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Review: REVENGER, by Alastair Reynolds

28962452If someone had told me that I would not be able to finish a book by Alastair Reynolds, I would never have believed them: he’s one of my favorite SF authors, and I’ve always enjoyed what I read so far, so when I learned of this new novel I dived straight for it, only to be profoundly disappointed.

The story focuses on two sisters, Adrana and Arafura, and is told from Arafura’s point of view: they leave their home on Mazarile to join a crew of glorified scavengers searching through the relics of old civilizations for valuable objects.  There are many interesting details to this view of the universe: humanity has spread away from Earth (there are several mentions of the Old Sun and its failure) and created artificial homes on planets and habitats; the remnants of previous civilizations are to be found enclosed in baubles, that open at pre-arranged times to allow the treasure hunters to look for artifacts; there is a form of instantaneous communication/listening device that uses a sort of huge (alien?) skull to establish contact, or to eavesdrop, but only if the operators are young people, with a still-developing brain; and there are pirates, preying on the scavenger crews to get at the artifacts without doing the hard work.

Most of the above is often mentioned in passing, but never satisfactorily explored, especially on the subject of the baubles and how they came to be: I’m not in favor of massive info-dumps, on the contrary, but it seems… wasteful to give the readers a glimpse of something so intriguing, and never to offer enough information to make sense of it all.  I believe the roots of the problem lie with Arafura’s point of view, and for a variety of reasons: for starters, she knows little of the universe she lives in, and that makes sense up to a point, because of her secluded life on Mazarile. Yet, once she escapes the stifling confines of her life, she shows little interest in the “big picture” out there, accepting with irritating passivity the information provided by her crew-mates, without looking further than that: there is nothing of the hungry curiosity I would have expected from a teenager who is for the first time free of the constraints of her former existence, none of the wonder of being “out there” and living an adventure.  If I were to distill the sisters’ reactions to the new and intriguing vistas opening before them, I could do it with: “oh, um… yeah, ok”.

Even worse is the “voice” of the two young girls: their dialogue and inner thoughts sound… dumbed down, for want of a better word.  If this is meant to be Alastair Reynolds’ attempt at expanding into YA fiction, I find it more than inadequate: used as I am to his neat, incisive prose, what I found in Revenger was a writing style so careless that I often wondered if I was truly reading such a well-known author. And if Arafura’s very simplified expressive range is the means to reach out to the younger audiences this seems to be intended to, I find it somewhat insulting, because readers in this age target are much more articulate than that.

Another problem I encountered with this book was the inciting incident for the whole story: the decision of the two girls to leave their planet comes out of the blue, after a visit to a sort of carnival booth in which some lady happens to have a device that measures the ability to read bones, a very sought-after skill for a treasure-hunting crew.  Forgetting for a moment the presence of such a device outside of a lab, or the fact it’s in the hands of a charlatan, the ease with which the two – and Arafura in particular, since she seems the less flighty of the pair – choose to abandon their home and their father sounds contrived and far too convenient, just like their immediate recruitment by Captain Rackamore of the ship Monetta’s Mourn. In what looks like a matter of hours, the sisters are out in space, ready for a remunerative job that might help the family’s flagging finances, without a single apparent qualm about what and who they leave behind, or what kind of dangers they might face on the scavenger ship.  Moreover I want to reserve a special mention to a scene in which the carnival lady’s helper wrecks the girl’s guardian robot Paladin to keep it from interfering with the examination: it looks ludicrous, absurd, excessive and totally out of context with the rest of the story.  If it was meant as comic relief, I’m afraid it failed completely.

Faced with these difficulties, I would not have hesitated to abandon this book much earlier, had it been written by a less-respected author, so I struggled on, ignoring my own law about never reading something that feels like work rather than pleasure: still, the story remained un-engaging and after a while even the attempts at inserting peculiar words to show the changes in everyday language (“lungstuff” for air or oxygen; “lamps” for eyes; “coves” for persons, and so forth) became an irritant rather than background information.  When tragedy hit the crew of Monetta’s Mourn, with the assault by the pirate ship led by Bosa Sennen, I hoped that something would change, that I would see some strong reaction from Arafura, but once again my hopes were dashed: the girl’s lack of substantial emotional responses strengthened my impression of a cardboard character with no depth at all, one I could not be invested in.  Having lost what little interest I had gathered for the story up to that point, I gave up the struggle a little before the halfway mark.

What most troubled me with Revenger was that the potential for the story was there, but it remained untapped and was instead buried under uninspired writing and poor characterization.  Not at all what I’m used to from a Reynolds book.

My Rating:


Review: THE UNNOTICEABLES, by Robert Brockway

23168833When a book starts as strongly as this one did, with a story that’s attention-grabbing from page one, the disappointment for its failed promises hurts twice as much: this is what happened to me with The Unnoticeables, whose narrative arc… imploded (for want of a better word) two thirds of the way in.

The story runs on two different time tracks, separated by 36 years: Carey, living in New York in 1977, is a young man reveling in the time’s punk scene, spending his days getting drunk, stoned – or both – and generally causing any kind of mayhem he can think of; Kaitlyn lives in Los Angeles, in 2013, as a part-time stuntwoman, part-time waitress trying, and so far failing, to bring her stunt work to the next level.  Both of them are confronted by something that is both inexplicable and terrifying, something that possesses all the markers of a slowly spreading invasion.

The first inkling that something terrible is going on happens when Carey sees a girl he’s interested in being attacked by what looks like a man-shaped oily mass: the thing acts like acid, consuming the unfortunate girl and leaving only bloody remains behind. Moreover, in the area where Carey and his friends prowl, some peculiar individuals start cropping up: they  all appear good-looking and attractive, but as soon as one’s eyes leave them, their features blur and no ones seems able to remember what they look like.  Worse, whenever these people – dubbed by Carey “the Empty Ones” – manage to attract any given individual, the unfortunates disappear without a trace.

Kaitlyn, on the other hand, suffers from a more close-and-personal confrontation: at a party she meets Marco, former sitcom star and her teenage years’ crush. Accepting a ride back home from the man, she’s first appalled by his reckless driving and uncaring attitude, which make her think Marco is somewhat deranged, then he forces himself on her. More shocking than the sexual assault is its modality: Kaitlyn feels something metallic slide down her throat, and her strength and willpower being drained away.  Saved by someone who bodily extracts her from Marco’s car, she makes Carey’s acquaintance: older, probably wiser but still tainted with his old recklessness, he’s living like a borderline homeless, but he has information on the Empty Ones – and is willing to help Kaitlyn trace her friend Jackie who disappeared after that fateful party.

The novel’s chapters alternate between Carey’s past and Kaitlyn’s present with a relentless pace that makes the book a compulsive read while we follow their scary journey of discovery: the two main characters are the best and strongest elements of the story, their voices persuasively true and their dialogue or thoughts evenly balanced between stark, dramatic reality and sarcastic humor. Carey comes across as the best defined one, though: the outrageous style of life he and his friends are pursuing should make them offensive, and yet there is a sort of wild abandon in Carey, tinged with the somewhat lucid awareness of what he is, that managed to endear him to me, and to make me root for him – especially when his rough attachment to his friends comes to the fore, almost belying his devil-may-care attitude.

Once Kaitlyn’s disbelief at her new friend’s revelations evaporates, the two decide to go on the offensive to try and save Jackie, and they pursue Marco’s car in a mad motorcycle dash through the congested traffic of Los Angeles. They follow him to a mansion where a party is in progress, and though realizing that the place must be crawling with Empty Ones like Marco they decide to go in: this is where the story started unraveling and making less and less sense to me.  For starters, I could not figure out what the two were trying to accomplish knowing they were vastly outnumbered by people (if one wanted to call them that…) who could not be hurt, harmed or stopped in any way. And then the real madness kicked in…

What had started as a horror story about strange beings preying on unsuspecting humanity, and the slow infiltration of the Empty Ones in various facets of society (the most chilling example being Kaitlyn’s trip to the police station to denounce Marco’s assault), suddenly morphed into something best defined as crazily grotesque: the dangerous environment of the hellish party is only the front for what happens in the closed back rooms, where blood-drenched orgies lead to every kind of imaginable (and  unimaginable…) sex perversion, give way to a frenzy of horrific mutilations and killings, all of which with no apparent rhyme or reason, except maybe the author’s penchant for imagining and depicting the most revolting and senseless acts of destruction.

At that point, only the desire for some sort of explanation kept me reading on, despite the appearance of even more gory weirdness in the form of a strange contraption to which the Empty Ones’ victims were being fed, all in the name of a nebulous fight against entropy.  Sadly, whatever form of explanation, or clue to understanding the bloody mess this story had turned into, was not enough to save this novel from the downward plunge it had taken in my consideration.   I’m not even certain I entirely grasped whatever passed for explanation: the only thing I’m sure about is that I will not pursue this series further.

 

My Rating:

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY #12

This GoodReads group proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.

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This week’s theme: SERIES THAT GOT WORSE WITH EACH BOOK/SEASON

This week’s topic is an interesting one, since it allows us to mix book and Tv series: we all had one or more experiences of quite promising series that started with the proverbial bang and then tapered out with the equally proverbial whimper. There is no malicious glee in pointing them out, because disappointments burn both ways…

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I will start with Peter Brett’s Demon Cycle: the first book, The Warded Man, was an amazing, exciting discovery – imagine a world where the fall of darkness means that demonic creatures emerge from the very ground, bent on destroying the hapless humans they find on their way, unless people shelter behind wards, powerful symbols capable of keeping these hellish creatures at bay. I literally consumed the book, and went looking for more, although the second volume, The Desert Spear, suffered from a little repetition and a few instances of… characterization hiccups, for want of a better word. Still, the story managed to make me forget these small disturbances and move on to book 3 – and that’s where the trouble started in earnest: The Daylight War not only managed to retread old narrative paths (in some cases for the third time) but degraded toward a soap-opera-like style of storytelling that completely alienated me from what had started as a very promising tale. Not the kind of journey I had hoped to make…

I know that my next choice will prove highly unpopular, but I have to mention Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time: I received the first volume of this saga, The Eye of the World, as a birthday gift a couple of years after its initial publication and I remember enjoying this epic tale of the struggle between Good and Evil and its vast cast of characters.  Yes, there were a few similarities with Tolkien I had perceived, namely those creatures (I can’t remember their name, it’s been a few years…) whose mere presence caused paralyzing fear in their victims, and that strongly reminded me of the Ringwraiths; or the journey through The Ways, that seemed like a combination between Moria and the Paths of the Dead.    Sadly, with the following books, the narrative appeared more and more bloated with long, excruciating descriptions that left little room for plot advancement; there were constant repetitions of annoying characters’ behavior (after a few hundred braid-chewings by a particular character I was ready to scream in frustration), and what’s worse, those annoying similarities kept cropping up and waving at me: just as an example, I will mention the Aes Sedai, a women-only powerful order bent on shaping humanity through age-long intervention; and the Aiel, a desert-dwelling people whose combat skills are known and feared, waiting for the proverbial Chosen One to lead them to victory.  Dune fans, do they both remind you of something?
If the novels had been leaner, the pace swifter, I might have overlooked it all, but the combination of what I perceived like derivative elements with the glacial progression of the story made me abandon the saga midway through book 4.

Some time ago I read, and enjoyed, Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax SF series, so when I learned she had started a new one, Razorland, I wasted no time in acquiring book 1, Enclave.  It possessed many of the elements I appreciate in a post-apocalyptic tale: humanity has been decimated by a plague whose surviving victims turn into feral creatures called Freaks.  What remains of humankind had to take shelter into underground tunnels, where life is short and brutal, and where most knowledge of the outside world has been lost or transformed into a myth. Young Deuce, a huntress for her clan, will have to face a dangerous journey on the surface in search of the hope for a better life.  So far, so good, despite the clear YA bent of this story: the first volume being more focused on the changed world outside of the tunnels, it made for a fascinating reading, and equally interesting were the changes in society and mentality brought on by the need to live in darkness.  But unfortunately with book 2, Outpost, the unavoidable (?) YA tropes kept cropping up at an alarming rate: love triangles, pouting teenagers who know better than more experienced adults, and so on.  Book 2 ended in the DNF pile, with my deep regrets for the many lost opportunities.

Moving from books to TV I’m going to express another unpopular opinion by mentioning the show Battlestar Galactica, the reboot that aired between 2004 and 2009 after a successful return with a short miniseries in 2003.

The miniseries was nothing short of amazing: after being almost wiped out by the Cylons, the cybernetic constructs they created, the survivors of the Twelve Colonies regroup aboard a handful of vessels, led by the capital ship Galactica, running away in search of a new home and relentlessly pursued by the murdering Cylons.  There was much to enjoy in this revival of an older, cheesy show of the ’80s: the Cylons were both robot-like creations and human-looking creatures, giving them the possibility of infiltrating the human survivor groups and therefore creating a constant atmosphere of suspicion on the vessels where the remnants of civilization tried to hold on day by day, with constant threat of annihilation and of the mechanical failures of old, overtaxed ships.  Older, less advanced technology had to be abandoned in favor of more primitive versions that could not be hacked or infiltrated by the Cylons, leading to a mix of space-age and WWII submarine warfare quality to the story being presented on screen, one of the most fascinating aspects of the reboot.
The first two seasons aired after the miniseries were on the same level of narrative quality and managed to keep the story flowing and the tension high, but with season 3 the first cracks started to appear: unlike the Cylons, who we were constantly told had a plan, the series’ creators seemed to meander as aimlessly as the hapless survivors (or maybe more…), and the moral and existential dilemmas that had made the beginning of this revisitation so appealing, were shifted to the side in favor of entanglements with quasi-religious myths and subplots that ended up twisting on themselves and ultimately ending nowhere.  Even though I struggled on to the very end, I had lost interest in the plight of the survivors, and kept watching only to see what it was all about: in this, as well, I was disappointed, because the ending made as little sense as what had preceded it; worse still, the sort of epilogue that rolled on the screen in the last few minutes managed to completely overshadow what I think would have been a fitting finale – that image of Admiral Adama sitting on a hill beside a grave (I’m not going to spoil whose, just in case…) and looking over the horizon of the new world, a poetic, poignant image that would at least have counterbalanced the nonsense before it.  Missed opportunities, indeed.

Vampires are one of the staunchest pillars of the horror genre, especially when they are bloody and mean – no sparklers needing to apply, thank you very much – so when I learned that Guillermo del Toro had contributed to the creation of this show, taken from a book trilogy penned by del Toro himself with Chuck Hogan, I was quite excited.  The Strain tells the tale of a vampire infestation starting in New York with the arrival of a plane with everyone on board dead; a mysterious casket from the plane’s hold is brought into the city and the horror begins, in an atmosphere and with a premise that both nod at and honor Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  At first the victims are believed to be prey to a mysterious illness, but soon it appears that something far more terrible than a mere virus is at work.
So far, so good, indeed: the vampires depicted here are quite scary, and the tension builds up to breathless levels, and if sometimes the scenes veer toward excessive levels of grossness, one could take it all in stride – after all we’re talking about blood-sucking creatures!  Where the show completely fails, though, is in characterization, especially with the protagonist Dr. Ephraim Goodweather: I can’t remember a less sympathetic, less endearing main character, one I constantly felt in need of slapping hard to try and put some sense and empathy into, or to move him to act with some sense instead of blundering around like a headless chicken.  His lines seem to be taken out of a bad B-movie and his actions make even less sense than his behavior: when I realized that I kept hoping that the “big bad guys” would remove him from the scene in a bloody, painful way, I understood there was something very wrong with the story, the writing, or both and therefore I did not go past the first season.

Review: TIME SALVAGER by Wesley Chu

23168818Experience should have taught me by now there is no guarantee that a highly acclaimed book might automatically be right for me  – and yet there are times when widespread praise breeds high expectations, so that when a book falls short of those expectations, I’m bitterly disappointed.  Time Salvager is a case in point.

What adds a good measure of sadness to that disappointment is that this story possessed all the elements to be a good one, the kind of story I love: a fascinating premise, an intriguing journey and a promisingly complex main character. It’s a pity that such potential riches were squandered in such a way as to make it very difficult to go on, to the point I could not finish the book.

As I said, the premise sounded solid: humanity has discovered the secret of time travel but – and here is the brilliant twist that caught my attention at the beginning – uses it only to keep the present going, more or less. Earth has become a wasteland, except for a few cities and some wilderness settlements where people scrape up a miserly hand-to-mouth existence. Civilization has moved outward, colonizing other planets in the Solar System, but it’s not the kind of life one would expect from an advanced future: the overall impression is that of a dreary reality from which there is no escape, with failing technology few are able to maintain, and none to improve. The last resort of this future humanity is to cannibalize the past in the hope of shoring up the present, in a sad game of diminishing returns: it comes as no surprise that time agents – or chronmen – do not lead an adventurous, charmed life gallivanting all over the continuum, but fall prey to a lingering pall of depression that, combined with the inevitable after-effects of time travel, sooner or later brings them to rebellion or suicide.

James Griffin-Mars is one such chronman, toiling to repay the huge investment made for his training, but losing day by day the will to go on: he’s despondent, jaded, prone to heavy bouts of drinking. Every time he comes back from a mission, he finds it still more difficult to ignore the accumulated disillusionment and the guilt for the past lives he must consign to unescapable death. He’s plagued by nightmares about them and his younger sister, lost and probably dead in the turmoil that was their childhood, so that she has become the embodiment of all his failures and remorse.

While on a difficult retrieval, one whose importance will bring him and his handler very close to comfortable retirement, James unexpectedly breaks the rules, and brings back Elise, a scientist from the 21st Century, unable to abandon her to certain (and historically correct) death.  After being mildly annoyed by stilted dialogs and not enough showing as opposed to telling, here I hit the first major disturbance in this story: bringing someone from the past is forbidden, because it would both destabilize the time-line and cause the transportee’s death amid horrible sufferings. This last detail is shortly revealed as false information, but at the moment of his decision whether to leave Elise to die in a radiation-plagued ocean, or to bring her to the future where she will die nonetheless, James knows nothing about that deception, so what’s the motivation for his actions? A swift (and improbable) infatuation for Elise, which seems to be the reason, does not resonate with his personality as shown up to this point, nor does it make any sense, since she would be destined to die, one way or another – at least according to what James knows.

Accepting this development took some effort, but I chose to go along and see where it would lead: unfortunately it meant starting on a road increasingly paved with clichés – and here my trust in the story suffered some mortal blows. James and Elise must now hide from James’ former employers and from their main financer, a big corporation with evil goals – because of course every time a big corporation figures in fiction it has to be totally evil and corrupt.  After a few adventures, the two fugitives find shelter with a group of semi-savage people living in the wilderness: surprise, surprise, these are good-and-wise savages, who know how to live in harmony with poor, wounded Earth, and who inspire Elise to find a cure for the fatally ill planet.  Single-handedly and with scrounged, sub-standard equipment, the scientist from the past embarks on a monumental effort that has so far proved impossible for people with better means, while James hops through time in search of supplies, always managing to evade the search mounted by *two* organizations bent on finding him.

I’m aware that a work of fiction requires some suspension of disbelief – after all I find talking and walking trees perfectly acceptable, just to make an example – but this goes against any logic, to the point it becomes absurd, as does James’ handler’s equally successful help to his former colleague: no one keeps him under observation, no one questions his actions in an organization where everything and everyone is closely monitored. Sorry, but that makes no sense.  Even if, for the sake of adventure, I had been able to overlook all of the above, the arrival of Grace – another brilliant scientist from the past, enrolled to help Elise in her save-the-planet project – was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  Grace is a wise, elderly lady of power, and yet she greets Elise with a string of spiteful repartees over James that seems to come straight from some teenage movie: the scene is not only incongruous (and again, groundless), but it transforms two brilliant scientific minds into a couple of shrews battling for a man’s affection – because that’s what women do, when they meet from across time, don’t they?  Another tired, overused cliché brought up to keep the previous ones company, in an ever-growing, noxious crowd…

There is an enlightening quote from Grace that gave me a definite perspective on this story: “We’re two scientists, an alcoholic (…) and a mud-wallowing tribe in the middle of a dystopian wasteland” – it sounded like the beginning of a joke about three people walking into a bar, and that was not what I was looking for in this book – or any book, for that matter.

Moving on to greener and better pastures….

 

My Rating:

Top Five Wednesday: BOOKS I DID NOT FINISH

I recently stumbled on this GoodReads group that proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related. It sounds fun, and something I can manage even with my too-often-limited time.

This week’s topic is: Books I Did Not Finish

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Perdido Street Station by China Mieville: I tried for three times to read this book, because it pictured a fascinating background and an interesting combination of science fiction and horror elements. What’s more, it was written in a rich and vivid language, but each time I had to give up, mostly because of the unrelieved darkness of this world, one that is permeated by a sense of unstoppable decay I ultimately found off-putting. Many times I felt that the grossest details were there just for their shock value, and not so much for descriptive purposes, which ultimately proved to be my undoing.

Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan: What started as an interesting fantasy series, turned out to be (in the not-so-very-long run) a massively wordy journey where descriptions abounded but the story progressed at a snail’s pace – at least as far as my tastes are concerned. I will not go into the similarities with other genre books – although there are quite a few – since for me the endless repetitions of personal traits (like that infamous braid chewing!) were more than enough to drive me crazy and to drive me away in the end.

Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon: here is another case of word bloat, compounded by some narrative choices that had the same effect on me as the proverbial fingernails over a blackboard. For example, how about a modern woman who, finding herself some two centuries in her past, accepts the fact that her man beats her into obedience? And proceeds to make-up sex afterwards without the slightest qualm? O the use of sex and violence (either alone or in combination) as plot devices? Moreover, the protagonist trespasses so often into Mary Sue territory as to become caricature rather than character.

MaddAddam series by Margaret Atwood: much as I enjoyed the first two books in this series, I could not make myself take any interest in the third and final one. It felt as work, rather than reading pleasure; the writing did not even seem the product of Margaret Atwood’s excellent penmanship; the characters act in a way that made me wonder is some second-hand stand-ins had taken their place.  I’ve heard from good, reliable sources that the end of the book is satisfactory and that it closes the series neatly, but I still have to find the strength – and the willingness – to go on.

Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey: another case of a widely acclaimed book that fell totally flat for me. It does start with an interesting premise but it suffers from too much telling and very little or no showing, the pace feels glacially slow and the characters lack proper development.  I know that if a book fails to capture my interest in the first 30 pages, it has no chance at all, and this one did not manage to hold my attention.

Review: THE BORDER, by Robert McCammon

24406483It’s always sad when a book disappoints me, but it’s worse when that happens with an author whose work I appreciated in the past: I discovered Robert McCammon several years ago with Swan Song, a gripping novel mixing science fiction and horror, depicting a world ravaged by nuclear holocaust and peopled by powerful characters on both sides of the fence, the survivors and the damned.  I read two other books by him, They Thirst – the story of a vampire invasion in Los Angeles, and The Wolf’s Hour – an interesting combination between history and fantasy, with a werewolf working as a spy against the Nazis; while not on the same level as Swan Song, they were both entertaining reads, so when I learned about The Border I was thrilled at the idea of a story that could parallel that first book I read.

The premise is indeed intriguing: Earth has been invaded not by one but by two alien races, yet for once our planet is not a place for mere conquest, but rather a battleground between creatures that have been dubbed Cyphers and Gorgons.  Earth finds itself on the border (hence the title) of both races’ expansion drive, so they fight each other for supremacy, uncaring of the collateral damage represented by humanity, whose survivors barely hang by the skin of their teeth, their civilization gone, cities reduced to burned rubble, water, food – and most important safety – running out at an accelerated pace.

The book opens as a teenaged boy, with no memory of who he is and how he came to be there, runs for his life as a fierce battle between Gorgons and Cyphers is waged around him: he’s hurt, bleeding and at the end of his endurance, but there’s a force driving him on – maybe a strong survival instinct, maybe something else. It’s a powerful start, one that draws you straight in and takes hold of your imagination.   The boy, who will later on be called Ethan, is rescued and taken into a small community of survivors holding out in the remnants of a housing enclave – and here is where the strong beginning of this novel starts to falter.

Ethan is quickly revealed as a special person: he uncovers a source of much-needed water under the complex’s abandoned swimming pool, and he can project lethal energy that creates earthquakes or vanquishes attacking foes. His body exhibits signs of inexplicable changes and he’s driven by a powerful imperative to reach the mysterious “White Mansion”, where his unknown destiny must be fulfilled. The similarities to Swan Song’s main character and her journey are evident, and while I found this mildly disappointing, it’s not the key reason for my disenchantment with this novel.  Ethan himself is too weak a character: the discovery of his abilities, the changes in his body, are both accepted far too easily and happen far too conveniently, while he remains a passive spectator of it all.  I would have expected deeper emotions from him, from the loss of his identity to the discovery of the powers he’s invested with, but while we are told about the way he reacts to what’s happening, we are never really shown that any of it truly touches him.

Something along the same lines happens with the survivors of Panther Ridge, the enclave where Ethan finds momentary shelter: these are people at the end of their wits and supplies, their numbers dwindling daily from injuries, alien attacks and despair-driven suicides, but we never really get to know them as people, we are only told – again – about their emotions, or offered a few meandering dialogs that give little in the matter of true characterization.  What’s worse, they seem to accept Ethan’s strangeness and his nebulous ‘mission’ with an amazing swiftness that seems to clash loudly with the strict measures taken until that moment against alien infiltration.  Yes, because the invaders, as a side activity, take humans and perform genetic modifications on them, letting them loose among the survivors to wreak further havoc: that’s the origin, for example, of the Grey Men, zombie-like hordes of flesh-eating ex-humans that plague the nights of humanity’s remnants. The Panther Ridge dwellers devised a way to screen real humans from the fake ones, since injecting a saline solution into their bloodstream causes a negative reaction in the latter, and the fact that Ethan passed this test with flying colors seems enough to warrant such blind faith in him.

If the enclave’s inhabitants’ despair might justify this too-easy acceptance that looks like that of a drowning man grasping at anything to stay afloat, such a justification loses some of its strength when the group, embarking on a dangerous journey toward the mythical White Mansion, meets with a military contingent stationed in a former shopping mall.  The garrison commander, described as a seasoned officer, takes the new arrivals’ explanations for Ethan at face value, and after witnessing the boy’s abilities in a clash with aliens, becomes a believer: he refurbishes the group’s bus, gives them much-needed supplies (evidently the military have an inexhaustible reserve of them, even in the desperate conditions in which Earth now stands) and sends them on their merry way.  This is where I drew the line, because my capacity for suspension of disbelief was stretched beyond its limit, the situation not helped by a writing that at times felt clunky, by the sketchy characterization, and by a few truly painful dialogs from a few secondary players.

And so, a little past the midway point, I abandoned my struggle to keep on reading, and see at least where the story was headed, unable to summon even the mildest interest in events or characters, though not without keenly feeling the loss of the unfulfilled promise of this book.

My Rating:


Review: THE MARTIAN – Andy Weir

18007564Not for the first time I find myself in disagreement with the general consensus about a book: probably the huge amount of praise received by The Martian raised too many expectations, since I went in believing I would find a story about survival against unsurmountable odds, about a man having to face total loneliness and encroaching despair.  I believed it would be a great study of the human mind and soul when confronted with terrible obstacles, and a wonderful chance for strong characterization.

Sadly, it was not so.

The main character, Mark Watney, does in fact relate his journey of survival on the unforgiving surface of Mars, after the rest of his crew left him for dead on the red planet, but while the narrative gives us a lot of technical details about what the stranded astronaut does to ensure his own survival, I could not grasp anything about the man doing all these things. His journal conveys nothing beyond the reports on his progress on a series of tasks: the subjects of loneliness, fear, isolation, loss of contact with family and friends just are not there. There is not even a single moment when he rants and raves about being left marooned on Mars, the kind of moment everyone would have indulged in before getting on with the business of survival. It would have been the human thing to do, after all. But it does not happen: even when he briefly touches on the subject of his loneliness, it’s more like a passing thought, not unlike those we entertain about the weather, rather than the soul-shattering considerations I expected.

The overall tone felt wrong: Watney comes across as chirpy and somewhat immature, not at all the trained, adult scientist he is, the frequent use of “Yay-this!” and “Yay-that!” in his musings stridently at odds with the situation. The only moments when something approaching emotion comes up are those when he makes sarcastic comments about the entertainment programs left behind by his crewmates, jeering and scoffing at the quality of music and tv shows and never – not once – giving a thought to the people he lived and worked with for long months.  For the rest of the time Watney makes silly jokes about his life expectancy or the dangers he’s facing, so that I never had the true perception of the danger, of the life-and-death struggles he faces day after day. Of the suspense and uncertainty that should have been this story’s main ingredients.

At some point I thought that this might have worked better as a humorous manual (think Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy) about how to survive on Mars: as such, with no pretense of creating an endangered character, it could have been a fun read. As it is, the dire situation in which Watney finds himself loses any dramatic impact: after a few instances of facing a difficult or life-threatening challenge, going to sleep and then waking up with a brilliant solution, my interest hit rock bottom and never resurfaced again.  And there’s one question that kept running through my mind as I read the details of the science Watney employs to ensure his survival: he states that he’s leaving a recording, in the case of his death, for those who will come with the next mission to Mars, so… what’s the need for all those A-to-B-to-C painstaking explanations?  He knows that scientists like him will be able to understand implicitly what he did, and will not need to be told the hows and whys of the engineering and chemical processes he’s employing.  Watney, or rather the author, is therefore speaking to and for the scientifically uninformed audience, breaking the fourth wall so to speak. And in my opinion breaking the “magic” of the story.

This happens again when the focus is shifted to Earth, where after some time the satellite images sent back from Mars make it clear Watney is alive: as everyone works feverishly to try and re-establish communications and mount a rescue expedition, the technical discussions are clearly tailored for the layman’s understanding, through stilted, phony dialogues that are just a vehicle for more exposition. It’s clear that the author either knows these matters intimately or has researched them thoroughly, but for me they completely smother any characterization or story development: if I wanted to learn the most minute details about these subjects I would have tuned in on the Discovery Channel, not looked for them in a work of fiction.

And last but not least: where is Mars?  Does ever Watney raise his eyes and look at the terrain, scan the horizon?  Granted, the place is bleak and desolated but still, at least judging from the pictures sent by the unmanned probes launched over time, it does possess a kind of savage beauty that should have merited a mention or two. It’s something I would have expected, given the novel’s premises, but once more I was disappointed.

The Martian might probably work better in the movie adaptation: if the script leaves out Watney’s teenager-style interjections and poor-taste jokes, the too-frequent mentions of the quality and quantity of his excreta (important as they are to his survival),  and the long, Ikea-manual-style explanations of such survival techniques, it will have a chance of describing a gripping story, or to offer some necessary humor in a form that I might find more acceptable. I’m sorry to report that the book did nothing of the kind for me, so I gave in to disappointment and gave up the struggle about a third of the way in.

My Rating:


Review: THE DAYLIGHT WAR – Peter Brett

9268487It disappoints me greatly to see a series that started with so much strength and promise taper away into uninspired repetition with little forward progression, and unfortunately this is what happened for me with Peter Brett’s “Demon Cycle”: some of the formless misgivings I expressed in my review of the previous book, The Desert Spear, seem to have coalesced into sad reality, robbing me of a great deal of the interest I held for this story and preventing me from finishing this third installment.

First there is the re-treading of old ground – from a different perspective, granted, but still it becomes boring quickly enough: for example we see the now famous scene of Jardir’s betrayal of Arlen for the third time. First we witnessed it through Arlen’s eyes in Book 1; then we shared Jardir’s point of view in Book 2: back then it was acceptable because we were following Jardir’s own story and the Krasian culture, but to see that narrative thread re-hashed again through Inevera’s eyes only because the focus of Book 3 is on her, is a bit too much for my tastes.

Then there is the matter of the battles with demons: now that the ancient wards are being brought into play again, strengthening the humans’ response to demonic attacks, the nighttime struggles have become a predictable clash of severed limbs, flaring magic and demon ichor spraying all over the place. The sense of danger, of a struggle against terrible foes that come up from the ground threatening life and sanity, has been lost: true, humanity had to learn how to defend itself and level the playing field sooner or later, but the way it’s been done here has removed all the suspense about the outcome.

When I wrote, in my review of Book 2, that the change in humans felt somewhat forced and too easily achieved, I feared exactly what I could see happening here: people discovering new ways to fight, and new manners of warding, practically every day.  I’m not questioning the forward progression, since it had to come into play or everyone would have succumbed to the demons and there would be no story to tell: what I’m questioning is the speed at which it happens, and the almost superhuman traits inherited by those who fight demons on a constant basis.  When those traits started involving magic healing of wounds and perception of “auras” and thoughts and emotions (the latter happening practically overnight), I knew it was time for me to give up the struggle.

Add to all that the endless repetition of some details, and you might start to see some of the reasons for my annoyance: Renna and Arlen end most of their conversations with a mutual declaration of love (are they trying to convince me or each other?); Inevera breathes to “find her centre”, sometimes more than once in the same page; magical dice is thrown to determine which paths to choose (and the dice’s response is given in complete, articulated sentences – whatever happened to puzzling, obscure prophecies?).  Even speech suffers from these repetitions, especially when artfully coarsened to show the illiteracy of villagers: I reached the point where reading the word “ent” made me break out in a rash….

Characters suddenly shift from interesting individuals to shallow representations of their former selves. Arlen is the Reluctant Hero with A Destiny, and yet he insists on being just the guy next door; Renna should have been a woman finding her strength through adversity, and instead she succumbs to poor rage management and hero worship/love for Arlen, whom she guards with ferocious jealousy; Rojer seems to incarnate a teenager’s wish fulfillment, what with two (not one, but two!) wily and seductive wives who can also double as chorus girls. As for Leesha… well, all my previous fears about her character have turned into sad reality, and she would not be out of place in a daytime soap opera.

The portrayal of women in this last book brings to sharp focus some of the problems I managed to overlook in the previous ones: women are more often than not the victims of rape or exploitation, or they go through life manipulating men through sex.  The most glaring example, in The Daylight War, is given through Inevera’s recollected past, culminating in her quite gross initiation rite: how can this kind of detail add to the story? If the goal was to show her rise to power through the means given to Krasian women in such a regimented society, that goal failed miserably in the scene of her wedding night with Jardir, where the consummate pillow dancer, the supreme manipulator, fails to keep her cool under her husband’s “forceful mastery”. Maybe that’s the reason she goes around wearing only diaphanous, revealing clothing, because it’s the only kind of power she can truly exert…

Yet, even outside of Krasian society women don’t fare all that well: their lives appear to be centered around men: their purpose is to catch any likely prospect passing their way, or to stand by their chosen man’s side and be the power behind his throne (what else?), all the while defending their “territory” from encroaching predators, i.e. other women. And when they do act in a more assertive way, like Leesha’s mother, such assertiveness is counterbalanced by a penchant for extra-marital activities, pursued with reckless abandon, that marks them in the most negative way possible. Which makes me miss even more poignantly the only woman with true agency, old Herb Gatherer Bruna.

If all of the above can be ascribed to subjective preferences, the fact remains that the story seems to drag on, more concerned with the various games of emotional musical chairs, or the posturing of warriors from both sides: the real problem, the clear and present danger represented by the corelings, is somewhat shunted to the sidelines, and what was a new and intriguing brand of foes turns into something of a footnote.

When reading becomes a chore, rather than a pleasure, it’s a sign I’d better give up. So I did…

My Rating: 5/10

Review: A CROWN FOR COLD SILVER – Alex Marshall

CCS4-armyI started this book with great expectations, because some of the reviews I read promised the kind of story I enjoy, that of an interesting character journey in an epic setting: Cobalt Zosia used to be a general who had conquered the world, but at some point decided to fake her death, hiding in the anonymity of quiet rural life with her lover. For twenty years she has enjoyed this life, until her husband and the inhabitants of her village are massacred by army rogues, so she decides to take back her old identity and seek vengeance, first tracking the five mercenary captains that made her inner circle, and then trying to re-build her army.

As far as beginning go, a very promising one: I even commented on a fellow blogger’s review post that the setting somehow reminded me of Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, a book I greatly enjoyed, and the fact that the main character is an older woman added further interest, because it did not obey the genre’s usual “rules”.  Unfortunately, the premise did not hold up to the promised epic adventure I was expecting.  For starters, I thought the story would be focused on Zosia, and her quest for retribution: what I found, instead, was a long, winding tale about a great number of characters moving around the world in apparent aimlessness.  What’s worse, at some point Zosia, on her quest to reconnect with her former allies, abruptly disappeared from the scene, only to come up again in the most unexpected and unexplained way after some two hundred pages.   Other characters suffered a similar fate, starting in an intriguing way and then fading in the background or failing to keep my interest alive: it’s entirely possible that the many different threads scattered about would have come together in the end, but after laboring past the midway point of the book I could not take it anymore and I stopped reading – what’s worse, I did not even feel curious enough to try and skip ahead to see if the pace picked up again.

Because that’s the main problem I encountered with A Crown for Cold Silver: the pace is very uneven, quick and compelling at rare times and slow and pondering the rest of the way. The style does not fare much better, because it tries to find a middle ground between grim-dark and darkly humorous, but in my opinion with little success.  And the world building suffers a similar fate: there are many different cultures in this world, and they all have the potential to be interesting if not downright fascinating, but to my eyes they are not explored enough – there were times when I wondered if I was missing some hints from a previous book, because I had the distinct impression that there were some inside references I was not made privy to.

While I don’t enjoy books where the author spoon-feeds the readers, providing them with such abundance of details that the story becomes buried under them, I also like to catch some glimpses of the world I’m reading about, glimpses that either point to a larger picture or help me “connect the dots” on my own.  Here I constantly felt as if I’d been left out of the information loop, so to speak, and people were talking over my head, uncaring of the fact that I could not follow the conversation.

Sadly disappointing.

My Rating: 5/10

Blackbirds – Chuck Wendig

12944651I became aware of this book through the recommendation of a friend, who also advised me to read the author’s blog: captivated by the cheerful irreverence of Chuck Wendig’s blogging style, and on the strength of past successful recommendations from this particular friend, I bought Blackbirds and started reading it straight away.  Unfortunately, what we jokingly refer to as the “great minds think alike rule” did not work its magic this time…

The premise is a fascinating one: Miriam Black can see how and when people will die, just by touching them. It’s both a gift and a curse, because there’s no amount of prior knowledge that can help her prevent a person’s death, especially when it’s a violent one: Miriam knows that all too well, because she tried. And failed.  This transformed her into an aimless drifter and at the same time an unwilling harbinger of death, taking its toll on an already dysfunctional personality: from the very first meeting she comes across as a foul-mouthed, cynical creature who resorts to living off what she can scavenge from those doomed people, a detail that I found somewhat repulsive but was ready to overlook to see where the story led me.

Despite the interesting premise and a promising beginning, though, this book did not work for me, because I can take just that much grimness, and hopelessness; I can tolerate a certain amount of gratuitous profanity when it’s necessary to the development of the story and characters; I can accept a character’s journey into hell if it’s a means to an end and not just the end itself. But Blackbirds felt way too forced in that respect, and more like an authorial exercise in shocking themes rather than an actual story.

Miriam Black looks to me like an empty vessel, totally devoid of motivations or drives; a sketch rather than a person, an endless source of apathetic musings expressed in the foulest possible language that after a while becomes annoying instead of darkly humorous – if that was the author’s intention, of course. Miriam lets things happen to her, accepting everything with a sort of detached nonchalance that goes beyond a human mind’s attempt to shield itself from pain.  This character wallows in degradation, actively seeks it and appears to forsake every right to dignity, every chance at redemption.  If, on one side, I do enjoy flawed characters very much, on the other I like to see in them some hidden strength, some drive to escape whatever the world dishes out at them, even if they ultimately fail: Miriam does the opposite, allowing fate’s currents to carry her on with mindless abandon.   Of course she’s scarred by this unwanted “gift”; of course life has been far from kind to her (as the regular flash-backs show); of course she feels the terrible burden of the countless deaths she’s forced to witness. Still, I would have liked Miriam to be something more than a disinterested spectator of her own life: the book sometimes stops at “intermission” chapters where she tells her life story to a young man who’s interviewing her, and this led me to hope that she might find some sort of balance in the future – a future where she would be able to look more clearly at her past self, understanding if not accepting what makes her different. Not long after the midway point I was deprived of this tiny glimmer of hope by the abrupt and senseless conclusion of this narrative thread.

The other characters fare just as poorly: the world described by Chuck Wendig is a dark, degraded one – granted, most of the action takes place in truck stops and seedy motels, which indeed makes for a grim background, and yet my perception was that the rest of humanity shared the same fate.  The people Miriam meets in her peregrinations are either as lost and uncaring as she is, or merciless exploiters – sometimes a combination of both – and the few vaguely positive characters, like trucker Louis for whom Miriam feels a sort of remote attraction, are too paper-thin to make an actual impression.   Chief villain Ingersoll and his two henchmen (or rather henchman and henchwoman), an ill-assorted couple of cold-blooded killers, are nothing more than one-dimensional baddies with no apparent reason for being there than to pursue Miriam and her companions.

Which leads me to my biggest contention with this book: the portrayal of female characters. Besides Miriam, there are only two others: Harriet the paid assassin, and Miriam’s mother, who appears only in the protagonist’s flashbacks. The former is a small, mean creature who seems to enjoy inflicting pain as a form of retribution for the grief from a bad marriage: it’s possible that more is explained past the point where I stopped reading, but what little I gathered was quite unpalatable. Miriam’s mother is described as a fanatically religious woman, who kept her daughter under a tight leash only to relent a little when she got herself pregnant, though still being prone to extremes of behavior. Not one of these scarce female figures in a mostly masculine background is presented in a positive light, and that, sadly, was another nail in a quickly building proverbial coffin.

All these details are wrapped up in a grim, gritty tale liberally laced with profanity: I’m not squeamish nor a prude, and I can accept a peppering of foul language when the situation and the characters require it, but Blackbirds goes well beyond that limit. I now understand that what I found amusing and irreverent in Chuck Wendig’s blog posts, enough to compel me to try one of his novels, derived its appeal from the very briefness of such posts, while in book form it all mutates into a teenager-ish fascination with grossness for its own sake, and as such it becomes repetitive and tiresome, burying what little story there is under an avalanche of potty-mouthed expletives and truly disgusting metaphors.

At some point, reading on became a struggle and I had to give up.

My Rating: 4/10