Reviews

TEASER TUESDAY

Teaser Tuesday is an intriguing meme started by Miz B over at Books and a Beat.

All you have to do is:

• Grab your current read

• Open to a random page

• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

• Share the title & author, too, so that other Teaser Tuesday participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Teaser Tuesday

This week’s quote:

And even when things had been at their darkest, when anger had been like a rat gnawing at my vitals, when grief had shut down my heart, I’d known death was not the answer. There’d always been vengeance to keep me going.

Juliet Marillier – Dreamer’s Pool

I fell in love with this book from the very start and I often think it must have put a spell on me, considering how mesmerized I am by it. Both main characters, Blackthorn and Grim, are fascinating, though not exactly what one would call easily likable. I can’t wait to know how it all pans out…

Reviews

Review: PACIFIC FIRE by Greg Van Eekhout (Daniel Blackland #2)

22238140The first volume in this series, California Bones, caught my attention for its more than unique approach to magic, but this second installment transformed me into a staunch fan.  Even though Daniel Blackland remains in the foreground, this book focuses most of its attention on his adopted son Sam, the golem of Southern California’s Hierarch, blending the heist trope with a coming-of-age story in a seamless, delightfully riveting way.

The book starts in the immediate aftermath of Daniel’s defeat of the old Hierarch, as the young osteomancer and thief goes into hiding to protect child Sam from the greed of all those who would not hesitate to kill him in order to consume the old, powerful magic contained in the golem’s body. We then flash-forward ten years into the future, with Sam a teenager starting to feel the weight of a life on the run, without the possibility to put down roots and have a normal life, one that does not require constantly watching over one’s shoulder.   

Southern California is not a better place after the Hierarch’s disappearance, because the power vacuum gave a few strong players the chance to step in and establish a power base: one of them is shifty Otis Roth, the same one who sent Daniel Blackland to the Hierarch’s stronghold in Book 1.  Otis is determined to create a triumvirate with Sister Tooth, a powerful osteomancer, and Gabriel Argent, the former Hierarch’s relative and the ruling water-mage, controller of the mandala-shaped waterways that are Los Angeles’ circulatory system. To reach such goal, Otis means to osteomantically resurrect a Fire Drake, a dangerous creature that will ensure Otis and his cohorts the means for total control, but Argent – whose power has not greatly undermined his intrinsic decency – contacts Daniel urging him to stop the plot by killing the dragon, and Daniel feels morally obligated to remove what he considers a weapon of mass destruction from the equation.

He’s poisoned on his way to Los Angeles, though, and while he’s incapacitated Sam decides to shoulder the burden and try to finish the task, despite the mission’s inherent dangers and the constant risk of being recognized and harvested for the magic in his bones.  Here is where the true story starts, with Sam’s choice to finish the task Daniel started and at the same time find the freedom he’s always been denied, defying the restrictions that have shaped his life until that moment.  He’s not alone in this adventure: first he teams with Em, one of the many Emma golems already encountered in California Bones, and then with other characters he meets along the way.  The young man revealed in the course of the adventure is a very likable person, one that’s easy to root for: like all teenagers he hungers for a different, better life, and he rebels against the impositions he had to struggle under until this moment, but at the same time he’s a detached observer, prone to keen and sarcastic comments about himself and his perceived shortcomings, so that he never comes across as snotty or abrasive.

Having a new character carry off this heist gave the author a fresh approach to the trope and the world he created, and Sam is a wonderful person to care about: in the first book, Daniel Blackland felt somewhat cold and distant, accepting the dangers and harm his friends were facing as part of the equation, as the unavoidable price to reach his goal; Sam, on the other hand, possesses a basic integrity that makes him suffer for any hurt inflicted on others in the course of his mission, whether it happens through his direct intervention or not.  Sam’s empathy is what makes him stand out and in the end be his own person, and not an appendage of Daniel Blackland: he represents the distillate of Daniel’s best traits and the successful way in which he raised this boy who is the incarnation of a cruel enemy – if every father wants his son to be a better man than he ever was, and Blackland clearly wants that from his adopted charge, Sam fulfills and exceeds these expectations.

The greater part of Sam’s character growth, and definition, comes from the interaction with Em: another golem, like him, but one who did not live the same kind of sheltered and isolated life. She is a warrior in the truest sense of the word, her training and experiences making her appear far older than Sam is, but as the story goes on, the balance between the two of them evens out, helped in great part by the witty exchanges between them.  This is another side of the novel I enjoyed enormously: it’s often difficult to offset drama with humor in a successful way, but the author accomplished it here though the humorous quips Sam and Em indulge in. More often than not it’s gallows humor of course, considering the chain of situations the two find themselves in, and yet they manage, even in the direst of circumstances, to find the right comment, the perfect combination of words to break the tension and let us know more about them.

Alongside the two true protagonists of this adventure moves a number of characters that are always well-defined, no matter how short their appearance on stage: from charter pilot Sofia Bautista and her family to the crazed guy raising “the Hierarch’s chickens” or the jaded ex-singer offering an easy friendship born of boredom, they all spring up from the pages in sharp focus. Bit players they might be, but they are never cardboard props, and this is one of the reasons for the sense of organic reality you can find in this novel. And of course there are a few welcome returns from the previous book: I already listed Gabriel Argent or Otis (well, he’s not so welcome, to say the truth…), but we also find lock-picker Cassandra and hard-to-kill Moth, my favorite from Daniel’s old team, and encounter a couple of very surprising figures from his past.

All of them move in a world where magic is everything, a cruel, pitiless world where the tiniest shreds of osteomancy a person possesses can be harvested for profit, the victims abducted, penned in and slaughtered like animals. A world where beauty can be destroyed in a puff of sorcery, or soar in terrifying power with the shape of a dragon.  A world that seeps through your bones and settles there in osteomantic alchemy.

It will be thrilling to visit it again in the next book…

My Rating:


Reviews

Top Five Wednesday: BOOKS I DID NOT FINISH

I recently stumbled on this GoodReads group that proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related. It sounds fun, and something I can manage even with my too-often-limited time.

This week’s topic is: Books I Did Not Finish

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Perdido Street Station by China Mieville: I tried for three times to read this book, because it pictured a fascinating background and an interesting combination of science fiction and horror elements. What’s more, it was written in a rich and vivid language, but each time I had to give up, mostly because of the unrelieved darkness of this world, one that is permeated by a sense of unstoppable decay I ultimately found off-putting. Many times I felt that the grossest details were there just for their shock value, and not so much for descriptive purposes, which ultimately proved to be my undoing.

Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan: What started as an interesting fantasy series, turned out to be (in the not-so-very-long run) a massively wordy journey where descriptions abounded but the story progressed at a snail’s pace – at least as far as my tastes are concerned. I will not go into the similarities with other genre books – although there are quite a few – since for me the endless repetitions of personal traits (like that infamous braid chewing!) were more than enough to drive me crazy and to drive me away in the end.

Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon: here is another case of word bloat, compounded by some narrative choices that had the same effect on me as the proverbial fingernails over a blackboard. For example, how about a modern woman who, finding herself some two centuries in her past, accepts the fact that her man beats her into obedience? And proceeds to make-up sex afterwards without the slightest qualm? O the use of sex and violence (either alone or in combination) as plot devices? Moreover, the protagonist trespasses so often into Mary Sue territory as to become caricature rather than character.

MaddAddam series by Margaret Atwood: much as I enjoyed the first two books in this series, I could not make myself take any interest in the third and final one. It felt as work, rather than reading pleasure; the writing did not even seem the product of Margaret Atwood’s excellent penmanship; the characters act in a way that made me wonder is some second-hand stand-ins had taken their place.  I’ve heard from good, reliable sources that the end of the book is satisfactory and that it closes the series neatly, but I still have to find the strength – and the willingness – to go on.

Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey: another case of a widely acclaimed book that fell totally flat for me. It does start with an interesting premise but it suffers from too much telling and very little or no showing, the pace feels glacially slow and the characters lack proper development.  I know that if a book fails to capture my interest in the first 30 pages, it has no chance at all, and this one did not manage to hold my attention.

Reviews

TV Review: THE EXPANSE – Season 1 (spoiler-free)

Every time a successful book (or series of books) is translated to the screen, readers always deal with some nagging doubts: fear that the source material will be changed too much from the original; that the actors chosen to portray the various characters will not be equal to the task; that the switch from the imagined to the visual will prove a huge disappointment.  Now that I’ve finally watched the first season of The Expanse, I can say to my extreme satisfaction that those fears were groundless: the show managed the transition from the book(s) quite successfully, and it also kept my attention riveted to the story-line even though I was familiar with it. And that’s not an easy feat.

On hindsight – and after a careful re-watch – I understand that the show had an uphill road to travel, and one that was charged with a doubly difficult task: on one side there were the book readers, like myself, who expected to see a faithful rendition of a compelling story (or as faithful as the medium allows, of course), while on the other there were the viewers with no prior knowledge of the facts and who needed to be guided into the story, to become invested in the characters and in their journey.  And in the meantime it needed to deliver a product with good enough ratings as to be eligible for renewal.  Enough to give anyone nightmares…

Despite this intimidating prospects, The Expanse‘s screenwriters were not afraid to take their time to develop the story, the background and the characters: it’s a proof of both courage and confidence at a time when viewers rarely possess the patience to wait for a slow buildup, and can decree the premature end of a promising show by killing it with poor ratings. Because, for some reason, while people at large can accept and even welcome a slowly-developing story in a book, they want to cut to the quick when watching a tv show, as if they thought that the visual medium should be pared down to a minimum.   So I was surprised when I discovered that the pace of this first season was quite leisurely, but after a while I understood how the “big picture” was being painted in incremental brush strokes that expanded (no pun intended…) a viewer’s understanding of the playing field and the characters, while raising the stakes little by little – it was something akin to Sherazade’s game: keep the listeners interested, grab their attention, but don’t reveal too much, so they will be back for more (and possibly decide NOT to kill you in the morning…)

This narrative choice also avoided another danger, that of long exposition that can slow a story’s momentum. There was a great deal of information to impart here: the reach of human exploration in space, the living conditions in various environments, the technological level and the politics of it all. Through those little brush strokes, and the almost subliminal clues offered by visuals or by small bits of dialog, the show kept building that information in a satisfying way that nonetheless never interfered with the story-flow.  One of the best examples is given with the Belters: it would have been impossible (and quite costly) to show them all with the elongated bodies resulting from a life in micro-gravity, so we were given just a couple of glimpses of extreme cases, and several references were made to the fact, reinforced by the cultural and behavioral patterns that were present as visual clues. It all added up in underlining the Belters’… other-ness without need for lengthy explanations.

While our subconscious was being fed all this information, the story developed under our eyes through three main points of view: this is the only major change from the book, and one whose wisdom I understand – not to mention the fact that it brought one of my favorite characters on stage much earlier than anticipated!  Adding Chrisjen Avarasala as a point of view, besides Miller and Holden, makes for a more complete picture of the complex political currents flowing in the area of space inhabited by humanity, and for a more dynamic change of scenery between the various playing fields.  Detective Miller can be our eyes and ears in the Belt, offering a view of living conditions on the frontier and on the impact of corporate interests on the inhabitants; Jim Holden and his crew show us what it means to ply the distances between planets and outposts, and the dangers inherent in this kind of life; Avarasala, the consummate politician from Earth, helps us understand how it all comes together, how the power plays between the home planet, a proudly independent Mars and the Belt colonies can affect it all.

The show was also very successful in giving us a version of the future that is all but highly technological and glamorous: the frontier – here represented by the Belt – is dirty and drab, the living quarters cramped and grungy. Water and air are rationed, and the latter’s quality can be contaminated by sub-standard filters.  Spacers fare no better: their ships suffer from poor and careless maintenance, and traveling between worlds with cargo or equipment is as fascinating as carrying a truck-load of vegetables from one city to another.  And there are the inherent dangers of such a life, because – for example – gravity can kill you: it does so when it’s too much and you need drugs to sustain the crushing force of too many Gs of acceleration, and it also kills you, more slowly, when it’s not enough and your bones don’t fuse properly, or become too brittle to live in an Earth-like environment.

As if all of the above were not enough, there are the risks coming from human greed and the convoluted plot that the characters struggle to unravel…

This leisurely, incremental progress represents the winning strategy to lure viewers into the story, as I understood by reading various online comments about people having to pay close attention to detail in order to keep abreast of the developments. And yet it felt somewhat frustrating: part of me wanted to see certain events from the book, and as the number of remaining episodes dwindled, I knew that this first season would not cover the entirety of Leviathan Wakes. It was really my only disappointment, and I can rationally agree that it’s only a minor one, even though there’s still a small, quite childish voice insisting that she wanted it all, that what I was given was not nearly enough.  Still, it’s a measure of how much I loved this translation from book to screen, and of how it successfully engaged me: knowing that a second season is already in the works is a comfort – a small one, granted, but a comfort anyway. The journey is not over.

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It would not be a complete review if I did not speak about the characters, and the actors who gave them life: I imagine it’s a tricky job to find the right person for any given character, especially when he or she has been fleshed out over the course of several books, and there are huge expectations from the reading crowd.  As the cast choices were announced over time, I was both happy and thrilled by learning that Shohreh Aghdashloo would play Chrisjen Avarasala: having seen this actress before, I knew that the strong personality she can project and that peculiarly husky voice she possesses would be perfect for this character – and they were, indeed. Her portrayal manages to balance the shrewd, ruthless politician with the person who still retains her humanity but knows it can be a liability in her chosen job. No casting could have been more spot-on that this one.

My uncertainties concerned instead the rest of the cast, for no other reason that I knew none of them, but again, seeing them on screen, those doubts disappeared soon. For example, I feared that Thomas Jane would not look seedy enough for detective Miller, but he played the part perfectly, showing the various sides of the man in a very believable way: the slightly corrupt, disheartened cop who suddenly finds a cause he believes in and pursues out of sheer doggedness; the cynic who is capable of unexpected acts of bravery and sacrifice; the man walking on the razor’s edge between two worlds, who knows he does not belong to either one anymore.

Cas Anvar as Alex and Wes Chatam as Amos have replaced my mental image of their book counterparts for me: they both felt right from the very start, as if they had been playing these characters for a long time and were more than comfortable in their shoes. Alex’s cockiness, so typical of ship pilots, is portrayed with flair and the right dose of humor that provides a counterpoint to that arrogance, while a few visual clues give us a glimpse of the man’s innermost turmoils.  Amos, on the other hand, required an equally difficult balance between a killer’s soul and a sort of basic innocence, a dichotomy that’s carried off with successful, and admirable, credibility.

Dominique Tipper as Naomi Nagata (a figure I’ve come to appreciate even more with the last book in the series) is the best choice from this group: she manages to bring Naomi into sharp relief with all her contradictions, the things left unsaid or buried deeply, the sense of a harsh past that nevertheless has not prevented her from becoming a strong, independent person. There is a hint of layers upon layers here, that’s conveyed by looks and silences more than words: I can’t wait to see how she will further develop the character in the future.

The jury is however still undecided about Steven Strait as Jim Holden: I admit I was a little prejudiced because he looks too young for my mental image of this character. Granted, Holden is a young person, but still in the book he carries that air of gravitas that makes him look and act as an older one. And what I saw on screen did not exactly match that mental image, but in the course of the show I saw some progress, and growth, that made me hope he might become more comfortable in this role.

With The Expanse there is no doubt that SyFy has made a grand return to the genre it used to be know for: I know I’m not the only one hoping that this will be only the beginning of a long-awaited rebirth.

My Rating:


(and a gold medal)

Reviews

TEASER TUESDAY

Teaser Tuesday is a curious meme I’ve caught on some of the blogs I follow, and it’s a creation of Miz B over at A Daily Rhythm.

All you have to do is:

• Grab your current read

• Open to a random page

• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

• Share the title & author, too, so that other Teaser Tuesday participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Teaser Tuesday

This week’s quotes come from the latest addition to the Vorkosigan Saga (one of my favorite book series, by the way):

At age fifteen, Lon had acquired nearly his full adult height, and his people ran to tall; the rest of his development still lagged behind. The general effect was of one of those primary school science experiments where Bean Plant No. 3 was raised without light, growing long and thin and pale and barely able to stand upright.

E-page 85 of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is a great example of Ms. Bujold’s delightful sense of humor, an element that’s never missing from her books, even the most drama-oriented ones.

Reviews

Review: THE BORDER, by Robert McCammon

24406483It’s always sad when a book disappoints me, but it’s worse when that happens with an author whose work I appreciated in the past: I discovered Robert McCammon several years ago with Swan Song, a gripping novel mixing science fiction and horror, depicting a world ravaged by nuclear holocaust and peopled by powerful characters on both sides of the fence, the survivors and the damned.  I read two other books by him, They Thirst – the story of a vampire invasion in Los Angeles, and The Wolf’s Hour – an interesting combination between history and fantasy, with a werewolf working as a spy against the Nazis; while not on the same level as Swan Song, they were both entertaining reads, so when I learned about The Border I was thrilled at the idea of a story that could parallel that first book I read.

The premise is indeed intriguing: Earth has been invaded not by one but by two alien races, yet for once our planet is not a place for mere conquest, but rather a battleground between creatures that have been dubbed Cyphers and Gorgons.  Earth finds itself on the border (hence the title) of both races’ expansion drive, so they fight each other for supremacy, uncaring of the collateral damage represented by humanity, whose survivors barely hang by the skin of their teeth, their civilization gone, cities reduced to burned rubble, water, food – and most important safety – running out at an accelerated pace.

The book opens as a teenaged boy, with no memory of who he is and how he came to be there, runs for his life as a fierce battle between Gorgons and Cyphers is waged around him: he’s hurt, bleeding and at the end of his endurance, but there’s a force driving him on – maybe a strong survival instinct, maybe something else. It’s a powerful start, one that draws you straight in and takes hold of your imagination.   The boy, who will later on be called Ethan, is rescued and taken into a small community of survivors holding out in the remnants of a housing enclave – and here is where the strong beginning of this novel starts to falter.

Ethan is quickly revealed as a special person: he uncovers a source of much-needed water under the complex’s abandoned swimming pool, and he can project lethal energy that creates earthquakes or vanquishes attacking foes. His body exhibits signs of inexplicable changes and he’s driven by a powerful imperative to reach the mysterious “White Mansion”, where his unknown destiny must be fulfilled. The similarities to Swan Song’s main character and her journey are evident, and while I found this mildly disappointing, it’s not the key reason for my disenchantment with this novel.  Ethan himself is too weak a character: the discovery of his abilities, the changes in his body, are both accepted far too easily and happen far too conveniently, while he remains a passive spectator of it all.  I would have expected deeper emotions from him, from the loss of his identity to the discovery of the powers he’s invested with, but while we are told about the way he reacts to what’s happening, we are never really shown that any of it truly touches him.

Something along the same lines happens with the survivors of Panther Ridge, the enclave where Ethan finds momentary shelter: these are people at the end of their wits and supplies, their numbers dwindling daily from injuries, alien attacks and despair-driven suicides, but we never really get to know them as people, we are only told – again – about their emotions, or offered a few meandering dialogs that give little in the matter of true characterization.  What’s worse, they seem to accept Ethan’s strangeness and his nebulous ‘mission’ with an amazing swiftness that seems to clash loudly with the strict measures taken until that moment against alien infiltration.  Yes, because the invaders, as a side activity, take humans and perform genetic modifications on them, letting them loose among the survivors to wreak further havoc: that’s the origin, for example, of the Grey Men, zombie-like hordes of flesh-eating ex-humans that plague the nights of humanity’s remnants. The Panther Ridge dwellers devised a way to screen real humans from the fake ones, since injecting a saline solution into their bloodstream causes a negative reaction in the latter, and the fact that Ethan passed this test with flying colors seems enough to warrant such blind faith in him.

If the enclave’s inhabitants’ despair might justify this too-easy acceptance that looks like that of a drowning man grasping at anything to stay afloat, such a justification loses some of its strength when the group, embarking on a dangerous journey toward the mythical White Mansion, meets with a military contingent stationed in a former shopping mall.  The garrison commander, described as a seasoned officer, takes the new arrivals’ explanations for Ethan at face value, and after witnessing the boy’s abilities in a clash with aliens, becomes a believer: he refurbishes the group’s bus, gives them much-needed supplies (evidently the military have an inexhaustible reserve of them, even in the desperate conditions in which Earth now stands) and sends them on their merry way.  This is where I drew the line, because my capacity for suspension of disbelief was stretched beyond its limit, the situation not helped by a writing that at times felt clunky, by the sketchy characterization, and by a few truly painful dialogs from a few secondary players.

And so, a little past the midway point, I abandoned my struggle to keep on reading, and see at least where the story was headed, unable to summon even the mildest interest in events or characters, though not without keenly feeling the loss of the unfulfilled promise of this book.

My Rating: