Reviews

My 2015 in Books

51 titles… It’s not much, not if compared with the stats of the majority of my fellow bloggers (by the way, I’m amazed at the number of books I see listed in the year’s-end posts that are cropping up these days. How do you manage so much?  Superhero-like reading speed? 48-hour days? Or both?  😀 ) but for me it’s a good number, taking into account my limited free time and the pressures from work: 11 books more than last year, and an average of one book per week, more or less.  Not bad at all…

Even better if I consider that, with a few exceptions, they were all greatly enjoyable books, with several new discoveries among them: authors I never read before, independent authors who submitted their work for review, allowing me to find new, unknown talents, and a couple of titles from genres I would not have suspected would fall into my preference range.

Apart from the pleasure of reading, something that I guess was born at the time when printed words ceased to be a mystery for me, this year has also been another year of “sharing the wonders” with other book bloggers and with the people who kindly commented my ramblings. This enhanced my enjoyment, people, because it was – and still is! – an amazing experience.  Thanks!

So here it is, my collection of read books’ covers for this year. The list of books I want to read, or have lined up next is even longer, but that’s a matter for 2016…

Good reading, everyone! And a Happy New Year 🙂

2015

Reviews

Review: LUNA, NEW MOON – Ian McDonald

23848027It’s become difficult for me, in recent times, to find a science fiction novel I can truly enjoy: there are exceptions of course, like the works of undiscussed masters as Iain M. Banks (just to name one), or more recent space opera series like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War or James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse, but on the whole, new works I’ve come across are either slanted toward military sf (not my cup of tea), or rely heavily on the more romantic aspects of a story – something that holds little interest for me.

So when I came across Ian McDonald’s Luna, I was delighted to find so many of the elements I appreciate in the genre, combined in such a way as to make this novel as close to perfection as possible. The main attraction in this story is the definite sense of life in an environment that, despite technological advances, remains dangerous and hostile: to quote Heinlein’s famous title, the Moon is indeed a harsh mistress, one that requires constant vigilance and lies patiently in wait for the tiniest moment of distraction to pounce and take your life. On top of that, it changes you: microgravity affects human physiology in such a way that Earth-born individuals can live on the Moon only for short time periods before the physical alterations become irreversible, marooning them forever on its barren surface, while those who are born there don’t even have this kind of choice, since the gravity of the mother world would kill them without mercy.

These physical modifications go hand in hand with the alterations in social structure, which are nothing short of fascinating: wealth is still important in lunar society, but only as far as it ensures possession of the four elementals at the basis of everyday life – air, water, carbon and data. The first three allow you to live, and the fourth connects you to all levels of everyday interaction, from transportation to buying food: every permanent resident is fitted with a familiar, a sort of computerized avatar managing any kind of transaction, and with an eye implant monitoring the elementals’ levels. A low reading of air, for example, means you must breathe less, or run the risk or not breathing at all. Permanently.  Death, in one fashion or another, is always lurking behind your back…

If on Earth the affluent can afford to live above the rest of the world, on the Moon the reverse is true, since the closest you are to the surface, the higher are the radiation levels unfiltered by the absence of an atmosphere. And radiation, together with the damages inflicted by microgravity, can also affect the bearing of children, entrusted by those with means to surrogate mothers – or madrinhas – enrolled among the newcomers, who still possess the strongest bones and more adaptable physique of the Earth born.

On this fascinating background moves a number of very compelling characters: the Moon is ruled by five influential dynasties – or Dragons – forever locked in financial combat, made more complex by political marriages whose main purpose of creating ties between the various factions is ultimately defeated by resentment and mutual hate that run too deep to be ignored or overcome. It’s a complex and fascinating situation that in a way reminded me of the dynastic relationships in Frank Herbert’s Dune: the main focus here is on the Cortas, the relative newcomers to the Moon’s high and mighty, ruled by matriarch Adriana who handles business and family with the iron fist that’s also part of her surname. Corta Helio made its fortune by mining the precious Helium3 that provides energy and light to a resource-starved Earth, but in so doing created a powerful antagonist in Mackenzie Metals, the Cortas’ arch-enemies.

The narration alternates between present developments, that run their inevitable course toward a terrifying showdown, and Adriana’s recollections of her past life and ascent to power as the Fifth Dragon: I found myself absorbing it all through compulsive reading, the changes of scenery and point of view carrying the story forward in leaps and bounds – not unlike those of a human moving in the Moon’s feeble gravity. Adriana’s offspring are equally interesting individuals, all of them somewhat marred by their mother’s powerful presence in their lives, and at the same time strong where it counts, and ruthless as required by circumstances.  The counterpoint is given by Marina Calzaghe, a new arrival (or Jo Moonbeam, as the recent immigrants are called) and the most vivid secondary character in the book: she goes from an elemental-starved individual living at the edges of society and barely surviving by the skin of her teeth, to a prestigious position in the Corta household, where she learns that you can be mortally afraid even when you know your next breath and meal are secured.

There is so much richness in Luna, New Moon, that I find it difficult to sum it up without spoiling the contents: background and characterization are of course the supporting pillars of the story, but there is also the strong sense of a frontier world that despite its modern contrivances is still very much in the throes of evolution, and as such is not immune from some savage streak that contrasts quite strongly with the air of refinement of its outward appearance. There is no law on the Moon, and any dispute is more liable to be settled by a knife duel rather than in what passes for a court ruling, and to survive one must be as ruthless and unforgiving as this world.  This is why I was taken so much by this book, because it can blend without effort the sense of wonder of old with a more modern concept of societal evolution, economic warfare and personal conflict: I found it as compelling and mesmerizing as is the Moon itself every time I see it in the sky, and I think it quite serendipitous that I read the last pages as a full moon was on…

The only flaw?  The novel ended far too soon on a massive cliffhanger. One that I hope will not entail a long wait for the next book in the series.

As this will be my last book review for 2015, I can safely say I’m closing the year with a bang, indeed…

 

My Rating:

 

This post is another contribution to The 2016 Sci-Fi Experience, an event hosted by Carl  V. Anderson over at Stainless Steel Droppings (follow the links to know more!)

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Reviews

Movie Review: STAR WARS The Force Awakens (no spoilers)

Fresh from the vision of this much-awaited movie, here are some of my immediate thoughts – rigorously spoiler-free, of course.

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All things considered, I truly enjoyed it, even though it was not perfect, mostly because it added nothing new in the way of story-telling but rather seemed to revisit the themes of the original movie with new people in some of the old roles: the main character’s hero’s journey somewhat parallels that of young Luke Skywalker, and the story itself follows the same guidelines as the first Star Wars movie.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course: after all, mythology rests on a few basic concepts that are mixed and recombined in various legends, but still I would have liked to witness some new ideas. On the other hand, these concepts were executed very well, and carried by old and new faces that integrated quite seamlessly into an entertaining and exciting whole, so… no big complaints. As far as the path for this hero’s journey is concerned, it did not disappoint, and I was also fondly amused by the frequent nods to some details from the original trilogy.

That said, the story moves forward at a good pace, aided by stunning visuals and complicated battle choreographies – both on the ground and in space – that at times took my breath away: the balance between real action and CGI-enhanced scenes is excellent and facilitates the immersive experience that any good movie should aspire to. Visuals would be quite poor fare, though, if they were not sustained by believable, well-portrayed characters and strong dialogue, and the movie lacks for neither: on the contrary, characterization is indeed the strongest point of the whole experience, starting with the protagonist, Rey.

She is a true revelation, both as a fictional character and as an actress: Daisy Ridley manages to bring on screen a mixture of strength, courage and human frailness that is as endearing as it is realistic. Times have indeed changed since the original movie, and women don’t need to be princesses in need of a savior, but are rather quite able to save themselves, and others as well.  Living like a scavenger rooting for mechanical parts in an unforgiving desert waste, Rey has clearly learned to fend for herself while still harboring a deep pain borne of loneliness and the unexpressed feelings of abandonment – that last detail being the more intriguing part of her mysterious past.  Hard-ass heroines often tend to be brittle and aggressive, while Rey walks a fine balance between inner strength and compassion that makes her instantly likable, instantly recognizable as the true hero of the story.  If the unsolved puzzle of who she is and how she came to be here represents a strong point of attraction, we don’t really need to know more beyond her willingness to help the weak, be they flesh-and-blood people or funny looking androids, and to resolutely face any challenge.  I think the best representation of who she really is, deep down, comes from the scene where, after having consumed a meagre meal, she sits outside her makeshift shelter (the carcass of an old imperial Walker!) and dons an old pilot’s helmet with the shadow of a wistful expression on her face, not unlike a child who plays at being someone else, in a more exciting, better life.  I think my heart went out to her in that scene, and remained firmly there.

Her counterpart Finn, played by John Boyega, opens a window on the life of Stormtroopers: for the first time we are allowed to see a flesh-and-blood person inside the hard shell of white armor they all wear, and in this case it’s someone who’s appalled at the mindless destruction the soldiers are ordered to inflict on defenseless people. Learning that Stormtroopers are taken from their families at a very young age, to be trained and conditioned in the unquestioning obedience required from them, adds a dramatic quality to their existence, and through Finn we are finally allowed to understand there are people inside that faceless casing.  There is one small scene in which a superior officer orders Finn to put on again the helmet he took off in a moment of suffocating panic: the message is clear – the helmet removes any trace of humanity from the wearer, any personal or distinguishing trait, and automatons cannot afford to be reminded, or to remind others, of that humanity.  All this makes Finn’s rejection of his training all the more powerful: when he appears on screen, his body language clearly transmits the anguish and horror of a young man sent – probably for the first time – into actual combat, and his need to put as much distance between himself and the evil he’s been forced to serve.  He’s no hero material, that’s clear from the start, but there is a great deal of room for growth in him: he somehow reminds me of a cross between Wizard of Oz’s Lion and Tin Man, someone in search of his courage and his heart, who finds along the way much, much more than he bargained for.

The third new face in the movie is no face at all, since it belongs to a (very cute) android named BB-8: he’s clearly there for some comic relief, but I’m happy to report it’s all done with a light hand and with the right degree of humor that makes the little droid instantly lovable, also thanks to the peculiar, rolling gait due to its form. I was strongly reminded of another beloved mechanical creature, Wall-E: BB-8 possesses the same kind of innocence and openness toward the world, and its child-like attitude in some of the scenes reinforces that impression. This character might have been created with a very young audience in mind, but it can easily reach out to adults too, and that’s a great thing indeed.

Without doubt, part of the expectations for this movie centered on the reappearance on screen of the main players from the original trilogy, and they did not disappoint – even those whose air time was all too brief: I understand with hindsight that their main function was to hand over the proverbial torch to the younger generation, and that this required some bittersweet choices, hard as they are to accept. Nonetheless it was great to see familiar faces, even though they were lined by the passing of time and the inevitable grief life can burden people with: in this respect, Han Solo and Leia are the keenest example, and I liked their interactions that, while rooted in the estrangement that divided them, could still delve into the good memories they built together.  There is not much dialogue between them, but somehow the looks they exchange – and the subtext being carried by those looks – are enough to fill the silence. And I liked that very much.

It goes of course without saying that Chewbacca’s appearance was greeted with joyful enthusiasm…

All well and good then? Not quite, unfortunately.

The heroes of any story need good opponents, and the “bad guys” in this movie don’t exactly fit the bill.

In the first place we have once more a power-hungry individual bent on total conquest who uses a doomsday weapon capable of shattering whole planets. Sound familiar, doesn’t it? The only difference is that this new Death-Star-lookalike is crafted out of a whole planet instead of being a mere station, so that, in my opinion, this choice robs the audience of any suspense concerning the outcome. Unfortunately, homage to the core story is one thing, simple repetition of a past pattern is not.

Last but not least, Kylo Ren: the glimpses accorded by trailers hinted at an interesting narrative thread here, while I was disappointed by this character’s very feeble motivations for his actions, especially in light of his origins – which I can’t discuss without entering spoiler territory.  Considering who he is and where he comes from, his choice for the “dark side” appears more of a plot device than anything else, as unsubstantial and wavering as his personality – again, knowing where he comes from, there seems to be little reason for the way he turned out, or for his actions. My only hope is that more will be explained in the next movies…

My disappointment with the portrayal of the antagonists is not enough, however, to diminish my enjoyment of the movie: it was not everything I had hoped for, but it was enough to be a reasonably pleasing experience.  And enough to warrant a second viewing in the near future  🙂

My Rating:


 

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Reviews

Review: MURDER – Sarah Pinborough

19050115If Mayhem, the previous book in this fascinating series, had its roots in the darkness generated by human wickedness and by supernatural forces, Murder stands mostly on the horror of a soul headed on a downward spiral to Hell. For this very reason it’s more terrifying than its predecessor, even though the gorier elements are kept to a minimum: the hopelessness and unavoidable evil permeating the pages are far worse than the trail of body parts that was the focus of Mayehm, or the number of little children’s bodies that are fished out of the Thames here.

Dr. Thomas Bond, the main character, has worked hard to overcome the psychological wounds incurred during the investigation of the “Torso Murders” and the hunt for the Upir, the infernal creature attaching itself to hapless victims and forcing them to commit atrocious deeds: he’s weaned himself of the dependence for opium and laudanum, and in helping young widow Juliana to deal with her grief has created the possibility for a shared future alongside the woman he’s been in love with for a long time.  But as it often happens with the best laid plans, the past comes back to haunt the good doctor in a way that seems quite unthreatening in the beginning but will have gruesome repercussions along the road.

This turn of events appears even more tragic because of the small shard of happiness that seems to be within Bond’s grasp and is instead taken from him bit by cruel bit: the appearance of a contender for Juliana’s attention is the lesser of those evils, and yet it’s such a blow for him, for this lonely man who dares to dream of a better future for himself, one that would give him a new lease on life after the harrowing experiences of the recent past and the burden of guilt that comes with them. The Thomas Bond of Murder reads like a very different person, one who is ultimately far more unhinged and prone to darkness now – when he has shaken off his drug dependencies and has reached a sort of inner balance – than he was in book 1, when he was tormented by his own feelings of inadequacy and the suffocating sense of doom that hung over him. For this very reason he looks far more human, frail and flawed than before, and he shows that humanity by giving in to less than noble feelings: there is a quiet desperation to him, that of the man who wants to be good and finds himself unable to attain his own self-imposed goals.  Much as he tries to escape the ghosts plaguing him, he discovers they are still able to find him and to haunt both his dreams and his waking hours.

And this is just the beginning: by a sudden and quite unexpected narrative twist, Bond is thrown into deepening darkness and despair, a chain of tragic and unstoppable circumstances that Pinborough links with flawless mastery to historical events, the chronicled reality of facts and people adding to the drama unfolding in the fictional part of the story. Bond’s progressive physical and mental deconstruction is rendered with great poignancy through his first-person chapters, where he analyzes – as the man of science he is – what is happening around him and to him: if the certainties offered by that same science are a flimsy shield indeed, only we readers are aware of it, and this increases the painful sympathy we feel for this character who goes on bent on ignoring, at least for a while, his impending doom.

The quiet strength of this man is revealed by the way he chooses to fight what he subconsciously knows to be a losing battle, and yet he does everything in his power to keep on struggling, to avoid giving in to the darkness trying to engulf him. Even in the face of the most horrible revelations, even when I felt that he was avoiding the truth through convenient dissembling, my compassion for Thomas Bond never wavered, and this shows the extent of the author’s skill in walking a very fine line between contrasting emotions. To say that I was psychologically exhausted by the end of the book would be quite an understatement.

On a lighter note, I enjoyed very much the recreation of the period atmosphere through the exchanges between characters, the way they were shaped by the social customs of the years bridging the 19th and 20th Century, and the interludes offered by the newspapers clippings inserted here and there.  These details bring London in sharp, three-dimensional relief, making it another character instead of the mere background in which the story takes place and the same happens with the other figures appearing on the scene, both the fictional and the historical ones.  Between the lines there is even room for understated, but clear, social commentary that adds another note of interest for a book that offers many angles of approach for a reader – not least the curiosity of knowing more about the real people behind the characters that make their appearance in the story.

If you’re not afraid of a hard, dark journey, this will prove an involving, fascinating book. One that leaves the door open for more: the last newspaper clipping speaks of a grisly murder perpetrated one century after the facts portrayed here – much closer to our times. I guess Ms. Pinborough is daring us to open that door a bit more and peer into those murky shadows…

My Rating:


Reviews

TV Review: DARK MATTER (season 1)

A new post celebrating The 2016 Sci-Fi Experience, an event hosted by Carl  V. Anderson over at Stainless Steel Droppings (follow the links to know more!).

DARK MATTER -- Season:1 -- Pictured: (l-r) Zoie Palmer as The Adroid, Alex Mallari Jr. as Four, Anthony Lemke as Three, Melissa O'Neil as Two, Mark Bendavid as One, Jodelle Ferland as Five, Roger Cross as Six -- (Photo by: Dennys/Ilic/Syfy)

The SyFy Channel recently started its own highly publicized “renaissance period” by producing and airing new science fiction series, among them the much awaited for The Expanse and Childhood’s End (both starting this December), or the work-in-progress The Ghost Brigades, from John Scalzi’s successful Old Man’s War book series.

Dark Matter is part of this new course of the network, that in the past few years seemed to have forgotten the genre it drew its name from: together with Killjoys (a review of which will be forthcoming) this show went on air during the summer, in my eye a sort of test of what SyFy intends to do in the near future.  And as a declaration of intents, it was quite promising…

The show itself is not exactly “stellar”, suffering from an evident lack of high budgets and – this is my very personal opinion – a sort of tentative approach from the production: it’s based on some tested tropes and characterizations (some might call them clichés), but at the same time it’s not afraid of subverting them a little, now and then, so that the viewers can enjoy the occasional surprise along the way.  If the end result is not earth-shattering, it’s however a good, interesting story that blossoms into its full potential in the last 4 or 5 episodes of its 13-episode run: I had fun with it, and sometimes this is all one can ask from a tv show.

The story, in short: six people wake up from stasis on a ship, their identities wiped clean – they don’t remember who they are, and what they are doing there, but are still able to apply their individual skills to the situation. As they assign each other a number in the order of awakening, the six meet an android in defense mode who attacks them and needs to be de-activated and reprogrammed. Through the help of the android the crew starts to access the ship’s data storage – partly damaged or inaccessible – in search of clues about who and what they are.  The first findings seem to point to their identity as ruthless mercenaries employed in the dirtiest, bloodiest kind of work…

From here the story develops – sometimes predictably, sometimes not – along some interesting paths, with the main thread about who started the mind wipe, and why, being the most compelling one. Suspicion and posturing create a great deal of conflict among the six, who however need to stay together for mutual support and defense: here I was reminded of one of Farscape‘s core concepts, that of the bunch of strangers forced to cooperate to stay alive. The ship itself represents a mystery, with its closed doors and dark corridors that mirror the situation of the group’s collective memories.

At the beginning, the six main characters do look a bit like clichés: One is the Good Guy who tries to be group’s conscience; Two is the Warrior Princess, lethal and tough; Three is the archetype of the Mercenary Without Conscience (Firefly‘s Jayne, anyone?); Four the Oriental Martial Arts Expert, moody and silent; Five is the Wizard Girl, versed in all things mechanical; and Six the Pilot and overall nice buddy.  Yet, over time, they all reveal unexpected facets that sometimes subvert the first impression given to the viewers and even manage to turn them on their heads – especially in the very last scene of the last episode.

I’m reserving a special mention for the Android: she seems to walk the much-beaten path about the Android Reaching for its Humanity, but does so with a flawless execution veined with humor that soon made her one of my favorite characters. Granted, we’ve seen this countless times, but when it’s done well, it can be enjoyable…

What kept my interest focused on the show was the moral dilemma of the group: the mind-wipe has removed any personality trait that made them what they were, and when they learn something of their past they are all more or less appalled, so that the question about going back to their old selves or taking a new path surfaces more than once. The dilemma is not resolved of course, and there is no clear-cut choice, either, because – let’s face it – if muscle memory can enable you to fly a shuttle even if you don’t consciously remember how, what happens when your inner nature takes the helm? And what happens if the killer inside you is needed for survival?

This first season of Dark Matter worked pretty well as an introduction, and I believe there is great potential to be explored here, both in story-lines and characterization: if the creators will not be afraid to take some new, unexpected road, to dare a little, we might not be disappointed with the new installments.

And I want to be optimistic…

My Rating:

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Reviews

Review: TWELVE KINGS IN SHARAKHAI – Bradley Beaulieu

24611565This book was bound to be appealing for a long-time fan of the Dune saga such as myself: the setting, a desert world shrouded in mystery; the main character a strong woman in search of vengeance and answers to old questions. I did find all of this in Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, but also much, much more.

The city of Sharakhai is a center of power and culture in the arid wastelands that are the background of this compelling story: other places are mentioned, of course, but Sharakhai clearly stands over them all, and not only because it’s the chosen residence of the titular Twelve Kings, men endowed with some mystical power that has allowed them to live for centuries and hold sway over the land.  There is also a rich complexity to this city that unfolds slowly but surely as the story progresses, giving the impression of a wondrous tapestry being completed before our eyes.

There are many elements that catch a reader’s attention here: the lively, colorful background of the city itself with its busy markets and shops, but also with its places of learning and worship; the people themselves, interacting with each other in a way that brings their lives into sharp relief, making them so three-dimensional and real that it’s easy to picture them in the mind’s eye; the ships that travel over the endless sands on special wood runners as more conventional ships would over water – one of the best side details of this story; the arena where local fighters pit their strength and abilities against each other and visiting champions, staging bloody combats for the cheering and betting crowds.

It’s in such a place that we first meet the book’s main character, Ceda: she is one of Sharakhai’s gutter wrens, the young people (even children) who live at the very margins of society, adding to the intricate and colorful background supporting this story. The best way to describe Ceda is to say she’s a fighter, and on so many levels: as the book opens she’s competing in the pits in one of the many gladiator-style matches the city is famous for, but as the story unfolds we discover she’s haunted by her mother’s gruesome death at the hand of the Kings, and she spends most of her time, energy and resources in seeking the truth about this defining event in her life.  The author chose an intriguing, non-linear way of building Ceda’s past for the readers, alternating flashback chapters with others that carry the story forward, and doing so in such a fluid, organic manner that I felt literally swept away by the rhythm of this tale, as a sand ship traveling over the desert wastes.

Ceda is a very complex figure, and not your “regular” heroine at all: she’s often impulsive, and at times  utterly focused on her mission, to the detriment of the many human ties she’s built over the years. Not a perfect person, then, not by a long shot, and for this very reason she’s far more intriguing and fascinating, so that the way she interacts with other people and the conflicts that arise from those interactions help shape both the characters and the story with a very satisfying sense of reality.  Indeed, all the other people surrounding Ceda feel just as substantial as she is: starting with Emre, her childhood friend, confidante and one-time lover, who is a complex character on his own and whose path through the story is equally fascinating; or the apothecary Dardzada, for a while Ceda’s guardian after her mother’s death, with whom the young woman has a difficult relationship made of equal parts of grudging affection, rebellion and the shadow of unspoken truths.

As these characters move through their individual story-arcs, that intersect with each other in fascinating ways and help shape them into such well-crafted three-dimensional figures, we become aware – brush stroke by brush stroke – of this complex world and its past. The flavor is that of a blend of myths and history, the former ultimately shaping the latter through the Kings’ desire to alter the perception of the past to better rule the present: this is one of the elements that I appreciated most in this book, the creation of an intriguing world that takes some known elements (the One Thousand and One Nights tales come to mind) and shapes them into something new, believable and totally immersive, adding compelling details like the asirim – the demonic creatures coming from the desert to exact a tribute in living beings – or the Blade Maidens, the Kings’ elite guards, a sort of fighting monastic order with its own rules and code of honor.

As the first volume in a saga – and a very promising one at that – Twelve Kings in Sharakhai is very satisfying because it ends without a cliffhanger but at the same time it sows the seeds for future developments, while managing to keep many questions unanswered and many of the riddles unsolved. There’s a nice parallel here with the poems/riddles left to Ceda by her mother in a book that’s her most precious possession: as she struggles to find the hidden meaning of those words, to find the clues that will help her fulfill the burning need for vengeance, so we readers struggle (quite happily so) to follow her on her quest. It’s this total immersion in the story that captivated me from the very beginning of the book, the sheer joy of losing myself in the many details that build this world and never feel like exposition: it’s a rare privilege to find this kind of story, the kind you don’t care coming up for air from.

For once, I’m not begrudging the fact that I find myself tied into another series, because this is one of those that are totally worth the wait between books.

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: WATCHING TREES GROW – Peter Hamilton

45254Peter Hamilton is one of those authors who always intimidated me through the sheer amount of published works combined with the staggering page count of each book: big volumes never scared me, far from it, but from the reviews I read I’ve learned that Hamilton’s Night Dawn trilogy, for example, represents quite a challenge, both in scope and in the quantity of characters and story-lines it contains.

So, when I saw he also published some shorter works, I decided to get my feet wet – so to speak – with something far less daunting before wading into the bigger ocean and this novella seemed like a good starting point. As far as careful approaches go, it was quite positive, and the best way to start on my journey with The 2016 Sci-Fi Experience, an event hosted by Carl  V. Anderson over at Stainless Steel Droppings (follow the links to know more!).

Watching Trees Grow is an alternate history tale based on the premise that the Roman Empire never fell, extending its influence all over the known world.   The action unfolds over a time period from 1832 to 2038, presenting some intriguing juxtaposition – like a turning dial, Bakelite telephone existing at the same time as battery-powered cars – together with quite fast technological progress that, by the end of the story, has brought mankind away from Earth in an expanding colonization effort throughout the galaxy.

The novella opens with the murder of a brilliant young student in Oxford: as a family representative, Edward Raleigh is called in to investigate the crime, but despite his best efforts he’s unable to find the perpetrator. This does not faze him, though, because the Empire has found a way to prolong its citizens’ lives and Edward knows time and scientific progress are on his side, so he keeps investigating the collected evidence through ever-improving means, with a relentless focus paired with the certainty he will ultimately succeed.

In the end the murder investigation is only the means through which Hamilton explores this alternate world, one where, for example, space exploration coexists with the Church’s heavy-handed influence on moral standards – there’s a running thread about the Borgias still ruling in Rome despite the general consensus about them having long overstayed their welcome.  The result is interesting, even though in places the dialogues appear somewhat stilted: Edward Raleigh and the people he deals with still retain a kind of old-fashioned speech pattern that’s somewhat reminiscent of the Victorian era, and that I found at odds with the evolving times and technology; there’s also a certain amount on explanatory exposition that looks back to the era in which the story begins, and tends to slow the narrative flow a little.

Despite these small ‘hiccups’ the novella remains appealing and it encouraged me to try something more from Peter Hamilton, especially other short stories I’ve found that should work as introduction to the universe where the author spent most of his time and craft.  So far, what I’ve encountered looks more than promising, and I’ll be back shortly with updates on my progress…

My Rating:

 

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