The Dying of the Light – G.R.R. Martin

Dying-of-the-LightIn my search for more of the “magic” that is GRR Martin’s prose in his acclaimed saga A Song of Ice and Fire, I read some of his other works, discovering what an accomplished story-teller he can be even outside of the realms of Westeros, and how wide his narrative range can be.

Dying of the Light is one of these amazing finds.  Published for the first time in 1977 (his very first novel, I believe), it’s a science fiction story set on the rogue planet Worlorn: hurtling through space in its aimless course, for the first time since its creation the planet crosses a region densely packed with suns, and gets a chance for warmth and life, however fleeting.

The 14 existing galactic civilizations declare a Festival on Worlorn, each of them building a city to showcase their culture and its accomplishments: when the story begins, the Festival is long over, the cities mostly abandoned, the planet headed once more into the cold blackness of space.

From Worlorn Dirk t’Larien receives a whisperjewel – a psi-encoded memory storage from his former lover Gwen Delvano. It’s a summons, based on an old promise made when they both had the jewels crafted for them: never reconciled with the end of the relationship, Dirk departs for the rogue planet full of hope and dreams.  Once there, though, Gwen welcomes him with puzzlement, looking distant and ill-at-ease, and soon Dirk discovers she’s bound to another man, Jaan Vikary, a highborn from the aggressive and patriarchal society of High Kavalaan.  Now convinced that the summons was Gwen’s way to forever cut the ties with Dirk, saying a final goodbye, t’Larien slowly learns that Kavalar culture requires a woman to be little more than a chattel, to be shared between her mate and his teyn, a sort of blood brother, a bond that stands as the foundation of all things Kavalar.

The “marriage” is not an easy one, complicated by Jaan’s peculiar customs and his society’s preoccupation with racial purity and mutations, therefore Dirk slowly comes to the conclusion that the whisperjewel represented a mute appeal from Gwen to save her from the unhappy liaison.  The situation becomes more problematic as we learn that other Kavalars on Worlorn practice a form of hunt whose prey are the creatures they deem inferior and non-human, which includes everyone else by their standards, so that Jaan’s attempts at stopping the bloody sport and bringing his planet to a higher galactic standard further inflame the already volatile tempers.

Soon Dirk find himself enmeshed in a political and personal struggle, complicated by his feelings for Gwen and a slowly unfolding web of discoveries that create a fascinating cultural backdrop and change his world-view, leading to a breath-stopping open ending.

Even that early in his career GRR Martin could create spellbinding tapestries, dotted with beautiful characters that sport the many shades of gray I have come to expect from his writing.  Kavalar culture is fascinatingly explored in the juxtaposition between Jaan Vikary, the equivalent of a Renaissance man, and his teyn Garse Janacek, a man torn between duty to the old customs and his ties of loyalty and friendship to Jaan.  Strangely enough, despite the obvious shortcomings of their mind-set, I found them both more likable than the “hero” Dirk t’Larien, whose stubbornness and sometimes childish pique offer an interesting contrast that reveals Gwen’s unvoiced doubts and regrets.  Gwen herself is a wonderful creation: a woman still in search of herself, she seems to be wandering aimlessly through her life (much like the rogue planet where the action takes place), taking life and warmth from the suns she passes by. But in the end she surprises the readers with an unsuspected show of strength, as ultimately does Dirk, whose changes and inner growth take us to the very last pages of the book.

If you like George Martin’s works, this one will not disappoint you: you will find many of the themes he further explored in the ASOIAF saga, together with spellbinding writing that often touches on the lyrical, and a fascinating story that will reserve many revelations.

My Rating: 7,5/10


Crimson and Cream – C.M. Skiera

Crimson & CreamI received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

First things first: this book’s target feels definitely YA to me, even though the back-cover blurb is not very specific about it. I wish I had known or better understood this beforehand, because I’m a few decades past the optimal age to appreciate this specific  sub-genre, so this is bound to color my point of view on the story.

Crimson and Cream is both a hero’s journey and a coming-of-age tale, following the adventures of young Jetsam as he searches for his lost roots and the possible chance of avenging his parents’ death. In a city where magic has been banned by law (a very interesting take on the subject), Jetsam’s magician parents have been killed to set an example, forcing him and his twin brother Flotsam to eke out a hand-to-mouth existence in the town’s underground tunnels. This is one of the themes I thoroughly enjoyed, because the descriptions of the urchin band the twins have attached themselves to are quite vivid and it’s impossible not to feel deep sympathy for characters as Ratboy or Mole, while it’s far too easy to picture them in all their rag-tag defiance and ingenuity.

When Jetsam is forced to leave the city that’s been his whole world, to avoid a determined bounty hunter and also to shed some light on his own past, the story takes on a more fantastic flavor, spiced with wizards, trolls, dragons and – of course – magic.  It’s a cruel world, though, or at the very least one where the young are exploited, or treated as commodities, so the main character must grow fast and develop a thicker skin. Not to mention some cunning that must take him beyond the relatively simple survival skills that served him well until that moment: nothing, in his previous life as a “tunnel rat”, really prepared Jetsam for what he finds outside. In the course of this adventure, the boy will make some incredible discoveries, not least about himself and – possibly – his destiny, which will be without doubt explored in the next installments of this series.

The book is fast-paced and intriguing, and it was a pleasant read even though, as I said at the beginning, not my “cup of tea” anymore: the YA feel is quite evident in narrative elements like the pairing of Jetsam with a canine companion prone to cute antics, the main character’s natural empathy and kindness toward other creatures and the presence of beings like the wood nymph he encounters at the beginning of his travels.  The negative side of this background (from a personal perspective, of course) comes from the stark black or white nature of the characters, who can be either good or bad, with no allowance for shades of gray in between, so that we are afforded only a lighter scrutiny on what makes them tick; or the repetition of information already presented to the readers, no doubt to remind a younger audience of what transpired before.

On a “technical” note, this is indeed a well-written book, devoid of typos, misspelled words or mixed tenses – which speaks of a careful editing that’s not always a given with independent authors, and for which this specific author must receive full credit and praise. There are however a few peculiar quirks to his writing, like an abundance of adjectives that, especially in action sequences, tend to weigh down the narrative flow, or the use of inner thoughts in italics: there are a few too many, according to my tastes, and they tend to be distracting.  Also, I’d like to mention the constant use of the word “discern” where “see” would have been more than enough, or “comprehend” instead of “understand” – it’s not a real complaint on my part, of course, but still… I find it curiously quaint.

All in all, a good book to introduce the younger readership to the genre, and one I would strongly recommend for that purpose.

My Rating: 7,5/10


Besieged – Rowena Cory Daniells

BesiegedThe first time I heard about this book – and trilogy – was on Dragons, Heroes and Wizards where the series was reviewed in its entirety: as it often happens to me, I experienced a sort of mental click that told me it could be a great book, so I added it to my reading queue. Instincts proved once more to be right on target.

Before I start with my review I need to thank Shari Mulluane from DHW for the precise layout of this imaginary world, that helped me find my bearings in no time at all: this is a complicated landscape, and I’ve seen that many readers complained about the difficulty of understanding who was who – and what.  The review that pushed me toward this book proved extremely helpful in clarifying those complicated relationships for me, so I was able to dive immediately into the story.

Besieged shows us a divided world, whose divisions are not just racial, but also religious, political and – above all – mental. There are three races, in constant conflict: the self-styled True Men (or Mieren), who act as masters and rulers of the world, looking at others with contempt and undisguised feelings of superiority; the T’En (or Wyrds), humanoids with some peculiar characteristics like silver hair, mulberry-colored eyes and six fingers – not to mention some magical/mystical powers they call “gifts” that allow them to perform otherwordly feats and to access the “Empyrean Plane”, a sort of parallel, dangerous world with physical laws of its own; and the half-bloods (or Malaunje) a mix of the previous two: despised by Men and protected by the T’En, even though looked on mostly as inferior.  The Malaunje represent one of the great mysteries of the story, because we learn early on that a half-blood child can be born from two human parents, which would seem to point out to a shared blood in the past: of course the True Men prefer to consider these children abominations, or the result of illicit pairings, rather than take any alternative into account, and the T’En don’t seem to think about it at all.  Hopefully the next installments in the series will shed more light on this intriguing matter.

The divisions don’t end here, of course: True Men are hardcore misogynists, in a way that really sets my teeth on edge, so their society is split between a male power base and… the rest.  The T’En, for their part, also experience a gender split, inherited from massive gift-related upheavals in the past: it’s not a matter of superiority, but rather of a different philosophy in approaching the way the gifts are handled, one that requires a further split where child rearing is involved.  Children are handed over to T’En sisterhoods to be raised by foster mothers, and the males are then returned to the brotherhoods only from the age of seventeen.  All these enforced divisions, and separations, provide for very little happiness in this world.

A world that is harsh, cruel. Even in the more enlightened T’En sisterhoods, power games are the expected norm, even when they don’t take the bloody overtones of the male brotherhoods. Yet it’s a constant strife for supremacy where no one can be really safe. And it’s much worse in the cities of True Men, where the cruelty, indifference and power plays at the top create a social and cultural domino effect on the whole populace.

This is the background where the two main characters are born: Sorne, the Malaunje son of a True Man king, and Imoshen, the daughter of a powerful brotherhood’s All-Father.  For different reasons they are not sent on their respective paths, but are both reared in seclusion to serve the purpose of the people they belong to. From the very start they are shown as victims, especially Sorne who can be viewed as a case-in-study of Stockholm Syndrome: he not only has been removed and isolated from his people (and tortured and mistreated, to boot), he’s been led to believe and accept the lies fed to him, to the point that he makes justifications for them and wallows constantly in the conviction of his own lack of worth, making him a very tragic figure.  Not that Imoshen fares any better, having to constantly review what she knows about the world, and herself, and to adjust to that shifting knowledge.

Such a fascinating, multi-layered background, supports a quick, fast-paced narrative that often changes focus between those two main characters and several minor ones: these elements make for a mesmerizing and addictive story, one that kept me glued to the book, breathless and spellbound.  The author’s choice of leaving her readers the effort of discovering the workings of this world along with the unfolding of the story is – from my point of view – a winning strategy: since I don’t enjoy being “spoon-fed” when I’m reading a book, I prefer having to assemble the puzzle by myself, piece by piece. In my opinion this way there is more room for character and story development.   Even the violence – and there is a lot of it – is suggested rather than graphically shown: I’m not squeamish (not after having “trained” with GRR Martin, Joe Abercrombie and Richard Morgan, just to name a few, and these authors never use gratuitous violence to be truthful) but still I prefer that the blood and gore is kept in the sidelines.

The book is not exempt from some flaws though: minor ones, like many vowel-intensive and others that seem crafted to make your tongue stumble, even when the reading happens in your mind (Matxin being a prime example) – nothing major, but still distracting; and the black-and-white distinction between True Men and T’En, with the former embodying the worst personal characteristics you could think of for a living being (ruthless, often needlessly cruel, narrow-minded and misogynists to the core), while the latter, even though they feud for power, often staging bloody internecine wars, are more open minded, more “noble” in outlook. I would have preferred a few shades of gray there, to see characters grow on their own rather than be just archetypal representations of vices and virtues.  But there is something that really nagged at me: after the two thirds mark in the book, the writing becomes somewhat… awkward, for want of a better word. Shorter sentences that lead to a halting narrative flow, repetition of information already given, a general shallowness in characterization and world-building.  At times it made me think that another person had taken up the writing in comparison with the previous sections, or that the author had grown bored with her own story.  I would really try and understand if it’s just me, or if other readers did notice something along these lines.

There is however a great deal of potential in this story, and that’s what will keep me reading on – if nothing else because the book ends in a cliffhanger.  A big one…

My Rating 7.5/10


Cibola Burn – James S. A. Corey

cibola burnI approached this new book in my favorite space-opera series with a mix of excitement and apprehension: no need to explain the former, of course, but the latter came from the fear that after a compelling trilogy the authors might somehow slacken their pace. So it’s with extreme satisfaction that I can now say that Cibola Burn maintains the same level of excellence of its predecessors and even manages to surpass them – not a mean feat, indeed.

The narrative thread of the alien protomolecule, that was the principal device in the first three books in the series, now takes second place in favor of a more human focus: after opening a gate near Uranus, one that led toward uncountable habitable worlds, the alien construct almost fades in the background of humanity’s expansionist struggle.  A ship of refugees from Ganymede lands on Earth-like Ilus, establishing a colony and starting mining operations on the planet’s rich lithium deposits. The major corporations also send a scientific mission that is in truth the attempt at a foothold on the new world, provoking the colonists’ dramatic reaction. The UN and OPA (Outer Planets Alliance) decide to send Holden and the Rocinante’s crew as mediators before the situation escalates beyond control. The problem is, the planet itself also becomes a player, and soon enough all hell breaks loose.

In the first trilogy the social and political tension between older and more established power bases and the colonies of the Asteroid did play a major role, with the almost-racial slur attached to being a Belter – different in body, thinner and elongated due to life in microgravity; and different in language, an almost incomprehensible dialect concocted from many Earth dialects – creating new kinds of chasm among humans.

Here that tension comes to the fore in a most dramatic way.  When the RCE (Royal Charter Energy) mission lands on Ilus, the confrontation between them and the Belter colonists goes beyond the struggle for the rights to exploit the planet’s resources and turns into a racial war: so far from civilized space, where there are no laws and no one to enforce them, only the strongest, most determined and – of course – more ruthless can hold sway.   One of the more chilling segments of the book is the one where the RCE ship’s technicians start training in a sort of militia that keeps ready in case of insurrection from the despised Belter members of the crew.  The “us and them” mentality, the growing suspicions, the plans for wanton destruction as a means to annihilate the “enemy”,  all add to an already explosive mix.

This power keg he’s been sent to defuse acts on Holden’s behavior in an unexpected and interesting way: until now, we’ve seen him as a man with a strong moral compass and willing to go out of his way to do what he perceives as right. Yet the situation on Ilus is all but clean-cut, and the need to deal with many shades of gray and conflicting sympathies tests Holden’s mettle in more ways than one.  I must admit that this new uncertainty made him a more sympathetic character in my eyes: the larger-than-life aura that past events created around him, somehow obscured the real nature of the man. Here, tested by warring loyalties, the drives of his conscience and several life-threatening circumstances, the real person comes through more clearly, and he becomes far more likable than he appeared in the past.

On the other hand, Murtry – his main opponent and RCE’s chief of security, is the kind of villain everyone loves to hate: a man with a single focus, one who doesn’t care about collateral damage as long as the job gets done. I enjoyed this part of his character and the way he didn’t change even when the situation on Ilus hit him as hard as anyone else – to do otherwise would have represented a betrayal of his psychological makeup, IMHO, so I appreciated this choice. What I didn’t like were the shades of mustache-twirling that appeared now and then: for me they detracted from the general effect, even though they were not enough to ruin a well-thought-out personality.

Speaking of characters, the whole crew of the Rocinante is put through the grinder here, not just Holden: this small, tightly-knit group has always been the main driving force of the story, so it’s interesting to see them separated by the circumstances, having to rely on other people and therefore tested as individuals rather than the family they have grown into. It’s not just a fascinating look at their personalities, it’s also a great narrative choice that keeps raising already hight stakes.  Yes, because the authors here spared no punches: there were several instances where I literally cried out in dismay at the new dangers the characters were forced to face.  The main strength of the novel, and its main page-turning impulse, come exactly from this terrifying escalation that plays out as entirely believable – both in storytelling and in pacing – and leads you to the conclusion through a breathless chain of events.

And last but not least, the final chapter opens a totally new scenario, one that made me understand that this book – good as it was – was just laying the ground for more, much more.  On one side I was happy to see again Bobbie Draper and Crisjen Avarasala, two of my favorite characters from previous novels, on the other, the conversation between them and Avarasala’s words about the real motivation for sending Holden to Ilus changed the rules of the game in a major way. What awaits the readers in the next installments is an unexpected scenario that promises more trouble than whatever the protomolecule might have generated.

If you have not approached The Expanse until now, I urge you to do that: it’s rare to find a series that manages to reinvent itself with each new book, and rarer still to find one that knows how to keep storytelling fresh and engrossing. Here you will find all this, and more.

My Rating: 9/10