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


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



Divergent – Veronica Roth

I’ve been curious about this book for some time – understandably so, considering the huge media buzz tied to the recently produced movie – but I’ve kept procrastinating because I was aware I could not avoid the analogy with The Hunger Games.  It’s next to impossible not to compare Ms. Collins’ work with other YA dystopian books, if nothing else because of the broad success enjoyed by her trilogy and the huge wave of genre books that keep appearing on the wake of that success – the proverbial elephant (or rather mockingjay?) in the room is there, and it must be dealt with.

There might be some common traits between the two series but Divergent walks on a very different path: the world of Hunger Games is harsher, more violent, and Katniss’ experiences, prior to the beginning of the story, include parental loss, hunger and despair, forcing her to a psychological growth that goes beyond her years and makes her a living, breathing, believable person. The dystopian landscape painted in H.G., a tyranny enforced through fear, intimidation and cruelty springs in marked relief from the book pages, with a stark quality that was deftly rendered in the movies.

That didn’t happen for me with Ms. Roth’s future Earth, and its “government” divided into factions that are meant to provide a balanced rule, because it’s evident from the start that the balance is not there, and maybe never has been – which made me wonder how this society managed to last as long as it did.  I experienced the same lack of belief for Tris, Divergent‘s protagonist: there are too many contradictions in her character, too many unrealistic discordances – even taking into account her young age and the somewhat sheltered life she’s led until the readers meet her.    For starters, I think Ms. Roth’s trilogy is more markedly aimed toward a YA audience than its “competitor” (and this shows clearly both in world-building and dialogues), and therefore both the world and the characters are depicted in broader, less precise strokes – I’d say they are more tropes than people, if this did not sound too harsh even to my own dissatisfied ears.

And then there is Tris herself:  her life has been somewhat easy, any form of privation and/or violence is something that she knows exists, but has never experienced directly. So it’s not a great surprise if she sounds so naive or… well, too teenager-ish. She is a teenager, with all the drives and contradictions that her age entails.  And yet there is still something that does not feel right. Something that kept me from becoming invested in her as a character and a person.

After a while what I initially perceived as naiveté was revealed as self-centeredness, if not downright selfishness – which sounds quite bad when applied to someone raised by the Abnegation faction as she is.  Tris did not earn my sympathy as a reader, because she looks quite focused on her own needs and drives: one might say that’s typical of a sixteen year old, but once she makes the choice to abandon her faction – and her family – for Dauntless, her longing for her parents and brother appears more perfunctory than real.  The Dauntless initiation program is certainly quite absorbing, both physically and mentally, but I expected more from her than the casual wistful thought – and certainly not the thinly veiled contempt she feels, on the first night of her new life, when she hears a bunkmate’s muffled, and quite understandable, sobs.

All Tris cares about, all she can think of, is to belong to the Dauntless faction, to carve her niche in it, even if this means changing into something she’s not sure she can embrace: after all, we’re made aware from the start that such a choice is made not out of deep convictions, but because ultimately the Dauntless look “cool”, as opposed to the drab life of Tris’ own faction, or the others’ as well.  It’s never stated openly, but it’s there as a subliminal reminder every time Tris observes the other factions and… finds them wanting.

Matters become worse when, at some point, it’s hinted she possesses some special qualities and will certainly be accepted into her new faction with all honors – she entertains the thought that she might be leaving her course mates behind (because she’s better! because she’s special!), and though that fleetingly saddens her, she accepts it as a fact of life.

I don’t need any of them, not if they’re going to react this way when I do well.(…) I don’t want to lose them. But I feel like I have already. 

If I was supposed to empathize with this girl, that sentence killed any residual chance, and stomped it under its boots…

Sadly, it does not end here, because of another mandatory requirement of the genre: the love interest for a darkly brooding, mysterious boy who is Tris’ instructor and is also – oh-so-unsurprisingly – attractive in a way that makes Tris’ knees turn to water in no time at all. This sounded the death knell for any remaining possibility I had of enjoying this book: added to the other predictable tropes plaguing the book and Tris’ character – who does trespass too much into the Mary Sue cliché for my comfort – it added trite obviousness to an already uninspiring mix.

It was too much and I had to stop, accepting failure – not with a heavy heart though, but with something approaching relief.

My Rating: 2/10


Aurora: Darwin – Amanda Bridgeman

I won this book and its twin Aurora: Pegasus in a giveaway contest. My thanks to Momentum Books for this opportunity and to SF Signal (one of my favorite places for information and reviews on spec-fic books) for hosting the contest.

Unfortunately I have to confess I could not finish this book, even though I tried hard, doing my best to hold on until the middle of it: it did not work for me on several levels – plot, characterization and a few writing choices. I’m quite sorry about it, because it sounded very promising and I always try to keep my mind open for new, emerging authors, but after a while the struggle became too much.

Promising, indeed: the idea of a ship’s crew headed toward unknown danger while they try to overcome some personal troubles was intriguing, but from the very start it was mired down in too much exposition and awkward dialogues, and the author’s seeming obsession to offer her readers the whole personal back-story of those characters all at once. This, coupled with the habit of giving the most minute details on eye and hair color, height and build for each of them, the process being repeated for every character present in a determined scene, weighed the story down in an uncomfortable way for me.  I’m a great believer of the “show, don’t tell” school of thought, and here there was too much telling and very little showing for my tastes.

The technical side of the book felt somewhat out of synch: I’m not a big fan of excruciatingly precise explanations of every working technology present in a story, but I try to look for some believability, and a few details either puzzled or irritated me. For example we are told that the ship’s weapons stores hold both laser guns and lead-projectile ones – on a ship? With no though of the danger of de-compressive explosion?  And those weapons are stored in wooden crates, that are at some point opened with a crowbar.  It’s not and end-of-the-world detail, granted, but the anachronistic force of it managed to jar me violently out of the narrative flow.

My main point of contention with the book, however, came from the premise that in this future society the role of women in the military, especially the space branch, is that of second-class citizens, and both the hierarchy and the troops see the women – their fellow soldiers – as a nuisance to be (badly) tolerated, or a PR stunt to be exploited. I’m quite aware that even in today’s world there are preconceived notions and glass ceilings in the modern military, but they are not so openly practiced as they are in the future society that Bridgeman depicts, and at least they are not sanctioned by the chain of command. It feels both anachronistic and annoying, especially when considering that the author is a young woman.

The male crew’s reaction to the presence of the women feels exaggerated and unbelievable as well: not so much for the attitude, but for the way it’s expressed. These are supposed to be highly trained professional soldiers, and they behave like rambunctious school children just one step away from a food fight.  I would have understood grumbling resentment – not so much because the new arrivals are women, but because they are added unexpectedly to a team that’s already well-integrated: this would have made a great deal more sense, both in a military and personal way. But no, these soldiers, these skilled and finely trained individuals, all but elbow each other and snigger openly when the new recruits make their appearance (and at some point in the story make lewd suggestions that are not properly addressed by the superior officers); these men can’t seem to be able to remember that they are adult professionals that should follow rules about military decorum at all times, and the officers that should keep them in line do nothing about it.   It would be hard to buy in present society, it’s even harder in a future one, especially when we are told that these women soldiers have all been previously tested by completing tours of duty on Earth in various operations.

Characterization suffers from a few flaws as well: the main characters’ development is left to long, drawn-out inner monologues, or rather sequences of question they ask themselves trying to puzzle out situations or inter-personal problems. I could not see them as living, breathing people, but rather as sketches of what they should have been, or maybe stereotypes: the bright, spunky soldier out to make a name for herself; the seasoned commander torn between sternness and compassion; the young doctor with a heart of gold; and so on…

Even when the crew meets their antagonists, the latter are so blatantly evil that all that’s missing is some proverbial mustache-twirling, and the hints about the danger they represent are so broad that one wonders how in heaven the soldiers miss every single one of them until something finally opens their eyes.

That was the point where I had to stop: despite the intriguing mystery that is the core of the story, I became aware that I did not care about discovering what it was, or how the protagonists solved it. The slow, cumbersome pace of the narrative and the lack-luster characters could not hold my attention any longer: a sad reality I had to accept.

My Rating: 4/10