Reviews

STAR TREK BEYOND: a short, spoiler-free review and some longer musings

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It was impossible not to be aware of the expectations – both for good and bad – surrounding this movie, in consideration of the troubled life of its predecessors, disowned by the staunchest Star Trek fans for the perceived lack of ties with the original material, if not for the outright betrayal of the original vision.

While I enjoyed Star Trek in the past, with time it lost much of its appeal, especially once I was able to compare it with other more mature, and more daring, science fiction shows: don’t misunderstand me, Trek will always have a place in my “affections”, because I started studying English some 40 years ago through the TOS episodes’ novelizations by James Blish, and in so doing discovered the fascinating universe it depicted, and the existence of a SF show I had not been previously aware of.  Yet it’s not the one I would choose to define what I most enjoy in science fiction.

For starters, what looked like innovative premises at the time of its conception (a huge alliance of cultures working together in harmony; a society that has gone beyond the need for money or basic creature comforts; a galaxy where knowledge and mutual understanding are highly valued; and so on…) represents the kind of utopia that’s nice to see but that we know could never take shape, not with what we understand about humanity now, when we have lost many of the hopes that were the show’s backbone then.  Moreover, the need to follow this particular universe’s ground rules ended up creating several constraints for the many writers who were called to work for the franchise. In Gene Roddenberry’s vision, there should have been no conflicts, no troubles among the perfectly integrated crews of the Federation starships, or among the many races of the Federation, and in such far-reaching peace and harmony there was far too much space for predictability and boredom, and almost none for some interesting clash of characters and personalities.  Some of the most die-hard fans adhere to this vision with far more tenacity than did the series’ creator himself, and look with suspicion – or worse – on any attempt at splicing some different features into Trek’s “genome”.

It’s no secret that the Trek incarnation that attempted to get out of these rigid schemes – Deep Space 9 – is the one that those die-hard fans like less: in DS9 there was interpersonal conflict and we were shown how the Federation and Starfleet were not perfect and irreproachable entities but were instead, quite humanly, prone to flaws and areas of darkness. What others might perceive as shortcomings was, to me, the reason for a renewed interest in the saga, so that this series is the only one I can re-watch even now without feeling that time has left its inexorable mark upon it – at least for the episodes who follow a particular narrative arc, without wasting time and effort in improbable holodeck escapades or Ferengi capers that to me hold nothing of the wonder and adventure I expect to find in space opera.

After the poor results of the last TV series, Enterprise, it looked as if Star Trek had said all it had to say, so the news that a reboot would be accomplished through big-screen movies was welcomed with mixed reactions: many worried at the changes that would be introduced by story and characterization, altering forever the perceptions built over the decades. For me, the first two movies – while spectacular and entertaining – were something of a disappointment: the use of the word “reboot”, at least as I intend it, means the renewal of a story through the insertion of fresh ideas and points of view. Sadly, there was nothing of the sort in those two first movies, on the contrary they re-used old patterns and narrative threads, only presenting them in a new, more modern and glittery dress.  It seemed to me that the powers-that-be had decided to take the show’s catchphrase and to twist it into an unimaginative “where everyone has already gone before” – too many times.  For a story that took its inspiration from the exploration of the unknown, it seemed that the boldness had evaporated and the choice for time-tested secondhand material had removed any desire for expansion and evolution out of the playing field.

That said, I was nevertheless curious about this latest movie, and as I always do I was ready to give it the benefit of the doubt, refusing to condemn it out of hand like many did, especially when the first trailer hit the web. True, it looked like another offer with a great deal of action, explosions and daring stunts, and little in the way of character growth or depth, but I told myself that in summertime even a loud, boisterous “popcorn movie” can be acceptable, even if it’s not on the same line of its source material. And the friends with whom I went to the theater agreed with me.

Well, sometimes going in with low expectations does pay off in the end: the movie was a pleasant surprise, overall. The story, for once, was original and not a rehash of some previous episode, or some already-used theme: granted, it was nothing world-changing, but it went over well, and the pacing was fast and at times quite breathless.  The characterization showed some improvements too, offering new facets on the main characters’ personalities and inner drive, with a few introspective moments that were rather nice to witness. There was the appropriate amount of humor, placed at the right moments, and when it was directed inwards – almost in an attempt to deconstruct some long-standing traditions of the show – it worked like a charm: there is a brief sequence, near the beginning, when Kirk comes back aboard after a not-so-successful mission, and he off-handedly comments about “another ripped shirt” that had me laughing out loud in sheer delight, since it was very effective because of its tongue-in-cheek nature, and the unspoken but clear subtext it carried.

There were some poignant moments as well, and they integrated seamlessly with the more boisterous whole: the brief, almost subliminal “for Anton”, paying homage to the recently deceased Anton Yelchin (a.k.a. Chekov); and the tribute paid to the passing of Leonard Nimoy, the first, iconic Mr. Spock: this was carried out in a way that was so starkly emotional that even a true Vulcan would not have objected to it – to say how deeply spectators were affected would be redundant…

And even if the required Bad Guy’s motivations seemed a bit of a dejà vu, even if there were a few plot glitches – something that hit my awareness only after the movie ended, which means that the momentum carried them well nonetheless – the overall effect is more than positive, and for the first time since the Borg I felt that the adversaries’ might was something to be frightened of.  Look at that swarm of ships and tell me you are not scared!

If this is the new course the franchise has chosen to travel on, I can get back on board: nothing special or Earth-shattering happened, I’ll give you that, but for once I felt some substance under the glitter, and it was enough.

 

My Rating:

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Reviews

Review: THE APOTHECARY’S CURSE, by Barbara Barnett

29358253I received this book from Pyr through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for granting me this opportunity.

When I saw this title in the list of the books offered for review I was immediately intrigued, since the story promised to combine old myths and modern conspiracies in what looked like an irresistible mix. Gaelan Erceldoune is an apothecary in mid-nineteenth century London, a man harboring a secret that goes back to more ancient times. When he is approached by Dr. Simon Bell, a man desperate to save his beloved wife Sophie from cancer, he concocts a substance that could cure her, provided his client follows instructions to the letter. Sadly, Sophie dies anyway and Simon, in a fit of desperation, drinks the rest of the elixir to follow her into death, but only manages to make himself immortal, just like Gaelan who drank a similar potion to cure himself from the plague two centuries earlier.

From that moment on, the destiny of both men becomes inextricably linked: as Simon tries in vain to kill himself, not realizing yet the change effected by the potion, Gaelan becomes the victim of a deranged scientist who submits him to terrible tortures for years in the hope of finding the secret of his rapid healing and immortality. When the two reunite again they will need to pool their resources to find the key to their condition in a mysterious book of ancient remedies that was Gaelan’s family heirloom and that disappeared after his incarceration.  Gaelan hungers for the old wisdom contained in the book, the only link that remains to his long-lost family, and Simon only seeks the way to reverse the procedure and finally join his beloved Sophie in death.

The story unfolds on two tracks – the events from mid-nineteenth century London and those from the present day – that intertwine around each other not unlike DNA strands, an image that recurs often in the course of the novel. This narrative style makes for a quick, fascinating read, even more so for the past, as we follow Gaelan’s soul-wrenching experiences at the hands of doctor Hailey and his cronies, who could give the infamous Mengele some points.  In the present, the danger comes from the research of an unscrupulous pharmaceutical company that has gotten wind of Gaelan’s existence and tries to hunt him down for the obvious advantages that could derive from the study of such a unique individual.

I did enjoy the story overall, though I felt more partial to the half of it set in the past: to me it held the attraction of a period piece interlaced with some mystery and a few touches of ancient magic, and I loved the peek it allowed into the times’ mores and thought processes, even though the language sounded a little too flowery for my tastes.

The present-times section had a more… unfinished flavor for me, and it contrasted starkly with its twin half: if I wanted to put my feelings into images, I could say that the nineteenth century sections were in full color, while the twenty-first century ones seemed somewhat faded and less real than their counterparts.  After a while I found myself thinking that the author must have felt this way as well, and needed to anchor the writing for the present times to some firm points: I believe this must have been the reason for the liberal (and in my opinion often unwarranted) use of the f** word or the brand names of the various articles of clothing, drinks or electronic equipment mentioned in the course of the story, that always felt to me like pasted-on additions that somehow did not truly belong in there.

That said, The Apothecary’s Curse is a swift, interesting read that will appeal to the estimators of the genre.

My Rating:


Reviews

Review: ZIMA BLUE and OTHER STORIES, by Alastair Reynolds

860926My successful encounter with Alastair Reynold’s short fiction in Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days persuaded me to look for more of his stories collections and this one proved to be again different from what I expected: there is a wide range of themes and moods in this anthology, and it helped me appreciate the different shades of storytelling of this amazing author.

As it happens with every collection I’ve read so far, not all stories were to my liking, but I can honestly say that only a couple did not manage to hold my complete attention, while the others ranged from the very interesting to the deeply engrossing. As anthologies usually go, I rate this a huge success.

Reviewing short stories is always difficult, because you don’t want to give away the plot while you explore story and characterization, but this collection makes it somewhat easy because some of the stories are linked, as if they were part of a bigger background – or the seeds for more expanded storytelling – and allow the reader/reviewer more latitude.

The first and last story work as bookends for the rest of the anthology: both of them deal with journalist Carrie Clay and her search for interesting subjects as the focus of her articles. In the first one, The Real Story, she interviews the first man to set foot on Mars, that at the time in which the action takes place is both successfully colonized and a tourist attraction. Her encounter with astronaut James Grossart and his crew is both fascinating and a source of constant surprises until the very bittersweet end. The last story, the one that gives this collection its title, Zima Blue, is just as bittersweet and poignant: again we deal with a well-know person – a renowned artist this time – and are led toward incredible discoveries and a huge, intensely emotional surprise.

Hideaway, Minla’s Flowers and Merlin’s Gun all deal with the character of Merlin: as humanity fights what seems a losing battle against the all-destroying Husker swarms (they made me think of the Borg on steroids…), Merlin takes another path and spends long centuries alone on his ship, searching for a way to eliminate the threat. These three stories are among the best and made me think more than once that Merlin’s journey deserves a novel all of its own, mostly because this is space opera in the purest Reynolds flavor and scope.

Signal to Noise and Cardiff Afterlife share again a thematic link, that of parallel worlds and the way to travel (after a fashion) between them: while the first one is a quietly emotional piece about loss and how to deal with grief when science offers you a last opportunity to say goodbye, the latter feels almost as an afterthought and did not resonate with me as the former. The concept of passage through parallel realities is however very intriguing and – to my knowledge – quite new.

Among the stand-alone stories, Beyond the Aquila Rift was one that forced me to change my point of view several times: what seems a “simple” tale of a ship’s crew stranded beyond the boundaries of known space because of a navigational error, turns out to be something quite different.    Enola paints a picture of a post-apocalyptic Earth and the way survivors have learned to adapt and to forge an entirely new mythology about the past and what shaped their present.  Angel of Ashes imagines a religion born out of an alien visitation and geared toward integration of machine and human: I found this one interesting enough, but also quite weird.

And last but not least, Understanding Space and Time: life on Earth has been wiped out by a virus and the last surviving members of humanity dwell on Mars where a small research station had been established sometimes before the apocalypse.  The scientists die one by one, either because of illness or choosing suicide out of despair, and the last survivor, Renfrew, finds the means of overcoming loneliness and sorrow through the apparition of a piano-playing musician with whom he establishes a strange kind of relationship.  To say more, would be to spoil the surprises awaiting both Renfrew and the readers, but I appreciated enormously Reynolds’ take on the psychology of the very last man alive, and his way of dealing with the end of civilization.

What links all of these stories is the deep sense of wonder that this author can convey with galaxy-spanning civilizations or with more enclosed backgrounds, and – more importantly – the optimistic subtext that he can infuse even in the most critical scenarios: his characters keep trying to find a way to survive, to overcome the obstacles on their path. If to do so requires them to change and adapt they do it, not without pain and loss, granted, but still they forge on, and this is a very important message, even in the face of destruction. Something we should always keep in mind…

My Rating:


Reviews

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAYS #8

This GoodReads group I recently discovered proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.

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After a long time in which I was not able to make the deadline with some acceptable ideas, I can at last return to this fun meme. This weeks’s theme is:

Most Recent Additions to Your Wishlist

Books you are dying to get your hands on for your collection.

It wasn’t easy to restrict my list to only five, because when it comes to books I always fall prey to the dreaded Gollum Syndrome (as in “mine, my own, my preciousssss…”), so here is the list of the books that have me ranting and raving in expectation.

THE GATES OF HELL, by Michael Livingston – second volume in the Shards of Heaven series: I fell in love with the first one, Shards of Heaven, and I’m more than looking forward to seeing how the story continues. This was my first taste of historical fantasy, and I must say it’s a very, very intriguing genre.

BABYLON’S ASHES, by James S.A. Corey – sixth book in the Expanse saga: space opera at its very best, now being turned, one book at a time, into an awesome tv series by SyFy. If you have not read any of these books yet, you should wait no longer. Trust me…

WOLF MOON, by Ian McDonald – second volume in the Luna series: last year, Luna, New Moon was a big revelation for me – my first book by Ian McDonald and an amazing story successfully mixing science fiction, intrigue and the darkness of the human soul.

WITH BLOOD UPON THE SAND, by Bradley Beaulieu – second book in the Song of Shattered Sands series: the first volume was a magical, immersive read, the kind that literally takes me away from the everyday world and makes me forget its existence. So, I’m anxiously waiting for some more magic.

THE COLLAPSING EMPIRE, by John Scalzi – the first book in a brand-new series by one of my very favorite authors: he writes them, I buy them and I’m never, ever disappointed. What more could I ask from a book?  🙂

What about you? What are the books on your Most Wanted list?

Reviews

Review: MORNING STAR (Red Rising #3), by Pierce Brown

18966806And so this powerful trilogy has reached its conclusion, and it is an epic one – no other word can describe it with anything approaching justice. Both story-arc and characterization move with a steady forward motion resembling that of an avalanche, progressing toward the end with a relentless, breath-taking pace that at times is almost impossible to bear: I often had to remind myself to breathe, just breathe, such was the intensity of what I was reading. The progression I mentioned is not limited to story and characters, however: in the course of these three books I witnessed the author’s steadily growing mastery of both subject and fictional creatures and as they grew in depth and precision, so grew my appreciation for this writer – I went from intrigued to totally invested reader, to ultimately become a staunch fan, one who hopes to read more from Pierce Brown in the very near future.

While I will try, as I always do, to keep any spoilers under control, it will be next to impossible to avoid them if I want to discuss both Morning Star and its predecessors, so this is your warning: read on at your own peril…

Golden Son, the middle book, ended in a harrowing cliffhanger, with Darrow exposed and captured. Morning Star begins with Darrow lying in a tomb-like cell, prisoner of darkness, of the memory of the tortures he’s been subjected to and the awareness that so many sacrifices could have been in vain.  It’s a dark, miserable beginning and yet we see that a broken body does not necessarily mean a broken spirit, and that the Reaper of Mars still harbors an ember of rebellion that needs only a little breath to blaze into the old fire.

I am the Reaper.

I know hot to suffer.

I know the darkness.

This is not how it ends.

And indeed Darrow rises again, phoenix-like, from the ashes, this cycle of rebirth a constant in his journey: first from Red to Gold after his recruitment by the Sons of Ares and Mikey’s carving; then as the winner of the Institute’s bloody battles, when he realizes how much the experience has changed him; then again when he falls from favor and must re-assess his priorities and alliances. What’s most fascinating in this cycle is that each time Darrow gains more than what he’s forced to leave behind, just as his character and goals gain depth and scope: from the mere need for vengeance for the death of his wife Eo, he moves on toward a desire to first overthrow Gold society and then to change it, to finally land upon the understanding that this change must come for everyone, not just the lower Colors, to be truly meaningful.  That his ultimate goal must not be the destruction of an unjust system, but the building of something that will affect everyone’s present and future.

We’re not fighting for the dead. We’re fighting for the living. And for those who aren’t yet born. For a chance to have children.

This awareness goes hand in hand with the realization that such an undertaking must be a collective effort, so that Darrow struggles to include as many allies as he can in his scheme – not just because of the “safety in numbers” factor, but because he has learned that no one can function in a vacuum and that a shared dream has more chances to become a reality than the hopes of a single man. This proves more difficult than outright battle: dealing with people and their multi-faceted personalities requires a finesse that a simple fight lacks, and not just with strangers that must be won over to the Rising’s cause – sometimes friends represent the trickiest subjects and a common ground can be successfully established only through trial and error.  Darrow’s best moments are those when he makes mistakes, when he does something catastrophically wrong: he’s not your proverbial square-jawed, perfect hero, he’s flawed – human – and therefore very relatable, much more so in the last two books, where his shortcomings come dramatically to the surface, than in the first one where it’s somewhat hard to feel empathy toward him.

He’s not alone in this, thankfully: both friends and foes share this characteristic so that their personalities are allowed to shine on their own, and not just in the reflected light of the ‘hero’. One of the features I most appreciated in this trilogy, and particularly in the last two installments, is that despite the first-person point of view the focus is not always on Darrow: too often this kind of narrative choice tends to selfishly concentrate on the main character, to the detriment of the others, but not here.  Sevro, Victra, Mustang, Ragnar (oh, Ragnar…) and many others are much more than shadows flanking the protagonist, enhancing the choral quality of the novels and gifting them with richness and depth.  Even the antagonists show a few chinks in their armor, small details that make their wickedness more credible: the best example of this is the Jackal, the cruel and amoral Gold mastermind, who is ultimately driven by a deep need to be seen, acknowledged and loved – I was surprised at the stab of pity (fleeting as it was) that I felt for him, and added it to the long list of reasons that make me appreciate Pierce Brown’s writing.

All of the above does not apply to people alone: the descriptions of landscapes and situations come alive with cinematic clarity, so that it’s easy to visualize the backgrounds in which the action takes place, but where the author’s skills truly shine is in the battle scenes, either in space or in hand-to-hand combat.  One of the reasons I’m not very fond of military SF is that the space battles tend to focus too much on technology and science, so that I quickly lose both patience and interest and skip ahead: this never happened here, because Brown never forgets to give his readers the human angle of conflict – the suffering, the loss of life, the unavoidable destruction.  There is so much raw emotion infused in these descriptions, that you can’t forget how all those powerful war machines are manned by people, by flesh and blood on which the ultimate price of war is imposed.  The same applies to individual clashes, where strife becomes close and personal, where blood and gore and smashed limbs are paraded before our eyes, never in a form of morbid voyeurism that wants to shock, but in search of empathy and participation, placing the readers in the middle of the scene and making them wince in sympathy rather than recoil in revulsion.

I like to say that a good book is the one you keep thinking about even after you’ve closed it: the Red Rising trilogy, and this final installment in particular, more than fulfilled that role for me – even several days after finishing it, I can’t take the characters and the story out of my mind. Not that I’m complaining about it…

My Rating:


Reviews

TEASER TUESDAY #9

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

I finally decided to start reading Daniel Abraham’s series The Dagger and the Coin, a five volume fantasy saga whose first volume THE DRAGON’S PATH has been sitting for a long time on my reader.   The quote I’ve decided to share belongs to a character that has all the appearances of a bumbling loser, and yet there are sides to him that make me think he will not stay that way….

It occurred to him, as he descended the wide, polished wood stairs and walked across the wide hall, that he wore the cloak much the way he’d have worn a mask. Because it was well made and impressive, he hid in it, hoping people would see it and not him.

As first books go, this one sounds very promising, and the fact that the whole series has been published and I will not have to wait to see how events unfold is a huge plus, indeed.

Reviews

Review: HELL DIVERS, by Nicholas Sansbury Smith

28464896I received this book from NetGalley and Blackstone Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

I have no trouble admitting my weakness for post-apocalyptic scenarios (I can lay the blame on Stephen King’s The Stand for this…), so when I saw the synopsis for this novel I was immediately interested: the Earth surface has become uninhabitable after being ravaged by nuclear explosions in World War III, and what remains of humanity dwells on huge airships that have been transformed from instruments of death into arks in which the last survivors barely hang on through increasing difficulties.  The ships are old, overcrowded; supplies and foodstuffs are never enough to satisfy everyone’s needs; and the vessels require constant maintenance, achieved through scavenging runs operated by the titular Hell Divers.

These are men and women who dare the dangerous descent toward the radiation-riddled surface in search of spare parts or fuel cells in the abandoned pre-war depots: first they glide down to the surface braving constant electrical storms generated by the massive nuclear explosions of the war, then they have to scour the land for the needed supplies, trying to avoid the dangers and pitfalls on the ravaged ground, the broken-down cities and the hot zones where radiation still runs rampant.  As the story opens, a new threat is added to an already terrifying scenario: nightmarish creatures, the result of radiation-induced mutations, prey on the Hell Divers and their already dwindling numbers, adding a new level of hazard to a mortally dangerous profession.

The average life expectancy for a Hell Diver is fifteen runs, but the main character Xavier Rodriguez (simply called “X”) is a veteran with almost a hundred drops under his belt: disillusioned and despondent, he lives only for the scavenging missions, knowing that each one can be his last but apparently not caring either way. He lost his wife to cancer – a common occurrence on the ships, since the residual radiation cannot be shielded with one-hundred percent success, even far above ground – and he feels no anchor to the pitiful remnant of humanity living aboard the Hive, his days spent, like most of his fellow divers, on scavenging missions and the wild drinking bouts in-between each one.

With only two ships remaining afloat – Xavier’s own Hive and the Ares – humanity stands on the brink of extinction, and when Ares suffers a terminal breakdown and crashes to the ground, only X and the remaining Hell Divers stand between this same fate for Hive and the remote possibility of finally finding a landing place where try and rebuild some sort of civilization.

The picture painted in this premise is quite grim, and the most riveting part of the novel resides in the bleakness of the situation and the way in which human society – or what’s left of it – has adapted to the new living conditions: space aboard the ships is at a premium, and a good portion of it is devoted to raising crops and livestock to feed the survivors. Social differences have transcended color and gender and veered toward usefulness to the ship: engineers and farmers are among the privileged, right after the crew members and the Hell Divers, of course.  All the others are relegated to the cramped spaces of Below Deck, where illness, malnutrition and resentment run rampant, and where the more industrious manage to eke out a slightly better life through the sale of black market goods or straightforward crime.

Conditions on the ground are even worse: under the constant cover of roiling black clouds, where electrical storms rage in waves and the sun never shines through, the land is covered by the ice of nuclear winter; rubble and the remnants of once-proud skyscrapers dot the landscape and offer a perfect breeding and hiding ground to the Sirens: blind and hungry creatures gifted with razor teeth and an unerring sense for prey – the evolution of some hardy animal or perhaps of those humans who did non perish immediately after the holocaust.

It’s on this unforgiving background that the story develops, starting without preamble with a fateful dive and from there expanding the focus to humanity’s overall situation: it’s a quick, immersive story that captures your attention and keeps it there, with almost no space for a breather. This is more of an action-driven novel, which means that deeper characterization is sacrificed on the altar of pacing and narrative speed: on the plus side, this allows for an almost cinematic quality to the storytelling – and this would indeed make for a great movie with breath-taking visuals, where the Hell Divers’ descent through the cloud layer could work as an amazing opener, and the scenes of the attacking Sirens offer several nerve-wracking moments. Still, I would have liked something more from the characters, that at times tend to be more tropes than people: the disillusioned veteran, the beleaguered captain, the former thief-turned-diver who finds a new meaning in life, and so on. A few events seem a little too convenient as well, like the young orphan who finds himself in Xavier’s care and goes from grieving, sullen silence to affectionate acceptance almost overnight with no visible progression.

Nonetheless, these are simply personal issues and the fact remains that Hell Divers is an engaging story that holds one’s attention from start to finish and will certainly satisfy the readers’ need for adventure in a post-apocalyptic scenario. The kind of book that can keep you awake till the small hours…

 

My Rating: