RECURSION, by Blake Crouch


Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter was one of the most interesting and engrossing recent discoveries I made, so that once I started seeing Recursion mentioned on the blogosphere, I was eager to learn where the author would narratively lead me this time. Much as that earlier book proved to be an enjoyable read, Recursion stands several notches above it, and even though it requires a very intense focus and some suspension of disbelief, it kept me enthralled for the whole journey and indeed deserved the often-misused term of “unputdownable”.

I have long debated with myself about how to review this book, because it presents the tough challenge of talking about it without venturing into spoiler territory – and believe me, you don’t want to be spoiled about the twists and surprises of this story. So forgive me if I will end up sounding enigmatic or, worse, unclear about the plot, but this novel is best appreciated when you go into it sight unseen…

One of the two main points of view in Recursion is that of Barry Sutton, a troubled New York cop: recently divorced from his wife, he’s burdened with the pain for the death of his teenaged daughter Meghan, who eleven years prior was the victim of a hit-and-run accident. The anguish for the girl’s death proved to be the last blow to an already faltering marriage, and now all Barry has to cling to are his work and the alcohol he consumes in worrisome quantities. As the novel opens he’s been called to assist the patrolmen dealing with an attempted suicide: a woman sitting on the ledge of a tall building wants to end her life because she fell prey to False Memory Syndrome. FMS is an affliction that causes the victims to suddenly get a whole range of memories, described as “grey and flat” but still feeling very real, that point to a very different path to one’s life. The dichotomy between the two sets of memories is cause for such distress, in the afflicted individuals, that they often choose to end their life: Barry is unable to stop the woman from jumping, but the connection with FMS compels him to look deeper into the issue, finding much more than he bargained for.

The other player is Helena Smith, a scientist studying the neurological processes of the brain: her goal is to map human memories so that they can be implanted in the brain in case of memory loss. Helena is strongly motivated by her mother’s battle with Alzheimer, and has developed the basis for such a recording process, but funding and time are running out and she despairs of ever being able to fulfill her dream – that is, until billionaire Marcus Slade offers her the chance of turning it into reality. Unfortunately, where money and profit come into play, the “purity” of science suffers, and Helena finds out that her brilliant discovery is being used in a way she would never have predicted.

What I feel comfortable in sharing of the plot, at this point, is that Helena’s breakthrough and the spread of FMS are linked and that the unforeseen application of her technology ends up having profound effects on time and reality, with the world headed toward a massive catastrophe that Helena and Barry – once they team up – are deadly set on trying to avert.

Recursion is a successful blend of science fiction and thriller, and as such – not unlike Crouch’s Dark Matter – offers the readers a breathless journey with mounting stakes and devastating scenarios ranging from mass suicides to nuclear holocaust, with apparently little space dedicated to character development, which is hardly surprising since it’s more plot-oriented than character driven. And yet, on careful consideration, there is a clearly identifiable focus on human traits as personality and memory, which are viewed as interconnected sides of what makes us what we are: if memory is one of the facets that defines us – and we see this in the progressive loss of self suffered by Alzheimer victims – the altering of our memories, the erasure of the experiences that forge human beings as they live their life, is exposed as the ultimate violation, whose extreme consequences are portrayed with the same dramatic impact of an unstoppable avalanche.

Both Helena and Barry are flawed individuals whose actions stem from the need of righting the wrongness in their lives – Helena losing her mother to Alzheimer, Barry feeling the guilt for not protecting her daughter – and for this reason it’s easy to forgive their mistakes, and the way they are doomed to repeat them. The second half of the book sees them desperately trying to correct those mistakes, leading toward some emotionally charged pages that made me forget I was dealing with fictional characters, to care deeply for their success and to feel devastated in observing their failures. Their relationship, and its various iterations in the course of the story (apologies for the obscure reference…) looks like one of the few fixed points in the narrative, and one that even I, despite my wariness for romantic subplots, found unobjectionable.

If I have to find a flaw in this novel – and it’s the reason it’s not getting a full rating – is my puzzlement about one of the plot points, an action (again, apologies for the muddy wording) that’s first indicated as impossible, a choice of path that can only end in the death of the performer and does so with the first and only subject who attempts it. Toward the end of the book, however, it’s indicated as the only way to avoid entropy, and I’m still not clear how it works for the main character… Still, it’s a minor nitpick and it certainly did nothing to spoil my overall enjoyment of Recursion, or to lessen my enthusiasm and curiosity in learning that this novel is going to be turned into a TV series soon.


My Rating:



Finally I have been able to sit down and write my thoughts about this interesting meme that was created by Alexandra @ Reading by Starlight and sent my way by OlaG and Piotrek at Reenchantment of the World – thanks for tagging me!

The meme consists of ten questions exploring our mind-travels through books, and here is my take on the… challenge:



Those Across the River – Christopher Buehlman

Frank and Dora just relocated in Frank’s old family estate in Georgia, a former plantation burdened by the memory of the horrors perpetrated there. Such dreadful events are not just a thing of the past, though, as the couple will discover in the most horrifying way… This is a story of supernatural horror, set in a small, deceptively somnolent community whose outward appearance hides something incredibly terrifying.



Shattered Sea Trilogy – Joe Abercrombie

A Scandinavian-like setting for a saga where politics, war and personal ambitions define the characters and launch them into dangerous quests or in bloody fights. If you are familiar with the show Vikings, the village where the main characters come from is a perfect picture for the world imagined here by Joe Abercrombie, even though in the books it seems as if this society regressed from a much more evolved one as a consequence of some catastrophic event.



Red Seas Under Red Skies – Scott Lynch

The second book in Scott Lynch’s series featuring thief Locke Lamora and his friend Jean Tannen leaves the city of Camorr to launch a sea-faring adventure among pirates, or rather aboard a ship whose captain is a middle-aged woman and a mother, and also a ruthless brigand and a fair, level-headed commander: if you like stories where you can smell the salty air and enjoy daring incursions, look no further…



Fevre Dream – G.R.R. Martin

Mississippi riverboats always look fascinating, and their journeys down the river – often featuring stories about sneaky card players seeking easy prey, or shady characters trying to leave their past behind them – never fail to offer interesting stories, but in this case there is something else spicing up the tale. Just one word: vampires. The steamy vegetation along the riverbanks, and the dilapidated plantations barely seen through the trees look like the perfect setting for an ambush, don’t they? Store up on garlic before reading!



The Hunger – Alma Katsu

This novel taught me the tragic story of the Donner Party, a group of hopeful pioneers headed to California in the middle of the 19th Century: a series of bad choices, accidents and drawbacks cost the travelers precious time and they found themselves stranded and snowbound in the Sierra Nevada during one of the worst winters of the times, and had to resort to eating the flesh of their dead to keep alive. A terrible story, indeed, told in stark, unadulterated reality.



Trail of Lightning – Rebecca Roanhorse

This is a very unusual UF novel, both for premise and setting: a series of environmental disasters, chief among them the Big Water, have changed the face of the Earth and one of the few places where life is still possible is Dinétah – 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. An intriguing story with an equally intriguing heroine at its center.



Firefly: Big Damn Hero – James Lovegrove

Firefly is one of my favorite SF shows, and also the victim of network executives’ shortsightedness, since it was canceled before it really had the time to develop its full potential. Thankfully there are many artists who still believe in it, so that now and then new stories are printed that keep the legend alive and give us new adventures of the Serenity’s crew. This one is so well done that reading it I could hear the actual voices of the actors giving life to the characters, and the story seems just another episode in the series, where space opera and the Old Wild West meet in a unique blend.



Twelve Kings in Sharakhai – Bradley Beaulieu

A good revenge story never fails to draw my attention, and this novel has the added bonus of being set in a desert world, where fabulous cities are separated by long stretches of forbidding desert, crossed by ships that rely on the strength of the winds to travel, flying over the sands on wood runners. Add a complex character with a difficult past and a long-standing lie perpetrated against the inhabitants of this world, and you will get a very enthralling story indeed.



Kill Creek – Scott Thomas

Haunted houses are nothing short of fascinating, but when they are set in remote locations, where even the woods seem animated by some evil will, and you have the perfect recipe for a blood-chilling novel, particularly when you add a group of people who have been invited to spend a night in this isolated house that might not be exactly haunted but is not safe to dwell in either… Prepare to be totally, delightfully scared with this one!



The Palace Job – Patrick Weekes

When I first heard of this book it was described as Ocean’s Eleven in a fantasy setting and it’s partly true, but the story itself is a very original one, blending classic fantasy elements with a great deal of humor and tongue-in-cheek fun poked at the genre with the affection reserved to some tropes by someone who loves the medium but also loves turning it upside down for sheer fun. Just imagine a ragtag crew composed of former soldiers, a shape-shifting unicorn, a bumbling mage and a death priestess wielding a magical hammer that speaks using only a couple of cryptic sentences – always the same ones. Highly recommended.


Well, this was an amusing game indeed: I had almost forgotten some of the titles I mentioned, and I was delighted at the opportunity to revisit them, so I do recommend the exercise. That’s why I’m not going to tag five other fellow bloggers to involve them in the game, as the rules require: if you enjoyed this, dive right in and join the fun! The more the merrier…  😀




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

Urban Fantasy scenarios often share several common elements: a city where supernatural creatures exist side-by-side with humans, either in plain sight or hidden; the presence of magic; an atmosphere typical of noir movies; and a P.I. engaged in a complex investigation. The Last Smile in Sunder City does possess these elements, granted, but sets them in an unusual background that gives the story and its characters a new, intriguing perspective.

The world in which the story is set was imbued with magic once, but a catastrophic event named The Coda closed off its source with tragic consequences, and now the city of Sunder, once a flourishing center of industry, is just a ghost of its former self, as are its supernatural inhabitants, stripped like their world of any magical attribute that made them what they were. Fetch Phillips is a human Man For Hire, eking out a meagre living by accepting odd jobs, just enough to pay the rent and fuel his drinking habit – he does not work for his fellow humans though, out of a deep-seated sense of anger and guilt whose roots are explored in the course of the story.

Tasked with looking into the disappearance of a teacher from the city’s multi-species academy, Fetch finds himself caught in the kind of complex tangle of misdirections and threats that is to be expected in a story’s investigative thread, but this inciting incident is only the pretext to explore the world and its inhabitants as they try to pick up the pieces of the past and to build a new life out of the ashes of the old one. Fantasy novels more often than not rely on magic, but here instead we explore a culture that has to deal with the sudden death of it, and what this means in the everyday existence of Sunder’s citizens: the sad, grey, hopeless mood of the story often reminded me of Tolkien’s Elves’ long defeat, a battle with no hope of victory that is however still fought because the idea of surrendering to the inevitable is even more loathsome.

The world building in The Last Smile in Sunder City is its best feature, indeed. The image of Sunder City that I built in my mind reminds me of a town in the throes of the Big Depression, where people have to find new ways to survive not so much out of financial troubles (although they are a factor in many instances), but out of the disappearance of the magic that helped run many of the activities, like the streets deprived of wizardry-powered electricity and barely lighted by torches or fires. Then there are the dreadful physical transformations brought on by the Coda: werewolves frozen in the transition from wolf to man, formerly immortal Elves who aged overnight or even crumbled to dust, vampires who lost their teeth and the ability to thrive on blood – the description of what happens to the majority of those supernatural beings at the very moment in which the Coda happens is something both nightmarish and imbued with profound emotional impact.

The social changes in the post-Coda world have taken another, uglier facet as well: the connection to the world’s magic was severed by humans in an underhanded attempt at harnessing that power – humans were the only ones unable to tap it, and it was their intention to put themselves on the same level as the magically-able creatures. Now that supernatural beings have been stripped of their edge, humans feel entitled to take over: their technology, the mechanical means by which their civilization moves, are the only ones that work now, which puts them in the position of superiority they craved for a long time. Not a pretty spectacle at all…

In all of this, Fetch Phillips keeps his distance from everything and everyone, a loner by personal history and by choice, nursing his deep guilt with the same care he nurses the endless bottles of liquor and the drugs that barely help him go through the days: at face value this personality traits, and attitude, would have made me dislike him immediately, but for some reason I felt pity for him, which increased as his story was revealed through the flashbacks showing how he came to be the individual he is now. Fetch Phillips seems destined from a very young age to be alone, even in the company of others, of being the one looking in from the outside, never being part of something, never feeling accepted, and this shapes both his psychological profile – past and present – and the string of bad choices that ultimately bring him to the momentous decision whose outcome will weigh him with endless guilt and regret. He is a man possessed by a strong death wish, uncaring of the damage he sustains as a result of his actions, but at the same time he does not seem to really want that end, because it would also mean the end of his self-inflicted penance – and also the end of what little good he might do to atone for his past mistakes.

I’m aware that all of the above might sound depressing and excessively gloomy, but in reality it’s not as grim as it might seem and it’s also quite compelling, not to mention that the small, very small glimmer of light that can be perceived toward the end promises that things might not look so hopeless in the next book, or books, of this series.

As a debut novel The Last Smile in Sunder City is not a perfect one: there are some pacing issues, particularly in Fetch’s flashbacks that could have been tightened a little to avoid the loss of focus on the issues of the present, and there are times when the search for the missing vampire teacher seems to become irrelevant, instead of being the connecting element of the story. Yet, the narrative remains engaging throughout, and that’s definitely a plus: I will look forward to seeing how Sunder City – and Fetch – will fare in the next installments.



My Rating:



Short Story: PRECIOUS LITTLE THINGS, by Adrian Tchaikovsky


Click on the link to read the story online


While looking online for interesting short stories, my attention was of course drawn by the name of Adrian Tchaikovsky, whose Children of Time was one of my most interesting discoveries, and by the little note about this story being a sort of prequel for the novel Made Things, a review of which recently appeared on Tammy’s blog.   And what an intriguing story this one turned out to be!

I find myself wary of sharing the details of Precious Little Things, because it’s filled with amazing surprises, so I will try and remain vague about it, hoping at the same time to pique your curiosity and compel you to read this story, which is quite different from Tchaikovsky’s previous work I sampled before.

For starters it’s more fantasy oriented, and there is a good deal of magic in it, the kind of magic that can breathe life into the most unusual things, and so create an incredible civilization as different as possible from anything one might imagine: there is a flavor here that reminded me of fairy stories, where humans are of little consequence and other creatures take the center stage – now that I think about it, the characters portrayed here are not so unlike the spiders in Children of Time, and their society is as singular and as enthralling as that of the arachnids.

It’s also a story about discoveries and the courage to look beyond the limits of one’s world and to imagine first and explore later what lies out there, because – as one character tells us at some point – “boundaries [are] things to be overcome, not lived within”.

My initial curiosity toward the longer work Made Things has now solidified into great interest thanks to this delightful story.


My Rating:


THE NATURALIST (The Naturalist #1), by Andrew Mayne


Once again I find myself in the position of offering a widely diverging point of view from the general consensus about a book: while I started The Naturalist with good expectations – given the positive reviews I read about this novel and its companions in the series – and while this reading experience started in the most auspicious way, at some point the whole setup began to unravel and I was unable to stop noticing its glaring flaws.  If I had not already been at the 80% mark when the “bubble” burst, this book would probably have ended in the DNF pile, but at that point I was in the same position of the proverbial car crash observer, unable to tear my eyes away from the disaster happening in front of me, and I had to see it through, no matter what.

The story, in short: Professor Theo Cray is a computational biologist, i.e. a scientist who studies genetic patterns through computer models predicting any given species’ evolution – or regression – according to set parameters. He’s the classical academic high on science and low on people skills, but he’s compelled to take some interest in the world surrounding him when he’s suspected of the murder of a former student. Quickly cleared of the accusation, Cray becomes obsessed with what he sees as a string of similar murders – all ultimately attributed to wild animals – and starts an investigation on his own, a journey that will take him face to face with a cunning killer who has acted unhindered for a long time.

At first there is some suspension of disbelief to be called into action when reading The Naturalist: the police seems blind to the evidence that there is more to it than simple animal attacks; Cray devises a computer program that can predict, with unerring accuracy, where the victims’ bodies are buried, and is able to unearth them, with almost no legal consequences for his evidence tampering; his actions look highly suspicious, and yet Cray can move almost unopposed as he pursues his obsession – that is, if one can overlook the frequent beatings he takes in the course of his investigations, and which he’s able to shrug off thanks to the tight focus on his self-imposed mission.

All of the above does sound quite over the top, but the pacing is such that it’s easy to overlook even the most glaring of discrepancies.  But at some point they do keep adding up and the effort required to move along with the flow becomes more pronounced: if this had been a story based on a science fiction or fantasy medium it would have been easier to take some details for granted – if we can accept spaceships or dragons, the rest comes along as a matter of consequence. But this novel is set in our times, our reality, and it depicts a murder mystery where the main character uses hard science (even when it’s somewhat far-fetched) to arrange the pieces of the puzzle, so it’s difficult, if not impossible, to accept the total police incompetence, for example, that is a constant in Cray’s interactions with law enforcement, or the ease with which he can literally dump the unearthed bodies on their doorstep without being held for questioning.

The turning point, however, the instance that caused me to literally crash out of the narrative bubble, happened when the assassin, understanding that Cray is getting close to discover his identity, threatens to kill the people he cares about if the professor will not publicly confess to the murders and then take his own life. That scene should have cranked up the tension, raised the already high stakes, but instead it turned the story into a ludicrous farce, one that instead of keeping me on the edge of the seat only managed to make me laugh – and not in amusement.  Because Cray, instead of going straight to the police, or to warn his endangered friends – or both – chooses to appear as if he’s acceding to the killer’s demands and stages his own death, to be able to go after the murderer himself.

Never mind that he already raised lot of suspicions by his weird digging efforts, he now compounds his previous foolish actions by stealing a corpse from the morgue to stage his suicide, and by taking ghastly measures to make the body look like a fresh one – and here is where I drew the final line against the abuse of reader’s intellect:

I pumped two pints of my blood into his body. I was already running low from my previous accident and not sure if I should have spared even that much.  But to make the thing work, it’s absolutely critical that the medical examiner who shows up on the scene to pronounce the body dead doesn’t see immediate signs of lividity.  To minimize those, I put heparin, a blood thinner, in my donor blood and used a syringe to inject the liquid into his body, then massaged the surrounding area.

Let’s examine the “facts” detailed in this paragraph: two pints of blood are close to a liter, one of the five the human body contains, and Cray had already bled profusely in previous circumstances, so another almost-liter should have laid him flat, not left him able to move around as if nothing had happened. The attempt to mask the signs of livor mortis is quite outlandish (not to say un-scientific), since we are told that the hapless body had been laying in the morgue for two days, and blood pools quickly when the circulation stops because, you know, there is a thing called gravity.  And last but not least, there is no amount of anti-clotting agent you can put in blood and no amount of ‘massaging’ that can restore circulation in a DEAD BODY, and therefore make it appear ‘fresher’ than it is.

As if all of this were not enough, the once-reclusive professor turns into a killer-stalking Rambo who’s able to ignore the pain of injuries and the debilitating effects of more blood loss (besides what he pumped into the corpse, that is…) and proceeds to a final confrontation with his foe that is peppered with repeated instances of (I kid you not) “BANG! BANG!” and “BOOM!” as if it were a graphic novel instead of an allegedly dramatic book.

I’m aware that a less curmudgeonly reader than yours truly would be able to ignore these details, focus on the meat of the story – which did start very promisingly, I acknowledge that – and enjoy it, but as these “writerly sins” kept piling up, my initial rating for the book took a nosedive and never recovered.


My Rating:


TOP TEN TUESDAY: The ten book series closest to my heart

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: LOVE FREEBIE

Well, it stands to reason that being so near Valentine’s Day the subject of this week’s meme would be about love, so I’m going to list the ten book series that hold a special place in my heart: it was not an easy choice because once I made that list the number went way past ten and I was forced to determine what would stay and what would have to go. So, after a heart-wrenching inner debate I assigned numbers to each of them and let chance pick the ten winners: here they are, in the same order in which they came out.


THE EXPANSE, by James S.A. Corey

I’m glad this one made it because to me it is THE space opera series, one that combines adventure and though-provoking issues, excellent characterization and suspenseful drama, not to mention a cast of characters I’ve come to care about quite deeply.  In recent times it also reached the small screen thanks to a TV series now in its fourth season – and I hope that it will go on to cover all the books of this wonderful saga.


THE ILLUMINAE FILES, bu Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Space opera again, and with YA protagonists at its center: I don’t make a mystery of my wariness about YA themes and characters, given that so many of them seem to come from the same cookie-cutter mold, but in this case there is a huge difference – the young people portrayed in this series are drawn with such skill and depth that even my inner curmudgeon has no qualms about them. Strong, resourceful and gifted with great courage, the teenagers here manage to give YA a very good name.


GENERATION V, by M.L. Brennan

The vampire theme is one that always fascinated me, but with this series I found a very different take on this myth, mostly thanks to its main character, Fortitude Scott, who is very reluctant in giving in to his blood-sucking instinct and tries to live like a normal human.  Better still, Fort is lucky enough to find a helpful partner in Suzume Hollis, a Kitsune shapeshifter who literally stole my heart while making me laugh with her antics.


THE DAGGER AND THE COIN, by Daniel Abraham

This is “classical” fantasy, but set in a world where many different races coexist – more or less peaceably – and where the destinies of the people are not ruled only by war and conquest (the dagger) but also, and sometimes more actively, by the power of a banking consortium (the coin) able to influence politics and destinies.  The final book still waits for me to read it, but I’m certain I will soon see how the story wraps up.



Here I cheated a bit, bundling two series into one, but since they are closely linked in narrative and times I can easily consider them a six-books series rather than two connected trilogies.  This fantasy world is ruled by magic – the more “canonic” kind exerted by Privileged, and that wielded by Powder Mages, whose affinity with gunpowder gifts them with extraordinary abilities. The story starts with a revolution and moves on from here, showcasing fascinating characters and a breath-taking narrative I hope might be continued in future books.


BLACKTHORN AND GRIM, by Juliet Marillier

This was a case of instant love from the very first chapters of book 1: the characters of Blackthorn – a woman unjustly imprisoned and burning with the desire to avenge her murdered family – and Grim – a taciturn man with a dark, mysterious past – are linked in a complex, amazing story that is at times heartbreaking and uplifting, moving through a fascinating world that left its mark on me. And made me a huge fan of this author…



Do you believe it would be possible to feel a deep connection to an emotionless cyborg tasked with security, whose free time is spent watching the equivalent of TV serials? If your answer is ‘no’, think again, because Murderbot will steal your soul and fire your imagination, its denials about feelings and its outspoken dislike for humanity nothing more than a cover for an evolving personality that has no equal in the genre. And I can’t wait for the first (hopefully of many) full book that will soon follow this series of novellas.


SWORDS AND FIRE, by Melissa Caruso

Sometimes, accidental discoveries turn out to be the best ones: when I had the luck of encountering this fantasy series, set in a realm that reminds me of 18th Century Venice, I was thrilled to find a world in which magic is wielded in a different way and to meet complex characters who undergo a series of changes that are both interesting and believable, while the story moves at a fast pace through many riveting events. The kind of series one is sorry to see wrapped up.



Another chance discovery, and another of those stories that took hold of my imagination from the very start: a world ravaged by the misuse of magic, a world where the mere suspicion of being able to wield it means a death sentence – and a main character in training to be an assassin, who discovers that magic lies within his grasp. Girton Clubfoot and his teacher Merela are among the best fictional creatures I have ever encountered and following their exploits was one of the most breath-taking adventures I can recall.


DONOVAN, by W. Michael Gear

Exploring new worlds, finding an Earth-like one and establishing a colony there: what could be more fascinating and adventurous? There is a little problem though: this beautiful, promising world is set on killing you – some plants can move and will try to choke you at the first opportunity; there are savage animals who find you very tasty; and the soil and water contain trace mineral that can poison you.  I always loved colonization stories, but the Donovan series is much more than this: there is an adventure element, granted, but the characters and their interactions are even better – and the saga is still ongoing, to my unending joy.


HOW RORY THORNE DESTROYED THE MULTIVERSE (The Thorne Chronicles #1), by K. Eason


The first word that comes to mind when thinking about this book is ‘surprising’: any kind of expectation I might have harbored from reading its synopsis and the reviews published by some of my fellow bloggers was subverted by what I found in the story itself. And those surprises were quite delightful.

Rory Thorne starts as a fairy-tale retelling: the first girl child born after generations of male heirs to the Thorne dynasty, Rory becomes the center of a christening ceremony involving the blessing of fairies, which is sort of unheard-of because no one believes in the existence of fairies any more and because the story is set in the distant future and the Thorne Consortium is an alliance of planets “in a galaxy far, far away”. The fairies do come to the ceremony however, present the child with many gifts and even cause some intriguing ripples when the uninvited thirteenth fairy crashes the party and lays her own gift on Rory: not a proper curse, no, but the ability to see through lies – which turns out to be a mixed but useful blessing.  After that, the fairies disappear and are never seen again, having fulfilled their role in the economy of the story, that becomes some kind of space opera intrigue, finely balanced between drama and tongue-in-cheek humor.

As Rory grows, and a male heir is born to the Thorne dynasty, all that is expected of her is a politically advantageous marriage and conformity to the rules, but events and Rory’s own determination defy those assumptions in more ways than one: a terrorist attack changes the balance of power, so that the young princess finds herself a pawn to a power-hungry villain’s plots and to political expediency, but things will not exactly go as planned…  I don’t want to share more of the story since I believe it’s best enjoyed if approached with no preconceived notions, especially because you will discover that nothing follows expected parameters here – which is one of the novel’s best strengths.

Rory Thorne’s world-building is quite interesting, being a mix between science fiction and fairy tale material: we have galaxy-spanning coalitions of planets, inhabited both by humans and aliens, and interstellar travel and space stations on one side; we also get fairies, and the intriguing concepts of arithmancy and hexes. In this universe, science and magic combine in the form of arithmancy, which allows its practitioners to influence the laws of nature, or the functioning of technological items, through the application of specific hexes, whose complexity varies according to the wielder’s abilities and training. Not much is explained (thankfully, from my point of view) and the concept is filtered and elaborated through the reader’s imagination and (at least for me) with the assistance of the famous Arthur Clarke’s sentence about sufficiently advanced science being indistinguishable from magic. Rory is of course quite apt in arithmancy, which proves very useful in her experiences.

Where the world is engaging, the characters are what make it work: Rory herself is young, barely sixteen when she’s sent to Urse station in preparation for the political marriage she’s being groomed for, but she’s very far from the usual YA characters we often encounter, another important point in favor of this story. She is clever, but never annoyingly so; she’s determined and sometimes stubborn, and yet she balances that with a thoughtfulness that belies her years; more important, she knows when to follow her own instincts, when to listen to her advisors and when to walk the fine line between these two directions. It was easy for me to feel sympathy for Rory, because despite being a prisoner of her role she never complains about it, never falls prey to the usual angst that seems the prerogative of YA characters, but rather accepts it as fact of life and moves on, doing her best to carve her path with what she has:

… [a princess] did not take casual strolls with her friends, because a princess did not have friends. She had body-maids, guards, teachers, viziers. She had never thought of herself as alone, until now. It was a revelation.

And yet, if not exactly friends, the people closest to her become allies and co-conspirators through the sheer force of her conviction, her self-confidence and her hard-earned wisdom. Speaking of Rory’s closest associates, they are very enjoyable creations: Vizier Rupert and Deme Grytt could not be more different persons – the former is Rory’s steadfast advisor, a man of controlled emotions and careful thoughts, the latter a former soldier sporting cyborg implants and a “shoot first and ask questions later” attitude, but they are united in their affection for their young charge and offer many entertaining interludes when debating from opposing points of view about how to best take care of her.  Similarly different are the two female bodyguards assigned to Rory, Thorsdottir and Zhang: one composed and reserved, the other more exuberant, but both equally dedicated to the mission of protecting the princess and – though unexpressed – of being the friends she needs.

The main villain, Regent Moss, might look stereotyped – all he lacks is a mustache to be twirled – but he feels perfect for the role and the right foil for Rory’s cat-and-mouse games where she does her best to outwit an opponent who seems to hold all the winning cards. One of the best parts of the overall story is the subversion of the traditional tale of the princess in danger who needs to be rescued by the handsome prince, because here Rory is the one doing the saving, and the prince she is slated to marry the one who needs to be saved. Please allow me to spend a few words on Prince Ivar, because – apart from the role reversal – he offers one of the amusing angles of the story, at least for me: you might be aware that “Ivar” is the name of an IKEA line of furniture, and the prince’s constantly wooden disposition always made me think that there was a tongue-in-cheek joke from the author’s part. If the young man is depicted as ineffective and weak, all his mentions never failed to elicit a smile from me when I thought his name could not be a coincidence, an impression strengthened by the way the tale is relayed though an omniscient narrator who enjoys offering humorous asides and somehow making a joke of its own reliability.

How Rory Thorne destroyed the Multiverse turned out to be a swift, compelling read in a weird, but intriguing, mashup of genres: it is my understanding this is the first half of a duology, so that I’m quite looking forward to the second book and the discovery of the rest of Rory’s adventures.


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AUBERON (an Expanse Novella), by James S.A. Corey


Getting a new Expanse novella while I wait for the next (and last…) book in line feels like a way of shortening that waiting time, and going back to that universe is always a joy, even when the main characters I’ve come to know and love are not part of the story.

Auberon’s time-line is set somewhere between the last two published books, Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath, as the Laconian forces are tightening their hold on the occupied planets: governor Biryar Rittenaur and his wife Mona have been charged with the running of Auberon, one of the most Earth-like colony worlds behind the Ring gate, and like all Laconians Rittenaur is very focused on his mission, on the ideals of order and civilization that High Consul Duarte uses to advertise his merciless military conquest.

While Rittenaur and his staff expect the usual resistance – more or less overt – against what is in truth an occupation force, no matter the mask it wears, they are not ready to face the deeply rooted system of criminal corruption headed by a man named Erich whose reach into Auberon’s society goes quite far, and who is not ready to give in to the self-styled new masters of humanity. The new governor will soon discover that it’s not easy to keep faith with one’s ideals when they are in direct conflict with what he holds most dear – or as Erich tells him at some point: “Ideological purity never survives contact with the enemy.

The description of “old man” Erich, with his prosthetic arm covering for a malformed one, is a very intriguing one because it connects with a character I already encountered first in the novella The Churn (the one about Amos’ past) and then in the full novel Nemesis Games, where again Amos and Erich’s shared past came to the surface. If you read both of them, you will find that the present story gains even more depth, but even without this kind of information, Auberon remains an intriguing snippet in the overall Expanse background, because as usual the characters and their journey are at the core of it all.

What makes the two main characters in this novella interesting is that neither of them is likable, and at the same time neither of them is utterly despicable: we are made privy to their motivations, and from their point of view they are acting for the good of the people under their authority. Erich is a crime lord, and there is no measure of white-washing that can make us forget he’s a gangster ruling his territory with a blood-drenched iron fist (no pun intended here…), but he’s also fighting – in his own way and for his own purposes – against an invader bent on ruling the galaxy, so it’s difficult not to root for him, at least a little bit.  Rittenaur is the voice and arm of the conquerors, people who use other humans as guinea pigs for protomolecule alterations, people who execute their own as an example against mistakes, but he’s also a man with a deep love for integrity and a sincere belief in the good of the “Laconian dream” – he’s a decent man, very unlike Medina Station’s Governor Singh, and therefore worthy of some sympathy.

In the tried and tested tradition of the Expanse series, Auberon gives us much food for thought and sheds some interesting light on the latter part of the overall story, while we wait for the conclusion of this sweeping space opera saga that for me represents one of the best in the genre.



My Rating: