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Review: THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY, by Genevieve Cogman (The Invisible Library #1)

What a fun read this was! Novels dealing with books exert a strong appeal on a compulsive reader, and this one is no exception: what’s more, the titular Invisible Library is a fascinating entity in and of itself. First, because it’s a huge repository for incredible amounts of books, and second because of its location: the story postulates that there are many parallel realities coexisting next to one another, and the Library is located in a place belonging to none of them, a location where space and time have practically no meaning.  Dusty volumes fill up row upon row of shelves, while modern computers are strategically placed where Librarians might need them, and from the occasional window one can at times see cobble-paved streets lit by gas-lamps.  As I said, fascinating…

Irene is a junior Librarian tasked with retrieving a particular book the Library wants, and following the last phase of her planned heist drops us straight into the heart of the story, through a narrow escape from animated stone gargoyles and hounds from Hell that carries the same kind of thrill as a dive into deep waters. Here we learn one of the most important peculiarities about Librarians: they can use Language (a special speech construct that is constantly adapted and modified to suit Librarians’ needs) to force inanimate objects like door locks to obey their commands – it’s not exactly magic as we usually consider it, but it’s an interesting detail and, at times, a very useful tool.

Having managed a successful extraction from this particular alternate world, Irene looks forward to some well-earned rest to be spent doing what she enjoys most – reading books. This was what caused my instant connection with the character, even though she was not fully fleshed yet: Irene might be a thief/spy/adventuress, but above all else she is a reader, one who in the end wants only “to shut the rest of the world out and have nothing to worry about except the next page of whatever she was reading”.  The author could not have found a better way to endear her to us readers than this, indeed.

There is no rest for the weary though, and Irene’s superior Coppelia sends her on a new mission to retrieve a precious volume of Grimm’s tales from an alternate London that’s usually off-limits because of its chaos contamination, which means that magic and technology clash in unpredictable and dangerous ways. And on top of that, she must take an apprentice with her, a young man named Kai, both an unknown quantity and a departure from Irene’s usual solo missions – not to mention that Kai seems to harbor some secrets…

There is little time for Irene to dwell on all this, however, since the version of London in which the two find themselves presents several obstacles to the assignment: a late nineteenth Century alternate with steampunk overtones – think of Zeppelins and steam-powered machines – where Fae, vampires and werewolves coexist alongside normal humans. On top of that, the book Irene is looking for has just been stolen after the murder of its latest owner, and she finds herself working alongside Detective Vale (this world’s version of Sherlock Holmes) battling with steam centipedes, clockwork alligators and various other contraptions, while supernatural creatures drive forth their own agendas and a dark figure from the Library’s past – the mythical Alberich – extends his murderous shadow over everything and everyone.

This unstoppable flow of surprises and death-cheating adventures keeps the story going with good momentum and at the same time serves to flesh out Irene’s character more: what I like about her (apart from her love of books, of course) is that she’s skilled but not overconfident (unlike her previous teacher and sometimes competitor Bradamant) and she takes her mentoring duties toward Kai quite seriously, trying to avoid the mistakes Bradamant made with her, when she hogged all the praise and heaped any blame on Irene. Moreover, she’s ready to face the dangers inherent in her chosen work – and more than once, in the course of the story, she suffers damage of some sort – but she’s not reckless or stupid, nor does she fall into the “heroine needing help” narrative trap.  Irene feels quite real as a character, because she’s driven and willing to better her position in the Library, but at the same time she’s aware of her limitations and knows when to move aside in favor of people with more experience.

On the other hand, the other characters are somewhat less defined: we learn something more about Kai along the way, granted, and we get interesting glimpses about Vale and Bradamant, but they are still… in flux, so to speak, probably waiting for the next installments in the series to get some more flesh on their proverbial bones. The same happens to the concept of the Library itself: we see a few quick flashes of its long corridors filled with books, we learn that there are endless passages and junctions – and this reminded me a little of some kind of multi-dimensional puzzle in which one could get too easily lost – but we know nothing about the creation of the Library, and how it developed over the centuries, and across the worlds.  But this will probably be detailed more in the next books…

The overall mood of The Invisible Library reminded me a little of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series: the coexistence of werewolves and vampires, the steampunk elements, the mysteries hiding behind every corner, but where Carriger’s work is a headless romp carried by tongue-in-cheek wit, Cogman’s brand of humor is more subdued and far less outrageous – unless she decides to have a refined party crashed by mechanical alligators, that is.  The light-hearted fun mixed with more dramatic events creates a good blend that makes for a swift, entertaining read: it might be a little on the thin side, as far as the plot is concerned, yet there are times when some lightness is not only welcome, but rather necessary for a change of pace, and I believe this series might become one of my go-to stories when I want to… take a breath from more intense reads.

There are a few elements that detract from the overall positive experience though: for example, the moments when the characters fall prey to the need for lengthy exposition, going over previous occurrences and recapping them in painstaking detail – to me these segments felt like wading through quicksand where a moment before I was flying on a dirigible.  And the Language – fascinating concept that it is – seems to be used too liberally, to the point that it takes on the shape of a convenient plot device rather than a tool to be employed in the direst of circumstances: as if to drive this point home, it seemed to me that Irene’s skills were brought in better light when she was momentarily unable to use Language, rather than when she wielded it as a weapon at the drop of a hat.

These little snags notwithstanding, I enjoyed The Invisible Library quite a bit, and will look forward to the next installments in the series, one that I can recommend for its high entertainment value.

My Rating: 

Review: THE HANGED MAN – P.N. Elrod

23245584Steampunk has often been a difficult genre for me, and only the recent acquaintance with Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series changed my outlook about it, while thanks to P.N. Elrod’s The Hanged Man I have reinforced my conviction that I should explore it more often.  Unlike Carriger’s work, this novel adopts a far more serious tone, but it’s just as involving and peppered with fascinating characters and situations: one of the happy instances where I’m glad there will be more books to follow this one, not to mention hopeful that the many tantalizing hints seeded along the way will be developed further.

The action takes place toward the end of the 19th Century, a time period quite different from the one we’re familiar with: Queen Victoria did not marry Prince Albert but an English noble and she has been the promoter of several enlightened laws, including the vote for women and the creation of the Psychic Service, tasked with aiding police work through the use of psychically gifted individuals.   Alexandrina Victoria Pendlebury is one such person, her gift being the ability to sense residual emotions left over in a crime scene: she is called to “read” an apparent suicide that she’s quickly able to rule as murder and a very peculiar one at that, since there are no emotional traces from the killer, as if he were a ghost.  This inexplicable detail is compounded by a dramatic finding that affects Alex on a deeply personal level and that launches a dangerous investigation that will touch several layers of London society and pull her and her associates into a labyrinthine path of baffling discoveries and convoluted misdirections, carried out at a breathless, breakneck pace that kept me glued to the book and, at times, reading on until the small hours.

If the story itself is a compelling one, rich with unexpected twists and turns, the characters are just as fascinating: Alex is a complex heroine, a person who found a useful channel for her gift but at the same time is wary about it and highly conscious of the way it keeps her, and everyone else equally gifted, apart from mainstream society.  This is indeed one of the best features of the story, showing how such peculiar abilities can be a mixed blessing: on one side, people with psychic talents risk being overwhelmed by them (like Alex’s own mother, who received no training and succumbed to madness) and on the other they are looked at with suspicion and not completely accepted by the general public.  In Alex’s case, her perceptions expose her to the best and the worst of the human soul, while the misconception that she can actually read thoughts breeds uneasiness – and sometimes distrust – in those she meets, and the fact she’s a woman holding a job adds to the mix in an unfavorable way: despite social reforms, British society is still very much like Victorian England as we know it, and such activities are frowned upon if not openly ostracized.

There is a definite feeling of loneliness permeating Alex’s psychological makeup, and despite her successful handling and rationalizing of it, despite her pragmatic approach to life, one can perceive how the emotional barriers she built around herself – out of necessity because of her gift, and out of defense against the world’s reactions – are starting to close in on her.  There are a few traumas in her past, the biggest being the perceived abandonment by her father (a detail that will turn into a surprisingly unexpected revelation toward the end of the book, one of the very best in the story), and Alex does not even enjoy the support of family, since both branches of it suffer from their own peculiar quirks, yet we are afforded some glimpses into the friendships she’s slowly (and ever so tentatively!) building in the Service.

Lieutenant Brooks – the somewhat reluctant new addition to the ranks – is the most interesting one of course, due to the careful hints at a romantic relationship: I appreciated how such possibilities are being built with careful slowness, and moreover there are some secrets in Brook’s past that might provide fascinating developments in the future. The author’s choice not to transform their meeting into love-at-first-sight is a clever one and I’m certain it will pay handsomely in the near future.

Other remarkable figures are Sir Richard, the Service’s commander, and Colonel Mourne: both possessing a gruff, no-nonsense attitude, they look more unfriendly than they really are, but at the same time they seem like the kind of people that could bring Alex out of her self-imposed exile and help her tap her abilities to the fullest.  Inspector Lennon of Scotland Yard falls into this same category: bluntly outspoken and rough-mannered, he’s one of my favorite secondary characters, acting in delightful counterpoint to the more refined ways of the Psychic Service.

Diverse and interesting characterization blends seamlessly with a story focused on mystery, secret societies with murky goals and a fascination for the occult, and a nasty plot involving various strata of London society. Add to that the Seers, able to catch glimpses of the future they cannot precisely convey; men who can turn into tigers; the Victorian equivalent of SWAT teams and bizarre weapons and you will get an absorbing novel that both holds your interest from start to finish and that launches what promises to be a great series.  And if sometimes characters indulge a little too much in explanations – as it happens in a few instances – you will be able to overlook this small bother thanks to the relentless narrative flow: when a book can carry you elsewhere with so little effort, and keep you firmly there, such small details can be easily shunted to the sidelines…

I’m eagerly looking forward to the next book in this series, indeed.

My Rating: 8/10

Review: VALOUR AND VANITY – Mary Robinette Kowal

12987423There are books that are just perfect when you are in need of some respite – either from too-dark stories or from the annoyances that real life sometimes places in front of you: this kind of book takes you elsewhere in an effortless way because you are so familiar with the setting and the characters that you feel as if you were enjoying a relaxing chat with old friends.  The Glamourist Series by M.R. Kowal is indeed this kind of story, and as a bonus it keeps improving with each new book.

The plot in itself is a fascinating and entertaining one: Jane and Vincent travel to Venice to connect with Murano’s glass-blowers in order to perfect their technique of trapping glamour in glass. On their way to the city their ship is boarded by pirates though, and the two – after a few other misadventures – find themselves penniless and cut off from any ties with family and friends. As if this were not enough they are caught in a convoluted web of spies and swindlers and have to battle both with their destitute state and the consequences of their craft being put to evil use.

Such a story-line is more than riveting, of course, but what makes the book extraordinary are the characters, and the way their growth – both as individuals and as a married couple – is shown in an organic and very believable way.   There is a sizable romance component in Ms. Kowal’s stories, and it’s a necessary part of their structure since it’s based on an alternate version of the Regency era, but it’s never the foundation of these books, or the reason for the characters’ existence: what carries the story here is the way these people evolve – and there is nothing more effective, for that evolution, than putting them through the proverbial grinder.

When Jane and Vincent met in Book 1, their interactions went more along the expected lines of genre stories as one would find, for example, in Jane Austen’s work, while in Books 2 and 3 a few elements of darkness and grief were introduced, so that the danger of drowning the protagonists in saccharine-laden marital bliss was successfully averted. Still, I found that Jane’s character appeared a little submissive – even for the times’ standards – and far too self-effacing for my tastes, and even though this element further faded as the story-line progressed, I kept hoping for a more assertive stance on her part. Well, I can happily say that my wish was granted in Valour and Vanity, even though the character maintained her defining qualities.

In this novel Ms. Kowal managed to blend in a seamless whole both modern considerations and the era’s social viewpoints: for example, Jane is able to find some steady work, while Vincent can barely manage as a street performer, thus presenting the reader with a situation we can find in our present days – that of a man unable to support his family, while his wife is the one bringing the bread home, literally.  It goes without saying that this state of things builds conflict in the relationship and leads to a heated quarrel that exposes all the raw nerves Jane and Vincent have tried to ignore so far. The whole scene has a very realistic feeling and makes you feel deep sympathy for both of them, while understanding that they need to let it all out to be able to go on and overcome their troubles.  These are not perfect characters, and stress brings individual flaws to the surface, but it’s exactly this show of humanity that further endeared them to me, not in spite of their insecurities, but because of them.

What emerges from this difficult moment is not only a reinforcing of Jane and Vincent’s bond but, more important, the acknowledgement (especially from Jane) of the equal footing they share in the marriage: from this point on both of them will know how to lean on the other for support – without shame or loss of self image – because they have reached a true partnership. This is also what allows them the luxury of expanding on the subject of children and how parenting duties might interfere in their work as glamourists. It’s a very modern discussion in the themes it touches, and yet it’s carried on through the medium of the historical period’s worldviews and sensibilities: the author manages this in a flawless way, at the same time keeping her characters true to themselves.

The cast of supporting players is just as variegated and interesting:  from a group of organized swindlers that could stand up to the guys from “The Sting” or “Ocean’s Eleven” to the moody and secretive Murano glass-blowers or the group of enterprising nuns with a flair for adventure, the secondary characters breathe further life in the story and help relieve the brooding sadness that hangs over Jane and Vincent, and of course Venice and Murano add their own background magic to the mix.  There’s even a cameo from Lord Byron himself, dashing in and out of the scene trailing impromptu verses in his wake…

As much as these books have been delightful reads, this fourth volume stands several notches above its predecessors and bodes very well for the continuation of the series. Which makes me quite happy.

My Rating: 8/10

(On a more personal note, I will be “off the grid” for a few days: if I don’t reply to your comments, please be patient, because I intend to do so on my return. Thank you!)

Review: TIMELESS – Gail Carriger

11324166The last book in the Parasol Protectorate series is a good advertisement for the rule about leaving the game while you’re winning: the story is still strong, the characters as entertaining as ever, and many new threads hint at possible developments for the future. Yet Gail Carriger decided to consign Alexia Tarabotti Maccon & Friends to history, so to speak, letting them go to make room for new players. If it was a planned choice to avoid having the characters overstay their welcome, it was indeed a brilliant one, even though I know I will sorely miss these characters and their adventures.

The action starts a couple of years after the birth of Prudence, Alexia and Conall’s daughter and Lord Akeldama’s adopted child: Prudence turned out to be a metanatural, i.e. she can acquire, through touch, the characteristics of a supernatural creature, rendering them mortal once again – only Alexia can reverse the situation, laying hands on her child.  And this is a very spirited child indeed: we first see her as Akeldama and his drones attempt to bathe her against her will, with consequences that are both funny and worrisome – it’s no wonder that many supernaturals wanted her dead even before she was born!

I love what Carriger did with Prudence: children are not easy to handle, either in writing or cinematography, since they can come across as too adult for their years or cloyingly over-cute. Not in this case though: she hardly speaks (“no” being her preferred word, even though she can impart several layers of meaning to it…) and yet one gets the clear impression she’s an acute observer of the world, just like her mother, and that being who she is and living with such a… colorful household, she has a definite advantage over other children, as clearly evident in her dealings with Ivy’s own offspring, who are about the same age but appear less aware of their surroundings.

Alexia’s attitude toward motherhood is also refreshingly unexpected, since she applies a sort of detached, scientific view to child rearing that is not too dissimilar from the way she deals with society in general. The affection, the motherly love and protectiveness are there of course, but they are handled in the usual no-nonsense manner Alexia applies to everyone else and that has the dual benefit of keeping her in character while offering several opportunities for Carriger-style quips – like this, for example: “the infant-inconvenience had shown very little interest in the proper use of utensils, her attitude seeming to be that fingers had come first in her life, so why mess with a good thing?”.

As far as the story is concerned, the Maccons – together with the Tunstell troupe of actors – travel to Egypt at the summons of Matakara, the most ancient vampire Queen, who wants to see young Prudence. The opportunity to study the so-called “God-Breaker Plague” in its place of origin motivates Alexia and family to risk such a journey, one that will nonetheless turn out to be fraught with unsuspected dangers, not to mention serious privations like the lack of decent tea – a fate indeed worse than death. Meanwhile, in London, the Woolsey pack pursues a similar investigation and uncovers interesting and preoccupying details.  The creation of two separate narrative threads imparts a lively pace to the story, and also creates the opportunity to focus on other characters – particularly Professor Lyall and young Biffy – and to answer a few mysteries that have been crafted and slowly developed in the previous books.

Biffy in particular comes to shine in this final chapter of the series: his journey from Lord Akeldama’s favorite drone to a somewhat unwilling werewolf has not been easy, as readers saw in Book 4, but here he has reached a sort of balance, one that allows him to go beyond self-imposed boundaries and make incredible discoveries about himself and his place in the Woolsey Pack. The lost person who went about unsure of his identity has morphed into a very assertive individual, as evident in the course of a crisis brought about (not so surprisingly…) by Felicity Loontwill, Alexia’s mean and spiteful half-sister.  And his association with Professor Lyall – another favorite character of mine – is developed with a wonderful mixture of warmth and authorial affection that further enhances both characters, adding new layers to their psychological makeup. One of the best facets of this book, indeed.

Other well-known players come to the fore here, in a sort of final bow before their audience (and considering the presence of the Tunstell acting troupe, it looks quite fitting): many take unexpected turns that deepen the mystery surrounding them, instead of shedding some light on it – Floote, Alexia’s unflappable butler is a case in point – and the feeling of unfinished business this entails adds to the impression of a story that will still go on, but out of the readers’ sight.  The thread I’m most sad not to see developed is the one concerning Ivy Tunstell: no spoilers here, because it’s something that must be savored directly, but it’s such an unforeseen and amusing twist that it should deserve at least a book of its own. I wonder if this particular narrative thread will be addressed in the new series focusing on a grown-up Prudence: it’s something to set my hopes on…

There’s a quote from a returning Alexia, as she discusses the Egyptian events with Lord Akeldama, that sums perfectly the spirit of these books and this wonderful character: “A new queen, plus five Egyptian vampires and assorted drones? You object to my bringing souvenirs back from Egypt? Everyone brings back souvenirs from their travels abroad, my lord. It is the done thing.”

It’s been a fun journey, indeed.  Thank you, Ms. Carriger.

My Rating: 8/10

Review: KAREN MEMORY – Elizabeth Bear

22238181Karen Memery is one of Madame Damnable’s “seamstresses” working out of the Hotel Mon Cherie – in other words, she practices the oldest profession in the world, paying a “sewing tax” to the Rapid City municipality to be allowed this… privilege, a dichotomy that shows the ambivalent attitude of the city’s officials toward prostitution, something to be publicly condemned but privately enjoyed.    One night, the quiet of the after-hours relax at the Hotel is broken by the arrival of two fugitives: Pryia, an Indian girl freshly escaped from the clutches of Peter Bantle, owner of crib brothels where women are treated worse than slaves, and often kept there against their will, and Merry Lee, the bold runner of a sort of Underground Railroad for such unfortunates.

When Bantle and his goons try to take their prisoner back by force they encounter Madam Damnable’s resistance and that of her charges: despite Bantle’s use of a peculiar electrified glove that seems to bend a victim to its user’s will, the girls manage to repel the assailants, thus giving way to open hostilities. What until that moment has been just professional rivalry turns into an all-out war, compounded by Bantle’s design to be elected Mayor, a string of vicious murders targeting streetwalkers and a slowly unfolding plot that also points at a planned takeover from a foreign nation.

The cast is completed by Marshal Bass Reeves, in pursuit of the serial killer across the country, and by his Native American deputy Tomoatooah: they forge an alliance with Madame against Bantle, who might be sheltering the murderer and still holds Pryia’s sister prisoner in his hellish bordello. On the background of this dangerous confrontation lies Rapid City, a Pacific Northwest port and one of the last civilized places before the wilderness of Klondike, where the hopeful swarm in search of riches; the narrative is further enhanced by an interesting array of steampunk gadgetry that goes from automated, steam-powered sewing machines to airships.

What catches the eye of the reader, though, and defines this book, is Karen Memery’s unique voice: the tone is conversational, the attitude is matter-of-fact and the speech pattern is unrefined, but these elements blend into a pleasing, fun and engrossing atmosphere that takes you straight into the story and makes it real.  Far from suffering from a “fallen angel” syndrome, Karen approaches her life with straightforwardness and down-to-Earth wisdom, and sometimes even hints at some sort of professional pride, certainly engendered by Madame’s exacting standards.  At some point she gives an interesting definition of the Hotel’s patrons: They think they want a woman, but what they really want is a flattering looking glass wearing lipstick and telling them what they want to hear – there is no criticism in her words, only the end result of observation and experience, bonded with a good dose of practicality: Karen feels no reason to be judged, so she does not judge others in return, accepting life’s different sides with the same wholesome outlook, no matter what.

It’s worth stressing the fact that the main characters in the book have something in common – they are outsiders: Madame Damnable’s girls for obvious reasons, Marshal Reeves because he’s black and his deputy a Native American, and so on. Yet they don’t act as outcasts because they draw strength and courage from the support they offer each other, and this is one of the traits that make them special and lend the story its main appeal.   The overall feeling is that of a tightly-knit group of people who are as close as family and as such face any challenge or threat that might come their way. This is also reinforced by the awareness that these individuals are defined by their personality, and the way it works within the group’s dynamics, rather than by any outward difference: for example, Bea, one of Karen’s co-workers, is black; Miss Francina is trans-gender and Karen herself is attracted to women rather than men.   What the author managed here is to portray these differences as… non differences: the characters’ diversity is just an integral part of their psychological makeup, the organic and genuine representation of people, and for this very reason it carries a far stronger message than any impassioned preaching could have achieved.

The story itself is a compelling one, piling up difficulties for the characters in a breath-stealing crescendo that often leaves you wondering about their chances for success or survival, but the biggest surprise comes at the end, in the Author’s Note: here Elizabeth Bear reveals that Madam Damnable is loosely based on the figure of Mary Ann Conklin from Seattle, who ran an establishment that was part courthouse and part bordello. On reading this detail I went in search of more information online, and discovered that Ms. Conklin’s nickname of Mother Damnable came from her extensive use of foul language (a trait the fictional Madame shares) and that she could swear fluently in several languages.  In the same way, Merry Lee owes some of her traits to several courageous women who risked everything to help others who were “exploited, enslaved and legislated against”.  Marshal Bass Reeves, on the other hand, was a real, flesh-and-blood person: born a slave in 1838, he became a free man with the abolition of slavery in 1865 and his superior detective skills helped in securing several dangerous criminals to justice.

I found all this to be as fascinating as the fictional parts of the book: the need to know more, to dig deeper into areas I knew nothing about, was indeed a bonus. A book that sparks my curiosity, and compels me to look beyond its confines, is a special one and I admire the seamless way in which Bear melded history and fantasy in a cohesive and engaging story.  This is an author I need to keep on my watch list.

My Rating: 8/10

Heartless – Gail Carriger

heartlessShould anyone wonder if there’s something that can ever stop Alexia Tarabotti Maccon, the answer is in this book: nothing. Not even the advanced stages of pregnancy. Despite the increased girth and some limitations imposed by the “infant inconvenience” on her mobility, Alexia manages to waddle her way through a series of events with the same spirit and the same boldness we’ve come to know and love. There’s indeed a sentence that represents that attitude in a nutshell: she waddles fiercely – and others must move, hastily, out of her way.

This fourth volume in the Parasol Protectorate series starts with another attempt on Alexia’s life perpetrated by vampires, who are quite worried about the abilities of the child she carries, a rare hybrid of supernatural and soulless.  The scheme (carried out with zombie porcupines, in pure Carriger style) fails only because the would-be vampire killer, who holds a quite civil conversation with his intended victim (propriety must be observed at all times, after all!), learns of the solution implemented by the Maccons to ensure their child’s safety: adoption by none other than Lord Akeldama, Alexia’s long-time vampire friend and master of elegance and fashion.

To keep the family united, despite the unusual arrangement, Alexia and her husband are forced to live in Akeldama’s own house, even though they publicly buy the mansion next door to keep up appearances: the cohabitation of vampires and werewolves presents of course logistical problems, as well as some aesthetic ones, since Conall Maccon is Akeldama’s polar opposite in matters of style, considering that “his perfectly tailored evening jacket draped about massive shoulders with a degree of reluctance, as if it were well aware that it was worn under sufferance”.  To make matters worse, Alexia’s sister Felicity comes to live with them, having been evicted from home due to her sympathies for the suffragette movement; young Biffy is adapting badly to his status as a newly-minted werewolf, since he pines for his former master Akeldama; and a ghost is desperately trying to warn Alexia about an impending attempt on the Queen’s life.

All these elements – and others I will not mention because readers should encounter, and enjoy them, on their own –  contribute to one of the best stories in this series: the humor I’ve become accustomed to is there and comes both from situations and from witty repartees, and the mystery Alexia must solve is a complex one that takes her down unexpected avenues and equally unexpected discoveries. Lovers of steampunk gadgetry will have a field day with Heartless, because contraptions big and small are featured along the way, together with the now-famous parasol and its almost inexhaustible cache of surprises.

But there is more, much more, since we learn a few intriguing details about characters we know: some are welcome ones, like Ivy’s matter-of-fact acceptance of Alexia’s nature, or rather the revelation that she had always known and never mentioned it to avoid causing embarrassment to her friend. Ivy Tunstell already manifested herself as much more than the airhead she appears to be, yet here she comes to the fore not only as a shrewd observer of people, but as a staunch and reliable friend, and it’s a joy to get this glimpse of her true nature. In a sense, she’s as much Alexia’s Beta as Professor Lyall is to Conall Maccon, and Lyall is indeed another character who gets some interesting moments in the spotlight, as we learn more about the past of the Woolsey pack, the Professor’s involvement in Conall’s rise to Alpha status and Lyall’s reasons behind its facilitation – reasons that tie with Alexia’s own past.  I’ve always had a particular interest in Lyall because I felt there was more behind his self-effacing attitude, and I’m quite happy with the revelations we were given here, not only for the peek into the past they afforded, but also because I enjoyed quite a bit the seamless blend of fun and drama that Carriger was able to effect with this part of the story.

Much as this series is fun-oriented, the occasional sidestep into more serious territory comes across quite well, and shows the author’s ability in changing the tune of her story without losing the overall “flavor”. The fact that this more somber duty is carried on Lyall’s shoulders makes the choice just perfect, given the earnestness of the character, the past losses he must deal with and the way he faces them: “Things are never good when immortals fall in love. Mortals end up dead, one way or another, and we are left alone again. Why do you think the pack is so important? (…) It is not simply a vehicle for safety; it is a vehicle for sanity, to stave off the loneliness.” If I liked the Beta before, now he’s now one of my favorite characters in the story.

Felicity Loontwill, on the other hand, becomes something more than the acidic half-sister who enjoys throwing vitriolic quips at Alexia, even though the proximity with Lord Akeldama offers some interesting possibilities, as Alexia herself considers at some point: “Felicity should not be overexposed to Lord Akeldama, on the basis of cattiness alone. If left together for too long, the two of them might actually take over the civilized world, through sheer application of snide remarks.” Felicity’s reasons for pestering Alexia hold much darker overtones and lead to a big surprise, even though those choices still remain in perfect synch with her personality and disposition, while still managing to put the girl’s self-centeredness and ultimate vapidity into sharp focus.

The main event of the book, however, is the birth of Alexia’s child: not surprisingly it happens in a moment of maximum confusion and upheaval, in the midst of a heated battle. There’s an image I feel the need to share about this scene, because it showcases perfectly Carriger’s way with words as she describes the werewolves storming out of Woolsey Castle: “They poured out the lower doors and windows of the castle, howling to the skies. They evolved into a kind of cohesive moving liquid, flowing down the hillside as one silvered blob, like mercury on a scientist’s palm.”  It’s a strong image, and one that managed to make me forget for a moment all that was going on.

Not for long, though, because of the big surprise that comes with the revelation of the child’s abilities. Little Prudence (so named because it’s something she will need, considering her parentage and the environment she will live in) can take on the supernatural characteristics of those she comes into contact with: I have an inkling of where this will lead the story, mostly thank to THESE REVIEWS of Gail Carriger’s first book in her new series, but still I know it will be quite a fun journey of discovery.

My Rating: 8/10

Six-Gun Tarot – R.S. Belcher

15793094Western has never been a favorite genre with me: I used to say that most (if not all) movies started in the same way, with a man arriving into town on a horse, to proceed along similar lines toward a somewhat predictable ending. So I was firm in my belief that I would rather not spend my time reading or watching a western-themed story.

That is, until I stumbled on Firefly.

That delightful and unfortunate show changed my perspective, teaching me that a western blended with… something else, if well done, would be a perfectly acceptable way to enjoy a story. Therefore, when I heard about Six-Gun Tarot, I was curious enough to see if the magic of mixing western with another genre would work again – and indeed it did, even though the opening lines seemed to confirm my conviction about the start of such stories: young Jim Negrey, on the run from the law and his own past deeds, lands in Golgotha with his horse Promise, after barely surviving the crossing of the harsh 40-mile desert.  The town seems perfect for someone holding secrets, probably because it harbors its own mysteries, some of which disguise dangers way beyond the wildest imagination.

Everyone in Golgotha has something to hide: Sheriff Highfather had several brushes with death, and always unexplainably survived; his Indian deputy Mutt is a skin-changer, wise in the ways of the coyotes; Mayor Pratt, leader of the local Mormon community, is forced to live a double life because of his homosexuality; Maude, wife of the local banker, is a trained warrior and assassin masquerading as the perfect spouse.  These are just some of the figures in the vast choral tapestry of the town, a town that’s accustomed to the unusual and the bizarre, as some off-hand remarks indicate, laying down a curious but unexplained background:

Why is Golgotha the town where the owls speak and the stones moan? Why is this the town that attracts monsters and saints, both mortal and preternatural? Why is our schoolhouse haunted? Why did Old Lady Bellamy wear the skins of corpses on the new moon? How did old Odd Tom’s dolls come to life and kill people? Why do you still pour a ring of salt around that unmarked grave and how did this little ditch of a town become the final resting place of some of Heaven’s treasures?

This must be the main reason why some strange happenings are at first underestimated by Golgotha’s citizens, thus allowing an ancient evil to raise its head and threaten not only the town’s survival, but the whole world’s.  As the story progresses, the pace becomes breathless and the reading compulsive, taking the reader to the end battle that – most satisfyingly – looks only like a reprieve and a possible lead to the next book.  What I liked most about Six-Gun Tarot, besides the characters, are exactly these hints of past happenings, of a more complex history of which we are allowed only glimpses: it’s a well conceived tie to the existence of the ancient evil deep in the bowels of the silver mine, a tie that needs no drawn-out explanations to make itself understood and accepted, and for this very reason it worked perfectly for me.

There were places in the story where I was somewhat baffled, especially when it went back to the birth of the world and the scenes focused on angels and demons: for a little while I was worried that it would all turn into something of an allegory (being an admirer of Professor Tolkien’s work, I share his dislike of this kind of symbolic representation), but in the end even those passages came into focus and blended into the narrative in a most satisfying way.

Characters are another strong point in this novel: despite the large and variegated cast present on the scene, it’s easy to picture each individual and to understand what makes them who they are. Their back-stories are organically integrated in the narrative and they never feel like info-dump, which is always a plus, but what makes these characters attractive to me is the fact they are flawed.

Like young Jim, who took the worst kind of action for the best of motives, but did it with such blind ferocity that he made a terrible mistake, as we will learn well into the story: he’s looking for redemption and he’s afraid he’s way past any chance for it, as he says in a very impassioned outburst. “I’ve been trying since I got here. Trying to live up to the fine men I’ve made the acquaintance of, live up to what they expect of me. […] Everyone I’ve met has been so damned noble, so good, I just couldn’t see that light die in their eyes when they knew what I really am.”  Jim’s coming-of-age journey is indeed a fascinating one and I hope to see more of it in the next novel.

Mutt, Sheriff Highfather’s Indian deputy, is an equally compelling character, not just because of his dual nature but because he is a total outsider in either world, the one he came from and the one where he choose to live. Reviled by most of Golgotha’s citizens because of his heritage, and an outcast among his own people, Mutt’s very aloneness is the source of his strength and even a matter of pride, a badge of honor, because Mutt wears this uniqueness as a shield and feels no need to excuse who and what he is.

As for Maude, she’s a very intriguing character coming from a long line of women (the Daughters of Lilith), dedicated to building one’s inner strength and exceptional abilities: the flashbacks concerning her training with Grandmother Anne make for a quite engaging reading, and I enjoyed very much the old woman’s dry humor, especially concerning men.  “Guns are like men—only useful for a little while. They can go off at a moment’s notice when you don’t want them to and they make a lot of damn fool noise doing it. They tend to fail on you when you need them most. Don’t rely on them.”     Despite being so empowered, Maude suffers from self-doubt and is painfully aware of having let her training slip through the years of her marriage to a selfish and unlovable man, but is still able to find the most important core of her strength when the need arises: an all-out heroine would have sounded contrived, while a woman who can connect to her hard-won abilities when the going gets tough is far more convincing and true.

Given these premises, I truly look forward to reading more about Golgotha, its citizens and the strange world they live in…

My Rating: 8/10

Blameless – Gail Carriger

7719355There will be spoilers in this review – it’s impossible to write about Blameless without mentioning important plot points so… you have been warned!

After the rather abrupt – and unexpected – ending of the previous book, I felt compelled to know how the story progressed, so I broke my own rule about pacing myself with series, and started immediately on volume three. And yes, the Parasol Protectorate is becoming something of an addiction for me…

The previous book, Changeless, ended with Conall Maccon’s rejection of the baby Alexia carries, on the premise that a supernatural is unable to conceive – ergo, the earl believed his wife had been unfaithful in a major way. This is the plot device the author picked to launch Alexia in a mad chase across Europe in search of evidence that could prove her stubborn and short-sighted husband wrong.  What’s exceptional in this book (or rather the whole series) is the seamless blend of dramatic circumstances and humorous reactions that transform what could have been an angst-laden journey into an amusing caper that had me laughing out loud in many places.

Book 2, even though quite entertaining, was something of a letdown after the first installment: not because it was bad, far from it, but because it had seemed to lack part of the sparkle and wit that made Soulless such an amazing discovery. With Blameless, Gail Carriger returns to her previous brilliance and even surpasses herself, expanding not only on the main characters, but also on the secondary ones, some of which present the readers with pleasant surprises.

At the beginning, the estrangement with her husband throws Alexia into a brush with depression: the situation is not helped by her return to home and family because the Loontwills, far from proving sympathetic – which would have been surprising considering their overall attitude – end up driving her away when the “scandal” reaches the ears of the press. I love how Alexia feels the hurt of Conall’s rejection but deals with it in her usual no-nonsense manner, that in this case also acts as a barrier against despair. Carriger’s heroine is firmly rooted in her historical time and customs, and yet she exhibits a believably modern way of facing challenges: Alexia’s uniqueness and strength, as a character, come from this flawless balance.  Her feelings for the unborn child are equally interesting: at first it’s labeled as “infant inconvenience” (a term that I found highly amusing and quite Alexia-like), but little by little her approach changes to grudging acceptance and finally to fierce protectiveness, even though the pact she formulates with the baby, reaching a sort of truce with the “tiny parasite” is way too funny for words. “Just you allow me to eat regularly, she told it silently, and I’ll think about trying to grow a mothering instinct.”

Fantasy heroines are often drawn as spirited and clever, always working outside of their culture’s boundaries – or against them: what Carriger managed with Alexia Tarabotti is to create a character who works inside those boundaries, who takes those boundaries and customs to heart, yet still manages to deal with every situation through a fresh and unexpected approach. The very contradiction between adhering to a conventional background while reacting in a totally unconventional manner is what makes this character so appealing.

Alexia in not alone in this, however, since Blameless shines the spotlight on several other characters from the previous books: Professor Lyall, Lord Maccon’s Beta and adviser, is a case in point.  Due to his Alpha’s incapacitation (Conall Maccon spends quite some time being drunk over Alexia’s perceived unfaithfulness – and drunk on formaldehyde of all substances!) Lyall must handle both this situation and the larger problems that come with the running of BUR, the Bureau of Unnatural Registry.  I’ve always had an eye out for Lyall, because he showed great promise, and here he’s given the chance to show who is the brain behind Lord Maccon’s brawn, besides being a shrewd and consummated politician and a man – or rather werewolf – with a great sense of understated humor. Here is an example:

“A vampire extermination mandate. Ordering a death bite on Lady Maccon’s neck. Amusing, considering she cannot be bitten, but I suppose it is the thought that counts.”

Through Lyall we make another fascinating discovery: Ivy Hisselpenny, Alexia’s best friend and scatter-brained wearer of outrageous hats, is a far deeper person than she lets on. When she tells him “I may, Professor Lyall, be a trifle enthusiastic in my manner and dress, but I am no fool” we understand there is more to her than appears on the surface. Alexia’s choice of friends also shows she is not deceived by mere appearance, and this sheds new light on her association with Ivy.  Now that the proverbial cat is out of the bag, it will be fascinating to see where the revelation will lead us in the next books, even though I’m certain her outlandish choice of words will continue to be a source of entertainment:

“Your younger sister was thrown over for a schoolroom chit, quite the persona au gratin, if you take my meaning.”

And what of the silent and steady Floote, Alexia’s butler? He not only comes across as a fighter and expert marksman, he also reveals a few tantalizing details about her father and his past.  Though still tight-lipped about his previous employer, he seems more inclined by present circumstances to be more forthcoming: what this will mean in the long run is something that I hope to discover as the series progresses. Meanwhile I know I can enjoy his presence in its new and not-so-silent incarnation.

Blameless also affords us a deeper look into the steampunk side of these novels, with a considerable array of gadgets and contraptions (killer ladybugs!!) that enrich the narrative, complete with a variety of inventors and scientists – both of brilliant or evil inclination – better embodied in the returning character of Madame Lefoux, inventor-cum-hat-maker and architect of Alexia’s latest, gadget-filled parasol.  Lefoux is a fascinating figure, a woman who goes against all conventions by wearing male attire and exploring the depths of science.  Her outspoken, though not returned, interest in Alexia as something more than a friend adds a little spice in the overall mixture and once more promises interesting developments.

With this book, the Parasol Protectorate series shows its ability to combine amusing premises with more serious aspects: a clear example of that is the situation with Biffy, Lord Akeldama’s drone, and the implications about divided loyalties that without doubt will be explored in future.  What started as an entertaining story is gaining more substance and depth with each new installment, and it’s the kind of promise that will keep me reading on.

My Rating: 8,5/10

Changeless – Gail Carriger

changelessThere’s always a degree of trepidation in facing the second book of a series when you’ve greatly enjoyed the first one, because as a reader I’m always aware of the possibility for disappointment. This second installment in the Parasol Protectorate series is just as good as the first, even though at times it seems to lose momentum. Probably the need to broaden and deepen the background in which the characters move is the reason behind this perceived slowness: despite this small… disturbance, Gail Carriger confirms her skills as a writer and has me now firmly among her admirers.

When we left Alexia Tarabotti – now Lady Maccon – at the end of Soulless, she had newly married the werewolf Earl of Woolsey, and luckily for us a few months of marital bliss have not changed her quirky disposition or her sharp wit.  One of the reasons I enjoy Alexia’s character so much is that she is the perfect representation of a woman of her times, as far as behavior and adherence to social conventions are concerned, yet she also possesses an uncanny ability for sideways thinking and brilliant deduction, combined with a keen intellect she does not feel compelled to hide.

Urban Fantasy and Steampunk, the two genres this series loosely belongs to (and I say “loosely” because I believe Ms. Carriger created a unique genre here),  tend to present the readers with a stereotyped heroine who is indeed bold, independent and snappy, but also aggressive (sometimes unnecessarily so) and prone to foolishly unthinking behavior, the kind that would land ordinary people in a grave, while these characters manage to survive in miraculous ways that are a severe test for suspension of disbelief.

Alexia Maccon does not fall into this trap: her detachment – ascribed to being a preternatural, i.e. without a soul – allows her to keep her cool in every situation, and also to examine her own behavior, to which she applies the same dispassionate eye as she does with other people’s.  Far from rendering her cold and clinical, this side of Alexia’s personality is the source of many amusing considerations, delivered in the peculiar voice the author created for her.  Take for example the relationship with her husband, an Alpha werewolf and the head of B.U.R. – the Bureau of Unnatural Registry that keeps track of the werewolf, vampire and ghost population of England: there is no doubt about the love and affection between the two of them, yet it’s expressed with a good deal of banter rather than mushiness. The couple stands on an equal basis, and Alexia has not given up her uniqueness to subsume herself in her husband’s personality. Certainly not when she entertains thoughts like this one:

“He paced about Alexia slowly in a circle as though examining her for flaws. It felt very doglike to Alexia. She was prepared to jump back if he cocked a leg.”

In this new book, the supernatural creatures of England are facing an unusual situation: something, or someone, is nullifying their abilities, turning them into normal humans, and it seems to sweep across the country, affecting every creature that crosses its path. Following Conall Maccon to Scotland, his country of origin, in an attempt to solve the mystery, Alexia gains an improbable retinue composed by her friend Ivy (the wielder of improbable and awful hats), her sister Felicity (odiously amusing in her snobbish contempt), the enigmatic Madame Lefoux (an expert of all things mechanical and further source of scandal because of a penchant for masculine attire), and Tunstell, Lord Maccon’s valet and claviger (i.e. werewolf-in-training). The socially unacceptable attraction between Ivy and Tunstell, coupled with Felicity’s spiteful meddling offers the comical highlights in this search for clues, while Alexia faces complicated puzzles and dangers (almost falling from a dirigible and barely escaping poisoned food) armed with her state-of-the-art parasol, a contraption that could give points to Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver…

Other characters from the previous book make an appearance, like Lord Akeldama, the ancient, eccentric vampire who has befriended Alexia, or Professor Lyall, Lord Maccon’s Beta and an interesting figure that I hope will get more space in the next books: to my disappointment these are just cameo roles, though, because most of the action takes place in Scotland where Conall’s former pack is facing a crisis of their own.

The solution of the mystery is an interesting one, and it remains open-ended, so that the situation might present itself, in some other form, in the future. Yet the book closes on a negative, worrisome note: I am not going to offer any spoiler, as I always try to do with my reviews, but I’d like to state that while I had long suspected the nature of one of the final revelations, I was surprised by the reaction of a particular character, even though the reasons for it are quite logical – at least from his point of view.

Alexia herself is placed in an odd situation, and what’s stranger still, she seems to react in a passive way that’s as far from her psychological make-up as possible, so I’m beyond curious to see where this new development will take her.   The huge cliff-hanger at the end of this book is bound to have me break my own rule about putting some space between books in a series to avoid the danger of overload: in this case I cannot wait, not too long.

That’s how good and involving this story is…

My Rating: 7,5/10

 

Without a Summer – Mary Robinette Kowal

Without-a-SummerThis third volume in M.R. Kowal’s Glamourist series pushes the envelope a little further than its predecessors – and with great success.  The premise takes inspiration from a real event: the 1815 volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora (in present-day Indonesia) spread such a huge quantity of ash in the atmosphere that the spring and summer of 1816 were far colder than seasonal norm.  Jane and Vincent’s England is a place of social turmoil, and the unusually cold temperatures give rise to a series of troublesome events that are used as cover for a plot in which the two find themselves enmeshed.

There are many interesting sub-threads in this story that keep raising the stakes and complicate matters in such a way that I felt compelled to reach the resolutions as quickly as possible. The appearance of Vincent’s family on the scene is indeed one of the main points of interest: every time they were mentioned in the past, there was an unpleasant aura attached to them, and here we are finally presented with the reality of Vincent’s relatives, and the reasons for his decision to cut himself off from them.  The best description I can come up with for Vincent’s father is “sneaky bastard”, and his attempt at driving a wedge between his son and Jane, and the way he manages to rock the foundations of their marriage, speak more clearly about his character than any other detail. On the other hand, this mean stab at the couple’s stability helps to highlight the dynamics of their marriage, its constant need of balance and compromise, in a very actual – and believable – way.

Prejudice plays a huge part in this story: in an era in which the first social upheavals manifested themselves (there are several mentions of the Luddite movement), we see how the old establishment erects a willfully blind wall of defense against a world that is headed toward inescapable change.  Preconceptions against the coldmongers (a branch of glamourists who, as the name says, can generate colder temperatures to preserve produce or create ice) drive the spreading worry for the unseasonable weather toward resentment against that guild and its members, accused of being at the core of the problem: there’s an interesting reflection here, about the ease with which humanity can be driven toward a scapegoat, a target for our fears and insecurities. The unknown terrifies us, and the simple fact of putting a face on it (no matter how wrong, as is the case here) seems to channel the worst of our impulses toward mob mentality: in the novel, if people had stopped to think that the colder temperatures worked against the coldmongers, robbing them of work, they would have perceived the sheer idiocy of such accusations. Even now, two hundred years past the events in this story, we are not so different from the people described in it, and are sometimes all too ready to listen to those who spout nonsense, only because they do it often and very loudly…

Even Jane is not immune from prejudice: MR Kowal makes an intriguing choice with her heroine in this novel, presenting her (despite her unquestionable good qualities) as a fallible person, prone to terrible mistakes in judgment – mistakes that affect both the story and her profile as a character.  I think it was a bold move, on the author’s part, to show how Jane can be short-sighted and biased, how her good and generous nature could be misled by social preconceptions. Yet, in some way this failure makes her more likable: not so much because her mistakes are driven by the misguided desire to do good, but rather because they highlight her humanity. Her “sin” here is that of social and cultural prejudice: the discovery about the glamourist couple’s new employers being Irish, and the attentions paid to Jane’s sister Melody by the employers’ son, send the protagonist into a paroxysm of worry that in turn leads her to unwelcome and disastrous meddling.  What’s more interesting is that Melody – presented until now as young, naive and easily fooled – is the one who shows more level-headedness and clarity of thought, not to mention a few instances of wisdom and witty self-analysis. It’s a kind of role-reversal that offers a few moments of amused reflection, a circumstance I enjoyed quite a bit.

The epilogue of the book brought home the reasons I like M.R. Kowal’s writing so much: there could be no doubt about the outcome, of course, but it was presented in such a way that I flew breathlessly thought the last chapters, both worried for the characters’ well-being and eager to see how things would work out. And that is the mark of a master storyteller. Well done, indeed…

My Rating 8/10