Monthly Archives: August 2014
I will be away with no internet connection for the next 10 days or so, which means I will not be able to authorize comments or reply to any request that comes from the contact form. I will resume normal activity on my return.
Thanks for your patience…
The 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
I 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