Reviews

SIX OF CROWS (Six of Crows #1), by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows has been languishing on my TBR for quite a long time, and it probably would have remained there to gather more virtual dust if it had not been for the appearance of the Netflix show Shadow and Bone, inspired by another work from this author: once I learned that the most intriguing sections of the show – those dedicated to the street thugs band of the Crows – were drawn from this book, I finally found the drive to pick it up, and now I’m berating myself for having waited that long.

Watching the first season of the show also gave me the necessary background to find myself immediately at home in the story, set in a world vaguely reminiscent of tsarist Russia from the 19th Century, where people gifted with the ability to manipulate elements, the Grisha, are both revered and feared – and in some cases hunted and killed, or exploited for their gifts.  Kaz Brekker is the leader of a band of young gangsters and he’s offered the opportunity for the heist that will make their fortune: he must go deep into the territory of the Fjerdans, whose hatred of Grisha compels them to hunt, prosecute and kill the gifted without mercy, to retrieve a scientist who created a drug capable of enhancing Grisha powers in a way that’s destructive both for the world and for those using such a compound.

The crew Kaz gathers consists of Inej, spy and infiltrator of such incredible skill that she’s been nicknamed “the Wraith”, and who could give any ninja a run for their money; Jesper, the sharpshooter whose expertise with guns unfortunately does not extend to gambling; Nina, a Grisha Heartrender, who can play the human body like a musical instrument; Matthias, once a Fjerdan Grisha-hunter and now unsure of his loyalties; and Wylan, explosive expert and a runaway from his privileged home.  Kaz himself is a hard, ruthless taskmaster whose lack of people skills hides a very traumatic past. 

The six of them are all very young, and that’s why the novel might be labeled as YA – probably one of the reasons I was somewhat wary about reading it – but to my relief, and enjoyment, I discovered that their youth does not make them prone to the overused clichés of the genre, because the harsh lessons life imparted to each one of them forced these people to grow way beyond their years and to acquire the kind of stark maturity that turned them into intriguing and very relatable characters.  Even the brief forays into romantic entanglement did not prove distracting or, worse, annoying, because they were filtered through the characters’ personal experiences and therefore felt quite organic in their development and very true in their expression: even though I usually don’t enjoy romance in my stories, both threads proved to be quite appealing and even emotionally touching.

The story itself is a breath-taking rollercoaster, littered with surprising twists, dramatic setbacks and adrenaline-laden situations that made putting down the book a massive effort every time I was forced to do so, but it also offers many flashbacks on the past history of each character that helped to flesh them out and make me understand what makes them tick: the transitions between present and past are quite smooth and I never felt for one moment jarred out of the main story – on the contrary, the more I learned about each one of the Crows, the more I wanted to know, even though that meant abandoning for a moment the excitement of the heist.  And the six protagonists are indeed the soul of this novel: their personalities and the way they bond – not without difficulties – into a formidable team, turn this story into something quite special, something that goes well beyond the mere enjoyment of a daring adventure.

A gambler, a convict, a wayward son, a lost Grisha, a Suli girl who had become a killer, a boy from the Barrel who had become something worse.

I love this quote because it describes perfectly the essence of each of them, long before we get to know them more intimately in the course of the book.  Kaz at first comes across as heartless and manipulative, but as his past is slowly revealed, with its terrible baggage of tragedy and loss, it’s easy to change one’s mind about him and to see the victim behind the protective screen of the criminal mastermind.  Jesper was my favorite on screen, and I was delighted to see that the mini-series kept faith with the book version of the gambling gunman with a penchant for witticism.  Matthias is an intriguing character because we see him dwelling on the cusp between his past convictions (or should I say ‘indoctrination’?) and the discoveries he’s making in the course of the adventure: there is great potential for him and I’m curious to see how he will evolve in the next book.

Inej and Nina might outwardly look like polar opposites: where Inej is still battling with the demons of a dreadful past of slavery and exploitation, Nina looks sunnier and more carefree, given as she is to reckless, humorous flirting and bald-faced optimism. Still the two of them form a strong bond of friendship, a mutual acknowledgement of sisterhood which goes beyond different extractions and experiences and that is a pure joy to behold. Their interactions represent another huge difference from the usual YA protocols, where they would be expected to be rivals, to bicker and constantly undermine each other, and even to fight for the attentions of the same man.  Thankfully, Inej and Nina recognize each other’s strengths and come to appreciate and support each other, offering one of the many rays of light and playfulness that run through this dark story, counterbalancing the tension and the darkness of the adventure.

Story-wise, what at first looks like a classic heist punctuated by nasty surprises and setbacks, soon turns out to be something deeper, dealing with drug trafficking and shady politics, with the double standard of a moral high ground offset by ruthless exploitation, with thirst for power and the lengths people will go to grab it and keep it.  There are also areas touching on the subject of trauma – both physical and psychological – the way if affects people and the means they employ to overcome it, or merely hide it from the world. There are various levels of approach to this novel, and I appreciated them all individually and in the way they combine to create a gripping story that stayed with me long after I went past the end – and on this subject I have to add that the only positive side of my long wait before reading Six of Crows comes from the fact that it ends in a cliffhanger for which I will not have to suffer until the next books comes out, because it’s already available.

And I need to know what comes next…

My Rating:

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Fall TBR

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:

BOOKS ON MY FALL 2021 TO-READ LIST

We are all painfully aware of how even the best reading plans can be subverted by the appearance of a new, intriguing book or the desire to move forward with a favorite series, or… well, you know the drill 😀

So, even though there is a number of books I’ve ben wanting to read for some time, I know that any kind of promise I make to myself does not stand on very solid ground – but I can at least try.  Today’s list is equally split between Fantasy and Science Fiction, and starting with Fantasy, here are the books I plan (or rather hope…) to read this fall:

Only time will tell, of course….

Science fiction books have a slightly better chance of making it into my TBR, since SciFi November is approaching rapidly and I need to stock up on SF reads to be able to contribute adequately to one of my two favorite blogging events of the year.  Here are my choices:

A couple of these are already loaded on my e-reader, so I am almost certain they will make the list. Other than that, I can only cross my fingers and hope that no other shiny titles will come to distract me from this… ahem… righteous path 😀

What about you? What are your reading plans for this fall?

Reviews

THE BONE SHIP’S WAKE (The Tide Child #3), by R.J. Barker

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

The Bone Ship’s Wake is the amazing conclusion of a sea-faring adventure that’s both dark and hopeful, one that led me through an emotional rollercoaster in whose aftermath I’m still trying to deal with the mixed feelings of wonder and anguish it engendered: hopefully I will be able to convert them into an organic – and spoiler-free! – review…

When we previously left the crew of the Tide Child, they were suffering from many kinds of losses: crew-mates had perished, people had been grievously wounded, and worse still, ship-wife Meas had been taken prisoner, her dream of uniting the folks from the Hundred and Gaunt Isles into a better kind of life apparently doomed.  Hurt but not beaten, Meas’ deck-keeper Joron Twiner turns the rebel fleet into a pirate armada, with the double goal of weakening the Hundred Isles’ power and of gaining intelligence on Meas’ fate – and if possible of freeing her.  But despite the bloody successes and the dire fame he’s gained as the Black Pirate, Joron knows that his time is running out: the fleet under his command is losing irreplaceable ships, despite the victories; he’s being consumed by the unforgiving Keyshan’s Rot, that will ultimately lead him to madness and death; and his hopes of finding Meas alive diminish with every passing day.

As I noted in the previous reviews for this series, there is a perfect balance between plot and characterization here, both halves of the story sustaining and enhancing each other in a perfect blend that offers both impeccable pacing and outstanding character journeys that kept me reading on until all hours: this is the kind of book where you keep promising yourself “just one more chapter”, and before you realize it, it’s 2 a.m.  Or even later…

Story-wise there is a definite sensation of both time running out and of impending doom, fueled by the long, suspenseful sea chases that see the crew of Tide Child forced to play a game of wits and endurance with more powerful (but certainly not more cunning!) foes: here is where we can see more than ever the depth and breadth of the author’s imagination as he conceived of this sea-faring world, traveled by ships built out of dragon bones, whose depiction required the creation of a whole new set of naval terms that establish the alienness and the unending wonder of this background while reminding us at the same time of more familiarly sounding shipboard tales. Where the hardships of the situation are described in stark relief, there is still a heart-warming sense of common purpose in the Tide Child’s crew, one that looks even more extraordinary when recalling that they, like all black ships’ complements, are condemned criminals, their service aboard such vessels nothing more than a delayed death sentence: still, through Meas’ past example and Joron’s constantly growing leadership skills, these convicts have turned into a tight crew, one that’s proud of its own accomplishments and is able to work as a single, well-coordinated entity toward their goal.

In this final volume, the secondary characters we have already come to know well come more directly into the light, shining with added depth and pathos as their arcs move along an inexorably established path: people like Cwell, Mevans, Farys, Solemn Muffaz – just to name a few – become more rounded and also more dear to us as the story progresses and we are painfully aware that while this author is hardly tender toward his creations, we are unable to force ourselves not to care for them and their destiny.

But it’s the main characters who keep stealing our hearts and minds, and The Bone Ship’s Wake does its very best to break our hearts as it shows their continuing journey. Meas figures prominently in the very first chapter, one that’s quite hard to read and which sees her stripped of all the strength and assurance that made her such a formidable ship-wife and such an inspirational leader: proud, “lucky” Meas is apparently robbed of all the attributes that made her such a famous and respected captain, only to learn, once she sees herself as vulnerable and diminished, that her legend is still capable of arousing deep loyalty and faith in her crew, even in those who have not met her yet.  There is a scene, toward the end, involving a very special flag, that symbolized this earnest devotion and which I found deeply touching.

As for Joron, he continues to grow into a very capable commander, even though he still thinks of himself as a mere caretaker for the rule of Tide Child: for Joron, the one and only worthy ship-wife remains Meas, even as he takes the reins of the rebel fleet and scours the seas in search of information – or vengeance.  This is a man who is resigned to his mortality and that of his companions, but still wants every sacrifice to count for something: when I think back to the person he was at the start of the series, of the way the crew ignored him – or worse – I realize he’s done an incredible work on himself, much as he wants to deny it, and this reflects on the people around him, who are ready to sacrifice everything in the name of the esprit de corps that he and Meas have nurtured as a replacement for the careless waste of lives that the cruel laws of the Hundred Isles implemented for so long.

And last but not least – not by a long way – the Gullaime: from the first book I felt an immediate kinship with this birdlike creature capable of summoning the winds, whose fate appears inextricably linked with Joron’s. Their subdued friendship, the way they took to one another beyond the need for words, has so far been one of the brightest lights in this grim background, but here their bond takes on such a poignant depth that I found myself on the verge of tears more than once – and I don’t cry easily… This final book brings about a number of revelations about the Gullaime and the role of the Tide Child’s windtalker in the grand scheme of things, but for me the most touching moment is the one where the Gullaime uses the word friend in addressing Joron: more than the fulfillment of the prophecy that we’ve learned unites the man and the bird, and which carries its own heavy emotional baggage, it’s that moment that will always remain in my mind every time I will think about the Gullaime, one of the best and most “real” fantasy creatures I ever encountered in my bookish travels.

Where the Wounded Kingdom series marked for me the discovery of a new, powerful voice in the fantasy genre, the Tide Child saga confirms its author as an outstanding writer, one capable of beguiling you with his stories as he uses them to break your heart. But that’s all right, nonetheless…

My Rating:

Reviews

PLANETSIDE (Planetside#1), by Michael Mammay

More than once I’ve mentioned how Military SF can be problematic for me, since the focus on battles, strategy and technology in many novels tends to go the the detriment of characterization and story: this was not the case with Planetside, although after a promising start this book turned out to be a different kind of letdown.

Colonel Carl Butler, once a well-known war hero, is living in semi-retirement filling a teaching position, when his old friend General Serata calls him to investigate an issue which might have huge political repercussions: the son of a High Councilor, wounded in battle on a disputed planet, has disappeared after being evacuated on the medical ship, and Butler is dispatched to learn what happened.  Cappa is a planet where spacefaring humans found a local intelligent population: needing to mine the planet’s resources, humans have built a sort of uneasy truce with the Cappans, but there are insurrectionary fringes that still fight the occupying forces.  On his arrival at the space station orbiting Cappa, Butler finds himself mired in a web of conflicting information, blind alleys and red herrings, and the first inklings of a deeper trouble that might compromise the mining operations and the Earthers’ occupying force, so that his efforts at finding the truth – not to mention the whereabouts of the lost Lieutenant Mallot – are constantly met with lack of cooperation and a few attempts on his life.

The start of the novel is an intriguing one because it looks more like a mystery than a SF-Mil story and Butler’s voice is quite captivating: he comes across as brazen and uncaring of the toes he steps on in the course of his investigation – as a matter of fact he seems to enjoy ruffling everyone’s feathers, aware as he is that in his position he has nothing to lose.  Moreover, he’s a heavy drinker, and that brings him closer to the typical figure of the investigator in noir detective stories, which confers an appealing, old-fashioned patina to the otherwise futuristic narrative.  I liked how Butler’s personality comes to the fore through dialogues and his interactions with other characters, and his dry, not always appreciated, brand of humor tempers the military bearing turning him into a quite intriguing figure. The investigation itself is fascinating because we see Butler and his team-mates gathering different kinds of information, which allows the reader to get a clear picture of the background in which the story is set, without needing to fall into the trap of long, boring infodumps.

The first alarming cracks in the story appear with the description of humans’ cavalier attitude when landing on a new world: we learn that they take steps to “preserve” autochthonous species by relocating them, but that the needs of humans are always the deciding factor – which to me has quite an ominous sound. Worse still, Butler conveys the information that 

“If a planet unsuitable for humans had indigenous life that affected mining, we could simply destroy it from space with XB25s. Planet busters. As long as it didn’t hurt the commercial value, nobody cared.”

Apart from the narrative foreshadowing that this sentence implies, what truly shocked me here is the nonchalant acceptance of what amounts to genocide, not to mention the destruction of an existing ecosystem, that is carried out with such careless ease. Maybe I have watched too much Star Trek and become used to its utopian mindset, but there must be an intermediate way between the opposing philosophies of the Prime Directive on one side and the “humans first” attitude of this future vision.  

Which leads me to the big issue that brought down my rating for this book: at some point Butler is made aware of the possibility that the Cappans might have come into possession of higher technology that could help them in fighting the humans’ occupation – which, let me add, would have been their right – and that the planet’s dwellers have been used in genetic experiments of hybridization, a circumstance that would certainly not help in mutual understanding.  So, to avoid further trouble, the colonel resorts to a devastating solution that will remove the “Cappan menace” while maintaining the humans’ ability to exploit the planet’s resources. And he does so with what looks like such untroubled determination, such a blatant absence of moral quandaries, that any sympathy I might have harbored for his character at the beginning vanished immediately. Butler’s actions are not so dissimilar from other, real-life choices of actual military commanders in the recent past, granted, but what I find deeply disturbing is the matter-of-factness of the decision, and the total absence of inner turmoil that such a path should have engendered.  Not to mention the fact that he’s able to board a ship headed for home without anyone batting so much as an eyelash.

The abrupt ending of the book did not help me in metabolizing my feelings of horror and anger, and while I’m aware that there are two more books in this series and that the next one might portray Butler facing judgement for his actions or seeing the repercussions for such wanton destruction, I am so appalled right now that I can’t contemplate moving forward with the story.

My Rating:

Reviews

ANGEL’S FLIGHT (Harry Bosch #6), by Michael Connelly

With this sixth novel in the Harry Bosch series I have come to envision Michael Connelly as my number one go-to author when I am in the mood for some crime/thriller fiction, and I’m now quite ready to explore his writings beyond this more famous series, because I’m certain that I will find myself equally enthralled by the brilliant combination of narrative skills and engaging storytelling that is the author’s trademark. And there is a great deal of Connelly works to explore, indeed…

Angels Flight is the best Bosch novel I’ve read so far, showing a confident mastery of pace and characterization whose growth I have witnessed throughout the previous books I read, and also incorporating several social and moral themes that feel completely actual even now, more than twenty years after the book’s first publication. The title refers to what I’ve learned is a famous Los Angeles landmark, a cable car system connecting a lower area of the city with one of its hills: when Bosch is called on the scene to investigate a double murder, he discovers that one of the victims is Howard Elias, an African-American attorney well-known for his numerous lawsuits against police brutality. Elias was due to start shortly on the proceedings against the detectives who caused grievous injuries to the suspect in a kidnapping and homicide: the man was later declared not guilty once the real perpetrator was apprehended, and is now suing the city for the barbarous way the interrogation was carried out.

The investigation is therefore fraught with many social and political pitfalls, not least the growing suspicion that Elias might have been killed by a police officer, which is causing mounting unrest and the concern that riots might explode once more in a city that has not forgotten the Rodney King case from a few years before. Bosch and his team – the old-time partner Jerry Edgar and the newest acquisition Kizmin Rider – must be very careful in the way they move, both because the media eyes are on them and also because they have to navigate the dangerous waters of public relations and departmental policy, which manage to place some irksome fetters on Bosch’s methods in his unrelenting search for truth.  Moreover, Bosch is dealing with personal problems, since his year-old marriage seems to be already over and he’s facing the very real possibility of finding himself alone again after gaining a measure of happiness and stability with Eleanor: the Harry Bosch we see here is at his emotional weakest, once again having to experience the heavy sense of loss that has been a constant theme in his life – this unexpected vulnerability has the effect of making him appear more human, which adds some quite welcome softness to a character that so far has been depicted as harshly inexorable in his quest for justice.

Having met these stories first through their televised version, I am once again delighted in discovering that the two mediums are quite different in the way the facts are told, showing marked differences both in the final outcome and in other details, which results in my always being surprised at how events turn out in the books: my reading experience is never compromised – for want of a better word – by the knowledge gained through the TV show, and I’ve come to envision the two versions of this series as complementary and enhancing each other. A great combination indeed.

Back to Angels Flight, there is a pervading sense of uneasiness running throughout the book, partly due to the tense situation created by Elias’ murder, but also coming from the constantly shifting suspicion that jumps from one subject to another as the investigation progresses in fits and starts, encountering a good number of false leads and willful misdirections.  Bosch and his team have to deal not only with the usual difficulties inherent in a murder investigation, but also with politics and with the institutional optics which require a solution that will keep the brewing troubles under control, rather than finding the real perpetrator of the crime, and that’s something that goes against Bosch’s personal inclinations. In the end it all boils down to a contest between opposing drives, the resolution bringing no catharsis at all because it becomes quite clear that there are no winners and losers in such a situation – everyone loses here, the concept of justice being the greatest victim. This conflict is embodied by the constant clash between Bosch and Chief Irving, the political face of the police department: unlike his screen version, Irving is far less tolerant of Bosch’s insubordination and unconventional tactics, being even more concerned with public perception here than he looks in the tv show. I found the willpower matches between the two of them quite fascinating, because the author is able to convey both characters’ emotions through the heated exchanges where the unsaid carries the same weight, if not more, of what is openly expressed: it’s fascinating to see how they represent the two faces of the same coin, and how they ultimately balance each other out in pursuing what they believe to be the best for their city.

On top of the engrossing events at its core, Angels Flight portrays some painful social conflicts that are still unresolved now, twenty years after the novel was written, and therefore it feels just as actual as the fictional facts it describes: where it’s somewhat depressing to acknowledge that after more than two decades things have not changed much – if at all – on the other hand this story is imbued with a sense of reality that strengthens its narrative impact and turns it into a far more powerful novel than might have been originally intended.

My Rating:

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Smile!

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:

Books Guaranteed to Put a Smile On Your Face

Let’s face it: a good portion of our reading material deals with pretty dark themes like post-apocalyptic fiction, grimdark fantasy, battles between darkness and light and so on. And let’s not go over real-life issues, like the ones we have been dealing with in the past year and a half…

So, it’s always nice and comforting to have some books that help us restore some much-needed balance and are able to elicit a smile. While I was compiling this list, I discovered that most of the titles that are bound to make me smile come from series, and of course the first one that comes to mind is

Lois McMaster Bujold’s VORKOSIGAN SAGA, a space opera featuring the journey of a young man afflicted by serious disabilities in a society that values physical prowess above all. Miles Vorkosigan learned that intelligence and wits can work just as well – if not better – than muscles, and as I followed his story I came to appreciate and enjoy the touches of humor that the author seamlessly blended into the story. One of my all-time favorite, indeed.

And what about Gail Carriger’s PARASOL PROTECTORATE? This is a very amusing series set in an alternate 19th century England, where supernatural creatures like vampires and werewolves live shoulder to shoulder with “normal” humans: Alexia Tarabotti is a very independent spinster whose ability, if you want to call it that, is to obliterate supernatural faculties by mere contact. From here, mayhem and amusement ensue in equal parts…

Patrick Weekes’ ROGUES OF THE REPUBLIC is another peculiar fantasy saga focusing mainly on heists and on a ragtag group of weird individuals like a bumbling magician, a unicorn and a talking hammer, just to name a few. I still need to read the last book in the series, and I’ve often wondered if my procrastinating is caused by the desire of not letting go of these unfailingly amusing characters.

GENERATION V by M.L. Brennan represents a very different take on the theme of the vampire, because it showcases Fortitude Scott, the youngest scion of a powerful vampire family who refuses to bend to his blood-sucking heritage and tries to lead as normal a life as possible. Which proves quite difficult, what with family pressures and his sidekick, kitsune Suzume Hollis, a very, very, very mischievous shape shifter.

When Kings of the Wyld, the first book in Nicholas Eames series THE BAND, was published it marked a definite change of pace and tone in the fantasy genre, and one I still remember very fondly: think of a group of former adventures, now well past their prime, connecting again for a last mission and traveling through a land where the weirdest creatures lurk around every corner. I loved them all and they will always have a special place in my bookish heart.

When in need of a comfort read, Stephanie Burgis’ HARWOOD SPELLBOOK series comes immediately to mind: an alternate, gender-swapped Regency England where women hold political power and the men wield the magic infusing most aspects of life. And yet there are exceptions, like Cassandra Harwood, whose magic abilities can even surpass those of a man. What a scandal!!! 😀

I hardly have to say anything about Martha Wells’ MURDERBOT DIARIES because I know that the majority of you has read and appreciated this series of novellas about the cyborg SecUnit who gained independence from its conditioning thanks to its love of serialized media. MurderBot’s antics are a constant source of joyful amusement and I hope that we will be able to read about its adventures for a long, long time to come.

DR. GRETA HELSING, by Vivian Shaw: this was one of the discoveries I own to my fellow book bloggers, the adventures of a very peculiar physician whose specialty is the treatment of supernatural creatures – from vampires to mummies, from ghouls to ghosts, Dr. Van Helsing’s waiting room is a constant source of wonder and a parade of the weirdest beings one can imagine, and Vivian Shaw is able to give them all the perfect touch of humanity to turn them into household fixtures. Well, sort of…

FIREFLY: BIG DAMN HERO, by James Lovegrove

FIREFLY is one of my favorite TV series, one that was canceled before it had the time to explore its full potential. Thankfully, in recent times a series of tie-in books, mostly written by James Lovegrove, has revived the story and brought back the characters that fans had come to love and appreciate during the too-short run of the show. I only read two books so far, but they managed to bring back the spirit of the TV series and the “voices” of the characters, and I’m glad they help us keep Serenity flying in our minds.

And last but not least, the only stand-alone book in this list: John Scalzi’s REDSHIRTS, a loving parody of Star Trek and its trope about security people – the ones wearing the red shirt in the original series – trying to avoid away missions because they know these usually mean an untimely demise for them. That is, until they discover what is an unusual and unexpected twist in the narrative… One of Scalzi’s best stories, and one I always remember fondly.

And which books make you smile? 🙂

Reviews

DEAD TO HER, by Sarah Pinborough

Once again, I find myself of two minds about a Sarah Pinborough novel: like the previous one I read, Behind Her Eyes, this book focuses on quite unlikable characters – and there is a lot of them here – while offering an intriguing story that is part mystery, part social study and part romance, with a dash of voodoo superstition thrown in for good measure. It’s this apparent lack of focus on a specific theme that mostly baffled me, making me wonder more than once whether the author was unsure about the kind of story she wanted to tell: in the end, of course, every apparently scattered piece of the puzzle falls into place and delivers an intriguing ending, but for me the journey was a difficult one, a fact that somehow soured my enjoyment of the overall story.

Marcie Maddox is a younger second wife: her husband Jason took her away from a life of hardship and launched her into the high society of Savannah, where Marcie did everything in her power to be accepted by the closed circle of the town’s elite. When Jason’s older partner, widower William Radford, comes back from a European vacation with a new wife who soon becomes the center of attention, Marcie’s world feels endangered: Keisha is young and attractive, and Marcie soon notices that Jason seems inclined to flirt with her, which raises all sorts of alarms for Marcie, who knows better than anyone else how easy it is to steal another woman’s husband…

This is just the premise of a story that becomes more and more complex as we get to know the main characters better, and moves slowly but surely toward the uncovering of the web of lies, deceit and secrets underlying what looks – on the surface – like a perfect, carefree world. As I said at the beginning there is not a single one of the main characters deserving of sympathy: Marcie hides a shady past which hangs over her like a cloud, and for this reason she tries very hard to fit in into Savannah’s society, even though she’s younger than the other wives in her circle and secretly despises them for their “old matron” attitude and the skin-deep goodness exercised in charity work and soup kitchens for the poor. Keisha comes from an underprivileged family and wants to escape both their poverty and their psychological hold on her: her marriage to William is the ticket for the new life she wants, but she can hardly wait for her aging husband’s demise to enjoy newfound freedom and prosperity to the fullest.

The men fare little better, what with Jason not being a model of honesty and integrity – and as the story moves forward we discover more unsavory truths about him – and William being prone to sudden mood swings that soon reveal an overbearing attitude and a cruel streak targeting Keisha just as much as it did with his previous wife, whose presence seems to hang still in the house, very much Rebecca-like.  The secondary characters, mainly the wives, spend most of their time by shopping, being pampered in beauty parlors and indulging in gossip, portraying a kind of lifestyle that feels so empty and useless that it’s easy to wonder whether it’s a worthy exchange for all the material comforts they enjoy.

Where the characters did little – if anything – toward my enjoyment of the story, I very much appreciated Pinborough’s description of the sultry Savannah background, plagued by an oppressive heat that seems to weigh down the overall feeling of uselessness and despondency in which the characters look mired. And of course the slow unfolding of the buried secrets and the sequence of quite unexpected twists and turns peppering the final part of the novel helped me better appreciate a story with which I struggled a little, particularly in its middle, although – when all is said and done – I have to admit I expected something more, or something different. Or both.

Still, I have not given up with Sarah Pinborough’s works, because her narrative style is one I find quite compelling, so my hope is that this was just a “hiccup” down the road and that the next book will prove nearer to my tastes.

My Rating:

Reviews

STAR TREK: A TIME TO HEAL, by David Mack

As the second book in this duology, A Time to Heal focuses on the aftermath of of the events portrayed in A Time to Kill: where book one leaned more toward action, this second volume looks more closely to the consequences of those acts, and the impact they have on the characters. And it’s often an harrowing tale…

Having failed in his bid for supremacy through aggression, former Prime Minister Kinchawn – now ousted by his second in command and by the new Tezwan government – has gone into hiding while his loyalists carry out a war of attrition through terrorist acts that target both their own compatriots and the Federation relief personnel who came to help the distressed population of the planet.  The crew of the Enterprise is also frantically searching for Cmdr. Riker, who was taken prisoner by Kinchawn’s loyalists during the commando strike against the weapon emplacements, a search that is made more difficult by the severe losses incurred from the loyalists’ strikes and by the rapidly deteriorating political situation, which is not helped by president Zife’s attempts at hiding the Federation’s hand in creating the present conditions.

By now I have become used to David Mack’s grimmer version of the Trek universe, and I appreciated his “no holds barred” choice of showing the harsher realities of war – which in this specific case is a war of attrition: Star Trek rarely dwelled on the stark details of war, even on Deep Space 9 where the conflict with the Dominion held such a large portion of the story. With the exception of a single episode, war – and here I mean ground combat, the close and personal kind – has more often than not been something that happened off screen, offering something of a sanitized version of the real thing.  A Time to Heal takes us at the center of the events developing on ravaged Tezwa and we are not spared any detail of the bloody guerrilla tactics of Kinchawn’s loyalists who strike with equal ferociousness their compatriots and the Federation personnel, whose ranks are severely depleted – both in security forces and in medical staff.

These circumstances offer great opportunities for character development, because the reactions to the constant attrition of these attacks speak loudly about the way individuals are changed by events outside of their control: from the pain of the security officers forced to send their people into potentially lethal situations, to the heartbreak of medical personnel having to deal with the wounded, the maimed, the dying on a daily basis with no end in sight, to the grim resolve of those who until that moment had tried to adhere to higher ideals and find themselves forced to respond to cruelty with the same degree of ruthlessness – no one comes out of this page in Trek history unscathed, or unchanged.

One of the characters that is more dramatically altered is the otherwise serene Counselor Troi, as her anguish for Riker’s fate compels her to resort to psychological torture of a captured officer from Kinshawn’s army, in the attempt to learn where the Enterprise’s XO has been taken: Troi goes down a very dark road here, and only at the very last moment she is forced to acknowledge that despair and a desire for retribution have taken her almost beyond the brink of decency.  It’s hardly necessary for her to recall the famous quote from Nietzsche to understand that her fight against her opponent’s darkness almost took her inside that darkness where monsters lurk and stare you in the eye.

Even Captain Picard is affected deeply by the rapidly degenerating situation, and it looks as if he’s more prone to reacting, rather than acting proactively as used to be his modus operandi: in later books by this author he appears less sure of himself, burdened by guilt and the awareness of having been forced to renounce some of his principles, so I believe that the downward spiral might have started here, as he finds himself confronted with a kind of brutality the Federation is not used to. We rarely – if ever – saw Picard out of his element as he’s shown here, but his decision to endorse Zife’s removal from office ends up being the less damaging path in a range of impossible choices. That this decision weighs heavily on his conscience, and will come later to haunt him and endanger his career, only manages to make him more human and approachable that he ever was before.

And to add more weight to the awareness that this is the start of a downward slide for the Federation and its professed ideals, there are the constant glimpses of something ominous moving behind the scenes: with the hindsight offered by the later books I read before this, it’s easy to perceive the long hand of Section 31 and its henchmen, and to find those hints even more disturbing as the realization of how pervasive the darkness already is. For this reason I’m still wondering, as I write this, at the choice of title for this book, because there is very little healing in here, if any, even though this did nothing to detract from my appreciation of a compelling story and my respect for this author’s skills in dealing with a well-know franchise and taking its tie-in books to a higher level.

My Rating:

Reviews

STAR TREK: A TIME TO KILL, by David Mack

Not long ago I rekindled my interest in the Star Trek tie-in novels thanks to the narrative thread concerning the shady Section 31 and its heavy involvement in Federation policies: through David Mack’s Control and Collateral Damage I learned of a dark event in the continuing story, one concerning a corrupt Federation president and the unavoidable conspiracy to remove him from office.  At the time, most of the people involved in the situation, including Captain Picard, did not know that Section 31 had decided to later kill president Zife, which in the end caused the Enterprise’s captain to be prosecuted for his role in the whole sorry mess.  

A Time to Kill, and its companion novel A Time to Heal, portray the circumstances that led to the massive interstellar crisis which later decreed Zife’s removal from office: these books represent a prequel to the ones I mentioned before, and they helped me put in better focus the overall story – they are also part of a longer series filling the blanks between the end of the Dominion War and the events of the movie Nemesis, which marks several changes in the composition of the Enterprise’s complement.

In the darkest hours of the Dominion War president Zife and his closest advisors (probably prompted by Section 31) decided to arm the planet Tezwa, lying close to the Klingon border, with a new kind of devastating weapon as a last resort against the invasion, although it was a choice in direct violation of the treaties between the Federation and the Empire.  Now that the Dominion threat is no more, Kinchawn – Tezwa’s new Prime Minister and a power-hungry individual – threatens to encroach on Klingon territory, knowing that those same weapons would give him a formidable advantage.  Picard and the Enterprise are sent to defuse this potentially explosive situation, but lack of knowledge of the powerful armament’s existence, or of the Federation’s higher echelons’ involvement, places him and his crew in a disastrous situation that looks more like a no-win scenario with every passing hour…

As I found out with the two previous Star Trek tie-in books written by David Mack, this is not the kind of story we saw in the televised episodes, where no matter how dire the situation, or how troublesome the political implications, at the end of the episode’s 45 minutes a solution is found and everything is tied up nicely: A Time to Kill is a thrilling mix of action sequences and behind-the-scenes machinations that combine to depict what is probably the worst diplomatic crisis ever faced by the Federation and make this novel a compelling page turner. The story also focuses on a good number of new faces among the Enterprise’s complement, which helps in broadening the narrative scope and gifting the novel with a definite choral feel by presenting these people with a depth of background, motivations and dilemmas that turn them into something more than cardboard characters to be introduced in one scene and killed off in the next.

One major thread in the story concerns the commando-style mission carried out by the crew to destroy the six weapons emplacements scattered across the planet before the guns can be used against the advancing Klingon fleet: the POV shifts between the various teams, and the problems they encounter in the mission, provide all the adrenaline one could ask for – and more – and offer a dramatic counterpoint to the equally difficult diplomatic situation faced by Captain Picard, who’s compelled to ask his former officer Worf, now the Federation ambassador to the Klingon empire, to perform a covert and dangerous operation on his own homeworld.  

Nonetheless, even though these sections offer a compelling read, I found that what happens on Earth in the rarefied heights of politics represents the true backbone of the story, mostly because I discovered that the infamous president Zife looks little more than a front for his Machiavellian chief adviser – a man gifted with great strategic skills but cursed with a chilling lack of empathy –  and that the Section 31 masterminds are the real movers and shakers of the whole scenario. What I find fascinating here is the strong House of Cards vibes I derived from this part of the story, where cut-throat politics and scheming feel very unlike what we have been shown of the Federation so far, while making me wonder how much of its flawless public image was really just a façade.  It all fits with what I’ve learned so far about Section 31’s involvement in the management of Federation politics, and it also shows the author’s skill in developing this concept of the darkness at the core of the utopia, and expanding it in the later books.

Character-wise, A Time to Kill offers some intriguing angles on the ones we know best, showing how recent events plagued them with some insecurities which weigh heavily on the choices they have to make: in a sense this makes them more sympathetic and helps to show they are normal people trying to deal with extraordinary issues, rather than larger-than-life heroes. Oddly enough, I find I like these characters more when they are less heroic and invincible, because they end up feeling more real.

As the first part of a duology, this book ends with something of a cliffhanger and I count myself fortunate to have had the possibility of reading the sequel back to back, because the wait would otherwise have been hard to bear…

My Rating:

Reviews

She drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back”, she said

(and hopefully the Professor will not be annoyed at me for appropriating his famous closing sentence…)

Hello, dear fellow bloggers and book lovers! Clearly, what was meant to be a two to three weeks’ vacation turned out to be a far longer stay, not that I regret a single day of it, since this time was spent with dear friends who are as close as family, and in a place that’s both beautiful and, well, magical, as you will be able to se from these pictures.

And that “magic” was indeed more than compensation for the lack of reliable means of keeping in touch, which forced me to forgo the blog hopping that’s become such an important part of my daily activities.

Many times in the past I’ve read posts about taking a break from blogging as a way of renewing one’s drive to go on, and while I did not feel such a need to distance myself from what I consider a labor of love, I must admit that staying away for some time did renew my energies and my commitment to reading and reviewing books.

Which also means that I have a HUGE backlog of your posts and reviews to explore, something I hope to do in the coming weeks. For now, I’m very glad to be back and to be again part of one of the best communities I’ve encountered in my… travels.

See you around! 🙂