Posts Tagged dark fantasy

Romance Saturday Returns with Vera Nazarian’s “Cobweb Forest”

As long-time Shiny Book Review readers know, we enjoy reading romances and tend to review many of them on Saturday . . . and as Vera Nazarian’s COBWEB FOREST was next up in the reviewing queue, what could be better?

At the end of COBWEB EMPIRE, Ms. Nazarian threw in a stunning cliffhanger: The promised Cobweb Bride, which would heal the world by allowing people to die in their own, good times again rather than stay animated as all-but-zombies, turned out to be no such thing.

Instead, she was Demeter — the Greek goddess of corn, grain, and the harvest, who’s often depicted as a quintessential mother goddess and most definitely is the mother of the goddess Persephone.

To make matters even more interesting, Demeter had been going under the name of Melinoe, who’s a different Greek goddess entirely (the daughter of Persephone), one of nightmares and shadows, because Demeter hadn’t known who she was anymore due to drinking the water of Lethe. And she’d been deliberately hidden by her daughter, Persephone (the goddess, not Percy Ayren the mortal), given the false name and biography of Persephone’s daughter for whatever reason, and then left.

Mind you, in Ms. Nazarian’s conception, Melinoe was the daughter of Persephone and Hades (the Greek god of death), and died when brought up from the underworld as she was unable to tolerate the world above whatsoever.

So to start off COBWEB FOREST, you need to know that a deranged Persephone — who’s been masquerading as Rumalar Avalais, Sovereign of the Domain — is on the loose, killing as many people as she can get away with, and is proud of doing so because she’s gone completely off her head due to the death of the real Melinoe.

COBWEB FOREST begins with Persephone “Percy” Ayren and her lover, Beltain Chidair, hearing the explanation of Death, also known as Hades, and Demeter. This explanation is deftly done and gets in all the information required if you haven’t read the previous two books, COBWEB BRIDE and COBWEB EMPIRE (both reviewed here at SBR).

Of course, Percy and Beltain are horrified to know that things are even worse than they’d believed. Because they’d had hopes at the end of COBWEB EMPIRE that death would be restored to the world, and that life as human beings know it would resume; instead, they found that death will not resume any time too soon, that Persephone the goddess has forgotten all that is good about humanity and her fellow gods and goddesses, and that Death himself is in major danger due to the nature of how Persephone has changed.

So, will Percy and Beltain be able to bring Persephone back to herself before she completely rends the world asunder? If not, will death as we know it ever return to Europe and beyond? And without Persephone, how can the regular life cycle be restarted?

For that matter, what will happen to all of those places that mysteriously went missing in the previous two books?

All of those questions, and more besides, will be answered in COBWEB FOREST, but may set off wholly different chains of thought.

Note that we still have the same couples as before to follow in addition to this additional plot-wrinkle, and what happens to them mostly is both life-affirming and heart-rending, something Ms. Nazarian pulls off with aplomb.

For example, the wrap-up of the romance between Infanta Claere Liguon and Marquis Vlau Fiomarre couldn’t have gone better, but there are some hair-raising moments (that I refuse to spoil) before these two find their happily ever after.

And while I was never in doubt that Percy and Beltain would end up together, for a while it looked like they’d end up dead and apart . . . and the pathos there was palpable.

As with the two previous books COBWEB BRIDE and COBWEB EMPIRE, COBWEB FOREST is a well-done dark fantasy with some intriguing plot twists — some which I didn’t expect whatsoever. The romances are excellent, and the main plot of how to restore the goddess Persephone back to the goddess of Spring was particularly well-thought-out.

So there’s action. Romance. Plot-twists. Excitement. Lots of death and dismemberment, if you’re into that sort of thing . . . and an uplifting finale that would charm the socks off a dead person (if said dead person still had socks).

The only drawback — and it is incredibly minor — is a few odd things with regards to the plot. For example, Hades (as Death) tells Beltain early on not to separate from Percy no matter what — not to let Percy out of his sight, ever. But when Beltain does this, no additional, appreciable harm comes to Percy . . . in other words, there isn’t anything else that happens to Percy because Beltain isn’t beside her (rather than three steps to her rear, or having gone through a world gate first, or whatever).

Of course, Percy is in danger from the beginning of this book until its gentle wrap-up. So maybe that’s why it truly didn’t matter where Beltain was in the cosmic scheme of things. But to mention that as something Beltain definitely must do, or there will be consequences, and then to have no consequences whatsoever that are directly because of Beltain not being right next to Percy seemed a bit unnecessary.

As I said, that’s an incredibly minor drawback, as it didn’t impact my enjoyment of COBWEB FOREST whatsoever.

Bottom line? COBWEB FOREST is an exceptionally fine book which conclusively ended the story of Percy and Beltain, and I enjoyed it immensely. (But if Ms. Nazarian can figure out how to write a sequel to this that follows up with Percy and Beltain as they make their way in Europe, I’d enjoy reading it. Guaranteed.)



Cobweb Bride series: A

— reviewed by Barb

, , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Vera Nazarian’s “Cobweb Empire” is Haunting, Elegiac, and Riveting

Vera Nazarian’s COBWEB BRIDE (reviewed in December) started the story of Persephone “Percy” Ayren, a commoner in an alternate world of 1700s nobility. Percy has an unusual ability: She can see the presence of death. And in a world where death is suspended and no one can truly die, her ability is both a blessing and a curse.

During the course of COBWEB BRIDE, Percy met up with a number of interesting and influential people, including the newly-dead Infanta Claere Liguon (sole heir of her realm), the Witch woman Grial, the enigmatic Black Knight Beltain Chidair (son of the infamous Duke “Hoarfrost,” now dead and even more disreputable than he was in life), and many, many others, including Death Himself. All of the living people, though, paled in comparison to Percy due to Percy’s unusual abilities.

When COBWEB BRIDE ended, Percy returned home, revealed herself as Death’s Champion and managed to ease her dying, suffering grandmother — who’d been “living” despite a death rattle for weeks, unable to eat, move, or possibly even think — into a true and peaceful death.

This, of course, is a miracle of epic proportions under the circumstances. And it cannot be hidden for very long, especially as the various countries populating this alternate Earth (including Liguon, Lethe, Styx, Balmoe, Morphaea, and Serenoa, along with our “mundane” countries of France, Spain, and Italy) are at war.

At the start of COBWEB EMPIRE, Percy is dealing with the aftermath of easing her grandmother’s transition into a clean, true death. She’s wondering why she, of all people, has this ability. And she wonders if it makes her more than human, or less?

But she doesn’t have much time to spend on philosophical pursuits, as word spreads rapidly of her abilities, especially after she grants a suffering pig — which had been butchered before anyone figured out death no longer applied and has been in an undead, yet hurting state for weeks — its true death as well.

The village priest is immediately called, and he says it’s a miracle (discreetly pocketing a few coins from Percy’s relieved father on the way out). So Percy continues on her way, as she needs to return the riding animal and cart to its proper owner, Grial the Witch woman.

Of course, there are obstacles aplenty before Percy finds Grial, and one of those obstacles is the nature of these additional lands themselves. They have oddly started to fade, taking people and objects with them. No street or dwelling place is safe, and no one has any idea why it’s happening, either . . . the best guess is that because death itself is suspended, these particular “extra” realms are hurting because magic works there, whereas it doesn’t seem to be able to do so in France, Italy, and Spain.

Once Grial is found, she gives Percy a few hints along with a good meal, introduces her to the Crown Prince and Princess of Lethe, who need Percy’s help in order to allow the Crown Prince’s mother, the Queen, to truly die. And because Percy has a big heart and cannot stand suffering, she does so . . . but that causes even more challenges.

Consider, please, that Kings and Queens, if they have any sense at all, need to understand tactics. Since many of these countries are at war with one another, they need a tactical advantage.

And what could be a greater advantage in a world where no one can die than a woman who actually can send the undead into a true death?

Fortunately, Grial intervenes and sends Percy, along with the Black Knight Beltain Chidair, along their way again. Grial knows that Percy must continue to search for the true Cobweb Bride, as that’s the only way life as everyone knows it will ever return.

Because all of the same problems discussed in COBWEB BRIDE still exist. People cannot grow anything, because the grains will not ripen. You cannot butcher any pigs, cows or other animals, because the meat will not cure. Even milk will not properly curdle, so making cheese and yogurt is out, and aside from water itself, there is nothing that will keep the populace from starvation unless Death gets his Cobweb Bride . . . and that in a hurry.

At any rate, Beltain is a formidable knight, so between his fighting abilities and Percy’s rapidly improving abilities in sending the undead into true death, they are left unmolested (though with more than a few strong scares). But there’s more between them than just the comradeship of the road, as Percy had feelings for him in COBWEB BRIDE, while Beltain at least thought she was interesting and spunky. But the more he sees of her and her abilities, the more protective and loving he becomes.

Mind you, a touch of love was very welcome here amidst all this death. And someone being able to love Percy for herself despite her unusual abilities — or perhaps because of them — was even more welcome.

At any rate, there is yet another factor to consider. Rumalar Avalais, the Sovereign of the Domain (think of her as the equivalent of the Emperor and Empress of Liguon), has decided to take the field of war. And this Sovereign doesn’t seem to be keen on ruling the living . . .

The pluses of COBWEB EMPIRE are many. Ms. Nazarian has an ability to give her characters just the right words to say; her characterization is top-notch, her storytelling is keen, and there’s a feeling despite all the darkness and death that somehow, someway, the world will be righted again.

In other words, COBWEB EMPIRE, far from being a “filler” book as tends to happen in far too many trilogies as of late, has a good story to tell all its own. It comes out of the previous COBWEB BRIDE, deepening and broadening it immensely, then adds complexity upon complexity until there’s yet another major surprise in store at the end.

Bottom line? COBWEB EMPIRE is a worthy sequel to the excellent COBWEB BRIDE that leaves much room for doubt as to what, exactly will happen in the concluding COBWEB FOREST.

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb


** Note that if all goes well, COBWEB FOREST should be reviewed next weekend. Stay tuned.

, , , , , ,


Vera Nazarian’s “Cobweb Bride” is Slow to Start, Hard to Put Down

Vera Nazarian’s COBWEB BRIDE is the story of what happens once Death comes calling, asks for his “Cobweb Bride,” and then leaves again after saying he will not do his job until/unless his Cobweb Bride is found.  The world is thrown into chaos as animals cannot be killed for food, anything left on the vine does not ripen, and most importantly of all, people do not and cannot die.  Because of the urgency of the situation — Death had best get his Cobweb Bride quickly, or people could starve but be left in an undead state, and those who truly need to die cannot — a number of women, mostly young, from the Kingdom of Lethe and its environs go in search of Death to find out if any of them could be his bride.

Persephone (Percy) Ayren, a sixteen-year-old young woman from the Kingdom of Lethe, is one of the many young women from all over Lethe who goes to find Death in order to find out if she’s Death’s bride or not . . . but as she’s the principal player in a large ensemble cast, it’s easiest to start with her.  Percy is the overlooked middle sister from a rural family, and she hasn’t been treated well by her mother, Niobea (though Percy’s father loves her dearly and so do her sisters).  Percy sees herself as ordinary and mostly has hidden her talents, including a rather odd one of being able to see the shadow of death as it approaches.  So when Death’s call resounds throughout Lethe, she’s among the first to answer as she figures she won’t be missed.

But Lethe is not a stand-alone kingdom; no, indeed.  It’s part of an altered Renaissance landscape, so the countries we know as France, Germany, etc., are still there but not necessarily in their current positions.  Lethe is part and parcel of an Empire called the “Silver Court,” where the Infanta Claere Liguon has just been killed by Marquis Vlau Fiomarre of Styx (another kingdom allied with the Silver Court) due to an apparent blood feud.  But because Claere cannot die — and because Claere has retained more of her essential humanity than most of the undead — she spares Vlau’s life, asking him to accompany her on her journey to find Death and see if she might be the Cobweb Bride Death’s looking for.

And because Claere is both noble in spirit and already dead, she figures she won’t be sacrificing very much to be one with Death.

Vlau, of course, goes along with Claere, and eventually they meet up with Percy and the gaggle of young women who’ve joined up with her.  The reason Percy is leading this pack of young women is because of one notorious newly-dead noble, Duke Ian (“Hoarfrost”) Chidair, who tries to keep any potential Cobweb Brides away from Death for the Duke’s own spiteful reasons.  Percy, the other girls with her, Vlau and Claere all go in search of Death, eluding Duke Ian and his men and searching for Death everywhere they go . . . but it will not be easy to find him.

Providing they do find him, will any of them be Death’s Cobweb Bride?  And if not, what will happen to the world at large?  (Further reviewer sayeth not, at least as far as the plot summary.)

I enjoyed COBWEB BRIDE very much, mostly because Ms. Nazarian’s prose, once past the first third of the novel in particular, is something to savor.  (Like a fine wine, except without the calories.)  Between the excellent storytelling, the haunting and elegiac descriptions, and the flawless characterization, I found COBWEB BRIDE to be one of the toughest books to put down I’ve read during 2013.

Note that COBWEB BRIDE is definitely dark fantasy, as Ms. Nazarian doesn’t shrink from the nastier problems caused by Death refusing to take anyone into his embrace.  Pigs get butchered, then keep screaming in pain because they cannot die.  People freeze to death, then get up and walk home, scaring everyone in sight and sometimes doing horrific things as they know they’re dead and nothing seems to matter.  And the balance of power starts to slowly shift away from those who are trying hard to rule honorably in the way they’ve always done toward those who wish to find a way to use Death’s refusal to allow anyone to die until he gets his bride as a shorthand path toward nation or empire building — because there are now many things worse than death, and humanity is finding out about all of them.

But ultimately, COBWEB BRIDE is also life-affirming, too.  And it’s because of those two things — and the balance between those two things (literally, life and death) — that COBWEB BRIDE is not only one of the most original fantasies I’ve ever read, but also one of the most memorable.

In other words, if you think you know the ending to Percy’s story, you’d best think again.

That being said, there’s one minor drawback to COBWEB BRIDE, which I alluded to in this review’s title: it’s quite slow to start.  We see a whole lot of why Percy decides to go in search of Death, which is important and essential information . . . but it’s not conveyed at the same rate of speed as much of the rest of the novel.**

Providing you stick with this slow start, though, the rewards of COBWEB BRIDE are many.

Bottom line?  Don’t miss COBWEB BRIDE.  (And bring on the sequels!)

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb


** Note that this one minor drawback is the sole reason COBWEB BRIDE did not receive an A-plus.  (It’ll just have to settle for an A.  Oh, the horror.)

, , , , ,


Jon Sprunk’s “Shadow’s Master:” Intelligent, Violent Dark Fantasy

Jon Sprunk’s SHADOW’S MASTER is the third and final installment of Sprunk’s “Shadow Saga,” the previous two books being SHADOW’S SON and SHADOW’S LURE.  It isn’t necessary to read the previous books in order to understand SHADOW’S MASTER (good thing, too, as I haven’t).

This third installment in the “Shadow Saga” features Caim Du’Vartha, a fearsome fighter of renown, who must go North in order to find his mother’s family.  Caim has abilities, you see, which he doesn’t understand but somehow has full use of, including the ability to teleport by the use of “shadows” (thus the name for the trilogy) and the ability to move much faster than most humans, which obviously improves his fighting and is the main reason for his reputation.  But this, alone, wouldn’t be enough to motivate him; the real reason he’s going North (a place of fearsome, dark beauty where the sun never shines and the constellations are all wrong) is because Caim wants, once and for all, to know why his mother simply disappeared one day, never to return, despite her love for him and his (fully human) father.

Note that despite Caim’s fearsome abilities, he hasn’t been stupid enough to go North alone; instead, he’s taken three very good fighters along with him, these being Malig, Aemon, and Dray.  These three often serve to relieve tension, and all serve a unique purpose: Malig is a “love ’em and leave ’em” type, Dray is moody, and Dray’s brother Aemon seems like he’d rather have retired than gone on this quest, except Dray wouldn’t let him.  These three men help to keep Caim from becoming too introverted or angry.

Here’s the one piece of information Caim really doesn’t know, but should’ve figured out before he started this quest (which is why it’s not a spoiler): Caim is not fully human, as these shadows he uses are a biological ability he was born with due to his mother’s genetic heritage.  But Caim doesn’t think of himself as a half-breed, though others do; these others, centered in a stronghold called Erebus, call Cain the “Scion” and wonder if he’s really as capable as he seems.  This is why they resolve to test him; a noble fighter named Balaam, one of the Talons who guard “the Master” (equivalent to an Emperor) and can use the shadows as easily as Caim can, is dispatched to test Cain’s mettle.  Balaam must determine whether or not Caim truly should be named the Master’s heir — or if Caim should be eliminated out of hand.

Meanwhile, there are two others who actively factor into the plot; the first is Empress Josephine (called “Josey”) of Nimea, who is carrying Caim’s child, though Caim doesn’t know it.  (This apparently is because Josey didn’t know she was pregnant before Caim went North.)  The second is a woman of mist (a “guardian spirit”) named Kit, who can’t fully incorporate into the physical world, yet is deeply in love with Caim anyway.  This love triangle adds depth to Caim’s character, which otherwise would’ve been one of extreme violence and not much else.

Mind you, these two women are also very important to the plot.  Josey is on a “royal progress” in order to unite Nimea, and has many adventures of her own, while Kit must figure out whether or not she loves Caim enough to leave her current mode of life.  You can see why this is a most interesting love triangle: Josey’s pregnant and knows it’s Caim’s child, but has no idea where he is.  This means she has to get on with her job of ruling Nimea, and part of that job means she must entertain the possibility of other alliances.  And Kit’s entire mode of living could change if she stays with Caim; she would not only have to become mortal (difficult enough), but also give up all of her extra abilities despite the fact that Caim may need them in order to survive.  These extra layers of complexity help to humanize Caim’s situation, especially since in both cases, Caim has no idea what these women might be willing to give up in order to be with him (because neither woman is willing to tell him).

Who will Caim choose (or who will choose Caim, take your pick)?  Will Caim find his mother in Erebus, or will Balaam succeed in keeping Caim out?  And what, pray tell, will Josey do regarding her rule and her increasingly obvious pregnancy?  All of these questions will be answered by the end of SHADOW’S MASTER.

The pluses of SHADOW’S MASTER are these: the characterization is spot-on.  The fighting sequences, violent as they are, work well.  The action-adventure works.  The plot is well-constructed.  And I liked the fact that “Caim” is a very close name to “Caine,” the hero played by David Carradine on the old “Kung Fu” television series.

The minuses, though, are a bit harder to understand. 

First, why is it that both Kit and Josey don’t tell Caim anything?  One of them — Josey — has every reason in the world not to tell Caim what’s going on as he’s gone.  But there’s no excuse for Kit not to say anything, as she’s with Caim every day due to her own magical abilities.  This was something that just made me scratch my head, as it could’ve easily been fixed.

Second, the court at Erebus wasn’t as well-sketched as I would’ve liked.  Most of those people were complete ciphers, and while that makes sense from Caim’s perspective, it makes zero sense from Balaam’s.  As we see much from Balaam’s viewpoint, this also could’ve easily been remedied.

Third, Caim’s essential nature bothered me.  He’s so dark and brooding that I truly didn’t understand how it was that not one, but two good women would be willing to give up so much for him. 

I understand why Caim is upset throughout most of this book, mind you; that’s not the what bugs me.  What does is that Caim doesn’t seem to grow in this particular book.

I’ve read comments elsewhere to the point that Caim has grown a great deal throughout the trilogy, and this may well be true.  However, just because his good qualities may have been more strongly enumerated in the previous books of the trilogy, they still need to be sketched out here — and they weren’t. 

All that said, this is a strong sword and sorcery effort that lovers of dark fantasy — especially men, the younger the better — will enjoy quite a bit.  And that’s not chopped liver.

Grade: B

–reviewed by Barb

, , , ,