Reviews

PICARD – Season 1 (spoiler-free review)

 

There is no doubt that the fans’ hopes for this new production in the long-running Trek franchise were high, partly because of its focus on one of the most iconic characters for this universe, and partly because the more recent offerings did not exactly meet viewers’ expectations, maybe (and this is only my personal opinion) due to the fact that they chose to look at the past of this universe rather than envision its possible futures, and therefore had to deal with issues of canon and continuity that provoked displeasure from some hard-core fans.

Did the first season of Picard meet those expectations? I would largely say yes, although it was not exempt from pacing and narrative problems.  The story is set some twenty years after the events of the last TNG movie, Nemesis, and starts from the premise that a supernova threatened the obliteration of a good portion of the Romulan Empire: the Federation and Starfleet mounted a huge operation of rescue and relocation of the affected population and gave Picard, promoted to the rank of admiral, the task of coordinating the effort. Despite the technical difficulties and the political problems – not everyone in the Federation was happy with the idea of investing so many resources in aiding a long-standing enemy –  the operation proceeded competently until it was wrecked by an unforeseeable disaster: the androids designed to increment the workforce suddenly and inexplicably turned on their creators, destroying the shipbuilding facilities on Mars and killing tens of thousands.  Faced with Starfleet’s decision to stop the rescue mission in the aftermath of the tragedy, Picard threatened to resign in the hope of waking up their conscience, but his resignation was accepted with no qualms and he retired to his family home, angered and defeated.

As the series opens, it’s been fourteen years since that day and the Picard we meet is a disaffected, reclusive man who nevertheless rises to the occasion when a young woman comes to seek his help after having been the victim of a brutal murder attempt… I will leave the rest of this complex, many layered story for you to discover, and concentrate instead on the first season’s characterization and storytelling.

There is no question that characters are the backbone of this show, both the old and the new. Jean Luc Picard is of course the one who enjoys the most screen time, but he’s very different from the person we knew (or thought we knew…) from the seven seasons and four movies of TNG: he’s older, disillusioned and quite bitter about the way his career ended – the rescue and relocation effort could have been its crowning achievement, not just for the amount of lives saved, but for the opportunity of turning the Federation’s ideals of diplomacy and cooperation into tangible fact, of showing that even long-standing differences can be overcome in the name of a worthy goal.

Present-day Picard is not the man we remember anymore: he has turned inwards, almost forgotten to look up at the stars and see the promise they offer; there is no more hope in him and at some point he understands that for all this time he has been vegetating, waiting to die as he claims in a moment of merciless introspection. The long years spent in this self-inflicted isolation have left their mark on him, and it’s not a welcome sight: even once he embarks on the “adventure” that’s the focus of this story, he has moments when he seems unaware, or worse dismissive of other people’s feelings, when it appears as if he’s using them as convenient tools to fulfill his goal. And yet, where these moments should make us think less of him, they help instead to make him look far more approachable than he was in the past, as if, shedding that mantle of unshakable authority that made him one of the most celebrated Starfleet captains, he gained in humanity.

This less-than-flattering view of Picard is only the mirror for what happened with the Federation, which has turned into an insular entity, more concerned with its own problems than with the expansion of knowledge and the betterment of its members that were its founding principles. It’s often been one of the mandates of science fiction to examine our present and to reflect it back at us through some imaginary filter, so we could take a good look at what we are, and the image that we see in this mirror is far from flattering: the hope and optimism that were at the roots of the earlier incarnations of Star Trek are present in name only, replaced by an unprecedented wariness toward the other that denies those lofty ideals. The prequel novel The Last Best Hope does a good job of showing how this kind of mindset came to be, and it’s indeed a useful key to decipher the atmosphere we breathe in this first season of the series, to understand the kind of inner journey Picard has to take in the TV series to rise up again from the depths of disillusionment he had fallen in and regain the armor of moral authority that was the main component of his personality.

Back to the characters, there are some new faces here who end up forming the crew Picard needs for this unexpected mission, and while they are all interesting, they are not given sufficient space to really grow into fully-featured personalities: ten episodes and a story that needs to explain enough of the past to help us understand the present are hardly enough to show all the facets that would deepen our understanding of them. Still, it’s a good start and my hope is that they will be given room to expand with the second season: if I choose to see this first run of the series as a prologue, there might be a good chance they will be allowed to mature fully and to create a new “family” for the old captain.  On the other hand, the appearance of a few familiar faces from the past is more than welcome, either the cameo roles of Riker and Troi or the more substantial presence of Data and of 7of 9 from Voyager – and in this respect I look forward to her return in Season 2 because the metamorphosis from her former aloof personality to the present ass-kicking awesomeness represents one of the highlights of this series.  In this respect, I would like to address some of the accusations of “fan service” I read online, and while I admit that the show was at times guilty of it, I’m also aware that it needed to build on the ties of the past to better establish its footing in this “present” – and I’m also certain that no one, not even those detractors, was able to remain unmoved when Picard finally uttered his trademark “Engage!” at the end of a certain episode…

The first season of Picard, while promising, is not immune from some narrative issues, particularly in the pacing that feels too slow in some instances and far too swift in others, blithely skipping over some details that would have helped make sense of the progression of events –  and yet it all comes together in the final episode, one whose emotional content was enough to make me forget all previous doubts and criticisms. Not perfect, no, but promising enough to encourage me to wait for next season with great anticipation.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

PICARD: THE LAST BEST HOPE, by Una McCormack

 

My record with tie-in novels has not been exactly stellar, so far: most of the stories I read gave me the impression that the authors were not overly familiar with the universe and the characters they were dealing with, or that they were doing a paint-by-the-numbers job with little motivation to deliver a gratifying story.  For this reason I approached this novel, that acts as a prequel to the new Trek series Picard, with some hesitation, but to my great relief and appreciation I encountered a solid story whose characters – especially the central one – felt both substantial, well-researched and consistent with their on-screen versions.

The core premise in Gene Roddenberry’s vision of his future was that of a utopian society where greed, bias and bigotry had been erased; a post-scarcity civilization that had relegated poverty and hunger to its remote past; a political association where dialogue and diplomacy could solve the most bitter conflicts.  As every utopian vision it was a worthy, inspiring one – even a model to strive for – but as such it did not take into account the darker side of our nature. The original Trek, and TNG, were the product of times when optimism made us think we could start reaching for that goal, but as society and politics changed over time, the following series started incorporating more and more or this transitioning reality into their background, showing a not-so-perfect Federation, one prone to very human (and I’m using this term broadly speaking) flaws.

This prequel novel moves from the discovery that the greater part of the Romulan Star Empire is destined to be obliterated by a supernova and that Starfleet launches a massive rescue mission to relocate the endangered population to safety. The huge effort is fraught with technical and political difficulties from the very start, and when an act of sabotage destroys the Mars shipyard, Starfleet choses to pull out of the mission, causing Picard to resign his commission in anger and frustration.   This less than flattering view of Starfleet and the Federation has been at the root of many objections moved by a number of fans, so I will start by addressing this narrative angle first.

Roddenberry’s perception of the Federation as a cohesive whole in which everyone worked for the common good always looked more like wishful thinking, and while remaining as a basic guideline for the shaping of mankind’s future society it was not free from exceptions even in the original series, so that we saw several examples of humanity’s worst at play. In this novel, this kind of reality check is brought to the fore on several levels: the widespread reaction at the announcement of the rescue mission for example, with people wondering why so many resources need to be employed to the benefit of a long-standing adversary; scientists dragging their feet at having to put their projects on hold to work on new and more efficient ways to relocate, house and feed so many refugees; politicians using the emergency as a leverage for their own agendas, and so forth.  Does all of this sound quite familiar? Of course it does, because science fiction is often – if not always – a mirror of our present times and issues and it reflects them back at us through the lens of an imagined future. This might not look like the Federation his creator envisioned, but it’s a possible look into what we might become one day, and a prediction that our present “baggages” might still follow us into the centuries to come.

In this rude awakening from the dream of a perfect future, the most excellent victim is Jean-Luc Picard, the very symbol of Roddenberry’s vision: from the very start he’s forced to walk an uphill road, battling against short-sightedness, reluctance to fully commit to the task and political expediency, and despite these difficulties, added to the monumental task of moving 900 million people out of harm’s way, he struggles to keep the optimistic outlook that drove his past missions so far, although day by day that optimism is corroded by the mounting awareness of the hopelessness of it all. Many chapters of this novel start with excerpts from his log, and we can see the slow, inexorable way in which that hope keeps dwindling and is ultimately ground into dust by what he perceives as the ultimate betrayal from the organization he gave his life to.  The ominous quality of the storytelling goes hand in hand with the deconstruction of Picard’s noble, dignified figure as he comes face to face with his powerlessness and starts to turn into the bitter, discouraged person we meet at the start of the TV series, someone whose gaze has turned inward where once he used to look out to the stars.

Picard’s second in command, Raffi Musiker, suffers a similar fate even though she comes from a different outlook: she holds little faith in humanity’s virtue and yet her cynical approach to the obstacles on their path does not save her from the crushing disillusionment they are destined to endure. More than that, she pays a terrible personal price for her dedication to the mission (something we see more clearly on screen), and what we see of her in this novel explains a great deal her attitude in the TV series, because she is forsaken both by Starfleet and by a commanding officer who choses to sever all ties with his past in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Picard: The Last Best Hope is not an easy read, because it will subvert many of the beliefs we held about Starfleet and the Federation; it will lead us to confront some unpleasant realities under the utopian surface we thought we knew; and it will force us to see how complete failure can affect even the most steadfast of personalities. There is a grimness of perspective in this novel that we are not used to seeing in Star Trek, and yet this story is a compelling one – not just because of the background it builds for the TV series, but because it makes us understand that sometimes we need to reach bottom before starting to swim back up to the surface.  Grimdark might have reached its proverbial tentacles into one of the most optimistic franchises in speculative fiction, but I am convinced that redemption will not be out of the characters’ grasp, and I’m waiting to see if I’m right.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Ten Signs I’m a Book Lover

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 is:

 

TEN SIGNS YOU’RE A BOOK LOVER

 

This was an easy one… 🙂

 

1) I’m a book blogger! Enough said…

2) I never leave the house without the e-reader in my handbag

3) I look at pictures of wall-to-wall bookshelves as I would look at works of art

4) I have a file listing the books I want to read and keep updating it with new items

Which means I have an actual TBR made of books I already own, plus a “virtual” TBR made of books I would like to own, and certainly will in the near future. Sometimes I think about counting them, then give up because on that path lies madness… 😀

 

5) I set alerts on my computer for the publication date of books I’m eager to read

And there goes another reason I love ebooks: instant gratification. See, shop, download, read.  😉

 

6) I spend more on books than on anything not related to actual survival, like food

7) When I see people marking their place in a book by folding a corner of the page, I shudder in horror

8) My book-hoarding habit has become unmanageable since I turned digital and stopped having problems with space

(space, the final frontier…)

9) When I visit someone’s house I always take a peek at the bookshelves

10) When thinking about a gift, I always think about books first

 

What about you? What are your signs?

Reviews

BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED (The First Law #2), by Joe Abercrombie

 

More than once I have admitted my lack of patience when confronted with long set-ups, a flaw that probably made me miss on a few good books because I could not wait for the story to finally take flight, but with the first book of this trilogy I was not only able to curb my usual impatience, I was eager to learn where the author was taking me (and quite enjoying the ride), so now I’m happy to say I was very richly rewarded with this second installment in Joe Abercrombie’s debut work. Here the seeds planted in The Blade Itself come to fruition and grow into a multi-faceted tale that promises to flow into an equally enthralling final book.

The characters we got to know in the previous novel are now traveling all over the world: Bayaz, the first of the Magi, has taken his company – Logen Ninefingers, Jezal dan Luthar, Ferro and a few others – toward the west, and the mysterious quest for which he needs their peculiar abilities, as the group ends up facing harrowing dangers and hardships to fulfill a mission whose details only their leader knows; Colonel West marches North with the Union army to fight agains the invading northern barbarians led by Bethod, and is saddled with the handling of crown prince Ladisla, a complete idiot in love with the idea of battle and glory, and totally unsuited to the task at hand; and Sand dan Glokta, inquisitor extraordinaire, is promoted to Superior and tasked with the defense of the southern city of Dagoska, under siege by the Gurkish – the old foe who once captured and tortured him, turning him into the cripple he is now.

While there is decidedly more action in Before They Are Hanged, what with hazardous journeys, bloody battles and a doomed siege whose problems are compounded by treachery and personal agendas, the characters remain the central focus of the story, growing in depth and facets and at the same time showing their humanity in all its high and low points: in the space of these two books in the series, Joe Abercrombie’s characters have turned from fictional creations into flesh and blood people it’s easy to believe in, care about (or despise, in some instances) and root for.  Maybe the only one for whom the jury’s still out is Jezal dan Luthar, the dandy swordsman with a superiority complex, the one who keeps sneering at this traveling companions: grievously wounded in a skirmish, he realizes the importance of team work, of respecting one’s companions, of reaching out to them as people and not as objects of contempt. The change that comes over Jezal with this epiphany seems too quick, too radical to feel truly plausible, but I have faith in the author and look forward to seeing where this individual’s path will lead.

Logen Ninefingers took little time to become one of my favorite characters in Book 1 and here he becomes more definite, more solid: on the surface, Logen might look like an uncouth barbarian, a man with little depth and a brutish disposition, but there is much more to him than meets the eye at first sight. Both in his personal reflections and in the interactions with his traveling companions he shows a talent for introspection and wisdom that belies the surface coarseness he presents to the world, as is the case of this campfire observation:

He and Bayaz were close enough to the fire, but the others were further than comfort would have put them. Drawn close by the wind, and the cold, and the damp night, pushed further out by each other.

The advice he offers Jezal, and his steadfast friendship overtures toward Ferro – the former Gurkish slave turned into a formidable, perpetually scowling warrior – point toward a different side of Logen’s character, one I’m not sure I can label as gentler, but certainly far more human and sympathetic than what the rest of the group shows to each other.  If at some point the unlikely company shapes into something more than a band of strangers, and becomes a team ready to watch each other’s backs, much comes from Logen’s relentless attempts at bonding, which can either move into humorous territory, as in the scene where the group discusses battle scars, or turn to starkly profound musings:

A family? I did have one. And now I’ve got another. You don’t pick your family, you take what you’re given and you make the best of it.

Colonel West undergoes some big changes as well: the man so easily annoyed, and weighted with a huge chip on the shoulder due to his lowborn origins, is forced to curb his annoyance and anger when having to deal with prince Ladisla and his cronies, their complete inadequacy in managing an army and their bloodily ineffective handling of Bethod’s onslaught. The man who built his career on adherence to rules, to a strict moral code of conduct, finds himself in a grim situation where he will need to delve into the brutal side of his personality to survive. West’s transition toward a more savage frame of mind is an interesting – if at times terrifying – journey and one clearly inspired by the Northmen allies he finds along the way, who are Logen’s long-lost friends and also very interesting characters I hope to see more of in the next book.

As was the case with The Blade Itself, I kept the best for last – Sand dan Glokta: much as I enjoy reading about Logen Ninefingers, Glokta remains my favorite character, because he’s the best defined and the most intriguing creation that Joe Abercrombie brought to life. The core of my attraction for Glokta comes from his dual nature: a savagely crippled individual who seeks and finds beauty where he can; a professional torturer who knows intimately the meaning of pain, and yet does not enjoy inflicting it; a man who professes outward cynicism while adhering to a unique moral compass. It’s Glokta’s complexity that makes him such a fascinating individual, that and the dichotomy between his inner musings and his outward utterances. He might say:

As for being a good man, that ship sailed long ago, and I wasn’t even there to wave it off.

yet he risks a great deal to show mercy to a powerful adversary; or again he can freely admit:

You could not even guess at the things that I have done. Awful, evil, obscene, the telling of them alone could make you puke. […] I push it all into the dark corners of my mind, and it’s incredible the room back there. Amazing what one can live with.

yet when he becomes aware of a young woman in distress he applies his considerable influence to rectify her situation, and enjoys the feeling of having accomplished a good deed. Glokta’s principles might be colored in shades of grey, and that’s indeed the main reason for his appeal, one he shares with most of the other characters in this series – all of them of the “dirty, ugly and mean” kind, but still made interesting by the author’s narrative skills.

It took me a long time before finally reading this amazing series, but now that I have I can place it at the very top of my favorite reads. And there’s still more to explore…

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY – SFF Series starters that were instant hits

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 is a genre freebie, so I decided to showcase my favorite first books in a series.

 

 

The vast majority of stories being published these days consists of series: a minimum of three books in most cases, while some run for a longer span, and sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of them all or manage to finish them because – let’s face it – how many of us are able to resist the lure of a new saga, especially when the core concept calls us with a siren song?

So, instead of dissuading you from adding any more sagas to your already busy TBRs, I will share the series openers that caused me to get embroiled into more long-term commitments. Trust me, they were worth it…

(The titles are numbered on a casual basis, just as they came to my attention when I looked at my virtual shelves – I loved them all with the same level of intensity)

 

The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie (1st Law Trilogy)

This first book in the series that probably started the “grimdark” trend in fantasy languished for a long time on my TBR and finally found its way on my e-reader after I had the opportunity to read Abercrombie’s new series starter, A Little Hatred, whose story was an ideal continuation of this one.  This world, and its amazing characters, took hold of my imagination in no time at all: it’s an ugly, dirty and nasty world, but also a compelling one…

 

The Tethered Mage – Melissa Caruso (Swords and Fire)

What a discovery this was, indeed! It’s rare for a debut work to turn me into an instant fan, but that’s exactly what happened with this book, set in a context reminiscent of 17th Century Venice, where cut-throat politics, winds of war and magic (in a very unusual declination) shape an intriguing story peopled by remarkable characters. Even the slight touches of romance turned out to be an agreeable element in the story, and for me that means a great deal.

 

Age of Assassins – R.J. Barker (The Wounded Kingdom)

Here goes another book that became a favorite, and a compelling read, from the very first chapters – and like the previous one it was a debut work, which makes it even more exceptional.  The Wounded Kingdom has been ravaged by the misuse of magic in the past, so that now everyone suspected of wielding it is instantly put to death: the main character is not only one of those magic-marked people, he’s in training to become an assassin for hire. If this does not pique your curiosity, I don’t know what would, indeed.

 

Kings of the Wyld – Nicholas Eames (The Band)

Also a debut novel like the two previous novels, and an instant success not only for me but for every other fellow book blogger who reviewed this title. A delightful balance between adventure, drama and humor carried by a group of former comrades in arms who get together once more to help one of them rescue his daughter from a city under siege. This novel made me laugh and also kept me on the edge of my seat, but above all it held me in thrall from start to finish, because it had everything I like to find in a book.

 

Embers of War – Gareth Powell (Embers of War)

From Fantasy to Science Fiction: I picked this one up because the synopsis spoke of a sentient ship and that’s one of the themes that never fail to get my attention. What I found here was much more than I bargained for, because the ship Trouble Dog does not only enjoy sentience but is also one of the narrative’s points of view, and we are made privy to its past story and feelings, the massive burden of guilt it carries for its past actions in a bloody war and its desire to atone for them by helping those in need. What’s not to love?

 

Outpost – Michael W. Gear (Donovan)

Another of my favorite SF themes is that of the colonization of alien planets, and few get to be as alien as Donovan, a lush, promising world that has all the numbers to be a new home for humanity – besides being rich in precious metals, that is. But there is a catch, and it’s a deadly one, because everything on Donovan, flora and fauna alike, is out for blood and will kill the unwary at the slightest opportunity.  The battle of the colonists for their survival first, and then against the corporation that wants to gain from its investment, makes for most of the action here, while the descriptions of this beautiful but cruel planet fire the imagination in a delightful way.

 

Dreamer’s Pool – Juliet Marillier (Blackthorn & Grim)

To say that this book bewitched me would only be the truth. In my review I called it “a book with many souls” and it’s true that while presenting a captivating story of injustice, revenge and redemption, it also offers an in-depth look on two amazing characters trying to rebuild their life by helping each other while being quite unlikely friends and allies on the surface. I loved both crusty Blackthorn and silent Grim and they still hold a special place in my heart, and they helped in making Juliet Marillier a favorite author from this very first book I read.

 

A Time of Dread – John Gwynne (Of Blood and Bone)

Epic fantasy can sometimes be overwhelming with its scope and huge number of characters, but John Gwynne has a way of drawing his readers in a little at a time, revealing his world with an unhurried pace – and once you start to see the bigger picture, you discover you’re committed to it, and have started to care for the people inhabiting it.  In my reviews of his works I have often likened this author to a storyteller of old, recounting his sagas around a campfire, and that’s what happened to me with this first (but certainly not the last!) book in his sweeping series: for me there is nothing I enjoy as much as sitting close to that “fire” and keep listening…

 

Illuminae – Jay Kristoff & Amie Kaufman (The Illuminae Files)

Who would have thought that I would fall so hard for a story featuring mainly YA characters? Before this book I would have scoffed at the notion, but Kristoff and Kaufman have created such believable, relatable young people that my heart went out to them as I read of their hardships and desperate endurance after a brutal attack on their colony left few survivors on a handful of ships. What’s more, this novel is presented in a peculiar form, adding found footage, messages and memos to the story, and enhancing it in a very unusual way.

 

Velocity Weapon – Megan O’Keefe (The Protectorate)

An interstellar war; two old enemies bent on mutual annihilation; sentient AIs running ships that elude human control. These elements alone would turn this into a compelling read, but there is much more in Velocity Weapon, because the story follows different timelines and also hides many surprises and unexpected twists, not to mention a female main character who is both strong and compassionate, determined and playful and managed to engage my sympathy in no time at all – just as the ship’s AI did.

Reviews

A TIME OF COURAGE (Of Blood and Bone #3), by John Gwynne

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

Since this is the third and final volume of the trilogy, and given its high narrative stakes, this will be a spoiler-free review, so that you will be able to fully enjoy the climax of the story once you get to it.

Once again I discovered how easy it is to go back to this complex, multi-layered world and the characters who people it: unlike previous times, however, there was also a heightened sense of uncertainty because here the story reaches its final showdown, and previous experience taught me that nobody could be considered safe here, so I was very anxious for the survival of the characters I had come to appreciate and love.  To sum up my experience with A Time of Courage in a few words, I have come across a new definition of epic fantasy, indeed.

The ages-long strife between the Ben-Elim and the Kadoshim, between good and evil, is about to reach its decisive battle and things are indeed looking grim for the people of the Banished Lands: through the artful planning of the Kadoshim and their allies, Asroth – lord of the demonic creatures – has been freed from his decades-long confinement and is about to command his army of evil creatures and twisted humans in the war for dominance. For their part, the Ben-Elim, the Order of the Bright Star and their own allies are opposing a strenuous resistance, but their adversaries are too many and hard to vanquish – and some of these defenders are more interested in power and dominance struggles rather than in combining their forces to insure the survival of humanity.

These might sound like standard plot elements in the genre, and in a way they are: what makes them different, what makes this series stand out from the rest, however, is the strong, compelling characterization carried out across the whole spectrum of personalities – from the undeniably good to the perversely evil – together with the unrelenting pace and the breath-taking descriptions of battles fought either on the ground or in the air whenever winged creatures from both sides engage each other. Starting from here, I have to confess that battle scenes rarely hold any appeal for me, but I always can make an exception for those described by John Gwynne, who possesses the very rare talent of bringing you in the very midst of it all, blending the physical action with the emotional commitment of the characters and turning these elements into scenes of such cinematic quality that they compel you to follow every word with the kind of concentration that makes you forget the rest of the world around you. This was particularly true for the “battle to end all battles” representing the climax of this novel and of the books that preceded it, a sequence that roughly takes the last twenty percent of the page count and that went on unrelentingly, alternating victories and defeats for the heroes, to the point that I had to often remind myself to breathe, because I was in such a state of stress I don’t remember ever experiencing with a book.

In these times when epic fantasy seems to have reached a wider audience, thanks to the largely successful small-screen portrayal of another genre saga, many have wondered what the next “blockbuster” might be: well, if a mythical creature like a far-seeing, perceptive network executive truly exists, they should look no further than this epic, that started with the four-book series The Faithful and the Fallen and closes its narrative cycle with the three books of Of Blood and Bone. If handled with the care and respect that this story deserves, it could easily surpass anything we have seen until now.

The characters represent the other strength of the series: after a while I realized that they had taken hold of my imagination, regardless of their position in the scheme of things – even the ones pledging their alliance to Asroth have their reasons for doing so, and while unable to “forgive” them for that choice, I could see where they came from, what made them choose that path, and this understanding turned them into people rather than mere adversaries, into flesh-and-blood creatures that felt quite real, as did the feelings animating them.  The moments in which Gwynne’s characterization excels are not those linked with battles though, but rather the quieter moments, the lulls between skirmishes when our heroes take the time to encourage or comfort each other, when they share the pain for the loss of a fallen comrade or reaffirm the bonds of friendship and loyalty tying them together: in these moments we finally understand that they are not only fighting to combat evil, and certainly not to seek glory, but because of the sense of kinship, of family, they have come to share.  In the overall grimness of the situation, while facing impossible odds and the possibility of annihilation, hope, love and friendship are the best weapons they can wield and also the armor shielding them from the encroaching darkness.

And while I am on the subject of love and friendship, I want to reserve a special mention for the animals fighting alongside people: wolvens, bears and talking crows whose devotion, loyalty and courage often sheds a ray of light in the darkest of circumstances: these creatures are crafted with the same passionate care reserved to people, and it takes little time to grow attached to them just as much as with their human counterparts.

This is such an immersive world that it’s a pleasure and a joy to lose oneself in it, and although I got to know it in this second phase of its history – the one represented by Of Blood and Bone, whose events follow those of the previous series The Faithful and the Fallen by more than a century – I had no difficulty in finding my bearings in it. However, after reading the first novel of this trilogy, A Time of Dread, I backtracked and so far managed to read two of the four books in the previous saga, and will try to complete the other two as soon as I can so that I can have a comprehensive picture of this amazing creation that literally stole my imagination from the very first chapters of that first book. The Banished Lands, despite the evil plaguing them, are a fascinating place to visit, and I intend to get to know them as well as they deserve.

My Rating:    

Reviews

COME TUMBLING DOWN (Wayward Children #5), by Seanan McGuire

 

This new installment in McGuire’s Wayward Children series held the double incentive of following up on a previous story, Down Among the Sticks and Bones – one of my favorites – and I was eager to move back to the world of the Moors, its delightful Hammer Horror mood and the characters of twins Jack and Jill.

The last time we saw them, Jack was carrying back to the Moors the body of her sister Jill, that she herself had killed (not that death is exactly final there…); now the novella opens on Eleanor West’s Home and the arrival, after a lightning storm, of Alexis (one of the Moors’ dwellers) with an unconscious Jill in her arms – only it’s not exactly Jill, since there has been an exchange of bodies between the two sisters. Jack-as-Jill asks her former schoolmates to follow her to her world and help her regain her body, one of the compelling reasons for it being that otherwise the carefully maintained balance in the Moors will be thoroughly upset.

That’s as much as I feel entitled to share, since both the group’s journey and the quest’s final outcome must be explored without spoilers, so I prefer to concentrate on the story’s main components – and to get it all off my chest right away, I’m sorry to report that Come Tumbling Down ended being something of a disappointment. Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoyed reading it and I still look forward to the next novellas in the series, but in this case – not unlike what happened with Beneath the Sugar Sky – the overall result fell a little short of the mark.

The writing was as good as ever, as was the world-building, but the characterization seemed to lack the in-depth look I’ve come to expect from Seanan McGuire: as was the case with the third novella of the series, this is a choral story and this choice seems to have diluted the strength in characterization that’s typical of this author when she concentrates on one or two individuals only.

The writing style is as mesmerizing as expected, moving from weirdness to gallows humor to drama with seamless transitions, and it’s the true glue that keeps the various elements together. The further look into the world of the Moors is both fascinating and scary: we shift from the dual perspective of the main players – the vampire lord and the mad scientist – to see other parts of the realm, and learn that other kinds of monsters dwell here. The peek into the domain of the Drowned Gods and its human-inhabited village is truly horrifying and it carries some delightfully fearsome Lovecraftian vibes (Innsmouth, anyone? 🙂 ), that together with the march of resurrected skeletons at the height of the story makes for the highest point of the tale.

The core concept of identity at the root of the series is still strong: the young people at Eleanor West’s academy share a feeling of alienation with our primary world and can find fulfillment and a sense of belonging only by crossing the magical doors leading them to the various alternate worlds they inhabit for a while. Here that quest for identity gains a new layer of meaning: the body exchange perpetrated by Jill and suffered by Jack might not look like such a tragedy from the outside, since they are identical twins, but through Jack’s own words we learn that what we do with out bodies, and how much our minds form connections with them, creates unique bonds that go way beyond simple muscle memory, and whose severing causes intense trauma.

Where all of the above created a strong foundation for the story, the characters felt a little unsubstantial this time: I could not connect emotionally with any of them, not even when some truly horrifying things happened, and what’s worse I’m still puzzling over the need for the whole group to travel to the Moors, since their contribution to Jack’s “mission” was quite minimal, if any, especially during the final showdown – something that happened far too quickly and with the kind of ease that belied Jack’s passionate request for help.

The other major point of contention comes from the concept that in the Moors death is not a permanent state: we go from Frankenstein-like electrically induced revivals, to the unexpected resurrection of people who seemed to tragically lose their lives, and what it all comes down to – at least for me – is the fundamental irrelevance of any dramatic turn of events. Granted, there is always a price to be paid for a return to life (or something approaching it), but in the end it removes personal stakes or any emotional impact attached to the loss of a given character.

While somewhat frustrated by the way this much-looked-for installment turned out, I still hope that the next one will be more in keeping with the series’ overall tone and mood.

 

My Rating: