Reviews

Review: A LITTLE HATRED (The Age of Madness #1), by Joe Abercrombie

 

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

My very first Joe Abercrombie novel was Best Served Cold, a tale of revenge that introduced me to the concept of grimdark as well as a story that had a profound impact on my imagination. Since then I meant to read his widely acclaimed First Law trilogy, but so far I kept being distracted by other titles, although all three books have been sitting on my e-reader for a long time, gathering virtual dust.

When A Little Hatred was announced, I was both intrigued and worried, because I wondered how much my lack of knowledge of previous events would curtail my enjoyment of this new novel: well, I need not have been concerned – granted, I’m aware I’ve certainly missed the subtler narrative nuances that readers of The First Law will no doubt perceive, but when an author is as good as Joe Abercrombie you can pick up a sequel series and find yourself right at home. It’s what happened to me with Brian McClellan’s second flintlock series, with John Gwynne now-running new trilogy, and now with The Age of Madness, and that’s the mark of an outstanding writer. This does not mean of course that I have abandoned the idea of filling that gap, on the contrary I now feel more motivated than ever…

The realm of Angland, never the most peaceful of territories, is once again in turmoil: wars of conquest are ongoing between various portions of the domain, with all the expected trappings of brutal skirmishes, looting and torched villages. But there is something else as well, something that’s unusual in a fantasy novel and which adds an intriguing angle to the story: the industrial revolution has come to Angland and while farmlands are being repossessed and smallholders turned away from their homes, the cities become the fulcrum of activity, with factories cropping up everywhere.

If a country enmeshed in war is a dismal sight, one where the… fires of industry burn day and night, polluting the air and absorbing an endless stream of laborers, is a far gloomier one, indeed. There is an almost Dickensian quality in the descriptions of these grim factories where people toil day and night in appalling conditions, only to go home to dirty hovels with no other prospect than more of the same the next day, and all for meager wages. Such a situation is bound to foment rebellion, carried out mainly by two factions called Breakers and Burners, whose names clearly point out to the intentions of their members, so that between the distant wars and the festering discontent there is an ominous atmosphere running throughout this story, even though it’s cleverly balanced with that sort of gallows humor I have come to expect from this author.

[…] an enterprising fellow had devised a system whereby prisoners could be dropped through the scaffold floor at a touch upon a lever. There was an invention to make everything more efficient these days, after all. Why would killing people be an exception?

Where the background is an intriguing one, the characters are the true element shining through so much darkness: I’ve come to understand that they represent the “next generation” from the First Law trilogy and here is where I most perceived my lack of knowledge of previous events, because knowing about their roots would certainly have helped me to appreciate them more, but still they are the best part of the story and I ended up loving them all, flaws included – especially the flaws, I dare say…  The men, with a few exceptions, seem to be either old geezers past their prime and their former glories or ignorant savages bent on killing for the pure pleasure of it, while the two main characters look both like children still waiting to reconcile themselves with the fact they have grown up.

Both Prince Orso, the heir to the crown, and Leo dan Brock, son of a powerful chieftain, seem to struggle under the pressures of their domineering mothers, the former because he refuses to give up his unending drinking and womanizing in favor of settling down with a wife and start producing children for the continuation of the dynasty; the latter because he wants to cover himself in glory on the battlefield, but was prevented from gaining direct combat experience and is more in love with the idea of fame than anything else.  Both of them will get the opportunity to come into their own and prove their worth but the encounter with reality will prove bitterly disappointing and painful – in one case physically painful, indeed – and they will have to reconcile themselves with the notion that the legends of old, which have fueled their ambitions, never talked of the less savory aspects of the road to fame.

The women fare much better, and I loved both the two main female characters – so different and yet with so much in common, as an entertaining conversation between them reveals in the second half of the book, providing one of the best narrative highlights of the story.  Savine dan Glokta is the daughter of most feared man in the realm (I remember when his name was mentioned with profound dread in Best Served Cold) and having inherited his ruthlessness has turned it into a drive for cut-throat business: there is no activity, no enterprise she has not a share in, and she looks like the kind of predator no prey can escape.  And yet Savine’s privileged, wealthy life left her unprepared to face the awful events she finds herself enmeshed in, teaching her that powerlessness is the worst state to be in.

Rikke, daughter of a northern chieftain, turned out to be my absolute favorite character here: brash, uncouth, foul-mouthed, she is a wonderful contrast to courtly daintiness or city refinement, and her ongoing journey from coddled mascot for a bunch of grizzled warriors to a hard, fearless warrior herself is a joy to behold, enhanced by the peculiar gift of prophecy she must learn to harness and control. Awareness of her failings and the outspoken way she talks about them are among her better qualities, and there is a core of plain common sense in Rikke that’s both refreshing and amusing:

Why folk insisted on singing about great warriors all the time, Rikke couldn’t have said. Why not sing about really good fishermen, or bakers, or roofers, or some other folk who actually left the world a better place, rather than heaping up corpses and setting fire to things? Was that behavior to encourage?

As for the story, all I can safely say without spoiling your enjoyment of it is that it moves at a very brisk pace, shifting between the different points of view as the brutal, merciless plot proceeds like an unstoppable avalanche that also offers two breath-stopping, very cinematic moments, during a bloody uprising and a single combat, that will keep you glued to the pages in horrified anticipation.

Where readers of the First Law trilogy will find themselves happily at home with this new saga, new readers will be intrigued by this cruel, unforgiving world and feel the need to learn more as they wait for the next book in this series.

 

My Rating:

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Reviews

Review: THE VIOLENT FAE (Ordshaw #3), by Phil Williams

 

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

The long-developing, all-out conflict brewing in Ordshaw is about to flare up, and nobody is inclined to take prisoners.  This could very well sum up the situation in the third and final installment of Phil Williams’ Ordshaw trilogy. And to think that it all started, quite prosaically, with the theft of some money…

Pax Kuranes used to be a gifted poker player, moving from seedy venue to seedy venue to earn a living through her skill with cards, but everything went upside down one night when, after she won a considerable sum that could tide her over for a while, a young thief stole her earnings and Pax, following the trail of that money, stumbled on a book that changed her life forever.  The book contained a huge amount of sketches of weird, scary creatures of a Lovecraftian nature, but they were not the product of an inventive – if deranged – mind, because under the surface of the city of Ordshaw another world lurked, filled with strange beings.

This is how this story began, two books ago, and since then Pax has learned that monsters roam the tunnels under her city and that the Fae not only exist but were exiled from those same tunnels by the fearsome beasts: she’s not the only human possessing that knowledge though, because a government agency, the MEE, is also monitoring the situation and a few civilians have, over the years, made forays into Ordshaw’s bowels.  After clashing with, and then befriending, the feisty Fae Letty and coming into contact with a few Ministry agents, like the level-headed Sam Ward or the oily Cano Casaria, Pax finds herself enmeshed into a very complicated situation where everyone’s survival is threatened not only by the monstrous horde dwelling in Ordshaw’s bowels, but by years of misunderstandings between the factions and by purposely disseminated lies that have kept them from uniting against the real danger.

Having gained – or maybe brought to the surface – the ability to sense the underground creatures, Pax knows she must do all she can to avoid disaster and here she keeps running against time, false accusations and people intent on killing her, to help her city and her newfound friends survive. No matter the cost.

Much as this series features a number of interesting characters, the story it narrates is above all Pax’s journey of transformation, from average person intent on making ends meet from day to day to selfless heroine: what’s extraordinary though is that she does so without losing her street-gained common sense or her endearing abrasiveness.  Which makes Pax the perfect counterpart for Letty, the foul-mouthed, wildly aggressive Fae who defies every kind of trope about such creatures and in so doing becomes one of the best characters in this series, and the one whose chapters I always eagerly anticipated.

And female characters are indeed the best – and best crafted – in this series, rising over their male counterparts in a significant way: not only Pax and Letty, but also Holly Burton, the wife of one of the bumbling adventurers who explored the city’s underground tunnels: in the course of these three books she grew from an angry spouse, suspicious of her husband’s mysterious activities, into one of the most dedicated players in the complex game, able to hold her own even against the senior Ministry functionary assigned to the case; or again Sam Ward, whose keen curiosity had driven her superiors to relegate her in a clerical position, until circumstances finally afford her to show her mettle. The men, sadly, fall quite short of such bright examples, like Chief Obrington, who takes a long time to emerge from his political obtuseness, or field agent Cano Casaria, whose dedication to the job is marred by a too-high consideration of himself and a strong belief in his appeal to women.  Even though, I must admit, he takes a turn for the better in the end.

The city of Ordshaw deserves a special mention as well, because it gave me the strangest vibes and little by little it gained its own personality just as much as the living beings inhabiting it: the most peculiar impression I gained was that it was more alive in its lower, hidden levels than in the surface ones – granted, the tunnels where the monsters dwell are dark, damp, scary places where the only light comes from the eerie luminescence of the creatures, and yet it feels… alive, no matter that it’s with the kind of life no one in their right mind would ever encounter.   The Fae city, on the other hand, is far from scary, because of its hive-like architecture that resembles that of a human city writ small – with neon signs and advertising billboards, theaters and office buildings, and everywhere flying Fae of every shape and color.  The city of Ordshaw proper, though, comes across as somewhat deserted, as if its people preferred to stay indoors and go out only when strictly necessary, and I wondered more than once if that was because of some subliminal signal coming from the dangerous underground.  I realize it’s a weird notion, but I could not shake it, no matter how much I tried…

I realize I have not said much about the story in this final book of the trilogy, but it was a conscious choice: there is so much happening, so many twists and turns, discoveries and betrayals, that to talk about them would be a disservice. Even though the story might appear a little confusing at time – or at least it was for me, given the great number of interlacing threads – everything falls into place in the end, and lays the foundation for new stories that might already be in the making, continuing this engaging journey.

 

Look out for The Violent Fae from November 5th!

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: THE BONE SHIPS (The Tide Child #1), by R.J. Barker

 

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

R.J. Barker’s previous work, the Wounded Kingdom trilogy, was one of my best recent discoveries, so that once I learned of this new novel, the start of another series, I was beyond eager to read it: once the book became available through the Orbit newsletter I wasted no time in requesting it, and abandoned the story I was reading then in favor of this one.

If the world presented in the Wounded Kingdom is a desolate one, with huge extensions of the land made barren by the indiscriminate use of magic, and people often living on the doorstep of starvation, the one depicted in The Bone Ships is far bleaker and disheartening, not so much because of any environmental concerns, but rather because of the inhabitants’ customs and attitude.

This is a world where seas cover most of the surface, what little land there is formed by groups of islands whose dwellers have split over time into two factions in constant war with each other, a conflict whose origins seem to have been forgotten but that still goes on because of the ingrained hatred between opponents. Where seas rules, wars are fought with ships, and here they are built with the bones of dragons for their strength and buoyancy, but now that the dragons have been hunted to extinction, what few bones remain are prized above all else.   As for the people, islanders’ customs decree that anyone born with a physical defect, or from a mother who died in childbirth, is tainted with weak blood and cannot be part of the dominant class, while any firstborn child is always offered in sacrifice and set on a ship as a corpselight – a concept that still gives me chills no matter how many times I read it.

The overall darkness of the background is the main reason I struggled at first with The Bone Ships: I now understand, with hindsight, that the author was setting the stage for the story and that it was important for us readers to see where the characters came from and what made them what they are, but still the first few chapters seemed to drag and what I pictured in my mind’s eye was all in drab, unappealing sepia tones.  I know I am not the most patient individual in the world, and that I need to feel an instant connection with a story and its characters to truly enjoy a novel, so I can offer this little morsel of advice: if you get that same disheartening impression, just keep going, because your perseverance will be more than rewarded.

Joron Twiner used to be a fisherman but now circumstances have made him an outcast, and as is the customs of the Isles he’s been assigned to one of the Black Ships, the ships of the dead – vessels that are old and ill-maintained, and whose crews are destined to serve and die for the good of the Isles.  Joron is made shipwife (i.e. the captain) of the Tide Child, one of the black ships, a despondent and drunken captain who asks nothing of his equally miserable crew but to be ignored as he ignores them, until the day in which ‘Lucky’ Meas Gilbryn, a famous boneship shipwife now fallen in disgrace, challenges him for the captaincy of the Child and vows to shape him and the rest of the complement into a crew worthy of respect. Meas has been given a mission: what could possibly be the last dragon in the world has been sighted, and the Tide Child tasked with the difficult – and maybe impossible – mission to secure it and in so doing possibly change the balance of war. Success might even mean the lifting of the sentence that condemned them all to a ship of the dead.

From here on the story blends two separate threads, the breath-taking adventure of the search for the Arakeesian – the fabled dragon – and the characters’ journey from a motley band of uncaring individuals to a cohesive, proud crew. The sea voyage itself is a joy to follow, with vibrant descriptions that turn the strong sea breezes, the smell of the salty spray and the creak of the ship’s bones into almost physical experiences, enhanced by the exotic terms used to describe the vessel’s sections or the crew’s roles – as an example, a ship, contrary to normal usage, is referred to as “he” and therefore the captain becomes a “shipwife”, irrespective of gender.  And then there are the strange, dangerous sea beasts that mean certain death for any sailor fallen overboard, or the weird avian creature, the gullaime, who summons the winds to fill the ship’s sails, not to mention the dragons themselves, creatures of beauty and grace who seem to possess an uncanny intelligence.

Unsurprisingly, characters remain the strong point of the story though, even when they require some time to make themselves understood and appreciated: Joron is a prime example of this instance, because of his initial attitude, the certainty of his worthlessness, the lack of interest in others beyond the misery he wrapped around himself. And yet there is a small part of him that wants to believe, that is kindled by Meas’ rough handling and blazes into confidence – in himself first and then in the crew, in the sense of belonging and mutual loyalty that the shipwife can inspire in each and every one of them, teaching them they can be much more than the sum of their parts.  It will be fascinating to see where his journey will lead him as the story progresses, and how far he will travel from the morose young man wasting his days in idleness and drink.

But of course it’s Meas who held the greater part of my attention: strong, capable and with an abrasive demeanor that goes well with her scruffy appearance and hides a keen mind and an iron will, but also a capacity for understanding and compassion she keeps under tight control – although at times it surfaces together with one or her rare smiles.  A true creature of the seas, she lives for and breathes with her ship and crew, and through her example – that of a woman born to the highest rank and now lowered to the captaincy of a Black Ship – they learn how to take pride in their accomplishments and the fulfilment of their duty. She is called “Lucky Meas” and at some point we learn how she gained that nickname, and yet what she teaches her people is that their fame, their luck if you want, is not something they can expect to be given, but must take – earn – for themselves.  A character larger than life at time, perhaps, but one I will enjoy meeting again in the next books.

I would like to close this review by mentioning the beautiful images – miniatures in truth – decorating the beginning of each chapter, that add a special quality to the story itself, and to advise you to keep your eyes (and ears…) open for the arrival of Black Orris. You will know what I mean once you get there  😉

If you are already fans of R.J. Barker’s works, you will enjoy this; if you are not… what are you waiting for?

 

Reviews

Review: CHILDREN OF RUIN (Children of Time #2), by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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

When I approached this novel’s predecessor, Children of Time, I did so with some apprehension, since I’m mildly arachnophobic and the main characters in that story were indeed spiders: imagine my surprise when Adrian Tchaikovsky’s writing not only made my fear a moot point, but compelled me to root unabashedly for the eight-legged heroes of his saga…

The previous novel ended with a hint that there could be further territory to explore in this universe, whose most fascinating element comes from the fact that uplifted creatures are now the more populous, more advanced species, and mankind is still struggling with the aftermath of its civilization’s end. Children of Ruin starts where book 1 ended, with a mixed group of scientist – arachnids and humans – embarked on a voyage of discovery for new frontiers.

Like book 1, this sequel follows two different timelines: the ‘present’ aboard the ship Voyager with its mixed crew, and the more remote past, where a group of terraformers has to deal with the collapse of human civilization and the realization that they might be all that is left of mankind.  With a storyline that somewhat parallels that of the evolution of new intelligence on Kern’s World, home of the spiders, one of the scientists on the ship Aegean uses Dr. Kern’s uplift virus on his octopus specimens to create a viable race for the water world he’s focusing on, thus creating a new intelligent species.

As eager as I was to learn more about the arachnid-human association and their journey of exploration, together with the marvels of the organic ship they traveled on, Children of Ruin did not work for me as well as the first book in the series did, partly because of what I perceived as a form of pattern repetition, and partly because of pacing problems.  Still, I’d like to start with what I enjoyed in this new story.

The alliance between the survivors of mankind and the uplifted spiders is one that works but still needs to bridge many differences, chiefly where inter-species communication is involved: that was one of the most fascinating elements in this novel, with characters endeavoring to find the best approach – either simply linguistic or more mechanical – to understand each other without the mediation of the Kern personality residing in their computer.  And of course there are still the compelling arachnid social dynamics, where the females assert their dominance while the males struggle to obtain recognition in what I perceived as a pointed commentary worked through an interesting role reversal.

The human terraformers offer another thought-provoking perspective, especially in their reactions after the protracted silence from Mother Earth leads them to a dismal conclusion. They all appear as self-centered individuals, more focused on their scientific goals than on building a cohesive group so far away from home – in other worlds, an echo of Avrana Kern, multiplied by five, which made me think often about the author’s overall negative vision about humanity.

Then there are the octopuses, whose journey toward increased intellect somewhat parallels that of the spiders, but of course with substantial differences due both to their nature and to the liquid environment they live in, which offers fascinating angles in the creation of their society and its evolution, both planet-side and in space. For example, there are two curious details that stuck to my mind: one is that being boneless octopuses don’t suffer from the bone deficiencies that plague spaces after a prolonged permanence in microgravity; and two, for creatures that can move in several directions, there is no concept of ‘up’ or ‘down’ to upset directional perceptions as it happens to humans.

All of the above elements intrigued me of course, together with the addition of a new kind of creature bent on assimilating other forms of life to understand them, which added further pressure on the already tense situation between octopuses and the explorers from Kern’s World. Still, the octopuses’ evolution did not feel as compelling as that of the spiders in the first novel, and there was a great deal of space dedicated to their biological and psychological progress that felt more like a textbook than a work of fiction, lacking the irresistible quality of the evolutionary saga of the arachnids. Where I cared – so surprisingly, given my bias – for the way the spiders evolved in the course of the millennia of their history, I could not feel equally engaged with the octopuses’ journey, and what’s worse I could not feel any connection with the spiders featured in this novel: this perceived remoteness on my part was the main reason I was not invested in this story as I was with the first book.

Much of my reaction could be ascribed to the lack of novelty compared with its predecessor, since I could not erase the feeling of “been there, done that” that plagued me for most of the way, and moreover the overall plot gave off the feeling of being artificially intricate, lacking the beautiful, clear progression I enjoyed with Children of Time, which does not mean I did not enjoy this story but that I feel how a more… streamlined narrative would have worked better for my tastes.

I’m glad I read this, but nonetheless I can’t avoid the consideration that sequels often thread on dangerous ground, and this one might not have always successfully avoided the pitfall of such ground.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: GODSGRAVE (The Nevernight Chronicle #2), by Jay Kristoff

 

This second book in Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight Chronicle was quite damaging to the integrity of my poor, frazzled nerves, not to mention my blood pressure: where Nevernight was a rollercoaster ride, Godsgrave ended up being an emotional tsunami, one that flipped me without mercy between excitement and terror, without a single moment of respite. And I enjoyed every second of it.

Mia Corvere’s path of vengeance against those who destroyed her family takes a new direction here: her harrowing year as an acolyte of the Red Church turned her into an accomplished assassin, and she proved instrumental in foiling the Empire’s attempt to destroy the Church, thereby gaining her place as a Blade, a killer for hire, the first step into her vendetta against cardinal Duomo and consul Scaeva, the main culprits in the obliteration of the Corvere family.  But an unexpected and unforeseeable revelation forces Mia to turn rogue and seek a different track, one that will entail a daring, difficult plan and many brutal, bloody sacrifices.

The first part of the novel follows two converging time tracks: the present, where Mia is now committed to her plan, and the recent past, where we see how and why she got there. It’s a fascinating interweaving of timelines and it shows to perfection how this new, even harder and more determined Mia came into being, once she realizes that the Empire is based on far more convoluted and insidious lies than she imagined, and that she should trust nothing and no one.

The opportunity to get close enough to Duomo and Scaeva so that she can kill them comes through the Venatus Magni, ferocious gladiatorial games that take place in the days of the convergence of the three suns: the champion of the games is crowned personally by the two co-rulers of the Empire, allowing the winner to get in close proximity to them, without guards or protection.  There is a little catch to the scenario, however: gladiatii, or the gladiators who fight in the arena, are all slaves, sold and bought from all over the Empire for that very same purpose, and trained in schools supported by wealthy citizens who compete ferociously for the best fighters and the most skilled teams.

So Mia arranges to be sold into slavery (and I will leave to you to discover the hazardous, bloody way she manages that) and be bought by the main gladiatorial school of the Empire, certain that she will rise in the ranks and be chosen to fight in the Magni. Things don’t go completely according to plan, however, and our young assassin finds herself acquired by a rival school, one ruled by the estranged daughter of Mia’s prospective patron, which poses a number of obstacles in her carefully constructed plot, not the least of which being that Domina Leona, her new mistress, occupies what used to be the summer resort of the Corvere, Crow’s Nest, a place whose memories still cut deep into Mia’s soul.

Much as the journey that takes Mia to Crow’s Nest and the arena is a fascinating one, the true heart of the story resides in the training she undergoes – a harsh, brutal, bloody affair against which the trials in the Red Church look like children’s play – and in the changes in her attitude and psychological makeup: Mia’s character is mostly founded on her single-minded drive to accomplish the goal she set herself, the willingness to push aside any other consideration so she can attain that goal, but here she seems to lose some of that hardness, showing a few chinks in the armor she wrought around her soul from the moment she was all alone in the world.  In the past, no matter the grimness of the situation she found herself in, Mia could still find strength in the awareness of who she was, or used to be – the daughter of an influential family. Now she is a slave, the chattel of an owner who can dispose of her life as she wants, requiring that she fight and bleed – and die, if necessary – for the prestige of her Domina and for the enjoyment of the crowds.  And for the first time in her life she is able to see how the “other half” lives, and how injustice in the Empire is not limited to political maneuvering and assassinations in the upper echelons of society.

And where in the Red Church the other acolytes were rivals to outshine in accomplishments to gain the favor of the teachers, here among the gladiatii Mia learns the power of loyalty, the bond that comes through shared hardships and dangers: no matter how much she repeats to herself that they are not her friends, that they are all means to an end, she starts to see them as persons, and to care about them – definitely a weakness, from a certain point of view, but also a shift in perspective from the definition of what Mia could do, which was the focus of Book 1, to the definition of who Mia is, which is the focus of Godsgrave, the part of her journey where she learns she has indeed a conscience, or starts to unearth the one she suppressed long ago.

Of course, part of the discoveries we make in this novel, one that is packed with twists and turns and unpredictable paradigm shifts, is to find out if this new side of Mia’s character is only a momentary lapse or a new direction: one of the things I learned from this book and its predecessor is that I can never, ever take anything for granted, and that Jay Kristoff simply loves to pull the rug from under his readers’ feet.

The characters are of course a big part of the appeal of this book – not only Mia, but old and new faces whose acquaintance we either renew, as is the case of Mercurio or Ashlinn, or we make for the first time, like Mia’s fellow gladiators: the latter especially offer a wide range of personalities, from the boisterous Sidonius (one of my favorites), to the twins Bryn and Byern; from the servant girl Maggot to the house’s champion Furian, whose tendency to holier-than-thou whining did nothing to endear him to me, but still offered some interesting contrast with the other slaves.  However, the story is just as important as the people who move through it, and in this respect Godsgrave is a very compulsive read, even more than Nevernight was, and if Mia’s prowess with blades and her seeming invulnerability require some suspension of disbelief, the author presents them in such a way that it’s not an effort at all.  Moreover, Kristoff’s choice to move from the confines of the assassins’ school in the Red Church to the completely different venue of gladiatorial games is a winning one, since it shifts what was a somewhat limited focus to a wider slice of Itreyan society.

In my review of Nevernight I compared this world to a mix between the Roman Empire and the Venice Republic, while here the former is emphasized not only through the spotlight it throws on gladiatorial games, but because names, customs and situations look as if they were taken straight from the history of ancient Rome. And just like their historical inspiration, the Venatus Magni are a mixture of bloody games and the application of summary justice, wrapped in a packaging of spectator sports that sheds a pitiless light on mob mentality and the ruthlessness of crowds, whose base desires are channeled and tamed through witnessing the carnage of the arena. Panem et circenses, indeed…

If I were to find any fault in this second installment of the Nevernight Chronicle it’s because it ended too soon and with a cruel cliffhanger that felt terribly unfair, because – ‘byss and blood! – I was having such fun with it…

My Rating:

Reviews

Novella Review: SPECTRE (Book of Never #7), by Ashley Capes

 

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

It’s been some time since I read Never’s last adventure and it took me a little while to find my bearings again in this story fashioned in equal parts out of a series of adventures, in a world where magic takes strange and weird forms, and of the main character’s quest to learn about his past and the heritage from his now- extinct and legendary forefathers.  Once I did, though, the narrative flew quickly, carried by a very appealing premise.

In Spectre our hero is not facing the “simple” turmoil of warring factions bent on controlling territory, as it happened in past adventures, but rather the dire menace of a cult bent on the horrifying transformation of hapless victims – think Island of Doctor Moreau and you will have an idea of what I’m talking about.  And this time the stakes are quite high, because he needs to save a young boy from the cult’s clutches and to prevent and old… well, frenemy is the best term that comes to mind, from succumbing to the vile alteration.

As usual Never is able to find valid allies in his endeavors, and this time the person who shares this portion of his journey is an intriguing one, the unassuming priest Lakiva: not unlike a warrior monk, the young man carries on with self-effacing modesty, only to exhibit amazing abilities when necessity arises. This combination quickly endeared him to me and often brought a smile to my face.

That smile was more than necessary, because Spectre is one of the darkest adventures Never faced until now, rife with a sense of impending doom and a relentlessly ticking clock, culminating in a harrowing confrontation that blends a heated battle with an authentic descent into Hell that kept me on the edge of my seat, especially because in this case even our hero’s remarkable powers and stamina seemed to be inadequate to the task at hand.

And of course it does not end here, because a new threat looms on the horizon at the end of the novella, promising more intriguing adventures…

My Rating:

Reviews

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Rating: