Monthly Archives: November 2015

Review: HALF A WAR – Joe Abercrombie

22381326A satisfying end to the Shattered Sea trilogy, where many of the seeds sown in the previous two books come to fruition, some with very unexpected surprises.

Once more, the story depicts a coming-of-age journey for the central characters: in Half a King it was Yarvi, now firmly ensconced in his role as Minister of Gettland; in Half the World it was the turn of the young warriors-in-training Thorn and Brand, whom we find here again in secondary but important roles; here the focus is on three very different people: Skara, the teenage survivor of Throvenland’s ruling dynasty; Raith, a man with few desires or thoughts beyond fighting and killing; and Koll, the boy saved from slavery by Yarvi and destined to follow in his footsteps in the Ministry.

The drawn-out conflict between the various realms and the High King, striving to bring all rebels under his thumb by the bloodiest, cruelest means possible, has now reached the turning point: the uneasy alliance between Yarvi’s Gettlanders and the Vanstermen led by fierce Grom-gil-gorm finds a new balance – unsteady as it is – through Skara, who has to grow up very quickly to assume her role as queen and to learn the ropes of diplomacy in this highly volatile situation.   I found Skara to be one of Abercrombie’s best creations: for once he does not give us a soldier, or a cold-blooded fighter, but a young woman raised to rule who finds herself thrown almost overnight into a role she’s not ready to take on. If other heroines from this author took up arms and fought alongside though men, Skara does it with words – as her mentor taught her, “half a war is fought with words” – and in the course of the story she struggles to find the correct ones that will keep the tenuous alliance alive, that will inspire her people and keep everyone fighting even against unsurmountable odds. We see Skara turn from a frightened girl on the run to queen material, making us forget she’s impossibly young: she is often confronted with heart-crushing moral dilemmas and the stark realities of leadership, and she shoulders them with an admirable inner strength, even when those decisions make her actually sick, even when she willfully has to sacrifice her young woman’s dreams and hopes.  Between the losses imposed by fate and those she chooses to bear, Skara becomes as hardened as a seasoned warrior, yet still manages to maintain a tie with her humanity and her soul: a beautiful balancing act skillfully portrayed, that makes her the absolute protagonist of this story.

Raith is, in a way, Skara’s polar opposite: he has no thoughts for the future, or regrets for the past – all he cares about is the present, the mindless joy of fighting, killing, maiming and burning. His only goal is to remain Grom-gil-gorm’s sword bearer, to bask in the glory of such a bloody ruler: that is, until he’s sent to be Skara’s chosen shield, her protector. What happens to him then is a slow, painstaking (and often painful) process because he has to learn to think for himself, to consider others beside himself and his immediate needs. To see things from different points of view and to see his own actions from another perspective: to say that this causes a major upheaval in his thought processes would be an understatement, and the way Abercrombie does it – a baby step at a time – makes Raith’s whole journey totally believable, particularly because we are made to understand that it’s still an ongoing process and he still has a lot of ground to cover.  What most captivated me about this character is the way my point of view about him changed with the same pace at which his transformation was underway, how I could shift from loathing to sympathy as the novel went on.

Koll, on the other hand, remained in a sort of limbo, a situation that mirrored his constant uncertainty about life choices: even when he seems headed for a definite course, there is still a sort of ambivalence in him that prevented me from trusting that this would be his future path. This young man, so ready to place his life in danger for the noblest of causes, still seems to do it with the same reckless abandon with which he scaled a ship’s mast (as he constantly did in Half the World) simply because it was there.  I could not see any great depths in Koll’s character, just the desire to please those around him, constantly seeking their approval as a child would with adults – and maybe this is what Koll really is, an eternal child who refuses to grow up. The contrast with the other characters was quite strident for me, and also very interesting.

The biggest surprise, however, came from Yarvi: I prefer to avoid any spoilers here, but the final revelation was indeed a game changer – one that I started to glimpse from some point on, but still an unexpected look into his personality. If this book is about change and evolution, this is what Yarvi has evolved into, and it sheds a totally new light into his past actions as well…

What I found fascinating in this third volume of the saga was the almost poetic portrayal of skirmishes and battles: here Joe Abercrombie found a way to describe the bloody battlefields with a sort of lyrical approach that took the edge off the cruel realities of war and carnage.  Here is an example:

Death lurking at both men’s shoulders, clinging to the edges of both men’s blades, the steel question asked and the steel answer given then the quick breaking apart and the slow prowling, slow circling, slow silence.

If I were to find any fault with this book it would be in the ending, that cannot avoid a somehow rushed feeling, as if the author felt the need to close all narrative threads in a hurry. Even though I like how certain events panned out in the end, I was not completely happy with the way they were portrayed, and the almost mechanical “acting” of some players: the clearest example is the final meeting between Yarvi and Skara, that’s unable to avoid a certain artificial flavor.

This detail notwithstanding, I greatly enjoyed both this book and the whole trilogy, even though it does not exactly end with the proverbial “bang”…

My Rating:


Movie Review: THE MARTIAN

thumbAt long last I managed to see this movie, not without some slight qualm due to my negative reception of the book that inspired it: but as many online reviews promised, it was indeed an extraordinary experience on many levels, starting with the script, that paid the story a great service, enhancing the details I sorely missed in the novel.

One of my main contentions with Andy Weir’s story was the perceived lack of drama, the apparent ease with which the main character not only adapts to extreme conditions, but makes fun of them, sometimes taking the situation far too lightly than warranted. On screen, we see Mark Watney dealing with his dire situation through a sort of metabolic process, first huddling in the habitat as a ferocious storm rages outside, and looking through the port with a lost, forlorn expression; then he slowly takes control of his situation, getting on with the business of survival.  This phase is presented with very little dialogue, using the images in a very effective way and letting the viewers fill in the blanks – because, after all, spectators and/or readers are able to do that, they don’t need to be led through any given number of steps. And yet, it was far easier to empathize with the protagonist, to feel close to him and his plight, while the novel never gave me the sense of a man undergoing a physical and psychological transformation.

The log entries are used quite sparingly, and if in the book they are more necessary because they are not supported by visual imagery as in the movie, here they give you both a sense of progress in Watney’s journey of survival, and function as a welcome tension relief when he slips into the occasional humorous remark.  While I found book-Watney unnecessarily droll, and even borderline silly, movie-Watney shows the successful results of the intensive astronaut training he received: he’s steady, competent, positive even when confronting huge obstacles or spectacular defeats.  When he indulges in some fun toward his missing companions, there is always a poignant note to it, showing he does miss them and that he established a relationship with each of them, one where the mutual differences strengthened those bonds, and did not leave room for the ill-concealed scorn I perceived in the book.  In this respect, the best moment happens when he finally manages to establish a contact with Earth: the emotional outburst we see when he reads the first line of text – the first human “voice” to break his silence and isolation – is something that sparked a similar response in me, as proof that I felt invested in what happened to Watney. Something that I missed while reading the book.

Once the focus shifts to Earth, we can see the various characters working to save the marooned astronaut as more than talking heads: their frantic efforts, the urgency of the situation, are something the viewer feels quite strongly, as a counterpoint to Watney’s heroic efforts to stay alive. The same happens with the other astronauts, on their way home after the hurried departure: the sense of failure, the guilt weighing on them for being still alive while one of their own lost their life, are something that comes across in no uncertain terms, as does their determination to do everything in their power to bring their companion back, once they learn he’s still alive. And let’s not forget the huge crowds following the mission on big screens put up all over the world: we viewers are ideally part of those crowds, worrying and holding our collective breath and screaming our joy in the end – it’s not cheesy nor rhetorical, just a plain human reaction that feels quite good.

Last but not least, Mars: one of my complaints was that I had almost no awareness of an alien environment as I read the book, while the movie offers breath-taking views of the red planet (“played” by a stunning location in Jordan, I learned). Those bleak yet fascinating landscapes are the superb background for a compelling story, one that manages to speak louder than words through amazing images.  And for someone who usually prefers words over images, like me, that’s a huge acknowledgement.

My Rating:


 

Review: THE CORRUPTED KINGDOM – Jesse Galena

26877713I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

This short collection of interconnected stories was one of the most surprisingly weird reads that I can recall – and I say this as a compliment, because it was different in so many ways from what I expected.

First and foremost there’s the choice of narrating the story backwards: as bizarre as it might look, in the end it fits with the overall mood of the events described and it adds to the atmosphere of alienation, terror and horrified wonder that permeates the narrative.  The characters move across this strange land, a place of whispered legends and unspeakable horrors, in search of treasure and adventure – and maybe to test themselves against unpredictable odds.  The almost fractured way in which their individual stories are told possesses the quality of a video in which stroboscopic flashes of light pierce the darkness, revealing cruel and terror-inducing scenes: there one moment, gone the next, and yet their impression lingers, just as the after-image in one’s eyes after lightning strikes.

The landscape itself is a tormented one: even something as beautiful as a city of soaring spires is not immune from twisted shapes and crumbling walls, and there are even worse places where chasms open before the feet of the unwary, or slobbering monsters chase the characters sowing death and destruction in their wake. The Lovecraftian quality of it all, combined with the fantasy setting, makes for a quick, compelling reading that leaves you wanting for more, curious about this strange place and at the same time afraid of discovering further horrors.

There are a few problems, however, like some typos and a number of repeated words in the same sentence that threaten to… break the spell, so to speak, but they are truly minor troubles in this fascinating tale, perfect for those who wish to experience something unusual.

My Rating:


Paris, November 13th, 2015

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Review: THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD – Margaret Atwood

6080337As I started this second book in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and realized it covered the same ground of its predecessor, Oryx and Crake, albeit from a different perspective, I was afraid it would turn out boring or predictable – or both.  Well, I could not have been more wrong.

Even though we are brought to re-live the events leading up to the man-made plague that wipes out most of humanity through the eyes of two survivors and through the use of flash-back as in the previous novel, these two characters are far more interesting, relatable and real than Jimmy the Snowman ever was.  Ren is a sex worker in a place called Scales and Tails who, when the plague hits, finds herself in an isolation room as a precautionary measure against a bite received by a client; Toby found refuge from hardship with the God’s Gardeners, a sect preaching the return to a simpler life-style as a means to better humanity, and she survives by holing up the high-end spa where she was hiding.  The God’s Gardeners group, to which both belonged for a time, can be considered another point-of-view of the novel, their preaching focused on the unavoidable advent of the Waterless Flood – from which the book takes its title – a scourge that, in their credo, will wash over humanity with dramatic consequences and for which the sect tries to prepare in an attempt to insure the survival of the species.

Familiar characters from Oryx and Crake make their appearance as well, with particular focus on Glenn/Crake and Jimmy/Snowman: if their somewhat damaged personalities did nothing to endear them to me before, looking at them through other eyes and from a different perspective made me see them in an even worse light, as creatures totally incapable of love and empathy, gliding through life enclosed in the sterile bubble of their own self-centeredness. If Jimmy is “only” guilty of making light fun of everything and everyone, taking and discarding with no thought for others’ feelings, never establishing a firm tie with another human being (and for that his extreme loneliness after the apocalypse seems a just punishment), Glenn appears even more like a cold schemer, using others – including the naïve Gardeners – to further his plan of ridding the world of the “useless” emotions he’s unable to process or enjoy.

As a counterpoint, Toby and Ren stand out in sharp relief: they have suffered from life’s injuries in a major way and known despair and degradation, yet they are both able to reach out past these barriers of pain to touch others and to create bonds of friendship that bring a little light of hope in this bleak scenario of destruction.  Toby was left alone and destitute by a chain of events triggered by the big corporations’ greed, and she steps on the lowest rung of her personal descent into Hell working for Secret Burgers, a fast food chain where it’s better not to inquire too deeply into the nature of the meat: here she becomes the target of the brutish Blanco, a manager who sexually abuses his employees (and who transforms into a sort of nemesis throughout most of the story) and is saved by the Gardeners who take her into their fold.  Here, through the examples of Rebecca, who shows her how to stand up for herself, and those of Pilar, who teaches her herb lore and to care for bees, she finds her place in Gardeners’ society and the strength to survive the Flood and face her own demons.   Ren comes to the Gardeners with her mother, a distant, selfish woman attaching herself to the sect for lust-induced attraction to a man: life with the Gardeners agrees with Ren much more than that of the privileged enclaves she comes from, and where her mother takes them back after a while, while her friendship with strong and resourceful Amanda defines her character and shapes her future actions.   On hindsight, The Year of the Flood is a very female-oriented tale: these women’s courage and the loyalty they show each other, their endurance and capacity to withstand the worst and reinvent themselves is indeed the only glimmer of light in the darkness of the world’s end.

The book closes at the same point its predecessor did, a full circle that nonetheless delivers more information: there are other survivors, attempting to find a way to deal with this dramatically altered world, one where climate changes and genetically engineered animals are a constant threat to life.   Who will inherit this world, the remnants of the human race or the test-tube humans created by Crake? Hopefully the answer lies in the last volume of this trilogy: whatever path the author choose to lead her readers to that answer, I hope it will be a fascinating journey.

My Rating:


Review: THE LAST STORMLORD – Glenda Larke

6765788Water is indeed the element at the core of this book: the Quartern, the hot and arid part of the world where the story unfolds, suffers from a chronic lack of water that is supplied only through the action of stormlords, who are able to gather water vapor from the sea and channel it into rains that are stored in vast cisterns.  When the novel starts, only one stormlord survives and he’s old and ailing, aware that the rainlords’ lesser ability to manipulate water will not be enough to ensure survival, even with enforced rationing or the extreme measure of condemning part of the populace to die of thirst so that the rest can go on.

When I started reading The Last Stormlord I suspected that the comparison with Dune would be inevitable, but I discovered to my delight that the differences are more numerous than the points of contact: in Herbert’s novel the lack of moisture is only one of the many features of the world, and even if it shapes the planet’s inhabitants’ attitude toward water, it’s never a key feature of the story. Here, though, water is at the center of everything: mindset, customs, even language are influenced by it – water is the first and foremost thought for everyone, and it takes center stage in both the story and everyone’s awareness, winning its own place as a fully fleshed character.  Water, and the quantity allotted to any specific individual, is what rules social dynamics and status: to be born waterless – because one’s parents are destitute or lost whatever privileges they might have held – is to be condemned to a hand-to-mouth existence, constantly foraging for water, or stealing it at great risk.

The social issues stemming from water – and the impending disaster due to the last stormlord’s inability to supply constant rains – are nothing short of fascinating: we see cities organized in descending levels according to access to water, with the lower ones inhabited by the poor and waterless who try to survive by stealing or by selling their bodies or those of their offspring in exchange for some precious moisture. We see the outlying settlements where lack of water is even more dramatic than in the cities, and where the same tiered social structure is reproduced with even crueler results. We witness the ruling body’s moral struggles as they realize extreme measures will need to be called into action, and we hear the opposing arguments about the survival of a few against the death of all – and the need to decide who those lucky few will be. The situation further escalates when the desert’s nomadic tribes unite – more or less willingly – under a new, ruthless leader who seizes the diminished rainfalls as an opportunity to break an already uneasy truce.

All of the above makes for an absorbing reading, the sense of impending doom compounded by the political maneuvering and the growing awareness that some of the causes of the present situation – like the death of many potential stormlords in the past – might not simply be the result of unfortunate circumstances.  On this detailed and very believable background moves a number of characters that give a choral approach to the narration, even though two of them are more developed than others: Terelle, who has been sold as a child to a snuggery and refuses to accept her destiny as a courtesan; and Shale, eking out his life in a desert settlement while trying to hide his high sensitivity to water.  Their individual journeys mirror the decline of the society they live in, while influencing in varying degrees the course of events.

If this world took immediate hold of my imagination, the characters required something of an effort: first, it felt as if – at least in the beginning – too much time was spent with each of them individually, somewhat slowing the overall pace. It’s of course a matter of personal preference, but I had the impression that the beginning of the novel dragged on a little before finding its stride.  There is also a great deal of exposition that relays necessary information, but is unfortunately delivered in such a way as to impair the narrative flow: while I understand the need to lay some groundwork for a better understanding of a given world, the danger of telling instead of showing is always one that lurks in the shadows and often reduces the characters to mouthpieces rather than creatures who need to grow in depth and facets.

Shale avoids this destiny, though, being a very relatable character: despite the expected journey from obscure nobody to powerful player, he still retains much of his old self, and the constant shifts in perception he’s forced to suffer endeared him to me quite easily.  His bitter awareness of being a pawn in a game he struggles to understand, the constant betrayals he faces, harden him in a way that’s quite realistic: he’s as far from the “farm boy turned hero” trope as possible, making him poignantly aware of his own shortcomings and preventing him from falling into any of the genre’s clichés. True, the fate of his world does rest on his shoulders but he’s unable to bear it completely or to summon the necessary faith in himself to do so – which makes him very, very human.

Since this first book in the trilogy closes on a major cliffhanger, I’ve come to realize its job was to pave the way for the events that will follow: for this reason I feel inclined to “forgive” its less appealing elements and look forward to the continuation of the story.

My Rating: