Last year I was literally swept away by Illuminae, the first volume in this trilogy: not only because of its compelling story, but also thanks to its remarkable characters, that went a long way toward changing my opinion about YA-oriented stories. Kady Grant and Ezra Mason, the two main protagonists of book 1, were depicted as normal teenagers – no whining, no pouting, no interminable complaints about the unfairness of the world – dealing with some relationship troubles until a tragic event turned their lives upside down, forcing them to mature more quickly while they desperately tried to stay alive.
When I went into Gemina I knew that this second book would follow along the same guidelines, but with different characters, and I was somewhat worried that it would feel like a rehash of the previous story, and that disappointment might lie on that road. Now I’m very happy to say that I was totally wrong. Yes, Hannah and Nik – the main characters in this new installment – are young people fighting for their lives and needing to push their individual envelopes a lot further than expected, but their journey is a different one, and their personalities refreshingly different. But let’s proceed with order…
As the survivors of the Kerenza assault travel toward Heimdall Jumpstation, to bring evidence of the colony’s massacre and BeiTech’s involvement in it, the latter are mounting a raid that will insure the elimination of any and all witnesses to the Kerenza operation. A special incursion team is dispatched to Heimdall, taking advantage of the station’s downtime due to a holiday, and takes over, killing the higher-ranking officers, locking away the rest of the personnel and lying in wait for the Hypathia, the ship carrying the Kerenza survivors. Only a few people manage to escape the assailants’ net: Hannah Donnelly, the station commander’s daughter; Nik Malikov, son of an influential member of the crime organization House of Knives, and Hannah’s drug dealer; Ella Malikova, Nik’s cousin, a disabled girl with an amazing knack for computers. The three find themselves dealing not only with the assault team – and the incoming drone fleet that will obliterate Heimdall after the destruction of Hypatia – but also with the infestation of an alien life form, used by House of Knives to harvest a highly sought-after drug and running amok after the BeiTech attackers have killed the criminals handling the operation.
The only similarities between Illuminae and Gemina come from the protagonists’ need to overcome insurmountable odds, while the clock keeps ticking toward certain annihilation, and of course from the format of the story, a collection of chat transcripts, personal messages exchanged across the station’s net, Hannah’s diary excerpts and the transcripts of the station’s camera footage, complete with the dedicated technician’s comments (a very welcome relief from the drama unfolding on the pages) and the redaction of profanities. That said, both the story and the characters are refreshingly new, and all of them managed to surprise me because they defied any expectation I might have had given the way they were initially introduced. The pace is relentless, and there are many surprises along the way that again challenge any pre-conceived idea I might have had about the evolution of the plot.
In the beginning Hannah Donnelly comes across as your typical spoiled brat, frustrated by the life she’s leading on the station and compensating by being a party girl and a supplier of drugs for her friends. Her liaison with one of her father’s junior officers seems to go in the same direction, as if she’s trying to “rock the boat” and see how far she can go. Not exactly the kind of person one would expect to come forward and try to stop the bad guys from blowing up the station, is she? And yet, when the BeiTech team storms Heimdall, Hannah sheds her flighty persona in no time at all and shows what she’s really made of, revealing unsuspected qualities, like the perfect physical form she’s maintained in the long hours spent in the gym, practicing martial arts, or the lessons in tactics and warfare that were part of her father-daughter moments with Commander Donnelly, and that allow her to keep up the dangerous cat-and-mouse game she engages with the invaders, particularly their leader, code-named Cerberus.
On first meeting Nik Malikov one might be inclined to describe him as the typical gang member: he’s cocky, arrogant, covered in tattoos that shout to the world his deeds or the times he spent in jail. He works with his uncle, the station’s leader for the House of Knives, and helps harvesting dust – the recreational drug used on the station – from mind-drinking, snake-like alien creatures: there is a particular scene concerning this part of the HoK activities that I don’t recommend reading around mealtimes… Yet there is more, much more than meets the eye with Nik – and what we discover about his past, along the way, helps a great deal to alter that initial image – and more importantly there is a deep capacity for both care and courage in this young man that quickly endeared him to me, long before I started to look at Hannah with equally different eyes.
Plot-wise, the dangerous, bloody game the two engage with the assault team is the main driving power of the novel: on the surface, some of the defeats suffered by the BeiTech people seem too easy, even contrived, but the authors always manage to show that either Hannah or Nik employ their experience, intelligence and craft (not to mention an intimate knowledge of the station and how it works) to put all the monkey wrenches they can think of into the invader’s gears. For their part, the BeiTech people appear quite sure of themselves, and well prepared on technical side of the operation, but their past rate of success seems to have put a dangerous cockiness into their attitude, a flaw that exposes them to the young people’s guerrilla tactics. After a while, the operation seems to change its scope and transforms from a military raid into a conflict of wits and a fight for physical and psychological supremacy – especially true for Cerberus and his chief operative Kali, whose nickname goes well with her vengeful attitude. In my opinion, the reason for Hannah and Nik’s successful incursions lies exactly there, in the loss by the BeiTech team of their professional focus in favor of a more personal goal.
Another interesting element comes from the growing relationship between Hannah and Nik: unlike Kady and Ezra in Illuminae they are not already a couple, and there is no attraction between them. There is a sort of playful game going on, granted, where Nik peppers their communications with not-so-subtle innuendoes and Hannah plays to the hilt her role of arrogant snob – the one that gains her the appellatives of “Princess” or “Your Highness” from the young man – but they come from two very different walks of life and romantic attachment is indeed the last of their thoughts. But it’s through the experience of being the only two (three, if you count Ella) free people on the station, the disillusionments they suffer (Hannah in particular) and the shared dangers that they become close, and something starts growing between them. Even more than romance, the coming together of Hannah and Nik feels like the meeting of two people who are changing through hardship, finding their true selves and finding a great match in the other person, once the real personality manages to shine though.
All in all, I can safely say that I enjoyed Gemina even more than its predecessor, and that this series will end up being one of my favorites, and a keeper: I have decided to buy the physical books so that I can look in detail at what I missed in the electronic form of the novels, and will do so for the third volume as well. For someone who vowed to keep strictly to e-books for ease of use and freedom of space, this means a great deal, indeed…
When I read M.R. Carey’s novel The Girl with All the Gifts I was aware that the movie rights for the book had been optioned, but since I heard nothing further about the project, I thought it had been abandoned as it’s bound to happen sometimes: imagine then my surprise when I discovered that a movie was indeed filmed in 2016. I have no way of knowing whether the movie was a direct-to-DVD production or more simply it skipped the theatre run in my part of the world: what matters is that I was recently able to see and appreciate the filmed version of this amazing story.
The premise might seem taken out of a classic horror scenario: a fungal infection taking possession of the victims’ cognitive faculties turns them into ravenous zombies, and the few survivors live in military enclaves surrounded by the hordes of the “hungries”. In one of such besieged areas, a group of children is used as test subjects to find a cure for the infection: they were all born after the spread of the disease and, while affected like the rest o humanity, they retain both intelligence and rationality. These children represent the next stage, or the new humans, but for Dr. Caldwell (a chillingly efficient Glen Close) they are nothing but specimens, to be used in the search for a cure, and likewise the military personnel treat them like unthinking animals, unmoved by some of the children’s continuing demonstrations of intellect and empathy. The only person on the base ready to see the humanity beyond the danger is the teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), whose special pupil is Melanie (portrayed with amazing skill by emergent Sennia Nanua), narrating voice of the inspiring book.
Like the novel, the movie leaves little space to the zombie-like hordes roaming the Earth, and concentrates instead on the psychology of the characters, going beyond the somewhat limited focus of book-Melanie’s observations to delve deeper into the other characters: Sergeant Parks, the rough-mannered soldier trying to keep them all alive after the base has been overrun by hungries, the most vocal about the need to keep Melanie constrained like the dangerous animal he sees in her; Doctor Caldwell, whose “the end justifies the means” attitude allows her to conveniently forget that she’s killing children to save a doomed humanity, that they are alive and possess feelings – something she is unwilling to accept; and Miss Justineau, who enjoys teaching her young charges and is too happy to read them tales from the classical myths instead of instructing them in math or chemistry.
And a Greek myth is indeed at the core of this story, that of Pandora who set free all the afflictions contained in the proverbial box, but ended her act by also freeing hope as a parting gift: hope is indeed what remains for a beleaguered humanity in this post-apocalyptic world – not the hope of being saved by some miracle cure, but the hope represented by the next generation, the children who will inherit the changed Earth. It’s not exactly a comforting scenario but it’s definitely better than the usual total-annihilation solution that so many offerings of the genre portray.
What makes the movie – and the book – quite special is Melanie’s voice, given life on the screen by an emerging performer whose amazing talent gives the lie to her young age: Sennia Nanua shows Melanie’s transition from the initial secluded innocence to the awareness of who and what she is with remarkable skill, managing the coexistence of the helpful child – able to navigate unscathed the dangers of the changed world – with the feral creature who needs to feed on living flesh, or the merciless fighter battling against the wild children of the city to defend the adults who find themselves suddenly in need of her protection. The visuals are quite stunning as well, not so much because of any special effects (the movie does not possess the feel of the huge, money-heavy production) but because it’s able to create the right atmosphere with the abandoned buildings chocked by fungal growths and peopled by unmoving hungrier waiting for a sign of life to jump into murderous activity.
The soundtrack deserves a special mention as well, since it mostly consists of human voices raised in a wail-like song that seems like a lament for the end of the world: it’s eerie and terrifying and it complements to perfection the images rolling on the screen.
The Girl with All the Gifts is not exactly an uplifting movie, and neither was the book that inspired it, but if offers so much inspiration for thought, as a window on the human soul, that I can heartily recommend it.
Is it possible to enjoy a book for the intriguing background it depicts, and for the adventure and mystery at the core of its story, and at the same time to be extremely irritated with it for some annoying characterization choices? Yes, it is, if that book is Fortune’s Pawn. But let’s start with the details I did enjoy, first.
The beginning of the story is immediately captivating: Deviana Morris is a mercenary, a highly-skilled one, working out of her custom-made powered armor toward the goal of enlisting with the Paradoxian Kingdom’s elite corps, the Devastators. Devi is focused and determined, and when she understands that her latest posting will not advance her further toward the Devastators, she choses a lateral career move: on the advice of a friend, she finds work as security on Captain Caldswell’s Glorious Fool, a ship with a bad name, because its security personnel does not last long – Caldswell seems to go through hired mercenaries as if they were disposable tissues.
Once she’s enlisted by Caldswell – and immediately proceeds to put her fellow mercenary Cotter in his place – she starts having second thoughts about the posting, one that seems a bit dull by her standards, until things start to happen, and the mysteries pop up one after the other. The Glorious Fool‘s crew is a peculiar mix: apart from the captain, and his silent daughter Ren – a girl who sports autistic-like behavior but is much, much creepier than that – there are an avian first officer with the temper of an old curmudgeon; a nice but distant chief engineer who’s also the captain’s sister-in-law; Nova, a tech who’s into new-new-age rituals in a major way; a reptilian doctor, from a species that is otherwise regarded as ferociously dangerous; and Rupert the cook. I’ll come back to this guy in a little while…
This premise caught my attention in no time at all: a woman working – and excelling – at a traditional male job, and doing so with a suit of powered armor, to boot. I enjoyed immensely the descriptions of the Lady Grey, Devi’s suit, and its various weapons, all of them graced with female names. In Devi’s mind the Lady is a person more than a collection of parts; a trusted companion more than a tool, and the mercenary cares about it more deeply than she does for her team-mates. Morris comes across as a mix between Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor and Aeryn Sun all rolled into one and she lets nothing and no one interfere with her ultimate goal: she might even look obsessed at times, and extremely self-centered, but this is part of her personality and what makes her intriguing, and different from the usual mold of the proverbial ass-kicking heroine.
As she starts to integrate with the crew of the Glorious Fool, Devi notices some oddities in their behavior, and her curiosity is aroused beyond what would be safe for her plan of fulfilling her year-long commitment to Caldswell and his eventual backing to a post with the Devastators, so that she keeps digging, until a few outlandish – and possibly dangerous – truths start making themselves plain. The last part of the story is a crescendo of conflicting revelations and half-perceived clues that point to a possible galaxy-wide conspiracy, and much more; heated battles, alien mysteries and a touch of black-ops politics all contribute to create a riveting background for which this first volume in the series represents only the first act. For this reason alone I know I will continue reading, even though some narrative choices went against my tastes (and the character’s outline) in a major way – namely the romantic element.
Devi Morris is presented from page one as a very independent, very strong-willed person; one who knows very clearly what she wants and how to get it; one who dismisses sentimental entanglements because they go against her final objective. The first time we see her, she’s enjoying a brief fling with her friend-with-benefits Anthony, and she politely but firmly turns down his offer for a stable relationship. More than once, Devi reminds us that “home and hearth” are not what she wants, and that she’s used to mercenary-style liaisons, i.e. brief affairs between battles, with the awareness that death is always around the corner.
But once Devi sets eyes on the Glorious Fool‘s cook Rupert, on his “piercing blue eyes” and “silky black hair”, all of the above flies out the nearest airlock, never to return. At first it seems like a purely physical interest, one that could go well with Devi’s previous behavioral patterns, but when the man keeps gently (oh, so gently!) rebuking her advances, she becomes obsessed. Worse, Rupert is soon revealed as the holder of Big, Dark Secrets, and that only serves to fuel the mercenary’s infatuation even more. Worse still, once the two manage a heated night of passion, Devi discovers he’s the best lover she ever had, the most gentle and considerate, and of course the strongest.
So it’s instant, deep and abiding love and – surprise, surprise – it’s mutual.
I’m unable to avoid seeing this course of events as forced, and taking up much more space than necessary in the economy of the story. I can’t perceive any real chemistry between Devi and Rupert, except for what looks more like a hormonal reaction on her part – and one more suited to a teenager than a battle-hardened soldier. The whole scenario, in my opinion, robs her character of all the attributes that make her unique and that caught my attention at the beginning of the book, while the “crime” is compounded by two instances (not one, but two!) in which she’s saved from certain death by a mysterious creature: it’s as if the author were saying that yes, we have a strong, capable soldier here, but she’s still a woman, and she still needs to be saved – she still needs someone to carry her away in their oh-so-strong arms. Which defies the whole purpose of the character, in my book.
Speculative fiction requires its readers to suspend their disbelief, and we are more than happy to do that when it comes to faster-than-light engines, exotic alien forms, strange environments, and so on – just to quote a few – but no matter how outlandish the setting, people remain people and I like to see them behave and react in a believable, organic way, and not as trope-fueled puppets. As I said, I will keep on reading the series because I’m curious about the unsolved mysteries that were presented here, but I’m afraid I will not be enjoying the main character as I did at the beginning – unless something changes in the next installments…
My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues… I have recently discovered the dedicated section over at Tor com, and found many interesting offerings. This week’s choice is for:
This is an exquisitely crafted story, one that revolves more around moods and perceptions than anything else and for this very reason is almost impossible to describe. Set in San Francisco, it starts by depicting the way that the fog seems to alter geographical landmarks, and in so doing it defines the overall tone of the story itself.
In Caligo Lane there is a peculiar house where an equally peculiar woman, Franny, lives: she’s a cartographer, but a very special one, because her maps have the power to fold space, changing the shape of the world. Franny learned this secret from a Japanese master of origami, the art of folding paper into any desired shape: when fused with some magic, this art can transform a map into “a menu of possible paths”.
When Franny receives a postcard containing only geographical coordinates, she sets to work on a new map, the urgency in her actions tempered by the need – stressed several times – for detail and precision: even the most minuscule error might lead to failure. Observing her work is a fascinatingly harrowing experience, the painstaking process always hanging under a cloud of apprehension, since the reader has no idea of her ultimate goal, but is nonetheless aware of the constraints of time.
The resolution, once it comes, is as melancholy as it is indefinite, like something viewed through fog, but it carries a huge emotional impact. A story to be savored, its very haziness being its best feature.
My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues… I have recently discovered the dedicated section over at Tor.com, and found many interesting offerings. This week’s choice is for:
This story is part of the WILD CARDS series, a collection of tales and novels set in an alternate reality, one where shortly after the end of WWII an alien virus was released in the atmosphere: of all those affected who did not die outright, some transformed into Aces – people with superhuman powers – and other into Jokers, people with weird abilities and/or equally weird body modifications, not a few of these taking the victims far away from the human norm.
Joker Plague is a band of bizarre, music-loving Jokers: Michael, or Drummer Boy, with tympanic membranes across his torso and endowed with six arms; Bottom, the donkey-headed guitarist; keyboard player S’Live, who looks like a floating balloon; and the Voice, the invisible vocalist. They are playing in front of a less-than-enthusiastic audience, since their glory days are long gone and the new songs don’t encounter the public’s favor, but still they care about music and what it can give them. Suddenly a series of explosions tears through the band and those nearest the podium, and once Drummer Boy Michael wakes up in a hospital, his drum membranes are lacerated, both his legs are fractured and one of his arms gone; what’s worse, he learns that only he and Bottom survived, while several bystanders were killed alongside the rest of the band. Once he’s one the road to recovery, Drummer Boy launches in the search for the bomber, someone who clearly holds a great deal of hate for the Jokers…
What’s fascinating in this story – apart from the concept of the virus itself and the way it affected humanity – is the wide, sometimes terrifying variety of the Jokers, and the way they try to integrate their diversity in the midst of society – a society that after what seems a long time after the initial incident, still looks on them with scorn, if not outright hate. In the city where Michael lives – and probably in every city in the world – there is an enclave called Jokertown, with its own police precinct and different venues catering to the Jokers: it’s not difficult to think of the word “ghetto” while witnessing the segregation between the “nats” (those that remained unchanged) and the mutated individuals, and even people with means, like Michael, still linger at the margins of society.
Drummer Boy’s search for the person responsible for the attack becomes therefore a tour into this reality, with its many shadows and a very few rays of light, and the truth about the concert bombing reveals a quite unexpected – and disheartening – side of the situation. Still, this short story piqued my curiosity about this series and I will certainly love to know more, not so much about the Aces (after all there is an overabundance of super-heroes these days) but rather about the Jokers and their world.