Monthly Archives: July 2016
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.
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.
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?
And 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…
Last week Lynn at BOOKS AND TRAVELING WITH LYNN nominated me for this award: thank you so much and my sincere apologies for such a late reply! My only excuse is that I was away from home with only my faithful tablet that is indeed a wonderful, compact device for keeping in touch with the rest of the world, but is also sheer nightmare for typing anything beyond a simple, straightforward sentence. As I told a friend, writing on a tablet can only result in a typo fest…
So, now that I’m back to a more comfortable way of posting (With a real keyboard! And a mouse! 😀 ) I can get on with the business of fulfilling my part of the award’s requirements, which are:
A) Thank the blogger who nominated you – check (thank you so much, Lynn!)
B) Answer the seven questions that the nomination provided you. Here we go:
1) If you could meet any author, from any time (past and present), who would that be and what would be your most pressing question?
That’s an easy one: GRR Martin, and the question – surprise, surprise – would be about a firm publication date for The Winds of Winter.
2) Who is your absolute favourite character, ever. I know you’re probably groaning and rolling your eyes but there must be one character that springs to mind immediately – probably followed by a host of others – but, I want that first knee jerk reaction please and why!
Let’s remain on Game of Thrones territory then: the knee-jerk reaction reply would be Arya Stark – I’ve always admired her strength of character and determination, and rooted for her since day one.
3) What is your favorite series out of all the books you’ve read? The series you would recommend without hesitation.
Since I just finished the fourth (and hopefully not last!) volume of M.L. Brennan’s Generation V series, I would go with that one: urban fantasy that does not rely on the usual tropes and that mixes drama and humor in a seamless whole.
4) What’s your preferred reading format, book or e-reader?
E-reader: I can take with me more than one book, no matter how big, and acquire new titles as soon as I decide I would like to read them. Fast and practical: no one could ask for more!
5) The book you were most looking forward to but ended up being really disappointed with?
In recent times it was Robert McCammon’s The Border: I had high expectations for this one, since I enjoyed the author’s previous books, but this one ended up in the DNF corner…
6) Blogging – what do you love/not love – any embarrassing moments?
What I love most of the blogging experience is the exchange of points of view over books, and the way that sometimes they can wildly diverge: it’s truly fascinating to observe how different people see the same story from different angles and help me gain insights that I would not be able to obtain on my own.
7) Most anticipated book for the remainder of 2016?
The new one for James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series: Babylon’s Ashes – which reminds me: it’s already out! I need to rush to my ebook seller straight away! 🙂
C) Create seven questions for your nominees:
1) What’s the book that you have owned for the longest time and not read yet?
2) What’s the book (or series) that you feel you “must” read and yet don’t feel inclined to?
3) Books are usually better than their movie translations, but sometimes the opposite happens. Do you have any example for this… strange phenomenon?
4) A book everyone hated and you loved.
5) A book everyone loved and you hated.
6) Your favorite quote from a beloved book.
7) Is there a closed book series that you wish had continued?
D) Nominate seven other bloggers:
For this I employed a highly scientific, very complex method called drawing lots (you can find more information on Wikipedia…) and here are the winners, in alphabetical order:
It’s your turn to have fun, people!
The last time we saw our band of heroic scoundrels they had narrowly avoided a disaster that would have plunged their world into war, and now – just a few months after those fateful events – they seem to be headed toward a worse one. And by ‘worse’ I mean an even more breathless, avalanche-like sequence of events, because while The Palace Job focused on a difficult, dangerous heist, here we can enjoy a whole series of them, all linked by the need to beat the group’s antagonist at his own game, a game that keeps changing its rules. But let’s proceed with order…
Our rogues have done their best to settle down to a more-or-less normal way of life, although – and here is one of the best ideas of the book – many of them are suffering from something akin to post-traumatic stress, especially Kail and Desidora: the former because he’s still processing the injury of mind-control who forced him to hurt his friends, the latter because she feels something fundamental is missing since she returned to being a love priestess instead of a death priestess, as if she were mourning those same powers of darkness she was so afraid of.
There is no time, however, to dwell too long on one’s troubles, or to enjoy a budding romantic relationship – as is the case for Tern and Hessler – because, literally from page one, Loch and Kail find themselves in a dangerous situation that starts as a diplomatic mission and rapidly turns into a hunt for a convenient scapegoat (Loch, of course – no surprise here) and the beginning of a war between the Republic and the neighboring Empire.
The characters (and so the readers) are plunged into this new adventure with no warning, and the fact that no effort is required to recall who they are and what they can do, shows the author’s skills in shaping his creations, so that both he and his audience can jump aboard this rollercoaster right away, and enjoy the ride. And what a ride it is… Our beloved rascals are faced with very determined enemies and a constantly evolving situation that made me think of a game whose rules keep changing, forcing the group to shift their approach and strategies just as quickly.
Princess Veiled Lightning is the most determined of those opponents, and I was constantly amused by her sudden appearance in the most unexpected moments, adding a further element of humorous danger to already complicated situations: there is an almost-cartoonish flavor to these instances that balances out the drama in a way that’s however never forced. I don’t use the word ‘cartoonish’ in a deprecating way here, but rather in admiration of the author’s seamless, balanced blend of light and darkness: I have rarely encountered such a successful combination, or the capacity to sustain it for the length of a book.
Veiled Lightning is flanked by her bodyguard Gentle Thunder (interesting choice of names here…) who wields the magical axe Arikayurichi that, like the ancient hammer Ghylspwr in possession of Desidora, holds the spirit of one of the Ancients – and speaks the same four sentences with varied shades of meaning. Then there is the elf Irrethelathlialann, immediately dubbed “Ethel” by Kail: he leads the group into a mad chase where fights, double crossings and traps within traps keep rolling out at a frantic pace – the epitome of the bad guy graced with intelligence and cunning. And what of the Knights of Gedesar? A band of hard mercenaries with an impossible score of victories obtained through merciless strength, who however always seem to be stymied by our heroes…
The cast of characters is varied and colorful, and so is the background in which the story unfolds: we travel through the lands of the dwarves, a well-ordered, polite society through which Loch’s group passes like the whirlwind, leaving mayhem in its wake; we fly by arboreal floating ship through the elvish domains, learning more about them and their puzzled aversion of humans. But above all we are taken through a series of adventures that go from a museum robbery to a train heist (I could not help comparing this one to a similar episode of Firefly, thinking how much I enjoyed them both) to a heated suf-gesuf card game with high stakes that holds all the flavor, and back-stabbing maneuvers, of Casino Royale. And let’s not forget the zombies!!!
There is not one single moment in which The Prophecy Con lets down on its rhythm: fractioning the group into various units with different purposes makes for a rapid change of scene and a constant cranking of tension that’s alleviated only through the clever use of humor. What I found most engaging here is that some of the comedic elements keep repeating (Kail’s mother jokes or his need to name the ship they’re flying on; Ghylspwr’s incomprehensible four sentences; Kail berating Icy for his non-violence vow; and so on…) and yet they never feel stale or overused. I believe the author has, by now, led his audience to expect them, and we would be sadly disappointed if he did not accommodate us…
I can’t resist the temptation of sharing two quotes from the irrepressible Kail – of course they are mother jokes. What else?
“Can you get any faster'” Pyvic asked.
“Yes, I’m just choosing to go this speed because your mother likes it when I take my time!”
“Thought these guys were though.” Kail slammed a stolen mace into the helmet of the knight who’d dropped to one knee. “What’s the matter, guys? Did I leave your mothers too tired to make you breakfast this morning?”
Add to all that some amazing, well-choreographed fight scenes, a series of twists, turns and changes in perspective that can leave you somewhat dizzy, and several unexpected revelations, and you have a compelling, breathless story that keeps you glued to the page and engaged from beginning to end.
Truly, I could not ask more from a book. If this kind of progression keeps up in the next one in this series, I know I will be in for a great experience.