Reviews

Review: PROVENANCE, by Ann Leckie

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

When Ann Leckie’s first novel, Ancillary Justice, was published I acquired it on the strength of the enthusiastic reviews I kept reading online, but despite its brilliant premise and intriguing approach I could not bring myself to finish it because I failed to connect with both the story and the characters.  For this reason I had not paid great attention to the announcements about the coming issue of Provenance, at least until a teaser for it was appended at the end of James S.A. Corey’s latest Expanse novella, Strange Dogs.

That brief glimpse of what promised to be an exciting story, with a main character trying to smuggle off-planet a stasis box containing a body, was enough to draw my attention and I was very eager to see where that premise would take me.

Ingray is the adopted daughter of Netano Aughskold, a prominent politician on Hwae: according to Hwaean custom, people who hold power often choose to adopt parentless children and raise them as their own, while forcing them to compete in brilliance and accomplishments so that the best of them will inherit the title held by the house’s head.  While competent and motivated, Ingray has always known that her brother Danach stands better chances of winning the contest, so she concocted the plan of rescuing the famous thief (and son of one of her foster mother’s political rivals) Pahlad Budrakim from Compassionate Removal (a mix between forced labor and exile) and convincing him to reveal where he stashed the vestiges he stole from his family.  She plans on restoring them to their proper place, therefore gaining Netano’s respect and favor.

Vestiges hold enormous significance in Hwaean society, both as mementos of the past and as proof of one’s ancestors being present at important historical moments: one could say that they are at the very root of Hwaean civilization, since some of them, as becomes quite clear with the unfolding of the story, stand as proof of Hwae’s own independence and reason of being.  This is one of the most interesting aspects of Provenance, because human (or maybe even post-human?) civilization as depicted here seems to have lost any contact with its origin planet and needs to build itself a past and firm roots and does so by infusing extreme importance in what we might consider trivial objects, like a signed invitation to a party, or a ticket for a focal political event.  This is why the suspicion of forgery laid on some very important vestiges, and later on the threat of them being stolen by neighboring civilizations, is enough to throw Hwae into turmoil (as the saying goes: “Who are we if our vestiges aren’t real?”): Ingray’s daring plan, one whose failure might leave her penniless and bereft of any further opportunity, crashes indeed first on the apparent fiasco of Pahlad’s rescue, and is then further waylaid by a series of unexpected events where political intrigue mixes with murder and complex inter-species relations.

Another fascinating detail comes from gender representation – not surprising, since I remember how Ancillary Justice did that by affixing the pronoun she to every character, no matter their sex: on Hwae there are three genders – male, female and neman, which might be defined as gender fluid as indicated by the pronouns employed for them. It made for an interesting mental exercise and reading challenge, but the novel did not delve too deeply into the meaning of it, or the status and outlook of neman characters, while some other tantalizing glimpses were added, as the fact that children would choose their gender once out of puberty, and sometimes even later as we see with Ingray’s friend Taucris, who seems to have been forced to choose by family and peer pressure once the usual time limit was reached and overcome.

Again, Provenance regales us with mention of sentient AIs (which I gathered came from the trilogy started by Ancillary Justice), and of a few alien races, most notably the Geck – reclusive creatures no one has seen, since they interact with others through remotely-controlled mechs. There is a great potential for a wide, fascinating tapestry in these glimpses we are afforded, but unfortunately they remain exactly that – and this is one of the reasons I was mildly disappointed with this novel despite its intriguing beginning, although my main contention comes from a perception of insufficient characterization and weak story.

Just as it happened with Ancillary Justice, I could appreciate the unique touches the author employed to create her vision, but at the same time I could not connect with the characters or build any interest for the story unfolding under my eyes: my overall impression was that of distance, or removal – while I kept reading because I was curious to see where the whole scenario would lead me, I felt no empathy with Ingray or any of the other characters, even when some important revelation about them was offered, or when their well-being was threatened.  This might have happened because the characters themselves did not seem to care: apart from learning about their motivations, we never seem to see those motivations into play, we never see any passion in what they say or do.  To me they almost walked through their own lives as spectators rather than participants, and that robbed them of the depth and facets I always look for in a character.  Moreover, some of the events develop in a confused and confusing way that at times left me quite puzzled, even though I could not summon the will to delve further into the details and try to deepen my understanding.

This is not, however, a negative comment on Provenance, but rather my final acknowledgement that Ann Leckie’s storytelling is not to my tastes: considering the huge success of her Imperial Radch trilogy, and the first excited comments I’ve seen from her affectionate readers, this will certainly prove to be another favorite for them. Just not for me….

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Short Story Review: THE GIRL FROM HRUSH AVENUE (Powder Mage 0.5), by Brian McClellan

My exploration of Brian McClellan’s stories that act as prequels to Promise of Blood continues…

This is the story of how Taniel (Field Marshal Tamas’ son) and Vlora (Tamas’ ward and later on Taniel’s fiancée) met for the first time as children.  Vlora was, to my deepest chagrin, something of a secondary character in Promise of Blood, while she was quite in the foreground in the first book of the new series, Sins of Empire, and since I liked her quite a bit I was of course curious to know more about her.  Interesting as it is, this short story felt somewhat weaker than its predecessors, and did not involve me like the other ones.

Ten year old orphan Vlora is living in a sort of foster home, with other girls like her, but she’s hardly interested in ‘normal’ girlish activities: what truly attracts her are the weapons displayed outside gun smithies, and she relishes the smell of gunpowder, whose acrid taste fills her senses in a strange way.  The area of the Old City where Vlora lives has been marked as the territory of the Bulldog Twins, a couple of bullies who enjoy tormenting smaller and weaker kids: Vlora’s previous encounters with them taught her to avoid the two at any cost, and that’s the reason she is surprised when a kid her own age, whose books have been thrown in the gutter by the twins, decides to react and fight back.  The boy is Taniel, and he’s the one who will first speak to her about powder mages and their abilities.

If the story itself seemed more of a whimsy than a background filler, I liked the glimpses it offered of the city of Adopest and its seedier corners: as I’ve now come to expect from McClellan’s writing, the scenery takes shape before our eyes with cinematic quality and the reader can see the winding cobbled streets, the crowds milling about avoiding horses and carriages, the shopkeepers minding their wares.  Young Vlora knows this world intimately and its harshness has taught her how to survive: I could see here where her amazing resiliency comes from and it added a few more details to her character as I’ve come to know it from Sins of Empire, but still there is not much more to this short tale than that.

Still, this world remains a fascinating one and I’m certain that these little bits of information will enhance my enjoyment of the Powder Mage trilogy, while they certainly make me look forward to starting on The Crimson Campaign, the second volume of the series.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: DRAGON COAST (Daniel Blackland #3), by Greg Van Eekhout

It’s been a while since I read the previous book in the Daniel Blackland series, and although it ended with an amazing cliffhanger that simply begged to be brought to a conclusion, I kept procrastinating the reading of Dragon Coast for no other reason that I did not want to close the door on this series, whose peculiar brand of Urban Fantasy  was one of my best discoveries in recent times.

But since all good things come to an end, here I am with the third and final (?) novel in the series. A spoiler warning for the events of the two previous books applies here, so read at your own peril…

Daniel Blackland, a powerful osteomancer (someone who draws magic from bones, either of more-or-less mythical beasts or other magic practitioners), managed to destroy Southern California’s cruel hierarch, the man who had killed and literally consumed Daniel’s father, and since then he has tried to keep under everyone’s radar while raising Sam, the hierarch’s golem – a teenaged kid he’s taken as his own son. Unfortunately, Daniel’s own golem-brother Paul conspired to create a fire-drake, a creature of immense power: to stop him, Sam sacrificed his life, and his consciousness now resides in the uncontrollable firedrake, that is laying to waste everything it encounters.  Daniel, together with his friends and allies, concocts a desperate plan to rescue Sam and remove the danger from the creature.

To say I literally drank this novel would be a massive understatement: if book 1 was very much Daniel’s story (both his past and the present, including the daring heist he plans with his friends), and book 2 was more focused on Sam (a character I liked and cared for from the very start), here we have a multiplicity of points of view, including returning water mage Gabriel Argent and the very welcome reappearance of some figures from the past, particularly Moth and Max (more about them later).

What looked plain to me from book 1 was that Daniel Blackland suffered from a streak of selfishness – understandable, since he had been orphaned at a very young age, and life taught him early on, and in the hardest way, that survival is of paramount importance – but here we can see how much he has been changed by caring for Sam, and trying to keep him safe from the predators who would have taken his bones for the hierarch’s magic contained in them.   True, Daniel can still be callous and worry less about collateral damage if that will fulfill his goal, but now he’s doing it all for someone else – for Sam – and this gives him the strength to carry on his plan, and awareness of the price he and/or others will have to pay.  Sam has changed him, made him finally touch his own humanity, and turned him into a better person: the feelings he holds for Paul’s daughter (Daniel’s almost-daughter, I was tempted to say…) are a proof of this change.  And speaking of Paul, or rather the fact that Daniel must impersonate him, learning about his golem-brother and the cold calculation of his choices does indeed play an equally important part in Daniel’s shift of perspective.

As a counterpoint, Gabriel Argent – who until now had come across as a “good guy”, or as good as the circumstances and his station allow, that is – seems hardened, either because of his past experiences, or because of the power he acquired; his role as a team player is less assured than it was before and it falls to Max (former osteomantically created human hound) to keep him straight and true.  Max is a wonderful secondary character: hounds, despite being humans, are trained in kennels just like dogs, their lives short and brutal. Having been assigned to Gabriel in the previous book, he has grown from tool into friend – probably the only trusted friend Argent can enjoy – and some of the best, most delightful passages in the novel come from their exchanges and the juxtaposition between Gabriel’s cool appraisal of situations and Max’s street-wise humor, one that comes to the fore even when he must make a difficult decision for his master/friend’s own good:

 

“I am your friend, Gabriel. If I wasn’t, I’d have shot you from behind. But I am your friend, and I have been for a long time now. I’m trying to make sure you don’t become a monster.”

 

What Max is for Gabriel, Moth is for Daniel: Moth is a special kind of man, because he cannot die – no matter the kind of injury he sustains (and there have been times where those injuries were nothing short of horrific), he always comes back. Indestructible, though not immune from pain: coarse and rude on the surface, Moth is a deep, clever thinker who, not unlike Max, can provide balance and a different, clarifying point of view to his longtime friend. That is, when he’s not being delightfully funny:

 

“That’s it? A friend?  What about brother? Am I not more like a brother? I would have said brother, if I were the one getting all goopy.”

“I killed my brother.”

“Friend is okay, then. Friend is fine […]”

 

The third point of the character triad is represented by Sam and his continuing journey of discovery while he literally dwells in the belly of the beast and tries to come to terms about who he is (and was, considering he is the hierarch’s golem), and who he wants to be, striving to reach a point that is all Sam’s and not the product of someone else’s drives and magic.  To me, he comes across as a very sympathetic character, one who feels like a true teenager (not of the whiny, brooding kind, thank you very much!) undergoing the struggles of growing up while also carrying the heavy burden of his origins.

Add to all that a new, difficult, multi-pronged heist, and you will understand why I breezed through this book in no time at all, even though I was aware that there would be no more adventures from Daniel and his associates – which saddens me greatly.  Unless there is some room for hope….?

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE JAWS THAT BITE, THE CLAWS THAT CATCH, by Seanan McGuire

 

It’s no secret that seeing the name of Seanan McGuire (or that of alter ego Mira Grant, for that matter) engenders a sort of Pavlovian reaction in me, so that reading her works becomes a compulsive need.  When I saw that she was one of the contributors to LightSpeed Magazine I wasted no time in clicking the link to this story, another example – as if I needed it! – of this writer’s wide range of storytelling that knows no bounds.

THE JAWS THAT BITE, THE CLAWS THAT CATCH

(click on the title to read the story online)

In this instance she retraces a well-known literary background, with the unnamed main character leaving the safety of the woods that are her home to embark on a quest to save her captive sister.  It took me a while to understand the exact context here, probably because I’m not all that familiar with it (it’s been a while since I read that book), but little by little the clues piled up and helped me see where McGuire was headed: once there, it became a fun ride – that is, as fun as this author’s delightfully evil mind can provide, of course.

Describing the character’s journey would give away too much, and this is a story that must be experienced as it unfolds, so I will concentrate on some of the images that caught my attention, like the description of the mist in her home woods, a mist that’s dangerous and deadly: “the mist threw up a tendril, trying to grab the bird’s leg and drag it down”.  Once a hapless creature is trapped in it, it becomes easy prey for scavengers that are not affected by the mist itself: as an introduction to a cruel, dangerous world this brief sentence works quite effectively to set the overall tone of the story.

Opposite this mysterious woods stands a city, the place where the protagonist’s sister had been taken, and there’s an interesting contrast here, because we learn that the city dwellers look on the inhabitants of the woods as monsters, therefore as less worthy of consideration – and survival. The bitter musings of the character say a great deal about this state of affairs as she considers that “monsters didn’t have homes to defend or sisters they loved more than life itself. That would make us too much like them, and then we would be less effective as excuses for the things they did to themselves”.

If you never read anything by Seanan McGuire, I urge you to try this story: it will give you a good insight on her style and writing “voice”, and I’m certain it will be an intriguing journey.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: FIRST WATCH (The Fifth Ward #1), by Dale Lucas

I received this novel from Orbit Books, in exchange for an honest review.

The theme of the more seasoned cop being teamed with a rookie he can’t initially stand is one of the main staples of detective literature, movies and tv series, but no one had so far tried to translate it into a fantasy background, and First Watch is probably the first example of this mashup, one that works well exactly thanks to its unusual setting.

Rem is a young man of noble origins who was feeling constrained by his pampered life, and therefore decided to seek adventure out in the big, unknown world: he ends up in Yenara, a colorful city rich with possibilities – and dangers.  Finding himself almost destitute, and incapable of landing any kind of work, Rem wakes up in the city’s jail after a drunken brawl: a series of bizarre circumstances leads him to his enrollment in the Wardwatch – the local version of a police force – and teamed up with veteran Torval, a grizzled dwarf Warden whose partner was recently murdered in mysterious circumstances.

Yenara is a bustling city filled with many kinds of creatures, as humans of various races, orcs, dwarves and elves coexist more or less peacefully in its streets where crime and honest business rub elbows, and despite his privileged education Rem is poorly equipped to hold his own, as testified by his imprisonment.  Even though he’s still guilty of a measure of naiveté, he’s also quick on his feet and this helps him gain some points with Torval, whose irritable demeanor hides a good, honest soul, and a person ready to grant his new partner some slack.

The two start their association by investigating the murder of Torval’s former mate, and in so doing they gather some unexpected clues concerning a series of disappearances and killings that might be related: it’s quite amusing to observe how bureaucracy and territorial politics are a constant, no matter the time period or the place.  As we are used to seeing in modern police procedurals, there are rules and limitations that hinder an investigation and sometimes force an officer of the law to go against them, ruffling a few feathers, in order to see justice done, and in this First Watch is no exception.

As the two unlikely partners move across the city in search of answers we learn much about Yenara, which appears like a crucible of races and customs that come together in a sort of free zone where everything is possible, everything is allowed (if you hold the right license…), making the inevitable parallel with modern New York – the city that more than any other one is the perfect place for a police story – quite clear.    The pace is fast and the story moves along between brawls and fights to the death, with a few sidelines of attempted murder on the two partners, rolling nicely toward the final showdown, one that however promises more adventures for the two unlikely – but by now well adjusted – partners.

If I enjoyed this story, and found myself often smiling at Rem’s and Torval’s antics, still I could not avoid finding a few details that spoiled the overall flavor of the novel.  My main point of contention is with the descriptions: the author is quite fond of adjectives, indeed, never employing just one where two – and sometimes three – can be crammed in to sketch any given person or object.  So you are not simply told that someone looks despondent, but rather that he sports a sad, mournful, desolate face; or a shady character might look hostile, aggressive and pugnacious, instead of simply truculent (the examples are mine, not directly drawn from the text, but can give a good idea of what I found).   Such… richness of detail is not necessarily a bad thing, but when it’s constantly repeated with every instance in which a description is required, it becomes distracting and ultimately slows the narrative flow down.

Something similar happens every time Rem sees someone, or witnesses an event, because in his mind he sort of makes up a back story for the action being shown, with no clues whatsoever about where it all came from: if he sees someone hurrying along with a worried face (again, the example is mine), he thinks it might be a clerk who has forgotten to run an important errand for his master, and is afraid of the consequences.  Since none of these flights of fancy are useful to the economy of the story, are not substantiated by the narrative, nor are they of any interest to the readers since they concern the story’s… extras, they are more distractions than background features, and the sheer repetition proves more bothersome than helpful.

And last, the final revelation – while interesting and bolstered by a quite epic battle between the Wardens and their quarry – is offered through lengthy explanations by the bad guy in chief, a method I always found mildly annoying, not unlike the main staple of many B-movies where the Evil Mastermind illustrates his Dastardly Plans to the captive hero before killing him – which never happens because the hero always  manages to even the odds.   Finding this narrative device here damped a little my enjoyment of the story and somehow ended it on a less than enthusiastic note.

Nevertheless, these are all personal considerations and should be taken as such: on the whole, First Watch is an entertaining read whose best feature is the relationship between two polar opposites, whose differences give origin to an engaging story that will put a smile on your face. And sometimes this is more than enough…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: RATES OF CHANGE, by James S.A. Corey

 

RATES OF CHANGE, by James S.A. Corey

(click on the title to read the story online)

 

When I saw the name of James S.A. Corey on the list of authors whose short stories are hosted on LightSpeed Magazine, I dived straight in: Corey (the pen name of writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is the author of The Expanse, one of the best space opera series of recent times – both in books and on television – so I hoped that Rates of Change might be based on that universe. It wasn’t, but this did not diminish my appreciation of it.

The premise: in the future, it will be easy to swap one’s consciousness into another body with the same ease with which we change dresses – it’s not clear from the story how these bodies are obtained, whether they are cloned and stored waiting for… occupancy, or if they are bodies of people who have given them up, either voluntarily or not.  What matters here is that it’s something of a common practice, so common that the exchange is not limited to human bodies, but can be effected with animals as well: one of the story’s characters, Diana, retraces the steps that brought her son Stefan to splice himself into the body of a manta ray as a form of fun experiment with his friends. An accident caused Stefan’s brain to be explanted from the manta and placed in a sort of ICU gel bath while waiting for recovery, and Diana waits for the procedure to complete its cycle and to know whether her son’s consciousness is still intact or damaged beyond repair.

Both Diana and her husband are now living in bodies that are not their original ones: she had to switch once to avoid dying of a devastating cancer, and again when she did not feel at home in the new body; her husband changed his in an attempt at a fresh beginning when his wife’s depression made it apparent that she was feeling like an intruder in her changed body.  Diana’s very fragile balance, one that progressively estranged her from her husband, friends and acquaintances, is further endangered by what happened to Stefan and she is terrified by the long-range consequences on identity and sense of self that can come from this far-too-easy way of escaping the troubles of one’s corporeal form.  As she muses, “everything is a lie of health and permanence, of youth permanently extended”, and seems to negate the expected course of flesh’s decay, the natural rhythm of life.

It’s a fascinating philosophical question, one that offers no easy answer – as it should be – and ends on a consideration that, from my point of view, builds a slight tie with one of The Expanse’s themes, that of what makes us human even when our bodies deviate from the accepted norm, as it happens to Belters in micro-gravity: the authors remind us that “being human isn’t a physical quality like being heavy or having green eyes” and that we need to look beyond the skin-deep levels.

Thought-provoking, indeed.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

TV Review: DARK MATTER Season 2 (no spoilers)

 

When last year I wrote reviews for the two “summer shows” from SyFy, KillJoys and Dark Matter, I sensed a stronger potential for growth in the former, while the latter seemed headed toward a more conventional, if still entertaining, path. Season 2 however overturned my predictions for both shows: if Killjoys did not exactly disappoint, it did not prove to be equal to its promises, while Dark Matter showed a solidity of stories and characterization that was a very welcome surprise.

In the first season we met six people (plus and android) who wake up from suspended animation on a strange ship, without memory of their identities and past.  As they try to come to terms with the situation and what little information they can glean about themselves – apparently a band of criminals hired for dirty operations, with the exception of the young stowaway girl who’s not part of the original crew – they also face the problems created by the dichotomy between their former selves and the people the are now, thanks to the clean slate created by amnesia.

In this second season, the crew of the Raza faces a different set of challenges: they have acknowledged their violent past, but feel more comfortable with the personalities they have developed since waking up, and prefer to proceed from there (with one notable exception, but that’s something of a spoiler, so I will not say more about it).  Having accepted both their shady past and the somewhat uncertain present, the group chooses to look forward, to plan for the future rather than delve into the past, even when parts of it come back to bite their proverbial behind.

Shared dangers have coalesced the crew into a team – almost the embryo of a family, I’m tempted to say – and they have learned to look out for each other, while at the same time maintaining their individual quirks and, on occasion, less savory personality traits: as I said in the review for Season 1, there must be something in one’s personality makeup that is similar to “muscle memory”, something that comes into play through the unconscious, like an autonomous reflex.  This time, however, those reflexes come into play for the good of the team, and not for an individual’s egotistical drives and even if it doesn’t mean that the former “bad guys” have turned into angels, still there is a huge difference between who they are now and who they used to be, and they seem to prefer putting some distance between their present and past selves.

The background that was sketched in the first season of the show takes more substance, and presents a galaxy that’s quite far from the standards of more idealistic future shows: there are far too many struggling colonies or mining outposts that try to eke out a living despite the pressure of the corporations that seem the real ruling power here, and the corporations themselves are at war with each other using mercenaries like the team on the Raza to undermine their rivals’ powers.  Even the Galactic Authority, the entity that acts as a police force, is not immune from power plays, to the point that they are far too easily corrupted and even when one of their officers doggedly pursues the crew of the Raza, he appears motivated more by personal drives than simple love of justice, making me often think about inspector Javert from Les Miserables in the blind pursuit of his quarry.  This last element is quite dramatically evident in the last episode of the season, where he apparently throws away the chance of stopping a terrorist operation in favor of capturing his elusive prey.

If character development and well-timed action are the main components of this series, and even more so in this second season, the plot is equally capable of evolution, branching off from the main theme that was at the root of the story and developing into several individual narrative threads that still remain firmly grounded in the main arc, giving it a multiplicity of points of view that keeps the story itself always interesting.  What’s more, Dark Matter is not afraid of taking extreme measures with its set of characters: in the very first episode, one of the original six is removed from the equation in a very surprising game change that’s not at all usual in serialized television. The addition of new figures to the crew, and their non-permanent status, reinforces the awareness that no one might be safe here, that we should not take for granted the survival of any individual character.

For this reason (or should I call it warning?) when the final episode of the season closes on a very difficult situation, with the members of the crew separated from each other and facing potential annihilation on a doomed space station, the ending cliffhanger takes on a further layer of uncertainty and makes us wonder about the changes that we might witness in Season 3.

In short, Dark Matter might still not shine for originality of plots or narrative devices, but it does move forward with a form of enthusiasm that’s quite refreshing, making us care about the characters and involving us with the narrative threads: I’ll say it again, and this time with even more conviction – it might not be a revelation, but it’s a solid story that deserves more than one chance.

 

My Rating for Season 2: