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:

Reviews

Wyrd & Wonder 2019 – MIDDLEGAME, by Seanan McGuire

 

Oh my, where to start in describing this novel? And how to do it without revealing too much and therefore spoiling your enjoyment the story?  Well, let’s begin with the cover, one that would have drawn my attention even without the name of Seanan McGuire, one of my favorite authors, acting like a magnet. That hand-shaped candle with the burning wicks at the end of each finger carries such an ominous overtone that I could not wait to learn what it meant – by the way, it’s a Hand of Glory, it features prominently from a certain point onwards, and “ominous” barely scratches the surface as far as I’m concerned…

The beginning of Middlegame might seem a little confusing, but my advice is to go with the flow and trust the author to carry you where she intends to: everything will become clear in no time at all.  Even though the story is set in modern times, it shows some intriguing anachronisms: in the beginning we meet James Reed, an alchemist and at the same time a Frankenstein-like construct created by another famous alchemist, Asphodel Baker, whose dream was to harness the Doctrine, the fundamental force ruling the world, to shape it according to her vision.  Baker never reached such a goal, hindered as she was by the Alchemical Congress, but Reed intends to continue his creator’s work – not so much to bring her legacy to fruition, but rather to gain absolute power.  Reed’s way to make the Doctrine pliable to his will is to channel it in living flesh, embodying its constituent elements in twin children, each of whom will receive half of this energy.

Roger and Dodger are two such twins (not the only ones, though…), brought to life in Reed’s lab and infused, respectively, with the gift of language and mathematics, the two halves of the whole Doctrine. They are then separated and given to foster families, to grow as normal children until maturity will turn them into the tools Reed needs to wield.  They are not normal children however, because their talents go well beyond the usual range to move into genius territory: Roger possesses an uncanny gift for languages, and Dodger plays with numbers as other girls do with dolls. One day, despite being hundreds of miles apart, they connect with each other, establishing a mind link that will indelibly shape their lives and their future, while at the same time mitigating in part their essential loneliness.  As much as their creator and his minders try to keep them apart, to prevent them from reaching the desired peak too early, Roger and Dodger move through the years in a complicated dance of closeness and distance, friendship and hurt, mutual comfort and profound misunderstandings that will culminate one day in their actual meeting and the start of an unpredictable chain of events, involving time flow and the fabric of reality.

There are so many levels to this story that on hindsight I’ve come to acknowledge the fact that the core concepts of the Doctrine and Reed’s megalomaniac plans become secondary to the evolution of Roger and Dodger as persons: they are wonderfully depicted characters, their journey from childhood to maturity a fascinating progress that has little to do with their uncanny abilities and more with their sense of kinship, that bond which unites them from early on and is never broken even through separation and fallings-out.  If there is a topic in which Seanan McGuire excels is the exploration of the human soul and the hurts children suffer as they grow up: Roger and Dodger are essentially lonely children, excluded by their nature and upbringing from their peers’ usual activities, always “on the outside looking in” and more often than not unable to understand the reasons for this rift.

There is a very poignant quality in the awareness of their isolation, which leads to the easy acceptance of the voice each of them hears inside their heads as the first contact is made and both children understand on some basic level that they have met their complement – the missing half, the part that completes them just as language and math, heart and reason, complete each other. Through them we explore the themes of friendship and family, of the connections we establish with other people and how deeply they can run, of the way our abilities can shape us and direct our lives.  But above all we come to care for these odd twins and the way their respective orbits move around the center represented by their need to be together in order to be complete, and that’s the kind of story that compelled me to keep reading and made me resent every moment when I had to put the book down.

One of the reasons Middlegame is so absorbing comes from its peculiar narrative style, one that does not care too much about linearity and starts at what looks like an ending, and a shocking one at that: “There is so much blood.”, a sentence that informs the overall mood of the novel and keeps the reader mired in uncertainty about the fate of the main characters. From here the story moves haphazardly from past to future to past, the only navigational directions coming from the time and date given at the beginning of each chapter: such fluidity has its roots in one of the novel’s core themes, which is also an astounding discovery of the twins’ powers.  I have often remarked how the vagaries of time can be a tricky subject where I am concerned, but here it all made a lot of sense, not to mention that it increased my perception of the stakes at hand, and just for once I did not care for the intricacies of time-hopping and its inherent contradictions because McGuire made it all appear so natural, so understandable in its very impossibility, that I could only accept and enjoy it.

The other characters in the story are truly secondary when compared with Roger and Dodger, so that the main villain Reed is not drawn too precisely, for example, although that turned out to be of little importance to me because in the end he was a little like Tolkien’s Sauron – a dire, evil presence in the background, mentioned but hardly seen.  A little more definite is Reed’s henchwoman Leslie, another alchemical construct assembled from parts of dead women (which is a thoroughly chilling concept): her penchant for murder, mayhem and the suffering of others plays an interesting contrast with Reed’s detached cruelty. But the one who most drew my attention, in a strange mixture of dislike and pity, is Erin, the surviving half of another pair of experimental twins, and Leslie’s deputy of sorts: hers is an intriguing journey and one that I don’t want to spoil – discovering her depths and facets is one of the fascinating surprises of this novel.

Much as I always enjoy works penned by Seanan McGuire, I have to acknowledge that Middlegame feels like a further step up in her writing, plotting and character exploration skills, certainly the best book I have read so far from this author.  Don’t let it pass you by, or you will miss an amazing story.

 

My Rating:

 

(image courtesy of kasana86)
Reviews

Wyrd & Wonder 2019: BLUE ANGEL (Ordshaw #2), by Phil Williams (review)

 

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review: my thanks for this opportunity.

As the saying goes, this second volume in the new Urban Fantasy series Ordshaw hits the ground running: while its predecessor Under Ordshaw needed to establish the playing field and to sketch the main characters’ profile and therefore suffered some slight pacing problems, Blue Angel can now afford to start exactly where we left off and drive at high speed toward the next phase of the story.  And ‘high speed’ is indeed the code word here, since events move at such a breakneck pace that at times I felt dizzy just trying to follow them all, especially when considering that, as was the case in Book 1, they all happen in a very short time span.

Book 2 alternates its focus between the characters we already know – Pax, Letty, the Bartons and Casaria – and some new perspectives, like Sam Ward from the shady Ministry of Environmental Energy, which add further layers to the story and offer an inside look on the MEE and the bureaucratic mentality of politicians dealing with the supernatural – which is not exactly a wholesome or comforting sight…

The sense of chaos that plagued me before is present in Blue Angel as well, but here it finally makes sense, because we are trying to patch together the pieces of this complicated puzzle, and like the characters we understand we don’t have all the tiles of the mosaic and we struggle alongside these fictional people to find some order in the madness that has hit the city of Ordshaw since the events of the previous book.  Toward the end, once some of the characters have finally understood that they stand a better chance of succeeding if they cooperate with each other, the picture becomes a little less fuzzy, but at the same time it takes on some very ominous overtones due to the unsettling discoveries made along the way, not the least of which is that there is a mastermind behind it all and it’s clearly NOT a friendly one.

As fascinating as the mystery is, however, the characters still take over the stage, particularly the fae: Letty continues to be the irreverent, loudmouthed pest we all know and love – and her brashness is inversely proportional to her size, which makes the diminutive creature even more hilarious – but here we see some important changes in her attitude, especially toward Pax. Despite the name-calling and the slanderous remarks she employs quite liberally, Letty doesn’t hide how she cares for the human young woman and her safety, and I enjoyed the direction their relationship is going, especially in consideration of the otherwise quite strained human/fae interactions.  Letty’s stance is further highlighted by the introduction of another fae, Lightgate, who makes Letty look like a dainty lady: Lightgate is a garish dresser who always goes around with a bottle of spirits from which she sip frequently, has a very low opinion of everyone who is not fae, and is prone to mindless violence.  Which makes her a delightful foil for Letty’s newfound point of view.

As for the humans, Pax truly shines here as the only one with enough wits and intelligence not to be led astray by false trails and misdirections, while showing an inordinate amount of courage in the face of the harrowing situations she is involved in: there are moments when she regrets becoming involved in this whole, complicated mess, and when she yearns for the “good old times”

She’d been happy playing cards. She’d been happy wandering Ordshaw at night, not knowing what lay under the surface. She didn’t need this.

but these are just quick flashes of nostalgia for a simpler past, soon forgotten in the wake of the more compelling requirements of the adventure that started only a couple of days prior in that bar, and Pax never fails to rise to the occasion.  She is not your classical UF heroine, one gifted with special abilities she can call upon when needed: she is an ordinary person thrown into extraordinary circumstances, and doing her best to cope with them, which makes her more approachable and likable as a character.

The newcomer Sam Ward, the Ministry employee gifted with intelligence and foresight who was therefore shunted into a useless sinecure (that’s bureaucracy for you…) is equally interesting, so I liked the way she took over once the circumstances at the MEE changed drastically, and I have high hopes of her becoming a more permanent fixture in the overall story. After the antics from Casaria, the King of Weirdos, Sam comes across as a fresh breath of air and a voice for sanity in the general foolishness and lack of imagination that seems to be the main requirements for Ministry employees.

As a counterpoint, we see very little of Barton, which I confess did not feel like a great loss because he seemed more like a bumbling amateur than anything else – and some of the discoveries Pax makes in the course of the story would point out to him and his former underground explorer friends as clumsy fools seeking adventures to relieve the boredom of a dull life rather than true paladins of the city’s safety.

Clueless fools. They’d blundered into something big enough to affect the whole city, and then sat around boozing and making home videos […]  No wonder the Blue Angel had taken advantage of them.

This second volume in the Ordshaw series sets the stage for some interesting developments and revelations in what looks like a scenario where no one can truly understand what’s going on, unless some more of the Ordshaw mysteries are revealed. It’s going to be an interesting journey, indeed…

 

My Rating:

 

(image courtesy of kasana86)
Reviews

Review: UNDER ORDSHAW, by Phil Williams

 

I received this novel from the author in exchange for an honest review: despite having closed my blog to indie submissions a while ago, I was intrigued by the premise of this book since I read LYNN’s review of it for the 2019 SPBO event, so that when the author contacted me I was happy to make an exception.

Under Ordshaw is an Urban Fantasy story that follows the genre’s parameters only up to a certain point: we have a modern city setting coexisting with a paranormal reality made of fae and monsters – the latter haunting an underground system of galleries – but the similarities stop here. The main character is neither a detective, nor is she a specially gifted person (both being common occurrences in UF): on the contrary she’s a quite ordinary girl who is forced to face extraordinary circumstances despite her best efforts not to.

Pax Kuranes is a skilled card player living off her winnings: as we meet her she’s just gained a considerable sum in a poker game, one that will allow her not only to pay the almost-overdue rent, but to buy her place in a high-stakes tournament whose earnings might go a long way toward offering some security for the future.  Pax’s elation is short-lived though, because a young man in a bar swipes the money from her pocket even as he’s being arrested by a government official: angry and frantic about the money, and curious about the thief’s mutterings about a minotaur, Pax does a little digging and finds a strange, hand-drawn book in the man’s hideout – a book representing weird, creepy creatures that seem to come out of the worst Lovecraftian nightmare.

This is only the beginning of Pax’s eerie adventure, as she’s introduced to the mysteries of Ordshaw’s underground and to the existence of a terrifying and secret world peopled by monsters, fairies and agents of good and evil, whose line of demarcation is quite fluid and changes more than once in the course of the story: the man from the shady Ministry of Environmental Energy, Casaria, is definitely a creepy individual, especially when his p.o.v. chapters make the reader privy to his dreams on a future working partnership with Pax, which he hopes might evolve into something deeper. On the side of the “good guys” there is Barton, a man who stumbled by pure chance on the secrets of the underground and tried to keep its dangers at bay by acting in something of a Don-Quixote-like quest, but he looks more dedicated than effective, and pays the price of his self-imposed mission with injuries and the damage to his family ties.

And then there are the fae, winged creatures only a few inches tall, who nonetheless prove quite aggressive and sometimes lethal – if someone ever needed a confirmation of the maxim about size being unimportant, they would need to look no further than Ordshaw’s fae, especially Letty, the leader of a small, mutinous group and my absolute favorite character in the novel.  Letty is brash, aggressive and foul-mouthed, and yet she turned out to be the best drawn player on the scene, and one I had no trouble picturing in my mind’s eye, from her gossamer wings to the middle finger she keeps flaunting at the slightest provocation.

What lurks in the bowels of the city has been dwelling there for a long time, and has been the object of a tug-of-war between the fae, with their nomadic city, and the humans on the surface, both groups at odds and competing for the possession of a bizarre artifact that might change the balance of power in both realms, and the story builds – despite some “hiccups” in pacing – toward a climatic chase in the underground tunnels as the various characters try to shift the balance of power and to stay alive at the same time, since the horde of dreadful creatures of the depths has been roused and is out for blood. And flesh. And other assorted body parts…

I enjoyed Under Ordshaw, mostly because of the almost-relentless pace at which Pax and her allies and enemies find themselves facing the events, and I liked how she must work to gain some understanding of what is happening, as her view of the world is subjected to a few extraordinary revelations that will change her outlook forever. As far as Urban Fantasy series go, this book is merely an introduction of background and characters and also a promise of more to come with future installments, where hopefully the reader’s perception and knowledge will be expanded, and as such I’m aware that any problem in both narrative and characterization is bound to be straightened out in the future.  Still, there are a few details that puzzled me, and somewhat marred what might have been a total immersion in this world.

For starters, throughout the course of the book I had the distinct impression that there was something eluding me, that there might have been some other information about past events that was not shared with the readers: in several instances I felt as if I had jumped midway into a TV serial and struggled to make head or tails of the story because I had missed the previous episodes.  It was frustrating at times, and also distracting: while I can understand the need to avoid the dreaded “infodumps”, I would have enjoyed a more organic development of the playing field, so to speak, that might allow me to place the characters’ actions in a more understandable context.

And speaking of characters, sometimes I struggled a little with their depiction: quixotic Barton and his estranged wife Holly, for example, are at odds with each other because of his nocturnal forays in the underground and her suspicions about his infidelity, but I failed to see some genuine drama there, and their interactions felt stilted at times, well beyond the uneasiness of two people driven apart by secrets and doubts.  Then there is Pax, who is introduced as a fiercely independent person who tries not to be weighted down by any kind of tie, and yet we see her constantly enmeshed into other peoples’ troubles, the prime example of this being represented by Rufaizu, the thief whose actions draw Pax into the terrifying world of the underground: most of Pax’s choices in the story stem from her need to know Rufaizu’s fate after his arrest, and her determination in that respect feels at odds with the brevity of their encounter and the simple fact that their whole “relationship” is based on his theft of her hard-won money.

Still, Under Ordshaw offers a promising peek into a bizarre world that just begs to be further developed, and as such deserves to be given the chance to grow.