Reviews

STORM OF LOCUSTS (The Sixth World #2), by Rebecca Roanhorse

 

Last year I encountered a new Urban Fantasy series that felt quite different from the usual format, and its first installment,Trail of Lightning, encouraged me to keep an eye out for its sequels: book two of Rebecca Roanohorse’s Sixth World Series is just as engaging as its predecessor but it also left me with mixed feelings, because while I loved what the author did with the characters – both the old and the new ones – part of the storyline felt less defined and at times too… convenient (for want of a better word) to be completely believable.  But let’s proceed with order…

The rising oceans have changed the face of the world, and one of the few places where life is still possible is Dinétah, the former Navajo reservation now walled off from the rest of the world. It’s not a totally safe place, though, since ancient gods and monsters – both old and new – share the territory alongside humans. Maggie Hoskie is a monster slayer for hire, and in recent times she also became a god slayer when she vanquished Neizghání, the lightning god who used to be her mentor and lover.  It’s now a few weeks after this happened at Black Mesa, where Maggie also had to kill her friend and love interest Kai Arviso, whose healing powers brought him back to life but not back in Maggie’s life, so she’s trying to deal with the aftermath of it all – trying being the operative word…

When she’s called in for help against the dangerous cult of the White Locusts, she learns that the “resurrected” Kai is either their prisoner or a willing adept, and to get to the core of the matter she teams up for a search and rescue mission with two of the Goodacre siblings and a young girl with clan powers, Ben, who has been entrusted to her care. Gathering human and godlike allies along the way, the group ventures from the borders of Dinétah into the Malpais – the devastated outside world – discovering that the White Locusts and their charismatic leader Gideon are planning something that might mean the destruction of all they hold dear.

The narrative elements that made the first book in this series stand out are still here: the walled-in enclave of Dinétah where humans and supernatural beings coexist in this weird world whose face was literally changed by the rising oceans; the fascinating cultural and social milieu of Native Americans that brings a new, intriguing perspective to the genre; the land itself, with its harsh, unforgiving beauty. Maggie remains a fascinating character, her hard-won independence, her self-sufficiency still there but now tempered by the realization that opening herself to other people does not threaten those qualities but rather enhances them. And here comes the biggest change in the interpersonal dynamics of the overall story, because it transforms what early on was a one-woman battle into a group effort and a delightful quest that takes us outside the borders of Dinétah and into the Big, Bad Outside World.

Much as life in the Diné enclave might look difficult, the Malpais proves to be dangerous, and deadly: in the best tradition of post-apocalyptic stories, Maggie and her team encounter an organized gang of slavers and organ traffickers whose settlement of Knifetown has a definite Mad Max quality, complete with what looks like a deranged overlord, while the mention of the neighboring Mormon Kingdom and its theocratic rule  fulfills the worst predictions of what could happen with the collapse of civilization. It’s therefore hardly surprising that in this kind of background a cult like that of the White Locusts could easily gain supporters, won over by their leader’s Gideon seductive power and his promise of a new, better world.

Storm of Locusts sees Maggie traveling through these dangers with a crew of allies – friends – that, with the exception of reformed bandit Aaron, is dominated by women: Maggie herself, who’s trying to change her ways and not resort to mindless killing as a way of solving problems, and who is acknowledging her newfound connection to humanity and somehow finding that she enjoys it; Rissa Goodacre, who begins the journey with huge moral reservations toward Maggie and then slowly changes her outlook recognizing there can ben mutual respect and friendship between them; the cat goddess Mosì, whose feline indifference offers some of the lighter moments in the story; and young Ben, the best addition to the series because of what she comes to represent for Maggie.

Ben is a teenager who just suffered a grievous loss on top of earlier childhood trauma, the one that woke her clan powers: Maggie sees much of herself there, and where at first she somehow resents being saddled with the responsibility for the teenager’s safety, she starts to see her earlier self reflected in Ben, recognizing the signs of the downward spiral she traveled in the past, and decides to spare her the same hurtful journey by giving the young woman the support she needs to come to terms with what she is.  Despite the tragedy in her recent past, Ben’s character is an engaging counterpoint to Maggie’s, thanks to her youthful enthusiasm and drive that little by little manage to erode Maggie’s hard shell and bring her closer to her forgotten humanity.

Where character exploration offers the best elements in the story, I found that the plot felt less… solid, starting with the sensation that the questing team was never truly in danger: their experience in Knifetown, where it seems Maggie and Rissa might lose their lives and Ben be sold as a slave bride, is resolved fairly quickly by what looks like a deus ex machina set of circumstances. In a similar way, the swift conversion of outlaw Aaron, or the easy help offered by a divinity appearing as a crusty old man, look a little too convenient to feel completely believable.   And I’m still not convinced by the soundness of Kai’s motivations for joining Gideon’s cult, or by the mutual bond between Kai and Maggie, which does not offer solid vibes for me…

Still, whatever doubts I might have had about this second installment in the series were vanquished by the closing paragraph of the novel and its ominous promise of more interesting darkness to come: the next book might very well compensate for my partial disappointment with this one.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

DREADFUL COMPANY (Dr. Greta Helsing #2), by Vivian Shaw – Wyrd & Wonder 2020

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in Vivan Shaw’s Urban Fantasy series, and did not wait long to add this second volume to my reading queue: Dreadful Company proved to be an even faster and more entertaining read, adding further depth to the characters I already knew and presenting a few new ones that spiced up the mix in a very interesting way.

The story opens with Greta traveling to Paris for a symposium of supernatural medicine in the company of her vampire friend Lord Ruthven. What could have been a pleasant, if slightly boring, diversion from her work in London becomes first a puzzle when Greta finds not one but two weird critters in her room – beings that are magically summoned rather than being born – and then turns into a harrowing experience as she is kidnapped by a local vampire coven whose ruler, the dangerously capricious Corvin, intends to use her as bait to exact vengeance on Ruthven, with whom he clashed, and lost, in the past.

The situation is further complicated by some weird ghostly manifestations pointing toward a lessening of the barrier between the mundane plane and the afterworld, which require the summoning of two licensed psychopomps and the intervention of a demonic overseer in the person of Greta’s special friend Fastitocalon, who had been recuperating his health in Hell.  As it becomes clear that the critters found by Dr. Helsing and the vampire coven are tied into these “reality hiccups”, the guardian of Paris, werewolf St. Germain, joins forces with Ruthven, Varney and the rest of Greta’s friends in what turns into a mixed rescue & restoration enterprise that kept me turning the pages with highly amused enthusiasm.

Not unlike what happened in Strange Practice, Greta often cedes the limelight to the other players and while this might look somewhat odd, it also allows them to gain more substance and provides a welcome balance to the story. Still, the distressing situation in which she finds herself here puts Greta’s personality into sharper focus and we see how it’s made out of equal measures of kindness, dedication and common sense: being a prisoner does not exempt her from being a doctor first and foremost, so that she has no reservations in treating one of her captors’ wounds, or in feeling deep pity for the youngest member of the coven once she realizes that the girl has been turned without permission and then left to her own devices to face the transformation into a vampire.  If I wrote, in my review of the first book, that Greta looked less substantial than the other characters, I have come to understand that her reserved attitude hides a core of strength and cleverness that comes to light when need arises, and which in this particular circumstance leads her to take matters in her own hands without waiting for rescue to come her way.

It is of course interesting to see Lord Ruthven shaken out of his usual aplomb as he realizes that Greta is in danger at the hands of an old adversary, or to witness the blossoming closeness between Varney and the doctor – while not a fan of romantic entanglements, I’m quite curious to see how this vampire/human relationship will progress – but this time around I truly enjoyed getting to know the new characters on the scene. The overseer of the Parisian supernatural population, Alceste St. Germain, is one of my favorites: a werewolf with a penchant for historical studies, he’s gruff but hospitable – I loved seeing how he turned his house into a command center for the rescuers without batting an eyelash; the two psychopomps are a source for tongue-in-cheek humor and oblique references to horror and gothic themes, their names also an indication of the main facets of their personality – where Gervase Brightside was fun, Crepusculus Dammerung was downright hilarious.

The vampire Grisaille is an interesting study of the bloodsucker mentality from a different perspective than that offered so far by Ruthven and Varney, while the other members of the coven – particularly their vile leader Corvin – manage to appear dangerous and ludicrous at the same time: lacking the kind of moral foundations at the roots of Ruthven’s psychological makeup, for example, they seem more inclined to follow a behavioral template taken from folklore and so tend to dress with flamboyant bad taste and cover themselves with body glitter, in a pathetic – if weirdly entertaining – imitation of a certain vampire saga. Still, they are nonetheless dangerous: partly in fear and partly in devotion of their leader, they prey on hapless humans that are drained and discarded as nothing more than… food rations, and the scenes of their blood-and-drugs orgies represent the more serious and shocking side of the story.

To balance these dreadful narrative elements there are the delightful callbacks to several gothic myths, mainly that of the Phantom of the Opera, one of my all-time favorites, and the appearance of these furry critters, summoned from a different plane of reality, who are unabashedly cute and offer a few rays of light in the darkest sections of the story, without forgetting the intangible entity that Greta summons at some point and can become visible only while covered in cloth – try to imagine a helpful, cuddly ghost as an improbable but precious ally…

At the end of this second novel in the series much has changed for the main characters and they seem destined to walk some different paths than the ones they were traveling when we met them for the first time: given the entertaining mix of adventure, drama and humor that’s typical of these books I know I can look forward to the next one with great anticipation.

 

My Rating:

 

Image by Tanantachai Sirival @ 123RF.com
Reviews

COME TUMBLING DOWN (Wayward Children #5), by Seanan McGuire

 

This new installment in McGuire’s Wayward Children series held the double incentive of following up on a previous story, Down Among the Sticks and Bones – one of my favorites – and I was eager to move back to the world of the Moors, its delightful Hammer Horror mood and the characters of twins Jack and Jill.

The last time we saw them, Jack was carrying back to the Moors the body of her sister Jill, that she herself had killed (not that death is exactly final there…); now the novella opens on Eleanor West’s Home and the arrival, after a lightning storm, of Alexis (one of the Moors’ dwellers) with an unconscious Jill in her arms – only it’s not exactly Jill, since there has been an exchange of bodies between the two sisters. Jack-as-Jill asks her former schoolmates to follow her to her world and help her regain her body, one of the compelling reasons for it being that otherwise the carefully maintained balance in the Moors will be thoroughly upset.

That’s as much as I feel entitled to share, since both the group’s journey and the quest’s final outcome must be explored without spoilers, so I prefer to concentrate on the story’s main components – and to get it all off my chest right away, I’m sorry to report that Come Tumbling Down ended being something of a disappointment. Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoyed reading it and I still look forward to the next novellas in the series, but in this case – not unlike what happened with Beneath the Sugar Sky – the overall result fell a little short of the mark.

The writing was as good as ever, as was the world-building, but the characterization seemed to lack the in-depth look I’ve come to expect from Seanan McGuire: as was the case with the third novella of the series, this is a choral story and this choice seems to have diluted the strength in characterization that’s typical of this author when she concentrates on one or two individuals only.

The writing style is as mesmerizing as expected, moving from weirdness to gallows humor to drama with seamless transitions, and it’s the true glue that keeps the various elements together. The further look into the world of the Moors is both fascinating and scary: we shift from the dual perspective of the main players – the vampire lord and the mad scientist – to see other parts of the realm, and learn that other kinds of monsters dwell here. The peek into the domain of the Drowned Gods and its human-inhabited village is truly horrifying and it carries some delightfully fearsome Lovecraftian vibes (Innsmouth, anyone? 🙂 ), that together with the march of resurrected skeletons at the height of the story makes for the highest point of the tale.

The core concept of identity at the root of the series is still strong: the young people at Eleanor West’s academy share a feeling of alienation with our primary world and can find fulfillment and a sense of belonging only by crossing the magical doors leading them to the various alternate worlds they inhabit for a while. Here that quest for identity gains a new layer of meaning: the body exchange perpetrated by Jill and suffered by Jack might not look like such a tragedy from the outside, since they are identical twins, but through Jack’s own words we learn that what we do with out bodies, and how much our minds form connections with them, creates unique bonds that go way beyond simple muscle memory, and whose severing causes intense trauma.

Where all of the above created a strong foundation for the story, the characters felt a little unsubstantial this time: I could not connect emotionally with any of them, not even when some truly horrifying things happened, and what’s worse I’m still puzzling over the need for the whole group to travel to the Moors, since their contribution to Jack’s “mission” was quite minimal, if any, especially during the final showdown – something that happened far too quickly and with the kind of ease that belied Jack’s passionate request for help.

The other major point of contention comes from the concept that in the Moors death is not a permanent state: we go from Frankenstein-like electrically induced revivals, to the unexpected resurrection of people who seemed to tragically lose their lives, and what it all comes down to – at least for me – is the fundamental irrelevance of any dramatic turn of events. Granted, there is always a price to be paid for a return to life (or something approaching it), but in the end it removes personal stakes or any emotional impact attached to the loss of a given character.

While somewhat frustrated by the way this much-looked-for installment turned out, I still hope that the next one will be more in keeping with the series’ overall tone and mood.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

STRANGE PRACTICE (Dr. Greta Helsing #1), by Vivian Shaw

 

Urban Fantasy is one of the hybrid genres I enjoy, although it’s difficult to find books or series offering a different take from the much-used theme of the private investigator (either with or without special powers) dealing with an underworld peopled by fae and/or supernatural creatures: Strange Practice, the first novel in the Dr. Greta Helsing series, offers such a breath of fresh air, depicting a very human main character working as a physician for these weird beings, who live in our world while managing to keep hidden in plain sight from the public.

Latest in a line of healers descended from the famous Dr. Van Helsing out of the Dracula myth, Greta is very dedicated to her London clinic whose patients include banshees and ghouls, mummies and vampires, and any other kind of imaginable (or unimaginable) otherworldly creature. Greta’s busy but interesting routine is upset when she’s summoned by one of her closest friends, the vampire Ruthven, who is sheltering another vampire he literally found on his doorstep seeking help after a brutal assault.

The attack on Varney, the victim, seems closely related to a series of murders that’s worrying the authorities and creating sensationalist ripples in the public for the bizarre ritual connected to them: each of the victims was found with a cheap plastic rosary in their mouths, and it took no time for the tabloids to dub the series of killings with the name of Rosary Murders. Varney’s assailants wore what looked like monk robes, muttered outlandish chants and hit him with a cross-shaped dagger covered with an unknown poison apparently able to hinder a vampire’s quick healing powers.

The mystery deepens when Greta herself is attacked in her car by a scary individual, also dressed as a monk and uttering incoherent Bible quotes, with a face scarred by fire and strangely-glowing blue eyes. Moving to Ruthven’s house for safety, Dr. Helsing is soon joined by the other members of what will soon become a sort of investigative team set on finding the dangerous “monks” and removing the threat to the supernatural community: Fastitocalon is a mysterious being who was Greta’s father’s friend and acts a sort of uncle to the doctor, while she tries to make him take better care of himself – the true nature of Fastitocalon (Fass, for short, which is a blessing considering how stumble-worthy that name is….) will be revealed in the course of the story, and it’s a very, very intriguing one, indeed. And finally there’s the only other human of the group, young Cranswell from the British Museum: he’s aware of the existence of these extraordinary beings and delights in the possibility of delving into their lore – an enthusiastic, if at times naïve, person who offers a needed counterpoint to the weirdness of the… differently human characters.

Where the overall story is interesting and at times gripping, as it develops across the city of London and through the mazes of its underground, it often takes second place to the characters and their interactions: the narrative style itself is a quaint one, relying very much on an old-fashioned expressive mode that at first seems to place the novel in the Victorian era, and only reveals its modern background at the mention of cars, wi-fi connections and so forth. After a while I became convinced that the unusual choices of phrase were due to the fact that most of the supernaturals are very ancient beings, and therefore still tied to an older way of expression: the clearest example of this dichotomy is Ruthven, a man – pardon, a vampire – who enjoys the comforts of modern living, including a state-of-the-art expresso machine, but still loves to surround himself with the vestiges of the past.

Bizarrely enough, Greta does not feel like the strongest character in this novel: she is of course admirable in her dedication to her peculiar patients, and one of her best moments happens when she is asked why she cares so much about “monsters” and she replies that to her they are people – no more, no less. Yet to me she appears much less substantial than the strange and scary creatures surrounding her, who literally stole the scene, from the mummy whose bones are falling apart and needs a few replacement pieces fashioned from a 3D printer, to the ghouls who gather in close-knit family clans, including a baby ghoul who remains cute even as we learn that he’s being fed sewer rats.

The best, however, remain Ruthven and Fastitocalon, and both of them quickly became my favorite characters and managed to overshadow Greta thanks to their peculiarities and the way they both related to the doctor, each in his own way: Fass is confidant and protector, the person who somehow filled the void left by Greta’s father’s death; Ruthven is the go-to-friend, unfailing in his support and generosity and a very suave gentleman to boot. That on the surface, of course, because they also enjoy very intriguing talents: Fass can all but disappear from notice, masking other people’s presence as well – as is the case when he helps Cranswell replace some important books from the Museum after he purloined them for research into the monkish sect; Ruthven, as a vampire, can thrall people to do his bidding, and he avoids looking menacing thanks to his laid-back attitude toward his nature, something I will leave to his own words:

The easiest thing is to think of me as a large well-dressed mosquito, only with more developed social graces and without the disease-vector aspect.

Or

He didn’t even own a coffin, let alone sleep in one; there simply wasn’t room to roll over, even in the newer, wider models, and anyway the mattresses were a complete joke and played merry hell with one’s back.

This is indeed one of the peculiarities of Strange Practice: the distinctive sense of humor that might not be for everyone: in my case it worked very well, due to its light-handed nature, offering some needed respite in the most tense moments. Respite that also comes in those quiet passages where the group of characters takes a moment to discuss the situation over cups of tea or glasses of something stronger: these more intimate interludes help to better understand what makes these individual tick, and in the end they proved to be some of my favorite sequences.

Strange Practice is a very promising first book in this new-to-me series, whose unusual take on the genre’s themes might turn it into one of my favorite reads. Hopefully I will not wait too long before getting to the other two volumes published so far…

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE LAST SMILE IN SUNDER CITY, by Luke Arnold

 

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

Urban Fantasy scenarios often share several common elements: a city where supernatural creatures exist side-by-side with humans, either in plain sight or hidden; the presence of magic; an atmosphere typical of noir movies; and a P.I. engaged in a complex investigation. The Last Smile in Sunder City does possess these elements, granted, but sets them in an unusual background that gives the story and its characters a new, intriguing perspective.

The world in which the story is set was imbued with magic once, but a catastrophic event named The Coda closed off its source with tragic consequences, and now the city of Sunder, once a flourishing center of industry, is just a ghost of its former self, as are its supernatural inhabitants, stripped like their world of any magical attribute that made them what they were. Fetch Phillips is a human Man For Hire, eking out a meagre living by accepting odd jobs, just enough to pay the rent and fuel his drinking habit – he does not work for his fellow humans though, out of a deep-seated sense of anger and guilt whose roots are explored in the course of the story.

Tasked with looking into the disappearance of a teacher from the city’s multi-species academy, Fetch finds himself caught in the kind of complex tangle of misdirections and threats that is to be expected in a story’s investigative thread, but this inciting incident is only the pretext to explore the world and its inhabitants as they try to pick up the pieces of the past and to build a new life out of the ashes of the old one. Fantasy novels more often than not rely on magic, but here instead we explore a culture that has to deal with the sudden death of it, and what this means in the everyday existence of Sunder’s citizens: the sad, grey, hopeless mood of the story often reminded me of Tolkien’s Elves’ long defeat, a battle with no hope of victory that is however still fought because the idea of surrendering to the inevitable is even more loathsome.

The world building in The Last Smile in Sunder City is its best feature, indeed. The image of Sunder City that I built in my mind reminds me of a town in the throes of the Big Depression, where people have to find new ways to survive not so much out of financial troubles (although they are a factor in many instances), but out of the disappearance of the magic that helped run many of the activities, like the streets deprived of wizardry-powered electricity and barely lighted by torches or fires. Then there are the dreadful physical transformations brought on by the Coda: werewolves frozen in the transition from wolf to man, formerly immortal Elves who aged overnight or even crumbled to dust, vampires who lost their teeth and the ability to thrive on blood – the description of what happens to the majority of those supernatural beings at the very moment in which the Coda happens is something both nightmarish and imbued with profound emotional impact.

The social changes in the post-Coda world have taken another, uglier facet as well: the connection to the world’s magic was severed by humans in an underhanded attempt at harnessing that power – humans were the only ones unable to tap it, and it was their intention to put themselves on the same level as the magically-able creatures. Now that supernatural beings have been stripped of their edge, humans feel entitled to take over: their technology, the mechanical means by which their civilization moves, are the only ones that work now, which puts them in the position of superiority they craved for a long time. Not a pretty spectacle at all…

In all of this, Fetch Phillips keeps his distance from everything and everyone, a loner by personal history and by choice, nursing his deep guilt with the same care he nurses the endless bottles of liquor and the drugs that barely help him go through the days: at face value this personality traits, and attitude, would have made me dislike him immediately, but for some reason I felt pity for him, which increased as his story was revealed through the flashbacks showing how he came to be the individual he is now. Fetch Phillips seems destined from a very young age to be alone, even in the company of others, of being the one looking in from the outside, never being part of something, never feeling accepted, and this shapes both his psychological profile – past and present – and the string of bad choices that ultimately bring him to the momentous decision whose outcome will weigh him with endless guilt and regret. He is a man possessed by a strong death wish, uncaring of the damage he sustains as a result of his actions, but at the same time he does not seem to really want that end, because it would also mean the end of his self-inflicted penance – and also the end of what little good he might do to atone for his past mistakes.

I’m aware that all of the above might sound depressing and excessively gloomy, but in reality it’s not as grim as it might seem and it’s also quite compelling, not to mention that the small, very small glimmer of light that can be perceived toward the end promises that things might not look so hopeless in the next book, or books, of this series.

As a debut novel The Last Smile in Sunder City is not a perfect one: there are some pacing issues, particularly in Fetch’s flashbacks that could have been tightened a little to avoid the loss of focus on the issues of the present, and there are times when the search for the missing vampire teacher seems to become irrelevant, instead of being the connecting element of the story. Yet, the narrative remains engaging throughout, and that’s definitely a plus: I will look forward to seeing how Sunder City – and Fetch – will fare in the next installments.

 

 

My Rating:

 

Reviews

THE LAST SUN (The Tarot Sequence #1), by K.D. Edwards

 

While I was aware of this book through the enthusiastic reviews I read from my fellow bloggers, I had not managed to add it to my reading queue yet, so that when the first posts announcing the second volume of the series started to appear I decided it was high time for me to read The Last Sun.

The premise for the story is very intriguing: the people of Atlantis did not vanish under the ocean as uncounted myths tell us, but rather survived a catastrophic conflict and established a new settlement in Nantucket, where they were able to thrive and where the rest of the world – our mundane world – is quite aware of them.  Atlantean society is based on a sort of feudal stratification, where the ruling families take on the names and qualities of the Tarot’s Arcana, and magic is an everyday occurrence, stored in objects called sigils that can be imbued with any kind of supernatural attributes to be used as necessity dictates, especially in combat. Yes, because this is a brutal culture, the violence barely masked by its sophistication and flaunted riches: Houses can effect hostile – and ruthless – takeovers on other Houses, the only requirement being a notification of their intention (how civilized…), and indeed the novel starts with one such vicious action in which the main character plays an important part.

Rune St. John, only survivor of Sun House – decimated twenty years prior by its rivals – is now working for the powerful Tower, and after the successful coup on the Lovers’ premises he’s tasked by Lord Tower to find Addam St. Nicholas, the missing heir of  House Judgment, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances.  Together with his Companion Brand – a human bonded to him from infancy as bodyguard and partner – Rune will need to navigate the complex Atlantean politics as his investigation reveals unexpected twists and plots within plots that are more far-reaching than anyone might have suspected.  Facing violence, perverted magic and terrifying creatures, the two of them, and the allies they gather along the way, will find their work cut out for them as they try to unravel the complicated twists of a conspiracy that might have escaped even the control of its designers.

As I expected from the reviews I read, the world-building for The Last Sun is quite amazing, starting with the new incarnation of Atlantis itself: the descriptions made me think of a cross between Hogwarts and Blade Runner’s L.A. and there is a definite feel of unexplored layers here, as the tantalizing hints about the past offer just enough to whet one’s appetite without fully satisfying it. Atlantean society is a fascinating mix of complex customs and liberal attitudes, where no choice is barred, be it sartorial or sexual or whatever one might think of.   Another expected detail, and one I quite enjoyed, came from the constant banter between characters, particularly between Rune and Brand whose partnership/brotherhood is delightful and offers a great deal of humor in a situation that moves toward darker and darker shades as the story progresses.

Yet, despite all of those positive traits, The Last Sun is not devoid of problems, some of which managed to spoil the story’s overall effect, progressively scaling down my initial rating of the book as the cons started to overshadow the pros.  The most glaring of those problems is the portrayal of female characters – what few of them are included, that is, because there is a conspicuous scarcity of women in this book, and they are either placed in a menial role, like Rune and Brand’s housekeeper Queenie, or are distant, cold figures like House heads. The only woman who appears in a more substantial way is Ella, sister of the missing Addam St. Nicholas: a girl suffering from anorexia and very low self-esteem, who is ultimately revealed as a far-too-easily deceived fool.  For a society depicted as broad-minded and unconventional I would have expected a more balanced portrayal of its citizens instead of this all-male focus on characters, no matter how interesting they proved to be.

The worse drawback, however, comes from the relentless action sequences which succeed each other with almost no respite, turning into magical wrestling matches that after a while lose their novelty appeal to become almost… ritualistic, for want of a better word, and progressively less engaging. The magic, as fascinating as it is with the use of sigils, ends up shadowing individual abilities or stamina and turns any fight into a contest where the biggest, baddest and more powerful sigils win; to compound this aspect there is the parallel use of healing magic, acting as a deus-ex-machina in repairing whatever injury, no matter how grievous, and so removing any sort of anxiety about the characters’ survival. The case in point comes from the instance in which one of the players suffers a mortal wound, literally bleeding his life out: when I should have worried about his survival, and bonded with the others’ anguish, I just knew that it would be only a matter of time before someone arrived to magically bring him back to life and health – which to me felt wrong, and a sort of cheat.

Overall, The Last Sun turned out to be a not-unpleasant read but either because of the expectations I built through previous reviews, or because of my points of contention, it fell quite short of the mark. While other fellow bloggers are looking forward to the second book in the series, I will wait for more information on The Hanged Man before returning to this somewhat disappointing universe.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE WICKED KING (The Folk of the Air #2), by Holly Black

 

With a story concerning the Fae, spells and enchantments are to be expected, but in the case of this series the magic spills over from the books and bewitches the readers: I am myself surprised at the involvement I experienced with Holly Black’s Folks of the Air series, which deepened with this highly engaging second installment.

In Book 1 we met the two human sisters Jude and Taryn, whose mother had been for a while the wife of a Fae, Madoc, before escaping from Faerie with another human and the child she bore her husband, who later on found her, killed her and Jude and Taryn’s father and took the three girls back with him.   Life in Faerie proved difficult for the two human twins, unlike their half-Fae older sister Vivi, but both of them had found a way to survive: Taryn by striving to blend in and make herself as inconspicuous as possible, Jude by her desire to emerge in a vital role in Fae society.

That desire and a burning ambition have now brought Jude to the position of seneschal to High King Cardan, one of her most bitter enemies and now bound for a year and a day by a promise to do her bidding, as she gains time for her step-brother Oak to grow into the role of monarch that is his rightful birthright.   But as her stepfather Madoc used to lecture her, Power is much easier to acquire than it is to hold on to, and Jude struggles to keep abreast of the byzantine Court intrigues, of the constant plots to undermine her authority and of Cardan’s efforts to evade her control.  As if all this were not enough, the Sea realm is plotting against the Land, threatening war, while Taryn’s impending marriage to the Fae Locke, one of the trickiest denizens of Elfhame, might compromise Oak’s safety since he and Vivi will be guests at the celebration.

Where The Cruel Prince introduced us to the story’s main players, The Wicked King is more plot-oriented, and while some new character angles are shown here, with quite interesting consequences, this novel moves at a steady pace through a succession of events that more often than not manage to overthrow any conclusion we might have made until that point: if Jude is being run ragged by the countless elements she must juggle in an ever-complicated balancing act, we readers experience a similar kind of mental exhaustion by trying to keep up with the many surprises the author springs on her main character as well as them. And yet we look forward to more…

What’s more, there is an increasing tension building between Jude and Cardan that takes on interesting shades since the mutual attraction is in conflict with their equally mutual hate – or is it? I never make a mystery of my wariness of romantic plots, and here I should have been even more skeptical about them considering the slight YA mood of these novels, but I have to admit that Ms. Black managed to convince me with her portrayal of these two characters and their contradictory emotions, which works very well inside the uncertain frame of Faerie, where misdirection and unknowable layers prove to be far more dangerous than outright lies, which the Fae are incapable of.  Besides, this odd attraction works even better when considering that both Jude and Cardan are not immediately likable characters, even when taking into account the dramatic circumstances that have scarred their childhood and turned them into the people they are now: the most fascinating angle of the relationship, such as it is, does not come from the proverbial “will they or won’t they?” question, but rather from the desire to discover where it will lead them and what it will teach us about what truly makes them tick.  And considering the way this second installment ends, that curiosity is now at its highest peak.

If power and the desire to wield it is one of the main themes in The Wicked King, there is another one that’s just as important: family ties. The relationship between Jude and her twin Taryn is not an easy one anymore, now that their paths have forked in different directions, separating them in outlooks if not in looks, and yet there is this unexpressed desire in Jude to keep the bond alive – even more so when considering they are both strangers in a strange land.  It’s one of Jude’s character traits that managed to endear her to me despite the initial difficulties I encountered given her prickly demeanor, but the quality of Taryn’s responses makes it abundantly clear she has… gone quite native and that trusting her might prove ultimately dangerous.  Jude’s relationship with Madoc is burdened with worse problems, though: in my review of The Cruel Prince I mentioned Stockholm’s Syndrome when referring to the two of them, and here that ambiguity is far more pronounced, where Jude knows he is one of her adversaries, and yet keeps wanting to prove her worth – even as she tries to obstruct his plans.

If middle books sometimes tend to disappoint after a riveting beginning, The Wicked King raises the stakes in a major way, adding more levels of uncertainty to an already thorny situation, and given the very unexpected outcome at the end of the book, one that literally pulled the rug from under my feet, I can’t wait to see how the story will be wrapped up in the upcoming third volume, The Queen of Nothing. Anything, literally anything could happen…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

The Violent Fae Blog Tour: The Troubled Child

 

Back to Ordshaw, the weird and many-layered city where anything is possible… My thanks to author Phil Williams for including Space And Sorcery in this blog tour dedicated to the conclusion of the first trilogy in this new Urban Fantasy series, comprising Under Ordshaw, Blue Angel, and The Violent Fae. Not forgetting the novella The City Screams.

(Just follow the links at the bottom of the post to learn more!)

To celebrate the release of The Violent Fae, the closing chapter of the Ordshaw series’ The Sunken City Trilogy, Phil Williams is sharing twelve short stories from the city of Ordshaw. The Ordshaw Vignettes are tiny insights into life in the UK’s worst-behaved city, each presenting a self-contained mystery.

You can read today’s story below. For the full collection, visit all the wonderful blogs in the tour, listed in the banner.

About Ordshaw and The Violent Fae

The Ordshaw series are urban fantasy thrillers set in a modern UK city with more than a few terrible secrets. The Violent Fae completes a story that began with Under Ordshaw and its sequel Blue Angel – following poker player Pax Kuranes’ journey into the Ordshaw underworld. Over the space of one week, Pax unravels mysteries that warp reality and threaten the entire city.

The Violent Fae will be available from Amazon on Kindle and in paperback from November 5th 2019.

If these vignettes are your first foray in Ordshaw, note that Under Ordshaw is on offer on Kindle in the US and UK between October 28th October – 1st November.

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And now, without further ado, here comes…

 

THE TROUBLED CHILD

A hard bang announced Lily’s collision with the door. The brutal sound conjured Viv into the room like a genie’s flash, her daughter down, big eyes trembling with tears. Viv skidded short of smothering Lily with love and concern, her gut warning her something more was amiss.
The door Lily had hit was closed. She glared at it accusingly. Hurt, yes, fighting back tears, a hand quivering near her already-swelling lip, but disappointed, too. She poked her jaw, probed. Then she noticed Viv and dropped her hand, eyes wide with worry. Found out.
“Sweetie.” Viv crouched with a pang of realisation, a gentle hand on her daughter’s shoulder. Had Lily run into the door hoping for another loose tooth, for a shiny pound coin? “Sweetie, it doesn’t work like that – you can’t – it has to happen naturally –”
Lily snapped her head away, refusing to hear it.
Viv guided her chin back around. “Let me see. Come on.”
Six years of midnight coughs, busted knees and broken glass, had taught Viv to hide her mothering fears. This one pushed the limits: a chipped front tooth, and blood oozing to the surface of Lily’s lip. It then spread like it had been waiting for an audience. Viv scrambled for a tissue before sweeping Lily into an embrace. Her touch broke the child’s defences and Lily sobbed.
“It’s okay, you’re okay,” Viv assured her. “But the tooth fairy needs your teeth to fall out on their own.”
Lily pushed back. Her eyes defiant, she hissed, “You don’t know. She told me.”
And suddenly Lily was off, running, leaving Viv in her confused wake.
Viv followed the patter of footsteps up the stairs, back to Lily’s bedroom, where the girl snatched a piece of paper from her bed and thrust it overhead. Viv took it. The erratic, scratched writing was not Lily’s immature style. And even if Lily read at a high level, these weren’t the words of a child. Brow knitting with concern, Viv asked, “Where did you get this?”
“The tooth fairy left it.” Lily stamped a foot.
Viv was gripped by the dread of her daughter’s every bang, wail, tumble and fall.
“Last night,” Lily clarified. “And it means I’ll get more money than I can fit in my hands.”
Viv reread the scrawl, to be sure the words were real: Smash out the rest to get handsomely rewarded.
It was a sick joke. Could Greg possibly have done this? There was no one else who could have … But why would he? She’d chosen gentle and reliable over exciting; Greg was a rock. Viv could barely process the thought.
Dinner occurred, somehow, on autopilot. Lily was washed and put to bed. Viv told her to forget this strange note found under her pillow, and made her promise not to try such things again. Lily was confused and borderline frightened, so Viv explained it was just Daddy being silly.
When Greg got home he immediately bristled at the anger Viv had been simmering all afternoon. He bit back, and in turn accused her. There was shouting.
This is our daughter! What’s wrong with you?
Greg gaslighting Viv, now. Both of them directing the same embittered argument at the other, until their energy was finally spent, and they fell into an awful, uncomfortable silence. A third option filled the house. Lily must have written it herself. Prodigiously and madly. Creatively, they had to hope.
“We’ll talk to her,” Viv decided, under her breath. “We’ll be very careful.”
They held each other. One weight lifted as another settled. But with a little extra monitoring, some words from a counsellor, it would be a blip in their child’s development, nothing more. It had to be that.

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For more Ordshaw shorts, you can check out yesterday’s story, The Banker on Lynn’s Books. The next story will be The Concierge, available on Bookshine & Readbows from October 24th.

And if your curiosity is not yet satisfied, here are a few links:

Find the author Phil Williams

The Violent Fae on Goodreads

The Violent Fae UK

The Violent Fae US

Under Ordshaw on Goodreads

Under Ordshaw UK

Under Ordshaw US

Blue Angel on Goodreads

Blue Angel UK

Blue Angel US

 

Reviews

Review: TRAIL OF LIGHTNING (The Sixth World #1), by Rebecca Roanhorse

 

Trail of Lightning is one of those books that I’ve been curious to read for some time – mostly thanks to the enthusiastic reviews of my fellow bloggers – but that I’ve kept shuffling down my reading queue when distracted by other titles. Now that I’ve finally started this series, I’m both sorry that I waited so long, but also happy that thanks to my dithering the second volume is already out, so I will not have to wait too much to see the unfolding of the overall story.

Where Urban Fantasy series usually require some time to find their footing, Rebecca Roanhorse’s The Sixth World seems to hit the ground running from the very start and, despite a few narrative “hiccups”, it manages to focus your attention pretty quickly.  Mostly that’s due to the unusual setting of the story, which draws deeply from Native American lore – a new kind of background as far as I’m concerned – and not only manages to create a fascinating backdrop, but to encourage the readers to learn more about a culture they might know little, or nothing at all, about.  Which for me is always a plus.

The world has changed dramatically from the one we know: a series of environmental disasters, chief among them the Big Water (which raised the seas’ level to the point of submerging huge portions of land and killing millions in the process), have changed the face of the Earth. The few surviving areas are those either far inland or elevated from sea level: Dinétah is one such enclave – set in the region that used to be the Navajo (or Diné) reservation, it’s now encircled by a massive wall protecting the inhabitants from outside dangers, even though inside perils abound, including monsters who prey on human flesh.

This is one of the major changes brought on by world’s upheavals: in Dinétah, the ancient gods have manifested again and interact with humans (or five-fingered people, as they call them) with varying degrees of risk – the creation of such monsters being one of them.  The presence of hellish creatures requires monster slayers to keep them at bay, and Maggie Hoskie – the novel’s main character – is exactly that: trained by the god Neizghání for this purpose, she was then left to her own devices and now lives in isolation from which she emerges only to answer the desperate call of those who are beset by some foul beast.

Maggie is not an easy character to relate to: she’s abrasive and cynical, filled by an unfocused anger that comes both from the terrible past event that left her all alone in the world, and from Neizghání’s abandonment, which reinforces her growing feelings of being nothing more than a killing machine and unworthy of any kind of company.   As the novel opens, Maggie is called by the community of Lukachukai to save a young girl abducted by a monstrous creature: as she carries out the task, whose outcome is far less desirable than she anticipated, she discovers that the man-shaped animal is a new kind of beast and that it must be the product of evil witchcraft.  Asking for the knowledgeable help of Tah, an old shaman who is one of the very few people showing Maggie any kindness, she finds herself reluctantly teamed up with Kai, Tah’s grandson and a medicine-lore trainee, and the two start collecting the clues about the appearance of these new murderous creatures, while the body count keeps growing and Maggie discovers many unpleasant truths and the machinations of some of the gods walking among humans.

Along the way, Maggie’s harshness comes into a different perspective as we learn what made her the way she is now, and what comes into light is the strident contrast between her outward ferocity and her inner brittleness, which went a long way toward changing the way I saw her: she might look like a callous killer, her ability in monster slaying enhanced by the mystical powers coming from her origin clans, but inside she is not far from the terrified teenager who saw her whole world crumble in bloody pieces and who was rescued by a mythical figure who turned her into a killing machine only to abandon her with no explanation and under the weight of all her unresolved troubles and doubts.  Those same doubts about her worth as a human, about the stain of death impressed on her soul, prevent her from forming stable ties of friendship, or more, and compel her to keep some distance between herself and the people, like Tah, who know how to look beyond the hardened façade Maggie shows the world.  Maggie Hoskie is as damaged and as fascinating as another great UF character, Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye, and even though they are different on many levels they both share that kind of inner strength that makes them fight without ever giving up – no matter the damage they might sustain.

Despite such a mesmerizing main character, the novel feels a little rambling at times, with Maggie and Kai following misleading clues and being distracted by the machinations of the trickster god Coyote: it’s only in the final part that every piece falls into place and we learn – together with Maggie – the full extent of the deception centered around her and the truth, if there is any to be had, about the people she’s been fighting with.   As I said, even though the story does reach an ending of sorts, it’s an open one and I’m glad that the next book in line is already available for me to learn where Maggie is headed next.

Apart from this great protagonist, the other fascinating element in Trail of Lightning comes from the Diné lore and the way it informs both the narrative and the character development: there is a definite sense of the proverbial iceberg here, of stories and legends barely touched on that only beg to be explored in greater depth, and yet even that little helps in giving this novel a special flavor that is both new and engaging in a genre where the extraordinary is at home.

Highly recommended.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: THE CITY SCREAMS (An Ordshaw Novella), by Phil Williams

 

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

When Phil Williams sent me the copy of The City Screams, I hoped it would expand on the themes encountered in his previous two novels, Under Ordshaw and Blue Angel, since there are many dark corners in there that I would love to explore. What I found was instead a very different kind of story, one that however was both intriguing and fascinating: instead of investigating further the mysteries of the imaginary city of Ordshaw, here we travel to Japan, following the journey of an Ordshaw citizen, Tova Nokes, as she lands in Tokyo to undergo a revolutionary medical procedure.

Tova lost her hearing at a very young age, and although she adapted to her disability as she grew up, the offer from Mogami Industries to be part of their experimental surgery, one that will return her hearing, is too good to pass up. Moreover, aside from the opportunity to visit a different country, there is a bonus thrown in: the chance to meet Tova’s idol, the rock singer Natalie Reid – another Ordshaw citizen – and to finally be able to hear her music.

The operation does not seem to sort the desired effect, though, and all Tova is able to hear, once the new implant is activated, are anguished screams coming from all over the city – and the disembodied voice of someone called Ki, who tries to warn her about a sort of unspecified danger she must avoid at all costs. From that moment on, Tova will find herself enmeshed into a breathless adventure that looks more like an obstacle course than anything else, and it will take all her resourcefulness and strength to stay above water and keep hold of her sanity.

First things first, I just loved the Japanese setting in The City Screams: if on one side the story showed that Ordshaw is not unique in its peculiarities, on the other the alien-ness of the parallel world coexisting and interweaving with our primary one is enhanced here by the social and cultural differences of a society so dissimilar to ours, despite some of its leanings toward western mores. What’s truly intriguing here is Tova’s point of view: she is not only the proverbial stranger in a strange land, she also lacks one of her senses, which makes those new and surprising sights even more perplexing, adding to the sense of displacement she suffers once a maelstrom of weird events threatens to overwhelm her.

It’s quite easy to care for Tova as a character: despite the disability, she has managed to build herself a good life, one centered around family, work, friends – like the sisterly Ren – and boyfriend Ethan, who however does not shine for his supporting attitude.  Not unlike Pax, the central character of the other two novels in the Ordshaw series, Tova is a strong, determined person and at the same time a quite average one, but when push comes to shove she is able to unearth a reservoir of toughness and resilience that carry her over the increasing obstacles she finds on her path, starting with the anguish caused by the failure of the “miracle” implant.

Tova might not be the classic heroine, and she certainly is not the ass-kicking kind of person modern literature and movies have led us to expect, but for this very reason she feels real and relatable, an ordinary person forced to face extraordinary (and baffling!) circumstances and meeting them with admirable resourcefulness. The best moment in her growth came for me when Tova realizes that until that moment she had let others determine what she could or could not do, allowing them to put fetters on her ability to deal with life’s little and big problems – the moment when she consciously choses to walk on her road and not the one others picked for her:

 

[…]It was easier to stay in a bubble, not push it. The story of Ethan’s life. Hell, the story of her life before coming out here. After a thought, Tova casually signed, “F*** off, Ethan, I can take care of myself.”

 

What’s not to admire, indeed…  🙂

The City Screams, like its companion novels, leaves us with some unanswered questions, since the author clearly wants to keep the most important cards close to his chest for a final revelation, so this novella does feel somewhat… incomplete, especially when the real motivation for the mysterious Ki’s actions is revealed and ultimately sounds quite shallow and self-serving.  But meeting Tova is worth accepting a few more gray areas in the overall narrative, and the author’s words about finding her again in the near future – probably in the final book of the series – give me a renewed enthusiasm for this Urban Fantasy arc and its as-yet unexplored threads.

 

My Rating: