Reviews

THE BLACK ECHO (Harry Bosch #1), by Michael Connelly

 

For quite some time now I have been thinking about branching out of my preferred “stomping ground” focused on speculative fiction, not so much because of reader fatigue but rather for a healthy change of pace through a more varied choice of reading material.  In the past, besides SFF, I’ve always enjoyed books in the thriller/crime niche, and I’ve recently marked as interesting several titles in these genres that were showcased by my fellow bloggers, but what really compelled me to finally turn those good resolutions into reality was a tv series.  In the past I had noticed, in the customer suggestions from Amazon Prime Video, the series Bosch and at some point during the lockdown months I decided to take a look: in the space of a handful of episodes I was won over by the story and characters, so that once I discovered they were based on a series of books by Michael Connelly, I decided that my new “reading adventure” would start there – and it turned out to be an inspired choice, indeed.

Mr. Connelly’s successful series focuses on the character of Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, a L.A.P.D. detective whose dogged determination in solving cases equals only his total disregard for departmental politics, which makes him quite unpopular with the powers that be and always on the brink of dismissal. In this first case, Bosch is called on the scene of what looks like a death by overdose, and only a few conflicting details and the fact that he knows the victim – a former comrade, and like Bosch a Vietnam vet – will drive the detective to investigate deeper into what is beyond doubt a murder staged like an accidental death. Despite the inherent difficulties and the bureaucratic obstacles in his path, Harry pursues the elusive evidence that leads him to discover a long-planned, convoluted heist that will not only put him against well-organized masterminds and unfriendly co-workers, but will force him to face some of the demons of his past.

One of the most noticeable differences between the tv series and the book is of course the time setting: while the former takes place in the present, the latter – published in 1992 – is set some 30 years in the past and this accounts for the lack of some elements we have come to take for granted, like cell phones, easy internet searches or information merge between law enforcement databases. Still, this does not detract from the story in any way, and one of its major themes – the predicament of overseas wars’ veterans, who come back home and struggle to reclaim their place in society – is as actual now as it was back then. What I found truly unsettling, however, was the protagonist’s chain smoking: it’s not just that now we are more aware of the dangers inherent in smoking than we were back then, just as it’s not only that as a reformed smoker (I’m proud to say that I quit in 1982 and never relapsed) I now look at it as a ghastly habit – there was so much virtual cigarette smoke in the book that I often felt the need to air the room…. 😀

Apart from these minor distractions, The Black Echo proved to be a very compelling read, one that blends intriguing characterization and an interesting plot that managed to surprise me at several turns, encouraging me to look for the other books in the series: this is Michael Connelly’s debut novel, and it shows already a firm grasp of pace and characterization, so that I know I can only expect the rest of his works to keep improving from this remarkable starting point.

Storywise, I found the depiction of the city of Los Angeles quite intriguing: forget the glamor that’s part and parcel of the world’s entertainment capital, forget the endless, palm-lined avenues and the beaches where beautiful people laze in the sun – here you will get to know the dirty, shabby, ugly face of the city, its graffiti-stained walls, its concrete drainage ditches and the abandoned pipes where the homeless and the dregs of society take refuge. This far from rosy view of L.A. is mirrored by the stark depiction of a police department more focused on bureaucracy and internal politics than in crime-solving work: at some point we learn about Bosch’s partner’s alternate activity as a real estate agent, a job that gets more attention and energies than the man devotes to his primary one.  This is the main reason that sets Bosch apart from most of his colleagues: he’s grimly determined to go to the bottom of things, to bring justice to the victims, and he does so with a dogged persistence that stems from an event in his past, one that’s mentioned in passing here and will certainly come to dominate his attitude as the story moves forward.

What is interesting is that while Bosch’s dedication is admirable, he’s not portrayed as the proverbial square-jawed, unblemished hero: on the contrary he’s a deeply flawed individual – a lone wolf rather than a team player – one who seems to go out of his way to keep people at a distance or to be unpleasant, as if he enjoys aggravating them.  This aspect of his character is in synch with the overall noir atmosphere of the story, evident in the often blunt prose that nonetheless manages to be vividly descriptive. There is a darkness in Bosch’s soul that both keeps him apart from the rest of humanity and compels him to look in places others prefer to ignore: the book’s title refers to a feeling he experienced as a “tunnel rat” in Vietnam, the sensation of the darkness coming alive in those stifling, claustrophobic spaces – he lost something of himself in those tunnels, and only facing his fears he might find it again. There is a passage in the novel where we get a glimpse of Bosch’s mindset through the description of a painting that fascinates him, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks:

 

 

He mostly sees himself as the man sitting alone on one side of the counter, but there is a part of his mind that hopes he might be the other guy, the one sitting alongside the woman: it’s this drive toward normality, coexisting with his cynical acceptance of reality, that makes him such a fascinating character whose exploration is just as intriguing as that of the mysteries he needs to solve.

As a first foray into new “territory”, The Black Echo proved to be a very encouraging attempt, and it will certainly not be the last in this compelling series.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE ANIMAL CROSSING NEW HORIZON BOOK TAG

I’ve become addicted to these book tags recently, so once I saw this one at Suzy’s Cozy World I decided to try my hand at it: bookish fun is the best kind of fun after all!

Let’s dive in…

 

PAST VILLAGER: Who is a character you found when you were younger that still has a place in your heart?

That might very well be the lady Jessica, from Frank Herbert’s DUNE: where I was always captivated by the concept of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, I loved how she would defy her training and the Sisterhood’s goals out of love for her mate and her son. Given the time in which the original Dune was written, Jessica represents a breakthrough in the depiction of female characters.

This art concept of Lady Jessica comes from Mindofka at Deviantart.

BLATHER’S BLATHERINGS: Recommend a historical fiction book that you think everybody should read.

For this I will need to go back several decades in my reading history and mention the amazing books from Finnish author Mika Waltari, starting with The Egyptian and moving on to The Etruscan and The Roman: although the details of those stories have become quite blurred by time, I remember them as very engrossing reads and as fascinating windows on the depicted cultures.

CELESTE’S WISH: What is a future book release you wish you could read now?

That would be, without doubt, the ninth and final book of The Expanse, by James S.A. Corey: this book has no title yet, nor a publication date, but I’m beyond curious to see how the authors will wrap up this amazing space opera series, although I will be very, very, very sad to bid my farewells to the characters I have come to appreciate and love.

TIMMY & TOMMY: What is your favorite sibling relationship in a book?

Even though they are not related by blood, Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen, as the only two surviving members of the thieves’ family built by Father Chains, are as close as brothers, not just in spite of their differences but because of them, given that their personalities compensate for each other’s faults. Their ties of brotherhood and the rarely expressed but very strong bond of love between them is one of the best features of their story.

THE EASTER BUNNY: A popular book character that you’re not a big fan of.

I will have to risk the ire of many of my fellow bloggers here but I have to point my finger at Mark Watney from Andy Weir’s The Martian: I found the overall tone in the chronicle of his survival on Mars to be too cheeky and frivolous to really endear the character to me, and while I could understand the need to keep his spirits up in a very dire situation, there was not enough introspection to balance out the flippancy. For once, I found out that the movie was better than the book in this respect…

NOOK’S LOANS: An author you’d give all your money to.

There are several authors on my “automatic buy” list and there are too many of them for me to choose from, so I would find it very difficult to have to play the game of favorites here…

THE SISTERS ABLE: What is your favorite fictional family (found or otherwise)?

This is an easy one: for me THE fictional family is represented by the Fellowship of the Ring – a group of people united by a common goal and becoming closer than family through shared dangers. It’s a theme I encountered often in my reading, but the Fellowship was my very first example and they will always be at the top of my preferences.

IT’S A C+: What is a book trope you don’t like that keeps popping up?

Insta-love and love triangles rate very high in my catalog of tropes that tend to make me run for the hills at high speed, but there is one that annoys me to no end: a main character who looks unassuming and is shortly revealed as gifted with incredible powers, or who transforms from wallflower to hero/heroine practically overnight. What is otherwise labeled as “Mary Sue”…

THE WANDERING CAMEL: What is your favorite book set in a land far away from yours?

I will have to mention Dune again: what could be more fascinating than a world covered in endless deserts and scoured by killer winds, where you have to wear a specially designed suit to reclaim drinking water from your body and where giant worms roam the sands? Dune fired my imagination from the first time I read it, and it still holds a special place in it.

WHAT WOULD DODOS DO?: A fictional land you wish you could fly away to at any moment?

Middle Earth, of course! And the beauty of it is that I actually could do that, since we all know that it’s located in New Zealand… 😉

Reviews

NETWORK EFFECT (The Murderbot Diaries #5), by Martha Wells

 

How do I love thee, Murderbot? Let me count the ways…

Network Effect was one of my most anticipated novels for the current year, and it delivered on all fronts: I was of course mildly concerned that the transition from novella size to full-length book might not work as well as expected, but that was not the case. On the contrary I hope that future installments in the saga of our beloved Sec Unit will maintain this trend, making me – and countless other Murderbot fans, I’m sure – quite happy with its continuing adventures.

The story in short: after relocating to Preservation Aux with its former client – and now not-friend – Dr. Mensah and her enlarged family, Murderbot is still trying to balance newfound freedom and the still present threats against Mensah, the last of which left her with some residual PTSD. The colony’s open-minded attitude is in direct antithesis to the corporations-ruled rest of the galaxy, making Sec Unit’s  protection duties even more difficult.  A planetary survey run by some of Mensah’s family members is cut short due to a vicious pirate raid, and as the Preservation ship makes for home they are attacked and captured by a mysterious group based on a vessel that’s an old acquaintance of Murderbot, although it behaves in a strange, disquieting fashion.

What follows is a high-octane adventure where a mystery about alien artifacts mixes with corporate greed, an abandoned colony and some heated battles in space and planetside: to say more would be a huge disservice – this story, like the others preceding it, must be enjoyed with as little prior knowledge as possible. The detail that I can safely share is that, in this case, more is better: the broader narrative space gives us more chances to delve into Murderbot’s psychological makeup, its evolution as a sentient being and the meaning of freedom and choice for artificial intelligences. A coming of age story together with a hero’s journey, told with a satisfying balance between humorous quips and deep introspection.

As usual, the tale is told from Murderbot’s point of view as it struggles to understand the “strange” behavior of its charges, especially when it does not compare with previously recorded experiences or with any kind of human custom learned through the huge amount of media that Sec Unit loves to consume: more than ever before we see how the fictional series it’s addicted to are the bridge between itself and humanity, the key to decipher our puzzling ways, and the means to make itself more like them – although Murderbot would strongly deny that last… In Network Effect media also becomes a sort of liberating factor, the window on a different way of being offered to another Sec Unit as Murderbot presents it with the chance to get rid of its governor module and be something else.

In this respect there are some passages where the whole concept of constructs is brought into the light, and offers a terrible, inhuman vision, made even more so by the apparently dispassionate tone our ‘hero’ employs in all its musings: we know from the very beginning of this saga that Sec Units are composed of mechanical and organic parts (and I for one am quite keen to learn more about how those organic parts are obtained…), and that their main job is to protect the employers from harm, even sacrificing their own existence. The downside comes from the fact that in case of a dire emergency, the Sec Unit is abandoned to its destiny, just like one might abandon an unthinking piece of equipment – it’s such a “fact of life” that it’s also regularly portrayed in the serialized media Murderbot watches, and speaks loudly about the callousness of the corporate world. This might be the main reason Murderbot offers the choice of freedom to Three, as its brethren is designated, because it has realized the cruelty of the laws governing them.

[…] because I was a thing before I was a person and if I’m not careful I could be a thing again.

The same goes for the infamous governor module: it’s not just a control system, it’s also a self-destruct apparatus: when the distance between client and unit exceeds a given limit, for example, it destroys the unit itself.  One of Murderbot’s most chilling reflections, as it contemplates Three’s indecision about employing the hack for the governor module, uses this very example to state how it sees its journey from construct to person:

Change is terrifying. Choices are terrifying. But having a thing in your head that kills you if you make a mistake is more terrifying.

I love how Murderbot constantly denies its feelings while being literally inundated by them, how it manages to rationalize them to itself while fooling none of its human companions, just as I enjoy their amused conspiracy in allowing it to maintain the fiction: the person who seems to better understand this is young Amena (the best addition to the cast so far), and this shows in her interactions with Murderbot, which are a mix of teenager annoyance and adult empathy, resulting in the most delightful exchanges throughout the book.  I have come to the conclusion that since Sec Unit’s journey toward self-determination is still underway, it can be viewed as a teenager – still unsure of its role in the wider world and still prey to emotional storms – so that only another teenager is the most qualified to get on an equal footing.

Last but not least, Network Effect features the return of a previous character, one whose role was crucial in Murderbot’s transition from its former existence: ART is the cybernetic opposite of Sec Unit in many personality traits, and the two renew here their troubled relationship, complicated by some events that are an integral part of the overall story – they may be at odds, and even quarrel bitterly, but there is a profound, undeniable bond between them that gets delightfully explored in this novel and promises interesting developments for the next installments.  Again, I don’t want to say too much about this part of the story, except that ART’s is a very welcome return and offers new insights into what makes Murderbot tick.

Humans tend to be the “guest stars” in this series, leaving the spotlight to constructs and artificial intelligences, and yet the latter are the ones to offer the deepest and most emotional insights in the overall story. So… please Ms. Wells, can we have more Murderbot soon?

 

My Rating:

Reviews

The “WOULD YOU RATHER…” Tag

I saw this meme on Bookstoge’s blog and promptly chose to borrow it: these kinds of posts are quite fun to do and after a while they become addictive. Sort of…

1) Would you rather be a vampire or a werewolf?

Not an easy choice… Being a vampire does have certain advantages, like immortality and the ability to bewitch their victims and therefore not having to really work for their supper, if you know what I mean; but on the other hand a steady diet of blood sounds boring – not to say gross – and I would miss being able to spend the days of summer on a beach.  A werewolf, on the other hand, does not suffer from this limitation, but the monthly transformation at each full moon sounds painful and… my goodness, all that hair! What about a third choice? Something like this…?

Much more glamorous! 😉

2) Would you rather use magic or technology for an easier life?

Well, as Arthur Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, so I’m certain that any manifestation that looks like magic is nothing more than very clever technology.

3) Would you rather be invisible or able to fly?

I’d rather fly: after all this has been mankind’s dream since time immemorial….

4) Would you rather have gas or electricity?

Electricity is the winner! It lights and warms our homes, it cooks our food, it can power our cars (ok, we’re still working on that one, but we’ll get there…). There is no downside to it that I can see…

Well, ok, maybe this one…

 

5) Would you rather read fiction or non fiction?

I’m a Fantasy & SF book blogger. What do you think?  😉

6) Would you rather have sweet or savory snacks?

Savory, without doubt. Sweets tire my taste buds after a while, but I never get tired of salty snacks!

7) Would you rather have Indian or Italian food?

Since I’m Italian, and well accustomed with the plentiful array of foods our cuisine can offer, I can be easily tempted to try something exotic. And the food in Indian recipes is as varied and enticing as in Italian ones, so it would be an interesting journey!

8) Would you rather have a beachside house or a riverside cabin in the woods?

The beach of course! I love the sea, I love spending time on the beach or swimming so that the idea of a beachside house is something I’ve always found appealing.

9) Would you rather visit Asia or Africa?

Both. There are places in both continents that I’d like to visit, so a girl can dream, can’t she?

10) If you could only read one genre for a year, what would it be?

Science Fantasy – so I could have the best of both the worlds I love!

 

Adopt this tag! Join the fun!

Reviews

LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS (The First Law #3), by Joe Abercrombie

 

The long buildup created in the first two books of this series finds its amazing epilogue in this third volume, and in keeping with the style and overall mood of the story does not offer readers an upbeat ending – but that hardly matters as the characters’ journey is so compelling that it works just as well.

War and strife come from many fronts toward the Union and its capital Adua, where most of the action takes place: the Northmen, led by ruthless King Bethod, are moving steadily southward and the Union’s army finds it difficult to contain the barbarians’ forward momentum, despite the help from Bethod’s old enemies Dogman and Logen Ninefinger; the Gurkish are marching from the south to lay siege to Adua, where the sudden death of the king adds a further layer of trouble to a political situation in which complex machinations and back stabbing plots go on regardless of the impending danger.

Logen Ninefingers, together with the Dogman and his other comrades, has chosen to help Colonel West and the Union army in the fight against Bethod, his ultimate goal being to exact bloody revenge against the king of the Northmen, once his friend and now his bitter enemy. Jezal dan Luthar has returned to Adua a changed man, one whose greater desire is for a quiet life together with the woman he loves, but he’s unaware that a very different destiny waits for him in the city he calls home. Superior Glokta finds himself enmeshed in a many-layered web of intrigue in which the political maneuverings for the election of the new king are only the tip of the iceberg as he realizes that his very survival might be at stake. And Bayaz, the First of the Magi, seems to be everywhere, his long reach leaving nothing and no one safe from his mysterious goals…

There is so much that happens in this final novel of the First Law trilogy that certainly takes great skill to keep all the narrative threads and character journeys balanced, and Abercrombie manages that with apparent lack of effort as the situation drives inexorably toward the final showdown: the way the author moves between the various points of view and situations makes for a compulsive read that at times turns into oxygen-depriving anxiety, particularly during battle scenes, or a certain very realistic, very bloody duel where the tension almost transforms into physical discomfort.  While the outcome of the various plotlines remains uncertain until the very end and is reached through a series of twists and unexpected surprises, no one truly gets what they wanted or hoped for, as the old maxim about being careful regarding one’s desires shows its accuracy in several circumstances. Truly, no one comes out of this story unscathed, because events either overwhelm them, or change them profoundly, for good or bad: there is less humor in this final installment of the trilogy, even the gallows humor Abercrombie used all throughout the story, which here touches its bleakest moments. And yet it remains just as powerful and fascinating because of the underlying reality of its premise.

As far as characters go, I realized what a sorrowful one Logen Ninefingers is: a man whose destiny seems to lie in endless fights, both because of the nature of the world he lives in and because of his own nature and that of his… alter ego the Bloody Nine, but still a man with enough powers of introspection to understand that this is not a way of life, even as he acknowledges that there could not be a different one for him, no matter how much he might wish for something different.

He could’ve gone far away, and started new, and been whoever he wanted. But he’d tried that once already, and it had done him no good. The past was always right behind him, breathing on his neck.

There is a fascinating dichotomy in Logen: on the surface he’s the epitome of the savage warrior, a man who looks like a brute and who’s able to launch into mindless killing sprees; on the inside he’s gifted with great powers of understanding, of himself and those around him, that drive the ruthless self-analysis with which he recognizes the limited choices his former life left him: either go on with the endless, brutal struggle for survival, or to give in and accept the death he has been cheating for so long with the “still alive” mantra he recites after each bloody encounter.

Jezal dan Luthar is the character who sees the greatest transformation in the course of the story: he begins as a boorish dandy, interested only in drinking, womanizing and looking fashionable and wishing for glory and recognition. Where he partially adjusts his outlook through danger and hardship, he still retains some of his old flightiness until a massive, unexpected change in life shows him that the prestige and appreciation he craved for are only the outward trappings of duty and responsibility and that he needs to grow into the role that fell on him, or be crushed by it.  Much as I despised the Jezal of old, his capriciousness and shallowness, I was compelled to pity the man he becomes toward the end, because of the price he has to pay for it, something that reminded me of a very impassioned quote from my beloved Babylon 5, where Londo Mollari says: “When we first met I had no power and all the choices I could ever want. And now I have all the power I could ever want and no choices at all. No choice at all.” Tragic indeed…

As usual I left my very favorite individual for last – Sand dan Glokta. This potentially despicable character is instead the most relatable of them all, a man who was broken in body but not in mind and who has learned the fine art of survival in the most terrible of circumstances. Faithful to the dual nature of Abercrombie’s characters, he lives and breathes cynicism while secretly yearning for some of the joy that circumstances denied him, all the while trying to stay afloat in the poisonous atmosphere of Adua’s political circles.

The one good thing about every step being an ordeal. You soon learn how to tread carefully.

Friends are people one pretends to like in order to make life bearable. Men like us have no need of such indulgences. It is our enemies by which we are measured.

And that duality shows ever more clearly in the most dangerous circumstances, when his survival hangs by a thread and he appears ready to finally let go of the burden of his painfully crippled body, yet he welcomes any unexpected reprieve with phlegmatic relief: in a way I’ve come to believe that his continued survival, while certainly due to his ability to navigate the toxic circles he moves in, comes mostly from his apparent lack of fear for death, outwardly considered as a relief.   In a similar way, Glokta’s cynical approach is belied by his kind-hearted interest for the misfortunes of Ardee, his friend Colonel West’s sister, and the way the two of them become close by sharing a penchant for masking their deepest emotions with sarcastically delightful repartees: it’s through those interactions, and the way they affect their shared story, that the author offers the only glimmer of light and hope in the overall grimness of the story – a glimmer that feels both right and well deserved.

I’m glad I have still more books to explore in this world created by Joe Abercrombie, not to mention the upcoming ones in the new Age of Madness series, whose first volume A Little Hatred finally compelled me to read The First Law. This is a harsh, cruel world, granted, but it’s such a compelling one that making the effort to look past the blood and violence to the wonderfully crafted characters that people it becomes no effort at all.

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Books on My Summer 2020 TBR

 

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.  This week’s topic is:

BOOKS ON MY SUMMER 2020 TBR

This summer I would like to finish some of the series that have resided long on my TBR: these are all series I enjoy, but I tend to get distracted by the “new entries” I find for myself or, more often, thanks to the reviews of my fellow bloggers, so that at times long months elapse between one book in a series and the next one.

So the first part of this TTT dedicated to my summer reading plans is dedicated those series. Starting with:

 

Daniel Abraham: The Spider’s War (The Dagger and the Coin #5)

I have enjoyed this fantasy saga very much, and this is the final book, where the various narrative threads will come to their conclusion. While it’s possible to label this series as classic fantasy, there are a few interesting angles here, most notably the political influence of banks and the pressures they can exert on the power plays.

 

John Gwynne: Ruin (The Faithful and the Fallen #4)
John Gwynne: Wrath (The Faithful and the Fallen #5)

I discovered John Gwynne’s work when I read the first book of his new saga Of Blood and Bone, and I was immediately enthralled by his world where demonic and angelic creatures fight a long-standing, bitter conflict, so that I felt compelled to learn more about the story’s background through the previous series set some time before the current one. The titles of the two remaining books promise an engaging read, indeed…

 

Joe Abercrombie: Best Served Cold (First Law World #4)
Joe Abercrombie: Red Country (First Law World #5)
Joe Abercrombie: The Heroes (First Law World #6)

Another case of ex post facto back-tracking: the First Law trilogy had been languishing on my TBR for a long time, and it took the publication of his new novel, A Little Hatred, to finally drive me to read the series that brought him to fame. Now that I have finished the first three books I intend to continue with the volumes that are set in this same harsh and brutal, but totally fascinating world.  Best Served Cold will be a re-read, but it’s been so long since I discovered it, that I’m certain it will feel like something new.

 

Alongside the series that I want to finish, there are those that are still ongoing and whose new books I need to read as soon as I can because they portray engrossing stories that caught my attention from page one. And for these I’m changing genre from Fantasy to Science Fiction:

 

Gareth Powell: Light of Impossible Stars (Embers of War #3)

The adventures of sentient ship Trouble Dog and its crew should come to a close with this third novel in a series that rapidly gained a high place in my preferences. The previous book ended with a cliffhanger showing the galaxy on the brink of another devastating war, this time not between opposing factions but against a fleet of ships bent on eradicating all conflicts by extermination. To say that I’m impatient to learn what will happen would be a massive understatement…

 

W. Michael Gear: Unreconciled (Donovan #4)

This amazing series focusing on the colonization of a very hostile alien world is one of the best space operas I remember reading, and I’m very happy that the originally predicted 3 books have now gained a fourth installment and – hopefully – a few more after this one. There is so much to explore about Donovan and its colonists, not to mention the dreadful consequences of the space-translation technology that often results in ships being completely lost or facing nightmarish journeys.

 

And last but not least two new entries:

 

Harry Turtledove: Bombs Away (The Hot War #1)

I have wanted to read one of Harry Turtledove’s alternate history works for a long time, and when I saw the mention of this one I was immediately intrigued: the premise is that of the dreadful consequences of a nuclear war between the superpowers emerging at the end of World War II.  Probably not the most uplifting kind of story I could have picked, but still it’s worth taking a look at.

 

Michael Connelly: The Black Echo (Harry Bosch #1)

A definite change from my usual stomping grounds…

I have been thinking for a while about exploring new territory, and mystery is indeed the genre that most appeals to me besides fantasy and SF. By happy coincidence I have discovered on Amazon Video the TV show Bosch, inspired by the long-standing series written by Michael Connelly, widely acclaimed as one of the best authors of crime fiction: my enthusiasm for the TV show – so far the best procedural I have encountered in my “travels” – compelled me to buy Connelly’s first novel portraying his character, an unconventional, headstrong detective with a dark past. I’m curious to see where this foray away from dragons and aliens will lead me 🙂

 

And what are you planning to read this summer?

Reviews

THE OBSIDIAN TOWER (Rooks and Ruin #1), by Melissa Caruso

 

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

Having greatly enjoyed Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy, I was quite eager to sample her new work, and also curious to see her world from the point of view of the Raverran Serene Empire’s adversaries from previous books. Where the magic present in Raverra is controlled by placing jesses – i.e. restraining bracelets – on people endowed with magical powers, in Vaskandar mages are free to exert their powers, and the strongest among them rule over the realms to which they are intimately connected, engaging in endless strife for supremacy with their neighbors.  In Swords and Fire, looking at Vaskandar through Raverran eyes, this country seemed to pose a constant threat: military aggression against diplomacy; undisciplined magic against tight control of powers; authoritarian rule against the compromise of politics.  The Obsidian Tower looks on Vaskandar from the inside, and shows us that it’s indeed all a matter of perspective…

For four thousand years, the castle of Gloaminguard stood as protection over a magically sealed black tower: the family’s lore stresses emphatically that its door must remain closed at all costs. Ryx is the latest descendant of the family holding Gloaminguard, appointed warden of the castle by her grandmother, a powerful Witch Lord called the Lady of Owls. Ryx is however burdened by the impossibility of wielding her magic: in a family of vivomancers, mages with the ability to interact with the flora and fauna of their territories, the young woman is cursed by a killing touch – every living thing that comes into close contact with her is doomed to wither and die. As Gloaminguard is getting ready to host a meeting between Raverran and Vaskandran emissaries for the peaceful solution of a controversy, one of the envoys tries to circumvent the tower’s safeguards and is accidentally killed by Ryx as she tries to stop the ill-advised attempt of her guest.

Faced with the intricate task of juggling the consequences of the accident, the volatile political situation and the survival of her grandmother’s realm, Ryx finds herself enmeshed in a progressively dangerous game in which every new discovery leads to unexpected pitfalls and impossible choices, as the old menace from the newly-awakened Tower looms closer and threatens to plunge the whole world in a maelstrom of destruction.

The Obsidian Tower is a thoroughly captivating read, where the constantly raising stakes keep increasing the pressure, which at times becomes unbearable, because we see the situation unfold from Ryx’s point of view, so that the concatenation of events and the discoveries she makes along the way put her in an untenable position better described as “damned if I do, damned if I don’t”, and make the possible outcome quite unpredictable. Ryx is a brilliantly designed character, one that makes it easy to root for her: a mysterious childhood illness caused her blossoming vivomancy powers to deteriorate, turning into a life-sucking force that prevents her from any contact with living creatures – only a powerful mage, preparing for the onslaught of her magic, can survive her touch and so Ryx grew up in physical isolation, feared by everyone and needing to be on constant alert against any kind of proximity.

The sympathy Ryx engenders in the readers does not come from compassion for her plight, but from admiration for her inner strength and for her will to still be an effective member of her family despite the lethal handicap she suffers.  As the situation in Gloaminguard becomes more and more complicated, she draws from the well of strength and wisdom she built over the years and shows her worth as a balancing element despite the opposing political plays of the two nations and the unhelpful interference from some of her family members.  The only moments when she succumbs to wistfulness are those in which she observes the interactions between the members of the Rookery – a sort of super partes agency dealing with magical phenomena – and sees the easy camaraderie, the subliminal understanding born of shared experiences, and realizes how empty and bleak her existence has been, but still she refuses to let such feelings dominate her.

As for the Rookery, they represent the lighter side of the story: a combination of magical investigators and spies wielding gadgets that would be the envy of 007, they are a team composed by disparate individuals whose peculiarities contribute to the success of the group. We have a leader who is both bookish and action-oriented; a science enthusiast saddled with a terrible past; an infiltration agent gifted by a delightfully roguish personality; and a warrior who at times needs to be told that her sword is not necessarily the only answer.  The Rookery’s easy acceptance of Ryx, despite the danger she poses, is a breath of fresh air not only for the young woman herself, but for the reader as well, because it’s painful to see how she’s feared and shunned even by people who saw her grow up and seem unable to avoid the automatic warding sign they make at her passage.  Since the series’ title mentions Rooks, it is my strong hope that I will see much more of the Rookery’s antics in the next books.

Story-wise this novel is the intriguing introduction to a further exploration of the world created by Melissa Caruso: much as I enjoyed visiting Raverra and its Venice Republic-like world of politics and compromise, this glimpse of Vaskandar is even more appealing thanks to the unruly quality of its magic, the constant warfare (declared or not) between realms and the fascinating concept of connection between mages and their territory, so that nature itself, when necessary, can intervene over humans, either helping or hindering them. Or worse – there is a scene in The Obsidian Tower, involving a mad Witch Lord and thorny bushes, that had me wincing in sympathetic pain…

On this background are set interesting issues as friendship and trust, responsibility and duty, all rolled up with enigmatic prophecies from the past which can still have impact on the present – and probably the future, since this story is only at its beginning. And with such a strong beginning, we can only predict that the best is still to come.

 
 
My Rating:

 

Reviews

The Book Character Quarantine Tag

 

With many thanks to Ola from Re-enchantment of the World for tagging me, I have decided to sprinkle some much-needed humor on the health crisis still gripping our world on the heels of the Covid-19 spread. It’s been a harrowing time for us all, and for many it’s still a heavy concern, so if these memes help bringing a little smile to brighten the darkness, they are very welcome indeed…

And here we go: the tag requires me to name 5 or more of my favorite book characters and imagine what they would be doing if they were quarantined with us in the real world. I chose three characters from fantasy and three from science fiction. Perfect balance 😉

 

TYRION LANNISTER (from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire)

Oh, he’s one of the people who would suffer less from being locked down at home, provided he had enough wine and enough ladies willing to share his bedchamber – at the start of the story, at least, Tyrion used to be quite the ladies’ man after all!

 

FIELD MARSHAL TAMAS (from Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage)

I think he would pace back and forth like a caged lion, perusing maps and devising strategies so as not to be caught  off-guard once the quarantine was lifted. And of course driving his aides-de-camp crazy, with the sole exception of Colonel Olem, who would observe the Field Marshal’s antics through the smoke of his endless cigarettes.

 

SAND DAN GLOKTA (from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy)

Here is another character who would enjoy being cooped up at home and therefore not having to submit himself to the daily torture of stairs: as he observed more than once, the people of power he had to visit in the course of his duties always lived far above ground, and with his crippling infirmities, poor Glokta’s hate of stairs became quite legendary.

 

   

KIVA LAGOS (from John Scalzi’s Interdependency)

No doubt: she would swear, profusely and with great richness of expletives, about home lockdown, upset at the idea of the new dastardly schemes concocted by House Nohamapetan, which would certainly find a way to circumvent the rules and broker alliances behind her back.

 

MURDERBOT (from Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries)

Probably Murderbot would be exempt from self-isolation, since its organic parts would not suffer from contact with the virus. Just as probably it would be recruited by its human not-friends for the daily errands they would not be able to perform, and be deprived of some of its series-watching time. Which would be profoundly irritating, no doubt about it.

 

MILES VORKOSIGAN (from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga)

A confined Miles is a dangerous Miles, because his hyperactive mind needs to be applied to active duties, and being unable to move around he would certainly find new and more insane ideas to relieve his boredom. Someone should find some convoluted puzzle to unravel to keep him occupied and out of mischief…

 

 

So, who would you choose to observe during lockdown? Everyone’s invited: share the fun!

Reviews

STORMBLOOD (The Common #1), by Jeremy Szal

 

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

When Jeremy Zsal contacted me about reading and reviewing his debut novel Stormblood, I was very intrigued by the narrative premise but at the same time slightly concerned because of the story’s military SF angle, since that’s a theme that sometimes does not work for me, but I should not have worried: this novel offers such a unique blend of ideas that they all work to create an engaging, multi-layered plot which proves to be appealing on many levels.

Vakov Fukasawa used to be a soldier for the Harmony, a galactic confederation of races fighting against a brutal adversary called the Harvest, whose armies were laying waste to every planet they stormed across. To insure an advantage against the Harvest’s sweeping offensive, the Harmony called for volunteers to be injected with stormtech, an alien substance that made them almost physically invincible and addicted them to a constant rush of adrenaline, so they would feel no fear or fatigue.  In other words the perfect soldiers, called Reapers.

Once the war ended however, the Harmony found itself saddled with the problem of these super-soldiers, whose return to a normal life was made impossible by the stormtech bonded to their bodies and turning them into aggression addicts: a more or less successful de-programming procedure allowed them – those who survived it, that is – to be productive members of society, but still looked on with suspicion and fear because of the veritable ticking bomb fused to their bodies.

As the novel begins, Vakov is contacted by Harmony officials informing him that a black market form of stormtech is being distributed, turning citizens into dangerous addicts and systematically killing his former comrades – and it appears that Vakov’s long-estranged younger brother Artyom is involved in this criminal operation…

The novel’s framework certainly relies on action and adventure – and there is plenty of that, as Vak’s investigation moves across Compass, the asteroid where he lives, and intersects its many cultures and the various crime organizations which carved their niches there, plunging him into escalating levels of danger for himself and his allies – but the major attraction of this story comes from the main characters, their interactions and the important social and moral issues it deals with. Compass itself is a fascinating world, a hollowed-out asteroid in which different kinds of habitats have been created in the various levels, so that a visitor might move from shopping districts to seashore recreations, from night-club strips to ethnic enclaves: the descriptions here are cinematically vivid and all contribute to paint a rich, busy world where awe-inspiring wonders and spine-chilling dangers literally coexist side by side, offering a solid background to Vakov’s breathless scrambles as he pursues his foes or evades his chasers.

Vakov is an intriguing character saddled by a damaging past and by the heavy baggage of being a former Reaper, but instead of becoming a dark, tortured individual he tries to focus on the good things life still can offer him, like friendship or the sense of brotherhood  he still shares with his former comrades – and of course there is the unshakable desire of reconnecting with his brother and making amends for past mistakes, that drives him to literally face hell with dogged determination. Vakov’s personality is slowly built through the successful blending of his present experiences and the flashbacks of his past as a Reaper, the current adrenaline-rich investigation and the heart-wrenching jumps into his childhood with its deep well of pain and loss, and the final result is a very relatable character who has learned to embrace his darkness, knowing it will be a part of him forever, but still refusing to let it rule him. The actual war might be over, but the inner one Vakov is still fighting will go on as long as he lives, and he’s determined to win it.

The other characters sharing the spotlight with Vakov are slightly less defined, but with the breathless chain of events at the core of the novel it’s more than understandable: the proficient hacker Grim, Harmony officer Katherine Kowalsky and rebel Artyom are in a way the representations of Vak’s most important sides of life – friendship, camaraderie, family – and also the anchors he needs to avoid being subsumed by the alien DNA rampaging through his body. And that’s more than enough.

The core theme of the novel, though, remains its driving strength, particularly where it touches on issues of our present reality, like the trauma and disconnect experienced by soldiers once they return to civilian life after a harrowing war experience. In Stormblood these veterans did not just fight to insure everyone’s survival, suffering grievous wounds and the loss of their teammates, they also accepted to have their bodies modified in a permanent way that turned them into something not quite human anymore, and now they are shunned, feared, marginalized. It’s something we have seen in reality in the past decades and still see now: the ethical dilemma of turning people into efficient killing machines and then being afraid of them once the need for that ruthlessness is over. There is no easy answer to this quandary, of course, but the novel compels us to think about the issue, and to consider it from several angles – and for me this is always a plus in any story.

The many “souls” of Stormblood make for a very engrossing read – military SF, cyberpunk, mystery and space opera are all different facets of this novel, not unlike the various, fascinating levels of Compass. As is the case of those worlds within worlds, some sections are easily traveled and others require caution – I confess there were a couple of harrowing torture scenes which made my skin crawl – but this is ultimately a captivating adventure story with plenty of heart at its center, and also a very human, very poignant journey.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

REAL NEAT BLOG AWARD

While I love tag posts, particularly those that help me know my fellow bloggers better, my record in fulfilling them once I am tagged is far from stellar. I hoped to be able to fit this one into my Wyrd and Wonder 2020 schedule, but as usual I’m traveling on the path of good intentions – and we all know where that leads…

Anyway, with many thanks to Lashaan at Bookidote for calling me to task 😉 , here are the answers to the questions he posed:

 

1. IF YOU COULD DO SOMETHING BETTER THAN YOU’RE ALREADY DOING RIGHT NOW, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

That’s a tough one for a first question, when I still need to warm up… 😀

Jokes aside, I would like to be able to be more productive in my blogging activities, so that I could prepare some non-review posts in advance and participate in more book-related memes as many of my fellow bloggers do. For now, I will keep on enjoying theirs…

 

2. WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE THIS NEW DECADE (2020-2029) TO BRING TO YOUR LIFE?

Some traveling to new places – which right now sounds more like a fanciful wish than anything else: there are a few destinations that I’ve been thinking about along with my friends, like touring Australia (and New Zealand as well, why not? The Tolkien fan in me would like to see the place that became Middle Earth in our collective imagination). Hopefully one of these dream holidays might turn into reality.    

 

3. IS THERE A SEQUEL TO SOMETHING THAT YOU LOOK FORWARD TO?

**Looking meaningfully in the direction of Mister George R. R. Martin**

Enough said…

 

4. WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVOURITE STORIES IN ANY MEDIUM (COMICS, BOOKS, SHOWS, MOVIES, VIDEO GAMES, ETC.)?

This might call for a long list, so I will try to keep it down to a maximum of three in any category – except for comics, which I don’t read, and video games, that are well beyond any ability of mine. And of course I will stay within the confines of SFF, otherwise this would turn into a *massive* list…

SF Books: The Expanse, The Vorkosigan Saga, Dune

Fantasy Books: The Lord of the Rings (of course… 😉 ), The First Law trilogy, anything by John Gwynne

Tv Shows: Babylon 5 (which I love to quote at the drop of a hat), Farscape, Firefly

Movies (the ones I always rewatch when the opportunity arises): Alien(s), the LOTR Trilogy, Galaxy Quest.

 

5. WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR LEAST FAVOURITES STORIES IN ANY MEDIUM (COMICS, BOOKS, SHOWS, MOVIES, VIDEO GAMES, ETC.)?

Well, let’s say that I don’t enjoy reading or watching stories where characters are cardboard cutouts, plots cliché and predictable and where the readers’ or watchers’ intelligence is insulted.

 

6. WHAT DOES BLOGGING BRING TO YOUR LIFE?

The opportunity of sharing thoughts and recommendations with like-minded people, to see unexplored angles in the stories I’ve read – either those I loved and those I didn’t, because a widely different point of view can be as illuminating as one which agrees with mine. Oh, and of course an ever-growing, totally unmanageable TBR – but who’s complaining?

 

7. IF THERE’S SOMETHING YOU COULD CHANGE OF THE WORLD, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

I would like to do away with the extreme polarization that seems to affect every field of social interaction nowadays, and to poison any kind of discussion, no matter the subject at hand.

 

8. WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU COULD EAT RIGHT NOW?

Mango-flavored ice cream.

 

9. IF THERE WAS ONE MYTHOLOGICAL CREATURE THAT COULD EVER EXIST IN THE WORLD, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

I’ve always been fascinated by the fabled inhabitant of Loch Ness…

 

10. DO YOU THINK THERE’S A CURE FOR STUPIDITY?

Sadly, while I enjoy speculative fiction, I know there are limits to what I’m able believe… 😉

 

 

Ok, that was fun! If you enjoyed this tag, please feel free to join in – the more the merrier!