Reviews

BEHIND HER EYES: Netflix miniseries

When I saw the announcement for this miniseries inspired by the novel written by Sarah Pinborough I was very curious about it: I read the book in 2019 and, unlike previous Pinborough works I encountered, I was somewhat mystified by it, or rather by the double twist in its ending. With the help of hindsight I can now understand that the main factor in my reaction was the unexpected turn of the story from psychological to supernatural thriller which at the time had seemed too abrupt and… well, over the top.

Now “armed” with full knowledge of the plot, I was able not only to enjoy the Netflix miniseries, but to look back at the written story with different eyes and to better appreciate it with hindsight: if this experience taught me anything it would be that I must expect the unexpected – and more – from Sarah Pinborough’s works I still have to read, because read them I certainly will.

Back to Behind Her Eyes: on the surface it’s the story of a convoluted triangle between Louise, a single mother; David, a psychiatrist and Louise’s employer, and Adele, David’s wife. Louise meets David in a bar and at the end of the evening the two share a kiss; the following day, Louise discovers that the handsome stranger she just met is her employer and she vows to avoid any further entanglement – that is, until she accidentally meets Adele, his wife, and strikes a friendship with the woman, who seems very lonely and tormented.  Torn between her growing attraction toward David and the deepening friendship with Adele, Louise becomes entangled in the troubles of their difficult marriage, one where it’s hard to understand whether Adele is the victim of an abusive husband or the subtle manipulator in a toxic relationship. Louise’s situation is further complicated by the night terrors she suffers from and to which Adele offers a solution in the form of lucid dreaming, the learned ability to control one’s dreams instead of being controlled by them – an ability that will later manifest an unexpected side effect…

While I usually find that books portray stories much better than their screen versions, there are exceptions, and Behind Her Eyes is one of them: in this specific case, where the book had to keep the cards close to its proverbial chest to prevent readers from seeing too soon where it was headed, the visual clues of the miniseries were more subtle and allowed the events to build up in a more organic way, so that the final revelation was of course a huge surprise but it did not feel as extravagant as was the case for the book – although I have to admit that foreknowledge might have played a part here.  It would be interesting to hear the reactions of people who did not read the book, how they dealt with the lineup of cues and how the final revelation affected them, but from my point of view the screen version made the ending more believable, even taking into account the sheer weirdness of it.

Book and screen version are however similar in the portrayal of the main characters: all three of them are depicted in shades of gray, and all of them exhibit some unpleasant trait, although I must admit that screen-Louise comes across as far more sympathetic than book-Louise, since she is far less self-centered and feels more real in her attachment to her child, one of the details that did not convince me completely in the book.  For once, however, I don’t feel it necessary to truly compare book and screen version, because I’ve rather come to see them as complementary to each other: of course, in both cases you have to accept the uncanny, metaphysical elements in the story to truly appreciate it, but I believe that with the foreknowledge of their presence in both versions of events your enjoyment of the book or the miniseries will be enhanced.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE FALL OF KOLI (Rampart Trilogy #3), by M.R. Carey

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

Approaching a series ender often brings contrasting emotions, particularly the concern that it might not live up to expectations: well, this was definitely NOT the case with The Fall of Koli, the amazing, adrenaline-infused final book in M.R. Carey’s Rampart series set in a post-apocalyptic future where humanity hangs on to survival by its fingernails. As is my habit, I will try to refrain from spoilers as much as I can, but be aware that some details from previous books might be mentioned.

Young Koli Woodsmith was exiled from his native village of Mythen Rood in book 1: in this future, dystopian England, the few remaining – and functioning – items of tech from the old civilization are both weapons of defense and the way for the village’s ruling clan to keep hold of their power. Having stolen a piece of tech for himself, thus uncovering a long-guarded secret in Mythen Rood, Koli is forced to leave home and start a journey across the land, gathering two unlikely companions: Ursala from Elsewhere, a sort of traveling physician, and Cup, former member of a death cult. In book 2, the three companions undertake a voyage toward mythical London, where they might find a way to revive a dying civilization, and at the end of that second book we are left with a disturbing cliffhanger.

The Fall of Koli defies any expectation one might have entertained about the story’s progression, both in developing events and in the way the story is told: equal narrative space is given to Koli and his companions and to the situation in Mythen Rood, where Koli’s one-time friends Spinner and Jon, together with the other villagers, face a deadly threat from a nearby enclave, whose superior firepower and aggressive attitude might end in death and destruction. I have come to see this series’ storytelling as the expanding circles forming when one throws a stone in water: at first we learn about the small, confined world of Koli’s home village, then we see a little of the outside world and its many dangers, and once we reach this last installment we finally understand how the world as we know it ended, what remains of its former power and what threat that dormant power represents.

The regular shifts in narrative perspective turn the story into a compulsive read, and the raising stakes on both sides of the action keep the tension at high levels, making it clear that any kind of ending is possible, and that it might not contemplate a happily-ever-after for everyone. Where the situation in Mythen Rood might look like a classic post-apocalyptic scenario where the strongest and better armed always overpower the weakest, the sections concerning Koli & Co. become progressively more disturbing as the real nature of the Sword of Albion, whose recorded message prompted the group’s journey toward London, is revealed and the individuals the travelers meet look more sinister and threatening with every passing day.

Where the overall scenario is compelling, the characters’ journey is no less intriguing: Koli is probably the one who changes less than others, but the fact that he appears to remain true to himself throughout the story does not detract from his innate kindness, selflessness and capacity for compassion, which are the traits that best define him. Koli might not be the “hero” in the widely accepted definition of the word because his strength does not come from particular acts of bravery: what defines him and makes him so relatable is his capacity for connecting to people and understanding their worth, for seeing the possibilities of redemption and change as he did with Cup before and as he does here with Stanley Banner, a truly creepy character on the outside, whose tragic destiny comes to the fore thanks to Koli’s refusal to consider circumstances only in black and white.

Spinner, once Koli’s love interest and now a prominent figure in the hierarchy of Mythen Rood, enjoys a greatly transformative journey: from young girl set on obtaining through marriage a comfortable position in the village’s society, she moves on to the role of fiercely protective mother first and equally fierce defender of her small world once outside threats come knocking on the door. In a way, Spinner achieves what Koli had set out to do and failed at: by throwing a monkey wrench in the workings of Mythen Rood’s balance of power, she helps wake her people from a sort of complacent status quo that might ultimately have led them to extinction.  Her growth is much more pronounced than Koli’s but still she tempers it with compassion and a fine understanding of her fellow citizens’ psychological traits, mixing it with a determination that belies her young age: I enjoyed Spinner’s chapters greatly and her journey was a very compelling counterpoint to Koli’s own adventures.

Last but not least Monono: Koli and Spinner are the story’s two main focuses, granted, but the Dream Sleeve’s AI personality is further explored in this third book, offering an enlightening view on her abilities and the true changes brought on by the software upload that took her to a different level of performance. Monono’s “voice” remains the same charmingly cute girl-analogue we have learned to know and love, but here – where she gets her own point of view chapters – we discover something else, a capacity for viciousness that belies the effervescent tone she employs in her dealings with humans. It’s true that at times Monono’s quips and pop-culture references provide some light relief to an increasingly tense situation – see when she mentions the Stepford Wives or the Boys from Brazil, or when she calls Morticia and Gomez the oh-so-creepy Lorraine and Paul Banner – but when she shows her true nature it’s impossible not to consider the threat other AIs have represented in fiction and to see Monono in a troublingly different light. The only factor keeping her from going down the same road as, for example, HAL 9000 or the more recent AIDAN, is Koli: the young man’s inherent kindness is indeed the balancing element conferring the human angle Monono needs to avoid that pitfall, as she says herself:

I’m not forgiving by nature, and every shit I give about your species is given – grudgingly – because I was stupid enough to get involved with a boy from the wrong side of tracks. A boy made of flesh and blood.

Be warned, The Fall of Koli does not tie up nicely the narrative threads explored throughout the trilogy since it reserves some space for tragedy and loss, but nonetheless the poignant ending of the series is both surprising and satisfactory and closes a compelling story-arc in the best possible way I could have asked for.

My Rating:

Reviews

READING HABITS BOOK TAG

Time for another tag! I have been delighted by the discovery of this blog post containing a list of 100 intriguing bookish tags, which I mean to explore in the coming months: there are many interesting topics and I encourage you to take a look. Many thanks to Book Reviews and More for this very comprehensive list!

So this time around it’s…. reading habits!

1. Do you have a certain place at home for reading? 

Well, a comfortable couch is always the best option, even better with my feet propped up on an equally comfortable footrest, but I also do a good deal of my reading in bed, because I can’t go to sleep if I have not “consumed” a few chapters of my current book.

2. Bookmark or random piece of paper?

Since I turned digital the question has become moot: e-readers remember the place where you stopped reading, and also allow for specific bookmarks and even virtual, non-damaging earmarks, but when I pick up a physical book, a bookmark is the only way to go, because earmarking pages is anathema for me. Lacking anything better I can always use a random piece of paper, but I own a good number of bookmarks, either proper ones or cards advertising my favorite tv shows.

3. Can you just stop reading or do you have to stop after a chapter/ a certain amount of pages?

In a perfect world I would try to stop at the end of any given chapter, but there are always things like phone calls or other interruptions that steal me away from a book, so it’s always a matter of good intentions meeting real life… 🙂

4. Do you eat or drink while reading?

Both. A cup of tea while reading is always good company, but I have been known for reading while eating as well: while I was still working, the lunch break was the perfect opportunity to move forward with my current book if I was eating by myself instead of going out with co-workers. Now that I am retired, well, the sky’s the limit!

5. Multitasking: Music or TV while reading?

Music yes, it can offer a good background while reading, provided that it’s just music and not songs with lyrics that tend to be distracting: classical music is just perfect for reading. No TV though: I either watch it or read a book.

6. One book at a time or several at once?

One at a time, indeed, even though there are times when I think that if I had two heads I could read double the number of books…

7. Reading at home or everywhere?

Any place is good for reading! I am in the habit of bringing my trusty e-reader with me when I know I might face some long wait like a doctor’s appointment or a queue in some public office. During last spring’s lockdown I used to bring the reader with me when going grocery shopping, to help pass the time while queueing outside the supermarket. Books can make time fly, indeed!

8. Reading out lout or silently in your head?

Silently of course. Can you imagine the utter madness if we all took up the habit of reading aloud?  😀

9. Do you read ahead or even skip pages? 

No reading ahead, I don’t like spoilers, even self-inflicted ones, while I do sometimes skip pages when I encounter long descriptions of battles, for examples, (unless they are very well written), or when any given section fails to hold my attention and I want to get to the more interesting parts.

10. Breaking the spine or keeping it like new?

Much as I try to treat my physical books with the care and respect they deserve, it might happen – particularly with well-loved and much-read books – that the spine gets marred with vertical creases (my copy of the LOTR being a case in point), but it’s more a matter of a book being handled often rather than mistreated…

11. Do you write in your books?

On physical books I do sometimes underline more significant sections with pencil (taking care not to press the pencil point too heavily on the page), while with e-books underlining is a risk- and harm-free option of course 😉

Now it’s your turn: what are your reading habits? Jump in and share them!

Reviews

FIREFLY: THE MAGNIFICENT NINE (Firefly #2), by James Lovegrove

It was March 2019 when I read and reviewed the first book of this new series which brings back the adventures of the Serenity crew after the premature termination of the TV show, and despite having promised myself that I would follow closely the new issues, I once again managed to take a trip on the road to Hell, paved with good intentions and missed books…

Better late than never, however, here I am with book 2, a novel that through the title (with its reference to The Magnificent Seven movie) and its cover (Jayne wearing the infamous hat seen in one of the episodes) showcases quite clearly Firefly’s successful mix of Wild West and Science Fiction, and promises to keep Jayne Cobb front and center in the story.

It’s business as usual aboard Serenity, what with not enough paying jobs, the ship needing costly repairs and the crew engaging in some squabble: the latest of these originates from River parading around wearing Jayne’s ridiculous hat and Jayne demanding bloody retribution – that is, until he receives a message from an old flame, asking for his help. Tethys is a dry, deserted world where only a few hardy settlers choose to eke out a meagre life, which is now jeopardized by a bunch of outlaws, calling themselves the Scourers: led by merciless Elias Vandal, the Scourers take possession of the area’s wells, exacting a price from the colonists for the water that should belong by right to the hard-working settlers, whose choices are either pay or be killed in the most brutal of fashions.

Temperance McCloud, Jayne’s old lover, begs him to come to her help and that of her fellow citizens, and the mercenary manages to overcome Captain Reynolds’ quite understandable objections – not that it takes much to wake up Mal’s inner Don Quixote. When Serenity lands on Tethys the situation looks even more critical: the crew is vastly outnumbered, and an attempt at resolving the issue through a duel sends Jayne to the infirmary, grievously wounded but still willing to do his best, particularly because of Temperance’s teenaged daughter, whose name is Jane and whose age raises well-founded questions about the identity of her father…

Even more than its predecessor, The Magnificent Nine recaptures the flavor of many Firefly episodes, with the crew of Serenity launching themselves into an adventure laden with unknowns and potential trouble, but doing it anyway because – no matter their outwardly skeptical approach to life – they are good guys and when push comes to shove their collective hearts are in the right place.  Jayne Cobb’s character is the one who gets the spotlight here, as well as the inkling that his cynicism might not be as deeply rooted as he shows the world: of course he remains the usual coarse-mannered, selfish individual we all know and love (?), but there are moments when some chinks in that armor let us perceive a different kind of person who might be buried deeply inside the rude mercenary, someone who is capable of selfless gestures and integrity.

The rest of the Serenity’s crew (with one exception) feels no different from what we saw on screen and their interactions, the gallows-humor banter and the speech style all contribute to make this story look like a seamless addition to the handful of filmed episodes that were aired during the too-brief life of this show. The overall mood is on the same level as the series’, with seriousness and humor twining together to offer an adventure that can be both hair-raising and funny – that is, until some bits of dialogue happen to foreshadow the upcoming events of the movie Serenity, reminding us that some members of the crew will not accompany us for the whole screened journey, and adding a poignant quality to those sentences. The one that proved most painful for me was the mention of a certain character’s old-time instructor, who advised his pupils to learn how to “soar like a leaf in the wind”. Talk about sucker punches!

The only exception I mentioned above is River: in most of her interactions she acts and speaks in far too “sane” a manner that is in stark contrast both with her on-screen portrayal and with what we know about her and the appalling treatment she received in the Alliance’s “special school” where she was trained to be… something else.  It’s a jarring divergence with all that we know and learned about River and a blemish on the overall characterization for this story.

The other issue I had with the novel was with some of the “bad guys”, because they fell into the trap of long explanations of their motives and intentions: these sections represented for me both an annoying trope and a slow-down of the otherwise fast pacing of the story, and in one specific case led to a too-swift and difficult to believe change of heart from one of the Scourers.  It was, however, only a minor irritation, and it did not prevent me at all from enjoying the book or from wanting to move forward with the series.

If you are a Firefly fan, this book (and most probably the others in the series) is the best way to recapture the “magic” of the show and to keep the Serenity flying in our imagination.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE EXPANSE PODCAST: Ty and That Guy – Episode 1

Season 5 of The Expanse aired its last episode on February 3rd, 2021, with its most compelling narrative arc so far, which is hardly surprising since it portrayed the events of Nemesis Games, one of the best books in this amazing series. As I was looking for some cast interviews and discussions on the recently concluded season, I stumbled on the information for this podcast, hosted by Ty Franck (who together with Daniel Abraham gave life to the authorial duo of James S.A. Corey) and Wes Chatam (the actor who plays Amos Burton on the screen). The second half of the podcast’s name comes from a remarkable “Amos Moment” in Season 3, the famous line: “I am that guy” – one of my favorite scenes, indeed…

The podcast is a sort of companion to the YouTube aftershow chats that went online once the single episodes aired on Amazon: I still have to watch the after shows, because I want to do a complete re-watch of Season 5, prior to writing my review, but the podcast looks like an interesting way of… filling the corners, so to speak, and learning something more about the genre at large.

In this first episode, the two hosts talk about the way the 1979 movie Alien inspired the creators of The Expanse: it was a fascinating listening experience because of the parallels between the two worlds, certainly, but also because it helped me to look at both The Expanse and Alien from angles I had never considered before.  For example, both aboard the Nostromo and in the Belt you can forget the glitzy atmospheres of many SF backgrounds, like Trek’s: Alien’s ship and the Belter settlements are working environments, often cramped, dark, dirty, and the people living in them are not dashing, well-dressed officers doing heroic deeds, but ordinary persons doing their job and working hard for their wages. 

While talking about Ridley Scott’s seminal movie, Franck and Chatam explore The Expanse’s themes and characters starting from Season 1, and I was surprised and delighted by the fascinating details that came out of the chat: both of them are fun, charming people and listening to them was a joy. If you are a fan of The Expanse – both the books and the TV series – I can heartily recommend this podcast: it will turn out to be time well spent 🙂

If you are interested, here are the links:

Spotify

Apple

YouTube

Twitter

Enjoy!

Reviews

BEST SERVED COLD (First Law #4), by Joe Abercrombie

While I’m not in the habit of re-reading books – mostly because book blogging and a huge TBR compel me to look forward rather than back –  I decided to make an exception for this first stand-alone novel in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series: back in 2011 Best Served Cold was my introduction to this author and to the concept of grimdark fantasy (and although I enjoyed it, it took me an unfortunate long time before I read the three books that precede this one) and what this re-read taught me is that, apart from the core concept of the novel, I had practically forgotten the majority of narrative details, so that my drive to re-acquaint myself with the story ended up feeling like a first encounter.

Monza Murcatto and her brother Benna are the leaders of the Thousand Swords, the huge mercenary band in the employ of Duke Orso of Talins: Monza’s successful leadership contributed to Orso’s sweeping conquest of a huge part of Styria, and as the book starts the siblings are headed toward the ducal palace to report on their latest victory.  Unfortunately, Orso is alarmed by Monza’s growing popularity, and fearing a power grab from the mercenary he orders her and her brother brutally killed. Against all odds, Monza survives: broken and maimed in body and spirit, the only thing keeping her alive is her desire for revenge against Orso and the other six people present at the murder scene. Gathering a band of misfits, Monza sets out to seek and kill – in the bloodiest and cruelest way possible – these seven people, moving ever closer to Orso and laying a trail of destruction in her wake.

While the previous three novels in the First Law sequence were rife with bloodshed and violence, these elements were however balanced out with some dry humor that made things easier for the readers: here that kind of humor is overwhelmed by the savagery of the story and by Monza’s unwavering focus on revenge, a goal that ends up consuming whatever humanity she and her crew possess. Even when the plan she sets in motion should end up in a “surgical” kill, quite a number of innocent bystanders are hurt or lose their lives, and Monza’s companions are not exempt from it, as well, sometimes suffering horribly.

I have often encountered a comment about there being no journey of redemption for Abercrombie’s characters, and this is particularly true here where Monza’s single-minded focus seems to pull everyone in a downward spiral from which there is no turning back: her desire for revenge taints whatever shred of humanity her companions might possess and more often than not I considered how that desire consumed Monza from the inside, compelling her to turn the others into a mirror image of herself – a twisted interpretation of the maxim about misery wanting company…

This is particularly true for Caul Shivers, a character from the First Law trilogy: at the start of the book we see him reaching Styria from the far North, driven by the desire to become a better man, to leave violence and bloodshed behind. The reality he encounters is quite different from that rosy dream and dire circumstances force him to become Monza’s main henchman, to find himself once again drenched in blood and violence until little by little he re-discovers the savage joy of brutality for its own sake. Shivers, and not Monza, is the truly tragic figure here: not unlike his old enemy Logen Ninefingers he comes to realize that there is no running away from one’s brutal destiny and in the end he fully embraces what he had left the North to escape. His is a long road, painful in many ways – not only for the body, on account of the often grievous damage he suffers, but also for the mind, when he understands that Monza is using him like a tool, one to either be wielded as a weapon or employed for a brief moment of physical respite.

Shivers is the mirror through which Monza’s character can be observed – and judged: true, she was used and discarded (She was the spider they had to suffer in their larder to rid them of their flies. And once the flies are dealt with, who wants a spider in their salad?) and for this she wants revenge, but to obtain that revenge she becomes herself a user, one who treats her allies as she was treated and displays no qualms, no moments of reflection on the brutally selfish drive that consumes her and all those who surround her. Even the flashbacks to her previous life, showing how she became the person she is at present, do little to justify her current attitude: while other characters might strive, however briefly, toward redemption, there is no such drive in Monza, and for this reason I constantly failed to cheer for her even though I admired the author’s skill in her portrayal.

While there are other very interesting characters in this story – like the master poisoner Morveer, whose acerbic personality and complicated plots often seemed to border on the comedic; or ex-inmate Friendly, the sociopath with an almost autistic penchant for numbers and counting, the one who truly shines here is Nicomo Cosca, who made a few sporadic appearances in the previous trilogy and here manages to steal the scene every time he comes under the spotlight.  Once the leader of the Thousand Swords, he was ousted by Monza herself and became a drunkard and a wastrel: he’s the only one in the group who really seems intentioned to change his life for the better, and indeed he does – in his own way. Cosca might be unreliable and sneaky, totally untrustworthy as a true mercenary should be (Loyalty on a mercenary is like armor on a swimmer), but he’s also quite complex, showing layers upon layers that make him unpredictable and totally delightful to observe. After a while, witnessing his oh-so-easily shifting loyalties paired with a whimsical personality, I came to see him as the equivalent of another favorite character, Sand dan Glokta: the two are as different as apples and oranges, but what they share is a captivating blend of opposing traits that make them compellingly irresistible.

Best Served Cold is not however only about the characters’ journey, fascinating as it is, but also about how the consequences of an individual’s choice come to encompass a whole country: Monza’s desire for vengeance becomes like the proverbial pebble that starts an avalanche, so that her actions turn from their fairly limited milieu into a world-wide state of warfare with vast political consequences that bring, once again, a massive upheaval in a land where peace is but a fleeting dream.  By now I’m more than used to Joe Abercrombie’s bleak view on humanity, but this time around I felt the pressing need, once finished the book, to turn toward something more optimistic – even though I thoroughly enjoyed this new journey in his world.

My Rating:

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Bookish Valentine’s Day

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point, ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday (created and hosted by  The Broke and Bookish) is now being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here. 

Even though romance is quite low on the list of themes I enjoy in my books, I wanted to find a way to follow the parameters of this week’s Love Freebie in honor of Valentine’s Day, and after some thought I decided that listing the book series that are closer to my reader’s heart would be a more than acceptable compromise.

So I picked up 5 each among my favorite Fantasy and Science Fiction series, to balance out the mix. For Fantasy the winners are:

Powder Mage – Brian McClellan

The Wounded Kingdom – RJ Barker

Blackthorn and Grim – Juliet Marillier

The First Law – Joe Abercrombie

Of Blood and Bone – John Gwynne

On the whole these are all quite… energetic series, with a good share of battles, duels and recklessly spilled blood, which might not look very fitting for a Valentine’s Day celebration, but they all managed to transport me in another time and place and made me care for their characters, which is reason enough to sustain my deep affection for these stories.

Moving over to Science Fiction, my choice fell on these:

The Expanse – James S.A. Corey

Donovan – W. Michael Gear

The Murderbot Diaries – Martha Wells

Embers of War – Gareth Powell

Vorkosigan Saga – Lois McMaster Bujold

There is a little more lightness here, mostly thanks to the tongue-in-cheek humor coming from Murderbot and to Miles Vorkosigan’s happy recklessness, but these series still delight me for their wonderful combination of drama and humor and I know they will always be at the top of my lists.

And now it’s your turn: where did you lose your bookish hearts? 😉

Reviews

NIGHTWISE (Nightwise #1), by R.S. Belcher

Nightwise has been languishing on my reading queue for quite some time, but after enjoying both books in Belcher’s new Brotherhood of the Wheel series I knew it was high time to see where the author would take me in this journey through his Urban Fantasy realms. And what a journey it was, indeed, mixing the well-established themes of UF with those of the hard-boiled noir and placing at the center of it all a character who requires some time and effort to connect to.

Laytham Ballard is a Wisdom, or wizard if you want, trained in the arts of the Life, the magical background underlying everyday life and unknown to most humans.  Ballard’s old friend Boj is dying and as a deathbed request he asks Laytham to find and kill Dusan Slorzack, the man who tortured, raped and killed Boj’s wife. Easier said than done, since Slorzack, besides being a former military, is well connected with the criminal underworld and also apparently versed in the magical arts: any trail Ballard tries to follow is beset by dead bodies, horrific creatures and mortal danger.

Determined to get to the bottom of it all (and at some point more interested in winning the game than fulfilling his dying friend’s request) Ballard enrolls the help of a group of disparate people –  some versed in the magical arts, others possessing more mundane but still precious skills – and starts a very risky journey from which there might be no return, learning as he goes that there are layers upon layers in the occult world, and that many of them encompass unexpected domains like finance and politics. It goes without saying that the final showdown is as brutal and bloody as the events preceding it, and it opens the way to more stories focused on Laytham Ballard, the second of which I’m already eyeing with keen interest.

As I said in the premise, Ballard requires some strenuous work, from the reader’s point of view: he’s not your average UF protagonist, the kind with a shady past but a good, generous heart. No, he’s all rough edges and unpleasant traits, quite selfish and self-centered, a total badass who does not make excuses for that but rather admits it with no small measure of pride. What’s worse, from the very start we see how he has no qualms about throwing innocent bystanders under the proverbial bus when need arises, candidly acknowledging that it’s better them than him. This sounds like the perfect recipe for a loathsome character, and at first it’s so easy to despise him, but as the novel moves forward and bits and pieces of Ballard’s history come to the surface, one begins to see where he comes from, which events molded his psychological makeup and how his worldview was shaped.  It might not be enough to actually like him, but in the end I came to care for him as a character (sort of…) and to be invested in his journey.

What’s more enlightening than those fragments of Ballard’s past is the way he relates to the people in his inner circle and, more importantly, the way they relate to him: seeing how they care for him and his well-being, and how they worry about his self-destructive habits, you can see the man from a different angle and measure him not so much for the face he shows the world, but rather for the way those people perceive him. If establishing an emotional connection with this character might prove something of an effort, his friends’ continued concern is the key to a better understanding of what makes him tick. And last but not least there are hints about a crucial event that required a massive sacrifice, one that might be at the root of Ballard’s apparent lack of empathy: these words

They cut your joy […] They cut it out of you like a surgeon. They amputated your emotions…

are as revealing as they are enigmatic and just beg for a deeper knowledge of the man.

Laytham Ballard is not the only dark element in Nightwise, however. The background in which he moves is just as harsh and gritty: we are treated to several tours of the underworld where mundane and magical cross paths, a setting where drugs, extreme sex and violence are commonplace, a veritable journey through a hell in which Ballard seems to move with careless confidence. Ghastly and gruesome as some scenes might look, there is still a vein of humor running through them which manages to balance out the inevitable revulsion: this story is so very much darker than what I experienced with the Brotherhood of the Wheel novels, and without this whimsical element I doubt I might have endured through the whole book. Violence is also present in considerable quantity – there is a long sequence in which Ballard suffers days on end of torture, which was truly difficult to stomach – and it’s thanks to that amalgam of humor and brutality that I was able to move forward, wondering all the time whether he accepted that pain while waiting for the opportunity to escape or because he saw it unconsciously as a form of well-deserved punishment for his worst deeds… 

I realize I might have scared many potential readers with my considerations, but I’d like to point out that no matter how dark and unforgiving this story and this world might look, there is a fascinating quality to it all that keeps you glued to the book, and it’s enhanced by the few rays of light scattered throughout the narrative, the best of them a casual encounter on the road that sees Ballard accepting a lift from a trucker, who is none other than dear Jimmie Aussapile from the Brotherhood of the Wheel series, here making his first appearance (and probably being the seed concept for the other novels…): I can tell you that this encounter made me all but squeal with joy, as if I had found a long-lost friend, because Jimmie is a delightful creation – well, apart from the tobacco-chewing, that is 😀

If Nightwise forced me to tap into my reserves of inner strength to withstand some of its more troublesome moments, I’m glad to have explored this new area in R.S. Belcher’s rich imagination, and look forward to seeing where this grim character will go next.

My Rating:

Reviews

MEMENTO (The Illuminae Files #0.5), by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

The Illuminae Files is one of my favorites SF series and apart from offering a compelling story and characterization it established a record with me, because it portrayed an array of YA characters who felt well-crafted and believable, without all the annoying traits afflicting teenagers in the genre.  So, when I heard of the publication of this novella that acts as a prequel to the main trilogy I was nothing short of thrilled.

The story is set just a short time before the attack on the Kerenza IV colony, the incident starting the whole bloody mess. The protagonist here is Olivia Klein, a young and starry-eyed tech recently enrolled on the Alexander, the ship where an advanced A.I. has been installed: AIDAN (the acronym for Artificial Intelligence Defense Analytics Network) is still being fine-tuned and Olivia has been assigned to the team responsible for the improvement of AIDAN’s integration with the system and  its responses.  While the techs study AIDAN’s behavior, so AIDAN does study the humans calibrating its performance, and does so with childlike but still disturbing, innocence: the very embarrassing questions it asks of Olivia about her budding romance with her superior Ethan Wolfe are a good example of such curiosity and, together with some queries about ethics and morality, also offer the first hints that something might be… well, not exactly wrong, but weird in AIDAN’s functioning parameters.

Alexander’s intervention at Kerenza, and the crippling attack it’s subjected to, turn out to have dire consequences on AIDAN’s logic processes, and the AI starts exhibiting the first signs of the deadly behavior that is one of the pivotal themes in the trilogy: the fact that it now refers to itself as “I” instead of using the third person is probably the first sign of the “madness” that has come to possess it…

Memento, for all its brevity, works like a punch in the stomach – of course, having read the trilogy, I knew how the story develops and was aware of the tragic consequences of the Kerenza attack, but in this case being forewarned did not forearm me against the emotional impact delivered by the novella.  I felt particularly sorry for Olivia, because I knew that all her youthful enthusiasm would meet a catastrophic end, but at some point a certain discovery about her past made her character arc all the more poignant and tragic.

But of course AIDAN is at the center of it all here, and again I experienced the mixed feelings that accompanied me all through the narrative arc of the Illuminae Files: the AI is a construct undergoing a process in which it questions its own identity, goals and reasons of existence and it does so based on the input set by human beings, who are by nature imperfect and fallible – which on hindsight makes those fatal consequences almost inevitable, and turns AIDAN into a character that is in equal measure fascinating and appalling.

Like the three full-length books previously published, Memento is told through transcripts,  memos and personal messages that manage to tap the characters’ emotional depths and to make you feel invested in their journey, even despite the small number of pages of this story – which is indeed the only complaint I have about this shorter work: I would not have minded a longer book indeed…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE MASK OF MIRRORS (Rook & Rose #1), by M.A. Carrick

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

When I first became aware of The Mask of Mirrors I was intrigued because it promised to portray many of the elements I enjoy in a story, like a daring confidence game, many political maneuverings and an interesting social background. The book contains all of that and much more, delivering a story that went well beyond my initial expectations.

The city of Nadezra, formerly the center of the Vraszenian culture, has been for several generations under Liganti domination, the original inhabitants looked on by the conquerors as second-class citizens: in the past, the stipulation of the Accords created a sort of truce between the two factions, but social and political unrest are always ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. Ren, a former Vraszenian street urchin now graduated to successful con artist, has concocted a daring plan to insinuate herself in the powerful Traementis family posing as Renata Viraudax, the daughter of a relative who left Nadezra long ago: once accepted by these Liganti nobles she hopes to be able to enjoy all the comforts of wealth for herself and her adopted sister Tess, now posing as Renata’s maid.

Unfortunately, the Traementis are not as influential or wealthy as they used to be, and Ren finds herself enmeshed in ever-convoluted political schemes geared toward helping the Traementis regain their former status so that she can help herself in turn. This plot-within-plot game, however, turns out to be more than Ren could possibly handle, because it dovetails with someone’s malicious strategy to foment a Vraszenian insurrection whose short- and far-reaching consequences are worryingly unclear….

While I am reluctant to reveal more about the plot to avoid spoiling your pleasure in uncovering it as the story develops, I can enjoy much more freedom in the description of the fascinating background in which the novel is set, and of the wide range of characters peopling it: these two elements blend in a captivating whole, and if the pacing feels slightly on the slow side at the start of the book, I can assure you that once the avalanche starts its inexorable downward shift, it gains speed at a breakneck, breath-stealing pace until the conclusion.

Nadezra is a fascinating place: a city built on a series of islands connected by bridges and waterways, its Venice-like quality enhanced by the description of dark alleys and wide plazas, of canals hosting floating markets or covered by impenetrable fogs that conceal both beauty and misdeeds. It’s also a place of glaring contradictions where the mansions of the affluent give way to the poorest hovels or to the crumbling buildings from which  crime lords direct their armies of young thugs.  And where magic permeates many of the aspects of everyday life.

The two coexisting cultures engage in different kinds of magic: the Liganti employ numinatria, which requires channeling power through a form of numerology focused by special geometrical shapes, while the Vraszenian prefer a form of Tarot based on a deck of cards that show the pattern shaping any given individual’s life. Moreover, objects can be imbued, i.e. gifted with special properties that make them more effective in their everyday use. In this world magic is so pervasive as to be almost mundane at times, but it also plays a pivotal role in the story arc, and with literally mind-bending effects and consequences.

In such a fascinating background, the characters are equally intriguing, starting with Arenza or Ren, both as herself and in the assumed persona of Renata Viraudax: she is a consummate con artist with a harsh past, playing a dangerous scheme to ensure a comfortable future for herself and her adopted sister Tess. Ren is the perfect representative of Nadezran society, one where playing a part, saying a thing while thinking another, is the rule, and she manages this feat with consummate ability. It took me a little while to warm up to Ren (even though I enjoyed her character from page one) because of the callous way in which she acts, but as the story progressed I was able to see her frailties and insecurities, to learn the horrors of her past and to understand where she comes from, emotionally.  

The perfect (and quite enjoyable) foil for Ren is represented by Derossi Vargo, a powerful mobster whose ambitions of cleaning up his act and joining respectable society make him an interesting, multi-layered character whose very unpredictability is his most fascinating quality. To call him ambiguous would be a massive understatement, and he maintains this ambiguity to the very end, where an important revelation enhanced my expectations for the next book in the series, particularly in respect of my deep curiosity about the identity and role of a certain Alsius – if you read the book, you know what I mean… 

On the opposite side of the personality spectrum is Grey Serrado, a Vraszenian who joined the the city’s law enforcement ranks and is forced to walk a fine line between the pull of his origins and the need to bring order and justice to a city where both concepts are too often mistreated if not ignored: the tight rope of conflicting loyalties he’s forced to walk soon managed to earn my sympathy, and I hope he will be given more narrative space in the next installments, because I feel there is still an untapped potential there, one that the final section of the novel seems to point at.

And then there is the Rook, a mysterious, hooded and masked figure whose acts in defense of the poor and the weak have become legendary – and have been for some two hundred years, hinting at a series of people taking up that mantle over time.

These are the major players, but there are other figures I was able to appreciate, like Donaia Traementis, the iron lady at the head of the failing house, whose strength of character, even in the face of many adversities, is a delight to behold; or young Tess, Ren’s sidekick, accomplice and moral support, whose skills with needle and fabric offer many delightful descriptions of the gorgeous clothes that are such a great part of the story’s background. But the list does not end here, of course…

I had a great deal of fun with The Mask of Mirrors, its skillful blend of adventure, mystery and drawing-room verbal battles creating a rich, multi-layered story I enjoyed losing myself in: the seamless transitions from day-to-day life to vicious political battles, from high-end social gatherings to drug-induced, reality-bending nightmares, proved to be so compelling that it was hard to put the book down, and I hope that authors Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms – working here under the pen name of M.A. Carrick – will not make us wait too long for the next installment in this very promising series.

My Rating: