Reviews

ECHO PARK (Harry Bosch #12), by Michael Connelly

When a book series hits the double digit number of installments it can sometimes fall victim to reader fatigue, or to repetition, but such is definitely not the case with Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, at least not for me.  I found myself at book 12 of this long-running series, faced with one narrative thread already explored in the TV show that led me to these books, and yet my immersion in the story never faltered for a single moment, confirming once again that the author’s skills are such that he can ensnare his readers with a masterful mix of action, mystery and character development. And keep doing so again and again.

In Echo Park, Bosch goes back to one of the unsolved cases that still haunt him, that of Marie Gesto, a young woman who disappeared more than ten years prior and whose body was never found – only her neatly folded clothes were discovered inside an abandoned car, and the lack of further clues prevented the investigators from successfully closing the case. No one is more surprised than Bosch to be called by the office of the District Attorney for an unexpected development: a man has been recently apprehended with the remains of a victim inside his van, and eager to commute the death penalty with a life sentence the killer, whose name is Raynard Waits, is ready to indicate the location for the bodies of other so far undisclosed victims – among them that of Marie Gesto.  

The fly in this very intriguing ointment is that at the time of the original investigation Bosch and his partner might have overlooked a vital clue that could have led them to Waits, and so spared the life of the people he killed after Marie: ridden by guilt and by the suspicion that there might be more to Waits than what’s on the surface, Bosch retraces his steps in a frantic search for answers, while the usual political maneuverings and a convoluted plot cross inexorably with the cold case investigation…

What comes immediately to the fore in Echo Park is the stark reality of the story itself: the theme of the serial killer might be an often-used one in crime/thriller novels, but here it’s combined with the political dealings inherent in law enforcement and the need to present public figures in the best light possible in view of an election, so that even the sordid leverage offered by a multiple offender can be exploited by an individual’s ambition.  The story goes through a number of false leads and red herrings that in the hands of a less skilled writer might have looked implausible, but that here manage to keep the narrative flow at a sustained pace and the tension at the highest levels.  Not to mention that in real life that’s what does indeed happen as an investigation goes through a number of false starts and dead ends before (if ever) reaching the desired conclusion.

As for Bosch, this novel sees him almost at his wits’ end when it seems that Marie’s killer was within reach and he missed him by a proverbial hairbreadth: nothing could be worse for a relentless investigator such as he than realizing he did not pursue every little detail to its very end. This situation is something of a setback as far as his personality is concerned, because where the previous two books had shown a more sedated Harry Bosch, a man finally capable of thinking things through before charging headfirst into situations, here he seems to somehow revert to his older self, the “Lone Ranger cop” afflicted with tunnel vision.  This relapse ends up affecting his renewed working and sentimental relationship with FBI agent Rachel Walling and souring the partnership with colleague Kiz Rider, who had so far proved to be a stabilizing influence on Bosch.  With the former, one can see how it would be difficult – if not impossible – for him to maintain a stable emotional tie with a woman, since the drive to solve cases always becomes the main focus for his energies, shunting everything and everyone else to the sidelines.  With the latter, he ends up breaking what is the necessary bond of trust between working teammates, jeopardizing safety and careers for them both, as Kiz points out with no little bitterness:

Maybe at some point you will trust me enough to ask my opinion before you go off and make decisions that affect both of us.

What I found once again surprising is how much Michael Connelly can keep me invested in this character’s journey even when I see how much his tunnel vision and self-centeredness can estrange him from the people around him: I enjoy reading about Bosch even though I don’t always like him – for me this is the mark of very skilled writing, indeed.

Probably, one of the most intriguing sides of this story comes from the parallels between Bosch and the killer Waits: both of them orphaned at a young age, both of them taken in by disinterested foster families, both of them spending some time in the same institution for troubled youths – and yet taking two opposite paths in life. Where Waits, as Bosch muses at the end of the investigation, picked his victims with the unconscious objective of killing his own mother over and over again, Bosch on the other hand tries to solve his mother’s murder over and over again by relentlessly seeking justice for the victims, particularly those no one seems to care about.  And here the author offers a striking image for the theme of “nature vs. nurture” relaying the theory of the two “dogs” we have inside us, one good and one bad: the person we turn out to be depends on which “dog” we choose to feed.   Meaning, probably, that the border between good and evil is even thinner than we can imagine…

As usual, the resolution is a very unexpected one, even though part of this story was already familiar to me thanks to the TV series: there might be something of an… embarrassment of riches, so to speak, in the plots within plots revealed in the ending, but it’s only a small crease in an otherwise very enjoyable tapestry. So… onward to the next one!

My Rating:

Reviews

IN THE SHADOW OF LIGHTNING (Glass Immortals #1), by Brian McClellan

A new series by Brian McClellan was more than enough to make me pay attention: my only doubt – before starting this first book – was about how it would compare with his Powder Mage world and if I would miss the richly intriguing background of that famous saga.  To my relief, I soon discovered that this world stands very well on its own and it proved to be just as engrossing as the author’s older creation.

In this world, glass (or rather godglass) can be imbued with magic properties that confer special abilities to wearers: added strength and stamina, curative powers, enhanced sight – the list seems almost endless. Then there are the glassdancers, gifted individuals who can actually command glass and perform incredible feats with it: Demir Grappo is such an individual, and the scion of one of the ruling families in the nation of Ossa. When we meet him at the start of the novel, he’s gained a high rank in the Ossan army at a very young age, and just obtained a decisive victory in war, which bestowed him the title of Lightning Prince. Something goes wrong with the chain of command, however, and the newly conquered city is brutally sacked despite Demir’s orders to the contrary and so, ridden by profound guilt and horror for the atrocities he witnessed, he choses voluntary exile from his home country.  Only several years later he returns home, called back to his family’s duties after the assassination of his mother: what Demir will have to deal with is not only the investigation in his mother’s murder, but a number of political machinations and an encroaching threat that might change the world forever.

Demir’s journey crosses with that of Thessa, a siliceer or godglass forger, swept up by the tides of war into a situation that will put to the test her abilities and her strength of character; of Kizzie Vorcien, the bastard daughter of a powerful family ruler and a capable enforcer; and of Idrian, a breacher, which is something of a glass-strengthened super soldier.  Last but not least, among the main characters figures Baby Montego, a retired champion of cudgel fighting (a bloody sport very popular in Ossa) and Demir’s childhood friend.

The novel’s background is what I’ve come to expect from Brian McClellan: an 18th Century-inspired world where the Industrial Revolution is in its infancy and where glass-derived magic permeates all strata of society with various levels of intensity due to the strict class system on which said society is based – which of course leaves ample room for political maneuvering, conspiracies and convoluted plots that don’t stop even before murder or the kindling of a senseless war to reach the desired goals.  Glass magic is an intriguing element of the story, particularly because (not unlike the overuse of gunpowder in McClellan’s other world) there are aftereffects to take into account, from the loss of efficacy, over time, of single pieces of magic-imbued glass to the much more dire glassrot, an affliction that plagues people when they exceed the limits of glass use, and which could also lead to deterioration and death.

Narrative threads and characters interweave in an increasingly convoluted plot that reserves many surprises for the readers, including the final twist which left me not a little perplexed for its SF overtones – something I had not expected and which leaves me very curious to see where the author will take us next. But of course my most intense focus remained on the characters themselves.  Demir is something of a damaged hero, a complex personality, energetic and mercurial on one side – the one he offers to the world – and profoundly wounded on the more private other, since he’s still dealing with the aftermath of the wartime episode that affected his life and career. Where he appears to the world as a functional leader, certain of his skills and completely in control, he’s plagued by what looks like PTSD symptoms when he’s alone and the ghosts of the past weigh heavily on him.  Still, he manages to remain a very caring person where the people he feels responsible for are concerned, and unlike other members of the higher strata of society he struggles to do the right thing – probably in the constant search of atonement for what he perceives as his guilt in past events.

His old-time friends Kizzie and Baby Montego ended up being my favorite characters: as the bastard of the powerful Vorcien patriarch, she keeps looking for the way to fit in, juggling her need to belong with an inner core of integrity, a trait that together with her amazing fighting skills earned my respect and fondness from the get go.  Baby Montego (the ‘baby’ part of his name being a clear tongue-in-cheek quip) is a larger than life person in both the actual and the figurative sense: there is a delightful duality in this man who made his name practicing a violent, bloody sport and yet remains outwardly sweet and gentle – unless his friends are threatened, of course. The two of them are Demir’s older friends, their relationship going back to their childhood, and I enjoyed their interactions immensely – truly one of the joys of this novel.   Breacher Idrian is also a multi-faceted character: a powerful soldier, well respected by superiors and troops alike, but dealing with a form of encroaching madness barely kept at bay through his godglass artificial eye, something that indeed erodes his outward strength but at the same time humanizes him profoundly.

On the other hand, while Thessa earned my sympathy for her plight, particularly in the first half of the novel, she never managed to completely captivate me despite being Demir’s narrative counterpart: I could admire her strength, resourcefulness and courage and the fact that she could seamlessly blend her kind disposition with a fierceness that knows no obstacles. And yet in the end she left me a bit cold, probably because she is depicted as unfailingly brilliant and that might have led me to see some “Mary Sue” shades in her personality that did not agree with me. Nonetheless, the jury is still out and I’m looking forward to seeing where her path will take her: it would not be the first time that Brian McClellan ends up surprising me with some unexpected character development…

In the Shadow of Lightning won me over with its fast pace, layers of intrigues and relatable characters, and I’m more than looking forward to the next books in the series: once again Brian McClellan proved to be a skilled storyteller whose novels have by now become a “must read” no matter what.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE IVORY TOMB (Rooks & Ruin #3), by Melissa Caruso

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

Now that this second trilogy from author Melissa Caruso has reached its end it’s become clear to me that she likes to deliver her maximum narrative impact with the final book: the first two volumes in the Rooks & Ruin series set the playing field and shaped the main characters, and were certainly supported by a good dose of dramatic moments and momentous revelations, but The Ivory Tomb brings all those elements toward such a harrowing climax that at times I felt emotionally drained – and I say this in the most complimentary way possible.

Please be aware that this review will contain spoilers for the first two books in the series, so if you have not read them yet, you risk learning about important details that you had better discover on you own…

When we first met Ryx, the protagonist of the story, she led a forcibly sequestered life because her “tainted” magic made her touch deadly for any living thing, and it was only her meeting with the Rookery – a group of special agents dealing with out-of-bound magical phenomena – that she was allowed to interact with others in a normal way thanks to a jess (a sort of controlling bracelet) that muted her powers.  Not long after she became part of the Rookery, Ryx could not enjoy her period of grace for long, because the escape of several demons, held captive in the prison to which her castle guarded the portal, threw the world into renewed turmoil, further weighted by the double revelation that Ryx had long been the host for the demon of Disaster and that her beloved grandmother was now hosting the demon of Discord.  

The freed demons – particularly Carnage, Corruption and Hunger – are on a rampage in The Ivory Tomb, laying waste to everything and everyone they encounter on their path and doing their worst to compound such devastation by setting the Raverran and Vaskandar empires on the warpath through misinformation and the skillful rekindling of old grudges.  Poor Ryx finds herself torn in more than one direction as she tries to help her friends defuse the situation, capture the escaped demons and save the people she loves from becoming victims of the ravages of war. Not to mention avoid being imprisoned (or worse) herself because of the demon to which she has long been a vessel…

My sympathy for Ryx was born in the first volume of the series as I discovered how despite the harsh circumstances of her existence she managed to forge a character that was both kind and resilient, compassionate and determined, but here she truly shines brightly because she is faced with such odds that would have defeated the strongest of personalities, and yet she still finds the courage and the strength to move forward, to face whatever hurdle circumstances set on her path, while struggling with the dreadful revelation about her true nature and with the danger of being subsumed by Disaster and the avalanche of memories collected by the demon during its time through other hosts.

One of the most intriguing narrative elements in this series, and in particular in this final book, is the revelation that not all demons are… well, demonic, and that some of them are – or have been – capable of mastering their nature thanks to the people they interacted with: this is very true for Disaster’s past history which is revealed in a series of flashbacks as the barriers between the demon and Ryx become more permeable. Intriguing as they are, these flashbacks ended up being a little distracting for me, taking me away from the dire situation that was developing in the ‘present’, as Ryx and the Rookery tried to stay abreast of the havoc meted out by the other demons: it’s not the book’s fault, I want that to be clear, but simply my reaction at having to set aside for a moment what for me was the main – and more important – narrative thread.

The other element that bothered me a little was the lessened focus on the Rookery members, whose characterization and interactions had always been very enjoyable for me: again, I understand how it was necessary for the story to concentrate on other narrative paths, and I can rationally see the reason for this choice, but emotionally I felt a little… cheated, for want of a better word, for not being able to see them as much as I wanted.

On the other hand, I have to acknowledge Melissa Caruso’s wonderful skill in weaving a romantic thread in her narrative without making me roll my eyes in annoyance: she might very well be one of the few authors who are able to present a developing romantic relationship in their stories and to make me appreciate it despite my usual aversion to the theme.  Ryx and Severin make a delightful couple and their slow-burn romance feels appealing and true, their interactions are always consistent with their characters and the situations in which they develop, so that – let’s admit it – I was rooting for them all the time and hoping that they would enjoy a happy end.  Well done, Ms. Caruso, indeed…. 😉

The Ivory Tomb is not only the magnificent conclusion to a well-crafted saga, it’s above all a breathless, heart-stopping marathon through a series of events whose increasing stakes will compel you to turn the pages as quickly as you can. As for myself, I can only look forward to seeing what Melissa Caruso will have in store for her readers in the future: one thing is certain, it will be another great ride.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE SINS OF OUR FATHERS (The Expanse 9.5), by James S.A. Corey – #SciFiMonth

A short story from the universe of The Expanse is hardly enough to compensate for my sadness at the end of the best SF series I read so far, but it’s still a very welcome surprise, even more so when it ties off one of the threads left hanging by the main storylines in the saga.

Jannah is one of the newly colonized worlds reached by humanity through the ring gates system, whose collapse has now isolated those worlds from the rest of the galaxy. The colonists on Jannah have so far been dealing – like everyone else in their same situation – with the uncertainty of cut communications, dwindling supplies and lack of replacement parts, when a new problem surfaces: some previously unknown creatures have been attacking the settlement, and their defenses might not hold much longer.  The group of colonists is of two minds about how to cope: stay and keep defending themselves, or relocate the village in a different area, and tempers rise in the confrontation, opening the way for the strong and ruthless to impose their will.

One of the stranded colonists is an old acquaintance: Filip, the son of Naomi Nagata of the murderous leader of the Free Navy Marco Inaros. He’s a few decades older than the last time we saw him, and he’s been living a nomadic life since then, haunted by the guilt for his actions when he was his father’s lieutenant, and trying to keep as low a profile as possible.

His past was like a wound that wouldn’t heal, he’d spent his life dodging justice that might not even have been looking for him except in his head. That had been enough to break him.

Once Filip recognizes in fellow castaway Jandro the signs of the man’s narcissistic thirst for power that were at the roots of his father’s character, he understands that history might repeat itself and the ghosts of the past come knocking at his door once again…

Despite the dreary, almost hopeless atmosphere of this short story, I enjoyed very much the character study at its core: humanity manages again to show its failings and its inability to learn from the mistakes of the past (the sins of the fathers mentioned in the title). We see the bully Jandro understand that the lack of laws and organizations able to implement them have left a door open for a show of force and the possibility of seizing power; we also see how people deprived of self-esteem, or agency, tend to attach themselves to such individuals as Jandro, giving in to their basest instincts to gain the leader’s approval.  It’s a scenery with which Filip is quite familiar, one which has the effect of reopening the emotional scars he’s still carrying after so long.

When we last saw him, Filip was a teenager, confused, lost, oppressed by guilt –  and more important eager to distance himself from the looming figure of his deadly charismatic father: the choice to take on his mother’s surname – Nagata – his way of expressing a willingness to cut the ties with that past. And yet, at the start of the story, Filip is still running from that past, and from himself: until now, when things became unbearable, or too comfortable, he always moved on and left without turning back, in a form of self-inflicted punishment: 

[…] if anything ever went right for him, if he ever seemed in danger of gaining something he might be able to keep, he ran.

Now, with the collapse of the gates system, that possibility is gone forever, and that’s probably the reason he  finally takes a stand – a way to avoid history repeating itself and of atoning for his own sins. It might not be a true redemption (not considering the way things develop) but it’s the beginning – the hope – of one. And it’s enough.

The Sins of Our Fathers might very well be our last chance to visit the Expanse universe, but it’s a quietly moving, very satisfactory one.  Even though I keep hoping that the authors might still have something in store for us in the future…

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

CONSIDER PHLEBAS (Culture #1), by Iain Banks – #SciFiMonth

When, some time ago, I decided to acquaint myself with Iain Banks’ famous Culture saga I went, of course, with the publication order and started with Consider Phlebas, but my experience with the book was not a positive one, since the story seemed to go all over the place – both narratively and in the figurative sense.  My reading journey for the Culture might have ended then and there if not for a number of comments I read online about Consider Phlebas not being the best starting point for the non-initiated in Banks’ writings, and so I moved – with greater success – to Player of Games and Use of Weapons, and then to a few other titles in the series. 

So, armed with a few more Culture books under my proverbial belt (although not as many as I would like…), I decided to go back to Phlebas and see how it fared this time: it worked indeed a little better, granted, but still it felt so different from what I’m used to from this author that I found myself unable to change my initial opinion in a very significant way.

The story develops on the background of the war between the Culture – a post-scarcity, utopian, galaxy-spanning conglomeration of civilizations –  and the Idirans – a belligerent society with xenophobic tendencies; keen on capturing an escaped Culture Mind (a very powerful AI), the Idirans enroll one of their agents, a Changer named Bora Horza Gubuchul. Changers are humanoids gifted with the ability to transform their appearance, and therefore to infiltrate any environment without arousing suspicion: Horza is also perfect for two reasons, because he hates the Culture passionately as his masters, and because he served, long ago, on the planet where the runaway Mind has gone to ground, so he’s quite familiar with the territory.

Horza’s task proves far more arduous than anticipated, leading him through a series of adventurous mishaps (for want of a better word) that nonetheless offer the author a way of introducing the setting for this series and acquainting his readers with the Culture and its many facets.  This is indeed the aspect I most enjoyed in this second journey through the book: elements like the concept of the powerful Minds, or the sentient drones gifted with often quirky personalities, are standard fare in Iain Banks’ Culture novels, and here they make their first appearance in a very intriguing way; and again descriptions of the huge space habitats called Orbitals, veritable worlds artificially constructed to offer any kind of terrain or environment, are nothing if not mind-blowing and fascinating.  But where these details – made now familiar by the books I’ve read before this – still prove intriguing and thought-provoking, the story fails (still) to get a grip on my imagination, and the characters suffer the same kind of fate.

Horza’s weird adventures end up feeling a little too much, to the point that any intended dramatic effect resulted more farcical than dramatic: he starts with a harrowing experience when he’s sentenced to a gruesome death in a cell that’s going to be filled with the bodily waste of a banquet’s participants; rescued by the Idirans he barely survives a ferocious space battle only to be retrieved by a band of pirates/salvagers with whom he engages in the spectacular failure of a preposterous heist; a shuttle crash lands him on the section of an Orbital where a crazy cannibalistic cult is waiting for the end of the world (and this segment is even more gross than the waste-disposal cell one, believe me); and finally he enters in an outlandish card game called Damage where lives are at play besides fortunes. All this before truly engaging in the mission the Idirans hired him for…

It’s clear that Consider Phlebas is more plot- than character-oriented, and there is nothing wrong with that, but I’m still not sure where the failed heist, the Orbital debacle or the “cannibals interlude” serve this plot, since none of these narrative elements have any relation with the search for the runaway Mind. None of this – be it adventurous or merely grotesque – serves to highlight or develop Horza’s character, which remains the same detached-from-everything (and everyone) personality from start to end, making it very difficult, not to say impossible, to form any attachment to him.  In a similar way, the long, sometimes overdrawn, sequence of “adventures” prolongs the wait for the real task Horza must accomplish, so that when it finally comes into play it’s lost any appeal or involvement – or at least that’s what happened to me, to the point that I skimmed the whole segment to reach the end more quickly.

I realize I’ve been somewhat harsh with this book, maybe undeservedly so, but it’s clear that something important for me was missing from it and it failed to capture my attention despite the familiarity I acquired with this saga over time. At least I can agree that even with my first approach it was still enough to keep me interested in Banks’ Culture, to the point that I enjoyed the following books and that I will continue my exploration with the ones still waiting on my TBR.  So maybe this is not a complete loss, and that’s the reason my rating for Consider Phlebas gains a half point more than I would have given it on its own… 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE CLOSERS (Harry Bosch #11), by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch’s return to the LAPD, after a three-years hiatus in which he tried to reinvent himself as a private investigator, marks Michael Connelly’s return to third-person narrative, which had been shifted to first-person in the previous two books, as if to mark the similarity between Bosch’s new chosen profession and the classic noir narrative of the solitary P.I.  The switchback does not affect the reader’s immersion in the story, of course, although I’m still curious about the author’s choice and wondering if it was an experiment he then decided to abandon.

Harry is back to his old stomping ground, armed once again with the badge that will allow him to open doors and be as effective as humanly possible in seeking justice for the victims: enrolled in the refurbished cold cases department, now renamed Open Unsolved Unit, he teams up with his old partner Kizmin Rider as the two are assigned a case from 1988, that of the murder of sixteen-year old Rebecca Verloren, who was abducted from her home and then killed. The murder had been mismanaged from the start, initially mistaken as a runaway case, and then as suicide: once forensic evidence pointed to murder, too many of the vital clues had been lost, making it impossible to find a perpetrator.  Now the analysis of DNA evidence (much improved since then) seems to point to a small-time felon who used to live near Rebecca: Bosch and Rider will have to review what evidence survived the passing of time and find a way to connect the pieces into a viable picture.  The passage of time will not be the only obstacle they will encounter on their path, since resistance from inside the police department and some ever-present political maneuvering threaten to crush their efforts, and to nip Bosch’s new career in the bud as the figure of former Chief of police Irving looms quite large on the horizon…

The transformation of Harry Bosch from the “loose cannon” he used to be into a more thoughtful, more sedate detective continues in this 11th novel of the series, and apart from the fact that this change is appropriate – since no individual remains the same throughout their life – it also marks the passing of time and the differences in outlook that experience (and hopefully wisdom) can visit on people. There are some moments in which the “old” Harry seems to surface, the one who preferred to cut corners and defy the system to bring justice to the victims, but here he appears more inclined to listen to his better angels and, more importantly, to his partner’s cooler advice.  One of the elements I more appreciated in this book is the working relationship between Bosch and Rider, one that comes from mutual respect and the appreciation of one another’s strengths. 

He was back on the job with her less than a day and they had already dropped back into the easy rhythm of their prior partnership. He was happy.

Kiz Rider’s character is a skillful blend of hard-won competence and innate empathy, all rolled into a no-nonsense person who is not afraid of calling out her former mentor on his flaws, or warning him that he might jeopardize both the investigation and their careers with his unorthodox choices.  The “old” Harry might have scoffed at such warnings and kept going, the “new” one not only listens, but has the honesty of admitting his faults and attempting to correct them: the two of them complement each other very well, and I hope that Michael Connelly will let us have more of this successful investigative duo in the next books, because I enjoyed it quite a bit.

As far as the story itself goes, it’s less “adventurous” than the previous ones, given that it follows the investigation as Bosch and Rider start back from scratch, collecting all the surviving evidence and trying to gather any new detail that might help them in finding the perpetrator, but I appreciated it all the same because I’m always fascinated by the mechanics of investigation, especially wherever forensic clues are concerned.  What truly stands out in The Closers is the depiction of a crime’s emotional fallout for the victim’s relatives, particularly when they are not afforded any form of closure: here we see how Rebecca’s parents never recovered from their child’s murder – the mother living in the same house and keeping her daughter’s room as she left it, a shrine to the memory of a life lost when its potential was still to be explored; the father falling into an abyss of despair and alcohol from which he’s trying to emerge in small, painful steps.  These parents’ anguish touches Bosch in quite a poignant way, which is hardly surprising because he’s a father now and, even though it remains unexpressed, the thought that he might lose his daughter to the cruelty of the world lurks just behind his awareness, lending him the drive to bring some form of justice to these bereaved parents.

The investigation, slow-paced as it is, moves unfailingly toward its resolution, one that proved quite surprising to me, and in so doing explores all the avenues offered by the few clues the detectives can work with: we see them research the possibilities of sex crime, and then of hate crime – which also affords a diversion into the murky world of racism and white supremacy – and once again opens a window into the multilayered aspects of a big city like Los Angeles, one that

[…] shimmered out there like a million dreams, not all of them good

And Bosch is certainly back to shine his own light on the pockets of darkness nesting among those bright dreams, he’s back in his true element and not the proverbial fish-out-of-water he felt like in the previous two books: on this respect, there is a very enlightening passage in which he tells Rider that he had noticed how he walked favoring one leg, only to become aware that he was unconsciously compensating for the lack of the service weapon at his side – not so much the gun in itself, but what it represented for his ability to respond to the unheard cries of the victims.  This new start in his life is exactly what he always wanted, and needed, to satisfy his drive for justice, and it feels like the start of new, intriguing chapter in this character’s journey.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE NARROWS (Harry Bosch #10), by Michael Connelly

With book 10 in the Harry Bosch series I continue my exploration of the “uncharted lands” of this character, as opposed to what I’ve experienced so far in the seven seasons of the TV show inspired by it, which means that on top of the skilled storytelling I’ve come to expect from Michael Connelly I can now enjoy totally new investigations, an element that adds more spice to these engaging stories.

The Narrows starts with two apparently unrelated narrative threads:  one concerns the return of the serial killer protagonist of the novel The Poet, and of FBI agent Rachel Walling, who was far from convinced that her quarry had died in the final shootout that ended the chase; the other features Bosch as he’s contacted by the widow of former FBI agent Terry McCaleb (encountered in A Darkness More than Night), because she’s convinced that the heart attack that ended her husband’s life was far from a natural occurrence, and needs Bosch’s help to uncover the truth. 

As events unfold, it becomes clear that the two investigations are strictly linked, so that Bosch and Walling must combine their skills to catch the killer and end his reign of terror, while dealing with several obstacles on their path: Walling, who was sent to a dead-end assignment after the debacle with the Poet, is chafing under the restraints imposed by her role as a mere observer, and feels that the team leader is more preoccupied with the political implications of the chase, rather than with the success of the mission. Bosch, for his part, is even more keenly aware that without a badge many doors are closed to him, and the long-standing rivalry between law enforcement agencies is clipping his proverbial wings, leaving him with little room to maneuver. And on top of it all, he and Walling are both strong, determined people, and cooperation does not come too easy to either of them, reducing their field effectiveness when they really need it at full strength.

The Narrows is truly what many like to call a “page turner”, blending the chase for a dangerously intelligent serial killer with a fascinating collection of clues that paint the whole picture through a logical progression that nonetheless proves both exciting and distressing, thanks to the many red herrings that take characters and readers off track so that it’s almost impossible to predict what will come next. By now I’ve acquired enough familiarity with Michael Connelly’s “modus operandi” to know that I need to pay attention to the smallest detail he lays down, because sooner or later it will fit into the bigger picture, offering a deeper understanding of the story.   It’s worth mentioning how the narrative is split between the first person when the author deals with Harry Bosch (a trend initiated with the previous novel) and the third person with the other characters: it gives the story a very peculiar quality and at the same time is reminiscent of the classic noir novels where the P.I. protagonists (the role Harry is playing now) offered their point of view as a form of internal monologue.

The background – again the cities of Los Angeles and Las Vegas are front and center here – comes alive through the author’s descriptions and becomes another character of the story, enhancing it with a cinematic quality that alternates the glamorous and the gritty in a very balanced blend. The best example is offered by the titular Narrows, which is a man-made channel created to funnel the excess of rainwater and avoid the flooding of the city of Los Angeles. Bosch mentions it in passing:

[…] the river. Trapped between those walls. When I was a kid we called it ‘the narrows’. When it rains like this the water moves fast. It’s deadly. When it rains you stay away from the narrows.

offering a foreshadowing for future events that I found very intriguing – on hindsight.

Where the story is the frame, characters are its true substance: from the minor roles – like the unpleasantly entitled FBI team leader, or the other agents, or again McCaleb’s grieving widow and his partner in the boating operation – to the two protagonists, Bosch and Walling, everyone is clearly defined no matter how much page space they occupy, and in the case of these two we can see the evolution from the last time we met them.  Walling is disillusioned after her posting in a remote location where her investigative skills are hardly necessary, but she is far from beaten, and her determination in catching the Poet is quite admirable, even when she chooses to go against the rules: in this she is the perfect complement for Bosch, who never cared much for authority, so that I was delighted to observe these two unlikely “partners in crime” as they pursued the leads with little or no concern for the consequences.

As for Bosch, while he’s still the proverbial dog with a bone with every case that catches his attention, he’s a very different private person: discovering the existence of his 4-years old daughter changed his perspective on life, and even managed to soften him in his personal approach. The man who can relentlessly pursue bad guys is also able to sit down and read stories to his child, reveling in the joy of her closeness and the candor of her affection; the reality of this daughter whose existence he ignored until a short while ago forces him to consider his actions – and their consequences – for the long-range effects they might have.  Where Bosch used to be a loner, he now has a very important focus in his life, one that certainly informs his choices for the present and the future.

[…] the innocence of a child will bring you back and give the shield of joy with which to protect yourself.

Along with these changes in Bosch’s personal life, more might be forthcoming in his profession, thanks to the offer he receives to participate in a newly-formed division of the LAPD dealing with cold cases: the pull of these forgotten victims might be strong enough to make him go back to his old job, giving voice to those who cannot do it for themselves anymore. Once again, I can only look forward to what awaits me down the road with this very intriguing character.

My Rating:

Reviews

EVERSION, by Alastair Reynolds

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

Alastair Reynolds’ name is always enough to make me pay attention to any new book he publishes: so far I’ve learned to expect space opera stories strongly based on science and dealing with a galaxy-wide scope of events, so my curiosity was piqued by the blurb for Eversion, which sounded like a very different take from those themes. It turned out to be a very unexpected, deeply engaging read that held my attention from start to finish and offered a quite unusual story that mixed some Groundhog Day vibes with tales of exploration and an alien mystery shrouded in a quasi-Lovecraftian shade of fear: in short, a story that compelled me to burn the proverbial midnight oil to see where the author would take me.

The novel starts, quite unexpectedly, on a sailing ship from the early 19th Century, the Demeter, traveling through the icy waters of Norway: Dr. Silas Coade, the ship’s surgeon, is the narrating voice of the story as he relates the goal of the expedition, a search for a mysterious construct – named the Edifice – that could be reached through a narrow passage in the ice. The expedition members include, besides the good doctor, the leader of the group, boisterous Master Topolsky; Coronel Ramos, a weapons and explosives expert; tormented mathematician Dupin, and a few others, including Lady Ada Cossile, a noblewoman of great knowledge and prickly disposition.  As their intended destination approaches, we get to know the various members of the group and learn about the frictions generated by such different characters sharing close quarters: once the passage is located, though, and the wreck of a previous visiting ship – the Europa – is discovered, tempers flare in a heated exchange of accusations, and then disaster strikes in a most unexpected way. But it’s not the end, because in the next chapter we find once again Dr. Coade on Demeter, only this time he finds himself on a late 19th Century steamship, forging the waters near Patagonia – and still looking for a mysterious passage and an equally mysterious Edifice…

The pattern repeats itself again as the time frame proceeds forward and Demeter morphs from sail ship to steamship to dirigible to spaceship, always seeking to uncover the mystery of the Edifice, always forging through a dangerous passage and always meeting with disaster in one form or another. Some elements remain the same throughout the various versions of the story, however: the characters and their respective roles; Dr. Coade’s addiction to drugs and his literary aspirations which take the form of speculative fiction in which he imagines more advanced technology; Ramos’ head injury which Coade treats successfully and which leads to a close friendship between the two men; Ada Cossile’s pointed remarks which seem to target the doctor more than anyone else, and the hints that she might know more about him than circumstances seem to warrant.  It all adds to a compelling narrative that kept me reading on as the picture gained more details with each new iteration, until the core of the puzzle was revealed and it opened the door toward the real situation and danger facing the complement of the Demeter.

The buildup of narrative pressure is certainly the strongest element in Eversion: from the moment in which the story resumes after the first catastrophic ending, although in a slightly different form, it’s clear that there is more at work here than meets the eye, and obtaining the answers to the many questions posed by the story becomes the main attraction in this compelling novel, where the new elements manage only to tease the readers’ imagination, leading them to formulate hypotheses that most of the times prove wrong. When I previously mentioned the Groundhog Day vibes I might have made this story sound like a series of repetitions, but it’s far from that, not only because of the changes in temporal and technological setting for each iteration, but also because there is always some new detail that adds something to the overall picture, while never offering a way to pierce the mystery.  Being kept guessing might prove somewhat frustrating, but it’s also a sure way to compel you to forge ahead and look for the final revelation – which will prove to be quite unexpected.

One of the other intriguing components in this novel is the enigma tied to the Edifice, a place whose size and shape appear almost Lovecraftian in their mind- and space-bending quality and also because of the bothersome messages left by the unfortunate crew of Europa about the horrors waiting there: there is nothing more chilling than an incomplete message about something terrible and inescapable coming from the depths, and here it’s also paired with Dr. Coade recurring dream about a

[…] stumbling progress down a stone tunnel, a scurrying nightmare charged with the terrible conviction that I myself were already dead.

which will get a startling but consistent explanation once the veil will be pierced.

Compared to Alastair Reynolds’ previous works, Eversion lacks the sense of galactic vastness one can find in them, but it’s the rather confined background of this story which allows him to explore in greater depth the characters (something which I felt was somewhat missing from his other novels) and to linger on their interactions and personalities. There is a greater focus here on friendship and interpersonal relationships, mixed with some intriguing discussions about ethics and the kind of acceptable sacrifices to be tolerated in the quest for knowledge: it all gains an intriguing meaning once we learn about the reality of the situation facing Coade and the crew of Demeter, adding depth and humanity to what, until that point, was just a puzzling mystery.

While quite different from my previous experience with Alastair Reynolds’ writing, Eversion proved to be a fascinating novel combining science fiction and mystery in a seamless blend: prepare for something unexpected but totally engrossing…

My Rating:

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: