Reviews

TV Review: THE EXPANSE Season 2 (no spoilers)

 

 

It’s no mystery I consider The Expanse – the space opera series written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank under the pen name of James S. A. Corey – one of the very best contemporary works in the genre, and the proof I’m not alone in this comes from the fact that what should originally have been a trio of novels has turned into a deal for nine of them, six of which have already been published, offering a continuously evolving story that branches off in often unexpected directions.  And the seventh book is right around the corner…

In my review of the first season of the show inspired by this book series, I revealed my initial doubts about it being picked up for development by SyFy, whose record in the matter of science fiction production had not exactly been stellar in recent years. If Season 1 of The Expanse went a long way toward dispelling those doubts, Season 2 consolidated my certainty that SyFy might have found the way back to its intended origins, thanks to the exceptional narrative and visual quality of this show.   For me, the mark of that quality comes from my burning need to see how the story develops on screen, even though I know what is going to happen thanks to my familiarity with the books: a story that still manages to get hold of my imagination, despite that familiarity, is indeed an outstanding one.

What’s interesting here is the choice of not falling prey to the equation “one book, one season”, so that Season 1 ended at roughly three quarters of the first book’s journey, taking up the story again with the new season right up where the previous one left, and with little or no room given to a recap: the Expanse (both written and televised) requires a good deal of attention from its followers, and rewards them with implicit faith in their powers of recollection and understanding – an attitude I greatly appreciate.

Wrapping up the events of Book 1 a little before the middle of the new season allows for the creation of a narrative divide of sorts, one that sends the story in a different direction and takes it away from the mystery at the heart of Detective Miller’s investigation, moving it into the realms of interplanetary politics, conspiracies and the possibility of an all-out war: not surprisingly, the episode marking the new run (nr. 6, for the record) bears the title “Paradigm Shift”, and opens the door to a new series of problems, and discoveries.  Before that happens, though, Miller’s story arc of his search for Julie Mao is brought to a close with a perfect, deeply emotional and profoundly moving sequence: the jaded, cynical detective had been indeed looking all along for a purpose and probably for redemption, and when he finds them both it’s impossible to remain detached, both for the stunning visuals and the high emotional content that still is delivered with admirable restraint.  Speaking of visuals, I need to mention the gorgeous segment of the Nauvoo’s launch: a wonderfully balanced choreography between the images of the ship itself (and the tugs moving it away from the space-dock) and the voices of the technicians coordinating the launch – I’ve watched it more than once and every single time it takes my breath away.

The new season introduces the character of Martian marine Bobbie Draper (a favorite of mine) and I appreciated the fact that the series gave us a brief glimpse of her in the very first episode, thus not forcing her to appear midway through as a perfect stranger: in so doing, the creators made sure we would be invested in her journey once the story moved back to her.  Bobbie is a wonderfully complex character: on the surface she is a though, determined, well-trained marine who, like all Martian-born, dreams of one day transforming the barren red desert of her home planet into a lush paradise; there are chinks in her thick armor though, mostly where her squad’s fate is concerned, making her prey to survivor’s guilt, and where loyalty and training find themselves suddenly in conflict with political expediency.  Despite her moral and physical strength, despite her career choice, Bobbie is something of an innocent, steeped in the ideals of the average Martian and unaware of the power plays running under the surface: for this reason her meeting with Avasarala is a life-changing occurrence in more ways than one, opening Bobbie’s eyes to a kind of reality she never knew existed.  Avasarala herself is nothing short of magnificent in this new season (and they let her cuss to her heart’s content this time, to our collective delight), so that the encounter with Bobbie and the education of sorts she imparts the young marine are quite a joy to witness – although I must admit that I would enjoy Avasarala even if she were simply reading from the phone directory…

The four on the Rocinante are still in the process of transformation from strangers thrown together by circumstances to close-knit family (and some even beyond that 😀  ), and the trip is still fraught with misunderstandings and personality clashes, but they are learning to rely on each other’s strengths, and to tighten the bonds tying them together: knowing that showrunner Naren Shankar is moving the strings here, I’m certain that his previous experience with Farscape and a similar “dysfunctional family” will prove vital for the end result.   The character of Amos takes on greater depth and facets with each new episode, and I never cease to be amazed at the degree of sympathy that an essentially sociopathic individual can engender in both readers and viewers: actor Wes Chatam deserves full praise for his delightfully balanced portrayal, not a simple feat considering Amos’ complexity.   Naomi comes across as equally nuanced, though in a different way: much might depend on my knowledge of her story arc, but there are moments when Dominque Tipper’s glances and her meaningful silences hint at her past, and the scars she bears from it, much more eloquently than any heartfelt dialogue. Naomi’s acceptance of Miller’s shortcomings, her forgiveness for the acts the others are condemning, all seem to point in that direction without need for a single word, as my appreciation for her work grows.

Story-wise, much happens in this season, mostly because social and political tension step beyond the point of no return – ruthlessly aided by the faction that needs this kind of turmoil to cover their own activities – and we face the dire possibility of an inter-system war.  At the same time, we are treated with closer looks at other parts of our Solar System beyond Earth and the Belt: Mars is given much space, and so is Ganymede, where a good portion of the action is based.

To say more might entail trespassing into spoiler territory, and my goal is to drive as many watchers (and readers!!) toward this awesome series, so I’m not going to ruin their fun, but once more let me advise you to either read the books or to start watching this well-deserving show: you will not regret it at all.

 

My Rating for Season Two: 

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Reviews

Short Story Review: Children of Dagon by ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY

 

CHILDREN OF DAGON

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

I’ve been hearing about Adrian Tchaikovsky for some time now, especially in connection with his novel Children of Time, and if I’ve yet to start reading it, it’s because of the usual pressures of time and TBR piles – and the fact that spiders are among the main characters of that novel, but that’s another matter…

So, sampling his writing through a short story sounded like the best way to start, not least because the presence of the world “children” in both works seemed to hint at a similarity in theme, and I though it would be a good form of… exercise before tackling the novel: in this story the author postulates that global warming will cause massive floods that change the face of the planet, driving the survivors inland as the tides keep rising.  Children of Dagon is set in London and is told from the perspective of a new breed of humans, one that’s been created in a lab by a scientist who saw where the world was headed and wanted to modify humans so that they could survive in a profoundly modified environment.

This unnamed creature – clearly an amphibian – recalls how areas of London went under water one by one, and how he and his kind are slowly reclaiming the territory that once belonged to ‘original’ humans, now a sorry remnant of Earth’s previous owners, decimated by hunger and increasingly cruel living conditions.

Your little island enclaves are almost all gone now.

These are our places now; you have forfeited your stewardship of them.

Of course, baseline humans hated and persecuted these lab-engineered creatures, sowing the seeds of a hate that has now turned into all-out war, a racial conflict, if you want, but also a battle for resources and living space.  What it all comes to, however, is a profound sense of sadness, the awareness that things could and would have been better with some foresight and less greed: there is a moment in which the narrator looks at human children playing on the edge of the water, blissfully unaware of the radical changes of the world, and he considers how similar to the new breed’s own children they are.  For a moment, a sense of closeness, almost pity, seems to prevail, only to be washed away (the term seems painfully appropriate) by the need for survival and the awareness of the profound rift between the two diverging branches of humanity.

It’s a hard, harsh story, but one that left a lasting impression on my imagination: if this is indeed a good sample of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s writing, I’m certain that I will find the rest of his works equally fascinating.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

THE COURT OF BROKEN KNIVES (Empires of Dust #1), by Anna Smith Spark

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

As far as I know, grimdark has until now been the province of male writers – that is, until Anna Smith Spark penned this amazing debut novel.  It was a delightfully weird read, mostly because the harshness of plot, landscape and characters is delivered with such elegant writing that creates an incredible contrast and carries this story forward with remarkable strength.  Where novels are defined as being either plot- or character-driven, The Court of Broken Knives is both, although the story itself appears less important than the characters inhabiting it, as they move across an unforgiving land that seems bent on destroying life just as much as weapon-wielding people do.

The main focal point of the novel is the city of Sorlost, the center of the Sekemleth Empire: once a powerful political entity, the empire seems headed toward its unavoidable decay. To stop the decline and try to counteract the advance of neighboring lesser states bent on expansion, lord Orhan, a high-placed nobleman of the empire, concocts a coup that will wipe out the emperor and his whole court, allowing Orhan to start afresh and restore some of the former glory and power. Enter Tobias, the leader of the mercenary band employed by Orhan to carry out his plan: probably my favorite character, he’s a level-headed, practical man gifted with a sort of skewed integrity and determination that quickly endeared him to me. The most bizarre element in his band is young Marith, the latest recruit, a boy possessed of an almost otherworldly beauty and manners that speak of a higher station in life: once Marith single-handedly slays a dragon (yes, a dragon!) that was happily wreaking havoc in the mercenaries’ camp, something seems to free him of any self-imposed restraints he might have been working under, and he starts to change, revealing a ruthless, murderous nature fueled both by his bloody ancestry and the drug addiction that destroyed his former life and led him away from his past.   Last but not least among the main characters is Thalia, high priestess of Sorlost’s god of life and death – a god who requires human sacrifices to be performed daily, and whose celebrant is destined to be killed by her successor, just like she did when her turn came.

The overall mood of the novel is one of extreme pessimism: Orhan dreams of changing the power balance in the empire, but is also aware of the unavoidable decline of his world, one that still decks itself in silks and jewels but is quite rotten underneath.  At times I thought that his desire for social and political change came from the extreme dissatisfaction for his own life: married to a woman he does not love, yearning to be with the man that was his soul mate since their youth, Orhan finds himself trapped in the command role he sought and obtained through terrible bloodshed, and realizes that he’s now at risk just as much as his predecessor was, if not more considering the spreading unrest.

Thalia is a deeply damaged soul unable to realize how much that damage has spread: forced into the role of high priestess of a blood-thirsty god whose preferred sacrifice are children, she seems to have adapted to her temple prison and to the prospect of falling under the knife of her already-designated successor, unaware of the vastness of the outside world and its wonders (and perils), yet when the opportunity arises to leave her gilded cage she takes it. I’ve often wondered, following her narrative arc, whether she didn’t fall from the proverbial frying pan to the fire, because her fascination with Marith sounds more like a journey through hell than an infatuation – I find it very hard to call it ‘love’….

As for Marith, he’s equally pitiable and loathsome: seeing his anguish at the effects of the drug that was forced on him and made him an incurable addict, made me pity him, especially since a few flashbacks hinted at a great personal tragedy that’s revealed at some point; but his way of denying the drug’s pull is to give himself over to a killing frenzy, reveling in blood and destruction in the name of the ancient god Amrath from whom he descends – and in whose name he’s able to draw others in that same unthinking paroxysm – so this revelation worked a great deal toward cooling my initial sympathy.  Still, he remains a fascinating character and I can’t wait to see where his path will lead him in the next books.

I find it quite difficult to delve deeper into this story without falling into a… spoiler trap, but what I can say freely is that The Court of Broken Knives surprised me at every turn, not only because of unexpected revelations or shocking turns, but more than anything because it feels like the work of a consummate writer and not a first novel: if this is what the author can offer as her debut, we must indeed keep an eye on her and her next works. In the book’s preface, there is a quote from Michael Fletcher, calling her “the queen of grim dark fantasy”: the title, and compliment, are more than deserved.  All hail the queen!

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story: A GOOD HOME, by Karin Lowachee

 

 

A GOOD HOME, by Karin Lowachee

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

Some years ago I read a novel from Karin Lowachee – Warchild – whose main focus was on post-traumatic syndrome: in that case it was the story of a young boy captured by pirates, abused and bound by force to their way of life.  It came therefore as no surprise that this story concerned the difficult return to normality after the ravages of PTSD, but in this case the subject is an android.  Mark, that’s the name it was identified with, is the sole survivor of his platoon – all of them androids built by the military to fight in an unspecified war in space – and despite the re-programming he underwent he’s still in shock and does not speak.  A human veteran, Tawn, whose spinal injury forced him in a wheelchair, accepts to act as… well, tutor for Mark and to help him move forward toward a more integrated existence, despite the protests of his neighbors – somehow afraid for their children’s safety – and his mother, terrified beyond reason that Mark might one day hurt or kill her son.

Mark does not speak, although he’s able to, and he seems to remain in a semi-catatonic state for most of the time, only showing some reactions when thunderstorms move over the area: that’s when his repressed memories flare up and Tawn finds him curled up on the floor, a tearless keening issuing from him.  It’s a long, difficult road for both of them, and one that might lead nowhere, but Tawn keeps insisting, probably for the unexpressed reason that it takes a broken person to reach out to another one, and the author manages to convey the slowly building rapport between man and android even beyond the need for words.  There is no conclusion as it is, no ‘happy ending’, but the glimmer of hope that Mark might find his way again is there, and it’s enough.

A Good Home is a poignant, if restrained, story: Karin Lowachee knows how to deal with hurt people without recurring to easy sentimentality or forced pathos, and this story confirms it quite well.  Well worth reading.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: ENGAGING THE ENEMY (Vatta’s War #3), by Elizabeth Moon

After the partial disappointment of the second volume in Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series, I was eager to see whether that less-than-stellar book was just a fluke, or if the initial promise had really been so sadly reduced: I’m quite happy to share that the third volume in the series, Engaging the Enemy, rolls back on track in a very appealing way.

The story resumes straight from the point it had left off in Marque and Reprisal, making me realize that this is not exactly a series, but rather a long novel divided into five sections, and as such it might have its “down” moments, like it happened with book 2, while taken as a whole it creates an immersive story, one that deals with space opera themes from a different point of view.  There are space battles of course, and intrigue, double dealings and betrayals (and pirates! Let’s not forget the pirates…), but above it all there are the economics lying at the basis of a space-faring civilization and they are explained through the day-by-day challenges faced by Ky Vatta and her crew,  avoiding the danger of boring the reader with what might be otherwise dry facts.  And of course there is a good deal of character exploration…

In the wake of the brutal attacks targeting Vatta headquarters and its ships, their commercial empire stands on the brink of failure, and it’s up to Ky and her cousin Stella to try and gather as many surviving vessels as possible to resume trade and put the company back on its feet, while back home Ky’s formidable aunt Grace (the true revelation of this book, character-wise) deals with the aftermath of the assault and takes the necessary steps to bring the perpetrators and their accomplishes to justice.    For her part, Ky just realized that the attack on her homeworld of Slotter Key was only the first move of the pirate organization bent on controlling the galaxy’s trade routes, and at the same time she needs to deal with her newly-discovered killer instincts (born out of necessity, granted, but still worrisome in their intensity) and with Stella’s malcontent in having to play second fiddle to her younger cousin.  As if that were not enough – and let’s not forget that the threats on the life of any surviving Vatta are still a clear and present danger – Ky encounters a great deal of resistance to her plan of gathering other privateers, possessing like she does letters of marque from their own governments, and creating a force able to deal with the pirates and protect the shipping lanes.

There is a huge amount of problems laying on Ky Vatta’s plate in this novel – from the mundane needs to refuel her ships and procure new and reliable crew, to the political obstacles she encounters in her dealings with various governments, to her own personal issues – and it’s good to see her practical, and sometimes ruthless, approach to them all, just as it is to finally witness some emotional fallout after the grievous losses of family and relatives, something that I sadly missed in the previous book.  Despite her young age, and relative inexperience, Ky never forgets her duty as a commanding officer, and always presents a firm, competent front to her crew, keeping her inner troubles and doubts to herself, while at the same time she is not afraid of asking advice from more competent people when she needs it.  It’s a well-balanced attitude that helped restore my confidence in the character, in the way she is handled, and to find her both believable and relatable, especially when she faces some ethical questions: in this respect there is a very interesting conversation she holds with Rafe, concerning the needs for self-defense and the ensuing violence, and the way they can affect a personality – or damage it – that serves both to illustrate the theme at hand (one that cannot find an easy answer of course) and to shed some light on Rafe himself, on what makes him tick, which ultimately helped to shift my viewpoint on him.  Time will tell if that was only an isolated occurrence or if it’s the beginning of his evolution from a stereotypical lovable rogue to a more solid character.

Stella, on the other hand, seems to lose some of her previous charm: in Marque and Reprisal she came across as a capable individual hiding her remarkable skills under the guise of the clichéd vapid beauty, and back then it seemed as if the pooling of the two cousins’ very different resources would make for an almost invincible team. Here, though, Stella seems to suffer a slight meltdown as the childhood rivalries between herself and Ky resurface and cause her to act in a somewhat immature way – and all that happens long before some revelation on Stella’s past hits like a bomb, causing further damage.  Perversely, it’s that shattering revelation that helps bring the barriers down between the two cousins and puts them on the path toward mending their fences, as they finally realize that different talents can be put to use in synergy and not in opposition. Still, it’s the younger Ky who finds the strength to act like a balanced adult, while Stella succumbs to temper tantrums: I very much look forward to the return of the woman we met in book 2, because I liked her a great deal more…

Story-wise, Engaging the Enemy is a novel with many souls: even though the title suggests a focus on space battles, this happens only toward the last quarter of the book, while the previous segments deal instead with a wide range of subjects from interstellar politics to commercial transaction to peculiar planetary rituals, and yet it never feels boring.  Sometimes dealing with bureaucracy can feel as daunting a deep space adventure, as fraught with dangers as a trip into uncharted territories, and this is what happens to Ky when she needs to stand up to hard-headed functionaries or to prove her identity in the face of malicious accusations.  This is what I believe Elizabeth Moon excels in: incorporate the mundane into her stories and make it appealing by adding some little human touches that transform those potentially dull details into something fascinating, and at times even scary, like the heavy stress on courtesy that’s at the basis of Cascadian civilization, for example, a side note that starts as a humorous commentary and in the end generates a chillingly unpredictable effect for a certain individual.

This third novel in the Vatta’s War series has the definite flavor of a story that has found its right course and promises to develop in exciting and engrossing directions: if the second book, from my point of view, did not fulfill all the promises of the series’ beginning, this one holds all the chances to turn it into a spectacular journey, one I’ll be happy to stay on board to discover.

 

My Rating: