Reviews

The Warded Man – Peter Brett

I’ve had this book on my radar for quite some time now, but it kept being shuffled down my reading list in favor of other titles.  Now that I finally got around to it, I’m sorry I waited so long – even though I can comfort myself with the notion that in the meantime two other books in the series have been published, so I can look forward to lose myself into this world once again.

The premise of the book is interestingly unusual: each night, as darkness reclaims the world, demonic creatures rise from the ground to attack and kill people, whose only defense are magic symbols (“wards”) painted or etched on doors and walls.    Precious little is given to the reader about these demons and it’s mostly the stuff of long-forgotten legends or a sort of religious dogma, but what’s fascinating here are the hints about a different, more advanced and pro-active past. What’s interesting is that the demons all seem to be related to natural elements like wind, water, fire, stone and so on, which makes me wonder if there is not some connection to that more technologically-oriented past and if these creatures are not the result of some experiment gone horribly wrong. The occasional mention of “the arrogance of our ancestors” would seem to point in that direction.

The first impression that comes out of this situation is that of a divided humanity, broken into settlements whose distance from one another is measured not by space but by the time it takes to cross between them: anything that’s further than a day’s travel is deemed dangerous if not deadly, because only Messengers dare to brave the night and its demons, thanks to their hard training, courage and portable wards – and even those measures don’t offer the certainty of survival.

Unfortunately, when past history transforms (or de-evolves) into legends, the glories of that past become something to look at with wonder while they cease to become the inspiration for a more aggressive stance against the plague of demons.  The physical division I was mentioning before seems to have robbed most people of the will to fight, as they focus more on survival and therefore seem headed toward stagnation, and ultimately defeat if – as it’s often mentioned – their numbers are dwindling while the demons keep coming out of the depths in inexhaustible numbers.

The three protagonists of the book are indeed shaped to become the force that will break this stalemate, and the reason I enjoyed reading their individual stories is that not one of them is depicted as hero material or predestined savior, in the “honored tradition” of fantasy literature: their lives are quite ordinary, though liberally touched with grief and loss that shape their personalities and direct their actions. The author’s choice of developing the story through their separate points of view makes for a fast pace and keeps the narration interesting: in a way this choice mirrors the separation that keeps humans distant from each other, and so the three main characters grow in ignorance of the others’ existence.

Even though this kind of story-telling can be at times frustrating, because it’s undeniable that once launched on a track a reader wants to know “what happens next”, still this constant change of point of view held  my eager attention and kept me marching through the book at a fast clip.  Even though it’s clear from early on that the three are destined to meet, the fact that their encounter is postponed until almost the end of the book – and that it happens in very dramatic circumstances – adds a further measure of attraction to the story-line.

Since the protagonists receive the author’s focused attention throughout the book, at times the “guest characters” somewhat suffer from a lack of depth (with a few notable exceptions like one of my very favorites, herb gatherer Bruna) even though they move through the story with ease and believability.

But of course the scene needs to be dominated by Arlen, Leesha and Rojer, whose lives we follow from childhood on: of the three I must admit that Arlen is the most interesting one, especially because Mr. Brett chooses a peculiar path of evolution for him, one that does not necessarily lead to enlightenment and glory but rather moves downward on some dark roads, so that it’s clear he needs the other two to remain in contact with his humanity.  This is true, however, for Leesha and Rojer as well, each in his or her own way, and I like very much the idea of a… chorus of heroes working in unity, rather than the solitary figure that would be the norm in this kind of story.

This focus on characters works somewhat against the development of the world’s background as well as that of the minor players, but still I think that the glimpses readers are afforded are more than enough to let the imagination fill in the rest: Mr. Brett does a wonderful work of showing instead of telling (a quality I admire and enjoy), and there is always the hope that the next books will add more details to the overall picture, building on the foundations that have been laid in this first installment. To say I look forward to more of this would be a huge understatement…

My Rating: 8/10

Reviews

Downton Abbey: Season 1 Scripts – Julian Fellowes

Despite my abiding interest for speculative fiction, now and then I enjoy stepping off my well-traveled paths to sample something different, and this is one of those instances…

When I received this book as a Christmas gift I was very pleased, because I knew it would offer me the opportunity to revisit the first season of one of the best shows I’ve ever encountered, a well-written, carefully plotted and wonderfully portrayed little masterpiece.

As I read on, I discovered that the revisitation was just the tip of the iceberg: the footnotes added by the show’s creator Julian Fellowes are much more interesting than the episodes themselves, as they relate the day-to-day choices in the filming of the series as well as conveying many fascinating details on the period’s customs and social interactions.

I would go as far as saying that after a while I focused less on the scripts and more on the commentaries, actively looking for them rather than refreshing my memory on the story-lines.

The time frame of the show – the very beginning of the 20th Century, starting in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic – was a time of great changes, the birth of the modern world if you want, and the microcosm of the residence where the action takes place is a faithful mirror of those changes, and of the forces that either propel them forward or try to stop them.

Fellowes gives the readers a historical context for the story unfolding on the screen, and also a more important social one, explaining the complex web of relationships between the Crawleys and the house staff, and the inner dynamics of both groups. Many of those dynamics appear strange, if not downright silly or outrageous, to our modern sensibility, but the way the author puts them in relation with the period’s mentality helps the readers better understand where they come from and how they fit into the narrative.

One of the pillars of this informative corpus of notes is Fellowes’ constant praise of the actors for their contribution in creating depth and believability for their characters, while the author’s admiration for Ms. Maggie Smith – in my opinion the best of them all – shines clearly through in several places.

Even more interesting are the fascinating minutiae concerning the production itself, like the need to keep a close watch on the way the actors gave life to their characters, and therefore avoid mistakes in their portrayal.  One such example remains fixed in my memory: Fellowes speaks of a particular scene in which Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) did not rise from his seat when Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess) came into the room.  For a man of that era it would have been unthinkable to remain seated when a lady, and especially one of high standing as the Countess, entered a room, but the author sadly admits that it’s by now a long-lost habit, and that he had to re-shoot the scene to correct the mistake.

This is just one of the many details, big and small, that made me appreciate even more the huge amount of work and dedication that went into the creation of this amazing production, and helped me to better understand the reasons for the huge, and well deserved, success of the series.

Reviews

Revisiting old favorites: The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold

Some time ago I embarked on a re-read of this series, one of my all-time favorites, and discovered that the intervening years have only  enhanced my enjoyment of the story, of Ms. Bujold’s writing style and of her approach to important social issues.

It might be somewhat difficult to characterize this series: some have labeled it as “space opera”, others as “military sci-fi”, and so on, but the truth is that there is a bit of every sub-genre one can think about in Bujold’s work, combined into a well-structured, compelling story that grows and expands with each successive book, gaining in power and depth as it entertains its readers.

The hero – or better, anti-hero – of the saga is  Miles Vorkosigan, born with serious physical impediments on a world that makes strength and military prowess the pillars of society. Far from being crushed by his disabilities, Miles fights against them all his life, driven by the need to prove himself, sometimes beyond the limits of human endurance. He does indeed manage, through sheer force of will and great intelligence, to emerge and carve a place for himself, all the while regaling us with fun, exciting and wonderful adventures.

What I love most about Ms. Bujold’s writing is that it flows along simple lines while at the same time managing to convey deep meanings and touch on significant themes: the mark of her ability is in the down-to-earth approach that needs no preaching to drive her meaning through.

Above all, Bujold’s work is… well, “trans-generational” is the best way I can describe it: Miles’ adventures can be quite satisfying both to young adults (to whom they can teach a great deal without ever being pedantic) as well as to older people. The style of writing is such that it can be enjoyed no matter your age or your preferences.

One of the reasons this character grows so quickly on his audience is that we look at the world through his eyes, experience his outer troubles and inner turmoil in a direct way. Far from self-commiserating on his shortcomings (even though they cut deeply), Miles faces them with wry, sarcastic humor that’s often more mature than his years. What’s more important, he’s not one those stereotyped “boy geniuses” that we often encounter in books and tv, the ones that breeze through obstacles as if they weren’t there, the ones, let’s admit it, that we love to hate.  Miles is fallible, he constantly doubts himself and he makes mistakes, sometimes fatal ones. His path is one of constant strife, against his shortcomings and against himself, and his victories are more often than not tainted by painful losses. This must indeed be one of the reasons Bujold’s readers learn to care so much about him.

Once I encountered a sentence that sums up quite effectively this character: he happens on people – usually unsuspecting ones – and he changes their lives forever, whether they want it or not. This is true both for the fictional people in the stories and for the readers, especially those – like me – who rediscover his old stories or greet new ones with the same enthusiasm reserved for a dear friend.

Reviews

Red Rising – Pierce Brown

Powerful. This is probably the best word with which to define this surprising book: not so much for the story itself, or the motivations that drive the main character – these are tropes I’ve encountered before – but for the way the tale is told. The language is stark, almost pared down to essentials, and yet it manages to convey a great deal of emotion, even in its deceptively remote way.

But let’s proceed with order: in the bowels of Mars live the Reds – miners who drill for Helium-3, the substance that will render the planet’s terraforming possible. They live harsh, brutally short lives, but are told repeatedly that their sacrifice will pave the way for future generations – unfortunately it’s all a lie, as Darrow, the main character, discovers in the worst possible way. Mars has been terraformed for generations, and the privileged live on the surface in comfort while others are enslaved in darkness – both real and metaphorical.

On the wake of personal tragedy, Darrow is recruited by a rebel group to impersonate a Gold – the higher caste in a rigidly structured society – and to try and break the cycle of slavery and lies from within the system.

Rage and hatred are Darrow’s main motivators, for the losses he had to endure, for the lies he was fed all his life, and these emotions drive him over the obstacles he has to overcome. Yet his anger and loathing are not always focused toward the outside, because he realizes soon enough that to blend in with his enemy he has to become that enemy as well – speak like them, act like them, even think like them.  As he forges ahead toward his goal, he feels the growing distance between his past, his old self, and the person he needs to become. And he despises that person as much as he despises the pampered exploiters among whom he’s gone to live.

As if that were not enough, in time he finds out that some of them are capable of friendship and loyalty just as much as his own people down below, and this further unbalances his perceptions.

For these very reasons I found Darrow’s character quite unusual: he’s not a standard hero, he’s not driven by noble ideals – at the beginning he wants vengeance, pure and simple, and he does shift his focus only through prolonged contact with the above-ground world and the realization that even the Golds’ path to power is as crooked as the rules enforced on the Reds.  By the end of this first book (yes, it’s a trilogy) Darrow feels more like a player in the power game he’s been called to play, and less of a tool – one wonders of course how much of the old Darrow still survives after the experiences he’s gone through, and what other challenges will wait down the line.  It will be an interesting journey indeed.

Much as I liked this book, I have to admit it’s not immune from some failings: the central part does sag a little, slowing down from the tight pace with which the story began, while there’s not enough time (in my opinion) devoted to Darrow’s transformation into a Gold, one of the elite.  I read some comments about the almost ridiculous ease with which a simple, uncouth miner is morphed into one of the ruling class, and I tend to agree with them: the author almost breezes over the long, often excruciating process that involves genetic manipulation and surgery as well as intense schooling, as if he were in a hurry to get to the field trials that, on the other hand, take too much page space.

Despite this blemish, the story is compelling and enjoyable, and kept me on edge for much of its length. One of the best features comes from the author’s very light hand with graphic violence: since the theme is unavoidable, considering the subject matter, I applaud Mr. Brown’s choice to mention it without indulging in gory details.  I’m looking forward to his next book.

My rating: 7.5/10

Reviews

Indexing – Seanan McGuire

A new book by Seanan McGuire (or Mira Grant, depending on the genre) is something I always look forward to since I discovered this prolific and imaginative author, and this one was no exception. It was originally published as a serial on Kindle, then released as a single book – much better from my point of view, because I don’t take well to waiting between installments.

The original concept is intriguing: what we know as fairy tales are just different aspects of reality that keep trying to intrude in our primary world, more often than not wreaking some kind of havoc, and a secret government agency works to keep the balance. What’s interesting is that most of these agents are fairy tale material themselves, somewhat “frozen” before their narrative can develop its dangerous potential.

As I’ve come to expect from McGuire’s books, the story (or rather, stories) develops on the fine line between drama and humor – the latter often tinged with dark overtones. Unfortunately the serialized aspect of this work seems to prevent a deeper insight into what makes the main characters tick, and they look a little less defined than what I’ve come to expect after enjoying her October Daye or Incryptid series.

The book is however a quick and entertaining read, and the character of Sloane – the archetype for the Wicked Stepsister – became soon my favorite, since I can’t resist a nasty-tempered, often foul-mouthed kick-ass heroine. My only regret is that McGuire has declared there will be no further issues – at least for now – in this series, and this is a pity because I know that her world-building gets better over time and “practice”, and here I’ve seen a huge potential that needs to be tapped and explored more fully.

Hopefully the future will bring some better news…

My rating: 6.5/10

Reviews

The Affinity Bridge – George Mann

I’m of two minds about this book: on one side it was a quick, not unpleasant read, different enough in genre from my usual haunts to be interestingly new; on the other I felt it lacked something – maybe a deeper exploration of the characters, or maybe the willingness to push the envelope a bit further.

The beginning drew me in immediately, with its vivid descriptions of an alternate London at the beginning of the 20th Century, and the presentation of several narrative threads that in the end fused into one big mystery (with zombies, to boot!); and yet toward the middle of the book it all felt a little… stale, for want of a better word, or maybe predictable, and something very close to disappointment settled on me.

One of the two main characters, Veronica Hobbes, is quite interesting and does not suffer from any cliché of the genre: she is indeed a daring heroine yet she suffers from some human failings, and that makes her both believable and likable. Her counterpart Sir Maurice Newbury, on the other hand, has too many points in common with Sherlock Holmes (including a dependence on drugs) to appear truly original.

If the action scenes are quite good, showing the author can build up the narrative tension when he feels like it, they are offset by long explanatory dialogues that do nothing to move the pace – and the story – along.

Those dialogues also feel a little stilted, as if the author were trying hard to conform to the historical period’s speech patterns: he does not do it in a convincing way, though, so that it all feels contrived rather than natural. To make matters worse, at least from my point of view, the repeated use of the term “whilst” transformed soon into an annoyance that kept drawing me further out of the narrative.

It was not enough to make me stop reading, and I did indeed finish the book, but not even an unexpected turn in the epilogue managed to offset that anti-climatic dissatisfaction. I’m more than ready to admit that the fault must lie with me and my tastes, but no matter what, I’m not sure I will be reading any more stories in this series…

My rating: 5/10

Reviews

An Autumn War – Daniel Abraham

This third installment of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet is definitely more than the sum of its predecessors, both of them outstanding books: where the first two parts of this series introduced the world in which the action unfolds, and fleshed out the characters peopling it, An Autumn War brings all these elements to fruition in a tale that is both enthralling and satisfying.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this series has been the notion of the andats, the anthropomorphic manifestations of complex thoughts or ideas summoned to life by the “poets”, specially trained people able to give them substance and control them. Andats like Seedless – the creature that can “remove the part that continues” and is employed by the cotton growers to remove the seed from raw cotton so that the weavers can easily process the material; or Stone-Made-Soft, dedicated to mining and effortless tunneling. These constructs require a constant vigilance though, because like all unwilling slaves they hunger for freedom and are not averse to dangerous or deadly trickery.

The Khaiem, the eastern-like, feudal culture deployed over several city-states, has used the andats for generations, relying on them to the point that no other way of life is deemed possible, to the point that the loss of a city’s andat means ruin and decadence. While their historical adversaries, the Galt, see the creatures as a danger and an obstacle to progress, and are determined to rid the world of them.

This is the nature of the conflict built over the previous two books and that finds here its culmination: what is fascinating is that the main opponents – Otah, Khai of the city-state of Machi and General Gice, the Galt commander bent on destroying the andats – are both honorable men, and likeable, complex characters, who want the best for their own peoples. The unexpected, tragic way in which the conflict is resolved opens the road to future promising developments, since the aftermath will require huge adjustments from both cultures. The last book in the saga will no doubt be quite interesting…

The more I read of Abraham’s work, the more I appreciate his storytelling style, simple and elegant, with rich descriptions that paint a complex, fascinating picture. The best feature of this saga comes from his choice to forgo the usual (and in my opinion over-used) medieval-like setting, to create a culture resembling that of ancient Japan – complete with structured hand gestures (“poses”) that convey subtle layers of meaning. This new approach, combined with a minimal but expressive prose, makes for a compelling reading that never fails to leave me wanting for more.

My rating: 8/10