.  Erika is a powder mage herself, but her noble birth saved her from that fate: she has however taken an oath not to use her powers – the Forsworn from the title are indeed people who can wield powder magic but renounce them publicly.

The chance encounter in the woods with a runaway child, Norrine, will change Erika’s life forever: Norrine (a character I encountered as an adult Riflejack mercenary in Sins of Empire) escaped from the prison where she was being held as a powder mage, after being denounced by her own parents in exchange for money, and on meeting her Erika sees what her own fate would have been if her station had not prevented it.  Choosing to help young Norrine is an act of dangerous defiance, especially since a Privileged sorcerer is on the runaway’s trail and pursues the prey and anyone ready to help her with dogged determination.

The world being depicted here is a cruel one: of course that’s a given in this genre, but there is something more brutal at play here, especially since it highlights the strife between the more “conventional” magic of the Privileged, and that of the powder mages, with the former clearly fearing the latter’s encroachment of their position of power, especially with the ruling class.  And just how ruthless the Privileged can be becomes evident during the long chase through the mountains toward the safety of neighboring Adro, where powder mages can live without fear: Erika will need all her strength and courage to survive and escape with Norrine from the pursuit of Duke Nikslaus and the King’s Longdogs, the aptly named power mage hunters.

As a first introduction in this world, this was a very promising one, and the surprise appearance, at the very end, of a well-known character from the original trilogy was very welcome, almost like a sign I’m going to enjoy losing myself in this series.

My Rating:

Salva

Reviews

Review: WITH BLOOD UPON THE SAND, by Bradley Beaulieu (Song of the Shattered Sands #2)

Given that Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was one of last year’s biggest revelations for me, I was naturally eager to read its sequel, and in that respect With Blood Upon the Sand did not disappoint, expanding on the world and characters whose foundations had been laid in the first book.

The story resumes with a high-adrenaline scene in which we see the protagonist Çeda trying to assassinate another one of the Kings ruling Sharakhai: the discovery of a terrifying piece of the puzzle she’s attempting to unravel leads to failure, and to a harrowing escape through the city’s meandering alleys she knows so well from her past as a street urchin.  It’s a great way of reconnecting to Çeda, a wonderful character that captivated me from the very start with her mixture of strength and frailties, determination and failings brought on by a sometimes too-narrow focus on her goal.

The first book was centered on Çeda’s meticulous work toward infiltrating the Blade Maidens – the elite fighters protecting the Kings – so she could be nearer the people responsible for her mother’s death, and close enough to carry out her plans for vengeance; here she has finally obtained her place among the Maidens and moves the first steps toward acceptance as her training progresses, and this causes the first cracks in her armor, raising many doubts that force Çeda to question, if not her motives, her perception of the people she has always viewed as enemies.

As a street rogue, and later as a fighter in the pits where she gained her fame as the unbeatable White Wolf, Çeda had always been able to count on the support of allies and comrades, and on the unfailing closeness of her childhood friend Emre; now she is doubly isolated, as a newcomer in an elite regiment where she has to prove herself day after day, and as a double agent needing to hide her goals, and this weighs heavily on her mind – not least because some of the overtures she receives from her fellow Maidens are sincerely offered, causing Çeda to examine herself under a different light.  This adds new, welcome facets to the character as her dilemma is complicated further by exposure to a Maiden’s daily duties, that bring Çeda to see different aspects of life in Sharakhai: for example, when the Moonless Host – a resistance movement bent on destroying the Kings, and therefore aligned in some ways with Çeda’s purpose – effects a shocking attack on the city’s Collegia scholars, she sees firsthand the suffering brought on by the Host’s actions and is forced to witness the price that others have to pay for freedom from the tyranny of the Kings, and to wonder if her need for vengeance might not have to take second place to more pressing and more important concerns.

It’s a fascinating analysis, and the kind of dilemma that many revolutionary fighters have brought to the table in the real world as well – and for Çeda the problem is compounded by a new factor: once bonded, as custom requires, with the asirim, the fell creatures used by the Kings as shock troops (where ‘shock’ and ‘terror’ are not mere words…), she learns more about their origins – one of the most staggering revelations of this story – and finds herself attuned to their pain and rage for the prolonged slavery the asirim have endured, to the point that at times she ends being controlled by those feelings instead of being the one controlling and channeling that very anger.  Loss of certainties, loss of focus, and the awareness that the world cannot be reduced to black-or-white convictions, seem to pile many doubts on Çeda’s shoulders, and as the situation becomes more complicated we learn more about the world in which the novels are set.

Once Çeda’s role in the story has been firmly established, the author widens his scope in this book to encompass other people and other places: first, the Kings come to the fore as something other than semi-mythical figures whose alliance with the gods granted them eternal life and unimaginable powers.  They are revealed here as people who don’t always work in synchrony, but rather have hidden agendas whose byzantine ramifications reach far and wide: at some point, a quite unexpected revelation changes any perceptions we might have held until then, and sheds a very different light on the way the Kings assumed power.  Never has the maxim about history being rewritten by the victors been more true…
Other players come on stage as well: the Moonless Host and its leader Macide; the powerful blood mage Hamzakiir; and old acquaintances as  Juvaan, or Rahmad with his sister in law Meryam, take on added substance and depth as they play more pivotal roles in the unfolding story.

The narrative remains as fascinating as ever, its very difference from the usual fantasy settings being the foremost quality that sets it apart from the others: the unforgiving desert surrounding the cities, the ships that travel on the sands, their sails wind-driven, the fascinating – and dangerous – creatures that people the endless waste, all contribute to paint an enthralling background that comes alive under the reader’s eyes.  Unfortunately, some of that same wind seems to elude the story’s virtual sails toward the middle of the book: more than once I found myself struggling with the pace in that section of the novel, where the momentum that had carried it so far appeared to have been mired in quicksand.  For a moment I thought – I feared – that the story might not pick up its former speed and would fall victim of the dreaded “middle book syndrome”, but to my relief the events evolved in such a way that they regained their former energy, leading to a breath-taking finale that was both exhilarating and satisfying.

Now that some of the characters, especially Çeda, have come to find themselves quite far from their planned routes, my curiosity and eagerness for the next book are at even higher levels than they were at the end of the first volume.  This is indeed a series not to be missed…

My Rating:

Salva

Reviews

Review: BLACK CITY DEMON, by Richard A. Knaak (Black City Saint #2)

I received this book from Pyr/Prometheus Books in exchange for an honest review.

Last year I had the opportunity of reading and reviewing the first book in this series, Black City Saint, discovering a quite unusual mix of Urban Fantasy and noir detective fiction: the main character Nick Medea is a special kind of private investigator, because he helps clients who believe their homes are haunted, or prey to malicious infestations.  In truth Nick is no other than legendary Saint George, the dragon slayer, but with a slight twist to the tale: the dragon he vanquished was the guardian of the Gate standing between our mundane world and the realm of Faerie, and in suppressing the creature George/Nick let the door literally open to the passage of dangerous beings from Faerie.  Since then he’s taken upon himself, and with the endorsement of Queen Titania, the task of keeping the Wyld at bay, and he’s somewhat melded with the dragon, who can lend him his power and strength at need, sometimes with unforeseeable and terrifying effects: for example, the great fire that ravaged the city of Chicago in 1871 was caused by the dragon as he and Nick were battling Oberon, Titania’s husband and rival.

For sixteen centuries the alliance between man and dragon has kept Faerie’s Wyld from having their way, even though it entails a constant struggle for Nick to keep the dragon from gaining the upper hand, or, as he defines it at some point: “…an eternal war for dominance with moments of tentative alliance when others tried to do us in. And sometimes, even those dangers weren’t enough to keep him from trying to betray me.”  This is indeed the nature of Nick’s allies, like the shape-shifter Fetch, a Faerie expatriate who looks like a dog and peppers his speech with the slang of the ’20s, in a quite amusing way of…. well, blending in I guess; or mysterious Kravayik, an elf who used to be the master assassin for the Faerie Court and has now found religion, in the attempt to atone for his past sins.  Both of them repeatedly profess their allegiance to Nick Medea, but it’s clear they both can pursue other agendas, and are anything but trustworthy.

Last but not less important in the list of people revolving around Nick is Cleolinda, the woman he loved and lost to the dragon: she always came back during the long centuries of his vigil, with another name and unaware of her past, but always ended in the same way.  The present incarnation, Claryce, has shown amazing powers of resilience and courage – even aiding Nick in his final battle against Oberon – and while the investigator desires nothing more than to keep her close, he’s afraid that this very closeness will lead to her death, once again.  As this story starts, Nick is trying to keep her at arm’s length while a series of alarming events makes gang-troubled Chicago an even more dangerous place than ever: the defeat and death of Oberon has not put an end to the danger, because the wake of the Frost Moon is giving strength and substance to creatures touched by magic, not least a ruthless serial killer bent on coming back from the dead and gaining enough power to shape the world to his desires.

Black City Demon, like its predecessor, is a quick and captivating read, mixing a very specific time period – that of the Prohibition era – with the typical themes of Urban Fantasy, like magic, weird creatures and outlandish dangers: in this case the threat comes from a very human-derived foe, even though the forces of Faerie are involved and Nick Medea needs to unravel a complicated maze of clues and misdirections to reach the heart of the problem and put a stop to it.  His journey is not an easy one: as I remarked in the case of the first book, in a few instances he seems to take some time in putting two and two together, giving the appearance of not being the smartest of players, despite his long years of service. Granted, worry about Claryce’s safety and the guilt over the loss of her previous incarnations can be quite distracting, but he also seems oblivious to the fact that Claryce is perfectly able to fend for herself – just look at the sang froid with which she wields a gun, more often than not saving Nick’s hide in the process – and that she can be a valid partner in his ventures.  In that respect Fetch is several steps ahead of his master: the unabashedly sincere devotion he shows Claryce is the proof of her effectiveness as an ally, while it helps to showcase Fetch’s personality in a delightful way, making him a more interesting character than ever.

It seems to me that the non-human individuals in this series are fleshed out in better relief than the purely human ones: Fetch is such an example, as is Kravayik – about whom we learn a great deal in this book, transforming him from the disturbing figure of his first appearance into a deeply tormented being worthy of at least some pity.  Queen Titania, even in her brief appearance, projects an aura of dispassionate cruelty that makes all the legends about the cold wickedness of the Elves come true in a very palpable way; and the various minions she and her underlings employ in the convoluted play for dominance are fascinating and creepy in equal measure.

Much as I appreciated this novel, however, I had some issues with it: as with the first book, the pacing seemed uneven at times, with the story meandering a little as if in search of the proper direction, and if the final resolution came thanks to a very compelling journey through a maze that was both physical and mental, partly based in the real world and partly in a different, crazy dimension, getting there required a little struggle now and then.  The biggest problem, though, came from the need to root this story in a specific time period: while it’s understood that events happen during the 1920s, there are often brief asides quoting situations or incidents that add more details to the background, indeed, but are expressed in such a way and in such circumstances as to prove distracting to the narrative flow. Not as distracting, though, as the anachronistic misstep I found in one of the final chapters, one that somewhat soured the whole experience for me: a small thing, granted, but even a little speck can mar a good picture…

I’m sorry I’m unable to rate this book as high as I hoped, but at the same time I’m still curious to see if the overall story will be able to reach its full potential in the next installments.

My Rating: