Reviews

SUMMER HIATUS

After what seems like an eternity, although it’s only been two years, I’m going to enjoy some vacation time, relaxing in the country in the company of friends.

The beauty of the place is sadly offset by the uncertainty of the internet connection – that’s the price to be paid for some… “splendid isolation” – so for a while it might be difficult for me to visit your blogs and comment on your posts, but I will try to make up for lost time once I get back. Hopefully rested and recharged.

Until then, my best to you all: sunny days and good books, which sounds like a great combination 🙂

See you soon!  (…ish)

Reviews

UNSUB (Unsub #1), by Meg Gardiner

I saw the review for Unsub on a fellow blogger’s site some time ago – I forget who it was, or I would thank them properly for showcasing one of the best thrillers I remember reading in ages. This novel, while not being for the faint of heart, is a compelling journey into the mind of a cold-blooded serial killer and of the law enforcement officers hunting him, in a hazardous cat-and-mouse game that favors the battle of wits between the two opposing forces rather than indulging in the more gruesome details of the crimes themselves, which was the main reason I stopped watching shows like Criminal Minds when the “gore factor” became more important than the psychological analysis, which I find much more fascinating.

In the ’90s, the area around San Francisco was the hunting grounds for a serial killer nicknamed The Prophet because of the enigmatic messages he left on the scenes: detective Mack Hendrix gave everything he had in the hunt for the killer and emerged from the battle devastated in body and mind, while the unsub – acronym for Unknown Subject – was never captured and seemed to vanish into thin air. Now, after twenty years, new murder scenes following the Prophet’s same m.o. are appearing again, and police officers are wondering if their killer has resurfaced or if the killings are the work of a copycat.  Caitlin Hendrix, Mack’s daughter and a police officer herself, is determined to find the Prophet, both for the sake of her city and to restore the good name of her father, who is seen as unhinged and unreliable. As the victims’ number climbs, the Prophet establishes a sort of direct communication with Caitlin, with the intent of drawing her into a trap that will destroy her as it happened with her father, while the young police officer tries to stay one step ahead of the killer and to win the deadly game.

The phrase “it was impossible to put the book down” can be found so often that it somewhat lost its impact, and that’s the main reason I usually avoid using it, but in this case it’s the perfect description of what UNSUB did to me: while at times it can be quite distressing because of the Prophet’s brutally arranged displays of his work, it also offers some distance thanks to the emotional difference between the written word and a filmed scene, so that readers can concentrate on the actual clues and on the relentless – and often discouraging – efforts from law enforcement in preventing these crimes and catching their perpetrator. Meg Gardiner draws you into the story in such a way that, just like her protagonist, you need to see the end, see where the deceptively arranged clues and the many twists and turns will lead – and hope that at the end justice will emerge victorious.

I liked Caitlin as a character, mostly because she is flawed and is going around with a huge chip on her shoulder, but her determination in getting at the root of it all and finally catching the killer is strong, stronger than the despair that comes from seeing how the killer keeps eluding the chase: no matter how many hard hits she takes, she keeps trying to move forward knowing that to win the fight she must be smarter than her enemy. Caitlin is not depicted as some kind of super-hero, and it’s her humanity and imperfections that make her so compelling as a character and that kept me glued to the book to see where and how the story would end. And let me tell you that it did not end in any predictable way…

The Prophet, for all his inhuman focus on making his victims suffer and the police feel inadequate and lost, is an equally fascinating character, mostly because he appears quite lucid in his madness and very proficient in advance planning, not unlike a consummate chess player who’s able to plot for several moves ahead in the game. His ability to predict how the victims or the police will behave makes him a terrible adversary indeed, quite far from the mindless killer looking only for a blood-soaked series of murders.  There is also the added factor of his choice of messages and murder scenes that take inspiration from a well-known work of literature – one I’m not going to mention to leave the surprise of discovery intact: this element was of particular interest for me because I studied the source material back in my school days, and I was intrigued by the discovery of how certain well-remembered passages were tied with the Prophet’s work and his goals.

UNSUB is a dark story, no doubt about it, and there are moments when it becomes thoroughly ominous and disturbing, but at the same time it feels very authentic – the main reason it turns out to be so immersive. I would not mind seeing it turned into a movie because it possesses all the right elements for a breath-stealing one, but lacking that there are two more published book in this series that promise to be equally riveting: having just discovered Meg Gardiner’s talent, I intend to explore more of her works as soon as possible.

My Rating:

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Reasons Why I Love Reading

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.  

When I think about it, it feels as if I’ve been a reader all my life: not true, of course, because for the first handful of years in my existence I did not know how to read – although I’ve been told that I learned pretty early and was already proficient enough by the time I started school.  Since then, books have always been a constant presence in my life, and I still remember my grandfather admonition about harming my eyesight through too much reading…  

A few of my acquaintances often comment about my fascination with books, and reading, as if it were something unusual (or maybe weird, but they are far too polite to use that word 😀 ), so – even though I know I’m preaching to choir here – let me list some of the reasons I enjoy losing myself in a good book, or two, or three, or…. Ok, who’s counting?

BOOKS OPEN A WINDOW ON THE “ELSEWHERE”

Be they based on the real world or in some imagined ones, books allow your mind to wander in far away places and to experience different situations, to wonder what you would do in the same circumstances as you follow the characters along their journeys.  To quote GRR Martin: “A reader lives a thousand lives. The man who never reads lives only one.”

BOOKS HELP YOU FORGET THE TROUBLES OF THE WORLD

This has never been more true than in the past year and a half: the solace offered by books, as the world suffered through the pandemic and people went a little (or more than a little…) crazy, is quite priceless, and I have often wondered how non-readers managed to cope with such a grim reality without the refuge offered by an engrossing work of fiction.

BOOKS CHALLENGE THE MIND

This is particularly true when it comes to speculative fiction, but it can also be applied to mainstream literature: the age-old, but still valid, question “What if…?” spurred many authors to imagine situations where a little change in everyday routines could have an avalanche effect on characters, on the perception of our world or in the creation of new and amazing ones. And we readers enjoy the results… 

BOOKS PROTECT YOU FROM BOREDOM

Have you ever faced a long journey, a slow-moving queue at the post office or an interminable stay in the doctor’s waiting room? We all did, and all of us who were armed with a book were able to let time fly without almost noticing it, because we were traveling in some other place, some other time. Where others felt that those long minutes, or hours, were wasted, we filled them with joy and wonder.

BOOKS ARE THE BEST COMPANIONS FOR A RAINY AFTERNOON

No need to explain this one: a rainy afternoon can turn into an amazing adventure, or a thrilling quest, once we have a comfortable armchair to sit in and a hefty book to wade into. My own idea of paradise 😉

BOOKS GIVE POWER TO YOUR DREAMS

Yes, I know, many accuse readers of speculative fiction of being guilty of escapism, of not keeping our feet firmly rooted in reality, but they keep forgetting that many of the discoveries that have bettered human conditions came exactly from dreams: mankind dreamed of the ability to fly, to reach other planets, to cure terrible illnesses, to learn the secrets of our ancestors.  Escapism, right? TSK!

BOOKS ARE LIKE SURPRISE PRESENTS

Granted, when we choose a book it’s because the synopsis intrigued us, or we know the author’s favorite themes, but still there is that element of surprise, of not knowing exactly what the story holds in store for us: there is that little clause in the unwritten contract between author and reader that says “amaze me”. When it’s fulfilled, it makes the book, and the story it tells, very special indeed.

BOOKS ARE THE BEST HOBBY IN THE WORLD

Yes, because you can take them anywhere! Try and do the same with watercolor painting, piano playing, carpentry, and so on… A book fits everywhere and when it comes to ebooks you can have an entire library (well, almost…) at your beck and call in a small space and with little weight.

BOOKS GUIDE YOU TO SLEEP, OR SHARE YOUR WAKEFULNESS

I know I’m unable – no matter how tired I am – to go to sleep if I can’t read at least a few pages of my current book: it’s something of a Pavlovian conditioning, but without a chapter or two under my proverbial belt, I can’t go to sleep. On the other hand, if I fall prey to a bout of insomnia, books are there to share the long hours of wakefulness until sleep finally decides to make an appearance.

BOOKS ARE THE BEST INVENTION, EVER

Maybe I should have placed this at the very start of the list. I cannot imagine a world without books, can you?

Reviews

CATALYST GATE (The Protectorate #3), by Megan O’Keefe

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

I imagine that the beginning of any story must be a difficult time, with ideas crowding on the writer’s mind and clamoring for release, but I also believe that bringing it to a close must be equally trying, if one wants to tie up all the narrative threads in a satisfactory way for creator and readers alike: Megan O’Keefe managed to do so very well, and in a breath-stopping, compelling way. 

What started as a more personal journey in the first book of the trilogy, Velocity Weapon, which focused on the main character Sanda Greeve and her discoveries aboard the AI-driven ship Light of Berossus, then turned into a system-wide menace in the second installment, Chaos Vector, to be ultimately expanded into the threat of galactic annihilation in this conclusive volume of the trilogy, one that I once again hope will be optioned for a TV series by some enlightened network executives, if such creatures exist, because this story deserves to be enjoyed in both mediums, and it possesses every quality to turn into a visually stunning, story-intense show.  

In the final book of the saga we find all of the people we got to know along the way, and can enjoy their expanded characterization and the huge twists and revelations that keep coming at them, and at the readers, with a relentless pace that still manages to offer a cohesive, engaging story never missing its focus despite the complex interweaving of its many narrative threads.  While Megan O’Keefe keeps faithful to the structure of the three main POVs employed until now – Sanda, her brother Biran and Jules Valentine – she still finds a way to flesh out the secondary characters with depth and facets that add layers to the story and make you care for them quite deeply, and it hardly matters whether these characters are actual people or not, because Bero – the A.I. entity who is Sanda’s major ally – comes across as a delightful personality, capable of both great determination as well as subtle humor.

What was hinted at before and becomes dramatically clear in Catalyst Gate is that humanity, despite its amazing progress, has not evolved beyond its own self-centeredness and petty squabbles, that reaching for the stars and expanding its civilization there has not cured them of the need to conquer without thinking about possible consequences: once the danger threatening mankind is revealed as the repercussion of an act of extreme hubris, I kept thinking about a sentence in Tolkien’s LOTR about the Dwarves “delving too greedily and too deep” and therefore releasing their own nemesis. The scourge that humans unleashed is the main element driving the story here, and it does so through a series of interconnected threads that impart an almost impossible acceleration to it: more than once I felt the need to stop and come up for air, trying to distance myself a little from the constant adrenaline surge of the action, but I could not stop for long because the story kept attracting me like a powerful magnet. 

It’s amazing to understand, in the end, how the past and the present are closely tied, how the glimpses of humanity’s road to the stars connect with the events in the current timeline, and there are some quite harrowing, edge-of-your-seat moments as the various characters try to piece together those revelations from that past with the dangers of the present, all the while dealing with their own problems – and secrets.  Yes, because there are still many truths still to be revealed in Catalyst Gate: if you thought that all the jaw-dropping surprises had been used up in the previous books, well, think again, because there are quite a few still in store for you. And some will prove to be more than unexpected…

Characters are still shining as brightly as in the previous installments, from Biran who finds himself having to step into his position with the kind of strength and hard resolve that seemed far from his personality; to former spy Tomas, who is still trying to understand his place in the world and the direction his newfound emancipation must take, but knows for certain where his loyalty must lie; to Bero, once the captive A.I. on the ship Light of Berossus and now a powerful player in the galactic milieu, yet one possessed with a delightfully childish glee about its skills (“I continue to be the most effective weapon in the known universe”).  Nor are the secondary players forgotten here, particularly where Sanda’s motley crew is concerned: Megan O’Keefe took these disparate individuals and turned them into one of the most engaging, most enjoyable fictional found families I ever encountered, one whose banter – even in the face of possible destruction – offers welcome rays of light in a very dark, very troublesome background.

And of course Sanda: I connected with this character from day one, admiring her resilience and her no-nonsense approach to problems, even physical ones, like the loss of one leg which has been affecting her from the very start and served to showcase her attitude and personality quite effectively. Sanda is indeed the perfect modern heroine, one who can both kick ass and be affectionate and caring toward her families – the one she started with and the one she built around her. The perfect balance between human frailties and courage, the way she can face even the most desperate situation with tenacity and determination have been the best features in Sanda Greeve, and those that made this series quite special besides its enthralling core story.

As I said at the start of this review, bringing a saga of such magnitude as The Protectorate to its close might hold its own pitfalls, but Megan O’Keefe proved to be a very skillful weaver here, always keeping a tight control on her creature and delivering an end that is both satisfactory and emotionally appealing.  If you are looking for a compelling space opera series with depth and substance, you need look no further.

My Rating:

Reviews

INTERGALACTIC – Season 1 (spoiler-free review)

When the Sky platform announced the arrival of this new SF series, to be released starting from May 31st, I was very intrigued by the details revealed in the promotional trailers, particularly by the protagonists, a group of women convicts who steal a ship and make a run for the planet Arcadia, possibly the last place in the known universe where Earth’s oppressive regime does not reach.  The echoes of Farscape and Firefly in the plot represented the main attraction for me, and I was eager to see where this new SF adventure would take my imagination.

In the year 2143 Earth has undergone some devastating changes of an unspecified nature, although it would be easy to imagine something related to climate: political power now resides with the Commonworld, whose goal to preserve what’s left of our planet is pursued with an iron fist and a totalitarian bent that add a dystopic layer to the overall background. The first sequences of the pilot episode show us a new and futuristic city of London built on the crumbling ruins of the old one, where the destitute and the criminals still eke out a life of sorts.  Ash Harper, a young and on-the-rise pilot/police officer and the daughter of a powerful woman, just concluded the chase of an elusive thief and is celebrating her future prospects when she is suddenly arrested on the charge of having stolen some precious substance: summarily tried, she is placed on a transport ship, the Hemlock, together with other convicts destined to off-world deportation – including the one she caught just a few hours prior.  Once Ash’s mother manages to discover that the evidence against her was forged, it’s too late: the Hemlock is underway and the prisoners have staged a rebellion that left them in control of the ship and of a very useful hostage…

What follows is a madcap chase through the galaxy, with stopovers on various alien planets, as the group searches for the coordinates to Arcadia, where they will be free: for Ash, who finds herself in a very dangerous situation given her company, the adventure will also turn into an eye-opening journey where she will learn about the Commonworld’s dark side and will get to know her traveling companions, some of whom are not truly criminals but rather victims of the government’s ruthless strategies.

With such intriguing premises I frankly expected something more, but was somewhat disappointed: this first season is mildly enjoyable and each episode holds enough twists and character reveals to prove engaging, but I could not shake the feeling that both creators and cast did not give their best here.  More than once, moving from one episode to the next, I wondered if I had not missed some other narrative segment, because the story felt uneven, missing some vital connection that would make the current situation more clear: while I don’t enjoy long, drawn-out info dumps – in any medium – much of what was presented on screen seemed to suggest a kind of background knowledge that was never offered to the viewers, which gave the narrative flow an uneven quality that inflicted a serious handicap to the show’s overall quality.

Characterization suffers its own troubles as well: what could have been a refreshing, all-female crew (there are also two men on board, but they mostly remain on the margins of the story), squandered its potential by turning these women into merely aggressive stereotypes, once again reinforcing the notion that strength in a woman has to express itself into belligerence and outright hostility.  This less than original choice was compounded in some instances by over-the-top acting that felt far too excessive to be credible, and by several lines of dialogue that went from unsubtle to cringe-worthy.  Feeling a connection with these characters proved quite difficult, if not impossible, and even when some revelations about their individual pasts hinted at the possibility of seeing the real person behind the mask, their return to the previous, wildly hostile behavior obliterated any chance for real character growth.

Still, there is some potential in this story, whose short run of only 8 episodes probably penalized its possibilities for a more organic development: from the middle of the season, several elements seem to point out toward a wider narrative scope, and for this reason I will give the next season of this series a chance, to see if it possesses the “courage” to evolve beyond the stereotypes it leans on and to find a better-defined identity. First seasons tend to suffer from growing pains, and I’m curious to see if Intergalactic can go beyond these pains and turn into a story worth following.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE LAST WATCH (The Divide #1), by J. S. Dewes

First things first, my thanks to Tammy at Books, Bones and Buffy because she was the first of my fellow bloggers to review The Last Watch and literally propel me toward this book and its gripping story: I cannot turn away from a promising space opera novel, and this one met all my expectations, and makes me look forward with eagerness to its sequel which is happily slated to come out in a short time.

Long ago, humanity fought a bloody war with the alien Viators, bent on conquest and/or destruction of the races they encountered on their path: humanity managed to prevail and the Viators retreated back beyond the rim of the universe, a border called the Divide. Fearing that the alien invaders would return one day, humans set up a border patrol, the Sentinels, in a line of ships and buoys monitoring the Divide’s activity.  The task, however, was not assigned to rotating crews but rather to the fleet’s misfits, criminals and the unwanted at large, as a way to permanently exile them while still making them useful: practically abandoned at the edge of the universe, far from the Core where life and civilization move forward, the Sentinels keep watch aboard old ships that are literally falling apart, as their requests for spare parts and essential supplies take far too long to be fulfilled, if ever.  The overall feeling is that the central government stopped worrying long ago about the Viators’ return and that it also choose to apply the saying “out of sight, out of mind” to the men and women assigned to guard their backyard.

Adequin Rake is the captain of one of the Divide’s capital ships, the Argus, and as the story opens she feels all the boredom and futility of a duty in which even her superiors seem to have lost interest, but soon enough she finds herself faced with a series of problems: starting with the new recruit, Cavalon Mercer, who does not come from the military as the rest of her personnel, and sports a rakish attitude that’s out of place in the ranks; then she must deal with a series of strange phenomena that impact the already struggling systems of the Argus, while to top it all, the Divide seems to be closing in at an alarming rate on the deployed Sentinel ships, an ominous indication that the universe might be contracting…  This is only the beginning of the adventure, and if these troubles look more than enough to keep your adrenaline flowing… well, think again, because they will pile up in a harrowing sequence that will task to the very limits Rake’s and her crew’s ability to react.

The Last Watch has been presented as a cross between The Expanse and the theme of the Night Watch in Game of Thrones: while I tend to be wary of these comparisons, I have to admit that there are some connections there, but this novel is its own story and it successfully melds some intriguing scientific notions with interesting and relatable characters and a space opera flavor that keeps things lively throughout the book. I was surprised to learn that this is a debut novel because, apart from a couple of “hiccups” I will mention later, it feels like the work of a seasoned writer, which makes me look forward to the next volume with great impatience.

Characters and plot share equal space in this story, in what I discovered is a very effective combination, and if some details about the political and military structure of the universe, or the events that led to the present, are left a little on the vague side, I can always hope that the next books will widen the horizon: the pace in The Last Watch, after the introduction of background and characters, is relentless and it would have been weighted down by too many details, so I’m quite happy with what I got.  Even though this is a space opera novel, the cast of characters remains contained to a handful of people, which makes it very easy to connect with them: the first we meet is Cavalon Mercer, the odd man out since he does not come from the military – on the contrary, he’s the scion of the ruling family, but his continuing acts of rebellion against his grandfather’s ruling strategies finally led him to exile, and he finds himself forcibly enrolled with the Sentinels, and in dire need to hide his true identity, since the Mercer family does not instill much sympathy in the ranks.

From the very start, Cav’s rakish, impertinent attitude is no help in keeping the low profile he needs, and puts him in dangerous social situations, but as the story progresses and his skills come to the fore, often proving instrumental in solving some dire straits, both Captain Rake and the closest crewmates start to warm up to him and accept him as one of their own. Some of Cavalon’s talents require a little suspension of disbelief, because it often looks as if he possesses the right skill at the right moment, making him something of a proverbial Gary Stu: while it’s true that as the heir of the ruling family he might have had a lot of time on his hands, and therefore the opportunity to become acquainted with many aspects of science, it does sound somewhat preposterous that he would be proficient in fields ranging from medicine to engineering.  Luckily for him (and for the readers…) Cav counterbalances this wide knowledge with a far-from-heroic attitude and a healthy fear for his wellbeing that manage to make him quite sympathetic. 

Captain Rake is indeed able to see beyond Cavalon’s smoke screen and to understand that offering her trust and keeping him engaged she will be able to bring the real person to the surface, and turn him into the man he needs to be for the good of the team.  I liked Adequin Rake from the very beginning: here is a woman who distinguished herself in the war against the Viators but for some reason (which we will learn along the way) she was sent to the Divide and is now battling with depression at what she perceives as a futile role. When things start going sideways, however, she shows great determination, courage and moral strength against both the impending doom and the discovery that the central government might have abandoned the Sentinels to their destiny. What’s more, I enjoyed the way she connected with Cavalon as a mentor and guide, leading to what promises to be a rewarding friendship between two very different personalities.

Besides these two main figures there is a number of secondary characters that are wonderfully drawn and given very distinctive qualities that make them much more than simple background extras: from scientist Mesa, a genetically engineered human/Viator hybrid, to gum-chewing Emery, to serious and dependable Jackin, they help fill out this story by giving the reader other people to care about apart from the main characters, and by showing other angles of this universe through their eyes rather than through lengthy exposition.  

The Last Watch seems more like an introduction to this universe than the first installment in a promising series, and as such it left me with a lot of questions about the narrative nooks and crannies that were left unexplored, but what this book managed to do was to hold my attention from start to finish and to make me look forward to the next volume, where I hope to find the answers to those questions. That is, besides the continuation of this amazing adventure, of course…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE SERIAL READER TAG

A good tag is always a powerful lure I’m unable to resist, and once I saw this one on fellow blogger Imyril’s site, I knew I had to post my own list as soon as possible. Series, as I said in my comment to Imyril, are our blessing and curse: blessing because they offer continuing stories we love to get lost into, particularly when we form strong attachments to characters; and curse because there are far too many of them around!  Seriously, who can successfully manage all the intriguing series that keep being published? Still, we keep trying to do our best so… keep them coming, dear authors! 😀

From which series are you reading or did you read the spin-off series?

The first one that come to mind are Rooks and Ruin (on the heels of the very successful Swords and Fire) by Melissa Caruso: I enjoyed book 1, The Obsidian Tower, very much, and look forward to learning more about the very intriguing main character.  Then there is Six of Crows (a spinoff of Shadow and Bone) by Leigh Bardugo: I recently read it after watching the first season of the main trilogy on Netflix, and I have to say that both story and characters of this spinoff are far more interesting than the ones of the main work.  And then there is  Gods of Blood and Powder (the continuation of the Powder Mage trilogy) by Brian McClellan: the first book in this series convinced me to go back to the original trilogy, which I had not continued after book 1, and to enjoy both – and I hope the author will choose to write more stories set in this world…

With which series did the first book not sell you from the start?

Promise of Blood (book 1 of Powder Mage), by Brian McClennan: as I said above, the first book in this trilogy, although I did like it, did not compel me to keep on reading, but once I started the new series, set a few years after the previous one, I felt the need to… feel the blanks, and discovered that my lukewarm reaction to Promise of Blood must have been a matter of passing mood, because once I returned to it I was completely sold, and very happy to have returned to a compelling narrative.  Giving books a second chance is always a good reading policy 😉

Which series hooked you from the start?

A Time of Dread (book 1 of Of Blood and Bone), by John Gwynne: this was my very first book by John Gwynne and it was the one that instantly turned me into a fan of the author, one who really knows how to write compelling epic fantasy and to bring you back asking for more.  That first book led me to start reading the “prequel” series The Faithful and the Fallen (I’m terribly behind, I know, but I will get there one of these days…) and to grab the new work, The Shadow of the Gods, without even looking at the synopsis.  Hook, line and sinker…

Which series do you have completed on your shelves?

The Vorkosigan series, by Lois McMaster Bujold: if you are a fan of Miles Vorkosigan, you will understand how this is one of my most prized possessions.

The Dagger and the Coin, by Daniel Abraham: recently finished (which makes me feel quite accomplished), and just in time before the arrival of a new fantasy trilogy whose first book, Age of Ash, has already been announced. Can’t wait!

Blackthorn and Grim, by Juliet Marillier: another bookish love-at-first-sight. Since then I have not managed yet to read other works by the talented Juliet Marillier, but I certainly will soon, because I love how she weaves there stories.

The Illuminae Files, by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff: adrenaline-infused space opera focused on young characters who never, ever, fall into the dreaded “YA traps”. What’s not to love? 😉

Which series have you read completely?

The ones mentioned above, plus a few others like Gareth Powell’s Embers of War; Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight Chronicle; Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War, and so on…

Which series do you not own completely but would like to?

The Tide Child, by RJ Barker: the reason I don’t own it  – yet – is that it’s not complete and so far I’ve read the first two books as ARCs kindly provided by Orbit. As soon as the series is complete (and I guess it will not be long…) the books will go join my other “possessions”.

Which series do you not want to own completely but still read?

Well, if I keep reading a series it means I enjoy it, so why would I not want to own it? And call it “mine, my own, my Preciousssss…”?

Which series are you not continuing?

Sadly, it’s Seanan McGuire’s October Daye:  much as I enjoyed this UF series in the past, once I reached book 13 I fell prey to the dreaded reader fatigue, mostly because it seemed to me that the continuing story had become somewhat formulaic and had nothing new to say about the characters and their journey. Book 13 ended up as a DNF and I had to bid a bittersweet farewell to Toby & Co., although who knows? I might change my mind in the future…

Which series did others love and you did not?

The first one that comes to mind is Andrew Maine’s The Naturalist: I read the first book and did not enjoy many of its over-the-top narrative choices or the sudden changes in the main character – and here I’m quoting from my own review – who turns from a once-reclusive professor into a killer-stalking Rambo. I can suspend my disbelief quite easily, but in that case the effort was a little too much…

Which series you haven’t started yet are you curious about?

In recent times I’ve been looking with increased interest at Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon cycle: it has been recommended to me by a few fellow bloggers in the past, and now that I’ve started watching The Last Kingdom on Netflix, a series drawn from Cornwell’s works, I feel compelled to read the books. There are 13 of them, and I have to ignore the pained cries from TBR, but I really want to read them!

Which series would you like to re-read?

Re-reading is a luxury I can’t seem to afford: you all know the sad mantra of the book lover, of course, about “too many books, too little time”, so I doubt I will be able to indulge in any kind of re-read. Should I find that possible (a girl can dream, can’t she?) I would certainly start with James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse, and then revisit the Dune saga by Frank Herbert, particularly the last two books that I remember as somewhat confusing…

And so, dear Serial Readers: what is your usual M.O.? 😉

Reviews

LATER, by Stephen King

My years-long negative streak with Stephen King’s books seems to be definitely over: the last few books of his I read all turned out to be as engaging as the stories I used to enjoy, and Later is only the last example in my lineup of positive reads.

Even though it’s a shorter story when compared with King’s usual production, Later sports all the elements that I’ve come to expect from the Master of Horror: this novel might not be classified as his usual horror creation, since there are not many blood-chilling elements in it, and there is also a mystery/crime component added that changes a little the expected parameters, but in the end this proved to be an entertaining, page-turning read, and one I enjoyed very much.

Jamie Conklin sees dead people: not exactly ghosts as was the case for the young protagonist of Shyamalan’s movie alluded to here with a sort of tongue-in-cheek humor, but rather people newly departed and on their way to the Great Beyond. Jamie is able to see and hear them (although after a while their voice fades, as do they before disappearing forever) and to ask them questions to which the dead are compelled to reply truthfully.  Jamie’s single mother runs a literary agency and she’s able to stay afloat – barely – thanks to the best selling author of a successful series: when the man suddenly dies just as he was outlining his last novel, the one where all the mysteries hinted at in previous books would be revealed, Tia Conklin needs Jamie to contact the deceased author to get all the information he can gather on the story, so she can ghost-write it and keep the company in business and financial health.

The trouble starts when Liz Dutton, Tia’s former girlfriend and a cop with too many problems and not enough scruples, decides to use Jamie’s talent to discover where a serial bomber, who just took his own life, did hide his latest explosive package: something ancient and evil rides on the shoulders of the man and starts haunting Jamie, forcing him to resort to a harrowing ritual to get rid of the creature. That is, until the boy needs the thing’s help against Liz when the dishonorably discharged ex-cop kidnaps Jamie for one last, heinous act…

Very few authors can successfully filter the problems and inconsistencies of the world through the eyes of a child as Stephen King does: unlike other protagonists of his stories, Jamie is not shunned, bullied or otherwise made to suffer by peers or adults, but he does witness his mother’s struggles to survive in an unsettled economy and through a difficult relationship, all the while dealing with a “gift” that sets him apart from other kids, forcing him to keep secrets, and ultimately places him in danger. Jamie’s voice, as he grows up over the years from childhood to young adulthood, feels true and natural and for this reason it’s easy to connect to him and see the world through his eyes: innate resilience helps him navigate through the difficulties posed by his peculiar talent, particularly in the instances where his innocence is threatened. This is another theme dear to King, the way in which the adult world (or the supernatural) can rob children of that innocence, exposing them too early to situations that require them to grow before their time: in Jamie’s case this is compounded by Liz’s relentless focus first and greed later, so that he’s forced to come into contact with the darker aspects of the human mind, which more often than not are far more  frightening than actual supernatural horror. 

Young Jamie is able to find some balance in this very unusual existence thanks to the certainty of his mother’s love – even though he’s quite aware of her flaws both as a parent and an adult – and the guidance of old Professor Burkett, the closest thing to a father figure he can depend on: the relationship between Burkett and Jamie, both in life and after the old man’s death, reminded me somehow of the dynamic explored in Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, one of the short stories from King’s If It Bleeds collection.  The somewhat cranky professor, like many of Stephen King’s memorable figures, is the one providing Jamie with a stable anchor and a perspective that helps the boy focus on the problems at hand rather than his fear, and offers a delightful dynamic between wide-eyed youth and grumpy old age that is one of the author’s trademarks.

There might be nothing new, narratively speaking, in this novel, but it does not matter much in the face of the story’s easy flow, which is carried by the constant curiosity engendered by Jamie hinting at other developments to be disclosed, indeed, later: the young protagonist keeps his audience captivated like serialized novels did in the latter part of the 19th Century, by promising further revelations yet to come.  This choice led me to wonder weather Jamie might be considered an unreliable narrator – either embellishing or changing events to suit them to the overall flavor of his story: that’s a doubt that surfaced for me once a detail of Jamie’s origin is revealed, because he himself first offers an explanation for the chain of events, only to deny its accuracy in the next page.

This detail (I will not spoil it, but if you’ve read the book you know what I am referring to) does not affect the story in any way – and I’ve kept wondering what it should mean in the overall scheme of it – but rather offers an off-key note to the ending which, in my opinion, would have stood quite well on its own without this added… baggage.  Still, Later feels like vintage King, indeed, and I would recommend it to his longtime fans – and not only them.

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story: HOME: HABITAT, RANGE, NICHE, TERRITORY, by Martha Wells

A Murderbot Diaries story set after Exit Strategy

Click on the link to read it online

It’s been a while since I visited the Tor.com section that lists short stories, and my return to the site was marked by an exciting find: a brief tale by Martha Wells set in the Murderbot saga, and more precisely right after Exit Strategy. You can imagine how I whooped with delight at this discovery…

What’s interesting in Home: Habitat… is that the POV for once is not Murderbot’s but rather Dr. Mensah’s as she deals with the double trouble of dealing with her PTSD, after her kidnapping at the hands of GrayCris operatives, and of making her compatriots in Preservation Alliance accept the Sec-Unit as a worthy individual rather than a killing machine.

The usual “gang” is all here, of course, the group of humans who accepted Murderbot as one of their own, and as usual it’s a delight to see them and witness their exchanges, but the different focus of this story helps us see MB from a different perspective, particularly where its body language is concerned: the way it prefers not to meet the humans’ gaze directly, or its insistence in forwarding outlandish weapons requests, which sounds more like a way of joking with Mensah rather than anything else. Not that Murderbot would ever admit to making a joke or trying to ease the good doctor’s spirits, of course… 😉

Still, there is room, despite the brevity of the tale, for some intriguing considerations about MB’s status – and that of its brethren: the Corporate Rim’s way of doing business has implemented a form of slavery that might be hiding under the guise of contracts, and more civilized institutions, like Preservation, do all they can to guarantee other humans’ rights; again, on Preservation A.I.s are assured of their rights as citizens thanks to their self-awareness. But, as Mensah muses at some point, Murderbot falls between these two extremes, and as such it’s not considered worthy of protection: it’s totally new territory and she’s determined to change the rules because she – as her other companions – has perceived the potential in what others see only as an instrument of death.

”…they are all aware of what they are and what’s been done to them. But the only choice they are ever offered is obedience or pain and death”

In the overall lightness of the series, this is a very serious consideration and one that sheds more light into Mensah’s determination to insure Murdebort’s acceptance into a more civilized society.

An unmissable addition to the wonderful Diaries continuing tale.

My Rating:

Reviews

DEAD SPACE, by Kali Wallace

After my engrossing first encounter with Kali Wallace’s previous book, Salvation Day, I had great expectations for her new novel and I’m happy to report they were all met, if not surpassed: the synopsis made me think about a delightfully tense SF movie from the ‘80s, Outland, and there were some similar vibes here, mostly due to the background in which the story takes place, although Dead Space moves in quite a different direction.

Hester used to be a gifted AI expert, part of a deep space expedition toward Titan, where the exploration of Saturn’s biggest satellite would be assisted by Vanguard, an evolved form of artificial intelligence capable of learning and adapting, Hester’s ultimate achievement. Unfortunately the Symposium, the science ship built for the mission, had been infiltrated by extremists who managed to sabotage it and kill most of the science team. Hester survived, although devastated both mentally and physically: the left side of her body is now mostly prosthetics, implanted by the doctors of Parthenope Enterprises, the corporation to which she is now in deep debt. To repay it, Hester has accepted to work as security analyst on the mining colony of Hygiea – a thankless, menial job that crushes her already defeated spirit and misuses her brilliant mind.

When one of her Symposium friends, another survivor of the disaster now working in a different mining outpost, is killed in mysterious circumstances shortly after having sent Hester a weird message, she joins the investigative team to discover what truly happened to her old colleague David and finds herself embroiled in a spiral of conflicting clues and unsettling revelations that is only the surface layer of a deeper, far more dangerous conspiracy, and she will need to rekindle all her old skills and determination if she wants to survive and avoid disaster on a massive scale.

Like Salvation Day, this novel offers a view of the future that’s far from comforting: the drive for space seems to have been taken over by big corporations whose sole purpose is to exploit the resources in the Solar System, gaining as much profit as possible with the minimum of expenditure in the areas of workers’ comfort or safety. It does not take much, as Wallace describes the mining outposts disseminated throughout the Belt, to compare this background with Earth’s mining towns of old, where the miners’ wages were spent almost entirely in company-owned shops and utilities, therefore creating a vicious circle of legalized indentured slavery.  Hygiea and Nimue (the site of the investigation for David’s murder) represent this set-up in dreary relief, so that it’s easy to picture ill-lighted, barely maintained tunnels, none too clean, inhabited by a gloomy humanity whose sole, desperate goal is to beat the system of diminishing returns that keeps them tied to these balls of rock. 

There is a claustrophobic quality to the story – which seems to be Kali Wallace’s skillful trademark – that works hand in hand with Hester’s despondent attitude, and even if she is not prone to self-pity, one can feel the quiet despair that has turned her once-brilliant personality into the sharp, cutting posture of someone who feels detached from humanity, sometimes even her own:

[…] didn’t stop people from looking at me and seeing only the metal.

It doesn’t take much, however, to bring her out of this self-imposed numbness: once the investigation into David’s murder starts and progresses from the first appearance of a personal attack from a co-worker to something more complex, and with far-reaching implications, once the dangers pile up and Hester’s life is threatened at every step of the way, she is finally able to wake up her old self, the one that was smothered by post-traumatic stress and the thankless job she has been trapped into. When the real Hester emerges, we are finally able to see the intelligent, intense person who dreamed of exploring a new world and dared to create something amazing and revolutionary as Vanguard, the person we see in the brief flashbacks before the Symposium disaster.  What happens on Nimue, as ghastly and horrifying as it is, is the systemic shock she needs to finally process her grief and loss and reclaim the keen scientific mind that had propelled her in the past.

Even though Hester’s journey is front and center, there are a few other interesting characters peopling the story, starting from David – her murdered friend – whom we see in the flashbacks and through the descriptions of his coworkers on Nimue: like Hester, the before and after personalities are as different as day and night, stressing once more how the Symposium tragedy shattered these lives, not only through physical damage or because of the heavy debt incurred with medical expenses, but above all for the death of their dreams of advancing science, of learning the mysteries of the cosmos, of making a difference for humanity.  It’s also worth mentioning the Nimue staff which, in pure whodunit style, share a common lack of reliability that enhances the sense of foreboding and danger that permeates the investigation from the very start.

And again, Hester’s partners in the investigative team are quite intriguing, particularly the unit’s leader Adisa, whose Martian origin constitutes a handicap: some time before the Mars settlers rebelled against their inhuman living conditions and the revolt was stamped out with ruthless efficiency, while the powers that be chose to lay the blame for the war on the hapless colonists, who are now the object of scorn and racial slurs.  I was intrigued by these hints about the conflict, just as I was by the apparently self-effacing Adisa who, when push comes to shove, exhibits some very unexpected abilities, but unfortunately the pacing of the story did not allow more than a few, tantalizing glimpses, and that’s my only small disappointment with this novel because I wanted more and would not have minded a deeper digression into this particular topic.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the breathless, adrenaline-rich new story that Kali Wallace gave us with her latest work, a well-crafted mix of thriller, science fiction and social commentary that offers many layers of character exploration while keeping you entranced with a deadly puzzle to solve. Highly recommended.

My Rating: