Reviews

Novella Review: SUFFER A SEA CHANGE (October Daye #12.1), by Seanan McGuire

 

At the end of October Daye’s latest novel, Night and Silence, there was a welcome surprise, the novella Suffer a Sea Change which explores at some length (and promises more for the future, hopefully) one of the most poignant narrative elements of its parent novel.

A synopsis is out of the question, since it would spoil both the main book and the enjoyment of this novella, so what I can share is that it deals with a very interesting point of view character: Gillian, October’s daughter, the daughter that for so many years felt abandoned and betrayed by her mother, not knowing the real reason for Toby’s prolonged absence and her choice not to be part of Gillian’s life anymore.

One of the details I immediately noticed was how Gillian’s inner ‘voice’ is similar to Toby’s: finding herself in a scary, unusual situation, she often resorts to that form of dry sarcasm that is her mother’s way of dealing with fear and helplessness.

Gillian’s nature might be closer to her mother’s than she suspects, and this might be one of the elements that could bring them together – and considering what a weak, contemptible person Cliff turned out to be in Night and Silence, or in light of the discovery of step mother Miranda’s not-so-crystalline motivations, I believe that an intelligent young woman like Gillian might be able to see the whole picture once she’s been given all the elements she needs.

My hope for a reconciliation lies mostly in some considerations from Gillian, like this one:

 

I hadn’t quite been able to work up the energy to hate her. When I thought about her, it made me sad, not angry […]

 

or this one:

 

I had spent so much of my life hating my biological mother that it was like a physical pain in my gut to realize that she might not be the villain of the piece after all.

 

It’s clear that Gillian needs to come to terms with her confused feelings about her mother, but first she will have to work through her own problems, and adapt to a different outlook on life, and that is the promise that comes across in this short story: that she will not be alone in doing so and that the greatest help might come from the Luidaeg brings me to hope for some very interesting developments where the Sea Witch is concerned, especially in relation to Toby and the people she cares about.

There is a great deal of emotion and character development in this short story, but I can safely say it’s one of the best I read among the companion tales to October’s main journey: the promise is there, all we have to do is for it to be fulfilled – in time.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: NIGHT AND SILENCE (October Daye #12), by Seanan McGuire

 

Even risking to sound like a broken record, I need to stress once more how this series keeps raising the stakes from one book to the next, how far it is from generating any kind of “reader fatigue” and how much I keep feeling invested, as a reader and a huge fan, in the ongoing story of October and friends.

More than in previous instances, this will be a difficult book to review because talking about it without giving away any spoilers is going to be a monumental feat, but I will try anyway, focusing rather on the character development and the emotional responses engendered by this twelfth installment in what I consider one of the best Urban Fantasy series of these years.

Since the blurb on GoodReads or other sites already mentions it, I feel safe in reporting that the main focus of Night and Silence is the kidnapping of Gillian, Toby’s estranged daughter, who disappeared from the Berkley campus leaving only an empty car and some traces of blood.  After the events of the previous book, Toby and her extended family are not in the best of shape: Tybalt and Jazz are dealing with their own version of PTSD, the King of Cats more than Jazz, and the distance he’s put between himself and Toby is hurting them both, leaving them unbalanced and vulnerable.  The appearance of Cliff, Toby’s former lover and Gillian’s father, and of Miranda, Cliff’s new wife, at Toby’s door, accusing her of the girl’s disappearance, launches a breakneck chase all over San Francisco, both in the mundane parts of the city and in the fae encroaching realms – a chase that will bring to light many unexpected revelations and a couple of actual narrative bombshells.  Not to mention a lot of shed blood – and I mean a lot: this might very well be the book in which October bleeds more than in any previous installment of the series…

 

“You lost a great deal of blood.”
“I didn’t lose it,” I said. “I know exactly where it is.”

I will freely admit that at first I was not completely sold on the kidnapping angle, since this particular story-line had already been explored in a previous book, but I should not have worried – as I soon became aware – because Seanan McGuire had no intention to retread old paths and managed to lead both her characters and her readers on a breathless adventure that paves the way for a number of unpredictable scenarios that will be the fuel for the next volumes.

What Night and Silence does very well is make us think about the meaning of family, and family ties, and the detail that comes to the fore with dramatic intensity is the contrast between what I might call Toby’s ‘original’, human-oriented family, made of Cliff and Gillian, and the one she built around herself with May, Tybalt, Quentin and all the other friends she’s made along the way.  Once more we are reminded of the fact that when October came back from her involuntary 14-year stint as a fish in a pond, Cliff did not even give her the chance to explain (hard as that might have been without revealing the existence of Faerie), and literally slammed the door in her face. He does not come across as a very nice or considerate person, and here he appears as completely subjected to his wife Miranda’s will: together they have done their best (or rather, their worst) to fuel Gillian’s pain and lack of understanding for Toby’s disappearance into a full-fledged hate of the girl’s natural mother.  And once a huge revelation about Miranda’s history and motivations becomes clear, the extent of their combined efforts takes on a sinister light that made me despise them even more, particularly when I kept witnessing Toby’s resigned acceptance of Gillian’s rejection: she can fight like an enraged lioness for the sake of her child, but she will not try to change the young woman’s point of view, and that’s quite painful to see.  On the other hand, there is a very intense conversation with Cliff, at some point, where finally October makes him face his responsibilities, and it’s a welcome exchange. Much welcome.

The only bright lights in this quite bleak panorama come from Tybalt and the Luidaeg: the King of Cats might be still recovering (and it looks like it’s going to be a long, long road) from his ordeal at the hands of Amandine, he might feel diminished in his ability to be an effective ruler, but when October is in dire need of his help he does not hesitate and shows that the strength of old is still there, ready to be deployed for the sake of the woman he loves.   I make no mystery that I’m not exactly partial to romance in my reading material, but in the case of October and Tybalt I’m always ready to make an exception, and I believe that’s because their relationship feels very real, with no need for the usual frills of a romantic entanglement: they are not simply lovers, they are friends and comrades who have learned their mutual strengths and weaknesses and know how to support each other when need arises.  The combination of Toby’s cynical approach to life and Tybalt’s old-world manner of expression makes for many delightful exchanges that always bring a smile to my face.

As for the Luidaeg… well, my favorite character after October truly shines here in Night and Silence: she is her usual gruff and abrasive self of course, and that’s to be expected, but she also shows her deep capacity for love and affection that the brusque manner she uses as a cover does not mask very well. Among the many revelations offered by this book, there are some concerning the Luidaeg that shine a new light on her character and, most important, on her past and the circumstances that made her who she is, that is, besides what we already knew about her…     What the Luidaeg does here for October and her own is the proof (as if we needed one…) of her deep affection for this changeling and also of the feeling of responsibility she harbors for Toby – I would be tempted to say that she is more of a mother than Amandine could ever be, even though I can almost hear her vehement denial of this conclusion…

If The Brightest Fell ended with many unresolved question and a dark pall hanging over the characters, Night and Silence offers a slight glimmer of hope for the future: it might not look much, at face value, but the potential for the righting of some wrongs in there, even though we already know that October and her friends’ path will never be smooth or easy.  But we would not want it any other way…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE CRUEL PRINCE (The Folk of the Air #1), by Holly Black

 

My imprinting as a reader for any description of the fae and their realms can be ascribed to Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, so it would be honest to admit that I tend to compare to it any book or series dealing with faerie.  Honest but probably unfair, since any novel should be judged on its own merits…   In the case of The Cruel Prince, though, I found such a fresh, new approach that I never felt the need to compare it with other similar works, and simply let it enfold me in its compelling story, and enthrall me completely.

The twins Jude and Taryn are seven years old when their world comes crashing down around them: a mysterious man, one who shares the same peculiar looks as their older sister Vivi, appears out of nowhere, kills their parents and takes the three shocked girls with him.  He’s Madoc, their human mother’s fae husband and Vivi’s father, come to exact his vengeance for the woman’s desertion and to take back his daughter where he believes she belongs.  Jude and Taryn, even though they are fully human, are included in the ‘package’ out of a quite peculiar sense of duty, and brought up as Madoc’s own children.

When we see them again, after such a shocking beginning, they are in their late teens, and the long years spent in faerie have changed them deeply: children are indeed nothing but adaptable, which is also a crucial survival trait, but the twins have each evolved their own methods and goals to belong in an environment that is not exactly friendly to humans, and will always look on them as outsiders, no matter the high standing of their adoptive father.  Where Taryn tries to blend into the background, adopting the rules and mannerisms of the fae, striving to be like them despite the obvious differences, Jude prefers to stand out, and dreams of one day being a knight and earning the acceptance and respect she craves through feats of valor.  Even more interesting is their sister Vivi’s continued defiance, both of the rules and of their father: she, who would not have any problems in belonging, is the one who could not care less about faerie, and instead prefers spending time in the human world, as a human girl.

This fascinating dynamic is complemented by the equally fascinating relationship of the twins with Madoc, the balance of hate and love, fear and respect that have been in constant warfare with each other over the years: if the girls are unable to forget the bloodbath that made them orphans in one cruel stroke, they at the same time see Madoc as a fair, if stern, surrogate parent, one whose approval they seek – even against their deepest inclinations.  If one wanted an in-depth study of Stockholm Syndrome, it would not be necessary to look farther than here…

All of the above is centered in an exploration of the realm of faerie that is nothing short of fascinating: the unthinking cruelty of the fae is – if you will allow me the term – a matter of record, since the legendarium surrounding them portrays the fae as so alien, so remote from any human behavioral pattern, as to divest them from any romantic ideal.   But The Cruel Prince goes several steps beyond that, painting the picture of a realm where danger lurks around every corner, where every morsel of food or drop of drink might prove fatal, where enslavement, murder and treason are as commonplace and as accepted as the air one breathes.

This background is leisurely explored, together with the characters’ journey, in the first half of the book, at which point both the story and the characterization take a huge leap forward and evolve into a breathless pace that’s full of surprises and reversals: to say that I literally flew through the second part of the novel would be a massive understatement, when I realized that the greater part of the attraction came from observing Jude as she navigates through the events, always keeping her goal in mind and ready to pay any price to reach it.

Jude is not exactly a sympathetic character, and even though I understand where most of her attitude comes from, I could not avoid being horrified at some of her choices and the ever-present calculation of the odds that would best serve her in her quest. Yet, she remains a fascinating figure, and one I could not avoid rooting for: it’s possible that my acceptance of her comes from her own honest acceptance of what she is – at some point, Madoc tells her that denying herself would prove more painful than giving in to her deepest instincts, so that when those killer instincts are needed she chooses to employ them, not just to fulfill her ambitions, but to do some good for the realm. It’s a sort of balancing act, a way of seeking an ethical side to her ambitious drive, and for me it works as it would not for a character based in the mortal world: Jude is as much a child of faerie as she is a mortal, and her way of taking the best of both worlds and making it work for her is brilliant, and believable.

This duality is not reserved for Jude alone, though, because almost every other character in this story is a study in contrasts, showing both a dark side and some frailties, or even redeeming qualities, that make them delightfully complex and impossible to pinpoint or fit into a specific mold, allowing for interpersonal dynamics that are ever-changing and unpredictable.  My only disappointment comes from the fact that a few of them – like Cardan, the titular prince – are not explored enough and are somehow kept on the sidelines in favor of Jude, but I hope that the next novels in the series will correct the aim and give us a better understanding of these characters as well.

And speaking of next novels, given that The Cruel Prince closes, if not with a cliffhanger, with great uncertainty about how the future will develop, I am more than looking forward to see where the author will take us next.  As a first encounter with Holly Black’s work this was a very auspicious one, and I know it will not be the last…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE SKIN TRADE, by G.R.R. Martin

 

Reading, or in this case re-reading, the stories contained in the two-volume collection Dreamsongs always reminds me that G.R.R. Martin can speak in many voices, not just that of epic fantasy: The Skin Trade, a long novella or short novel depending on the point of view, is a perfect example of Martin’s wide variety of styles, mixing in this case both horror and urban fantasy in a story that’s quite compelling.

Willie Flambeaux is a collection agent, an unremarkable kind of guy saddled with asthma and a paunch, but he suddenly finds himself at the center of dreadful events as his friends are being murdered in the most savage way – as if mauled by an animal. He asks his friend Randi Wade, a private investigator, to look into the matter, even though he knows this will raise some dark ghosts from her past: twenty years before Randi’s father, a police officer, was killed by some kind of animal, so the official report went, an animal that was uncannily able to withstand being shot with the entire load of Wade Senior’s gun, and disappear.

As the two of them try to make sense of the evidence in the recent murder spree, and to overcome what looks like blindness or lack of interest from the police, we learn that Willie is a werewolf – or, as he prefers to say, a lycanthrope, and that there is a good number of these creatures in the city.  What’s even more alarming is that the victims of the ghastly murders were lycanthropes themselves, and that therefore – as the pack leader and unofficial city owner Jonathan Harmon warns Willie – there is someone or something that is hunting the hunters.

One of the most fascinating sides of this story, aside from its fast, compelling pace, is the new outlook adopted for the werewolf myth: the transformation is not dependent on the moon, as the werewolves can change at whim, and that in the shifted form they are more powerful, have more stamina and can overcome any physical problem present in their human aspect.  For example, Willie’s asthma disappears completely when he becomes a wolf, and his friend Joan – the first victim – though paralyzed as a human, was able to move and run when she changed.   Still, the lycanthropes are sensitive to silver, and that detail will prove very important in the course of the story…

Another element I enjoyed is the banter between Randi and Willie, who have known each other for a long time and despite their differences have managed to build a friendship that’s based on mutual respect and trust, even though it’s hidden under Randi’s verbal barbs and Willie’s futile but still enthusiastic attempts at seducing the investigator.  There is a slow buildup and an equally slow reveal about the creature that is killing werewolves all over the city, and the last part of the story is a breathless rush that will keep you turning the pages compulsively.

And on a side note, you can also appreciate this novella in audio format, where Randi Wade is played by Australian actress Claudia Black (a.k.a. Farscape’s Aeryn Sun), an experience I wholeheartedly recommend.

Reviews

Short Story Review: NO SOONER MET (An October Daye short story), by Seanan McGuire

Illustration -Old locomotive at night seeing moon and smoke

Readers of Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series all agree on their appreciation of Tybalt, King of Cats and – for some time now – Toby’s love interest, a relationship that has grown and matured over the course of several novels, developing in a delightfully organic way.  It was therefore a lovely surprise to discover this short story, available for free download on the author’s site, focusing on October and Tybalt’s first date.  You can find the story HERE (it’s the sixth down the page, and you can download it in various formats).

This being Seanan McGuire, you will not find a saccharine-laden tale of two people enjoying a romantic dinner, there will be no overly sweet, cringe-worthy dialogue between them, nor rainbows and unicorns and all the tropes that could apply to such a situation.

No, this dinner between Toby and the King of Cats, their first foray into the outside world since they acknowledged their mutual interest, is carried out on the strength of intelligent humor, on the interplay between two people who have been friends and allies before becoming lovers, who have learned to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and how to play them to mutual advantage.

Oh, and there’s an attempted assassination as well, but I guess that’s all part and parcel of who they are, too…

What I most enjoyed here was the juxtaposition of Toby’s more modern point of view and Tybalt’s centuries-old courtly attitude, a contrast made clearer by the fact that the story is told from his point of view (a welcome change from the Toby-centric narrative of the rest of the series).  Tybalt’s earnestness is both the product of his own character and of the times he was born in, and it results in a delightful speech pattern that lends more depth to the concepts he expresses.  There is a passage in the story that’s a good example of that, and is worth quoting:

“I won’t pretend that you do not have the capacity to break my heart. The fact that I would trust you enough to risk the breaking of it is a compliment […]  Would I sulk for a time, years perhaps? Yes. I am only a man. But I would return to you with my hat in my hands and ask that my friend take me back, even if my lover had journeyed forever into that strange and distant country known as ‘Memory,’ where never a living soul may go.”

Even someone as little romantically-inclined as myself can’t remain indifferent to such intense, and yet contained, emotions: in less skilled hands, the concepts expressed by Tybalt might have come out as stuffy or hyperbolic, but here they sound just… perfect.  As perfect and balanced as this story – a must-read for all Toby admirers.

What are you waiting for?

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: JADE CITY (The Green Bone Saga #1), by Fonda Lee

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

In recent times I have been quite fortunate when taking chances with authors either unknown to me or publishing their first book, and Jade City was no exception: I read that the author Fonda Lee published a few YA stories before branching out into adult fiction and into this very peculiar genre that is a mix between urban fantasy and a noir, and I must say that the attempt was not just very successful, but also resulted in a deeply engaging story, one that drew me in completely and kept my imagination captive for the whole journey.

The background of Jade City has a fascinating Far Eastern flavor and it’s coupled with a time setting that reminded me of the early ‘60s, conferring to the story a unique feel that is part of its appeal, even though the lion’s share goes to the story itself and the characters. The island of Kekon rests on huge deposits of jade, mined not for its ornamental qualities but because it confers extraordinary powers to those who are able to harness its energy: Green Bones, as they are called, are capable of incredible physical and mental feats – as an individual’s tolerance to jade increases with use, so do the abilities he or she can employ.

One could say that jade has shaped Kekonese society: at its top are Green Bones, of course, organized in clans governed by a rigid set of rules and gaining or losing influence according to the economic power wielded over the big and small businesses of “common” citizens, those who are unable to wear jade. A clan is ruled by the Pillar, whose immediate lieutenants are the Weatherman (who advises the Pillar on matters of policy) and the Horn, the enforcer, who through the Fists and Fingers deals with any circumstance requiring a show of strength – or violence. The two major clans on the island are the Mountain and No Peak, the latter ruled by the Kaul family, who are at the center of the events: Lan, the Pillar; Hilo, the Horn, and their younger sister Shae, who some years before gave up all her privileges and jade to go live among foreigners and try to forge a different kind of life for herself. Her return home coincides with a series of events that will bring her clan to open war with the Mountain and force the Kaul siblings toward paths no one of them would have expected.

As I said, this novel is a very engaging one, and it took little time for me to be enfolded by the story while learning the fascinating details of Kekon’s past and the Kaul family history. The impression one derives from the narrative is that until recently Kekon was very similar to a feudal holding, moving into a more modern outlook only in the last few decades, after a bloody independence war sanctioned its freedom from foreign occupation: modern conveniences like cars or television sets seem like a novelty that’s slowly spreading through the populace, while many of the older customs and ways of thinking still linger on and still inform everyday dealings. The parallel with Japan after the end of WWII is quite striking and serves very well to illustrate the uneasy transition between the older and younger generation: in the Kaul family, for example, the aged, ailing patriarch still clings to older methods of conducting business and interacting with competitors, while his grandsons either try to balance the old with the new, or seek different paths for the changing times. Then there is Shae, who falls somehow in the middle, having tried to sever ties with her past, only to return home and find herself entangled in family business and deadly feuds.

The beauty of these characters is that they are all flawed in one way or another, and those flaws help in making them more human despite the incredible abilities bestowed on jade wearers, powers that allow them to channel enormous strength for physical feats, or to create shields out of thin air, or again to perceive other people’s thoughts and emotions. Without these flaws they might have looked like cartoonish characters, but instead they suffer, and bleed, and make terrible mistakes, and through it all they grow and evolve: Lan is a man of peace, maybe not the best choice for Pillar of No Peak since he lacks the aggressiveness that’s sometimes necessary to withstand the Mountain’s plays for power, and yet there is such a depth of honesty to him that it’s impossible not to understand where his attitude comes from, just as it’s impossible to mistake it for weakness as others do. His brother Hilo is quite the opposite, brash and violent on the outside, but fiercely loyal on the inside and capable of enormous acts of generosity: I must admit that I liked Hilo quite a bit, especially when he finds himself forced to juggle his deeper instincts and the need for shrewdness required by the clan war.

And last, but not least, Shae and Hilo’s lover Wen: being a woman in Kekonese society is not easy, given the cultural restrictions imposed on them by past customs that are not evolving as rapidly as one might wish. And yet – each in a different way – they manage to leave their mark on the people around them and to show that strength is not a quality that comes from jade or physical prowess, but from the depths of one’s soul. These two women are perhaps the best indicators of the slow but inexorable changes that are starting to take root in Kekon, and it will be interesting to see how these first seeds of change will bloom in the next books for this series.

In short, Jade City was such an immersive reading experience that I often found myself needing a conscious effort to transition back to the real world: to me, that’s the mark of strong writing and expert storytelling, elements that make me want to explore more of this author’s works.

Highly recommended.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: OF THINGS UNKNOWN, by Seanan McGuire

At the back of The Brightest Fell, the eleventh volume in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, I found a welcome surprise, a novella set in the same world and tied to the events of the second book, A Local Habitation.  Even though the finer details of that story had become slightly fuzzy with the passage of time, I found myself remembering it all thanks to the author’s dropped hints that brought it all back in no time at all.

The protagonist here is April O’Leary, a very unusual kind of fae: she used to be a Dryad, a tree-dweller, and she had come to be adopted by January O’Leary, the Countess of Tamed Lightning, an equally unusual knowe for fae standards, one where magic and computer technology could exist side by side, enhancing each other in new and peculiar ways.  At the end of A Local Habitation, the death of January had left April as the heir to Tamed Lightning, and as caretaker for the people whose mental/spiritual/whatever energy had been drained from their bodies and electronically stored into a server.

Now, a few years after the facts, a way has been found to restore those people’s vitality to their bodies, through a ritual that, not uncommonly for Tamed Lightning, is part computer programming and part magic, and will require October Daye’s contribution to work.  The only victim not to be restored will be January, April’s adoptive mother, because her body was damaged beyond repair, and both April and January’s widow Li Quin struggle to come to terms with this, while rejoicing for the possibility of bringing back their long-lost friends.

While April and Li Quin battle with their still-fresh grief and the uncertainties about the future, April makes a mind-boggling discovery…

I enjoyed this story quite a bit, both because it represented a sort of… soft exit from October Daye’s world after the end of The Brightest Fell, one of the most intense novels of the series, and also because it explored April’s character with some added depth: she is quite fascinating, because she is not exactly alive, being a virtual creature who exists in the data streams of Tamed Lightning’s computer banks.  It was the only way for her to survive, after the death of her tree, and this kind of existence has changed April’s outlook in a dramatic way: she thinks like a software, she looks at the world and at people as if they were programs, or strings of code, and this colors both her thought processes and the way she understand people – or tries to.

There is a delightfully fascinating consideration about Toby that showcases April’s way of looking at things and people:

Sir October Daye is a knight errant of the realm. She is an irregular command in the code, a roving antivirus entering compromised systems and repairing what she can before moving on to the next crisis.

I loved it, because it was not only a way to understand what makes April tick, but it also felt so very fitting for October and the way she is. And now the wait for our favorite changeling’s next adventures goes on…

 

My Rating: