Acts of Violence by Ross Harrison

Acts of Violence

Publisher: Shadow Archer Publishing

Publishing Date: January 18th 2014

As his nose cracked under my knuckles, I reflected on how much I hated violence.

Ross Harrison doesn’t waste words , he drops us straight into the action and the mind of his main character, Jack Mason.

Jack wanted to be a policeman, he has been kicked out of the academy, applied for a P.I. licence to anybody who could listen, human or alien, and was denied, now, in a backwater city on a backwater planet where just about every member of the police is in the pay of the local kingpin, he tries to make a difference with a collection of fake badges, weapons and a lot of attitude.

There’s something in Jack’s past, an unsolved disappearance that has one of the local officers hot for his blood, and when a barmaid meets an untimely death after Jack brought her home, Detective Lawrence sees his chance and seizes it. Luckily for Mason someone else wants him and breaks him out of jail.

As we follow Jack’s attempts to solve the murder and save his skin the plot twists and turns like a mountain trail, the author guides us with a deft hand and assured, well flowing prose to a final twist that caught me completely by surprise and left me reeling, with a closing scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a  Japanese or Hongkongese film noir

The writing is very sensorial, the constant rain (is there any noir in which it doesn’t rain all the time?), the smells, flavors, sounds and feel of Harem are all around us as we follow  Jack, but always under tight control, the writer doesn’t let his descriptions run loose and is able to portray characters and situations with just a few words ( The old lady down the hall had probably twitched her last curtain is a personal favourite).

If I have an issue with Acts of Violence it is with the SF elements. When mr. Harrison sent me his book for review,  he warned me that SF was just the backdrop of the story and that proved to be true. We have some futuristic technology, hints of a vast universe with faster-than-light travel capabilities and alien cultures, but hints are all we get in this novel (although there are more books sharing this setting). I would have liked to be able to delve a bit deeper in this universe, maybe through conversations or news broadcasts or even some backmatter (forgive me, one of the things I really loved about Dune and The Lord of the Rings were the maps and the appendixes).

In any case, if you like well-written noirs, Acts of Violence is highly recommended.

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Provoke Not The Children by Michael W. Anderson

Provoke not

Publisher: Michael W. Anderson

Publishing date : January 19th 2014

In a few years’ time, in the U.S.A., maximization of personal potential is everyone’s duty and the main obstacle to reaching one’s full level is…child rearing. Parents are required by law to hire a parent-by-proxy, a professional who, supposedly, will be better at such a specialized and delicate endeavour than amateurs who just happen to share genetic material with the child, coincidentally freeing the parents and allowing them the option to maximize (which seem to be short-hand for ‘get as rich as possible’).

Enters Chase Stern, Proxy Review Officer, half security agent, half social worker. Not keen on maximization he’s seen as a misfit by just about everybody who is somebody, first and foremost his ex-wife. Even his work-partner sees him as somebody who is too involved in the job.

Chase knows the system is broken, sees it every day in the Deep Suburbs, where the poor live and he cannot let things lie, for the sake of the children. His reports are at the root of a lobbying effort that brings about the demise of the proxy industry.

Another writer could have stopped there, with an easy ‘and they lived happily ever after’, but that’s only the beginning of Provoke Not The Children. How does one go about reintegrating children who have been by all counts abandoned in the care of paid strangers and often abused, when not left to fend for themselves, into the same society that rejected them?

As Chase discovers, there is no easy answer, and even the best intentions can have horrifying consequences. We hear little of the smaller children (runts,as the teens call them), but the society that comes out from the enclave devoted to the re-education of the teenagers is a chillingly logical, high-tech version of Lord of the Flies.

Chase is our guide in this specific hell, he is committed, driven one could say, but not perfect. He can be too focused on the big picture and (like so many of us) a paladin of the cause who finds it difficult to deal with the individual victims, or even like them (there are a few scenes with his own children where I would have liked to shake him), when push comes to shove, though, he comes out as a decent human being brave enough to do what is right, no matter the personal cost.

The fact that we see everything through Chase’s eyes is, for me, one of the limits of the novel. In my opinion the other characters aren’t developed to the same extent and we don’t get to see the reasons behind some of their choices or positions beyond what Chase witnesses directly or tells us.

Another issue I have is with the pacing: there are chronological jumps that come unexpected and move us beyond a possible climax, for instance we go from an audit with a senate commission about the proxy industry to three months after the President of the US has made his decision known and Chase fills us in with a recap. I experienced a few ‘Wait, what?’ moments, expecting  some ‘stepping-stone’ resolutions that, in novel-time, were already behind me.

All in all, though, for me, Provoke Not The Children is a very solid first offering from an author I’ll be keeping an eye on.

The Shadow of the Lion (Heirs of Alexandria Book 1) by M. Lackey, E Flint and D. Freer

Shadow of the Lion

Publisher : Baen Books

Publishing date: February 23rd 2015 (as reported on Amazon for the e-book March 1st   2002 for the hardcover).

I’m often wary of collaborations, but in this case as I was reading I kept forgetting that the book has more than one author, no mean feat, in my opinion.

I picked The Shadow of the Lion from the Baen Free Library, I was intrigued by the premise, a fantasy set in 16th century Venice, and I figured that, it being free, at worst I would just lose a couple of hours before deciding it wasn’t for me (I’m past the phase in my reading life in which I forced myself to finish each and every book I started).

In that couple of hours, or even less, I was hooked. The alternate history is intriguing (also ‘alternate theology’ if you wish, thanks to the conversion of Saint Hypatia), the characters are nuanced and three dimensional, there are as many intriguing and strong females as males, and it manages to completely sidestep one of my biggest turn-offs in fantasy (the ‘big, bad, fanatic church’ and ‘poor, persecuted magic users/pagans’ trope) here there is bad and good on both sides. I loved equally the dottor Marina (a family name here) the strega, and father Eneko Lopez, a Basque former soldier of venture turned priest who, I believe, is the fictional alter ego of Íñigo López Loiola

The plot is complex, many of the major players on the European checkerboard of the time are there (but for France, the rival of the Empire is different in this story, and the Empire itself is headed by the Hohenstaufen, not the Habsburg), it may not be your cup of tea if you don’t like politics in your fantasy but the politics is neatly balanced by the action, in my opinion, and neither feels overdone.
And, most of all, Venice feels real. The one in the book is the city were I studied, with its pride, its history, its special mix of sea and island that sets it apart from any other city in Italy, the strong esprit de corps of the workers at the arsenal, the strenght and world-view of the canalers, the pomp and sense of duty of the best of the aristocracy… I could go on for hours. Venice is a character in the novel, and not a minor one.
This is not to say that the book is perfect, but my problems with it (if that’s even the right word), are definitely minor.
I did a couple of double-takes reading of the Swiss guard of the Doge and of the Scaliger of Verona as an enemy of Venice in 1538 (in this world the Scaligers were thrown out of Verona in 1387 and Verona gave itself to Venice in 1405), but I think it likely that these aren’t mistakes but points of divergence (note to writers of alternate history: please, please put a note on historical matters somewhere in your book spelling out what is intentionally different , this reader, for one, would be grateful) .
All through the narrative there are Italian words for flavor, I’ve no doubt they work fairly well for readers that don’t know Italian, for me… the mis-spelled words were like a constant itch I could not scratch.
Giaccomo for Giacomo, Polestine for Polesine, Caesare for Cesare, Fruili for Friuli, Veneze for Veneziani, capi (a plural word) used also as a singular, in one instance slices of prosecco on a platter (prosecco is a wine, neither cheese nor salame) and why should Kat, a scion of one of the ‘old houses’ of Venice bear the definitely non-Venetian family name Montescue ?
They are all small, silly things, but an Italian beta-reader would have weeded them out, and I believe an already good book would have been made even better by it.
One caveat : I read The Shadow of the Lion on its own merit, some reviews I happened across point out that the novel is a reworking of Lakey’s contribution to Merovingen Nights, a series set in a  shared SF world originally created by C.J.Cherryh, apparently the series was never completed and is now out of print, not having any knowledge of it I cannot weight in either way.

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

House of Shattered wings

Publisher : Roc (USA), Gollancz (UK)

Publishing date: August 18th 2015 (Roc), August 20th 2015 (Gollancz)

Were I to sum up de Bodard’s House of Shattered Wings in one word, I would say layered.

At first glance it could seem a pretty straightforward story, a sort of Game of Thrones between immortals who reign over pieces of a once great city now struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Great War, but it goes far beyond that.

De Bodard drops us right into the middle of events, just like the newly Fallen who will be called Isabelle, we find ourselves in the ruins of a Paris devastated by a magical war . Slowly, as we progress, the setting unfolds: the Fallen, very literally angels cast out of Heaven, rule what is left of Europe, and, as colonial powers, much of the rest of the world. They are immortal or very nearly so (although they can be killed) and possess an innate magic that is a remnant of their angelic nature.

…But when they first reach Earth they are in shock, wounded from their Fall and helpless, and their magic, the essence compenetrating their bodies, is free for the taking of anyone callous or desperate enough to be willing to hack a semi-conscious victim to pieces.

Isabelle narrowly escapes such a fate, thanks to the head of House Silverspires, Selene, who also brings back to the House, as a prisoner, Philippe, the enigmatic Annamite gang-member who she caught literally red-handed and who wields a kind of magic Selene has never experienced before.

We see the unfolding events and understand the history of this version of Earth through the eyes of Selene, Fallen head of Silverspires after the disappearance of its founder,      Morningstar; of Philippe the Annamite veteran turned gang-member; and of Madeleine, the human alchemist of the House .

And through them, what could have been a purely escapist, vaguely horrorific story reminescent of a gothic novel becomes a meditation on power, justice, choice and mortality.

Houses are the only bastion against chaos, is it right to do everything to protect one’s House, even though Houses are responsible of the current situation to start with?

When does the need for justice turn into ruthless vengeance? A sorely wronged student of Morningstar and an  equally wronged Philippe give far different answers to this question.

What consequences have long term power and privilege on those thus endowed when they have no one to answer to?

Among the characters in the novel I was most captivated by Philippe, the outsider. For reasons that are revealed in the course of the novel, he is almost a mirror image of a Fallen, but with one fundamental difference: Phillippe is, in the dephth of his being, human, something none of the Fallen has ever been.

I’ve seen some readers complain about de Bodard’s ‘telling and not showing’, in my opinion that expression has been bandied about so much without really explaining its meaning, than some readers throughly misunderstand it.

Nowadays many novels with several points of view are narrated in alternating first person, Madame de Bodard in The House of Shattered Wings writes in third person limited and the ‘voice’ might sound strange to readers not used to it, but that’s a far cry from telling us what a character does as opposed to showing us their actions and underlying emotions.

If you are looking for a fast read that will keep you entertained for a few hours  (nothing wrong with that), then House of the Shattered Wings isn’t the right novel for you, but if you want something that will stay with you long after you have closed the book and make you think, I highly recommend it.

Lion’s Blood (Insh’Allah Book 1) by Steven Barnes

Lion's Blood

Publisher: Spectrum Literary Agency Inc.

Publishing date: December 8th 2011 (e-book, first hardcover edition February 13th 2002).

Every now and then, either on LiveJournal or one of the various blogs and sites about books I read, I find threads recommending books by writers of color or alternate history titles: Lion’s Blood (Insh’Allah) is both (and, just FYI, I consider alternate history to be a subset of fantasy, if you don’t, feel free to skip this one).

i discovered Steven Barnes’ works years ago, via his cooperation with Larry Niven, the Dream Park series (I don’t know a single role-player who could resist the idea of a whole park devoted to live-action role-playing with the help of cutting-edge technology), so, having read very good thing about Lion’s Blood, I went for it and wasn’t disappointed.

Alternate history is the realm of well-reasoned ‘what-ifs’ and I’d offer Lion’s Blood as an example of how it is done right (in this reviewer’s opinion, of course).

Barnes’ world has multiple points of divergence from history as we know it: Socrates didn’t die in Athens, but escaped to Egypt , Alexander didn’t go to India but went also to Egypt and proclaimed himself Pharaoh, Chartage defeated and destroyed Rome, in consequence no Roman empire was born, Christianity remained a minoritarian religion, and Islam became the main world power in the West (without Rome we don’t have either the Sacred Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire).
Later on, Abyssinian and Egyptian explorers colonize the New World, there is also a Norse colony (Vinland) and a Chinese one in the analog of California. The ‘revised’ world works like clockwork, perfectly logical I didn’t have any ‘wait, what?’ moments of dissonance at the world building while I can count many chuckles at cameos of familiar figures (like Leonardo ‘The mad Frank architect’ who found patronage in Abyssinia and killed himself trying out a  flying contraption from the top of Khufu’s pyramid).

The writing is very good, I found myself drawn in from the first page and remained fully engaged till the end (in fact I read the second half of the book in one sitting), I loved the pace too. Many contemporary novels seem to run full tilt from the beginning to the end, sometimes leaving me out of breath at the last page, with a vague recollection of the details but for the main plot. Lion’s Blood has its share of action, but has also quieter, meditative spots where characters consider things, grapple with moral dilemmas, see their perspectives shift, always staying well clear from gratuitus ‘navel gazing’.

Many readers of Lion’s Blood specifically stress one main point: this is a world where slavery is common and accepted, and the masters are black and the slaves white. Well, yes and no: in the colonies in the New World the masters are by and at large Islamic, not necessarily black (the Zulus don’t follow Islam and they are a power to be reckoned with but they are somewhat of an exception, and many of the main characters see them as incomprehensible), the slaves, though, are Western Europeans, those mentioned most often are from Ireland and Gaul (Sophia, though, is Greek and Aidan mention the existence of slaves in Ireland, so it’s not an ‘us against them’ thing).
Some reviewers mention this turning of the tables as a moment of realization, a ‘there but for the grace of God…’ that made them think about the slavery issue in a different light. Honestly it didn’t happen to me, I didn’t relate to Aidan’s tribulations differently than I did to Kunta Kinte’s reading Roots  . This difference in reaction gave me pause, I thought about it for a while trying to understand the reason for it, then it dawned on me.

First of all, in European history slavery wasn’t color-coded, it has never been. In olden times one could find oneself a slave for a lot of reasons, including debt, and we haven’t the ‘white/master, black/slave’ automated pairing (if anything we have the ‘black/ foreigner’ coding instead), moreover, for someone living on the Northern shores of the Mediterranean sea, till not so long ago, the possibility of finding oneself bid upon in the slave market of Tangiers, Tripoli, Algiers or Tunis wasn’t alternate history or a flight of fancy, it was a very real possibility implicit in every sea travel. In the history of almost every seaside village and town in Central and Southern Italy there are records of Turkish/Berber/Arab raids, with people taken away never to be seen again; people who left for a sea voyage and disappeared, their ship attacked by Barbary pirates; people bought back from the auction blocs by one of the religious orders who devoted themselves to the freeing of slaves like the Order of our Lady of Mercy  (the last time was in 1798, in Tunis the Mercedarians freed 830 slaves who had been taken prisoner in the raiding of Carloforte, in Sardinia). One of the lake towns a few kilometers  from where I live, Limone sul Garda (known internationally for the so-called longevity protein) was founded by people coming inland to escape Saracen raids.

I found this an interesting facet of cultural and world-view differences between the US and Southern Europe, one of the many things that often aren’t taken into account when we discuss things across the Atlantic in ‘the Age of Globalization’.

Back to the point: if you are looking for well written, engaging alternate history that will linger after you have finished the book and make you think Lion’s Blood is highly recommended.

Tea with the Black Dragon by R.A. MacEvoy

Tea with the Black Dragon

Publisher: Open Road Media

Publication date: September 9th 2014 (in e-book form, the novel was published in print form in 1983)

When I happen across a book that mixes one of my favorite genres with Chinese history and culture I can’t help but read it. Problem is that, given that China is my professional field, I’m also nitpicky.

There are many things I like in Tea with the Black Dragon but I would have liked it better if some little things had been different.

I loved the fact that both main characters are middle-aged (it isn’t that common to have people over 50 as the main characters in fantasy), I also like the old-fashioned feeling I got from the style (the book was first published in 1983 but, had I not known, I would have said it was older). it is not that it feels outdated, far from it, but the vocabulary is richer that the usual fare of ‘modern’ fantasy novel (although not pretentious or purple), and the prose has a more leisurely pace, it isn’t slow but alternates action sequences with more meditative, quiet moments.

I also like the zen snippets and the fact that the moment of revelation for Mr. Long felt like an echo from a famous quote by Gertrude Stein.

What I don’t like too much is Mr. Long himself, the black dragon of the title. It feels to me like the author portrayed him like a transformed Chinese dragon but was hazy about what a Chinese dragon really is and how it differs from an European one.

I cringed at Mayland Long’s disconfort on being on the water, for instance, and at the hints in the book about his links with fire since Chinese dragons are known for being water-spirits in control of the rain, rivers, lakes and even the sea itself.

There are also scattered references to gold and hoarding, but Chinese dragons aren’t hoarders sitting on piles of gold, they are custodians of treasures and give them freely to deserving humans.
Mayland Long tells of finding himself in human shape after a night-long vigil over the body of a dead hermit, fact is that in Chinese stories dragons have two shapes, they can appear either as dragons or as humans, at will, the nasty surprise for Mayland should have been finding himself trapped in human shape, not having one.

I feel I can recommend this one only to readers that won’t be bothered by the sloppy research on what should have been one of the main elements of the book, for a way better MacAvoy (at least in this reviewer’s opinion) read the Damiano series instead.

Court of Fives by Kate Elliott

Court of Fives
Book One of the Court of Fives series
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: August 18th, 2015

I don’t remember exactly when and how I started following Kate Elliott on LiveJournal, it may have been a comment she left on a friends’ entry or a climb through the branches of my friends’s list, fact is that I do follow her. When I read that she was expanding into YA I was excited, not because of any genre-specific fondness (I am rather neutral towards YA, actually) but because I find intriguing to follow an author I like in a foray into unexplored territory.

Court of Fives landed in my Kindle upon release and I finished it in two days.

I was hooked from page one: the quiet family scene may remind one of the start of Little Women (indeed, one of the sources of inspiration Elliott herself mentions for the novel), but it’s immediately clear that the setting for this book is completely different. This Italian reader was immediately reminded how, in the whole of the Mediterranean, courtyards are just another room of the house, to be used for work, play and quiet times. The scene had something of an archaic feel, much older than either the Civil War or the much abused pseudo-European, pseudo-medieval ‘age’ that is the standard of so many fantasy books.

I loved the world building, Elliott respects her readers enough that she doesn’t feel the need to guide them by hand and explain every little thing, the main points come up naturally and she trusts the reader to connect the dots.

Some readers may feel put off by the patriarchal nature of the setting, I am not among them. The problematic elements are clear, characters struggle with them and find ways to reach their objectives within the strictures imposed by their society or by bending those rules as far as they would go. Even the meekest character, the one that seem to have accepted everything and questioned nothing (Kyia, the mother) is shown in the course of the story to have done her far share of defiant acts. Moreover we are shown that the confining, restrictive ways of the Patrons aren’t the only options, now and again we see that the Commoners culture is way different and allows far more freedom to its women.

I would have liked, though, if Elliott had used different ‘nicknames’ for the two peoples sharing the land of Efea, rather than Patrons for the Saroese conquerors and Commoners for the conquered Efeans. As it is, they make it sound sort of dystopian, as if the divide was a matter of class, rather than ethnicity, and as if the two cultures were monolithic, while already in the first chapter we are shown the strenght of class divisions within the Patrons (the girls’ father is a baker’s son who normally wouldn’t be allowed much of a career in the army due to his lowly birth).

I liked most of the characters, with the notable exception of Amaya (who, I suspect, most readers will love to hate), and, of course, Lord Gargaron. The siblings’father is a complex character who makes some very unsympathetic choices. By the end of the novel I still haven’t been able to decide whether he really had no way out or whether he jumped at the opportunity while convincing himself that he had no choices, I’m looking forward to see what will happen to him in the next book(s). Kalliarkos is still likable by the end of the novel, and that’s no mean feat for somebody who is noble, rich and good-looking to boot. Of course the fact that we see him through the main character’s eyes helps.

Jessamy, the main character is definitely interesting, she is our door into the setting and an adolescent (a potentially dangerous combination), but Elliott makes it work. Jess is intelligent, determined, and, although a product of her times and place, due to her status as mixed-race she is at the same time out of both cultures, with all that such a position involves.

I enjoyed the description of the Fives trials although (but this is a matter of personal taste) I would have liked better some other activity as focus and reason for Jessamy’s defiance. After The Hunger Games gladiator-style competitions abound in YA, and even though the Fives are a sport and not a survival trial still they come out as a somewhat ‘expected’ element.

In any case, Court of Fives was a very enjoyable book, one I am sure I’ll read again waiting for the next instalment in the series.