PRINCE OF FOOLS (The Red Queen’s War #1), by Mark Lawrence #WyrdAndWonder

My first, and so far only encounter with Mark Lawrence’s works was with Prince of Thorns and while I liked the story I did not exactly enjoy it: not so much because of the grimness, with which I’m already familiar thanks to writers like Martin or Abercrombie, but because the main character, Jorg, was so steeped in his search for vengeance that I could not find in him any redeeming quality. Those feelings were so overwhelming that I could not bring myself to move forward with the series – or to read anything else by this author. Until now.  Exactly ten years after my not-so-happy encounter with Jorg, and after reading so many positive reviews from fellow bloggers, I decided to try again with a novel from Mark Lawrence and settled on Prince of Fools – and this choice proved quite felicitous…

Prince Jalan, tenth in the line of succession in the realm of Red March, does not care for power: his only interests are wine, women and gambling – the latter putting him more often than not in serious trouble, as does his flitting from one willing female to the next. In the course of his umpteenth mad dash to avoid the enraged relative of one such female, he barely escapes a deadly trap set by the Silent Sister, the crone who sits besides the queen’s throne and that few can see, and in so doing he becomes inextricably and magically entangled with Snorri, a Viking warrior brought to Red March as a prisoner.  The two of them set off for a quest across the world looking for the means to undo the spell – a quest that also entails Snorri’s search for the fate of his family.  As their journey progresses, they become aware of the impending danger from the Dead King and his army of reanimated corpses, and of the fact that the spell binding the two of them might be more than a “simple” inconvenience…

The tone and mood of Prince of Fools conquered me immediately: where Jorg’s journey represented something of a dark descent into hell, Jalan’s story – even though it is not always sunny and fun – was a more relaxing blend of drama and humor, mostly due to the happy-go-luck attitude of the protagonist.  Jalan is quite open about his shortcomings, almost proud of them, a self-centered guy affected by Peter Pan Syndrome who is quite happy about this state of affairs, and hoping for it to go on indefinitely.  He is therefore the perfect foil for Norse warrior Snorri, a man firmly set in his honor code and totally filled with a love for adventure and battle that Jalan cannot comprehend.  In the young prince’s own words:

With Snorri troubles were always put front and centre and dealt with. My style was more shove them under the rug until the floor got too uneven to navigate, and then to move home.

This difference is further stressed once they are bound by the spell that forces them to stay together (increasing the distance between them causes enormous discomfort and might even lead to death) and that’s expressed with encroaching darkness for Snorri and blinding light for Jalan. Two halves of the same whole, different and yet complementary – and probably destined to some higher purpose.  But the journey, either the physical one or the road toward mutual understanding and friendship, is not an easy one and their travels are punctuated by Snorri’s cheerful acceptance of hardships and Jalan’s constant whining about lack of comforts. Or willing women…

More than once I was somehow reminded of that older movie, The Defiant Ones, starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, where two escaped convicts bound by a chain are forced to cooperate to survive. Jalan and Snorri are equally bound to each other and observing their forced companionship turn first into grudging acceptance and then respect and friendship constitutes the main delight of this story. The journey also reveals their true characters behind the outward mask they are both wearing: Snorri’s bluster hides a deep-seated pain mixed with regrets, and under Jalan’s self-absorption there is a good person, capable of kindness and empathy, mostly revealed through his reactions to Snorri’s tale of woe.

Characters always represent what makes or breaks a story for me, and in this respect Prince of Fools is a winner, but in this case the world-building works just as well because I found this imaginary world both intriguing and fun.  Looking at an online map for the novel, I discovered that the background is loosely based on the European continent, with Jalan’s Red March taking a space that includes the westernmost part of Northern Italy and the southern coast of France: mentions of Rome and Florence further strengthen the resemblance, as do, for example, the names for the realm of Rhone (which roughly corresponds to central France) or the descriptions of the northern territories from which Snorri comes, that are clearly the area constituted by Sweden and Norway.   The constant references to the ancient Builders and the destructive event of the Thousand Suns clearly point to this world as being a post-apocalyptic one in which memory of the past has been all but erased, the few surviving notions twisted and turned into legends that open the road for some tongue-in-cheek humor, like the mention of the train, which has now become some sort of mythical beast or that of a famous Viking ship whose name was “Ikea”…

Even though this novel lost me for a short while, when the start of Jalan and Snorri’s journey felt somewhat erratic and lacking some focus, it still managed to keep me reading on because of the constantly evolving relationship between the two main characters, and once the story reached its climatic peak I was totally onboard and fully invested in it – I might have waited a decade to get back to this author’s works, but now he has my full attention and my eagerness to see where the journey goes.  And maybe – who knows? – I might even give Jorg another chance….  😉

My Rating:


LOVE WILL TEAR US APART (The Stranger Times #3), by C.K. McDonnell #WyrdAndWonder

This third installment of what has quickly become my favorite Urban Fantasy series played with some of the narrative threads explored in the previous books and moved forward in a very intriguing and quite satisfactory way, offering the by now familiar mix of humor and drama while at the same time delving deeper into some of the main characters, bringing to the surface a few unexpected facets of their personalities.

The team at the Stranger Times is undergoing a period of unsettling changes: Hannah Willis, the assistant editor who was carving her own niche at the paper, just resigned abruptly, with no other explanation that she’s considering going back to her cheating husband – and to better gather her thoughts on the matter, she booked a stay at a new-age-oriented, exclusive spa where she will learn how to put her life into perspective.   The newspaper’s owner sends a very strange lady, Betty Cavendish, to replace Hannah and Betty promptly asserts her rule by fending off easily editor Banecroft’s bullying attitude and keeping poor Grace occupied (or rather distressed) by requiring a financial inventory.  But it’s chief editor Vincent Banecroft who shows the biggest changes, because he’s become obsessed with his wife’s ghost, whose voice calls to him through the apparition of another ghost, young hopeful Simon, and asks him for help: consumed with the need to contact her and convinced that she might still be alive, Banecroft loses any interest in the Stranger Times’ proceedings and sets on a road to hell that might cost him much more than the paper he manages…

Unlike the previous two books in the series, Love Will Tear Us Apart does not follow the team as a whole but rather sends them all in different directions, engaged in different adventures, and that gives them a chance to experience some individual growth as characters: such is the case, for example, of shrouded-in-mystery Stella whose bizarrely awkward partnership with Betty takes her for once out of the confines of the paper – even though it’s for a very harrowing grave-robbing expedition; she also turns into a more hands-on member of the team when the infamous Loon Day comes around once again and the Stranger Times is literally inundated by a mob of more or less crazy people eager to share their tales of the uncanny with the staff.

Hannah herself is undergoing some momentous changes: her meeting with a very different ex-husband Karl ends with her booking a stay at the Pinter Institute, an exclusive retreat where she experiences a very shaky start by falling flat on her face. The Institute is a strange place, to say the least, run by plastic-faced personnel that are just a half-step short of being robotic, and poor Hannah is subjected to the strangest remedies that go from hot yoga to other… ahem… intrusive therapies that should help her “find herself” but sound too weird even to someone used to the madness of the Stranger Times.

As for Banecroft, he is a man obsessed: since making contact with the voice of his departed wife, he has been so concentrated on unraveling this mystery that he left everything else unravel around him, including his own well-being. I have to admit that I felt deep compassion for this loudmouthed, uncouth character whose manners are as inexcusable as his own personal hygiene, and I followed the narrative thread concerning his quest with great trepidation.  This search brings him into contact with a couple of previously encountered characters – Cogs, the compulsive truth-teller living on a boat and his talking dog Zeke, who are given a good deal of narrative space here and offer some of the most amusing pages in a story that walks on the uneasy balance between mystery and fun.

If it might seem that all these diverging narrative threads could be a recipe for a confusing read, think again, because CK McDonnell does weave them quite masterfully into a cohesive whole that evolves into a veritable page-turner once the story establishes its “legs”: the shortish chapters, which move from one character to the other, encourage you to keep reading, and as the questions and the revelations pile up it becomes almost impossible not to let oneself be swept up in the current of events.  Thankfully, there are some stops where readers can catch their proverbial breath, because in this third book of the series you will find the very welcome return of the “sensationalist articles” encountered  in the firs volume: from the “discovery” of the origin of spam telephone calls in outer space to an accusation of plagiarism directed at Stephen King, these newsflashes offer the chance for a relaxing laugh before delving again into the plot’s twists and turns.

And as far as the plot is concerned, I’m aware I said next to nothing about it, but to do so would run the risk of spoiling your enjoyment, so I will only say that some of the threads that started in the previous two books reach here their – quite satisfactory – fruition, and prepare the ground, or so I hope, for future stories set in the quirkiest newspaper I ever learned about. And I will welcome those stories with unabashed delight….

My Rating:


WE RIDE THE STORM (The Reborn Empire #1), by Devin Madson #WyrdAndWonder

For this year’s Wyrd & Wonder I wanted to take the opportunity to read some of the fantasy books that have been languishing for a while on my TBR, and the first that came to my attention is this first volume in Devin Madson’s Reborn Empire series: with hindsight, I can’t believe I waited so long before losing myself in this magnificent saga that from the very start proved to be a compelling read peopled with amazing characters.  The novel seems to throw the readers into the middle of things and it takes a while to get one’s bearings: a brief search taught me that there is a prequel trilogy to this series and that explains the sense of “missing information” one feels at the beginning, but don’t fear – the author has a way of conveying the necessary details through some well-placed dialogue that brings readers up to speed quickly and allows them to connect with the narrative with no problem at all.

The story is told through three different POVs which represent the three main cultures sharing this world – not only that, but each of them is narrated in the first person, gifting the characters with very distinctive personalities that in turn help depict the different milieus they come from, three civilizations that have been at odds with each other for a long time.  Through the eyes of Princess Miko we experience the Kisian empire, a realm reminiscent of feudal Japan: Miko and her brother Tanaka are the children of the ruling Kisian emperor – or rather that’s the cover story, since they are in reality the offspring of the previous ruler, whose actions caused him to be branded a traitor and be killed. The two are waiting for Tanaka to be named heir and meanwhile have to navigate the dangerous waters of court intrigue; an impulsive act from Tanaka causes a political upheaval that rekindles the hostility with neighboring Chiltae, launching both countries on the path of war and forcing Miko to act against her cultural and social boundaries and take her destiny – and that of Kisia – into her own hands.

Chiltae offers the well-known medieval fantasy setting, complete with a powerful clergy and their dangerous Blessed Guards.  Cassandra Marius is a Chiltaen citizen and a prostitute who also doubles as a hired assassin: there is something very mysterious, and also very wrong with her, since there is a constant, nagging voice in her head that seems to come from a very different personality, one capable at times to take control of her body. Add to that the fact that she can hear the “call” of the dead and you have a very fractured personality that, however, seems able to function well enough to ensure her survival.  Hired by an enigmatic individual to assassinate two people in exchange for the promise of a cure for her “ailment”, Cassandra accepts only to discover that her target is a highly placed one, and that she is a quite expendable pawn in a convoluted political game. 

Rah e’Torin is the captain of a band of Levanti, nomadic tribes of the plains living in virtual symbiosis with their horses. He and his people have been exiled like many others before them and in their search for a place to call their own they are captured by the Chiltaens who forcibly enroll them in their war against Kisia.  Once reached the main camp, Rah discovers that his old friend and mentor Gideon is at the head of the Levanti conscripts, which forces the younger man to come to terms with the compromises their new condition imposes on the old way of life, and to choose between survival and the adherence to Levanti codes of conduct.

When novels are written with multiple POVs, it’s easy to find one or more who are the reader’s favorites at the expense of the others, but such was not the case with We Ride the Storm, because I enjoyed all three characters in equal measure, and the constantly raising stakes of their different destinies made me care for them in a way I seldom experience: as the buildup of events carried them forward, showing more and more nuances in their psychological makeup and turning their individual situation ever more difficult, I found myself unable to stop turning the pages to learn what would happen next.

Even though I enjoyed all three POVs, Miko is the character who shows a major evolution in the course of the book: her culture requires women to defer to men in all matters, and although she can envision a future as ruler of Kisia, she is ready to accept a secondary role to her brother Tanaka, and it’s only when disaster strikes that she finds the moral  and physical strength necessary to lead her people in the struggle against the Chiltaen invasion.  

[…] I had lived in a prison made of people with more power. I did not want to be afraid anymore. I wanted to sit on the throne of my ancestors and make them proud.

Cassandra is a complicated person in many ways and – sadly – her chapters don’t enjoy the same narrative space as the other two protagonists (although with three more books in the series my hope of learning more is still strong) but what little we see is quite intriguing and also offers one more mystery to be explored in the person of the weird Witchdoctor, who might be the one to solve the puzzle of the mysterious “She” who shares Cassandra consciousness.

Rah is the character for whom I felt a great deal of compassion: both as the leader of his band of outcasts, and then as a conscripted soldier for the supercilious Chiltaen, he desperately tries not to compromise his principles, finding it ever so difficult when even his hero Gideon seems to have bargained his honor in exchange for vague promises of freedom.  Rah’s faithfulness to his moral compass is both admirable and sad, because it’s clear that he’s living through a time of change and one has to wonder if that change is going to trample him it its wake.

As a series opener, We Ride the Storm is an amazing story that wonderfully blends excellent characterization and masterful world-building, but it’s also a very emotional journey through the experiences of three very different people who in the course of the story become so alive and real that it’s almost impossible to forget they are fictional characters.  At the end of this first volume, all three are left on the brink of… something – be it good or bad – that compels me not to wait too long before moving forward with their journey.  I have rarely felt so impressed by a new discovery as I have been with Devin Madson’s writing, and I know I have just found a new favorite author for my reading “adventures”.

My Rating:


PALADIN’S GRACE (The Saint of Steel #1), by T. Kingfisher #WyrdAndWonder

There was another book by T. Kingfisher already lined up for my Wyrd&Wonder reading materials, but when I saw fellow blogger Susy’s enthusiastic review of Paladin’s Grace I could not resist, previous experience having taught me that, no matter which book I pick up from this author, I can be assured of a wonderful read. And that’s exactly what happened here.

Paladins are soldiers (holy berserkers) called to the service of various gods, or Saints, and Stephen is one of those serving the Saint of Steel: one day his god dies, and Stephen, alongside his comrades, falls prey to blind rage and starts attacking everyone in sight. Only a handful of these paladins survive the ordeal, and they are always on guard for the return of the madness; presently, three years later, these surviving Paladins are affiliated to the Temple of the White Rat, an order dedicated to public services like law and medicine, where they hope to remain useful while dealing with the heavy psychological consequences of their god’s death.

One night Stephen meets, in very… well, awkward circumstances, a woman fleeing from the acolytes of the Hanged Mother cult: her name is Grace, she is a talented perfumer and a person with whom the paladin feels immediately at ease, able to forget for a while the heavy burden of his past.  Grace also has a painful past to deal with, and the two of them meet again in weird circumstances while their mutual attraction grows despite the constant comedy of errors plaguing their encounters. All the while, the city lives in fear of a brutal assassin who leaves severed heads (and no bodies) in his wake and political intrigue further muddies the waters, adding to the burden of troubles for the two would-be lovers.

I had a lot of fun with Paladin’s Grace: it was all that I’ve come to expect from a story by T. Kingfisher, and more. It even surprised me by putting a romance at the core of the novel and making me enjoy it, which is so very unusual since it’a a theme I tend to avoid, but the growing relationship between Stephen and Grace was so fun to follow that I felt completely invested in it and ended up rooting for these two people so badly hurt by life’s hard blows that they deserved some happiness… 

Grace is the typical Kingfisher heroine: a very human, very relatable mix of strength and vulnerability, someone who has learned to fend for herself in a world that too often proved hostile and cruel, always ready to take away what she had managed to gain through hardship and sacrifice. Despite the difficult baggage that she carries, Grace is still capable of humor that comes delightfully across in her inner musings, and she also learned the kind of self-sufficiency that turned her into a very independent woman – granted, she’s terribly shy and still suffers from a certain sense of inadequacy, but she knows to rely only on herself:

Rescue was bad. People who wanted you to be vulnerable and grateful tended to get very angry when you stopped being vulnerable and didn’t act grateful enough.

Which makes Stephen’s not-so-smooth attempts at taking care of her all the harder. He’s laboring under some heavy baggage himself, constantly battling with the depression caused by the death of his saint and with the underlying fear of going berserk again and wreaking irreparable havoc. The only moments when he feels that burden lifted are those he spends with Grace: one might say they are both broken people who find in each other the possibility of healing their wounds and becoming whole again – and that’s probably the reason I found the romance in this story so intriguing, so real and worthy of cheering on.

Secondary characters are just as captivating as the main ones, particularly the members of the Temple of the Rat: from brother Francis the healer, whom we meet at the start of the novel, to Bishop Beartongue, an older woman whose no-nonsense attitude blends with tongue-in-cheek humor that made me happy for every scene in which she appeared, to lawyer Zale whose apparent offhand attitude hides a keen intellect, they all incarnate an ideal of service to others that counterbalances the darkness of the social and political background in which the story is set. Getting to know them, and their attitude toward humanity, it’s not surprising that they were the ones to offer the broken paladins a home and a reason to go on living.   Fellow paladin Istvhan is another wonderful character I enjoyed reading about: a mix of brotherly concern and hands-on advice, he’s the perfect foil for Stephen’s uncertainties – not to mention one of the recipients of his brother-in-arms’ knitted socks.  Yes, you read me correctly, Stephen knits socks in his spare time: after all even warriors need a hobby, don’t they?  And let’s not forget either Marguerite, Grace’s landlady, friend and accomplished spy in incognito, and Grace’s pet – something of a cross between a cat and a ferret, as far as I understand it – which fills the by-now-expected role of animal companion that seems to be a fixed element in all Kingfisher books.

There is a great deal to enjoy in Paladin’s Grace besides the amorous fumblings from Grace and Stephen: the required political games typical of the setting offer an interesting background that at some point morphs into intense courtroom drama, and the dreadful mystery about the severed heads is not fully resolved, making me hope that more will be explained in the next two books of the series, but what comes to the fore more intensely is the message that even damaged people can find a way of overcoming the injuries from the past and find in others the strength to face the future – hopefully a better one.  It’s indeed a powerful message, one that makes this already enjoyable story something more than just a story…

My Rating:


SISTERS OF THE FORSAKEN STARS (Our Lady of Endless Worlds #2), by Lina Rather

It took me some time to get back to this future world in which living ships forge the vast interstellar distances and work as “traveling convents” for the nuns aboard, bringing help and comfort to those in need, but after the first few pages I felt again comfortable in this universe.

The sisters of the order of Saint Rita are dealing with the aftermath of the events from Sisters of the Vast Black, at the end of which they suffered heavy losses, both human and non-human, considering the death of their living ship-convent, named Our Lady of Impossible Constellations.  Presently the nuns are traveling on a new ship, but it’s still a youngling so it needs constant care and nutrients, and since they broke any ties with the Church and Earth government funds are scarce and they have to keep a low profile and make do with what they can scrounge along the way.

Much of the story in Forsaken Stars hinges around these difficulties and the even greater threat of discovery: the nuns’ actions in revealing Earth’s responsibility in the deadly plague hitting rebellious colonies have turned them into a sort of heroic figures, taken as example and inspiration by those who are eager to shake off the yoke of Earth Governance, and they are constantly debating about how to travel the thin line separating their mission of help to those in need from the danger of becoming figureheads.  The uncertainty weighing on the sisters is further enhanced by the arrival of two new people: Kristen, a young postulant asking to join the convent and Eris, the long-lost sister of Ewostatewos: the former represents the unknown factor that might unsettle the fragile balance aboard the ship, the latter is like an unwelcome spotlight shining on them because she is clearly on the run, and therefore a wanted individual.

Unlike the first book in the series, Forsaken Stars seems a little less…cohesive, for want of a better word, somewhat meandering at times, but with hindsight I can see how this uncertainty in plot is a mirror for the uncertainty plaguing the nuns who have lost their support system and have to forge a completely new way of doing things – and surviving – which might take some time before it’s ironed out into the precise mechanism it used to be with Our Lady of Impossible Constellations.  Moreover, the nuns are dealing with the emotional fallout of their losses – even though not all of them are due to death, since former  Sister Gemma left the convent to join her lover Vauca, an engineer on the deadship (i.e. a conventional construct) Cheng I Sao, where they try to nurture the failed shiplings in the hope of creating something new when they are not viable as future liveships.

If the plot feels a little meandering, what remains steady and strong is the sense of community among the nuns, particularly where external forces are trying to change (or co-opt) them or when personal issues threaten to intrude on their concept of faith, which here seems to be more oriented toward belief in the rightness of good works rather than adherence to dogma – and here I have to say that I appreciated how these nuns’ faith stands on the willingness to do good, to help the needy and, if possible, prevent the cruelty humans enjoy inflicting each other. 

There are a few passing references to the difference between these space-faring nuns and the ones living on planets and conducting a more traditional monastic life of prayer and contemplation, references that I interpreted as respect for the kind of hands-on approach exhibited by the protagonists.  It must also be said that physical distance from the Church – even before the nuns cut their ties with it and Earth – already prompted the nuns to find their own way to deal with spiritual matters, showing how doctrine cannot remain unchanged when the conditions for its applicability change due to the unpredictability of life away from humanity’s home planet.

Where the start of this second installment shows the nuns in a state of flux, the dramatic events happening toward the end of the book bring it out of the perceived middle-book syndrome and point toward a road fraught with dangers, yes, but also with great possibilities: while the short form of this novella suffers from a certain lack of development that cries out for a longer narrative span, it also leaves ample room for the expansion of the story in many possible directions.  It will be interesting to see where it will lead us next….

My Rating:


DESCENDANT MACHINE (Continuance #2), by Gareth Powell

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

I was looking forward to the continuation of this series, where the author Gareth Powell portrays a wandering humanity relocated on huge ark-ships by the powerful aliens called Angels of Benevolence. Descendant Machine is not exactly the direct continuation of the first book, Stars and Bones, since it takes place some fifty years after the events depicted there, and as such it can be read as a stand-alone, although I would recommend reading the first volume as well, to better appreciate the nuances of characters and backgrounds.  Before delving into my review I would like to share a detail about the writing of this book: in the Afterword, Mr. Powell speaks about the difficult genesis of Descendant Machine, since the first draft was completely lost due to some technical problems, and he had to start again from scratch. Everyone who lost some important file to computers’ quirks understands what kind of blow that must have been, so this book also stands as the proof that no situation is unsurmountable, no matter how dire it looks – and in light of the events that constitute the core of this novel, I wonder how much of this realization went into the crafting of the story itself…

Nicola Mafalda is the pilot of the scout ship Frontier Chic, belonging to the Vanguard – the exploratory arm of the Continuance, the vast fleet of ark ships on which humanity has been forging the vastness of space for the past 125 years.  At the start of the novel, Nicola is ferrying passengers to Jzat, a planet inhabited by furry, four-armed humanoids who have been studying for generations a mysterious object orbiting their planet: the Grand Mechanism – the same size as Saturn’s rings, the object has been the source of endless debate about its origins and function, and there is a growing faction on Jzat that’s set on opening the Mechanism to uncover its secrets and, hopefully, reap the rewards that its superior technology might offer.

What started as a pretty routine run ends quite badly for Nicola and the Frontier Chic (I will let you discover how badly on your own…) and when we see her again she’s recuperating from the ordeal on one of the arks: contacted by her superiors, she is sent – not exactly willingly – to look for a Jzat mystic, the Rav’nah Abelisk, the latest in a long line of custodians of the Mechanism’s secrets, to obtain his help in avoiding the disasters that might follow the opening of the construct. Fighting against time and the Jzat faction bent on harnessing the Mechanism’s powers, Nicola faces dangers, betrayals and a threat to the end of the universe as we know it, in a non-stop, enthralling story whose stakes keep mounting from one chapter to the next.

Descendant Machine is written in alternating POV chapters belonging respectively to Nicola Mafalda, to the Frontier Chic’s envoy (envoys are the ships’ avatars) and to Orlando Walden, a young, bright scientist whose letters to his lover Ramona are a delightful mix of purple prose and self-centeredness.  This narrative choice keeps the novel moving along at a swift pace, turning it into a compulsive read once the pieces are all set on the board and the action rolls on with unstoppable momentum, without however forgetting a good number of well-placed sparkles of humor and a few forays into emotions that feel natural and organically developed and contribute to the excellent narrative balance of this story.

I enjoyed Nicola’s portrayal very much: she possesses a delightfully snarky disposition that does not shy away from a consistent use of profanity, but which also hides the self-doubt and vulnerabilities that round up her character into a very relatable one.  If she can be all business when performing her tasks, it’s in her dealings with the Chic’s envoy that we are able to see the real Nicola: here lies one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel, because we learn that Vanguard’s navigators and their envoys are somewhat mentally linked to better travel the intricacies of the Substrate (or hyperspace), and therefore share a bond that is as deep as it is unique.  The voice of the Chic’s envoy is an equal mixture of intelligence, humor and shrewdness that works as the perfect foil for Nicola’s prickly attitude and the exchanges between the two of them are among my favorite sections of the book, particularly where the undeniable affection underlying their relationship comes to the fore.

The chapters devoted to Orlando Walden are of a very different nature for two reasons: on one side they explore his personality through the impassioned letters sent to Ramona, his love for her expressed in a flowery and childish way that’s quite funny; on the other they afford readers a peek into the mindset of the Openers – the faction set on uncovering the Mechanism’s secrets – and in particular of their leader Aulco, whose speeches pave the road for some humorous pokes at the sectarian kinds of politics we have seen crop up in recent years.   

Narratively speaking, Descendant Machine enjoys a lighter tone in respect of its predecessor, even though it does not lack for drama or the levels of tension that accompany the possibility of seeing the universe as we know it vanish in a puff of smoke – from my point of view, it’s space opera of the most gratifying kind, where alongside the more adventurous themes you will find deeper considerations about life and death, love and friendship, the strength to accept one’s end for a higher purpose, and much more.  Once again I can rest assured that Mr. Powell is very comfortable in this genre, as well as skilled, and that I will welcome every new book of his with great expectations.

My Rating:


INFINITY GATE (Pandominion #1), by M. R. Carey

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

Every book I read, so far, from M.R. Carey proved to be an intriguing, engrossing journey, so when I saw Infinity Gate showcased on the monthly Orbit newsletter I requested it without even taking a look at the synopsis. Once again I found myself totally immersed in a story whose only downside was that it ended too soon.

Infinity Gate starts from the premise of the existence of an uncounted number of Earths, a multiverse where each iteration can be either quite close to the reality we’re familiar with, or so wildly different as to be unrecognizable.  Scientist Hadiz Tambuwal lives in what we might consider as our primary Earth, but one where resources are almost depleted and wars are being fought for whatever’s left.  Finding herself practically alone in the university complex near Lagos, in Nigeria, she spends her time perfecting her studies and one day stumbles on an amazing discovery: the possibility to jump from one reality to another – and therefore a chance for a better life, even for a way to save her own dying planet.  

With the help of Rupshe, a self-aware A.I. residing on the university grounds, Hadiz starts exploring the almost infinite versions of Earth, but in so doing she catches the attention of the Pandominion, a coalition of Earth-like worlds linked by the discovery of the Step plates, the means of jumping from one reality to another.  The Pandominion is at war with another aggregation of worlds, the Ansurrection: these are planets ruled by machine intelligence and so far the war has claimed many victims and many worlds; fearing that Hadiz’s jumps might be related to the Ansurrection’s encroaching, the Pandominion sets its armed force, called the Cielo, on her tracks.

Hadiz’s storyline runs parallel to that of Essien Nkanika, living in a world not much different from hers, and the meeting between them will change Essien’s life – one that has already seen much suffering and deprivation – in a very dramatic way.  The third main character in the novel is that of  Topaz Tourmaline FiveHills, a young girl living on Ut, an Earth-like planet where the dominant life form descends from rabbits: Topaz – or Paz as she likes to be called – will see her life upturned by a devastating event and will have to make some hard choices she was not prepared for.

Curiously enough, for a story told through multiple POVs, Infinity Gate chooses the unusual way of following these three characters in a linear way instead of alternating chapters between them: at first this choice felt weird, because each time the reader must start anew with a different perspective that seems to have no connection with the previous one, but in the end it was revealed as a very clever way of making the reader invested in each character’s journey and at the same time of exploring the Pandominion in its many facets without need for long and distracting info-dumps.

The Pandominion looks, on the surface, as a conglomeration of advanced worlds graced by an utopian life-style, but as soon as the focus moves on its inner workings it’s easy to see that it’s not like Star Trek’s Federation at all: some of the people at the top are quite ruthless and the existence of the Cielo, the inter-planetary army whose armor-clad soldiers elicit apprehension with their sole presence, points toward a rule that’s quite far from benevolent.  The Ansurrection, on the other hand, seems driven by an apparently unthinking drive to replicate its machines and the discovery of several worlds where any form of life has been obliterated does not bode well for their intentions.

The characters who move on this intriguing – if slightly unsettling – background are wonderfully depicted and fully fleshed: Hadiz Tambuwal looks like a single-focus-driven scientist who is more at ease among the instruments of her laboratory than among people, and yet there is a poignant streak of vulnerability in her that comes across in the course of her meeting with Essien Nkanika, a young man who has learned to stop at nothing to ensure his own survival, like accepting to join the Cielo where his humanity risks to be taken away from him piece by piece.  My favorite character, however, remains Paz, a young girl (rabbit-shaped, granted, but still a girl) who finds herself dealing with exceptional events she was not prepared for: the way she finds a well of courage and resiliency she did not know she possesses, while still remaining true to herself, gives way to a character journey I found both compelling and heart-wrenching.

It’s not going to be a spoiler when I say that these three are destined to meet: the greater attraction in this novel stands in the expectation of that encounter and in the different, often difficult paths they travel before that can happen.  This first book in the series merely lays the ground for what will develop into the main story, and yet it does not feel like a simple setting of the playing field because you can almost hear the various pieces clicking into place, each new addition boosting the tension level to new heights, particularly where Paz’s experiences are concerned: there is a long, tense segment dealing with them, toward the final part of the novel, where I was literally unable to put the book down because the various moving parts were in such a state of flux that anything could happen and failure seemed like a chilling possibility.   It’s difficult to describe this book without giving away precious – and spoilery! – details, but trust me when I tell you that reading it without any prior knowledge is indeed the best way to go.

Infinity Gate closes with the equivalent of a “…to be continued” but at the same time it ends this part of the story neatly: previous experience with M.R. Carey’s other series tells me that the next books will come along with infallible cadence, and I already look forward to seeing where the story will take us next.

My Rating:


THE OVERLOOK (Harry Bosch #13), by Michael Connelly

It happens to me sometimes to catch a series of false starts with books: either these books are not my cup of tea or I’m in a picky mood and nothing seems to meet my tastes. When that happens I know the only way to get over such a gloomy outlook is to pick up a “palate cleanser” of sorts, and one of my tested and true comfort reads is a crime/thriller by Michael Connelly – I know his stories never disappoint me and they always manage to bring me back on track.

The Overlook is the shortest novel in the Harry Bosch series, only 164 pages on my e-reader, but still it managed to keep me intrigued from start to finish, also thanks to the relentless pace that helped me focus on the story despite it being one already visited in the TV series: it’s not the first time I’ve observed this phenomenon, and once again I must admire the author’s writing skills in this regard.

After a stint in the Open-Unsolved department Bosch is now working in the Homicide Special division and has been assigned a new partner, the young and upcoming Ignacio Ferras. The two come to work on the case of a man found murdered on an overlook on Mulholland Drive: the victim was shot in the back of the head, execution style, and is identified as a doctor working with radioactive materials. An inspection of the doctor’s house finds his wife bound and gagged and reveals that she was used to compel the husband to steal a considerable quantity of Cesium, probably with the goal of fabricating a dirty bomb.

The discovery brings the FBI in  on the investigation, given the apparent terrorist nature of the crime, and Bosch’s old acquaintance Rachel Walling is part of the team charged with finding the dangerous material before it can be used in a devastating way.   The FBI’s cavalier attitude toward the case, both in trying to take over every aspect of the operation and in shunting the actual murder on the sidelines, prioritizing the recovery of the Cesium, does not go well with Bosch, of course.  Being who he is, the detective refuses to give in gracefully and fights what he sees as the Feds’ intrusion into his murder investigation, particularly when some details don’t seem to add up but are deemed irrelevant by the FBI.

The story itself is a compelling one – even though I was aware, thanks to the TV series, of the unexpected twist that comes at some point – but what is even more interesting is the deeper look into the siege mentality that took hold of the law enforcement agencies after the attacks on 9/11: the most evident consequence is the heightened state of reactivity of those agencies that brings them to sometimes react on insufficient or misleading information, falling prey to a sort of knee-jerk reaction that can prove more counterproductive than anything else.  What comes out of this picture is a wounded, damaged society that still has to find its balance in the wake of of a terrible shock.  There is a segment of the story where it’s possible to see clearly how someone invested with power, but not with enough discernment to exercise it properly, can be manipulated into actions that deepen the deterioration in the social framework – and that, in this specific case, lead the investigation on a totally false track, but since I’m now nearing spoiler territory I will say no more about it… 😉

As for Bosch himself, while I can understand his all-encompassing desire to bring justice to the victim, and his impatience with the high-handed methods of the FBI, his usual recklessness here felt more in service to his own ego than to the investigation: it’s something I remarked in my review of the previous book, and here its presence makes itself felt more heavily.  Even though in the end he’s proven to have been right, his reverting to the tactics of his younger self seems to point to an involution in Bosch’s character, and this is particularly evident in the relationship with his new partner: some of Harry’s actions are not only ill-advised, they could prove dangerous, career-wise, and his off-hand dismissal of those dangers, in the face of his partner’s objections, stresses once more how he is ultimately a lone wolf – and not necessarily one worthy of unconditional admiration.  While this character development was somewhat troubling, I have to admit that the author was right in showing his creature’s “dark side” more often because it makes him more real than any shiny-armor-clad “hero”.

The story itself is fast-paced (the sensation is that everything happens in a very short time frame) and engaging despite the already quoted familiarity: this time the main event in the book mirrors exactly what I saw on TV, but Michael Connelly’s writing is such that my immersion in the story never wavered for a moment.  While there was no surprise in the plot, the depiction of the investigation itself, with its twists and turns, and of the pall of fear imposed by a terrorist threat, was more than enough to offer a compelling and satisfactory read.

My Rating:


CHILDREN OF MEMORY (Children of Time #3), by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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 have to confess that I approached this book with some hesitation: while I enjoyed Children of Time (despite the spiders, which is saying a lot!), I was less sanguine about Children of Ruin, mostly because of the pacing, which at times felt a little too slow for my tastes.  Children of Memory does suffer slightly from some pacing problems and from a few lengthy philosophical digressions, but the mystery at its core was so intriguing that it kept me motivated to read on until the very end.

Unlike its predecessors, this third installment in the series focuses more closely on humans, and in particular on the humans of an ark ship, the Enkidu, traveling the long distance toward one of the promised terraformed worlds with its huge cargo of frozen colonists. When they reach their destination, a planet they will name Imir, the ship has suffered grievous damage and lost a significant part of its cargo – both people and machinery destined to the creation of the colony – while the crew also discovers that the terraforming project partially failed its goal: Imir is a cold, harsh world with extreme weather patterns, and it will require an enormous effort to establish even the basic living conditions. 

After a temporal jump of a few generations, the novel follows the colonization of Imir through the eyes of Liff, a pre-teen girl whose strong spirit is fueled by fairy tales of adventures and great discoveries: thanks to Liff we learn that the colony never truly took off beyond mere survival in what looks like a frontier environment, the constant breakdown of modern tools and machinery forcing the colonists toward a more primitive society than the one they hoped for. What’s worse, there is a strange obsession in the populace toward “Watchers” or “Seccers”, i.e. people outside of their limited community, who might be actively working against its survival: although it seems more myth than reality, this belief fosters an acute climate of suspicion that verges toward paranoia.

A different narrative thread focuses on the small crew of an exploratory vessel from the arachnid/octopus/human civilization we encountered in the two previous books: having reached Imir they debate on the best way to approach the colony, deciding that one of them will try to monitor it in incognito, posing as one of the colonists from the outlying failed farmsteads: Miranda, a combination of human appearance and Nodan consciousness (the parasitic life-form discovered in the previous book) joins the people of Imir working as a teacher, and on her meeting with Liff forms a strong bond with the keenly curious young girl.

Here is where the strangeness begins, because we are presented with often contradictory evidence about life on the planet: several generations have elapsed since the first landing, and yet Liff seems to think about Captain Holt (the expedition leader) as her grandfather; or she is seen living with both her parents while in other narrative segments she’s an orphan living with her inattentive uncle, and so on.  This is the mystery that captured my attention and led me to wonder what was truly happening on Imir, not forgetting the further element of a strange signal coming from the planet that leads the onboard A.I. patterned on Earth scientists Avrana Kern (a constant presence throughout the series) to investigate it with the help of the new uplifted species of Corvids we get to know in Children of Memory.

It’s not easy to recap this novel in a handful of spoiler-free sentences, because this book is as complex as it is intriguing: the main attraction for me was the solution to the contradictory experiences of young Liff (and here I have to admit that my own theories did not even come close to the reveal), but there is much more here to keep a reader engrossed.  Faithful to the pattern exhibited so far, Adrian Tchaikovsky presents us with a new uplifted kind of creature, the Corvids from Rourke’s world, another planet that proved hostile to humanity but where these birds’ intelligence evolved in a unique pattern of paired individuals forming a collective whole and represented here by Gethli and Gothi, whose discussions about sentience are nothing short of fascinating, besides offering some sparks of humor thanks to their peculiarly worded exchanges that at times reminded me of the chorus elements in Greek tragedies.

Equally intriguing are the observations on the composite society originated by the joining of humans, arachnids, octopusses and Nodan parasites who have learned to coexist peacefully and create a space-faring society whose curiosity about the rest of the universe is the main drive toward exploration. In this respect, the human-looking Miranda is a perfect example of this commonwealth of species: her search for knowledge is somehow marred by the dichotomy between outward appearance and inner substance, which leaves room for some interesting, and at times poignant, considerations about self-image and identity.

The colony on Imir offers other chances of commentary on human nature: the regression to a more primitive way of life, forced by the lack of equipment, seems to have brought on a parallel regression in mindset, since the inhabitants of Landfall (the sole planetary settlement) look more like villagers from a Medieval era rather than the inheritors of a modern society. Their dread and distrust of the “other” (which comes from a very specific reason) brings about a tragic “us vs. them” mentality that is depicted in a few dramatic scenes which effectively display the dangers of mob mentality when paired with fear and ignorance.

Children of Memory is however slightly weighted down by some philosophical digressions on the nature of sentience, which are intriguing on their own but – in my opinion – take more space than necessary in consideration of the need to learn the solution to the mystery that Imir presents to the visitors. Still these digressions were not enough to keep me from forging on and reaching the intriguing reveal: if that was the challenge that the author presented to his readers, I can say that I was able to meet it head on 😉

My Rating:


IN THE SHADOW OF LIGHTNING (Glass Immortals #1), by Brian McClellan

A new series by Brian McClellan was more than enough to make me pay attention: my only doubt – before starting this first book – was about how it would compare with his Powder Mage world and if I would miss the richly intriguing background of that famous saga.  To my relief, I soon discovered that this world stands very well on its own and it proved to be just as engrossing as the author’s older creation.

In this world, glass (or rather godglass) can be imbued with magic properties that confer special abilities to wearers: added strength and stamina, curative powers, enhanced sight – the list seems almost endless. Then there are the glassdancers, gifted individuals who can actually command glass and perform incredible feats with it: Demir Grappo is such an individual, and the scion of one of the ruling families in the nation of Ossa. When we meet him at the start of the novel, he’s gained a high rank in the Ossan army at a very young age, and just obtained a decisive victory in war, which bestowed him the title of Lightning Prince. Something goes wrong with the chain of command, however, and the newly conquered city is brutally sacked despite Demir’s orders to the contrary and so, ridden by profound guilt and horror for the atrocities he witnessed, he choses voluntary exile from his home country.  Only several years later he returns home, called back to his family’s duties after the assassination of his mother: what Demir will have to deal with is not only the investigation in his mother’s murder, but a number of political machinations and an encroaching threat that might change the world forever.

Demir’s journey crosses with that of Thessa, a siliceer or godglass forger, swept up by the tides of war into a situation that will put to the test her abilities and her strength of character; of Kizzie Vorcien, the bastard daughter of a powerful family ruler and a capable enforcer; and of Idrian, a breacher, which is something of a glass-strengthened super soldier.  Last but not least, among the main characters figures Baby Montego, a retired champion of cudgel fighting (a bloody sport very popular in Ossa) and Demir’s childhood friend.

The novel’s background is what I’ve come to expect from Brian McClellan: an 18th Century-inspired world where the Industrial Revolution is in its infancy and where glass-derived magic permeates all strata of society with various levels of intensity due to the strict class system on which said society is based – which of course leaves ample room for political maneuvering, conspiracies and convoluted plots that don’t stop even before murder or the kindling of a senseless war to reach the desired goals.  Glass magic is an intriguing element of the story, particularly because (not unlike the overuse of gunpowder in McClellan’s other world) there are aftereffects to take into account, from the loss of efficacy, over time, of single pieces of magic-imbued glass to the much more dire glassrot, an affliction that plagues people when they exceed the limits of glass use, and which could also lead to deterioration and death.

Narrative threads and characters interweave in an increasingly convoluted plot that reserves many surprises for the readers, including the final twist which left me not a little perplexed for its SF overtones – something I had not expected and which leaves me very curious to see where the author will take us next. But of course my most intense focus remained on the characters themselves.  Demir is something of a damaged hero, a complex personality, energetic and mercurial on one side – the one he offers to the world – and profoundly wounded on the more private other, since he’s still dealing with the aftermath of the wartime episode that affected his life and career. Where he appears to the world as a functional leader, certain of his skills and completely in control, he’s plagued by what looks like PTSD symptoms when he’s alone and the ghosts of the past weigh heavily on him.  Still, he manages to remain a very caring person where the people he feels responsible for are concerned, and unlike other members of the higher strata of society he struggles to do the right thing – probably in the constant search of atonement for what he perceives as his guilt in past events.

His old-time friends Kizzie and Baby Montego ended up being my favorite characters: as the bastard of the powerful Vorcien patriarch, she keeps looking for the way to fit in, juggling her need to belong with an inner core of integrity, a trait that together with her amazing fighting skills earned my respect and fondness from the get go.  Baby Montego (the ‘baby’ part of his name being a clear tongue-in-cheek quip) is a larger than life person in both the actual and the figurative sense: there is a delightful duality in this man who made his name practicing a violent, bloody sport and yet remains outwardly sweet and gentle – unless his friends are threatened, of course. The two of them are Demir’s older friends, their relationship going back to their childhood, and I enjoyed their interactions immensely – truly one of the joys of this novel.   Breacher Idrian is also a multi-faceted character: a powerful soldier, well respected by superiors and troops alike, but dealing with a form of encroaching madness barely kept at bay through his godglass artificial eye, something that indeed erodes his outward strength but at the same time humanizes him profoundly.

On the other hand, while Thessa earned my sympathy for her plight, particularly in the first half of the novel, she never managed to completely captivate me despite being Demir’s narrative counterpart: I could admire her strength, resourcefulness and courage and the fact that she could seamlessly blend her kind disposition with a fierceness that knows no obstacles. And yet in the end she left me a bit cold, probably because she is depicted as unfailingly brilliant and that might have led me to see some “Mary Sue” shades in her personality that did not agree with me. Nonetheless, the jury is still out and I’m looking forward to seeing where her path will take her: it would not be the first time that Brian McClellan ends up surprising me with some unexpected character development…

In the Shadow of Lightning won me over with its fast pace, layers of intrigues and relatable characters, and I’m more than looking forward to the next books in the series: once again Brian McClellan proved to be a skilled storyteller whose novels have by now become a “must read” no matter what.

My Rating: