Reviews

MY 2018 IN BOOKS

Once again it’s time for the “look back” post in which we consider how the past reading year has gone, and once again I can be satisfied by the number of books I managed to read, not to mention the short stories I enjoyed between books, a good number of which have made it into reviews.  And here is a visual summary:

 

 

The books I read are more or less equally divided between Fantasy and Science Fiction, even though there is a fair number of them that crosses between the genre dividing lines.  What’s comforting is that of the 60-odd titles under my proverbial belt, only two of them ended up in the DNF bin, while the overall rating for the books I read remains a steady 4,1 stars.  Which means I have been quite rewarded by my choices this year.

Here are the books that received the maximum rating of 5 stars: it’s interesting to note that they are all placed in the Fantasy genre, since I used to consider myself more science-fiction inclined. Clearly these past years, and the number of great fantasy novels I enjoyed, have changed my tastes or steered them in a different direction – and in 2018 there was no new Expanse book, or there would at least have been a 5-star rating in the SF field…

 

      

      

 

 

On a more personal level, I have said my farewell to GoodReads: the usual annoyances I had to deal with in the past concerning the quirks of the platform and its sometimes unreliable data update have recently been joined by a weird occurrence, which proved to be the infamous last straw.  After reviewing, on December 6th, the latest novel in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, I posted on December 8th a review for the novella Suffer a Sea Change that is included in the book: at the time in which I posted the review there was an independent listing for the novella, as there is for many other shorter works in this series.

A couple of weeks later, while compiling the list for this very post, I noticed that the review for the novella had disappeared, as had the novella itself from the GoodReads database, and only a further search brought me to find out that the novella review had been appended to the review for the book.  There is nothing truly wrong in this, granted, since there might be a valid reason for the removal of the listing, but what bothered me was the fact that the change had been operated unilaterally, and no one had thought of sending the barest of notices my way.

Taken by a sudden suspicion, I went to check on a similar case: at the back of a previous October Daye book, The Brightest Fell (one of my 2017 reviews), there was another novella, Of Things Unknown, which used to have the same separate listing from the parent book and that I reviewed as such. Well, that one was merged as well, still without notice: I have not checked other instances to avoid further irritation…

It’s not an end-of-the-world occurrence, true, but to me it spoke of a lack of consideration, a lack of good manners if you want: GoodReads sends a lot of notifications to me concerning friends’ updates or events, so why not for this change? From what I read, this is nothing new: other members have witnessed the actual eradication of their reviews, which seems to indicate a pattern, one that leaves an unpleasant taste in one’s mouth.

Anyway, I’ve moved my book collection to Library Thing (where the import mechanism worked like a charm, for the record) and will post reviews on GoodReads only in the case of debut novels, since that’s an instance in which authors need the maximum exposure, but I will just write a few words and then link to the complete post to my blog.   It’s a small gesture, a tiny drop in the ocean, I know, but it’s my way of protesting against such rudeness. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of it.

 

Now, moving to a more positive topic: to all of you fellow book lovers…

Have a great 2019 filled with wonderful books!  Happy reading!

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Reviews

TV Review: THE EXPANSE, Season 3 (spoiler free)

 

The on-screen translation of one of the best space opera book series to see the light in recent times has now reached its third season – one that for some harrowing days also seemed destined to be the final one, a subject to which I will return in a short while.

What never ceases to amaze me, in this visual version of James S.A. Corey’s epic, is the fact that even as a book reader I never experienced any dull moment, never took anything for granted, because the pace of the story is such that expectations always run high, even for those who know how the narrative journey develops.  This has become particularly true with this third season, where actions and characters have been shifted in unexpected ways, or changed completely, so that the viewing experience has become fraught with uncertainty for book readers as well as newcomers to The Expanse’s storyline.  If, with the previous two seasons, I was merely eager to see how certain events would be portrayed on screen – and still found myself enthralled by the way the creators managed that – now I am often speculating, together with non-book-readers, about how the story will move forward, what will happen to the characters, and so on.  The joy of seeing this amazing epic brought to the small screen is now combined with the deep sense of wonder and expectation that should always be part and parcel of any such experience.

The actors’ portrayal of the characters keeps being very enjoyable, and the characters themselves continue to gather new facets and offer deeper insights on their psychology and what makes them tick: we are given, for example, an important revelation about Naomi’s past (one that in the books happens much, much later than the point reached by the TV series), one that explains many of her past and present actions, and from my point of view gives some subtext to Dominique Tipper’s choice to always add a veil of wistfulness to her interpretation of Naomi, one that might have been a subtle form of foreshadowing.   Another delightful surprise came from Amos and the friendship he creates with distraught scientist Prax, who is desperately trying to find his missing daughter: actor Wes Chatam managed to keep his Amos the strong-armed, borderline psychopathic character we all know and love, but at the same time showed his gentler streak in his support of Prax, all without once changing Amos’ basic ruthlessness – not a mean feat indeed, and one that reached its peak in the famous (if you saw the show) “I am that guy” scene.

Fans of both Bobbie Draper, the Martian marine, and of Chrisjen Avasarala, the consummate, foul-mouthed politician, will certainly have enjoyed as I did their exchanges and how the balance of power shifts between the two of them according to the situation: where politics and the handling of people is concerned, Avasarala holds the upper hand, applying all her skills and craftiness to the manipulation of anyone unlucky enough to find themselves on her path, and at the same time she acts as a teacher to Bobby, who is indeed an amazing warrior, but suffers from a form of innocence where interpersonal talents are required.  On the other hand, when they are in danger and fighting for their lives, the roles become reversed, and it’s Bobbie’s turn to impart vital knowledge that can make the difference between life and death: the shared dangers they faced and are still facing have created a bond of mutual trust and respect between them, so that they know that any advice coming from the other is based on sound experience and can be heeded without reservations.

And these are only a handful of examples of what one can expect from this set of remarkable characters…

Story-wise, the third season looks more articulated and far-reaching: the mystery about the origins of the alien protomolecule now encompasses the questions about its goals (especially after the creation of the huge space ring), and intersects in a dramatic, breath-stealing way with the conspiracy to weaponize the alien substance and use it to affect the already precarious political balance of the Solar System. We spend more time on Earth, witnessing the power play between contrasting political forces, but we are also afforded a much closer look at Belter society and interactions as the Belters ask for a front seat on the general playing field thanks to their retrieval of the Mormon ship Nauvoo, now renamed Behemoth.   And speaking of space, it’s worth mentioning how well The Expanse shows the mechanics of life in vacuum, be it on a ship or a station, and the effects of microgravity on day-to-day existence or on the human body: space is vast and dangerous, we are all aware of this fact in one way or another, but it’s through some details of this show that the full impact of this reality hits home. One of the most striking scenes I can remember is that of the corridors of a damaged ship, where the bodies of the dead keep floating in an upright position because their magnetic boots keep them anchored to the deck; or the information about the effects of microgravity on a wound, because blood clotting cannot happen in gravity’s absence.

This attention to detail is one of the series’ distinguishing marks, and one of the aspects that many commentators have touched on, together with the excellent writing and the high-quality of character portrayal, so that it is unanimously acknowledged that The Expanse is one of the best genre shows on air at present.  Which leads me to the inevitable discussion about the proverbial elephant in the room, i.e. SyFy’s decision not to carry the show after its third season, a piece of news that came as a very cold shower around the middle of Season 3’s run.

When I wrote my review for Season 1 of The Expanse, I commended SyFy’s choice to commit to a quality story (and as a book reader I knew it had quality to spare), taking a step into the right direction for the network’s own chosen field, that had been neglected for some time in favor of other kinds of entertainment that had little or nothing to do with science fiction. You can therefore imagine my dismay when I learned of the decision to take The Expanse off their schedule, because of insufficient ratings due to SyFy’s distribution contract, which provided only for live viewing, a choice that apparently was not enough for the network’s goals.

Now, I have no idea about the workings of such contracts, so I might be barking up the wrong tree here, but it would seem to me that SyFy did not take into account the huge changes in the way TV viewing is approached now: live, direct viewing has dwindled in favor of streaming services or the more mundane recording of a show – not everyone can be in front of their TV on a given day and hour, our lives just make that difficult if not impossible, so that it’s far easier to record something we are interested in, to watch it later. So, basing the ratings of a show just on live viewing seems like a very narrow-minded interpretation, or an imperfect understanding of the modern dynamics of viewership, or both. Which leads to what, in my opinion, was a short-sighted and unfortunate decision that, despite the words of praise for the show expressed in the official announcement, immediately recalled other equally unfortunate and short-sighted decisions taken by SyFy in the past, as titles like Stargate: Universe or Farscape, just to name two, come to mind.

Luckily for The Expanse, though, the show is not produced by SyFy themselves but by Alcon Entertainment, and they immediately set to work in search of a new home for the series, backed up by a huge, really huge, fan involvement that included the signing of a petition to save The Expanse, and which brought on the involvement of Amazon and its owner Jeff Bezos – a fan of the book series even before the show aired – with the result that Season 4 (and the next ones, we hope…) will see the light on Amazon Video.  While I am relieved to know that the Rocinante and its crew will keep on traveling through space, I am also sad to have witnessed this further misstep from SyFy, one that – in my opinion – once again undermines their reliability as a network dedicated to quality science fiction.  And quality is always something one should strive for, especially in this genre…

That said, I am happy to close on the positive note of The Expanse’s new – and certainly more trustworthy – home and look forward to what Season 4 will bring.  Please, keep the Roci flying!

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE ROOK (The Checquy Files #1), by Daniel O’Malley

 

When a book starts with a character waking up in a public park with no memory of one’s own identity, and surrounded by corpses wearing latex gloves, you know the authorial promise underlying such a story is that of a thrilling adventure and a journey of discovery, and that’s what’s in store for Myfanwy Thomas as she comes to under a torrential rain, with only a letter in her pocket working as an anchor to what used to be her life.

Dazed and terrified, Myfanwy follows the instructions in the letter – a missive penned by her old self who knew that her memory would be wiped and took every step to insure that her newborn persona possessed all the elements to carry on as best as she could. Myfanwy Thomas is – or rather was – a member of the Checquy, a British secret organization that for centuries has collected and trained as operatives all the people who showed supernatural abilities, employing them against any equally supernatural threat against the country.

A timid, unassuming person, Myfanwy however rose to the position of Rook in the Checquy thanks to her superior administrative abilities, which acted as compensation for her reluctance to employ her power of controlling other people’s bodies through her mind.  For some reason, though, someone in the Checquy choose to mind-wipe her, so that Myfanwy – being forewarned by several sources gifted with precognition – decided to leave to her “successor” a thick file of information about her past life and her work, so that the new Myfanwy could step into the old one’s life and even try to uncover the identity and motives of the person who harmed her in such a way.

As a premise, this does sound quite intriguing, and for the initial chapters the story did prove fascinating, provided that I exerted some light suspension of disbelief, but after a while my objections started piling up in such a way that like the proverbial elephant in the room I could not ignore them anymore, and I had to acknowledge the fact that the execution of this story ended up ruining my enjoyment of it. The uneven pace, the improbable characterization and the overall mood – that seemed to hover uncertainly between suspenseful drama and snarky humor – all added up to a huge disappointment that would have made me stop reading there and then if I had not held to the slender thread of curiosity that required I learn how this convoluted scheme would be resolved.

First problem: the pacing. The foretold wiping of her memory allows old-Myfanwy to leave extensive notes for new-Myfanwy so she can have enough elements to more or less safely navigate through her life, and in the beginning this narrative choice looked like an interesting way of detailing some necessary background. That is, until it got completely out of hand: every time a situation warrants information that new-Myfanwy does not possess, a document in the huge purple binder that old-Myfanwy left her comes to the rescue, listing in often excruciating detail some past event or the personal data on Checquy officers she needs to work with.  When that happens in the middle of a dramatic episode, the change in narrative speed feels jarring and the information – as useful as it might be – just like an obstacle to be overcome before going back to the heat of the moment. Repeat this instance a sufficient number of times, and what used to be simply upsetting becomes monumentally annoying, especially since the level of detail provided is so burdened with useless trivia that the temptation of skipping ahead to the real meat of the story becomes irresistible.  Too much of a good, useful thing is not necessarily a good thing, and in this instance the author seemed to forget – or ignore – the fact that overloading the readers with a plethora of details would prove distracting, or worse.   And then there is one question that kept nagging at me: the infamous purple binder in which old-Myfanwy crammed her previous life is a prominent feature in the story, to the point that new-Myfanwy is always carrying it around and scanning it, even in the presence of other people, which might have raised some eyebrows or given away her little problem with amnesia – and yet it never happens, which to me seems improbable at best.

Problem number two: characterization. After the initial shock of being “born” again with no memory of self, Myfanwy comes across as something of a Mary Sue: armed only with the information in the letter left by her predecessor, she proceeds to step into old-Myfanwy’s shoes with apparent little or no difficulty.  What’s more, while her previous incarnation was a timid, self-effacing creature that garnered little respect from her peers, this new woman is decisive, assertive and quite proactive, especially where her job is concerned: she can make quick, effective decisions on the direst of situations and she has no qualms about employing her supernatural powers with a strength no one suspected she possessed or felt the desire to apply – and yet no one even bats an eyelash or comments on such amazing personality changes, which sounds eminently strange for anyone, let alone a secret organization where layered screenings and security measures against enemy infiltration abound.  On the other hand, the new Myfanwy (just like the old one) has problems with social interactions, so that when faced with official meetings she reverts back to her awkward girl persona who worries more about the state of her hair or the complexities of a daring dress than about the current problem, which led me to wonder whether it was a matter of inconsistent characterization or the usual glitch that occurs when a male author writes from a female perspective. Or maybe it’s just snarky old me…

And finally, the overall mood: more than once, while reading The Rook, I was reminded of one of my main contentions with Andy Weir’s The Martian, which was the light tone that often seemed inappropriate when applied to the situation being described.   Here I encountered the same problem, as if the author were undecided whether to keep this story in a playful vein or stress the dramatic side of it, which consists of scary manifestations that end in a high number of casualties, when not dealing with the political maneuvering inside the Checquy, which appears no less vicious than an enemy’s attack.  This uncertainty about what I was reading, which could be seen as either a dark thriller with fantasy elements or a humorous take on the genre, certainly did not help in my assessment of this story, or my enjoyment of it,  and the last pages, plagued by a lot of convoluted explanations and the mandatory Evil Guy Gloating Before Killing the Heroine sounded the… death knell for this story, and I stopped reading before reaching the end, because I could not bear to go on anymore – which is a pity since the premise had all the numbers to result into a compelling book.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: MALICE (The Faithful and the Fallen #1), by John Gwynne

 

When earlier this year I read John Gwynne’s A Time of Dread, the first volume in his new saga titled Of Blood and Bone, I was immediately captivated by the author’s storytelling and the complex background of the novel, so that once I learned of the existence of a previous loosely connected series, I knew I would not wait long before reading it. Which brings me to Malice, the start of The Faithful and the Fallen epic.

On the surface, Malice looks like a classic good vs. evil tale, and in truth it employs several traditional elements of the genre, like the prophecy of an impending conflict between the champions of light and darkness, or the coming of age of a young man destined to greatness, but it does so with such narrative skill that it’s impossible not to be absorbed by the story and enjoy its rhythm and subtle buildup.  I have come to envision the author as a bard of old, of the kind who once gathered people around a fire as he recounted tales that everyone was familiar with, but that gained new depth and meaning with clever storytelling, one where the journey matters more than the end.  As a longtime admirer of JRR Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings, I found here the same kind of epic tale I love to lose myself in.

As far as the background is concerned, the novel takes place in the Banished Lands, a region where people retreated after the devastating war between the gods of good and evil, Elyon and Asroth, and where humans dwell in uneasy balance together with giants, wyrms and other outworldly creatures. High King Aquilus, who oversees the various realms in which the Banished Lands are divided, has been warned about the prophecy that heralds a new war between the opposing forces of light and darkness and the final battle between their champions, the Bright Star and the Black Sun: when he calls the other rulers to council, asking for an alliance against the coming darkness, his proposal is mostly met with uncertainty and disbelief, since the forces of evil have already begun to sow their seeds, so that what should have been a united front is fractured by mistrust and competing shows of strength.

I’m not going to delve further into the story because I think it must be enjoyed on its own: no matter how familiar the premise might sound, it’s the kind of tale that takes hold of your imagination and carries you, slowly but surely, toward its stirring climax: Malice works very much as an introduction, and as such it takes its time to gather clues and build them up, requiring some patience from the reader, but that patience is more than rewarded in the last segment of the novel, when events are brought to a peak that leads toward the next book in the series.

The real backbone of the book comes however from the characters: Mr. Gwynne gives us a good number of points of view, alternating them between chapters so that the story flows easily from one to the other: here lies my only contention with this novel, because we make the acquaintance of too many characters all at once, and that might prove a little daunting since we are not given enough time to get to know them properly before moving on to the next one. Aside from this little snag – that I overcame by taking notes to fix their traits in my mind – observing these individuals’ evolution in the course of the story was indeed a fascinating exercise.

The main point of view belongs to young Corban, a village smith’s son: he’s looking forward with some trepidation to the warrior training that all village boys undergo, especially since the local bully does his best to undermine Corban’s faith in himself and his abilities. It does not help that his fiery sister Cywen often comes to his rescue, somehow giving strength to the bully’s claim about Corban’s cowardice: it’s at this point that the mysterious stablemaster Gar offers his services as a combat instructor, mentoring the boy in what look like unusual techniques geared to face worse danger than what the usual village defender encounters.  The relationship with the wolven Storm, a wild creature everyone else is wary of, lends a further patina of mystery to Corban’s destiny, and makes for some wonderful passages of bonding between boy and animal, that were among my favorite segments.

On the opposite side of the social spectrum there is Nathair, heir to King Aquilus: he’s eager to prove his worth and somewhat stifled by his father’s caution and his mother’s fear for his safety. The prince’s determination to show his mettle takes him toward a path where darkness rules more often than light does, and in so doing carries along with him another young noble, Veradis, enrolled in Nathair’s personal guard and looking for the recognition that his father always denied him.  The theme of a remote father whose absence or lack of interest – which in some cases becomes outright hostility – drives the son away in search of respect encompasses another character, that of Kastell, whose path is however different because he puts himself to the service of the land, joining a specialized cadre of warriors who battle the dangerous creatures roaming the Banished Lands: Kastell’s journey is one of my favorite narrative threads, mostly because I enjoyed his relationship with older Maquin, who acts as a mentor and protector to the younger man.   Last but not least is Evnis, the counsellor of King Brenin (one of the lesser rulers under Aquilus), who is painted from the very start as the true villain of the story since he sells his soul to evil Asroth in search of vengeance – and yet he’s not a totally negative character because there are somewhat valid reasons for his actions, although the choices he makes lead him on a dark path.

The character list is by no means limited to the ones I quoted of course: there is a great number of minor figures who enrich the variegated tapestry of this story and add interesting points of view that deepen our understanding of this world – I’d like to quote healer Brina here, because her caustic demeanor and sarcastic wisdom were among the highlights of Malice, to the point that I hope she will be present in the next volumes as well.  All these figures contribute the immersive experience of the novel, one where the themes of courage and deception, of selflessness and wickedness, of friendship and hate all contribute to create a lively, believable background that is brought to life piece by piece as the complex mosaic of the story comes together.     When taking into account the fact that this first volume of The Faithful and the Fallen is the author’s debut novel, Malice looks an even more extraordinary feat, one I know blossomed into the successful A Time of Dread, and one that makes me quite eager to continue exploring this saga.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: PRIME MERIDIAN, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

 

This third work I’ve read by Silvia Moreno-Garcia confirms that she’s an extremely versatile author: after the violent world of vampires shown in Certain Dark Things, and the frivolously vicious society of The Beautiful Ones, with this novella we explore Mexico in the near future, a future where mankind has established colonies on Mars while on Earth entire areas suffer from a failing economy, their inhabitants struggling in a hand-to-mouth existence that seems to offer little hope and even less means of escape.

Amelia is a prime example of this world: once a promising student winning a scholarship that might have launched her into an academic career, she was forced to abandon the university to tend to her ailing mother, so she now finds herself with no meaningful job credentials and is forced to work for an agency that offers friends for hire.  The only escape she can envision is through her old dream of one day going to Mars, starting over in a world that looks new and promising despite its barrenness and hardships.  But to get to Mars she needs money, and in the present circumstances there is little chance that she might hoard enough to fulfill her dream…

Prime Meridian is not what you might call a ‘proper’ science fiction story: there are no alien worlds to explore or extraordinary situations to face, but rather it’s a reflection on the all too possible course of development for our world, for the way in which certain social trends are going to evolve, and their consequences on individuals.  What Moreno-Garcia accomplishes here, seemingly without effort, is to depict the lack of drive that could affect a society where opportunities are scarce and the dichotomy between the haves and haves-not has become an unsurmountable chasm, and quiet despair a way of life.

You can feel the latter quite clearly in Amelia’s day-to-day activities, her constant battle with too little money and too many demands on her time and energy.  Still, it’s the dream of Mars – the only true element of science fiction here – that keeps her going, interspersed as it is with the recollections of a former B-movie actress who is one of Amelia’s clients: the fake Mars of a movie that never saw the light because of funding problems, and that exists only in a faded poster that hints at an almost impossible promise, is the vision which seems to anchor the young woman to her goal despite the constant strife and the subdued resentment one can perceive under her listless exterior.

The picture painted by this story is quite a vivid one, the characters coming to life through a few, well-placed brush strokes that leave you with the definite impression of having seen a movie, rather than read a book. Once again, Silvia Moreno-Garcia shows her flexibility as a storyteller, and the promise that the subjects of her works will always be unexpected and intriguing.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE CONSUMING FIRE (The Interdependency #2), by John Scalzi

 

A new Scalzi novel is always a treat for me: since I discovered this author with the first volume of his Old Man’s War series, each new book he published has been a source for intriguing stories, remarkable characters and some well-placed humor.  Book 1 of The Interdependency series, The Collapsing Empire, was no exception: it depicted a sprawling galactic empire whose means of travel and communication depend on the Flow, a mix between a sea current and a wormhole that allows ships to travel huge distances in a relatively shorter time than they would if they moved through normal space.

The Flow, however, is not immutable, and a few scientists have discovered that the routes of communication toward the various colonized systems are on the verge of collapse: once that happens, each system will find itself isolated from the rest of the Interdependency, risking chaos and the fall of civilization. In Book 1 we saw how newly elected Emperox Cardenia Wu-Patrick, who took the name of Grayland II, was trying to deal with this disturbing news while finding her way as the supreme ruler of the Interdependency (a role that was thrust on her unexpectedly) and fending off the assassination attempts carried out by some of the ruling families, bent on seizing the ultimate power before civilization’s end.

With The Consuming Fire the stakes get higher and even more dangerous: House Nohamapetan still stands at the heart of every evil scheme, despite the crippling blow sustained after the latest failed attempt on the Emperox’s life, and here we get to know better the House’s true ruler, the callous Countess who does not balk even at using her own offspring as pawns in the complicated game she’s playing.  Kiva Lagos, the young CEO of House Lagos who has been tasked with uncovering the Nohamapetans’ closeted skeletons, is often in danger of losing her life as her adversaries attempt to remove the nuisance she represents, with no regard for any collateral damage.  And Cardenia/Greyland knows she must find new ways to rule that can be applied to the extremely volatile and uncertain situation none of her predecessors ever faced.

Meanwhile, Marce Claremont, the scientist whose work has brought to light the precariousness of the Flow, learns that his data is incomplete and that there might be a possibility to establish new pathways once the old ones collapse, just as he discovers that the shutdown of a Flow does not necessarily mean the end of civilization: a journey toward the recently re-opened path toward doomed Dalasysla – an older colony that was cut off from the Interdependency when a few centuries before its arm of the Flow collapsed – shows that there is still life in that system – harsh, precarious life, granted, but still a healthy form of society that gives hope for the future.

With all of the above (and much more) going on, The Consuming Fire is indeed a swift and entertaining read, which is what I have come to expect from a Scalzi novel, but I’m sorry to say that it also proved to be something of a disappointment: in part I can place the blame for that on my expectations, which were quite high after the first book set down the playing field and then ended on a cliffhanger, leaving me wanting to know right there and then what would happen next.  In part, however, my dissatisfaction with this book comes from an uneven pace that alternates moments of adrenalin-infused narrative, especially where the plots-within-plots of the Nohamapetans are concerned, and others of extreme slowness where one or more characters indulge in long, drawn-out conversations that offer some necessary context but at the same time sound pedantic and artificial.  Now, this kind of wordy exchange is at times typical of Scalzi’s writing, but until now it never went on at such length and especially not as the dull counterpoint to more energetic segments: here it gives the story a start-and-stop quality that in the end I found frustrating and what’s worse it gave me the impression that the author has in part given up on his previous habit of just hinting at deeper issues, so that his readers can think about them on their own, in favor of a more open and sadly heavier lecturing. 

And so, probably in an attempt to even out the scales, there is an excessive emphasis on a certain individual’s foul-mouthed tendencies, so that if at first I found Kiva Lagos’ characterization an amusingly irreverent portrayal, here she has become a caricature of herself, and a badly overstated one at that.  In the first book, Kiva used to drop the f-word at every opportunity, with no thought for circumstance or company, and she offered a refreshing contrast to the stuffy courtliness or the razor-thin false politeness of other characters.  Sadly, in The Consuming Fire, Kiva’s cussing is all out of proportion to many of the situations she finds herself in, and what’s worse her profanities are not simply uttered in direct dialogue as would be expected, but also employed when the author relays her thoughts, which I found unnecessary and redundant, more in the spirit of a child who has just learned a four-letter word and enjoys the shocking impact of it, rather than the representation of an adult who does not care overmuch about social graces.

These issues, minor as they are, coupled with the shortness of the novel and my perceived lack of any substantial advancement in characterization or story, managed to spoil some of my enjoyment, and that’s the reason I find myself unable to give The Consuming Fire a higher rating. Still, I have not given up either on this series or this author, and can look forward to the final chapter in this adventure with the hope of seeing all my expectations realized.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: ROGUE PROTOCOL (The Murderbot Diaries #3), by Martha Wells

 

And once more we journey through the galaxy in the company of our soap-opera-loving fugitive SecUnit, still searching for answers about the shady corporation GrayCris and on the alleged bloody rampage that caused it to kill its clients in a previous assignment – a circumstance that with time and the evidence that MurderBot is collecting keeps looking more and more dubious.   Once it learns from the news that its former mentor/protector Dr. Mensah is being targeted with pointed questions about the runaway SecUnit that Mensah took under her wing, MurderBot understands that it might be GrayCris’ way of trying to deflect attention from their crooked operations, and sets about to find more – and more damning – evidence about the big bad corporation’s misdeeds.

For someone who purports not to like humans, MurderBot keeps spending a LOT of time with them: in this instance, to reach an area where it might find some important clues about GrayCris’ illegal operations, MB finds itself on a transport full of quarrelsome humans who keep calling on it to quell their disputes, that often become very physical. Even in the almost dispassionate voice with which the SecUnit relays its story, it’s easy to read the extreme satisfaction derived by the opportunity to order those cantankerous passengers to shut up – something it never had an opportunity of doing in its previous occupation. And also an act that allows it to vent some of its pent-up frustration for not being able to watch as many episodes of Sanctuary Moon as its mechanical (?) heart desires…

The SecUnit’s satisfaction about finally being free of those insufferable passengers is however short-lived, since it needs to reach a station orbiting another failed terraforming experiment handled by GrayCris, and the only available ship transports more humans and a very friendly, almost childlike bot, Miki, who is our protagonist’s polar opposite, since it does not only like humans, but calls them ‘friends’ and acts like an overeager puppy in its interactions with them.  The need for stealth requires MB to enroll Miki’s assistance in its attempt to fly under the radar, and that exposes the SecUnit to an allegedly unwelcome onslaught of feelings that often make it regret the loss of ART, whose scholarly approach to problems was more in line with MB’s outlook.  At least on the surface.

Yes, because there are several instances in which the easy relationship between Miki and its human companions, the way they treat him as one of them, worrying for its well-being and safety, prompts a very unusual reaction in our SecUnit, one that it defines as the need to “have an emotion in private” – and there is no amount of snarky cynicism applied to that sentence that can cover the true nature of that emotion, that to me looks suspiciously like envy.   MurderBot has changed a great deal since we met it, and even though it’s not ready to acknowledge these changes – that have nothing to do with the exterior modifications it applied to itself and everything to do with the experiences accumulated since the hacking of its governor module – it’s easy to see how much more… well… human it’s becoming, and how scary that must be, even though it’s not a thought the SecUnit cares to dwell on.

The amazing – and highly entertaining – side of Rogue Protocol is that all these musings, all these questions that plague MurderBot about the nature of humans and artificial constructs, and their interactions, all occur in the course of an adrenaline-rich chase through an abandoned station where Miki’s scientists are attacked to keep them from unearthing GreyCris’ crooked operations on the planet below.  So MB finds itself once again forced to keep these humans safe, and this time it does so at the cost of heavy physical damage that might not be so easy repairable as it was when it used to be a bona fide SecUnit: the dichotomy between the dramatic situation and MurderBot’s reactions to it and to the injuries it sustains ended up being the source of much hilarity on my part – it might not sound too charitable, but all those repeated instances of “Oh shit! Oh shit!” and “Ow!” as a consequence of said situations and injuries are quite funny when rendered in MurderBot’s not-so-detached present attitude.

I needed help. I was rattled, I was still leaking a little, and I hadn’t been able to watch any media in what felt like forever.

On the other hand, the battle for survival makes for an incredibly quick reading – what used to be defined as a ‘page turner’ – and it’s relayed with such a detailed, cinematic quality that it’s easy to picture the scenes in one’s mind, and even easier to think that this could be the perfect material for a spectacular movie or a TV series: think about ambushes, energy weapons discharging along deserted corridors where every corner might hide a deadly danger, combat bots on the rampage, and any other dramatic device you could imagine.

In the end, Rogue Protocol – even more than its predecessors – does not feel like a short novella but rather like a full-fledged novel, one that successfully packs a great deal of action, information and character development into a surprising small number of pages, and that’s the reason it does not leave us unsatisfied (as it’s often the case with these shorter works), but rather eagerly anticipating the next installment and the novel-length book that was recently announced.  No matter where MurderBot will go next, I will be following without hesitation…

 

My Rating: