Reviews

THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB’S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES, by Grady Hendrix – #Wyrdandwonder

The word “vampire” in a book’s title is often enough to draw my attention, but here the connection with a book club, and the more than positive reviews from some of my fellow bloggers, made it next to impossible for me to ignore this novel. In the end, I found much more than I hoped for in Southern Book Club, because the fundamental horror of the genre is only the vehicle for the creation of a few intriguing characters and for some thought-provoking social commentary.  Will it be a perfect fit for the fantasy component of Wyrd and Wonder? I hope so,  because I think that the huge amount of weirdness of the story might make it a good candidate, even if it’s not set in some castle-dotted realm…

Patricia is your typical suburban wife (the story is set in the decade between the late ’80s and the late ’90s) with a workaholic, distant husband, two growing children and a lot of commitments – plus the recent burden of a mother-in-law whose health, both physical and mental, is declining at a rapid pace. One of the rare moments she can take for herself comes from the monthly discussions of her book club, and as the story opens she’s distressed because she had no time to read the current volume, the latest highbrow choice in what seems like a long list of intellectually worthy but uninspiring books.  The disaster of her presentation becomes the drive to create a more interesting club together with her friends Grace, Slick, Maryellen and Kitty, united in their inclination for thrillers and true crime stories. 

The quiet routine of Old Village, the suburb where Patricia and her friends reside, is however shaken by a series of apparently unrelated events: her elderly neighbor physically assaults her one evening, chewing off one earlobe, then dies in hospital not much later; the woman’s nephew, James Harris, takes residence in the now-vacant house, but has strangely nocturnal habits, no readily available ID and a lot of cash; Patricia’s mother-in-law is assaulted by a horde of rats (a truly horrible, blood-curling scene); and the close-by area of Six Mile is beset by a series of disappearances, followed by suicides, of young people believed to be under the influence of drugs.  The full picture seems to come together only when Mrs. Greene, once the caregiver for Patricia’s mother-in-law, presents her with clues that point to James Harris as a predator of a most unusual and shocking kind.  Patricia’s first attempt at calling attention to the man fails miserably, causing her a great deal of grief, and only when the danger starts encroaching on her children does she find the strength and the courage to go on the offensive again – but not alone…

There is little doubt that Harris is a vampire, no surprise there: it becomes clear from the very first time Patricia sets eyes on him as he lies comatose and shriveled, only to appear in full health the following day – that is, except for his intolerance to sunlight. And she sees him later on as he’s feeding on his latest victim, revealing all the inhumanness of his nature. But Patricia and her friends have a hard time unmasking him, for a number of reasons, all of which are guaranteed to fuel the readers’ anger, if they are so inclined: for starters, Harris has managed to insinuate himself in the social fabric of the area, his affable, pleasant demeanor gaining him easy entry in the homes on the neighbors – and let’s not forget what happens once you invite a vampire in your home… Then his early victims are all part of the black community: this is the deep South of some 30 years ago, after all, and no one seems to really care about the deaths of a number of kids from a low-income, run-down neighborhood – not the authorities, nor the otherwise “concerned” citizens – so that Harris knows he has an almost-unlimited reservoir of vulnerable prey to draw from.  Last but not least, the early charge against him comes from a group of women whose husbands are his friends and business partners and who are more than readily disposed to undermine their wives’ credibility, to silence them with scorn or violence, and to set them one against the other, to divide and isolate them.

What happens after that first, failed attempt is just as sickening as witnessing an actual vampiric assault, because that’s a scene rooted in the realm of fantasy, while the patronizing silencing of women – mothers, wives – is a sadly realistic scenario: worse, Harris also manages to infiltrate the only territory these women called their own, the book club, turning it into a male-driven society where the wives have lost their voice even in the choice of reading material.  Divide et impera: by sowing a barely concealed fear of consequences, Harris and his (more or less) unwitting cronies create an environment in which acceptance comes only from conformity, from compliance with the rules, where the barest hint at dissonance bears a heavy stigma and brings discrimination. It’s only when Harris’ greed gets the better of his carefulness and he starts targeting his neighbors’ children that Patricia finds once again her determination and enrolls her friends’ help to remove the threat to their families: where on one side this turns into a couple of prolonged, blood-chilling narrative sequences I still cringe in recollecting, on the other it showcases these women’s bravery and the power of their friendship. Not to mention the inner steel underlying their deep-seated outer politeness: “He thinks we’re what we look like on the outside: nice Southern ladies. Let me tell you something…there’s nothing nice about Southern ladies.”

These ladies are not perfect heroines however, their audacious endeavor marred by the realization that the drive to act only comes when their families are threatened, when some of them are subjected to intimidation and brutal violence aimed at ensuring their silence, a silence made easier because the victims were not part of their community.  The racial and social rift works fully in favor of Harris’ plan here, and even if ultimately the group of friends chooses to take matters into their own hands, there is a bittersweet flavor to the ending that acknowledges how theirs was just an action driven by the momentary need, and not a true change in outlook.

Still, I quite enjoyed Southern Book Club and its interesting mix of horror and social analysis and look forward to sampling more of this author’s works in the (hopefully) near future.

My Rating:

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Reviews

Wyrd & Wonder TAG: Authors/Books/Series on my TBR that I have to read yet – #Wyrdandwonder

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Talking about the road not taken – or rather the book(s) not yet read – is never easy for us book lovers, because we are all painfully aware of the sad differential between the huge number of books out there we want to read and the limited time we have at our disposal.

Here are some of the books that have been gathering virtual dust on my TBR for some time: I was drawn to most of them thanks to the reviews of my fellow bloggers, but other titles came along that got precedence, and these “poor darlings” ended up as… well, wallflowers, never called to the next dance because some dazzling passing beauty 😀 managed to distracted me.

At least I can make some amends by listing a number of the fantasy titles that have patiently waiting to be picked up – and renewing my promise to read them as soon as I can…

GIDEON THE NINTH

by Tamsin Muir – on my TBR since November 2020

DAUGHTER OF THE FOREST

by Juliet Marillier – on my TBR since March 2019

SIX OF CROWS

by Leigh Bardugo – on my TBR since October 2017 (and now that I have seen the first season of Shadow and Bone on Netflix, and enjoyed the segments focused on the Crows, this one must take precedence!)

THE EMBER BLADE

by Chris Wooding – on my TBR since January 2020

FARLANDER

by Col Buchanan – on my TBR since November 2018

THE SHADOW OF WHAT WAS LOST

by James Islington – on my TBR since December 2019

ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE

by Robin Hobb – on my TBR since November 2012 (I actually read this one but have totally forgotten it and will have to re-read it if I want to move forward with the series…)

TRAITOR’S BLADE

by Sebastien de Castell – on my TBR since August 2018

What about you, fellow bloggers and book lovers? What’s on your… Hall of Shame? 😉

Reviews

THE SPIDER’S WAR (The Dagger and the Coin #5), by Daniel Abraham – #Wyrdandwonder

Despite my best intentions, it took me over four years to come to the conclusion of this five-book saga, mostly because other titles kept distracting me from the goal, but now that I have finally reached the end I can say it was a very engaging and very satisfying read. 

The central theme of the series, as indicated by its name, is the duality of power: exerted by armies on one side and by the laws of economy on the other, in a constantly shifting tug-of-war that in the course of the whole story sees lands ravaged by conflict and struggling to resurface from its devastation. 

As the previous book, The Widow’s House, reached its end, the army from Antea was continuing its campaign of conquest and annexation under the banner of the Spider Goddess: Geder Palliako, the former nobody risen to the position of Regent for young Antean king Aster, still trusts the counsel of priest Basrahip but at the same time is unable to deny any longer the inner turmoil that comes from the realization that Antea is dealing with a war on too many fronts, and that even the evil power of persuasion of the priests’ voices can do little for tired, overtaxed and ill-supplied soldiers.

Geder’s adversaries – Cithrin bel Sarcour and the Medan bank; former mercenary Marcus Wester; Clara Kalliam, the widow of one of Geder’s first political victims, just to name a few – are pooling their forces to try and overthrow the Antean invasion and defeat the Goddess’ masterminds. It’s a multi-pronged assault, one which sees Cithrin on one side concocting a daring scheme based on “war gold”, which is nothing more than the invention of paper currency, and Marcus on the other planning to use the last surviving dragon, Inys, to strike the final blow. Clara, for her part, plays a subtle and dangerous double game from inside the enemy’s lines as the conspirators set up a daring scheme that involves suborning Geder himself.

It’s hard to summarize a story that has been running for five books and which sees here, in its final installment, a series of twists and turns that flow into a hair-raising epilogue – one that includes a dragon breathing fire and destruction – and to say the truth, the story itself looks less important than the characters driving it: throughout the series we saw these characters change – some for the best, some for the very worst – and the focus on their struggles always held my attention more than anything else. Daniel Abraham’s characters feel like flesh-and-blood people and particularly in this last book I felt myself invested in their individual journeys and I enjoyed the author’s way of not closing neatly those journeys but rather showing that they still had a long road to travel, even though it’s not one we will be able to follow.

Marcus Wester might be the archetype of the tired warrior carrying a painful baggage from his past, and at times he looked nothing more than that, but in the end he comes across as much more through his interactions with other characters, like Master Kit, the former spider priest turned actor, or like Yardem Hane, fellow soldier and laconic “conscience” whose sparsely worded replies have been a constant source of delightful humor throughout the story. Wester’s steadfastness is one of the rocks on which Cithrin’s growth can stand: from scared girl saddled with an important assignment to confident banker able to make or break the destinies of a country, Cithrin is the coin to Wester’s dagger, just as their dealings are the representation of the series’ dual view of the world.

My sympathies, however, have mostly focused on Clara Kalliam: I’ve been fascinated with her character from her appearance in the first book, and her elevation to POV figure made me quite happy because this lady is one of the players who enjoys the best focus in the course of the saga. At the start of her story-arc she is the accomplished wife and mother, the quiet, unassuming strength behind her husband’s power, and she fully comes to her real potential only by passing through the fire of tragedy and loss: far from diminishing her, the downfall allows her to shed the chains of convention and to play different roles – behind-the-scenes politician, revolutionary, spy – all the while hiding behind the masks of court socialite or frail old woman, and setting in motion many of the events that ultimately change the course of history.

The theme of roleplaying is indeed a recurrent one in The Dagger and the Coin: although some real actors are actual characters in the story, and their leader Master Kit is quite proficient at hiding in plain sight, everyone sooner or later must play a role – or many – and not just Clara. Cithrin starts by pretending to be older and more accomplished than she is, and then goes on affecting a brash certainty she does not possess; Marcus Wester charms Inys by feigning submission, and so on. In this world where the Goddess’ priests are able to detect lies, deception requires subtlety and often means walking on a tightrope over the abyss…

And then there is Geder: I don’t remember changing my mind about a fictional character as much as I did for Geder – where at first he elicited my sympathies, given how he started his journey as the proverbial fish out of water, his personality took some unexpected directions that made him loathsome. If he had simply turned into a villain, it would have been easy to hate him outright, but even when he is responsible for the worst atrocities, he finds a way to justify those choices as necessary and unavoidable, showing that he is as much a victim of circumstances as he is their enabler – a willing pawn, granted, but one who clearly enjoys the better consequences of those choices….  Here in The Spider’s War he goes way overboard, burning away any remaining dregs of pity I might have harbored because of his past: his desire for recognition, for respect, and the price he’s ready to pay to get them, turned him into a monster – a bumbling, insecure and troubled one, true, but still a monster. And for this very reason the way his narrative journey ends does not feel completely believable: I can’t say much about it because I want to avoid spoilers, but to me what happens does not have the “flavor” of an organic development.

This dissonance, and the way the ending winds down – almost with the proverbial whimper instead of the expected “bang” – are the reasons I can’t rate this final book as high as its predecessors, although I still consider The Dagger and the Coin one of the best fantasy series I have read so far, and Daniel Abraham as a very, very accomplished author.

My Rating:

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Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Wyrd & Wonder Edition – #Wyrdandwonder

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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 concerned the ten most recent reads – possibly with a one-line comment about the story – and I decided to adapt it for Wyrd & Wonder, showcasing the ten fantasy books I most enjoyed in the past few months.

THE SHADOW OF THE GODS, by John Gwynne

A breath-taking story of loyalty and courage in a fascinating Norse setting.

THE FALL OF KOLI, by M.R. Carey

The poignant end to a coming of age story and journey of discovery in a post-apocalyptic world.

BEST SERVED COLD, by Joe Abercrombie

Revenge does not warm your heart and it steals your soul, but makes for a gripping story…

THE MASK OF MIRRORS, by M.A. Carrick

Adventure and treachery, conspiracies and politics – and a city steeped in magic.

CALL OF THE BONE SHIPS, by R.J. Barker

Sailing ships made of dragon bones, avian windcallers and crews you come to love and care for.

HOW TO RULE AND EMPIRE AND GET AWAY WITH IT, by K.J. Parker

From mediocre playwright to city ruler: sometimes destiny has a strange sense of humor…

THE OBSIDIAN TOWER, by Melissa Caruso

Her touch is death, but her heart is in the right place, and friends can make a huge difference.

FOUNDRYSIDE, by Robert Jackson Bennett

A ninja-like thief and a talking key for a once-in-a-lifetime heist.

MOONTANGLED, by Stephanie Burgis

Another adventure in the alternate England where women rule and man practice magic – but not always.

BLOOD OF EMPIRE, by Brian McClellan

The last (?) book about the Powder Mages: a bittersweet goodbye to a great saga.

Reviews

WYRD & WONDER 2021: Once More Unto the Fantastic Breach! – #Wyrdandwonder

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It’s again time to celebrate the return of Spring with the May blogstravaganza dedicated to all things fantastic! Our indefatigable hosts Imyril, Lisa and Jorie will once again steer us toward the multifaceted realms of fantasy, where imagination knows no bounds and our ways of exploring these lands will include books, movies, games and everything else the human mind can conceive. And sometimes even the inhuman…

If this is your first time, don’t worry: HERE you will find the map leading you to the magical pavilion where all the fun goes on – just remember to visit the SIGN UP tent first and to check the ACTIVITIES SCROLL, so you don’t miss any of the fun! And bring a treat for the guardian dragon, to insure a smooth passage!

Dust off your TBRs, saddle your favorite steed and take to the road: adventure awaits…

Reviews

TRUNK MUSIC (Harry Bosch #5), by Michael Connelly

The more I move forward with this series, the more I’m glad that I started reading it propelled by my enjoyment of the TV show it inspired: not only it offers a welcome digression from a steady “diet” of science fiction and fantasy, therefore helping me avoid reader fatigue, it also showcases an engaging character whose personal journey is still ongoing as he deals with interesting murder cases, the complex social microcosm of a big city like Los Angeles and the even more convoluted political ramifications between law enforcement agencies.

Returning to work after the compulsory leave of absence described in the previous book, Harry Bosch is eager to go back to solving homicides, and the first one he’s called to investigate looks like a mob hit: a body is found in the trunk of an abandoned Rolls Royce, and once the victim’s identity is revealed (a small-time producer of porn movies with a side occupation as a money launderer) everything seems to point toward organized crime.  Some details, however, don’t add up and the investigation leads Bosch and colleagues along several paths, both in L.A. and in Las Vegas, where the victim was a frequent visitor: it’s here that the detective makes an unexpected encounter with someone from his past, a chance meeting that is fraught with uncomfortable memories and unrepressed emotions. As the hunt for the killer becomes more complicated Bosch faces a web of misdirections and red herrings – as does the reader – but nothing, not even a false accusation of having planted evidence, will distract him from following his leads with the usual dogged determination, until he solves the case.

In my review of the previous book in the series I spoke of a turning point for the main character, and here the differences in personality and approach to situations are indeed remarkable: Harry Bosch is still relentless in his pursuit of the truth, and he’s still prone to ignoring the rules when they clash with his methods, but while in the past he might have looked possessed by an inner darkness, now he’s more at peace with himself and this attitude reflects on the way he deals with people. It’s possible that having finally solved his mother’s murder he gave himself the permission to be more human, to be happy and to reach out to other people: this new approach is evident in his relationship with his old-time partner Edgar and with the new one assigned to the team, Kiz Rider, who is a brilliant, on-the-rise detective. Rider, and Lieutenant Grace Billets, Bosch’s new chief, are welcome additions to a story that was begging for a few female figures of substance: in particular I was happy for the arrival of Billets because I enjoyed her TV character very much, and because she marks a huge difference from the previous commander, since she is stern and tough but also knows how to give some slack to her detectives when it’s necessary to get things done.

While this “new” Bosch still indulges in his lone-wolf attitude at times, here in Trunk Music we see how he’s able to work with a team – of which he has been given command with a show of faith in his skills as a coordinator – and to ask for the cooperation of other people instead of getting it literally at gunpoint as he used to do in the past: it’s as if he’s been trying to rebuild himself, just as he’s now rebuilding the house that was wrecked by the earthquake in the previous book, and the parallel about new beginnings extends also to his private life, where the chance encounter I mentioned before leads to a momentous change that sees him involved in a stable relationship.  One of the reasons I’m enjoying this series so far is Connelly’s ability of showing his character’s evolution through the experiences he deals with: in this book he faces his own feelings for a woman from his past and comes to admit his vulnerability where she is concerned, but at the same time he’s able to avoid being distracted by those same feelings in his search for the truth. What comes out is a more rounded – and more human – character than the one presented at the beginning of the series, and makes him more relatable and sympathetic.

Of course the investigative parts of the story are no less intriguing than the characters peopling it: the old-fashioned detective activity is still present, of course, with witness questioning, search for connections and so forth, but some details of the forensic angle start to come into play more than they did before – which never fails to intrigue me because I’m totally fascinated by the scientific side of police work. And in this particular case there are several clues that seem marginal at first, only to be later revealed as pivotal in the solution of the case: nothing is left to chance here, there are no hanging threads that end up nowhere, there is instead a fascinating organization at the roots of these stories that leads the reader, alongside the detectives, toward the final revelation and the surprises awaiting there, because there are no foregone conclusions here and the sustained, never slacking pace of the story carries you from step to step while keeping you totally immersed in its progress.

An important consideration, that became more noticeable in Trunk Music, is how the books and the TV series they inspired are similar but never the same: since I encountered these stories in their televised form first, I thought that the “excitement factor” might be diminished by my foreknowledge of the way they went, but this fifth book confirmed how the TV scripts changed many of the pieces on the playing field, allowing me to enjoy the books because of the marked differences between the two mediums. Which leads me to believe that I have still many surprises awaiting me down the road…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE NEVER HAVE I EVER TAG

Thanks to fellow blogger Bookforager, who tagged me with this amusing list of question, here is a new bookish “challenge”, created by Madame Writer and lastly passed down the line by Bookforager: I encourage you to read her answers as well!

The rules for this tag require to link back to the original creator and to the person who tagged you, and to add one more prompt of your own devising. Also to tag five more people, but in this, as it’s my usual habit, I’d love to extend the invitation to anyone who would like to join the fun.

And now, let’s face the… dragon! 😀

Never have I ever… read a later book in a series before reading the first book.

Well, it happened with Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Warrior Apprentice, which was my introduction to her Vorkosigan Saga: thankfully enough, the author always gives some background to her stories, so I never felt truly lost in there. 

Never have I ever… burned a book.

Book burning carries such a bad vibe, not just for book lovers, but in a more general sense: in fiction it happens on stories like Fahrenheit 451 and in reality it happened in many historical instances, and in both cases it’s bad, just BAD.

Never have I ever… Read a book I knew I would hate.

Of course not! Life’s too short and there are too many books I know I would love, so why waste my time on one I would loathe?

Never have I ever… written fanfiction about my favorite books.

Not about books, no. But I have indulged, once upon a time, with a SF tv show I particularly enjoyed… 😉

Never have I ever… loved a book when I was young that I hated when I got older.

It would be next to impossible to go from passionate love for a story to outright hate: worst case scenario, I might not find the same depth of enjoyment I experienced way back when, but if a book left a mark on my heart, it stays there forever.

Never have I ever… dressed up as one of my favorite literary characters.

I’m far, far too old for that now, and when I was young enough to enjoy cosplay it was not a “thing” as it is now – and besides I was far too shy to even take it into consideration! 😀

Never have I ever… hated a book by an author I love.

If an author earned a special place in my reading preferences, it’s difficult – if not impossible – that they would write a book I might hate. Maybe I could end up slightly disappointed, but that’s all.

Never have I ever… gone into a bookstore to buy one book and come out with many more.

Come on! Be serious! What true book lover would come out of a bookstore with just ONE book? Books are gregarious creatures and they love company, so it’s a moral imperative to avoid making them feel lonely on your bookshelves… 😛

Never have I ever… read the end of a book before reading the beginning.

I passionately HATE spoilers, so no – of this at least I am not guilty!

Never have I ever… read a book without the dust cover.

Dust covers are useful, granted, but they are a real pain while you’re reading the book so no cover, thank you very much!

Never have I ever… skim-read nearly half a book.

More times than I care to remember! This is usually a bad sign because it means the book fails to keep my attention, and it usuallly means it’s going to end in the DNF pile. 

Never have I ever… pretended to have read a book I haven’t read.

I’m a bad liar. Enough said…

Never have I ever… watched the movie before reading the book.

Well, sometimes one discovers great stories thanks to their filmed version, so there’s no shame in that. My latest discovery have been the Harry Bosch books by Michael Connelly: if I had not been captivated by the TV series, I might not have found out that Connelly writes very intriguing crime stories.

Never have I ever… had a book boyfriend.

What’s that, Preciousssss?

Never have I ever… read a history or anthropology book for fun.

Maybe not as far as those two subjects are concerned, but I still have very fond memories of my Greek myths encyclopedia from high school…

Never have I ever… picked up a book based on the cover alone.

Of course not! Who does? TSK!  😛

Never have I ever… bought multiple books in a series without having started it.

Hello, my name is Maddalena and I am a series hoarder…

(Also a book hoarder, but series come in bulk!)

Never have I ever… kept reading a series even though I didn’t love the first book.

This looks like a trick question connected to number 3, and the only answer is: why should I?

Never have I ever… read a book so quickly that I don’t remember what happened by the end.

All right, my memory might not be what it used to when I was younger, but I still have some working neurons, you know?

And my addition to this tag:

Never have I ever… “forgotten” to return a borrowed book.

That’s something I’m really proud of: I always return borrowed books – I just would be happier if other people behaved the same way… (((SIGH)))

So here we go: take the plunge and share your answers!

Reviews

WINTER’S ORBIT, by Everina Maxwell

On my own I would probably not have given this novel a second glance: slated as a mix between SF and romance, I might not have considered it as the right choice for my tastes, but a couple of reviews from fellow bloggers I trust convinced me to give it a chance, and with hindsight I’m glad I did. Granted, there is an element of “fluffiness” to this story that would not normally enter into my reading parameters, but sometimes it’s a matter of the right tone for the right moment, and since I had just finished a very intense novel, a lighter one felt exactly like what I needed.

Iskat is the pivotal world in a multi-planet alliance which is in turn part of the Resolution, a galaxy-wide confederacy managed by the mysterious (and not a little weird) Auditors: to insure political stability, the inter-planetary treaties between Iskat and the other worlds are sealed by marriages, whose validity is periodically scrutinized by the Auditors.  The relations between Iskat and the vassal world of Thea have never been ideal, and close to the next Auditor’s visit, the Iskan half of the political marriage, Prince Taam, dies in a flight accident: to affirm once again the ties between the two worlds, the Iskan Emperor orders a swift marriage between Prince Kiem, Taam’s cousin, and the Thean widower Jainan.

Kiem is something of a loose cannon, always involved in some kind of mischief and therefore well-known to the gossip press: he’s far from happy to be tied in marriage with a person who looks his exact opposite, and is still in mourning as well, but politics require everyone to do their duty, so the two start their married life, not without a lot of awkwardness and great difficulties in communication. As Kiem and Jainan walk the uneasy path of shared obligations, a number of details about the deceased Team seems to point toward shady deals and the suspicion that his death might not have been an accident. While political pressures mount and the clues hint at a far-ranging conspiracy, Kiem and Jainan find themselves getting closer, and more and more involved toward uncovering what might turn out to be a great danger to the stability of their area of space.

Let me start by dealing with the proverbial elephant in the room, i.e. the romantic angle represented by the narrative thread that sees Kiem and Jainan move from total strangers, forced into a marriage of convenience, to lovers. This is a frequent theme wherever romance is involved, and there was no doubt, from the very start, that these two would walk in that direction: the uncomfortable personal interactions, the misunderstandings, the lack of proper communication – all these elements are the classic staples of this kind of story, as is the situation that sees them alone and in danger after a flier crash, and leads them to finally speak frankly and acknowledge their mutual attraction.  I am now aware that this novel started as a work of fan fiction, and as such it contains many of the tropes that fuel this kind of work, but it is all handled with such a light touch that it’s easy to lie back and enjoy the ride, even when you know from the start where it will end, even if the transition from virtual strangers to lovers feels a little too swift.

There is however a section of the story that seems somewhat forced: Jainan is indeed the poster child for the abused spouse in a toxic marriage, including the feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy at the roots of his psychological makeup, but it seems strange that none of the abuse he suffered before ever surfaces when the story is narrated through his point of view. As a reader I saw the symptoms were there, in glaring neon light, but none of it is ever brought to the surface until the moment of the “big revelation”, that is hardly surprising for the readers, unlike what happens to the characters.  And while Kiem, despite his outward recklessness, is shown as a people’s person, able to make easy connections in any social situation, he never suspects the real reason for his spouse’s self-effacing attitude until he discovers hard evidence of it. I understand the need to stretch things a bit to enhance the reveal’s impact, but I would have liked a more organic approach.

Still, despite these minor quibbles, the overall story turned out to be quite enjoyable, presenting a galactic milieu where economic and military interests are at odds with each other, and where politics can be dangerously cut-throat: of course the background takes second place to Kiem and Jainan’s journey, and sometimes the details of this world are shunted to the sidelines in favor of the main story, to the point I sorely missed a closer look at this galactic empire and its many intriguing customs, like the one where gender identity is expressed through the materials employed in ornaments, which in turn made me wonder whether there are no other distinguishing factors that point to an individual’s gender. This detail is not explained and it remains one of my top curiosities about the novel, and the main reason I remain somewhat dissatisfied with the background, even though the overall flavor of the book reminds me somewhat of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan universe, which in turn makes me feel quite at home, thanks to the blend between the serious and the humorous that lends a very pleasant quality to the story.

I don’t know if Winter’s Orbit is a stand-alone novel or the first in a series, but I hope on the latter because I would not mind a deeper exploration of the setting – maybe with a little less romance 😉 – and a focus on some of the secondary characters, like Kiem’s amazing assistant Bel, to get a wider and deeper understanding of this version of humanity’s future.

My Rating:

Reviews

CREATURES OF THE NIGHT BOOK TAG

Always in search of interesting bookish tags to explore, I found this one that’s part of a collection of very useful prompts: besides being intriguing, thanks to its focus on weird creatures, it has the added value of having been shared by fellow blogger Lisa at WayTooFantasy – be sure to visit her link for more book tag fun!

And now, let’s go with the critters! 😀

VAMPIRE

FIFTH HOUSE OF THE HEART by Ben Tripp: this is one of the best vampire books I ever read, where nasty, brutal bloodsuckers (no languorous sparklies here!) are pitted against a group of vampire hunters sponsored by no other than the Church. A blood chilling and breath stopping story, indeed.

WEREWOLF

THE SKIN TRADE by GRR Martin: a tense, dark novella from Martin’s collection Dreamsongs, and an interesting take on the myth of the werewolf, focused on the investigation of a weird chain of murders. Besides enjoying the written story, I had the pleasure of listening to its audio version read by amazing Claudia Black, which added great value to the tale.

ZOMBIE

FEED by Mira Grant: the first volume in her Newsflesh series, which takes a new approach to the zombie apocalypse, showing how the world deals with the roaming, flesh-eating undead once the worst of the horror has passed. Well, sort of… And there are bloggers as central figures, which made it even more interesting to me.

GHOST

THE SHINING by Stephen King: we are all familiar with this King classic, set in an isolated mountain hotel haunted by terrifying ghosts that can prey on the mind of the unwary. Among the less fearsome, but still scary, are the two little girls that keep appearing to young Danny…

WITCH/WARLOCK/SPELLCASTER

SNOWSPELLED by Stephanie Burgis: first story in the Harwood Spellbook series, a continuing saga about an alternate England in which men possess magical powers and the women deal with politics and the running of the country. That is, except for magically gifted Cassandra Harwood! The covers for these novellas are as delightful as the tales they tell 🙂

FAIRY/FAE

THE CRUEL PRINCE by Holly Black: again a first volume in a saga, one where the fae are showed for the nasty, merciless, callous creatures they are, although there are some humans that can stand up to them and play at the same game with equal levels of ruthlessness.

DEMON

PENRIC’S DEMON by Lois McMaster Bujold: a fantasy tale from one of my favorite SF authors, and a series I still have to explore past this first offering. The demon in question is Desdemona, and she end up inhabiting young Penric’s body, gifting him with some special powers and changing his life forever. The usual Bujold humor applies delightfully here.

ANGEL

BLUE ANGEL by Phil Williams: there is no true angel here as we think of them, but the titular Blue Angel is a weird manifestation among the even weirder happenings in the city of Ordshaw, where magic and strangeness walk hand in hand with the more mundane aspects of life.

ALIEN

OUTPOST by W. Michael Gear: I can’t imagine anything more alien (and dangerous!) than the colony world of Donovan, where everything is out to maim, kill and/or devour the unwary humans that venture outside the fence of their main settlement. Lizard-like predators, flocks of killer birds, flesh-eating plants and so on: survival on Donovan is not exactly a given, but this world makes for a very thrilling exploration.

SUPERPOWERED HUMAN

JADE CITY by Fonda Lee: in this alternate Earth, and particularly on the far eastern island of Kekon, the wearing and wielding of jade confers great strength and resistance, and allows the wearer great physical and mental feats. The strife to amass as much jade as possible is at the center of this compelling story that sees warring families fight for supremacy in a beautiful and immersive background.

And what are your favorite beings that go bump in the night?

Reviews

COLLATERAL DAMAGE (ST: TNG), by David Mack

After the heart-stopping intrigue of Control and the quieter transition of Available Light, I finally reached the conclusion of this narrative arc focused on the infamous Section 31 and its heavy-handed involvement in Federation policy.  Well, in truth there are two more books that deal with past events leading to the present confrontation, but I discovered their existence only recently, and I plan to read them in the near future: I’m aware it’s a strange, backward way of following the development of this storyline, but on the other hand the novels I read so far did a great job of filling the background and making those issues understandable, so it will be more a matter of connecting the dots than anything else…

Back to Collateral Damage: after the discovery of Captain Picard’s involvement in the plot to depose a former, corrupted Federation president, who was then killed on the orders of Section 31, the Enterprise’s captain is called back to Earth to testify about his connection to the events; although he was not aware of president Zife’s murder, he still has to answer for his past role in the conspiracy to remove him from office, and the tribunal will have to decide if he should be deferred to a court martial.  The novel’s secondary plot focuses on the Enterprise chasing a group of rogue Nausicaans who interfered in a Starfleet Intelligence operation, stealing a powerful weapon they intend to use as a blackmail tool to pursue their desperate goal.

While I have sometimes complained about the thinness of B-plots in tie-in novels, this is not the case here: on the contrary, I can easily say that Collateral Damage stands on two outstanding A-plots that enhance and complement each other, turning the story into a compelling narrative and ultimately dealing with the same kind of dilemma – the consequences of one’s actions and choices – from two different points of view.  In the few instances in which we saw Nausicaans on screen, they were depicted as quarrelsome and brutish, but here their acts – reprehensible as they are – come from desperation and loss, since their homeworld was destroyed and the handful of survivors did not receive the expected support from a Federation far too distracted by its own problems. 

This thread of the novel held my attention in many ways: for starters it offered an in-depth view of the Nausicaan culture, a rich and layered one that contradicts those few glimpses seen on screen, the effect strengthened by the use of exotic language as a means of conveying the sense of alienness of the characters. Then there is the question about the lack of Federation response to the tragedy suffered by the Nausicaans: as I remarked in previous reviews, this is not the Federation envisioned by Roddenberry, and it’s quite far from the utopian ideal of its creator – it’s an entity whose mistakes can have shocking consequences and worse, it’s guilty of turning a blind eye toward the suffering of others, showing the first(?) cracks in what so far had seemed a flawless exterior, allowing the repercussions of that failure to bite it, hard, on the behind.  

The resolution of this narrative line is one that feels right in many ways: first because it owns the Federation’s past mistakes and then acknowledges that there is always room for mutual understanding, even in the worst circumstances, and second because it allows Worf, who is in command of the Enterprise for this mission, to shine as a character and to show enormous growth, something that rarely happens in tie-in novels where the unwritten rule seems to require crew-members be kept in a sort of unchanging limbo. This author is clearly not afraid to take those characters and let them move forward on the strength of past experiences and gained wisdom, and they benefit from this choice by becoming their own persons, delightfully three-dimensional and believable.

Where the Nausicaan angle offers a lively and often tense narrative, the part of the novel dedicated to Picard’s trial – the one I was eagerly waiting for – is equally fascinating, sustained by a keen focus on the technical elements of the proceedings, one that turns those scenes into emotionally gripping moments.  There is a great deal of well-portrayed courtroom drama here, a theme I enjoy and that is built up by the apparent desire of prosecutor Louvois to find Picard guilty and to ruthlessly destroy his image and career. It makes for some very tense narrative segments, where I experienced genuine worry for the path the events were taking, but the true core of the story resides in the two-pronged question of the far-reaching consequences of one’s actions on one side (a mirror to the theme of the Nausicaans abandoned to their destiny), and about the dilemma of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons on the other.

There is of course no clean-cut answer to the second question: removing corrupted president Zife was a necessary choice given the situation at the time, but we see Picard wrestling with the moral implications of his actions and feeling that some of the other conspirators’ stigma has tainted him as well. Although not involved in the decision to kill Zife, he perceives that his integrity – the character trait he clearly most cares about – has been compromised and that, as he tells Louvois in their parting exchange, “None of us is innocent […]. Not anymore.”  This loss of innocence is shared by the whole Federation, for a long time unknowing hostage of an organization that forged policy with means that went dramatically against everything the Federation itself stood for.  It’s a bitter acknowledgement, but again it feels more true – humans being humans – than the polished, utopian perfection we used to see on screen; and no matter how bleak this consideration looks, it leaves room for the hope that humanity might learn from its mistakes and keep striving for better ideals.

With Collateral Damage I once again found myself enjoying a tie-in novel that had the courage to explore the darker side of its background, and in so doing went well beyond the pure entertainment value of its brethren, making me think about serious issues while keeping me thoroughly engrossed. A rare and welcome combination, indeed.

My Rating: