Reviews

COME WITH ME, by Ronald Malfi

Having discovered Ronald Malfi’s works through the very engrossing novel that was Black Mouth, I was eager to further explore this author’s production and choose this book which is quite different in tone and storytelling but is equally riveting.

Aaron Decker lives a very normal, very contented life with his wife Allison: he works as a translator of Japanese books, she is a journalist in the local paper, and for the last five years they have enjoyed each other’s company and mutual complicity, but as the story starts Aaron’s world crumbles into pieces as Allison is killed in one of the many freak shootings that happen in shopping malls. Stricken by grief and unable to make sense of what happened, Aaron stumbles on a motel’s receipt showing that Allison stopped there during one of her husband’s absences from home, and suspecting his wife of having been involved in a secret relationship he tries to retrace her steps in the months prior to her demise.

What Aaron finds, however, is quite different: for years – even before their meeting – Allison had been on the hunt for a serial killer, a man who certainly murdered Allison’s own sister and probably a number of other girls across the country.  As he tries to unravel the string of clues Allison was following, Aaron discovers a side of his wife, and a part of her past, that was unknown to him and he decides to follow in her path, to bring the man to justice and accomplish what Allison was unable to do.

What Come With Me boils down to is an all-encompassing obsession, one transmitted from Allison to Aaron, both of them trying to come to terms with the grief of an unbearable loss and finding in the single-minded focus of the hunt a reason to live and – maybe – learn to process the death of a loved one.  There is also a supernatural thread running throughout the novel, mostly centered on Aaron’s perception of a presence in the house, something he wants to believe is a remnant of Allison: lights blink on and off in the bedroom closet, the house’s virtual speakers come on playing Allison’s favorite songs, a shadow seems to linger in their shared study.  But it’s unclear if these manifestations – if they are indeed messages from the Great Beyond – are real or if they are the product of Aaron’s grief and his desire to connect with Allison in some way.

Aaron could somehow be classified as an unreliable narrator: much of the clues he pieces together don’t seem to fit, and it’s easy to suspect that he might not be as objective as his search would require, and his relentless pursuit of the killer takes on the color of obsession more than anything else, as if Allison’s own obsession had taken hold of his mind. It’s also intriguing to observe that the narrative is almost a long letter to departed Allison, to whom Aaron addresses his feelings and the progression of his quest.

Come With Me is a very atmospheric story imbued with a strong sense of impending doom, and at the same time it’s the exploration of two characters whose surface appearance at the start of the novel changes drastically as the narrative unfolds: on one side we have Aaron, a guy who looks level-headed and pragmatic and who sets himself on the hunt for a killer by taking risks and almost courting danger with what looks like reckless abandon, almost as if his loss had engendered a death wish; on the other we have Allison, a woman capable of leading a double life, keeping her darker pursuits from her husband – one of the most poignant facets of the story comes indeed from Aaron’s discovery of a side of his wife he was never able to perceive before.

I must confess that at some point in the novel I believed that it had become mired in Aaron’s grief-fueled search, as if his actions were leading him (and therefore the reader) in aimlessly repeating circles, and it also looked as if the mix of disparate clues, paranormal manifestations and weird findings (like the eerie collection of dolls he finds inside an abandoned factory) were taking me nowhere: I was ready to throw in the proverbial towel, moving forward only through sheer curiosity to see where this apparently ungainly mess was headed.   Luckily for me, that curiosity made me persevere and arrive at the final resolution where all the little pieces of information the author had scattered throughout the book came to fruition, not only where the identity of the serial killer was concerned, but more importantly where the haunting phenomena Aaron experiences finally paid off. And they did so in the most shockingly unforeseeable way.  I am not going to say any more because of spoilers, but I was pleasantly stunned by the way some sentences or some seemingly unrelated occurrences contributed to such an unexpected ending.

There is still a final consideration I need to share: the inciting incident for this novel comes from a very real and very personal event concerning the author, described in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. If you tend to skip these tidbits of information, don’t do it here, because these words will offer a further shade of meaning to the overall story.  One that confirms Ronal Malfi as one of the writers I must keep on my radar…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE EXILES TRILOGY KICKSTARTER

Readers of my blog may have seen past reviews concerning the works of Australian author Ashley Capes, whose novels are mainly focused on epic fantasy. Remember the Book of Never? This time I’m doing something different because Mr. Capes asked me to promote his kickstarter for the new series he’s working on: the Exiles Trilogy.

You will be able to find all information pertinent to the kickstarter HERE but I want to pique your curiosity with some intriguing details.  From the author’s own words, the trilogy is centered on the journey of four POV characters and their struggles after being exiled from their land, their homes and their loved ones. 

Each of them will have to deal with their own demons before it’s too late to come together and face down rapidly spreading darkness of the Moon Father, a pervasive creature behind the chaos in their lives.

These four characters sound quite intriguing, indeed:

Iggy was born without a face, forcing him to use his family’s psychokinesis on a perilous search to find a powerful deity who can help… at a cost.

Mei is desperate to protect her brother Iggy but as she follows him into banishment she finds herself tormented by divided loyalties. 

Anyo (known as the “beggar prince”) fights to win back his honour in bloodthirsty nation contemptuous of those who seek peace. 

Rokura, nobleman and assassin, must chase down rebels who have kidnapped a bastard prince, but soon finds he can no longer trust his King.

Books 1 and 2 of the saga are already in the advanced editing stage, while Book 3 still needs to be written: the expected publication date for the series is August 2023, and that’s where the kickstarted program comes into play, contributing to the editing costs and to the creation of the outstanding artwork that always accompanies Ashley Capes’ books.

Curious about those covers? Here is a preview peek at the artwork for Books 1 and 2:

The kickstarter campaign for the Exiles Trilogy ends on February 16th, so the clock is indeed ticking!  I hope that the goal will be met and that by August of this year we’ll be able to get to know these adventurous characters and their intriguing (if harsh…) world.

So I encourage you to visit the kickstarter link for this project and help turn it into reality. Thank you! 🙂

Reviews

FAIRY TALE, by Stephen King

Dear Mr. King,

I used to be one of your constant readers until several years ago, when a couple of disappointing books turned me away from your works, although I returned recently – mostly thanks to some reviews of your latest stories from my fellow bloggers – having discovered that you seemed to be back once again in the splendid form I enjoyed in the past.   So when your latest novel came out I did not think twice about adding it to my TBR, only to suffer an unwelcome return of that old deep disappointment.

Fairy Tale starts in a very promising manner, mostly because you choose to focus on one of the themes in which you excel, the friendship between a young boy and his crusty old neighbor: the juxtaposition between the naïveté of youth and the prickly wisdom of old age, here personified by 17-year old Charlie Reade and the elderly Mr. Bowditch, is portrayed in your usual wonderful, humorous way, and here the bond between them is also represented by Bowditch’s dog Radar, well-loved by both characters and a lovely addition to the story’s cast.  Charlie takes on the care of Mr. Bowditch after the latter’s hospitalization following a bad fall, a task the young man chooses to shoulder because of an earnest promise made in the past (and also as a form of atonement for some childish pranks he was responsible for). Fairly soon, however,  he notices that there is something weird going on in the closed shed located at the back of the garden, and after Mr. Bowditch’s demise, and the discovery that the old man willed his earthly possession to Charlie, the youth starts on a fantastical journey to another world accessed through a hole in the shed: Charlie and an ailing Radar travel to Empis in search of a magical sundial that’s able to turn back time and rejuvenate the old dog, but at the same time Charlie finds out that Empis is an imperiled world suffering under the rule of evil, and the boy is thrown into the role of Chosen One and savior of the realm…

You see, Mr. King, the first 150 pages of so of the novel were delightfully typical of your writing: I enjoyed Charlie’s back story, his need to grow up faster because of his mother’s early death and his father turning to drink to drown his despair, as I enjoyed the growing rapport between Charlie and Bowditch, the love for adorable Radar, the generational clash of two very different people who nonetheless manage to find a common ground and a basis for affection. I could have gone on reading about them for the whole length of the book, even though the weird noises coming from that shed did pique my curiosity and I looked forward to learning what kind of mystery – or horror – hid behind those doors.   And the first part of Charlie’s journey through that strange world still held my attention, mostly because I wanted him to succeed, to reach the magical sundial in time and save dear Radar.  But once that part of the quest was accomplished, things went rapidly downhill, and I felt as if I was reading a different book, written by a different author, not by you.

I’m very aware, Mr. King, that your novels tend to be lengthy, that you take your time in creating the scenery before letting us readers sink our proverbial teeth into the story proper, but the length of time and pages dedicated to Charlie’s unfortunate detention in Empis’ dungeons, waiting to be employed in some sort of perverted gladiatorial games, was frankly too much. Far too much.  And what about the emphasis about the dirtiness and squalor of the prison, or the guards’ cruelty?  We all know that dungeons are filthy, dark and horrible places, but was it really necessary to dwell so much on the… ahem… scarcity of sanitary implements in the cells, and the details of how the prisoners had to cope with what little was provided?  We all know that prison guards, particularly those in the employ of your usual Evil Lord, are quite unsavory characters, but was it really necessary to have them bask in their peculiar brand of jolly cruelty that only lacked a mustache to be twirled to complete such trite picture?  And what about some of the evil characters roaming in the doomed city? I found that your perseverance in the description of their bodily fluids or the obnoxious noises produced by any and all orifices went beyond grossness: if it wanted to be a means to stress the horror of the situation… well, what it did for me was to make me forget the horror and see only the base crudeness of it all.  Did you maybe want to make fun of those tropes Mr. King? Sorry, but to have a chance to work for me, irony should be light and pointed, and this was NOT the case…

And what about Charlie himself? Was it that same misplaced wish to parody some Fantasy themes that made you turn Charlie (who was already a bit too perfect to ring true) into a cut and dried Gary Stu? So much the fairytale hero that even his hair changed color and turned blonde to better fit the stereotype of the Savior Prince? Seriously?

And last but not least, there is one detail that truly bothered me: when Charlie reaches the realm of Empis, he finds out that he must be speaking another language, one more suited to a fantasy environment and therefore devoid of some terms and expressions typical of our day and age. All well and good, we SFF readers can accept something like that without batting an eyelash, since we’re used to suspend our disbelief: so why did you feel such a compelling need, Mr. King, to remind us so many times that Charlie uttered one specific word only to have it magically translated into Empis-speak?  Two or three examples would have been more than enough, because your readers are bright, imaginative people and know how to connect the dots: having them connected for them throughout the whole book is not simply annoying, it’s an insult to our intelligence.

I have to confess that when I reached past the middle of the book I started skipping ahead because I wanted to see how the story ended, but did not want to endure the whole journey, and when that still proved not to be enough, I skipped over the last 100-odd pages straight to the Epilogue, relieved to be literally out of the woods.  I’m sorry, Mr. King, because I wanted to like this book, I did indeed like it at the beginning, but once it turned into a crazy mess I could not take it anymore.  This does not mean that I will not read your next one, of course, only that I will try to be more careful with my expectations, in the hope that this is only a small bump in the road.

My Rating:

Reviews

CHILDREN OF MEMORY (Children of Time #3), by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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

I have to confess that I approached this book with some hesitation: while I enjoyed Children of Time (despite the spiders, which is saying a lot!), I was less sanguine about Children of Ruin, mostly because of the pacing, which at times felt a little too slow for my tastes.  Children of Memory does suffer slightly from some pacing problems and from a few lengthy philosophical digressions, but the mystery at its core was so intriguing that it kept me motivated to read on until the very end.

Unlike its predecessors, this third installment in the series focuses more closely on humans, and in particular on the humans of an ark ship, the Enkidu, traveling the long distance toward one of the promised terraformed worlds with its huge cargo of frozen colonists. When they reach their destination, a planet they will name Imir, the ship has suffered grievous damage and lost a significant part of its cargo – both people and machinery destined to the creation of the colony – while the crew also discovers that the terraforming project partially failed its goal: Imir is a cold, harsh world with extreme weather patterns, and it will require an enormous effort to establish even the basic living conditions. 

After a temporal jump of a few generations, the novel follows the colonization of Imir through the eyes of Liff, a pre-teen girl whose strong spirit is fueled by fairy tales of adventures and great discoveries: thanks to Liff we learn that the colony never truly took off beyond mere survival in what looks like a frontier environment, the constant breakdown of modern tools and machinery forcing the colonists toward a more primitive society than the one they hoped for. What’s worse, there is a strange obsession in the populace toward “Watchers” or “Seccers”, i.e. people outside of their limited community, who might be actively working against its survival: although it seems more myth than reality, this belief fosters an acute climate of suspicion that verges toward paranoia.

A different narrative thread focuses on the small crew of an exploratory vessel from the arachnid/octopus/human civilization we encountered in the two previous books: having reached Imir they debate on the best way to approach the colony, deciding that one of them will try to monitor it in incognito, posing as one of the colonists from the outlying failed farmsteads: Miranda, a combination of human appearance and Nodan consciousness (the parasitic life-form discovered in the previous book) joins the people of Imir working as a teacher, and on her meeting with Liff forms a strong bond with the keenly curious young girl.

Here is where the strangeness begins, because we are presented with often contradictory evidence about life on the planet: several generations have elapsed since the first landing, and yet Liff seems to think about Captain Holt (the expedition leader) as her grandfather; or she is seen living with both her parents while in other narrative segments she’s an orphan living with her inattentive uncle, and so on.  This is the mystery that captured my attention and led me to wonder what was truly happening on Imir, not forgetting the further element of a strange signal coming from the planet that leads the onboard A.I. patterned on Earth scientists Avrana Kern (a constant presence throughout the series) to investigate it with the help of the new uplifted species of Corvids we get to know in Children of Memory.

It’s not easy to recap this novel in a handful of spoiler-free sentences, because this book is as complex as it is intriguing: the main attraction for me was the solution to the contradictory experiences of young Liff (and here I have to admit that my own theories did not even come close to the reveal), but there is much more here to keep a reader engrossed.  Faithful to the pattern exhibited so far, Adrian Tchaikovsky presents us with a new uplifted kind of creature, the Corvids from Rourke’s world, another planet that proved hostile to humanity but where these birds’ intelligence evolved in a unique pattern of paired individuals forming a collective whole and represented here by Gethli and Gothi, whose discussions about sentience are nothing short of fascinating, besides offering some sparks of humor thanks to their peculiarly worded exchanges that at times reminded me of the chorus elements in Greek tragedies.

Equally intriguing are the observations on the composite society originated by the joining of humans, arachnids, octopusses and Nodan parasites who have learned to coexist peacefully and create a space-faring society whose curiosity about the rest of the universe is the main drive toward exploration. In this respect, the human-looking Miranda is a perfect example of this commonwealth of species: her search for knowledge is somehow marred by the dichotomy between outward appearance and inner substance, which leaves room for some interesting, and at times poignant, considerations about self-image and identity.

The colony on Imir offers other chances of commentary on human nature: the regression to a more primitive way of life, forced by the lack of equipment, seems to have brought on a parallel regression in mindset, since the inhabitants of Landfall (the sole planetary settlement) look more like villagers from a Medieval era rather than the inheritors of a modern society. Their dread and distrust of the “other” (which comes from a very specific reason) brings about a tragic “us vs. them” mentality that is depicted in a few dramatic scenes which effectively display the dangers of mob mentality when paired with fear and ignorance.

Children of Memory is however slightly weighted down by some philosophical digressions on the nature of sentience, which are intriguing on their own but – in my opinion – take more space than necessary in consideration of the need to learn the solution to the mystery that Imir presents to the visitors. Still these digressions were not enough to keep me from forging on and reaching the intriguing reveal: if that was the challenge that the author presented to his readers, I can say that I was able to meet it head on 😉

My Rating:

Reviews

EPISODE THIRTEEN, by Craig DiLouie

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

Every new book from Craig DiLouie is a surprise because – as far as my experience with his works goes – he never treads twice on the same ground, never sticks to any given theme or genre. With Episode Thirteen he chose to explore the world of professional ghost hunters, and while this is a ghost story, it does not develop in any predictable way, which adds to its appeal – and to its mystery.

Fade to Black is a moderately successful ghost hunting show which follows the scheme of similar reality programs by investigating allegedly haunted houses and seeking confirmation (or debunking) through the application of various scientific tools; lead investigators, and married couple, Matt and Claire Kirklin represent the two sides of the research: he’s the believer in the existence of paranormal phenomena, mostly because of his childhood experience with an imaginary friend who turned out to be anything but, while his wife is the skeptic, looking for scientific explanation of the weird occurrences encountered in their line of work.  The team also includes Kevin Linscott, tech manager and former police officer, who’s convinced to have been in the presence of a ghost in the course of one tour of duty; Jessica Valenza, an actress looking for visibility and affirmation while trying to raise a son on her own; and Jake Wolfson, the cameraman who is more focused on filming good takes rather than catching glimpses of ghosts.

After a great start, Fade to Black is experiencing some downturn in ratings that place a second season of the show on the line, so that Matt wants to craft a spectacular Episode 13 (the one before the series’ final segment) to insure that they will be able to go on.  The location for this episode is Foundation House, a crumbling manor where outlandish pseudo-scientific experiments were conducted in the ‘70s, involving the use of psychotropic drugs among other bizarre techniques: the mystery surrounding Foundation House, whose staff disappeared without a trace, is enough to insure some spectacular footage. The team approaches the location with a mixture of anticipation and dread for the future of the show, a feeling that is slowly intruding in their interpersonal and working relationships.  What they will find goes way beyond their wildest expectations and adds more mysteries to those already plaguing the spooky house…

Episode Thirteen is written with a style resembling that of found-footage movies, chronicling the fateful exploration of Foundation House through videos and transcripts, interviews, personal diaries and e-mails, building a picture of the characters with cinematic quality, revealing their inner workings without need for info-dumps: while the story starts with a deceptively leisurely pace, it slowly grows into an ominous tale and a compelling, compulsive read in which we get to know the characters just as the momentous events unfold.  If it’s easy to indulgently scoff at actual tv shows like Fade to Black, here the feeling of being faced with something which is as real as it is elusive is quite strong, and the suspension of disbelief does not require any effort at all.

What’s interesting about the characters is that they are not exactly likable, and yet they remain deeply intriguing from beginning to end, and it’s easy to identify with them as they witness the eerie, scary phenomena that plague the old manor and they deal with reactions that go from the classic “fight or flight” to the difficult battle between scientific curiosity and self-preservation.  As the story progresses and the team faces a true descent into Hell (both in the figurative and in the actual sense), their core personalities are revealed in stark relief, all the trappings people use to cover their true self coming undone in a very dramatic way.

It would be impossible for me to write more about the story without falling into spoiler territory, and this is a novel that must be approached with no prior knowledge whatsoever, so that it can deliver all its powerful impact in the most effective way: there is no body horror here, no splattered blood or any other physical manifestation typical of the genre, the dread is more psychological than anything else, mixed as it is with our innate fear of the unknown.

One warning only: once you pick up Episode Thirteen set aside some “quality time” to read it, and be aware that once you start the book it will be next to impossible to put it down for more than the few moments you will need to catch your breath – because you will need to remember to breathe, trust me…

My Rating:

Reviews

ECHO PARK (Harry Bosch #12), by Michael Connelly

When a book series hits the double digit number of installments it can sometimes fall victim to reader fatigue, or to repetition, but such is definitely not the case with Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, at least not for me.  I found myself at book 12 of this long-running series, faced with one narrative thread already explored in the TV show that led me to these books, and yet my immersion in the story never faltered for a single moment, confirming once again that the author’s skills are such that he can ensnare his readers with a masterful mix of action, mystery and character development. And keep doing so again and again.

In Echo Park, Bosch goes back to one of the unsolved cases that still haunt him, that of Marie Gesto, a young woman who disappeared more than ten years prior and whose body was never found – only her neatly folded clothes were discovered inside an abandoned car, and the lack of further clues prevented the investigators from successfully closing the case. No one is more surprised than Bosch to be called by the office of the District Attorney for an unexpected development: a man has been recently apprehended with the remains of a victim inside his van, and eager to commute the death penalty with a life sentence the killer, whose name is Raynard Waits, is ready to indicate the location for the bodies of other so far undisclosed victims – among them that of Marie Gesto.  

The fly in this very intriguing ointment is that at the time of the original investigation Bosch and his partner might have overlooked a vital clue that could have led them to Waits, and so spared the life of the people he killed after Marie: ridden by guilt and by the suspicion that there might be more to Waits than what’s on the surface, Bosch retraces his steps in a frantic search for answers, while the usual political maneuverings and a convoluted plot cross inexorably with the cold case investigation…

What comes immediately to the fore in Echo Park is the stark reality of the story itself: the theme of the serial killer might be an often-used one in crime/thriller novels, but here it’s combined with the political dealings inherent in law enforcement and the need to present public figures in the best light possible in view of an election, so that even the sordid leverage offered by a multiple offender can be exploited by an individual’s ambition.  The story goes through a number of false leads and red herrings that in the hands of a less skilled writer might have looked implausible, but that here manage to keep the narrative flow at a sustained pace and the tension at the highest levels.  Not to mention that in real life that’s what does indeed happen as an investigation goes through a number of false starts and dead ends before (if ever) reaching the desired conclusion.

As for Bosch, this novel sees him almost at his wits’ end when it seems that Marie’s killer was within reach and he missed him by a proverbial hairbreadth: nothing could be worse for a relentless investigator such as he than realizing he did not pursue every little detail to its very end. This situation is something of a setback as far as his personality is concerned, because where the previous two books had shown a more sedated Harry Bosch, a man finally capable of thinking things through before charging headfirst into situations, here he seems to somehow revert to his older self, the “Lone Ranger cop” afflicted with tunnel vision.  This relapse ends up affecting his renewed working and sentimental relationship with FBI agent Rachel Walling and souring the partnership with colleague Kiz Rider, who had so far proved to be a stabilizing influence on Bosch.  With the former, one can see how it would be difficult – if not impossible – for him to maintain a stable emotional tie with a woman, since the drive to solve cases always becomes the main focus for his energies, shunting everything and everyone else to the sidelines.  With the latter, he ends up breaking what is the necessary bond of trust between working teammates, jeopardizing safety and careers for them both, as Kiz points out with no little bitterness:

Maybe at some point you will trust me enough to ask my opinion before you go off and make decisions that affect both of us.

What I found once again surprising is how much Michael Connelly can keep me invested in this character’s journey even when I see how much his tunnel vision and self-centeredness can estrange him from the people around him: I enjoy reading about Bosch even though I don’t always like him – for me this is the mark of very skilled writing, indeed.

Probably, one of the most intriguing sides of this story comes from the parallels between Bosch and the killer Waits: both of them orphaned at a young age, both of them taken in by disinterested foster families, both of them spending some time in the same institution for troubled youths – and yet taking two opposite paths in life. Where Waits, as Bosch muses at the end of the investigation, picked his victims with the unconscious objective of killing his own mother over and over again, Bosch on the other hand tries to solve his mother’s murder over and over again by relentlessly seeking justice for the victims, particularly those no one seems to care about.  And here the author offers a striking image for the theme of “nature vs. nurture” relaying the theory of the two “dogs” we have inside us, one good and one bad: the person we turn out to be depends on which “dog” we choose to feed.   Meaning, probably, that the border between good and evil is even thinner than we can imagine…

As usual, the resolution is a very unexpected one, even though part of this story was already familiar to me thanks to the TV series: there might be something of an… embarrassment of riches, so to speak, in the plots within plots revealed in the ending, but it’s only a small crease in an otherwise very enjoyable tapestry. So… onward to the next one!

My Rating:

Reviews

MY 2022 IN BOOKS

Once again it’s time to take stock of my reading year now that 2022 is drawing to an end: while 58 books might look like a meagre accomplishment when compared to the dizzying heights reached by some fellow bloggers, I’m quite satisfied my result, which means I managed to read a little more than one book per week. And here are my books for 2022 in all their magnificence 😀

As usual, I chose to play a little with charts to see how my reading fared in terms of statistics, and it was no surprise that Fantasy and Science Fiction earned the proverbial lion’s share in my choice of books, with crime/thriller coming second and horror gaining a more than respectable third place. 

I was quite fortunate with my picks, since 46 of those 58 books earned high ratings from 4 to 5 Reading Owls (including the half points), 9 were mid-range with 3 Reading Owls, and only 3 went lower than that, including the two DNFs of this year. All things considered, the not-my-cup-of-tea books were too few to matter, which means that my “book vibes” once again helped me greatly in choosing what to read.

This year I also want to showcase some of the books that stood above the others either because the author was new to me or because they were a notch above the expected quality from authors I had previously read.

In the first category I picked these four:

J.M. Straczynski’s novel represents something of an exception to the above rule because I was familiar with his works as the creator of the TV series Babylon 5, which I mention often as my favorite show, but his foray into mainstream narrative opened a whole new territory for me, even though I was hardly surprised at the quality of the writing, given my previous experience with the deep and often poignant dialogues which made that show my touchstone for small-screen SF.

While I approach well-known and tried authors with a certain degree of assurance that their books will be a rewarding experience, there are times when they even exceed those expectations, and here are a few examples:

These four are among the books that were so engrossing that setting them down to attend to real life required some effort, which for me means high praise indeed…

Plans for the new year? Not really: being a mood reader I usually go where fancy takes me, although I would like to make at least a little inroad in the books I have accumulated in the past and then proceeded to ignore in favor of some new titles – that’s the bane of the compulsive reader, indeed, this total lack of moral strength in the face of new books’ siren song 😉

No matter what, though, I know that the next year will open new reading adventures, and that’s what really counts after all. 

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

Reviews

IN THE SHADOW OF LIGHTNING (Glass Immortals #1), by Brian McClellan

A new series by Brian McClellan was more than enough to make me pay attention: my only doubt – before starting this first book – was about how it would compare with his Powder Mage world and if I would miss the richly intriguing background of that famous saga.  To my relief, I soon discovered that this world stands very well on its own and it proved to be just as engrossing as the author’s older creation.

In this world, glass (or rather godglass) can be imbued with magic properties that confer special abilities to wearers: added strength and stamina, curative powers, enhanced sight – the list seems almost endless. Then there are the glassdancers, gifted individuals who can actually command glass and perform incredible feats with it: Demir Grappo is such an individual, and the scion of one of the ruling families in the nation of Ossa. When we meet him at the start of the novel, he’s gained a high rank in the Ossan army at a very young age, and just obtained a decisive victory in war, which bestowed him the title of Lightning Prince. Something goes wrong with the chain of command, however, and the newly conquered city is brutally sacked despite Demir’s orders to the contrary and so, ridden by profound guilt and horror for the atrocities he witnessed, he choses voluntary exile from his home country.  Only several years later he returns home, called back to his family’s duties after the assassination of his mother: what Demir will have to deal with is not only the investigation in his mother’s murder, but a number of political machinations and an encroaching threat that might change the world forever.

Demir’s journey crosses with that of Thessa, a siliceer or godglass forger, swept up by the tides of war into a situation that will put to the test her abilities and her strength of character; of Kizzie Vorcien, the bastard daughter of a powerful family ruler and a capable enforcer; and of Idrian, a breacher, which is something of a glass-strengthened super soldier.  Last but not least, among the main characters figures Baby Montego, a retired champion of cudgel fighting (a bloody sport very popular in Ossa) and Demir’s childhood friend.

The novel’s background is what I’ve come to expect from Brian McClellan: an 18th Century-inspired world where the Industrial Revolution is in its infancy and where glass-derived magic permeates all strata of society with various levels of intensity due to the strict class system on which said society is based – which of course leaves ample room for political maneuvering, conspiracies and convoluted plots that don’t stop even before murder or the kindling of a senseless war to reach the desired goals.  Glass magic is an intriguing element of the story, particularly because (not unlike the overuse of gunpowder in McClellan’s other world) there are aftereffects to take into account, from the loss of efficacy, over time, of single pieces of magic-imbued glass to the much more dire glassrot, an affliction that plagues people when they exceed the limits of glass use, and which could also lead to deterioration and death.

Narrative threads and characters interweave in an increasingly convoluted plot that reserves many surprises for the readers, including the final twist which left me not a little perplexed for its SF overtones – something I had not expected and which leaves me very curious to see where the author will take us next. But of course my most intense focus remained on the characters themselves.  Demir is something of a damaged hero, a complex personality, energetic and mercurial on one side – the one he offers to the world – and profoundly wounded on the more private other, since he’s still dealing with the aftermath of the wartime episode that affected his life and career. Where he appears to the world as a functional leader, certain of his skills and completely in control, he’s plagued by what looks like PTSD symptoms when he’s alone and the ghosts of the past weigh heavily on him.  Still, he manages to remain a very caring person where the people he feels responsible for are concerned, and unlike other members of the higher strata of society he struggles to do the right thing – probably in the constant search of atonement for what he perceives as his guilt in past events.

His old-time friends Kizzie and Baby Montego ended up being my favorite characters: as the bastard of the powerful Vorcien patriarch, she keeps looking for the way to fit in, juggling her need to belong with an inner core of integrity, a trait that together with her amazing fighting skills earned my respect and fondness from the get go.  Baby Montego (the ‘baby’ part of his name being a clear tongue-in-cheek quip) is a larger than life person in both the actual and the figurative sense: there is a delightful duality in this man who made his name practicing a violent, bloody sport and yet remains outwardly sweet and gentle – unless his friends are threatened, of course. The two of them are Demir’s older friends, their relationship going back to their childhood, and I enjoyed their interactions immensely – truly one of the joys of this novel.   Breacher Idrian is also a multi-faceted character: a powerful soldier, well respected by superiors and troops alike, but dealing with a form of encroaching madness barely kept at bay through his godglass artificial eye, something that indeed erodes his outward strength but at the same time humanizes him profoundly.

On the other hand, while Thessa earned my sympathy for her plight, particularly in the first half of the novel, she never managed to completely captivate me despite being Demir’s narrative counterpart: I could admire her strength, resourcefulness and courage and the fact that she could seamlessly blend her kind disposition with a fierceness that knows no obstacles. And yet in the end she left me a bit cold, probably because she is depicted as unfailingly brilliant and that might have led me to see some “Mary Sue” shades in her personality that did not agree with me. Nonetheless, the jury is still out and I’m looking forward to seeing where her path will take her: it would not be the first time that Brian McClellan ends up surprising me with some unexpected character development…

In the Shadow of Lightning won me over with its fast pace, layers of intrigues and relatable characters, and I’m more than looking forward to the next books in the series: once again Brian McClellan proved to be a skilled storyteller whose novels have by now become a “must read” no matter what.

My Rating:

Reviews

DUNE MESSIAH (Dune #2), by Frank Herbert

I have often lamented the fact that re-reading books I enjoyed in the past can sometimes lead to deep disappointments, due to changed tastes and to the evolution of writing styles, so I’m glad to acknowledge that my re-read of Dune Messiah did not incur in that kind of problem and, on the contrary, made me enjoy the novel even more than on my first encounter.  The younger me who read Messiah for the first time was disappointed by the lack of epic-ness that was so much a part of the first book, nor did she enjoy seeing Paul Atreides become somewhat diminished; now I was finally able to appreciate what Frank Herbert was doing with his character and the world he had created.

The story starts twelve years after the final events in Dune: Paul Atreides has extended his power over the empire, mainly through a galaxy-wide war of conquest waged by his Fremen armies and fueled by the religious fervor that invested him with near godhood; it’s the jihad he foresaw and tried to avoid, to no avail – we learn that it ‘killed sixty-one billion, sterilized ninety planets, completely demoralized five hundred others’, a series of staggering numbers that, instead of consolidating his rule, has created mistrust and discontent, so that now some of his enemies (and some of his former allies as well) are plotting to dethrone him, putting an end to his rule.  Prescience already warned Paul of what’s brewing in the shadows, and here we see him trying to navigate the possible futures, knowing that every one of them will entail devastating losses and even worse consequences.

What Dune Messiah amounts to, in the end, is the story of a man gifted with amazing powers and yet powerless to prevent the catastrophes he envisioned: despite the prodigious skills he acquired through both nature and motherly teachings, he remains a human being, with all the frailties and contradictions this entails, and seeing them, seeing his struggles and the pain they carry with them, helped me connect with his character on a level I had not reached in the first book.  Which brings me to a consideration that struck me, this time over, as I thought about Paul’s dilemma and the road he would/could not choose here, leaving it open (as I already know it will happen) for his son to take: in my review of Dune I mentioned how I consider it a landmark in SF just as Tolkien’s LOTR is for fantasy, to the point that I saw a sort of parallel between Paul and Frodo. Paul knows – has seen – a way out of those devastating futures, the terrible purpose that will turn into the Golden Path for young Leto, but is unable, or unwilling, or both, to accept it and ultimately gives up, choosing to wander alone in the desert, maybe to die; Frodo reaches the end of his perilous journey only to fail – and he was destined to fail since he was only the Ring Bearer, not the Ring Destroyer, thanks to Tolkien’s always precisely chosen wording – carrying forever the burden of that failure and equally choosing exile, no matter how pleasant, to remove himself from it.   I’m aware the comparison might be quite a stretch, but it’s one I can’t seem to get out of my mind, and I would love to hear what my fellow bloggers think about it….

Back to the novel itself, I found that despite the reduced page count, if compared with its predecessor, it expands the reader’s knowledge about the universe where the story takes place: the main narrative focus is still set on Arrakis, granted, but the presence, amid the conspirators aiming to remove Paul from power, of a Guild navigator and of a Tleilaxu Face Dancer shows us a glimpse of the various powers inhabiting the galaxy. The navigator is described as something only vaguely resembling the human being it must originally have been, the exposure to the spice gas that renders it capable of forging paths through space having transformed the creature in a weirdly horrific way, but the truly fascinating character is that of Scytale, the Face Dancer.  A bio-engineered shape shifter, Scytale is the product of Tleilaxu gene manipulation, and an intriguing creature as well, particularly in the peculiar affinity for the people it must impersonate – and therefore kill – that translates into a sort of sympathy (the Face Dancer’s own words) for the victim, almost a regret for the necessity of the act. It’s a choice that turns Scytale into much more than a simple enemy, a simple killer, and gifts its personality with depth and intriguing shades.

The Tleilaxu are also involved in another part of the plan against Paul Atreides because they bring one of their creations to his court in an attempt to distract and destabilize him: their skills in bio-manipulation can literally bring the dead back to life – through a process that might be cloning, even though it’s never explained – in the form of gholas, perfect copies of the dead although deprived of their memories. The ghola which is brought to Paul’s court is no one but his former instructor and friend Duncan Idaho, who gave his life to allow Paul and his mother to escape from the Harkonnens.  Duncan is a character who does not enjoy great narrative space in Dune, and yet he leaves a deep impression, to the point that his reappearance hits the readers just as much as the intended target in the story.  There is a poignant quality to Duncan’s journey, the drama of a person who knows there is a past waiting for him to be unlocked, and also that such unlocking will require a high price to be obtained, and it’s almost as touching as that of Paul, of his dilemma and of the bittersweet meeting with his old-time friend.

As a sequel, Dune Messiah works far better on a re-read, particularly when one is aware of what will come after: it is indeed a bridge between the two distinct halves of the Atreides’ family history, but most importantly it sets aside the more “adventurous” themes of its predecessor for an in-depth examination of the nature of power and how it can betray its wielders, no matter how many skills they can call into play.  The author’s choice of mixing what might have been a somewhat dry commentary with some powerful emotions is what turns this novel into a touching journey and one that is enhanced – not lessened – by hindsight.

My Rating:

Reviews

ELDER RACE, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This Adrian Tchaikovsky novella packs several themes in a successful mix between science fiction and fantasy that I found delightfully entertaining. The story is equally divided between two points of view: Lynesse Fourth Daughter is the wayward scion of the realm of Lannesite, more interested in the lore and legends of her people than in the practical duties of a queen’s daughter, and so she’s always getting into trouble and harshly reprimanded by her mother and elder sisters.  Nyr Illim Tevitch is a lowly anthropologist assigned to study Lynesse’s society, a distant offshoot of human colonization: he’s been left alone to monitor the culture, since his companions returned to Earth some time ago and never came back, prompting Nyr to accept the dire fact they might never do so and that he might end his last days alone.

Rumors of a demon plaguing the nearby lands have reached the court and been dismissed by the queen as nothing more than the peasants’ excessive fantasy, while Lynesse is convinced that the realm might be threatened by a danger similar to that faced by her ancestress Astresse Once Regent, who successfully vanquished it with the help of the sorcerer Nyrgoth Elder.  So, against her mother’s wishes, she takes the long journey toward the wizard’s tower to ask for his help on the strength of the ancient compact signed with her great-grandmother.  The “wizard” is of course the anthropologist who long ago, and against the rule that prohibited the observing scientists to have any contact with the locals, lent his help to Astresse, and is now whiling away the long, empty years in suspended animation.

Lynesse’s resemblance with her ancestress – for whom it’s clear that Nyr harbored some very strong feelings – and her impassioned request for help clash with the scientist’s deeply settled despondency and depression, not to mention the sense of guilt for having already broken the rules once, and his unwillingness about doing so again, even though it’s become clear by now that there will be no retribution from back home,  given the too-long silence from Earth.  Still, the young woman’s determination and some curiosity to inspect the disconcerting phenomenon that Lynesse describes as a “demon”, ultimately convince Nyr to travel with her and her companion Esha Free Mark to the affected lands, in a journey that will prove enlightening for both of them.

The clash of different cultures has long been one of the main themes in science fiction, but here in Elder Race the conflict – and ensuing misunderstandings – come from two different lines of evolution of the same people, just as the two points of view, Lynesse and Nyr, represent the two genres merged in this story.  From the fantasy-inspired outlook of Lynesse, Nyr’s abilities and technological tools are nothing short of magic, and serve only to reinforce her faith in the powers of the aloof wizard, and in his ability to find and vanquish the demon infesting the land.  For his part, Nyr is battling with his own conscience and the contrasting feelings engendered by the bizarre situation, and keeping them at bay with the Dissociative Cognition System, or DCS, an implant that allows him to disconnect himself from his feelings so that he can conduct his observations with emotionless detachment – the only downside of the DCS being that he must turn it off at regular intervals to avoid a dangerous accumulation of repressed emotions, a practice that ends up enhancing the aura of mystery surrounding him from the locals’ perspective.

The theme of the Heroical Quest is played to the hilt in Elder Race, and with no small amount of tongue-in-cheek humor, particularly where the language barrier comes into play, giving way to an amusing “comedy of errors” flavor that reaches its peak as Nyr tries to explain the hard reality to Lynesse, only to see technical details turned into fairytale terms by a translation that shares very little ground with the common language once employed by the original colonists.  There is a chapter where the two versions are given side by side, and the gap between the actual reality and the one perceived by Lynesse shows, in a quite amusing way, the chasm that has opened between the two cultures, so that, for example, the term “scientist” used by Nyr becomes “wizard” in Lynesse’s tongue, taking the reader straight to Arthur Clarke’s famous sentence about advanced technology and magic…

Nyr’s frustration, and Lynesse’s difficulty in connecting with him, are not only the product of the changes in language but also of the changes in the way one looks at the world: where the anthropologist (especially when he engages the DCS) bases his observation on hard science and provable facts, Lynesse is driven by the stories she heard from early childhood, stories of heroic deeds and slain monsters, of weird magic and amazing feats, so that the two of them are kept apart not only by the terms that are lost in translation, but more importantly by a legendarium that for the girl is as close as humanly possible to reality while for the scientists it’s an unexplored land.  If you have seen that superb Star Trek: TNG episode titled Darmok, you will know what it means to be unable to understand someone whose language is so steeped in legends as to be totally incomprehensible.

And yet, despite these seemingly unsurmountable obstacles, the two manage to form an effective team: where words fail them, actions and – above all else – faith in each other’s commitment to the quest end up creating a bond that is a delight to behold and that adds a touch of sweetness to the mix of adventure and humor that are the main ingredients of the story, a story that despite its shortness ended up being even more enjoyable than Adrian Tchaikovsky’s longer and more complex books.

My Rating: