Category Archives: Reviews
Through The Shards of Heaven, the first book in this series, I discovered a new sub-genre I enjoy quite a bit: historical fantasy, a way to blend entertaining reading with some real history – and to pique one’s curiosity about learning more about the time period in which the story is set. For these reasons I was more than looking forward to continuing with Michael Livingston’s series, and The Gates of Hell did not disappoint.
A few years have elapsed since the fall of Alexandria and the conquest of Egypt by Rome: after the deaths of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, their children are either dead, in hiding or, like Selene, prisoners of Octavian, now self-styled Caesar Augustus, emperor. Selene Cleopatra, has been taken into Octavian family’s fold and married off to Juba II, son of the deceased king of Numidia, a double tie that should keep her under control. But Selene being Selene, she remains quite unbowed and although her marriage to Juba proves to be a happy one – where respect and friendship quickly turn into love – the need for vengeance is never far from her thoughts, doubly so because in this as well she finds a kindred spirit in her husband. With the help of the Shards they acquired – the Aegis of Zeus that Juba obtained in Alexandria, and the one hidden into a statue Selene stole from the temple of the Vestals – they work to master the power of the artifacts, with the goal of one day bring about the destruction of Rome.
Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Cesarion – son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, and Selene’s half-brother – has gone deep underground to avoid capture and to help preserve the very powerful Shard hidden inside the Ark of the Covenant. When former legionnaire Vorenus visits the Head Librarian Didymus to inquire about the Ark’s apparent loss of power, their conversation is overheard by disgruntled ex librarian Thrasyllus, who concocts a plan to put himself in Didymus’ exalted position and gain the favor of the Roman occupants.
These are the main narrative threads at the heart of Gates of Hell, and they carry the story forward at a steady pace while expanding on the characters we met in Book 1: the preferred focus is on Selene and Juba, of course, and their increasing mastery of the Shards in their possession. There is an intriguing form of character osmosis – for want of a better word – between the two of them: Juba has become more reflexive, more inclined to think his way through and to consider every possible facet of a problem, while Selene has lost some of her merry-go-lucky youthful attitude (which is understandable, considering the heart-rending losses she endured) and she is the one who seems to be goading her husband toward their shared objective.
What’s truly fascinating is the change in Octavian: I remarked on his cold cruelty in my review of Book 1, and how different he looked there in respect of the image that has come to us through time. I wondered if, in his case, the author was stressing the concept about history being written – and therefore shaped – by the victors. That’s why I was surprised to see a softer side of the newly crowned emperor, that of a man who cares about the people he calls family and is very aware of the sacrifices he might call them to accept in the name of the grand dream he nurtures, that of a huge, peaceful empire. This change, one that comes along in small, organic increments until it blossoms into an amazingly selfless act, was not only a surprise for me as a reader but also for the character of Juba, who starts to question his and Selene’s goal of vengeance and to lean toward a different path:
Was the Peace of Rome a truly horrible dream? Or was it perhaps something real, something tangible that was worth setting aside their need to avenge the fallen members of their families?
Some harrowing circumstances cause both Juba and Selene to review their stance and to accept a more peaceful path for their future, a fresh start that will allow them to forget the pain and loss in their past. But if Octavian has mellowed out in this second volume of the series, another historical figure – that of Tiberius – has taken the role of the antagonist here, and it will be the long reach of his actions that will determine the developments of the last part of the book, where the meaning of the title becomes horribly clear. As Selene and Juba battle with their inner demons (and not only those), Caesarion and his steadfast allies Vorenus and Pullo face a different kind of danger that will climax in a bloody battle fraught with heartbreaking losses.
The Gates of Hell proved to be a swift, sometimes breathless read, and it certainly paves the way for some huge developments: there were some… hiccups along the way, like the author’s need to involve his characters in long philosophical discussions that were certainly interesting but that somehow broke the rhythm of the story; or the often-repeated information about the Shards, that at times sounds just a little pedantic. But apart from these very small blemishes, I enjoyed the book very much and I’m now waiting for the next installment with great expectation.
My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues… I have recently discovered the dedicated section over at Tor com, and found many interesting offerings. This week’s choice is for:
The vampire myth has been explored in all its forms and variations, so one might think there is no room for a new angle or a different perspective, yet at times you can find authors able to put a different spin on the trope. This is the case of Meat+Drink, indeed, a story told from the perspective of vampires who have none of the glamour, attraction or sophistication that’s usually associated with the most classical point of view of the genre.
The narrator here used to be a 17-year old girl but is now meat, as opposed to flesh – dead as opposed to living. She shares a hiding space with four other undead, one of them a child, spending their days in a basement, away from the sun, and their nights either scavenging in search of money or valuable objects, or hunting for prey – for drink.
This former girl’s voice is quite peculiar, more like a stream-of-consciousness report than a organic tale, grammar and punctuation as decayed and still decaying as the walking meat these vampires have become once they lost the vitality of flesh. As the unnamed narrator says: “flesh is ever-changing, flesh is self-aware. meat is insentient, meat is stagnant”. The horror in this story does not come so much from seeing these vampires prey on the living, but from the feeling of hopelessness and despair of such a condition, so much stronger and poignant because they remain unexpressed and probably unfelt.
And yet something of the former personality must remain after the transformation, as the events show when the little “family” undergoes an upheaval that changes the internal dynamics. It might be wrong to use the world “hope” in such circumstances, but the end is a little less bleak than the rest of the story. And that’s enough.
Last year I was literally swept away by Illuminae, the first volume in this trilogy: not only because of its compelling story, but also thanks to its remarkable characters, that went a long way toward changing my opinion about YA-oriented stories. Kady Grant and Ezra Mason, the two main protagonists of book 1, were depicted as normal teenagers – no whining, no pouting, no interminable complaints about the unfairness of the world – dealing with some relationship troubles until a tragic event turned their lives upside down, forcing them to mature more quickly while they desperately tried to stay alive.
When I went into Gemina I knew that this second book would follow along the same guidelines, but with different characters, and I was somewhat worried that it would feel like a rehash of the previous story, and that disappointment might lie on that road. Now I’m very happy to say that I was totally wrong. Yes, Hannah and Nik – the main characters in this new installment – are young people fighting for their lives and needing to push their individual envelopes a lot further than expected, but their journey is a different one, and their personalities refreshingly different. But let’s proceed with order…
As the survivors of the Kerenza assault travel toward Heimdall Jumpstation, to bring evidence of the colony’s massacre and BeiTech’s involvement in it, the latter are mounting a raid that will insure the elimination of any and all witnesses to the Kerenza operation. A special incursion team is dispatched to Heimdall, taking advantage of the station’s downtime due to a holiday, and takes over, killing the higher-ranking officers, locking away the rest of the personnel and lying in wait for the Hypathia, the ship carrying the Kerenza survivors. Only a few people manage to escape the assailants’ net: Hannah Donnelly, the station commander’s daughter; Nik Malikov, son of an influential member of the crime organization House of Knives, and Hannah’s drug dealer; Ella Malikova, Nik’s cousin, a disabled girl with an amazing knack for computers. The three find themselves dealing not only with the assault team – and the incoming drone fleet that will obliterate Heimdall after the destruction of Hypatia – but also with the infestation of an alien life form, used by House of Knives to harvest a highly sought-after drug and running amok after the BeiTech attackers have killed the criminals handling the operation.
The only similarities between Illuminae and Gemina come from the protagonists’ need to overcome insurmountable odds, while the clock keeps ticking toward certain annihilation, and of course from the format of the story, a collection of chat transcripts, personal messages exchanged across the station’s net, Hannah’s diary excerpts and the transcripts of the station’s camera footage, complete with the dedicated technician’s comments (a very welcome relief from the drama unfolding on the pages) and the redaction of profanities. That said, both the story and the characters are refreshingly new, and all of them managed to surprise me because they defied any expectation I might have had given the way they were initially introduced. The pace is relentless, and there are many surprises along the way that again challenge any pre-conceived idea I might have had about the evolution of the plot.
In the beginning Hannah Donnelly comes across as your typical spoiled brat, frustrated by the life she’s leading on the station and compensating by being a party girl and a supplier of drugs for her friends. Her liaison with one of her father’s junior officers seems to go in the same direction, as if she’s trying to “rock the boat” and see how far she can go. Not exactly the kind of person one would expect to come forward and try to stop the bad guys from blowing up the station, is she? And yet, when the BeiTech team storms Heimdall, Hannah sheds her flighty persona in no time at all and shows what she’s really made of, revealing unsuspected qualities, like the perfect physical form she’s maintained in the long hours spent in the gym, practicing martial arts, or the lessons in tactics and warfare that were part of her father-daughter moments with Commander Donnelly, and that allow her to keep up the dangerous cat-and-mouse game she engages with the invaders, particularly their leader, code-named Cerberus.
On first meeting Nik Malikov one might be inclined to describe him as the typical gang member: he’s cocky, arrogant, covered in tattoos that shout to the world his deeds or the times he spent in jail. He works with his uncle, the station’s leader for the House of Knives, and helps harvesting dust – the recreational drug used on the station – from mind-drinking, snake-like alien creatures: there is a particular scene concerning this part of the HoK activities that I don’t recommend reading around mealtimes… Yet there is more, much more than meets the eye with Nik – and what we discover about his past, along the way, helps a great deal to alter that initial image – and more importantly there is a deep capacity for both care and courage in this young man that quickly endeared him to me, long before I started to look at Hannah with equally different eyes.
Plot-wise, the dangerous, bloody game the two engage with the assault team is the main driving power of the novel: on the surface, some of the defeats suffered by the BeiTech people seem too easy, even contrived, but the authors always manage to show that either Hannah or Nik employ their experience, intelligence and craft (not to mention an intimate knowledge of the station and how it works) to put all the monkey wrenches they can think of into the invader’s gears. For their part, the BeiTech people appear quite sure of themselves, and well prepared on technical side of the operation, but their past rate of success seems to have put a dangerous cockiness into their attitude, a flaw that exposes them to the young people’s guerrilla tactics. After a while, the operation seems to change its scope and transforms from a military raid into a conflict of wits and a fight for physical and psychological supremacy – especially true for Cerberus and his chief operative Kali, whose nickname goes well with her vengeful attitude. In my opinion, the reason for Hannah and Nik’s successful incursions lies exactly there, in the loss by the BeiTech team of their professional focus in favor of a more personal goal.
Another interesting element comes from the growing relationship between Hannah and Nik: unlike Kady and Ezra in Illuminae they are not already a couple, and there is no attraction between them. There is a sort of playful game going on, granted, where Nik peppers their communications with not-so-subtle innuendoes and Hannah plays to the hilt her role of arrogant snob – the one that gains her the appellatives of “Princess” or “Your Highness” from the young man – but they come from two very different walks of life and romantic attachment is indeed the last of their thoughts. But it’s through the experience of being the only two (three, if you count Ella) free people on the station, the disillusionments they suffer (Hannah in particular) and the shared dangers that they become close, and something starts growing between them. Even more than romance, the coming together of Hannah and Nik feels like the meeting of two people who are changing through hardship, finding their true selves and finding a great match in the other person, once the real personality manages to shine though.
All in all, I can safely say that I enjoyed Gemina even more than its predecessor, and that this series will end up being one of my favorites, and a keeper: I have decided to buy the physical books so that I can look in detail at what I missed in the electronic form of the novels, and will do so for the third volume as well. For someone who vowed to keep strictly to e-books for ease of use and freedom of space, this means a great deal, indeed…