Reviews

EMPIRE OF SILENCE (Sun Eater #1), by Christopher Ruocchio – #SciFiMonth

When I first saw this novel mentioned by one of my fellow bloggers I was intrigued by the story but did not follow immediately on the desire to read it, so that when I recently went back to look for it I discovered that the series now amounts to four published novels, with a fifth slated to come out by the end of the year (not to mention a few novellas filling out some narrative corners).  It might be enough to cool the enthusiasm of anyone with an already over-bloated TBR, yet I choose to pursue my initial interest in the story, and now I’m certainly glad I did.

The series takes place some 20.000 years in the far future, when humanity has moved out into the stars creating the Sollan Empire, ruled according to a strict class system: Hadrian Marlowe is the protagonist of the saga and at the very start of the novel, written as Hadrian’s memoir, we learn that to remove the menace of the alien Cielcin, with whom humans had been at war for centuries, he destroyed a sun, and in so doing he obliterated both the Cielcin and billions of humans as well.    In his youth, as the eldest son of the Marlowe family (lesser nobility from the planet Delos whose uranium mining facilities empowered them with notable financial clout) Hadrian had some difficulties in accepting his role, being gifted with scholarly inclinations and an impulsive character, neither of which sat well with his cold and ruthless father. When an incident threatened his public image, Hadrian was to be replaced as heir by his younger brother Crispin, and sent to the Chantry, the Empire’s religious power worshipping the memory of lost Earth and professing a strict dogma enforced through methods resembling those of the Spanish Inquisition.  Trying to evade a fate he found abhorrent, Hadrian ended up on the planet of Emesh, alone, penniless and unable to reveal his identity for fear of being forcibly sent to the Chantry: to survive he entered the brutal gladiatorial games of the Colosso, where a chance encounter with a Cielcin prisoner launched him on the path that would turn him into the man who destroyed a sun…

This is a very compressed synopsis for a novel depicting the early years of a quite eventful life, of which Empire of Silence is only the first part: there is a great deal to parse in this first book of the saga, which proved to be a compelling read despite a few setbacks that can be easily attributed to the novel being a debut work – and as such it’s still a very well crafted one, its problems easily forgiven and forgotten in the engaging tale of Hadrian Marlowe’s journey from riches to rags to… whatever will come along the way. If at times the narrative loses its momentum, stalled by what might feel like an excessive focus on details or inner musings, it’s understandable that the author wanted to give his readers a full immersion in the world he created and let himself be swayed by maybe too much enthusiasm. Still, those moments were not enough to drive me away, because I have to admit that with such a powerful “hook” as the knowledge of Hadrian’s future, the exploration of his past becomes compelling and compulsory.  

The world building is fascinating: the empire is ruled by a feudal system that borrows many elements from the Roman Empire, even employing many of its terms and some of its customs like the gladiatorial games in the Colosso, which amuse the nobility and enthrall the populace according to the age-old rule of panem et circenses. The few alien races encountered during humanity’s expansion have been enslaved and are used either as workforce or fodder for the games in the Colosso, any consideration for their rights smothered by the Chantry’s ruthless doctrine and the abject fear they inspire.   The ruling classes – or palatines – enjoy genetic enhancements which confer them improved physiques and a longer life-span, the physical differences setting them apart from the rest of the populace just as much as their social station does.  It’s an intriguing society we see depicted in this series, one where such technological advancement as genetic engineering go hand in hand with a deep loathing for machines and computers, which is enforced by the Chantry under the stigma of heresy.

The alien Cielcin are presented as equally intriguing, their motives and actions filtered through the wartime propaganda so that readers are left to wonder if they are truly the proverbial monsters or if there is more to their quest than the simple need for expansion: the protracted meetings between Hadrian and a captured Cielcin officer – one of the most harrowing segments of the story, due to the descriptions of callous torture inflicted by Chantry interrogators – seem to lead toward a different interpretation, which of course begs the question about Hadrian’s act of genocide disclosed at the very start of the novel.

As Hadrian describes the background in which his life takes place, he also proceeds in revealing himself with little or no attempt at sugarcoating: he freely shares his triumphs and his mistakes, the impulsive choices which often tend to land him in a situation that’s worse than the one he was trying to escape, his capacity for compassion and the mad urges that put him in danger more than once. There were times when I felt like slapping some sense into him, often forgetting that – at this point in the story – he’s still relatively young and therefore prone to mistakes, not to mention a victim of his upbringing and the cold environment in which he grew up, whose influence we learn by contrast once Hadrian establishes a rapport with his fellow arena fighters:

They cared because they chose to, and they did so with a gruff but quiet indelicacy that propped me up in my despair and whispered that this was what it was to have a family.

Being aware from the beginning of Hadrian’s fate might rob the reading journey of some surprises – we know that any danger he faces will not be a mortal one, for example – but on the other hand we are keenly curious to learn how such an epilogue will come to be, and that is the main attraction of this saga. The first book ends with the start of what promises to be an adventurous voyage of discovery, and while not being a dreaded cliffhanger, it left me anxious to know what kind of challenges the protagonist will face in the next installment. And luckily for me, I will not have to wait long to discover it 🙂

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

THE SINS OF OUR FATHERS (The Expanse 9.5), by James S.A. Corey – #SciFiMonth

A short story from the universe of The Expanse is hardly enough to compensate for my sadness at the end of the best SF series I read so far, but it’s still a very welcome surprise, even more so when it ties off one of the threads left hanging by the main storylines in the saga.

Jannah is one of the newly colonized worlds reached by humanity through the ring gates system, whose collapse has now isolated those worlds from the rest of the galaxy. The colonists on Jannah have so far been dealing – like everyone else in their same situation – with the uncertainty of cut communications, dwindling supplies and lack of replacement parts, when a new problem surfaces: some previously unknown creatures have been attacking the settlement, and their defenses might not hold much longer.  The group of colonists is of two minds about how to cope: stay and keep defending themselves, or relocate the village in a different area, and tempers rise in the confrontation, opening the way for the strong and ruthless to impose their will.

One of the stranded colonists is an old acquaintance: Filip, the son of Naomi Nagata of the murderous leader of the Free Navy Marco Inaros. He’s a few decades older than the last time we saw him, and he’s been living a nomadic life since then, haunted by the guilt for his actions when he was his father’s lieutenant, and trying to keep as low a profile as possible.

His past was like a wound that wouldn’t heal, he’d spent his life dodging justice that might not even have been looking for him except in his head. That had been enough to break him.

Once Filip recognizes in fellow castaway Jandro the signs of the man’s narcissistic thirst for power that were at the roots of his father’s character, he understands that history might repeat itself and the ghosts of the past come knocking at his door once again…

Despite the dreary, almost hopeless atmosphere of this short story, I enjoyed very much the character study at its core: humanity manages again to show its failings and its inability to learn from the mistakes of the past (the sins of the fathers mentioned in the title). We see the bully Jandro understand that the lack of laws and organizations able to implement them have left a door open for a show of force and the possibility of seizing power; we also see how people deprived of self-esteem, or agency, tend to attach themselves to such individuals as Jandro, giving in to their basest instincts to gain the leader’s approval.  It’s a scenery with which Filip is quite familiar, one which has the effect of reopening the emotional scars he’s still carrying after so long.

When we last saw him, Filip was a teenager, confused, lost, oppressed by guilt –  and more important eager to distance himself from the looming figure of his deadly charismatic father: the choice to take on his mother’s surname – Nagata – his way of expressing a willingness to cut the ties with that past. And yet, at the start of the story, Filip is still running from that past, and from himself: until now, when things became unbearable, or too comfortable, he always moved on and left without turning back, in a form of self-inflicted punishment: 

[…] if anything ever went right for him, if he ever seemed in danger of gaining something he might be able to keep, he ran.

Now, with the collapse of the gates system, that possibility is gone forever, and that’s probably the reason he  finally takes a stand – a way to avoid history repeating itself and of atoning for his own sins. It might not be a true redemption (not considering the way things develop) but it’s the beginning – the hope – of one. And it’s enough.

The Sins of Our Fathers might very well be our last chance to visit the Expanse universe, but it’s a quietly moving, very satisfactory one.  Even though I keep hoping that the authors might still have something in store for us in the future…

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

CONSIDER PHLEBAS (Culture #1), by Iain Banks – #SciFiMonth

When, some time ago, I decided to acquaint myself with Iain Banks’ famous Culture saga I went, of course, with the publication order and started with Consider Phlebas, but my experience with the book was not a positive one, since the story seemed to go all over the place – both narratively and in the figurative sense.  My reading journey for the Culture might have ended then and there if not for a number of comments I read online about Consider Phlebas not being the best starting point for the non-initiated in Banks’ writings, and so I moved – with greater success – to Player of Games and Use of Weapons, and then to a few other titles in the series. 

So, armed with a few more Culture books under my proverbial belt (although not as many as I would like…), I decided to go back to Phlebas and see how it fared this time: it worked indeed a little better, granted, but still it felt so different from what I’m used to from this author that I found myself unable to change my initial opinion in a very significant way.

The story develops on the background of the war between the Culture – a post-scarcity, utopian, galaxy-spanning conglomeration of civilizations –  and the Idirans – a belligerent society with xenophobic tendencies; keen on capturing an escaped Culture Mind (a very powerful AI), the Idirans enroll one of their agents, a Changer named Bora Horza Gubuchul. Changers are humanoids gifted with the ability to transform their appearance, and therefore to infiltrate any environment without arousing suspicion: Horza is also perfect for two reasons, because he hates the Culture passionately as his masters, and because he served, long ago, on the planet where the runaway Mind has gone to ground, so he’s quite familiar with the territory.

Horza’s task proves far more arduous than anticipated, leading him through a series of adventurous mishaps (for want of a better word) that nonetheless offer the author a way of introducing the setting for this series and acquainting his readers with the Culture and its many facets.  This is indeed the aspect I most enjoyed in this second journey through the book: elements like the concept of the powerful Minds, or the sentient drones gifted with often quirky personalities, are standard fare in Iain Banks’ Culture novels, and here they make their first appearance in a very intriguing way; and again descriptions of the huge space habitats called Orbitals, veritable worlds artificially constructed to offer any kind of terrain or environment, are nothing if not mind-blowing and fascinating.  But where these details – made now familiar by the books I’ve read before this – still prove intriguing and thought-provoking, the story fails (still) to get a grip on my imagination, and the characters suffer the same kind of fate.

Horza’s weird adventures end up feeling a little too much, to the point that any intended dramatic effect resulted more farcical than dramatic: he starts with a harrowing experience when he’s sentenced to a gruesome death in a cell that’s going to be filled with the bodily waste of a banquet’s participants; rescued by the Idirans he barely survives a ferocious space battle only to be retrieved by a band of pirates/salvagers with whom he engages in the spectacular failure of a preposterous heist; a shuttle crash lands him on the section of an Orbital where a crazy cannibalistic cult is waiting for the end of the world (and this segment is even more gross than the waste-disposal cell one, believe me); and finally he enters in an outlandish card game called Damage where lives are at play besides fortunes. All this before truly engaging in the mission the Idirans hired him for…

It’s clear that Consider Phlebas is more plot- than character-oriented, and there is nothing wrong with that, but I’m still not sure where the failed heist, the Orbital debacle or the “cannibals interlude” serve this plot, since none of these narrative elements have any relation with the search for the runaway Mind. None of this – be it adventurous or merely grotesque – serves to highlight or develop Horza’s character, which remains the same detached-from-everything (and everyone) personality from start to end, making it very difficult, not to say impossible, to form any attachment to him.  In a similar way, the long, sometimes overdrawn, sequence of “adventures” prolongs the wait for the real task Horza must accomplish, so that when it finally comes into play it’s lost any appeal or involvement – or at least that’s what happened to me, to the point that I skimmed the whole segment to reach the end more quickly.

I realize I’ve been somewhat harsh with this book, maybe undeservedly so, but it’s clear that something important for me was missing from it and it failed to capture my attention despite the familiarity I acquired with this saga over time. At least I can agree that even with my first approach it was still enough to keep me interested in Banks’ Culture, to the point that I enjoyed the following books and that I will continue my exploration with the ones still waiting on my TBR.  So maybe this is not a complete loss, and that’s the reason my rating for Consider Phlebas gains a half point more than I would have given it on its own… 

My Rating:

Reviews

SciFi Month Challenge Prompt 14/11/2022 – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher

Today’s challenge prompt asks to PUT HUMANITY IN PERSPECTIVE, looking for images where a tiny human is dwarfed by a huge alien landscape – which is the situation we might find ourselves in once we start to set out feet on some extraterrestrial worlds.

As usual, when looking for some interesting images, my first stop is at PIXABAY, where I can find so many freely downloadable examples for any given clue, all of them from very, very talented people. Here are some of the pictures I found showcasing vast expanses where small humans looked all but lost…

Impressive, aren’t they? 😊

Reviews

DUNE (Dune #1), by Frank Herbert – #SciFiMonth

Re-reading favorite books has become something of a luxury since I started blogging, because the pressure to keep up with new titles has made it next to impossible to revisit those “old friends”. But there are always exceptions, and since enthusiastically appreciating the recent movie version of Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve I’ve been promising myself a re-read of Frank Herbert’s saga – or at least of the first three novels, which I’ve always seen as their own self-enclosed narrative cycle.

Reviewers who are far better (and far more articulate) than I am at issue analysis, have already written much about the Dune saga’s core themes, its social and political ties with the real world, its writing style and so forth, so there will be nothing of this in my reviews: my approach to books tends to be more… emotional  (for want of a better word) than anything else, and that’s what’s going to happen here since this novel for me represents THE landmark in Science Fiction – just as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is for Fantasy, both books being gifted with something of an enduring timeless quality.

The story of young Paul Atreides, from scion of an important family to hunted survivor fighting for his life to charismatic leader, is more than well known: a mix of a hero’s journey with a coming of age tale, set on the background of the complex, often deadly, politics of a vast galactic empire where the balance of power hangs between economic interests, shifting alliances and the machinations of mysterious organizations with a precise agenda to follow.  When I first read Dune, a few decades ago, this complexity, and the mix between classic SF themes and some fantasy elements, proved to be quite fascinating: a feudal system of government, with its infighting between ruling Houses; the secretive Navigators’ Guild whose adepts could forge vast distances through a form of prescience, or again the order of Mentats – human computers acting as surrogates for banned thinking machines. 

These were all intriguing details that caught my attention from the get go, but the most thought-provoking concept was that of the Bene Gesserit, a school of highly trained women capable of great mental and physical feats, and driven by the goal of creating a sort of super-being through a painstaking, ages-long project of genetic manipulation.  To the twenty-something me of back then that proved to be far more appealing, to the point that I tended to focus more on Lady Jessica’s arc than her son Paul’s – even though his story remained riveting throughout; re-reading the novel now, I’m still intrigued by all things Bene Gesserit, but my approach to the narrative is more balanced, while acknowledging that for the time in which the book was first published such focus on female agency was indeed a revolutionary notion. 

If all of the above held me in thrall, it was the move to Arrakis, the desert planet, one of the most captivating alien places I ever read about, that literally blew my mind: endless sands, no water, killing winds, and above all the giant sandworms roaming under the surface, and their tie with the precious melange, the life-prolonging spice whose mining could make or break the fortunes of the empire.  And of course the Fremen, the desert dwellers who had learned to adapt to such an unforgiving environment, creating a society that went beyond mere survival and that showed indications of sophistication under the apparently basic nomadic and savage outer layer.  Mix all this with what is ultimately a tale of revenge and search for freedom, and it’s hardly surprising that the younger me was forever impressed, and that a couple of re-reads in the following years never managed to try and go beyond this undoubtedly intriguing surface.

So, what about older and (hopefully) wiser me? Of course, being now well acquainted with the story arc, I was able to concentrate more on the characters, and to appreciate their development and shades of personality, just as much as I did for the writing and the style of storytelling. Where on my first read I just lightly trod over the “adventurous” surface, now I could enjoy some thought-provoking deeper reflections.  First of all, the narrative tapestry is constructed in such a way that the various pieces of the puzzle combine to create an ever-growing sense of doom for the first part of the novel: even with the help of hindsight, it’s clear, very early on, that the Atreides’ move to Arrakis is going to end in catastrophe – and I wonder if even the choice of their name, taken straight out of the tragic Greek myth, represented a clue in plain sight for all to see…  Despite this inevitable conclusion, and my actual knowledge of it, I was drawn into the story’s flow as if reading it for the first time, which should be a testament to Frank Herbert’s narrative skills in weaving this complex mix of galactic politics, greed, personal ambition and revenge into a novel that still feels fresh despite being written almost sixty years ago.  There indeed goes another reason for my reluctance to re-read books: the fear that the writing might not work anymore for my changed tastes – to my deep relief, such was not the case with Dune.

But of course it was Paul Atreides’ character that drove many of those deeper musings I quoted above. On the outer layer he’s a teenager who led a solitary – if charmed – life until his family’s relocation to Arrakis: a boy with little opportunity to interact with his age peers, schooled by his mother in the ways of the Bene Gesserit that, on the cusp of events, are revealed as a means of unleashing some untapped potential that might set him apart from the rest of humanity. Something that would be a huge burden on anyone, let alone a 15-year old boy… And here, I think, lies the core of Paul’s personal tragedy, that of not being completely (if at all…) the master of his own destiny, which is later compounded by the growing talents of precognition that will show him a future – or a set of futures – that seem to hint at their tragic inevitability.  Paul’s transformation into the charismatic leader of the Fremen does not hold any hint of glory, but is rather tainted with the recurring awareness of the terrible purpose which haunts his waking nightmares.  This time around I was able to feel some form of empathy for Paul, something which was absent in my first visits with the saga: Herbert’s characters, though intriguing, always manage to keep some distance from the readers, so now for the first time I was able to perceive his humanity under the mantle of predestined hero that Herbert had placed on his shoulders.

Where the first book of the Dune saga ends with something that might look like a happy end, with revenge obtained, the villains vanquished, the Fremen once again the masters of their own world, there is still a perceivable cloud hanging over it all that will carry on to the next book and the conclusion of Paul’s narrative arc, a warning – if you want – that happy endings are a mere illusion and that this story, fictional as it is, might rather be a reflection of reality.  And maybe that’s one of the reasons, if not the main one, of the hold that this novel can still exert on readers’ minds so many decades after its inception…

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

THE STARS UNDYING, by Emery Robin (DNF @40%) – #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 always pains me when I have to DNF a review book, particularly because I tend to pick and choose them according to my tastes, which should enable me to target only novels I can be sure to enjoy, but sometimes this method fails and I’m faced with a story that does not work for me.

The Stars Undying had all the potential the be the kind of narrative I enjoy, enhanced by the fact that it’s inspired by the events surrounding the fateful meeting between the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra and roman conquerors Caesar and Mark Anthony, translated into a space opera background.  Princess Altagracia, the heir to the Szayet empire, has been overthrown by her own sister, who also claimed the Pearl, the computerized device that imparts to Szayet rulers the wisdom of their god. When the commander of the fleet from the empire of Ceiao, Matheus Ceirran, lands on Szayet, Gracia sees in him the opportunity to regain power by using her feminine wiles, but she soon understands that the game might be more complex and dangerous than that…

I have to admit that my troubles with this novel started from the very beginning: the author throws her readers into the thick of things with little or no background to sustain them, and if that usually does not worry me – since I do indeed enjoy a good challenge – the way in which the story flows felt both confused and confusing and I struggled to understand how that veritable avalanche of names and places and background details could form an organic picture.  More than once I backtracked through the chapters, driven by the definite sensation that I might have missed some pages or sections and that some vital information had eluded me, but I failed to find any helpful clue.

The story is told in alternating chapters equally shared by Gracia and Ceirran, and here is where I encountered more problems because their “voices” lack the kind of distinctiveness that would make their individual personalities stand out: if I was distracted and failed to take notice of the character name at the top of the chapter, I had a few moments of uncertainty about whose thread I was following because I could not readily distinguish between the two identities.  The fact that it took me close to ten days to reach the 40% mark before admitting defeat, is a signal that my progress through the book was an uphill, losing battle.

When all is said and done, I firmly believe that it’s more a kind of “it’s not you, it’s me” issue with this book than anything else: from what I’ve read online, the consensus is that The Stars Undying is a brilliant debut, and I don’t doubt it – it’s just not the kind of book, or narrative style, that I find suits my tastes and I truly look forward to the comments of my fellow bloggers to learn what I might have missed or misunderstood in this failed reading journey.

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

RECORD OF A SPACEBORN FEW(Wayfarers #3), by Becky Chambers #SciFiMonth

No two books end up being the same. This is indeed what one should be aware of when approaching a new novel in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, because each one takes the readers in a different direction from the previous ones. And so I went from the group of space travelers in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet to the personal journeys of Lovelace and Jane 23 in A Closed and Common Orbit, only to find myself sharing the lives of the people from the Exodus Fleet – a cluster of connected spaceships that had left the Earth in its decline to create a space-faring society – with Records of a Spaceborn Few.

The story starts with a catastrophic explosion aboard one of the vessels in the Fleet and with the aftermath – emotional, psychological and also practical – of this event, seen through the eyes of a number of characters: Isabel is one of the Archivists, people tasked with recording the history of the Fleet, as well as presiding over the births, and the deaths, of its members; in the latter case, Eyas the Caretaker pays homage to their remains and their return (sort of) into the cycle of life; Tessa (the sister of Captain Ashby from book 1) works in the salvage department and has to deal with huge issues like her daughter’s trauma after the explosion, her father’s failing health and the need to move to a different job; and then there’s young Kip, who’s still trying to find his way and is not sure that his future will take place in the Fleet. The only non-Fleet character we follow in the novel is that of Sawyer, a descendant of former Exodans who choose a planet-bound life: he takes the inverse journey and comes aboard the Asteria – the ship on which most of the story takes place; his destiny will cross that of a few of the people mentioned above, influencing their outlook and their choices for the future.

There are many themes I enjoyed in the novel, not least the one about a space-faring society that forsook a ground-based life to forge its existence in the depths of space, with all the interesting social modifications that such a life implies: there is a similarity here to one of my favorite SF tropes, that of generation ships forging the unknown, and even though the Exodans have established their society in the proximity of a sun they were allotted by the Galactic Commons, their way of life is not so different from that depicted in generation arks traveling in search of a new planet to colonize.   The sense of community is the strongest element at play here, together with that of legacies passed from one generation to the next: one of the most fascinating details comes from the descriptions of the quarters allotted to the various families and of the way each group of dwellers left the imprint of their hands on a wall, as a mark of their passage and as an encouragement to those that came after to improve and build on that ground.  Exodans left their home with the keen awareness of having mortally wounded their home planet, and with the burning desire to avoid such mistakes in the future: keeping score of their progress toward a better society, a better breed of people, is indeed a way to try and avoid those mistakes – as Isabel says, we tend to be:

[…] a longstanding species with a very short memory. If we don’t keep records, we’ll make the same mistakes over and over.

It’s not surprising, then, that a similar focus on trying to create what sounds like an utopia, and a sort of insistence on traditions, might feel suffocating for younger generations, here represented by young Kip who struggles between the love for his family and his desire to look beyond the metal walls of a ship, no matter how comfortable or secure that existence might be.  So it’s interesting that he ends up being profoundly touched by the inverse journey taken by Sawyer (who does not seem much older than he is) when he chooses to join the Fleet and finds himself on a very unexpected path. (I apologize if this sounds a little cryptic, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers…)

Given all these intriguing premises, it came as a surprise that I was not as invested in this story and these characters as I hoped: while I enjoyed the book overall (by now I know that Becky Chambers’ novels will always play well with me), I felt as if something was missing, and I’m still struggling to understand what it was. My involvement always remained on the surface, and while interested in what was happening to these people, I could not form any emotional ties with them, even in the direst of situations.  Probably the contrast with the more adventurous bent from the first book, or with the deep personal journeys of the second, led me to believe that I would be able to get the same level of in-depth perception here, but the chronicle form of the narrative seemed to prevent that – even though the title itself should have represented something of a warning…

Still, Record of Spaceborn Few turned out to be a pleasant read, and my hope is that with the next issues in this series I will be able to recapture the sense of wonder and the character involvement that I experienced in the previous books.

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

SciFi Month: Challenge Prompt 3/11/2022 – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher

Today’s Challenge Prompt being EVEN BETTER TOGETHER – or a showcase for shared universes or author collaborations – made me think immediately of my favorite space opera saga, which started with a run of nine books and was then very successfully translated on the small screen in a visually amazing series.

The Expanse was published under the author name of James S.A. Corey but the pseudonym hides the identities of Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank, whose partnership gave us one of the most engrossing stories of space exploration by humanity that I ever remember reading, so let’s celebrate it with a montage of the books’ covers…

Reviews

TEN YEARS IN SPACE! SciFi Month 2022 – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher

Our adventurous voyage through the depths of interstellar space continues, and now it reaches its tenth year!  Which is certainly the reason for some serious *celebrations* 😉

Were you just awakened from cryosleep and don’t know what we’re talking about? No problem!  Just follow this LINK and all will be revealed, just don’t forget to fill out the SIGNUP FORM so we can correctly allocate your luxury cabin for the journey…

As the ship hurtles through the uncharted reaches of space, we’ll entertain ourselves by reading books and graphic novels, watching shows and movies and generally indulging our enthusiasm for SF as much as we want. Oh, and don’t forget to try out the daily PROMPTS that will challenge our our skills and imagination.

As for myself, I will explore some new books, re-acquaint myself with a well-loved saga (something I’ve been meaning to do for quite some time now…) and try some of the prompts, just for fun.

Ready? Then let’s GO!

Reviews

A DOWRY OF BLOOD (A Dowry of Blood #1), by S. T. Gibson

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

Vampire lore states that these creatures can mesmerize their victims, leaving them powerless to resist the lure of their captor: well, like a vampire, this book managed to mesmerize me from start to finish, making it almost impossible for me to put it down – I lost count of the number of times I told myself “just one more chapter, then I’ll stop”, only to keep reading on…

The vampire myth is one of my favorite themes in horror, so once I learned that A Dowry of Blood focused on a retelling of the story of Dracula and his brides it was a given that I would read it, but what I found was a very unexpected tale told in an equally unexpected narrative style, which added to my enjoyment of the book.  The narrator is Constanta, one of the famous vampire’s brides as she relates her story in an impassioned letter to her sire who, as we learn from the very first sentence in the book, she killed in an act that she describes as possessing “its own sort of inevitability”.

Constanta’s first encounter with the creature who will change her existence happens outside a Romanian village devastated by a brutal attack: she lies dying on the ground, images of her family’s massacre mixing with the awareness of her imminent demise, when this fascinating stranger makes her an offer that seems like salvation but which will lead her on a very unpredictable path. Her beginnings as the vampire’s bride flow in a mix of fascination and discovery that appear all the more extraordinary given Constanta’s origin as a poor peasant girl, but as time elapses it becomes increasingly clear that her husband/master’s outer veneer of charm hides a volatile, domineering disposition that becomes even more marked when their “family” comes to include the presence of Magdalena, a beautiful Spanish heiress, and later on of young Alexi, a penniless Russian actor.

More than being another story about vampires, A Dowry of Blood represents the deconstruction of their myth as it shows the other side of the coin represented by the fascinating lure of an immortal predator: here Dracula (even though his name is never actually mentioned) comes across as an abusive despot, a creature of fickle disposition, easily angered and possessed of a mean streak.   At first Constanta accepts it all as part and parcel of her new life, never having had the opportunity for a comparison – either in her previous life or in her new, immortal one – and living as she does in almost total isolation with her sire.  Things however change when Magdalena joins their “family”: the transition from jealousy to attraction to complicity allows Constanta to put her existence into perspective and to observe their lord’s treatment of his brides from an equidistant position, therefore bringing to light his manipulative and control-oriented tactics.  The situation worsens when starving actor Alexi is brought into their midsts, his lust for life and human companionship undiminished by the changes in his body: the younger man’s desire to keep a foot in both worlds – the living and the undead – takes the vampire lord’s stranglehold on his “family” to new heights, ultimately laying the foundations for his (untimely?) end.

Even though I’m usually not very comfortable with allegories, I can view this novel as one about toxic relationships –  and who better than a blood-sucking vampire to epitomize the draining of agency, self-worth and freedom caused by an abusive spouse?   Constanta is the classic example of the naive woman who finds herself married to a control freak who does everything in his power to establish his authority on her, either cutting off any chance of outside contact, or constantly belittling her, or both, in what she labels as “the cycle of brutality and tenderness” than informs their relationship.  She is only an extension of himself, something he created for his own ends, not for her benefit:

[…] I don’t think you ever truly saw me as a whole woman. I was always a student. A project. An accessory in the legal and decorative sense.

In the end, the mistake of the vampire lord comes from the choice to increase his entourage, because instead of adding more “accessories” to his dominion he unwittingly lays the basis for a found family: the strength of the bonds that unite Constanta, Magdalena and Alexi is what ultimately allows them to see their sire for what he truly is, and to find the courage to sever the ties linking them to him and to regain their freedom.  What finally struck me, once I finished the book, was the realization that in never using her husband’s name in the story (only hinting at his true identity in an oblique reference to the “troublesome Harkers”) Constanta took back the agency she was robbed of for so many centuries: in denying him his identity, his name, she exacted the perfect kind of vengeance against the constant theft of power and self-determination he visited on his brides.

I described A Dowry of Blood as a mesmerizing book, and the greatest part of such effect comes from the narrative style and the almost lyrical prose that took hold of my imagination and created a rich, three-dimensional picture of these characters and their surroundings: there is a gothic flavor to this story that nevertheless does not lapse into purple prose, blending the quaint and the modern into a seamless whole. If, like it seems, this is only the first volume in a saga, I more than look forward to what the author has in store for us in the next books…

My Rating: