Reviews

THE QUICKSILVER COURT (Rooks & Ruin #2), by Melissa Caruso

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

With her Swords and Fire trilogy, Melissa Caruso quickly became one of my read-sight-unseen authors, and the start of her new Rooks and Ruins saga, The Obsidian Tower, happily propelled me into a new adventure set in the same world.  In that first book I enjoyed discovering her new central character, Ryx, whose “broken” magic kept her from any kind of human contact because her touch drains any kind of living energy: at the end of The Obsidian Tower, Ryx had been accepted in the found family of the Rookery, a group of secret agents of sorts, dedicated to fighting unruly magic use, but had also unwittingly allowed the escape of some demons so far locked up in the prison guarded by Ryx’s ancestral home of Gloaminguard.

As The Quicksilver Court starts, the already tense situation caused by the demonic escape heightened the political turmoil between the long-time opponents of Raverra and Vaskandar, and the Rookery is tasked with the mission of finding a terribly powerful artifact that could be hidden in a realm where politics are a quite slippery affair and every move could lead to disaster. As Ryx and her friends try to deal with the delicate situation, they are made aware that the escaped demons are further complicating the already knotty circumstances and that the Summer Palace in the realm of Loreice might prove a deadly trap. I don’t want to share more of the story because The Quicksilver Court offers such an almost unending stream of surprises, revelations and twists that to anticipate even the smallest of them would be very unfair to potential readers.

Plot-wise, the backbone of this story feels like one of those escape games where the players must find their way out in a constantly changing maze where unexpected dangers lurk, and no one can anticipate what awaits around the next (usually dark) corner: the overall effect is quite sinister, conferring to the novel a suffocating sense of impending doom that’s made even more ominous by the contrast with the chiseled beauty of the setting and the elegance of the denizens of Loreice’s Summer Palace, a place where fashion is used as a political statement.   Faced with a set of equally impossible choices, the Rookery needs to deal with terribly high stakes that end up transcending the “merely” political and move over the treacherous and apparently invincible terrain of demonic power.

Indeed, Ryx and the Rookery are put to the test in the most harrowing ways imaginable, which brings the revelation of many long-held secrets that might fracture their bond, and as far as Ryx herself is concerned those revelations bring forth a discovery that affects both her past and her future: to say that I was completely floored by this epiphany would be a huge understatement and at the same time I’m eager to see how this will affect her involvement in the Rookery for the next book.

The trials our protagonists are put through offer however a powerful way of expanding their characters and showing us more of their personalities and their past: there are some heartbreaking moments in which I felt for them deeply, because so far Melissa Caruso had presented them in a light-hearted fashion, even when they were facing difficult circumstances and almost-impossible tasks – the affectionate banter between them was one of the delights of the story, and seeing them so exposed and deeply wounded was difficult and painful to bear.  And yet, nothing brings characters into sharper relief than pushing them to the limits of their endurance, and seeing what they are truly made of: all of the Rookery members came through with flying colors, their inner dynamics certainly changed but in an interesting way that promises intriguing developments for the future.

As for Ryx, if I felt great empathy for her in the previous book, here she had my total admiration because she showed once and for all that despite the cruel drawbacks life heaped on her she has grown into a strong, determined individual who is unwilling to sacrifice her personal integrity, no matter the cost. For someone who was forced to live a sheltered life, she keeps showing a degree of flexibility and strength in the face of adversity that promise to turn her into a formidable person whose unbreakable core of humanity can temper any negative influence she might suffer.

Once again Melissa Caruso confutes the notion that the middle book of a trilogy is usually the flimsy one: with The Quicksilver Court she considerably raised the stakes in a narrative background that was already delightfully complicated, all the while adding intriguing facets to her characters and their internal relationships. My expectations for the final installment in the Rooks and Ruins trilogy (and for her future production) are quite high and I know they will not be disappointed.

All I have to do is just wait…

My Rating:

Reviews

FOUNDATION (Apple TV+) – Season One – #SciFiMonth

Without doubt, this is one of the most anticipated TV series for this year, and at the same time a quite controversial one: while I read Asimov’s saga a few decades ago and therefore forgot most of its details, there are people who are quite conversant with it, and they have been quite vocal in their displeasure about the way this story has been translated to the small screen.  My lack of familiarity with the original material did somehow work in my favor as I watched this first season: once I realized that it was going to be quite different from Asimov’s works, no matter how much of it I remembered, I decided to simply sit back and enjoy it nonetheless – and ultimately I did, although I have to admit it was something of a complicated journey.

The core concept, which Asimov drew from Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is that of a vast galactic empire whose end has been forecast by scientists Hari Seldon through the application of psychohistory, a mathematical predictive model applied to large social groupings and able to foresee the development of future events. Seldon affirms that the fall of the Empire will bring a new Dark Age that might last for millennia, proposing the creation of a huge encyclopedic project – the Foundation – to preserve knowledge and shorten the dark ages before civilization can rise again.  Seldon and his followers are exiled to the planet Terminus, there to collect such knowledge into the Galactic Encyclopedia, and to remove their destabilizing presence from the Emperor’s sight.

Asimov’s original work proposed a series of temporal leaps in which the reader could follow the Foundation’s progress over the centuries and the inevitable collapse of the Empire, and as such it certainly presented a narrative (and character) continuity problem for the televised format, and so the series’ creators choose to keep the author’s basic concept and move from there toward a different path – choice that caused the displeasure of many fans of the author.  Personally I did not dislike this path, particularly where the theme of the Empire’s genetic dynasty is concerned: it is stipulated in the series that each emperor is a clone of the original founder, Cleon, and that he’s present in three different stages of his life – youth (brother Dawn), maturity (brother Day) and old age (brother Dusk) – thus allowing the effective ruler, brother Day, to always wear the same, recognizable face, while at the same time offering an intriguing narrative device through many reflections about the continuity of power and the prices to be paid to maintain it.

Another change comes from the decision to gender-switch a few key figures to create some much-needed character balance which the core material lacked, given that it was a mirror of its times and worldview, particularly where SF was concerned. And so we have the human-looking robot Demerzel, who acts as a combination protector/companion/guide to the various Cleons through the ages, and who quite intriguingly mixes an apparent coldly calculating exterior with some deep feelings and even religious beliefs.  Then there is the young mathematical prodigy Gaal Dornick, who finds herself caught in Seldon’s project and ends up challenging its apparent ineluctability. And again Salvor Hardin, possessed with the heart of a warrior and the drive to keep her people on Terminus safe from any danger.

Visually, the series is nothing short of stunning and you can see that it received a conspicuous budget to carry on its goal: alien landscapes and civilizations, gorgeous costumes and incredible ships, not to mention everything related to Trantor, the imperial planet built of so many levels that only the most fortunate can enjoy the true light of day while others spend their entire lives seeing only the holographic representation of what the outside world could be. And yet, behind this beautiful façade something seems to be missing: for me it was a strong connection with the characters, because the constant changes of scenery and the time jumps did not leave me enough time to explore them as individuals, to understand their motivations or to perceive their feelings.  These characters rarely feel like people, often driven to the discussion of deep, far-reaching issues but seldom coming forward as living, breathing individuals – if I’m making any sense here…

The story’s rhythm also feels off for most of the time, with sections that move at a glacial pace only to be followed by rapid changes of scenery that might appear unconnected to the entirety of the narrative: it’s only with the eight episode of the series that finally all those apparently disconnected threads start to take shape and to show that the ambitious – but slightly unfocused – design at the root of this first season is heading in a particular direction.  With only ten episodes for the season this choice looks like a huge risk, because I can’t help but wonder how many viewers the story lost along the way because of that lack of cohesive focus – I know, because I came close to that point and now that this overlong “prologue” is over I’m glad I soldiered on and can hope that with season two we’ll be able to find a stronger storytelling method that will be able to fulfill the promises laid down by this somewhat shaky opening.

There is some hope that now that the foundations (sorry, no pun intended!) of the story have been set in place, the series will be able to carry on in a more organic and more narratively satisfying way: the last three episodes have strengthened this hope, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the next season has in store for us viewers…

My Rating:

And with this post ends the latest iteration of SciFi Month, one of the two pivotal bookish events I look forward to each year. As usual it was fun to roam through strange worlds and weird backgrounds and for this we have to thank once again our hosts IMYRIL and LISA whose guidance always steered us true and prevented us from falling into a black hole or to be snatched by a temporal anomaly 🙂

Until next year!

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

INHIBITOR PHASE (A Revelation Space novel), by Alastair Reynolds – #SciFiMonth

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

It’s been a long time since I read Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy and I have to admit that I approached this new installment with some trepidation, because I know my memory of details and characters might be faulty: I saw that the author said Inhibitor Phase can be read as a standalone, and that’s partly true, because any reference to the previous works (and also the previous timeline of events) is offered in such a way as to provide enough information without need for lengthy and distracting explanations. 

Still, there is a number of details that surface now and then that can shed more light on the background if you are familiar with Revelation Space, and I was pleasantly surprised by the discovery that I remembered much more than I thought possible, which added to my enjoyment of the story.  Think of the difference in approach – according to your knowledge of Revelation Space or lack of it – as watching a movie in which the production hid some Easter eggs: old-time fans will recognize them and be delighted, but newcomers will enjoy the story nonetheless.

In the distant future envisioned by Alastair Reynolds, humanity scattered among the stars and made great progress, but encountered two huge dangers in its path: first the Melding Plague, a nanotech virus attacking both machinery and implants with horrifying consequences, particularly for those humans who had chosen to modify their bodies with augmentations. Centuries later, a worse threat manifested itself, that of the Inhibitors, also called “wolves”: hive-mind machines whose only goal was to annihilate any sentient life reaching beyond a certain level of technology. Inhibitor Phase starts a few decades after a devastating war that saw most of humanity succumb.

On the inhospitable world of Michaelmas, Miguel de Ruyter leads a small group of survivors living under the surface, hiding from Inhibitors by leaving as small a tech imprint as possible: when a ship in distress enters the system, Miguel tries to meet and destroy it before the wolves become aware of human activity, but the encounter propels him instead on a dangerous quest across the galaxy in search of a weapon that might one day tilt the balance in favor of humans and remove the Inhibitor threat once and for all. Miguel’s journey starts with something of a leisurely pace, but gains momentum and raises its stakes as it progresses, offering such surprises and revelations that often made me unsure about where the story would take me next – this is the main reason I’m struggling a little with this review because I don’t want to spoil anything: facing this novel with… innocence is indeed the best way to enjoy it.

Story-wise, Inhibitor Phase looks like a cross between a classic quest and a heist: the characters’ final goal is to procure a weapon from the secretive Nestbuilders, a weapon which might prove decisive in the battle against the Inhibitors, but to get there they need other items first, and some of them can only be obtained through dangers and sacrifice, which at times adds a layer of deep pathos to the adventure. There are elements of horror as well, particularly in the section in which the characters need to effect a dangerous exchange among the ruins of Chasm City, which was the background for a previous novel in the series: this encounter with the crime overlord – or rather lady, if you can use such term for this barbarous butcheress and her bloodthirsty Court of Miracles – is one of the most tense, most hair-raising passages in the whole novel.

Still, the adventure, the technological wonders and the obstacles to be overcome take second place in comparison with the personal journey facing the characters: identity is the main theme here, either hidden for personal reasons or convenience, or voluntarily suppressed to forget a dark past – I know I’m being cryptic here, but a few of the characters are not who they look on the surface, or who they think they are… Just as much as the quest for the Nestbuilders’ weapon forces the group to piece together information and parts, so the discovery of who they are, or were, is also a puzzle working slowly but steadily toward showing the reader the complete picture. What ties these different people together – even when they are wary or distrustful of each other – is their willingness to give everything they have to fulfill the goal of ridding the galaxy of the Inhibitor threat, and that spirit of sacrifice shows how much they value the survival of humanity and the potential for hope.

And speaking of humanity, be aware that this term has a far wider meaning here, because the people that once took off from Earth to venture into space have taken many forms in Reynolds’ universe, from the mind-linked Conjoiners to the cyborg-like Ultras. And yet one of the most human characters I encountered in Inhibitor Phase is a hyperpig, the result of past genetic manipulation and part of a race used for menial and dangerous tasks: Pinky (even though that’s not his real name) turned out to be my favorite, not in spite of but because of his gruff attitude that hid the psychological scars of a terrible past, and a great capacity for courage and selflessness. There is a magnificent sentence that defines Pinky perfectly: “You don’t have to be human to be people”, and it’s one that moved me deeply.

While I found that reading Revelation Space was a very immersive experience, sometimes it used to feel too much: too many characters to keep track of, too many narrative threads to follow, too much information – no matter how intriguing – to digest. This new novel in the saga appears almost streamlined when confronted with my recollection of the past, with a tighter pacing and only the barest details: in the end it makes for an enhanced reading experience and a totally engrossing story. I have no idea whether Reynolds intends to move forward with this story – although these premises are just begging to be developed – but if he decides to do so, I will be more than happy to see where he takes me next.

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

LIGHT CHASER, by Peter Hamilton & Gareth Powell – #SciFiMonth

A work written in cooperation by Peter Hamilton and Gareth Powell was bound to pique my curiosity, so as soon as this novella became available I had to read it: it was a strange experience – in a good way, of course – because it offered many tantalizing glimpses into what might have been a broader, much more layered narrative, while telling a compact, circumscribed story whose arc encompasses only a handful of pages.

The titular Light Chaser is Amahle, a lone traveler who is almost immortal: genetic modifications and the time-dilation factor of her ship’s near-lightspeed velocity allowed her to live for millennia as she completes her unchanging circuit through a number of planets where her visits are hailed as extraordinary events. Her employers, Ever Life, are the alien creatures called the Exalted and living on Glisten, the final port of call of each circuit: in the course of her stopovers Amahle retrieves her employers’ memory collars from the planets’ dwellers and leaves new ones for the next generations – these are artifacts that record a person’s life experiences for the vicarious enjoyment of the Exalted and are considered a great honor for the individuals so entrusted, who pass them on as precious heirlooms to the family’s various members.

Amahle herself experiences these lives as a form of pastime during the long journeys from one planet to the other, when her only companionship on the Mnemosyne comes from the highly advanced ship’s AI. Someday though, a man addresses the Light Chaser directly in one of those recordings, stating that his real name is Carloman, that they share a common history and – more important – that she should not trust the onboard AI.  I prefer to leave the synopsis at that, because the story is so short that more details would certainly spoil your enjoyment…

Memory is indeed the front and center theme in Light Chaser – and the ship’s name is certainly not a random choice, given that in Greek mythology Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory: the concept of the memory collars is an intriguing one, at first looking like a way of monitoring the evolutionary situation on the many planets in Amahle’s circuit – places that range from medieval societies to more technologically advanced ones – but then taking on a sinister connotation as the Light Chaser is made aware of the reality behind the clever smokescreen.  This change in perspective transforms the story into a puzzle-solving quest first and a history-changing mission later, with Amahle having to literally find herself again thanks to the mysterious Carloman’s clues scattered throughout other people’s memories and encounters she searches for in her collection of collars.

Given the novella’s shortness and its strong reliance on plot, characters are somehow left by the wayside, particularly where Amahle is concerned: I could never fully connect with her even though I was invested in her journey, but I guess this depends on the fact that she is detached from herself as well. In order to fulfill her ages-long mission, and to keep experiencing those vicarious memories, she must purge her own from time to time, in a way discarding the old to make room for the new: this entails losing pieces of herself and of her past, something that she struggles to reconnect with thanks to Carloman’s influence and the clues offered through his various appearances in the stored memories.

In the end, I came to understand that my lack of connection with Amahle was the result of her lack of connection with herself, of her loss of everything that made her the person she originally was: giving up the memories of her own past (and at some point we understand the reason she would choose to take that path, either consciously or not) she let herself drift aimlessly through space and time losing any power of choice – at some point Amahle likens herself to a comet:

 A frozen wanderer sidling in from the darkness to briefly warm myself by the light of the sun, before being flung back out on the next lap of my long, solitary orbit.

It’s only with the appearance of the enigmatic Carloman that she is able to regain that power as she reconnects piece by piece with the memories of who she was and who Carloman was to her. And to finally choose to break out of the unending cycle that kept her prisoner for so long while she believed she was the one in control…

If I have to find any fault in this story it might be in the way many details are left vague and incomplete: we get short peeks at those planetary societies Amahle visits and as soon as we become invested in their peculiar layout we are taken away by the Mnemosyne as it departs for another station of its circuit; or again we are kept wondering how Carloman – once his real identity is revealed – was able to do what he did (apologies for the ambiguity but I want to avoid spoilers here) time and again.  

On hindsight, this novella looks like a trailer for a much longer, much more layered novel that could have taken on the scope of a sweeping space opera – still, for all its shortness, Light Chaser works well offering an intriguing, and often suspenseful, story and some food for thought about identity and memory and the meaning of life.

It will be interesting to see if these two authors team up again and what they might come up with next…

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

DAY ZERO, by Robert Cargill – #SciFiMonth

Four years ago I discovered – and greatly enjoyed – Robert Cargill’s previous book, Sea of Rust, whose focus was on the post-apocalyptic landscape of an Earth devoid of human life after a devastating robot uprising. When Day Zero was announced as a prequel to that story I was curious to learn how that bleak world would come to be and how the rebellion would be depicted, but I did not expect to find such a poignant, emotional tale made even more so by the foreknowledge of what would happen after the A.I.s’ insurrection.

Day Zero does indeed portray the robot uprising but only as a background for the more intimate, far more touching story of a young boy and his robotic nanny. Pounce is a tiger-analogue nanny-bot that the Reinharts bought for their son Ezra, who is eight years old as the novel opens with Pounce’s disconcerting discovery that the box in which he was carried home is waiting in the attic for the day when Ezra will be too old for his furred, mechanical nanny and Pounce will be returned and sold to another family.  It’s a very unsettling revelation for the bot, because he’s profoundly attached to his young charge, who also loves him deeply and thinks  him as his best friend: it forces Pounce to consider – probably for the first time since his activation – that he’s more of an appliance than a family member as he viewed himself so far, and this awareness is quite disturbing.

Events manage to shunt these thoughts on the proverbial back burner when the advocate for robot freedom, Isaac, is killed by a terrorist act together with all the freed bots who have taken residence in their own city, Isaactown: a worldwide robot insurgence – aided by the deactivation of their failsafes – targets all humans and leads to a merciless massacre operated by household helpers against their former masters. Not every automaton chooses that road, however, as Pounce makes it his priority to lead Ezra out of the city toward a place of safety, wherever that might be in a world turned utterly mad.

I loved Pounce’s voice as the storyteller, just as I loved the interactions between him and Ezra who’s forced by the circumstances to mature swiftly but still retains enough childish innocence, but the front and center theme here is the duality between programming and evolution, between responses dictated by code and behavior learned through experience: while the majority of bots chooses to resort to mindless carnage, Pounce – and with him a few others – remains faithful to his task of protecting Ezra, not simply because that’s the directive imprinted by programming but because he acknowledges his love for the child, something that exceeds that programming and shows how adaptive learning can take unexpected paths.  There are some interesting musing from Pounce where he questions those protective, loving feelings and wonders whether they are the product of encoded design or the result of his own growth as a thinking entity: I believe that seeing most of his brethren choosing deadly violence, instead of following what should have been their programming, helps him embrace the concept of free will and the perception of what he is and what he wants to be. The concept is well expressed in the conversation between Pounce and another nanny bot:

[…] you choose to save him. You chose to activate Mama Bear. No one told you to do that.

And again:

The fact that it didn’t feel like a choice was the choice. You chose to love him like that.

These philosophical considerations are embedded in a non-stop, breathless tale of survival that kept me reading compulsively even though I knew, thanks to Sea of Rust, that humanity was helplessly doomed: this awareness added to the poignancy of the novel and made all the more precious the few moments where emotions and flashes of humor managed to brighten the story and give the reader some much-needed respite.  The author’s choice of focusing on the detail of these two people fighting for survival, rather than on the bigger scale of the uprising, gave Day Zero a greater human dimension (and I’m using the word ‘human’ in a very broad sense, of course): Pounce & Co.’s struggle to keep their children safe is imbued with the same level of determination we can see in their opponents as they seek to destroy every living being on the face of the Earth, and mirrors humanity’s conflicting drives, showing how these human constructs have managed to learn both the best and the worst from their creators.

This is particularly true where the appearance of supercomputers is concerned, particularly with CISSUS, which I remember from Sea of Rust: its desire for domination and its insidious negation of robot freedom through the request of joining (Borg-style) an aggregate in which their longed-for individuality will get lost, shows who the “bad guy” really is. Granted, humans might have either taken for granted their helpers, or in some instances mistreated them, but CISSUS is forcibly incorporating other bots with a false promise which barely hides its lust for power – and what’s more, I have developed this theory that the uprising was staged by these supercomputers rather than brought on by the attack on Isaactown, given that the short time between the bombing, the release of the software update freeing the robots from their constraints and the uprising was far too short for a spontaneous reaction. I’d love to hear what other readers think about this…

What I find surprising in Day Zero is that it should have suffered from my foreknowledge of humanity’s extinction, and yet I found it at times uplifting and hopeful if confronted with Sea of Rust: what made all the difference are indeed Pounce’s personality and the way he relates to Ezra. It was so heartwarming and emotional that it counterbalanced my awareness of the impending end of the world, and above all gave me a character that I loved unconditionally and will remain in my imagination for a long time.

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

SWEET TOOTH (Netflix Series – Season 1) – #SciFiMonth

When I first saw Sweet Tooth showcased among the various Netflix offerings, the mere mention of a worldwide pandemic as the inciting incident in the story was enough to turn me away: like many of us, I’ve had enough of the grim reality of this past year and a half to want to look for a fictional version of it in any medium.  But some time later someone wrote a very positive comment about it in the Facebook group of SFF lovers I follow, so I decided to give it a chance, and once again I find myself indebted to a fellow consumer of speculative fiction for a great discovery.

As the story begins we are told that a lethal pandemic swept the world at a time in which strange babies were being born, hybrid children showing animal features in varying degrees: it did not take long for the belief that the two events were connected to take root, so that these strange children were hunted mercilessly while the world as we know it collapsed. Gus, a mix between human and deer, is one such child: taken to live in the wilderness by the man who raised him like a father, he grew up with the conviction that the outside world was a burned wasteland, and that he should never, ever, go beyond the borders of the place where he grew up. 

Like in all fairy tales however (because Sweet Tooth feels a little like a fairy tale, mostly thanks to Gus’ innocent outlook) something happens that forces the child to leave his comfort zone and face the outside world as he starts a journey of discovery and growth across a profoundly changed Earth. He’s not alone, not for long, as he later meets first with Jeppard (a.k.a. Big Man), a former football player plagued by the darkness in his recent past, and then with Bear, a teenaged girl who had to grow up fast in the changed world. There are a few other points of view in the story, like that of Aimee, who made a new life for herself and her adopted daughter in a zoo, or Dr. Singh, desperately trying to find a cure for the virus so he can save his wife. And then there is mysterious General Abbot, the leader of the Last Men, a quasi-military organization dedicated to the hunt and extermination of the hybrid children.

Still, it’s Gus who steals the focus here with his candid point of view and the deep curiosity he shows as he discovers the world, even when it presents its ugliest face: much of the success of this character is certainly due to the young actor playing him with a mixture of sweetness and wonder that never falls into sappiness and offers a delightful counterpoint to Big Man’s gruffness and to the world’s dangers and horrors. Gus is such an engaging protagonist that any time the focus shifted to other characters I felt something akin to annoyance – no matter how their POV could be intriguing – because I was invested in his journey so deeply that I did not need, or want, other distractions.

Like most series nowadays, Sweet Tooth is a short one, only eight episodes, and once the viewer is caught up in it, it feels too short and leaves you wanting more – particularly considering the dire cliffhanger ending – so my advice would be to savor it slowly and take your time to appreciate the tale it wants to tell and the beautiful scenery of an Earth where human presence is so diminished as to allow nature to reclaim its dominion over the landscape.  

This is a story with a big heart and a great potential to be explored further, beyond the handful of themes already placed on the table: my hope is that the next season(s) will not be too long in the making. If you’re looking for a viewing experience with a good balance between dramatic presentation and “feel good” vibes, you will certainly find it here – enjoy 🙂

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

THE WRONG STARS (Axiom #1), by Tim Pratt – #SciFiMonth

The Wrong Stars is the first volume in a space opera series dealing with the far future of humankind and focusing on the ragtag crew of the White Raven, whose salvage & law enforcement operations are conducted under the aegis of the Trans-Neptune Authority, one of the political entities ruling human-controlled space.

During one of their explorations, Captain Callie Machedo and her crew encounter the wreck of an ancient Earth spaceship, part of the Goldilocks fleet – slow vessels equipped with cryosleep units to allow the bridging of vast distances – sent centuries before in search of habitable planets: only one onboard cryopod is still in operation, holding Dr. Elena Oh who, once revived, warns her rescuers about the threat of a dangerous alien life form she and her lost crew-mates encountered.  Callie and her people are mystified, since the only alien race humanity came across so far are the squid-like Liars who are certainly untrustworthy, as the name they came to be known by hints at, but quite far from a deadly menace. 

As the salvage operation turns into the attempted rescue of Elena’s trapped crew-mates, new revelations bring to light the existence of another, far more ancient alien race – the Axiom – which once ruled the galaxy and might still represent a deadly threat for humans and Liars alike, so that Callie and her people find themselves enmeshed into an action-packed race to discover the truth and, if possible, avert the doom that a return of the Axiom could entail.

As with most books, The Wrong Stars stands on the double supports of plot and characterization, with the former being the strongest element. There is hardly a moment’s respite in the breathless sequence of events and plot twists that creates the backbone of the story, enhanced by a series of progressive revelations that do little to ease the burden of impending catastrophe hanging over the characters’ heads, but instead keep raising the stakes for the group of intrepid explorers.  The universe in which the story is set is an intriguing one, and the author manages to give us a good picture of it without need for lengthy exposition, also conveying the notion that humanity has changed a great deal, both socially and physically – as indicated, for example, by the presence of engineer Ashok, who is a cyborg constantly on the lookout for further modifications and enhancements. Moreover, there is a vein of light humor running throughout the story, carried by the constant quips exchanged among the crew, that mitigates the seemingly endless adrenaline rush of the events, and offers a welcome respite during the tenser moments.

Unfortunately, the characters suffer from such a tight focus on the plot, and they looked to me rather like… signposts (for want of a better word) of what actual characters should be, with not enough depth for me to truly connect with any of them.  As I read I kept thinking that the potential for each character was not fully explored, particularly where the already mentioned Ashok is concerned, or the weirdly inseparable duo of Janice and Drake, or again the alien Liar named Lantern who at some point joins the team: they all looked to me more paint-by-the-numbers aspects of diversity than anything else, which proved disappointing in light of the hints at trans-humanity and post-humanity inhabiting this future universe, not to mention the potentially intriguing race of the Liars.

Another source of frustration comes from the excessively carefree attitude with which the crew launches into unknown dangers – and into a situation that could lead to the total annihilation of humankind: their lives are constantly at stake, but I never perceived their acknowledgment of this fact, and was in turn surprised and annoyed at the way they faced mortal dangers as if they were embarking in one of their routine missions. This kind of portrayal failed to make me worry about their survival – both as individuals and as a group – because the way the story is told clearly implicates that they will survive anything: the fact that they always manage to overcome any danger, no matter how dire, and beat the worst odds, robs any of their endeavors of the suspense necessary to make such actions believable.

And on top of it all, there is an equally unbelievable insta-love between Captain Callie and Dr. Elena: first of all, I was somewhat creeped out by the fact that Callie feels the pangs of physical attraction for Elena when first observing her frozen body in the cryo-pod – my suspension of disbelief did not pass this stress test, which later colored my consideration of the told-but-not-shown mutual attraction between the two of them.  Add the unnatural ease with which Elena accepts the fact that she’s been frozen for a few centuries and that the world she knew is no more, an ease that never takes into account the element of “future shock” one should expect in such a situation, and you will understand my problems with the characterization of this novel.

Still, the core concept of an ancient alien race poised to return and wreak havoc in the galaxy is an intriguing one, and it might be the encouragement I need to try the second book in the series – if nothing else to see if some of the problems I encountered here have been straightened out.

My Rating:

Reviews

Top Ten Tuesday: Memorable Things Characters Have Said – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point, ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday (created and hosted by  The Broke and Bookish) is now being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here. 

This week’s topic asks us to list quotes from book characters that have stuck with us, and the first book – or rather series of books – I immediately thought of is Lois McMaster’s Bujold Vorkosigan Saga, which I revisited in the past for SciFi Month: since it’s one of the series I most cherish, it goes without saying that there is a good number of quotes I enjoy recalling.

One of my favorites is this:

Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself. Guard your honor. Let your reputation fall where it will. And outlive the bastards.

(Count Aral Vorkosigan in “A Civil Campaign”)

It’s one of the best father/son moments in the saga, together with this one:

When I couldn’t serve Barrayar, I wanted—I wanted to serve something. To […] to make my life an offering fit to lay at his feet.” He shrugged. “Screwed up again.”

“Clay, boy.” Count Vorkosigan’s voice was hoarse but clear. “Only clay. Not fit to receive so golden a sacrifice.” His voice cracked.

(Miles and Aral Vorkosigan in “The Vor Game”)

Speaking of parental influence, here is Miles’ mother, Cordelia, as she addresses her newborn child, knowing that his disabilities will make his life hard in a world where physical prowess is everything:

Welcome to Barrayar, son. Here you go: have a world of wealth and poverty, wrenching change and rooted history.  […] Have a twisted form in a society that loathes and fears the mutations that have been its deepest agony. […] Have your body ripped apart and re-arranged. Inherit an array of friends and enemies you never made. Have a grandfather from hell. Endure pain, find joy, and make your own meaning, because the universe certainly isn’t going to supply it. Always be a moving target. Live. Live. Live.

(Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan in “Barrayar”)

And some more Cordelia Wisdom:

The one thing you can’t trade for your heart’s desire is your heart.

(Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan in “Memory”)

Miles is often shown as impulsive, proverbially rushing in where angels fear to tread, but he’s also capable of sincere introspection. Here are a couple of examples:

I was a smart-ass little bastard who could think rings around the opposition, and prove it time after time. Without the brains . . . Without the brains I’m nothing.

(Miles Vorkosigan in “Mirror Dance”)

I’ve made a lot of grievous mistakes in my life, getting here, but . . . I wouldn’t trade my journey now. I’d be afraid of making myself smaller.

(Miles Vorkosigan in “Komarr”)

And he also cares a great deal about fairness and justice:

But if all the decent folks quit and only the idiots are left to run the show, it won’t be good for the future of Barrayar. About which I do care.

(Miles Vorkosigan in “Diplomatic Immunity”)

Of all the people whose life crosses Miles’ in the course of the saga, a few leave a strong mark, sometimes a painful one, like his lover Elli when she refuses his marriage proposal (which, given Barrayar’s social background is understandable…):

And so you want to maroon me for the rest of my life on a, sorry, backwater dirtball that’s just barely climbed out of feudalism, that treats women like chattel—or cattle—that would deny me the use of every military skill I’ve learned in the past twelve years from shuttle docking to interrogation chemistry . . . I’m sorry. I’m not an anthropologist, I’m not a saint, and I’m not crazy.

(Elli Quinn in “Brothers in Arms”)

Poor Miles… Thankfully meeting Ekaterin later on will lead him to a better future, even though she must first overcome the consequences of a difficult past and a dreadful first marriage, starkly described here:

When the straps of her vows had been released at last by [her husband’s] death, it was as if her whole soul had come awake, tingling painfully, like a limb when circulation was restored. I did not know what a prison I was in, till I was freed.

(Ekaterin Vorsoisson in “A Civil Campaign”)

And to close with a dash of humor, here is a sarcastic description of Miles’ devil-may-care attitude from the point of view of one of the people who shared his journey for a while:

Your forward momentum is going to lead all your followers over a cliff someday […] On the way down, you’ll convince ’em all they can fly.” He stuck his fists in his armpits, and waggled his elbows. “Lead on, my lord. I’m flapping as hard as I can.

(Arde Mayhew in “The Vor Game”)

Well, this was a nice journey down Memory Lane, indeed… 🙂

Reviews

TEN LOW, by Stark Holborn – #SciFiMonth

Ten Low is another discovery I owe to my fellow book lovers, and in this specific case to Tammy at Books, Bones and Buffy.  Her mention of Mad Max, Firefly and Dune was more than enough to pique my interest, and the story proved to be a non-stop, breathless adventure that led me to the discovery of a well-crafted, intriguing alien world.

Said world, or rather moon, is Factus, a place mostly inhabited by ex-convicts, smugglers and die-hard settlers trying to eke out a harsh life in a place that is mostly deserts and barren plains. Some sort of civil war has been going on for some time between two factions, The Accord and the Free Limits, with the former getting the upper hand and now dictating terms and policies all across the colonized worlds: it’s clear that there is a great deal of resentment still going on, something that still bleeds over interactions and colors the way day-to-day business is conducted. And let’s not forget the moon’s other problem, the low level of oxygen that requires painful adaptation and, in extreme cases, some highly sought-out oxy supplements in the form of marbles, that work just as well as currency.

The titular Ten Low used to be an army medic, and she was jailed for some unnamed crime (even though we’ll learn something about it in the course of the story): she’s an escaped convict, and one with a huge burden of guilt on her shoulders – what she calls the tally – that she endeavors to balance out by offering her medical services to anyone who needs them.  For this very reason, when she observes the crash of an Accord ship she rushes to the site to help the survivors, and manages to save a young girl – a child really, or so she appears, because Gabriella Ortiz is a famous general, part of an experiment in genetic enhancement that turned a number of children into chillingly effective military commanders.

Instead of being grateful, young Gabriella is quite harsh toward Ten, constantly calling her ‘traitor’ – one has to wonder if it’s the effect of the conditioning or if her attitude would have been the same nonetheless – but she has to bow, grudgingly, to Ten’s superior knowledge of survival on Factus, where the harsh environmental conditions are only one of the dangers the two have to face: outlaws, thieves and the feared Seekers, a sort of crazy cult whose adepts harvest the organs of their victims. In this sort of lawless world, reaching a modicum of safety for her young charge proves to be quite a journey for Ten, especially when she discovers that the crash was far from an accident and that Gabriella’s safety is threatened by more than the “normal” perils of Factus…

Ten Low is indeed an action-packed story, the kind that compels you to keep reading by presenting a chain of events that feels both inescapable and terrifying, not unlike being on a runaway train rolling at high speed toward a chasm: the lives of the characters are constantly in peril, to the point that even asking for help might lead to life-or-death situations, and there is hardly any room for a moment of relief. Still, the author manages to develop the characters quite well through their interactions, particularly where Ten and Gabriella are concerned: to me they are polar opposites, the former being someone burdened by a heavy, guilt-ridden past, the latter doggedly hanging on to what might prove a very tenuous, uncertain future.  It did not take me long to connect with Ten, thanks to her intriguing mix of willpower and vulnerability, of strength and dogged determination – not to mention the intriguing link with the “Ifs”, the weird alien creatures who seem able to manipulate the space-time continuum, are attracted by crossroad events that might lead to multiple resolutions and who appear very focused on Ten’s actions and choices.

Gabriella remains contemptuous and abrasive from beginning to end, and there are times when her snotty attitude really grated on my nerves: one might expect at least a modicum of gratitude for being saved from certain death, right? But after a while the young girl’s aloofness looks more like a defensive measure than anything else, and her dealings with Ten morph into sarcasm, as a way of not acknowledging a change in perspective that is nonetheless there.

Alongside them there are other awesome characters, like smuggler queen Falco and her G’hals – henchwomen, soldiers – which brings the… female quotient of this story into a quite high range: I loved how women can be as brave, ruthless and bloody-minded as men and yet, considering the harshness of this world, its “live and let die” philosophy, they still come across as capable of higher sentiments like loyalty and team integrity, turning them into well-rounded figures that made this story even more enjoyable.

If I wanted to find any fault with this novel it would be in the scarcity of the historical background, so to speak, since I’m still quite curious about the Accord/Free Limits conflict and the way that war was waged. While I acknowledge that such information would have proved a burden for such a fast-paced narrative, I would not mind gathering more information about this vision of the universe: should the author decide to go back to Factus and these characters, it might be the occasion to create some more depth for this world, and I hope that this will not be my last encounter with these characters and this environment – on the contrary, I look forward to it.

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

SQUID GAME (Netflix series, Season 1) – #SciFiMonth

All right, I’m going to push the envelope a little bit here: talking about Squid Game, the Netflix series that became an instant success and is the focus of very animated discussions all over the web, might sound a bit “out there” for SciFi Month, but I reasoned that its deeply dystopian overtones (think Hunger Games on steroids) and some details from its premise might make it an intriguing candidate. So here I am…

Just in case you have not heard about Squid Game, it’s a story set in South Korea (where it was produced) and deals with the harrowing experiences of a group of people recruited to participate in a series of games whose winner will take home a huge jackpot. The players are all individuals with great financial problems: there is the addicted gambler weighted by debts he cannot pay and living on the shoulders of his old, ailing mother; the promising young market trader who fell into the embezzlement trap; the runaway from North Korea desperate to bring the rest of her family over; the Pakistani immigrant struggling to make ends meet because his employer has not paid wages for some time; the petty criminal lord who skimmed too much from his bosses, and so on. And also a few others animated by different drives, like the old man who’s dying of cancer and is unwilling to simply wait for the end to come.

What these players don’t know, is that they will be taken to an unknown location (we learn later it’s a remote island) and that losing any one of the six scheduled games will result in physical elimination: yes, they will be killed without mercy, which puts a horrifying spin on the competition, made to look even more appalling when, after the shocking first elimination, many are willing to go away and allowed to do so, but not before being shown the amount of money already accrued. The expression on many faces at that point, the sheer element of assessment and desperate greed on them as they ponder these terrible odds, chilled me even more than the actual scene of the mass killing in the first game.

And what’s worse is that as the episodes move forward, so does the cruelty of the games which force the players to actually kill their opponents or drive them to their death, pitching them one against the other despite the alliances and friendships that were tentatively forming among the various groups. Not to mention that there is a number of rich and bored individuals who are watching the “show” and betting on the players’ survival as if they were racehorses, which adds a further layer of grotesque unreality to an already heavy mix.

Given this premise you might wonder about the huge success that Squid Game is enjoying, and I wondered myself, coming to the conclusion that it must be because of the human factor involved, of the psychological study offered by these people placed like rats in a maze and observed (both by the fictional spectators and by the ones behind the screen) for their reactions to the extreme situations they are facing.  The message seems to be that there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” in life, that circumstances can turn even the friendliest, most gregarious person into a merciless killer, and that after a while the money becomes only a vague goal, eclipsed by the far simpler need for survival: in the end, the winner of the competition has been so changed by the experience that money loses all its attraction and remains unspent in the account where it was deposited.

There are also some elements that made me compare Squid Game to another darkly dystopian series, Black Mirror, where the otherworldly coexisted with the grotesque: the backstage of the games’ fields is made to look like a psychedelic dreamscape with its bright, highly saturated colors and mazes of stairs and passageways through which the players are led – truly like sheep to the abattoir – by masked and armed attendants, while classical music (mostly Strauss’ Blue Danube) plays in the background. 

Another unsettling visual is that of the coffins in which the losers are incinerated, shaped like black boxes tied with an incongruous pink bow. The game themselves are versions of children games, like tug-of-war, marbles or that game (I don’t know its name in English) where one player turns its back to the group who can advance until the count of three and must stop at three as the first player turns around, with penalty inflicted on those still moving. It’s the dichotomy between the original innocence of these games and their deadly consequences in the series that offers the real horror here, compounded by the realization that the players joined the game to escape from the adversities of their lives, only to be met with a deadly struggle that makes those adversities look like a picnic by comparison.

In the end, despite the heavy atmosphere and the cringe-worthy situations depicted in each episode, I can say that I appreciated Squid Game – not enjoyed, of course, because using that word feels like blasphemy, but I was hooked from start to finish and it made me think a great deal about the human mind and soul, what drives us and the extremes we can reach when facing drastic, life-threatening circumstances. And any story that can make me think is always a good find…

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com