Reviews

Review: REVENGER, by Alastair Reynolds

28962452If someone had told me that I would not be able to finish a book by Alastair Reynolds, I would never have believed them: he’s one of my favorite SF authors, and I’ve always enjoyed what I read so far, so when I learned of this new novel I dived straight for it, only to be profoundly disappointed.

The story focuses on two sisters, Adrana and Arafura, and is told from Arafura’s point of view: they leave their home on Mazarile to join a crew of glorified scavengers searching through the relics of old civilizations for valuable objects.  There are many interesting details to this view of the universe: humanity has spread away from Earth (there are several mentions of the Old Sun and its failure) and created artificial homes on planets and habitats; the remnants of previous civilizations are to be found enclosed in baubles, that open at pre-arranged times to allow the treasure hunters to look for artifacts; there is a form of instantaneous communication/listening device that uses a sort of huge (alien?) skull to establish contact, or to eavesdrop, but only if the operators are young people, with a still-developing brain; and there are pirates, preying on the scavenger crews to get at the artifacts without doing the hard work.

Most of the above is often mentioned in passing, but never satisfactorily explored, especially on the subject of the baubles and how they came to be: I’m not in favor of massive info-dumps, on the contrary, but it seems… wasteful to give the readers a glimpse of something so intriguing, and never to offer enough information to make sense of it all.  I believe the roots of the problem lie with Arafura’s point of view, and for a variety of reasons: for starters, she knows little of the universe she lives in, and that makes sense up to a point, because of her secluded life on Mazarile. Yet, once she escapes the stifling confines of her life, she shows little interest in the “big picture” out there, accepting with irritating passivity the information provided by her crew-mates, without looking further than that: there is nothing of the hungry curiosity I would have expected from a teenager who is for the first time free of the constraints of her former existence, none of the wonder of being “out there” and living an adventure.  If I were to distill the sisters’ reactions to the new and intriguing vistas opening before them, I could do it with: “oh, um… yeah, ok”.

Even worse is the “voice” of the two young girls: their dialogue and inner thoughts sound… dumbed down, for want of a better word.  If this is meant to be Alastair Reynolds’ attempt at expanding into YA fiction, I find it more than inadequate: used as I am to his neat, incisive prose, what I found in Revenger was a writing style so careless that I often wondered if I was truly reading such a well-known author. And if Arafura’s very simplified expressive range is the means to reach out to the younger audiences this seems to be intended to, I find it somewhat insulting, because readers in this age target are much more articulate than that.

Another problem I encountered with this book was the inciting incident for the whole story: the decision of the two girls to leave their planet comes out of the blue, after a visit to a sort of carnival booth in which some lady happens to have a device that measures the ability to read bones, a very sought-after skill for a treasure-hunting crew.  Forgetting for a moment the presence of such a device outside of a lab, or the fact it’s in the hands of a charlatan, the ease with which the two – and Arafura in particular, since she seems the less flighty of the pair – choose to abandon their home and their father sounds contrived and far too convenient, just like their immediate recruitment by Captain Rackamore of the ship Monetta’s Mourn. In what looks like a matter of hours, the sisters are out in space, ready for a remunerative job that might help the family’s flagging finances, without a single apparent qualm about what and who they leave behind, or what kind of dangers they might face on the scavenger ship.  Moreover I want to reserve a special mention to a scene in which the carnival lady’s helper wrecks the girl’s guardian robot Paladin to keep it from interfering with the examination: it looks ludicrous, absurd, excessive and totally out of context with the rest of the story.  If it was meant as comic relief, I’m afraid it failed completely.

Faced with these difficulties, I would not have hesitated to abandon this book much earlier, had it been written by a less-respected author, so I struggled on, ignoring my own law about never reading something that feels like work rather than pleasure: still, the story remained un-engaging and after a while even the attempts at inserting peculiar words to show the changes in everyday language (“lungstuff” for air or oxygen; “lamps” for eyes; “coves” for persons, and so forth) became an irritant rather than background information.  When tragedy hit the crew of Monetta’s Mourn, with the assault by the pirate ship led by Bosa Sennen, I hoped that something would change, that I would see some strong reaction from Arafura, but once again my hopes were dashed: the girl’s lack of substantial emotional responses strengthened my impression of a cardboard character with no depth at all, one I could not be invested in.  Having lost what little interest I had gathered for the story up to that point, I gave up the struggle a little before the halfway mark.

What most troubled me with Revenger was that the potential for the story was there, but it remained untapped and was instead buried under uninspired writing and poor characterization.  Not at all what I’m used to from a Reynolds book.

My Rating:


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Reviews

Novella Review: BINTI, by Nnedi Okorafor

25667918Binti is a very peculiar story, one that seems to start as journey of discovery, only to turn into something completely different; the kind of story that carries several layers of meaning, yielding them one by one only as you keep thinking about it.  It’s not what I would call an immediate story, but rather one that gains flavor and depth with time, not unlike a fine wine.

The main character, the titular Binti, is a young woman living in Namibia and belonging to the Himba tribe, a small ethnic group dwelling in voluntary seclusion from the rest of the world, a world very technologically advanced where space travel is easily accessible and Earth has come into contact with a variety of alien cultures.   The Himba, and Binti’s family in particular, have specialized in providing refined technological gadgets, but they prefer to keep contact with the outside world to the minimum, relying mostly on strict observance of tradition and cultural heritage and a general distrust of outsiders.  As Binti says at some point:

My tribe is obsessed with innovation and technology, but it is small, private, and, as I said, we don’t like to leave Earth. We prefer to explore the universe by traveling inward, as opposed to outward.

When Binti gains admission to the prestigious Oomza University through her exceptional mathematical skills, her family and the whole village do their utmost to discourage her from that path, stressing the need to keep close to her own roots and not betray them. Her quest for knowledge cannot be denied, though, so Binti leaves overnight to take the ship for Oomza, but once she sets foot in the spaceport, her family’s warnings about outsiders appear to be all too true: the Khoush, who seem to be the dominant (globalized?) population, look at her with open, blatant curiosity, commenting about her appearance, manner of dress and the ritual clay covering for her skin and hair.   It’s a jarring scene, one that should have no place in a futuristic – and hopefully more evolved – world: Binti is observed like a strange specimen, touched and inspected as if she were not another human being but a thing, not possessed of feelings or a soul.  The very fact of her difference is enough for these people to wonder at her non-conformity and to criticize it, at the same time robbing her of the status of person.

Here comes however the first inkling about Binti’s character: where others would have been offended by the incident, or ashamed of their heritage, she calmly explains the differences trying to bridge the gap in knowledge (and manners!) with her serene composure. This attitude will serve her even better once she boards the ship and starts making friends with her fellow students, the common thirst for learning creating a bond that transcends cultural distinctions.  This is where an abrupt change in narrative course plunges Binti’s journey into tragedy, the very suddenness of it a jolt that requires some time to be metabolized: the young woman finds herself alone on the ship – that is, except for the alien Meduse, whose grudge against humans brought them to commit an act of brutality.

In this moment, through her loneliness and terror, Binti’s role in the story comes to the fore: she is meant to be a bridge between two clashing civilizations, the ambassador that will help them cross the chasm of misunderstanding and hate, because she is the one who knows the value of cultural symbols, of precious heritage, and she will be instrumental in mending the rift created by human ignorance.  There is a sort of poetic justice in this: the young woman who was disowned by her own clan for having left her home in search of knowledge, and scorned by more “modern” people for her attachment to tradition, is the only one who can comprehend two different worlds and bring them closer toward mutual understanding.

Still, such an accomplishments – the personal the public one – are not without a price: Binti comes from a cultural milieu where change is viewed with suspect, and the experience she went through has changed her in many ways – mental, psychological and even physical – and the realization that she is now far from her own roots in a way that has less to do with actual distance and more with frame of mind, leaves her somewhat adrift and afraid, more afraid than she was at the beginning of her journey.

The resolution of the story is, in my opinion, its only point of weakness because it feels too easy, too short – or maybe it’s just because I wanted more: Binti is such a fascinating character that I think she should have deserved a whole novel, and her path should have had more room to expand and to delve deeper into her experiences.  Still, this remains a fascinating story, and it reinforced my need to explore this author’s longer works to discover more of her amazingly different themes.

My Rating:


Salva

Reviews

Review: BINDINGS & SPINES, by R.M. Ridley (White Dragon Black #2)

33226908I received the e-ARC of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

Since reading the first volume of this Urban Fantasy series, Tomorrow Wendell, and the short stories collection set in the same world, Blondes, Books and Bourbon, I’ve wanted to know more about the main character’s journey, so that when the author offered me the opportunity of reading the ARC for this second book, I was more than delighted to accept.

The main character of this series, Jonathan Alvey, is a private investigator and a practitioner, i.e. a magic wielder. In the course of his chosen work he therefore deals more frequently with the occult than with run-of-the-mill cases of stolen objects or unfaithful spouses, although even some of the more mundane assignments he handles sometimes turn out to be anything but.

There is something that distinguishes Alvey from the other PIs in any Urban Fantasy context: the use of magic not only saps energy from the wielders, but also makes them addicts and ultimately kills them. So Alvey, like his brethren, must be very careful in channeling the powers at his disposal a.k.a. the White Dragon, to avoid falling prey to the deadly demands of its counterpart, the Dragon Black. These two opposing forces are represented by the well-known yin-yang symbol, the one that marks every practitioner.

As Binding & Spines opens, Jonathan Alvey does not find himself in a very good place: his long-time friend Mary, worried for his health, has convinced (or rather, strong-armed) him into refraining from the use of magic, and he’s now deep into the throes of withdrawal. Just like it happens to any substance abuser, his body is reacting violently to abstinence, with devastating physical and psychological side effects that all but make him unable to function normally. The only means Alvey has to stave off the worst of the symptoms are the ones he uses to keep the need to use magic at bay: chain-smoking and heavy drinking, whose long-term consequences are just as bad as those of magic itself.   Just imagine someone who indulges in terrible (and even disgusting…) habits like preparing instant coffee with bourbon in place of water, or eats his cereals with beer in place of milk – this man really knows how to punish himself…

If use of magic is bound to have deadly consequences on his body, it’s also true that the alcohol and nicotine abuse he employs as a countermeasure are just as lethal: while I at first thought that the costs of wielding magic were a nice counterbalance to the character’s abilities, here I felt there was an unavoidable downward spiral to his journey that was really painful to witness, especially when coupled with the pervasive feelings of hopelessness and resignation that seemed to have ensconced themselves deeply in Alvey’s behavior.  I previously remarked on the character’s apparent self-destructive attitude, but while before it felt more like the cynical attitude typical of his chosen profession, here it looked like he’d given up and didn’t care what happened to him either way.

Luckily, two new cases come knocking on Alvey’s door, with the promise of a fleeting distraction from his troubles: a man hires him to confirm his suspicions on his wife’s infidelity, and a series of botched resurrections of the dead points to a new necromancer in town, one who could create a great deal of trouble.  Hampered by the impossibility to use his powers, the detective struggles in search of clues while battling with the treacherous reactions of his magic-starved body, while the two seemingly unrelated cases start showing some possible points of contact, especially when a much sought-after grimoire makes its appearance on the scene.

As the investigation progresses (and as a reader it was fun to “connect the dots” together with Alvey) a little more light is shed on the life of practitioners, the spells they use and the outlandish materials needed to complete the task, adding more substance and detail to the city of New Hades where the action unfolds: as a fictional location, New Hades is an interesting mix of modern and weird, where everyday activities like restaurants or libraries coexist with places such as the Blacklight, an area where I would not feel safe even in an armored tank. The overall mood of these stories always makes me imagine these locations in sepia tones, never in color: New Hades seems to live in perpetual twilight, even in the middle of the day – or at least this is how I keep perceiving it while immersed in the story.

There is no lack of humor in these pages, however: it’s of the subdued kind, so as not to contrast with the overall dark mood, but for this very reason it’s even more effective. We go from small touches as the street names, like Marlowe Avenue or Lorre Way, that give an amused nod to the two genres this series takes inspiration from, to the Redcaps infestation plaguing Alvey’s office building. Redcaps are small, vicious creatures that remind me of the garden trolls you sometimes find on unfortunate lawns, and the dichotomy between the small size of the creatures and the very nasty danger they represent – not to mention the creative ways employed by the detective to keep them at arm’s length – is the very reason Alvey’s encounters with them offer the necessary relief from the darker aspects of the story.

While this new case is successfully brought to a close, it’s clear from a few details that further and darker clouds loom on the character’s horizon, especially after the warning from a dead man who tells Alvey that “beyond even the darkness through which I traveled to return, somethings howls your name“. He will need all his wits, and all his staunch friends, to face those dangers and survive another day.

I, for one, will welcome more stories from New Hades and this very peculiar detective.

 

My Rating:


Reviews

Waiting for The Expanse…

Season 2 of the SyFy show inspired by the amazing space opera series by James S.A. Corey is about to begin, and as I was looking for some news and trailers (by the way, the few snippets we were afforded about Martian marine Bobbie Draper are more than promising…) I found this quite funny Season 1 recap – or rather, re-cat, since it’s all done with cats in the roles of the main characters.

It’s too delightful not to be shared 🙂

WARNING

If you have not seen Season 1 of The Expanse, or read the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes, the video will be full of spoilers: watch at your own risk!

 

Reviews

Review: THE COLLAPSING EMPIRE by John Scalzi

31568281I received the e-ARC of this book from Pan McMillan through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

When a fellow blogger mentioned that NetGalley had this title available for request I applied immediately: how could I not, since I’m a huge Scalzi fan? Not that I had many hopes of seeing my request accepted, since I’m well aware that my blog is a small one, with a low posting rate, but I had to try anyway. So you can imagine my delighted surprise when I received the confirmation email: the wait for the official release of the book would not have been long, granted, but the possibility of reading this new story right there and then was very exciting. To say the least…

The premise of The Collapsing Empire is that the impossibility of attaining faster-than-light travel has been bypassed by the discovery of the Flow, a sort of inter-dimensional set of “corridors” able to bring ships toward other worlds, not unlike a set of currents in an ocean.  Moving away from mother Earth, humanity has established a huge interstellar empire, the Interdependency, spreading among the stars in search of habitable worlds. Not finding any, with the exception of End – aptly named because it’s the terminus of the Flow – the Interdependency chose to build stations and artificial habitats where civilization flourished in a tightly connected web of mutual support.

Until the time when the story begins, the Flow has been believed to be set and immutable – that is, with the exception of the tragedy of Dalasysla, whose inhabitants were cut off from the Interdependency by what was termed a once-only destabilization of the Flow. People can choose selective blindness when it suits them, however, and for centuries they have blithely ignored the simple fact that something named ‘Flow’ is all but static, and the Flow is indeed destabilizing, or probably changing the direction of its currents, so that the human colonies that it connected until this moment are now threatened with permanent isolation, and probably extinction.

In times of such massive changes or upheavals that menace the fabric of society, there are those who prefer to turn a blind eye to it all, those who try to profit from the turmoil, and those who attempt to salvage the salvageable: these different positions constitute the core of the novel and should be discovered by reading it, so I will not reveal anything else about the plot, focusing rather on the central characters.

For those readers who enjoy the presence of solid female characters, The Collapsing Empire does not disappoint, on the contrary the most prominent figures in the story are mostly women, starting with Cardenia Wu-Patrick, the newly elected emperox of the Interdependency. Elected by default, it must be said, because she’s the sort-of-illegitimate daughter of the previous emperox and she entered in the line of succession due to an unfortunate accident in which the rightful heir was involved.   Finding the unexpected weight of the Interdependency on her shoulders, she tries to adapt to her new role, and it’s through the trial-and-error of her first few days, marred by some very harrowing circumstances, that her strength of character and quiet determination come to the fore – nicely balanced by a touch of humor and self-deprecating irony.  I believe that the story so far just showed the tip of the iceberg with Cardenia, and that this is one character who has many interesting developments in store for the readers along the way.

There is no story without an evil counterpart, and no one is more fit for this role than House Nohamapetan – one of the many trading Houses of the Interdependency – and its de-facto ruler lady Nadashe.  She is above all a skilled manipulator, an intelligent, ambitious woman who knows what she wants and how to get it: by contrast, her two brothers – equally scheming and ambitious – appear as no more than putty in her competent hands, and it’s no surprise that she is the one pulling all the strings. Even those leading to murder…

The most conspicuous, striking – and ultimately amusing – character remains however that of Kiva Lagos, representative of the Lagos trading House and my absolute winner in case of a contest among the novel’s figures: she is brash, outspoken and uncaring of any behavioral or diplomatic convention, and she peppers her speeches with an amount of profanity that would give the Expanse‘s Avarasala a run for her money –  although, unlike the more eloquent Avarasala, her four-letter vocabulary is exclusively limited to the f* word in all its declinations…   Needless to say, I loved Kiva since she first appeared on the scene: only a skilled writer like John Scalzi could deftly manage such a foul-mouthed character, and the endless stream of expletives hovering like a cloud around her, and at the same time turn Kiva Lagos into a reader’s number one choice for… well, heroine.  And I have not even mentioned her equally formidable mother!

As far as the narrative itself is concerned, the tone and mood are what I’ve come to expect, and enjoy, from a Scalzi novel: serious business interspersed with humorous commentaries on situations and the vagaries of the human mind, and an intriguing core concept that promises to develop into fascinating directions. One detail I’d like to mention in particular is the homage paid toward Iain Banks’ Culture series (or so I like to believe) in the names of the ships listed in the story: names like Yes Sir, That’s My Baby; Some Nerve!; If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.  It was both amusing and charming, and I appreciated it greatly.

My only complaint (if I can call it that) is that The Collapsing Empire is mostly dedicated to building the framework for this new series, and as such it’s focused on laying the foundation for the future developments, ending when separate events start coalescing into an intriguing whole: the novel does not close with a cliffhanger, not as such, but the promise of things to come is not enough – I want more, and I want it right now. Which means I’m happily on board to see how this will all pan out.

 

My Rating:

Salva

Reviews

TEASER TUESDAY

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

I have waited too long to start the second volume of Juliet Marillier’s wonderful Blackthorn and Grim Saga, TOWER OF THORNS, but now that I have I’m loving it even more than Dreamer’s Pool – and that was an amazing discovery indeed.

In this new book, Blackthorn and her brooding companion Grim seem to have settled quite nicely in Darlriada, and both their lives appear more secure, but neither of them has forgotten the horrors of their pasts or the most recent terrible experiences as prisoners of Mathuin.  And Blackthorn still nurses her powerful need for vengeance.

But a new challenge faces them, that of a mysterious creature that haunts a nearby land with its anguished wails, so that the wise woman and her silent friend accept the task of trying to understand what it’s all about…

[…] the four of us set off together: the scholar and the monk, the so-called wise woman and… If this were an old tale, what name would I give Grim? The bodyguard? The companion? The protector, the keeper? The friend?  He was all of those and more.

This little quote highlight what is one of the most engaging elements in this series, the relationship between Blackthorn and Grim, something that seems to go even beyond ties of friendship and family, and is the truly fascinating core of the story.

Reviews

Review: TWO SERPENTS RISE, by Max Gladstone (Craft Sequence #2)

16059411A few years ago I read, and greatly enjoyed, Max Gladstone’s THREE PARTS DEAD, a totally new take on fantasy and magic, and afterwards I kept reminding myself to read more of this series – especially when I learned about the new books being published – but such are the fluctuating “currents” of my TBR pile that this second volume was being constantly shifted back.  Now that I’ve finally read it, I’m struggling with a creeping feeling of disappointment, as if something that I had greatly appreciated in the first book was sadly missing here.

The story does not take place in Alt Coulumb, like book 1, but rather in Dresediel Lex, a city whose past seems to hint at an Atzec-like culture, made of stone pyramids, winged serpents and human sacrifices to the gods. The latter have been taken out of the equation after an equally bloody war in which the gods were vanquished and supplanted by deathless kings and a form of magic that uses soul as currency, although many still worship the decades-gone gods and look with longing at the times when blood was freely spent to garner the favor of those divinities.

Despite this more secular imprint on society, life in Dresediel Lex can be hard: the place sits in a dry, desert-like area (it could somehow remind me of Las Vegas, if it weren’t for its proximity to the sea) and water supply is the main problem the inhabitants have to face, since the ever-growing population’s needs have already run the nearest sources dry.  Caleb Altemoc is a senior risk manager at Red King Consolidated, the corporation that actually runs the city and delivers its water through a complicated net of pipes and Craft, a combination of technology and magic that uses some of the now-subjugated gods as power sources.

When the water from the current reservoir becomes poisoned by Tzimet – fanged, demon-like creatures that can come out of the faucets and attack the citizens – Caleb is called to investigate and his suspicions are equally divided between his father Temoc, one of the last priests supporting the old religion, forced to live in hiding, and Mal, a mysterious woman Caleb saw running over the structure of the reservoir.  Mal is also tied to Heartstone, a firm that RKC is going to acquire to expand its power base and its reach in the services offered to the city, and so Caleb’s attraction to her becomes mixed with the investigation and the number of unanswered questions circling around Mal.

The investigation brings Caleb into a maze of ancient secrets, long-held grudges and the ever-growing threat of seeing everything that RKC and the King in Red did, to unshackle the citizens from the need to appease the gods with human sacrifice, turn to ashes: the fact that the path RKC has taken is crumbling under the law of diminishing returns gives the loyalist of the “old regime” the lever they need to try and bring it all back to reinstate the old ways.   There is much to keep one’s attention in this story, not least the increasing sense of impending doom that comes from Caleb’s discoveries, that in turn climax into a scene of city-wide mayhem in which the titular Serpents play a focal role.

The main question is a complex one, whether it is preferable to stick to the old ways – ensuring the prolonged survival of the city through human sacrifice – or embrace the new ones, which however do not guarantee the same kind of continuity.   Someone would be made to suffer either way, and the only choice allowed is to pick the victim: a sacrifice on the altar to buy the gods’ favor, or a war with other cities for their resources once the ones at hand are depleted.  As the author writes at some point:

“You seem to think it’s different if we kill for gods or for water; either way the victim dies at the end.”

Despite the fascinating conundrum, the sense of incompleteness I was mentioning before did linger all throughout the book, and in the end I believe it was because Caleb  feels a bit thin – especially if compared to other, more interesting and fleshed-out figures, like Caleb’s friend Teo, with her sharp, world-wise attitude and staunch attachment to the people she cares about;  or his father Temoc, whose love for his son cannot be separated from the loyalty he feel for his gods and the tenets of his faith.  Caleb is indeed the child of two worlds, the old and the new, and he dwells in a no-man’s-land of uncertainty that, sadly, spreads into the area of character development: besides the obsession for the elusive Mal and his gambling, there is not much to make him stand out, and at the end of the story he’s not much different from the man he was at the beginning – at least from my point of view.

I did ultimately enjoy the book, but not as much as I’d hoped after the great experience that was Three Parts Dead: the perceived weakness of the main character, and the less intriguing background (I found Alt Coulumb much more fascinating a place than Dresediel Lex) were something of a letdown. Still, I’m curious about the world of the Craft Sequence, and will certainly read other books in this series, in the hope of finding again the… magic of the first volume.

 

My Rating: