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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Rating:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Rating:

TEASER TUESDAY #16

Teaser Tuesday is an intriguing meme started by Ambrosia over at The Purple Booker.

All you have to do is:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other Teaser Tuesday participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Teaser Tuesday

This week I’m going to showcase one of the books I was most looking forward to, this year, the sixth volume in the amazing space opera The Expanse, by James S.A. Corey (a.k.a. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck).

Babylon’s Ashes comes after an amazing fifth book in which so much happened, and so many of the characters I’ve come to care about where in serious danger, and the apparently subdued tone of this volume might seem anti-climatic, but I’ve come to trust these two authors to deliver, and I was not disappointed.

Here is a brief excerpt from the thoughts of Chrisjen Avarasala, one of my favorite characters: her musings offer the possibility of giving the reader a condensed recap of all that happened before, but in such a genially offhand way…

Her mind danced across the solar system. Medina Station. Rhea, declaring against the Free Navy. The food and supplies of Ganymede. The starvation and death on Earth. […] The colony ships being preyed upon by the Free Navy pirates, and the stations and asteroids gaining the benefit of piracy. And the missing ships. And the stolen protomolecule sample.

If you have not started this series yet, I urge you to do it, as soon as you can: you owe it to yourselves, seriously 🙂

Review: A THOUSAND WORDS FOR STRANGER, by Julie Czerneda (Trade Pact #1)

129019I’ve been aware of this very prolific writer’s works for some time, and I finally managed to read the first book in the Trade Pact trilogy, that’s also Julie Czerneda’s debut novel: it took me a while to understand where to start because this first trilogy is followed, in terms of publication, by a ‘prequel’ trilogy (called Stratification) and is now being complemented by a follow-up triptych named Reunification, whose title This Gulf of Time and Stars caught my attention and imagination before I understood it was not the best place to begin delving into this series.

In the future depicted by these books, humanity has spread throughout the stars and also met a wide variety of alien races, all of them coexisting – more or less – in a sort of loose alliance called the Trade Pact. Outside of this treaty-like convention stand the Clan, a group of aliens who look perfectly human but are set aside by their mental powers: telepathy, teleportation, telekinesis, and who knows what else, since they are not very forthcoming about their gifts, and look with barely concealed disdain on those they consider their inferiors.

At the start of the novel, two members of the Clan are attacked near the spaceport on the planet Auord: the man is left unconscious on the ground, while the woman – whose name we’ll later learn is Sira – manages to escape.  Sira has no memory of who or what she is, the only thoughts in her mind generated by a strong, inexplicable compulsion to find a ship and leave the planet: when she accidentally meets Captain Jason Morgan, of the independent trader ship Silver Fox, she knows he’s the right person to accomplish what the voices in her mind urge her to do and she manages to be signed on as crew on the Fox.

I have to admit that at this point the story looked to me like a classic romance novel in a space-opera setting, and that I started to feel some disappointment, but since I did enjoy the writing I decided to stay onboard – so to speak – and see where this particular ship was going to take me: now I’m happy I did, because the story took me in quite unexpected directions, and it was far from predictable or trope-heavy.  True, there are some romantic overtones in the narrative (something I usually try to avoid), but they are dealt with a light hand and do not excessively intrude into what turned out to be a complex plan (the kind where boxes hide within boxes) to sidestep the dangerous path where the Clan’s method for propagating its species seems headed.

The main focus largely remains on Sira and her literal discovery of herself as she tries to make head or tails of her identity, her past and the strange abilities that surface in the most unexpected moments: what I particularly enjoyed in her story is the fact that despite the loss of memory and the apparent helplessness, Sira is not a passive victim of events, nor is she the proverbial vulnerable heroine waiting for the equally proverbial hero to save her. On the contrary, she’s often able to save herself, to tap an inner core of resourcefulness that enables her to overcome the problem at hand, or to wait for the best opportunity to do so, even in the direst of circumstances.   And once that past does surface, the dichotomy between what she was before the amnesia and the person she’s become since then, the person that was born on that night on Auord, makes for a very interesting dilemma, one that helps to shape the character’s personality.

This journey of discovery also serves the purpose of explaining the nature of the Clan, the way they evolved as a race (although on this subject we are given only tantalizing glimpses) and how their mind-set and customs reached the present configuration: if it’s true that there is a downside to every form of power, the Clan’s own brand of it is a huge one, the kind that could bring them to extinction if given enough time.  It’s a very elegant way of counterbalancing such amazing abilities that would otherwise have made these people less believable: the fact that their own demise, as a race, could be the direct result of a relentless pursuit of ever-increasing mental powers, makes them more approachable and, ultimately, an object of sympathy, difficult as it is considering the attitude of some of their members.

At the same time, Sira’s search of her past and identity allows the author to showcase Clan society without need for the dreaded infodump, because her discoveries are the readers’ discoveries and we learn things alongside her. In the same way, her adventures make room for a parade of alien creatures and societies that the reader encounters in a very natural way: it all becomes part of the adventure, and each new steps brings new characters on the stage while advancing the plot.  And if the villains are sometimes too… villainous and easy to hate, like the reptilian pirate Roraqk, whose stressed sibilants become too much after a while, or if the friends and allies are too easily lovable, like the strange, metallic-plate-covered Huido, all can be forgiven thanks to the swift pace of the story, and without forgetting that this is a debut novel and as such is exceptionally well written and free of the many mistakes one could expect from an emerging author.

A Thousand Words for Stranger proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable read, and an intriguing start to the series: I look forward to learning more about this universe, and I will certainly return to it as soon as possible.

 

My Rating:

Review: GREATMASK, by Ashley Capes (The Bone Mask Trilogy #3)

greatmask-2016smallI received the e-ARC of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

This epic fantasy trilogy reached its conclusion with the final book, one that nonetheless leaves the door open for a possible sequel: should that not be the author’s intent, the sense of “unfinished business” from the last chapter still is a welcome change from a more conventional ending, one where all the narrative threads are nicely tied up.

At the end of book 2, the main characters were all scattered to the four winds, contact between them lost and each one forced to deal with their problems, some of which were of a quite deadly nature: Notch and Sofia managed to escape from the Sap Born, but were separated in the forest, he fighting for his and Nia’s life and she running away with her father and the Sap Born’s freed prisoners. Ain was traveling back to his people, together with his companion and King Oseto’s peace envoy, only to meet with a deadly, formless foe. And King Oseto himself faced the threat of a Renovar invasion, only to discover that a new, unknown force was at his doorstep: the Ecsoli, the ancient people from whom the Anaskari originated, arriving from the sea to conquer the city, and steal its precious bones.

Now, as the third book starts, we follow  each individual group as they struggle to overcome the mounting difficulties: at the beginning this fracturing of narrative threads makes for an apparently disjointed storytelling, but little by little the pieces start to come together to build the main tapestry, non unlike smaller streams that flow into a wider river, and we understand that each single incident is part of an overall – and ominous – picture.    And once our “heroes” manage to regroup, the story takes on speed, driving toward a breathless fight for survival.

What becomes clear is that ancient bones are indeed the key to this world’s magic, and that there is an untapped well of power in them: this must be the main reason the Ecsoli are collecting them with a ruthlessness that seems born of desperation – or great need. One of the most gripping parts of the story comes indeed from the description of occupied Anaskar, of the profoundly changed life in the beleaguered city, where people are trying to survive in the streets filled by the rubble from the attack, or patrolled by the Ecsoli who seem quite keen in enjoying bloody sport.

More intriguingly, the bone masks themselves transition from mere tools to characters, showing what kind of unimaginable powers can be drawn from them – and what kind of price they exact from their wearers: I was fascinated by the hints of personality that were shown this way, and by the almost neutral nature (for want of a better word) they display, neither good nor bad, but still frightening in its uniqueness.

We learn more from the characters as well, a few hints from their past and – more important – the changes wrought by the dire situation on their personalities: King Oseto, and the shocking bargain he seals with the ancient mask Chelona is the most relevant example of this, as is Sofia’s continuing journey toward maturity and the ability to make harder and harder decisions, showing a strength of spirit that had only been hinted at up to this point.

There is a huge change in tone toward the end and the final showdown: the author’s usual discursive style transforms here into pure narration, describing the story’s climatic events in a breath-taking scene that would make wonderful cinematic material, and whose conclusion was surprising for the bold – if sad – choice he made there.  I must admit I was taken unaware by the turn of events, but once the consternation wore off I understood that this bittersweet conclusion was much more satisfying than a more conventional one where everyone marched to the proverbial happy end.

Not all questions are answered at the end of Greatmask, and that’s the main reason that made me mention “unfinished business”, but I like to have some unsolved mysteries, to know that not everything has been explained: making one’s own assumptions is part of the fun after all…

All in all, a very satisfying conclusion to an intriguing story.

My Rating:

 

I would like to take a little time here to talk about the cover: what I used at the top of the review is going to be the one for the published book, but as I was waiting for the “go ahead” from the author for the posting of my review, I was made aware of some problems with the cover itself, that might not have been ready for the publication date.  Mr. Capes kindly sent me the alternate cover, that I’m sharing here just as a matter of curiosity and because I loved the colors and the sense of impending doom that comes from it.  What do you think? Which one is your favorite?

greatmask-pre

SciFi Month 2016 Review: MINDSTAR RISING, by Peter Hamilton (Greg Mandel #1)

1306956After greatly enjoying Peter Hamilton’s The Reality Dysfunction, the first volume of his  Night’s Dawn trilogy, I wanted to read more about this author, but without committing to one of his more “monstrous” novels yet, and I settled for Mindstar Rising, again a first volume in a trilogy and, from what I understand, Hamilton’s first published novel.

The setting of this story is very interesting: midway through the 21st century England underwent a great deal of changes: global warming flooded many of the coastal areas, forcing massive migrations with consequent overcrowding, and climate became more like that of Mediterranean lands. Politically, the country is emerging from a ten-year long rule by an extreme-left coalition, and swinging in the opposite direction, with mega corporations slowly but surely taking control.

One such corporation, Event Horizon, just discovered a conspiracy to undermine one of their key products and calls in Greg Mandel, the main character, to uncover all the ramifications of the plot. Greg is ex military, part of the elite Mindstar Brigade, whose member were subjected to physical augmentations that enabled them to gain psychic powers: Greg, for example, possesses a high level of psi abilities and can sense when people are lying, and even catch the drift of their thoughts, even though he’s unable to actually read them.   When the now-deposed dictatorship took power, Greg and his comrades were left to their own devices and now he’s hiring himself as a private investigator and sometimes strong-arm (or outright assassin).

As Greg’s investigation for Event Horizon goes on, we discover more about the deeply changed world in which he lives, and this world makes for a fascinating background to the escalating threat against his clients, whose ramifications extend in many unexpected directions, as the story unfolds with a good, sustained pace that held my attention from start to finish.

Greg Mandel’s character is presented in an intriguing way: as a disillusioned ex-soldier who was abandoned to fend for himself, he does not fall prey to the usual problems one might expect in these cases, like substance abuse or inability to relate to the rest of society, on the contrary he has found himself a quiet niche where he can exploit the abilities he’s been gifted with, while maintaining something of a low profile.  He enjoys an extensive net of contacts in every stratum of the community, especially in the diverse and bizarre underworld that developed after the fall of the previous regime, and has learned how to make the best of what he is.  All things considered, he looks like an ok guy, one that’s reliable and can command the respect of those he comes across in his line of work, but… Yes, there is a “but”.

All through the novel I could not shake the feeling that under that “nice guy” veneer there was an exploitative streak that did not go hand in hand with the fairer surface appearance.  For starters, being as near a telepath as he is gives him an unfair advantage: if that can be an asset in the line of work, it’s also a dishonest leverage in day-to-day dealings with other people.  That’s quite evident in his encounter with Eleanor, a girl who just escaped from a sort of cult group: the mental “nudges” Mandel employs with her can be considered cheating at best, and far worse under a closer scrutiny: in my opinion little does it matter that in the end he starts a serious relationship with Eleanor and seems to care deeply for her – the fact that he resorted to a form of “mind rape” in the beginning is no excuse.

Mandel’s less-palatable personality traits come to the fore again when, in the course of the investigation, he asks for the help of a former Mindstar comrade, Gabriel: a true prescient, she can predict the future developments of any situation, the immediate future of any person she comes into contact with.  Such a gift means of course a great deal of strain, and for this reason Gabriel has chosen to keep to herself as much as possible: only leaning heavily on the ties from their shared past can Mandel convince her to come out of her self-imposed isolation and lend him a hand.   I enjoyed very much Gabriel as a character, her snarky wit, her tired disillusionment, and her way of looking at her companions as somewhat unruly children: unlike the other female characters in the book she does not need her looks to project an air of competence, or to stand out – and here comes another of the details that made me sit up and do a double take. Because strong-willed, smart and capable Gabriel is “guilty” of the sin of not being beautiful: on meeting her again after several years, Mandel notices she’s let herself go, that she’ dowdy, frumpy, overweight – and it’s not just one instance, which might have accounted for the shock of seeing huge changes after so much time, it’s a leitmotif that’s repeated now and again in the course of the story.

Julia Evans herself, the granddaughter and heir-in-training of Event Horizon’s founder, seems to epitomize all that I perceived as wrong in the depiction of female characters in Mindstar Rising: she is gifted with high intelligence, an analytical mind and the willingness to learn how to lead her grandfather’s empire, but still most of her inner dialogs focus on her lack of a boyfriend, and on the unrequited attraction for a particular boy. To add insult to injury, we see her find several key elements in the unraveling of the scheme against Event Horizon, elements she finds through her highly enhanced analytical powers: when she does, she tends to lay them at Mandel’s feet, like a puppy waiting for an acknowledging pat from its master, instead of using them as the manager she is training to be.

Do really women come only in two categories in this novel? On one side we have Gabriel, gifted with agency and strength, but sadly lacking in the looks department. On the other we have Eleanor – beautiful but needing to be saved; Julia’s friend Katharina – beautiful, wanton and easily corrupted; Julia – beautiful and capable, but suffering from a sort of daddy complex.  I might be wrong, but I think there was a pattern there…

That said – and as I write it I realize how much I needed to take it off my chest – the story remains a solid, intriguing one, particularly for the kind of world it describes, the changes that have encompassed it and its inhabitants. One of the most fascinating details concerned the various gangs that have taken over part of the cities, and the microcosm they have created in their little enclaves.   For these reasons alone I might read the other novels in this series, in the hope that what so disturbed me here might be toned down in the next books…

My Rating:


 

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Review: NICE DRAGONS FINISH LAST, by Rachel Aaron (Heartstrikers #1)

20426102I became aware of this series when reading the review for the third volume over at THE BIBLIOSANCTUM, and was immediately intrigued: titles like this one, or One Good Dragon Deserves Another and No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished are an implicit promise of humor mixed with the usual elements of the genre, and some light fun is always welcome between heavier reads.  Moreover, if dragons are fascinating creatures, dragons who can take human form at will can be even more so.

Julius Heartstriker is an unusual dragon: unlike his brethren, he doesn’t enjoy typical draconic pastimes as domination, manipulation and the hoarding of riches, and prefers to keep himself apart from his large family, holing up in his room playing online games.  Tired of this state of affairs, his mother Bethesda decides to put him in a “swim or sink” situation and after sealing Julius in human form, she kicks him out of the house with only the clothes on his back, and drops him in Detroit, where he will have to show some dragon-like initiative and strength: failure to do so will result in his death – probably at the hands, or rather jaws, of Mommy dearest.    The city is, however, forbidden to dragons after the release of magic effected by Algonquin, the Lady of the Lake, and it’s a dangerous place for anyone, either on the upper levels where the more affluent live, or in the ruins of the old town, where the dispossessed and the shadier characters dwell.

To prove himself to his mother and the rest of the family, Julius will have to fulfill what looks like a simple task: retrieve the fugitive member of another dragon family and bring her back into the fold. The assignment proves however far less easy than predicted, due to some convoluted dragon politics and the added trouble brought on by Marci Novalli, a human mage with whom Julian strikes a business deal and who quickly becomes his partner and ally.

Nice Dragons Finish Last is a fast, entertaining story that manages to mix successfully the typical elements of Urban Fantasy with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor that seems to enjoy poking some fun at the genre’s main tropes: this is particularly evident in the character of Marci who is a very skilled mage, quite versed in her craft but at the same time possessed of a MacGyver-like approach to magic that will more often than not bring a smile on your face rather than an awed expression. Yet, at the very same time, there is an earnestness in her, coupled with the tragic circumstances that brought her to the DFZ (Detroit Free Zone), that makes you also take her very seriously, just as Julius does, understanding – after a relatively short acquaintance – that he can rely on her to carry them both forward through the dangers they face.

Labeling Julius as a wimp would be quite appropriate, even by less exacting human standards: if on one hand I could understand his unwillingness, as a smaller-bodied dragon, to engage in the more physical activities of his large family, on the other I found his choice of becoming a couch potato did little to endear him to me, at least in the beginning.   If Bethesda and her daughter Chelsie, the family’s executioner, appear quite ruthless and bloody minded, to the point that her treatment of Julian sounds altogether cruel, it becomes quickly clear that being an active part of a dragon family does not necessarily entail bloodshed and mayhem, and that one might find his or her own niche in some equally profitable activity that does not necessarily require physical violence, but rather shrewdness and business acumen.  Yet Julius has chosen to hide himself in his room, preferring to avoid and be avoided, in what looks like a flight from responsibility – any kind of responsibility.  So, after a while, one feels that maybe he did need to be shaken up and away from his complacent isolation, and Bethesda’s actions appear almost justified.  Almost…

It will be only through his association with Marci and his growing fondness for the beleaguered human mage, that Julian will find his spine and the courage to stand up for what he believes in, and to finally tap his… inner dragon, but it will be a long and difficult journey, one that will take the two of them – at times helped by a couple of Julian’s more lenient brothers – through cat-infested, haunted mansions, Detroit’s sewer system plagued by scores of huge lampreys, and other less-than-savory places.

I have to admit that after a while I could not avoid the comparison with another Urban Fantasy series, one I enjoyed very much: M.L. Brennan’s Generation V, nor could I shake the impression that I might have enjoyed this one much more if I had not read the other prior to discovering this.  In both cases we have a matriarch running a supernatural family, whose youngest child is reluctant to assume the role and duties that come with the territory. Here, like in Generation V, there are older brothers ready to help the younger sibling along – at least up to a point – and an older sister who is the family’s henchwoman and who can inspire abject terror at the merest mention of her name. And again, partnering up with someone from the outside (be it the mage Marci or the shape-shifting Suzume), makes all the difference for the main character who can finally overcome some of his liabilities and start to come into his own.

The tone is however quite different here, the balance between humor and drama leaning more toward the former, the dragons’ dynamics and peculiarities lending a unique flavor to a story that is both entertaining and intriguing, and lays the basis for promising future developments.  As the beginning of a new series, Nice Dragons Finish Last is quite successful in introducing its readers to a peculiar world, giving just enough hints to pique their curiosity and make them want more.   I, for one, will certainly want to know what’s in store for newly-awakened Julius and his journey toward becoming a full-fledged Heartstriker dragon.

My Rating:


Review: THE PEAKS OF AUTUMN by Ashley Capes (Book of Never #4)

31822092I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

Never’s adventurous quest in search of his lost heritage, and the answers to the many questions plaguing him about his nature and past, goes on.  Together with faithful Luis, the former treasure hunter, and Tsolde, a young woman who joined the company in the previous installment of the series, he continues in his perilous journey across a world that seems to reserve the most incredible – and sometimes frightening – surprises just for him, as if the rest of humanity were blissfully unaware of the weirdness that lives just outside of their collective sight.

With this new segment in Never’s series I felt more clearly than before the videogame-like quality of this story: although I’m no gamer, I am aware of the structure of role-playing quests, so that each new encounter, each new danger that the group faces does indeed feel like a new level in a game, with the stakes being raised after every successful accomplishment, and new skills being called into play.  This impression is strengthened by the narrative structure, by the box-within-a-box sequence of episodes where the solution to the riddle does not bring success, but rather a new – and more difficult – challenge to overcome.

As I said before, this can be both compelling and frustrating, because the intelligence Never so painfully gathers seems to lead him nowhere, except toward new tasks and new trials.  The narrative structure does not help in defeating the aggravation either, because the serialized form of this novel subjects the reader to longish waits between installments, that always end in a more or less harrowing cliffhanger.  After the end of this fourth chapter in The Book of Never, I reached the conclusion that the author does indeed enjoy torturing his readers…  🙂

If, until now, the characters have not enjoyed a thorough characterization, since the story is more plot-driven than character-oriented, in The Peaks of Autumn I saw something change in Never, and in a major way: his companions become something more precious for him than simple travel mates, and Never feels the huge burden of responsibility for their fate. This looks like a mixed blessing, because until recently Never was used to fend for himself alone, and to hell with the consequences, but now he’s been entrusted with the lives of two people, two persons he cares about quite deeply, and this seems to somehow weaken him, making him more vulnerable. Yet, at the same time, this new-found awareness makes him more human and approachable, and at the same time gives a new, interesting layer to his personality.

Finally, I would like to spend a few words for the cover: I’ve been enthusiastic about every cover for this serialized novel, but this new one surpasses all the preceding ones, both in subject and in color choice: it’s very dramatic and eye-catching, and it complements very well the book’s contents.  If it’s true that you should never judge a book by its cover, it’s also true that a good cover can be a powerful enticement….

The Peaks of Autumn will reach the shelves today, so I’m more than happy to celebrate its arrival, looking forward to knowing more about Never and his companions in the future installments of the story.

My Rating:


Review: THE DRAGON’S PATH, by Daniel Abraham (The Dagger and the Coin #1)

8752885This book has been sitting on my virtual shelf for quite some time now: I did start reading it, a while back, but it was not the right moment for it – it does happen sometimes, when I realize that a book has the potential to be a good one for me, but I’m not in the right frame of mind to appreciate it as it deserves. So I set it aside, and in the interim read Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet – which I loved – and as time went by, the author managed to publish all five books in this series: on hindsight, that was quite fortunate, because I will not have to wait for the other four volumes to be published. After a somewhat slow start, this story and these characters took hold of my imagination, and I’m certain I will need to follow the rest of their journey as soon as possible. Knowing I can is indeed a great relief…

The Dragon’s Path’s world-building is deceptively standard for the genre, following a number of characters moving across the kingdom of Antea, where political unrest is brewing toward war. Young Cithrin bel Sarcour, an orphan and ward of the Medean Bank, is tasked with the job of taking the bank’s funds out of the city of Vanai before the unavoidable invasion by a conquering army. Cithrin joins a caravan escorted by Captain Marcus Wester, a war hero with a painful past, his Tralgu lieutenant Yardem Hane, and a group of traveling performers enrolled to act as guards. On the eve of Vanai’s conquest, Geder Palliako, son of a minor noble and the butt of cruel jokes by his comrades, tries to fit the soldier’s mold while dreaming a life of scholarly pursuits. And Dawson Kalliam, shrewd politician close to Antea’s ruler and staunch believer of the “old ways”, navigates the court’s many intrigues while pursuing his own goals.

The world itself dimly remembers its past, an age in which dragons ruled and men – all thirteen different species of them – were their servants. The only legacy left by these mythical rulers are the roads, covered in enduring material, that link the cities of men and on which travelers and armies move. On the surface, this would not look so different from many other similar backgrounds, with a medieval-like society, a few hints of magic, and the required components of war and intrigue; some of the characters might appear as tropes, especially the world-weary former soldier and the young orphan on a quest. And yet, as the story unfolds, we discover that there is more here that meets the eye.

For starters, the ancient history that’s mentioned in passing offers an intriguing glimpse into a past that is as fascinating as it is nebulous, and the many different species of men – some of them quite exotic-looking – represent another point of interest, though hardly explored. With five books in this saga, it’s possible that more will be explained in the next installments and that the few peeks offered to the readers might get expanded later: at this point, more would have been a distraction and it would have overburdened the narrative flow – at least in my opinion. More importantly, one of the novel’s focal points is on economics and business, prime motivators in any society – real or fictional – and the space that these elements are given here shows how they are just as important as an army’s might or the influence of powerful men. This is a new and very welcome twist in the story, one that is developed in an easy-to-understand and intriguing way, adding to the many facets of this novel.

What truly drives The Dragon’s Path forward, however, are the characters: if Marcus Wester is a little standardized for the genre – former soldier who turned mercenary after a bloody betrayal that cost his wife and daughter their lives – he grew on me as the story unfolded, and I enjoyed his exchanges with his wingman Yardem, whose subdued humor is always delightful, and his complicated relationship with young Cithrin. Dawson Kalliam does not possess any of the characteristics that would endear him to me – he’s “old guard” to the bone, and something of a martinet – but his adversaries are such that I ended up rooting for him anyway, hoping his plans would succeed. Dawson’s most intriguing feature comes from his wife Clara, the real “power behind the throne” and a woman so subtly powerful, clever and manipulative that I hope there will be more about her in the following books. Master Kit, the leader of the acting troupe, is an interesting character as well, and there is just that hint of mystery about him that makes him worth keeping one’s eye on.

Cithrin bel Sarcour and Geder Palliako are the two figures that drew most of my attention, though. On the surface, Cithrin looks like the proverbial girl on a quest, the kind that will lead her on a journey of discovery and growth, but there is much more to her than that. Forced to assume the enormous responsibility of smuggling the Medean Bank’s riches out of doomed Vanai, she at first struggles with this burden and the need to keep a low profile, all the while trying to survive outside of the sheltered world where she grew up. But once she can do away with the cover-up, she starts to come into her own, showing her skills as a banker and revealing her determination to forge a path for herself through those skills: the fact that the road is far from easy and that she moves along it through trial and error – sometimes with painful results – only adds to the depths of this character that shows a great deal of promise for the future.

As for Geder… Well, I’m very ambivalent toward him, and I say that as a compliment toward the complexity of his character: when we first meet him, he looks like what we would nowadays call a “nerd” – not very physically-inclined, more interested in “speculative essays” than in the rules of war, he’s the target of his comrades’ jokes and cruel hazing. There is enough, in Geder’s psychological makeup, to make us root for him, especially when he manages to find some sort of courage once he’s in the midst of his first real battle, but when a series of circumstances raises him from obscurity and derision toward a brilliant political career, something in him changes, and not for the best. Underestimated and reviled up to that point, Geder finds himself invested with unlooked-for power, while at the same time realizing that everyone sees him as a joke even though they are forced to bow to his commands: something does snap at that point, and he makes a decision that left me stunned for its unthinking ferociousness, so that I started to wonder about Geder’s true nature, whether I had totally misread him, because the act seemed so contrary to his personality as shown until then.

As a long-time Babylon5 fan, the step toward a comparison with Londo Mollari was a very short one for me: in both cases we deal with people who are looking for redress, Geder for himself and Londo for his people, and when they are in the position to do so they take a path toward darkness, more or less aware of the price they will ultimately have to pay for it, but willing to do it, despite the doubts and nightmares that plague them. From the point of Geder’s meeting with the mysterious priest Basrahip, servant of the goddess of truth, the similarity has become foremost in my mind, and I can’t shake the feeling that Basrahip could be Geder’s Mr. Morden…

Even though The Dragon’s Path beginning is something of a slow burn – probably the reason for my original doubts – it quickly finds its pace and evolves into a solid, promising first installment of a series I know I’m going to enjoy. Highly recommended.

 

My Rating: