Reviews

TV Review: KILLJOYS Season 2 (no spoilers)

 

When I reviewed the first season of this science fiction series, I was full of enthusiasm for the potential shown by its brief 10-episode run. And how could it be otherwise, when the story focused on a small team of bounty hunters, working in a remote area of space?  The overall feel of the setting reminded me a little of Firefly, thanks to its definite frontier flavor and the complex social and political threads running in the background, and what’s more the main characters were quite promising: Dutch, an ass-kicking heroine with a brutal past, who managed to overcome the trauma of her upbringing as an assassin and to remake herself into a whole, independent and self-sufficient person; Johnny, her tech-wiz team-mate and the “softer side” of their working equation, one that created a strong, family-like bond between them that is one of the series’ stronger points; and D’Avin, Johnny’s brother and former soldier, traumatized by his military experiences (and probably some dark experiments), trying to move past his PTSD.

The overall tone, in that first season, was lively and irreverent, with the episodic nature of the show paving the way for a more complex narrative arc that Season 2 was bound to develop further – and the premises were indeed there, from the brief appearances of Dutch’s devious mentor Khlyen, still stalking his former pupil and trying to bring her back  into the fold, to D’Avin’s flashbacks to some traumatic event, that caused him to lash out quite dangerously in the most unexpected of circumstances; from the monopoly exerted by the system’s wealthy families on the available resources, to the exploitative activities of the Corporation managing the workforce.  All these elements promised some fascinating developments, and an expanding scope for the story, but unfortunately some of those promises went unfulfilled…

The very fist sign that something had changed – and not exactly for the better – was in the new opening credits: both the chosen music and the appearance of the characters as graphic novel versions of themselves represented a puzzling, and somehow jarring surprise, and to me they did not look at all in sync with the series’ previous “mood”.  That Killjoys did not take itself very seriously was a given, and it was part and parcel of its charm, but this new introduction seemed… cheap, for want of a better word, and at odds with what had gone on before.

But these purely aestethical considerations would have been forgotten if the story had moved forward in the direction hinted at in the first season: sadly, it fell prey to its own need for excessive complexity that was potentially interesting, yes, but also needed something more than the season’s scant 10 episodes so the various threads could have the time to grow into an organic and well-defined story. The compression of so many components into such a short time span worked against the story, making it appear at times slipshod and confusing, and it also worked against the characters – the strongest element of the series so far – robbing them of many chances for growth and expansion, and forcing them to almost become caricatures of themselves.  This last is particularly evident with D’Avin: where he started as a mentally scarred veteran, he becomes almost a parody of himself in Season 2 – having been subjected to further experiments, he’s now a sort of invulnerable soldier, thanks to the green fluid running through his veins. The circumstance in which this is revealed (the seduction of bartender Sabine) fails to be as dramatic as it was intended, and remains the most cringe-worthy segment of the whole season.

Dutch fares a little better, but not much: the series of circumstances that puts an unwelcome distance between her and Johnny seems to make her lose some focus, and Dutch appears to be reacting to, more than acting on, the problems that the group has to face. What’s worse, Khlyen’s increased presence on screen does not reinforce Dutch’s sense of self-assurance and independence, but instead seems to weaken it when he’s given a personal story and a non-selfish motivation for his actions: by somehow bringing them together, instead of keeping him as a form of evil manifestation, Dutch’s inner strength appears diminished, and unfocused – and given how she literally exploded on the scene in the first season, this is not something viewers completely appreciate…

Johnny is the only one given an interesting – and evolving – arc: it was clear from the start that his nature was not completely suited to his work as a Killjoy, and through his association with Pawter, the slum doctor who used to be a scion of a ruling family, he finds a… mission, a purpose that appeals to his need to make a difference, to change things for the better.  When the relationship with Pawter takes on romantic overtones, we see Johnny dealing with some inner conflict as he chooses a divergent path that takes him away from Dutch and the team: on one side he knows he’s working toward a noble goal, on the other he feels that the need for secrecy upsets the team’s dynamics and often causes him to lie to his long-time partner, and that’s a price that weighs heavily on him.  If the rhythm of the events had not been so frantic, Johnny’s turmoil could have been explored in greater depth than it was, and that’s another regret I came away with at the end of the season.

Despite these disappointments, I will keep an eye on the show (I know that the third season is airing now, so I might be able to see it in the near future), in the hope that the creative team manages to overcome the hurdles of season 2 and finds a much firmer footing for both story and characters.  It would be a pity to see Killjoys’ promises fizzle into nothing…

 

My Rating for Season 2: 

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Reviews

Vacationing Owl…

 

The suitcase is packed, the tickets bought, everything is ready for a well-deserved vacation, so this bookish owl is waving goodbye to everyone for the next two weeks.

I have scheduled a couple of posts, just to keep my blog’s muscles in tune (but do blogs have muscles?  that’s an interesting question…) but I might be unable to reply to your comments – or to comment to your always intriguing posts – during my absence, so I’m making my apologies now, and hope to be able to do it all once I’m back.

Keep reading great stories, keep having fun and… see you soon!

Reviews

Review: DOWN AMONG THE STICKS AND BONES (Wayward Children #2), by Seanan McGuire

If Every Heart a Doorway was a great revelation – not so much of Seanan McGuire’s writing skills, since for me they are a given, but rather of her amazing range in storytelling – this new installment in her Wayward Children series subverted, again, my expectations.

I might have looked for more detail on Ms. Eleanor West’s home and its pupils, or on the stories of their long road to recovery after coming back to our primary world, but what I found instead was a sort of of… upside-down tale, if you want, one where the “before” has just as much impact on the characters as the time in the world beyond the doorway, or the difficult adaptation once the protagonist find themselves back in their place of origin.

This is mainly a story about abused childhood, not in the sense of physical or mental torture, but – worse still – about the way in which parental expectations can mold children, bending them in shapes and directions contrary to their true nature and leanings.  That such shaping can be carried out in the name of the kids’ own good, therefore hiding (or giving an alibi to) the parents’ selfish desires, makes this story all the more poignant in its subtly understated cruelty.

Chester and Serena are not parent material by a long shot: wrapped in their individual worlds – work, career and social standing – that sometimes overlap giving a sort of meaning to their marriage, they at some point decide that to complete the perfect picture presented to they world they need a child. Serena wants the perfect girl, one to be dressed and pampered like a favorite doll; Chester wants a boy, one with whom he can share sports and manly pursuits. They are however gifted with twin girls, Jacqueline and Jillian, so promptly proceed to shape them into the mold each one desires, in an ultimate show of unconscious defiance against fate: Jacqueline ends up being the doll, frozen into her perfect dresses that must not be mussed or dirtied, while Jillian is driven toward sports and a more carefree, boyish attitude.  This creates a rift between the sisters, one that effects their actual separation once they stumble into the magical world accessed through their grandmother’s trunk in the attic, and this rift will have terrible consequences…

While I was reading Jacqueline and Jillian’s formative journey, I was struck by what came across as barely repressed anger and contempt toward these selfishly distant parents, wondering more than once whether the author was drawing her models from some real life example she witnessed firsthand: my experience with her writing has helped me learn that McGuire never “preaches” to her audience, letting the story speak for itself (something I greatly appreciate), and this is the case here as well, but still the depth and intensity of feelings – that quickly took hold of my own reactions as well – goes quite beyond the usual scale, hinting at something more profound and with higher emotional impact.

Like bonsai being trained into shape by an assiduous gardener, they were growing into the geometry of their parents’ desires, and it was pushing them further and further away from one another. One day, perhaps, one of them would reach across the gulf and find that there was no one there.

The “monsters” the two sisters encounter once in the Moors, beyond the doorway, are indeed scary – the Master much more than Dr. Bleak, and that’s all I’m going to say, because they must be discovered on their own – and require the two girls to change and adapt to survive in the weirdly frightening environment, but at the same time they give Jacqueline and Jillian the freedom to choose what they want to be, to take steps in the direction they want to go.  You could say that both the Master and Dr. Bleak love their wards, and care for them – even in the twisted way that’s the norm in the Moors – just as their real parents don’t: Chester and Serena’s great sin is to be incapable of love, and – as McGuire tells us in what sounds like an open accusation – to have taken that ability from their daughters.

“It must be awful to have such a dorky sister,” said the girls in their class to Jacqueline, who felt like she should defend her sister, but didn’t know how. Her parents had never given her the tools for loyalty, for sticking up or standing up […]

This is a story that insinuates in your mind and soul and leaves deep traces (or should I call them ‘scars’?), whether Jack and Jill’s plight has a personal resonance for you or more simply draws you in because of its compelling development.  At times, it broke my heart, but I would not have missed it for anything in the world: no one can pull you into their worlds like Seanan McGuire, indeed.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: ARTEMIS, by Andy Weir

I received this book from the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

My first experience with Andy Weir’s writing, his acclaimed The Martian, did not work out well: although the story’s potential was amazing (as testified by the huge success of the movie inspired by the novel), the delivery failed to engage me, and the book ended up in my ‘unfinished’ pile.  Still, I’m a great believer in second opportunities, and when the first synopsis for Artemis surfaced, I was intrigued enough to give it a try: this time around, things went a great deal better…

Artemis is the first (and so far the only) organized community on the Moon, a collection of interconnected domes named after famous astronauts: the city, with a resident population of around two thousand people of varied ethnicity, is mostly an industrial settlement and a tourist resort – a place with few written laws and a good number of unwritten ones.  Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara is a young woman of Saudi descent, the daughter of a respected welder she had a falling out with some time prior to the start of the story: Jazz works as a porter, a low-income occupation she uses as a front for her smuggling operations, and it’s because of her non-official job that she becomes involved in an industrial take-over scheme that suddenly morphs into a bloody gang war, turning her into a target for both the police and the members of a ruthless Brazilian cartel.

The pace is lively, carried by Jazz’s mordant, impudent tone, while the city of Artemis comes alive before our eyes thanks to her first-person narrative, whose scientific explanations (clearly the main staple of Andy Weir’s storytelling method) come across as lightly informative rather than pedantic: unlike what happened with Mark Whatney’s voice logs, Jazz ideally talks with the audience rather that at them, and this made a huge difference for me as far as my connection with the character was concerned.  The mechanics of living in microgravity, and in a hostile, airless environment, are explained in a discursive manner that makes it sound more like an interesting chat between acquaintances than a pedantic lecture – one of the most fascinating pieces of information being the effect of reduced gravity on the boiling point of water and therefore the temperature (and taste) of hot beverages.

Another characteristic Jazz seems to share with Whatney is her flippancy, with the difference (from my point of view) that with her it works well and it feels natural, an integral part of her psychological makeup, and what’s more it suits the character and the situations she finds herself in, while that same cheekiness sounded wrong for Whitney and his dilemma. Moreover, the book’s chapters are interspersed with the mail correspondence Jazz starts as a child with an Earth boy, Kelvin, and through these exchanges we learn much about her back-story without need for lengthy infodumps. There is a not-so-subtle veneer of pain and resentment underlying Jazz’s character, a dark side that she seems to have accepted and makes jokes about, but at the same time you can feel it places her apart from everyone else, a remoteness that seems more a form of defense than a real wish for solitude.   

I guess it all boils down to the youthful transgression that caused the rift with her father, an event that still preys heavily on her mind and must be the reason Jazz constantly refuses to employ her remarkable skills to better herself: there are several instances, throughout the book, in which people point at her above-average intelligence and wonder – to her extreme annoyance – why she remains attached to what is essentially a menial job, when she could fare much better with work she’s more skilled at.  It’s easy to imagine it might be a form of self-inflicted punishment – unexpressed as it remains – that coupled with her sense of fairness, and her peculiar moral code, quickly endeared her to me despite the brash surface appearance Jazz presents.

Here, though, also lies my main contention with this story: as an independent, self-sustaining woman, Jazz exerts that freedom in many areas of her life, including her sexuality, something that is not at all strange in our present time, nor should it be in the near future period –  and frontier location – where Artemis is set, since the absence of Earth-style laws or morals allows that freedom in all its different declinations. As an example of that liberal mindset, we are told about a couple of siblings engaged in an incestuous relationship that chose to emigrate to the Moon to avoid condemnation for their life choices.  So, why does practically everyone have to remark on Jazz’s past and present promiscuousness? Why is she targeted as the Red Woman from Babylon, in a place where you can do almost anything as long as you observe strict airlock safety?   It’s a small thing, granted, but still it bothered me like an itching nose in a spacesuit…

Still, it’s a very minor quibble, and the story itself more than makes up for it, especially in the breath-stopping (literally…) final segment, where the words “compulsive reading” become quite appropriate.  As my second attempt at Andy Weir’s writing, Artemis worked like a charm and the news that it’s already been optioned for a movie picture made me eager to see how this one will translate to the big screen: hopefully they will find an actress that will do Jazz the justice she deserves.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

VICK AND HER VULTURES ARE COMING BACK!

 

Last year I had the opportunity of reading the first volume in Scott Warren’s Union Earth Privateers series, kindly offered for review by the publisher Parvus Press. Vick’s Vultures proved to be a fast-paced, quite entertaining story about a band of privateers, space crews sent to retrieve any kind of alien tech that Earth would be able to retro-engineer and use to keep abreast with the more advanced races peopling the galaxy, while at the same time keeping a low profile.

One of the book’s best features was indeed Victoria Marin, the captain of the Condor, a strong, well-rounded character whose practical determination quickly won my sympathy: once I closed the book I knew I would look forward to learning more about her and her Vultures.

Soon I will have this opportunity: Parvus Press contacted me with the kind offer of reading and reviewing Book 2 in the series, To Fall Among Vultures, that will be published at the beginning of October. I am of course eager to learn what new adventures are waiting for the Condor and its crew, and equally eager to share my findings with you, so while we wait I’m very happy to share the link to the giveaway for Book 1 that is currently running and will enable you to catch up with Vick’s first adventures and to prepare for the new ones.

Just follow the link below and fire your engines! The journey starts here…

 

VICK’S VULTURES GIVEAWAY

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE DEBT OF THE INNOCENT, by Rachel Swirsky

My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues, thanks to the archives of online magazines.  This week is the turn of:

THE DEBT OF THE INNOCENT, by Rachel Swirksy

(click on the link above to read the story)

This is one of the most chilling, most terrifying stories I read, and the horror does not come from monsters, alien invasions or deadly plagues, but from the cold calculation exerted on the right to live based on available resources that’s at the core or the story itself.

In the world depicted in Rachel Swirsky, one that does not seem very far in time from the one we’re living in, the energy crisis requires severe rationing of electricity: no more lights or computers kept on all day long, private cars a memory of the past, plane trips a luxury for the very rich.  This need to regulate energy expenditures extends to all sectors of society, hospitals included, and here is where the shock hits, because the author postulates that in any hospital neonatal care is restricted to a given number of incubators, and that occupancy is controlled by the ability of parents to pay for the energy outlay necessary to keep their babies alive.  It they can’t, the child is “displaced”, i.e. removed from the incubator and left to die so that their place can be taken by a baby whose parents’ solvency is more secure.

Even more terrifying than this premise is the acquiescence that becomes apparent from the characters’ reactions, as if that were an acceptable price to pay while the world re-builds its energy output and tries to go back to previous standards.  This compliance seems to come from the acknowledgment from the more fortunate that someone else will have to suffer the consequences, that there is “a luckless, down-at-heel class the majority can look down on and think ‘at least that isn’t me’. And as long as that balance remains, the deplorable policy of killing infants for watts will continue.”

Given recent news on the subject of health care, this story resonates both as a warning and an accusation, an admonition toward thinking about the long-range consequences of today’s decisions, and the impact they can have on the not-so-distant future.

Blunt, distressing and to the point – viciously so.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: TRADING IN DANGER, by Elizabeth Moon (Vatta’s War #1)

Elizabeth Moon is one of the authors I kept promising myself I would read someday, and the reasons I kept procrastinating were both the huge amount of books she’s written (with an embarrassment of riches you often don’t know where to start!) and the fact that, on a cursory examination, her stories seemed focused on military SF, a genre I’ve had some problems with.   Military SF generally tends to focus mainly on the technical side of the stories and on the mechanics of space battles, leaving little room for character exploration: even a series like David Weber’s Honor Harrington – one that started quite well from my perspective – after the first books tended to favor tech vs. people, causing me to stop reading at some point.

A short time ago, however, Mogsy from Bibliosanctum showcased the newest book from Elizabeth Moon, Cold Welcome, and her review prompted me to try it out, even though it looked connected to a previous 5-book series, Vatta’s War: it’s true, as Mogsy wrote, that you can read it without prior knowledge of the main character’s back story, but after a handful of chapters I saw that said back story was not only very interesting but also important to understand what makes this character tick, and so I decided to start back from the beginning, with the first book in Kylara Vatta’s journey, Trading in Danger: it turned out to be one of the best choices I could make, because Elizabeth Moon is now firmly on her way to becoming one of my favorite authors as a great writer of military SF/space opera of the kind I enjoyed only through Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books.

Kylara Vatta is the youngest daughter of the Chief Financial Officer of Vatta Transport, a far-reaching trading company that’s also a family-run business: not wanting to be drawn into it, Ky has enrolled at the Space Academy, where she distinguished herself as an honors student. She’s however prone to misreading people and their true leanings, and in trying to aid a fellow cadet, whose ulterior motives are revealed when it’s too late to do anything about them, she indirectly causes profound embarrassment to the Academy and ends up being blamed for it and expelled.  Back home on Slotter’s Key, Kylara is once more enfolded in the family trade she tried to avoid and given the captaincy of an aging ship for its last run, one that will end in a scrap yard where it will be sold for parts: on the surface, a milk run to test her capabilities as a commercial captain, with the assistance (read ‘babysitting’) of some senior members of Vatta’s vast fleet.  Determined to prove her independence, Ky accepts a contracts from the Belinta colony to bring them the agricultural machinery they so desperately need from Sabine, show she can fulfill the family’s motto about “trade and profit”, and make some money she intends to funnel into repairs for the ship she’s developing a fondness for.

Unfortunately, the law about best laid plans is still in operation, and once Ky and her crew reach Sabine they find themselves in need of overhauling a major drive component, of juggling finances that are stretched too thin for comfort, with the obligations they need to fulfill and – what’s worse – a sudden conflict that escalates beyond control far too quickly, cutting off communications with the rest of the galaxy – and Vatta’s central headquarters.  For Ky it will be the opportunity to truly grow into her own woman while trying to meet her commitments and stay true to her personal code as well as that of the family’s business: this will require some difficult decisions, at times even terrible ones, decisions she will face with determination and a strength of character that quickly endeared her to me, placing her among my favorite characters and Elizabeth Moon among my “must read” authors.

Speculative fiction abounds with plucky heroines who defy great odds and come out winning, but a good number of them suffer from pernicious impulsiveness that nonetheless seems to have no consequences: that’s definitely not the case with Kylara Vatta. She is young and inexperienced, granted, and she tends to trust people at face value, which in some cases brings negative outcomes, but she’s also capable of soul-searching and possesses the honesty of analyzing her past mistakes and learning from them. Her actions always have consequences – in some cases deadly ones – and Ky is not exempt from some darker tendencies, that help shaping her character into a more real, more believable one: there is one instance where she is forced to actually kill people, and when she does that, with a quick efficiency that she must have learned at the Academy, she accepts the thrill of satisfaction that comes with the act as part of human nature, as part of the adrenaline rush of the situation, and knows that this darker shade of her cannot be denied, even if it needs to be kept in check.   

All this gives her a wonderful, multi-faceted complexity that together with her business pragmatism takes Ky out of the mere realm of fiction and endows her with a sense of reality that is like a breath of fresh air.  What in other, less carefully crafted characters, might have resulted in empty stubbornness, here gives us a person who realizes she is not fully matured into the woman she wants and needs to be, but at the same time requires the freedom to make her own mistakes, learn from them and become a better individual because of those mistakes, and not in spite of them.

The same sense of realism at the core of Kylara can be found in the events at the core of the novel: for example, when the old ship starts breaking down, it stays broken – there are no miraculous engineering feats steeped in improbable technical jargon that make the problem disappear into thin air, like we are used to see in certain well-know tv franchises.  Ky and her crew face real dangers: they could be stranded with no way of asking for help, with a broken drive, dwindling supplies and a sabotaged beacon, and it will take much ingenuity (and a good dose of sheer luck) to see the end of the proverbial tunnel.  And again there are the economics of the far-reaching human expansion into space: contracts to be honored, matters of financing and of making the ends of a business deal meet; or the different social structures of newest, still struggling colonies against more established and wealthier settlements.  All of this helps bring this fictional civilization into focus and makes the reader want to learn more.

At the start of this review I compared the overall feel of this story with Bujold’s Vorkosigan universe: though there are vast differences, both in background and in characterization, the… flavor – for want of a better word – is the same.  In both cases we have a story about people, and the way they work to carve a place for themselves in a universe that wants to imprison them into a mold they don’t agree with; there is galactic strife mixed in, granted, but the human part is what matters here, not the technology or the dynamics of interstellar conflicts or the deployment of weapons.  If what you look for in a space opera or military SF novel is this, if people count for you more than gadgets or battles, this book will prove to be perfect.

 

My Rating: