Reviews

THE HUNGER OF THE GODS (The Bloodsworn Saga #2), by John Gwynne #wyrdandwonder

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

The Hunger of the Gods was one of the books I was most looking forward to this year, given that its predecessor, The Shadow of the Gods, was one of the best novels I read in 2021 and I was eager to find myself again in the company of the characters I had come to love in this Norse-inspired saga.

First things first, I need to express my appreciation for author John Gwynne’s choice to place at the start of the book not only a list of characters but a very useful synopsis of the events so far: even though I still had a good recollection of the previous novel, many details had by now escaped me, so it was important for me to regain my footing in the story before diving into the second volume. 

The action starts where we left it in book 1: the dragon goddess Lik-Rifa has been resurrected and her followers, the Raven Feeders, start with her the journey to reclaim the rule of the land and free the so-called Tainted – humans in whose veins runs the blood of gods – from their servitude; to that end they are training the Tainted children who have been kidnapped from their families in the use of powers bestowed by that blood.  Lik-Rifa is not, however, the only resurrected god, because the Battle Grim, led by Elvar, bring back to life the wolf-god Ulfrir with the goal of battling Lik-Rifa and freeing young Bjarn, the son of witch Uspa to whom Elvar has pledged a binding oath. And former warrior Orka, whose own son Breca is among the kidnapped children, is still in pursuit of the Raven Feeders, and reconnects with her old company of the Bloodsworn, the Tainted warriors she left long ago to raise a family and live in peace; young former thrall Varg is with them as well and he’s learning to master his powers as he seeks his own vengeance for the murder of his sister.

In this second book, these three main POVs are joined by some new ones, which offer a different perspective to the story while balancing the characters’ range with some… less positive traits: Bjorr – formerly attached to the Battle Grim – has been revealed as a mole for the Raven Feeders, and has now returned to them, but does not feel totally comfortable anymore with his old companions, memories of the camaraderie he shared with the Battle Grim, and guilt over his murder of the former band leader, often intruding in his thoughts, while the suffering of the kidnapped children never fails to weigh on his conscience. The dichotomy showed by Bjorr makes him a very interesting character, one with still a foot in his previous life: even though his stint with the Battle Grim was done in service of his goddess, he seems unable to completely accept her harsh rule and the methods she employs to reclaim power, turning him into a potential lynchpin for future events. 

Gudvarr, on the other hand, is another matter: his failure in capturing Orka after her incursion in Queen Helka’s hall has put him in a difficult position and he needs to establish his usefulness, while seeking glory and recognition – unfortunately he’s something of a coward, and the dichotomy between his outward behavior and his inner thoughts reveals this quite clearly: what I found surprising, given the pettiness of the character, is that I enjoyed reading about his exploits and his undeniable skill in taking advantage of situations. For starters, he represents a necessary balance to the heroism and endurance of the main characters, and then his ability to land on his feet more often than not is a very enjoyable counterpoint to his less-than-palatable attitude.

But of course the original trio of Orka, Elvar and Varg still enjoys the limelight here, as they travel on their individual paths toward the goals they set themselves: Orka is probably the one who exhibits the less changes, but it’s not surprising when considering that her focus is only on freeing Breca and avenging the murder of her husband at the hands of the kidnappers. All of Orca’s energy is concentrated in the fierce determination that keeps propelling her over hardships and dangers, and there is little room for anything else, apart perhaps from the growing gruff affection toward traveling companion Lif, who is slowly evolving from village fisherman toward warrior.  Things might change in the next book, however, given that Orka is at the root of the truly massive cliffhanger that ends this second installment – and which left me both stunned and not a little exasperated…

Varg, former thrall and now part of the Bloodsworn, is gaining confidence in his newly discovered abilities, but even more he’s getting settled in this found family that is both teaching him how to be a warrior and how to be part of a loving, caring group. He’s growing in confidence just as much as he grows closer to his companions, and it’s poignant to see how much this lonesome individual is thriving in the company of the Bloodsworn, even though the love they show him is more often than not of the though kind. Again, the story shows great balance here, juxtaposing the ferocious battle scenes, which are depicted in the usual cinematic way you can expect from John Gwynne, and the quieter moments when affectionate hazing or discussions about cheese (yes, I kid you not) serve to strengthen the bonds among these people.

In the first book of this series, Elvar was the one I felt less attached to, even though I recognized the potential in this character, a young woman who had given up a life of privilege to be free and gain some glory for herself: now that she’s stepped into the role of chief of the Battle Grim, she needs to re-think her approach – the responsibilities that the position heaped on her shoulder weigh heavily on her and help mature her, turning Elvar into a more thoughtful – but also more effective – person than she was at the beginning. And I have to admit that the chapter focusing on her return to her ancestral home was both gripping and emotionally satisfying, and I look forward to seeing how her journey will continue.

Where the characters proved extremely rewarding in their continued path, the story itself seemed to suffer a little from the “middle book syndrome”, in that the characters’ constant travels looked a bit meandering, slowing the pace and at times making me feel the compulsion to skip ahead – something that never happened to me with John Gwynne’s novels. With hindsight, I can see that it was a way of positioning the game pieces on the board – so to speak – and preparing the events for the final showdown, and I can say that I enjoyed the final chapters very much, given the adrenaline-infused series of events that they portray.  The slight lull I perceived might very well be the calm that precedes the storm we will certainly witness in the final book of the trilogy – one I’m bracing for and looking forward to with great expectations.

My Rating:

Image art by chic2view on 123RF.com

Reviews

LOST LIGHT (Harry Bosch #9), by Michael Connelly

There is a number of changes in this ninth book from Connelly’s Harry Bosch series that mark a turning point from the past: the narrative surprisingly switches from the previously employed third person to first person, making the reader directly privy to Bosch’s inner thoughts; the former LAPD detective resigned from his job at the end of book 8 and now holds a P.I. license, but still has not taken any steps in that direction; for the first time since I began this series, the story was completely new to me, since it did not find its way into the TV show scripts, so I didn’t know what to expect; and at the end of this novel a major shift in Harry Bosch’s life comes to light – not a surprise for me, given my familiarity with the TV series, and one I was looking forward to, but certainly a huge one for the character. But I will get back to that in a while…

Harry is still adjusting to his new civilian status, taking life at a slower pace, free of the encumbrance of rules and regulations, but still – by his own admission – something is missing, and after a while he understands what it is:

I was living like a jazz musician waiting for a gig.

It does not take long for the former cop to know how to fill that void: if before his resignation his work as a detective felt like a mission, that has not changed now that he does not wear a badge anymore:

My mission remained intact. My job in this world, badge or no badge, was to stand for the dead.

And in this case the dead is Angella Benton, the victim of a crime Harry investigated a few years previously and which was never solved: the young woman was found murdered on her own doorstep, in what looked like a sex crime – Bosch is haunted by the image of the victim’s corpse, whose hands stretched away from the body as if in prayer, pleading for justice.  Angella worked in movie production and a couple of days after her murder the set where she was employed was the theater of the robbery of a huge sum of money that was never recovered: Bosch was on the location that day, collecting clues about the young woman’s murder, and was able to shoot one of the robbers, although they all managed to escape with the 2 millions in cash from the set.  Convinced that the two crimes are somehow connected, Bosch starts his own investigation and – unsurprisingly – ends up locking horns not just with the police department and their unhappiness at his meddling, but also with the FBI: the case does intersect with an investigation on terrorism (the book is set two years after 9/11, so the country is still on high alert after the attack) and the mysterious disappearance of an agent who was tangentially involved with the stolen money.

The main theme of Bosch’s new “mission” is indeed frustration: not just because of the now-cold trail of evidence, but mostly because his civilian status now bars many of the doors that once would have been wide open to him; this newfound freedom widens the range of his maneuverability, but also forces him to be more creative in situations where simply showing his badge would have granted unlimited access. This is particularly true in his dealings with the FBI: with the exception of his old acquaintance Roy Lindell (whom he met in Trunk Music), the other members of the Bureau view him with suspicion, or worse, offering to Michael Connelly the opportunity for thoughtful considerations on the “siege mentality” of those years and on the way some members of law enforcement stood on the thin line between their protective duty and a show of arrogant disregard for civilized rules.  As usual, the author abstains from any form of commentary, leaving to his readers the freedom to draw their own conclusions, which is a choice I always appreciate.

Back to Bosch, the present shift in perspective (and freedom of movement) offers the readers new facets of his personality together with a way to keep the character fresh and interesting: where he felt something of an outsider before – keeping to himself, often moving on different tracks – now heis indeed forced to be the loose cannon, paying the price for it with the lack of protection once afforded by the badge, and the subtle sense of insecurity that comes from it. Which does not however deter him from the mission, like a modern errant knight determined to right the wrongs he encounters on his path.  What’s interesting is that the counterpoint to this isolation is given by the number of faces from the past that come to the fore in the course of the story, almost a sort of reunion – or maybe a long goodbye to the past: besides the already mentioned Lindell there are the LA Times journalist Keisha Russel, former colleague and protegé Kizmin Rider and, last but certainly not least, Bosch’s ex wife Eleanor, for whom he still harbors deep feelings which enhance his core of loneliness.

There is an interesting thread concerning Rider here, because in more than one occasion Bosch is delighted to acknowledge he taught her well with something approaching paternal pride, a sentiment that on hindsight feels almost like foreshadowing because at the very end of the novel Harry discovers he is indeed a father when Eleanor introduces him to their four year old daughter Maddie. This was no surprise for me, given my familiarity with the televised story, and it was instead a development I was looking forward to because in the show the relationship between Bosch and his daughter – a teenager on screen – was one of my favorite features of the series.  

This fateful meeting, placed at the very end of the book, is both extremely poignant – we see Harry kneeling in front of the child as he holds her hands in amazed wonder – and also the high point of what I’ve come to see as a transitional book, one where changes in  his career and personal life meet to open a new path. Where that path will lead will be a discovery for both the characters and the readers: this particular reader cannot wait to see what’s in store in the next books, my only certainty being that I now fully trust Michael Connelly to always deliver an intriguing, engrossing and emotionally satisfying story with each new novel in this series.

My Rating:

Reviews

END OF WATCH (Bill Hodges #3), by Stephen King

While I enjoyed the two previous books in this series, where Stephen King explores the terrain of crime fiction rather than his trademark horror, I did feel that something was missing – i.e. the supernatural element for which this author is famous. It’s possible, as I surmised in my review of the previous installment, that King himself might have felt the need to go back to his narrative roots, because toward the end of Finders Keepers he prepared the ground for this return.

Brady Hartsfield, the deranged individual also known as the Mercedes Killer, has languished in a mental hospital for several years, reduced to a catatonic state by a traumatic head injury inflicted by Holly Gibney – Bill Hodges’ assistant – to stop him from detonating a bomb in a crowded auditorium.  But Brady – either thanks to some unforeseeable recuperative powers, or to seedy Dr. Babineau’s experimental therapy – has regained control of his mind, if not of his body, and shown some telekinetic abilities that allow him to set in motion a chain of terrifying events, including the ability to seize control of other people’s minds through an apparently inoffensive game console.

Hodges, now retired and managing an investigative agency with his friends Holly and Jerome, never believed that Brady was as harmless as he looked, and when a series of strange suicides targets people who survived Hartsfield’s road carnage, he is more determined than ever to get to the truth, further motivated by the discovery that his time is running out, due to a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer.

As I said, End of Watch sees the return of the supernatural elements that King’s readers have come to expect from his works and where, as it so often happens in his stories, the most innocent-looking objects can turn into powerful instruments of mayhem and devastation: in this case the Zappit – the game console from a now-failed firm that Brady’s minions are offering for free to potential victims – becomes the conduit for Hartsfield’s mind-control thanks to an unforeseen, hypnosis-inducing feature in one of the game demos.   Mr. Mercedes, the first book in the series, introduced us to this utterly despicable individual, one totally devoid of any moral compass, whose desire to emerge from anonymity is mated with a deep, unfocused rage toward the world and a desire for revenge, which is here compounded by the long years spent as a virtual vegetable in the hospital.  

As we follow Brady’s steps in extending his influence beyond the walls of his prison, carefully plotting his scheme and taking gleeful satisfaction in the first “field tests”, it’s impossible not to be affected by the sense of impending doom and by the fear that Hodges & Co. might not manage to collect all the clues into a complete picture and stop Hartsfield’s plans.  The added element of Hodges’ impending death adds a further  emotional layer to the mix, particularly where the distressed reactions of Holly and Jerome are concerned: the three of them have become as close as family, and in the case of Holly and Hodges the only family they can count on for affection and support, making their interactions quite poignant, and a necessary balance to the spreading evil orchestrated by Hartsfield.

One of the themes that can be often found in King’s novels is that of the hurt visited on young people, on the loss of the innocence that should be their armor, and End of Watch is no exception: Brady’s mind control exerted through the Zappits tends to push the teenagers who received them toward suicide, working on their insecurities and vulnerabilities. There are some heart-wrenching sequences in which we are made privy to these young people’s inner turmoil, and seeing the way in which Brady exploits them brings the true horror of this story to the surface: the supernatural element of the novel allowed him to connect with these troubled minds, but what he does to them to ensnare them in his “suicide ring” is as real as it is loathsome and for me it rekindled the all-encompassing hate I felt for this character and his utterly unredeemable inclinations.

For this reason, the sense of family that comes from Hodges & Co. feels even more important than ever, and leaves room for some character evolution that I felt was somewhat missing from the previous novel: Hodges himself has come a long way from the man we saw at the start of the series, when he was depressed and despondent – even the awareness of his approaching end does not generate any bitterness, but rather the knowledge that he’s ultimately led a good life, and that he’s leaving an important legacy through Holly and Jerome. And Holly herself – a character I have come to be very fond of – might still be battling her profound insecurities, but you can see how Hodges’ and Jerome’s support set her on a path of independence and self-assurance that can teach her to make a positive use of what others might perceive as obsessive behavior.

As a series ender, this third novel leads us through a breath-stopping chase that kept me on the edge of my seat, but what’s more important here is the sense of a closing circle, of wrapping up the events started by Brady’s road-rage killing spree in the first book: the mass murder at the job fair constantly informs the narrative throughout the series, and we are shown how it affected both individuals and the community as a whole, so it’s important to have closure in this final book,  particularly where Brady Hartsfield is concerned, because the poetic justice inherent in his end feels not only satisfying, but also quite right

The Bill Hodges trilogy was indeed a different reading experience for me, as far as Stephen King’s works are concerned, but also an intriguing one, and it helped to rekindle my interest in this author after a long hiatus. I guess more optimism for future reads is quite justified…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE DARK CORNERS OF THE NIGHT (Unsub #3), by Meg Gardiner

This is my third foray into Meg Gardiner’s Unsub series, and the one which showcases its constant improvement both story- and character-wise.  My renewed interest in crime fiction can now rely on two excellent authors: Michael Connelly and Meg Gardiner.

In this new case, former detective and now FBI agent Caitlin Hendrix has been called to Los Angeles to investigate a series of brutal home invasions: the unsub (short for Unknown Subject) committing the crimes targets houses where families with children live, viciously kills the parents and terrorizes the children, often leaving crude messages or pictures of eyes on the walls.  The press has taken to call him the Midnight Man, because that’s the hour when he’s liable to strike, when everyone in the house is sleeping and therefore more defenseless.  As both the police and the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit struggle to pinpoint the identity and the personality of the killer – who is extremely careful not to leave clues or recognizable images on surveillance cameras – the Midnight Man makes his first mistake by attacking young Hannah’s house: the girl manages not only to give the alarm and therefore save her parents’ life, she is also able to offer some important information to the investigators, turning into a pivotal witness for law enforcement but also painting a target on her own back because the killer is deadly set in removing the danger, and the intolerable failure, she represents.

The Dark Corners of the Night turned out to be not only the most gripping novel in the series so far, but also one that affected me quite deeply in an unexpected way: while I was reading the book, I was awakened one night by a noise – with all probability one of the not-so-careful people living one floor above moving around with no consideration for  the late hour or their neighbors’ rest. At any other time I might simply have grumbled and tried to go back to sleep, but the power of the story I was reading was such that I had to take a tour of the apartment and check that the door was locked, even though I kept berating myself for such silliness: I’ve read a good number of thrillers, I’ve read horror stories, for pity’s sake, and I’ve never given any though to “monsters” lurking in the dark, but this time I did – that’s the extent of my emotional involvement with this book.

This novel is indeed a compulsive read that will keep you on the edge of your seat for most of the time: the descriptions of the killer’s incursions, the urgent search for any clue or piece of information that might lead to his capture, and the final, adrenaline-infused chase through the city, all combine to create a breathless atmosphere of suspense that will keep you enthralled from start to finish. Even the relatively quieter moments, when details are examined and we are made privy to the intriguing aspects of law enforcement procedures, feel like part of that pressing need to know what motivates this unsub, who he is and what can be done to find and stop his killing spree.  The greater attraction here comes from following the police and FBI’s steps in collating the evidence, slowly but surely piecing together the various elements of the puzzle: as readers we get the same information that law enforcements has and therefore we feel like we’re moving alongside them in this journey, with no privileged outlook that might lead us to get the whole picture before the characters. Plot-wise, this is my preferred method of exploring a story, because I love being surprised and discovering that any hunch I might have had was totally wrong.

Meg Gardiner’s novels don’t rely on plot alone, though, because she always manages to achieve a good balance between that and character development.  Caitlin Hendrix is of course the one under the brighter spotlight, and here we see how the search for the Midnight Man and his elusive trail ends up affecting her: while this book can be read as a stand-alone, it would be better to be aware of Caitlin’s difficult journey and the emotional scars from both her past, and the more recent events, to fully comprehend some of her reactions to the stress of the chase, particularly when she falls back to some compulsive habits that plagued her youth. Since fiction has accustomed us to see law enforcement officers as tough, unyielding individuals, we tend to forget they are human beings as well, and therefore subject to human frailties, which might sometimes reduce their field effectiveness but helps greatly in sympathizing with them and seeing them as people: this is the case with Caitlin’s flaws, which don’t demean her but instead offer a balanced counterpoint to her investigating skills.

Dark Corners also offers an intriguing character study with young Hannah: gifted with great courage and observational skills well beyond her years, she offers the intriguing portrait of a child who goes through some harrowing experiences but has the strength and presence of mind to fight against her fears and offer the police the means to apprehend the killer. I quite enjoyed the interactions between Hannah and Caitlin, with the latter probably seeing in the young girl a mirror of herself, of a victim who refuses to be relegated in that role and acts proactively with every means at her disposal.  On the opposite side of the spectrum there is the Midnight Man: as his profile becomes less hazy and we start to understand what makes him tick and what propelled him toward his killing spree, it’s impossible not to be chilled by the realization that there might be many like him living literally next door, and that it might take only a little shift in their precarious balance to tip them off toward such darkness.

As the novel neared its conclusion I was already mourning the fact that Caitlin’s story seemed to be headed toward a final wrap, because I have been enjoying these novels very much, but I was glad to discover that the final paragraphs hint toward new developments though the possible return of an old adversary, which means that a fourth book might very well be in the works as I write this. If that’s the case I am surely on board for more, and as I wait I can always explore some other works from Meg Gardiner who is – happily for me – a very prolific author.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE KAIJU PRESERVATION SOCIETY, by John Scalzi

I received this novel from Macmillan-Tor/Forge through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity

The past two years have indisputably affected us all, one way or the other, and yet it was still a surprise for me to learn that even a cheerful personality like that of writer John Scalzi, who comes across as an individual gifted with an inexhaustible reserve of whimsical humor, suffered from the heavy toll of the situation: in the Author’s Note at the end of this book he shares his difficult journey with a book he was attempting to write, a book that was ultimately put on the back burner in favor of this one. In Scalzi’s own words, that other book was a “brooding symphony”, while The Kaiju Preservation Society is a “pop song”, one “meant to be light and catchy”: I, for one, am very grateful that he was inspired to write it, because it turned out to be a delightfully escapist story that for a couple of days managed to entertain me, making me smile often and laugh out loud in several occasions. In these times, this is a precious gift, indeed.

At the onset of the Covid pandemic, Jamie Gray works in the marketing department of a food-delivery startup named füdmüd, from which he’s suddenly fired: in dire need of paying the bills, and with job opportunities vanishing quickly due to the crisis, he has no other choice but to accept work in actually delivering food to füdmüd’s clients.  Having been befriended by one of them, Jamie is offered a chance to work with the KPS and he accepts eagerly: what he does not know is that the job will entail direct contact with huge, Godzilla-like creatures in a very unusual, very unexpected environment. While making new friends and adjusting to the new work situation, Jamie will need all his resourcefulness and dexterity to deal with the unexpected challenges presented by this job, and to defeat the dastardly plot of the (required) evil corporation – and to lift things, of course, because that’s what he was hired to do…

Jamie is an easy person to get attached to, not least because he’s a nerd, his dialogue crowded with pop-culture and SF references that bring instant recognition and a sense of easy kinship: in the course of the story, he turns from a simple Things Lifter to a hero (even if an unassuming one) and where other less skilled writers might have fallen into the “Gary Stu Trap” with him, Scalzi takes that trope and turns it on its head, creating a fun, very relatable main character we can all root for.  He’s the lone Everyman in the midst of a group of quite talented scientists, and yet his penchant for SF-related themes allows him to take the mental steps necessary to adjust to the KPS environment and to thrive in it: I’ve often maintained that the kind of “mind training” offered by speculative fiction makes us nerds able to bridge chasms that might scare other people, because we can go that extra mile with no effort at all, and Jamie is indeed proof of that.

As far as personal interactions go, I found The Kaiju Preservation Society enjoys the same kind of easygoing, humorous banter I first encountered in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series: here it serves both to define characters and to provide the necessary scientific explanations (both real and imagined) that might otherwise have felt like weighty info dumps and that instead flow easily and at times even become entertainingly informative.  The sense of camaraderie, and then friendship, that binds these different people is a joy to behold and serves to balance out the unavoidable drama and loss that at some point hit the small community, forcing these dedicated, peaceful scientists (plus the Weight Lifter) to tap their reserves of courage and face an impending threat and the high stakes it brings about.

That threat comes – of course – from corporate greed and in particular from an individual Jamie knows well: this guy is the epitome of the mustache-twirling villain and, again, he might have turned into an unavoidable trope, but once again Scalzi manages to poke some fun at this particular cliché by shining a bright light on it instead of trying to mask it. It’s a well-know (and much scorned) habit for villains to launch in detailed monologues about their intentions before attempting to kill the heroes, and this particular bad guy indulges in it quite a bit, but here the habit of “monologuing” is openly addressed both by the villain and his would-be victims, turning what could otherwise have been a trite situation into another opportunity for John Scalzi’s peculiar brand of humor. In other words, this is a… tongue-in-cheek villain, one I both loathed and enjoyed.

Last but not least, this novel focuses on a singular and fascinating environment inhabited by these huge, towering creatures – and their proportionately big parasites – and sporting its own well-crafted ecosystem in which even the most outlandish feature has its reason to be, and is part of the fun in the story.  I quite enjoyed The Kaiju Preservation Society, not only for its amusement quotient, but because of its hopefulness and optimism: these elements might look utopian, given that in the real world things almost never work so well, but as I said at the start of this review, we all need a bit of light in the darkness now and then, to believe that good can triumph over evil, and this book provided these features at the right time. For which I’m certainly grateful…

My Rating:

Reviews

CITY OF BONES (Harry Bosch #8), by Michael Connelly

I was eager to reach this installment in Michael Connelly’s series because the story told in City of Bones constitutes the narrative core for the first season of the TV series, which made me finally aware of this author’s works and introduced me to a very intriguing character.  Unlike what happened with previous books, here both narrative paths (book and TV) follow the same progression, so there were no surprises for me story wise, and yet the novel was able to capture my attention from start to finish as if it were completely new – a further demonstration of Connelly’s narrative skills, not that I really needed it at this point…

It’s the first day of the new year, and – unsurprisingly – Harry Bosch is on duty when he’s called to the site of a grim discovery: the bones of a murdered child that have been lying in the ground for a long time, probably a couple of decades. Even worse than the murder of a child is the revelation that the poor kid had been the victim of prolonged abuse, as testified by the multiple healed fractures evident in the bones: nothing like this kind of innocent victim can drive Harry Bosch on an unstoppable quest to find the perpetrator, not even the awareness that the long time elapsed might turn into a fruitless search, at times hindered by the LAPD politics which don’t look too kindly on such an expenditure of time and resources for what looks like a very cold case.

But Bosch is quite determined to get to the bottom of this because this time it’s not just a matter of being faithful to his motto “everybody counts, or nobody counts”, which drives him to seek justice for those who don’t have a voice anymore; this time the case feels close and personal, touching on the hardships of his own childhood, spent between uncaring foster families and indifferent institutions after the murder of his own mother. Even though it’s never expressed openly, Bosch feels a kinship with young Arthur Delacroix, the victim, and also the need to avenge his stolen innocence. As he muses at some point:

Child cases haunted you. They hollowed you out and scarred you. There was no bulletproof vest thick enough to stop you from being pierced. Child cases left you knowing the world was full of lost light.

City of Bones is much more than a compelling police procedural, even though it’s a fascinatingly detailed one, because it turns out to be the book in which Bosch’s psychological makeup is explored in greater depth than before, showing how under the abrasive surface of his personality there is a very human individual who built that exterior armor of bluntness as a defense against the injuries of the world. The detective’s flaws are showcased here more than in previous books, often portraying him as fallible, since his single focus on the goal tends to make him ignore peripheral details that are later revealed in their importance, but it’s thanks to these flaws that the human being can be seen, and appreciated.

There are a couple of instances in which we see Bosch lowering his “shields” in this novel: one is focused on his relationship with Julia, a trainee officer who exposes him to the double dangers of letting down his defenses (and later paying the price) and of going against the department’s regulations concerning romantic attachments inside the force. Julia seems just as determined as he is in making a difference, but does so without the years-long experience that the older detective has acquired over time, and this costs her dearly, leaving Bosch saddled with an undefinable sense of guilt that weighs heavily on him.  The other instance concerns his exchanges with the forensic pathologist charged with the examination of young Arthur’s bones: there is a moment in which the doctor shows Bosch some bones recovered from the city’s tar pits, bones that reveal how murder was a component of society even in prehistoric times – the indication that human wickedness possesses deep roots indeed. Which brings Bosch to a bitter conclusion:

[…] a truth he had known for too long. That true evil could never be taken out of the world. At best he was wading into the dark waters of the abyss with two leaking buckets in his hands.

It’s a very sad consideration, and probably the start of the process leading to the unexpected decision Bosch makes at the end of the book: a decision that mirrors the one he takes at the end of the TV series, but for completely different reasons.  It’s possible that this choice comes from a number of factors, not least the depressing links between law enforcement and its political ramifications, which here also dovetail with media relationships and community awareness, creating a mix that the detective finds unpalatable and more constricting than ever.  This heavy equation is further burdened by the lack of complete closure in the case: yes, the murderer is finally apprehended but it looks almost like an afterthought, and this certainly does not bring any kind of comfort to the shattered and dysfunctional family of poor Arthur, or to Bosch himself.  The prospect of an incoming promotion leaves him cold and distant, almost in acknowledgment of the emptiness of the task he has dedicated himself to for so long: in the very moment we are allowed to see more clearly into the soul of this character, we are also led to what looks like a massive shift in his perspective and his life:

He had always known that the would be lost without his job and his badge and his mission. In that moment he came to realize that he could be just as lost with it all […] The very thing he thought he needed the most was the thing that drew the shroud of futility around him. He made a decision.

Even though I have an inkling about what that decision might be, I more than look forward to actually learning what it is, and to allow Michael Connelly to intrigue me once again with his stories centered on such a fascinating character. I know that I will not wait too long to get to the next book in line…

My Rating:

Reviews

LEVIATHAN FALLS (The Expanse #9), by James S.A. Corey

Reaching the end of a beloved series is always a bittersweet experience (and the fact that the TV show inspired by this book series has also reached its final season adds to the feeling of loss, but I digress…), yet it’s also true that when a story comes to an end leaving readers wanting for more it means that the author has done an excellent job, and this is quite true for the highly successful, decade-long run of The Expanse

At the close of the previous installment, the might of the Laconian empire had suffered a hard blow, compounded by the disappearance of its leader, High Consul Duarte, and the crew of the Rocinante had finally reunited, taking with them Duarte’s daughter, Teresa. Elsewhere, scientist Elvi Okoye continued her studies on the protomolecule creators and on the mysterious entities that obliterated them and that still represented a clear and present danger for everyone.

Leviathan Falls opens with the desperate search for Duarte, introducing a new character in the person of Colonel Tanaka, a ruthless, cold-blooded operative who is given carte blanche to recover the Laconian leader and who clearly enjoys the unfettered freedom about collateral damage she’s given: her cat-and-mouse game with the Rocinante’s crew showcases very well her callousness but also her tunnel vision where Holden & Co. are concerned, because their longtime experience with difficult situations (together with a good amount of luck) has gifted them with the kind of flexibility that allows them to thwart Tanaka’s plans time and again. And I for one have to admit that witnessing the Colonel’s angry frustration was quite satisfying, since she’s the kind of character that I just love to hate…

The stakes, in this final book, are of course high: though diminished, the Laconian empire is still a force to be reckoned with; the rebellious systems, coordinated by Naomi Nagata, lack the resources and the organization necessary to deal a significant blow to the enemy; and the ruthlessly dangerous aliens responsible for the destruction of the gates’ builders are ready to do the same to humanity as a whole. And yet, even though the story does not lack for edge-of-your-seat scenes, furious battles and harrowing journeys through weird alien constructs, the overall mood is more sober, more inclined to melancholy – it might have been the projection of my own sadness at the end of the saga, granted, but with hindsight this book is, after all, a long goodbye to a number of characters I have come to know well and love as real people, just as they, in the course of the series, went from total strangers thrown together by circumstances to a tightly knit family.

Even in the midst of a galaxy-wide conflict, it’s the crew of the Rocinante that still earns the spotlight in this final act, and despite all that has happened to them over the years, despite the unavoidable injuries of passing time or life’s emotional wounds, they hold on to each other through learned trust and affection, in a sort of symbiosis which needs no words to make them work as a unit.

Time and use had changed them, but it hadn’t changed what they were. There was joy in that. A promise.

Thinking about the persons they were at the beginning, and seeing how time and experiences changed their outlook, made me aware of the long road they traveled as characters: Naomi kept trying to be as inconspicuous and unassuming as possible, guilt from her past compelling her to keep to the shadows, and yet she ended up being the leader of the resistance against Laconia, putting her mechanical skills at the service of the vast “machine” of the underground; Alex had always skirted his commitments as a husband and a father, preferring the freedom and joy of piloting a ship, but in the end the choice he makes is focused on his son and grandson.  And Holden, who had chosen a nondescript work on an ice hauler to be free from responsibilities, little by little found himself at the center of big and momentous events, so that his ultimate decision is a supremely selfless one, which looks even more poignant when considering that his return from imprisonment on Laconia had left him “scarred and broken” in the wake of the physical and emotional torture he had endured, and that he would have deserved some peace after so much suffering.

The only one who remains a constant is Amos: not even the uncanny changes he underwent in the course of the previous book managed to shift him from the steadfast presence I’ve come to appreciate and expect, someone who can come up with startlingly wise advice: 

“You’re overthinking this, Cap’n. You got now and you got the second your lights go out. Meantime is the only time there is.”

Amos’ personality is a weird combination of menacing strength, expressed in nonchalant understatement, and of unexpected gentleness, which we see – time and again – in his penchant for picking up strays: from distraught botanist Prax, looking for his missing daughter, to Clarissa “Peaches” Mao, former enemy he added to the Roci’s crew, to Teresa Duarte (plus her dog), who seems to come as close as an adopted daughter for the apparently unemotional mechanic.  Maybe it’s not so strange when considering Amos’ past and his (albeit unexpressed) desire to protect the helpless, which makes a great deal of sense when we see Amos as the one to get the very last word in this final book, in his role as protector and guardian.

If the final chapter in The Expanse is not as “epic” as might have been expected, it’s however quite rewarding thanks to the quiet but poignant emotions that stand as its backbone: I’m not ashamed to admit that some of these goodbyes affected me deeply because, despite the 9-books run, I was not ready to part company with this crew, and the only comfort to be had was the hopeful outlook on humanity given by the last paragraphs. Granted, in this series humanity did show some of its worst traits, but also the capacity to move beyond them, or at least of being willing to try: the hint that the story does go on behind the closing curtain is indeed a glimmer of hope, and I will stick to that while I wait for these two amazing authors to create something new and equally compelling in the future.

My Rating:

Reviews

TOGETHER WE WILL GO, by J. Michael Strackzynski

After reading Becoming Superman, the biography of J. Michael Strackzynski – talented writer in several mediums and the unparalleled creator of my favorite TV series ever, Babylon 5 – I knew that I would not want to miss his first (and hopefully not the last!) foray into novel writing: even though the core concept for Together We Will Go is an unsettling one, I knew beforehand that I could trust JMS’ skills in dealing with such a touchy subject with empathy and a lot of heart – and my faith was more than rewarded.

Failed writer Mark, who just received his latest rejection, reaches the conclusion that “the only good writer is a dead writer” and therefore plans to leave this world behind, but not alone: he buys a bus and places an online ad for equally inclined people to join him in a coast-to-coast journey at the end of which they will launch the bus down a cliff, ending their lives. While on the road they will provide for individual diaries of the experience, to be uploaded before the end: Mark’s way of gaining posthumous recognition as a writer.

If Mark’s reasons for ending his life sound somewhat thin and peevish, some of his companions are dealing with very serious issues: Karen suffered for most of her life from chronic, unbearable pain; Lisa is the victim of a bipolar disorder that turned her existence into an uncontrollable mess; Tyler has an untreatable heart condition that literally turns him blue from lack of oxygen; Shanelle has been cruelly bullied because of her size; Vaughn is a recent widower saddled with a terrible secret. And then there is Zeke, an addict beyond the point of no return, whose only companion is the cat Soldier, whose days are numbered; other people (for a total of twelve) board the bus, but the ones I mentioned are the main characters whose diaries help us to know them better and start to understand their reasons for letting go of everything.

The diary format of the novel, which includes not only journal entries but also emails and text messages, gifts the narrative with a strong sense of realism and allows the reader to see the characters from the double perspective of their own thoughts and of the other travelers’ opinions, which in some cases can change radically from the ones in their first meeting.  Together We Will Go is indeed strongly character-driven, and each one of the bus’ passengers looks and sounds unique and three-dimensional, their entries ranging from the maudlin to the utterly funny, in the style I have by now come to expect from JMS’ unrivaled writing skills.

From the outside, this story might look like a romanticized incentive to suicide, but I want to say up front that it’s not: it’s rather an analysis, performed with great sensitivity and consideration, of the reasons that might drive a person to take their own life, and along the the way I was not only able to connect with the characters  on a deep level, I also started to hope that they would change their minds, thanks to the discoveries they were making about themselves and to the bond they came to establish with their travel companions. It’s quite touching – and at times heart-wrenching – to understand how these characters have suffered a form of loneliness and isolation because of their troubles, be they physical or psychological, and to see how their common suffering, and common goal, is creating a sense of family despite the short time they have known each other.  Or maybe it’s thanks to the awareness of their limited remaining time that they are able to connect so deeply, having shed most – if not all – of the trappings that life can impose on people.

As I wrote at the beginning, suicide is a risky subject to place at the core of a story, but I believe that JMS managed to maintain the balance between the position of the characters, in their determination to choose when to end their lives, and that of a reader who might be understandably dismayed at a choice perceived as an unwillingness to keep on fighting. The author is not new at handling this kind of quandary, and once again he’s able to present both points of view in a balanced, not-judgmental way: if you are familiar with Babylon 5, you might remember some episodes in which equally controversial themes have been the focus of the narrative (Believers and Passing Through Gethsemane are the best examples) and have been left for the viewers’ individual consideration.

Still, despite the underlying bleakness there is a definite thread of hope in the story, not only because of the way the journey turns out for some of the passengers, but because of a final consideration by one of them: it’s a long passage, but I firmly believe it’s worth quoting it in its entirety.

The reason so many people are vulnerable to suicide is because they think it could never happen to them, so they don’t know what to look for, what feelings could lead to making that decision […] so anybody reading this will know exactly what it feels like to make that choice from the inside out. For some people maybe it’ll be be like a flu vaccine, giving them a little piece of the real thing so it immunizes them, so they’ll know what that impulse feels like when it comes, and maybe they won’t be as vulnerable because now they can recognize that feeling for what it is instead of being ambushed by it. And maybe they won’t make that jump, or at least they’ll know enough to wait and think about it some more.

Together We Will Go is a story that seamlessly alternates drama with humor, playfulness with deep emotion, and remains a compelling read from start to finish: given the touchy subject at its heart, I’m not sure it could be a book for everyone, but I can state with total assurance that it’s one that will make you think and leave its mark on you – in a very positive sense.

My Rating:

Reviews

AGE OF ASH (Kithamar #1), by Daniel Abraham

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

I’m quite familiar with Daniel Abraham’s fantasy production, having greatly enjoyed both The Long Price Quartet and The Dagger and the Coin series, and of course I know that under the shared pen name of James S.A. Corey he’s the co-author, together with Ty Franck, of the successful SF series The Expanse, so that when the start of this new fantasy saga was announced I was more than eager to see for myself what it was about.

The city of Kithamar has a long history of power and prosperity, but also of violence and strife: as the novel starts, the uneasy peace between the two ethnic groups living in the city is shaken by the death of the former ruler and the ascendance of his successor – many wonder, given the troubled times, how long he will be able to remain in his place. But Age of Ash is not so much the tale of people in power, but rather of the city’s inhabitants: first we meet Alys, a very proficient member in a band of thieves, one of the most lucrative occupations among Kithamar’s underprivileged. The murder of her brother sends her on a very different path, however: searching for answers first and then for vengeance, Alys finds herself enmeshed with convoluted political maneuvers and the dark, ancient secret behind Kithamar’s rule – a secret that might claim her life.  Sammish is another member of the dsmr band, her skill in being inconspicuous a very valuable one for thieving, but a hindrance in her desire to be noticed by Alys on whom she has a crush: when Alys’ focus on vengeance becomes all-encompassing and takes her into the orbit of some shady characters, and once the mysterious Saffa – a woman searching desperately for her kidnapped child – opens Sammish’s eyes on the evil undercurrents of powers in Kithamar, the girl will have to deal with conflicting loyalties and a newfound awareness of the world she’s living in.  The third main POV comes from Andomaka, a noblewoman with great aspirations to power and the member of a weird religious cult holding the secret behind the workings of the power handout between rulers: she is strong, ambitious and ruthless, the true representative of the caste that has been governing Kithamar throughout the centuries.

The slow burn of Age of Ash might have proved discouraging if I had not been prepared: previous experience with Daniel Abraham’s novels taught me that he likes to carefully prepare the playing field and that the beginnings of his series require a little patience, which is always rewarded in the end. In this particular case, the “preliminary” work serves to create the image of a living, breathing city in all its colorful detail: shopkeepers and artisans plying their trade in the winding streets and alleys of Kithamar, urchins running underfoot and thieves moving like smoke in crowded areas; the various districts, looking like enclaves where the two ethnicities coexist in a delicate balance, giving way to the mansions of the more affluent citizens and of the nobility – these elements are pictured in such a vivid manner that after a while they feel three-dimensional, to the point that it’s almost possible to hear the sounds and perceive the smells. We are led through the city in its better times, like the harvest, which brings abundance of food and a festive atmosphere, when street revelries offer the chance for celebration and great thieving opportunities in the crowded passages; and we see it in the bitter cold of winter, when food is scarce and ice covers the ground and hangs from the roofs in big icicles, when the poorest have to choose between eating or warming their homes, a time when darkness and gloom prey heavily on everyone’s mind.

While I enjoyed such richness in the world-building, I found myself somewhat distanced from the characters, particularly where Alys is concerned: the single-minded focus on her quest leaves little space for any kind of emotional connection or feeling of sympathy. Even her grief at the loss of her brother shows this kind of hard edge (for want of a better definition) that turns it into something cold and soulless, devoid of any spark of humanity.  I ended up feeling greater empathy with Sammish, not least because she exhibits a greater capacity for emotional and psychological growth throughout the story and because what looks like childish infatuation morphs, in the end, into a willingness to help her friend and to do the right thing, not just for Alys but for the city as well. The unassuming girl who can move through crowds unnoticed shows more courage and heart, in the end, than the one who should be the main focus of the story, and this comparison did not help me at all in my reflections on Alys’ character: this is however only the first book in a series so I’m also suspending my judgment while waiting to see how the story progresses and what kind of surprises the author has in store for his readers.

And speaking of the plot itself, there are many unresolved threads here – particularly where Andomaka’s actions and her connection with the religious cult are concerned – that will certainly be further explored in the next books: there is a lot of intrigue, with longtime ramifications, that simply begs to be developed more fully. The complex, creepy layers of Kithamar’s power management and its handling through the generations are barely touched here and I can hardly wait to see how the continuation of the story will deal with them, and with Andomaka’s plans, about which I can’t afford to say more because that way lie some massive spoilers.

The start of this new series is indeed a very promising one, and I can’t shake the feeling that this first installment barely scratched the surface of a story that holds many more surprises in store for me. Time, of course, will tell what they are…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE LATE SHOW (Renée Ballard #01), by Michael Connelly

In my continuing exploration of Michael Connelly’s vast body of work I was intrigued by this book, whose main character is Detective Renée Ballard, and as I started to read I wondered whether she might end up being Harry Bosch’s successor: The Late Show was published in 2017, a good number of years after my latest Bosch book – 2001 – where the more famous detective is portrayed as middle aged, so it only stands to reason that, narratively speaking, as the years go by he might not be as active and energetic as in the stories I’m reading now, and a need for passing over his legacy might become unavoidable for his creator.  What’s interesting – and refreshing – here is that Ballard is not a female version of Bosch: of course she’s a dedicated investigator nurturing a strong sense of justice, but the similarities end here, and I’ve both enjoyed and welcomed Connelly’s decision to craft her character.

Renée Ballard is a LAPD detective who has been sent to the night shift (sarcastically nicknamed “the late show”) after her accusations of sexual harassment by a superior officers have come to nothing, also thanks to the guilty silence of her former partner. So Renée is now relegated to the graveyard shift, her cases destined to be assigned to the daytime detectives for the real work: the assignment is a career-ender and the place where the unwanted troublemakers are buried and forgotten. Still, Renée wants to do her job as best as she can, and so one night she’s faced with three cases, a credit card fraud, the savage beating of a transgender hooker and a nightclub shooting that left five victims on the ground: unable to let go what look like intriguing clues, she keeps on investigating even when the brass – in the person of Lt. Olivas, the man who harassed her – make it clear she must stay away from the cases.  Renée’s determination to do what’s right for the victims brings her dangerously close to being reprimanded – or worse – but she still keeps on going, finding herself in mortal danger and uncovering a thread of corruption inside the police department.

I liked Renée Ballard very much, both for her strengths and her frailties: a tragedy in her early life left her scarred but not broken and she’s unwilling to give in to the frustrations of a dead-end job by doing her very best day after day. What I found intriguing is the way she practically lives a homeless life, spending her free time on the beach together with her dog Lola and periodically visiting her grandmother for “laundry duty”: this choice ends up giving her a great deal of freedom, which seems to be her greater need in life. Moreover, despite the way she’s been treated she has not given in to bitter resentment and actively cares for the victims, granting them the dignity that’s often denied them when the job turns many law enforcers into jaded and cynical individuals: this is particularly true in Renée’s dealings with the transgender victim, who she’s not ready to cruelly dismiss as some of her colleagues do. And last but not least, her interactions with Lt. Olivas, even in the face of the sarcasm he wields, from the position of strength of the male privilege he wears as armor, are professionally dignified and made me respect her even more – particularly during a fantastic exchange near the end of the book.

Story-wise, The Late Show is pure Connelly magic: the three cases are interwoven through a good use of suspense, adrenaline-infused action scenes and a few quite unexpected twists and turns: one in particular caught me totally by surprise, since all clues seemed to point in a very definite direction, so that when the revelation came along I had to recover my jaw from the floor because nothing would have made me suspect that particular character.  But that’s part and parcel of this author’s trademark writing…

The usual Los Angeles background is present here as in the other novels – the hillside homes and the seediest areas, the ‘in’ nigthclubs and the streets where hookers ply their trade – but in here there is a very welcome addition coming from the beaches where Ballard goes in her off hours surfing on a paddle board (in reminiscence of the childhood she spent in Hawaii) and spending time with her dog – a delightful side character herself.

Ballard is a wonderful and successful addition to Michael Connelly’s creations and the proof that he does not fall prey to formulaic writing and character design: even though I’ve barely made a dent in his vast bibliography, it’s clear that I can expect the unexpected with each new book I approach, and I look forward to meeting again his new creature, particularly because I’ve learned that she will be back in the Bosch series by pairing with the author’s famous detective in a book some twelve titles down the road from where I stand now. It will be more than interesting to see these two work together…

My Rating: