Reviews

Review: PAPER AND FIRE (The Great Library #2), by Rachel Caine

I quite looked forward to this second book in Rachel Caine’s Great Library trilogy, and I was not disappointed: the story advances toward what I envision as the final showdown between the Library and those who feel the need to break the shackles it imposes, and there are a good many breath-taking moments and harrowing escapes, not to mention a few important revelations. Yet I did not feel the same level of involvement as I enjoyed with the first volume, and for a number of reasons that taken singly do not amount to much, but all together do indeed cast some shadows on an otherwise engaging story.

The book starts a brief time after the end of its predecessor, showing how the group of Library postulants we got to know in volume one is trying to settle into the new roles assigned to them after graduation: Jess and Glain have been enrolled in the Garda, the Library’s military arm, while Khalila and Dario are on their way to become full-fledged scholars; their former teacher Scholar Wolfe and his partner Garda Captain Santi, who played such a pivotal role in the postulants’ education, have somewhat faded into the background.  The glaring absence of Thomas, arrested by order of the Library for the “sin” of having designed a printing press, and now presumed dead, and that of Morgan, relegated in the Obscurists’ Tower because of her abilities, weighs heavily on everyone’s mind – and most notably on Jess’.

The possibility first and then the certainty that Thomas is alive, imprisoned and most surely tortured (as it happened to Wolfe in the past), drives Jess and Co. to mount a rescue operation that will see them facing extraordinary risks and, what’s more important, becoming fully aware that the Library is quite different from the image of the shining beacon of knowledge it presents to the world: for Jess, the scion of a family of book smugglers, this realization comes as a lesser shock in comparison to his friends, particularly when they come to understand – in one of the most powerful scenes of the book, set in the Black Archives – that the work of the Library in the last centuries has rather been that of suppressing knowledge, rather than protecting it.

 

“This is the graveyard where they buried our future.”

“How many? How many times was this created and cut down? They’ve been destroying it over and over, all this time. All the time.”

 

In a parallel with the growth arc of a young person, where Ink and Bone was, for the characters, a journey of discovery and the first step toward maturity, Paper and Fire embodies the age of rebellion, the need to move against preconceived notions and rules imposed from above, to obey the commands of heart and conscience rather than the laws whose profound injustice becomes clearer with every passing moment.  And indeed, what the group of friends learns along the way is that the Library has no regard for human life, even well beyond the maxim about a book being more valuable than a single person: from the barbarous suppression of knowledge and technologies that might undermine the Library’s power, to the appalling practice of segregating Obscurists and trying to generate more, and more powerful ones, through selective breeding, the Library comes across in all its heartless devotion to its own survival, and the will to dominate, rather than to be the protector of human wisdom.

Given all the above, it might look strange that I did not enjoy this second volume as much as I did the first, but there were a few details that kept bothering me at a subliminal level, interposing some distance between me and the story instead of the total immersion I enjoyed with book 1.  For starters, in the first 25-30 percent of the book the pace seems to be dragging a little: granted, Jess and his friends are trying to collect clues about Thomas’ survival and the possible location of his prison, so they face some virtual blind alleys and spend a great deal of time speculating on what little they already possess, which is not very conducive to fast-paced action.  Still, it looked to me as if the story was unable to find its right path.

Then the characters: we learn nothing new about them, about how their respective experiences in the “real” world have changed them.  Khalila is still serious and driven; Dario is the usual smart-mouth with delusions of grandeur; Glain the solid warrior who seldom speaks; Morgan the tormented soul prisoner of her own Obscurist powers. Scholar Wolfe is as scathingly cynical as always, masking his inner torment, while Santi stands there as his rock.   And Jess, the one on whom the story focuses the most – sometimes to the detriment of the others’ development – still feels like an outsider looking in, the imprinting derived from his family’s careless treatment affecting his determination to open his heart to others.  The only exception to this are his resolve to rescue Thomas, the only person he feels comfortable in calling ‘friend’, and his newfound… ninja powers concerning the Library’s automatons – something that could have been awesome for one or two instances, but sadly loses its impact with each new repetition, no matter how dangerous it is for Jess, or how daring he appears.

My reservations notwithstanding, Paper and Fire is an enjoyable read, particularly in the second half where the stakes are raised higher and higher and our group of rebels – because this is what they were fated to become from the start – has to choose whether to close their eyes to blatant injustice or to act against it, and therefore against the Library: going back to my comparison about the coming-of-age journey, their decision is tantamount to defiance toward one’s parents, and as such it cannot be undertaken lightly or without dramatic consequences.

This second book in the Great Library series ends in a huge cliffhanger, one that managed to counteract the mild dissatisfaction I felt for the story and to rekindle my eagerness to move ahead toward what promises to be a stormy finale. Now that the “middle book syndrome” is over and done with, the road can only get smoother…

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: DRAGON COAST (Daniel Blackland #3), by Greg Van Eekhout

It’s been a while since I read the previous book in the Daniel Blackland series, and although it ended with an amazing cliffhanger that simply begged to be brought to a conclusion, I kept procrastinating the reading of Dragon Coast for no other reason that I did not want to close the door on this series, whose peculiar brand of Urban Fantasy  was one of my best discoveries in recent times.

But since all good things come to an end, here I am with the third and final (?) novel in the series. A spoiler warning for the events of the two previous books applies here, so read at your own peril…

Daniel Blackland, a powerful osteomancer (someone who draws magic from bones, either of more-or-less mythical beasts or other magic practitioners), managed to destroy Southern California’s cruel hierarch, the man who had killed and literally consumed Daniel’s father, and since then he has tried to keep under everyone’s radar while raising Sam, the hierarch’s golem – a teenaged kid he’s taken as his own son. Unfortunately, Daniel’s own golem-brother Paul conspired to create a fire-drake, a creature of immense power: to stop him, Sam sacrificed his life, and his consciousness now resides in the uncontrollable firedrake, that is laying to waste everything it encounters.  Daniel, together with his friends and allies, concocts a desperate plan to rescue Sam and remove the danger from the creature.

To say I literally drank this novel would be a massive understatement: if book 1 was very much Daniel’s story (both his past and the present, including the daring heist he plans with his friends), and book 2 was more focused on Sam (a character I liked and cared for from the very start), here we have a multiplicity of points of view, including returning water mage Gabriel Argent and the very welcome reappearance of some figures from the past, particularly Moth and Max (more about them later).

What looked plain to me from book 1 was that Daniel Blackland suffered from a streak of selfishness – understandable, since he had been orphaned at a very young age, and life taught him early on, and in the hardest way, that survival is of paramount importance – but here we can see how much he has been changed by caring for Sam, and trying to keep him safe from the predators who would have taken his bones for the hierarch’s magic contained in them.   True, Daniel can still be callous and worry less about collateral damage if that will fulfill his goal, but now he’s doing it all for someone else – for Sam – and this gives him the strength to carry on his plan, and awareness of the price he and/or others will have to pay.  Sam has changed him, made him finally touch his own humanity, and turned him into a better person: the feelings he holds for Paul’s daughter (Daniel’s almost-daughter, I was tempted to say…) are a proof of this change.  And speaking of Paul, or rather the fact that Daniel must impersonate him, learning about his golem-brother and the cold calculation of his choices does indeed play an equally important part in Daniel’s shift of perspective.

As a counterpoint, Gabriel Argent – who until now had come across as a “good guy”, or as good as the circumstances and his station allow, that is – seems hardened, either because of his past experiences, or because of the power he acquired; his role as a team player is less assured than it was before and it falls to Max (former osteomantically created human hound) to keep him straight and true.  Max is a wonderful secondary character: hounds, despite being humans, are trained in kennels just like dogs, their lives short and brutal. Having been assigned to Gabriel in the previous book, he has grown from tool into friend – probably the only trusted friend Argent can enjoy – and some of the best, most delightful passages in the novel come from their exchanges and the juxtaposition between Gabriel’s cool appraisal of situations and Max’s street-wise humor, one that comes to the fore even when he must make a difficult decision for his master/friend’s own good:

 

“I am your friend, Gabriel. If I wasn’t, I’d have shot you from behind. But I am your friend, and I have been for a long time now. I’m trying to make sure you don’t become a monster.”

 

What Max is for Gabriel, Moth is for Daniel: Moth is a special kind of man, because he cannot die – no matter the kind of injury he sustains (and there have been times where those injuries were nothing short of horrific), he always comes back. Indestructible, though not immune from pain: coarse and rude on the surface, Moth is a deep, clever thinker who, not unlike Max, can provide balance and a different, clarifying point of view to his longtime friend. That is, when he’s not being delightfully funny:

 

“That’s it? A friend?  What about brother? Am I not more like a brother? I would have said brother, if I were the one getting all goopy.”

“I killed my brother.”

“Friend is okay, then. Friend is fine […]”

 

The third point of the character triad is represented by Sam and his continuing journey of discovery while he literally dwells in the belly of the beast and tries to come to terms about who he is (and was, considering he is the hierarch’s golem), and who he wants to be, striving to reach a point that is all Sam’s and not the product of someone else’s drives and magic.  To me, he comes across as a very sympathetic character, one who feels like a true teenager (not of the whiny, brooding kind, thank you very much!) undergoing the struggles of growing up while also carrying the heavy burden of his origins.

Add to all that a new, difficult, multi-pronged heist, and you will understand why I breezed through this book in no time at all, even though I was aware that there would be no more adventures from Daniel and his associates – which saddens me greatly.  Unless there is some room for hope….?

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE DEBT OF THE INNOCENT, by Rachel Swirsky

My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues, thanks to the archives of online magazines.  This week is the turn of:

THE DEBT OF THE INNOCENT, by Rachel Swirksy

(click on the link above to read the story)

This is one of the most chilling, most terrifying stories I read, and the horror does not come from monsters, alien invasions or deadly plagues, but from the cold calculation exerted on the right to live based on available resources that’s at the core or the story itself.

In the world depicted in Rachel Swirsky, one that does not seem very far in time from the one we’re living in, the energy crisis requires severe rationing of electricity: no more lights or computers kept on all day long, private cars a memory of the past, plane trips a luxury for the very rich.  This need to regulate energy expenditures extends to all sectors of society, hospitals included, and here is where the shock hits, because the author postulates that in any hospital neonatal care is restricted to a given number of incubators, and that occupancy is controlled by the ability of parents to pay for the energy outlay necessary to keep their babies alive.  It they can’t, the child is “displaced”, i.e. removed from the incubator and left to die so that their place can be taken by a baby whose parents’ solvency is more secure.

Even more terrifying than this premise is the acquiescence that becomes apparent from the characters’ reactions, as if that were an acceptable price to pay while the world re-builds its energy output and tries to go back to previous standards.  This compliance seems to come from the acknowledgment from the more fortunate that someone else will have to suffer the consequences, that there is “a luckless, down-at-heel class the majority can look down on and think ‘at least that isn’t me’. And as long as that balance remains, the deplorable policy of killing infants for watts will continue.”

Given recent news on the subject of health care, this story resonates both as a warning and an accusation, an admonition toward thinking about the long-range consequences of today’s decisions, and the impact they can have on the not-so-distant future.

Blunt, distressing and to the point – viciously so.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: ISLAND OF EXILES (The Ryogan Chronicles #1), by Erica Cameron

It’s practically impossible for me to resist a deep desert setting, not since Frank Herbert’s Dune became one of my favorite books, so when I read the first reviews for Island of Exiles I knew it would not be long before I saw for myself what this story had to offer.

Life on the island of Shiara is hard and unforgiving: set in the middle of a turbulent ocean, the island’s climate alternates between periods of intense, searing heat and seasonal storms that can annihilate everything in their path. The city in which the novel is set is an enclave of relative comfort in such a harsh environment, but requires total dedication from its citizens, whose main goal must be the survival of the tribe, even before that of the individual.

The city’s society is divided into three layers: the nyshin – or warriors/hunters, who provide security and forage for whatever other foodstuffs the island can provide, besides what can be cultivated on the plateau; the ahdo, who are a sort of teachers and administrators; and the yonin, the lowest possible rank: these are people who were unable to manifest any magic ability during the rite of passage into adulthood, and are therefore kept inside the city walls and set on any kind of menial work – there is no overt contempt displayed toward the yonin in this society, but the writing on the wall is quite clear about their station.  At the top of the power pyramid, however, stand the Miriseh, a group of long-lived (or maybe immortal) people who act as protectors to the city’s population, and are regarded as the ultimate source of reverence.

Khya is a nyshin warrior, brave, highly respected and dedicated: she wants to get to the very top and become one day part of the council of advisors to the Miriseh, just as her blood-parents did, and it’s her most fervent hope that her younger brother Yorri might share that honor with her, but so far Yorri has shown no magical ability, and she’s afraid he might end up among the yonin, as happened to his lover Sanii. Training him in secret, she finds the way to unlock Yorri’s magic – a very powerful, very rare kind of magic – and everything seems to move according to her plans when tragedy strikes, and on its aftermath Khya starts making unpleasant discoveries that will turn her world and beliefs upside down, and lead her toward an unexpected path.

The world described by Erica Cameron is a fascinating one: enclosed in a relatively small space, hemmed in by cruel nature, the people of Shiara have managed to create a flourishing society, one that displays many interesting facets, and a few shadows as well.  For example, if on one side we can observe the existence of three sexes (male, female and a neuter called ebet) and a total freedom about the choice of partners, with no distinction between genders, on the other we have a rigid caste system that puts at its lower tier the yonin: the outward reason for keeping them in the city is that they need the protection of the walls, since they have no magic that could shield them from the elements or any enemy they might face. The truth, however, is that the yonin are pariahs, people to whom little value is attached (as witnessed by the lack of mourning when accidents take their life), people who are not deemed worthy of a liaison with the upper strata of society, and are best kept out of the collective sight: they serve in silence, their work required but not acknowledged.  To me, this was the first sign that not everything was as it looked on Shiara, so that once the revelation about long-kept secrets and lies surfaced, I was not overly surprised.

The downside of such a fascinating premise, however, is that there is too much of it: as a reader I felt virtually assaulted by a huge amount of new terms, most of them without explanation, that required my utmost concentration on these details, concentration that was stolen from the story itself.  I’ve often said that I like to work through what I read, that I don’t like to be spoon-fed by excessively enthusiastic authors, but to me Island of Exiles went completely the other way, burdening the narrative with a plethora of terms that proved more distracting than informative, more on the side of telling the readers about the differences in this society, rather than showing them.    In a similar way, the moment in which the truth behind the careful façade is revealed is less of an enlightenment and more of a full stop in the forward momentum: again too much information is given in a rather pedantic way and it takes the wind from the novel’s sails, where a slow accumulation of clues might have worked far better.

Fortunately, the characters’ journey more than compensates for this problem, even though it’s hard at first to connect with the central figure of Khya: she’s so driven, so focused on her goals, that she often dangerously comes close to be an overbearing zealot – her desire to see Yorri excel and join her in the advisors’ inner circle carries her like a bulldozer over her younger brother’s eventual aspirations, never once taking into account that he might want something different.  She loves him deeply, and yet she does not know him, not fully: indeed the discovery of Yorri’s desire to bond with Sanii – thwarted by Sanii’s failure in the rite of passage – comes as a huge surprise, as if Khya considered Yorri’s life an appendage of her own, without needs or drives she has not contemplated.  Only loss will force Khya to look inside herself as she tries to unravel the island’s mysteries, and those observations will lead her to understand the error of her ways, to really grow both as a person and a fictional character: it’s not something you find often in YA-oriented novels, and it finally gives meaning to the coming-of-age journey that tends to be at the center of this kind of story.   In a similar manner, the romantic thread of the narrative is developed in a believable, organic way (and there’s no love triangle, which is always a plus with me…): fellow warrior Tessen could not be farthest from Khya’s interest – they have known each other since childhood, but she resents him because she believes he stole from her the opportunity of advancement in the nyshin ranks. Khya’s wariness gives slowly way to growing trust when Tessen proves time and again his reliability and steadfastness, creating a slow-burn romantic entanglement that does not take over the story proper, but instead offers a nice counterpoint that is never overdone.

Despite a few objections, I rather enjoyed Island of Exiles, and it’s my hope that the “wrinkles” I encountered might be straightened out in the next installments: the story, and its future developments, are indeed worth keeping the faith.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: FEEDBACK by Mira Grant (Newsflesh #4)

22359662It might sound strange when I say I’m very happy to be back in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, since it depicts a terrifying post-apocalyptic world following a zombie plague, but this author’s powerful, intense narrative always manages to draw me in, enthrall me and make me care and worry for her characters, so that every new installment in this saga is a highly anticipated and very welcome occasion.

A little background: some twenty years before the events at the core of this story, the dead started to rise. There is a well-thought out and scientifically-oriented reason for this: two independent studies were underway to find a cure for cancer (using a mutated strain of the Marburg virus) and the common cold. When both organisms were accidentally released, they combined into the Kellis-Amberlee virus, able to amplify its victims, i.e. transforming them into zombies, and since everyone on the planet was infected, even death by natural causes could bring amplification. Once the worst of the Rising is over, humanity finds itself in the grip of terror, forced to undergo blood tests before entering any enclosed space and to go through decontamination every time they are exposed to a live form of the virus, like blood or other bodily fluids.    The failure of the traditional media in reporting the facts of the Rising results in the emergence of bloggers as the most trusted form of information, and bloggers are indeed the protagonists of the Newsflesh series.

While the first trilogy (Feed, Deadline and Blackout) focuses on the Masons, a brother-sister team of bloggers, Feedback moves its sights toward a different team, although the story parallels –  both in content and in time-frame – the events of the first book in the series, with the bloggers following the last stages of the presidential campaign alongside a candidate’s entourage.   This might sound like the rehashing of an old plot, but it’s not, not by a long shot – and I must warn you that while this book can be read on its own, it contains spoilers for the first volume in the original trilogy.  Feedback complements the first three novels, and adds new insights and information, not unlike what happens when you observe a scene from different angles: since this is above all a story, or series of stories, about news people and the search for information and truth, no perspective can be deemed as superfluous or repetitive.

Aislinn “Ash” North is an Irwin, which in the post-Rising blogging community means the kind of journalist who goes out in the wild, facing the dangers of the undead to give her audience a sense of what the world outside is about.  She’s married to Ben Ross, the Newsie, the team’s writer of more serious, more thoughtful content: it was a marriage of convenience, since it helped Aislinn escape her native Ireland’s oppressive society, but it’s still based on a strong sense of companionship and respect, while their opposing approaches to news content keep the blog fresh and interesting. The other members of the group are Audrey Wen, the Fictional, who writes serialized stories, and Matt Newson, the tech-person who also publishes makeup tutorials.  They are a diverse and well-integrated group and while not at the top of the blogging pyramid like the Masons, they enjoy a good audience and hope to expand: this opportunity comes when they are enrolled by Democratic candidate, governor Susan Killburn, to report on her run toward the White House.  It will soon become clear that there are darker undercurrents in this presidential campaign and the team will discover, to their horror and loss, that the puppet masters are very powerful and will stop at nothing to bring their plans to completion.

What differentiates Feedback from its predecessors is the outward-directed focus on the post-Rising world: readers of the original trilogy will be already aware of the changes in life style, the need for constant blood tests, the bleach showers to remove any trace of contaminants, and so on. These elements are present here as well, but they take second place to a deeper investigation of the changes the Rising brought to society and people’s mind-sets.  Fear is the most powerful drive of the times, and with reason, since the threat of amplification always lurks around the corner, changing the way people must deal with everyday errands, the same ones we face without thinking about it, like entering an underground parking, or a supermarket, or boarding a flight.  So there are those who capitalize on that, as Ash notes at some point, with her irrepressible cheeky wit:

Fear wasn’t just an American pastime: it was a global addiction, and industries of every size existed to satiate it. Some of them were obvious, like the blood tests shoved in front of our faces at every possible turn […]

It’s a theme that was present in the previous books but takes center stage here, because that fear is shown as a useful tool – a lesson we need to be reminded of in these times when fear is used far too often in the same way. The fictional future and our present are therefore linked by this element that is also a commentary on the direction our society seems to be headed toward. As usual, Grant never preaches to her audience, but simply lets her characters’ dialogue connect the story to present-day issues, like a snippet of conversation about one of the candidates, a man who prefers to live in a secluded enclave, away from any contact with the rest of the world:

“The pre-Rising generation thinks of him as a visionary.”

“Everyone else thinks of him as a throwback,” said Rick. “He’s too reactionary, he’s too insular, he wants to build a wall across the Canadian and Mexican border. A wall. As if the damn fences in Texas and Arizona didn’t get people killed during the Rising.”

Considering that Feedback was published at the beginning of October 2016, the above quote takes a very special meaning, indeed.

Apart from these considerations, what I most enjoyed in Feedback are the characters: the group of protagonists here feels more approachable than the Masons were in the original trilogy, they appear more… human, for want of a better word.  The Newsflesh bloggers are all consummate professionals doing their jobs, granted, but Aislinn & Co. feel more in touch with the world, more interested in people than in the exploration of facts and the search for truth. It’s for this reason, I imagine, that Grant showed us more of the outside world in this novel: besides the cities and the convention centers, that featured in the first three books as well, we see some off-the-map communities on both sides of the spectrum, from the survivalists who want to keep away from the dangers of civilization, to mad Clive’s little domain ruled with intimidation and terror. We also see more interaction between blogger teams, and get a perception of what their community is like, how they view each other, be it with professional respect or envy and antagonism.  If I liked the Masons as protagonists, and cared for what happened to them, I grew deeply fond of Ash, Ben, Audrey and Mat – they felt more substantial, more flesh-and blood and less legend, if I’m making any sense. I found the reason for such a difference in a consideration by Aislinn herself:

[…] We’d never considered that letting ourselves be killed might be the answer. It wasn’t worth it. Maybe the Masons would think it was, but the Masons were zealots. They’d been born to the news and if they died making it, they wouldn’t think their lives had been wasted. I didn’t want that. I wanted to live  […]  and not become a footnote for the sake of a story than had never really been mine and had never been meant to be.

People, and what makes them tick, especially in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, are the reason for the continued success of this series, one that draws its horror from the darkness of the human mind rather than from the hordes of flesh-eating undead, that are just background “decoration” here, rather than the main props. Witnessing the cold-blooded exploitation, from those in power, of citizens’ frantic need for security is far more chilling than seeing senseless murders gleefully perpetrated with a barbed-wire-clad bat (yes, TWD, I’m looking right at you!) and it’s far more effective than any given quantity of blood and gore.

As long as Mira Grant (the alter ego for UF writer Seanan McGuire) will keep delivering these meaningful stories of the post-Rising world, I will be looking forward to learning more.

My Rating:


Reviews

Review: INK AND BONE, by Rachel Caine (The Great Library #1)

20643052This is the kind of book that exerts an undeniable appeal on book lovers and compulsive readers like me. Appeal as well as horror, because the idea that books and their contents would be subject to a superior authority empowered to decide who can access the information and what kind of information can be accessed, is indeed the stuff of nightmares.

The premise: in Ink and Bone’s alternate history, the Great Library in Alexandria was never destroyed, all its precious cache of works and knowledge surviving and spreading all around the world with the creation of daughter-libraries. Sadly, a surplus of knowledge does not bring either wisdom or enlightenment: on the contrary the Library has become the most powerful entity in the world, ruling through intimidation and the influence accrued over the centuries.  This… bibliocracy, for want of a better word, has banned the individual property of books, whose ownership is reserved to the Library and its representative delegations: books are still handwritten, since the development of the press never occurred – Gutenberg, and any other inventor ever to approach the idea of mass-produced books, having been mercilessly suppressed as dangerous heretics.

Written works can be read through blanks, devices resembling modern tablets or e-readers and whose contents are owned only temporarily and strictly controlled by the Library, of course. This detail forced me to consider the role of e-readers in our time: useful and practical as they are, they still are a far cry from the effective ownership of a book, or the simple pleasure of holding a cherished volume in one’s hands, of enjoying its smell and texture.  E-books don’t carry the same definitive aura of possession, and this story has done much to strengthen my determination to always keep a backup copy of every e-book I’ve ever bought – just in case. But I digress…

Jess Brightwell belongs to an influential family that has made a sizeable fortune by smuggling books to wealthy customers who can afford the price – and the risk of discovery: when we meet him he’s just a child, and yet his stern, uncompromising father sends him out as a runner, disguised among other children as decoys.  The Garda, the feared Library police, is constantly on the lookout for the young smugglers, often aided by “concerned citizens” ready to point out anything untoward.  Capture might entail death, as already happened to Jess’ older brother Liam, who choose capital punishment rather than betray his family.  Still, Jess’ father sends his child on these missions with apparent disregard for his safety; at some point, Jess recalls those moments with poignant clarity:

[…] He remembered how it had felt in that awful moment of clarity in his childhood, knowing his father would let him die.

A few years later, Brightwell Sr. sends Jess as a postulant to the Library once he turns sixteen: should he succeed in being accepted, he will be able to act as a spy and fifth column for his family – failure to graduate and gain a place in the… enemy camp will leave Jess on his own, because his father is not going to pamper a son who loves books for themselves rather than as a valuable commodity.

These two incidents managed to quickly endear young Jess to me: I have often stressed my lack of patience for trope-laden YA characters who do little but sulk, whine and bemoan the cruelty of the world or their situation – not so with Jess Brightwell, or the other postulants he meets once he reaches the hallowed grounds of the Library.  These are teenagers, yes, but they are depicted with all the true exuberance and hope of youth, the need to excel and to prove themselves to their peers, the drive to learn and make a mark on the world. In other words, they feel real, and completely relatable: the harsh trials they undergo once in Alexandria help to showcase their characters, their strengths and liabilities, and the way they are growing as persons.

What Jess and his fellow postulants soon discover is that the Great Library is not the beacon of knowledge they believed, but rather a brutal tyrant imposing its will by force, both on nations and on individuals: even the high-placed Scholars are not protected from this inflexible rule, on the contrary they are the subjects of intense scrutiny at every moment of their lives.  As the young students forge their way through the lessons, we learn more about this alternate – and dystopian – world, one where steam-driven carriages coexist with the equivalent of tablets, although these are powered by alchemy; a world where fast trains that reminded me of the most advanced mag-lev conveyances stand side-by-side with greek fire and guardian automata.  And a world where bloody wars are waged, like the one between England and Wales: one of the most harrowing passages in this fast-moving, totally absorbing story, covers the baptism of fire mission in which Jess and his friends are called into besieged Oxford to try and save the books stored there before the fall of the city.

Parallel to the story itself, there is a narrative thread carried out through the “Ephemera”, short chapters showcasing bits of Library correspondence exchanged throughout the centuries and giving information on the course of history and on what happens behind the scenes.  Some of the contents of these Ephemera are quite chilling and reveal the pervasive presence of the Library in everyone’s life, and the extremes reached in the pursuit of power.

I’ve often thought that there are shades of Orwell’s 1984 in the Library’s reach into individual lives and in the pursuit of absolute control, in the will to shape the minds of its subjects and to drive home the awareness of the institution’s unlimited power: nothing can be hidden from the Library, not even one’s innermost thoughts and desires.  It’s a very compelling theme, and it’s explored with a great control of pacing and character development: from the young students to their proctor Wolfe to the figures who hold the highest ranks, everyone is painted with subtle strokes and cleverly developed, making the readers care for each of them, making us love or hate them as the story requires.

This might well be one of the most fascinating books I’ve read so far, one that has done a great deal toward curing me of my mistrust toward YA-oriented fiction, and one whose story I more than look forward to reading on.  And Book 2 already beckons from the (virtual) shelf…

My Rating:


Reviews

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: