TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY #11

This GoodReads group proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.

 

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This week’s topic: BOOKS YOU WANT TO FINALLY READ IN 2017

These are those books you meant to read in 2016 or 2015 or 2014 and never got around to. Those books that have been sitting on your TBR for a while, and you really want to get to. These aren’t upcoming 2017 releases; these are older books that need your love too!

If my TBR pile had a life of its own, and physical form, it would be scowling at me all the time… So here we go:

 

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Daniel Abraham: The King’s Blood (The Dagger and the Coin #2)

Daniel Abraham has shown time and again to be very versatile, both as a co-author of the highly acclaimed SF series The Expanse, and as a Fantasy writer: his Long Price Quartet was one of the most enjoyable and innovative series I read, and the first book of The Dagger and the Coin, though apparently more “classic” in feel, was an engrossing read that left me wanting for more. The second volume already beckons from my reading queue…

 

Iain M. Banks: Matter (Culture #8) or Against a Dark Background

Though I discovered this amazing SF author a little late, I’m steadily working my way through his production, mostly centered around the universe of the Culture, a post-scarcity future society where humans (or rather, post-humans) and alien civilizations co-exist together with artificial intelligences and ship Minds, who are the latter’s next evolutionary step.  I’m still trying to decide on either the next Culture book, Matter, or a non-Culture book set however in the same universe, Against a Dark Background, that on the surface looks like an adventure story but, knowing this author, might very well be something else entirely.

 

Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave

The Arthurian legend is a fascinating, and timeless, one: I’ve been meaning to read this first book of Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Saga for ages but always kept postponing it in favor of other titles. Now I’ve decided I am not waiting any longer: the siren song of this myth is calling to me loud and clear, and this time I don’t intend to ignore it. I believe that the unique blend of history, myth and fantasy that must be at the core of this story will make for a very gripping read.

 

Rachel Bach: Fortune’s Pawn (Paradox #1)

I have to confess I did start this book some time ago but it must not have been the right time – or maybe I was not in the right mood to appreciate it: the fact that I just put it in the virtual back shelf and not moved it off my reader means that I knew, even then, that there was something in it that had piqued my interest.  All I needed was to put myself in the right frame of mind, and I guess now might be that time: much of the enthusiastic reviews I’ve read from fellow bloggers whose tastes I trust have encouraged me to give it a second chance, and in the meantime – as it happens often when I procrastinate – the Paradox series has been completed.  Which means I will be able to enjoy it without waiting too long.

 

Juliet Marlier: Tower of Thorns (Blackthorn and Grim #2)

I totally loved the first book in this saga, Dreamer’s Pool, and promised myself I would not wait too long to get to the second volume, but as usual good intentions doubled up as paving stones on the proverbial road to Hell…  This is another of those fortunate cases, though, when my lagging behind means I now have two wonderful books to look forward to in the Blackthorn and Grim series and I can’t wait to re-acquaint myself with rough-edged but well-meaning Blackthorn and with the silent and meaning presence of her companion Grim, and to learn more about the bonds of affection and respect that tie them together and create the powerful core of their story.

TOP TEN TUESDAY #2

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

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This weeks’ theme is Top Ten New-To-Me Authors I Read For The First Time In 2016

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We all have our preferred authors, those whose works we buy sight unseen because we know with total certainty that we will love what they write, and the stories they will offer us. And yet the discovery of new writers is just as thrilling as opening a new book by a well-loved author: this year I have been particularly lucky with my findings, and it took some effort in deciding how to compile this list, because there were more than 10 names I could quote…

So here we go, in no particular order of preference – these were all amazing finds:

Michael Livingston: The Shards of Heaven

My first historical fiction book, and one I loved, dealing with the aftermath of Julius Caesar’s assassination and the political and military fallout on Egypt, with some added “spice” from the magical properties of some powerful, much sought-after objects.  I can’t wait to start on the second book of the series…

(my review)

Ben Tripp: The Fifth House of the Heart

Vampires at their worst and most terrifying are always a delight to read, especially when the “hero” facing them is anything but, and yet still manages to worm his way into your sympathies and make you root for him every step of the way. Sadly this is a standalone book: I would have loved to read more of these adventures!

(my review)

Amie Kaufman-Jay Kristoff: Illuminae

A true revelation: my usual aversion to YA themes and protagonists vanished into thin air thanks to the authors’ skill in picturing the teenaged main characters of this space-opera story, dealing with survival and the need to make the truth stand out, no matter what.  Another one whose sequel is already in my sights.

(my review)

Juliet Marillier: Dreamer’s Pool

The kind of story I fall for hard and fast, the kind of story that’s so immersive and totally gripping I can’t stop to think about it even when I’m not reading.  The main characters, the rough-mannered Blackthorn and the taciturn Grim had my soul from the very first pages, and their voices sounded loud and true in my mind. One of the best discoveries in this reading year, indeed.

(my review)

Stephanie Burgis: Masks and ShadowsCongress of Secrets

Two for the price of one, indeed. Another historical fantasy writer who not only afforded me two wonderful reads in the same year, but also compelled me to look further into the historical periods depicted in her novels and helped me learn details I did not know. Entertaining and instructive: who could wish for more?

(Mask and Shadows review)    (Congress of Secrets review)

Christopher Buehlman: The Lesser Dead

Vampires, again: this time living (more or less, of course, being undead…) in New York in the late ’70s and showing a new facet of these creatures, one that is as far from glamorous and fascinating as humanly, or inhumanly, possible, and yet they kept me glued to the pages as if under a spell. An amazing discovery.

(my review)

Sean Danker: Admiral

Space opera, a survival story and a mystery, all rolled into one: it took me a while to warm up to this book, because it, in turn, took a while before getting into proper gear, but once it started rolling it never lost speed for a moment.  To say I’m curious to see where the next installment will bring the “Admiral” would be a massive understatement…

(my review)

Julie Czerneda: A Thousand Words for Stranger

After waiting for quite some time before sampling this author, I’ve discovered that there is much more to her stories than it would seem at first sight, and that she can lead you to think you have figured it all out, only to turn the story (and the reader…) upside down without warning.  An interesting beginning that will certainly develop into an equally interesting journey.

(my review)

Erin Lindsey: The Bloodbound

A sword-wielding heroine who not only does not need to be saved, but instead does save life and hide of her king time and again? That’s what I call a (happy) bending of the rules, indeed.  And even though there is something of a love triangle in the story, it’s treated with such a light hand and with the well-crafted exploration of sincere feelings that for the first time in such a circumstance I never had to roll my eyes. Quite a feat…

(forthcoming review)

Rachel Caine: Ink and Bone

This is the perfect book for book lovers, starting from the premise that the Great Library of Alexandria was never destroyed.  “Wonderful!” many would say, thinking that the survival of so much knowledge would herald a more enlightened world. Well, they would be wrong because…  better discover that on your own, don’t you think?

(forthcoming review)

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TO SLEEP, PERCHANCE TO READ…

Today I quite accidentally stumbled on this snippet of news, and I feel the need to share it with all my fellow bibliophiles: in the cities of Tokyo, and now Kyoto, there are two very peculiar hotels – or rather hostels – that offer accommodations between bookshelves. Yes, you read that correctly…

The first to start on this amazing road was the Book and Bed hotel in Tokyo, whose huge success brought on the creation of its twin in Kyoto: in both hotels the guests can sleep in bunks specially built inside the bookshelves.  Probably not a very comfortable space – not if you happen to be claustrophobic or, as would be my case, not exactly athletic or nimble, but the pictures of both places are downright intriguing…

Reading in bed is something we all book lovers enjoy, so this seems to be the next evolutionary step in the experience, maybe being lulled to sleep by the heady smell of books or the sweet sound of turning pages🙂

Here are some pictures: what do you think?

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kyoto  kyoto1

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Review: A THOUSAND WORDS FOR STRANGER, by Julie Czerneda (Trade Pact #1)

129019I’ve been aware of this very prolific writer’s works for some time, and I finally managed to read the first book in the Trade Pact trilogy, that’s also Julie Czerneda’s debut novel: it took me a while to understand where to start because this first trilogy is followed, in terms of publication, by a ‘prequel’ trilogy (called Stratification) and is now being complemented by a follow-up triptych named Reunification, whose title This Gulf of Time and Stars caught my attention and imagination before I understood it was not the best place to begin delving into this series.

In the future depicted by these books, humanity has spread throughout the stars and also met a wide variety of alien races, all of them coexisting – more or less – in a sort of loose alliance called the Trade Pact. Outside of this treaty-like convention stand the Clan, a group of aliens who look perfectly human but are set aside by their mental powers: telepathy, teleportation, telekinesis, and who knows what else, since they are not very forthcoming about their gifts, and look with barely concealed disdain on those they consider their inferiors.

At the start of the novel, two members of the Clan are attacked near the spaceport on the planet Auord: the man is left unconscious on the ground, while the woman – whose name we’ll later learn is Sira – manages to escape.  Sira has no memory of who or what she is, the only thoughts in her mind generated by a strong, inexplicable compulsion to find a ship and leave the planet: when she accidentally meets Captain Jason Morgan, of the independent trader ship Silver Fox, she knows he’s the right person to accomplish what the voices in her mind urge her to do and she manages to be signed on as crew on the Fox.

I have to admit that at this point the story looked to me like a classic romance novel in a space-opera setting, and that I started to feel some disappointment, but since I did enjoy the writing I decided to stay onboard – so to speak – and see where this particular ship was going to take me: now I’m happy I did, because the story took me in quite unexpected directions, and it was far from predictable or trope-heavy.  True, there are some romantic overtones in the narrative (something I usually try to avoid), but they are dealt with a light hand and do not excessively intrude into what turned out to be a complex plan (the kind where boxes hide within boxes) to sidestep the dangerous path where the Clan’s method for propagating its species seems headed.

The main focus largely remains on Sira and her literal discovery of herself as she tries to make head or tails of her identity, her past and the strange abilities that surface in the most unexpected moments: what I particularly enjoyed in her story is the fact that despite the loss of memory and the apparent helplessness, Sira is not a passive victim of events, nor is she the proverbial vulnerable heroine waiting for the equally proverbial hero to save her. On the contrary, she’s often able to save herself, to tap an inner core of resourcefulness that enables her to overcome the problem at hand, or to wait for the best opportunity to do so, even in the direst of circumstances.   And once that past does surface, the dichotomy between what she was before the amnesia and the person she’s become since then, the person that was born on that night on Auord, makes for a very interesting dilemma, one that helps to shape the character’s personality.

This journey of discovery also serves the purpose of explaining the nature of the Clan, the way they evolved as a race (although on this subject we are given only tantalizing glimpses) and how their mind-set and customs reached the present configuration: if it’s true that there is a downside to every form of power, the Clan’s own brand of it is a huge one, the kind that could bring them to extinction if given enough time.  It’s a very elegant way of counterbalancing such amazing abilities that would otherwise have made these people less believable: the fact that their own demise, as a race, could be the direct result of a relentless pursuit of ever-increasing mental powers, makes them more approachable and, ultimately, an object of sympathy, difficult as it is considering the attitude of some of their members.

At the same time, Sira’s search of her past and identity allows the author to showcase Clan society without need for the dreaded infodump, because her discoveries are the readers’ discoveries and we learn things alongside her. In the same way, her adventures make room for a parade of alien creatures and societies that the reader encounters in a very natural way: it all becomes part of the adventure, and each new steps brings new characters on the stage while advancing the plot.  And if the villains are sometimes too… villainous and easy to hate, like the reptilian pirate Roraqk, whose stressed sibilants become too much after a while, or if the friends and allies are too easily lovable, like the strange, metallic-plate-covered Huido, all can be forgiven thanks to the swift pace of the story, and without forgetting that this is a debut novel and as such is exceptionally well written and free of the many mistakes one could expect from an emerging author.

A Thousand Words for Stranger proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable read, and an intriguing start to the series: I look forward to learning more about this universe, and I will certainly return to it as soon as possible.

 

My Rating:

SciFi Month 2016: Babylon 5 Quotes Season #5

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Science Fiction on the small screen offers a wide variety of interesting shows, but still it seems to lack the depth and complexity we can find in books – and it stands to reason, since the TV format must adhere to rules that don’t apply to the written word. Yet there is a show that transcends these rules because it was conceived as a five-part novel in the mind of its creator, and like a novel it doesn’t only deliver action and adventure, but also great characterization with visible growth, and a gripping narrative arc.

The show I’m talking about is Babylon 5: despite its “age” (it ran from 1994 to 1998) it still feels fresh and actual because it’s not about impressive CGI or technological marvels, but it deals instead with people, with their reactions to extraordinary circumstances, with the choices that those circumstances force on them and the consequences of their actions.  I’ve often thought that it could work just as well as a theatrical production, because its strength is in the story, the thought-provoking issues it deals with and the intense dialogues spoken by the characters.

Here are some of my favorite quotes – divided by season: I hope that they will rekindle fond memories in those who watched and loved this show, and inspire the curiosity of those who have missed this complex, thoughtful and very passionate story until now.

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The universe speaks in many languages, but only one voice. The language is not Narn or Human or Centauri or Gaim or Minbari. It speaks in the language of hope. It speaks in the language of trust. It speaks in the language of strength and the language of compassion. It is the language of the heart and the language of the soul. But always it is the same voice. It is the voice of our ancestors speaking through us and the voice of our inheritors waiting to be born. The small, still voice that says: ‘We are one. No matter the blood, no matter the skin, no matter the world, no matter the star. We are one. No matter the pain, no matter the darkness, no matter the loss, no matter the fear. We are one.’ Here, gathered together in common cause, we begin to realize this singular truth and this singular rule that we must be kind to one another. Because each voice enriches us and ennobles us and each voice lost diminishes us. We are the voice of the universe, the soul of creation, the fire that will light our way to a better future. We are one.

(G’Kar / Declaration of Principles – The Paragon of Animals)

I spent my years in one shelter after another. But sooner or later, I was able to leave the shelter and walk out into the daylight. You do not have that luxury. You carry your shelter with you, every day. You didn’t grow up. You grew old.

(G’Kar – A View from the Gallery)

In the past we had little to do with other races. Evolution teaches us that we must fight that which is different in order secure land, food, and mates for ourselves, but we must reach a point when the nobility of intellect asserts itself and says: No. We need not be afraid of those who are different, we can embrace that difference and learn from it.

(G’Kar – The Ragged Edge)

We are all the sum of our tears. Too little and the ground is not fertile, and nothing can grow there. Too much, the best of us is washed away.

(G’Kar – Objects in Motion)

I believe that when we leave a place, part of it goes with us and part of us remains. Go anywhere in the station, when it is quiet, and just listen. After a while, you will hear the echoes of all our conversations, every thought and word we’ve exchanged. Long after we are gone, our voices will linger in these walls for as long as this place remains. But I will admit that the part of me that is going will very much miss the part of you that is staying.

(G’Kar – Objects in Motion)

Review: GREATMASK, by Ashley Capes (The Bone Mask Trilogy #3)

greatmask-2016smallI received the e-ARC of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

This epic fantasy trilogy reached its conclusion with the final book, one that nonetheless leaves the door open for a possible sequel: should that not be the author’s intent, the sense of “unfinished business” from the last chapter still is a welcome change from a more conventional ending, one where all the narrative threads are nicely tied up.

At the end of book 2, the main characters were all scattered to the four winds, contact between them lost and each one forced to deal with their problems, some of which were of a quite deadly nature: Notch and Sofia managed to escape from the Sap Born, but were separated in the forest, he fighting for his and Nia’s life and she running away with her father and the Sap Born’s freed prisoners. Ain was traveling back to his people, together with his companion and King Oseto’s peace envoy, only to meet with a deadly, formless foe. And King Oseto himself faced the threat of a Renovar invasion, only to discover that a new, unknown force was at his doorstep: the Ecsoli, the ancient people from whom the Anaskari originated, arriving from the sea to conquer the city, and steal its precious bones.

Now, as the third book starts, we follow  each individual group as they struggle to overcome the mounting difficulties: at the beginning this fracturing of narrative threads makes for an apparently disjointed storytelling, but little by little the pieces start to come together to build the main tapestry, non unlike smaller streams that flow into a wider river, and we understand that each single incident is part of an overall – and ominous – picture.    And once our “heroes” manage to regroup, the story takes on speed, driving toward a breathless fight for survival.

What becomes clear is that ancient bones are indeed the key to this world’s magic, and that there is an untapped well of power in them: this must be the main reason the Ecsoli are collecting them with a ruthlessness that seems born of desperation – or great need. One of the most gripping parts of the story comes indeed from the description of occupied Anaskar, of the profoundly changed life in the beleaguered city, where people are trying to survive in the streets filled by the rubble from the attack, or patrolled by the Ecsoli who seem quite keen in enjoying bloody sport.

More intriguingly, the bone masks themselves transition from mere tools to characters, showing what kind of unimaginable powers can be drawn from them – and what kind of price they exact from their wearers: I was fascinated by the hints of personality that were shown this way, and by the almost neutral nature (for want of a better word) they display, neither good nor bad, but still frightening in its uniqueness.

We learn more from the characters as well, a few hints from their past and – more important – the changes wrought by the dire situation on their personalities: King Oseto, and the shocking bargain he seals with the ancient mask Chelona is the most relevant example of this, as is Sofia’s continuing journey toward maturity and the ability to make harder and harder decisions, showing a strength of spirit that had only been hinted at up to this point.

There is a huge change in tone toward the end and the final showdown: the author’s usual discursive style transforms here into pure narration, describing the story’s climatic events in a breath-taking scene that would make wonderful cinematic material, and whose conclusion was surprising for the bold – if sad – choice he made there.  I must admit I was taken unaware by the turn of events, but once the consternation wore off I understood that this bittersweet conclusion was much more satisfying than a more conventional one where everyone marched to the proverbial happy end.

Not all questions are answered at the end of Greatmask, and that’s the main reason that made me mention “unfinished business”, but I like to have some unsolved mysteries, to know that not everything has been explained: making one’s own assumptions is part of the fun after all…

All in all, a very satisfying conclusion to an intriguing story.

My Rating:

 

I would like to take a little time here to talk about the cover: what I used at the top of the review is going to be the one for the published book, but as I was waiting for the “go ahead” from the author for the posting of my review, I was made aware of some problems with the cover itself, that might not have been ready for the publication date.  Mr. Capes kindly sent me the alternate cover, that I’m sharing here just as a matter of curiosity and because I loved the colors and the sense of impending doom that comes from it.  What do you think? Which one is your favorite?

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SciFi Month 2016 – Short Stories: THE LADY ASTRONAUT OF MARS, by Mary Robinette Kowal

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Short stories are a difficult matter to handle: on one side, they might not give the same satisfactory “density” of a book, on the other they afford you a glimpse into a world, a setting you know you would enjoy – but end all too soon.

Every time I read about some fellow blogger reluctance about reading short stories, I understand, but at the same time I see these smaller offerings as a way to sample authors I have not read yet, without committing to a full book.

For this mont of November dedicated to science fiction, I’ve decided to look up some of the short stories offered online by many sites, and see what I could find.  It was a somewhat difficult search, because not all stories were to my taste, but what I found made it all quite worthwhile: my heartfelt thanks to all those online magazines that allowed me to sample such an incredible variety of stories.

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The Lady Astronaut of Mars, by M.R.Kowal – from Tor.com

In this particular case, I was already familiar with Ms. Kowal’s writing, having read and greatly enjoyed her fantasy series the Glamourists Histories, but this was unknown territory for me: a short story and a science-fiction themed one.  I must say beforehand that it was the very best short story I read for my Sci-Fi Month posts, and the one that touched me more deeply, showcasing Ms. Kowal’s deep sensibility and skill as a writer.

Elma used to be an astronaut, the first and more famous woman astronaut: she now lives on Mars, as mankind has found the way to colonize other planets of the Solar System. She pines for the days when she could travel in space, but she’s now sixty-three, well past the age when an astronaut can be sent on missions, and moreover she cares for her husband, suffering from a degenerative illness that will soon take his life.

When she is offered one last mission, one that will imply a one-way journey to establish a sort of beachhead on a newly-discovered Earthlike planet, she is torn between the desire to touch the stars once more and her duty and deep love toward her husband Nathaniel.  The way in which she expresses her quandary comes across as more effective because of the starkness of the words, not in spite of it:

I wanted to get off the planet and back into space and not have to watch him die. Not have to watch him lose control of his body piece by piece. (…)  And I wanted to stay here and be with him and steal every moment left that he had breath in his body.

Another fascinating side of the story comes from the subtle statements about the role of a woman in what is traditionally considered a man’s job: there are a few remarks about the way Elma’s work was presented, with a slant on appearance and glitz rather than skills and competence.

I was there to show all the lady housewives that they could go to space too. Posing in my flight suit, with my lips painted red, I had smiled at more cameras than my colleagues.

To call this story ‘poignant’ would be a huge understatement: what makes it so much more touching is that M.R. Kowal never resorts to easy drama or saccharine-laden sentiments, but rather shows Elma’s quandary in simple strokes, and yet manages to present the situation in all its difficult sides, ending with a moving, emotion-laden sentence that I’m not ashamed to admit moved me to tears. And that does not happen often…

Follow the link and read this beautiful story, you really owe it to yourselves.

My Rating:


SciFi Month 2016 Review: HOUSE OF SUNS, by Alastair Reynolds

18306114Alastair Reynolds is easily one of those authors I tend to read sight unseen, because he’s always able to sweep me into these complex, galaxy-spanning stories that never fail to appeal to my sense of wonder. House of Suns is indeed one such story, and without doubt it’s the best one I’ve read until now, both for narrative scope and for sheer entertainment value.

Shatterlings are post-human individuals, clones of their progenitors who created hundreds of copies of themselves with the purpose of traveling far and wide across the galaxy, gathering information that is shared among members of a given Line at meetings that take place at appointed times.  Shatterlings are very long-lived and able to increase that augmented life-span to millions of years, through techniques of suspended animation and cryo-freezing that help them overcome the tedium of long treks through interstellar space.

Purslane and Campion are two such shatterlings from Gentian Line, the House of Flowers, who have entered into a forbidden association: flaunting the Lines’ rules they travel together and have become lovers, and at the beginning of the story they are also late for Gentian Line’s meeting, which will certainly result in censure from their peers.  This circumstance, however, proves quite fortunate for them because on approaching the system where the meeting is being held, they discover there’s been a massive attack on Gentians and that only a handful of shatterlings survived the massacre, some of which the two lovers are able to rescue, heading toward a safe place where the survivors will regroup.

If the story takes a little while to gather speed, once this event is brought to the table the pace increases exponentially from the investigation of the reasons for the attack to the brutal interrogation of some captured enemy agents; from the crushing loss of a murdered Gentian shatterling to a breathless interstellar chase that will turn out to be a journey of discovery, both of unsuspected information and of very unpalatable truths.  The events are narrated from three points of view, those of Purslane and Campion in the present and that of Abigail Gentian, the founder of the House of Flowers, from the past, this one in a series of flashbacks that give the backstory of the Lines in bits and pieces.  Other interesting players are represented by a few of the Gentian survivors the two meet on Neume, the planet where the refugees have fled to, and the Machine People: sentient artificial beings like Hesperus – who has been held in stasis for thousand of years on a planet visited by Campion and Purslane – and Cadence and Cascade, two mysterious synthetics who have befriended the Gentian refugees.

Abigail Gentian is a fascinating creature: artificially stalled in childhood for over 30 years, she describes her life in a huge, planet-spanning and constantly changing house where she lives alone but for her tutor, the household robots and her mother, with whom she infrequently interacts through video communications, when the woman is able to overcome the mind-breaking paranoia she fell victim to. Abigail’s only companionship comes from the visits of a boy from another influential family: the two share a strange love/hate bond that finds its more intricate expression while playing with Palatial, an interactive game giving the two of them roles in a medieval-like adventure that can become far too immersive, to the point of losing one’s identity and memories.    Despite these fascinating details, Abigail’s character remains elusive throughout the novel, as do those of Campion, Purslane and other Gentian shatterlings, a fact that robbed some of the enjoyment from the experience.

Granted, the shatterlings are Abigail’s clones, imbued with her memories, so it would stand to reason that there would be a sort of uniformity in the core of their personalities, but it would also stand to reason that each one’s accumulated experiences would add different layers to an individual’s psychological makeup, making every offspring different from his/her progenitor. Even their “voices” fail to carry any substantial differentiation: it took me a while to focus on the fact that Campion is male and Purslane female, since their alternating chapters “sounded” the same, at least in the beginning, when some reference to the other allowed me to understand who was speaking.  This lack of definition became worse when other Gentian survivors were introduced: other than their names, and a few individual leanings – like Betony’s desire to take over as lead, or Mezereon’s cruelty in interrogating the prisoners – there was no firm sense of differentiation between them.

Purslane and Campion’s relationship suffers from the same brand of indetermination: we are told they form a couple, that they are forced to edit their memories of the liaison before any Line meeting, to avoid being reprimanded for disobeying the rules, but we never perceive them as a couple until events separate them and Campion launches in a desperate chase to reach Purslane’s ship and rejoin his lover.  That’s the point where we are finally able to see the feelings they share for each other, how deeply they are rooted and what each of them is ready to sacrifice to insure each other’s survival.

Ironically enough, I thought that the more human, approachable character was Hesperus, one of the Machine People: the long imprisonment from which the two Gentians free him – or maybe some event prior to his incarceration – have robbed him of most of his memory, and there’s a gentle, almost child-like quality to his wistfulness about the loss, and the need to recover it, together with the purpose of his mission.  This gentleness, and his selfless attitude in helping out the shatterlings in several occasions, quickly made him my favorite character and the one I found more relatable than the flesh and blood ones.

Despite these issues, I greatly enjoyed the book because the questions examined throughout the story appear much more important than the characters moving through it. More than the inexorable rise and fall of civilizations, more than the political and economical maneuvering of the great Lines, more than the observation of societies born out of human colonization, some of which have even transcended human form, what really held my attention was the focus on knowledge and memory.  Knowledge seems to have become the galactic currency: no coin or precious metal hold the same worth as information, and the contents of individual “troves”, the stores where such information is collected, seem to have taken the place of bank accounts. And in the search of knowledge shatterlings can even take great risks, like Campion does, for example, when visiting the Vigilance, a sort of archive of enormous proportions, run by a forbidding, mysterious intelligence.

Memory, on the other hand, takes center stage during the whole course of the novel. The shatterlings store, edit and share the memories they have accumulated in their long lives, and are able to manipulate them – either to delete risky details (as Purslane and Campion do to hide their relationship from Gentian Line) or even to erase damning evidence, as the story reveals when survivors pursue the reasons for the attack on their Line.  Hesperus lost every memory of his past, of his mission, of the reasons for his presence in that portion of space, and lack of that knowledge renders him incomplete – and at times even makes him appear suspicious.

Memory is identity, and here it also becomes the defining quality of one’s personality: Gentian Line strictly enforces the erasure of a particular memory, that of a heinous crime perpetrated without intention, yes, but still will tragic repercussions, and that choice is seen as the erasure of guilt, of the consequences of that long-ago choice.  Does forgetfulness also imply forgiveness? This is the lynchpin on which the end revelation turns, and the partial answer that is given does not even start, unsurprisingly, to explore the issue.

Complex and fascinating, thought-provoking and engaging, House of Suns is the kind of novel that leaves me thinking about it even after I’ve reached the last page, and even though it ends in a quite abrupt manner, after slowing down the forward momentum reached until that point with some heavy exposition, it remains a very satisfying read. The kind of story that could no doubt gain from a re-read, and a highly recommended one.

 

My Rating:

 

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SciFi Month 2016: Babylon 5 Quotes Season #4

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Science Fiction on the small screen offers a wide variety of interesting shows, but still it seems to lack the depth and complexity we can find in books – and it stands to reason, since the TV format must adhere to rules that don’t apply to the written word. Yet there is a show that transcends these rules because it was conceived as a five-part novel in the mind of its creator, and like a novel it doesn’t only deliver action and adventure, but also great characterization with visible growth, and a gripping narrative arc.

The show I’m talking about is Babylon 5: despite its “age” (it ran from 1994 to 1998) it still feels fresh and actual because it’s not about impressive CGI or technological marvels, but it deals instead with people, with their reactions to extraordinary circumstances, with the choices that those circumstances force on them and the consequences of their actions.  I’ve often thought that it could work just as well as a theatrical production, because its strength is in the story, the thought-provoking issues it deals with and the intense dialogues spoken by the characters.

Here are some of my favorite quotes – divided by season: I hope that they will rekindle fond memories in those who watched and loved this show, and inspire the curiosity of those who have missed this complex, thoughtful and very passionate story until now.

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Have you ever heard of the hour of the wolf? My father told me about it. It’s the time between three and four in the morning. You can’t sleep, and all you can see is the troubles and the problems and the ways that your life should’ve gone but didn’t. All you can hear is the sound of your own heart.  […]  In times like this, my father used to take one large glass of vodka before bed. To keep the wolf away, he said. And then he would take three very small drinks of vodka, just in case she had cubs while she was waiting outside.

(Ivanova – The Hour of the Wolf)

Fighting a war is easy. Destroying is easy. Building a new world out of what’s left of the old, that is what’s hard.

(Delenn – Lines of Communication)

The truth is fluid. The truth is subjective. Out there it doesn’t matter what time it is. In here it is lunch time, if you and I decide that it is. The truth is sometimes what you believe it to be, and other times what you decide it to be.

(The Interrogator – Intersections in Real Time)

Who am I? I’m Susan Ivanova, Commander, daughter of Andrei and Sofie Ivanov. I am the right hand of vengeance, and the boot that is gonna kick your sorry ass all the way back to Earth, sweetheart. I’m death incarnate and the last living thing that you’re ever going to see. God sent me.

(Ivanova – Between the Darkness and the Light)

SciFi Month 2016 – Short Stories: SPIDER THE ARTIST, by Nnedi Okorafor

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Short stories are a difficult matter to handle: on one side, they might not give the same satisfactory “density” of a book, on the other they afford you a glimpse into a world, a setting you know you would enjoy – but end all too soon.

Every time I read about some fellow blogger reluctance about reading short stories, I understand, but at the same time I see these smaller offerings as a way to sample authors I have not read yet, without committing to a full book.

For this mont of November dedicated to science fiction, I’ve decided to look up some of the short stories offered online by many sites, and see what I could find.  It was a somewhat difficult search, because not all stories were to my taste, but what I found made it all quite worthwhile: my heartfelt thanks to all those online magazines that allowed me to sample such an incredible variety of stories.

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Spider the Artist, by Nnedi Okorafor – from Lightspeed Magazine

In a not-so-distant future, the Niger Delta is exploited for its oil, pollution running rampant through crops, waters and people. In one of the many villages lining the pipeline lives Eme, whose only means of escaping the rigors of such a life is playing her father’s guitar.  The pipeline is protected against sabotage or simple theft of oil by mechanical, spider-shaped guardians, that people have started calling “zombies”: when a Zombie finds someone tampering with the pipeline, it kills in a brutal and gruesome way.  One night, as Eme is playing her guitar outside her home, one of the Zombies approaches her and listens to her music: it’s the beginning of a very strange, silent friendship that will have unexpected consequences.

The true horror of this story does not come so much from the terrible living conditions of the villagers, or the reports of mindless killings operated by the Zombies, that more often than not are unable to distinguish between thieves and saboteurs and mere children playing near the pipeline: these events, as terrible as they are, pale against the depiction of Eme’s everyday life, and the shock is not engendered by what she relates but rather by her quiet acceptance, the resignation that’s plain in her words and attitude.

As Eme reports in the very first sentence of the story, her husband beats her, taking all his despair and frustration on her, and all she can do – besides passively accepting it all – is bear it day after day, almost not realizing that every desire for a better life is slowly dying.

No matter my education, as soon as I got married and brought to this damn place I became like every other woman here, a simple village woman living in the delta region where Zombies kill anyone who touches the pipelines and whose husband knocks her around every so often.

There is a form of quiet desperation (to quote from a Pink Floyd song) in Eme that reaches out from the pages and grabs at your soul with incredible strength. So it’s almost not surprising that she might find a kindred soul in a mechanical construct that seems to care about the beauty of music much more than the flesh-and-blood people around her do.

It’s a peculiar story, but a fascinating one, and I will need to explore this author further in the near future

My Rating: