Reviews

INFINITY GATE (Pandominion #1), by M. R. Carey

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

Every book I read, so far, from M.R. Carey proved to be an intriguing, engrossing journey, so when I saw Infinity Gate showcased on the monthly Orbit newsletter I requested it without even taking a look at the synopsis. Once again I found myself totally immersed in a story whose only downside was that it ended too soon.

Infinity Gate starts from the premise of the existence of an uncounted number of Earths, a multiverse where each iteration can be either quite close to the reality we’re familiar with, or so wildly different as to be unrecognizable.  Scientist Hadiz Tambuwal lives in what we might consider as our primary Earth, but one where resources are almost depleted and wars are being fought for whatever’s left.  Finding herself practically alone in the university complex near Lagos, in Nigeria, she spends her time perfecting her studies and one day stumbles on an amazing discovery: the possibility to jump from one reality to another – and therefore a chance for a better life, even for a way to save her own dying planet.  

With the help of Rupshe, a self-aware A.I. residing on the university grounds, Hadiz starts exploring the almost infinite versions of Earth, but in so doing she catches the attention of the Pandominion, a coalition of Earth-like worlds linked by the discovery of the Step plates, the means of jumping from one reality to another.  The Pandominion is at war with another aggregation of worlds, the Ansurrection: these are planets ruled by machine intelligence and so far the war has claimed many victims and many worlds; fearing that Hadiz’s jumps might be related to the Ansurrection’s encroaching, the Pandominion sets its armed force, called the Cielo, on her tracks.

Hadiz’s storyline runs parallel to that of Essien Nkanika, living in a world not much different from hers, and the meeting between them will change Essien’s life – one that has already seen much suffering and deprivation – in a very dramatic way.  The third main character in the novel is that of  Topaz Tourmaline FiveHills, a young girl living on Ut, an Earth-like planet where the dominant life form descends from rabbits: Topaz – or Paz as she likes to be called – will see her life upturned by a devastating event and will have to make some hard choices she was not prepared for.

Curiously enough, for a story told through multiple POVs, Infinity Gate chooses the unusual way of following these three characters in a linear way instead of alternating chapters between them: at first this choice felt weird, because each time the reader must start anew with a different perspective that seems to have no connection with the previous one, but in the end it was revealed as a very clever way of making the reader invested in each character’s journey and at the same time of exploring the Pandominion in its many facets without need for long and distracting info-dumps.

The Pandominion looks, on the surface, as a conglomeration of advanced worlds graced by an utopian life-style, but as soon as the focus moves on its inner workings it’s easy to see that it’s not like Star Trek’s Federation at all: some of the people at the top are quite ruthless and the existence of the Cielo, the inter-planetary army whose armor-clad soldiers elicit apprehension with their sole presence, points toward a rule that’s quite far from benevolent.  The Ansurrection, on the other hand, seems driven by an apparently unthinking drive to replicate its machines and the discovery of several worlds where any form of life has been obliterated does not bode well for their intentions.

The characters who move on this intriguing – if slightly unsettling – background are wonderfully depicted and fully fleshed: Hadiz Tambuwal looks like a single-focus-driven scientist who is more at ease among the instruments of her laboratory than among people, and yet there is a poignant streak of vulnerability in her that comes across in the course of her meeting with Essien Nkanika, a young man who has learned to stop at nothing to ensure his own survival, like accepting to join the Cielo where his humanity risks to be taken away from him piece by piece.  My favorite character, however, remains Paz, a young girl (rabbit-shaped, granted, but still a girl) who finds herself dealing with exceptional events she was not prepared for: the way she finds a well of courage and resiliency she did not know she possesses, while still remaining true to herself, gives way to a character journey I found both compelling and heart-wrenching.

It’s not going to be a spoiler when I say that these three are destined to meet: the greater attraction in this novel stands in the expectation of that encounter and in the different, often difficult paths they travel before that can happen.  This first book in the series merely lays the ground for what will develop into the main story, and yet it does not feel like a simple setting of the playing field because you can almost hear the various pieces clicking into place, each new addition boosting the tension level to new heights, particularly where Paz’s experiences are concerned: there is a long, tense segment dealing with them, toward the final part of the novel, where I was literally unable to put the book down because the various moving parts were in such a state of flux that anything could happen and failure seemed like a chilling possibility.   It’s difficult to describe this book without giving away precious – and spoilery! – details, but trust me when I tell you that reading it without any prior knowledge is indeed the best way to go.

Infinity Gate closes with the equivalent of a “…to be continued” but at the same time it ends this part of the story neatly: previous experience with M.R. Carey’s other series tells me that the next books will come along with infallible cadence, and I already look forward to seeing where the story will take us next.

My Rating:

Reviews

STATION ELEVEN, by Emily St.John Mandel

This book has been mentioned quite often in the blogosphere and it was also recommended to me by a friend, but for some reason I kept sliding it down the TBR list – which is far from unusual for me, since I tend to be easily distracted by other titles. Now that I finally read it, I wonder if my constant delay was not in part due to a sort of “warning” from what I call my “book radar”, because while I did not dislike Station Eleven, it also failed to completely captivate me.

The book’s premise is that a virulent strain of flu wipes out something like 90 percent of Earth’s population and the story follows some of the survivors in the post-apocalyptic world left after the flu’s passage.  These characters all have some sort of link to renowned actor Arthur Leander, whose death on stage, during a representation of King Lear, happens on the eve of the pandemic outbreak: Kirstin is a young actress who was somehow befriended by Leander and witnessed his death – a scrapbook containing the highlights of the actor’s career, and a couple of issues of a graphic novel written by one of his wives, titled Station Eleven, represent the only link Kirstin has with a past she struggles to remember; Jeevan, a former paparazzo, is a paramedic in training who unsuccessfully tries to save Leander’s life  and later on watches the world unravel from the window of the building where he and his brother are holed up.  Then there is the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians moving from settlement to settlement performing Shakespeare’s dramas for the survivors,  and trying to keep civilization alive, somehow; and lastly, in the flashbacks sections of the novel, we learn about the life of Miranda, Arthur Leander’s second wife and author of the Station Eleven graphic novel that also gives the book its title.

First things first, let’s deal with the proverbial elephant in the room: it’s possible that if I had read the book when it came out, its premise would have had a different impact on me, because now that global pandemics are not a thing limited to speculative fiction, I don’t find it so easy to look at this theme dispassionately. Granted, what recently happened worldwide did not turn into the extinction event portrayed here or in similarly themed books like King’s The Stand, but still, knowing the possibility exists makes for some very uncomfortable reading – at least for me. St.John Mandel does not dwell too deeply on the details of our civilization’s unraveling, preferring to focus on the emotional and psychological impact it has on the characters, and while this choice makes for a more muted narrative, it also detaches the reader from the end of the world as we know it, so that taking away most – if not all – of the tragedy of such an end also robs the story of any dramatic impact.  Even the appearance of a self-proclaimed Prophet and his vicious adepts fails to introduce an element of real danger and fear into the story – my perception here is that it was another missed opportunity.

Which brings me to the characters: sadly, most of them failed to capture my attention, adding to the unwelcome sense of detachment I experienced throughout the novel. Kirsten is robbed of a past she hardly remembers, at the same time depriving the readers of any details of the fracturing of civilization, and her journey through the deserted country as she tries to reconnect with the Symphony fails to convey the real sense of loss of a whole civilization. The Traveling Symphony members are further divested of any individual traits including their names, since most of them are identified by the name of their instrument of choice: granted, their valiant effort to keep culture and civilization alive in the wasteland is admirable and it brings some touches of poignancy to the story, but for me it was not enough to help me connect with them, either individually or as a whole.

The only character that managed to gain some relief is that of Miranda, thanks to her efforts at making a life for herself out of the all-encompassing sphere of a very self-centered Arthur Leander: the graphic novel she works on for most of her life is the representation of an idealized existence and it also works as a bridge between the “before” and “after” thanks to the hopeful outlook it offers to those fortunate enough to get hold of some copies, but that’s all and it’s not enough to offer some much needed strong characterization to the book, a situation hindered by the fact that she’s a figure from the past and therefore lost forever in the “present”.

I realized that I’ve depicted this novel in less than enthusiastic tones, and in its defense I have to acknowledge that the writing is fluid and at times poetic, particularly when describing the vast expanses of empty land where nature is repossessing the last traces of our civilization, but if I have to be honest I would have preferred a grittier portrayal of this end – a “bang” rather than the melancholic “whimper” threaded through the story.  It’s not the book’s fault, of course, but simply a matter of personal preferences….

My Rating:

Reviews

THE SEVENTH BRIDE, by T. Kingfisher

It is now my firm conviction that I can’t go wrong with any T. Kingfisher book I pick up: this is my third foray into her stories and once again I’m amazed at the way she can weave drama and humor into compelling tales that keep me riveted from start to finish.

The Seventh Bride is a reimagining of the Bluebeard myth, but it adds many intriguing elements to the classic fairy tale, turning it into something delightfully new. Rhea is the daughter of the village’s miller, her only troubles in life coming from the slight drudgery of repetitive work and the fierce battles she wages with a bellicose swan fixed on depriving her of her lunch.  When the local ruler, Lord Crevan, asks for her hand in marriage, Rhea is both surprised and worried, because royalty never marries into the common folk, so something must certainly be wrong with both the proposal and the man.  Equally startling is Crevan’s invitation to visit his castle before the wedding; once there (and not before gathering an unlikely companion in the form of a very special hedgehog) she makes an awful discovery: there have been six other wives before her, and some of them have been either killed or horribly mutilated.  For his part, Crevan sets Rhea a series of tasks: failure to complete them before each dawn will lead to the inevitability of marriage – something that Rhea now completely dreads.

Rhea’s horrific journey toward Crevan’s castle and her sojourn there, not to mention the increasingly difficult tasks that also reveal the depths of cruelty of her future husband, make for a very immersive read, one that reveals the girl’s strength of character: instead of succumbing to the fear of what future might have in store for her, she grows in her determination to avoid the fate of her predecessors while safeguarding the life and livelihood of her family, not-so-subtly threatened by the intended groom.  I enjoyed Rhea’s show of courage, her practical nature managing to tame the primal fear engendered by the horrific discoveries she makes in Crevan’s house, her willingness to face head-on the man’s cruel, manipulative attitude.

Where the book truly excels, however, is in the strong bonds Rhea forms with some of the surviving wives, and her feelings of compassion for the one who seems to have fully embraced a sort of Stockholm Syndrome with their captor.  Once she realizes that she’s not alone in the plight of becoming a victim to Crevan’s nasty plans, she finds the courage to defy him, and even challenge him on his own playing field.  Unlike other fairy tales’ protagonists, the miller’s daughter does not wait to be saved but rather goes on the offensive, armed with even more tenacity than we witnessed at the start of the story when battling that dastardly swan in defense of her lunch.

The subtle humor pervading this novel effectively counters the sense of horror the readers feel through Rhea’s reactions when she witnesses the brutal, callous injuries perpetrated on some of Crevan’s wives – the ones still alive, that is –  and yet that humor is not enough to erase our anger at the man’s inhuman treatment of them. Lord Crevan becomes the embodiment of every abusive husband we learn about in the real world, and more than once I wondered if the author chose that name as the scrambled version of “craven”, because that’s what he ultimately is, an empowered coward who steals women’s choices (together with their magic, or their sight, or their voice) simply because he enjoys doing so.  Which makes Rhea’s rebellious and proactive choices all the more worthy of cheering on.

A special mention goes for the oh-so-cute hedgehog that acts as Rhea’s unlikely but effective companion: once again T. Kingfisher chooses to pair her protagonist with a representative from the animal kingdom, in what seems to me like a recurring theme – and one that I hope will be present in her other stories as well, since I enjoy them immensely.  The hedgehog is not only a delightful creature or a sort of talisman for the young girl, who seems to draw courage from its presence in the pocket of her dress, it’s also something of a conduit for help when Rhea most needs it, and a charming, sunny element in the overall darkness of the tale.

Despite that darkness, however, The Seventh Bride is a refreshing story of courage and determination and of the strength that can come from bonds of friendship and – in this specific case – of sisterhood forged in adversity.  It will leave you with a satisfactorily pleasant taste, and the urge to explore more of this author’s works – at least it did for me…

My Rating:

Reviews

ALL THE BLOOD WE SHARE, by Camilla Bruce

Reading this book made me reflect on the fact that we generally consider serial killers a phenomenon of more recent times, while in reality these deranged individuals must always have been among us, their actions gone mostly unreported due to a lack of the kind of information network we enjoy nowadays. Granted, we all know about Jack the Ripper, but he must be the exception that proves the rule…

Before reading All the Blood We Share I was unaware of the existence of the Bender family and their bloody deeds, so that I went online to seek some more information about them, once I finished the novel, discovering that the author had only filled a few unknown angles with fiction, remaining quite faithful to the macabre reality of the events.

The Bender family arrived in Kansas in the second half of the 19th Century, fleeing from justice after a series of crimes about which the reader will learn as the story develops. The father William and his son John built a house (or rather a shack…) near the town of Cherryvale and were joined at a later date by William’s wife, Elvira, and her daughter Kate.   The family had little to no intention of becoming farmers – which given the arid nature of the territory is hardly surprising – and they transformed the homestead into an inn where travelers headed west could buy some basic supplies, enjoy a home-cooked meal and even spend a night under a proper roof.

The family’s goal was to make some money and be able to buy a better farm in a more amenable location, possibly similar to the one they had to leave behind when running from the law, but their earnings as inn-keepers were far below the expectations, and so they decided to kill and rob travelers of their valuables, burying the bodies on the property.  In those times and places it was hardly surprising that a few travelers never reached their intended destination, but at some point the Benders chose the wrong victims and that brought the attention of relatives and authorities on their inn, forcing them to flee in the night and leave behind everything – including a number of corpses.

This is, in broad terms, the story told in All the Blood We Share, at least as far as the basic facts are concerned: the focus of the novel, however, is on the dynamics and personalities of this family of killers, a family for which the term ‘dysfunctional’ is indeed a big understatement. The patriarch William seems at first the more grounded one among them, but as time goes by we see the darkness under the surface, a combination of gullibility and greed that becomes even more shocking with the onset of what looks like Alzheimer.  His son John is a brooding, introverted person who is easily swayed and manipulated by his step-sister Kate, for whom he harbors possessive and jealous feelings.  Mother Elvira is the more complex of the four characters, and the one who intrigued me most: on one side she is bitterly missing the better life she had to leave behind, almost blackmailing Kate into providing the means for a better one, on the other she is the only one voicing her displeasure for the family’s “business” and her fears of discovery.

But it’s Kate the one who enjoys the more intense focus in the story: outwardly sunny and gregarious, she holds a darkness inside that seems like a separate creature and demands to be satisfied, therefore turning Kate into the instigator for the Bender’s murderous activities. The family looks like a group of people bound by necessity rather than affection, and Kate is the one who dreams of getting away and making a life for herself: to accomplish this goal she reinvents herself as a medium, claiming to be in contact with the souls of the departed and planning to make her fortune thanks to this “talent”.  What she truly accomplishes is to use her tricks to divert the community’s attention from the disappearances and to lull her step-father into believing that the murders are inspired by some higher beings looking out for the Benders.

The way in which Kate is portrayed here highlights all the markers for a serial killer as we have come to recognize them: she is self-centered and totally lacking in empathy, has a high consideration of herself and her cunning, actually enjoys the act of killing and is indeed the one to murder the hapless victims, cutting their throats after William rendered them unconscious with a blow to the head.  There are several passages where we are made privy to Kate’s inner thoughts, and they are exactly what we have come to expect from a serial killer, starting from the sense of power that comes from the very act of murder:

 The darkness is like that: heady and strong. […] I was in awe of the power in my hands

and going on with the practice of collecting the unfortunates’ buttons, which she keeps in a box and handles while revisiting the crimes:

I fondled the buttons one by one, as was my habit. All the while, I thought about their deaths: how they had looked; how I had hurt them; the moment when they went

If the Benders’ story proved to be quite harrowing, I appreciated the author’s way of relaying it in an almost detached way that leaves no space to morbid fascination, and I quite enjoyed her depiction of the small community of Cherryvale, a desolate, harsh place with bitterly cold winters and scorching summers, where ignorance and superstition walk hand in hand offering the perfect terrain for con artists like Kate to take advantage of people’s naiveté.  Equally enlightening – and quite chilling – is the reaction of those citizens once the Benders’ activities are revealed: toward the end of the novel the author offers a classic example of mob mentality that badly needs a scapegoat and looks for it in the wrong direction – but that hardly matters as long as they get their proverbial “pound of flesh”.  I have to admit that this segment of the story had an even harder impact on me than the actual murders perpetrated by the Benders…

This was my first novel by Camilla Bruce, but it will certainly not be the last: I like her incisive, sharp writing and the way she can keep a reader engaged even in the most harrowing of stories, and I look forward to her other books.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE OVERLOOK (Harry Bosch #13), by Michael Connelly

It happens to me sometimes to catch a series of false starts with books: either these books are not my cup of tea or I’m in a picky mood and nothing seems to meet my tastes. When that happens I know the only way to get over such a gloomy outlook is to pick up a “palate cleanser” of sorts, and one of my tested and true comfort reads is a crime/thriller by Michael Connelly – I know his stories never disappoint me and they always manage to bring me back on track.

The Overlook is the shortest novel in the Harry Bosch series, only 164 pages on my e-reader, but still it managed to keep me intrigued from start to finish, also thanks to the relentless pace that helped me focus on the story despite it being one already visited in the TV series: it’s not the first time I’ve observed this phenomenon, and once again I must admire the author’s writing skills in this regard.

After a stint in the Open-Unsolved department Bosch is now working in the Homicide Special division and has been assigned a new partner, the young and upcoming Ignacio Ferras. The two come to work on the case of a man found murdered on an overlook on Mulholland Drive: the victim was shot in the back of the head, execution style, and is identified as a doctor working with radioactive materials. An inspection of the doctor’s house finds his wife bound and gagged and reveals that she was used to compel the husband to steal a considerable quantity of Cesium, probably with the goal of fabricating a dirty bomb.

The discovery brings the FBI in  on the investigation, given the apparent terrorist nature of the crime, and Bosch’s old acquaintance Rachel Walling is part of the team charged with finding the dangerous material before it can be used in a devastating way.   The FBI’s cavalier attitude toward the case, both in trying to take over every aspect of the operation and in shunting the actual murder on the sidelines, prioritizing the recovery of the Cesium, does not go well with Bosch, of course.  Being who he is, the detective refuses to give in gracefully and fights what he sees as the Feds’ intrusion into his murder investigation, particularly when some details don’t seem to add up but are deemed irrelevant by the FBI.

The story itself is a compelling one – even though I was aware, thanks to the TV series, of the unexpected twist that comes at some point – but what is even more interesting is the deeper look into the siege mentality that took hold of the law enforcement agencies after the attacks on 9/11: the most evident consequence is the heightened state of reactivity of those agencies that brings them to sometimes react on insufficient or misleading information, falling prey to a sort of knee-jerk reaction that can prove more counterproductive than anything else.  What comes out of this picture is a wounded, damaged society that still has to find its balance in the wake of of a terrible shock.  There is a segment of the story where it’s possible to see clearly how someone invested with power, but not with enough discernment to exercise it properly, can be manipulated into actions that deepen the deterioration in the social framework – and that, in this specific case, lead the investigation on a totally false track, but since I’m now nearing spoiler territory I will say no more about it… 😉

As for Bosch himself, while I can understand his all-encompassing desire to bring justice to the victim, and his impatience with the high-handed methods of the FBI, his usual recklessness here felt more in service to his own ego than to the investigation: it’s something I remarked in my review of the previous book, and here its presence makes itself felt more heavily.  Even though in the end he’s proven to have been right, his reverting to the tactics of his younger self seems to point to an involution in Bosch’s character, and this is particularly evident in the relationship with his new partner: some of Harry’s actions are not only ill-advised, they could prove dangerous, career-wise, and his off-hand dismissal of those dangers, in the face of his partner’s objections, stresses once more how he is ultimately a lone wolf – and not necessarily one worthy of unconditional admiration.  While this character development was somewhat troubling, I have to admit that the author was right in showing his creature’s “dark side” more often because it makes him more real than any shiny-armor-clad “hero”.

The story itself is fast-paced (the sensation is that everything happens in a very short time frame) and engaging despite the already quoted familiarity: this time the main event in the book mirrors exactly what I saw on TV, but Michael Connelly’s writing is such that my immersion in the story never wavered for a moment.  While there was no surprise in the plot, the depiction of the investigation itself, with its twists and turns, and of the pall of fear imposed by a terrorist threat, was more than enough to offer a compelling and satisfactory read.

My Rating:

Reviews

RECKONING (Donovan #6), by W. Michael Gear

Every time I learn of a new Donovan book I know I’m in for a treat: this series does not only focus on one of my favorite SF themes, the colonization of an alien planet, but it also offers new narrative avenues with each installment, so that the series remains fresh and highly enjoyable.

Reckoning takes a slightly different approach from its predecessors in that it does not explore one of the many dangers facing the colonists in their battle for survival on this very hostile planet, but rather on the evolution of the characters I have come to know and appreciate over time. Of course Donovan and its many hazards are still front and center, but this time the menace comes from Earth and the Corporation, whose visiting representatives have come to take in hand the situation.

With the return of Ashanti, one of the ships that managed to survive the dangers of interstellar travel, laden with its rich cargo of rare metals and precious stones mined on Donovan, the Corporation understands that such wealth in the hands of individuals (like the criminal Dan Wirth, who came back home with his massive plunder) might end up unsettling the balance of power in the Solar System, so a group of representative from some of the most influential families boards the ship Turalon with the goal of asserting the Corporation’s rule on Donovan. They are joined by a Board appointed Inspector General, who will audit Kalico Aguila’s actions so far and decide if she’s gone far too native to be allowed to continue in her role as Board Supervisor.

As Turalon approaches the planet we readers are presented with the underhanded maneuvers that the four representatives play in the attempt of gaining dominance even before making planetfall: they are not only powerful, ruthless individuals who stop at nothing to achieve their goals, they help us see that the corporate boardrooms in the Solar System are as dangerous as Donovan’s jungles and these scions of influential families are bloodthirsty predators in the same league as quetzals. And yet we readers already know that statistical data about Donovan and the hard facts of planetary life are two different things, so part of the enjoyment in reading a new book comes from the reactions of the “fresh meat” (as new arrivals are called) to the reality of life on the ground and in the few areas that colonists have come to claim as their own.  

This is particularly true for Falise Taglioni, the sister of Derek (Dek) Taglioni whose full adaptation to Donovan we saw in previous installments: Falise is not only the family’s cold-blooded assassin, she is a spoiled brat far too used to having her way, so that her constant refusal to adapt to groundside conditions offers several opportunities for entertainment – both for the readers and the locals. The disparity between her outlandish outfits and the frontier environment at Port Authority serves the author well in demonstrating the dichotomy between the light-years-distant corporate mindset and the reality of life on Donovan.  Like Kalico Aguila before her, Falise will have to accept the fact that mankind must adapt to the environment rather than taming it to its desires and learning the hard way that, as the saying goes, people get to Donovan to stay or die of find themselves. The way in which Falise will find herself while remaining true to her core nature is certainly one of the most intriguing facets of this novel.

As far as the “old” characters in the series are concerned, the focus here shifts a little from Talina or Dek, to follow more closely Kalico Aguila and young Kylee. The first is well aware that her tenure on Donovan might be at its end, given that the Inspector General is clearly out for her blood – and with him we have one of the most despicable characters created by the author, one that I’m sure you will all hate with a passion.  Kalico has not only invested all her energies in the mining of planetary resources, she has become a Donovanian through and through (and has the scars to prove it…): she is one of the people for whom the titular reckoning has arrived and might signify the end of her role on Donovan and a return in disgrace to the Solar System.  The way in which this particular situation develops represents one of the more compelling and satisfying segments of the novel, one that I followed with a mixture of anxiety and amusement – the latter sentiment due to the sheer unpredictability of the colonists…

Kylee held the biggest surprise in store for me: while I found her character intriguing in her past appearances in the series, I did not exactly connect to her, but here – grown up and struggling to reconcile her hard-earned maturity with the pains of adolescence – I enjoyed her sections and above all the practical, foul-mouthed approach to life she shows, particularly in her dealings with Falise Taglioni, to whom she acts as a sort of mentor in all things Donovan.  The interactions between the two of them – the hardened survivor and the spoiled outworlder – offer some of the most entertaining segments in the novel and have managed to change my outlook about Kylee herself.

This sixth book in the series is aptly titled Reckoning, because many of the proverbial chickens come home to roost here, and that’s one of the reasons I found the book quite engrossing, literally flying from one chapter to the next in my eagerness to know how the various situations would be resolved. While it’s true that we learn nothing new here about the planet itself and its dangers, the interpersonal relationships and the unavoidable clash between the colonists and the new arrivals (not to mention a couple of unexpected murders and a few quetzal incursions) were more than enough to keep my attention riveted and to fuel my expectations for the next book in line – I know I will not be disappointed.

My Rating:

Reviews

COME WITH ME, by Ronald Malfi

Having discovered Ronald Malfi’s works through the very engrossing novel that was Black Mouth, I was eager to further explore this author’s production and choose this book which is quite different in tone and storytelling but is equally riveting.

Aaron Decker lives a very normal, very contented life with his wife Allison: he works as a translator of Japanese books, she is a journalist in the local paper, and for the last five years they have enjoyed each other’s company and mutual complicity, but as the story starts Aaron’s world crumbles into pieces as Allison is killed in one of the many freak shootings that happen in shopping malls. Stricken by grief and unable to make sense of what happened, Aaron stumbles on a motel’s receipt showing that Allison stopped there during one of her husband’s absences from home, and suspecting his wife of having been involved in a secret relationship he tries to retrace her steps in the months prior to her demise.

What Aaron finds, however, is quite different: for years – even before their meeting – Allison had been on the hunt for a serial killer, a man who certainly murdered Allison’s own sister and probably a number of other girls across the country.  As he tries to unravel the string of clues Allison was following, Aaron discovers a side of his wife, and a part of her past, that was unknown to him and he decides to follow in her path, to bring the man to justice and accomplish what Allison was unable to do.

What Come With Me boils down to is an all-encompassing obsession, one transmitted from Allison to Aaron, both of them trying to come to terms with the grief of an unbearable loss and finding in the single-minded focus of the hunt a reason to live and – maybe – learn to process the death of a loved one.  There is also a supernatural thread running throughout the novel, mostly centered on Aaron’s perception of a presence in the house, something he wants to believe is a remnant of Allison: lights blink on and off in the bedroom closet, the house’s virtual speakers come on playing Allison’s favorite songs, a shadow seems to linger in their shared study.  But it’s unclear if these manifestations – if they are indeed messages from the Great Beyond – are real or if they are the product of Aaron’s grief and his desire to connect with Allison in some way.

Aaron could somehow be classified as an unreliable narrator: much of the clues he pieces together don’t seem to fit, and it’s easy to suspect that he might not be as objective as his search would require, and his relentless pursuit of the killer takes on the color of obsession more than anything else, as if Allison’s own obsession had taken hold of his mind. It’s also intriguing to observe that the narrative is almost a long letter to departed Allison, to whom Aaron addresses his feelings and the progression of his quest.

Come With Me is a very atmospheric story imbued with a strong sense of impending doom, and at the same time it’s the exploration of two characters whose surface appearance at the start of the novel changes drastically as the narrative unfolds: on one side we have Aaron, a guy who looks level-headed and pragmatic and who sets himself on the hunt for a killer by taking risks and almost courting danger with what looks like reckless abandon, almost as if his loss had engendered a death wish; on the other we have Allison, a woman capable of leading a double life, keeping her darker pursuits from her husband – one of the most poignant facets of the story comes indeed from Aaron’s discovery of a side of his wife he was never able to perceive before.

I must confess that at some point in the novel I believed that it had become mired in Aaron’s grief-fueled search, as if his actions were leading him (and therefore the reader) in aimlessly repeating circles, and it also looked as if the mix of disparate clues, paranormal manifestations and weird findings (like the eerie collection of dolls he finds inside an abandoned factory) were taking me nowhere: I was ready to throw in the proverbial towel, moving forward only through sheer curiosity to see where this apparently ungainly mess was headed.   Luckily for me, that curiosity made me persevere and arrive at the final resolution where all the little pieces of information the author had scattered throughout the book came to fruition, not only where the identity of the serial killer was concerned, but more importantly where the haunting phenomena Aaron experiences finally paid off. And they did so in the most shockingly unforeseeable way.  I am not going to say any more because of spoilers, but I was pleasantly stunned by the way some sentences or some seemingly unrelated occurrences contributed to such an unexpected ending.

There is still a final consideration I need to share: the inciting incident for this novel comes from a very real and very personal event concerning the author, described in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. If you tend to skip these tidbits of information, don’t do it here, because these words will offer a further shade of meaning to the overall story.  One that confirms Ronal Malfi as one of the writers I must keep on my radar…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE EXILES TRILOGY KICKSTARTER

Readers of my blog may have seen past reviews concerning the works of Australian author Ashley Capes, whose novels are mainly focused on epic fantasy. Remember the Book of Never? This time I’m doing something different because Mr. Capes asked me to promote his kickstarter for the new series he’s working on: the Exiles Trilogy.

You will be able to find all information pertinent to the kickstarter HERE but I want to pique your curiosity with some intriguing details.  From the author’s own words, the trilogy is centered on the journey of four POV characters and their struggles after being exiled from their land, their homes and their loved ones. 

Each of them will have to deal with their own demons before it’s too late to come together and face down rapidly spreading darkness of the Moon Father, a pervasive creature behind the chaos in their lives.

These four characters sound quite intriguing, indeed:

Iggy was born without a face, forcing him to use his family’s psychokinesis on a perilous search to find a powerful deity who can help… at a cost.

Mei is desperate to protect her brother Iggy but as she follows him into banishment she finds herself tormented by divided loyalties. 

Anyo (known as the “beggar prince”) fights to win back his honour in bloodthirsty nation contemptuous of those who seek peace. 

Rokura, nobleman and assassin, must chase down rebels who have kidnapped a bastard prince, but soon finds he can no longer trust his King.

Books 1 and 2 of the saga are already in the advanced editing stage, while Book 3 still needs to be written: the expected publication date for the series is August 2023, and that’s where the kickstarted program comes into play, contributing to the editing costs and to the creation of the outstanding artwork that always accompanies Ashley Capes’ books.

Curious about those covers? Here is a preview peek at the artwork for Books 1 and 2:

The kickstarter campaign for the Exiles Trilogy ends on February 16th, so the clock is indeed ticking!  I hope that the goal will be met and that by August of this year we’ll be able to get to know these adventurous characters and their intriguing (if harsh…) world.

So I encourage you to visit the kickstarter link for this project and help turn it into reality. Thank you! 🙂

Reviews

FAIRY TALE, by Stephen King

Dear Mr. King,

I used to be one of your constant readers until several years ago, when a couple of disappointing books turned me away from your works, although I returned recently – mostly thanks to some reviews of your latest stories from my fellow bloggers – having discovered that you seemed to be back once again in the splendid form I enjoyed in the past.   So when your latest novel came out I did not think twice about adding it to my TBR, only to suffer an unwelcome return of that old deep disappointment.

Fairy Tale starts in a very promising manner, mostly because you choose to focus on one of the themes in which you excel, the friendship between a young boy and his crusty old neighbor: the juxtaposition between the naïveté of youth and the prickly wisdom of old age, here personified by 17-year old Charlie Reade and the elderly Mr. Bowditch, is portrayed in your usual wonderful, humorous way, and here the bond between them is also represented by Bowditch’s dog Radar, well-loved by both characters and a lovely addition to the story’s cast.  Charlie takes on the care of Mr. Bowditch after the latter’s hospitalization following a bad fall, a task the young man chooses to shoulder because of an earnest promise made in the past (and also as a form of atonement for some childish pranks he was responsible for). Fairly soon, however,  he notices that there is something weird going on in the closed shed located at the back of the garden, and after Mr. Bowditch’s demise, and the discovery that the old man willed his earthly possession to Charlie, the youth starts on a fantastical journey to another world accessed through a hole in the shed: Charlie and an ailing Radar travel to Empis in search of a magical sundial that’s able to turn back time and rejuvenate the old dog, but at the same time Charlie finds out that Empis is an imperiled world suffering under the rule of evil, and the boy is thrown into the role of Chosen One and savior of the realm…

You see, Mr. King, the first 150 pages of so of the novel were delightfully typical of your writing: I enjoyed Charlie’s back story, his need to grow up faster because of his mother’s early death and his father turning to drink to drown his despair, as I enjoyed the growing rapport between Charlie and Bowditch, the love for adorable Radar, the generational clash of two very different people who nonetheless manage to find a common ground and a basis for affection. I could have gone on reading about them for the whole length of the book, even though the weird noises coming from that shed did pique my curiosity and I looked forward to learning what kind of mystery – or horror – hid behind those doors.   And the first part of Charlie’s journey through that strange world still held my attention, mostly because I wanted him to succeed, to reach the magical sundial in time and save dear Radar.  But once that part of the quest was accomplished, things went rapidly downhill, and I felt as if I was reading a different book, written by a different author, not by you.

I’m very aware, Mr. King, that your novels tend to be lengthy, that you take your time in creating the scenery before letting us readers sink our proverbial teeth into the story proper, but the length of time and pages dedicated to Charlie’s unfortunate detention in Empis’ dungeons, waiting to be employed in some sort of perverted gladiatorial games, was frankly too much. Far too much.  And what about the emphasis about the dirtiness and squalor of the prison, or the guards’ cruelty?  We all know that dungeons are filthy, dark and horrible places, but was it really necessary to dwell so much on the… ahem… scarcity of sanitary implements in the cells, and the details of how the prisoners had to cope with what little was provided?  We all know that prison guards, particularly those in the employ of your usual Evil Lord, are quite unsavory characters, but was it really necessary to have them bask in their peculiar brand of jolly cruelty that only lacked a mustache to be twirled to complete such trite picture?  And what about some of the evil characters roaming in the doomed city? I found that your perseverance in the description of their bodily fluids or the obnoxious noises produced by any and all orifices went beyond grossness: if it wanted to be a means to stress the horror of the situation… well, what it did for me was to make me forget the horror and see only the base crudeness of it all.  Did you maybe want to make fun of those tropes Mr. King? Sorry, but to have a chance to work for me, irony should be light and pointed, and this was NOT the case…

And what about Charlie himself? Was it that same misplaced wish to parody some Fantasy themes that made you turn Charlie (who was already a bit too perfect to ring true) into a cut and dried Gary Stu? So much the fairytale hero that even his hair changed color and turned blonde to better fit the stereotype of the Savior Prince? Seriously?

And last but not least, there is one detail that truly bothered me: when Charlie reaches the realm of Empis, he finds out that he must be speaking another language, one more suited to a fantasy environment and therefore devoid of some terms and expressions typical of our day and age. All well and good, we SFF readers can accept something like that without batting an eyelash, since we’re used to suspend our disbelief: so why did you feel such a compelling need, Mr. King, to remind us so many times that Charlie uttered one specific word only to have it magically translated into Empis-speak?  Two or three examples would have been more than enough, because your readers are bright, imaginative people and know how to connect the dots: having them connected for them throughout the whole book is not simply annoying, it’s an insult to our intelligence.

I have to confess that when I reached past the middle of the book I started skipping ahead because I wanted to see how the story ended, but did not want to endure the whole journey, and when that still proved not to be enough, I skipped over the last 100-odd pages straight to the Epilogue, relieved to be literally out of the woods.  I’m sorry, Mr. King, because I wanted to like this book, I did indeed like it at the beginning, but once it turned into a crazy mess I could not take it anymore.  This does not mean that I will not read your next one, of course, only that I will try to be more careful with my expectations, in the hope that this is only a small bump in the road.

My Rating:

Reviews

CHILDREN OF MEMORY (Children of Time #3), by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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 have to confess that I approached this book with some hesitation: while I enjoyed Children of Time (despite the spiders, which is saying a lot!), I was less sanguine about Children of Ruin, mostly because of the pacing, which at times felt a little too slow for my tastes.  Children of Memory does suffer slightly from some pacing problems and from a few lengthy philosophical digressions, but the mystery at its core was so intriguing that it kept me motivated to read on until the very end.

Unlike its predecessors, this third installment in the series focuses more closely on humans, and in particular on the humans of an ark ship, the Enkidu, traveling the long distance toward one of the promised terraformed worlds with its huge cargo of frozen colonists. When they reach their destination, a planet they will name Imir, the ship has suffered grievous damage and lost a significant part of its cargo – both people and machinery destined to the creation of the colony – while the crew also discovers that the terraforming project partially failed its goal: Imir is a cold, harsh world with extreme weather patterns, and it will require an enormous effort to establish even the basic living conditions. 

After a temporal jump of a few generations, the novel follows the colonization of Imir through the eyes of Liff, a pre-teen girl whose strong spirit is fueled by fairy tales of adventures and great discoveries: thanks to Liff we learn that the colony never truly took off beyond mere survival in what looks like a frontier environment, the constant breakdown of modern tools and machinery forcing the colonists toward a more primitive society than the one they hoped for. What’s worse, there is a strange obsession in the populace toward “Watchers” or “Seccers”, i.e. people outside of their limited community, who might be actively working against its survival: although it seems more myth than reality, this belief fosters an acute climate of suspicion that verges toward paranoia.

A different narrative thread focuses on the small crew of an exploratory vessel from the arachnid/octopus/human civilization we encountered in the two previous books: having reached Imir they debate on the best way to approach the colony, deciding that one of them will try to monitor it in incognito, posing as one of the colonists from the outlying failed farmsteads: Miranda, a combination of human appearance and Nodan consciousness (the parasitic life-form discovered in the previous book) joins the people of Imir working as a teacher, and on her meeting with Liff forms a strong bond with the keenly curious young girl.

Here is where the strangeness begins, because we are presented with often contradictory evidence about life on the planet: several generations have elapsed since the first landing, and yet Liff seems to think about Captain Holt (the expedition leader) as her grandfather; or she is seen living with both her parents while in other narrative segments she’s an orphan living with her inattentive uncle, and so on.  This is the mystery that captured my attention and led me to wonder what was truly happening on Imir, not forgetting the further element of a strange signal coming from the planet that leads the onboard A.I. patterned on Earth scientists Avrana Kern (a constant presence throughout the series) to investigate it with the help of the new uplifted species of Corvids we get to know in Children of Memory.

It’s not easy to recap this novel in a handful of spoiler-free sentences, because this book is as complex as it is intriguing: the main attraction for me was the solution to the contradictory experiences of young Liff (and here I have to admit that my own theories did not even come close to the reveal), but there is much more here to keep a reader engrossed.  Faithful to the pattern exhibited so far, Adrian Tchaikovsky presents us with a new uplifted kind of creature, the Corvids from Rourke’s world, another planet that proved hostile to humanity but where these birds’ intelligence evolved in a unique pattern of paired individuals forming a collective whole and represented here by Gethli and Gothi, whose discussions about sentience are nothing short of fascinating, besides offering some sparks of humor thanks to their peculiarly worded exchanges that at times reminded me of the chorus elements in Greek tragedies.

Equally intriguing are the observations on the composite society originated by the joining of humans, arachnids, octopusses and Nodan parasites who have learned to coexist peacefully and create a space-faring society whose curiosity about the rest of the universe is the main drive toward exploration. In this respect, the human-looking Miranda is a perfect example of this commonwealth of species: her search for knowledge is somehow marred by the dichotomy between outward appearance and inner substance, which leaves room for some interesting, and at times poignant, considerations about self-image and identity.

The colony on Imir offers other chances of commentary on human nature: the regression to a more primitive way of life, forced by the lack of equipment, seems to have brought on a parallel regression in mindset, since the inhabitants of Landfall (the sole planetary settlement) look more like villagers from a Medieval era rather than the inheritors of a modern society. Their dread and distrust of the “other” (which comes from a very specific reason) brings about a tragic “us vs. them” mentality that is depicted in a few dramatic scenes which effectively display the dangers of mob mentality when paired with fear and ignorance.

Children of Memory is however slightly weighted down by some philosophical digressions on the nature of sentience, which are intriguing on their own but – in my opinion – take more space than necessary in consideration of the need to learn the solution to the mystery that Imir presents to the visitors. Still these digressions were not enough to keep me from forging on and reaching the intriguing reveal: if that was the challenge that the author presented to his readers, I can say that I was able to meet it head on 😉

My Rating: