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GRR Martin interviews John Scalzi

One of the stops in John Scalzi’s tour to promote his new novel THE COLLAPSING EMPIRE included the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe: this historical theater has been in recent years acquired by author GRR Martin and it often hosts meetings with authors and book signings.

When I learned that a video of the event would be uploaded on the Jean Cocteau Cinema YouTube channel, I waited with intense curiosity to see two of my favorite authors chatting, and what I found was nothing short of delightful.

And delights must be shared…  Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

SciFi Month 2016 Review: HOUSE OF SUNS, by Alastair Reynolds

18306114Alastair Reynolds is easily one of those authors I tend to read sight unseen, because he’s always able to sweep me into these complex, galaxy-spanning stories that never fail to appeal to my sense of wonder. House of Suns is indeed one such story, and without doubt it’s the best one I’ve read until now, both for narrative scope and for sheer entertainment value.

Shatterlings are post-human individuals, clones of their progenitors who created hundreds of copies of themselves with the purpose of traveling far and wide across the galaxy, gathering information that is shared among members of a given Line at meetings that take place at appointed times.  Shatterlings are very long-lived and able to increase that augmented life-span to millions of years, through techniques of suspended animation and cryo-freezing that help them overcome the tedium of long treks through interstellar space.

Purslane and Campion are two such shatterlings from Gentian Line, the House of Flowers, who have entered into a forbidden association: flaunting the Lines’ rules they travel together and have become lovers, and at the beginning of the story they are also late for Gentian Line’s meeting, which will certainly result in censure from their peers.  This circumstance, however, proves quite fortunate for them because on approaching the system where the meeting is being held, they discover there’s been a massive attack on Gentians and that only a handful of shatterlings survived the massacre, some of which the two lovers are able to rescue, heading toward a safe place where the survivors will regroup.

If the story takes a little while to gather speed, once this event is brought to the table the pace increases exponentially from the investigation of the reasons for the attack to the brutal interrogation of some captured enemy agents; from the crushing loss of a murdered Gentian shatterling to a breathless interstellar chase that will turn out to be a journey of discovery, both of unsuspected information and of very unpalatable truths.  The events are narrated from three points of view, those of Purslane and Campion in the present and that of Abigail Gentian, the founder of the House of Flowers, from the past, this one in a series of flashbacks that give the backstory of the Lines in bits and pieces.  Other interesting players are represented by a few of the Gentian survivors the two meet on Neume, the planet where the refugees have fled to, and the Machine People: sentient artificial beings like Hesperus – who has been held in stasis for thousand of years on a planet visited by Campion and Purslane – and Cadence and Cascade, two mysterious synthetics who have befriended the Gentian refugees.

Abigail Gentian is a fascinating creature: artificially stalled in childhood for over 30 years, she describes her life in a huge, planet-spanning and constantly changing house where she lives alone but for her tutor, the household robots and her mother, with whom she infrequently interacts through video communications, when the woman is able to overcome the mind-breaking paranoia she fell victim to. Abigail’s only companionship comes from the visits of a boy from another influential family: the two share a strange love/hate bond that finds its more intricate expression while playing with Palatial, an interactive game giving the two of them roles in a medieval-like adventure that can become far too immersive, to the point of losing one’s identity and memories.    Despite these fascinating details, Abigail’s character remains elusive throughout the novel, as do those of Campion, Purslane and other Gentian shatterlings, a fact that robbed some of the enjoyment from the experience.

Granted, the shatterlings are Abigail’s clones, imbued with her memories, so it would stand to reason that there would be a sort of uniformity in the core of their personalities, but it would also stand to reason that each one’s accumulated experiences would add different layers to an individual’s psychological makeup, making every offspring different from his/her progenitor. Even their “voices” fail to carry any substantial differentiation: it took me a while to focus on the fact that Campion is male and Purslane female, since their alternating chapters “sounded” the same, at least in the beginning, when some reference to the other allowed me to understand who was speaking.  This lack of definition became worse when other Gentian survivors were introduced: other than their names, and a few individual leanings – like Betony’s desire to take over as lead, or Mezereon’s cruelty in interrogating the prisoners – there was no firm sense of differentiation between them.

Purslane and Campion’s relationship suffers from the same brand of indetermination: we are told they form a couple, that they are forced to edit their memories of the liaison before any Line meeting, to avoid being reprimanded for disobeying the rules, but we never perceive them as a couple until events separate them and Campion launches in a desperate chase to reach Purslane’s ship and rejoin his lover.  That’s the point where we are finally able to see the feelings they share for each other, how deeply they are rooted and what each of them is ready to sacrifice to insure each other’s survival.

Ironically enough, I thought that the more human, approachable character was Hesperus, one of the Machine People: the long imprisonment from which the two Gentians free him – or maybe some event prior to his incarceration – have robbed him of most of his memory, and there’s a gentle, almost child-like quality to his wistfulness about the loss, and the need to recover it, together with the purpose of his mission.  This gentleness, and his selfless attitude in helping out the shatterlings in several occasions, quickly made him my favorite character and the one I found more relatable than the flesh and blood ones.

Despite these issues, I greatly enjoyed the book because the questions examined throughout the story appear much more important than the characters moving through it. More than the inexorable rise and fall of civilizations, more than the political and economical maneuvering of the great Lines, more than the observation of societies born out of human colonization, some of which have even transcended human form, what really held my attention was the focus on knowledge and memory.  Knowledge seems to have become the galactic currency: no coin or precious metal hold the same worth as information, and the contents of individual “troves”, the stores where such information is collected, seem to have taken the place of bank accounts. And in the search of knowledge shatterlings can even take great risks, like Campion does, for example, when visiting the Vigilance, a sort of archive of enormous proportions, run by a forbidding, mysterious intelligence.

Memory, on the other hand, takes center stage during the whole course of the novel. The shatterlings store, edit and share the memories they have accumulated in their long lives, and are able to manipulate them – either to delete risky details (as Purslane and Campion do to hide their relationship from Gentian Line) or even to erase damning evidence, as the story reveals when survivors pursue the reasons for the attack on their Line.  Hesperus lost every memory of his past, of his mission, of the reasons for his presence in that portion of space, and lack of that knowledge renders him incomplete – and at times even makes him appear suspicious.

Memory is identity, and here it also becomes the defining quality of one’s personality: Gentian Line strictly enforces the erasure of a particular memory, that of a heinous crime perpetrated without intention, yes, but still will tragic repercussions, and that choice is seen as the erasure of guilt, of the consequences of that long-ago choice.  Does forgetfulness also imply forgiveness? This is the lynchpin on which the end revelation turns, and the partial answer that is given does not even start, unsurprisingly, to explore the issue.

Complex and fascinating, thought-provoking and engaging, House of Suns is the kind of novel that leaves me thinking about it even after I’ve reached the last page, and even though it ends in a quite abrupt manner, after slowing down the forward momentum reached until that point with some heavy exposition, it remains a very satisfying read. The kind of story that could no doubt gain from a re-read, and a highly recommended one.

 

My Rating:

 

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SciFi Month 2016 Review: ADMIRAL, by Sean Danker (Evagardian #1)

24452990When I read the first reviews for this book I was quite intrigued: the trope about people waking up in a damaged ship and not knowing what happened is one I’ve always found fascinating.  As I started reading Admiral, though, I had a few misgivings: the tone felt somewhat off, the exchanges between the characters a little stilted, the overall impression that of uncertainty – and not related to the situation at hand.

Yet something kept me reading on, the few disturbances I perceived not being enough to make me close the book: now I’m happy to have persevered  because once the story finds its footing it becomes a compelling read, and a quite satisfactory one.

Four people wake up from stasis on what looks like an abandoned freighter: three of them are freshly graduated trainees from the Evagardian Imperial academy, the fourth is the unnamed narrator himself, whose stasis pod bears the markings of an admiral and should put him automatically in charge. I said should, because the three young officers react with varying degrees of puzzlement and suspicion to the man’s lack of uniform, un-military bearing and off-hand manners – not to mention the fact that the Admiral himself appears quite surprised of his promotion…

Lieutenant Deilani is the more vocal and mistrustful of the three: the Evagardian Empire just signed a truce with the Ganraen, with whom they have been at war, and finding herself in a re-conditioned Ganraen ship, with a man who doesn’t fit the image of an Evalgardian ranking officer, Deilani thinks immediately they are dealing with a spy, and proceeds to say so in no uncertain terms.  The fact that all the Admiral does is deflect her accusations while offering no real answers only manages to enhance her  doubts.

Private Salmagard, on the other hand, acts in a more detached manner – there are shades of Vulcan aplomb in her attitude – and seems more inclined to concentrate on the group’s more immediate problems, leaving the identity and fate of their senior officer to a more propitious moment.

And finally, Ensign Nils is the more accepting of the three: it becomes quite clear from the beginning that he’s a natural-born follower and responds well to authority – or what he perceives as such – preferring to deal with the many mechanical issues plaguing the group, and applying his remarkable engineering skills to their survival.

The ship the four find themselves in is deserted, the power is off and there are all the indications of massive system failure: the discovery of the bodies of the two-men crew, later on, only adds to the huge pile of unanswered questions they have to face before they can start working on a rescue plan.   Here is where my initial reservations made themselves felt: first, the exchanges between the four people did not sound… natural (for want of a better word), the disparity between the almost-flippant tone of the Admiral and the trainees’ doubts – especially Deilani’s accusations – felt forced, not at all in sync with the situation at hand.  Moreover, there were a couple of instances where I actually stopped and stared in bafflement at the page I was reading: for example, at some point the four discover that the ship suffered a hull breach, and the Admiral’s line reads: “I swore, amazed. We hadn’t even suspected a breach.”
Seriously?  They did crash-land on a planet, and the very first thought should have been about hull integrity!   Or again, take this little snippet:

“This is some kind of combat damage.”
I sighed. Couldn’t these three take a hint and just stop noticing things? (…) How could I convince them that they were happier just getting on with their lives?

Am I wrong in thinking that noticing things would be the first step toward ensuring their survival? As I said, these details took me out of the narrative flow and made me doubt the soundness of the story, or of the characters.  But once I was past these initial… “hiccups”, I was completely captivated by the story and these four people’s plight, one that swiftly turns from a mystery-solving situation to a battle for survival. From that point on, I was one hundred percent onboard – and very happy to have soldiered on.

To define the planet where the ship crashed ‘hostile’ would be a massive understatement, and as the story progresses the dangers the four survivors face become increasingly deadly: unbreathable atmosphere, eerie green-tinted mist, weird rock formations and a very unstable ground are just the tip of the iceberg, because the Admiral and his trainees soon realize they might not be alone in there…  More than once my mind flashed to the more harrowing scenes in the Alien narrative arc, and each chapter brought on a new, nasty hurdle to be overcome, either through Nils’  powers of improvisation or the others’ need to survive at any cost while they wait for rescue.

All through this I developed a certain fondness for the Admiral: from the very start he appears like the proverbial unreliable narrator – he makes no mystery about this point – and it’s also very clear that he is hiding something, but at the same time he comes across as a very resourceful person, and what’s more important he cares about his young charges, constantly urging them not to give up, even when the situation becomes most dire.  No matter who he is, he acts like the ranking officer he appears to be, and his heart is indeed in the right place:

No I wasn’t a real admiral, but that didn’t make it okay for people to die on my watch.

At this point, his real identity becomes a moot point, and the almost-revelation that occurs toward the end of the novel is far less important than the road the foursome traveled to get there: the partial answers the readers glean from that part of the story might or might not be the truth (I keep thinking that the Admiral might still be dissembling, since it’s clear this is second nature to him), but at this point it hardly matters.

What does is the sheer fun of the adventure we enjoy getting there: there are times when this is all we want from a book, and on this score Admiral delivers in a very enjoyable manner.  I will be waiting for the second book in this series with great expectations.

 

My Rating:

 

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SciFi Month 2016 Review: MINDSTAR RISING, by Peter Hamilton (Greg Mandel #1)

1306956After greatly enjoying Peter Hamilton’s The Reality Dysfunction, the first volume of his  Night’s Dawn trilogy, I wanted to read more about this author, but without committing to one of his more “monstrous” novels yet, and I settled for Mindstar Rising, again a first volume in a trilogy and, from what I understand, Hamilton’s first published novel.

The setting of this story is very interesting: midway through the 21st century England underwent a great deal of changes: global warming flooded many of the coastal areas, forcing massive migrations with consequent overcrowding, and climate became more like that of Mediterranean lands. Politically, the country is emerging from a ten-year long rule by an extreme-left coalition, and swinging in the opposite direction, with mega corporations slowly but surely taking control.

One such corporation, Event Horizon, just discovered a conspiracy to undermine one of their key products and calls in Greg Mandel, the main character, to uncover all the ramifications of the plot. Greg is ex military, part of the elite Mindstar Brigade, whose member were subjected to physical augmentations that enabled them to gain psychic powers: Greg, for example, possesses a high level of psi abilities and can sense when people are lying, and even catch the drift of their thoughts, even though he’s unable to actually read them.   When the now-deposed dictatorship took power, Greg and his comrades were left to their own devices and now he’s hiring himself as a private investigator and sometimes strong-arm (or outright assassin).

As Greg’s investigation for Event Horizon goes on, we discover more about the deeply changed world in which he lives, and this world makes for a fascinating background to the escalating threat against his clients, whose ramifications extend in many unexpected directions, as the story unfolds with a good, sustained pace that held my attention from start to finish.

Greg Mandel’s character is presented in an intriguing way: as a disillusioned ex-soldier who was abandoned to fend for himself, he does not fall prey to the usual problems one might expect in these cases, like substance abuse or inability to relate to the rest of society, on the contrary he has found himself a quiet niche where he can exploit the abilities he’s been gifted with, while maintaining something of a low profile.  He enjoys an extensive net of contacts in every stratum of the community, especially in the diverse and bizarre underworld that developed after the fall of the previous regime, and has learned how to make the best of what he is.  All things considered, he looks like an ok guy, one that’s reliable and can command the respect of those he comes across in his line of work, but… Yes, there is a “but”.

All through the novel I could not shake the feeling that under that “nice guy” veneer there was an exploitative streak that did not go hand in hand with the fairer surface appearance.  For starters, being as near a telepath as he is gives him an unfair advantage: if that can be an asset in the line of work, it’s also a dishonest leverage in day-to-day dealings with other people.  That’s quite evident in his encounter with Eleanor, a girl who just escaped from a sort of cult group: the mental “nudges” Mandel employs with her can be considered cheating at best, and far worse under a closer scrutiny: in my opinion little does it matter that in the end he starts a serious relationship with Eleanor and seems to care deeply for her – the fact that he resorted to a form of “mind rape” in the beginning is no excuse.

Mandel’s less-palatable personality traits come to the fore again when, in the course of the investigation, he asks for the help of a former Mindstar comrade, Gabriel: a true prescient, she can predict the future developments of any situation, the immediate future of any person she comes into contact with.  Such a gift means of course a great deal of strain, and for this reason Gabriel has chosen to keep to herself as much as possible: only leaning heavily on the ties from their shared past can Mandel convince her to come out of her self-imposed isolation and lend him a hand.   I enjoyed very much Gabriel as a character, her snarky wit, her tired disillusionment, and her way of looking at her companions as somewhat unruly children: unlike the other female characters in the book she does not need her looks to project an air of competence, or to stand out – and here comes another of the details that made me sit up and do a double take. Because strong-willed, smart and capable Gabriel is “guilty” of the sin of not being beautiful: on meeting her again after several years, Mandel notices she’s let herself go, that she’ dowdy, frumpy, overweight – and it’s not just one instance, which might have accounted for the shock of seeing huge changes after so much time, it’s a leitmotif that’s repeated now and again in the course of the story.

Julia Evans herself, the granddaughter and heir-in-training of Event Horizon’s founder, seems to epitomize all that I perceived as wrong in the depiction of female characters in Mindstar Rising: she is gifted with high intelligence, an analytical mind and the willingness to learn how to lead her grandfather’s empire, but still most of her inner dialogs focus on her lack of a boyfriend, and on the unrequited attraction for a particular boy. To add insult to injury, we see her find several key elements in the unraveling of the scheme against Event Horizon, elements she finds through her highly enhanced analytical powers: when she does, she tends to lay them at Mandel’s feet, like a puppy waiting for an acknowledging pat from its master, instead of using them as the manager she is training to be.

Do really women come only in two categories in this novel? On one side we have Gabriel, gifted with agency and strength, but sadly lacking in the looks department. On the other we have Eleanor – beautiful but needing to be saved; Julia’s friend Katharina – beautiful, wanton and easily corrupted; Julia – beautiful and capable, but suffering from a sort of daddy complex.  I might be wrong, but I think there was a pattern there…

That said – and as I write it I realize how much I needed to take it off my chest – the story remains a solid, intriguing one, particularly for the kind of world it describes, the changes that have encompassed it and its inhabitants. One of the most fascinating details concerned the various gangs that have taken over part of the cities, and the microcosm they have created in their little enclaves.   For these reasons alone I might read the other novels in this series, in the hope that what so disturbed me here might be toned down in the next books…

My Rating:


 

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SCI-FI MONTH 2016: 3… 2… 1… IGNITION!

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Once again this amazing event celebrating Science Fiction in all its forms, shapes and genres is ready to launch: our wonderful hosts are Rinn and Lisa whose respective launchpads are situated at RINN READS and OVER THE EFFING RAINBOW.  Follow the links for more information on launch schedules, plotted courses and the necessary asteroid collision warnings!

When I joined this event for the first time, in  2014, I enjoyed myself immensely and discovered a great number of fellow bloggers and genre enthusiasts, so that it was with deep regret that I had to pass last year, due to some work pressure and a lack of preparation.  For this reason, this time I tried to… well, hoard beforehand some ideas and reviews that would be perfect for the event’s theme, so I could join the fun once more.

Many thanks to our wonderful hosts for their work and dedication: if not for you, we would not be here sharing our love for Science Fiction!

My schedule for the 2016 SciFi Month consist of:

** Selected quotes from my favorite SF show, Babylon 5, divided by season, so there will be five posts on November 2nd, 9th, 16th, 23rd and 30th;

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** Reviews of SF short stories I read on a few online magazines, in search of new authors to explore: the four posts will go online on November 6th, 13th, 20th and 27th;

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** Review of four SF full novels, that will go online on November 4th, 11th, 18th and 25th.

This will certainly be a very busy but fun month, and I can’t wait to see what my fellow participants are ready to share.

Final checks are ok, the panel’s light are all in the green and all systems are GO!

What are you waiting for?  😉

SCI-FI MONTH 2016

Better prepare because Winter is Coming! ooops, sorry, wrong quote… Let’s start again…

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SCI-FI MONTH is back again!  (ok, that’s better) 😀

The month-long celebration of all things sci-fi will start again in November, hosted by Rinn at RINN READS and by Lisa at OVER THE EFFING RAINBOW.  To know everything you need to participate, just go over at Rinn’s blog and read this post.  Then sign up, and have fun!

I certainly intend to…

 

 

Review: TAINTED BLOOD – M.L. Brennan

21840287I must begin my review with a confession: before tackling this book I waited until the next one was published as a sort of… security mechanism, for want of a better definition. This is the extent of my involvement with this series, one that consistently gets better with each fresh installment: the narrative arc and the characters are expanded with a steady, fascinating evolution that is nothing short of addictive.

Tainted Blood starts with a dark note: Bhumika, Chivalry Scott’s latest wife, has finally succumbed to the physical ravages of being her husband’s main blood source, so that Chivalry is both in mourning and in no shape to attend to family matters. When a murder in the werebear community calls for Scott intervention, Fortitude is sent to deal with the matter, for once with no emotional or practical support from his brother.

This time, however, the investigation itself remains somewhat in the background, because the story is more focused on the inevitable changes that have been brewing since book 1 and that here are visibly gathering speed.  Fortitude’s transition to full vampire-hood is now a fact he seems to accept more easily: improved strength, sense of smell, sight and hearing are all positive aspects of this progression, and more than once he notices these changes with something approaching pleasure. Unfortunately the other side of the coin is quite terrifying, and Fort must deal with the awareness that shortly he will not have the option of “saying no” anymore: Bhumika’s death and Chivalry’s search for a new wife/victim are forcing him to face the stark reality of what being a full vampire means.

There is a chilling scene in which Fort’s true nature asserts itself for the first time: the loss of control, observed with a sort of interested detachment, and the animalistic pleasure in giving way to such compulsions, make for a nerve-wracking moment, because we are forced to understand, with absolute certainty, that this is the end of innocence, that Fort cannot hope to sidestep his nature any longer.

Even more unsettling is the Scotts’ reaction to the event, or rather Prudence’s: she takes on the role of mentor and exhibits a very uncharacteristic softness towards Fortitude, an attitude that compels him to ask her why. The reply is such that my assessment of Prudence changed once again – and I suspect it will not be for the last time: she tells him that “You are my brother. Whether I hate or love you, that fact will never change, and what ties us together can be broken only by death.”   Family ties, blood ties, are much more important than any interpersonal dynamics, and the fact that Fort is now transitioning into a full-fledged member of the family – to which Prudence gives her all, no matter what is required of her – brings her to change the way she relates to him.  What’s equally fascinating – and not a little worrisome – is the new distance I perceived from Chivalry: if at the beginning of the book it could have been ascribed to his bereavement and search for the next wife, it’s still there at the end, compounded by a hint of judgmental antagonism that was never there before. It made me wonder if the balance between the siblings will not be subject to further adjustments.

Of course, Prudence’s brief moment of sisterly almost-affection is immediately counterbalanced by a practical “lesson” on how to feed: the cold ruthlessness she employs with her victim, the lack of any moral consideration, bring back the “old” Prudence, but at the same time they outline Fort’s limited choices in his future as a full vampire.  There is a clinical efficiency in the demonstration – enhanced by the sterile environment of Prudence’s kitchen – that is not cruel but merely… pragmatic: only Prudence would have been able to carry it off in such a starkly effective way.

It’s impossible not to empathize with Fort as he contemplates the bleak alternatives in front of him: cultivate a “herd” of willing subjects, like his mother, so he can minimize the damage, even though this requires time and careful planning; take wives like Chivalry, with the awareness that they will sicken and die; feed from chosen victims he will have to dispose of before any signs of his activities raise suspicions, as Prudence does.  He spends a sleepless night dealing with the harsh math of these choices, battling with the understanding that his survival will entail the destruction of other lives: not surprisingly it’s Suzume who helps him focus on what he wants, and find a different, personal way to minimize the impact of his needs.

Suzume – who, in my opinion, is the absolute best creation in these novels – seems the only unchanging fixture in this series: her energy, straightforwardness, clarity of vision, her potential for wicked mischievousness are a constant in Fortitude’s life, and yet in her apparent lack of outward change Suzume is a force for transformation. It’s through her deceptively offhand remarks that Fort finds the path he might travel, just as her humorous comments more often that not help him achieve unexpected conclusions.  Suzume’s very nature as shapeshifter is indeed a catalyst for changes, as her unpredictability is the energy that carries those changes to the next level – as we see in a delightfully surprising development….

Transformation and family are the main themes in this novel, and they meld in a single entity when applied to the Scotts: Madeleine’s failing health, due to her extreme old age, has already affected some of the family’s dynamics but the greater impact of the situation – and of her impending death – is on the political side of the Scott “empire”. There are already some maneuvers hinting at a possible shift in power and alliances that will certainly evolve in unforeseeable directions and that are somehow mirrored in the power struggle related to the assassination in the werebears community: only time (and the next books!) will show how these clues will come to fruition.  I know for certain, however, that they will be carried out with the flawless blend and drama and humor and with the amusing pop-culture references I’ve come to expect and are one of the trademarks of this brilliant series.

My Rating:


This is my last “offering” for R.I.P. X – Readers Imbibing Peril, a fascinating event running from September 1st to October 31st: created by Carl V. Anderson from Stainless Steel Droppings, will be run this year by the Estella Society – follow the link to know everything about it!

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R.I.P. X – A Review of Dr. Who’s episode BLINK

For my second foray into the 2-month long event called Readers Imbibing Peril, 10th edition – RIP X for short – I’ve chosen to examine a very disturbing episode of Dr. Who, aired as the tenth episode of Season 3.

You can find more information on the event, running from September 1st to October 31st following the above link…

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When I was walking my way through Dr. Who’s series on the recommendation of a friend, she warned me about this episode, telling me it was one of the scariest she had ever encountered.  I must confess I did not completely believe her: after all I can watch The Walking Dead with impunity (as long as I’m not eating dinner at the same time, that is) and horror movies don’t make me afraid of the slightest noises I might hear in the house.  So I sat in front of the tv with something resembling a jaded smile… one that did not last long.

Blink is indeed scary, mostly because it generates fright from one of the most unexpected corners of our mind, the one where the fears we can’t control usually dwell…

The story, in short: the Doctor and his assistant Martha Jones have been trapped in the past (1969 to be precise) without the Tardis, and through the “easter eggs” of a series of DVDs they come in contact with a young woman, Sally Sparrow, to enlist her help in preventing a group of alien creatures, masquerading as stone angels, from taking possession of the Tardis itself. The Weeping Angels, described by the Doctor as “the deadliest, most powerful, most malevolent life-form ever produced”, send their victims into the past, feeding on the potential energy of the life they could have lived in their own time. These creatures look like stone statues depicting angels, and are virtually unmoving when looked at directly, but once the prospective victims take their eyes away (or blink, hence the Doctor’s repeated warning about NOT doing it) they move fast, closing in on the target and transforming from innocuous-looking angels into demonic figures with fangs that resemble a vampire’s.

What makes these creatures so terrifying is their ability to move when you’re not looking: the horror genre thrives on the concept of horrible things that go bump into the darkness, and every time we see some character enter a dark room we know something ghastly is going to happen. But with the Angels the characters and the viewers are able to see them, in full daylight – it’s NOT seeing them, not watching them closely that allows them to exercise their peculiar brand of evil.  Total concentration is required, the slightest distraction – even one as fleeting as a blink – can bring them close to you, close enough to touch you and send you back into the past.

Unlike other “monsters” the Angels don’t kill or devour you, they just displace you in time – and the two people close to Sally that undergo this fate don’t fare so badly, finding a way to live a long and fulfilling life even in a time that is not their own, which in a sense should give the viewer a measure of comfort. What’s terrifying here is the notion of being forcibly torn from the familiar, from the net of human contact and relationships we all have built around us; of being sent, virtually naked, into the unknown.  We are not shown the last, frightening instants before the Angels pounce, and this is what makes their actions more dreadful: those brief seconds are left to our imagination, the meanest and scariest screenwriter of the lot…

What’s worse is that while the end of the episode seems to re-establish some sort of order, with the Doctor and Martha free once more to roam through time and everyone else settled, the last frames play on our fears once more: the Doctor’s warning is repeated over and over again, as a sequence of images of stone statues – the same we see in plazas or on buildings every day – rolls in front of our eyes.  Whatever measure of comfort and newfound safety the viewers might have achieved is shattered by the awareness that the danger lurks around us. And that we’d better NOT BLINK.

             Estella Society           ripnineperilscreen

Review: MAYHEM – Sarah Pinborough

17213020A fascinating blend of history and fiction, Mayhem takes place in London toward the end of the 19th Century, at the time when the killings attributed to Jack the Ripper crossed over with another series of gruesome crimes labelled “The Torso Murders”, so called because the killer decapitated his victims and threw their dismembered remains in the Thames.

Dr. Thomas Bond, the surgeon working for the police much as a modern crime analyst would, and (as I learned) a real-life figure, is the main point-of-view character, the only one whose thoughts are relayed in first person: I found this narrative choice both peculiar and compelling, since Dr. Bond is not the perfect, cool-minded scientist one could expect to find in this kind of story, not by a long shot.  He is delightfully human, fallible and flawed, a lonely man suffering from doubts about his own ability to face the challenge posed by this mysterious killer, and a man who feels the terrible burden of the crime scenes his work brings him to witness.   

Mainly because of this, he’s prey to a constant background of anxiety that in turn generates insomnia, his constant companion in the past few months before the start of the novel: in an attempt to stave off both symptoms, Bond doses himself with laudanum and opium, indulging the latter (and growing) addiction in the most disreputable dens of London’s seedy areas. One of the main themes of the story is indeed Dr. Bond’s slow descent into hell, hammered on one side by the helplessness hanging over him and his colleagues as they remain impotent spectators of the continued carnage, and on the other by the progressive lack of necessary lucidity and coldness as the drugs and increasing fatigue start to take their toll.

Yet, it’s through his visits to opium dens that he catches sight of a peculiar figure that will have unexpected developments on the hunt for the Torso Murderer, and the creation of a strange, uneasy alliance with equally strange people who have been touched, each in his own way, by the evil that’s spreading through London.  This is the point where Mayhem departs from the fictionalization of historical events and takes a decided supernatural turn, because there is much more than “simple” human wickedness behind the horrifying chain of murders.

The mysterious priest hunting for the ancient evil and poor Aaron Kozminski (a Polish refugee from pogroms) are two sides of the same equation, the hunter and the haunted: the former giving chase all over Europe to the dreadful Upir, the creature hiding in rivers, that possesses its unfortunate victims feeding on the horror it forces them to unleash; the latter able to feel the tide of wickedness and being helpless to do anything about it, even to prevent the resulting madness from infecting his mind.  If the priest remains something of a cypher, his scant revelations adding to the enigma rather than shedding some light on it, Aaron is a more definite figure, a helpless victim of his own ability to see glimpses of the future and to feel the encroaching evil.

Dr. Bond finds himself in the middle of this peculiar dynamic, first dismissing and then accepting the priest’s information on the Upir, but never fully understanding or trusting the man’s motivations or his character, while he shows a measure of compassion for Aaron, despite the huge social and character differences, a sort of bonding born out of both men’s isolation: where Bond feels distant from his friends and co-workers because of his secret addiction and, later, for the burden of secrets tied to his mission, Aaron is disconnect from everyone, including his own family, by the intangible taint of madness and the far more tangible layers of grime he’s covered with, since he refuses to touch water, the Upir‘s natural sanctuary.

The novel develops the story from many angles, advancing it through the p.o.v. of secondary or lesser characters as well, the most poignant being the killer’s victims’: all of them women of the lower classes forced by circumstances to sell themselves on the streets, therefore becoming easy prey for the Upir‘s host, who is able to attract them with the illusory lure of money, food, or momentary comfort from their hardships.  I found that these glimpses into the times’ social structure added to the novel’s background in an interesting way, as did the excerpts from newspapers’ reports: they gave the story a realistic flavor that counterbalanced the supernatural elements quite well.

What’s more important is that this story, despite the core themes, the escalating tension and the pervasive horror, never needs to resort to gory details to engage the reader’s attention or reactions, on the contrary the dread comes rather from the soul, from the juxtaposition of the ordinary with the horrific, something that the author manages with effortless skill.

I’m certain that the second book in this series, again centered on the figure of Dr. Bond, will be equally compelling.

My Rating:


 

This is my first “offering” for READERS IMBIBING PERIL X, an event running from September 1st to October 31st, 2015.  Follow the link to learn more!

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EVENT: It was a dark and stormy night…

Estella Society

This image is the property of Abigail Larson

Thanks to Lynn’s Book Blog I discovered a fascinating event running from September 1st to October 31st: it’s the tenth anniversary of Readers Imbibing Peril (or R.I.P. X).  Created by Carl V. Anderson from Stainless Steel Droppings, will be run this year by the Estella Society, and HERE you can find all the details your heart desires.

In short, it will mean sharing thoughts on books (or movies, or tv) that fall into these categories: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror and Supernatural – and, I believe, anything that mixes and matches them or falls into the shady corners between the various genres, who are noted for the abundance of said corners.  The intriguing words “what if…?” are indeed the catalyst for the most interesting narrative experiments, and I’m certain that I will discover many fascinating themes in the course of this event.

My choice has fallen on PERIL THE SECOND, where I will read and review two books (Tainted Blood by M.L. Brennan, and Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough) and PERIL ON THE SCREEN, where I will revisit one of the most dark, moody and above all scary episodes of Dr. Who, Blink.

Let’s open that eerily creaking door and… step into peril!  Who will dare to follow?  😈

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