Monthly Archives: December 2016

Review: BABYLON’S ASHES, by James S.A. Corey (The Expanse #6)

25877663This is the book I was most looking forward to this year, and I’m very happy to showcase it as my last review for 2016: The Expanse is without doubt one of the best space opera series currently running, its pacing and storyline a constant progression that shows no slumps or uncertainties, so that I feel I’m closing this blogging year with a proverbial bang.

Speaking of which, I was aware that the momentous events of the previous book, Nemesis Games, might have created some expectations of a more… active story, but this is a very different one, a transition story rather than one purely based on action.  The devastation visited on Earth has not only created countless deaths and massive environmental upheavals, but also huge shifts in politics, alliances and perspective: what happened on the home planet is not affecting only its inhabitants, but the whole Solar System.  From the need to relocate the staggering number of refugees, to the loss of irreplaceable materials that only Earth could provide to its outlying colonies, the actions of the Free Navy, far from freeing the Belters from their subordination to the inner planets, had a negative influence on all of humanity and its future.

This must be the main reason that compelled the authors to shift from the tighter focus on the Rocinante’s crew to a wider cast of characters: much as it happened with the second book in the series, Caliban’s War, the overall scope has now become too big to be observed solely through the eyes of Holden & Co., it needs other points of view, different tiles in the mosaic, so to speak. Therefore, events also unfold from the standpoint of well-known figures like Avasarala or Bobbie Draper, combined with those of returning characters like Michio Pa, Clarissa Mao or scientist Prax, and the addition of newer ones like Anderson Dawes, Marco Inaros and young Filip.

This choice felt quite appropriate to me, because instead of subtracting precious “screen time” from the Rocinante Four, it put their actions and choices into a wider perspective, and ultimately enhanced them: when it was only (so to speak…) a matter of chasing the trail of the protomolecule, it was good and right to follow the story from the angle of a handful of characters, but now that the trouble has expanded system-wide and could extend to the newly-founded colonies beyond the alien gate, the story needs to broaden its horizons. What started as the tale of four people thrown together by dramatic occurrences and slowly coalescing into a family, has now become the saga of humanity, its reach into space and the choices that need to be made to keep this larger family alive and thriving – because, to quote from the book, “ash and misery had made a single tribe of them all”.

The core theme of Babylon’s Ashes is indeed this, the need to understand that the differences that have divided humanity – political, religious, racial, whatever – are nothing but distractions on the road toward the stars: if the threat of the protomolecule was not enough to drive this message home, the damage inflicted on Earth could (and should) be the means to overcome those differences. Despite the dramatic events unfolding before our eyes, the still ongoing strife and battles, the political and military posturing, there is a subtle thread of hope woven throughout the narrative, the evidence that humanity holds the potential for building a better family out there, one that can look beyond our divisions, recognizing them for the red herrings they are, and come together in times on need.

These changes are mirrored in the characters as well, both the old ones and the new. Holden is not the idealistic do-gooder he was at the start of the story, nor does he make his decisions on impulse anymore: he has learned how to include some political expediency in his planning – probably due to the influence of Fred Johnson, and certainly having had to live far too often with the consequences of his rashest actions. More than that, what happened in the course of Nemesis Games brought home far more clearly than in the past that everything and everyone he holds dear is far too fragile to be risked without thinking about the short- and long-term effects of his choices: not that he never considered this in the past, but recent events showed him how clear and present is the danger of losing the people that have become his family.   Naomi still labors under the burden of guilt that resurfaced with a part of her past, and of the hard decisions she had to make then and in more recent times: she is not on stage as much as she was in the previous book, but here you can see she is still evolving, and that the process is both painful and enlightening – she is still growing as a person, and acquiring more depth and substance. And Avasarala…. Well, it’s no mystery I greatly enjoy her as a character, and here we see even more facets of her formidable personality, her powerful determination even in the face of harrowing personal loss: strangely enough, the brief moments in which her granite façade crumbles are the ones where her strength comes across more clearly, showing that nothing can dent Avasarala’s resolve in a permanent way. Or exhaust her bottomless well of profanities…

This novel is not just about the “good guys”, though, and I’d like to spend some time with the story’s main villain, Marco Inaros, self-styled commander of the Free Navy and liberator of the Belters, the man responsible for the apocalyptic attack on Earth. At first he looked to me as the proverbial mustache-twirling baddie, and I was saddened at the apparent waste of potential he represented, but I should have trusted these authors more, since they never disappointed me in the past – and neither did they now.   After a while I understood that Inaros represents a case in point for what happens with revolutions born out of profound injustice and moving forward on a wave of unthinking violence: in those cases it’s far too easy to lose sight of the original motivations for the rebellion, and lash out blindly with little or no thought about long-range consequences or collateral damage.   Marco Inaros is the kind of man who emerges in such circumstance, one who can give voice to festering hostility held in check for too long: a man who can make himself known for blatant acts, or “grand gestures” as they are defined at some point, but far too focused on himself rather than the people he pretends to be helping.  He’s not inherently evil, but more simply, and more tragically, in love with his own image, and unable to see – or foresee – his mistakes.

The best picture of the man comes from his son Filip, when he considers that “..he had two fathers now. The one who led the fight against the inners and who Filip loved like plants love light, and the one who twisted out of everything that went wrong and blamed anyone but himself”. And in that consideration there is definitive judgment as well: Inaros is ultimately a figure of tragedy, not in the sense that he should be pitied, but rather one whose blindness and self-absorption are the cause of widespread heartbreak.

Young Filip is also one character who, though still in continuing development, promises to be an intriguing one, should he return in the next installments: all throughout his journey in search of recognition, of the parental love he needs and is denied for a series of reasons as complex as he is, he goes through several stages that are often quite difficult to witness. He was the object of my compassion, because I could feel the pain underlying his brash attitude and the cloak of hate he wore as a coat of armor: there is hope, though, in the identity choice he makes at the end of his last p.o.v. chapter – a choice that might signal an important course change, one I hope to see as the story progresses.

There is much to look forward to for the next three books of The Expanse: there is still a sample of the protomolecule at large, for example, and the former Martian Navy’s ships that passed through the Laconia gate constitute an unforeseeable danger for the future. And who knows what other troubles the authors will decide to visit on this not-so-distant future version of our system.  This series has been steadily growing and branching off in new and compelling directions, and I for one cannot wait to see what the next books will bring.

 

 

My Rating:

TOP TEN TUESDAY #4

TOP TEN TUESDAY is a meme created at The Broke and The Bookish, with the aim of sharing Top Ten lists of our favorites – mostly book related.

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For this last week of the year, the topic is: Top Ten Best Books of 2016

When the time comes to draw up a list like this, I find myself faced with some hard choices, because most of the books I’ve reviewed – and for 2016 they amount to a round 60, which is something of a record for me, given the limited time I can devote to reading – are books I liked quite a bit.

I spoke of reviewed books, rather than simply read, because some of the titles I picked up ended in the DNF  pile, and of these I reviewed only a few – those for which I felt a very strong need to share the reasons  I didn’t like them, although I managed to soldier on past the 25% mark that for me is the “make or break” point.   Which means there are a few more that didn’t even make the list because I could not connect with either story or characters and moved on quite swiftly.

So, of these 60 books, only 3 were abandoned before the end, and I had to pick my favorite 10 out of the remaining 57: as I said, not an easy feat, and that’s the reason I’m not going to list my ten favorite titles in any particular order of preference, but rather in the order I read them. It’s the most Solomonic solution I could come up with…

 

THE FIFTH HOUSE OF THE HEART, by Ben Tripp

ILLUMINAE, by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

DREAMER’S POOL, by Juliet Marillier

A RED ROSE CHAIN & ONCE BROKEN FAITH, by Seanan McGuire  (I could not pick just one of them…)

MORNING STAR, by Pierce Brown

THE LESSER DEAD, by Christopher Buehlman

DARK ASCENSIONS, by M.L. Brennan

THE DRAGON’S PATH, by Daniel Abraham

HOUSE OF SUNS, by Alastair Reynolds

BABYLON’S ASHES, by James S.A. Corey  (forthcoming review)

 

Ok, the count really goes to 11 titles, but I can bend the rules a little if I consider that the books in the October Daye series are all parts of the same whole. Can I?

And what about you?  What are your favorite reads for this year?

Review: THE BLOODBOUND, by Erin Lindsey (Bloodbound #1)

20949421The very enthusiastic reviews I kept reading about this novel since it came out compelled me to add it to my reading queue, but I finally got to it only recently, when the other two books of the trilogy have already been published: the bad news is that until this moment I missed out on a solid, compulsive read; the good news is that I will not have to wait long to read the other two installments in the series.  So I can take some measure of comfort in my lateness to the party…

The Bloodbound starts in what deceptively looks like a well-known pattern: the kingdom of Aldea is at war with the invading Oridians, and in the middle of a crucial battle, part of the Aldean forces, led by the king’s brother, leave the field allowing the enemy to attempt a decisive blow.  King Erik himself is about to be killed when one of the scouts – the young noblewoman Alix Black – saves his life by unseating him from his horse. And breaking his leg in the process.

This is the first departure from the expected norm of the genre: women are not only allowed, but required – like everyone else in Aldea – to serve in the army for at least a two-years stint.  And if they are mostly employed as scouts rather than actual warriors, this does not mean they are exempt from risk or physical harm.  It’s a refreshing attitude, and one that gives the author the opportunity of showing some female characters with actual agency, who gather the respect and admiration of their peers.

Alix is indeed one the best scouts in the Aldean army: she’s nimble, able to move unheard and unseen in the most difficult of terrains, and her courage is unquestioned – but she’s also headstrong, impulsive and prone to mistakes due to her recklessness. Unlike similar characters, she’s not trying to prove anything, nor is she driven by a desire to emerge: she acts before she thinks, and that’s what makes her commanding officer, General Green, so furious – but also what allows her to save the life of the king, who promotes her as his personal bodyguard on the field.

This is where the romantic thread of the narrative pops up, because if Alix has strong feelings for her fellow scout Liam (feelings that are not socially acceptable, since he’s a fatherless bastard), the closeness to king Erik brings her to enjoy his company and respond in kind to her ruler’s very gentlemanly advances.   When this part of the story surfaced I was instantly on my guard: I’m not very partial to romance in my reading, and I try to avoid love triangles as much as I can – blame it on my encounters with some trope-laden YA stories that made me violently allergic to these two themes.

Well, I’m very happy to say that my unease was groundless: Erin Lindsey managed to treat the subject matter with a very light hand and with very well developed emotional responses on the part of the three involved people – you will not find any artificial angst over unrequited love, or tormented inner dialogue in the most inappropriate moments, or childlike behavior of the kind that makes me want to slap the characters senseless.  No, what we see here are three people having to deal with very complicated feelings that encompass love, respect, friendship and duty, and do it in a very adult way, to the point that I could not be more partial toward any one of the three involved characters, but felt sympathy and compassion for all of them: the very impossibility of a simple resolution for the complicated entanglement of these three lives is what makes the dilemma real and approachable – from the reader’s standpoint – and what turns a potentially destructive narrative thread into one around which the story’s major events develop seamlessly.

The backbone of The Bloodbound is a compelling one: there is a war going on, but it’s not treated simply as a clash of armies – there is that of course, and also some politics and treachery, but more substantial themes are explored, like the meaning of rule, the qualities that make a good king versus a bad, distant one.  If Alix is somehow the main character here, and her journey of inner growth is often at the forefront, king Erik is also closely observed as he transforms from a happy-go-lucky monarch and commander to a more mature, responsible and hardened person, one who comes to understand the price of power and is ready to pay it, no matter how painful the cost.

If Alix, Erik and Liam are often in the spotlight, this does not mean that the characters surrounding them are simple props put there just for background color: there is a good number of people, some of them fleshed out more fully than others, who at times bring a choral flavor to the story, enriching it and making its scope broader and multi-layered. At the same time, the various dramatic threads, like the war and the sacrifices it requires, are offset by sparks of humor that dovetail seamlessly into the most serious events, balancing the overall effect in a very pleasing way.

Last but not least the magic: it’s there, but not in an intrusive way and it adds the necessary pinch of spice to the mix. Most interesting is the bloodbond established between a weapon (be it a sword, a knife or a bow) and its wielder, that makes it an integral part of its owner: wielding a weapon so magically linked to the person using it, makes for a lighter feel, and an almost subconscious integration with the body. The most intelligent choice in this aspect of the story is that the bloodbond can be reached with difficulty, since it’s a rare craft whose experts are dwindling in number, so avoiding the risk of making it a deux-ex-machina prop.

Then there is the dark art able to transform people into almost invincible zombies – again, a kind of witchcraft requiring blood to work, in what looks like a pattern in this world’s magic system – and that creates a terrifying host of unfeeling soldiers launched against the Aldean army. The attempt at neutralizing this looming danger gives us some of the most breath-stopping pages of the whole story, one that practically read itself, thanks to the almost compulsory quality of the narrative.

I’m quite happy to have finally started this series, and I know I will not wait too long before reading the other two installments. On the contrary, I’m quite eager to see how the story progresses.

 

My Rating:

TEASER TUESDAY #16

Teaser Tuesday is an intriguing meme started by Ambrosia over at The Purple Booker.

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 I’m going to showcase one of the books I was most looking forward to, this year, the sixth volume in the amazing space opera The Expanse, by James S.A. Corey (a.k.a. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck).

Babylon’s Ashes comes after an amazing fifth book in which so much happened, and so many of the characters I’ve come to care about where in serious danger, and the apparently subdued tone of this volume might seem anti-climatic, but I’ve come to trust these two authors to deliver, and I was not disappointed.

Here is a brief excerpt from the thoughts of Chrisjen Avarasala, one of my favorite characters: her musings offer the possibility of giving the reader a condensed recap of all that happened before, but in such a genially offhand way…

Her mind danced across the solar system. Medina Station. Rhea, declaring against the Free Navy. The food and supplies of Ganymede. The starvation and death on Earth. […] The colony ships being preyed upon by the Free Navy pirates, and the stations and asteroids gaining the benefit of piracy. And the missing ships. And the stolen protomolecule sample.

If you have not started this series yet, I urge you to do it, as soon as you can: you owe it to yourselves, seriously 🙂

Review: THE UNNOTICEABLES, by Robert Brockway

23168833When a book starts as strongly as this one did, with a story that’s attention-grabbing from page one, the disappointment for its failed promises hurts twice as much: this is what happened to me with The Unnoticeables, whose narrative arc… imploded (for want of a better word) two thirds of the way in.

The story runs on two different time tracks, separated by 36 years: Carey, living in New York in 1977, is a young man reveling in the time’s punk scene, spending his days getting drunk, stoned – or both – and generally causing any kind of mayhem he can think of; Kaitlyn lives in Los Angeles, in 2013, as a part-time stuntwoman, part-time waitress trying, and so far failing, to bring her stunt work to the next level.  Both of them are confronted by something that is both inexplicable and terrifying, something that possesses all the markers of a slowly spreading invasion.

The first inkling that something terrible is going on happens when Carey sees a girl he’s interested in being attacked by what looks like a man-shaped oily mass: the thing acts like acid, consuming the unfortunate girl and leaving only bloody remains behind. Moreover, in the area where Carey and his friends prowl, some peculiar individuals start cropping up: they  all appear good-looking and attractive, but as soon as one’s eyes leave them, their features blur and no ones seems able to remember what they look like.  Worse, whenever these people – dubbed by Carey “the Empty Ones” – manage to attract any given individual, the unfortunates disappear without a trace.

Kaitlyn, on the other hand, suffers from a more close-and-personal confrontation: at a party she meets Marco, former sitcom star and her teenage years’ crush. Accepting a ride back home from the man, she’s first appalled by his reckless driving and uncaring attitude, which make her think Marco is somewhat deranged, then he forces himself on her. More shocking than the sexual assault is its modality: Kaitlyn feels something metallic slide down her throat, and her strength and willpower being drained away.  Saved by someone who bodily extracts her from Marco’s car, she makes Carey’s acquaintance: older, probably wiser but still tainted with his old recklessness, he’s living like a borderline homeless, but he has information on the Empty Ones – and is willing to help Kaitlyn trace her friend Jackie who disappeared after that fateful party.

The novel’s chapters alternate between Carey’s past and Kaitlyn’s present with a relentless pace that makes the book a compulsive read while we follow their scary journey of discovery: the two main characters are the best and strongest elements of the story, their voices persuasively true and their dialogue or thoughts evenly balanced between stark, dramatic reality and sarcastic humor. Carey comes across as the best defined one, though: the outrageous style of life he and his friends are pursuing should make them offensive, and yet there is a sort of wild abandon in Carey, tinged with the somewhat lucid awareness of what he is, that managed to endear him to me, and to make me root for him – especially when his rough attachment to his friends comes to the fore, almost belying his devil-may-care attitude.

Once Kaitlyn’s disbelief at her new friend’s revelations evaporates, the two decide to go on the offensive to try and save Jackie, and they pursue Marco’s car in a mad motorcycle dash through the congested traffic of Los Angeles. They follow him to a mansion where a party is in progress, and though realizing that the place must be crawling with Empty Ones like Marco they decide to go in: this is where the story started unraveling and making less and less sense to me.  For starters, I could not figure out what the two were trying to accomplish knowing they were vastly outnumbered by people (if one wanted to call them that…) who could not be hurt, harmed or stopped in any way. And then the real madness kicked in…

What had started as a horror story about strange beings preying on unsuspecting humanity, and the slow infiltration of the Empty Ones in various facets of society (the most chilling example being Kaitlyn’s trip to the police station to denounce Marco’s assault), suddenly morphed into something best defined as crazily grotesque: the dangerous environment of the hellish party is only the front for what happens in the closed back rooms, where blood-drenched orgies lead to every kind of imaginable (and  unimaginable…) sex perversion, give way to a frenzy of horrific mutilations and killings, all of which with no apparent rhyme or reason, except maybe the author’s penchant for imagining and depicting the most revolting and senseless acts of destruction.

At that point, only the desire for some sort of explanation kept me reading on, despite the appearance of even more gory weirdness in the form of a strange contraption to which the Empty Ones’ victims were being fed, all in the name of a nebulous fight against entropy.  Sadly, whatever form of explanation, or clue to understanding the bloody mess this story had turned into, was not enough to save this novel from the downward plunge it had taken in my consideration.   I’m not even certain I entirely grasped whatever passed for explanation: the only thing I’m sure about is that I will not pursue this series further.

 

My Rating:

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY #12

This GoodReads group 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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This week’s theme: SERIES THAT GOT WORSE WITH EACH BOOK/SEASON

This week’s topic is an interesting one, since it allows us to mix book and Tv series: we all had one or more experiences of quite promising series that started with the proverbial bang and then tapered out with the equally proverbial whimper. There is no malicious glee in pointing them out, because disappointments burn both ways…

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I will start with Peter Brett’s Demon Cycle: the first book, The Warded Man, was an amazing, exciting discovery – imagine a world where the fall of darkness means that demonic creatures emerge from the very ground, bent on destroying the hapless humans they find on their way, unless people shelter behind wards, powerful symbols capable of keeping these hellish creatures at bay. I literally consumed the book, and went looking for more, although the second volume, The Desert Spear, suffered from a little repetition and a few instances of… characterization hiccups, for want of a better word. Still, the story managed to make me forget these small disturbances and move on to book 3 – and that’s where the trouble started in earnest: The Daylight War not only managed to retread old narrative paths (in some cases for the third time) but degraded toward a soap-opera-like style of storytelling that completely alienated me from what had started as a very promising tale. Not the kind of journey I had hoped to make…

I know that my next choice will prove highly unpopular, but I have to mention Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time: I received the first volume of this saga, The Eye of the World, as a birthday gift a couple of years after its initial publication and I remember enjoying this epic tale of the struggle between Good and Evil and its vast cast of characters.  Yes, there were a few similarities with Tolkien I had perceived, namely those creatures (I can’t remember their name, it’s been a few years…) whose mere presence caused paralyzing fear in their victims, and that strongly reminded me of the Ringwraiths; or the journey through The Ways, that seemed like a combination between Moria and the Paths of the Dead.    Sadly, with the following books, the narrative appeared more and more bloated with long, excruciating descriptions that left little room for plot advancement; there were constant repetitions of annoying characters’ behavior (after a few hundred braid-chewings by a particular character I was ready to scream in frustration), and what’s worse, those annoying similarities kept cropping up and waving at me: just as an example, I will mention the Aes Sedai, a women-only powerful order bent on shaping humanity through age-long intervention; and the Aiel, a desert-dwelling people whose combat skills are known and feared, waiting for the proverbial Chosen One to lead them to victory.  Dune fans, do they both remind you of something?
If the novels had been leaner, the pace swifter, I might have overlooked it all, but the combination of what I perceived like derivative elements with the glacial progression of the story made me abandon the saga midway through book 4.

Some time ago I read, and enjoyed, Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax SF series, so when I learned she had started a new one, Razorland, I wasted no time in acquiring book 1, Enclave.  It possessed many of the elements I appreciate in a post-apocalyptic tale: humanity has been decimated by a plague whose surviving victims turn into feral creatures called Freaks.  What remains of humankind had to take shelter into underground tunnels, where life is short and brutal, and where most knowledge of the outside world has been lost or transformed into a myth. Young Deuce, a huntress for her clan, will have to face a dangerous journey on the surface in search of the hope for a better life.  So far, so good, despite the clear YA bent of this story: the first volume being more focused on the changed world outside of the tunnels, it made for a fascinating reading, and equally interesting were the changes in society and mentality brought on by the need to live in darkness.  But unfortunately with book 2, Outpost, the unavoidable (?) YA tropes kept cropping up at an alarming rate: love triangles, pouting teenagers who know better than more experienced adults, and so on.  Book 2 ended in the DNF pile, with my deep regrets for the many lost opportunities.

Moving from books to TV I’m going to express another unpopular opinion by mentioning the show Battlestar Galactica, the reboot that aired between 2004 and 2009 after a successful return with a short miniseries in 2003.

The miniseries was nothing short of amazing: after being almost wiped out by the Cylons, the cybernetic constructs they created, the survivors of the Twelve Colonies regroup aboard a handful of vessels, led by the capital ship Galactica, running away in search of a new home and relentlessly pursued by the murdering Cylons.  There was much to enjoy in this revival of an older, cheesy show of the ’80s: the Cylons were both robot-like creations and human-looking creatures, giving them the possibility of infiltrating the human survivor groups and therefore creating a constant atmosphere of suspicion on the vessels where the remnants of civilization tried to hold on day by day, with constant threat of annihilation and of the mechanical failures of old, overtaxed ships.  Older, less advanced technology had to be abandoned in favor of more primitive versions that could not be hacked or infiltrated by the Cylons, leading to a mix of space-age and WWII submarine warfare quality to the story being presented on screen, one of the most fascinating aspects of the reboot.
The first two seasons aired after the miniseries were on the same level of narrative quality and managed to keep the story flowing and the tension high, but with season 3 the first cracks started to appear: unlike the Cylons, who we were constantly told had a plan, the series’ creators seemed to meander as aimlessly as the hapless survivors (or maybe more…), and the moral and existential dilemmas that had made the beginning of this revisitation so appealing, were shifted to the side in favor of entanglements with quasi-religious myths and subplots that ended up twisting on themselves and ultimately ending nowhere.  Even though I struggled on to the very end, I had lost interest in the plight of the survivors, and kept watching only to see what it was all about: in this, as well, I was disappointed, because the ending made as little sense as what had preceded it; worse still, the sort of epilogue that rolled on the screen in the last few minutes managed to completely overshadow what I think would have been a fitting finale – that image of Admiral Adama sitting on a hill beside a grave (I’m not going to spoil whose, just in case…) and looking over the horizon of the new world, a poetic, poignant image that would at least have counterbalanced the nonsense before it.  Missed opportunities, indeed.

Vampires are one of the staunchest pillars of the horror genre, especially when they are bloody and mean – no sparklers needing to apply, thank you very much – so when I learned that Guillermo del Toro had contributed to the creation of this show, taken from a book trilogy penned by del Toro himself with Chuck Hogan, I was quite excited.  The Strain tells the tale of a vampire infestation starting in New York with the arrival of a plane with everyone on board dead; a mysterious casket from the plane’s hold is brought into the city and the horror begins, in an atmosphere and with a premise that both nod at and honor Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  At first the victims are believed to be prey to a mysterious illness, but soon it appears that something far more terrible than a mere virus is at work.
So far, so good, indeed: the vampires depicted here are quite scary, and the tension builds up to breathless levels, and if sometimes the scenes veer toward excessive levels of grossness, one could take it all in stride – after all we’re talking about blood-sucking creatures!  Where the show completely fails, though, is in characterization, especially with the protagonist Dr. Ephraim Goodweather: I can’t remember a less sympathetic, less endearing main character, one I constantly felt in need of slapping hard to try and put some sense and empathy into, or to move him to act with some sense instead of blundering around like a headless chicken.  His lines seem to be taken out of a bad B-movie and his actions make even less sense than his behavior: when I realized that I kept hoping that the “big bad guys” would remove him from the scene in a bloody, painful way, I understood there was something very wrong with the story, the writing, or both and therefore I did not go past the first season.

TOP TEN TUESDAY #3

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish with the aim of sharing Top Ten lists of our favorites – mostly book related.

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This week’s topic is: Top Ten Books I’m Looking Forward To For The First Half Of 2017

If reading is a pleasure and a joy, anticipating the arrival of books we set our sights on is just as fun, especially if they are new installments in our favorite series or stand-alone volumes from authors we particularly enjoy.  So here are some of the titles I can’t wait to add to my reading queue:

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1) John Scalzi: The Collapsing Empire

It’s no mystery that John Scalzi is one of my favorite authors, and he’s the kind of writer whose books I buy sight unseen, knowing with absolute certainty that I will have a great time reading any kind of story he writes.  This new novel will be set in a different universe from the one of Scalzi’s greatly acclaimed Old Man’s War series and deals with the discovery of the Flow, a sort of extra-dimensional field that allows faster-than-light travel and the creation of a vast network of colony worlds. Then something threatens the stability of the Flow, and the communications between human outposts…  Intriguing, isn’t it?

2) Ian McDonald: Luna, Wolf Moon

Last year, the first volume in this series, Luna: New Moon, was the best book I read, no question about it.  This story of the colonization of our satellite and of the powerful families that ruled its economy was both fascinating and compelling, but it ended with a massive cliffhanger. Now this amazing saga is returning with the second book, and I’m beyond anxious to know what happened to the survivors of the bloody upheaval that closed the first chapter of the story, and to see if they will exact their vengeance, and how.  I you still have not read this magnificent story, I urge you to try it, it will be more than worth your time.

3) Bradley Beaulieu: With Blood upon the Sand

Another great discovery from last year, a fantasy novel rich in imagination and peopled with great characters, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was both a revelation and an amazing beginning to a compelling saga. The main character Çeda started the first leg of her journey of vengeance in book 1 and now that she’s finally inside the enemy camp the true adventure will be about to begin.  I can hardly wait to go back to this well-crafted, vibrant world steeped in mystery, intrigue and peculiar magic, rich with fascinating characters and dreadful creatures.

4) Scott Lynch: The Thorn of Emberlain

The Gentlemen Bastards are back! This new chapter of the adventures of Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen promises to be a good one: in the course of the last book, The Republic of Thieves, there were some revelations about Locke’s past that will, with all probability, bear some weight on the story’s course, and I can’t forget the last chapter of that book and the dreadful menace that is approaching. To further escalate tension, there seems to be a war brewing on the horizon and it still remains to be seen how that will impact on the… activities of the two friends and comrades.  No matter what’s going to happen, it will be an engrossing read, as always…

5) Seanan McGuire: The Brightest Fell

Again, an author and a series that need no introduction: for this 11th installment in the successful October Daye series there are no hints about story development yet, but to me it hardly matters, since I’ve been a staunch Toby fan for a long time now. You keep rolling them out, Ms. McGuire, and I will keep reading them – and so will the ever-growing number of enthusiasts that have discovered one of the best UF series of the moment.

6) Seanan McGuire: Down Among the Sticks and Bones

Same author, different series: the first book in the Wayward Children saga, Every Heart a Doorway marked the beginning of a new narrative track for this extremely prolific writer. The wayward children are those who found special doorways that took them into strange, fantastic and more often than not scary worlds that nonetheless attracted them more than the one – the ‘real’ world – they lived in. And if by choice or accident they managed to stumble back home, they now feel out of place, and long to go back and recapture the magic.  Poignant and deep, and quite thought-provoking.

7) Sean Danker: Free Space

Admiral was a total surprise, both because it turned out to be much different than its beginning led to me expect, and because I’m more than curious to know more about the mysterious character that was at the center of the story. In this new installment he’s kidnapped and used as a bargaining chip in the far-from-stable political landscape where the Evagardian Empire holds sway… but only up to a certain point, it would seem.

8) M.R. Carey: The Boy on the Bridge

There is not much information about this book, apart from the fact that it’s a sort of prequel to the highly successful The Girl with All the Gifts, a poignant post-apocalyptic story that was able to take a well-used trope and turn it into a wonderful, meaningful story.  To say I’m curious would be the understatement of the year!

9) James S.A. Corey: Persepolis Rising

No information about this one either, but it’s more than enough to know that it will be the 7th book in the acclaimed The Expanse space-opera series, the same that was so very successfully translated on the small screen by the SyFy Channel, in a very welcome return to a SF production of quality and depth.  The sixth book, Babylon’s Ashes just came out, and the fact that I’m already keeping this one in my sights says a great dal about my appreciation of this story…

10) GRR Martin: The Winds of Winter

And a list about much-expected books would not be complete without the mention of the next installment of the most famous fantasy saga of our days: there is no clear indication about the possibility of reading the much-longed-for next book from A Song of Ice and Fire in 2017, but since hope springs eternal I’m adding it at the end of my list as a form of propitiatory ritual. Please, Mr. Martin, pretty please….

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Review: THE DISPATCHER, by John Scalzi (audiobook)

26082188Audiobooks represent a somewhat tricky medium for me: first, unlike books, they don’t offer the possibility of rereading a phrase or paragraph – at least not as easily as it happens with a book;  and second, I don’t seem to be able to concentrate on them as I do with books. So, until now, I’ve never looked at them as an alternative way to “consume” books, preferring to use my eyes instead of my ears to enjoy stories.

And yet, when author John Scalzi announced on his blog that this novella was available on audio, and that it was narrated by Zachary Quinto, whose voice and precise enunciation I was already familiar with through the Star Trek reboot movies, I had no doubts I would have to listen to it: Scalzi is one of my favorite authors, and every time he publishes something new, I have this compulsion to acquire it.  The fact that Audible was offering a free download for a month also represented an added incentive to overcome my misgivings about the medium.

It ended up being a very pleasant experience, and one I might replicate – at least with shorter works rather than full-length books – and I’m happy to have discovered that I’m after all able to sit down and listen for a prolonged period of time. As a matter of fact, I find it quite relaxing…

The story is an intriguing one: Tony Valdez is a licensed dispatcher – in other words, he helps people die. In this world imagined by Scalzi, it’s become practically impossible to kill people, because every person who dies at the hands of another comes back. They return, naked as the day they were born, in the place where they feel most secure – mostly that means their home, in their bed.  People still die of natural causes, of old age or illness, and they can choose suicide: this way, they stay dead. But when someone else performs the act of killing, they disappear from the place where the act was performed and go back – alive.   We meet Tony in a hospital, where he’s been called – as the insurance companies now require – to assist a surgeon during a complex cardiac operation: once it’s clear that the patient will not survive the procedure, Tony intervenes and terminates – dispatches, indeed – the patient, who goes back to his home in the same state he was before being admitted to the hospital, and probably ready to start the procedure all over again.

This introduction started me on a series of questions that the story does not answer: for example I wondered what happens with a murderer – since the victim comes back, unscathed, does the law still consider the perpetrator guilty?  The cause of this incredible anomaly is not explained, either, apart from the information that one day, out of the blue, people who had been killed did not stay dead. The reason is indeed less important than the changes it forces on society and on the way people see death: the bare fact is set there, before our eyes, and it’s left to us readers to ask the questions and – if possible – to find the answers. Or not. I guess it works either way.

Valdez is contacted by the police because one of his fellow dispatchers has disappeared: in his home were found only some traces of blood that point to a struggle and a possible kidnapping, and since Tony is one of the last people to have had contact with the missing man, he’s asked to lend his assistance as a consultant. As he helps the investigator retrace his colleague’s steps, we learn a great deal about dispatchers and their work, part of which is often carried out outside of the legally accepted roads: dispatchers sometimes take on this side jobs for money, and this can expose them to danger from the shadier facets of society.

This side jobs can be as “innocent” as helping out film crews whose stuntmen are seriously injured: instead of paying huge amounts of money in insurance and medical care, the stuntman can be dispatched and sent back to the state he was in before the accident.  But there are cases like the illegal “fight clubs” where a less-than-honest dispatcher can help avoid the necessary medical expenses for people who have been beaten within an inch of their life.

It’s while following this line of inquiry that Valdez and detective Langdon find the trail of the missing man and the reason for his disappearance, while we learn more about the price of coming back from death… All in all, a very interesting story, and one that made me think – which is not at all unusual with Mr. Scalzi.

As for the audiobook experience, it was indeed positive: Zachary Quinto is a very skilled narrator, able to give different shades of voice to the various characters and make them sound real and believable.  I had no difficulty in distinguishing between the different players in the scenes where more than two people where interacting, and some of his portrayals – notably an embittered old man and a bodyguard-type guy – were very well executed. The “voice” for the main character, Tony Valdez, drew the image of a man who is quite comfortable with himself and his peculiar profession, but has been touched by a subtle vein of disenchantment, which made him very engaging.

While I’m still not certain I could enjoy a whole book in audio form, I know that I will surely take other opportunities to listen to shorter works: the two and a half hours of this particular one seems to be an acceptable compromise for my tastes.

I guess the proverbial ice has been broken, indeed.

 

My Rating:

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY #11

This GoodReads group 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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This week’s topic: BOOKS YOU WANT TO FINALLY READ IN 2017

These are those books you meant to read in 2016 or 2015 or 2014 and never got around to. Those books that have been sitting on your TBR for a while, and you really want to get to. These aren’t upcoming 2017 releases; these are older books that need your love too!

If my TBR pile had a life of its own, and physical form, it would be scowling at me all the time… So here we go:

 

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Daniel Abraham: The King’s Blood (The Dagger and the Coin #2)

Daniel Abraham has shown time and again to be very versatile, both as a co-author of the highly acclaimed SF series The Expanse, and as a Fantasy writer: his Long Price Quartet was one of the most enjoyable and innovative series I read, and the first book of The Dagger and the Coin, though apparently more “classic” in feel, was an engrossing read that left me wanting for more. The second volume already beckons from my reading queue…

 

Iain M. Banks: Matter (Culture #8) or Against a Dark Background

Though I discovered this amazing SF author a little late, I’m steadily working my way through his production, mostly centered around the universe of the Culture, a post-scarcity future society where humans (or rather, post-humans) and alien civilizations co-exist together with artificial intelligences and ship Minds, who are the latter’s next evolutionary step.  I’m still trying to decide on either the next Culture book, Matter, or a non-Culture book set however in the same universe, Against a Dark Background, that on the surface looks like an adventure story but, knowing this author, might very well be something else entirely.

 

Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave

The Arthurian legend is a fascinating, and timeless, one: I’ve been meaning to read this first book of Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Saga for ages but always kept postponing it in favor of other titles. Now I’ve decided I am not waiting any longer: the siren song of this myth is calling to me loud and clear, and this time I don’t intend to ignore it. I believe that the unique blend of history, myth and fantasy that must be at the core of this story will make for a very gripping read.

 

Rachel Bach: Fortune’s Pawn (Paradox #1)

I have to confess I did start this book some time ago but it must not have been the right time – or maybe I was not in the right mood to appreciate it: the fact that I just put it in the virtual back shelf and not moved it off my reader means that I knew, even then, that there was something in it that had piqued my interest.  All I needed was to put myself in the right frame of mind, and I guess now might be that time: much of the enthusiastic reviews I’ve read from fellow bloggers whose tastes I trust have encouraged me to give it a second chance, and in the meantime – as it happens often when I procrastinate – the Paradox series has been completed.  Which means I will be able to enjoy it without waiting too long.

 

Juliet Marlier: Tower of Thorns (Blackthorn and Grim #2)

I totally loved the first book in this saga, Dreamer’s Pool, and promised myself I would not wait too long to get to the second volume, but as usual good intentions doubled up as paving stones on the proverbial road to Hell…  This is another of those fortunate cases, though, when my lagging behind means I now have two wonderful books to look forward to in the Blackthorn and Grim series and I can’t wait to re-acquaint myself with rough-edged but well-meaning Blackthorn and with the silent and meaning presence of her companion Grim, and to learn more about the bonds of affection and respect that tie them together and create the powerful core of their story.

TOP TEN TUESDAY #2

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish with the aim of sharing Top Ten lists of our favorites – mostly book related.

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This weeks’ theme is Top Ten New-To-Me Authors I Read For The First Time In 2016

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We all have our preferred authors, those whose works we buy sight unseen because we know with total certainty that we will love what they write, and the stories they will offer us. And yet the discovery of new writers is just as thrilling as opening a new book by a well-loved author: this year I have been particularly lucky with my findings, and it took some effort in deciding how to compile this list, because there were more than 10 names I could quote…

So here we go, in no particular order of preference – these were all amazing finds:

Michael Livingston: The Shards of Heaven

My first historical fiction book, and one I loved, dealing with the aftermath of Julius Caesar’s assassination and the political and military fallout on Egypt, with some added “spice” from the magical properties of some powerful, much sought-after objects.  I can’t wait to start on the second book of the series…

(my review)

Ben Tripp: The Fifth House of the Heart

Vampires at their worst and most terrifying are always a delight to read, especially when the “hero” facing them is anything but, and yet still manages to worm his way into your sympathies and make you root for him every step of the way. Sadly this is a standalone book: I would have loved to read more of these adventures!

(my review)

Amie Kaufman-Jay Kristoff: Illuminae

A true revelation: my usual aversion to YA themes and protagonists vanished into thin air thanks to the authors’ skill in picturing the teenaged main characters of this space-opera story, dealing with survival and the need to make the truth stand out, no matter what.  Another one whose sequel is already in my sights.

(my review)

Juliet Marillier: Dreamer’s Pool

The kind of story I fall for hard and fast, the kind of story that’s so immersive and totally gripping I can’t stop to think about it even when I’m not reading.  The main characters, the rough-mannered Blackthorn and the taciturn Grim had my soul from the very first pages, and their voices sounded loud and true in my mind. One of the best discoveries in this reading year, indeed.

(my review)

Stephanie Burgis: Masks and ShadowsCongress of Secrets

Two for the price of one, indeed. Another historical fantasy writer who not only afforded me two wonderful reads in the same year, but also compelled me to look further into the historical periods depicted in her novels and helped me learn details I did not know. Entertaining and instructive: who could wish for more?

(Mask and Shadows review)    (Congress of Secrets review)

Christopher Buehlman: The Lesser Dead

Vampires, again: this time living (more or less, of course, being undead…) in New York in the late ’70s and showing a new facet of these creatures, one that is as far from glamorous and fascinating as humanly, or inhumanly, possible, and yet they kept me glued to the pages as if under a spell. An amazing discovery.

(my review)

Sean Danker: Admiral

Space opera, a survival story and a mystery, all rolled into one: it took me a while to warm up to this book, because it, in turn, took a while before getting into proper gear, but once it started rolling it never lost speed for a moment.  To say I’m curious to see where the next installment will bring the “Admiral” would be a massive understatement…

(my review)

Julie Czerneda: A Thousand Words for Stranger

After waiting for quite some time before sampling this author, I’ve discovered that there is much more to her stories than it would seem at first sight, and that she can lead you to think you have figured it all out, only to turn the story (and the reader…) upside down without warning.  An interesting beginning that will certainly develop into an equally interesting journey.

(my review)

Erin Lindsey: The Bloodbound

A sword-wielding heroine who not only does not need to be saved, but instead does save life and hide of her king time and again? That’s what I call a (happy) bending of the rules, indeed.  And even though there is something of a love triangle in the story, it’s treated with such a light hand and with the well-crafted exploration of sincere feelings that for the first time in such a circumstance I never had to roll my eyes. Quite a feat…

(forthcoming review)

Rachel Caine: Ink and Bone

This is the perfect book for book lovers, starting from the premise that the Great Library of Alexandria was never destroyed.  “Wonderful!” many would say, thinking that the survival of so much knowledge would herald a more enlightened world. Well, they would be wrong because…  better discover that on your own, don’t you think?

(forthcoming review)

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