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

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

DUNE (Dune #1), by Frank Herbert – #SciFiMonth

Re-reading favorite books has become something of a luxury since I started blogging, because the pressure to keep up with new titles has made it next to impossible to revisit those “old friends”. But there are always exceptions, and since enthusiastically appreciating the recent movie version of Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve I’ve been promising myself a re-read of Frank Herbert’s saga – or at least of the first three novels, which I’ve always seen as their own self-enclosed narrative cycle.

Reviewers who are far better (and far more articulate) than I am at issue analysis, have already written much about the Dune saga’s core themes, its social and political ties with the real world, its writing style and so forth, so there will be nothing of this in my reviews: my approach to books tends to be more… emotional  (for want of a better word) than anything else, and that’s what’s going to happen here since this novel for me represents THE landmark in Science Fiction – just as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is for Fantasy, both books being gifted with something of an enduring timeless quality.

The story of young Paul Atreides, from scion of an important family to hunted survivor fighting for his life to charismatic leader, is more than well known: a mix of a hero’s journey with a coming of age tale, set on the background of the complex, often deadly, politics of a vast galactic empire where the balance of power hangs between economic interests, shifting alliances and the machinations of mysterious organizations with a precise agenda to follow.  When I first read Dune, a few decades ago, this complexity, and the mix between classic SF themes and some fantasy elements, proved to be quite fascinating: a feudal system of government, with its infighting between ruling Houses; the secretive Navigators’ Guild whose adepts could forge vast distances through a form of prescience, or again the order of Mentats – human computers acting as surrogates for banned thinking machines. 

These were all intriguing details that caught my attention from the get go, but the most thought-provoking concept was that of the Bene Gesserit, a school of highly trained women capable of great mental and physical feats, and driven by the goal of creating a sort of super-being through a painstaking, ages-long project of genetic manipulation.  To the twenty-something me of back then that proved to be far more appealing, to the point that I tended to focus more on Lady Jessica’s arc than her son Paul’s – even though his story remained riveting throughout; re-reading the novel now, I’m still intrigued by all things Bene Gesserit, but my approach to the narrative is more balanced, while acknowledging that for the time in which the book was first published such focus on female agency was indeed a revolutionary notion. 

If all of the above held me in thrall, it was the move to Arrakis, the desert planet, one of the most captivating alien places I ever read about, that literally blew my mind: endless sands, no water, killing winds, and above all the giant sandworms roaming under the surface, and their tie with the precious melange, the life-prolonging spice whose mining could make or break the fortunes of the empire.  And of course the Fremen, the desert dwellers who had learned to adapt to such an unforgiving environment, creating a society that went beyond mere survival and that showed indications of sophistication under the apparently basic nomadic and savage outer layer.  Mix all this with what is ultimately a tale of revenge and search for freedom, and it’s hardly surprising that the younger me was forever impressed, and that a couple of re-reads in the following years never managed to try and go beyond this undoubtedly intriguing surface.

So, what about older and (hopefully) wiser me? Of course, being now well acquainted with the story arc, I was able to concentrate more on the characters, and to appreciate their development and shades of personality, just as much as I did for the writing and the style of storytelling. Where on my first read I just lightly trod over the “adventurous” surface, now I could enjoy some thought-provoking deeper reflections.  First of all, the narrative tapestry is constructed in such a way that the various pieces of the puzzle combine to create an ever-growing sense of doom for the first part of the novel: even with the help of hindsight, it’s clear, very early on, that the Atreides’ move to Arrakis is going to end in catastrophe – and I wonder if even the choice of their name, taken straight out of the tragic Greek myth, represented a clue in plain sight for all to see…  Despite this inevitable conclusion, and my actual knowledge of it, I was drawn into the story’s flow as if reading it for the first time, which should be a testament to Frank Herbert’s narrative skills in weaving this complex mix of galactic politics, greed, personal ambition and revenge into a novel that still feels fresh despite being written almost sixty years ago.  There indeed goes another reason for my reluctance to re-read books: the fear that the writing might not work anymore for my changed tastes – to my deep relief, such was not the case with Dune.

But of course it was Paul Atreides’ character that drove many of those deeper musings I quoted above. On the outer layer he’s a teenager who led a solitary – if charmed – life until his family’s relocation to Arrakis: a boy with little opportunity to interact with his age peers, schooled by his mother in the ways of the Bene Gesserit that, on the cusp of events, are revealed as a means of unleashing some untapped potential that might set him apart from the rest of humanity. Something that would be a huge burden on anyone, let alone a 15-year old boy… And here, I think, lies the core of Paul’s personal tragedy, that of not being completely (if at all…) the master of his own destiny, which is later compounded by the growing talents of precognition that will show him a future – or a set of futures – that seem to hint at their tragic inevitability.  Paul’s transformation into the charismatic leader of the Fremen does not hold any hint of glory, but is rather tainted with the recurring awareness of the terrible purpose which haunts his waking nightmares.  This time around I was able to feel some form of empathy for Paul, something which was absent in my first visits with the saga: Herbert’s characters, though intriguing, always manage to keep some distance from the readers, so now for the first time I was able to perceive his humanity under the mantle of predestined hero that Herbert had placed on his shoulders.

Where the first book of the Dune saga ends with something that might look like a happy end, with revenge obtained, the villains vanquished, the Fremen once again the masters of their own world, there is still a perceivable cloud hanging over it all that will carry on to the next book and the conclusion of Paul’s narrative arc, a warning – if you want – that happy endings are a mere illusion and that this story, fictional as it is, might rather be a reflection of reality.  And maybe that’s one of the reasons, if not the main one, of the hold that this novel can still exert on readers’ minds so many decades after its inception…

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

SciFi Month: Challenge Prompt 3/11/2022 – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher

Today’s Challenge Prompt being EVEN BETTER TOGETHER – or a showcase for shared universes or author collaborations – made me think immediately of my favorite space opera saga, which started with a run of nine books and was then very successfully translated on the small screen in a visually amazing series.

The Expanse was published under the author name of James S.A. Corey but the pseudonym hides the identities of Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank, whose partnership gave us one of the most engrossing stories of space exploration by humanity that I ever remember reading, so let’s celebrate it with a montage of the books’ covers…

Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

TV Review: THE EXPANSE Season 6

With the end of the book series and now of the TV version of this saga, I can certainly consider myself an Expanse orphan: both versions of this story are leaving a big gap in my SF horizon, one that will be hard, if not impossible, to fill…

This final season of The Expanse proved to be even more epic than its predecessors, leaving a great deal of room to well-orchestrated space battles – which might be the reason that the number of episodes was cut to just six, probably in consideration of the high budget that they required. But while the episodes were less than usual, there were no shortfalls in the characters’ evolution or in the political angles that have been the backbone of this saga, in both mediums.

In this season we have, on one side, the family of the Rocinante finally reunited after the harrowing events of the previous season, and if offscreen troubles required the removal of Alex’s character, the inclusion of Clarissa “Peaches” Mao to the ship’s complement leaves room for some welcome bonding scenes; on another side, Avasarala is battling with the practical and political aftermath of Earth’s bombing, still backed by former Martian marine Bobbie whose career switch as Avasarala’s aide has not changed her energetic approach to problems.  And again, Camina Drummer and her crew are still carrying out their rebellion against the darkly charismatic Marco Inaros, whose outer façade of Belter liberator is showing several cracks as his megalomania becomes more and more evident.

Individuals, and their reactions to events, have always been at the core of The Expanse, and they are still front and center here at the end of the journey: Naomi was put through the wringer in the previous season, and I approved of the choice of showing how she’s not over those trials, as dramatically proven through a scene where she freezes as she’s about to begin a spacewalk; Amos seems to have mellowed down a little – although with him one can never know – and his choice of adding Clarissa to the crew represents his unspoken willingness to give her another chance, just as he was when he joined the Roci’s family. Clarissa herself is dealing with her past and the heavy consequences of her actions, so that the first sign of acceptance from Holden looks to her like something of an absolution.  Holden is probably the one who seems to have changed less, but this makes sense because he’s the focus of that family, its moral compass if you want, and he needs to represent a fixed point for the others, which is the main reason for a very difficult choice he makes early on in the season.  As far as Alex is concerned, I appreciated how he’s mentioned in fond remembrance by his crewmates, placing a firm divide between the character and the actor who played him, whose actions forced the storyline to remove Alex from the Rocinante’s complement.

There are however two characters I have barely mentioned before and who drew my attention more keenly in this final season of The Expanse: one is Camina Drummer, who was fleshed out more on screen than she is in the books, and who thanks to the amazing performance by Cara Gee quickly became one of my favorites. Drummer’s journey through the series has been a long and complicated one, and I simply loved the combination of outward strength and inner, well-masked frailty that turned her into such a fascinating personality. In these last episodes of the show she looks even more determined and daring than ever, openly challenging Inaros in a scene that surpassed even the famous shipboard address from the bridge of the Behemoth we saw a couple of seasons ago. The message she sends to the leader of the Free Navy, whose actions have revealed his self-serving ruthlessness, is short but very powerful, and gives the full measure of this awesome character:

For his part, Inaros is depicted as your typical, irredeemable bad guy, who gathered almost unanimous consent from the Belters by unleashing their pent-up outrage through the vicious attack on Earth: his charisma barely hides a cruel, manipulative disposition that at times seems to come from deep-seated and unacknowledged insecurities. In other words, he’s the villain we all love to hate, and much of his successful portrayal is due to actor Keon Alexander who had the far-from-easy job of bringing him to life. Playing a convincing bad guy, and one who tethers on the edge of madness like Inaros, is far more difficult, in my opinion, because it requires a fine balancing act that not everyone can manage successfully: Keon Alexander did an amazing work on this character, one that left me divided between my loathing for Inaros and my admiration for the actor’s skills.   Which compels me to also mention Jasai Chase Owens as Filip Inaros, equally successful in showing the young man’s torn loyalties and his slow but inevitable drift from the toxic orbit of a father who had been his whole world for a long time.

Even though The Expanse has been given an appropriately wrapped-up finale, it’s impossible for book readers to forget that there are three more unexplored books in the saga, especially when the final TV season hinted at some of the Laconia storylines that make up the core of the final trilogy: those hints, which look disconnected from the rest of the story told in the final season, made me hope that there might be a remote possibility for a continuation, if not immediately maybe some time from now.  Whatever happens, though, I am aware that both the books and the TV series have merged together in my imagination, despite the differences between the mediums: The Expanse remains one of the best (if not THE best) space opera series I have known in my “travels” and one it will always be a joy to revisit in either form.

My Rating for Season 6:

Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

A DARKNESS MORE THAN NIGHT (Harry Bosch #7), by Michael Connelly

This seventh book in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series was a strange experience for me: first because it is a sort of crossover with some of his other works, given that there is an extended cameo appearance for Jack McEvoy, who I previously met in The Poet, and a co-starring role for Terry McCaleb, retired FBI profiler who first appeared in Blood Work, a book I did not read but whose story I’m familiar with thanks to the 2002 movie, starring Clint Eastwood, which I happened to see some time ago. The other difference with previous Harry Bosch books I’ve read comes from the fact that here the LAPD detective has a less active role than usual and the bulk of the investigative process is left in the hands of McCaleb. Still, this odd combination works, creating a suspenseful framework that kept my attention riveted from start to finish, even though – as it happened with the previous books – I was aware of the general narrative threads thanks to the TV series that propelled me toward these novels since last year.

Harry Bosch is heavily involved in the trial of David Storey, a movie director accused of the murder of a young actress he strangled during sex, then taking her body home and staging an apparent suicide.  Meanwhile, Detective Winston of the LAPD is dealing with the murder of a lowlife named Edward Gunn, whose strangely ritualistic details have her so baffled that she seeks the advice of Terry McCaleb, once a noted FBI profiler but now retired after a massive heart attack and subsequent transplant.  When McCaleb discovers that Bosch had been watching Gunn for some time looking for the evidence of a crime, and that some of the grisly details of the murder link back to the works of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, after whom the detective is named, he becomes convinced that Harry murdered Gunn in an act of deranged vengeance – and he’s determined to get to the bottom of it, as the two narrative threads of the story become dramatically entangled.

As I stated above, this novel has a peculiar flavor if compared with the previous ones, mostly because Harry Bosch here looks more like a guest star and Terry McCaleb is the front and center character, and for once it’s odd to see Harry not taking part in an investigation, although I have to say that the courtroom scenes where he finally enjoys the spotlight are among the best segments of the book: Connelly takes us through the sometimes painstaking details of the judicial process with such a flair that these sections are as engaging and thrilling as action scenes and they actually infuse some vitality in what had been something of a slow start with McCaleb’s part of the story.  Moreover, this change in perspective allows us to see another side of Harry Bosch – or maybe the evolution of his personality that started with the previous book: even though he’s still quite determined (or dogged, some would say), he looks more grounded, less prone to stormy outbursts, and instead focuses more closely on getting things done the right way to insure that the guilty face the justice they deserve. He’s still somewhat cynical about the system and the loopholes it offers to offenders, but he looks better inclined than before to stay within the rules to get the desired results.

On the other hand, I was dubious about McCaleb as a character, given that for someone who used to be a successful profiler he seems to fall far too easily for what is clearly a frame-up: even discarding the fact that we readers know intuitively that Bosch could not have murdered Gunn, because that’s not his style, the clues left in Gunn’s murder scene, those references pointing toward Bosch the painter and the punishments for sinners depicted in his works, everything looks contrived and – as detective Winston points out – plainly foolish for Harry to leave such a trail of breadcrumbs leading back to him. But McCaleb is so determined to follow his instinct that he chooses to ignore the obvious: this led me to wonder whether he truly was such a great profiler or if he rather wanted so badly to be once again in the “game” that he preferred to shoehorn the evidence into his choice framework rather than collecting it and then, and only then, assembling the whole picture.  Or maybe he wants so badly to reconnect with the past he clearly misses so much, that he’s ready to ignore reason and listen only to that instinct that used to serve him so well once – a that now does not seem to work that well. This single focus that at times looks close to obsession did little to endear his character to me, and even later, when he understands he might have been barking up the proverbial wrong tree, I struggled to change my opinion and to see him in a better light.

Still, the conflict between these two different individuals drives the story just as much as the two narrative threads at its root, evolving into a novel that is compellingly fast-paced, its two halves merging into one another with effortless ease and showing once again the dark side of a city where glamor and glitter hide corruption and darkness more often than not.  Showing also how Michael Connelly’s writing and plotting skills kept improving as he moved forward with this series, which to date remains one of my go-to choices when I am in the mood for some engaging thriller.

My Rating: