Reviews

BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED (The First Law #2), by Joe Abercrombie

 

More than once I have admitted my lack of patience when confronted with long set-ups, a flaw that probably made me miss on a few good books because I could not wait for the story to finally take flight, but with the first book of this trilogy I was not only able to curb my usual impatience, I was eager to learn where the author was taking me (and quite enjoying the ride), so now I’m happy to say I was very richly rewarded with this second installment in Joe Abercrombie’s debut work. Here the seeds planted in The Blade Itself come to fruition and grow into a multi-faceted tale that promises to flow into an equally enthralling final book.

The characters we got to know in the previous novel are now traveling all over the world: Bayaz, the first of the Magi, has taken his company – Logen Ninefingers, Jezal dan Luthar, Ferro and a few others – toward the west, and the mysterious quest for which he needs their peculiar abilities, as the group ends up facing harrowing dangers and hardships to fulfill a mission whose details only their leader knows; Colonel West marches North with the Union army to fight agains the invading northern barbarians led by Bethod, and is saddled with the handling of crown prince Ladisla, a complete idiot in love with the idea of battle and glory, and totally unsuited to the task at hand; and Sand dan Glokta, inquisitor extraordinaire, is promoted to Superior and tasked with the defense of the southern city of Dagoska, under siege by the Gurkish – the old foe who once captured and tortured him, turning him into the cripple he is now.

While there is decidedly more action in Before They Are Hanged, what with hazardous journeys, bloody battles and a doomed siege whose problems are compounded by treachery and personal agendas, the characters remain the central focus of the story, growing in depth and facets and at the same time showing their humanity in all its high and low points: in the space of these two books in the series, Joe Abercrombie’s characters have turned from fictional creations into flesh and blood people it’s easy to believe in, care about (or despise, in some instances) and root for.  Maybe the only one for whom the jury’s still out is Jezal dan Luthar, the dandy swordsman with a superiority complex, the one who keeps sneering at this traveling companions: grievously wounded in a skirmish, he realizes the importance of team work, of respecting one’s companions, of reaching out to them as people and not as objects of contempt. The change that comes over Jezal with this epiphany seems too quick, too radical to feel truly plausible, but I have faith in the author and look forward to seeing where this individual’s path will lead.

Logen Ninefingers took little time to become one of my favorite characters in Book 1 and here he becomes more definite, more solid: on the surface, Logen might look like an uncouth barbarian, a man with little depth and a brutish disposition, but there is much more to him than meets the eye at first sight. Both in his personal reflections and in the interactions with his traveling companions he shows a talent for introspection and wisdom that belies the surface coarseness he presents to the world, as is the case of this campfire observation:

He and Bayaz were close enough to the fire, but the others were further than comfort would have put them. Drawn close by the wind, and the cold, and the damp night, pushed further out by each other.

The advice he offers Jezal, and his steadfast friendship overtures toward Ferro – the former Gurkish slave turned into a formidable, perpetually scowling warrior – point toward a different side of Logen’s character, one I’m not sure I can label as gentler, but certainly far more human and sympathetic than what the rest of the group shows to each other.  If at some point the unlikely company shapes into something more than a band of strangers, and becomes a team ready to watch each other’s backs, much comes from Logen’s relentless attempts at bonding, which can either move into humorous territory, as in the scene where the group discusses battle scars, or turn to starkly profound musings:

A family? I did have one. And now I’ve got another. You don’t pick your family, you take what you’re given and you make the best of it.

Colonel West undergoes some big changes as well: the man so easily annoyed, and weighted with a huge chip on the shoulder due to his lowborn origins, is forced to curb his annoyance and anger when having to deal with prince Ladisla and his cronies, their complete inadequacy in managing an army and their bloodily ineffective handling of Bethod’s onslaught. The man who built his career on adherence to rules, to a strict moral code of conduct, finds himself in a grim situation where he will need to delve into the brutal side of his personality to survive. West’s transition toward a more savage frame of mind is an interesting – if at times terrifying – journey and one clearly inspired by the Northmen allies he finds along the way, who are Logen’s long-lost friends and also very interesting characters I hope to see more of in the next book.

As was the case with The Blade Itself, I kept the best for last – Sand dan Glokta: much as I enjoy reading about Logen Ninefingers, Glokta remains my favorite character, because he’s the best defined and the most intriguing creation that Joe Abercrombie brought to life. The core of my attraction for Glokta comes from his dual nature: a savagely crippled individual who seeks and finds beauty where he can; a professional torturer who knows intimately the meaning of pain, and yet does not enjoy inflicting it; a man who professes outward cynicism while adhering to a unique moral compass. It’s Glokta’s complexity that makes him such a fascinating individual, that and the dichotomy between his inner musings and his outward utterances. He might say:

As for being a good man, that ship sailed long ago, and I wasn’t even there to wave it off.

yet he risks a great deal to show mercy to a powerful adversary; or again he can freely admit:

You could not even guess at the things that I have done. Awful, evil, obscene, the telling of them alone could make you puke. […] I push it all into the dark corners of my mind, and it’s incredible the room back there. Amazing what one can live with.

yet when he becomes aware of a young woman in distress he applies his considerable influence to rectify her situation, and enjoys the feeling of having accomplished a good deed. Glokta’s principles might be colored in shades of grey, and that’s indeed the main reason for his appeal, one he shares with most of the other characters in this series – all of them of the “dirty, ugly and mean” kind, but still made interesting by the author’s narrative skills.

It took me a long time before finally reading this amazing series, but now that I have I can place it at the very top of my favorite reads. And there’s still more to explore…

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

A TIME OF COURAGE (Of Blood and Bone #3), by John Gwynne

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

Since this is the third and final volume of the trilogy, and given its high narrative stakes, this will be a spoiler-free review, so that you will be able to fully enjoy the climax of the story once you get to it.

Once again I discovered how easy it is to go back to this complex, multi-layered world and the characters who people it: unlike previous times, however, there was also a heightened sense of uncertainty because here the story reaches its final showdown, and previous experience taught me that nobody could be considered safe here, so I was very anxious for the survival of the characters I had come to appreciate and love.  To sum up my experience with A Time of Courage in a few words, I have come across a new definition of epic fantasy, indeed.

The ages-long strife between the Ben-Elim and the Kadoshim, between good and evil, is about to reach its decisive battle and things are indeed looking grim for the people of the Banished Lands: through the artful planning of the Kadoshim and their allies, Asroth – lord of the demonic creatures – has been freed from his decades-long confinement and is about to command his army of evil creatures and twisted humans in the war for dominance. For their part, the Ben-Elim, the Order of the Bright Star and their own allies are opposing a strenuous resistance, but their adversaries are too many and hard to vanquish – and some of these defenders are more interested in power and dominance struggles rather than in combining their forces to insure the survival of humanity.

These might sound like standard plot elements in the genre, and in a way they are: what makes them different, what makes this series stand out from the rest, however, is the strong, compelling characterization carried out across the whole spectrum of personalities – from the undeniably good to the perversely evil – together with the unrelenting pace and the breath-taking descriptions of battles fought either on the ground or in the air whenever winged creatures from both sides engage each other. Starting from here, I have to confess that battle scenes rarely hold any appeal for me, but I always can make an exception for those described by John Gwynne, who possesses the very rare talent of bringing you in the very midst of it all, blending the physical action with the emotional commitment of the characters and turning these elements into scenes of such cinematic quality that they compel you to follow every word with the kind of concentration that makes you forget the rest of the world around you. This was particularly true for the “battle to end all battles” representing the climax of this novel and of the books that preceded it, a sequence that roughly takes the last twenty percent of the page count and that went on unrelentingly, alternating victories and defeats for the heroes, to the point that I had to often remind myself to breathe, because I was in such a state of stress I don’t remember ever experiencing with a book.

In these times when epic fantasy seems to have reached a wider audience, thanks to the largely successful small-screen portrayal of another genre saga, many have wondered what the next “blockbuster” might be: well, if a mythical creature like a far-seeing, perceptive network executive truly exists, they should look no further than this epic, that started with the four-book series The Faithful and the Fallen and closes its narrative cycle with the three books of Of Blood and Bone. If handled with the care and respect that this story deserves, it could easily surpass anything we have seen until now.

The characters represent the other strength of the series: after a while I realized that they had taken hold of my imagination, regardless of their position in the scheme of things – even the ones pledging their alliance to Asroth have their reasons for doing so, and while unable to “forgive” them for that choice, I could see where they came from, what made them choose that path, and this understanding turned them into people rather than mere adversaries, into flesh-and-blood creatures that felt quite real, as did the feelings animating them.  The moments in which Gwynne’s characterization excels are not those linked with battles though, but rather the quieter moments, the lulls between skirmishes when our heroes take the time to encourage or comfort each other, when they share the pain for the loss of a fallen comrade or reaffirm the bonds of friendship and loyalty tying them together: in these moments we finally understand that they are not only fighting to combat evil, and certainly not to seek glory, but because of the sense of kinship, of family, they have come to share.  In the overall grimness of the situation, while facing impossible odds and the possibility of annihilation, hope, love and friendship are the best weapons they can wield and also the armor shielding them from the encroaching darkness.

And while I am on the subject of love and friendship, I want to reserve a special mention for the animals fighting alongside people: wolvens, bears and talking crows whose devotion, loyalty and courage often sheds a ray of light in the darkest of circumstances: these creatures are crafted with the same passionate care reserved to people, and it takes little time to grow attached to them just as much as with their human counterparts.

This is such an immersive world that it’s a pleasure and a joy to lose oneself in it, and although I got to know it in this second phase of its history – the one represented by Of Blood and Bone, whose events follow those of the previous series The Faithful and the Fallen by more than a century – I had no difficulty in finding my bearings in it. However, after reading the first novel of this trilogy, A Time of Dread, I backtracked and so far managed to read two of the four books in the previous saga, and will try to complete the other two as soon as I can so that I can have a comprehensive picture of this amazing creation that literally stole my imagination from the very first chapters of that first book. The Banished Lands, despite the evil plaguing them, are a fascinating place to visit, and I intend to get to know them as well as they deserve.

My Rating:    

Reviews

AUBERON (an Expanse Novella), by James S.A. Corey

 

Getting a new Expanse novella while I wait for the next (and last…) book in line feels like a way of shortening that waiting time, and going back to that universe is always a joy, even when the main characters I’ve come to know and love are not part of the story.

Auberon’s time-line is set somewhere between the last two published books, Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath, as the Laconian forces are tightening their hold on the occupied planets: governor Biryar Rittenaur and his wife Mona have been charged with the running of Auberon, one of the most Earth-like colony worlds behind the Ring gate, and like all Laconians Rittenaur is very focused on his mission, on the ideals of order and civilization that High Consul Duarte uses to advertise his merciless military conquest.

While Rittenaur and his staff expect the usual resistance – more or less overt – against what is in truth an occupation force, no matter the mask it wears, they are not ready to face the deeply rooted system of criminal corruption headed by a man named Erich whose reach into Auberon’s society goes quite far, and who is not ready to give in to the self-styled new masters of humanity. The new governor will soon discover that it’s not easy to keep faith with one’s ideals when they are in direct conflict with what he holds most dear – or as Erich tells him at some point: “Ideological purity never survives contact with the enemy.

The description of “old man” Erich, with his prosthetic arm covering for a malformed one, is a very intriguing one because it connects with a character I already encountered first in the novella The Churn (the one about Amos’ past) and then in the full novel Nemesis Games, where again Amos and Erich’s shared past came to the surface. If you read both of them, you will find that the present story gains even more depth, but even without this kind of information, Auberon remains an intriguing snippet in the overall Expanse background, because as usual the characters and their journey are at the core of it all.

What makes the two main characters in this novella interesting is that neither of them is likable, and at the same time neither of them is utterly despicable: we are made privy to their motivations, and from their point of view they are acting for the good of the people under their authority. Erich is a crime lord, and there is no measure of white-washing that can make us forget he’s a gangster ruling his territory with a blood-drenched iron fist (no pun intended here…), but he’s also fighting – in his own way and for his own purposes – against an invader bent on ruling the galaxy, so it’s difficult not to root for him, at least a little bit.  Rittenaur is the voice and arm of the conquerors, people who use other humans as guinea pigs for protomolecule alterations, people who execute their own as an example against mistakes, but he’s also a man with a deep love for integrity and a sincere belief in the good of the “Laconian dream” – he’s a decent man, very unlike Medina Station’s Governor Singh, and therefore worthy of some sympathy.

In the tried and tested tradition of the Expanse series, Auberon gives us much food for thought and sheds some interesting light on the latter part of the overall story, while we wait for the conclusion of this sweeping space opera saga that for me represents one of the best in the genre.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

MOONTANGLED (The Harwood Spellbook 2.5), by Stephanie Burgis

 

My thanks to Stephanie Burgis for reaching out to me and asking to read and review her latest novella in the Harwood Spellbook series: I’m always happy for any new story in this delightful saga, my only complaint being that this time it was a short one, and it ended far too soon…

The Harwood Spellbook sequence  focuses on a Regency era alternate version of Britain where history diverged from the one we know when Queen Boudicca found a way to defeat the Roman invaders by allying herself with a powerful mage who later became her husband. Since then, the political power in Angland has been wielded by women and entrusted to the body called the Boudiccate, while magic has remained the jurisdiction of men, the partnership strengthened by marriage between these two branches of society. There are always exceptions, though, and one of them is Cassandra Harwood, gifted with the ability to handle magic with great skill: in the past, Cassandra wanted to establish herself as a formidable mage, and in so doing forgot the safety limits and lost her powers, but fortunately not the competence to teach other young women, equally gifted, what she knows.

Moontangled takes place in the school where – as we learned from previous novels and novellas – Cassandra has been able, not without overcoming many social and practical obstacles, to gather the first group of young lady mages, and is now ready to present them officially to Angland’s society, to gain further backing.  There is one problem lurking in the background, however, represented by the secret engagement between Juliana Banks, one of the pupils, and Caroline Fennell, one of the most promising candidates for the Boudiccate: they are waiting for society’s recognition of women mages and for Caroline’s entry in the ruling body before making their relationship public, but recent events (explained in Thornbound, book 2 of the series) have turned Miss Fennell into something of a social outcast, and she’s ready to free Juliana from their bond to avoid tainting her future career.  What ensues is both a comedy of errors and a light-hearted romance that works very well within the magical background of Thornfell and its woodland fey dwellers.  And if I could enjoy this romantic interlude, despite my usual avoidance of the theme, you can be assured that it’s a charming one, indeed.

There are some serious themes at play here, as well, not least the emotional hardships suffered by some of these girls in the past, when they became aware of their magical abilities and had to hide or suppress them because of societal or familiar pressures – or both.  Here, at the school, they are finally free to express their full potential and to create the sense of family and belonging that so far has been denied them, as they promote the kind of change in society that can only come from inside and from example.

[…] because for the first time ever, she was surrounded by a sisterhood of women who valued her for who she truly was, flaws included.

Together with the romantic misunderstanding at the core of Moontangled, this is what makes this story a pleasure to read, creating an enjoyable balance between its… fluffier aspects and the character exploration that I’ve come to expect from Ms. Burgis’ works.  And a special mention must be made for the gorgeous cover that perfectly complements the contents and is only the latest in a series of equally beautiful illustrations for the series.

Moontangled will be available from February 3rd: it can be read as a stand-alone, of course, but if you want to enjoy the full experience, I strongly advise you to seek the other novels and novellas in the series, first – and happy reading!

 

My Rating:

Reviews

A FLEET OF KNIVES (Embers of War #2), by Gareth Powell

 

Embers of War, the first volume of Gareth Powell’s space opera saga, brought to my attention a new series that looked more than promising both in narrative scope and in writing quality, but it’s with this second book,  A Fleet of Knives, that I became even more invested in the story as it raised the overall stakes in a major way, turning into a breathless, compelling read that cost me several hours of missed sleep as I kept promising myself “just one more chapter”….

The background: a galaxy still recovering from the aftermath of a devastating war and looking for peace and stability, which are nonetheless hard to find. In Embers of War we met several key players in this scenario: Sal Konstanz, a ship’s captain from the House of Reclamation, a peaceful organization devoted to rescuing endangered spacers; Annelida Deal, former commander of the fleet that put an end to the war by ordering a heinous act of genocide, and hiding under the assumed identity of poet Ona Sudak; and the sentient ship Trouble Dog, once part of that attacking fleet and now working for the House of Reclamation to expiate its sins.  At the end of the first book, Trouble Dog and its crew managed to avoid a rekindling of the old conflict, while waking a million-ships-strong alien fleet from its millennial slumber: the Marble Armada, this is the collective name for these knife-shaped ships – hence the book’s title – had been tasked by its creators to uphold the peace and by rousing it Trouble Dog set in motion the events portrayed in A Fleet of Knives.

Captain Konstanz and her crew are dealing with the traumas sustained in the course of their last mission, especially the captain who feels guilty both for the loss of a valued officer and for the way one of her decisions affected the ship’s newest crewmember: when a request for help comes their way, the interpersonal balance aboard Trouble Dog is a very delicate one indeed.   For her part, Ona Sudak has been tried and convicted for her war crimes and as the day of her execution approaches, a commando frees her from the prison and takes her where the Marble Armada is stationed: the sentient alien fleet is ready to comply with its mandate – prevent any kind of war by taking away the means to do so – and therefore it needs a leader who is prepared to act with dispassionate callousness – and who better than the person who destroyed an entire world?

The third major plot point focuses on a group of new characters: the merchant ship Lucy’s Ghost is maneuvering toward a derelict Nymtoq generation vessel, now abandoned, to reclaim all salvageable items in the hope of shoring up the finances of the crew and its captain, “Lucky” Johnny Schultz: attacked by a trans-dimensional entity, Lucy’s Ghost suffers heavy damage and the survivors are forced to repair to the Nymtoq ship while waiting for help from the House of Reclamation. Their problems go from worrisome to deadly when they must fight for their lives in a vessel swarming with nightmarish creatures coming from the same trans-dimensional fissure that disgorged their attacker.   

If all of the above were not disturbing enough, the Marble Armada, led by Ona Sudak whose guilt feelings and scruples seem to evaporate all too quickly in the wake of her newfound power, launches on a sort of holy “war to end all wars” by destroying everyone who dares to oppose it: the ships’ twisted logic about the application of violence in the present to eradicate it in the future offers a chilling, if enthralling, prospect for the series’ next developments and the terrifying consequences for a humanity driven to remain planet-bound to maintain the peace – a peace enforced at gunpoint….

Where the previous book introduced the main players of this saga and set the background for it, A Fleet of Knives moves to the next level by blending action and characterization in a seamless and gripping way: Trouble Dog and its crew are dealing with various degrees of PTSD and it’s both sad and fascinating to see how they react to it and how they deal with each other while trying to still be effective as a rescue ship, to perform the good, selfless deeds that now more than ever are their main reason to go on. And amid such turmoil, the crewmember who shines the brightest is the alien engineer Nod: I already commented, in my previous review, about how delightful a character he is, but here I looked forward to his chapters and loved his simple, but heartfelt, way of looking at his broken family as something that could – must – be repaired. Because fixing things is Nod’s life and joy and his philosophy does not contemplate the impossibility of mending something in need of repair.

Trouble Dog arrives at a similar conclusion from a different angle: once it was part of a “pack” of ships whose components included human and canine DNA, so that now it misses that pack and the sense of belonging it offered, until it realizes that it can find it right here, with its crew, the family it needs to keep safe and protected – at any cost.  One of the best details of these novels comes from the ships’ avatars, which manifest as human beings changing their appearance according to the circumstances and therefore expressing a sort of emotional statement from A.I.s who are not devoted to absolute logic: and so we are treated to the many incarnations in which Trouble Dog appears to its crewmates, or the various little-girl manifestations of Lucy’s Ghost, its component brain cells coming from a dying child whose father choose to preserve her as a ship’s interface many years back, and therefore expresses itself as a combination of young innocence and long-standing wisdom.  On this note it’s interesting to note that the interface A.I. from the Marble Armada chooses to appear not as a human being but as a huge bear, and given the fleet’s ultimate goal this is a disturbing consideration indeed…

These interesting characters – even the less savory ones, like Ona Sudak – are complemented by a compelling narrative that’s part mystery, part action and part moral debate on the price of peace and the ways to implement it, opening a completely new chapter in the story as it steers toward the brewing galactic conflict, the eventual resistance to the Armada’s overwhelming advance and the new, terrifying danger represented by the inter-dimensional creatures roaming in space.  To say more would mean spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of this series, one whose next book I more than look forward to reading.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Vorkosigan Saga: CRYOBURN, by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

And here we are at the last chapter of my Vorkosigan revisitation – yes, there are two more stories, The Flowers of Vashnoi and Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, which were published after I began blogging, so you can follow the links if you are interested – but as far as the older books are concerned, this is it 🙂  and I can’t hide my sadness at the thought I will have once again to say goodbye to the world and characters I enjoy so much.

Cryoburn is not one of my favorite Miles stories, although it’s a nice one that hits all the usual themes (and a few new ones as well) while moving smoothly along: still, like it happened with a couple of its predecessors, I can’t shake the feeling that Bujold has said all she wanted or needed to say about Miles & Co. and that the famous forward momentum, her main character’s defining element, is petering out.

In this novel our energetic Imperial Auditor is on the planet of Kibou-daini to attend a conference on cryonics, the planet’s major industry: here people who are afflicted by conditions for which there is no treatment yet, or simply waiting for a cure against aging, choose to be cryo-preserved while waiting for the solution to their problems. The mega corporations offering such services have come with time to gather considerable political power and are of course seeking to extend it beyond the planetary limits.  Miles’ covert goal is to investigate what looks like a corporate financial takeover aimed at the Barrayaran empire, and at the start of the novel we see him in a bad state, drugged and wandering through the catacombs where frozen people wait to be reawakened.  It’s a chilling and unsettling beginning, one that throws you straight into the middle of things with no knowledge of what has transpired, not unlike disoriented and hallucinating Miles.

Luckily for him, he meets twelve-year old Jin, a boy whose anti-corporation activist mother was frozen because of alleged health problems: Jin has been living on the roof of a building where many of Kibou-daini’s dispossessed dwell, and he kindly offers Miles a shelter where the Auditor is able to come back to his senses and then launch into a very Milesian campaign against the evil corporations and their goals.

Cryoburn feels somewhat different from the usual Miles caper, and I’ve come to believe that it’s because there is no immediate danger to his world or the people he cares about here, apart from the scam he’s come to break down and that looks more like an inconvenience than anything else. In his previous adventures he was laboring for far higher stakes, like issues close to his heart, to Barrayar’s interests or related to his survival, while here the whole situation has the flavor of a job – a well done job, granted, but nothing so thrilling as what happened in the past, despite a few intriguing goings-on.

The Miles Vorkosigan we meet in Cryoburn is a more sedate person as well, which is unsurprising since he’s now 38 years old, a father of four and well-established in his role as Auditor. Still I do miss the old Miles and his mad antics, even more so when they manage to surface as a mere shadow of the past ones – and if faithful Armsman Roic is always ready to try and keep his liege lord away from trouble, those glimpses feel more like nostalgic echoes of what was, and end up coating this story with a thin layer of regret, at least for me.

On the positive side, this quieter but more assertive Miles is a joy to behold when he deals with young Jin and his sister: it’s clear from those interactions that he had ample practice with his own children and that he’s now able to relate to young people with tact and kindness –  a side of him we had not seen before and which rounds his overall character in a nice, but unsurprising way considering the parenting example he could draw inspiration from…

What makes this book interesting is the underlying theme of life and death, and the impermanence of both in light of cryo-preservation techniques, not to mention the political implications that come from the individuals’ voting power handed down to the corporations while they lie frozen, which sounds quite crazy. There is also a thought-provoking question about the dubious advantage of waking up, decades after one was frozen, to find the world so changed that the returnees are unable to find their place back in it. And all of the above takes a special significance for Miles since he was indeed technically dead in the cryo-chamber where the Dendarii stowed him in Mirror Dance, and he had to walk a long road to a recovery that was far from complete.

As light and fairly amusing as Cryoburn is, it does pack an unexpected punch in the end – a very abrupt end brought on by three words that leave Miles as shell-shocked as the reader. If you read the book you know what I’m talking about…   And both shock and the ensuing grief at those words are compounded by the short drabbles Bujold employs as a sort of coda to that staggering revelation, the event seen through the eyes of some of the characters we have come to know and love: more than Miles’ it was Gregor’s point of view that brought me to tears.  Not something I would usually associate with a Vorkosigan novel….

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

PARIAH (Donovan #3), by W. Michael Gear

Even before reading Pariah, I was very happy to learn it would not be the last book in the Donovan series, but now that I finished this third installment I’m even more glad that the story will not end here, because this latest novel considerably raised the stakes while still leaving many questions unanswered.

Donovan is so far the only habitable world discovered by humanity and it stands at thirty light-years from Earth: the voyage to reach it is fraught with dangers, mostly because the drive technology – which creates a sort of shortcut between distances – does not always work as intended, so that some ships are lost forever or emerge at destination after decades or centuries, the crews having succumbed to hardship or madness. For this reason the colonists of Donovan have learned to rely only on themselves, and had to do it in a very hostile environment: if the planet’s soil is both fertile and rich in minerals, the place is also filled with aggressive flora and fauna waiting only to prey on unwary humans.

Book 1, Outpost, saw the arrival of the ship Turalon, bringing new colonists and a supervisor from the Corporation – the entity ruling Earth and financing the colony ships: what they found was a reality far removed from their expectations and a society ill-disposed to fall again under the thumb of a far-off organization. Book 2, Abandoned, showed us how the new arrivals tried to integrate in Donovanian society, adapting their outlook and goals to the planet’s unexpected environment – and there was also the added mystery of the ghost ship Freelander and its ominous cargo of bones.

Pariah expands on its predecessors by showing us how the characters we know are progressing in their journey: security Chief Talina Perez is dealing with the “infection” from quetzal DNA – they are the planet’s largest predators, and their ability to mix molecules between species might hold the key to communication and, perhaps, a truce; the changes Talina undergoes range from improved vision and hearing to what look like hallucinations that impair her ability to function. For this reason she chooses to leave Port Authority, Donovan’s main settlement, to deal with these changes without endangering her fellow colonists. Former supervisor Kalico Aguila has long forgotten her corporate ambitions and is turning into a worthy Donovanian, not only because she’s learned to integrate with the rest of the colony, but because she takes to heart its well-being, to the point that she’s very serious about the threats against her new home. Dan Wirth, the escaped criminal who arrived with Turalon, has consolidated his hold on the less savory sides of colonial economy like gambling and prostitution, and is now striving for a patina of respectability by building a school, although no one is willing to trust him as far as they can throw him…

As with previous instances, it’s the unexpected arrival of the ship Vixen that upsets the ever-precarious balance of Port Authority, partly because the Vixen has been considered lost for 50 years – while its crew and passengers’ subjective experience was that of an instantaneous travel from Earth to Donovan – and partly because two of those passengers prove highly disruptive, each in his own way.

Dr. Dortmund Weisbacher is an environmental preservationist who made his name and career with a program for the revival of ancient Earth flora and fauna in protected areas and is determined to safeguard Donovan’s biome at all costs: he’s a haughty and self-centered individual with a high opinion of his own value, untouched by the harsh wake-up call he receives once he learns that the planet has already been colonized and that the “contamination” he loathes has become a reality in the past few decades. Not even the information that his carefully maintained Earth preservations failed, because plants and animals had not built an evolved resistance to the current micro-organisms, can shake him out of his blind faith, nor is Donovan able to make him understand its basic principle, that foolishness means grievous harm, or death. Weisbacher’s obtuse lack of perspective helps to drive home once again Donovan’s most important law, the need to adapt to one’s environment to ensure survival, and the fact that this planet does not forgive recklessness or mistakes.

A lesson that the other new player seems to ignore as well: where Weisbacher is merely an annoyance, in the grand scheme of things, Tamarland Benteen is another matter entirely. Ally and henchmen of a Corporation CEO, he boards Vixen just in time to avoid capture by an opposing faction, and once he realizes there is no return to Earth he decides to build his own empire on Donovan by applying the cut-throat methods that served him so well on Earth. Deadly as a poisonous snake and totally without scruples he proceeds to create a power base in Port Authority but, as the arrogant professor, he fails to understand the true dynamics of the colony and its inhabitants. Where I previously hated Dan Wirth with a passion, Benteen made me see how there are several degrees of evil and that the one held by Wirth is clearly not the worst one…

The power struggle that ensues is one of the driving themes of Pariah, and builds an ever-escalating tension that compelled me to keep turning the pages to see where the author would take the story, and for this reason it made Talina’s battle with her inner demons a somewhat less interesting theme than intended. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s a very important subject, made even more fascinating by the journey into the Mayan lore at the roots of Talina’s past, but to me it seemed to take too long and it was somewhat confusing, while all I wanted was to see how the situation in Port Authority ran its course. In the end, all the pieces fit together well (and I’m not using this metaphor at random…) and open the way to a possible change in the relationship between humans and quetzals, but still, seeing Talina helpless in the face of what was happening to her felt so wrong – given the way her personality had been drawn – that I could not wait to get over it all. On the other hand, having the chief security operative out of the way for part of the novel allowed other ‘regulars’ to get more space and to delve deeper into their characters, particularly in the case of Kalico Aguila who is quickly turning into my favorite player. She is still the commanding woman who is used to see things go her way, but she has learned to apply those drives to the common good: Donovan has marked her in more ways than one, but Aguila is one of the finest examples of the maxim “what does not kill us, makes us stronger”.

As a small aside, I would like to add that I was pleased for the confirmation a certain suspicion I had been nurturing from Book 1, about what happened with Cap Taggart: if you read the book you will know what I’m talking about… 😉

With Outpost and Abandoned, the author introduced us to an epic struggle for survival in an unforgiving environment, but it’s with Pariah that he consolidated his vision of this world and its people: I’m beyond curious to see where he will take us next, and what other dangers and mysteries will face the people of Donovan, but I’m certain that it will be a thrilling adventure.

 

My Rating: