Review: THE BONE SHIPS (The Tide Child #1), by R.J. Barker


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

R.J. Barker’s previous work, the Wounded Kingdom trilogy, was one of my best recent discoveries, so that once I learned of this new novel, the start of another series, I was beyond eager to read it: once the book became available through the Orbit newsletter I wasted no time in requesting it, and abandoned the story I was reading then in favor of this one.

If the world presented in the Wounded Kingdom is a desolate one, with huge extensions of the land made barren by the indiscriminate use of magic, and people often living on the doorstep of starvation, the one depicted in The Bone Ships is far bleaker and disheartening, not so much because of any environmental concerns, but rather because of the inhabitants’ customs and attitude.

This is a world where seas cover most of the surface, what little land there is formed by groups of islands whose dwellers have split over time into two factions in constant war with each other, a conflict whose origins seem to have been forgotten but that still goes on because of the ingrained hatred between opponents. Where seas rules, wars are fought with ships, and here they are built with the bones of dragons for their strength and buoyancy, but now that the dragons have been hunted to extinction, what few bones remain are prized above all else.   As for the people, islanders’ customs decree that anyone born with a physical defect, or from a mother who died in childbirth, is tainted with weak blood and cannot be part of the dominant class, while any firstborn child is always offered in sacrifice and set on a ship as a corpselight – a concept that still gives me chills no matter how many times I read it.

The overall darkness of the background is the main reason I struggled at first with The Bone Ships: I now understand, with hindsight, that the author was setting the stage for the story and that it was important for us readers to see where the characters came from and what made them what they are, but still the first few chapters seemed to drag and what I pictured in my mind’s eye was all in drab, unappealing sepia tones.  I know I am not the most patient individual in the world, and that I need to feel an instant connection with a story and its characters to truly enjoy a novel, so I can offer this little morsel of advice: if you get that same disheartening impression, just keep going, because your perseverance will be more than rewarded.

Joron Twiner used to be a fisherman but now circumstances have made him an outcast, and as is the customs of the Isles he’s been assigned to one of the Black Ships, the ships of the dead – vessels that are old and ill-maintained, and whose crews are destined to serve and die for the good of the Isles.  Joron is made shipwife (i.e. the captain) of the Tide Child, one of the black ships, a despondent and drunken captain who asks nothing of his equally miserable crew but to be ignored as he ignores them, until the day in which ‘Lucky’ Meas Gilbryn, a famous boneship shipwife now fallen in disgrace, challenges him for the captaincy of the Child and vows to shape him and the rest of the complement into a crew worthy of respect. Meas has been given a mission: what could possibly be the last dragon in the world has been sighted, and the Tide Child tasked with the difficult – and maybe impossible – mission to secure it and in so doing possibly change the balance of war. Success might even mean the lifting of the sentence that condemned them all to a ship of the dead.

From here on the story blends two separate threads, the breath-taking adventure of the search for the Arakeesian – the fabled dragon – and the characters’ journey from a motley band of uncaring individuals to a cohesive, proud crew. The sea voyage itself is a joy to follow, with vibrant descriptions that turn the strong sea breezes, the smell of the salty spray and the creak of the ship’s bones into almost physical experiences, enhanced by the exotic terms used to describe the vessel’s sections or the crew’s roles – as an example, a ship, contrary to normal usage, is referred to as “he” and therefore the captain becomes a “shipwife”, irrespective of gender.  And then there are the strange, dangerous sea beasts that mean certain death for any sailor fallen overboard, or the weird avian creature, the gullaime, who summons the winds to fill the ship’s sails, not to mention the dragons themselves, creatures of beauty and grace who seem to possess an uncanny intelligence.

Unsurprisingly, characters remain the strong point of the story though, even when they require some time to make themselves understood and appreciated: Joron is a prime example of this instance, because of his initial attitude, the certainty of his worthlessness, the lack of interest in others beyond the misery he wrapped around himself. And yet there is a small part of him that wants to believe, that is kindled by Meas’ rough handling and blazes into confidence – in himself first and then in the crew, in the sense of belonging and mutual loyalty that the shipwife can inspire in each and every one of them, teaching them they can be much more than the sum of their parts.  It will be fascinating to see where his journey will lead him as the story progresses, and how far he will travel from the morose young man wasting his days in idleness and drink.

But of course it’s Meas who held the greater part of my attention: strong, capable and with an abrasive demeanor that goes well with her scruffy appearance and hides a keen mind and an iron will, but also a capacity for understanding and compassion she keeps under tight control – although at times it surfaces together with one or her rare smiles.  A true creature of the seas, she lives for and breathes with her ship and crew, and through her example – that of a woman born to the highest rank and now lowered to the captaincy of a Black Ship – they learn how to take pride in their accomplishments and the fulfilment of their duty. She is called “Lucky Meas” and at some point we learn how she gained that nickname, and yet what she teaches her people is that their fame, their luck if you want, is not something they can expect to be given, but must take – earn – for themselves.  A character larger than life at time, perhaps, but one I will enjoy meeting again in the next books.

I would like to close this review by mentioning the beautiful images – miniatures in truth – decorating the beginning of each chapter, that add a special quality to the story itself, and to advise you to keep your eyes (and ears…) open for the arrival of Black Orris. You will know what I mean once you get there  😉

If you are already fans of R.J. Barker’s works, you will enjoy this; if you are not… what are you waiting for?



Short Story Review: DEATH OF AN AIR SALESMAN, by Rich Larson




Short stories by Rich Larson always proved to be fascinating reads, and this one was no exception, even though the core concept was truly depressing.  The future on this version of Earth looks quite bleak: pollution has reached such levels that the very air is contaminated and people must wear filter masks and protective clothing to stay outside.  Society has changed for the worse as well: people live in stifling cubicles called “sleepstacks” where they spend their rest hours laying down and watching videos, until it’s again time to go to work, moving like ants in a huge anthill.

Maya is an air seller: the company she works for bottles clean air that she peddles through the city’s milling throngs, hoping that her sale rates will make her win the lottery ticket granting the lucky recipients a vacation to one of the company’s air farms, where the sky is blue, the grass green and the air free and clean – or so the adverts say.  One day she notices a boy wearing a bright red scarf, a color that stands out in the dreary drabness of the city, and she does all she can to get his attention despite their conflicting work shifts and the thickness of the crowds, in the old, never tired game of “girl meets boy”…

What’s morbidly fascinating in this story is the depiction of the unnamed city, with its thick, murky air and the swarms of pedestrians moving to and fro in what looks like tired resignation. It’s easy to picture this urban sprawl where the only color comes from garish neon advertising signs, or the appalling image of a plaza “where there are still the husks of dried-out vines and shrubs spilling from cracked concrete planters” speaking of the death of any kind of vegetation and possibly of any hope for the future.  And yet there is a ray of light in the end, despite everything, because of the two young people meeting amid the devastation and daring to dream about the future.

A small ray, but I will take it gladly…


My Rating:


Review: POLARIS RISING, by Jessie Mihalik


There are times when some lighter reading is exactly what the doctor ordered: after happily losing myself in any number of books dealing with end-of-the world scenarios, galaxy-spanning conflicts or epic battles in ancient realms, a palate cleanser, so to speak, is not only desirable but required, so that books like Polaris Rising always seem like the right choice for the occasion.

What this novel promises is the kind of uncomplicated adventure, combined with some humor, which is exactly was I was looking for: I knew there was some romance added to the mix, but given the overall premise I hoped it would not prove too intrusive. Moreover, the story ticks all the boxes I was looking for in an entertaining, light read: a plucky heroine, a darkly mysterious male counterpart, a galaxy ruled by family corporations in constant economic and political warfare, and a mystery to be solved.

Ada von Hasenberg is the scion of one of the influential families at the top of the feeding chain, but since she’s only a fifth child her usefulness to the clan can only come from marriage to some other aristocrat, in that endless game of political give-and-take that’s been going on since the dawn of time.  Not being very sanguine about that kind of fate, Ada escaped and for the past two years managed to keep ahead of the “hunters” sent by her family to bring her back into the fold – and she manages that until the beginning of the novel where we meet her as she fights the mercenaries who just captured her with the promise of a rich bounty set by the von Hasenbergs.  Thrown into the brig of the mercs’ ship, she finds herself in the company of another prisoner, Marcus Loch, best known as the “Devil of Fornax Zero” and one of the most wanted men in the galaxy – a very dangerous cellmate indeed, but in these circumstances a very useful ally for the escape plan Ada is already concocting and which becomes even more urgent once she learns that her prospective fiancé is about to rendezvous with her captors to retrieve her.

From here on, the novel takes a path that could certainly be defined as predictable, if still entertaining: the tentative alliance between Ada and Loch is based on uneasy trust, charged silences and a smoldering mutual attraction that at times borders on comical absurdity, yet the author manages all of that with the kind of panache that helps to overlook the blatant (and in my opinion often unnecessary) deviations into a territory more suited to ‘bodice rippers’ than SF adventure.  Luckily there is enough of a main plot as to offer a reasonably solid background, and even though it looks somewhat thin in places or prone to lengthy infodumps, it might be enough to counterbalance the main characters’ passionate interludes. That is, if it weren’t for some glaring pitfalls that become more evident – and less bearable – as the story progresses.

For starters, Ada and Loch are quite over the top, as far as characters go: she all too often skirts into Mary Sue territory, what with her fighting abilities and physical prowess, the handy gadgets she can produce at the drop of a hat when the situation requires, or the easy way she meets any mechanical or navigational challenge – it’s all credited to her training as a major House heir, of course, but still it sounds like far too much for a single individual. For his part, Loch fits perfectly the cliché of the Brooding Guy With A Past, a man with a gruff exterior and an honorable soul – and of course he’s shaped like a Greek god cast in bronze, circumstance that causes Ada to lose her hard-gained cool in more than one occasion

The addition of some secondary characters, who should have offered an interesting balance, seems however more a nod to the necessity of peopling the story with someone besides the two protagonists, rather than anything else: these figures – Veronica,  the backwater planet fence who turns into a precious ally; Rhys, the arms dealer with ties to Loch’s past; Bianca, Ada’s older and very supportive sister – look more like stage props than flesh-and-blood people, and they are not given enough room to grow and become more defined, smothered as they are by the overwhelming presence of Ada and Loch.

Something I noticed, as I kept reading, was a sort of repetitive pattern that became stale after the second or third instance: the two protagonists keep being taken captive, one at a time, to allow the other to rescue them, and the wounds received in such rescue operations give way to another dreaded trope, that of the “hurt/comfort syndrome”: you can understand how my initial enthusiasm might have cooled considerably by then…

It would not have mattered much in the general economy of the novel, however, if Ada’s characterization had not sent such mixed signals: on one side we are told she’s strong, independent, capable and quite bold – at some point she goes on a dangerous solo mission to infiltrate a mining operation where a momentous secret might be held – so that we are led to expect a personality more suited to our modern sensibilities, not to mention the genre chosen to tell this story. On the other, she both shows a great deal of “girly” inclinations, like the meticulous description of the clothes she wears, that run contrary to the image the author wanted to present. Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles if compared to her sudden about face once the relationship with Loch becomes a thing: she turns to putty in his hands, and ultimately bows to his domineering attitude – as if she had been waiting all her life to find the kind of man who would sweep her off her feet and become the center of her world.  It would have annoyed me if I had been reading about a character set in Victorian England, but at least that would have been justified by the chosen time frame – not so for a story set in a distant future, and certainly not so for a character that until that moment had made of her freedom and independence the founding pillars of her life.

What do you do when you need a palate cleanser after the potential palate cleanser?   😀


My Rating:


Author Interview: CRAIG DI LOUIE

Following my recent review of Craig DiLouie’s new novel, OUR WAR, today I’m pleased to share an interview with the author, where he will talk a little about himself and his new book.


Hello Craig, and welcome back here at Space and Sorcery.

Thanks for having me back!

Let’s start with some details about you, as an individual and as a writer.

I’m a hardworking father of two wonderful children, a journalist and educator in the lighting industry, and an author of speculative—sci-fi, fantasy, horror—and thriller fiction. My partner, Chris Marrs, is a wonderful horror writer herself. I’m a very fortunate man!

How does your creative process work? How do you move from the single idea at the root of it all toward the completion of it all?

Typically, I start with a what-if, look for a fresh way to explore it, and connect it to a big idea or theme. After that, I spend a lot of time taking notes, doing research, and otherwise “dreaming” the book. At this time, I plan out the novel either around a four-act plot structure, character arcs, or both. When it all reaches a critical mass, I start typing.

That’s an interesting image! Critical mass… 🙂

The start of a novel is daunting. It’s like mountain climbing. All the planning you do is like setting up a base camp. You look up and see how far you have to go, but you start walking, one step at a time, one sentence at a time. After a few chapters, you look back and see how far you’ve come. At the top of the mountain, you’re only halfway there, but it’s all downhill from there, and you go faster and faster until you reach the end of the journey. Then it’s on to the long editing process.

It’s mentally challenging but a lot of fun, and I love it. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I’m very lucky to be able to produce fiction and see it published by a great imprint like Orbit.


Your latest novel Our War portrays the consequences of civil war on the younger members of society: what prompted you to choose this topic for the story?

The dangerous polarization in American politics started long before the Trump presidency, though Trump has put it into overdrive. The inspiration for the novel was I wondered what would happen if say a Trump-like president was impeached and simply refused to leave office, triggering a national armed protest by the Right that snowballed into a revolution.

During my research, I became convinced that such a civil war would not look like the 1860s, where we had coalitions of states opposed on the institution of slavery and the resulting balance of power. A modern civil war would possibly break out along cultural lines, specifically rural versus urban, which tend to vote and be very conservative and very liberal, respectively. A war would likely look far more like the Bosnian War in the 1990s, which became part of my research and inspiration.

A daunting comparison, indeed…

Our War tells the story of a besieged Indianapolis, focusing on a brother and sister who become child soldiers fighting on opposite sides of the conflict. Orphaned by the fighting, the politics mean far less to them than survival, though they come to embrace their respective causes until they find their ultimate cause in fighting for each other and themselves. Their inclusion shows that the worst of civil wars in other countries—the use of child soldiers, among other things—could happen here if we ever go down this path, while highlighting civil war’s true victims.

The other protagonists include a UNICEF worker, who must conquer her fears to do what’s right; a journalist, who learns to pick a side; and a militia sergeant, who begins to see the humanity in those he hates. The result is “our war,” a very human story about an inhuman war in which everybody fights, and nobody wins. A tale that is dark but also filled with love and hope.

It’s quite clear that world politics have taken an unpleasant turn of late, relying more on the demonization of one’s opponents and their ideas rather than on healthy debate: do you see this trend as an unavoidable “slippery slope” or the core theme in Our War can safely stay in the realm of speculative fiction?

While I was writing the novel, the political landscape in America continued to deteriorate until even staid media institutions like NPR were openly discussing the potential for a civil war. As a dystopian story, Our War does what dystopia does best, which is issue a warning. Show war’s true face and cost. While the various characters in the novel have strong political convictions across the spectrum, ultimately, the novel is not about that but about the consequences of political tribalization. Though dystopia is typically dark stuff, I think there’s a lot of optimism in Our War. It puts a face on some of our worst fears and hopefully energizes our will to resist this potential future.

And on the wings of that hope, the final question: next projects? Are you working on a new story and can you tell us a little about it?

Right now, I’m wrapping up a supernatural hororr novel for Orbit titled Mysterion. The novel is about a group of people who survived their childhood in an apocalyptic cult, who years later reunite to confront their past and the entity that appeared on the final night. Thematically, it touches faith, belonging, trauma, and memory. If you enjoyed IT or Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, you’ll love this one. The novel will likely be released in the fall of 2020. Stay tuned!

I certainly will! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us, Craig: I look forward to your next visit to showcase Mysterion 🙂


Review: OUR WAR, by Craig DiLouie


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

My first encounter with Craig DiLouie’s work was through his previous novel, One of Us, a tale about children gifted with peculiar abilities, segregated from the rest of humanity and cruelly exploited.  Our War focuses on children as well, young people finding themselves enmeshed in war and having to fight, literally fight, to survive.

The premise states that an impeached president of the USA refuses to step down, starting a civil war between the opposing factions of his loyalist base and the Congress supporters who are asking for his resignation. The whole country is plunged in bloody strife and transforms into a series of war zones, with refugees trying to escape to marginally safer places, and bitter skirmishes happening along a very fluid, very dangerous battle line.

Ten-year- old Hannah and sixteen-year-old Alex Miller are brother and sister, running away from home with their terrified parents in search of an uncertain shelter from the warring parties: Alex, already a troubled teenager, runs from the family car in a surge of unfocused anger about the life he’s forced to leave behind, and ends up among the rebel forces loyal to the president, while the death of the father leaves Hannah and her mother to fend for themselves. When her mother is also killed by a sniper bullet, Hannah finds sanctuary with the Free Women militia, on the opposite side of the conflict.  Both kids, like many others, will learn how to wield weapons and kill – not just for survival but for a desperate need to find a place to belong in a world gone mad.

The adult point of view comes from Aubrey, a dedicated journalist working for the Indianapolis Chronicle, and from Gabrielle, a Canadian UNICEF worker bringing some much-needed humanitarian aid in the war-torn country. Both of them are very interesting characters – Aubrey tries not to succumb to fear and cynicism, and finds an unexpected well of courage in the goal of showing the world what is happening to children enrolled in the militia, and Gabrielle braves the dangers of the war to pay forward the debt she owes to the man who saved her life when she was little – but the real focus of the story is, of course, on the two young siblings, on the other kids they meet in their respective groups and on the way the horrors of war can shape (and twist) a young mindset and soul.

My previous experience with Craig DiLouie’s work should have prepared me for this starkly lucid depiction of a country in the throes of war and the consequences visited upon its people, especially the young ones, but Our War went well beyond anything I might have foreseen, hitting me with unexpected strength: there is such a heart-wrenching quality to the story being told here, that I too often felt breathless with the chilling impact of it all.  The suddenness with which society crumbles, once the conflict starts, reveals how thin our veneer of civilization is, how the savage side of our collective mind is always lurking beneath that surface layer: what’s truly terrifying, in the devastated world depicted in this book, is that it looks all too plausible, that the way politics have changed in the last handful of years have made the scenario in Our War a troublesome possibility rather than a flight of the imagination.

The way we approach politics these days, no matter the country one lives in, has turned away from a debate, however heated, of ideas, to become a constant barrage of insults, viciousness and other unsavory ingredients that have corrupted what should be a healthy exchange into a free-for-all where the warped logic of “us vs. them” has replaced any other kind of interaction.  We seem to have become too easily enmeshed in the kind of mob mentality that sees those with a different outlook (be it political, religious or whatever) not as someone with a divergent perspective but as blood enemies to be crushed. The step from partisan shouting to civil war appears all too brief and too easily taken, and this story highlights with terrible clarity the kind of steep incline we might all slide down on one of these days if we don’t re-learn some mutual respect and the ability to listen without being deafened and blinded by prejudice.

Our War shows us the possible consequences of underestimating that danger, consequences that would be mostly visited on the vulnerable ones, like children: Alex and Hannah quickly lose the carefree innocence that should be their right as they learn how to kill.  For both of them, what started as a form of defense transforms all too soon into an offensive stance: in Alex’s case because he finds himself attached to a group of people where many enjoy senseless violence for the sake of it, and he becomes somewhat addicted to the need for their approval, so that the only way the young boy has to obtain it is to become as trigger-happy as they are. Hannah, on the other hand, finds shelter with the Free Women and also the sense of family she lost as her loved ones disappeared one by one, therefore turning herself into a killer means being able to defend her newfound family and the protection – physical and mental – they provide.

Our War gives us a bleak picture of a possible (all too possible…) future, one that must compel us to seriously consider the dangers inherent in the habit of turning our differences into unsurmountable chasms, when even the slight glimmer of hope we find at the end does not seem enough to dispel the darkness left by looking into this potential abyss. 

Still, I would not have missed reading it for the world…



My Rating:


Short Story Review: THE DEAD, Michael Swanwick




The zombie theme has been played, both in written stories and on the screen, with several variations as to the origin of the phenomenon, but always with the constant that shows the walking dead roaming devastated cities and preying on the living.

This short tale, however, takes a very different approach, postulating that the formerly dead can be revived by technology and set to work in many fields – in short they are turned into obedient, indefatigable, willing slaves.  No mention is made about the way this horrifying process is achieved, but we are allowed to see how these walking corpses (free from decay, and endowed with the ability to speak and interact with the living) are integrated into many aspects of everyday life: as restaurant waiters, chauffeurs, doormen – and even into other unsavory… occupations.

The process is however costly and the acquisition of a zombie workforce reserved to those with means – at least until this story gets well underway showing us how someone has found a way to mass produce them, especially since the many conflicts still raging around the globe are providing with an almost inexhaustible supply of bodies from the refugee camps.

One of the characters in the story is terrified by the kind of future this entails, even as he signs up with the corporation that will manage this new form of slavery: a future where the living will run out of jobs, replaced by flesh automatons, a future where both the living and the dead will be helpless under the thumb of those with power.  And like that character I know that such a possibility scares me far more than any zombie apocalypse I ever watched on TV or read in a story….


My Rating:


Review: THE RAGE OF DRAGONS (The Burning #1), by Evan Winter


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

The first time I heard about The Rage of Dragons, through a fellow blogger’s review, I was beyond intrigued when learning that the book takes a different approach to the usual fantasy themes by basing the story on an African-like background, which is indeed new and refreshing in the genre. Besides, how could I resist a tale of vengeance? Since my long-ago encounter with The Count of Montecristo I always found revenge stories to be quite compelling, so there was no doubt that this would be an intriguing read.

At the start of the story we meet the Omehi people, refugees in search of a place to settle in and re-build their society: they just landed in a promising location, but the natives’ fierce resistance forces them into a bitter conflict that is still ongoing some two hundred years later, when we encounter the novel’s main character, Tau.  In a society geared for endless war, everyone must be trained for combat, but Tau is not very sanguine about that and his goal is to finish his mandatory warrior training and then injure himself in a way that will allow him to still be a productive member of society in a non-belligerent role.

Fate, however, brings such an upheaval to Tau’s life that it sends him on a very different path, one that will turn him into the fierce warrior he never meant to be, so he can carry out his vengeance against those who wronged him.  And as Tau pursues that aim, the conflict with the Xideen keeps escalating and the future for the Omehi looks increasingly bleaker…

The Rage of Dragons started out in a very promising way for me, with its original approach and setting, but ultimately it failed to engage me fully, which saddened me quite a bit since I had hoped for more – or maybe set those expectations too high.  For example, the background is a potentially fascinating one: the novel is marketed as an African-inspired story and there is indeed an intriguing feeling in the descriptions of the scorched, unforgiving land settled by the Omehi, of the relentless sun beating down on people and their activities. The language is permeated by terms calling out to the African culture, and even though they sometimes overwhelm the readers, asking them for an effort of memory to place them in the right context, they enhance the difference from the more traditional fantasy storytelling. Still, I could not avoid the sensation that those elements of originality were only skin deep, because none of them helped in making me perceive the depth and complexity of such a different culture.

From the opening we learn that Omehi society is divided into two castes, nobles and commoners, assigned by matrilineal descent, and that women hold the highest powers: the ruler is a Queen and the magic wielders are women, which would lay the ground for a strong female presence throughout the story, and yet the narrative evidence is contradictory.  As far as the caste system is concerned, for example, we only know it’s there and that the nobles often misuse their influence for personal gain, but there is nothing more here aside from the perception of the inherent injustice of this social structure. Female figures, what few there are, hardly impact the storyline, giving me the unwelcome sensation that their apparent agency in Omehi culture is more a token one than the real thing.

Still, these misgivings would be minor ones, and easily ascribed to the “growing pains” of a debut work, if it were not for what turned out to be my major contention with The Rage of Dragons, which was its main focus – Tau. It was difficult, not to say impossible, to find a connection with the character: at first he comes across as a variation on the theme of the reluctant hero: he has no heart for fighting, which in a military culture is a huge problem indeed (those who are unwilling to fight are relegated to the role of ‘drudge’, little more than slaves forced to serve the community in the more menial and demanding tasks), while his plan for a self-inflicted injury, which would free him from military service while maintaining his status and freedom, sounds mildly cowardly and did little to endear him to me. Then tragedy strikes and Tau spins in the very opposite direction, training hard and succeeding quite shortly in becoming a fearsome warrior, which is somewhat difficult to believe given his initial lack of interest for warfare – even taking into account the powerful drive offered by his thirst for revenge, it’s a change I struggled to accept.

That desire for revenge (an element, as I said, that can powerfully drive any story) leads Tau to a single-mindedness that further alienated him from me, because it was not so much a tight focus on a goal but rather a tunnel vision to the exclusion of all else, be it the bonding with his comrades or the consequences of rash choices – and Tau is quite prone to the latter, to the point that I often wondered if he was stupidly foolish rather than powerfully driven. Moreover, the emphasis on hand-to-hand combat, which takes a considerable space in the overall narrative, turned out to be too much – at least for my tastes – and those descriptions, no matter their cinematic detail that would work very well on screen, felt boring and repetitive after the umpteenth flashing of bronze swords.

When all is said and done, I would not label The Rage of Dragons as a bad book, because it’s not, but in the end it felt to me as an unfulfilled promise, a story with a great potential that remained mostly untapped, and that’s the main reason for my overall disappointment. Which does not mean that this story could not get better along the way…


My Rating:


Short Story Review: FIRE IN THE BONE, by Ray Nayler




This short story left me with a burning curiosity to know more, to learn how the world depicted in it came to be – that is, beyond the tantalizing glimpses offered by the narrative, whose moods change with each new detail offered by the author.

At first we are given a bucolic description of this unnamed planet at sunset, its sky filled by a departing harvest ship laden with its cargo. A young man observes it and an older one advises him not to dream of another life away from there, in the blackness of space – but the young man does not think about leaving, not much anyway, because despite the apparent boredom of an unchanging life, he’s clearly in love with a girl, or rather a robot servant shaped like a girl.

Little by little we learn that the planet was colonized by humans who later build robots to help them tend the fields, and that these colonists survived some terrible event called the Uprising: what filled me with curiosity is the scene of the communal dinner of the estate’s farmers, since they seem to be all men, no woman present among them, except the robot servers in female shape.

When the young man meets with the robot girl in the crumbling church of the estate, for one of their secrete assignments, something happens, and here is where the story surprised me with an unexpected development: read it and enjoy, because it will be worth your time…


My Rating:


TV Review: CHERNOBYL (HBO miniseries – 2019)


This time I’m not going to write a review on a work of imagination but rather on the visual conceptualization of an historical fact, one that shows how reality can surpass any kind of speculative effort: the disaster that occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in April 1986. 

On hindsight, that incident might very well have been the premise of a devastating post-apocalyptic scenario like the ones we often read in books, and learning about the details at the root of the Chernobyl tragedy made me realize how close we came to turning those speculations into a frightening reality.

Back then, as the events were unfolding, we observed them through the images of the news services and as it so often happens, they took on that patina of unreality we have come to associate with filmed reports – present yet distant, observed but not factually grasped. I remember that, besides the concern for what was an unprecedented occurrence, the only negative consequences suffered (at least where I live) were limited to the precautionary exclusion of some foodstuffs. More an annoyance than anything else.  And yet there was this definite awareness of something momentous happening, even at that safe (?) distance, so that once this miniseries was announced I was eager to fill all the blank spaces left by that perceptual remoteness: what I found was much more, not only the detailed, unembellished report of a terrible disaster, but also a connection with the suffering humanity who lived through those events and bore the brunt of their aftermath.

As history reminds us, on the night of April 26th, 1986, the reactor nr. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, leaving a gaping maw that discharged massive amounts of radiation into the air and left an equally massive fire in its wake, a conflagration that the intervening firemen struggled to put out. And that was just the beginning, as the consequences of an incident that should not have happened carried forward in the following weeks and months, and are still markedly present now, 33 years later.

There has been a strong negative reaction to HBO’s Chernobyl from official Russian sources, which did not hide their profound irritation at the events’ portrayal: I can understand how this series might have reopened old wounds, particularly when considering that the cover-up attempted at the time turned up to be image-tarnishing, but in truth this series strove to maintain a documentary approach, and what’s more important it chose to focus more on the human side of the tragedy rather than on the political one.  That human side is indeed the most touching, most heart-wrenching element of the narrative, and here is where I will concentrate my review, because apart from all technical considerations, or the need to assign blame, human beings were the most disastrously affected by what happened that day.

Chernobyl portrays both the victims and the heroes of the tragedy: the former are primarily represented by the firemen, the first responders after the reactor blew – sent to the plant without the barest knowledge of what had really happened and performing their duty in an extremely hazardous environment, one that was bound to kill them in the space of a few weeks. And then there are the citizens of the adjacent city of Pripyat, where the families of the plant’s workers lived: the scene that most struck me, for what I knew would be the consequences, is the one where a group of people stands on a bridge looking at the spectacle of the burning reactor, marveling at the weird colors displayed, totally unaware of the reason for the unusual phenomenon. The choice of the scene’s director was to show it in slow motion, as the night wind carries the ashes from the fire toward the bridge and showers the people – adults and children both – with a deadly fall: the emotional impact of such obliviousness to an invisible and merciless enemy is something that requires no words.

Alongside the unwitting victims of nuclear contamination, there were those – and they were many, indeed – who willingly chose to go toward the peril, knowing the full extent of the consequences but at the same time aware that their intervention would save many more lives and avoid a bigger catastrophe. Among them, the shinier example comes from the three engineers who volunteered to swim through highly contaminated water to open the valves of a drainage system: the whole sequence – like many in this series – moves in total silence, broken only by the labored breath of the three men behind their protective masks and the frenzied ticking of the Geiger counters, and I dare anyone watching it not to cringe in empathy while following the men’s progress in the darkness, or not to be overwhelmed by emotion as they emerge, jubilant for the success of their hazardous endeavor, with smiles on their faces that belie the ordeal they just endured.

Those three men were not the only ones, however: the critical situation of the reactor required the building of a cooling system underneath it, and that job was handled by miners who worked tirelessly in extreme conditions so that worse consequences could be averted. Or again, the thousands – literally thousands – of people who went on the reactor’s roof to shovel away the radioactive debris, working in 90 second shifts to try and keep the irradiation as contained as possible: this is another one of those emotionally tense scenes shot without dialogue, where the men’s need for speed and fear translate into jerking motions that convey their turmoil more than anything else.

Sequences like the ones I mentioned are the reason for my deep involvement in the story being told, and my admiration for the work of both scriptwriter and director: it would have been all too easy to fall into a sentimentalist trap and imbue the narrative with maudlin feelings, but Chernobyl choose a different path, that of a stark, restrained report of the facts, sustained by a minimalist photography using de-saturated colors and a barely perceptible soundtrack that nonetheless strongly suggested the mounting feeling of dread engendered by the events.

This review would not be complete without mentioning the excellent portrayal of the two main characters – Stellan Skarsgard in the role of Boris Shcherbina, the highly-placed politician sent to oversee the investigative commission, and Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, the nuclear physicist expert on the plant model employed at Chernobyl.  At first the two men are at odds with each other, their points of view poles apart as Shcherbina is intent on toeing the official line and highly ignorant of the short- and long-range consequences of what just happened, while Legasov is quietly determined to uncover the truth no matter what. With time the two of them slightly shift toward each other’s stance, as their mutual respect grows toward a tentative, if unexpressed, friendship cemented by the gloomy realization that their very presence in the disaster area might have curtailed their life expectancy.

It’s apparent that Chernobyl is not an easy story to follow, imbued as it is with the painfully emotional baggage it carries – still, I strongly advise you to watch it, if nothing else for its historical value: for us who were there at the time it will mean better understanding of what happened; for those who were too young or as yet unborn, because it’s a piece of our past that should be known and remembered.  It’s a hard, harsh road to travel, but I don’t regret having been a witness to it all, even from the comfort and safety of my home, and I hope many will join me in celebrating the memory of all those who suffered because of that tragedy.


My Rating: