The Hopeful Wanderer 20 – Catching Strays

Pure white light blazed in my eyes. A moment before, it had been the kind of vast, empty night that only farmland can offer. Corn rows marching away into the distance. Stars blazing overhead, etched sharply against the shapes of distant trees and a cluster of silos on the horizon. No artificial light for miles around, save for my own flashlight. Now I couldn’t see anything.

Throwing a hand up, I shielded my eyes, squinting against the intense glow from down the dirt road. Beyond it, I could just make out a hulk of green metal, dark rubber wheels rising higher than my head. Light reflected from cab windows above like the eyes of a wild animal. A row of long, sharp teeth glinted across the front.

A growl. Loud and rumbling, shaking the earth beneath my feet. Diesel smoke drifted to me on the still air, thick and sooty. The light grew brighter, nearer. Then those teeth started up, crashing together.

I stood right in the way, there on the road.

My boots sank into mud as I stepped off into the irrigation ditch. The combine rolled past me and I snagged a metal rung, swinging myself up the side, my mucky boots clanging mutely as I clambered toward the cab. The combine paused to examine a nearby irrigation system, ignoring me.

The cab door popped open. I plopped down into the patched driver’s seat, giving the dashboard an affectionate pat. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you,” I said, or rather, yelled over the engine roar. There was a reason why farm gates had to stay shut: combines would test any escape opportunity. Even worse than tractors. “Let’s get you back home.”

Catching the wheel, I angled us toward the barn, radioing the farmer to meet us there.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 19 – Butterfly Breaths

I drew in several deep breaths and blew them out, preparing to hold as long as I could. By my count, the constant practice while traversing this twilit forest had me up to a solid two minutes, though I still struggled. I had a feeling two minutes wouldn’t be long enough for what I wanted to see.

Gloom saturated a grassy glade where I sat with my back against a tree trunk, damp earth soaking my pants. A faint path passed through this, the very heart of the forest, on my left, ambling around a massive fallen oak tree. The log itself was ancient, mossy, rotten. Yet locals had detailed strange sightings here, even traded me the trick for getting a glimpse myself. I had to try.

Deep breaths. In and out. It would be worth the price I paid to see this even for just two minutes. Right as dusk changed to night, I sucked in as much air as I could and held. Instantly my heart rate jack-rabbited but I ignored its rapid beat, eyes trained on the log before me, straining in the dark.

A moment passed, two. Faint tinkling jingled through the air. Then a tiny golden glow flared on the log, emanating from a pale mushroom, cap glittering. Scores more followed, dotting the log, shining upon the glade like sunrise. Bejeweled blue butterflies appeared in the air, floating languidly above the glinting mushrooms, each carrying their own sparkling glimmer. Several flapped over to me, alighting in my hair, one on my nose. It smelled like sugar.

Lungs burning, I gasped. The glade went dark, butterflies vanished, the tinkling replaced with mere forest noises, punctuated by my rapid breaths.

I grinned and pumped my fist. That time, I had made it two and half minutes.


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Book Review: The Death of the Necromancer

High jinks rule the day throughout The Death of the Necromancer. The narrative comes packed with every aspect Victorian-era criminal life has to offer, plus necromancy.

The Death of the Necromancer Synopsis

Nicholas Valiarde is a passionate, embittered nobleman with an enigmatic past. Consumed by thoughts of vengeance, he is consoled only by thoughts of the beautiful, dangerous Madeline. He is also the greatest thief in all of Ile-Rien… On the gas light streets of the city, he assumes the guise of a master criminal, stealing jewels from wealthy nobles to finance his quest for vengeance the murder of Count Montesq. Montesq orchestrated the wrongful execution of Nicholas’s beloved godfather on false charges of necromancy–the art of divination through communion with spirits of the dead–a practice long outlawed in the kingdom of Ile-Rein.

But now Nicholas’s murderous mission is being interrupted by a series of eerie, unexplainable, even fatal events. Someone with tremendous magical powers is opposing him. Children vanish, corpses assume the visage of real people, mortal spells are cast, and traces of necromantic power that hasn’t been used for centuries are found. And when a spiritualist unwittingly leads Nicholas to a decrepit mansion, the monstrous nature of his peril finally emerges in harrowing detail. Nicholas and his compatriots must destroy an ancient and awesome evil. Even the help of Ile-Rien’s greatest sorcerer may not be enough, for Nicholas faces a woefully mismatched battle–and unthinkable horrors await the loser.

(Via Goodreads)

About Martha Wells

Martha Wells has written many fantasy novels, including The Books of the Raksura series (beginning with The Cloud Roads), the Ile-Rien series (including The Death of the Necromancer) as well as YA fantasy novels, short stories, media tie-ins (for Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis), and non-fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel is The Harbors of the Sun in 2017, the final novel in The Books of the Raksura series. She has a new series of SF novellas, The Murderbot Diaries, published by Tor.com in 2017 and 2018. She was also the lead writer for the story team of Magic: the Gathering‘s Dominaria expansion in 2018. She has won a Nebula Award, an ALA/YALSA Alex Award, a Locus Award, and her work has appeared on the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Award ballots, the USA Today Bestseller List, and the New York Times Bestseller List. Her books have been published in eleven languages.

(Via Martha Wells’s Website)

My Thoughts

Once again, I unwittingly picked up a sequel at the library, possibly because nowhere does the cover of Martha Wells’s The Death of the Necromancer indicate Ile-Rien #2, possibly because my library branch simply doesn’t carry the first in series installments. (Before proceeding to read The Death of the Necromancer, I started Black Heart, the third in Holly Black’s The Curse Workers series and had to put it down on realizing my mistake. Possibly, I myself am cursed.)

However! While the narrative makes what I assume are some allusions to the previous book, they’re explained well enough that I didn’t feel lost without Ile-Rien #1. If you don’t want to check out The Element of Fire before reading this one, you really don’t have to.

What I Liked

Over-Arcing Content

High jinks rule the day throughout The Death of the Necromancer. The narrative comes packed with all kinds of sticky situations, clever escapes, “high-speed” horse cart chases, disguises, traps, schemes, and every aspect Victorian-era criminal life has to offer, plus necromancy. The characters operate on a morally ambiguous level, skirting the edges of ethics without resorting to unwarranted cruelty. (I would’ve accepted something grittier, but it was nice.)

Characters

The ragtag group of Nicholas Valiarde’s followers reminded me very much of the Dregs from Six of Crows, one of my favorite books. I’m sure this has to do more with tropes than anything else, but they were character tropes that I already know I enjoy–the scheming, clever leader in Nicholas, the spitfire master of disguise in Madeleine, the fallen nobleman in Reynard, the surly bodyguard in Crack, etc.

Madeleine herself got not only just as much development as Nicholas but also point-of-view scenes throughout The Death of the Necromancer, convincing me that she functions as a co-main character. On top of that, the plot resolution(s) literally couldn’t have happened without her. 10/10 lady lead character.

There also appeared Inspector Ronsarde and Doctor Halle, who look like Detective Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, but only if you squint. When their names turned up toward the beginning of the narrative, I never expected them to become integral to the story but what fun when they did. Also, Gay Undertones for Days.

Motifs

The apparent main plot of The Death of the Necromancer cleverly fades back into a sub-plot as the narrative progresses, honing in on a comparison of Nicholas’s mindset in his own scheme of revenge compared to that of the main villain. Wells also often encourages the reader to empathize with Nicholas, then reminds us how the other characters see him as someone capable of ruthlessness, how the truth of who he is probably lands somewhere between the two perspectives.

Romance. I’m an absolute sucker for a pre-established relationship. Nicholas and Madeleine had something going on before the beginning of the narrative, with their intimate understanding of each other, their muted pining and worry when apart, their silly attempts at stoicism toward one another. They spent the whole time being partners. In crime. Working together as a team. I ate that right up.

Ending

The final confrontation between our characters and the Big Bad had a lot more running around than seemed reasonable, but the final revelation of the villain and his clash with the heroes did not disappoint. The denouement of The Death of the Necromancer took its time with wrapping up, making sure to tie up any loose ends using elements sensibly pulled from the plot. It also allowed Nicholas, despite his status as some kind of hero-criminal as far as the crown was concerned, to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes one last time, staying true to his clever nature.

What I Disliked

I liked The Death of the Necromancer, but it took me approximately an entire month to read it. (Likely incurring a fee at the library because guess who didn’t bother to renew?) Though the narrative featured many of the things I like–a ragtag bunch of morally neutral criminals, an intelligent mastermind leader, necromancy, a reasonable romantic element, and a realistic heroine–my main complaint comes of the pacing. Much as I said in my review of Sabriel, the somewhat older-fashioned narrative style just felt less punchy and more draggy.

The narrative also suffers some from too many similar names. A number of them start with an R or end in “-ard(e)” so that even up until the end, when I’d become familiar enough with the characters to tell them apart, I still had to stop and orient myself when one of these names reappeared on the page.

Recommendations

I’d absolutely recommend The Death of the Necromancer to fans of Sabriel for the many elements shared between the two, as well as to fans of Six of Crows for the Victorian-era heist aspect. Also for readers who enjoy a more subtle romance and plot integral heroines.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Goodreads raiting: 4.07 stars


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The Hopeful Wanderer 18 – Fishing for Fears

“It contains your greatest fear.” The kingfisher perched in the branches above me preened its green and gold feathers with a long beak and a self-righteous air. “I can see into it. Want to guess what’s inside?”

“It contains your greatest fear.” The kingfisher perched in the branches above me preened its green and gold feathers with a long beak and a self-righteous air. “I can see into it. Want to guess what’s inside?”

The bright bird offered the only splash of color on this snowy morning. Every branch, leaf, and stone bore a coat of glittering ice; pale dawn rays flashed through tendrils of fog rising from the surface of the nearby lake. At the end of the bough on which the bird perched, a perfect sphere of ice clung to a network of twigs, larger than a soap bubble but only just. Intricate patterns frosted its blue surface, delicate and unique.

“If I crack it,” the kingfisher continued, voice sly, “your fear will come out.”

On the lake shore below the tree, I stamped my feet in the cold slush and blew warmth onto my chilled hands, breath fogging white. “Is it heights?”

All I got for my guess was a contemptuous look.

“The inexorable passage of time?” I continued, tone blasé. “The bottom of the ocean? Meaninglessness? Needles?”

“None of those!” the kingfisher snapped, feathers ruffling.

I smiled. “Then it contains none of my fears.” Turning my face to the rising sun, I set off along the shore, boots crunching against thin ice. “Maybe the only fears it contains are your own.”

A stunned beat of silence. Then, behind me, several ringing taps, followed by a sharp crack and shattering glass. A high, frightened chirp. Feathers beat against air and when I turned, the kingfisher was winging away over open water. Where I had stood, a red fox trotted from the trees, watching the bird intently. Then it took off the other way around the lake, as if meaning to chase the kingfisher forever.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 17 – Accessory to Conceit

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Undulating waves of cotton candy pink and sapphire blue filled up my vision, shifting, swirling. Like gazing into a sunrise and finding it could dance. Over and over, the display stole my breath, made my heart sing. Dizzying me with euphoria. I desired nothing more than to keep watching; I wanted desperately to look away. Though I recalled no reason for either of these warring thoughts, they consumed me and tore at me, stretching me thin until soon I must break. A scream bubbled at the back of my throat, unreleased.

A harsh voice in my ear. “Wake up, human!”

I was standing knee-deep in a night-dark pond. Bright green lily pads clustered upon the watery surface and large gray rocks cluttered the rim. From among the cattails growing between these, crickets chirruped pleasant night songs. Cold water and mud oozed into my ruined shoes, the realization of which instantly irritated me. They would have to be replaced. Again.

Pink and blue light glowed from beneath the water.

As I clambered out of the pond, water sluicing from my pants and my shoes, I noticed a large land turtle perched atop one of the rocks. It regarded me with knowing eyes. As I sat down alongside to rest my rubbery legs, wondering how long I’d stood there, I said, “You woke me?”

The turtle nodded. “I guard this pond,” it explained. “Don’t mind my neighbor; he loves admiration.”

Cutting my gaze sideways, I saw a beautiful koi at the center of the bright glow. If a fish could look snooty and dismissive, this one managed it, turning his face from me in a huff.

“You’ve had enough of my attention,” I told the koi. With a nod of thanks for the turtle, I stumbled away, shoes squelching in the dark.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 16 – Pebble Prophecies

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White surf hissed against a pebbly black shore, curling around my toes in a wash of cold spray. Secrets from distant lands washed onto this ancient beach, catching on pebbles and snagging within tide pools. Collected and kept here where few knew to seek them.

The older secrets rested further up the beach, but the most recent ones lived here at the tide line. Dipping my fingers into the salty water, I came back up with a smooth stone the size of my thumbnail. No feature indicated what kind of wisdom it might hold, but I liked its shape.

Bringing the black pebble close to my mouth, I murmured, “Make your secrets known to me.”

Turning my head, I listened close over the roar of the pounding surf. Nothing, nothing.

Maybe this one contained no hidden message after all. But then… something. A mournful voice from far across the ocean, breaking with sorrow.

“Not all dreams come true.”


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The Hopeful Wanderer 14 – A Ghostly Guardian

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A thick cloud came to rest over farmland and countryside, shading the afternoon in sepia tones and muffling the distant sounds of highway traffic. To avoid a wide, unnecessary loop of interstate, I was cutting across an open field, boots squishing in mud from overnight rainfall. Yellowing grass swished against my knees, soaking my pants legs to my ankles, and moisture beaded in my hair, dripping cold down my face. Everything smelled damp, full of possibility.

Watching where I stepped, I almost missed it. A gentle whuff of breath and warmth radiating at my side alerted me to the presence of another walking with me, pace sedate, bearing regal. Just visible in the fog was an enormous buck, brown coat fading into the the landscape. Its antlers grew shaped like tree branches, winter dull twigs rattling together as it turned its head toward me.

A guardian. Legends spoke of the wisdom of the ancient guardians, rarely seen, who imparted their knowledge to those they deemed worthy. Shocked, I stopped, and when it realized I no longer kept pace, it paused ahead.

I stared. It looked back at me. The thudding of my heart crashed in my ears.

“I have questions,” I whispered. My voice sounded like nothing at all. “Please.”

Those liquid black eyes bored into me. My breathing stalled altogether as I waited, hoped. A beat of time passed, but then slowly, silently, the guardian turned and walked away, vanishing into the white fog.

Alone now, I tipped my chin back, searching for meaning in the swirling mist above. Nothingness and emptiness. I let out a breath and quietly accepted rejection.

Of course we all had questions; that made none of us special. I hoped one day that someone would learn from this guardian what I could not.


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