BECOMING SUPERMAN, by J. Michael Strackzynski

Biographies are not part of my usual “reading menu”, but in this very special case I decided to make an exception: J. Michael Strackzynski (JMS for brevity) is the creator – among an amazing number of other works in several mediums – of the SF show Babylon 5, which I consider the peak of televised storytelling, and not just where science fiction is concerned.   It was Babylon 5 which brought me to this book, because I’m in the middle of the complete rewatch of the series I’ve been promising myself for a while: since I’ve been aware of JMS’ autobiography for some time, I decided to read it in the hope of gleaning a few more details about the creation of my favorite show.  

What I found was a completely unexpected account of a dreadful childhood, a harrowing youth and a constant, never-ending struggle to keep faith with the uncompromising moral compass that was born as a reaction to those early horrors.  I am not going to dwell on those details from JMS’ past, suffice it to say that his childhood and youth can be labeled as a nightmare whose main players were an abusive, alcoholic and control-freak father, a psychically troubled mother incapable of defending herself or her children, and a grandmother about whom the less said, the better. Add to that a constant status of extreme poverty and endless moves across the country that prevented JMS from forming any lasting friendships, and you have the “perfect” recipe for disaster: he himself, at some point, writes that “If there is anything remarkable about my life, it is that I did not come out the other side a serial killer”.

What prevented him from turning to a life of crime or from becoming, in turn, an abuser or worse? Comic books – and more precisely the character of Superman, who gave the young JMS a role model to draw inspiration and guidance from, and a set of stories whose heroes made choices based on a set of moral guidelines that were sorely lacking from his home life.  There is a passage in the book in which the author describes the moment in which he realized he had a choice in front of him, that of following in his father’s footsteps or to negate this “heritage” and walk in the opposite direction: in that passage he tells how he drew a list of his father’s most frequent behaviors, and a list of all their antitheses that would guide his life from then on, and to which he would adhere without fail. And now that I’ve read this book, and this particular section, one of my favorite quotes from Babylon 5 comes to mind, and takes a deeper shade of meaning:

There is always choice. We say that there is no choice only to comfort ourselves with a decision we have already made.

Harsh as childhood and youth were for JMS, his adult life turned out to be one of struggle still, not only with financial issues but with his career as a writer: having discovered the power of narrative, he chose to become a crafter of stories in many different mediums, from animation to comic books to television and movies, but always keeping his unwillingness to compromise front and center, which did not help in dealing with censors or studio executives or all those “powers that be” convinced they knew better than anyone what the public wanted – or deserved.  What others might have labeled as a difficult personality, is instead a steadfast faithfulness to one’s own principles, even at the cost of losing everything: we can find this kind of attitude in many of his characters, which are heroes not because they perform great deeds, but because they are average people who find the courage to do the right thing in the most challenging circumstances, without ever giving up on the basic principles of decency and humanity.  It’s indeed not surprising that in the course of Babylon 5’s arc the final lines of Tennyson’s Ulysses are often quoted as a message in that direction:

[…] to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Given what I’ve learned from this autobiography, what so far was mere admiration for JMS’s writing skills in the creation of memorable characters delivering even more memorable lines (many of which I know by heart), turned into admiration for the person behind those stories, for the individual who had the moral fortitude to escape from the injuries of a terrible past and turn into a powerful, talented and inspirational storyteller.  Becoming Superman is a hard book to read at times, and yet it’s also a compelling one because of the underlying hope it manages to convey even in the bleakest moments, just as one of his characters says:

[…] hope that there can always be new beginnings – even for people like us.

I can only highly recommend this book: if you are aware of JMS’ work, it will open a new, enlightening window into his creative process; and if you are not, maybe it will drive you on a journey of discovery. In the end, you will find out that it was quite worth it.

My Rating:


INTO THE BLACK NOWHERE (Unsub #2), by Meg Gardiner

When, not long ago, I discovered Meg Gardiner as a crime/thriller writer, I vowed to read more of her works soon, and for once I was able to fulfill this promise to myself. Into the Black Nowhere is the second novel in the Unsub series, and once again it deals with the hunt for a serial killer – in this case, as I’ve since learned, one tailored on the heinous deeds of Ted Bundy.

Caitlin Hendrix, the protagonist of the search for the so-called Prophet, the serial murderer whose actions were portrayed in Unsub, is now working as the latest addition to the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit: at the start of the book the team is sent to Texas where a series of disturbing killings is plaguing the small town of Solace.  On Saturday nights women are disappearing literally into thin air, with practically no sign of a struggle, and when their bodies are found they are all dressed in nightgowns, fully made up and surrounded by Polaroid pictures of other victims – many, many more than the accounted-for recent disappearances.

When similar victims are targeted outside of town, it becomes clear that the FBI is dealing not only with a very clever perpetrator, but also one who is fully prepared to play a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with his pursuers, certain that he will prove smarter than them, and untouchable.  Thanks to some unexpected information provided by a woman who may have crossed paths with the killer in the past, and has been living in abject fear since then, the team sets their sights on an individual who seems to enjoy taunting them, and it will take all of Caitlin’s physical and mental stamina to gain the upper hand and stop the escalating killing spree.

Law enforcement procedures are front and center here, even more than they were in Unsub, which makes for an enthralling read – and one where the “gore factor” is kept to a minimum, focusing instead on the methods employed to build the different clues into as clear a picture as possible: what I liked most is the fact that we, as readers, are privy to the same level of information as the police forces, so that it feels as we are right in the center of the action and not observing it from an all-knowing, vantage position, which makes for a more intriguing story and one that moves with a breathless, relentless pace.  Even though at some point the identity of the killer ceases to be a mystery, the story never loses its momentum, turning from a fierce hunt for a nameless, faceless man, into a battle of wills and wits between opposing forces – a battle whose outcome is not certain until the very end, which offers many exciting action sequences and a constant adrenaline flow.

Character-wise, it was interesting meeting Caitlin again and seeing how her past experiences – those of her troubled youth and the more recent ones in the hunt for the Prophet – have left their mark on her and are coloring her present attitude: where in the first book she was out to prove that she could be an effective police officer despite her family’s heavy past, here she is the “rookie”, and needs to demonstrate that her previous success was not a fluke and that she could rightly belong in the FBI’s elite team.  Still, she is a flawed individual, one who is deeply scarred both physically and emotionally, and this factor is the one that lends her the human quality that many so-called kickass heroines lack: deep-seated insecurities play a pivotal role in her psychological makeup, but at the same time they prove (in this particular context) to be an asset of sorts when she decides to confront the killer on his hunting ground – an asset but also a danger, because her adversary is a cunning individual, ready to perceive and exploit any sign of weakness in his potential victims.  

These confrontations offer several moments of hair-raising uncertainty because there is no assurance that the outcome will be the hoped-for one.  Which brings me to the window opened by the author on the mind of the serial killer, whose trains of thought and motivations are showcased with no recourse to morbid detail or – worse – mustache-twirling inner musings: you see a man determined to pursue his murderous instincts but at the same time able to project a suave, non-threatening exterior that becomes even more terrifying when compared to the evil lurking beneath, and made me wonder more than once how many of these monsters are hiding under the façade of normalcy we see every day. It’s a chilling thought indeed…

Back to the characters, there is one who deserves a special mention: special agent Rainey is one of the senior officers in Caitlin’s team, and I very much enjoyed her no-nonsense attitude first, and then the fact that she acts as a form of distant mentor for Caitlin, guiding her with a delightful dry humor through the obstacles and pitfalls of her new profession. Rainey is both an experienced agent and a mother, combining her professional and personal lives into a seamless, apparently effortless whole: it’s the kind of depiction that can only reinforce a concept that fiction still has some troubles dealing with.

This second, riveting book from an author I only recently discovered can only persuade me to explore more of Meg Gardiner’s works (and I saw there is a good number of them): as samples of her writing skills both Unsub and Into the Black Nowhere are very encouraging for my future explorations of her novels, of which the third volume in this series will certainly be the next one – and soon.

My Rating:



Time for another of my beloved tags, taken from THIS very useful list: this one probably intended to use the space inspiration only as an inspirational guideline, but since SciFi Month is quickly approaching and I want to remind everyone that it’s one of the most intriguing events in the blogosphere, I will focus my answers on SF books only. Take it as an “appetizer” for the great SF “meal” that will start on November 1st.


That’s an easy one for a dedicated SF reader, since a great number of stories takes place away from Earth, but if I had to choose one particular extra-terrestrial world I would pick Donovan, one of the most dangerous, scary and awe-inspiring places I ever read about.


Again, there is a long list of books that fulfill this requirement, and among them there is certainly the Red Rising trilogy, one of the most gripping, hair-raising stories I remember reading.


No need to think it over on this one: the final installment in The Expanse, my favorite space opera series. Leviathan Falls will come out next month, but it seems far too long a wait all the same…


Too many of these to be able to pick only one, but I have to say that among those that stand out there is The Doors of Eden, a multi-layered adventure from the very prolific mind of Adrian Tchaikovski.


*OUCH* this is a difficult one, since I’m somewhat allergic to romance in my reading, but if I have to mention a couple I enjoy reading about it could be Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan, created by Lois McMaster’s Bujold: their story is devoid of the usual trappings of romantic involvement and for that reason it feels real and believable. And to top it all, they are the parents of the incomparable Miles!


Oh my! That’s an impossible question: from what I’ve been told, I’ve always had my nose in a book as soon as I learned reading, so I have no idea where I started. But it must have been a good one, since I never stopped 😀


Any one from the Murderbot Diaries. To know Murderbot is to fall in love with this series-loving, grumpy sec-unit learning what it means to be a person.


One of the best series I recently read dividing its focus on various characters (one of them a delightful sentient spaceship) is Gareth Powell’s Embers of War: if you have not read it yet, I can highly recommend it 🙂


Megan O’Keefe’s The First Omega: it sounds both intriguing and ominous and it somehow reminds me of the spaceship names found in Iain Banks’ Culture novels…

And now it’s your turn: sounds like a good way to summon the right mood for SciFi Month, doesn’t it? 😉


THE BLACKTONGUE THIEF (Blacktongue #1), by Christopher Buehlman

When an author I’ve previously read decides to write in a different genre I’m always more than curious, and this foray into fantasy from horror author Christopher Buehlman was no exception: a few fellow bloggers who read The Blacktongue Thief before me mentioned the appealing mix between humor and grimness, which led me to think the book’s overall tone would be in the same range as Joe Abercrombie’s, but once I started the novel I found something quite different, while equally enjoyable. If you’ve read Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld, you will know what I mean when I describe Buehlman’s approach to narrative as a fine balance between adventure, bleakness and humor, a mix fueled by the main character’s unique voice and his happy-go-lucky, irreverent attitude that endeared him to me from the very start and turned him into an entertaining, delightful protagonist who hogs the limelight with no effort at all.

Kinch Na Shannack is a member of the Takers Guild, which means he’s a thief, but sadly for him a very indebted one: the tuition fees he owes to the Guild have not been paid in full, and until he does – devolving his hard-earned profits to them – he must go around with a tattoo on his cheek that makes him the object of sonorous slaps in every tavern: those who hit him can get a free drink, courtesy of the Guild.  Hard-pressed to pay back his… ahem… student loan, Kinch falls in with a group of highwaymen, and the first victim they pick is quite the wrong one: Galva is a skilled warrior and she dispatches the would-be thieves without breaking a sweat.  Tasked by the Guild to attach himself to Galva, who is on a mission of rescue, Kinch strikes a bargain with her and the two embark on a journey through a land infested by giants, goblins and assorted monsters, gathering a young witch and a former countryman of Kinch along the way. Oh, and let’s not forget Galva’s quite impressive war corvid and the adorable Bully, blind cat with some surprises under his whiskers! 😀

Kinch is a thief indeed, not only because that’s his chosen profession, but because he literally steals the scene from the get go, relaying his adventures – and those of his companions – with a flippant, often profane delivery that nonetheless manages to convey a great deal of information about his world. And what a world this is, indeed… One that is barely recovering from a number of wars with flesh-eating goblins, and is now facing the very real possibility of an invasion by giants; a world where magic is present in many forms and can be learned and used though careful training – Kinch himself has acquired and can use a trick or two. And then there is the Takers’ Guild: not the only guild on the territory, but certainly the most powerful, and clearly willing to amass even more influence through ruthless political maneuvering and a spy system that would be the envy of many such entities in our very real world.

The quest involving Kinch and Galva, together with young witch Norrigal and the thief’s old pal Malk should be a noble one, at least in the intention of Galva the knight, who is on a mission to rescue her queen, but thanks to the uneven mix of the group it turns into a riotous adventure punctuated by weird meetings, bizarre happenings and a few truly scary encounters that pay due homage to the author’s roots in the horror genre. And here is one of the true achievements of the story, Buehlman’s ability to seamlessly blend Kinch’s devil-may-care delivery of the journey with a few moments of blood-chilling dread: it takes great skill to depict a scene in which sea-faring goblins are butchering a human captive for their meal and turn it into a song-driven affirmation of courage and life; or to showcase what looks like a game of tug-of-war and suddenly turn it into a deadly affair resulting in a very unexpected loss – if you’ve read the book and know what I’m referring to, I can tell you that I’m still reeling at the way that scene ended.

The whole story revolves around Kinch Na Shannack, of course, partly because he’s the – sometimes unreliable – narrator of it, but mostly because it’s a sort of coming of age journey: the thief is a grown man, as far as age is concerned, but he’s still trying to learn who he is, what he wants (apart from repaying his debt to the Guild, that is…) and where his loyalties lie. He might depict himself as a foul-mouthed, unscrupulous individual:

If honor decided to attend our adventures, I only hoped I’d recognize her; she’d been pointed out to me a few times, but we’d never really gotten acquainted.

or offer his more juvenile, irritating behavior in many situations:

The lead dog […] huffed two low barks. I barked back at him. I don’t know what I said, but it might have involved his mother, because he began to growl.

but under these masks he wears he’s basically a good person, and Kinch shows that when trouble and danger come knocking at the party’s door and his actions belie his outward flippant attitude.  He is… well, a heroic anti-hero, for want of a better definition, and that’s one of the reasons he captures the readers’ attention and keeps it firmly focused – and in so doing decrees the success of this story.

Perversely enough, this intense focus on Kinch – no matter how rewarding in the overall economy of the story – is the reason the other characters suffer a little and don’t get the space they deserve: they are well fleshed-out, granted, and offer the perfect foil to our reckless protagonist, but still they are somewhat relegated to the sidelines, and that bothered me a little because I would have loved to learn more about silently heroic Galva or impishly delightful Norrigal, but still I quite enjoyed this novel – particularly when the breathless finale kept me on the edge of my seat – and I more than look forward to seeing what Christopher Buehlman has in store for his brazen thief, and for us readers.

My Rating:


GIVEN TO DARKNESS (The Ikiri Duology #2), by Phil Williams

The previous book in this duology introduced me to a new set of troubles afflicting this version of our world, in which the weird and supernatural coexist with everyday life, as introduced in Phil Williams’ Sunken City trilogy based in the fictional city of Ordshaw. 

Where the weirdness surfacing in Ordshaw remained more or less confined to the city itself, and more precisely to its subterranean levels, in the Ikiri Duology upheavals manifest in a very public and quite bloody way, requiring the shady Ministry for Environmental Energy to stretch its resources to find plausible explanations for the sudden, tragic bouts of violence erupting worldwide, and to keep the consequences under wraps as much as possible.

In Kept from Cages we met MEE agent Sean Tasker trying to deal with the situation and finding an unexpected – and weird – ally in Katryzna, a young woman with a violently unpredictable attitude. On the other side of the world, a band of criminally-inclined musicians met with a strange child, Zip, who soon proved to be the key to the strange events plaguing the world. Once the two groups met, the story truly launched into its inexorable path…

The unlikely allies are now faced with the need to go to the source of the disturbance, a place deep in Congo’s forest called Ikiri, from which the spreading corruption seems to originate and where dark mysteries need to be solved, both for the sake of the world at large and for young Zip’s safety in particular, since too many people seem intent on killing her.

With the scene being set in book 1, and the characters introduced, Given to Darkness can finally embark, unfettered, into the adventure proper: not that Kept from Cages was a restful story, of course, but here the author could finally indulge into the breathless journey he must have envisioned from the start, while also enjoying the space to let his characters grow and take on new facets while they deal with the unending string of dangers and threats peppering their path. 

For instance I liked very much the way outlaw musicians Reece and Leigh-Ann become even more protective of young Zip, whose emotional growth is driven forward by circumstances that are far too complex and harrowing to be heaped on the shoulders of a child: the way they almost become substitute parents, and the comparison with Zip’s real father – a heartlessly manipulative individual who is quite easy to hate – makes the goodness of their hearts shine even brighter. 

Agent Tasker turns out to be a decidedly more human face for the Ministry, whose ways – as often seen in the Sunken City trilogy – can be quite callous, and I have to admit he grew up on me, while in the first book I was not too sanguine about him.

Still, the character that truly shone for me in this novel is that of Katryzna, mostly because we are finally allowed a deeper glance into her personality beyond the external armor of cold-blooded violence she likes to wear: getting to know her better, and learning about the person behind the mask of the brutal killer was a very intriguing – and at times emotional – journey which left me with a very different outlook on this ruthlessly determined figure.

What can you expect from this book – and from the whole duology as well? Certainly a great deal of non-stop action sprinkled with humor, even though the darkness in the title is a definite, and often suffocating, presence. If you are looking for adventure, mystery and a good measure of fantasy elements, you need look no further than this book and its predecessor.

Given to Darkness will be available from October 19th, which is exactly a week from today: the conclusion to this engaging series is indeed just around the corner, so… happy reading!

My Rating:


THE POET (Jack McEvoy #1), by Michael Connelly

Since my riveting binge of the TV show Bosch during last year’s lockdown, I’ve started reading Michael Connelly’s books focused on his most successful character and reached volume nr. 6 so far, but I’ve become aware that this very prolific author has written a good number of other standalone novels or series, so I decided to expand my search in a wider circle: once I found out that The Poet, first book in the Jack McEvoy series, is also connected to one of the next books for Harry Bosch, I decided to try it – learning that the story was about the search for a serial killer was also a strong motivator.

Jack McEvoy is a journalist specialized in the analysis of violent crimes: when his twin brother Sean, a detective with the Denver PD, takes his own life, Jack is shocked but led to think, along everyone else, that Sean was depressed because of his inability to solve a brutal murder he was working on. Searching for details on the case, Jack finds some evidence that seems to indicate Sean’s death could have been a murder disguised as a suicide, and so he starts a search that points toward a serial killer whose actions have eluded the attention of the police and also of the FBI, that is now called into action to uncover the truth under a so-far ignored chain of police officers’ “suicides”. With the help of FBI agent Rachel Walling, Jack joins the pursuit of the killer nicknamed “The Poet” from the Edgar Allan Poe quotes found on the murder scenes: the journalist is driven by the need to discover the truth about what happened to Sean, of course, but there is also the possibility of a huge scoop on the horizon, because discovery and capture of the Poet will gain nationwide attention…

The Poet starts in a quiet, almost sedate way, but once the narrative gears are set in motion the story takes on the speed of an avalanche, inexorably advancing toward the final showdown (which works also as a “to be continued” because not everything is resolved here): I have by now become familiar with Connelly’s narrative style and his successful way of taking the readers through wrong turns and blind alleys, or to trick them with some misleading clues, but here he literally does it with a vengeance, delivering a compulsive read that I found difficult to put down. One of the winning elements in this novel is the change in POV, which alternates between Jack McEvoy (presented in third person) and William Gladden, the killer (presented in first person): where Jack’s segments prove quite intriguing, because the cat-and-mouse game between law enforcement and its prey is based on the collection of clues and a desperate battle against time, Gladden’s sections take us into the mind of this man who is not only a cold-blooded murderer, but also a very organized pedophile, which adds an element of horror to the whole story – not the horror of supernatural monsters, which we can easily dismiss because we subconsciously know they don’t exist, but the horror of a very real, dangerous and disturbed mind.

Considering the subject matter and the kind of emotional triggers it involves, I admired the author’s very light hand in dealing with it and in focusing more on the psychological aspects of the issue rather than on its more shocking ones, while refraining from any kind of moral judgment. On one hand we learn that Gladden was the victim of abuse in his childhood, but on the other we cannot forget that he’s become in turn the monster whose victims have suffered the same kind of abuse before being murdered: both facts are presented as starkly and unemotionally as possible, leaving any form of further consideration to the readers themselves, which is a choice I always appreciate.

Strangely enough, while I literally devoured the novel, I could never feel any kind of attachment to the main character: with any other story this might have proved counterproductive, but in this case the excitement of the chase ended up offering the kind of balance I needed to counteract my displeasure with McEvoy. What I did not like in him is the kind of duality at the roots of his character: of course he wants to know the truth of what happened to his brother, of course he wants justice for him and all the other victims, but underneath it all there is always the need to turn it into the next Great Story, to win the fame and acclaim he craves, even if he does not consciously admit it.  Connelly’s characters are more often than not flawed, which makes them human and relatable, but I found Jack’s flaws irritating, and his desire to glean the hard facts for the sake of a Pulitzer-worthy series of articles feels… sinful, for want of a better word, because the victim who started the whole search was his brother, and from where I stand gaining fame and recognition from the death of a loved one feels like an empty accomplishment, if not a vile one. 

FBI agent Rachel Walling is, on the other hand, an intriguing character who I believe deserved more narrative space, so I hope that her return in the Harry Bosch novel linked to this one will offer further insights into her personality. What we see here is an individual who is both driven and ambitious, but holds some darkness from the past, and I look forward to learning more about her.  Her romantic relationship with McEvoy in The Poet never convinced me fully, partly because of my expressed prejudice against him, and partly because it seemed to evolve too quickly, just as it ended equally quickly, and since there is no POV from Rachel it’s impossible to get into her mind and see what makes her tick.

If, toward the end, the novel falters a little as it falls into the time-honored device of having the bad guy offer a long, drawn-out explanation to McEvoy before trying to kill him, it picks up by leaving the door open for the further exploits of the Poet, to which I certainly look forward. Given my lack of empathy with the main character, I doubt I will read other books in the Jack McEvoy series, but on the other hand The Poet confirmed that Michael Connelly is the first of my go-to authors when I am in the mood for a good thriller or a crime novel.  And there’s still a lot of ground of explore there…

My Rating:


DUNE 2021 – Part One: movie review

When asked by a friend to summarize with just one word my reactions to the newest Dune screen incarnation, I replied “Finally!”, because that’s how I felt once the movie was over: finally, Frank Herbert’s work has been translated on the big screen with as much accuracy in respect of the original material as the change in mediums allows.

It’s not perfect, granted, mostly because we were prevented from appreciating the whole story due to a deplorable lack of faith from the industry which led to the filming of just one half of the story before committing to the project in its entirety, but I appreciated and enjoyed Denis Villeneuve’s vision in a way I was unable to with the previous attempts.

And before launching into the review proper, I feel the need to address the proverbial elephant in the room, i.e. the comparison with the 1984 movie directed by David Lynch (I prefer to forget the existence of the 2000 TV mini-series for a number of reasons I will not list here).  I rewatched Lynch’s Dune a couple of weeks before the new movie’s theatrical release, and while I still maintain that it is visually amazing, I could see more clearly its shortcomings, which have less to do with the changes in viewers’ tastes and styles of cinematography than with the director’s “imprint”.

The 1984 movie feels excessively burdened by the huge amount of inner musings employed to convey Herbert’s complex world-building,  and it suffers from unequal pacing since it follows more or less faithfully the original material in its first half, only to rush far too quickly in the second. Moreover, some of the acting – particularly where the Harkonnens are concerned – is way over the top, as if screenwriter and director feared that the audience would be unable to understand they were the “bad guys”: the choice to have them constantly laugh maniacally and to add a good portion of blood and gore to their scenes had the effect – at least from my point of view – of turning them into caricatures rather than figures to be feared. I’m not completely onboard with the way the character of Paul Atreides was written and performed, as well, but I don’t want to indulge in a prolonged nitpicking session…

As far as visuals go, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune looks more… pared down to essentials, for lack of a better definition: buildings and ships lean toward stark geometric forms, costumes tend more to the utilitarian than the flashy and the overall photography shows a preference for darker, primal shades – the greys, blues and blacks of Caladan and the earth and sand tones of Arrakis.  This choice had the effect, for me, to enhance my concentration on the characters and my immersion in the images and the story which, no matter how familiar I am with it, remains a compelling one: after all, that’s what we look for in works of the imagination – for an absorbing tale, one that can take us away from everyday reality for a while.

Equally pared-down, but still able to convey the necessary information, is the world-building: I tried to put myself in the shoes of a viewer not familiar with Herbert’s work and found that the story is quite understandable even without the huge voiceover info-dumps of its predecessor: I know for a fact that SFF audiences possess the kind of mental agility that allows them to connect the dots without need for external help, and it looks as if Villeneuve relies on this very assumption as he presents this future background without offering footnotes, or just hinting at them in a few brief snippets of dialogue.

And last but not least, I appreciated how the character of Paul Atreides was portrayed: not the carefree young man who finds himself invested with the promise of godhood and in the end totally embraces it, but rather a teenager quite unsure of his role in life who discovers he’s been maneuvered toward a path not of his own choosing, which in the end will cause first a profound breach with the mother who shaped him so and then will leave him somewhat distrustful of the future role he’s called to play.  This is the way I always envisioned Paul in the book, and I hope that Part 2 of the movie – if it will be filmed – will focus more on this aspect of his personality rather than on the “hero’s journey” side of his narrative arc, which to me is far less relevant than the existential turmoil that’s part of his psychological makeup.

It’s difficult to review what is essentially half a story, and I have to admit that at the end of the 2 and a half hours of screen time I felt the incompleteness of it all – even though the movie ends in such a way as to organically support the infamous “to be continued” – but rather than be disappointed for the lack of closure, I prefer to remain optimistic that the public will acknowledge the validity of this first installment and reward it with the success necessary to allow its completion.

My Rating:


THE WISDOM OF CROWDS (The Age of Madness #3), by Joe Abercrombie

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

Lord Grimdark did it again: with The Age of Madness he gave us a new, immersive trilogy set in the world of the First Law, and while he kept us all glued to the story with the two previous installment, he literally ended this narrative cycle with much, much more than a proverbial “bang” (or rather, a whole lot of them…).

The widespread turmoil on which the first two books in this series were focused, reaches here its bloody peak: previously, in Adua King Orso’s popularity was at its all-time low and the conspiracy mounted against him – led by his former friend and ally Leo dan Brock, together with Leo’s wife Savine dan Glokta – failed only thanks to a timely warning.  What should have been the rebels’ decisive battle ended with Orso as the winner, Leo losing the gamble and some body parts, and he and a heavily pregnant Savine as prisoners in the city they hoped to rule.  In the North, Rikke was sitting on her father’s chair, but still faced the encroaching armies of Black Calder and his brutal son Stour Nightfall, while trying to consolidate her power, forge new alliances and avoid constant betrayals.

As the final book opens, Orso has little time to enjoy his victory: after decades of bad, myopic management from the ruling council, the city of Adua is now a powder keg ready to explode, and explode it does in the throes of the Great Change – think of it as a bloodier, far scarier version of the French Revolution, complete with its own reign of Terror and mass executions carried out through worse means than the guillotine. Angry mobs sweep the city, destroying everything in their path, killing indiscriminately and taking the king prisoner, while Leo and Savine find themselves hailed as heroes.  And in the North, Rikke seems on the verge of losing it all, as her allies dwindle and Black Calder keeps amassing a force capable of sweeping the land and crowning him as its sole ruler…

The above gives just the bare bones of the complex interweaving of narrative threads and character journeys that turn this novel into a compulsive – if often horrifying – read: there are many more POVs than the main ones I mentioned, and each one moves the story forward without overshadowing the others, reinforcing instead the perception of a building avalanche that moves inexorably toward its intended destination. Not that it’s easy to see what exactly this destination is, particularly once readers are faced with some massive revelations – like the big one toward the end – and a constant barrage of betrayals and treachery that is guaranteed to have your head spinning wildly.

The Wisdom of Crowds is mainly a study of the effects of long-suppressed rage at widespread injustice, and of what happens when exasperation’s fires are fed beyond their conflagration point: the wisdom in the title is used in a darkly sarcastic way, of course, because what we witness in the course of the Great Change is the total obliteration of any civilized rule and a plunge into the kind of collective madness that occurs when the baser animalistic instincts take the place of the oh-so-thin veneer of civilization draped over them.  

As usual, Joe Abercrombie manages to seamlessly blend his peculiar brand of humor into the most appalling situations, managing to elicit a smile – or even a laugh – when least you expect it, while pointing out how far easier it is to destroy what does not work anymore than to find the means to build something better.  We are treated to several scenes in which the new government spends inordinate amounts of time foolishly debating the wording of those changes without actually implementing any, while nearby the madwoman named Judge sends hundreds of people – guilty and innocents alike – to their death.

Such upheavals are of course bound to impart profound changes on the characters we have come to know, and it’s hardly surprising that some of them end up being quite different from the people they were at the beginning of the story.  Savine is certainly a case in point: while she retains some of her former drive for power and self-preservation, her harrowing encounters with danger and death, and her recent motherhood, seem to have awakened her conscience, slightly tempering her ambition and making her more human. It’s not a complete turnover, of course, not given her established personality and the teachings imparted by her father Sand dan Glokta, but it’s a definite improvement over the ruthless socialite bent on profit at any cost that she was at the beginning.

King Orso and Leo dan Brock seem to exchange their respective roles here: the former was a reluctant ruler who preferred drinking and womanizing over learning the rules of kinghood, the latter was the highly praised warrior and hero with a bright destiny in his future. Events transform them profoundly, and where Orso becomes a true king in his captivity, submitting to it with humorous gallantry and ultimately showing a kind of subdued bravery that moved me deeply, Leo turns into an embittered, violence-prone individual more focused on the lost glories of the past than on the needs of the present.

A truly tragic figure is that of Gunnar Broad, the former soldier who keeps promising – to himself and his family – that he’s through with bloody violence: events keep proving him wrong and he finds himself constantly enmeshed in situations that force him to rely on his darker instincts. In a way he reminds me of the Bloody Nine, who strove to be a better man without ever managing to fulfill this vow.

I’ve left my favorite character for last: Rikke. As the daughter of the Dogman, all her life she’s been weighted down by her father’s legend and the need to prove herself, a girl, in the world of these Northern hard warriors – and by the heavy toll of her unpredictable precognitive ability.  Here she comes into her own, successfully managing to balance the ruthless strength necessary to rule (“make your heart a stone”) with the desire to act for the best of her people. You will encounter many surprises along Rikke’s journey, together with the heartwarming relationships with her two closest advisors, the cunningly uncouth hill woman Isern-i-Phail and the grizzled Caul Shivers, who seems to have found some inner balance here, if confronted with the man I came to know in Best Served Cold.

Joe Abercrombie’s novels always prove such an immersive experience that it’s hard to move out of his world and return to reality: my only solace is represented by the standalone First Law books I have still to read and the implied promise of this one that the story is not over, that there are some still-hanging threads that might, one day, turn into other equally engrossing books. Time will tell…

My Rating: