Reviews

Review: ABANDONED (Donovan Trilogy #2), by W. Michael Gear

 

Approaching the second book in a series, when I’ve greatly enjoyed the first one, always causes me some hesitation, because sometimes it means embarking on the road to disappointment: such was definitely not the case with Abandoned, Michael W. Gear’s second volume in his Donovan Trilogy following and expanding on the footsteps of its predecessor Outpost.  I’ve always been partial to novels dealing with the colonization of alien planets, and in this particular case the world of Donovan is a fascinating one.

Imagine a wild, quasi-tropical world graced with a variety of flora and fauna that would be a dream come true for any scientist and a virtual paradise for any colonist: this is indeed Donovan, although the other side of the coin is a deadly one.  Nature on this planet is aggressive in a major way: the animal life is more often than not of the predatory kind, starting with the quetzals – a sort of dragon-lizards gifted with incredible speed and an insatiable hunger, situated at the very top of the food chain; vegetal life, on the other hand, tends to constantly encroach on human habitation, making any kind of cultivation a constant struggle – that is, when people are not falling prey to moving constrictor vines and similar other dangers.

Since the first waves of colonization, the Donovanians have been more or less on their own, due to the dangers of space travel and the strong possibility for a ship to be lost in the inter-dimensional medium it uses to cover vast distances.  Their numbers have been dwindling constantly, as have their resources, and the survivors have developed a very independent, very strong-willed society that has grown distant from the Corporation that financed their expedition: when in Outpost a ship finally reaches Donovan, the clash between the colonists and the Corporation representative Kalico Aguila adds a new level of danger to the harsh life of Donovan.

In Abandoned, after the departure of the Corporation ship Turalon – going back to Earth to report on the progress of the colony – we see Aguila trying to extract the planet’s abundant mineral resources while having to adapt to a society she was not ready for. For their part, the colony’s leaders are dealing with the usual survival problems in addition to those created by the influx of new colonists, among whom there are several unsavory characters, first of them the insidious Dan Wirth, the psychopath who turned from colony recruit to property owner in the blink of an eye, mostly thanks to his ruthlessness.

What makes Abandoned a worthy sequel is the author’s choice to split the narrative focus between the known characters and situations in Port Authority – the main landing site – and a new point of view, that of former marine Mark Talbot: together with two comrades, he finds himself lost in Donovan’s jungle and at the death of his friends has to face alone the dangers of the wild until he reaches shelter in a research base situated deep in the forest and thought abandoned by everyone.  Here Talbot finds not only a family but also a group of people who have learned how to survive – not fighting against the planet ecology, but trying to reach a symbiotic relationship.

This is truly the main theme of this story, the need to adapt to a new environment rather than trying to bend it to one’s needs, to use your energies trying to build something rather than constantly fighting against obstacles: Aguila’s losing battle against the encroaching forest that keeps growing back despite the herculean efforts of her people is the emblematic proof that Donovan has a mind of its own and it’s not going to change it, no matter what the “invaders” do, while the people living at isolated Mundo station have understood long ago that a sort of compromise with the planet is the key to survival – a lesson that takes a terrible turn for the worse once that fragile balance is shattered because of a mean-spirited action from one of the Marines.

Characters remain a strong element in these novels, and the way they change over time and with the influx of new experiences makes reading them just as compelling as following the events themselves: while Talina Perez, the colony’s  security chief, is not the central focus here as she was in Book 1, we see her dealing with loss and grief and with the unexpected consequences of sharing the DNA of the quetzal who attacked her; what feels like an invasion, and a constant alien presence in the back of her mind, turns out to be something else and it will be interesting to see how this pans out in the long run, especially in light of the other discoveries we made about Donovan’s forms of life.  Kalico Aguila is the one who exhibits the strongest changes, and I like the way the author shows the slow progression of her attitude from distant Corporation executive to full member of the community, as I like the way she and Talina are growing toward… well, becoming frenemies rather than remaining all-out adversaries.

The new point of view of Mark Talbot is one that simply begs to sympathize with him, thanks to the descriptions of his struggles to just stay alive in the jungle, and his growing despair as he has to face Donovan’s perils all alone. It’s just as easy then to share his puzzlement once he reaches the safety of Mundo station and is met with a nine years old child who acts like an adult and treats him like an idiot before introducing him to her extend family – and safety.   Young Kylee, and her pet quetzal Rocket, are both a mystery and one of the keys to the humans’ possible survival on Donovan, and the way events develop (or rather crash and burn) for this part of the story have thrown a huge pall of concern over me because of the implications for the future.

Which is the main reason that the third and final book in this trilogy will not be published soon enough for me, and let’s not forget that in the whirlwind of all that transpired in Abandoned, there is one huge missing piece of the puzzle that has been shuffled to the sidelines: what happened to the ghost ship Freelander, now in orbit around Donovan with his cargo of bones from its passengers and crew.  Something tells me that this proverbial “elephant in the room” will play a part in what’s to come next, and I can’t wait to see where the author will lead us next.

 

My Rating:

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Short Story Review: MEAT AND SALT AND SPARKS, by Rich Larson

 

click on the LINK to read the story online

 

This is not my first story by Rich Larson (whose novel Annex was also one of my recent happy discoveries), but as I’ve now come to expect from this writer it’s a very intriguing one: in this specific case we are shown a near-future in which an augmented chimpanzee works as a police detective alongside his human partner, and they are faced with a strange murder.  A man has been shot on the subway by a woman who, as it becomes clear in the course of the investigation, was acting as an “echo”, someone who obeys the commands of a client telling them what to do and say – these clients live vicariously through their echoes, filtering those experiences through the hosts, but until the murder on the subway nothing so excessive was ever recorded.

As interesting as this angle is, especially when considering the attitude of some of these “echoes”, who seem to enjoy – crave – the loss of their individuality to the point that they are driven to extreme acts, like the woman on the subway, the main focus of the story is on Cu, the enhanced chimp and her memories of an earlier life in the lab where her cognitive abilities were augmented, often at the cost of suffering and what could easily be termed as torture.   Cu, after the trial in which she was granted independent status and monetary reparations, is now her own person with a rewarding job, but she is also quite alone, the only one of her kind and as such the object of curiosity. Or worse.

Cu’s condition is a poignant one, always feeling like a stranger in a strange land no matter how she tries to blend into human society, always the object of a form of curiosity that never takes into account the possibility of her having feelings that can be hurt – there is a sentence about people on the street staring at her or taking pictures that stresses the total lack of respect she has to deal with day after day.  And that plays perfectly in the development of the investigation and what Cu discovers as she works to solve the murder case.

A thought-provoking story, from an author worth of keeping on one’s radar, indeed.

 

My Rating:

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Review: SIXTEEN WAYS TO DEFEND A WALLED CITY, by K.J. PARKER

 

I received this novel from the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Sometimes a book surprises you because it turns out to be completely different from what you expected, and in this case that surprise was a delightful one, indeed: I picked up this book on impulse, despite the scant information offered by the synopsis, because that unfathomable instinct that I’ve come to call “book vibes” was strongly drawn to it, and once again it proved to be right on target.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is the story of a siege, and also the story of the man defending the besieged city from the unknown assailants who are cutting through the Robur Empire’s territory like a hot knife through butter. Orhan is a colonel in the engineering corps of the Robur army despite being a “milkface”: the Robur, blue skinned and aggressive, have conquered Orhan’s people and look down on them as inferior, unworthy of consideration, the prime targets for slavery and abuse, but Orhan’s engineering skills have brought him to this favored position that allows him a modicum of freedom of movement and independence.

When a few pirate-like sorties against Robur military depots turn out to be a bold move by an unknown enemy, who is able to provision his army and turn the stolen ordnance and weapons against their former owners, Orhan understands that something dire is afoot and manages to close the gates of the empire’s main city before the invaders can storm the walls.  Not a military man by a long stretch (his favorite catchphrase is “I’m just an engineer”), he is however able to shore up the City’s defenses and to give it a chance of surviving beyond the mere hours that would have been the foregone conclusion if the assailants’ ruse had worked – and he manages this feat despite the ineffective short-sightedness of the ranking officials and the social turmoil always brewing under the surface.

Orhan’s success in what looks like a desperate undertaking comes from the fact that besides his engineering skills, which are quite remarkable, he’s a self-declared liar and a cheat, and he knows how to deal with all layers of society acting as a middleman between apparently incompatible parties, as testified by his greatest feat, the truce he forces on the two rival underground factions, the Blues and the Greens, compelling them to work together for the common survival and making them see reason beyond the age-old enmities, at least for a while; he also knows how to turn to his advantage the scant resources at his disposal, paying for them with somewhat counterfeit coins and carrying on through misinformation and double dealing, which seem to come to him as second nature.  A man more attached to the values of honor and integrity would not have managed to accomplish as much, while Orhan’s flexible standards grant him a far wider leeway – and success.

What’s truly amazing in Orhan’s achievement is that he keeps saving the City despite its inhabitants, who keep seeing him as a milkface interloper, an upstart who should know better than to try and rise above his station, and yet they end up being swept along by the man’s sheer force of conviction – and sometimes his fists, when needed.  One of the driving themes of the story is that of racism and rigid social stratification, and despite the lightly humorous tone employed by Orhan’s first-person narrative it’s not difficult to see how the Robur rule has created the kind of social order in which the dehumanization of some strata of the empire has become an accepted fact of life, even by those who are its main victims.   This is an element that plays an important part in the motivations of the invading enemy and in Orhan’s inner conflict once he learns the nature and identity of said enemy: I don’t want to delve deeper into this side of the story because it should be discovered on its own, but it’s interesting to note how the engineer’s apparently carefree approach to the question offers a great deal of food for thought and discussion on the subject of loyalty, even toward those who don’t deserve it.

Orhan’s personality is a deceptively simple one: on the surface, all he cares about is building things, his pride lays in a work well done and one that endures through time, so that the narrative of the siege is carried out in a humorous, self-deprecating tone that belies his true nature and his past history.  In the course of events, we are made privy to the facts and incidents that made Orhan the man he is now, and as the details pile up we begin to understand that there is more under the façade of the “simple engineer”, including something of a mean streak – not that it comes as a surprise, in consideration of his lying and cheating, but some of those instances shed a very peculiar light on him.  Ultimately, it becomes evident that Orhan is an unreliable narrator, not least because he’s the one dictating the story we are reading, and by his own admission he’s not averse to embellishing some of the facts to shine a more positive light on himself. Orhan gives a whole new meaning to the concept of reluctant hero, since he does not seem to mind embellishing some his deeds, but on the other hand he’s trying his best to avoid the trouble that comes from doing what needs to be done.

One of the best features in this book is its narrative quality, a lightly witty mood that’s kept constant all throughout the story and attains that right balance that’s often so difficult to manage and that K.J. Parker handles with no apparent effort. This, together with a steady pace, made breezing through the book a joy, marred only by what seems an abrupt ending, one that left me with too many unanswered questions and a strong desire to know what happened next. It’s the only blemish I can think of in this story that turned out to be so much more than I bargained for.

 

My Rating:

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Short Story Review: LOSS OF SIGNAL, by S.B. Divya

 

Click on the LINK to read the story online

 

Young Toby’s body started failing him when he was in his early teens: failing synapses and decaying muscles, including the most important one in the human body – the heart – were going to shut down one by one, leading to the inevitability of death.  That is, until he was given the chance to avoid such a terrible fate by melding his brain with a NASA probe headed for the Moon – and Toby, whose life had been a journey of impossible dreams, took that chance and left his body behind to travel toward the Moon and fulfill some of those dreams, if not all.

But childhood fantasies and reality are two very different things, and once he finds himself alone in the vastness of space, Toby is assailed by fears and plagued by nightmarish sensations, including feelings of extreme cold that are impossible in his present condition – but the human mind can still find ways to torture itself, even in the absence of a body.

This is a tale of courage, the courage to move beyond one’s limitations and to cross any boundary: the description of Toby’s frame of mind as he finds himself utterly alone in the thirty minutes of signal loss that will make or break the mission is one of the most poignant and heartbreaking tales I ever read, and it made me feel for this fictional young man in a way I rarely experienced.

It will take you only a short time to read this story, but it will be time well spent – highly recommended.

 

My Rating:

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Review: THE OUTSIDER, by Stephen King

Once a staunch Stephen King fan, in later years I was often disappointed by his works, finding them less engaging than I was used to in the past, and for several years I gave up on keeping updated with his new production, but for some reason the premise of The Outsider compelled me to try again, and now I’m glad I listened to my proverbial “book vibes”.  Even though this is far from a perfect story, certainly not comparable to the heights of The Stand, or Salem’s Lot, just to name a couple, which I consider the peaks of Stephen King’s career, The Outsider went a long way toward reviving my faith in this author.

The novel starts in the immediate aftermath of a brutal rape/murder perpetrated on a child: forensic evidence and some witness statements seem to point the investigators in the direction of Terry Maitland, an apparently flawless husband and father of two, beloved teacher and the coach of the city’s junior baseball team. Fueled by the gruesomeness of the act and the need to quickly secure the murderer to justice, lead detective Ralph Anderson puts aside some of the discrepancies that surfaced in the course of the investigation and arrests Maitland publicly, during one of the pivotal baseball games of the season.

While the man keeps protesting his innocence, evidence to support his claim – and which contradicts both the forensic findings and the witness statements – comes to the fore: at the time of the kidnapping and murder of the young victim, Maitland was in another city, attending a conference with some colleagues, not to mention being caught on camera by the TV crews covering the event.  Despite the doubts caused by this paradox, and the sheer impossibility of a man being present in two places at once, the justice machine moves forward without pause, the ripples caused by the following events expanding in a dramatic and unpredictable way.

Even though this story starts as a mystery/thriller, anyone who has read any previous work by Stephen King can imagine that the explanation for such an impossible occurrence resides in the realm of the supernatural, and after a while it becomes clear where the story is headed, but it hardly matters that the reader is able to picture how events will develop, because this is the classic case in which the journey is more important than the destination.  And The Outsider is indeed a compelling journey, one that makes it difficult to put the book down.

One of the narrative strengths of Mr. King’s storytelling is his ability to describe the dynamics and mindset of small communities, and here the citizens of Flint City – the place where the first part of the novel is based – are no exception: once presented with a possible target for the (quite understandable, of course) shock and rage following the heinous crime, they are more than ready to focus them on Maitland, uncaring of the fact that until the day prior to the arrest he was an upstanding and respected citizen, one to whom many of them brought their kids for baseball practice, a person they liked and trusted.  Once the mob mentality has taken over, they forget all too easily the “innocent until proven guilty” tenet, and become deaf and blind to any kind of evidence that might sow doubt about the man’s guilt, transforming the citizenry into a blood-thirsty horde not unlike those that stood at the foot of the guillotine waiting for heads to roll.

While reading these pages, especially those concerned with Maitland’s arraignment and the descriptions of the crowd surrounding the tribunal, I often thought that we don’t need to look for the supernatural or the downright horrific to feel dread, because human nature is more than enough, and sometimes it can manifest in ways that give the lie to the more nightmarish of Lovecraftian creatures. And I confess that I was more frightened by the portrayal of that maddened crow whose fear and need for retribution debased them to a nearly bestial level, than I was about the actual “monster” of the story, because I know that this latter was generated out of the author’s inventiveness, while the mob mentality is an unescapable fact of life.

Another fascinating aspect of this story comes from the dichotomy between hard facts and the uncanny, and the ability of the human mind to bridge the gap between the two: King’s characters often find themselves challenged by the weird and the unbelievable and are forced to test their mettle against something their minds refuse to consider as part of the world. In this case, as in previous stories I read, they might emerge triumphant but  are never left unscathed – the price to be paid for victory and survival is the loss of innocence, of the belief in the predictability of the universe surrounding them.

Still, as I said before, The Outsider is not a perfect story, and there are some details that kept nagging at me and prevented me from fully enjoying it or from giving it the higher rating I envisioned as I was still immersed in the narrative.  For starters, the slow, meticulous buildup of tension seems to come to an end far too quickly and far too easily: the mundane way in which evil is vanquished feels too abrupt and almost comical – a sharp contrast with everything that went on before.  Another, and stronger, issue I had concerned the portrayal of women, since their characterization made me think that the novel might have been written (or set) in the ‘60s rather than in the present.  Jeannie Anderson is one such example, her supportive demeanor toward her husband looking more the product of a “stand by your man” attitude rather than being half of an equal partnership; then there is the only woman detective in the Flint City Police Department, and her role is that of being hugely pregnant more than offering any investigative contribution.

The greatest disappointment, however, came from the character of Holly Gibney, a private investigator: hers is a peculiar personality, one saddled with psychological and behavioral problems that counterbalance a sharp, inquisitive mind, and as such she could have been a very intriguing figure in the economy of the story, but her lack of self-esteem and her inability to fully accept the acknowledgement of her value seemed geared to undermine any contribution she offered to the task force.  Which ended up being kind of annoying…

Nevertheless, I did enjoy The Outsider and I consider it a welcome return to my old “Stephen King haunts” after such a long time…

 

My Rating:

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Short Story Review: A GREEN MOON PROBLEM, by Jane Lindskold

 

click on the LINK to read the story online

 

This intriguing tale is one of the perfect examples about being very careful when you define what you want, because even the more meticulous wording can hide a trap…

Tatter D’MaLeon is something of a legendary figure on Cat Station, a human deep-space outpost, and there are many stories going around about her, but they all agree on a few details: no one ever saw her face, hidden behind an inscrutable mask on which are also painted the three charms she always wears –  a thin crescent moon, adorned with weird green gems, an eight-pointed star that fans out around a center shaped like a human eye, and a compass rose, silver upon gold, but lacking a needle. Legends say that she is able to solve any problem presented to her, should she decide to make it her own and if the petitioner is able to pay her price.

Jurgen Haines is a merchant engineer and a newcomer to the station, and as it often happens with recent arrivals, he soon makes the acquaintance of the outpost’s folklore – hence the information about Tatter D’MaLeon, which he at first labels as a curiosity or an attempt to make fun of the rookie, or both.  That is, until he falls hard for a woman, Rita Lathrop, a geologist with a fondness for research into the existence of alien forms of life: even once they start a relationship, Rita pours most of her energies into her pursuit, and that’s not enough for Jurgen, who wants more and above all wants to be at the center of Rita’s focus, and not on the sidelines.

So, when a chance encounter in a deserted corridor brings him unexpectedly face to face with Tatter, Jurgen takes his courage in both hands and asks her for a solution to his problem, one that will ensure that he and Rita will be “Together. Inseparable”.  And Tatter D’MaLeon indeed delivers on her promise, but with an unpredictable twist in the end: it’s true that no matter how careful the phrasing for our wishes, the “genie” granting them is always able to find some mischievous loophole…

My Rating:

 

Reviews

Review: EXIT STRATEGY (The MurderBot Diaries #4), by Martha Wells

The adventures of our beloved SecUnit have come to an end – at least as far as this cycle of novellas is concerned, since a full-length novel has been announced, to the utter delight of all us MurderBot fans. So Exit Strategy does not mark the final farewell to a character that has grown in complexity and facets as the overall story progressed, but on the other hand it marks the closing of the circle, so to speak, because MurderBot moves once more into the sphere of the former clients it protected in All Systems Red, and completes the mission it had tasked itself with once it decided to turn rogue.

In the previous installment, MB had managed to collect some incriminating evidence that might enable it to uncover the deadly, illegal activities of GrayCris, and its intention was to take it to Dr. Mensah, the scientist who had seen beyond the unit’s detached façade and wanted to give it freedom and equal status. Learning however that GrayCris is fighting back on two levels – openly in court, attacking Mensah, and more stealthily by later abducting Mensa herself – it decides to launch into a rescue operation and joins with Mensah’s colleagues, offering its help and specialized skills.

The result is a breathtakingly humorous tale of a battle with the corporation’s operatives that is fought on many levels: there are a few physical engagements, granted, but most of MurderBot’s strategy is geared toward system hacking and misdirection, with a wide variety of tactics that made me often think of some of the most famous cinematic heists, like Ocean’s Eleven and its brethren, with the difference that instead of a group of skilled individuals acting in concert, here we have a lone SecUnit that has raised multitasking to an exquisite art form.

And here comes the first admission that MurderBot’s experiences have wrought important changes to its mental structure, that working and thinking “outside the box” has expanded its limits, or what it perceived as such:

[…] all this coding and working with different systems on the fly had opened up some new neural pathways and processing space.

Not only that, but its observation of humans – both in real life and through the media that MB consumes with voracity –  taught it to discern between behavioral patterns, to the point that it’s able to spot the corporation operatives as they try to pass for normal tourists in a crowded station, while their affected nonchalance is evident to the SecUnit, thanks to its studies on the body language it tried to mimic in its attempt to pass as an enhanced human.

With such awareness comes however the far more uncomfortable one about the SecUnit’s potential where feelings are concerned, something that it kept trying to deny with ever-dwindling conviction, something it has to finally deal with here and acknowledge it’s part of its own makeup, a side of its personality that has nothing to do with the programming it received but comes straight from what – and who – MurderBot is:

“It was too late for you to help them, then.” […] “But you wanted to.”

“I’m programmed to help humans.”

Eyebrow lift again. ”You’re not programmed to watch media.”

She had a point.

It’s the first, uneasy admission that it might be more than the mere assembly of organic and mechanic parts that constitute a SecUnit, and that the bothersome feelings that were the cause of much anxiety and stress in the past, and of extreme dislike when they manifested themselves, might be part and parcel of the new entity that still calls itself MurderBot, but is not anymore. The first glimmers of that reluctant acceptance can be seen when it meets with Mensah’s former colleagues and they greet it as an old friend, but the real moment of truth comes as it reunites with Mensah, the first person who saw MurderBot as a person (as uncomfortable as that was back then): in what looks like a spur-of-the-moment concession, no matter all the justifications it gives itself, the SecUnit gives Mensah permission to touch it:

I braced myself and made the ultimate sacrifice. “Uh, you can hug me if you need to.”

She started to laugh, then her face did something complicated and she hugged me. I upped the temperature in my chest and told myself it was like first aid.

It was such a delightful scene, and to me it was the first voluntary step toward the Big Unknown represented by the feelings that MurderBot had always kept away from, not out of sheer refusal, but out of fear:

I hadn’t ben afraid that she wasn’t my friend, I had been afraid that she was, and what it did to me.

With this momentous scene Exit Strategy seals the end of MurderBot’s first phase of change, one that through the first four novellas showed the slow but unavoidable development of a creature that for some reason was able to overcome its programming and moved in an unexpected direction. Now that the transformations in its outward appearance have enhanced its organic (human…) side, and that it has accepted the feelings that it started experiencing vicariously through its beloved media shows, it will be fascinating to see where Martha Wells will take it and what further surprises MurderBot has in store for us.

And I can’t wait…

 

 

My Rating: