Reviews

A FLEET OF KNIVES (Embers of War #2), by Gareth Powell

 

Embers of War, the first volume of Gareth Powell’s space opera saga, brought to my attention a new series that looked more than promising both in narrative scope and in writing quality, but it’s with this second book,  A Fleet of Knives, that I became even more invested in the story as it raised the overall stakes in a major way, turning into a breathless, compelling read that cost me several hours of missed sleep as I kept promising myself “just one more chapter”….

The background: a galaxy still recovering from the aftermath of a devastating war and looking for peace and stability, which are nonetheless hard to find. In Embers of War we met several key players in this scenario: Sal Konstanz, a ship’s captain from the House of Reclamation, a peaceful organization devoted to rescuing endangered spacers; Annelida Deal, former commander of the fleet that put an end to the war by ordering a heinous act of genocide, and hiding under the assumed identity of poet Ona Sudak; and the sentient ship Trouble Dog, once part of that attacking fleet and now working for the House of Reclamation to expiate its sins.  At the end of the first book, Trouble Dog and its crew managed to avoid a rekindling of the old conflict, while waking a million-ships-strong alien fleet from its millennial slumber: the Marble Armada, this is the collective name for these knife-shaped ships – hence the book’s title – had been tasked by its creators to uphold the peace and by rousing it Trouble Dog set in motion the events portrayed in A Fleet of Knives.

Captain Konstanz and her crew are dealing with the traumas sustained in the course of their last mission, especially the captain who feels guilty both for the loss of a valued officer and for the way one of her decisions affected the ship’s newest crewmember: when a request for help comes their way, the interpersonal balance aboard Trouble Dog is a very delicate one indeed.   For her part, Ona Sudak has been tried and convicted for her war crimes and as the day of her execution approaches, a commando frees her from the prison and takes her where the Marble Armada is stationed: the sentient alien fleet is ready to comply with its mandate – prevent any kind of war by taking away the means to do so – and therefore it needs a leader who is prepared to act with dispassionate callousness – and who better than the person who destroyed an entire world?

The third major plot point focuses on a group of new characters: the merchant ship Lucy’s Ghost is maneuvering toward a derelict Nymtoq generation vessel, now abandoned, to reclaim all salvageable items in the hope of shoring up the finances of the crew and its captain, “Lucky” Johnny Schultz: attacked by a trans-dimensional entity, Lucy’s Ghost suffers heavy damage and the survivors are forced to repair to the Nymtoq ship while waiting for help from the House of Reclamation. Their problems go from worrisome to deadly when they must fight for their lives in a vessel swarming with nightmarish creatures coming from the same trans-dimensional fissure that disgorged their attacker.   

If all of the above were not disturbing enough, the Marble Armada, led by Ona Sudak whose guilt feelings and scruples seem to evaporate all too quickly in the wake of her newfound power, launches on a sort of holy “war to end all wars” by destroying everyone who dares to oppose it: the ships’ twisted logic about the application of violence in the present to eradicate it in the future offers a chilling, if enthralling, prospect for the series’ next developments and the terrifying consequences for a humanity driven to remain planet-bound to maintain the peace – a peace enforced at gunpoint….

Where the previous book introduced the main players of this saga and set the background for it, A Fleet of Knives moves to the next level by blending action and characterization in a seamless and gripping way: Trouble Dog and its crew are dealing with various degrees of PTSD and it’s both sad and fascinating to see how they react to it and how they deal with each other while trying to still be effective as a rescue ship, to perform the good, selfless deeds that now more than ever are their main reason to go on. And amid such turmoil, the crewmember who shines the brightest is the alien engineer Nod: I already commented, in my previous review, about how delightful a character he is, but here I looked forward to his chapters and loved his simple, but heartfelt, way of looking at his broken family as something that could – must – be repaired. Because fixing things is Nod’s life and joy and his philosophy does not contemplate the impossibility of mending something in need of repair.

Trouble Dog arrives at a similar conclusion from a different angle: once it was part of a “pack” of ships whose components included human and canine DNA, so that now it misses that pack and the sense of belonging it offered, until it realizes that it can find it right here, with its crew, the family it needs to keep safe and protected – at any cost.  One of the best details of these novels comes from the ships’ avatars, which manifest as human beings changing their appearance according to the circumstances and therefore expressing a sort of emotional statement from A.I.s who are not devoted to absolute logic: and so we are treated to the many incarnations in which Trouble Dog appears to its crewmates, or the various little-girl manifestations of Lucy’s Ghost, its component brain cells coming from a dying child whose father choose to preserve her as a ship’s interface many years back, and therefore expresses itself as a combination of young innocence and long-standing wisdom.  On this note it’s interesting to note that the interface A.I. from the Marble Armada chooses to appear not as a human being but as a huge bear, and given the fleet’s ultimate goal this is a disturbing consideration indeed…

These interesting characters – even the less savory ones, like Ona Sudak – are complemented by a compelling narrative that’s part mystery, part action and part moral debate on the price of peace and the ways to implement it, opening a completely new chapter in the story as it steers toward the brewing galactic conflict, the eventual resistance to the Armada’s overwhelming advance and the new, terrifying danger represented by the inter-dimensional creatures roaming in space.  To say more would mean spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of this series, one whose next book I more than look forward to reading.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story: NIGHTINGALE (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry. A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

If the previous story in this collection, Grafenwalder’s Bestiary, was not exactly a cheery read, Nightingale proved to be a veritable slide into horror: I don’t recall ever feeling such depth of dread with Reynolds’ works before, even when he described the awful transformations visited on flesh and metal by the Melding Plague. Still, it was the kind of story it’s impossible to tear one’s eyes away from, and despite the novella-length of the work I rushed through it in no time at all.

In the aftermath of a bloody war between two factions called Northern Coalition and Southland Militia, the planet of Sky’s edge has found some sort of balance, although the scars from the conflict are not completely healed: one of the items still left unchecked concerns the need to bring to justice the infamous Colonel Jax, whose name is associated with unspeakable atrocities. For some time it’s been believed that Jax had died, but Martinez, an older, wealthy man, has obtained fresh information about the Colonel’s presence aboard a hospital ship that was active during the war, the Nightingale. Gathering a small group of specialists, Martinez enrols them as a strike team to board the powered-down Nightingale and retrieve Jax, presumably lying in suspended animation aboard the ship.

What looks like a fairly simple operation turns quickly into a nightmarish journey through a huge vessel that looks dormant but is not exactly unresponsive – a ship that during the conflict was managed by a high-level AI capable of conducting autonomously many of the tasks required from a human team of medics in a war zone. As the team journeys through the darkened, empty ship, the sense of dread keeps intensifying, not only because of the ever-increasing difficulties the group encounters in opening interconnecting airlocks, but because the Nightingale seems to be waking up in increments, reacting to the intruders’ actions and actively making their progress more difficult and dangerous. Until they find out the ultimate truth about Nightingale’s AI and the effects produced on a sentient, but artificial, mind by witnessing the horrors of war in the flesh, so to speak…

I will leave to you the discovery of the final reveal about the ship’s choice of building a war memorial that would equal the impact of Picasso’s Guernica in the conscience of humankind, and will only tell you to brace yourselves, because you will need it.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE GREY BASTARDS, by Jonathan French (DNF)

 

This book sat for some time on my TBR before I finally picked it up, despite my curiosity to sample it given the many enthusiastic reviews from my fellow bloggers and the promise of a different kind of fantasy story, one where the proverbial bad guys – in this case half-orcs – were the heroes and not the villains.

The novel approach was indeed a welcome change from the usual narrative tracks, but unfortunately the delivery did not work for me: to be honest I kept trying to remember that with a debut work I should have given this book a wider latitude and exercised more patience, but when I reached the point of “too much is indeed too much” I saw no other option than to give up reading and move toward greener pastures.

The Lot Lands are a harsh, dangerous place where – after long conflicts and a devastating plague – a multitude of creatures has come to live: reclusive Elves, rampaging Centaurs, a smattering of Humans and the half-orcs, the product of a forced mating between humans and full-blooded orcs. The latter now and then still trespass into the area in search of plunder, and that’s where the half-orc bands – or hoofs – come into play as a defensive force, mounted on specially bred wild pigs called barbarians whose loyalty and intelligence are highly valued.

Jackal, Oats and Fetching (the only female of the Grey Bastards hoof – and probably the only female ever admitted into a band) are very close comrades, and at the very beginning of the book they clash with a troop of human soldiers killing one of them and setting in motion an unpredictable chain of events whose consequences might be ranging even farther than they can imagine, or that I could imagine, since I chose to desist at roughly one-third of the way.

As I said, the premise is an interesting one, even though the story went all over the place with no indication of a precise concatenation of events: it’s quite possible that the disparate situations DID come to a confluence at some point, but since I lacked the willpower to reach it I guess I will never know…. What turned me away from The Grey Bastards was a growing annoyance with two of its major components, one being the foul language used with irrepressible glee: granted, in the kind of background and company described in the book, profanity would be a major ingredient, but the frequency with which it was used went well beyond any reasonable narrative need and quickly turned into the kind of fixation for repeating a newly-learned four-letter word we see children indulge in, using and abusing it for its shock value. I am far from prudish and understand that harsh language and a harsh world go hand in hand, but the effectiveness of vulgarity is inversely proportional to its frequency, so that the profusion of f-bombs, crude sexual references and their many combinations quickly went from colorful to bothersome, and a distraction from the story itself. More than once I was reminded of something a wise friend told me once about the excessive use of coarse expletives in any conversation: that it’s a filler for the lack of appropriate language to express one’s thoughts, and ultimately the indication of a lack of thoughts as well. Not exactly the best endorsement for any story…

My other point of contention comes from the portrayal of women: again, I know that the chosen background is far from conducive to female agency, but why are the women in this story relegated to the roles of either caregiver (just one, as far as I went) or whore? No, that’s not right: there are also one woman warrior, with a chip on her shoulder that’s even bigger than the hog she rides on, and an elf who was the prisoner of a foul creature and the victim of orkish rape, which resulted in a pregnancy. Not the best kind of representation, from my point of view. The proverbial “oldest job” appears to be the only one ever considered for women, because in this world there seems to be no place for, I don’t know, a village baker or vegetable grower: if one does not find employment in the orphanage where youngsters are raised, all she has to look forward to is the brothel, or the bunk of a warrior as his personal bedwarmer. That’s all, and it’s a dismal summation, indeed – hopefully just an over-the-top description of this world and not the author’s view on life…

Before posting this review I re-read the ones from my fellow bloggers that compelled me to try The Grey Bastards, and came to the conclusion that this might be a classic case of “it’s not you, it’s me”. Not my kind of book, sorry.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story: GRAFENWALDER’S BESTIARY (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry. A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

If it’s possible to feel intense, visceral hate for a fictional character, one that exists only in the pages of a book, then this is what I felt for Grafenwalder, the protagonist of this story. He’s one of the spoiled wealthy individuals belonging to the Circle, a club of collectors of rare animals: in the Circle, status is defined by the number of one-of-a-kind specimens one is able to collect, the members striving to outdo one another not only in the uniqueness of their find, but in the way the hapless creatures are displayed, so that the shock value of each presentation is often achieved at the expense of the captured being.

And I consciously use the word ‘being’ because the prizes Grafenwalder is so proud of are not necessarily animals as such – not that such exhibits would be less monstrous in that case, considering the thoughtless cruelty the man shows toward his captives – but also sentient creatures from different evolutionary paths, or former human beings twisted into nightmarish shapes by surgery or genetic modifications, to the point of not being recognizable as human anymore.

Lately, Grafenwalder found himself in competition with Ursula Goodglass, a recent member of the Circle and therefore, in his eyes, an outsider in need of a lesson in humility: when he learns that the woman acquired a rare amadryad at the same time he did, he bribes the transport’s captain to kill the creature destined to Goodglass, and once the brief satisfaction for this low trick does not yield the expected results he vows to shock her and everyone else with a truly unique specimen.

The genetically engineered beings called Denizens that were showcased in the story A Spy in Europa have now become something of a myth, but through a shady dealer Grafenwalder manages to acquire what might be the very last one, preparing a special glass cage where the conditions of pressure and temperatures found on Jovian satellite can be replicated: here is where the base nature of the man’s spirit is shown in all its disgusting detail, and the cruelty he visits on the poor Denizen made me sick to my stomach. But even the very rich and powerful are not exempt from retribution…

This is not an easy story to read – or at least it was not for me – but I appreciated how Reynolds managed to keep a sort of detachment from what he describes. Still, I’m going to have a few nightmares about this one for a while…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BLADE ITSELF (The First Law Trilogy #1), by Joe Abercrombie

 

Joe Abercrombie’s famous trilogy has been languishing on my TBR for a long, long time: I kept promising myself I would read it “one of these days”, but also kept being distracted by other titles – that is, until his new work was announced and I was lucky enough to be able to read A Little Hatred, the first book in a new series set a few decades after the events of the First Law. Far from finding myself lost in the “next generation” setup of the new story, I was so intrigued about the past of this world that I did not waste any more time in finally fulfilling that long-ago promise to myself – and you know what? Reading A Little Hatred did not spoil my enjoyment of this prequel story, but rather enhanced it because having met some of these characters or their offspring, it felt as if I already knew them well, and wanted to know more.

The Blade Itself is both a character study and a way to set the background for what will certainly come in the next two books: on hindsight it almost looks as if nothing much happens, and yet this book turned into a compelling read, made even more extraordinary once I discovered this was Abercrombie’s debut work – not that it feels like one, on the contrary. The main setting is in the Union and its capital city Adua: a place of culture and refinement, but also of political machinations and unrest, especially since the Union is threatened from the expansionist moves of the Gurkish Empire in the South, and from the northern barbarian tribes now united (more or less forcefully) under the self-proclaimed king Bethod. And this just to name the two more powerful opponents…

 

They are jealous of one another, all those people. It may be a union in name, but they fight each other tooth and nail. The lowly squabble over trifles. The great wage secret wars for power and wealth, and they call it government.

 

In this troubled scenario we meet several characters, defined by ambiguous morals, unclear goals and even uncontrollable violence, which nonetheless manage in a few short chapters to capture the readers’ attention and in some case to make them genuinely care for the outcome of their journey. These characters are indeed where Abercrombie excels, managing to present us with people who might be scary, or unlikable, while at the same time showing some different side to them that makes us question our first judgment, and compels us to learn more.

The first one we meet is Logen Ninefingers – so called because he lost one of them in a battle: a Northern barbarian, once the champion of King Bethod, he’s now on the run from his former ruler and from the savage Shanka who murdered his family. Separated from his band of comrades he now believes dead – and who believe him dead in turn – he moves south trying to leave behind the violence that’s been such a huge part of his life, trying to build himself into a different man and to stay alive as long as possible.

 

To fight my enemies I need friends behind me, and I’m clean out of friends.[…] It’s been a while since my ambitions went beyond getting through each day alive.

 

But struggle and strife seem to follow him like a shadow, and even away from his old haunts he must keep fighting, at some point revealing where the moniker “Bloody Nine” comes from, and it has nothing to do with the number of his fingers…

Then there is Bayaz, an ageless mage with an unfathomable agenda: through him the author gives us a peek into this world’s past and its legends (but are they, really?) of godlike beings battling with each other and laying the foundations of the present. This character seems to hover on the dividing line between a fraud and the real thing, just as his temper swings from the jovial to the thunderously dangerous, and while it’s clear he does possess some uncanny powers and has a goal in mind, given that he’s gathering a number of people for some nebulous quest, it remains to be seen what that goal is and where it will take the story.

More down-to-Earth is young, brash captain Jezal dan Luthar, training for the annual combat Contest that should grant him the respect he craves, although he prefers to spend his days drinking, gaming and chasing women. Only the encounter with his comrade Collem West’s sister, Ardee, will prompt him to seriously train and finally make something of himself, although curing his entitled selfishness might take something more than the desire to shine in the girl’s eyes… Jezal is the only one of the main characters I could not truly warm to, and even the few insightful peeks into his personality failed to change my mind, therefore so far he remains the one I love to despise.

Last but by no means least, Sand dan Glokta. Once a proud, valiant warrior, he was captured by the Gurkish and tortured for years, only to be returned to his country broken and crippled. Military career over, he’s now a torturer for the Inquisition – and who better than a man who suffered unspeakable pain to administer it to the King’s enemies? Glokta should have been a loathsome character, and yet he’s the one I ended caring for more than others: a man living in constant pain, moving with extreme difficulty (his thoughts about the daily battle with stairs are darkly and delightfully whimsical) he’s quite resentful of healthy, vigorous people like Jezal, who represent everything he’s lost, but the person he hates most is himself, his helplessness, and that to me is his saving grace, together with the wicked sense of humor he applies indiscriminately to himself and others. Moreover, despite being a skilled torturer, he does not enjoy what he does – yes, he relishes the inevitable results of his work, but not the means with which he obtains them. And there is something of a soft spot in him, which comes to light in a specific circumstance, that speaks of the man’s complexity and layers and makes him very intriguing. Together with Logen, he’s the character I will look for in the next books with heightened interest.

The minor characters are equally compelling, even though their allotted time is shorter, and this is especially true for Logen’s lost companions, some of which – like the Dogman – I’ve come to know in the first book of the new saga, while storywise The Blade Itself achieves the same degree of skilled balance between grimness and humor, drama and amusement that I found so compelling in A Little Hatred: the interactions between characters, the battle scenes, or a breath-taking chase through the streets of Adua, all come across with such a vibrant quality that the story takes life in your mind’s eye with cinematic quality. And leaves you wanting for more…

 

My Rating:

 

Reviews

My 2019 in books

 

Happy New Year!!!

 

As a new year begins, it’s customary to look at the one that just ended and see how it went, book-wise. While 2019 went reasonably well, at least according to my usual reading range, this time I did not manage to read as many books as in previous years, and I believe the “culprits” are both the usual lack of time and the number of DNFs that did not even make it to the point where I felt comfortable enough to express an opinion – even a negative one. There have been a few false starts of this kind which meant some lost time between books, but who’s counting?  😉

Anyway here is the list of the 48 books I read in 2019:

 

 

The titles were fairly distributed among my favorite genres, with 19 for Fantasy, 16 for Science Fiction, 7 for Urban Fantasy, 4 for Horror and 2 Thrillers. All in all a good overall sample.  As for ratings, the lion’s share goes to the ones who gathered from 4 to 5 stars, which means that I mostly enjoyed what I read and reviewed, and only one book received a 2,5 rating. Not bad.

A separate groups of books includes the seventeen novels in the Vorkosigan Revisitation I started in November for Sci-Fi Month – always an amazing and delightful experience – and ended on the last day of the year: I did not actually re-read these (lack of time, what a surprise…) but simply re-acquainted myself with them, also thanks to a re-read I had managed a few years back, and was pleasantly surprised at how much I still remembered. But well-loved stories do indeed tend to stay with you… 🙂

 

 

My projects for the new year? Well, since no reading plan survives contact with the enemy  😀  I always try not to make any, but at the very least I’m set on finally reading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, because his new novel A Little Hatred finally led me to dust off those books which had been long languishing on my TBR, and also read the stand-alone books in this series. And to balance out the Fantasy with some Science Fiction (I’m a Libra, I love balance!) I would like to finally sample Neal Asher’s Polity series, since all of my fellow bloggers who mention it, do it with great enthusiasm.

And I guess that’s enough. What about you? How did your 2019 fare, book-wise? And what are your 2020 projects?

 

Reviews

Vorkosigan Saga: CRYOBURN, by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

And here we are at the last chapter of my Vorkosigan revisitation – yes, there are two more stories, The Flowers of Vashnoi and Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, which were published after I began blogging, so you can follow the links if you are interested – but as far as the older books are concerned, this is it 🙂  and I can’t hide my sadness at the thought I will have once again to say goodbye to the world and characters I enjoy so much.

Cryoburn is not one of my favorite Miles stories, although it’s a nice one that hits all the usual themes (and a few new ones as well) while moving smoothly along: still, like it happened with a couple of its predecessors, I can’t shake the feeling that Bujold has said all she wanted or needed to say about Miles & Co. and that the famous forward momentum, her main character’s defining element, is petering out.

In this novel our energetic Imperial Auditor is on the planet of Kibou-daini to attend a conference on cryonics, the planet’s major industry: here people who are afflicted by conditions for which there is no treatment yet, or simply waiting for a cure against aging, choose to be cryo-preserved while waiting for the solution to their problems. The mega corporations offering such services have come with time to gather considerable political power and are of course seeking to extend it beyond the planetary limits.  Miles’ covert goal is to investigate what looks like a corporate financial takeover aimed at the Barrayaran empire, and at the start of the novel we see him in a bad state, drugged and wandering through the catacombs where frozen people wait to be reawakened.  It’s a chilling and unsettling beginning, one that throws you straight into the middle of things with no knowledge of what has transpired, not unlike disoriented and hallucinating Miles.

Luckily for him, he meets twelve-year old Jin, a boy whose anti-corporation activist mother was frozen because of alleged health problems: Jin has been living on the roof of a building where many of Kibou-daini’s dispossessed dwell, and he kindly offers Miles a shelter where the Auditor is able to come back to his senses and then launch into a very Milesian campaign against the evil corporations and their goals.

Cryoburn feels somewhat different from the usual Miles caper, and I’ve come to believe that it’s because there is no immediate danger to his world or the people he cares about here, apart from the scam he’s come to break down and that looks more like an inconvenience than anything else. In his previous adventures he was laboring for far higher stakes, like issues close to his heart, to Barrayar’s interests or related to his survival, while here the whole situation has the flavor of a job – a well done job, granted, but nothing so thrilling as what happened in the past, despite a few intriguing goings-on.

The Miles Vorkosigan we meet in Cryoburn is a more sedate person as well, which is unsurprising since he’s now 38 years old, a father of four and well-established in his role as Auditor. Still I do miss the old Miles and his mad antics, even more so when they manage to surface as a mere shadow of the past ones – and if faithful Armsman Roic is always ready to try and keep his liege lord away from trouble, those glimpses feel more like nostalgic echoes of what was, and end up coating this story with a thin layer of regret, at least for me.

On the positive side, this quieter but more assertive Miles is a joy to behold when he deals with young Jin and his sister: it’s clear from those interactions that he had ample practice with his own children and that he’s now able to relate to young people with tact and kindness –  a side of him we had not seen before and which rounds his overall character in a nice, but unsurprising way considering the parenting example he could draw inspiration from…

What makes this book interesting is the underlying theme of life and death, and the impermanence of both in light of cryo-preservation techniques, not to mention the political implications that come from the individuals’ voting power handed down to the corporations while they lie frozen, which sounds quite crazy. There is also a thought-provoking question about the dubious advantage of waking up, decades after one was frozen, to find the world so changed that the returnees are unable to find their place back in it. And all of the above takes a special significance for Miles since he was indeed technically dead in the cryo-chamber where the Dendarii stowed him in Mirror Dance, and he had to walk a long road to a recovery that was far from complete.

As light and fairly amusing as Cryoburn is, it does pack an unexpected punch in the end – a very abrupt end brought on by three words that leave Miles as shell-shocked as the reader. If you read the book you know what I’m talking about…   And both shock and the ensuing grief at those words are compounded by the short drabbles Bujold employs as a sort of coda to that staggering revelation, the event seen through the eyes of some of the characters we have come to know and love: more than Miles’ it was Gregor’s point of view that brought me to tears.  Not something I would usually associate with a Vorkosigan novel….

 

 

My Rating: