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Review: BINDINGS & SPINES, by R.M. Ridley (White Dragon Black #2)

33226908I received the e-ARC of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

Since reading the first volume of this Urban Fantasy series, Tomorrow Wendell, and the short stories collection set in the same world, Blondes, Books and Bourbon, I’ve wanted to know more about the main character’s journey, so that when the author offered me the opportunity of reading the ARC for this second book, I was more than delighted to accept.

The main character of this series, Jonathan Alvey, is a private investigator and a practitioner, i.e. a magic wielder. In the course of his chosen work he therefore deals more frequently with the occult than with run-of-the-mill cases of stolen objects or unfaithful spouses, although even some of the more mundane assignments he handles sometimes turn out to be anything but.

There is something that distinguishes Alvey from the other PIs in any Urban Fantasy context: the use of magic not only saps energy from the wielders, but also makes them addicts and ultimately kills them. So Alvey, like his brethren, must be very careful in channeling the powers at his disposal a.k.a. the White Dragon, to avoid falling prey to the deadly demands of its counterpart, the Dragon Black. These two opposing forces are represented by the well-known yin-yang symbol, the one that marks every practitioner.

As Binding & Spines opens, Jonathan Alvey does not find himself in a very good place: his long-time friend Mary, worried for his health, has convinced (or rather, strong-armed) him into refraining from the use of magic, and he’s now deep into the throes of withdrawal. Just like it happens to any substance abuser, his body is reacting violently to abstinence, with devastating physical and psychological side effects that all but make him unable to function normally. The only means Alvey has to stave off the worst of the symptoms are the ones he uses to keep the need to use magic at bay: chain-smoking and heavy drinking, whose long-term consequences are just as bad as those of magic itself.   Just imagine someone who indulges in terrible (and even disgusting…) habits like preparing instant coffee with bourbon in place of water, or eats his cereals with beer in place of milk – this man really knows how to punish himself…

If use of magic is bound to have deadly consequences on his body, it’s also true that the alcohol and nicotine abuse he employs as a countermeasure are just as lethal: while I at first thought that the costs of wielding magic were a nice counterbalance to the character’s abilities, here I felt there was an unavoidable downward spiral to his journey that was really painful to witness, especially when coupled with the pervasive feelings of hopelessness and resignation that seemed to have ensconced themselves deeply in Alvey’s behavior.  I previously remarked on the character’s apparent self-destructive attitude, but while before it felt more like the cynical attitude typical of his chosen profession, here it looked like he’d given up and didn’t care what happened to him either way.

Luckily, two new cases come knocking on Alvey’s door, with the promise of a fleeting distraction from his troubles: a man hires him to confirm his suspicions on his wife’s infidelity, and a series of botched resurrections of the dead points to a new necromancer in town, one who could create a great deal of trouble.  Hampered by the impossibility to use his powers, the detective struggles in search of clues while battling with the treacherous reactions of his magic-starved body, while the two seemingly unrelated cases start showing some possible points of contact, especially when a much sought-after grimoire makes its appearance on the scene.

As the investigation progresses (and as a reader it was fun to “connect the dots” together with Alvey) a little more light is shed on the life of practitioners, the spells they use and the outlandish materials needed to complete the task, adding more substance and detail to the city of New Hades where the action unfolds: as a fictional location, New Hades is an interesting mix of modern and weird, where everyday activities like restaurants or libraries coexist with places such as the Blacklight, an area where I would not feel safe even in an armored tank. The overall mood of these stories always makes me imagine these locations in sepia tones, never in color: New Hades seems to live in perpetual twilight, even in the middle of the day – or at least this is how I keep perceiving it while immersed in the story.

There is no lack of humor in these pages, however: it’s of the subdued kind, so as not to contrast with the overall dark mood, but for this very reason it’s even more effective. We go from small touches as the street names, like Marlowe Avenue or Lorre Way, that give an amused nod to the two genres this series takes inspiration from, to the Redcaps infestation plaguing Alvey’s office building. Redcaps are small, vicious creatures that remind me of the garden trolls you sometimes find on unfortunate lawns, and the dichotomy between the small size of the creatures and the very nasty danger they represent – not to mention the creative ways employed by the detective to keep them at arm’s length – is the very reason Alvey’s encounters with them offer the necessary relief from the darker aspects of the story.

While this new case is successfully brought to a close, it’s clear from a few details that further and darker clouds loom on the character’s horizon, especially after the warning from a dead man who tells Alvey that “beyond even the darkness through which I traveled to return, somethings howls your name“. He will need all his wits, and all his staunch friends, to face those dangers and survive another day.

I, for one, will welcome more stories from New Hades and this very peculiar detective.

 

My Rating:


TOP TEN TUESDAY #4

TOP TEN TUESDAY is a meme created at The Broke and The Bookish, with the aim of sharing Top Ten lists of our favorites – mostly book related.

toptentuesday

For this last week of the year, the topic is: Top Ten Best Books of 2016

When the time comes to draw up a list like this, I find myself faced with some hard choices, because most of the books I’ve reviewed – and for 2016 they amount to a round 60, which is something of a record for me, given the limited time I can devote to reading – are books I liked quite a bit.

I spoke of reviewed books, rather than simply read, because some of the titles I picked up ended in the DNF  pile, and of these I reviewed only a few – those for which I felt a very strong need to share the reasons  I didn’t like them, although I managed to soldier on past the 25% mark that for me is the “make or break” point.   Which means there are a few more that didn’t even make the list because I could not connect with either story or characters and moved on quite swiftly.

So, of these 60 books, only 3 were abandoned before the end, and I had to pick my favorite 10 out of the remaining 57: as I said, not an easy feat, and that’s the reason I’m not going to list my ten favorite titles in any particular order of preference, but rather in the order I read them. It’s the most Solomonic solution I could come up with…

 

THE FIFTH HOUSE OF THE HEART, by Ben Tripp

ILLUMINAE, by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

DREAMER’S POOL, by Juliet Marillier

A RED ROSE CHAIN & ONCE BROKEN FAITH, by Seanan McGuire  (I could not pick just one of them…)

MORNING STAR, by Pierce Brown

THE LESSER DEAD, by Christopher Buehlman

DARK ASCENSIONS, by M.L. Brennan

THE DRAGON’S PATH, by Daniel Abraham

HOUSE OF SUNS, by Alastair Reynolds

BABYLON’S ASHES, by James S.A. Corey  (forthcoming review)

 

Ok, the count really goes to 11 titles, but I can bend the rules a little if I consider that the books in the October Daye series are all parts of the same whole. Can I?

And what about you?  What are your favorite reads for this year?

Review: THE UNNOTICEABLES, by Robert Brockway

23168833When a book starts as strongly as this one did, with a story that’s attention-grabbing from page one, the disappointment for its failed promises hurts twice as much: this is what happened to me with The Unnoticeables, whose narrative arc… imploded (for want of a better word) two thirds of the way in.

The story runs on two different time tracks, separated by 36 years: Carey, living in New York in 1977, is a young man reveling in the time’s punk scene, spending his days getting drunk, stoned – or both – and generally causing any kind of mayhem he can think of; Kaitlyn lives in Los Angeles, in 2013, as a part-time stuntwoman, part-time waitress trying, and so far failing, to bring her stunt work to the next level.  Both of them are confronted by something that is both inexplicable and terrifying, something that possesses all the markers of a slowly spreading invasion.

The first inkling that something terrible is going on happens when Carey sees a girl he’s interested in being attacked by what looks like a man-shaped oily mass: the thing acts like acid, consuming the unfortunate girl and leaving only bloody remains behind. Moreover, in the area where Carey and his friends prowl, some peculiar individuals start cropping up: they  all appear good-looking and attractive, but as soon as one’s eyes leave them, their features blur and no ones seems able to remember what they look like.  Worse, whenever these people – dubbed by Carey “the Empty Ones” – manage to attract any given individual, the unfortunates disappear without a trace.

Kaitlyn, on the other hand, suffers from a more close-and-personal confrontation: at a party she meets Marco, former sitcom star and her teenage years’ crush. Accepting a ride back home from the man, she’s first appalled by his reckless driving and uncaring attitude, which make her think Marco is somewhat deranged, then he forces himself on her. More shocking than the sexual assault is its modality: Kaitlyn feels something metallic slide down her throat, and her strength and willpower being drained away.  Saved by someone who bodily extracts her from Marco’s car, she makes Carey’s acquaintance: older, probably wiser but still tainted with his old recklessness, he’s living like a borderline homeless, but he has information on the Empty Ones – and is willing to help Kaitlyn trace her friend Jackie who disappeared after that fateful party.

The novel’s chapters alternate between Carey’s past and Kaitlyn’s present with a relentless pace that makes the book a compulsive read while we follow their scary journey of discovery: the two main characters are the best and strongest elements of the story, their voices persuasively true and their dialogue or thoughts evenly balanced between stark, dramatic reality and sarcastic humor. Carey comes across as the best defined one, though: the outrageous style of life he and his friends are pursuing should make them offensive, and yet there is a sort of wild abandon in Carey, tinged with the somewhat lucid awareness of what he is, that managed to endear him to me, and to make me root for him – especially when his rough attachment to his friends comes to the fore, almost belying his devil-may-care attitude.

Once Kaitlyn’s disbelief at her new friend’s revelations evaporates, the two decide to go on the offensive to try and save Jackie, and they pursue Marco’s car in a mad motorcycle dash through the congested traffic of Los Angeles. They follow him to a mansion where a party is in progress, and though realizing that the place must be crawling with Empty Ones like Marco they decide to go in: this is where the story started unraveling and making less and less sense to me.  For starters, I could not figure out what the two were trying to accomplish knowing they were vastly outnumbered by people (if one wanted to call them that…) who could not be hurt, harmed or stopped in any way. And then the real madness kicked in…

What had started as a horror story about strange beings preying on unsuspecting humanity, and the slow infiltration of the Empty Ones in various facets of society (the most chilling example being Kaitlyn’s trip to the police station to denounce Marco’s assault), suddenly morphed into something best defined as crazily grotesque: the dangerous environment of the hellish party is only the front for what happens in the closed back rooms, where blood-drenched orgies lead to every kind of imaginable (and  unimaginable…) sex perversion, give way to a frenzy of horrific mutilations and killings, all of which with no apparent rhyme or reason, except maybe the author’s penchant for imagining and depicting the most revolting and senseless acts of destruction.

At that point, only the desire for some sort of explanation kept me reading on, despite the appearance of even more gory weirdness in the form of a strange contraption to which the Empty Ones’ victims were being fed, all in the name of a nebulous fight against entropy.  Sadly, whatever form of explanation, or clue to understanding the bloody mess this story had turned into, was not enough to save this novel from the downward plunge it had taken in my consideration.   I’m not even certain I entirely grasped whatever passed for explanation: the only thing I’m sure about is that I will not pursue this series further.

 

My Rating:

Review: ONCE BROKEN FAITH, by Seanan McGuire (October Daye #10)

15748538Ten books and still going strong: not many series can make this claim, no matter the genre, and yet Seanan McGuire’s October Daye appears immune from the danger of “wash, rinse, repeat” that can affect other book cycles.  I guess it mostly depends on the eclectic nature of the author’s writing, able to speak with many different voices in a wide range of stories, where the only common factor is given by strong, believable and easy-to-care-for main characters.

Toby is indeed the quintessence of such characters: her drive comes from the understanding and acceptance of her assets and faults, and the ability to use them all for the solution of the problem at hand; and also from the strength she can draw from the diverse and multi-faceted family she has built around herself over time.

This new story starts with one of those family moments that look even more precious because we readers know all too well they are not going to last long: Toby is hosting a slumber party for the younger folks, and there is a great deal of goofing around and delightful silliness that help us reacquaint ourselves with the characters and their background – that is, until reality intrudes once more in the form of the convocation for a conclave that will rule on the new-found cure for elf shot and the possibility to use it on the victims.

Fae politics – or maybe just politics, and diplomacy – are not something Toby is comfortable with, but in this case she is very passionate about alchemist Walther’s discovery, because of the dual nature of elf shot: as a way to circumvent Oberon’s prohibition about Fae killing other Fae, since it puts them to sleep for a hundred years and therefore effectively removes them from the scene, elf shot has been the established way of life for a long time, and of course the undying and unchangeable Fae don’t respond easily to anything that alters the status quo; but the downside of it is that elf shot kills changelings.

This is the point where the “changeling problem”, to quote an equally cruel designation, comes to the fore once again, to the annoyance and dismay of those Fae who would prefer to keep ignoring it: the range of reactions goes from appalling to dumbfounding, with the former belonging to those who don’t care at all about changelings, since they are placed too low on the scale to even deserve consideration, and the latter to those who do care but believe that a cure would engender a careless use of elf shot, once it was deprived of its threatening quality.

Most of all the assembled Fae are concerned about change, about the subversion of an established modus vivendi that has served them for so long that they have forgotten how to desire something different, or even think about it. In the variegated responses to the availability of the cure there is a common factor, the fear of moving in a different direction, of walking another path and therefore challenging all that has been the accepted norm until that moment.  The best summary of this attitude is given by the Luidaeg, whose comments in the course of this novel are both enlightening and delightfully amusing:

The idea that Faerie should always be a twisted mirror of the human medieval age is proof that sometimes people don’t like change.  […] Anyone who says the past was perfect is a liar and wasn’t there. Everything that thinks can aspire, and everything that aspires wants something better than what they’ve left behind.

The Fae, faced with the prospect of being deprived of what has been their weapon of choice, balk at the very idea of losing it, of losing the only offensive method allowed to them: for this reason I saw the whole question as an interesting parallel to the ongoing debate about the procurement and use of personal weapons that has occupied so much space in recent news, and still does.  As usual, McGuire lays the problem before her readers’ eyes and lets them see all aspects of the issue, and draw their own conclusions, without unnecessary and lengthy sermons: Professor Tolkien would say that she uses applicability rather than imposing allegory, and as such I commend her choice, her way of making us think without appearing to do so.

This being an October Daye story, however, means that debate and discussion take second place to a series of assaults – some of them ending in murder – that occur when the conclave is in recess and that show the use of a peculiar, unheard-of kind of magic, one that leaves no traces of its user, therefore rendering Toby’s investigation so much more difficult.  We see her struggle with the scant evidence she can gather, and yet this only manages to increase her determination to find the perpetrators, all the while juggling her obligations as a hero of the realm and as the protector of the people she calls family.

The threat keeps circling closer and closer to Toby and her own, like a blood-hungry shark, and when it strikes at the very heart of what she holds dear we are forced to witness one of the more soul-shattering moments of the whole series, not just because of the traumatic scene deploying before our eyes but because of the possible consequences that will come from it.  This might very well be the most difficult choice that Toby has to make in the long, painful string of harrowing choices lined up in her past, because it might put her in the position of having to give up the last shreds of her humanity to keep hold of what she has gained until now.  I know it makes little sense if you have not read the book, but I want to avoid any spoiler for those who are still making their way through the series: suffice it to say that, as always, Toby’s road is not only liberally doused in blood, but also in agonizing loss.  That whatever she chooses, there will always be a price to be paid, and that price will entail heartbreak, no matter what direction she takes.

That’s the main reason I like her so much as a character, that no matter how much she breaks – physically and metaphorically – she always finds the way to pick up the pieces and move forward. Not shrugging off the hurts and losses, but embracing them as part of what she is and what she will become: this, more than anything else, is what makes her real, convincing and always a joy to behold, even in the direst of circumstances.

There is much to be still explored in this world, and with these characters, and if the few hints that have been tossed around about what’s to come are any indication, we are in for some very interesting times.  I can hardly wait.

My Rating:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:


TEASER TUESDAY #14

Teaser Tuesday is an intriguing meme started by Miz B over at Books and a Beat.

All you have to do is:

• Grab your current read

• Open to a random page

• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

• Share the title & author, too, so that other Teaser Tuesday participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Teaser Tuesday

For this Teaser Tuesday I’m going to do something a little different: to celebrate the 10th book in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series – ONCE BROKEN FAITH – I will indeed quote two sentences, but from two recurring characters, the sea witch Luidaeg and the King of cats Tybalt – both of them huge favorites with the readers.

Double the quotes, double the fun!  🙂

The Luidaeg:

A Fetch shows up now, all these people lose their shit. Never invite a death omen to a murder party. 

You have to take care of yourself. Replacing you would take a long time, and frankly, I don’t want to go to the trouble.

Tybalt:

Tybalt raised an eyebrow. “Am I nothing but a taxi service to you?”

“No,” I said. “Danny, who actually has his license, is a taxi service. You’re more like a transporter from Star Trek. Me and you to beam up, Scotty.”

He looked at me blankly. Karen covered her mouth with one hand. Quentin started to snicker.

“Sometimes I wonder if you’ve ever actually encountered the English language,” Tybalt said […]

[…] “Tybalt?”

“How finely you pack an entire request into a single word of two syllables. Would that my name were shorter, that I might encourage you to even greater acts of brevity.”

Review: THOSE ACROSS THE RIVER, by Christopher Buehlman

10772903Right after the great find that was “The Lesser Dead”, I wanted to read more of Christopher Buehlman’s work and settled on this shortish novel set in the era of the Great Depression.  Here the main character is former WWI soldier Frank Nichols, still haunted by nightmares about his war experiences: he lost his job as a history teacher after starting an affair with the young wife of a colleague with friends in high places, so that he and Dora – who divorced her husband to follow Frank – seem to find a break in their difficult situation when Frank’s aunt leaves him a small inheritance and the deed to a house in Whitbrow, Georgia.  Forsaking the aunt’s warning about selling the house and never setting foot in the place, the two decide to start a new life: Dora will teach at the local school and Frank will write a book about the cruel history of a nearby plantation, owned by one of his ancestors and the theatre of a bloody slave revolt.

Shortly after arriving in Whitbrow, though, the couple starts hearing vague warnings about never walking in the woods across the river – curiously enough, the location of the old plantation – and they are faced with a strange ritual: every two months, the village’s inhabitants release two pigs into the woods, following a tradition that seems almost festive, if it were not for the historical moment’s privations and the need to provide for more urgent needs.  It goes without saying that the collective decision to bow to the time’s hardships will unleash an unstoppable chain of terrible events…

What’s fascinating in this novel is that the truly supernatural horror, whose origin is revealed a good way into the story, seems to take almost second place to a different, and more human-related kind of dread.  Whitbrow is a stagnant place, not only as a result of the Great Depression (even though its mark is deeply felt), but more as the product of an age-old torpor that has taken possession of the minds and souls of its inhabitants, and that quickly ensnares Frank as well.  The drive to write his novel is soon drowned in the daily visits to the local store, where he engages in endless checkers games with the patrons under the guise of gathering background information for his story, but in truth succumbing to the timeless inertia that seems to be the village’s modus vivendi.

Whitbrow’s dullness goes hand in hand with a deeply rooted distrust of strangers, of those who are different: this extends to both out-of-owners (their quick acceptance of Frank due solely to his family ties) and the truly different, like the homeless moving across the land and, of course, black people.  There are a few scenes where the animosity toward these “aliens” is shown in no uncertain terms: given the recurrence of this phenomenon in our present times, the unwillingness of some to extend human consideration toward the less fortunate “outsiders”, these pages take on a far more chilling flavor than it was probably intended at the time they were written…

And then there is the closing of the villagers’ minds to anything new, to the possibility of attaining something better in one’s life: Dora’s struggle to keep the children in school when their families prefer to steer them toward field work, is one such example. There is one situation in which she and Frank go to the home of one of her most gifted pupils, in the hope of offering her more advanced schooling, and the scene that Buehlman depicts is both historically accurate and vivid, as they are met with cold indifference and mulish refusal from the girl’s father, and a sort of hopeless compliance from the daughter:

[…] looked up from the chicken she was plucking in the kitchen and peeked through the doorway, but she did not risk a hello. I guess she never knew exactly when to speak in this house, but with her daddy it was good to err in favor of silence.

After these all-too-real evils, the apparition of the true horror seems almost mundane, even though the discovery brings forth an abomination that goes back a long time, something that has always dwelled near the village – ignored and maybe conveniently forgotten. And this is where the story’s magic fell somewhat short for me: from the opening’s chilling preview to the big reveal there is an increasing sense of foreboding that unfortunately loses steam once the proverbial cat (or rather critter) is out of the bag and the carefully crafted buildup flounders in a great deal of anti-climatic exposition that does not fully realize the expectations I nurtured up to that moment.

All in all it was still a good read, but I’m sorry I cannot rate it as high as the previous book I sampled from this author, even though this slight disappointment will not prevent me from exploring further Mr. Buehlman’s work.

My Rating:


Review: DARK ASCENSIONS (Generation V #4), by M.L. Brennan

23590296After finishing this book I went in search of information on the Generation V series, and the possibilities to keep on reading about Fort, Suzume & Co., and what I found did not encourage me greatly: there are two more books planned, but they have yet to… find a home, so to speak, and therefore the author is concentrating on a new series. Much as I’m sorry to have to say goodbye (at least for now – I’m an incurable optimist) to these characters and their adventures, I can take comfort in the knowledge that I can look forward to more stories from M.L. Brennan: given how much I’ve enjoyed the Generation V novels, I know that I will buy everything she puts on the shelves, sight unseen.

That said, let’s move on to the review for the fourth installment in the series…

Transition. This is the word that has been looming ever larger on Fortitude Scott’s horizon since we first met him, and here – in a book that is mainly concerned with transformation and passage – that transition has become unavoidable, in more ways than one.   Madeleine Scott’s failing health, something we have been aware of from the very first novel in the series, has reached the point of no return and her passing heralds a series of changes that involve the main characters, both singly and as a group.

Madeline’s death is one the most quietly moving pieces of writing I can remember: I kept thinking, as I read, that in less skillful hands it could have skirted into cheap sentimentalism, but instead it turned into something that was both tragic and intensely emotional: “I felt the bond shatter, like a fluted sugar sculpture that had been spun out like stained glass and is dropped to the floor. The death of the bond, and the death of my mother, cut through me, and the pain was unimaginable.”  Those scenes were further enhanced by a few touches that reminded me both of a pharaoh’s death and a Viking’s funeral – which were entirely appropriate for such a strong, commanding character.  The aftermath presents what is probably the most difficult challenge that the Scott siblings have faced until now: since Madeline refused to name her heir, her three children are forced to work together and reach decisions… by committee.  Considering the huge difference in their personalities, the ensuing stalemate is hardly a surprise.

All three of them have come into their vampire-hood in different ways, so that Prudence – the eldest – is the less interested (to be nice about it…) in the collateral damage resulting from any decision, and her first and only answer to any problem remains destructive violence.  The phrase “death by Prudence” used by Fort at some point might be humorous in intent, but it paints an all too clear picture of the Scott firstborn’s attitude.  As the middle child, Chivalry stands between his two siblings, acknowledging Prudence’s need for a strong response and Fortitude’s penchant for the softer approach. And Fort himself, not surprisingly, is the one who always advocates taking the less violent, more humane path.

Once more I asked myself, as I observed the interpersonal dynamics between the three, if Madeline’s choice of different upbringings for her children was some sort of experiment, her way to shape a different path for her successors – or even for the vampire community. If the ultimate goal was to attain some kind of balance, the trio’s first attempts at it are less than successful, the only agreement they reach concerning as mundane a matter as the interior décor of the mansion…  What this means for the future of the family, and the empire Madeleine built, remains to be seen, although Prudence’s way of resolving the first impasse is far from encouraging. And yet there is hope for the three of them because – despite the differences in personality and outlook – they share a strong, if often unspoken, bond of affection transcending the individual leanings, much as Prudence’s side of it still scares the hell our of Fort, as he sums up with: “My sister was never more terrifying to me than when she was showing her affection.”

Another, more compelling consequence of the matriarch’s death is the completion of Fort’s transition into a vampire: until now, he has been able to deny his nature (or at least to keep at bay its less savory aspects) by emphasizing his humanity and accepting only the “good” sides of being a vampire, like increased strength and more acute senses. But without Madeline to draw blood from (in what I always saw as a very twisted analogue to breast-feeding…), Fortitude has no other choice but to submit to his needs, to finally acknowledge that he must drink blood to survive.  Again, I want to praise Ms. Brennan’s choice of giving this very dramatic moment a completely different outlook from what I expected: Suzume’s presence, as accomplice and moral support, removes any shade of horror or grossness from the scene, and even gives to Fort’s first feeding a patina of rightness that both eases him into this new side of his life (without “post-meal remorse”, as Suzume labels it) while helping the readers keep their image of the character substantially unchanged.

Suzume is indeed Fort’s center of gravity, the true rock on which he can stand – which is sort of funny, given the kitsune’s unpredictable behavior – and she’s the one who provides much-needed balance to his constantly shifting world and perspectives. Their relationship is one of the best facets of this story, because it’s quite unconventional and free of any traditionally romantic overtones – and how could it be, when Suze unashamedly bills the Scott family for the time she spends in Fort’s company? Despite this “hiccup” and the constant hazing she inflicts on him during his working hours (just two words: Kitsune Karaoke – enough said!), it’s clear that Suzume is quite committed to Fortitude and their relationship, and seems pleased when he takes a stand about it. Her ultimate goal is to wake him up to the though realities of life, so that they will not overcome him. As she tells him at some point: “I just don’t want you to end up like a marshmallow Peep in the microwave of the world.

This fourth book in the Generation V series is a game-changer, one that leaves its readers with many questions about future developments, and therefore makes the uncertainty about the continuation of the story doubly frustrating. Nonetheless this is a series I would recommend strongly to both enthusiasts of the genre and to those who are new to Urban Fantasy, on the strength of its rich characterization and strong writing.

My Rating:


Review: THE LESSER DEAD, by Christopher Buehlman

20893407The first time I heard about this author was through reviews of his upcoming new novel The Suicide Motor Club, so I decided to try out his previous works and settled on this one whose main theme – vampires in the very urbanized context of New York city in the late ‘70s – sounded quite promising.  Well, it was more than that, a great deal more.

The vampire myth is one of the staples of horror fiction, one that underwent many permutations lately, from the humorous declination of a handful of movies to the angsty, overly romanticized version of a certain well-known saga, but for me the true vampire is the one that remains true to its first incarnation: the blood-drinking monster preying on defenseless humanity, and Christopher Buehlman’s vampires are exactly that – without frills or sparkly glamor.

The action takes place in 1978 New York and the story is told from the point of view of Joey Peacock, who was turned into a vampire in 1933 at the age of fourteen: 45 years later he’s living (if you can use that term with the undead, of course) with a community of his brethren in the abandoned tunnels of New York’s subway system. The group is led by Margaret, formerly a maid in Joey’s household, and she rules them with the iron fist of a queen of old: one of the most fascinating sides of this novel comes exactly from the dynamics of this vampire community and the different personalities of its members, who have somehow retained the characteristics of their lost humanity, integrating them into the changed necessities of their state as vampires.

For example, Joey – despite his decades as a blood predator – still remains the pampered, selfish teenager he was at the time he was turned, and the author’s skill in characterization shines through in the balance he achieves between the wise cunning of the vampire he is and the petty yearnings of the youth he was. There is a scene that drives home this duality and that stayed with me for some time, due to its chilling quality: Buehlman’s vampires have no need to physically subdue their victims, since they can exert some form of hypnosis that renders them docile and accepting, and that’s exactly what Joey does with a whole family, sitting with them in front of the TV, watching some mindless, mind-numbing show, as he feeds from each of them in turn as if from a box of snacks.

There is nothing romantic in these vampires, not in the way they cater to their own needs, nor in the way they live: despite the attempts at decorating their subterranean lairs, still the life they lead closely resembles that of the homeless with whom they share the tunnels. Darkness, dirt and decay are their constant companions, with no concession to glamor whatsoever – except the one they wear to move undisturbed and unnoticed through an oblivious humanity, made even more oblivious by the “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” attitude of the times.  This lack of any exotic overtone to Buehlman’s vampires is compounded by the creeping awareness that the undead are not immune from decline, that eternity is tainted by isolation, melancholy or peculiar forms of madness that are as dangerous as their human counterparts, as it happens with Night Fever:

You might guess it’s kinda like cabin fever, and, yeah, that’s close. Night fever is what happens when a vampire can’t take being in the dark anymore. […] It’s a disease of the soul.

The status quo is broken when Joey’s community becomes aware of a group of vampire children who not only prey on humans without the discretion necessary to keep their existence concealed, but also engage in gruesome rituals before killing their victims. Margaret and Co. are compelled to intervene, not out of a sense of compassion toward the murdered humans, but rather because of the threat of discovery, while Joey and his friend Cvetko – and older, scholarly-inclined vampire – also feel a need to protect these children, whose former innocence still seems to flash through their animalistic behavior.  And this will lead them on an unexpected path…

What I most enjoyed in this book is the way any expectations I had were twisted beyond recognition, starting with Joey himself: he warns the readers up front that he’s a deceiver, someone who cannot be trusted:

You will be burdened with an unreliable narrator who will disappoint and repel you at every turn.

Still with me?

Too bad for you.

I can’t wait to break your heart.

Despite the warning – or because of it? – the atmosphere drew me in and kept me spellbound until the very last page: part of it is due to Joey’s peculiar narrative style, more like a stream-of-consciousness report than a coherent tale, and part is due to the strong feeling of impending disaster that permeates the air, of looming danger that has no form or substance and yet is there, just out of the corner of one’s eye, unavoidable and at the same time utterly fascinating.

Buehlman dares his readers to go on, to see what’s around the next dark corner, while at the same time he warns them that things are not what they seem, but just like his vampires, once we have opened the book, once we have invited him in, there is not way we can escape the spell. Even when the story seems to have reached its end, before the last chapter named “Coda”, he warns us about proceeding no further, but by that time he has ensnared us so deeply that there is no other way than forward, and on to a shattering surprise.

Well done, viciously well done…

My Rating:


Review: THE GRENDEL AFFAIR (the S.P.I. files #1), by Lisa Shearin

17912981If the police are there to protect citizens from your run-of-the-mill bad guys, what happens when these bad guys are supernatural creatures? No need to invoke the famous Ghostbusters, because SPI exists precisely for this reason. Supernatural Protection and Investigations works to safeguard humans from scary creatures like vampires or ghouls or whatever, and to keep their existence as secret as possible.  Makenna “Mac” Fraser has been enrolled by SPI for her rare gift: she is a Seer, someone who can see through any disguise or spell cast by supernaturals to cover their non-human appearance.

Unlike other Urban Fantasy heroines, Mac is not a brooding, ass-kicking lady or someone with a dark, terrible past she’s trying to forget: she’s a rather ordinary person, holding a job as a tabloid reporter investigating the kind of fake monster sightings that the trashy press most enjoys, only to be contacted by SPI because of her peculiar characteristic. She has the quite uncommon ability to see the real monsters under the human mask they wear. She is also quite unprepared for the dangers SPI agents have to face each day and is quite straightforward about it, studiously avoiding to rush in where angels (or better trained operatives) fear to tread.  That was the first quality I appreciated in this character, the willingness to admit her own shortcomings and the reluctance to face unknown dangers, even though these are part of her job description: too often in this genre the spunky protagonist finds herself well in over her head and regularly needs saving, while Mac knows her limits and also knows when to take a step back and let her more experienced co-workers take over, with no qualms or inferiority complex whatsoever.

And what interesting co-workers she has! Starting with her partner Ian, a former cop who at first does not look too happy to babysit a rookie, but who quickly changes attitude once he understands that Mac does not intend to be just excess baggage but wants to be trained – as much as her own limits allow – so she can be an effective operative the others can depend on.  There are a few dark corners to Ian, some of which we uncover in the course of the story, and he comes across as a decent guy – again avoiding the cliché of the skilled agent looking down on the newbie and putting her through hell just for the sake of it. I also like the partnership and friendship vibes coming off Ian and Mac that might in future evolve into something deeper, but don’t seem in a hurry to do so – another overused trope happily avoided.

Then there are people like Yasha, the Russian werewolf, or Kenji, the computer-savvy Elf, or again Alain Moreau, SPI’s resident lawyer who’s also a vampire (there’s some not-so-understated subtext here, I’m certain…). But the most impressive of them all is Vivienne Sagadraco, the director who, as her name suggests is indeed a dragon. A dragon lady in every sense of the word, to be precise. This diverse and interesting cast animates a quickly developing and fast-paced story that mixes adventure and humor in a successful way, while continuing to raise the stakes until the very end: the kind of book that keeps you glued to its pages and at the same time makes you smile – and sometimes laugh out loud, mostly through Mac’s self-effacing jokes like this one:

There were entirely too many grave markers lurking just below the snow’s surface on that hillside, and my feet were doing a fine job of finding every last one of them. I’d made two face-down snow angels and one outright sprawl.

The story itself focuses on a complex plot to make the world aware of the truth about supernaturals in a most dramatic way, by unleashing the titular Grendels on an unsuspecting crowd on New Year’s Eve: from what we learn, the mythical creature vanquished by Beowulf does indeed exist and is even more dangerous (and prolific!) than its literary ancestor – the scenes concerning the hatching of the Grendel’s eggs make for some of the most terrifying and claustrophobic reading I can remember – and SPI finds its resources taxed to the maximum to contain and eliminate the threat.  If you enjoy breathless monster hunts through abandoned subway tunnels or multi-layered plotlines that finally converge into an explosive climax, with the added bonus of a crew of battle-hungry Scandinavian agents who enjoy a good, gory fight just as much as their Viking forebears did, this is indeed the book for you.

My Rating: