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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:


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:


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

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.

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This week’s subject is: Books with “hard” topics

When I discuss my reading preferences with people who don’t enjoy speculative fiction, they often complain that the genre does not deal with “real” issues and they could not be more wrong, as testified by these few examples:

The Detainee by Peter Liney:

In this dystopian future, society relegates unwanted citizens on an island that is also a huge garbage dump. Among these rejects the most unwanted of all are the old: left there to die of deprivation, of the pollutants brewing among the garbage piles, and of neglect. But what’s worse is that the youngsters who have been marooned to the island with them are taught that their plight is the old people’s fault, so bands of angry teenagers hunt the old and defenseless as a bloody sport.  Science fiction? Not really: merely the extrapolation of the many small incidents we can observe in our everyday life…

Lock In by John Scalzi:

In this novel, the author postulates that a vicious form of flu has left many of the victims prisoners of their own bodies: their minds are fully functional, but the bodies don’t respond to the brain impulses any more. After a while the affected people are able to interact with society once more by connecting to a sort of android bodies called “threeps” and have a semblance of normal life but after the initial wave of social awareness, the general public starts to turn against the threeps, the most vocal maintaining that too many resources are being employed for the locked in, resources that could be better spent elsewhere. It does sound frighteningly familiar, indeed.

Warchild by Karin Lowachee:

When eight-year old Jos’ ship is attacked by pirates who kill the adults and take the children prisoners to turn them into slaves, the young protagonist starts a nightmarish descent into Hell, one made of fear, terror and abuse that will forever scar him, even when he will find the strength to escape from his tormentors.  I usually avoid stories that contain this kind of theme because I believe that there is nothing more terrible than stealing a child’s innocence, robbing them of what should be the most carefree years in a person’s life, but in this case the author described young Jos’ journey with such a light hand, through suggestion more than outright detail, that I had to stay until the very end. This is a book that will leave its mark on you, but it will be worth the pain.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:

No need to describe this story, the one that opened the road to so much YA dystopian narrative – both for the good and for the bad. What I found truly horrifying in the whole scenario was not only the cruelty of pitting young people against each other in a ruthless battle that would see only one survivor, but the fact that the whole scenario was used as both a bloody spectator sport and as admonition against rebellion. I remember thinking, as I read through the book, that we are not so far from the Capitol citizen watching teenagers die horribly: after all there seems to be a huge audience for those so-called reality shows where people face dangerous or harrowing situations. What it says about us, as human beings, is something I prefer not to dwell upon too much.

The Road by Cormack McCarthy:

In a post-apocalyptic landscape a man and his son travel over a wasted land, where the few survivors are more beasts than men, toward the coast and the sea in the hope of finding something better – or maybe just to give themselves a reason to go on.  It’s a hard, harsh story that at the same time lights the darkness with the love binding the two of them: it’s an understated kind of love, but it shines through and makes the nightmarish scenes almost bearable. Almost.

Review: OCCUPIED EARTH, edited by G.Phillips & R. Brewer

24612430I received this book from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.

This kind of anthology is usually centered round a core theme that individual authors choose to develop as they wish, while here I found a different interpretation: there is a common background, concerning the invasion of an alien species called Makh-ra, who have conquered Earth and are ruling it and exploiting its resources.  Therefore each author had to work inside a set of pre-established parameters, giving this anthology a very different feel than usual – in other words, this reads more like a novel developed through a change of POV at each new chapter, rather than a collection of disjointed stories, and that gives it a more cohesive feel that I found quite enjoyable.

Another point of interest in these collected stories is that they don’t focus on the actual invasion: that’s already in the past, one generation removed or thereabouts. What the anthology chose to show is the aftermath, the way in which people and customs re-arrange themselves in the face of occupation, the dichotomy in outlook between those who remember life as it was pre-invasion and those, like the younger people, who have known nothing else.  The Earth that comes through these stories is quite a dismal place: the stripping of resources by the Makh-ra has generated shortages (like water, for example, that’s subject to rationing) and supplies are not as plentiful as before; cities present large ruined areas, some as the result of battles during the invasion, others because the changes in economy have decreed the end of once-flourishing activities. The separation between those with power and influence and the rest of the populace has increased, and only individuals who have chosen to collaborate with the new rulers can enjoy a semblance of normal life.

“Semblance” being the operative word here, because the Makh-ra’s rule is far from a benevolent one: the overall flavor of this situation strongly reminded me of the stories of occupied France under the Nazi invasion in WWII, with a curfew in place, strong restrictions on travel and frequent searches of places or people suspected of aiding rebels.  As it happened in that historical period, many have chosen to collaborate with the alien invaders: some for personal gain, some because they have no other choice, with all the possible variations in between the two opposites.  There are a few instances of attempts at integration as well, the case in point being that of the three-part story from the anthology’s editors, that acts as a sort of frame for the others: here a human FBI agent works side-by-side with his Makh-ra colleague, and they manage to reach a sort of mutual understanding through shared work and dangers.

In general, though, the Makh-ra act as conquerors and oppressors, and even though some of them seem willing to adopt a few human traits and preferences, still they maintain an air of arrogance, the inner conviction that conquest is something of a god-given right stemming from superiority in mind, body and customs.  The Makh-ra, however, also represent the weakest feature of this anthology in my opinion, because they are not alien enough: I’m not speaking about their appearance, which is roughly humanoid except for their taller, stronger frame and the dark, light-sensitive eyes.  The lack of alien-ness I perceived comes from the mind-view that seems more like that of a stolid bureaucrat, rather than that of an off-world creature: granted, this allowed for many of the interesting developments portrayed in the stories, but still I could not avoid the comparison with the Star Trek aliens – my main disappointment with the various incarnations of the series – who are nothing more than humans with strange noses or foreheads. In my opinion, to be truly alien a creature requires one to exhibit some outlandish traits, some quality that is so far removed from our own experience that the sheer otherness of it jumps straight at you. Sadly, that was not the case here, though it was not a major problem.

The quality of the stories is generally good – with anthologies it’s a given that some might appeal more than others – and there are two of them that I found truly outstanding: Strange Alliance (by Cliff Allen) concerning a human who has risen through the Makh-ra ranks to a position of prestige, and Traitor (by Adam Lance Garcia) focusing on the woman who aided and abetted the alien invasion, and the consequences on her personal life.  These two were several steps above the others, breathing life and consistency into their characters.

In short, this is a peculiar kind of collection that’s certainly worth exploring and offers a new outlook on a well-known trope.

My Rating:


Review: PACIFIC FIRE by Greg Van Eekhout (Daniel Blackland #2)

22238140The first volume in this series, California Bones, caught my attention for its more than unique approach to magic, but this second installment transformed me into a staunch fan.  Even though Daniel Blackland remains in the foreground, this book focuses most of its attention on his adopted son Sam, the golem of Southern California’s Hierarch, blending the heist trope with a coming-of-age story in a seamless, delightfully riveting way.

The book starts in the immediate aftermath of Daniel’s defeat of the old Hierarch, as the young osteomancer and thief goes into hiding to protect child Sam from the greed of all those who would not hesitate to kill him in order to consume the old, powerful magic contained in the golem’s body. We then flash-forward ten years into the future, with Sam a teenager starting to feel the weight of a life on the run, without the possibility to put down roots and have a normal life, one that does not require constantly watching over one’s shoulder.   

Southern California is not a better place after the Hierarch’s disappearance, because the power vacuum gave a few strong players the chance to step in and establish a power base: one of them is shifty Otis Roth, the same one who sent Daniel Blackland to the Hierarch’s stronghold in Book 1.  Otis is determined to create a triumvirate with Sister Tooth, a powerful osteomancer, and Gabriel Argent, the former Hierarch’s relative and the ruling water-mage, controller of the mandala-shaped waterways that are Los Angeles’ circulatory system. To reach such goal, Otis means to osteomantically resurrect a Fire Drake, a dangerous creature that will ensure Otis and his cohorts the means for total control, but Argent – whose power has not greatly undermined his intrinsic decency – contacts Daniel urging him to stop the plot by killing the dragon, and Daniel feels morally obligated to remove what he considers a weapon of mass destruction from the equation.

He’s poisoned on his way to Los Angeles, though, and while he’s incapacitated Sam decides to shoulder the burden and try to finish the task, despite the mission’s inherent dangers and the constant risk of being recognized and harvested for the magic in his bones.  Here is where the true story starts, with Sam’s choice to finish the task Daniel started and at the same time find the freedom he’s always been denied, defying the restrictions that have shaped his life until that moment.  He’s not alone in this adventure: first he teams with Em, one of the many Emma golems already encountered in California Bones, and then with other characters he meets along the way.  The young man revealed in the course of the adventure is a very likable person, one that’s easy to root for: like all teenagers he hungers for a different, better life, and he rebels against the impositions he had to struggle under until this moment, but at the same time he’s a detached observer, prone to keen and sarcastic comments about himself and his perceived shortcomings, so that he never comes across as snotty or abrasive.

Having a new character carry off this heist gave the author a fresh approach to the trope and the world he created, and Sam is a wonderful person to care about: in the first book, Daniel Blackland felt somewhat cold and distant, accepting the dangers and harm his friends were facing as part of the equation, as the unavoidable price to reach his goal; Sam, on the other hand, possesses a basic integrity that makes him suffer for any hurt inflicted on others in the course of his mission, whether it happens through his direct intervention or not.  Sam’s empathy is what makes him stand out and in the end be his own person, and not an appendage of Daniel Blackland: he represents the distillate of Daniel’s best traits and the successful way in which he raised this boy who is the incarnation of a cruel enemy – if every father wants his son to be a better man than he ever was, and Blackland clearly wants that from his adopted charge, Sam fulfills and exceeds these expectations.

The greater part of Sam’s character growth, and definition, comes from the interaction with Em: another golem, like him, but one who did not live the same kind of sheltered and isolated life. She is a warrior in the truest sense of the word, her training and experiences making her appear far older than Sam is, but as the story goes on, the balance between the two of them evens out, helped in great part by the witty exchanges between them.  This is another side of the novel I enjoyed enormously: it’s often difficult to offset drama with humor in a successful way, but the author accomplished it here though the humorous quips Sam and Em indulge in. More often than not it’s gallows humor of course, considering the chain of situations the two find themselves in, and yet they manage, even in the direst of circumstances, to find the right comment, the perfect combination of words to break the tension and let us know more about them.

Alongside the two true protagonists of this adventure moves a number of characters that are always well-defined, no matter how short their appearance on stage: from charter pilot Sofia Bautista and her family to the crazed guy raising “the Hierarch’s chickens” or the jaded ex-singer offering an easy friendship born of boredom, they all spring up from the pages in sharp focus. Bit players they might be, but they are never cardboard props, and this is one of the reasons for the sense of organic reality you can find in this novel. And of course there are a few welcome returns from the previous book: I already listed Gabriel Argent or Otis (well, he’s not so welcome, to say the truth…), but we also find lock-picker Cassandra and hard-to-kill Moth, my favorite from Daniel’s old team, and encounter a couple of very surprising figures from his past.

All of them move in a world where magic is everything, a cruel, pitiless world where the tiniest shreds of osteomancy a person possesses can be harvested for profit, the victims abducted, penned in and slaughtered like animals. A world where beauty can be destroyed in a puff of sorcery, or soar in terrifying power with the shape of a dragon.  A world that seeps through your bones and settles there in osteomantic alchemy.

It will be thrilling to visit it again in the next book…

My Rating:


Review: THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD – Margaret Atwood

6080337As I started this second book in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and realized it covered the same ground of its predecessor, Oryx and Crake, albeit from a different perspective, I was afraid it would turn out boring or predictable – or both.  Well, I could not have been more wrong.

Even though we are brought to re-live the events leading up to the man-made plague that wipes out most of humanity through the eyes of two survivors and through the use of flash-back as in the previous novel, these two characters are far more interesting, relatable and real than Jimmy the Snowman ever was.  Ren is a sex worker in a place called Scales and Tails who, when the plague hits, finds herself in an isolation room as a precautionary measure against a bite received by a client; Toby found refuge from hardship with the God’s Gardeners, a sect preaching the return to a simpler life-style as a means to better humanity, and she survives by holing up the high-end spa where she was hiding.  The God’s Gardeners group, to which both belonged for a time, can be considered another point-of-view of the novel, their preaching focused on the unavoidable advent of the Waterless Flood – from which the book takes its title – a scourge that, in their credo, will wash over humanity with dramatic consequences and for which the sect tries to prepare in an attempt to insure the survival of the species.

Familiar characters from Oryx and Crake make their appearance as well, with particular focus on Glenn/Crake and Jimmy/Snowman: if their somewhat damaged personalities did nothing to endear them to me before, looking at them through other eyes and from a different perspective made me see them in an even worse light, as creatures totally incapable of love and empathy, gliding through life enclosed in the sterile bubble of their own self-centeredness. If Jimmy is “only” guilty of making light fun of everything and everyone, taking and discarding with no thought for others’ feelings, never establishing a firm tie with another human being (and for that his extreme loneliness after the apocalypse seems a just punishment), Glenn appears even more like a cold schemer, using others – including the naïve Gardeners – to further his plan of ridding the world of the “useless” emotions he’s unable to process or enjoy.

As a counterpoint, Toby and Ren stand out in sharp relief: they have suffered from life’s injuries in a major way and known despair and degradation, yet they are both able to reach out past these barriers of pain to touch others and to create bonds of friendship that bring a little light of hope in this bleak scenario of destruction.  Toby was left alone and destitute by a chain of events triggered by the big corporations’ greed, and she steps on the lowest rung of her personal descent into Hell working for Secret Burgers, a fast food chain where it’s better not to inquire too deeply into the nature of the meat: here she becomes the target of the brutish Blanco, a manager who sexually abuses his employees (and who transforms into a sort of nemesis throughout most of the story) and is saved by the Gardeners who take her into their fold.  Here, through the examples of Rebecca, who shows her how to stand up for herself, and those of Pilar, who teaches her herb lore and to care for bees, she finds her place in Gardeners’ society and the strength to survive the Flood and face her own demons.   Ren comes to the Gardeners with her mother, a distant, selfish woman attaching herself to the sect for lust-induced attraction to a man: life with the Gardeners agrees with Ren much more than that of the privileged enclaves she comes from, and where her mother takes them back after a while, while her friendship with strong and resourceful Amanda defines her character and shapes her future actions.   On hindsight, The Year of the Flood is a very female-oriented tale: these women’s courage and the loyalty they show each other, their endurance and capacity to withstand the worst and reinvent themselves is indeed the only glimmer of light in the darkness of the world’s end.

The book closes at the same point its predecessor did, a full circle that nonetheless delivers more information: there are other survivors, attempting to find a way to deal with this dramatically altered world, one where climate changes and genetically engineered animals are a constant threat to life.   Who will inherit this world, the remnants of the human race or the test-tube humans created by Crake? Hopefully the answer lies in the last volume of this trilogy: whatever path the author choose to lead her readers to that answer, I hope it will be a fascinating journey.

My Rating:


Review: ORYX AND CRAKE – Margaret Atwood

46756Even though I greatly appreciated Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, I never read anything else by this author, and I needed a friend’s enthusiastic comments about this book to finally try her other works: I must recognize that Atwood does dystopian landscapes quite well, and even though I needed to take a break, now and then, from the bleak scenario she paints here, this story is indeed a compelling one.

We start at the very end – or rather the aftermath: Snowman, once known as Jimmy, is probably the only surviving member of the human race, wiped out by a devastating plague that swept across the globe. He survives in a radically changed world, where climate has gone crazy with high temperatures, flooding rains and tornadoes, and a damaging level of UV – probably due to the thinning of the ozone layer.  Snowman is not alone though: he acts as a sort of indifferent shepherd to a group of people that have been genetically tailored to be the new inhabitants of planet Earth, placid, innocent creatures he calls the Children of Crake.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn how the situation came to the present state, and it’s a disturbingly hopeless picture: overcrowding and lack of resources have brought Earth to the brink of collapse, while the population is divided between the Compounds – guarded enclaves where the privileged enjoy higher living standards – and the Pleeblands, where the rest of humanity lives in the polluted remains of the cities.   Jimmy is one of the privileged, since his parents work for one of the bio-tech companies more interested in profit and exploitation rather than the betterment of living conditions. He’s not living a charmed life, though, because he’s a lonely boy, largely ignored by his elsewhere engaged parents and not bright enough to be included in the circles of his peers. Things change with the arrival of Glenn – later to be known as Crake – and the start of a friendship that will profoundly mark Jimmy’s life and affect his future.

It’s through these two teenagers’ eyes and habits that we get to know the not-so-far removed future in which the action takes place, and it’s a dismal one: the deep split in social structures and the dwindling resources go hand-in-hand with illness, violence and drug abuse, while the bio-tech corporations flood the market with tailored pharmaceuticals and drugs, also providing genetically modified animals for either food consumption or organ harvesting. What’s more horrifying though, is the high level of violence in “entertainment” programs, video games and internet sites, where the common theme is the lack of value in human life: as we see these two young men watching videos of executions, assisted suicides and so on, or playing games where maximum points go to the highest body count, we understand humanity passed beyond the point of no return and that the bleak future in which Jimmy/Snowman now lives in comes as a direct consequence of these premises.

What I find fascinating here is that events are described through the point of view of unlikable characters that nonetheless manage to keep the reader’s attention focused: Jimmy goes through his life as more of a spectator than a participant, and if his apathy is the direct result of parental neglect, his constant whining about the unfairness of it all – both in the past and in the present – did nothing to endear him to me, and yet I found myself following both his life story and his current journey through the abandoned ruins of our world with deep fascination. The same fascination offered by a developing train wreck, granted, but still…

The same goes for Crake: brilliant and personable where Jimmy is average and awkward, he hides quite well a dark streak of scorn for the rest of humanity, a side of his psychological make-up that surfaces in deceptively off-hand remarks whose deeper meaning, and impact, Snowman will understand only through the obsessive recollection he spends his time on. Crake is profoundly disaffected with humanity in general and his scientific mind compels him to find a solution to the world’s troubles: the fact that this solution is quite final – and bloody – would put him in the proverbial mad scientist’s shoes, if his coldly intellectual and analytical approach to the problem did not make a sort of twisted, spine-chilling sense, or rather, it would if simply applied to a theoretical exercise and not to the real world.

Oryx is the third character in this story, a former sex slave bought from an impoverished family who becomes Crake’s assistant: her role is somewhat limited, and mostly consists in being Jimmy/Snowman’s constant obsession, and yet she represents the love Jimmy wants but can never fully attain, just as Crake represents the kind of friendship he strives for, but that might have been more imagined than factual.  This is probably the reason for the presence of both names in the title: love and friendship (Oryx and Crake) that are now forever out of Snowman’s reach and whose memory is not enough to fill the last surviving man’s emptiness.

This review would not be complete without a comment on the Children of Crake, the genetically tailored post-humans that in Crake’s plan should inherit the Earth: these lab-grown creatures are simple, innocent and trusting and in their creator’s plan they will avoid mankind’s mistakes of strife through religion, politics and unfulfilled passions. Yet we catch a few glimpses that show how human nature can’t be so easily denied, even in the absence of proper stimuli: the Crakers are intensely curious about their world, for example, and they tend to create their own mysticism in an attempt to explain what they don’t understand – this would seem like a precursor to religion, one of the components that Crake tried to breed out of them. Snowman also observes that some of them are more assertive than others, which would indicate an embryo of leadership, with all the negative elements this might entail.

Does this mean that Crake’s grand plan is doomed to fail?  The book does not answer the question, since it ends in a sort of cliffhanger that will – probably – be resolved in the following novels, but what really matters here is the journey, how humanity reaches the brink and falls to its own destruction.  It’s a compelling, if very depressing, story that offers no room for hope or respite, but still takes hold of one’s imagination and never lets go.

My Rating: 8,5/10