Reviews

GRAVE IMPORTANCE (Dr. Greta Helsing #3), by Vivian Shaw

The third and final (?) book in Vivian Shaw’s series focused on Greta Helsing, the physician specialized in supernatural creatures, raises the stakes to unimaginable levels, following the progressive crescendo acquired in the previous two volumes and seeing all the characters we have come to know and love engaged in a scenario of catastrophic proportions.

After the chilling adventures in Paris, Greta & Co. are enjoying some quiet time, and Dr. Helsing herself is helping Varney with the renovation of his ancestral house as the two of them – human and vampyre – keep growing closer. Their developing intimacy must however be placed on a back burner as a colleague asks Greta to take over for a while in his spa for mummies on the outskirts of Marseille, since he needs to take a leave of absence.  Despite sadness at her impending separation from Varney for several weeks, Greta is excited at the prospect of learning more about therapies for mummies, particularly because Oasis Natrun is filled with state-of-the-art equipment that will enable her to practice the high-level kind of medicine that she always dreamed of.

Her enthusiasm is sadly short-lived: the mummies at the spa keep falling prey to a kind of debilitating seizures that in some cases also prove damaging to their fragile physical integrity.  As Greta battles with the strange ailment, her vampire friend and mentor Ruthven is touring Europe with his new lover Grisaille: a puzzling encounter with a weird individual proves quite harmful to Ruthven’s health and requires his hospitalization in the best clinic in Hell (yes, *that* Hell, with a cameo from Dr. Faust himself), and there are two angels in disguise roaming the world as they prepare the ground for an invasion from an alternate version of Heaven. Mayhem and ruin ensue as we discover how the very fabric of reality is in jeopardy and nothing short of Armageddon looms ever close on the horizon…

In the previous two books, while enjoying the choral style of the narrative, I often felt that Greta was somewhat underused: here she finally comes to the fore, showing in no uncertain way the fierce love for her profession and the unstinting dedication to her patients that have shaped her over time. The puzzle presented by the mummies’ weird fits consumes her both as a physician and as a person who cares for others, and I liked how her growing relationship with Varney has not changed her attitude but rather has become another side of her commitment to others, and a source of strength in difficult moments rather than a distraction.

Grave Importance might be best described as several books in one: there is the thread about Oasis Natrun and its endangered mummies; Ruthven’s alarming ailment and the way it impacts the newly-forged bond with Grisaille, which leads to another part of the story where the latter launches into a dangerous heist together with Cranswell (a welcome return!); then there is the mysterious Madam Van Dorne and her obsession with Egyptian artifacts; and last but not least the nebulous mission of the two angels, Amitiel and Zophiel (A to Z – it took me a while to connect the dots…) and its ominous consequences.  It might sound like too much, but it’s really not, since these apparently unconnected pieces of the puzzle slowly form the complete picture, and the constant change of POV helps in keeping the pace brisk and in making the page-turning a compelling necessity.

What Vivian Shaw does very well, both here and in the previous two books, is mix more serious themes with humor in a very successful blend, and the whimsical bits always come at the right moment to defuse a particularly tense situation – a prime example of this is the scene where the enigmatic Madam Van Dorne sees her first walking and talking mummy and faints, and the mummy in question is more than happy to carry her away in its arms imitating the famous Boris Karloff movie sequence.  Equally entertaining are the chapters where Grisaille and Cranswell play – more or less successfully – the role of art thieves from New York’s Metropolitan Museum, or our first and comprehensive look at Hell, which is run like a well-oiled city, complete with its own resorts, bars and a top-notch hospital, Erebus General.  Should I also mention that you get the news there from ENN (Erebus News Network) and that the country code for phone calls is 666? 😀

This levity is a welcome distraction from the sinister events that lead inexorably to what looks like the end of the world, but it does not steer the author away from sharper and deeper characterization and a close observation of the family that Greta and her friends have built through their adventures and the affection that ties them together. Once again I am amazed at how all the supernatural creatures depicted in these novels feel so human and relatable, both the ones we have come to know and those we encounter here for the first time. These weird creatures – be they vampires, werewolves or demons, just to name a few – are not edulcorated, they stay true to their legendary and sometimes sinister nature, but at the same time they show a side of… normalcy, for want of a better word, that puts their more outlandish traits in sharper relief.

The only part of the story that did not exactly agree with me is the one concerning the two angels from a different dimension who are working to usher in the end of our world, deemed an abomination by their plane of existence: I found this part a little confusing and not sufficiently explained, but it was really a small “hiccup” in an otherwise very engaging read, and my hope is that Vivian Shaw will choose to return to Greta & Co. in the near future because I believe there are some more stories to tell about her and her oh-so-very-unusual circle of friends.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE CONCRETE BLONDE (Harry Bosch #3), by Michael Connelly

It’s true that third time’s the charm: this third book in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series looks indeed to have reached the solid ground needed for a continuing story, one that reinforces my resolution of adding more crime/thriller novels to my usual reading “menu” and to give further space in the genre to this series in particular.

A past investigation – one that was previously mentioned in passing – has come to bite Bosch in the behind: four years prior he was involved in the manhunt for the serial killer nicknamed “the Dollmaker” because he used to garishly paint the face of his victims with their own makeup. Following an unexpected lead, Bosch burst into the apartment where the killer brought his victims and shot him when the man seemed to reach for a gun under his pillow: the police found later that Norman Church, that was the man’s name, had a lot of incriminating evidence in that apartment, and therefore Bosch had indeed apprehend the true killer, but his off-procedure actions brought on a severe reprimand and his transfer from the prestigious Robbery Homicide Dept. to the far less glamorous Hollywood Division.

Now Church’s widow is suing Bosch and the LAPD protesting her husband’s innocence: the man was not actually reaching for a gun but for his toupee, and she maintains he was not a serial killer but an honest family man. The situation is complicated when a message, similar to those the serial killer sent to the police, brings to the discovery of another corpse – this one buried under the foundations of a building – and it seems that the victim was killed after Church’s death, therefore raising doubts about Bosch’s performance and threatening him with an accusation of wrongful death. The detective is forced to walk a difficult path between the courthouse, where his every action is put under merciless scrutiny, and the investigation for the new victim, which leads him to question his own past convictions and actions as he and the LAPD try to figure out if there is a copycat killer still on the prowl.

Of the three books I’ve read so far in this series, this is the most fast-paced and engrossing: on one side there is the hunt for evidence about the existence of another serial killer, and then the actual hunt for the man, punctuated by dead-end clues and faulty leads and culminating into a very unexpected (at least for me) revelation; on the other there is the courthouse trial, where Bosch’s conduct and past are put under a ruthless microscope as the prosecuting attorney pulls no punches in her campaign to discredit the detective. The character of Honey Chandler (nicknamed “Money” thanks to her rate of successes in the field) is an intriguing one: a very capable, very determined woman who is able to shake Bosch’s bedrock certainties making him question his own conduct and certainties: this is not the first time his actions have fallen under the spotlight, or that his career has been in jeopardy, but Chandler manages to make it quite close and personal, shaking the foundations of his perception of himself.

This sense of fallibility, this uncertainty, manage to suddenly make Bosch more human, far more relatable than previously shown, and contribute to turn him into a far more sympathetic character than he was so far. He seems less afraid of his emotions and has even started what looks like a stable relationship with a woman, and although he still keeps much of his feelings to himself, he appears willing to admit to their existence and to let them surface from time to time. While from Bosch’s point of view these might appear like weaknesses, these chinks in his carefully construed armor help in rounding his character and adding more layers to it: for a series that runs for the considerable number of books it has reached so far, this is more than necessary because it would be difficult to carry on for long with a protagonist that never changes from his “lone wolf” self – he needs to evolve through experience and in this book I saw the first glimmer of those changes that I hope will continue the transformation in the course of the series.

The layering of characterization goes hand in hand with a compelling plot where the search for and validation of evidence is made more intriguing by a lack of the kind of technology we are used to in our present time: in the mid-90s, when the story is set, the term “legwork” applied to police investigation was still quite apt, as the detectives had to actually move all over the place to confirm or discard each piece of collected information. This allows the author, in this particular case, to take his readers through the seedier parts of Los Angeles, where the porno industry (and the crime racket) made money through hard-core movies and the sale of X-rated tapes – yes, tapes. So quaint… 😉

Another element I enjoyed here is that although the story is focused on the search for a serial killer, we are not exposed to the gorier aspects of the situation, since the author prefers to detail those of the manhunt: this allows for one of the few lighter sections of the book, when we are given an inside view of the re-formed Dollmaker Team and the interactions between the .detectives. As is bound to happen in any task force, the person in charge is not the best-and-brightest of the bunch, and I was amused at the tongue-in-cheek banter of the detectives as they poked fun at their leader practically under his nose.

Where I was slightly dubious, at the end of the previous book, about the possibility of carrying forward with this series, I am now much more hopeful that the next volumes will be as narratively intriguing as this one and look forward to discovering what lies down the road.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE TROUBLE WITH PEACE (The Age of Madness #2), by Joe Abercrombie

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

When I read A Little Hatred, the first volume in Joe Abercrombie’s new saga, I had not yet fulfilled the long-standing promise to myself to read his First Law trilogy, yet still I managed to enjoy the new story very much, despite missing the connection with past events and characters contained in the previous books. Now that I have managed to catch up with that past, I am finally able to appreciate all the subtler nuances of story and characterization that make this world one of the best creations in the genre.  And what an amazing journey this was!

As the title suggests, peace is not an enduring status in the Circle of the World: the political  scene in the Union is still in flux and the newly named king Orso finds himself hemmed in between the rock of social unrest and the hard place of his own advisory council, whose disdain for his ruling abilities is barely concealed. Savine dan Glockta lost much of her prestige after the harrowing experiences of the Breakers’ revolt, and her need to regain the standing she enjoyed compels her to make alliances whose wisdom might not survive the harsh light of day.  Leo dan Brock, Lord Governor of Angland – the buffer state between the Union and the “barbaric” North – still pines for triumphs and glorious battles and is far too easily drawn into a dangerous conspiracy by shrewd politicians harnessing his brawn in service of their subtly nefarious brains.

Things are hardly better in the North, where the self-declared king Stour Nightfall is bent on attacking again the Union to expand his territories, meanwhile bolstering his rule through violence and cruelty, not only against opponents but also against those of his own men foolish enough to raise objections.  As a first step he sets again his sights on Uffrith, the domain of the Dogman, where Rikke, the old hero’s daughter, is trying to come to terms with her prescient gift – the Long Eye – and is ready to undergo the most harrowing of rituals to harness that power and put it to the service of her people.

This is the bare-bones premise from which The Trouble With Peace takes flight, developing into a tale of convoluted political schemes, social unrest, conspiracies, revolution and, above all, an engrossing examination of the human soul filtered through conflicting desires and shameful or tragic paths.  Where the action scenes remain among the most engagingly cinematic I ever encountered – alternatively focusing on heroic feats and very human moments of pure terror and cowardice – Joe Abercrombie’s storytelling shines the brightest when he shapes his characters, be they the main ones or the secondary figures, who get just as much attention and detail as everyone else, contributing to the richness of the narrative canvas.  A shining example of this careful design comes from the portrayal of a bloody act of sabotage that is relayed several times from the point of view of a number of different people: the repetition of events helps to create a three-dimensional picture not just of the fact itself, but of the societal medium in which it happens and the way its members figure into it.

What’s most extraordinary in this story is that the moral ambiguity of the characters works both ways, with no clear definition of right or wrong, and the main examples of this grey area are King Orso and Leo dan Brock: while the narrative focus is on either one of them, it’s easy for the reader to sympathize with him, to see his reasons or at least to understand where they come from, but once the point of view shifts to the other one, the same happens, making us realize that truth and righteousness are simply a matter of perspective. Both characters have their merits, narratively speaking, because if on one side Orso seems to grow into his role, finding strength and the foundations of his role through the troubles he has to deal with, 

He sometimes could hardly face breakfast, was alarmed by the notion of choosing a shirt, but epic disaster appeared to have finally brought out the best in him.

on the other Leo comes across as an ultimately tragic character, one who is driven by high ideals toward a very dangerous, very uncertain path. 

Savine dan Glokta’s journey continues on the controlling and manipulative trail that was her peculiar modus operandi from book 1, but a part of her ruthless self did get lost during the Breakers’ tumults and the traumatic experiences she endured, so it appears here as if she lost both the edge and the keen foresight that once allowed her to be always five moves ahead of her opponents. Despite a constant show of willpower, and a relentless drive that propels her toward any goal, it’s clear that some key element of her personality is now missing, exposing her to fate’s vagaries in an unprecedented way.

Rikke’s character arc, on the other hand, moves in the opposite direction: from the half-savage, tormented girl plagued by unwanted and uncontrollable visions of the future, she grows here into her own woman – and one ready to pay the price necessary to harness her gift and turn it into the tool she needs to lead her people. She became my favorite character in this book, both for the combination of strength and gallows humor that allows Abercrombie’s peculiar narrative style to shine even more, and for the way she transforms into a crafty leader, the perfect embodiment of this world’s survivor, one who knows that shrewd manipulation and back-stabbing politics are the best weapons she can wield.

If the main protagonists do indeed carry the story on their proverbial backs, the secondary figures are just as fascinating, offering complementary points of view and enhancing the sense of full immersion created by the novel: Caul Shivers, Broad, Isern-i-Phail or Vick dan Teufel – just to name a few – enjoy their own share of the limelight, adding depth to the events being carefully built before our own eyes, and the biggest surprise, toward the end of the book, comes exactly from two of those “lesser” players. As the novel seems ready for an epilogue, with the narrative threads brought to what looks like a neat wrap-up that made me wonder if this was not set as a duology, the end is carried by two of those secondary figures – one from the previous trilogy and one from the newest arc – whose actions open the door to what promises to be an amazing, gloriously devastating finale I can hardly wait for.

Thankfully, I still have the stand-alone books in this saga to sustain me while I bide my time…

My Rating:

Reviews

KEPT FROM CAGES (The Ikiri Duology #1), by Phil Williams

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

Kept from Cages is Mr. Williams’ new novel, loosely connected with his Sunken City series and portraying completely new characters and backgrounds: the magically-infused British city of Ordshaw is mentioned, and we get a cameo appearance from one of the older characters, but this story takes place elsewhere, broadening our horizons in the matter of supernatural phenomena manifesting throughout the world.

The novel, as I learned from the author’s site, is one Mr. Williams has been working on for a long time and runs on two parallel but distinct tracks which might have seemed confusing at first, if I had not been prepared by the Ordshaw stories and learned that the author likes to place many, apparently unconnected, pieces of the puzzle on the playing field, little by little leading his readers toward the complete picture – or at least as much of the complete picture as he chooses to share at any given time… 😉

So we are presented first with Sean Tasker, an agent from the shady Ministry for Environmental Energy, investigating a ghastly event which occurred in a remote Norwegian village, where the inhabitants seem to have killed each other in an apparent attack of mass hysteria. Tasker’s investigations lead him to connect with Katryzna, a young woman with a history of violence and murderous skills, and they both travel to Congo as they follow a strange and increasingly weird trail of baffling clues.

On the other side of the world, a band of criminally inclined musicians is on the run after their latest hit, and they end up in an isolated farm where they discover a child with peculiar red eyes, tied to a chair: this is only the first of the freaky events that will see Reece and his band mates flee across the Deep South of the USA, hunted by the authorities, by a group of disreputable bounty hunters and bu a plethora of supernatural creatures that seem attracted to the little girl, Zip, like flies to honey.

Before the merging of the two separate storylines you can expect breakneck chases, harrowing battles with things that go bump in the night, old legends about an ominous mountain from where no expedition ever returned, cloak and dagger battles between crooked agencies and much, much more: the pacing is quite sustained, alternating chapters between the two groups of characters so that I felt compelled to move forward at a considerable speed because my need to know what happened next kept growing exponentially. It’s a crazy kind of adventure where you can only expect the unexpected right up to the epilogue, where we are left with such a surprising twist that calling it a cliffhanger would be to do it a huge disservice.

The tone of the novel is a little darker than what I found in the Sunken City series – which was not always rainbows and unicorns, to be clear about it – although there are many opportunities for humor, both in the delightful banter between the musicians, that comes to the fore even in the direst of situations, and through the harsh, uncouth and delightfully ill-mannered sorties from Katryzna, whose… well… unique approach to personal interactions offers the chance for a smile in the most distressing of circumstances.

Kept from Cages moves beyond the parameters of Urban Fantasy, adding elements of mystery, horror and humor to the mix, so that it would be difficult to classify the story, even in this era where the borders between genres keep blurring: it is definitely an adventure – both for the characters and for the readers, transported all over the world in search of the answers for an old riddle that might have dire implications for the present. 

Above all, it’s fun, and I’m delighted to inform you that it will be available from today, September 22nd: if you enjoyed the Sunken City trilogy you will feel perfectly at home here (monsters included…), if you did not read it yet, it might present a good opportunity to sample this entertainingly spooky world.

My Rating:

Reviews

HOW TO RULE AN EMPIRE AND GET AWAY WITH IT (The Siege #2), by K.J. Parker

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 enjoyed reading K.J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, therefore I was very curious to see how the story would be carried forward with a new main character: from the very start Notker, the protagonist of this novel, spoke with a very unique, very entertaining voice and made this new sojourn in the city a delightful time.

The city is now in its seventh year of the (so far not very successful) siege by the ever-growing army of the so-called milkfaces: the blue-skinned Robur ruled over this part of the world for a long time, placing the light-skinned inhabitants in a practically and culturally subservient position. Once the oppressed decided to put an end to the Robur dominion, the siege of the city began and, as we saw in the previous book, it was thanks to the milkface engineer Orhan if the invading army’s attempts at overruling its defenses did not succeed.  As the story opens, we learn that the Robur, not exactly happy to acknowledge Orhan’s endeavors, have tweaked history a bit and heaped the glory for their salvation on the shoulders of Lysimachus – Orhan’s former bodyguard and a far more acceptable Robur – making him the public face of government.

Unfortunately, one of the stones regularly launched by the invaders’ trebuchets falls on on a building where Lysimachus and other officials are present, killing him instantly: the effect on public morale would be devastating, so the city’s de-facto rulers decide to employ a body double to keep Lysimachus alive in the eyes of the citizens. Enter Notker, a struggling actor and playwright, whose skills as an impersonator are well known: he’s enrolled for the charade despite his deep misgivings, and day after day he surprises even himself by growing so well into the role that at times he finds it hard to avoid blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction.  He becomes so good in his role that his personality – at least on the surface – undergoes important changes, as do his goals, or at least that’s what he seems to convey…

Indeed “seems” is the pivotal word here: where Orhan was an unreliable narrator simply because we saw events only from his point of view, Notker is even more unreliable because he’s a professional liar – after all what are actors if not people who can don many personalities as they would do with clothes?  So in his case we not only witness events from his angle, we know he is putting on a mask, playing a role, and this adds a further layer of misdirection on anything he says or does. What’s more, Notker seems to enjoy being Lysimachus, not just for the power he finds himself able to wield, but because he has such a low esteem for himself that he seems to prefer living a lie than showing the real person underneath:

[…] being me has never been easy. And on balance I’d far rather be anybody else but me.

If Notker is clearly unreliable, on the other hand he’s witty and funny and – veteran actor that he is – he manages to infuse a light note in everything he describes, be it a political conspiracy, a particularly bloody assault on the walls or a difficult negotiation with the Themes, the two factions that run the city’s working class and are in constant, fierce competition with each other. What emerges from his light-hearted chronicles, however, is a sort of moral code, no matter how heavily disguised, that adds an intriguing facet to Notker’s character and slowly turns him from the initial lovable rogue into a sympathetic character: if absolute power can corrupt, it can also sometimes change people for the better, make them care for something beyond their immediate needs.  Or, to use Notker’s own words:

[…] that’s the risk with staying in character. Sooner or later the character stays in you.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn more about our protagonist and his difficult childhood under the wing of an overbearing father with a penchant for violence that the man channeled into a career as a Theme enforcer: despite Notker’s almost-fond recollections of those fatherly lessons, we can perceive his desire to detach himself from such an heritage, and that’s another reason it’s easy to empathize with him and to understand his need to forge his own destiny, but also to do something good once he finds himself in the position to do so.

Unlike Orhan, who remained front and center in his version of the story, Notker is paired with another interesting character, fellow actress and onetime lover Hodda: the author often mentions, with tongue-in-cheek humor, that one of the main requirements for a successful play is the presence of a strong female character and Hodda fits this specification to perfection, not only because she’s a determined, independent woman who brings these qualities to her roles, but also because she’s practical and resolute and faces life with a no-nonsense attitude that’s very refreshing. Her dealings with Notker, even when circumstances bring them very close, are always based on those traits, and she often acts as the voice of reason (a voice laced with a strong dose of scorn, granted) tempering Notker’s wildest flights of fancy.  Both in this story and the previous one the author brought to life this kind of female character – women who combine a sharp tongue with an even sharper intellect, who take no flak from men and know what they want from life and how to get it, and Hodda here is their rightful representative.

How to Rule an Empire… like its companion novel is a fun journey that nonetheless compels you to seriously think about people and what drives them, that successfully mixes drama and comedy always keeping a good balance between these elements and that presents you with memorable characters while telling a fast-paced story able to hold your attention from start to finish. For me, a perfect combination….

My Rating:

Reviews

KILLMAN CREEK (Stillhouse Lake #2), by Rachel Caine

It’s been quite some time since I read the first book in this series, Stillhouse Lake, and one of the reasons I waited so long – besides the usual problems of a crowded TBR – was that my previous experience with one of Rachel Caine’s series, namely The Great Library, soured a little with the second installment and I was wary of a repeat occurrence. It turned out that my doubts were more than founded: to be completely honest, Killman Creek was not a bad read but a good portion of the freshness and inventive of its predecessor was missing in this book, which led me to think that there might be some form of… narrative pattern here.  But let’s proceed with order.

The woman calling herself Gwen Proctor used to be Gina Royal, unsuspecting wife of Melvin Royal, a vicious serial killer: when a freak accident revealed the horrors hidden in Melvin’s garage, no one felt inclined to believe in Gina’s innocence, because it seemed impossible that she would not know what was going on; no one seemed to understand that a meek, subtly plagiarized wife would be unable to see behind the curtain of normalcy projected by her husband. Once the trial established her innocence, Gina had to keep on the move to save herself and her two children by the hordes of haters who hounded them, mostly thanks to the pervasiveness of the internet: changing her name and keeping on the move were the only options she had, and so Gwen Proctor was born.

In Stillhouse Lake we encountered Gwen finding a place where she wanted to stay and start to build a new life for herself and her teenage children, but Melvin’s reach and vindictiveness – enhanced by a hacker collective called Absalom – went beyond the prison’s barriers and once more shattered Gwen’s existence, culminating in Melvin’s escape from jail and a further level of threat for Gwen and her small family.  Killman Creek sees Gwen choosing to go on the offensive: with the help of Sam, the brother of one of Melvin’s victims, she decides to hunt down her former husband and physically remove him from the equation once and forever.  Easier said than done, though: as the only escaped inmate still at large, Melvin seems able to remain several steps ahead, enjoying the mental torture he can inflict on Gwen just as much as he enjoyed the physical violence visited on his victims, and the people from Absalom keep adding new damning material to Gwen’s profile, to the point that her innocence is dramatically contested both by her shocked children and by a still-grieving Sam, so that she finds herself even more isolated than before and chooses to play a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with Melvin in the hope of forever ending her torment.

The pace in Killman Creek is indeed relentless and there seems to be no way out of the intricate network of deceit and remote control that Melvin and Absalom have created against Gwen, but in the end this complicated web turns out to be counterproductive because it requires such a high suspension of disbelief that the drama feels phony. There is far too much on the table: Absalom’s powers, Melvin’s almost psychic intuitions, a reclusive billionaire with an interest in the matter, an FBI agent ready to go rogue to help Sam, and Gwen’s younger son acting like a very naive monkey wrench in his mother’s plans.  

Moreover, at some point a series of fake videos sheds a very suspicious light on Gwen’s past and creates a tragic fracture between her, the children and Sam, and that was the element that managed to shatter my “belief bubble”, because it felt so contrived and over the top and it added a further layer of drama which, at that point, seemed totally unnecessary.  Since it was firmly established that Absalom could easily manipulate evidence, and it was equally established that Gina/Gwen had no part in her husband’s murderous activities, I would have expected the fake vids to create some doubts and some shock, yes, but not the violent rejection she had to endure from everyone, as if her every single action so far, her fierce protectiveness toward her kids and her willingness to sacrifice everything for them, amounted to nothing.  It looks as if the author thought the mix was not complex enough, and she felt the need to add a melodramatic angle that I found both superfluous and annoying – and which apparently left no consequences, because in the end all was forgotten and forgiven as if it never happened: understandable as far as the children are concerned, far less so with Sam…

The characters, which in the previous book had been established as complex and nuanced, here lose some of that complexity and take a step back in favor of the action: nothing wrong with this, of course, but they also seem to de-evolve in comparison with their former selves. Gwen, despite the resolution to go on the offensive, looks like the proverbial headless chicken running in circles and makes a series of foolish mistakes; Sam is there only to brood and doubt; and the kids, who used to have my total understanding for being forced to grow too soon, here appear as the embodiment of the worst in YA characters, forced angst included.  Even Melvin, who so far had looked like an evil manipulator gifted with a twisted intelligence, here appears like nothing more than the classic, mustache-twirling villain.

It’s a pity that such a good opportunity to keep exploring the troubles and traumas of a serial killer’s family was turned into a paint-by-the-numbers thriller that from the midpoint onwards saw me skimming more than reading: I wanted to see how the situation would be resolved, but I had lost faith in the characters’ journey. A pity indeed…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BLACK ICE (Harry Bosch #2), by Michael Connelly

My attempt at broadening my reading horizons by including more fictional genres in my TBR worked quite successfully with the first book in Michael Connelly’s Bosch series, The Black Echo, so I did not wait too long to move forward with this second novel: while it ultimately turned out to be an enjoyable experience, and it added some new layers to the main character, it did not have the same narrative drive as the first volume – probably a classic case of “second book syndrome”…

Maverick detective Harry Bosch is spending his Christmas alone and on call for any homicide summons from his department, when he hears on the radio that the body of a colleague was found in a dingy motel, a possible suicide. It’s strange enough that he was not called to the scene, and it’s stranger still that the Assistant Chief of police seems bent on keeping him away from the investigation – when the next morning Bosch’s commander saddles him with a few open cases to be solved as quickly as possible, his suspicions escalate, and being like the proverbial dog with a bone he decides to take a closer look into the deceased cop’s death, particularly once he discovers that two of those pending cases foisted on him seem to be connected with it. A further compelling clue comes through a file that Cal Moore, the suicide, was compiling about the traffic of a new drug – the titular Black Ice – and that he had asked his former colleagues to forward the documentation to Bosch, as if he knew that he would not be able to complete it.

As I said, the story is interesting enough, although not as gripping as the previous one, probably because I expected the same kind of sustained pacing that here was missing and picked up only toward the three quarter mark; this slower rhythm, however, is offset by a more concentrated focus on characterization and on some introspection that adds a few new layers to Bosch’s personality and sheds more light into his past. We learn further details about his childhood, for example, like the fact that he was orphaned at twelve and spent long years being shuttled from one foster family to another, which explains his solitary way of life: there is an interesting passage here where we see how he sort of bonds with a coyote prowling the wilderness near his house – recognizing a kind of affinity with the lonely animal, one that is later acknowledged by one of Bosch’s bosses who tells him that while he is enrolled in the police department he does not behave as if he were part of it, and that explains his often reckless disregard for the rules and the chain of command.

While this side of Bosch’s character carries from the previous book, here one can also see a slight softening of his bluntness toward others, particularly when his investigation brings him across the border to Mexico and he discovers the similarities between his early life and that of his deceased colleague, whose death has by this time been ruled as homicide rather than suicide, prompting the detective to follow the trail of clues and bring justice to the victim – the main drive that powers his every action.  This slow mellowing of Bosch’s rough edges is something I’m looking forward to in the course of the continuing series, because the theme of the “lone wolf” existing in an emotional vacuum would carry with difficulty through the next 20-odd books without becoming a cliché.

Speaking of clichés, however, Bosch’s relationship with women seems to follow the guidelines of the noir genre, and where this might have been interesting enough in the previous book, where FBI agent Eleanor Wish was an intriguing foil (and as close as a femme fatale as her personality allowed) for the detective, here we see him entangled with no less than two women at the same time, and both of them look more like props than characters on their own right.  I tried to keep in mind that the book was written 27 years ago and that a lot of proverbial water flowed under equally proverbial bridges, but Bosch’s treatment of both women skirts chauvinism in a very dangerous, very irritating way that grates even more than his endless smoking.

This, together with a too-convoluted plot that at times did not roll forward very smoothly, and with an ending that was saddled with too much explanation, brought my rating down a notch: second books often being difficult beasts to tame, I’m ready to give this series some more time to see if it develops into the successful string of books that many are praising. The next one will probably offer a deciding factor…

My Rating:

Reviews

KING OF THE ROAD (Brotherhood of the Wheel #2), by R. S. Belcher

While I usually tend to distance the books in a series to avoid so-called reader fatigue, I did not want to wait too long for this second volume in R.S. Belcher’s on-the-road Urban Fantasy because I greatly enjoyed my first encounter with the Brotherhood, the modern inheritors of the famed Templars, the knights once protecting the pilgrims traveling toward the Holy Land. In more recent times, the old order transformed into the Brotherhood, an alliance of truckers, bikers, patrolmen and so forth cruising the roads and keeping their dangers at bay, be they mundane or supernatural.

In the first book of the series we met the three main characters: Jimmie Aussapile, a down-to-earth trucker gifted with great courage and a heart of gold; Lovina Marcou, a police officer marked by a family tragedy and set on battling all predators; and Heck Sinclair, a war veteran and member of a motorcycle club, all rough edges and deep bravery.  The book starts with a high-octane mission that sees the three of them engaged in stamping out a band of children traffickers, but soon they are forced to take different roads in pursuit of various foes: Lovina, always keen on the subject of missing girls after the kidnapping and murder of her younger sister, follows the trail of a vanished young woman who keeps haunting her in vivid dreams set at the very moment of the assault; Jimmie is battling with the usual problems of too little cash and too many repairs to his truck, but this does not prevent him from lending Heck a hand as the biker finds himself faced with a splinter group in the club whose dangerous departure from the Blue Jocks’ code of honest living threatens the very existence of their crew.

This split narrative, that at some point also sees the welcome return of Max, the talented scientist from the Builders’ branch of the Brotherhood, makes for an intense reading journey, where the alternating chapters drove me to keep reading to see how the other characters fared in their own dangerous investigations. The story is further enhanced by the introduction of twelve year old Ryan, a boy relocating with his mother to a trailer park after a distressing experience, and finding different, terrifying dangers in the new home, but also new friends, in a narrative equivalent to a theme dear to Stephen King, that of the violated innocence of youth that can sometimes turn into unexpected courage and a lifelong bond.

Murderous cults seem to be one of the most common enemies the Brotherhood must face, and the one in King of the Road is a scary one indeed: its members distinguish themselves by painting unique clown masks on their faces (and there is something special and ominous in the paint they use…) and they harvest victims for their leader and his heinous goals, leaving their dismembered remains in plain view, both for ritualistic and shock value. What we learn along the way, is that these monsters have been doing this for decades, if not more, and every single one of them has been handpicked for cruelty and the absolute lack of common human feelings like dismay or remorse. The evil clown theme is one often found in horror literature (once again I need to quote the Master and his novel IT as a prime example) and I’m aware that there is a very real syndrome (coulrophobia) engendering fear of clowns in people who suffer from it, and I found that here this fear is used very skillfully because there is nothing more frightening that finding wickedness under the mask of someone who should only bring joy and amusement.  The bright side in this very dark part of the story comes from Lovina’s determination to go to the bottom of the mystery and to bring justice to the many victims, but also from the trailer park’s kids and their bond of loyalty that proves stronger than their fears.

Heck, on the other hand, seems at first to be fighting against a more mundane takeover of the club’s leadership and goals: it’s only when the sinister character of Viper comes on the scene that the supernatural elements come to the fore – and there is also something quite ominous in the past ties between Viper, the Blue Jocks and Heck himself, that hints at possible shattering revelations along the way. But on that path lie spoilers, so I will say no more…   In my review of the previous book I wrote that it took me some time to warm up to Heck, but here I felt quite strongly for him: seeing his club undermined from its very core, having to suffer grievous losses in the war against the separatists, feeling his future leadership endangered, he rises to the challenge with a focus and a maturity that seemed impossible given his previous volatile nature.  

A special mention must go to another biker club, The Bitches of Selene, where the members are mostly women and everyone is a shapeshifter: their leader Ana Mae is the perfect, ass-kicking female character I enjoy reading, because she’s a delightful blend of strength and humor, and the perfect foil for Heck. Not to mention that she’s a werewolf too and that there is no question about who is the Alpha between the two of them… 😉

The breakneck pace of the events and the deepening characterization of the regulars are the core of the story, and the latter is notably achieved by separating the three “regulars” and so giving them more space to grow, but there is more in King of the Road that makes it special: the intriguing glimpses into the hobo culture, with its inner “laws” and customs, and the way it somehow dovetails with some of the Brotherhood’s principles; the discovery that the Road is not the only place of aggregation for modern wanderers and that the Rail and freight trains are part of a parallel lifestyle. And last but not least a closer glimpse into the other branches of the Brotherhood, the Builders (the scientists and scholars) and the Benefactors, whose focus is on the financial aspects: the final chapter of the novel sheds more light into the other two spokes of the Wheel, and lays the ground for what we will certainly find in the next novel, that for me will not be here soon enough.

Granted, Mr. Belcher does show again his penchant for detailed descriptions of each character’s items of clothing, and here he compounds this quirk by listing the titles of songs playing on the radio whenever one is present on the scene, but I’ve come to accept it as part of the story: to quote programmers of old who used to say, “it’s a feature, not a bug”, I’ve learned to smile indulgently at these digressions instead of being bothered by them… 🙂

My Rating:

Note: this is my first post created using WordPress’ new Block Editor, the dreaded update that seems to have thrown the blogging community in deep turmoil. It was not easy, granted, and it requires patience and a tough learning curve, but it’s not impossible. So far I have been able to style my post the way I like it, although I spent more time on it than I am used to, but I wanted to share this small success as a form of encouragement to my fellow bloggers who have been so far baffled by the new interface. Don’t give up! 😉

Reviews

THE TRIALS OF KOLI (Rampart Trilogy #2), by M.R. Carey

 

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

When I saw in my inbox a very unexpected email from Orbit announcing the ARC’s availability for the second book in M.R. Carey’s Rampart trilogy, I did not hesitate in requesting it because The Book of Koli, the first volume, was one of my best 2020 discoveries so far, and I was more than eager to learn how the protagonist’s journey away from his home village progressed. In the second volume, the focus on this post-apocalyptic world widens a little as Koli, Ursala and Cup travel in the direction of London, but character evolution remains front and center, with some interesting shifts in the interpersonal dynamics that offer promising developments for the future.

To recap the story so far: a series of environmental catastrophes and the Unfinished War left the world in shambles, and what remains of humanity seems confined only in small enclaves with little or no contact with the rest of the world. In the 200-souls village where young Koli lives the few, highly prized items of technology still functioning are in the hands of the Ramparts, the de facto leaders of the community, whose power is passed on only to the members of the Vennastin family. Once Koli discovers that the ability to wield the old tech is not tied to the Vennastins alone, he’s exiled and left to fend for himself in a world that’s become dangerous in many ways, and only his encounter first with Ursala, a sort of traveling healer, and then Cup, the former member of a death cult, increases his chances of survival and leads him on a coming-of-age and discovery journey toward London, fabled place of tech and progress.

One of the surprises of this book was that the narrative viewpoint is split between Koli and Co. on one side, and his former home of Mythen Rood on the other, through the voice of Spinner, Koli’s old friend and one-time lover, as she chronicles the events following his exile: it’s an intriguing choice, when considering the first book’s single point of view, and also a clever one because it keeps the pace lively by alternating between the two story threads, while showing how Koli’s discoveries have ultimately opened the Pandora’s box of the Vennastins’ secret and hinting at great changes in Mythen Rood’s power balance. Spinner is revealed as a layered character: at first she seems only interested in attaching herself to the Vennastins for convenience, but then she surprises the readers – and herself – by acknowledging how those apparently selfish choices have changed her and the way she looks at the world and her role in it. In the course of the story Spinner undergoes great adjustments which parallel the unsettling transformations in her small community: Koli started to perceive the possibility of a different reality through his connection with the Dream Sleeve, the piece of tech he claimed for himself, and its A.I. Monono, while Spinner here becomes aware of the wider world through a series of events that force her to mature quickly and to understand how the limited vision imposed by village life could be ultimately precarious and deadly.

For their part, Koli, Ursala and Cup (and Monono, as well) have formed an uneasy relationship: the crusty healer does not trust Cup, whose former attachment to a murderous cult makes her understandably suspicious, nor does she trust Monono and the increased abilities gained after the A.I. downloaded additional software – Ursala’s repeated requests that Koli reset the Dream Sleeve to factory standards drive a wedge of uncertainty between them that mars their former teacher/student relationship.  The dangers of the road, however, will change this balance and force the four of them to acknowledge the respective strengths, and to depend on each other for survival: the shift from grudging tolerance to playful banter and then to a sense of family is one of the most delightful surprises of the story, as are the growing friendship between Koli and Cup, the latter’s conflict with her sexuality and Ursala’s flourishing “maternal” attitude toward her charges.

Still, dangers indeed abound in the wider world: there are some sections where the small company has to fight for their lives, not just because of the natural perils of the world – like wildly mutated animals and trees – but also because of other humans who have not lost the old, ingrained penchant for dominance through aggression. There are also moments when the catastrophe that obliterated the old world manifests itself in dramatic evidence, as is the case with Koli’s first view of what remains of Birmingham: a huge field of bones that has him reacting in fear and dismay as he contemplates both the amount of people once inhabiting the land and the magnitude of the event that caused their demise, so that he feels overwhelmed by “more feeling than I could rightly manage all at once”.

If The Trials of Koli suffers a little (but only a little) from the dreaded middle book syndrome, particularly in the section devoted to the characters’ stay in the coastal village of Many Fishes, it also sets the stage for what promises to be a momentous conclusion, where hopefully many of the questions concerning the wider world and what really happened to it will be answered: the cliffhanger ending of Book 2 left me with a burning curiosity to see where the story is headed, and I’m comforted by the short interval between the first two volumes but still eager to see for myself where Koli’s journey will move next and how the developments in Mythen Rood will intersect with the main narrative.  I’m certain that Book 3 will provide those answers with the intensity I’ve come to expect from this author.

My Rating:

Reviews

MR. MERCEDES (Bill Hodges Trilogy #1), by Stephen King

 

After a long hiatus due to a mild disenchantment with Stephen King’s works, I found my way back to his novels through The Outsider and the more recent – and for me far more successful – The Institute. So I decided to retrace my steps and see what other good stories I missed in those “years of disappointment” and settled on the Bill Hodges series, starting with Mr. Mercedes: this trilogy marks a change of pace from King’s usual offerings, since it’s a crime/thriller novel with no elements of horror or supernatural activities, but as I’ve often found out we hardly need monsters to inspire dread, when the darkest depths of the human soul offer more than enough material in that sense…

Mr. Mercedes proves this theory from the very start: in 2009, as the world suffers in the grip of widespread recession, a sizable crowd forms around a stadium where the next morning a job fair will open its doors. Hundreds of hopefuls queue up in the chilling nighttime fog waiting for an opportunity, when a high-end Mercedes sedan plunges at full speed over the crowd, killing eight innocents and maiming twice as much.  Roughly one year afterwards Bill Hodges, one of the detectives working the case of the Mercedes Killings, finds himself in a deep depression brought on by his retirement and the ghosts of the cases he could not solve: he spends most of his days drinking, sitting in front of the TV watching trashy shows, and at times contemplating suicide. All this changes when he receives a letter from the killer, calling himself Mr. Mercedes, and urging the detective to put an end to his life. Forced out of his inertia, Hodges engages in a progressively more dangerous game of cat and mouse with Brady Hartsfield, the killer, teaming up with some unconventional helpers like Jerome, a tech-savvy teenager; Janey Patterson, the sister of the Mercedes’ guilt-ridden owner, driven to suicide by the killer himself; and finally Holly Gibney, Janey’s niece and a character I met in The Outsider, making her first appearance here.

Much as I enjoyed this novel, which turned out to be a compulsive read, I ended up being of two minds about it: on one side the story moved along at a fairly relentless pace and with the stakes getting progressively higher I found it practically impossible to put the book down, on the other, once all was said and done and the proverbial dust settled, my “inner nitpicker” surfaced and started pointing out several inconsistencies that I was able to overlook while I was engaged in reading, but came back to bother me afterwards.

What I liked: as usual, Stephen King’s main strength comes from characterization, and Mr. Mercedes offers many opportunities for the detailed creation of outstanding figures, starting with Bill Hodges himself, who might look like something of a cliché in that he’s the classical former detective, overweight and lonesome, who gave his all in the course of a long career paying the price in terms of family ties, and now feels useless and adrift, but ultimately shows unexpected resilience once he’s presented with the opportunity of getting closure on a case still preying on his mind for several reasons. There is a kind of twisted humor in the way Hodges evolves along the way, because the action that in the killer’s intentions should have driven him over the edge is exactly the one that revives the ex-detective’s interest in life and compels him to get out of the well of melancholy and lethargy that had enveloped him up to that point. This unexpected outcome works well within King’s overall tendency toward dark humor, which is evident both through some tongue-in-cheek references to his previous works (like IT or Pet Sematary) and through a few unexpected developments that keep frustrating the killer’s plans in a way that is, at the same time, dramatic and reminiscent of poor Wile E. Coyote’s major failures.

Brady Hartsfied stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, of course, not only because he’s the villain here, but because he’s the worst, most despicable kind of villain one could ever imagine: a person with a history of abuse, granted, but also one who is a completely abominable creature filled with the need to make his own mark on history, to be seen beyond the drab anonymity of his life, and who chooses to do so by hurting people –  not just physically hurt them, but to torture them psychologically as he does with the owner of the stolen car he used for the massacre, or with Hodges himself. There is a well of hate in Brady – directed both inward and outward – that seeks release by striking toward those he sees as more “fortunate”, and he does so with such a gleeful abandon that wipes out any trace of compassion one might feel for the damaging experiences of his past. There is a chilling, inescapable consideration that comes to mind when reading his sections in the novel: that there are, and have been, many Brady Harstfields in the real world, that a substantial number of them have doled out death and pain, and that any one of them might do so again…

Where the characters and the story-flow worked quite well for me, there are however some narrative choices that did not: for example, Hodges’ dogged determination to solve the case without involving the police. If there is a believable reason, in the beginning, to keep the new evidence and the killer’s missives to himself, and if it’s understandable how Hodges might want this “last hurrah” for himself, this rationale stops being credible once Brady raises the stakes in an… explosive way (pun intended, sorry…) and shows that the theory of the dangerous wounded animal is more than sound. The reasoning behind Hodges’ decision, that the police department is busy dealing with a huge weapons raid, sounds far too convenient to be completely believable and looks like an aberrant deus-ex-machina created to allow the “heroes” to shine on their own.

Still, the final part of the novel is such a breakneck run against time and impossible odds that it’s easy to momentarily set aside any misgivings and to let oneself be carried away toward the ending. While I might not completely appreciate the method, I enjoyed the thrill of the ride and that’s what ultimately mattered. And of course I’m now curious to see where Stephen King will take his characters in the next two novels of the series.

 

 

My Rating: