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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

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

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: 

Review: THE GATES OF HELL, by Michael Livingston (The Shards of Heaven #2)

Through The Shards of Heaven, the first book in this series, I discovered a new sub-genre I enjoy quite a bit: historical fantasy, a way to blend entertaining reading with some real history – and to pique one’s curiosity about learning more about the time period in which the story is set. For these reasons I was more than looking forward to continuing with Michael Livingston’s series, and The Gates of Hell did not disappoint.

A few years have elapsed since the fall of Alexandria and the conquest of Egypt by Rome: after the deaths of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, their children are either dead, in hiding or, like Selene, prisoners of Octavian, now self-styled Caesar Augustus, emperor. Selene Cleopatra, has been taken into Octavian family’s fold and married off to Juba II, son of the deceased king of Numidia, a double tie that should keep her under control.  But Selene being Selene, she remains quite unbowed and although her marriage to Juba proves to be a happy one – where respect and friendship quickly turn into love – the need for vengeance is never far from her thoughts, doubly so because in this as well she finds a kindred spirit in her husband.  With the help of the Shards they acquired – the Aegis of Zeus that Juba obtained in Alexandria, and the one hidden into a statue Selene stole from the temple of the Vestals – they work to master the power of the artifacts, with the goal of one day bring about the destruction of Rome.

Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Cesarion – son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, and Selene’s half-brother – has gone deep underground to avoid capture and to help preserve the very powerful Shard hidden inside the Ark of the Covenant. When former legionnaire Vorenus visits the Head Librarian Didymus to inquire about the Ark’s apparent loss of power, their conversation is overheard by disgruntled ex librarian Thrasyllus, who concocts a plan to put himself in Didymus’ exalted position and gain the favor of the Roman occupants.

These are the main narrative threads at the heart of Gates of Hell, and they carry the story forward at a steady pace while expanding on the characters we met in Book 1: the preferred focus is on Selene and Juba, of course, and their increasing mastery of the Shards in their possession. There is an intriguing form of character osmosis – for want of a better word – between the two of them: Juba has become more reflexive, more inclined to think his way through and to consider every possible facet of a problem, while Selene has lost some of her merry-go-lucky youthful attitude (which is understandable, considering the heart-rending losses she endured) and she is the one who seems to be goading her husband toward their shared objective.

What’s truly fascinating is the change in Octavian: I remarked on his cold cruelty in my review of Book 1, and how different he looked there in respect of the image that has come to us through time. I wondered if, in his case, the author was stressing the concept about history being written – and therefore shaped – by the victors. That’s why I was surprised to see a softer side of the newly crowned emperor, that of a man who cares about the people he calls family and is very aware of the sacrifices he might call them to accept in the name of the grand dream he nurtures, that of a huge, peaceful empire.   This change, one that comes along in small, organic increments until it blossoms into an amazingly selfless act, was not only a surprise for me as a reader but also for the character of Juba, who starts to question his and Selene’s goal of vengeance and to lean toward a different path:

Was the Peace of Rome a truly horrible dream? Or was it perhaps something real, something tangible that was worth setting aside their need to avenge the fallen members of their families?

Some harrowing circumstances cause both Juba and Selene to review their stance and to accept a more peaceful path for their future, a fresh start that will allow them to forget the pain and loss in their past. But if Octavian has mellowed out in this second volume of the series, another historical figure – that of Tiberius – has taken the role of the antagonist here, and it will be the long reach of his actions that will determine the developments of the last part of the book, where the meaning of the title becomes horribly clear.   As Selene and Juba battle with their inner demons (and not only those), Caesarion and his steadfast allies Vorenus and Pullo face a different kind of danger that will climax in a bloody battle fraught with heartbreaking losses.

The Gates of Hell proved to be a swift, sometimes breathless read, and it certainly paves the way for some huge developments: there were some… hiccups along the way, like the author’s need to involve his characters in long philosophical discussions that were certainly interesting but that somehow broke the rhythm of the story; or the often-repeated information about the Shards, that at times sounds just a little pedantic.  But apart from these very small blemishes, I enjoyed the book very much and I’m now waiting for the next installment with great expectation.

My Rating: 

Review: SINS OF EMPIRE (Gods of Blood and Powder #1), by Brian McClellan

I received this novel from Orbit Books in exchange for an honest review.

A few years ago, I read – and enjoyed – Brian McClellan’s first volume of his Powder Mage trilogy, Promise of Blood.  It was a good and engaging start to a new fantasy series, but for some reason – mainly the fact that I get far too easily distracted by any new title that catches my attention – I did not read the two remaining volumes.  With the passing of time, my recollection of the events and characters in Promise of Blood faded considerably, so that I knew I would have to re-read book 1 first once I decided to pick up the series again.

When I saw Sins of Empire and realized it was set some ten years after the time-frame for the first trilogy, I knew it offered me an opportunity to get back into this world, one where magic shows peculiar features: besides wielders of more “conventional” magic, called Privileged, there are Powder Mages, people graced with exceptional strength, speed and endurance through the use of gunpowder, besides having the ability to detonate it from a distance.  Then there are people gifted with a knack, a lesser talent – like needing little or no sleep, or sensing the presence and use of magic – that can nonetheless be quite useful.  This much I remembered from my past reading of Promise of Blood, and it helped me settle into this world with no effort, but I should not have worried about it anyway, because the time and place removal of this novel from the original trilogy makes it a totally new start anyone can enjoy, and the author shows a great skill in inserting a few useful snippets of information that refer to the past, and help ground the narrative, without slowing the pace of the story at all.

The nation of Fatrasta gained its independence through a bloody war and is now on the way toward an economic boom, although not everything works smoothly: the Palo natives are marginalized by the Fatrastans and there is unrest brewing both on the frontier and in the capital city of Landfall, administered with an iron fist by Chancellor Lindet and her Blackhat secret police. In the outreaches of Fatrasta, lady Vlora Flint (a character from the original trilogy) and her Riflejack mercenary army are battling against Palo insurgents when they are called back to Landfall as additional manpower against the brewing rebellion carried out in the name of the mysterious Mama Palo, a dissident leader hiding in the warrens of Greenfire Depths, the capital’s Palo enclave where even the Blackhats fear to walk. Michel Bravis, a Blackhat Iron Rose (which means a high-lever officer), is given the task of rooting out the revolutionary clique responsible for the printing and distribution of an anti-government pamphlet, and finds himself, in case of failure, in the unenviable position of losing his status and any hope of acquiring the prestigious Gold Rose that will secure his standing. And last but not least, Ben Styke, former commander of the Mad Lancers, a famed Fatrastan assault battalion, has been languishing in a labor camp for ten years with little hope of getting out alive, when a mysterious lawyer manages his release in exchange for a peculiar request…

These are the three main storylines that give life to Sins of Empire, alternating chapters between the various characters while building them little by little: this is the main reason for the quick pace of this novel that caught my interest and imagination from page one, and never let go. There is much more going on, however, because Landfall is shortly revealed as a power keg waiting only for the right spark, and there are many different currents moving in the background and slowly but inexorably building toward the final showdown. Characters are indeed the driving force of the story, and my absolute favorite is Mad Ben Styke (the “mad” moniker more than amply justified…): a hulking bear of a man prone to violence and with more than a few shadows in his past, but nonetheless the kind of person anyone would want guarding their back in a dangerous situation, and one capable of the most unexpected tenderness and care, as shown with his taking charge of young Celine, a street urchin he met in the labor camp.  And Celine is a great character on her own as well, her youth and innocence offset by street-wise expediency and her utter admiration for Ben’s killer instincts.

Vlora Flint, who I remember vaguely from my first foray into McClellan’s storytelling, is a well-rounded, ass-kicking lady hardened by military campaigns and the mistakes of her past (whose hints made me decide I must not wait any further to explore the original trilogy), who nonetheless still cares about decency and fairness, and above all wants the best for the men under her command.  If the world described in these books is a welcome variation on the usual fantasy setting, with its end-of-18th / beginning of 19th century feeling, Vlora is a few steps removed from the typical heroines of the genre, even the most empowered ones, because her courage is also supported by pragmatism and a strong sense of responsibility.  Knowing more about what makes her tick and what created the person I encountered in this book has now become an imperative.

The character I found most difficult to approach is that of Michel Bravis, particularly because of a few personality quirks – like the habit of keeping long conversations with himself while debating plans and strategies – that puzzled me no end. I could however relate to his need to keep afloat in the difficult milieu of the Blackhats, especially after meeting their commander in chief Fidelis Jes, a real psychopath if there ever was one, and most importantly after a huge revelation shifted my opinion of Michel a nice 180 degrees, while at the same time changing the rules of the game in a major way.

And remarkable revelations do indeed abound in this novel, especially concerning identity and goals, to the point I was often reminded of a quote from my beloved Babylon5: “no one here is exactly what they appear”. The surprises that the author sprung on me along the road were both unexpected and momentous, and added to my enjoyment of the story, one that starts deceptively slowly but builds with inexorable momentum toward the final showdown – a battle of epic proportions that kept me on tenterhooks the whole time.  In this regard, I must reveal that I usually don’t do well with battle scenes, since I find them both confused and confusing: not so here, where the crystal-clear cinematic quality of the writing made those scenes come alive in my mind’s eye.

Despite being the first book in a new series, Sins of Empire does not end in a true cliffhanger (which is something I greatly appreciate), but still lays the groundwork for some very intriguing developments, the most important of them being a danger coming from far away, something steeped in legends and the half-remembered past.  Only the awareness I can now backtrack through Brian McClellan’s previous works will help me weather the wait for the next installment.

My Rating: 

Review: GEMINA, by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (Illuminae Files #2)

Last year I was literally swept away by Illuminae, the first volume in this trilogy: not only because of its compelling story, but also thanks to its remarkable characters, that went a long way toward changing my opinion about YA-oriented stories. Kady Grant and Ezra Mason, the two main protagonists of book 1, were depicted as normal teenagers – no whining, no pouting, no interminable complaints about the unfairness of the world – dealing with some relationship troubles until a tragic event turned their lives upside down, forcing them to mature more quickly while they desperately tried to stay alive.

When I went into Gemina I knew that this second book would follow along the same guidelines, but with different characters, and I was somewhat worried that it would feel like a rehash of the previous story, and that disappointment might lie on that road. Now I’m very happy to say that I was totally wrong. Yes, Hannah and Nik – the main characters in this new installment – are young people fighting for their lives and needing to push their individual envelopes a lot further than expected, but their journey is a different one, and their personalities refreshingly different.  But let’s proceed with order…

As the survivors of the Kerenza assault travel toward Heimdall Jumpstation, to bring evidence of the colony’s massacre and BeiTech’s involvement in it, the latter are mounting a raid that will insure the elimination of any and all witnesses to the Kerenza operation. A special incursion team is dispatched to Heimdall, taking advantage of the station’s downtime due to a holiday, and takes over, killing the higher-ranking officers, locking away the rest of the personnel and lying in wait for the Hypathia, the ship carrying the Kerenza survivors.   Only a few people manage to escape the assailants’ net: Hannah Donnelly, the station commander’s daughter; Nik Malikov, son of an influential member of the crime organization House of Knives, and Hannah’s drug dealer; Ella Malikova, Nik’s cousin, a disabled girl with an amazing knack for computers.  The three find themselves dealing not only with the assault team – and the incoming drone fleet that will obliterate Heimdall after the destruction of Hypatia – but also with the infestation of an alien life form, used by House of Knives to harvest a highly sought-after drug and running amok after the BeiTech attackers have killed the criminals handling the operation.

The only similarities between Illuminae and Gemina come from the protagonists’ need to overcome insurmountable odds, while the clock keeps ticking toward certain annihilation, and of course from the format of the story, a collection of chat transcripts, personal messages exchanged across the station’s net, Hannah’s diary excerpts and the transcripts of the station’s camera footage, complete with the dedicated technician’s comments (a very welcome relief from the drama unfolding on the pages) and the redaction of profanities.  That said, both the story and the characters are refreshingly new, and all of them managed to surprise me because they defied any expectation I might have had given the way they were initially introduced. The pace is relentless, and there are many surprises along the way that again challenge any pre-conceived idea I might have had about the evolution of the plot.

In the beginning Hannah Donnelly comes across as your typical spoiled brat, frustrated by the life she’s leading on the station and compensating by being a party girl and a supplier of drugs for her friends. Her liaison with one of her father’s junior officers seems to go in the same direction, as if she’s trying to “rock the boat” and see how far she can go. Not exactly the kind of person one would expect to come forward and try to stop the bad guys from blowing up the station, is she? And yet, when the BeiTech team storms Heimdall, Hannah sheds her flighty persona in no time at all and shows what she’s really made of, revealing unsuspected qualities, like the perfect physical form she’s maintained in the long hours spent in the gym, practicing martial arts, or the lessons in tactics and warfare that were part of her father-daughter moments with Commander Donnelly, and that allow her to keep up the dangerous cat-and-mouse game she engages with the invaders, particularly their leader, code-named Cerberus.

On first meeting Nik Malikov one might be inclined to describe him as the typical gang member: he’s cocky, arrogant, covered in tattoos that shout to the world his deeds or the times he spent in jail.  He works with his uncle, the station’s leader for the House of Knives, and helps harvesting dust – the recreational drug used on the station – from mind-drinking, snake-like alien creatures: there is a particular scene concerning this part of the HoK activities that I don’t recommend reading around mealtimes…  Yet there is more, much more than meets the eye with Nik – and what we discover about his past, along the way, helps a great deal to alter that initial image – and more importantly there is a deep capacity for both care and courage in this young man that quickly endeared him to me, long before I started to look at Hannah with equally different eyes.

Plot-wise, the dangerous, bloody game the two engage with the assault team is the main driving power of the novel: on the surface, some of the defeats suffered by the BeiTech people seem too easy, even contrived, but the authors always manage to show that either Hannah or Nik employ their experience, intelligence and craft (not to mention an intimate knowledge of the station and how it works) to put all the monkey wrenches they can think of into the invader’s gears. For their part, the BeiTech people appear quite sure of themselves, and well prepared on technical side of the operation, but their past rate of success seems to have put a dangerous cockiness into their attitude, a flaw that exposes them to the young people’s guerrilla tactics.  After a while, the operation seems to change its scope and transforms from a military raid into a conflict of wits and a fight for physical and psychological supremacy – especially true for Cerberus and his chief operative Kali, whose nickname goes well with her vengeful attitude.  In my opinion, the reason for Hannah and Nik’s successful incursions lies exactly there, in the loss by the BeiTech team of their professional focus in favor of a more personal goal.

Another interesting element comes from the growing relationship between Hannah and Nik: unlike Kady and Ezra in Illuminae they are not already a couple, and there is no attraction between them.  There is a sort of playful game going on, granted, where Nik peppers their communications with not-so-subtle innuendoes and Hannah plays to the hilt her role of arrogant snob – the one that gains her the appellatives of “Princess” or “Your Highness” from the young man – but they come from two very different walks of life and romantic attachment is indeed the last of their thoughts.  But it’s through the experience of being the only two (three, if you count Ella) free people on the station, the disillusionments they suffer (Hannah in particular) and the shared dangers that they become close, and something starts growing between them.  Even more than romance, the coming together of Hannah and Nik feels like the meeting of two people who are changing through hardship,  finding their true selves and finding a great match in the other person, once the real personality manages to shine though.

All in all, I can safely say that I enjoyed Gemina even more than its predecessor, and that this series will end up being one of my favorites, and a keeper: I have decided to buy the physical books so that I can look in detail at what I missed in the electronic form of the novels, and will do so for the third volume as well.  For someone who vowed to keep strictly to e-books for ease of use and freedom of space, this means a great deal, indeed…

My Rating:


Review: IMPERIAL TOWERS (Book of Never #5), by Ashley Capes

33302288I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

With this fifth novella (and one that is quite close to book length at that), Never’s journey seems to have reached its completion: I use the word ‘seems’ because there are a few open threads that imply the possibility of future developments, and besides the GoodReads page for this series indicates that six books are planned, but as far as Never’s search for his past and his heritage is concerned, Imperial Towers finally gives the reader a number of long-awaited answers.

Starting right after the momentous ending of the previous book, The Peaks of Autumn, this new installment in the story sees Never and friends in a difficult situation, with Luis gravely wounded and people hunting them through a landscape that’s becoming more dangerous with every passing day, since war has explosively broken out and everyone seems bent on fighting everyone else.  And Snow, Never’s estranged brother, looks like the lynchpin of it all…

From the very beginning of this serialized story, it was clear that Never was not an ordinary man: his peculiar ability to use his own blood as a weapon and the lack of information about his past both pointed toward a mysterious origin, so that as his journey of discovery progressed and the clues piled up (albeit in frustratingly small increments…) it became clear he descended from the fabled, half-forgotten Amouni, a more advanced race of beings possessed of extraordinary powers and superior knowledge.   Here, all the accumulated information finally coalesces into a clearer picture, as Snow’s plans come into focus and Never’s determination to stop his brother hardens into the resolve to do so no matter what.

The narrative core of Imperial Towers revolves around Never’s contrasting needs: on one side he knows he must prevent Snow from fulfilling his designs, because he understands the inherent dangers of absolute power and the blindness to human suffering that trails behind it; on the other he wants to recapture the bond that tied the two brothers in the past, the sense of family they shared and that was lost in the intervening years.  Never wants his brother back, he wants

the boy who had always tried to take the first blow whenever a villager threw a stone, the boy who had been the one to pull Never back to his feet, the boy who had been sure their curse did not have to damn them to a life of loneliness and hate

Unfortunately, this desire is at the root of Never’s ultimate weakness wherever Snow is concerned, and it allows Snow to coerce his brother into helping him, too often pulling him into his schemes against Never’s will with a cold ruthlessness that more than once made me wonder what had happened to the boy who used to be a protector and a shield.  And when the answer comes, it’s a very poignant one indeed.

The bright side of it all comes from the friends (the surrogate family) Never has gathered around himself: Luis, who has been his traveling companion from the very start; young Tsolde, even Elina – whose difficult position forces her to shift from ally to enemy and back to ally – and others.   For someone who has been forced by circumstances to live his life alone, Never makes friends quite easily thanks to his loyalty and capacity for self-sacrifice, both traits that belie his sometimes gruff and standoffish manners.  Now that part of the shadows hiding his true self have been lifted, it would be interesting to see what kind of man he might evolve into…

And speaking of revelations and discovered truths, I would like to close this review by showing how the covers for this story’s installments have slowly but surely evolved from the darkness of the first one to the light of the present book: a sort of visual clue to the expanding understanding of the readers as information piles up. Quite a nice touch, indeed!

My Rating:


 

never

Review: THE CLOUD ROADS, by Martha Wells (Books of the Raksura #1)

9461562I’ve been aware of this series since the appearance of the first book, and I’ve kept reminding myself to see what it was all about every time I saw news about the release of a new installment or a positive review, but as it often happens I kept procrastinating in favor of other books: now, mostly thanks to the enthusiastic review of a fellow blogger, I’ve decided it was high time.

The first volume of this series introduces the readers to a peculiar world divided into three realms and peopled by a wide variety of beings: all of them are humanoid looking but show some differences in coloring and appearance that make us realize quite soon there are no humans as such on this world, a place where plains and mountains give way to rivers and seas and even offer the breathtaking spectacle of floating islands, that reminded me of some amazing vistas from James Cameron’s Avatar.  Apart from the weird creatures that can be found on land, water or air, there are two big groups of sentients: the groundlings, those who most resemble baseline humans, and the Raksura, winged and tailed crosses between lizard and human, who can shape-change from flying configuration to a wingless, groundling-like form.

Moon is a Raksura, but he’s not aware of his true nature: he’s been living on his own since the rest of his family group was killed by predators, and he has tried to live with groundlings, only to have his shape-shifting ability revealed every time, so that he ended up being evicted from the groups he had tried to blend in. The conflict between his desire not to be alone and the fear of inevitable discovery has shaped his attitude into a sort of bitter disillusionment that manages to keep him apart from others, even when he’s temporarily part of a community: for this reason, once he comes into contact with another Raksura for the first time, he’s quite distrustful about accepting the stranger’s offer of joining a proper court and finally be with his own people.  Stone, that’s the name of the scout sent by Indigo Cloud court in search of new members to refresh the bloodlines, does not take Moon’s initial ‘no’ for an answer and urges him to at least see for himself what he’s missed until now. Unfortunately, the two’s visit to a neighboring court reveals the threat from the Fell, a kind of feral Raksura with a cruel, predatory attitude.

This event, in addition to Moon’s earlier encounter with the Fell, and the painful memories tied to it, about which we will learn much later in the course of the story, convinces Moon to lend his aid to Indigo Cloud, at least temporarily: part of his unwillingness to offer a permanent commitment comes from his ingrained diffidence, but there’s another factor weighing in, the discovery of his nature as a consort, the rare kind of Raksura who can mate with a queen to give birth to other Raksura or their wingless brethren, the Arbora.   There’s an interesting consideration to be made here, and it’s one of the fascinating aspects of this story: Raksuran society hinges on a role reversal, where the queens hold all the power (even that of keeping individuals from shifting into winged shape) and the male consorts possess a role quite similar to that of concubines in a harem. The courts’ organization closely resembles that of an ant- or bee-hive, with the different roles – mentors, warriors and so on – established by birth.

The depiction of Raksuran society, together with the vivid descriptions of the world in which the story unfolds, are the backbone of this novel and the most fascinating aspect of it, while the steady pace keeps the story flowing at a good speed. What’s interesting here is that we see it all through Moon’s eyes, and since it’s all new to him, we share in both his wonder and puzzlement.  The author has managed to convey the same insights one might gain from a first-person perspective while keeping the narrative in the third person, although tightly focused on Moon’s point of view.  He is an interesting character, a grown adult – at some point we learn he’s around 35 – but possessed of some traits belonging to a younger person: it’s clear that his life of solitude has not allowed for a full psychological development and that he’s still searching for himself, more than for a stable home. That’s why, I think, the discovery of his possible role as consort seems fraught with negatives: while solitude has been a burden throughout his existence, Moon does not look ready to give up his independence in favor of a permanent home and some creature comforts, and his first meeting with Pearl, the ruling queen of Indigo Cloud, does not help his skittishness at all.   The impending threat from the Fell puts these troubles on the back burner, however, and Moon finds himself confronted with the need to help his newfound allies (and maybe family) deal with a danger that swiftly turns into “clear and present” mode.

While I totally enjoyed the book, and will certainly read on, the story is far from perfect: the action is swift and engrossing, the world-building amazing and at times quite cinematic, but characterization – apart from the central figure of Moon – feels somewhat sketchy.  For example, Stone, Moon’s mentor and guide, or Jade, queen-in-training and possible mate, are not fully fleshed out but seem to be there only as props for Moon’s journey of discovery of his true nature: I could not get a sense of the persons behind the characters, and that made me feel as if something important was sorely missing.  I wanted to know what made them the way they were, how they had come to that point, just as I could more easily understand what makes Moon tick.

Apart from this small disappointment, that I hope will be assuaged in the future course of the story, The Cloud Roads is a fascinating tale set in an intriguing universe, one that I will certainly enjoy exploring further.

My Rating:


Review: TWO SERPENTS RISE, by Max Gladstone (Craft Sequence #2)

16059411A few years ago I read, and greatly enjoyed, Max Gladstone’s THREE PARTS DEAD, a totally new take on fantasy and magic, and afterwards I kept reminding myself to read more of this series – especially when I learned about the new books being published – but such are the fluctuating “currents” of my TBR pile that this second volume was being constantly shifted back.  Now that I’ve finally read it, I’m struggling with a creeping feeling of disappointment, as if something that I had greatly appreciated in the first book was sadly missing here.

The story does not take place in Alt Coulumb, like book 1, but rather in Dresediel Lex, a city whose past seems to hint at an Atzec-like culture, made of stone pyramids, winged serpents and human sacrifices to the gods. The latter have been taken out of the equation after an equally bloody war in which the gods were vanquished and supplanted by deathless kings and a form of magic that uses soul as currency, although many still worship the decades-gone gods and look with longing at the times when blood was freely spent to garner the favor of those divinities.

Despite this more secular imprint on society, life in Dresediel Lex can be hard: the place sits in a dry, desert-like area (it could somehow remind me of Las Vegas, if it weren’t for its proximity to the sea) and water supply is the main problem the inhabitants have to face, since the ever-growing population’s needs have already run the nearest sources dry.  Caleb Altemoc is a senior risk manager at Red King Consolidated, the corporation that actually runs the city and delivers its water through a complicated net of pipes and Craft, a combination of technology and magic that uses some of the now-subjugated gods as power sources.

When the water from the current reservoir becomes poisoned by Tzimet – fanged, demon-like creatures that can come out of the faucets and attack the citizens – Caleb is called to investigate and his suspicions are equally divided between his father Temoc, one of the last priests supporting the old religion, forced to live in hiding, and Mal, a mysterious woman Caleb saw running over the structure of the reservoir.  Mal is also tied to Heartstone, a firm that RKC is going to acquire to expand its power base and its reach in the services offered to the city, and so Caleb’s attraction to her becomes mixed with the investigation and the number of unanswered questions circling around Mal.

The investigation brings Caleb into a maze of ancient secrets, long-held grudges and the ever-growing threat of seeing everything that RKC and the King in Red did, to unshackle the citizens from the need to appease the gods with human sacrifice, turn to ashes: the fact that the path RKC has taken is crumbling under the law of diminishing returns gives the loyalist of the “old regime” the lever they need to try and bring it all back to reinstate the old ways.   There is much to keep one’s attention in this story, not least the increasing sense of impending doom that comes from Caleb’s discoveries, that in turn climax into a scene of city-wide mayhem in which the titular Serpents play a focal role.

The main question is a complex one, whether it is preferable to stick to the old ways – ensuring the prolonged survival of the city through human sacrifice – or embrace the new ones, which however do not guarantee the same kind of continuity.   Someone would be made to suffer either way, and the only choice allowed is to pick the victim: a sacrifice on the altar to buy the gods’ favor, or a war with other cities for their resources once the ones at hand are depleted.  As the author writes at some point:

“You seem to think it’s different if we kill for gods or for water; either way the victim dies at the end.”

Despite the fascinating conundrum, the sense of incompleteness I was mentioning before did linger all throughout the book, and in the end I believe it was because Caleb  feels a bit thin – especially if compared to other, more interesting and fleshed-out figures, like Caleb’s friend Teo, with her sharp, world-wise attitude and staunch attachment to the people she cares about;  or his father Temoc, whose love for his son cannot be separated from the loyalty he feel for his gods and the tenets of his faith.  Caleb is indeed the child of two worlds, the old and the new, and he dwells in a no-man’s-land of uncertainty that, sadly, spreads into the area of character development: besides the obsession for the elusive Mal and his gambling, there is not much to make him stand out, and at the end of the story he’s not much different from the man he was at the beginning – at least from my point of view.

I did ultimately enjoy the book, but not as much as I’d hoped after the great experience that was Three Parts Dead: the perceived weakness of the main character, and the less intriguing background (I found Alt Coulumb much more fascinating a place than Dresediel Lex) were something of a letdown. Still, I’m curious about the world of the Craft Sequence, and will certainly read other books in this series, in the hope of finding again the… magic of the first volume.

 

My Rating:

Review: THE BLOODBOUND, by Erin Lindsey (Bloodbound #1)

20949421The very enthusiastic reviews I kept reading about this novel since it came out compelled me to add it to my reading queue, but I finally got to it only recently, when the other two books of the trilogy have already been published: the bad news is that until this moment I missed out on a solid, compulsive read; the good news is that I will not have to wait long to read the other two installments in the series.  So I can take some measure of comfort in my lateness to the party…

The Bloodbound starts in what deceptively looks like a well-known pattern: the kingdom of Aldea is at war with the invading Oridians, and in the middle of a crucial battle, part of the Aldean forces, led by the king’s brother, leave the field allowing the enemy to attempt a decisive blow.  King Erik himself is about to be killed when one of the scouts – the young noblewoman Alix Black – saves his life by unseating him from his horse. And breaking his leg in the process.

This is the first departure from the expected norm of the genre: women are not only allowed, but required – like everyone else in Aldea – to serve in the army for at least a two-years stint.  And if they are mostly employed as scouts rather than actual warriors, this does not mean they are exempt from risk or physical harm.  It’s a refreshing attitude, and one that gives the author the opportunity of showing some female characters with actual agency, who gather the respect and admiration of their peers.

Alix is indeed one the best scouts in the Aldean army: she’s nimble, able to move unheard and unseen in the most difficult of terrains, and her courage is unquestioned – but she’s also headstrong, impulsive and prone to mistakes due to her recklessness. Unlike similar characters, she’s not trying to prove anything, nor is she driven by a desire to emerge: she acts before she thinks, and that’s what makes her commanding officer, General Green, so furious – but also what allows her to save the life of the king, who promotes her as his personal bodyguard on the field.

This is where the romantic thread of the narrative pops up, because if Alix has strong feelings for her fellow scout Liam (feelings that are not socially acceptable, since he’s a fatherless bastard), the closeness to king Erik brings her to enjoy his company and respond in kind to her ruler’s very gentlemanly advances.   When this part of the story surfaced I was instantly on my guard: I’m not very partial to romance in my reading, and I try to avoid love triangles as much as I can – blame it on my encounters with some trope-laden YA stories that made me violently allergic to these two themes.

Well, I’m very happy to say that my unease was groundless: Erin Lindsey managed to treat the subject matter with a very light hand and with very well developed emotional responses on the part of the three involved people – you will not find any artificial angst over unrequited love, or tormented inner dialogue in the most inappropriate moments, or childlike behavior of the kind that makes me want to slap the characters senseless.  No, what we see here are three people having to deal with very complicated feelings that encompass love, respect, friendship and duty, and do it in a very adult way, to the point that I could not be more partial toward any one of the three involved characters, but felt sympathy and compassion for all of them: the very impossibility of a simple resolution for the complicated entanglement of these three lives is what makes the dilemma real and approachable – from the reader’s standpoint – and what turns a potentially destructive narrative thread into one around which the story’s major events develop seamlessly.

The backbone of The Bloodbound is a compelling one: there is a war going on, but it’s not treated simply as a clash of armies – there is that of course, and also some politics and treachery, but more substantial themes are explored, like the meaning of rule, the qualities that make a good king versus a bad, distant one.  If Alix is somehow the main character here, and her journey of inner growth is often at the forefront, king Erik is also closely observed as he transforms from a happy-go-lucky monarch and commander to a more mature, responsible and hardened person, one who comes to understand the price of power and is ready to pay it, no matter how painful the cost.

If Alix, Erik and Liam are often in the spotlight, this does not mean that the characters surrounding them are simple props put there just for background color: there is a good number of people, some of them fleshed out more fully than others, who at times bring a choral flavor to the story, enriching it and making its scope broader and multi-layered. At the same time, the various dramatic threads, like the war and the sacrifices it requires, are offset by sparks of humor that dovetail seamlessly into the most serious events, balancing the overall effect in a very pleasing way.

Last but not least the magic: it’s there, but not in an intrusive way and it adds the necessary pinch of spice to the mix. Most interesting is the bloodbond established between a weapon (be it a sword, a knife or a bow) and its wielder, that makes it an integral part of its owner: wielding a weapon so magically linked to the person using it, makes for a lighter feel, and an almost subconscious integration with the body. The most intelligent choice in this aspect of the story is that the bloodbond can be reached with difficulty, since it’s a rare craft whose experts are dwindling in number, so avoiding the risk of making it a deux-ex-machina prop.

Then there is the dark art able to transform people into almost invincible zombies – again, a kind of witchcraft requiring blood to work, in what looks like a pattern in this world’s magic system – and that creates a terrifying host of unfeeling soldiers launched against the Aldean army. The attempt at neutralizing this looming danger gives us some of the most breath-stopping pages of the whole story, one that practically read itself, thanks to the almost compulsory quality of the narrative.

I’m quite happy to have finally started this series, and I know I will not wait too long before reading the other two installments. On the contrary, I’m quite eager to see how the story progresses.

 

My Rating: