Monthly Archives: July 2015

Review: A CROWN FOR COLD SILVER – Alex Marshall

CCS4-armyI started this book with great expectations, because some of the reviews I read promised the kind of story I enjoy, that of an interesting character journey in an epic setting: Cobalt Zosia used to be a general who had conquered the world, but at some point decided to fake her death, hiding in the anonymity of quiet rural life with her lover. For twenty years she has enjoyed this life, until her husband and the inhabitants of her village are massacred by army rogues, so she decides to take back her old identity and seek vengeance, first tracking the five mercenary captains that made her inner circle, and then trying to re-build her army.

As far as beginning go, a very promising one: I even commented on a fellow blogger’s review post that the setting somehow reminded me of Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, a book I greatly enjoyed, and the fact that the main character is an older woman added further interest, because it did not obey the genre’s usual “rules”.  Unfortunately, the premise did not hold up to the promised epic adventure I was expecting.  For starters, I thought the story would be focused on Zosia, and her quest for retribution: what I found, instead, was a long, winding tale about a great number of characters moving around the world in apparent aimlessness.  What’s worse, at some point Zosia, on her quest to reconnect with her former allies, abruptly disappeared from the scene, only to come up again in the most unexpected and unexplained way after some two hundred pages.   Other characters suffered a similar fate, starting in an intriguing way and then fading in the background or failing to keep my interest alive: it’s entirely possible that the many different threads scattered about would have come together in the end, but after laboring past the midway point of the book I could not take it anymore and I stopped reading – what’s worse, I did not even feel curious enough to try and skip ahead to see if the pace picked up again.

Because that’s the main problem I encountered with A Crown for Cold Silver: the pace is very uneven, quick and compelling at rare times and slow and pondering the rest of the way. The style does not fare much better, because it tries to find a middle ground between grim-dark and darkly humorous, but in my opinion with little success.  And the world building suffers a similar fate: there are many different cultures in this world, and they all have the potential to be interesting if not downright fascinating, but to my eyes they are not explored enough – there were times when I wondered if I was missing some hints from a previous book, because I had the distinct impression that there were some inside references I was not made privy to.

While I don’t enjoy books where the author spoon-feeds the readers, providing them with such abundance of details that the story becomes buried under them, I also like to catch some glimpses of the world I’m reading about, glimpses that either point to a larger picture or help me “connect the dots” on my own.  Here I constantly felt as if I’d been left out of the information loop, so to speak, and people were talking over my head, uncaring of the fact that I could not follow the conversation.

Sadly disappointing.

My Rating: 5/10

Review: MASTER OF PLAGUES – E.L. Tettensor

22668721Many say that the most difficult endeavor for a writer is to produce an effective sequel to a highly successful book: it would indeed seem to be the case with Master of Plagues that in my opinion struggles to hold up to its predecessor Darkwalker.  Don’t misunderstand me, it’s still a good, engaging book and I enjoyed it, but it felt less… absorbing, for want of a better word.   Somehow it lacked the sense of urgency and impending doom conveyed by Darkwalker, even though the story itself is quite dramatic.

The city of Kennian is threatened by a plague (one that’s chillingly similar to modern-day Ebola) that starts in poorer areas like the Camp, a cluster of tents and ramshackle dwellings for the less fortunate: due to the distance from the city and the indifference of the authorities, since the first victims are considered the dregs of society, the plague starts spreading almost unhindered – until the death toll reaches such levels as to force the powers that be to take notice.

This is one of the most fascinating sides of the book: the social dynamics drawn by the author are so rooted in reality as to present a chilling mirror of our more modern, but still selectively blind, way of thinking.  The “good citizens” of Kennian at first comfort themselves with the notion that the dreary living conditions of the Camp must be responsible for the affliction, and the city’s mayor – a sadly ineffective idiot in love with the sound of his voice – believes that a police cordon will be enough to keep the townspeople safe from infection, without a second thought about the effect of a lessened police presence in the city itself.   When the plague starts to spread beyond the barricade, and the old wisdom of Adali healers is called into play with some success, the established physicians scoff at such notions labeling them as superstition, allowing prejudice to blind them to the only shred of hope for their patients.

This is the elusive enemy that Lenoir and his deputy Kody must fight, even before they realize the plague is not a natural occurrence but the work of a twisted mind: it’s a battle waged on several fronts, against the mastermind who started it all, against the petty criminals who try to take advantage of a volatile situation and above all against the stubborn narrow-mindedness of the authorities.   And this is where I failed to sense the pressure that such a situation should have entailed: even with a growing body count, general unrest and fear and the addition of a fire that sweeps through the city in a devastating wave, I somehow never had the sensation that the main characters were truly in jeopardy, that a dire outcome was looming on the horizon.

Both Kody and young Zach – the street urchin who works as Lenoir’s informant – find themselves in life-threatening circumstances for example, but my definite impression, without spoiling either story-line, is that both of them come out of it far too easily: there is none of the urgency I felt when Zach was kidnapped in the previous book and Lenoir scoured the city in search of him, on the contrary he’s not even aware that the boy is in any peril and that particular situation is resolved in a way I found quite unsatisfying.

Despite these purely personal misgivings, Master of Plagues expands on the characters we encountered in the first novel, adding new facets and new depth to each of them: one of the segments I most appreciated was the encounter between Kody and young Zach, where the juxtaposition of the sometimes innocent certainties of the former and the street wisdom of the latter gives way to an interesting comparison. Kody, the grown-up man, the experienced police hound, appears far more naïve than the child who disavows him of some of his certainties, especially where human nature is concerned, and Lenoir looks quite amused – in his own way – by this exchange between the two people he most cares about. There is another scene that speaks loudly of the change in relationship between the inspector and his deputy: when Lenoir scolds Kody about his lack of initiative it’s a positive rebuke, one aimed at encouraging the man’s professional growth and showing that Leonoir is getting out of the pernicious disinterest and disillusionment we saw hanging over him in the previous book.

The character that most shines through is that of Merden, the Adali soothsayer who helped Lenoir understand the Darkwalker and now takes an active role in the attempts to cure the plague: Merden is a wonderful blend of wisdom, humor and bedrock support both for his people and for the Inspector.  What I like about him is that he takes in stride the obstacles placed in his way by prejudice, never taking an aggressive or angered stance: he possesses such a steadfast personality and there are so many untapped depths in him that I hope he will be further explored in the next books, because I believe he could develop into one of the main figures of this series.  His relationship with Lenoir did already show this growth, and promises to transform into a friendship – as much as the inspector will allow himself to entertain one – that could lead to interesting narrative threads.

Even though I was unable to get involved in this story as I did with the first one, I still believe this is a very promising series, and I look forward to the next installments.

My Rating: 7/10

Tough Traveling: EXTREME CLIMATES

tough-traveling

Tough Traveling is an interesting and thought-provoking meme started by Nathan @ Fantasy Review Barn: each week Nathan chooses a topic from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynn Jones, and challenges everyone to come up with a list of books featuring that trope.

Come join the fun!

This week we look at Extreme Climates

Perhaps the hansom prince lives in a castle surrounded by green countryside and sunny days.  The rest of the land is forced to deal with freezing cold, searing heat, and every other extreme climate mother nature can throw at you.

duneAs far as extreme climates go, there is no place more inhospitable than Arrakis, the desert world also known as Dune: there is virtually no free moisture on Arrakis, and water must be reclaimed with ingenious means – wind traps, precipitators and so on. The deep desert dwellers, the Fremen, survive in these harsh living conditions by wearing stillsuits, complex skin-tight suits that process bodily fluids, and even the moisture from breath, into drinkable water, collected in various pockets from which water is drawn through a drinking tube positioned near the neck. Water is the most precious commodity on Arrakis, to the point that the Fremen reclaim the fluids from the bodies of the deceased – the process is labelled “returning one’s water to the tribe” – and phenomena like the shedding of tears, a rare happening, are called “giving water to the dead” and observed with superstitious awe.  As if this were not enough, Arrakis is scoured by terrible winds, known to shear the flesh from the bones of an unprotected traveler caught in the open, and is home to huge worms – source of the precious, life-prolonging spice – that attack anything moving over the planet’s surface.

Going from one extreme to the other, J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World paints a picture of a flooded Earth after the polar caps have melted: most of the world’s civilization has disappeared under tropical-like lagoons and the high temperatures have accelerated the growth and evolution of flora and fauna, that resemble more the kind that could have existed in prehistoric ages.  The changes in living conditions have drastically reduced human population and the numbers keep dwindling because of reduced fertility: it’s an apocalyptic scenario that can’t leave the reader indifferent….

In George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, winters can last for years, or even decades: with no appropriate conditions to the growing of crops, survival depends on the stockpiles of food (and animal fodder) accumulated during the equally long summers. When those stockpiles are not enough – because of bad planning or due to an overlong winter – people can die of starvation, or decide to resort to horrible, unthinkable means of survival.  The motto of House Stark – guardians of the deep north and therefore accustomed to harsh living conditions – is “Winter is Coming”, a bleak but very realistic approach to the vagaries of Westeros’ climate and also a mindset geared toward awareness of the fragility of one’s condition and the need to be on a constant watch for the pitfalls of life in such an unforgiving land.  Even during the long summers, there is a place in the far north of Westeros, where winter and ice hold sway and a frozen barrier – the Wall – marks the boundary between the world of men and the one where the Wildlings live and the Others, zombie-like undead with ice-blue eyes, roam the wastes.

One of my most recent reads, from independent author M. Terry Green, is Iced – a view of a24734665 future Earth in the grip of an ice age: it’s a fascinating if chilling (no pun intended) look at how human society can adapt to dramatically changed living conditions.   A privileged few can live near volcanoes, from which they can draw heat and energy, and therefore cultivate crops and enjoy a normal existence, or as normal as allowed by the callous rulers of such enclaves. The majority though lives in the open wastes, on solar-powered boats that skim over the ice in constant motion: safety – even though quite relative – is in numbers and such boats tend to group in caravans for security, only a few bold souls daring to brave it alone in a wilderness that holds many dangers, from the weather-related ones, like freezing or the risk of falling into unseen crevasses, to the people-related ones, since bands of slavers scour the frozen pack in search of easy prey to sell.

And last but not least, there’s a short story from Ray Bradbury, The Long Rain, that caught my imagination when I first read it a few decades ago and still manages to bring a shiver of unease every time I think about it. The story follows the arduous trek of a group of astronauts who survived their ship’s crash on the surface of Venus: in Bradbury’s tale, the planet holds a breathable atmosphere and compatible gravity, but lies under a constant, heavy, relentless rain that’s depicted as “a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains” and it’s a massive, intruding presence, almost possessing its own personality.   The four men are trying to reach a Sun Dome, one of the shelters erected by human colonists in the rain-plagued jungles that cover the planet: there they will find warmth, food and a safe harbor, but meanwhile they have to brave the rain, the treacherous ground and – more insidious – the mounting hopelessness that reaches its peak when they discover that the first Sun Dome they manage to contact has been attacked and destroyed by the planet’s inhabitants, who clearly resent the Terran invaders.  It’s indeed a dismal tale and one that offers little solace in the apparently encouraging ending: if you read it, you will never look at rain with the same eyes…

rain

Review: NEMESIS GAMES – James S.A. Corey

22886612If I sometimes complain about the fact that it’s difficult to find self-contained books in SFF literature because nowadays writers seem more inclined toward series, there are exceptions that make me quite happy with narrative cycles, especially when – as is the case of the Expanse series – each book adds something new, broadening and deepening the reader’s understanding of any given fictional world and its characters.

This is particularly true with Nemesis Games: while the focus turns inwards, dealing with troubles in the Solar System rather than with the wider issues of the off-world portal previously introduced, the authors give us deeper insights on the characters, especially with members of the Rocinante’s crew other than Jim Holden, who until now enjoyed a more intense spotlight to the detriment of his mates. This in-depth analysis is carried out by sending Naomi, Alex and Amos on different paths that put great distances between the four shipmates, leaving them alone to deal with extraordinary circumstances that – in various degrees – force them to face events in their individual pasts and the way they affect the present. This narrative choice does not only better our understanding of these characters, but makes for a fast, compulsive reading that brought me to finish the book in record time – indeed the best, so far, of an already outstanding series.

Alex’s trip is the easiest, in my opinion: despite the underlying sadness in his voyage to Mars and the failed attempt to reconnect with his long-estranged ex wife, he’s in a position to be an important player in  uncovering a convoluted scheme involving Mars and an extremist fringe of the OPA, the Outer Planets Alliance.  While doing so, he teams up with marine Bobbie Draper (a very welcome return) and despite the hazardous path they are forced to travel, there is a definite sense of bonding between them that, together with the repeated mentions about the need to expand the Rocinante’s crew, might lead to some interesting developments as far as the ship’s complement is concerned.  It’s clear there are some changes in the making – in the political and social landscape but more importantly in interpersonal relations – so it will be fascinating to witness future developments and how they will pan out: the hints about the lack of redundancy in the ship’s crew, and the closer ties established with other people seem to lead this way. My only concern in this turn of events is that this might be the prelude to some dramatic loss along the way: after all I can’t forget that one of the authors is a close associate of GRR Martin’s, and given the latter’s gleeful penchant for killing his characters I can’t silence my nagging worry about such an attitude rubbing off on Daniel Abraham, and therefore affecting the safety of the original crew-members…

Amos, for his part, undergoes a very interesting journey: he travels to Earth to pay his last respects to a woman who was a sort of surrogate mother, and there he finds himself enmeshed in the catastrophic terrorist attack carried out against the planet. We’ve learned so far that Amos is quite aware of his violent tendencies: the dispassionate way he examines them, or is willing to employ them to further his goals, can be chilling at times, yet there is a sort of basic decency to him, even when he’s in a threatening mode, that quite endeared him to me and made me more aware of his personality. Until now, it felt as if both he and Alex never received much definition, character-wise, to the point that I had some trouble in sorting them out, but thanks to the events of this book, and the fleshing out of both of them into more detailed entities, I can finally see them as distinct individuals and I’ve developed quite a fondness for Amos, mostly due to his interactions with Clarissa Mao, convicted killer and former foe of the Rocinante’s crew: his willingness to forgive her and believe in her change is also a way of forgiving himself and believing he can be a better person, as he tries to be following Holden’s lead.

The character who dominates the scene in Nemesis Games, however, is Naomi. Her own past comes back with a vengeance as we discover the secrets she’s hidden until now – some of them quite dramatic – and we come to see a very different side of the Rocinante’s competent XO, one I admit I would never have suspected given the (admittedly few) details offered by previous books. Being inside Naomi’s head, as she is detained by the OPA terrorist fringe, means understanding how one can be torn between conflicting loyalties – the family she’s built with the others aboard the ship and the one she left behind years before once she realized their ideals were not as pure as she believed. She undergoes an ordeal that is both physical and psychological: the former giving the term ‘breathless’ a whole new level of meaning, lending the story itself a terrible sense of urgency; the latter touching so many subjects – from betrayed love and trust to willful exploitation to ties of blood – that Naomi’s character comes out in incredibly complex and welcome relief, something I realize I was looking forward since the first book.

For once Jim Holden leaves the center stage to his ship-mates, forced to worry about their fates while he observes – more spectator than participant this time – the unfolding of dramatic events and tries to deal with the spaceship equivalent of “empty nest syndrome”, as he chafes at his inability to affect events: “he felt like he was standing on a frozen lake, looking down through the ice while the people he cared about most drowned”.  His sense of loss is somewhat mirrored by Fred Johnson’s awareness of diminished power and diminishing energies as old age creeps up on him: it’s ironic how the chief of OPA becomes here a more sympathetic figure through impending powerlessness and the realization that some of the coming changes might overcome him and whatever he managed to build.

The only character to sail through it all virtually unscathed is Chrisjen Avarasala – one of my favorites: she’s the unmovable rock around which everything and everyone seems to revolve, a capable mover and shaker who goes about leaving a trail of unabashed cussing in her wake. It’s impossible not to smile fondly at sentences like “Mars has got its collective asshole puckered up so tight it’s bending light”: I look forward to more of her – more of everyone, really – in the books still to come.

My Rating: 10/10