Reviews

BECOMING SUPERMAN, by J. Michael Strackzynski

Biographies are not part of my usual “reading menu”, but in this very special case I decided to make an exception: J. Michael Strackzynski (JMS for brevity) is the creator – among an amazing number of other works in several mediums – of the SF show Babylon 5, which I consider the peak of televised storytelling, and not just where science fiction is concerned.   It was Babylon 5 which brought me to this book, because I’m in the middle of the complete rewatch of the series I’ve been promising myself for a while: since I’ve been aware of JMS’ autobiography for some time, I decided to read it in the hope of gleaning a few more details about the creation of my favorite show.  

What I found was a completely unexpected account of a dreadful childhood, a harrowing youth and a constant, never-ending struggle to keep faith with the uncompromising moral compass that was born as a reaction to those early horrors.  I am not going to dwell on those details from JMS’ past, suffice it to say that his childhood and youth can be labeled as a nightmare whose main players were an abusive, alcoholic and control-freak father, a psychically troubled mother incapable of defending herself or her children, and a grandmother about whom the less said, the better. Add to that a constant status of extreme poverty and endless moves across the country that prevented JMS from forming any lasting friendships, and you have the “perfect” recipe for disaster: he himself, at some point, writes that “If there is anything remarkable about my life, it is that I did not come out the other side a serial killer”.

What prevented him from turning to a life of crime or from becoming, in turn, an abuser or worse? Comic books – and more precisely the character of Superman, who gave the young JMS a role model to draw inspiration and guidance from, and a set of stories whose heroes made choices based on a set of moral guidelines that were sorely lacking from his home life.  There is a passage in the book in which the author describes the moment in which he realized he had a choice in front of him, that of following in his father’s footsteps or to negate this “heritage” and walk in the opposite direction: in that passage he tells how he drew a list of his father’s most frequent behaviors, and a list of all their antitheses that would guide his life from then on, and to which he would adhere without fail. And now that I’ve read this book, and this particular section, one of my favorite quotes from Babylon 5 comes to mind, and takes a deeper shade of meaning:

There is always choice. We say that there is no choice only to comfort ourselves with a decision we have already made.

Harsh as childhood and youth were for JMS, his adult life turned out to be one of struggle still, not only with financial issues but with his career as a writer: having discovered the power of narrative, he chose to become a crafter of stories in many different mediums, from animation to comic books to television and movies, but always keeping his unwillingness to compromise front and center, which did not help in dealing with censors or studio executives or all those “powers that be” convinced they knew better than anyone what the public wanted – or deserved.  What others might have labeled as a difficult personality, is instead a steadfast faithfulness to one’s own principles, even at the cost of losing everything: we can find this kind of attitude in many of his characters, which are heroes not because they perform great deeds, but because they are average people who find the courage to do the right thing in the most challenging circumstances, without ever giving up on the basic principles of decency and humanity.  It’s indeed not surprising that in the course of Babylon 5’s arc the final lines of Tennyson’s Ulysses are often quoted as a message in that direction:

[…] to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Given what I’ve learned from this autobiography, what so far was mere admiration for JMS’s writing skills in the creation of memorable characters delivering even more memorable lines (many of which I know by heart), turned into admiration for the person behind those stories, for the individual who had the moral fortitude to escape from the injuries of a terrible past and turn into a powerful, talented and inspirational storyteller.  Becoming Superman is a hard book to read at times, and yet it’s also a compelling one because of the underlying hope it manages to convey even in the bleakest moments, just as one of his characters says:

[…] hope that there can always be new beginnings – even for people like us.

I can only highly recommend this book: if you are aware of JMS’ work, it will open a new, enlightening window into his creative process; and if you are not, maybe it will drive you on a journey of discovery. In the end, you will find out that it was quite worth it.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE POET (Jack McEvoy #1), by Michael Connelly

Since my riveting binge of the TV show Bosch during last year’s lockdown, I’ve started reading Michael Connelly’s books focused on his most successful character and reached volume nr. 6 so far, but I’ve become aware that this very prolific author has written a good number of other standalone novels or series, so I decided to expand my search in a wider circle: once I found out that The Poet, first book in the Jack McEvoy series, is also connected to one of the next books for Harry Bosch, I decided to try it – learning that the story was about the search for a serial killer was also a strong motivator.

Jack McEvoy is a journalist specialized in the analysis of violent crimes: when his twin brother Sean, a detective with the Denver PD, takes his own life, Jack is shocked but led to think, along everyone else, that Sean was depressed because of his inability to solve a brutal murder he was working on. Searching for details on the case, Jack finds some evidence that seems to indicate Sean’s death could have been a murder disguised as a suicide, and so he starts a search that points toward a serial killer whose actions have eluded the attention of the police and also of the FBI, that is now called into action to uncover the truth under a so-far ignored chain of police officers’ “suicides”. With the help of FBI agent Rachel Walling, Jack joins the pursuit of the killer nicknamed “The Poet” from the Edgar Allan Poe quotes found on the murder scenes: the journalist is driven by the need to discover the truth about what happened to Sean, of course, but there is also the possibility of a huge scoop on the horizon, because discovery and capture of the Poet will gain nationwide attention…

The Poet starts in a quiet, almost sedate way, but once the narrative gears are set in motion the story takes on the speed of an avalanche, inexorably advancing toward the final showdown (which works also as a “to be continued” because not everything is resolved here): I have by now become familiar with Connelly’s narrative style and his successful way of taking the readers through wrong turns and blind alleys, or to trick them with some misleading clues, but here he literally does it with a vengeance, delivering a compulsive read that I found difficult to put down. One of the winning elements in this novel is the change in POV, which alternates between Jack McEvoy (presented in third person) and William Gladden, the killer (presented in first person): where Jack’s segments prove quite intriguing, because the cat-and-mouse game between law enforcement and its prey is based on the collection of clues and a desperate battle against time, Gladden’s sections take us into the mind of this man who is not only a cold-blooded murderer, but also a very organized pedophile, which adds an element of horror to the whole story – not the horror of supernatural monsters, which we can easily dismiss because we subconsciously know they don’t exist, but the horror of a very real, dangerous and disturbed mind.

Considering the subject matter and the kind of emotional triggers it involves, I admired the author’s very light hand in dealing with it and in focusing more on the psychological aspects of the issue rather than on its more shocking ones, while refraining from any kind of moral judgment. On one hand we learn that Gladden was the victim of abuse in his childhood, but on the other we cannot forget that he’s become in turn the monster whose victims have suffered the same kind of abuse before being murdered: both facts are presented as starkly and unemotionally as possible, leaving any form of further consideration to the readers themselves, which is a choice I always appreciate.

Strangely enough, while I literally devoured the novel, I could never feel any kind of attachment to the main character: with any other story this might have proved counterproductive, but in this case the excitement of the chase ended up offering the kind of balance I needed to counteract my displeasure with McEvoy. What I did not like in him is the kind of duality at the roots of his character: of course he wants to know the truth of what happened to his brother, of course he wants justice for him and all the other victims, but underneath it all there is always the need to turn it into the next Great Story, to win the fame and acclaim he craves, even if he does not consciously admit it.  Connelly’s characters are more often than not flawed, which makes them human and relatable, but I found Jack’s flaws irritating, and his desire to glean the hard facts for the sake of a Pulitzer-worthy series of articles feels… sinful, for want of a better word, because the victim who started the whole search was his brother, and from where I stand gaining fame and recognition from the death of a loved one feels like an empty accomplishment, if not a vile one. 

FBI agent Rachel Walling is, on the other hand, an intriguing character who I believe deserved more narrative space, so I hope that her return in the Harry Bosch novel linked to this one will offer further insights into her personality. What we see here is an individual who is both driven and ambitious, but holds some darkness from the past, and I look forward to learning more about her.  Her romantic relationship with McEvoy in The Poet never convinced me fully, partly because of my expressed prejudice against him, and partly because it seemed to evolve too quickly, just as it ended equally quickly, and since there is no POV from Rachel it’s impossible to get into her mind and see what makes her tick.

If, toward the end, the novel falters a little as it falls into the time-honored device of having the bad guy offer a long, drawn-out explanation to McEvoy before trying to kill him, it picks up by leaving the door open for the further exploits of the Poet, to which I certainly look forward. Given my lack of empathy with the main character, I doubt I will read other books in the Jack McEvoy series, but on the other hand The Poet confirmed that Michael Connelly is the first of my go-to authors when I am in the mood for a good thriller or a crime novel.  And there’s still a lot of ground of explore there…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE WISDOM OF CROWDS (The Age of Madness #3), by Joe Abercrombie

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

Lord Grimdark did it again: with The Age of Madness he gave us a new, immersive trilogy set in the world of the First Law, and while he kept us all glued to the story with the two previous installment, he literally ended this narrative cycle with much, much more than a proverbial “bang” (or rather, a whole lot of them…).

The widespread turmoil on which the first two books in this series were focused, reaches here its bloody peak: previously, in Adua King Orso’s popularity was at its all-time low and the conspiracy mounted against him – led by his former friend and ally Leo dan Brock, together with Leo’s wife Savine dan Glokta – failed only thanks to a timely warning.  What should have been the rebels’ decisive battle ended with Orso as the winner, Leo losing the gamble and some body parts, and he and a heavily pregnant Savine as prisoners in the city they hoped to rule.  In the North, Rikke was sitting on her father’s chair, but still faced the encroaching armies of Black Calder and his brutal son Stour Nightfall, while trying to consolidate her power, forge new alliances and avoid constant betrayals.

As the final book opens, Orso has little time to enjoy his victory: after decades of bad, myopic management from the ruling council, the city of Adua is now a powder keg ready to explode, and explode it does in the throes of the Great Change – think of it as a bloodier, far scarier version of the French Revolution, complete with its own reign of Terror and mass executions carried out through worse means than the guillotine. Angry mobs sweep the city, destroying everything in their path, killing indiscriminately and taking the king prisoner, while Leo and Savine find themselves hailed as heroes.  And in the North, Rikke seems on the verge of losing it all, as her allies dwindle and Black Calder keeps amassing a force capable of sweeping the land and crowning him as its sole ruler…

The above gives just the bare bones of the complex interweaving of narrative threads and character journeys that turn this novel into a compulsive – if often horrifying – read: there are many more POVs than the main ones I mentioned, and each one moves the story forward without overshadowing the others, reinforcing instead the perception of a building avalanche that moves inexorably toward its intended destination. Not that it’s easy to see what exactly this destination is, particularly once readers are faced with some massive revelations – like the big one toward the end – and a constant barrage of betrayals and treachery that is guaranteed to have your head spinning wildly.

The Wisdom of Crowds is mainly a study of the effects of long-suppressed rage at widespread injustice, and of what happens when exasperation’s fires are fed beyond their conflagration point: the wisdom in the title is used in a darkly sarcastic way, of course, because what we witness in the course of the Great Change is the total obliteration of any civilized rule and a plunge into the kind of collective madness that occurs when the baser animalistic instincts take the place of the oh-so-thin veneer of civilization draped over them.  

As usual, Joe Abercrombie manages to seamlessly blend his peculiar brand of humor into the most appalling situations, managing to elicit a smile – or even a laugh – when least you expect it, while pointing out how far easier it is to destroy what does not work anymore than to find the means to build something better.  We are treated to several scenes in which the new government spends inordinate amounts of time foolishly debating the wording of those changes without actually implementing any, while nearby the madwoman named Judge sends hundreds of people – guilty and innocents alike – to their death.

Such upheavals are of course bound to impart profound changes on the characters we have come to know, and it’s hardly surprising that some of them end up being quite different from the people they were at the beginning of the story.  Savine is certainly a case in point: while she retains some of her former drive for power and self-preservation, her harrowing encounters with danger and death, and her recent motherhood, seem to have awakened her conscience, slightly tempering her ambition and making her more human. It’s not a complete turnover, of course, not given her established personality and the teachings imparted by her father Sand dan Glokta, but it’s a definite improvement over the ruthless socialite bent on profit at any cost that she was at the beginning.

King Orso and Leo dan Brock seem to exchange their respective roles here: the former was a reluctant ruler who preferred drinking and womanizing over learning the rules of kinghood, the latter was the highly praised warrior and hero with a bright destiny in his future. Events transform them profoundly, and where Orso becomes a true king in his captivity, submitting to it with humorous gallantry and ultimately showing a kind of subdued bravery that moved me deeply, Leo turns into an embittered, violence-prone individual more focused on the lost glories of the past than on the needs of the present.

A truly tragic figure is that of Gunnar Broad, the former soldier who keeps promising – to himself and his family – that he’s through with bloody violence: events keep proving him wrong and he finds himself constantly enmeshed in situations that force him to rely on his darker instincts. In a way he reminds me of the Bloody Nine, who strove to be a better man without ever managing to fulfill this vow.

I’ve left my favorite character for last: Rikke. As the daughter of the Dogman, all her life she’s been weighted down by her father’s legend and the need to prove herself, a girl, in the world of these Northern hard warriors – and by the heavy toll of her unpredictable precognitive ability.  Here she comes into her own, successfully managing to balance the ruthless strength necessary to rule (“make your heart a stone”) with the desire to act for the best of her people. You will encounter many surprises along Rikke’s journey, together with the heartwarming relationships with her two closest advisors, the cunningly uncouth hill woman Isern-i-Phail and the grizzled Caul Shivers, who seems to have found some inner balance here, if confronted with the man I came to know in Best Served Cold.

Joe Abercrombie’s novels always prove such an immersive experience that it’s hard to move out of his world and return to reality: my only solace is represented by the standalone First Law books I have still to read and the implied promise of this one that the story is not over, that there are some still-hanging threads that might, one day, turn into other equally engrossing books. Time will tell…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BONE SHIP’S WAKE (The Tide Child #3), by R.J. Barker

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 Bone Ship’s Wake is the amazing conclusion of a sea-faring adventure that’s both dark and hopeful, one that led me through an emotional rollercoaster in whose aftermath I’m still trying to deal with the mixed feelings of wonder and anguish it engendered: hopefully I will be able to convert them into an organic – and spoiler-free! – review…

When we previously left the crew of the Tide Child, they were suffering from many kinds of losses: crew-mates had perished, people had been grievously wounded, and worse still, ship-wife Meas had been taken prisoner, her dream of uniting the folks from the Hundred and Gaunt Isles into a better kind of life apparently doomed.  Hurt but not beaten, Meas’ deck-keeper Joron Twiner turns the rebel fleet into a pirate armada, with the double goal of weakening the Hundred Isles’ power and of gaining intelligence on Meas’ fate – and if possible of freeing her.  But despite the bloody successes and the dire fame he’s gained as the Black Pirate, Joron knows that his time is running out: the fleet under his command is losing irreplaceable ships, despite the victories; he’s being consumed by the unforgiving Keyshan’s Rot, that will ultimately lead him to madness and death; and his hopes of finding Meas alive diminish with every passing day.

As I noted in the previous reviews for this series, there is a perfect balance between plot and characterization here, both halves of the story sustaining and enhancing each other in a perfect blend that offers both impeccable pacing and outstanding character journeys that kept me reading on until all hours: this is the kind of book where you keep promising yourself “just one more chapter”, and before you realize it, it’s 2 a.m.  Or even later…

Story-wise there is a definite sensation of both time running out and of impending doom, fueled by the long, suspenseful sea chases that see the crew of Tide Child forced to play a game of wits and endurance with more powerful (but certainly not more cunning!) foes: here is where we can see more than ever the depth and breadth of the author’s imagination as he conceived of this sea-faring world, traveled by ships built out of dragon bones, whose depiction required the creation of a whole new set of naval terms that establish the alienness and the unending wonder of this background while reminding us at the same time of more familiarly sounding shipboard tales. Where the hardships of the situation are described in stark relief, there is still a heart-warming sense of common purpose in the Tide Child’s crew, one that looks even more extraordinary when recalling that they, like all black ships’ complements, are condemned criminals, their service aboard such vessels nothing more than a delayed death sentence: still, through Meas’ past example and Joron’s constantly growing leadership skills, these convicts have turned into a tight crew, one that’s proud of its own accomplishments and is able to work as a single, well-coordinated entity toward their goal.

In this final volume, the secondary characters we have already come to know well come more directly into the light, shining with added depth and pathos as their arcs move along an inexorably established path: people like Cwell, Mevans, Farys, Solemn Muffaz – just to name a few – become more rounded and also more dear to us as the story progresses and we are painfully aware that while this author is hardly tender toward his creations, we are unable to force ourselves not to care for them and their destiny.

But it’s the main characters who keep stealing our hearts and minds, and The Bone Ship’s Wake does its very best to break our hearts as it shows their continuing journey. Meas figures prominently in the very first chapter, one that’s quite hard to read and which sees her stripped of all the strength and assurance that made her such a formidable ship-wife and such an inspirational leader: proud, “lucky” Meas is apparently robbed of all the attributes that made her such a famous and respected captain, only to learn, once she sees herself as vulnerable and diminished, that her legend is still capable of arousing deep loyalty and faith in her crew, even in those who have not met her yet.  There is a scene, toward the end, involving a very special flag, that symbolized this earnest devotion and which I found deeply touching.

As for Joron, he continues to grow into a very capable commander, even though he still thinks of himself as a mere caretaker for the rule of Tide Child: for Joron, the one and only worthy ship-wife remains Meas, even as he takes the reins of the rebel fleet and scours the seas in search of information – or vengeance.  This is a man who is resigned to his mortality and that of his companions, but still wants every sacrifice to count for something: when I think back to the person he was at the start of the series, of the way the crew ignored him – or worse – I realize he’s done an incredible work on himself, much as he wants to deny it, and this reflects on the people around him, who are ready to sacrifice everything in the name of the esprit de corps that he and Meas have nurtured as a replacement for the careless waste of lives that the cruel laws of the Hundred Isles implemented for so long.

And last but not least – not by a long way – the Gullaime: from the first book I felt an immediate kinship with this birdlike creature capable of summoning the winds, whose fate appears inextricably linked with Joron’s. Their subdued friendship, the way they took to one another beyond the need for words, has so far been one of the brightest lights in this grim background, but here their bond takes on such a poignant depth that I found myself on the verge of tears more than once – and I don’t cry easily… This final book brings about a number of revelations about the Gullaime and the role of the Tide Child’s windtalker in the grand scheme of things, but for me the most touching moment is the one where the Gullaime uses the word friend in addressing Joron: more than the fulfillment of the prophecy that we’ve learned unites the man and the bird, and which carries its own heavy emotional baggage, it’s that moment that will always remain in my mind every time I will think about the Gullaime, one of the best and most “real” fantasy creatures I ever encountered in my bookish travels.

Where the Wounded Kingdom series marked for me the discovery of a new, powerful voice in the fantasy genre, the Tide Child saga confirms its author as an outstanding writer, one capable of beguiling you with his stories as he uses them to break your heart. But that’s all right, nonetheless…

My Rating:

Reviews

ANGEL’S FLIGHT (Harry Bosch #6), by Michael Connelly

With this sixth novel in the Harry Bosch series I have come to envision Michael Connelly as my number one go-to author when I am in the mood for some crime/thriller fiction, and I’m now quite ready to explore his writings beyond this more famous series, because I’m certain that I will find myself equally enthralled by the brilliant combination of narrative skills and engaging storytelling that is the author’s trademark. And there is a great deal of Connelly works to explore, indeed…

Angels Flight is the best Bosch novel I’ve read so far, showing a confident mastery of pace and characterization whose growth I have witnessed throughout the previous books I read, and also incorporating several social and moral themes that feel completely actual even now, more than twenty years after the book’s first publication. The title refers to what I’ve learned is a famous Los Angeles landmark, a cable car system connecting a lower area of the city with one of its hills: when Bosch is called on the scene to investigate a double murder, he discovers that one of the victims is Howard Elias, an African-American attorney well-known for his numerous lawsuits against police brutality. Elias was due to start shortly on the proceedings against the detectives who caused grievous injuries to the suspect in a kidnapping and homicide: the man was later declared not guilty once the real perpetrator was apprehended, and is now suing the city for the barbarous way the interrogation was carried out.

The investigation is therefore fraught with many social and political pitfalls, not least the growing suspicion that Elias might have been killed by a police officer, which is causing mounting unrest and the concern that riots might explode once more in a city that has not forgotten the Rodney King case from a few years before. Bosch and his team – the old-time partner Jerry Edgar and the newest acquisition Kizmin Rider – must be very careful in the way they move, both because the media eyes are on them and also because they have to navigate the dangerous waters of public relations and departmental policy, which manage to place some irksome fetters on Bosch’s methods in his unrelenting search for truth.  Moreover, Bosch is dealing with personal problems, since his year-old marriage seems to be already over and he’s facing the very real possibility of finding himself alone again after gaining a measure of happiness and stability with Eleanor: the Harry Bosch we see here is at his emotional weakest, once again having to experience the heavy sense of loss that has been a constant theme in his life – this unexpected vulnerability has the effect of making him appear more human, which adds some quite welcome softness to a character that so far has been depicted as harshly inexorable in his quest for justice.

Having met these stories first through their televised version, I am once again delighted in discovering that the two mediums are quite different in the way the facts are told, showing marked differences both in the final outcome and in other details, which results in my always being surprised at how events turn out in the books: my reading experience is never compromised – for want of a better word – by the knowledge gained through the TV show, and I’ve come to envision the two versions of this series as complementary and enhancing each other. A great combination indeed.

Back to Angels Flight, there is a pervading sense of uneasiness running throughout the book, partly due to the tense situation created by Elias’ murder, but also coming from the constantly shifting suspicion that jumps from one subject to another as the investigation progresses in fits and starts, encountering a good number of false leads and willful misdirections.  Bosch and his team have to deal not only with the usual difficulties inherent in a murder investigation, but also with politics and with the institutional optics which require a solution that will keep the brewing troubles under control, rather than finding the real perpetrator of the crime, and that’s something that goes against Bosch’s personal inclinations. In the end it all boils down to a contest between opposing drives, the resolution bringing no catharsis at all because it becomes quite clear that there are no winners and losers in such a situation – everyone loses here, the concept of justice being the greatest victim. This conflict is embodied by the constant clash between Bosch and Chief Irving, the political face of the police department: unlike his screen version, Irving is far less tolerant of Bosch’s insubordination and unconventional tactics, being even more concerned with public perception here than he looks in the tv show. I found the willpower matches between the two of them quite fascinating, because the author is able to convey both characters’ emotions through the heated exchanges where the unsaid carries the same weight, if not more, of what is openly expressed: it’s fascinating to see how they represent the two faces of the same coin, and how they ultimately balance each other out in pursuing what they believe to be the best for their city.

On top of the engrossing events at its core, Angels Flight portrays some painful social conflicts that are still unresolved now, twenty years after the novel was written, and therefore it feels just as actual as the fictional facts it describes: where it’s somewhat depressing to acknowledge that after more than two decades things have not changed much – if at all – on the other hand this story is imbued with a sense of reality that strengthens its narrative impact and turns it into a far more powerful novel than might have been originally intended.

My Rating:

Reviews

LATER, by Stephen King

My years-long negative streak with Stephen King’s books seems to be definitely over: the last few books of his I read all turned out to be as engaging as the stories I used to enjoy, and Later is only the last example in my lineup of positive reads.

Even though it’s a shorter story when compared with King’s usual production, Later sports all the elements that I’ve come to expect from the Master of Horror: this novel might not be classified as his usual horror creation, since there are not many blood-chilling elements in it, and there is also a mystery/crime component added that changes a little the expected parameters, but in the end this proved to be an entertaining, page-turning read, and one I enjoyed very much.

Jamie Conklin sees dead people: not exactly ghosts as was the case for the young protagonist of Shyamalan’s movie alluded to here with a sort of tongue-in-cheek humor, but rather people newly departed and on their way to the Great Beyond. Jamie is able to see and hear them (although after a while their voice fades, as do they before disappearing forever) and to ask them questions to which the dead are compelled to reply truthfully.  Jamie’s single mother runs a literary agency and she’s able to stay afloat – barely – thanks to the best selling author of a successful series: when the man suddenly dies just as he was outlining his last novel, the one where all the mysteries hinted at in previous books would be revealed, Tia Conklin needs Jamie to contact the deceased author to get all the information he can gather on the story, so she can ghost-write it and keep the company in business and financial health.

The trouble starts when Liz Dutton, Tia’s former girlfriend and a cop with too many problems and not enough scruples, decides to use Jamie’s talent to discover where a serial bomber, who just took his own life, did hide his latest explosive package: something ancient and evil rides on the shoulders of the man and starts haunting Jamie, forcing him to resort to a harrowing ritual to get rid of the creature. That is, until the boy needs the thing’s help against Liz when the dishonorably discharged ex-cop kidnaps Jamie for one last, heinous act…

Very few authors can successfully filter the problems and inconsistencies of the world through the eyes of a child as Stephen King does: unlike other protagonists of his stories, Jamie is not shunned, bullied or otherwise made to suffer by peers or adults, but he does witness his mother’s struggles to survive in an unsettled economy and through a difficult relationship, all the while dealing with a “gift” that sets him apart from other kids, forcing him to keep secrets, and ultimately places him in danger. Jamie’s voice, as he grows up over the years from childhood to young adulthood, feels true and natural and for this reason it’s easy to connect to him and see the world through his eyes: innate resilience helps him navigate through the difficulties posed by his peculiar talent, particularly in the instances where his innocence is threatened. This is another theme dear to King, the way in which the adult world (or the supernatural) can rob children of that innocence, exposing them too early to situations that require them to grow before their time: in Jamie’s case this is compounded by Liz’s relentless focus first and greed later, so that he’s forced to come into contact with the darker aspects of the human mind, which more often than not are far more  frightening than actual supernatural horror. 

Young Jamie is able to find some balance in this very unusual existence thanks to the certainty of his mother’s love – even though he’s quite aware of her flaws both as a parent and an adult – and the guidance of old Professor Burkett, the closest thing to a father figure he can depend on: the relationship between Burkett and Jamie, both in life and after the old man’s death, reminded me somehow of the dynamic explored in Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, one of the short stories from King’s If It Bleeds collection.  The somewhat cranky professor, like many of Stephen King’s memorable figures, is the one providing Jamie with a stable anchor and a perspective that helps the boy focus on the problems at hand rather than his fear, and offers a delightful dynamic between wide-eyed youth and grumpy old age that is one of the author’s trademarks.

There might be nothing new, narratively speaking, in this novel, but it does not matter much in the face of the story’s easy flow, which is carried by the constant curiosity engendered by Jamie hinting at other developments to be disclosed, indeed, later: the young protagonist keeps his audience captivated like serialized novels did in the latter part of the 19th Century, by promising further revelations yet to come.  This choice led me to wonder weather Jamie might be considered an unreliable narrator – either embellishing or changing events to suit them to the overall flavor of his story: that’s a doubt that surfaced for me once a detail of Jamie’s origin is revealed, because he himself first offers an explanation for the chain of events, only to deny its accuracy in the next page.

This detail (I will not spoil it, but if you’ve read the book you know what I am referring to) does not affect the story in any way – and I’ve kept wondering what it should mean in the overall scheme of it – but rather offers an off-key note to the ending which, in my opinion, would have stood quite well on its own without this added… baggage.  Still, Later feels like vintage King, indeed, and I would recommend it to his longtime fans – and not only them.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE SHADOW OF THE GODS (The Bloodsworn Saga #1), by John Gwynne

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

A Time of Dread was the book that helped me discover author John Gwynne, that first book in the amazing Of Blood and Bone trilogy then leading me to retrace his narrative path with the previous series The Faithful and the Fallen, of which I still have two books to explore. When this new work was announced I was beyond eager to see where Mr. Gwynne would take us next and also certain that I would enjoy this story as I did the other ones: well, The Shadow of the Gods managed not only to surpass my expectations, it even outclassed his other novels I read so far – and they were already outstanding works in their own rights! 

This will be a spoiler-free review, because I was fortunate enough to read the e-ARC some time before the expected publication, and I don’t want to deprive potential readers of the sheer joy of discovering this amazing story on their own. Still, I can talk freely about this extraordinary world and the awesome characters peopling it, to give you an idea of the breath-taking journey that’s in store for you. Since the Bloodsworn Saga is based on Norse lore and mythology, I had an advantage thanks to my recent experience with the TV series Vikings, being already familiar with some of the terms and above all with the appearance of the characters, so it was easy for me to picture people and backgrounds and I felt at home practically from page one.

The land of Vigrid was once dominated by the gods, who wrecked the world in the war they waged against each other: in the new world born out of the ashes of the old one, the bones of the dead gods hold special power and are therefore much sought after by overlords seeking to extend their dominions. There are monsters as well in Vigrid, called vaesen and lying in wait for the unwary traveller or trying to attack unprotected homesteads – and then there are the Tainted, humans in whose veins runs some of the gods’ blood, gifting them with special powers: they are either hunted down like animals, or captured, enslaved and exploited.  

Three are the main characters of the story: Orka, once a renowned warrior and now making her living as a huntress, together with her husband and young child; Varg, a former thrall (slave) on the run from his old master and driven by the need to avenge the death of his sister; and Elvar, the daughter of a powerful jarl, who renounced a life of privilege to join the warband of the Battle-Grim, in search of fame and glory. I was certain that these three separate threads would converge sooner or later, since there seems to be something brewing in the world, something sinister that starts with brutal attacks on isolated homesteads and the kidnapping of young children, so that Orka’s search for her own stolen child slowly but surely moves toward the meeting with the Bloodsworn – the warband in which Varg has been accepted and that took on a perilous but well-paid assignment – and probably with the Battle-Grim, whose need for wealth has taken them toward the most dangerous, monster-infested part of the world. The Shadow of the Gods is but the prelude to what promises to be an engrossing story, and reaching the last page left me eager to see where this amazing new saga would take me next.

John Gwynne’s novels always achieve a well-balanced mix between plot and characterization – one of the reasons they always prove so satisfying – and this new work is a case in point: as the characters engage in their individual journeys we are made familiar with the land of Vigrid and with its history, we are presented with wide plains and rocky expanses, with river marshes and frigid tundra, and we feel as if we shared the characters’ paths and the difficulties they entail. We are also able to visit a city built inside the huge skeleton of a fallen god, a place of constant twilight that made me feel quite uneasy (and with good reason…), and then we travel by sea, sharing the effort of warriors who lay down their weapons for a while to take up the oars and guide their ship through perilous seas. There is a constant cinematic aspect to the descriptions here that makes the storytelling vivid and three-dimensional, without losing the “fireside tale” quality that for me has become the author’s trademark. And of course I can’t forget the battles: with John Gwynne’s novels I never skip the description of battles because they are realistically detailed and – no matter the brutality of the clash – always dramatically fascinating.

But of course, even in this stunning background, the characters are the elements that make these stories truly shine, and in The Shadow of the Gods both main and secondary ones are responsible for breathing memorable life into the novel.  I needed some time to warm up to Orka at first, mostly because she comes across as somewhat harsh and demanding in her dealings with her son, while her husband looks like the softer one of the two. But once Orka’s mother instinct is put to the test, it’s easy to understand how her apparent sternness is only a means of steeling young Breca against the world’s dangers, and her determination and ferociousness in rescuing him from his kidnappers are as white-hot as her love for him.   Elvar, on the other hand, looks like she’s still evolving and trying to find her destiny: refusing to be used as a pawn in her powerful father’s political dealings, she choose to join a warband as a form of freedom and rebellion at the same time: what she’s still learning is that, no matter what one’s life choices are, there is always a price to pay for them. And finally Varg, who like Orka is desperately trying to fulfill an oath: his life as a slave has been a harsh, lonely one, and the loss of his sister – the only person he could trust – has turned him into a haunted, mistrustful person, to the point that the most difficult task he faces with the Bloodsworn is to accept friendship and camaraderie, truly a heart-breaking side of his character, and one that offers some poignant insights once he starts to fraternize with his new companions.

The beauty of these characters is that they are all inherently flawed and probably not “hero material” in the usual meaning of the term, but I have come to care deeply for them (and particularly for Orka and Varg) because they are driven by the strength of their love for friends and family, and because they have the ability to create a bond – as strong as the one of blood – with the people they live and fight with. This is one of the themes at the core of John Gwynne’s novels, the backbone of loyalty and devotion that can bind individuals tied by a common goal, and here it’s present in a superbly gritty and emotional form. It might be a little early to say that his might be my best read for 2021, but I’m not sure I will find others capable to bring out the immersive delight I experienced with The Shadow of the Gods – and this is only the beginning of the whole story…

My Rating:

Reviews

BEST SERVED COLD (First Law #4), by Joe Abercrombie

While I’m not in the habit of re-reading books – mostly because book blogging and a huge TBR compel me to look forward rather than back –  I decided to make an exception for this first stand-alone novel in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series: back in 2011 Best Served Cold was my introduction to this author and to the concept of grimdark fantasy (and although I enjoyed it, it took me an unfortunate long time before I read the three books that precede this one) and what this re-read taught me is that, apart from the core concept of the novel, I had practically forgotten the majority of narrative details, so that my drive to re-acquaint myself with the story ended up feeling like a first encounter.

Monza Murcatto and her brother Benna are the leaders of the Thousand Swords, the huge mercenary band in the employ of Duke Orso of Talins: Monza’s successful leadership contributed to Orso’s sweeping conquest of a huge part of Styria, and as the book starts the siblings are headed toward the ducal palace to report on their latest victory.  Unfortunately, Orso is alarmed by Monza’s growing popularity, and fearing a power grab from the mercenary he orders her and her brother brutally killed. Against all odds, Monza survives: broken and maimed in body and spirit, the only thing keeping her alive is her desire for revenge against Orso and the other six people present at the murder scene. Gathering a band of misfits, Monza sets out to seek and kill – in the bloodiest and cruelest way possible – these seven people, moving ever closer to Orso and laying a trail of destruction in her wake.

While the previous three novels in the First Law sequence were rife with bloodshed and violence, these elements were however balanced out with some dry humor that made things easier for the readers: here that kind of humor is overwhelmed by the savagery of the story and by Monza’s unwavering focus on revenge, a goal that ends up consuming whatever humanity she and her crew possess. Even when the plan she sets in motion should end up in a “surgical” kill, quite a number of innocent bystanders are hurt or lose their lives, and Monza’s companions are not exempt from it, as well, sometimes suffering horribly.

I have often encountered a comment about there being no journey of redemption for Abercrombie’s characters, and this is particularly true here where Monza’s single-minded focus seems to pull everyone in a downward spiral from which there is no turning back: her desire for revenge taints whatever shred of humanity her companions might possess and more often than not I considered how that desire consumed Monza from the inside, compelling her to turn the others into a mirror image of herself – a twisted interpretation of the maxim about misery wanting company…

This is particularly true for Caul Shivers, a character from the First Law trilogy: at the start of the book we see him reaching Styria from the far North, driven by the desire to become a better man, to leave violence and bloodshed behind. The reality he encounters is quite different from that rosy dream and dire circumstances force him to become Monza’s main henchman, to find himself once again drenched in blood and violence until little by little he re-discovers the savage joy of brutality for its own sake. Shivers, and not Monza, is the truly tragic figure here: not unlike his old enemy Logen Ninefingers he comes to realize that there is no running away from one’s brutal destiny and in the end he fully embraces what he had left the North to escape. His is a long road, painful in many ways – not only for the body, on account of the often grievous damage he suffers, but also for the mind, when he understands that Monza is using him like a tool, one to either be wielded as a weapon or employed for a brief moment of physical respite.

Shivers is the mirror through which Monza’s character can be observed – and judged: true, she was used and discarded (She was the spider they had to suffer in their larder to rid them of their flies. And once the flies are dealt with, who wants a spider in their salad?) and for this she wants revenge, but to obtain that revenge she becomes herself a user, one who treats her allies as she was treated and displays no qualms, no moments of reflection on the brutally selfish drive that consumes her and all those who surround her. Even the flashbacks to her previous life, showing how she became the person she is at present, do little to justify her current attitude: while other characters might strive, however briefly, toward redemption, there is no such drive in Monza, and for this reason I constantly failed to cheer for her even though I admired the author’s skill in her portrayal.

While there are other very interesting characters in this story – like the master poisoner Morveer, whose acerbic personality and complicated plots often seemed to border on the comedic; or ex-inmate Friendly, the sociopath with an almost autistic penchant for numbers and counting, the one who truly shines here is Nicomo Cosca, who made a few sporadic appearances in the previous trilogy and here manages to steal the scene every time he comes under the spotlight.  Once the leader of the Thousand Swords, he was ousted by Monza herself and became a drunkard and a wastrel: he’s the only one in the group who really seems intentioned to change his life for the better, and indeed he does – in his own way. Cosca might be unreliable and sneaky, totally untrustworthy as a true mercenary should be (Loyalty on a mercenary is like armor on a swimmer), but he’s also quite complex, showing layers upon layers that make him unpredictable and totally delightful to observe. After a while, witnessing his oh-so-easily shifting loyalties paired with a whimsical personality, I came to see him as the equivalent of another favorite character, Sand dan Glokta: the two are as different as apples and oranges, but what they share is a captivating blend of opposing traits that make them compellingly irresistible.

Best Served Cold is not however only about the characters’ journey, fascinating as it is, but also about how the consequences of an individual’s choice come to encompass a whole country: Monza’s desire for vengeance becomes like the proverbial pebble that starts an avalanche, so that her actions turn from their fairly limited milieu into a world-wide state of warfare with vast political consequences that bring, once again, a massive upheaval in a land where peace is but a fleeting dream.  By now I’m more than used to Joe Abercrombie’s bleak view on humanity, but this time around I felt the pressing need, once finished the book, to turn toward something more optimistic – even though I thoroughly enjoyed this new journey in his world.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE TROUBLE WITH PEACE (The Age of Madness #2), by Joe Abercrombie

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

When I read A Little Hatred, the first volume in Joe Abercrombie’s new saga, I had not yet fulfilled the long-standing promise to myself to read his First Law trilogy, yet still I managed to enjoy the new story very much, despite missing the connection with past events and characters contained in the previous books. Now that I have managed to catch up with that past, I am finally able to appreciate all the subtler nuances of story and characterization that make this world one of the best creations in the genre.  And what an amazing journey this was!

As the title suggests, peace is not an enduring status in the Circle of the World: the political  scene in the Union is still in flux and the newly named king Orso finds himself hemmed in between the rock of social unrest and the hard place of his own advisory council, whose disdain for his ruling abilities is barely concealed. Savine dan Glockta lost much of her prestige after the harrowing experiences of the Breakers’ revolt, and her need to regain the standing she enjoyed compels her to make alliances whose wisdom might not survive the harsh light of day.  Leo dan Brock, Lord Governor of Angland – the buffer state between the Union and the “barbaric” North – still pines for triumphs and glorious battles and is far too easily drawn into a dangerous conspiracy by shrewd politicians harnessing his brawn in service of their subtly nefarious brains.

Things are hardly better in the North, where the self-declared king Stour Nightfall is bent on attacking again the Union to expand his territories, meanwhile bolstering his rule through violence and cruelty, not only against opponents but also against those of his own men foolish enough to raise objections.  As a first step he sets again his sights on Uffrith, the domain of the Dogman, where Rikke, the old hero’s daughter, is trying to come to terms with her prescient gift – the Long Eye – and is ready to undergo the most harrowing of rituals to harness that power and put it to the service of her people.

This is the bare-bones premise from which The Trouble With Peace takes flight, developing into a tale of convoluted political schemes, social unrest, conspiracies, revolution and, above all, an engrossing examination of the human soul filtered through conflicting desires and shameful or tragic paths.  Where the action scenes remain among the most engagingly cinematic I ever encountered – alternatively focusing on heroic feats and very human moments of pure terror and cowardice – Joe Abercrombie’s storytelling shines the brightest when he shapes his characters, be they the main ones or the secondary figures, who get just as much attention and detail as everyone else, contributing to the richness of the narrative canvas.  A shining example of this careful design comes from the portrayal of a bloody act of sabotage that is relayed several times from the point of view of a number of different people: the repetition of events helps to create a three-dimensional picture not just of the fact itself, but of the societal medium in which it happens and the way its members figure into it.

What’s most extraordinary in this story is that the moral ambiguity of the characters works both ways, with no clear definition of right or wrong, and the main examples of this grey area are King Orso and Leo dan Brock: while the narrative focus is on either one of them, it’s easy for the reader to sympathize with him, to see his reasons or at least to understand where they come from, but once the point of view shifts to the other one, the same happens, making us realize that truth and righteousness are simply a matter of perspective. Both characters have their merits, narratively speaking, because if on one side Orso seems to grow into his role, finding strength and the foundations of his role through the troubles he has to deal with, 

He sometimes could hardly face breakfast, was alarmed by the notion of choosing a shirt, but epic disaster appeared to have finally brought out the best in him.

on the other Leo comes across as an ultimately tragic character, one who is driven by high ideals toward a very dangerous, very uncertain path. 

Savine dan Glokta’s journey continues on the controlling and manipulative trail that was her peculiar modus operandi from book 1, but a part of her ruthless self did get lost during the Breakers’ tumults and the traumatic experiences she endured, so it appears here as if she lost both the edge and the keen foresight that once allowed her to be always five moves ahead of her opponents. Despite a constant show of willpower, and a relentless drive that propels her toward any goal, it’s clear that some key element of her personality is now missing, exposing her to fate’s vagaries in an unprecedented way.

Rikke’s character arc, on the other hand, moves in the opposite direction: from the half-savage, tormented girl plagued by unwanted and uncontrollable visions of the future, she grows here into her own woman – and one ready to pay the price necessary to harness her gift and turn it into the tool she needs to lead her people. She became my favorite character in this book, both for the combination of strength and gallows humor that allows Abercrombie’s peculiar narrative style to shine even more, and for the way she transforms into a crafty leader, the perfect embodiment of this world’s survivor, one who knows that shrewd manipulation and back-stabbing politics are the best weapons she can wield.

If the main protagonists do indeed carry the story on their proverbial backs, the secondary figures are just as fascinating, offering complementary points of view and enhancing the sense of full immersion created by the novel: Caul Shivers, Broad, Isern-i-Phail or Vick dan Teufel – just to name a few – enjoy their own share of the limelight, adding depth to the events being carefully built before our own eyes, and the biggest surprise, toward the end of the book, comes exactly from two of those “lesser” players. As the novel seems ready for an epilogue, with the narrative threads brought to what looks like a neat wrap-up that made me wonder if this was not set as a duology, the end is carried by two of those secondary figures – one from the previous trilogy and one from the newest arc – whose actions open the door to what promises to be an amazing, gloriously devastating finale I can hardly wait for.

Thankfully, I still have the stand-alone books in this saga to sustain me while I bide my time…

My Rating:

Reviews

MR. MERCEDES (Bill Hodges Trilogy #1), by Stephen King

 

After a long hiatus due to a mild disenchantment with Stephen King’s works, I found my way back to his novels through The Outsider and the more recent – and for me far more successful – The Institute. So I decided to retrace my steps and see what other good stories I missed in those “years of disappointment” and settled on the Bill Hodges series, starting with Mr. Mercedes: this trilogy marks a change of pace from King’s usual offerings, since it’s a crime/thriller novel with no elements of horror or supernatural activities, but as I’ve often found out we hardly need monsters to inspire dread, when the darkest depths of the human soul offer more than enough material in that sense…

Mr. Mercedes proves this theory from the very start: in 2009, as the world suffers in the grip of widespread recession, a sizable crowd forms around a stadium where the next morning a job fair will open its doors. Hundreds of hopefuls queue up in the chilling nighttime fog waiting for an opportunity, when a high-end Mercedes sedan plunges at full speed over the crowd, killing eight innocents and maiming twice as much.  Roughly one year afterwards Bill Hodges, one of the detectives working the case of the Mercedes Killings, finds himself in a deep depression brought on by his retirement and the ghosts of the cases he could not solve: he spends most of his days drinking, sitting in front of the TV watching trashy shows, and at times contemplating suicide. All this changes when he receives a letter from the killer, calling himself Mr. Mercedes, and urging the detective to put an end to his life. Forced out of his inertia, Hodges engages in a progressively more dangerous game of cat and mouse with Brady Hartsfield, the killer, teaming up with some unconventional helpers like Jerome, a tech-savvy teenager; Janey Patterson, the sister of the Mercedes’ guilt-ridden owner, driven to suicide by the killer himself; and finally Holly Gibney, Janey’s niece and a character I met in The Outsider, making her first appearance here.

Much as I enjoyed this novel, which turned out to be a compulsive read, I ended up being of two minds about it: on one side the story moved along at a fairly relentless pace and with the stakes getting progressively higher I found it practically impossible to put the book down, on the other, once all was said and done and the proverbial dust settled, my “inner nitpicker” surfaced and started pointing out several inconsistencies that I was able to overlook while I was engaged in reading, but came back to bother me afterwards.

What I liked: as usual, Stephen King’s main strength comes from characterization, and Mr. Mercedes offers many opportunities for the detailed creation of outstanding figures, starting with Bill Hodges himself, who might look like something of a cliché in that he’s the classical former detective, overweight and lonesome, who gave his all in the course of a long career paying the price in terms of family ties, and now feels useless and adrift, but ultimately shows unexpected resilience once he’s presented with the opportunity of getting closure on a case still preying on his mind for several reasons. There is a kind of twisted humor in the way Hodges evolves along the way, because the action that in the killer’s intentions should have driven him over the edge is exactly the one that revives the ex-detective’s interest in life and compels him to get out of the well of melancholy and lethargy that had enveloped him up to that point. This unexpected outcome works well within King’s overall tendency toward dark humor, which is evident both through some tongue-in-cheek references to his previous works (like IT or Pet Sematary) and through a few unexpected developments that keep frustrating the killer’s plans in a way that is, at the same time, dramatic and reminiscent of poor Wile E. Coyote’s major failures.

Brady Hartsfied stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, of course, not only because he’s the villain here, but because he’s the worst, most despicable kind of villain one could ever imagine: a person with a history of abuse, granted, but also one who is a completely abominable creature filled with the need to make his own mark on history, to be seen beyond the drab anonymity of his life, and who chooses to do so by hurting people –  not just physically hurt them, but to torture them psychologically as he does with the owner of the stolen car he used for the massacre, or with Hodges himself. There is a well of hate in Brady – directed both inward and outward – that seeks release by striking toward those he sees as more “fortunate”, and he does so with such a gleeful abandon that wipes out any trace of compassion one might feel for the damaging experiences of his past. There is a chilling, inescapable consideration that comes to mind when reading his sections in the novel: that there are, and have been, many Brady Harstfields in the real world, that a substantial number of them have doled out death and pain, and that any one of them might do so again…

Where the characters and the story-flow worked quite well for me, there are however some narrative choices that did not: for example, Hodges’ dogged determination to solve the case without involving the police. If there is a believable reason, in the beginning, to keep the new evidence and the killer’s missives to himself, and if it’s understandable how Hodges might want this “last hurrah” for himself, this rationale stops being credible once Brady raises the stakes in an… explosive way (pun intended, sorry…) and shows that the theory of the dangerous wounded animal is more than sound. The reasoning behind Hodges’ decision, that the police department is busy dealing with a huge weapons raid, sounds far too convenient to be completely believable and looks like an aberrant deus-ex-machina created to allow the “heroes” to shine on their own.

Still, the final part of the novel is such a breakneck run against time and impossible odds that it’s easy to momentarily set aside any misgivings and to let oneself be carried away toward the ending. While I might not completely appreciate the method, I enjoyed the thrill of the ride and that’s what ultimately mattered. And of course I’m now curious to see where Stephen King will take his characters in the next two novels of the series.

 

 

My Rating: