Reviews

Review: GHOSTER, by Jason Arnopp

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 synopsis for Ghoster promised an interesting mix between horror and social media technology, so that it was too appealing a premise to let such a story slide by: it’s impossible not to notice how many people are absorbed, compulsively so, by their phones’ screens – on public transport, on sidewalks, even in restaurants where interaction with other tablemates has been replaced by fixed stares at those screens – and I was curious to see how the horror element would dovetail with this widespread phenomenon.

Kate Collins is a senior paramedic and she’s addicted to social media – or rather was: after her manic absorption caused her work partner some grievous damage, she decided that the best cure for her obsession would be to revert back to a basic model of phone, one where actual calls and text messaging are the only way to connect with the rest of the world.  While participating in a “techno detox” retreat, Kate meets Scott Palmer, who quickly turns out to be the man of her dreams: after less than three months, Scott asks her to move in with him, and Kate leaves her job and life in Leeds behind to relocate with Scott in Brighton.  When the day for the big move comes, however, Kate discovers that Scott’s flat is completely empty, the man does not answer her increasingly frantic messages and the only thing he left behind is his smartphone.

Needing to know what happened, Kate finds the way to unlock Scott’s phone and discovers the man seems to have built their relationship – such as it was – on a mountain of lies and things left unsaid: the Scott that comes out of his phone bears little resemblance to the one Kate fell in love with, and what’s worse, the empty apartment, where power has been disconnected, is haunted by ghostly presences that leave mysterious and disturbing scratches on the inner surface of the front door.  Kate’s downward spiral, compounded by the return of her addiction to social media, is unstoppable and each new discovery drags her deeper and deeper into what looks like a descent into madness.

Ghoster turned out to be a book whose two components – the story and the characterization – seem to be at odds with each other: while the first works well, because the need to understand what really happened remains a constant drive, the latter did not work well for me, mainly because I could not connect with Kate and found her increasingly vexing if not downright stupid.  At some point we learn that Kate has been working as a paramedic for fifteen years, so postulating that she started as early as eighteen, she must be thirty-three years old at least: however, the person we get to know in the book thinks and acts more like a thirteen year old – and I’m certain there are far more mature and responsible thirteen year olds in the world than this woman.

Kate is selfish and self-absorbed, an adult displaying all the worst traits to be found in those paint-by-the-numbers teenage characters giving YA fiction its bad reputation. Constantly complaining about the unfairness of life in general, she often looks prone to lay the blame on others, and when she admits her own failings she does so in a superficial, semi-serious way that belies the earnestness of the acknowledgment.  This frivolous approach represents one of my main contentions with Kate as a character: even in the most grim of situations, she always resorts to some pun, or pop-culture reference that has no place in that context and often made me wonder about the real “mood” the author wanted to impart to the story.  If Kate Collins was to be the embodiment of addiction to technology (or addiction at large), she does indeed display many of the symptoms – as denial of the problem, distance from the people wanting to help her, out-of-proportion reactions when faced with the naked truth – but in the end that offhand attitude, the false self-deprecatory jokes, spoil the desired effect and turn Kate into a caricature rather than a character we can believe in or relate to.

On the other hand, the story itself fares much better, because there is such a weirdly terrifying escalation in the discoveries Kate makes through the contents of Scott’s phone – not only the fact that he’s not the man she believed him to be, or that he seemed to entertain other relationships while they were dating and getting more serious, but the disturbing pictures and videos stored on the device.  And of course there are the ghosts appearing in the empty flat, which are frightening on their own and even more so when Kate finds their living pictures in the phone’s memory bank, or the weird scratches on the front door, or the definite sensation of being watched. The build-up, through false leads and shocking discoveries, takes us toward a surprise revelation that is unexpected and at the same time makes a chilling sort of sense, the kind of scenario whose deepest horror lies in its surface appearance of normality.

Sadly, the reveal takes what feels like a long time to get there – what with having to wade through the quagmire of Kate’s constant whining, foolish antics and outlandish theories – and when it happens, its intended impact has been dulled by this improbable heroine and her preposterous behavior.  Once I reached that final chapter I had the definite impression that the novel’s core concept might have started its life as a short story – a compact, imaginative, delightfully scary story on the dangers of technology addiction – and that it was later padded, quite unnecessarily in my opinion, with Kate Collins’ journey of discovery.  Which on hindsight looks somewhat wasteful…

 

My Rating:

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Reviews

RJ Barker talks about THE BONE SHIPS

Thanks to Angela Man at Orbit Books, I have become aware of a short video by RJ Barker, author of the amazing Wounded Kingdom Trilogy and now back on the shelves with his new work, The Bone Ships, which I reviewed recently.

The video, a delightfully humorous lecture on “everything we always wanted to know about sailships, but were afraid to  ask”  😀 is available both at its Twitter link and as a YouTube video. Enjoy!

And if you have not read the book yet (or the Wounded Kingdom Trilogy), what are you waiting for?

TWITTER LINK

 

And here is the YouTube video:

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Books On My Fall 2019 TBR

 

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme with a bookish (what else?) inclination: each week the prompt encourages us to look through our books to find those who fulfill its specifications – or to give our results an unexpected spin.  Previously created by The Broke and the Bookish, Top Ten Tuesday is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, where you will also find the list of future topics.

This week’s prompt is….

BOOKS ON MY FALL 2019 TBR

Confession time: no matter how much I try to give myself a schedule of books to read, so that I can achieve some kind of balance between the new books being published and those that have been long languishing on my TBR, I’m painfully aware that I’m far too easily distracted…. Nonetheless, I want to give this a try, and see if I can manage to stick to my promise.

One of the fantasy series that has been accumulating dust on my virtual shelf is Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, a grimdark saga which has received enthusiastic reviews. Now that the first book in the sequel trilogy Age of Madness is out, and now that I’ve read and enormously enjoyed it, I want – or rather need – to… go back in history, so the first three books of my Fall TBR are THE BLADE ITSELF, BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED and LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS.

 

Then of course there is the third and final chapter of Jay Kristoff’s saga The Nevernight Chronicles, DARKDAWN: it’s already sitting on my e-reader and I’m eager to see how this story of bloody revenge will wrap up.

 

 

Series are going to feature heavily in this post, and one of my top favorites is Seanan McGuire’s October Daye: the thirteenth volume, THE UNKINDEST TIDE was published recently and I know this will be one of the first fall books I will read, because I’m a huge Toby fan…

 

 

Last year, one of my best new discoveries was Fonda Lee’s Jade City, first volume in her Green Bone Saga, an intriguing combination of magic and martial arts. Book 2, JADE WAR came out not long ago and I’ve been eyeing it with growing curiosity.

 

 

The same goes for R.F. Kuang’s THE DRAGON REPUBLIC, book 2 of The Poppy War: if you missed that one, I strongly encourage you to read it because of its powerful writing and intriguing characterization.

 

 

FLEET OF KNIVES is the second book in Gareth Powell’s Embers of War series, following the amazing first book with the same title: in this case it’s science fiction featuring intergalactic wars and sentient ships. What more could I ask for?

 

 

And last but not least, I need to start reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s new SF works, THE CALCULATING STARS (which just won the Hugo) and THE FATED SKY: her fantasy Glamourists Series was a delightful discovery, and I’m curious to sample Kowal’s writing in science fiction.

 

 

Will I be able to keep my promises to myself?  Only time will tell…. 🙂

 

Reviews

Review: TRAIL OF LIGHTNING (The Sixth World #1), by Rebecca Roanhorse

 

Trail of Lightning is one of those books that I’ve been curious to read for some time – mostly thanks to the enthusiastic reviews of my fellow bloggers – but that I’ve kept shuffling down my reading queue when distracted by other titles. Now that I’ve finally started this series, I’m both sorry that I waited so long, but also happy that thanks to my dithering the second volume is already out, so I will not have to wait too much to see the unfolding of the overall story.

Where Urban Fantasy series usually require some time to find their footing, Rebecca Roanhorse’s The Sixth World seems to hit the ground running from the very start and, despite a few narrative “hiccups”, it manages to focus your attention pretty quickly.  Mostly that’s due to the unusual setting of the story, which draws deeply from Native American lore – a new kind of background as far as I’m concerned – and not only manages to create a fascinating backdrop, but to encourage the readers to learn more about a culture they might know little, or nothing at all, about.  Which for me is always a plus.

The world has changed dramatically from the one we know: a series of environmental disasters, chief among them the Big Water (which raised the seas’ level to the point of submerging huge portions of land and killing millions in the process), have changed the face of the Earth. The few surviving areas are those either far inland or elevated from sea level: Dinétah is one such enclave – set in the region that used to be the Navajo (or Diné) reservation, it’s now encircled by a massive wall protecting the inhabitants from outside dangers, even though inside perils abound, including monsters who prey on human flesh.

This is one of the major changes brought on by world’s upheavals: in Dinétah, the ancient gods have manifested again and interact with humans (or five-fingered people, as they call them) with varying degrees of risk – the creation of such monsters being one of them.  The presence of hellish creatures requires monster slayers to keep them at bay, and Maggie Hoskie – the novel’s main character – is exactly that: trained by the god Neizghání for this purpose, she was then left to her own devices and now lives in isolation from which she emerges only to answer the desperate call of those who are beset by some foul beast.

Maggie is not an easy character to relate to: she’s abrasive and cynical, filled by an unfocused anger that comes both from the terrible past event that left her all alone in the world, and from Neizghání’s abandonment, which reinforces her growing feelings of being nothing more than a killing machine and unworthy of any kind of company.   As the novel opens, Maggie is called by the community of Lukachukai to save a young girl abducted by a monstrous creature: as she carries out the task, whose outcome is far less desirable than she anticipated, she discovers that the man-shaped animal is a new kind of beast and that it must be the product of evil witchcraft.  Asking for the knowledgeable help of Tah, an old shaman who is one of the very few people showing Maggie any kindness, she finds herself reluctantly teamed up with Kai, Tah’s grandson and a medicine-lore trainee, and the two start collecting the clues about the appearance of these new murderous creatures, while the body count keeps growing and Maggie discovers many unpleasant truths and the machinations of some of the gods walking among humans.

Along the way, Maggie’s harshness comes into a different perspective as we learn what made her the way she is now, and what comes into light is the strident contrast between her outward ferocity and her inner brittleness, which went a long way toward changing the way I saw her: she might look like a callous killer, her ability in monster slaying enhanced by the mystical powers coming from her origin clans, but inside she is not far from the terrified teenager who saw her whole world crumble in bloody pieces and who was rescued by a mythical figure who turned her into a killing machine only to abandon her with no explanation and under the weight of all her unresolved troubles and doubts.  Those same doubts about her worth as a human, about the stain of death impressed on her soul, prevent her from forming stable ties of friendship, or more, and compel her to keep some distance between herself and the people, like Tah, who know how to look beyond the hardened façade Maggie shows the world.  Maggie Hoskie is as damaged and as fascinating as another great UF character, Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye, and even though they are different on many levels they both share that kind of inner strength that makes them fight without ever giving up – no matter the damage they might sustain.

Despite such a mesmerizing main character, the novel feels a little rambling at times, with Maggie and Kai following misleading clues and being distracted by the machinations of the trickster god Coyote: it’s only in the final part that every piece falls into place and we learn – together with Maggie – the full extent of the deception centered around her and the truth, if there is any to be had, about the people she’s been fighting with.   As I said, even though the story does reach an ending of sorts, it’s an open one and I’m glad that the next book in line is already available for me to learn where Maggie is headed next.

Apart from this great protagonist, the other fascinating element in Trail of Lightning comes from the Diné lore and the way it informs both the narrative and the character development: there is a definite sense of the proverbial iceberg here, of stories and legends barely touched on that only beg to be explored in greater depth, and yet even that little helps in giving this novel a special flavor that is both new and engaging in a genre where the extraordinary is at home.

Highly recommended.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

The Seven Heavenly Virtues Book Tag

My thanks to Lashaan at Bookidote for this intriguing meme!  My track record for this kind of post is atrocious, so my apologies in advance for any blundering mistake I will make…

 

CHASTITY

Which author/book/series you wish you had never read?

That’s a more difficult one than it seems at first glance… I doubt I could list any series, because if I don’t like book 1 there is no chance for book 2 to make its way in my reading queue, so let’s see… a book I would like to forget… Probably the unlikely prize could go to Amanda Bridgeman’s AURORA: DARWIN, a novel that promised an intriguing space adventure and ended up pushing a great deal of my “no way!” buttons.

TEMPERANCE

Which book/series did you find so good, that you didn’t want to red it all at once, and you read it in doses just to make the pleasure last longer?

I’m going to flunk this one, because when it comes to books I love, I am a glutton (see? a deadly sin among all these virtues! Bring on the torches and pitchforks!)  😀

CHARITY

Which book/series/author do you tirelessly push to others, telling them about it or even giving away spare copies bought for that reason?

Easy, James S.A. Corey EXPANSE series, the very best space opera one could find on the shelves these days. Great characters, intriguing story and a record of eight published books (with the ninth and final on its way) where the pace never lags a single moment.

DILIGENCE

Which series/author you follow no matter what happens and how long you have to wait?

(((huge sigh))) G.R.R. Martin and his Song of Ice and Fire: I’ve been captured by this story since 2002, when there were three published books, and since then I’ve joined the crowd of Mr. Martin’s victims waiting for the next book(s) to come out, while he chuckles evilly in the background…

PATIENCE

Is there an author/book/series you’ve read that improved with time the most, starting out unpromising, but ultimately proving rewarding?

Patience is definitely NOT one of my virtues, but sometimes I do try to make an exception, and one of the times in which such effort was rewarded was with Seanan McGuire’s OCTOBER DAYE series: the first two books, while enjoyable, are not on the same level as the following ones, where characters and story really take flight. By book 3 I was a devoted Toby fan, as I am still.

KINDNESS

Which fictitious character would you consider your role-model in the hassle of everyday life?

While I’m a bit too old to consider role-models, there is a fictional character that always had my utmost admiration: Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, mother of Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of Lois McMaster Bujold’s series with the same name. Cordelia is a strong, determined woman, but she can also balance kindness and insight, wisdom and clarity of mind, and a good dose of humor that always make her appearance on the scene a welcome sight.

HUMILITY

Which book/series/author do you find most under-rated?

There is a urban fantasy series I discovered almost by chance, Greg Van Eekhout’s DANIEL BLACKLAND, a story about an alternate world where magic is wielded by ingesting the bones of mytical creatures, therefore gaining their powers. It’s a pity that this series does not get more recognition, because it’s a very intriguing one.

Reviews

Review: BLOOD OF AN EXILE (The Dragons of Terra #1), by Brian Naslund

 

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

Fantasy stories tend to gravitate toward a number of “classic” themes like the quest and the hero’s journey and in this Blood of an Exile is no exception, but experience taught me that what truly matters is the way that journey or quest is told, and how the characters can reach out to the readers and make them care: Brian Naslund’s debut novel accomplished this goal by creating an intriguing background that stems from the usual fantasy elements, then enriches them with some unexpected angles, and by shaping equally intriguing characters that grow on you slowly but surely, their flaws more captivating than their strengths.

In Almira, one of the kingdoms of Terra, criminals are punished by being charged with the slaying of dragons, and Silas Bershad – once an Almiran noble now fallen in disgrace – was so sentenced: life expectancy for dragon slayers is quite short, not surprising in consideration of their deadly prey, but Bershad has been enduring his sentence for fourteen years, slaying dozens of dragons and becoming something of a folk hero. Still, he’s an outcast, marked by the infamy tattoos on his face and easily recognizable by the symbols of those killings that are branded on his arms.  He’s offered a chance for redemption though: king Malgrave, the man who condemned him and the father of his former lover, princess Ashlyn, offers him a full pardon if he will travel to the neighboring realm of Balaria to rescue the king’s younger daughter Kira, who was kidnapped, and also kill the Balarian ruler.

After some initial reluctance, Bershad agrees to the mission and leaves with a small group of people: his faithful companion Rowan and the inseparable donkey Alfonso; a noble from the Almiran court who’s there to expedite passage through the land; Vera, a widow, i.e. a female warrior trained in the most fierce of martial arts, and condemned thief Felgor, whose sneaky ways will prove invaluable once they reach their destination. The journey is of course fraught with perils, double dealings and revelations, and while the group is en route to Balaria the situation in Almira becomes quite complicated as political intrigues and long-standing plots finally come to fruition, offering an interesting counterpoint to the disparate travelers’ mission and expanding the readers’ knowledge of the land and its history, as the tension escalates toward its edge-of-the seat ending and promises more to come in the following books.

On the surface, Blood of an Exile might appear like your run of the mill fantasy novel, but there are some elements that set it apart from its brethren, and the story’s background is one of them, particularly when you take into account the dichotomy between Almira and Balaria: the former offers the standard medieval context of a primitive land with basic living conditions, where ignorance and superstition rules – the inhabitants’ response to any problem or ailment is to shape mud statues as an offering to the gods, and princess Ashlyn’s interest for natural studies is considered odd and tainted by witchcraft – while the latter is more technologically oriented in what looks like a steampunk society, and the capital city is shaped like a clockwork-driven mechanism requiring great quantities of dragon oil to function.

Linked to that is a very intriguing – and new to the genre – angle on environment and the way its delicate balance can be upset by inconsiderate choices: Ashlyn’s studies have brought her to understand that kind of balance and how it’s all linked to the dragons – how decimating them, either to assuage the people’s fears or to obtain their precious oil, is causing some of their natural preys to overbreed and in turn lead to crop failures or widespread disease. There is a thought-provoking passage in which the Balarian ruler offers a deaf ear to Ashlyn’s warnings about the fragility of the whole system, saying he’s not afraid to go against the “natural order of things” as long as he can keep his people comfortable and happy: it’s a very contemporary, very widespread attitude, that of thinking only about the present and not caring about the future….

As far as the characters go, the chosen theme of throwing together a mismatched band of people to accomplish a given task is one that always intrigues me, because it helps showcasing their characters and makes for a compelling narrative, especially when danger starts rearing up its ugly head and everyone is forced to abandon the mask they present to the world at large. Along the journey I became quite fond of some of these characters and in the end it proved a mixed blessing, because here I must warn you not to become too attached to anyone, since there is no certainty of survival for all of them – that was one of the most devastating surprises in a story that is certainly filled with violence and hardship, but also proved unexpectedly cruel to some of its players.

Of course Bershad takes the lion’s share of the story, and if at first he’s the epitome of the anti-hero, moving from one dragon slaying to another and drowning himself in wine between assignments, his past is revealed bit by bit and we understand how guilt for his actions and resentment for his fate have come into play, while the uncanny way in which he heals from the wounds sustained in his craft seems to go against what I could see as nothing else but a death wish – unexpressed, but clearly latent.  This narrative element will come to present a compelling angle in the overall story and it’s clear it will be at the roots of its continuation: I for one am looking forward to see the direction it will take in the future installments.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: GLACIAL (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.  A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

 

The second story in this collection takes place some time after the events of Great Wall of Mars: Clavain is continuing his integration into Conjoiner society and is now part of an expedition on an ice-bound planet named Diadem, where the Conjoiners found an abandoned human base whose inhabitants are long dead.  Searching through the records, they discover that the group came from Earth as embryos, grown and taken care of by a set of robots: something of a common choice in the past when ships took a far longer time to travel between the stars. At some point, however, a viral infection caused the base dwellers to suffer a form of mental imbalance that ultimately led to their death: while exploring the now abandoned base, Clavain however discovers that one of the explorers died outside on the ice, and that what looked at first like an accident might be instead the consequence of a murder. And once the Conjoiners find one body preserved in cold storage, that of a man who hibernated himself in the hope of being rescued, Clavain can’t shake the suspicion that he might have had something to do with the death of his companions…

Glacial is in equal parts a mystery (which at some point turns into a murder mystery) and a journey of discovery for Clavain, who is still adapting to the Conjoiner nano-machines in his body and at the same time trying to keep hold of some aspects of his older self: while his companions can communicate more quickly and efficiently through direct mind-link, for example, he still prefers to talk, as if he were somewhat afraid that letting go of the last remnants of what he used to be, he might lose something important he will not be able to recover.  I liked very much his interactions with Galiana, the de facto leader of the small group of Conjoiner refugees he belongs to, and the affectionately amused way in which she stresses Clavain’s small quirks, just as I found intriguing the man’s need for some moments of solitude away from the constant flow of information that the Conjoiners take for granted.  The society he was “adopted” into is a fascinating one, and these small day-to-day details are fleshing out nicely the wider scope of Reynold’s Revelation Space background.

A less fascinating offering than its predecessor, but still a very interesting read.

 

 

My Rating: