Reviews

Review: EXIT STRATEGY (The MurderBot Diaries #4), by Martha Wells

The adventures of our beloved SecUnit have come to an end – at least as far as this cycle of novellas is concerned, since a full-length novel has been announced, to the utter delight of all us MurderBot fans. So Exit Strategy does not mark the final farewell to a character that has grown in complexity and facets as the overall story progressed, but on the other hand it marks the closing of the circle, so to speak, because MurderBot moves once more into the sphere of the former clients it protected in All Systems Red, and completes the mission it had tasked itself with once it decided to turn rogue.

In the previous installment, MB had managed to collect some incriminating evidence that might enable it to uncover the deadly, illegal activities of GrayCris, and its intention was to take it to Dr. Mensah, the scientist who had seen beyond the unit’s detached façade and wanted to give it freedom and equal status. Learning however that GrayCris is fighting back on two levels – openly in court, attacking Mensah, and more stealthily by later abducting Mensa herself – it decides to launch into a rescue operation and joins with Mensah’s colleagues, offering its help and specialized skills.

The result is a breathtakingly humorous tale of a battle with the corporation’s operatives that is fought on many levels: there are a few physical engagements, granted, but most of MurderBot’s strategy is geared toward system hacking and misdirection, with a wide variety of tactics that made me often think of some of the most famous cinematic heists, like Ocean’s Eleven and its brethren, with the difference that instead of a group of skilled individuals acting in concert, here we have a lone SecUnit that has raised multitasking to an exquisite art form.

And here comes the first admission that MurderBot’s experiences have wrought important changes to its mental structure, that working and thinking “outside the box” has expanded its limits, or what it perceived as such:

[…] all this coding and working with different systems on the fly had opened up some new neural pathways and processing space.

Not only that, but its observation of humans – both in real life and through the media that MB consumes with voracity –  taught it to discern between behavioral patterns, to the point that it’s able to spot the corporation operatives as they try to pass for normal tourists in a crowded station, while their affected nonchalance is evident to the SecUnit, thanks to its studies on the body language it tried to mimic in its attempt to pass as an enhanced human.

With such awareness comes however the far more uncomfortable one about the SecUnit’s potential where feelings are concerned, something that it kept trying to deny with ever-dwindling conviction, something it has to finally deal with here and acknowledge it’s part of its own makeup, a side of its personality that has nothing to do with the programming it received but comes straight from what – and who – MurderBot is:

“It was too late for you to help them, then.” […] “But you wanted to.”

“I’m programmed to help humans.”

Eyebrow lift again. ”You’re not programmed to watch media.”

She had a point.

It’s the first, uneasy admission that it might be more than the mere assembly of organic and mechanic parts that constitute a SecUnit, and that the bothersome feelings that were the cause of much anxiety and stress in the past, and of extreme dislike when they manifested themselves, might be part and parcel of the new entity that still calls itself MurderBot, but is not anymore. The first glimmers of that reluctant acceptance can be seen when it meets with Mensah’s former colleagues and they greet it as an old friend, but the real moment of truth comes as it reunites with Mensah, the first person who saw MurderBot as a person (as uncomfortable as that was back then): in what looks like a spur-of-the-moment concession, no matter all the justifications it gives itself, the SecUnit gives Mensah permission to touch it:

I braced myself and made the ultimate sacrifice. “Uh, you can hug me if you need to.”

She started to laugh, then her face did something complicated and she hugged me. I upped the temperature in my chest and told myself it was like first aid.

It was such a delightful scene, and to me it was the first voluntary step toward the Big Unknown represented by the feelings that MurderBot had always kept away from, not out of sheer refusal, but out of fear:

I hadn’t ben afraid that she wasn’t my friend, I had been afraid that she was, and what it did to me.

With this momentous scene Exit Strategy seals the end of MurderBot’s first phase of change, one that through the first four novellas showed the slow but unavoidable development of a creature that for some reason was able to overcome its programming and moved in an unexpected direction. Now that the transformations in its outward appearance have enhanced its organic (human…) side, and that it has accepted the feelings that it started experiencing vicariously through its beloved media shows, it will be fascinating to see where Martha Wells will take it and what further surprises MurderBot has in store for us.

And I can’t wait…

 

 

My Rating:

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Reviews

Review: TIAMAT’S WRATH (The Expanse #8), by James S.A. Corey (spoiler free)

 

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

While there might be spoilers for the previous books in the series, I will try my best to avoid any in this review: to do otherwise would be a huge disservice to anyone reading this.

More than many of its predecessors, this new installment in The Expanse series took me through an emotional rollercoaster that left me breathless, and often reeling in shock – starting with the opening sentence that is nothing short of a violent punch in the gut.     And I freely admit feeling more than a little incensed at the authors for leading with that

Story-wise, the galaxy is far from a happy place: granted, it was no unicorns and rainbows before, when Earth, Mars and the Belt were at each other’s throat and the protomolecule ran amok throughout the Solar System, but after the all-to-brief respite enjoyed by humanity in the hiatus between Babylon’s Ashes and Persepolis Rising, the arrival of Duarte’s fleet and the founding of the Laconian Empire with its dictatorial iron fist have plunged mankind’s origin worlds and its many colonies into dark times indeed. The situation becomes even grimmer when the Laconians’ drive for expansion and dominance meets once again with the mysterious entity that once vanquished the protomolecule engineers: the show of force dictated by Duarte provokes a dramatic reaction that threatens the humans’ tenuous foothold on the many worlds beyond the alien gates and their continued survival, while giving the underground resistance a feeble chance to strike the kind of blow that might change the balance of power.

As for the Roci’s crew, they are scattered to the four winds: Holden is Duarte’s prisoner on Laconia; Bobbi and Alex, who have signed up with the resistance, are playing a dangerous game of sneak attacks on the enemy fleet; Naomi is doing her part by keeping the rebel network functioning and thriving, and Amos has been out of touch after undertaking a dangerous mission following Clarissa’s death.  Our heroes are quite aware of the David vs. Goliath nature of their struggle, and sometimes the temptation to leave it all behind, to find some quiet place to burrow down and live the rest of their lives in peace, makes itself felt and causes some tension among them, but never in such a measure as to bring them apart despite the wear and tear of life on the trenches.  For his part, Holden is not resigned to his prisoner-disguised-as guest situation, and still manages some small measure of defiance that shows he has not given up either on the struggle or the hope of one day being instrumental in the downfall of Laconia.

What becomes clear, as we follow the main characters’ individual journeys, is that the sense of family they built by living and working together for so long is too strong to succumb to the separation imposed by vast distances and the different paths taken: even when they are million of miles apart it’s as if they still shared space on the Roci, so that they still quote an absent friend’s catchphrase at the appropriate moment, or recollect their gestures or expressions in the face of similar occurrences. It’s a way to keep alive the memory of those who are far away and to show that the bonds that tie them together are strong and vital: I found myself deeply touched reading such passages, not just because they worked so well in the economy of the story, but because the Roci’s crew has grown on me so much that I have long since stopped envisioning them simply as fictional characters, and they have become living and breathing people I keep caring about.

Alongside our old friends we see the story through some new – or newfound – points of view: Elvi Okoye, the scientist we met in Cibola Burn, is now working for the Laconian military in what she believes is a mission of discovery beyond the alien gates and instead turns out to be something quite different.  Much as I did not care overmuch for her character in that first encounter, here I greatly enjoyed her point of view, mainly the fine line she and her husband have to walk, balancing the needs of scientific study with the goals of the hierarchy, especially the Laconian expansionist and merciless military.  Looking through her eyes gives us a measure of what it means living under an oppressive regime that likes to paint itself as benevolent and enlightened while it conducts appalling experiments on human subjects, and I managed to sympathize with her dilemma between the drive of scientific curiosity and the need to adhere to ethical standards: Elvi gains a good number of facets here, and I always welcomed her p.o.v. chapters with great interest.

The new addition is represented by Teresa Duarte, the teenaged daughter of the High Consul and the heir-in-training to the empire: her path takes her from basking in the illusion of a charmed life to waking up to far starker reality that forces her to grow up much faster than her already peculiar position previously required her to.  Teresa is an interesting character and in some way her journey mirrors Elvi’s in reverse: having been indoctrinated from birth to believe that Laconia is a force for good, she has to wake up to reality bit by bit, and probably the major factor in this change of perspective comes from a dramatic event that undermines the belief in freedom of choice she had given for granted until that moment.  I realize how cryptic this sounds, but there is a huge spoiler here, and all I can say about it is that this narrative thread was another of those gut-punches I mentioned before, one of the many that the authors deliver in this latest Expanse installment.

But of course my favorite character remains Naomi Nagata: I’ve always envisioned her as a mixture of strength and wistfulness, the latter tied to past experiences and mistakes that still prey on her mind, and in this novel she still tries to temper the underground’s penchant for violent action by being the voice of reason. It’s clear that this desire comes both from the weight of her past and the need to keep faith with Holden’s vision – a means to keep his legacy alive and to lessen the sting of his absence: for this reason Naomi chooses to isolate herself, to work in a sort of bubble – both physical and mental – that page after page takes on the aspect of a chrysalis in which she undergoes a change, one that will become evident as the events unfold and will transform her in a very unexpected way. Again, I apologize for the vagueness with which I’m expressing this, but I want you to enjoy this journey on your own, and if you are Team Naomi like I am, you will certainly want to explore this with as little prior knowledge as possible. You will not be disappointed.

If the characters, old and new, are the backbone of the story, the story itself is a constant escalation of events that become more and more pressing as the stakes pile up in a breath-stealing progression that moves inexorably toward the final showdown, and a further change of perspective in a series that bases its very strength in such changes. Be prepared for some painful shocks as well, and a constant worry about what is going to happen next: given the premises carried from the past installments and those contained in Tiamat’s Wrath,  the ninth and final book in this amazing series will certainly blow our minds.

And I can’t wait to read it…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: OBSIDIO (The Illuminae Files #3), by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

 

Before launching into my review of the third and final volume of the Illuminae Files, I would like to share a detail of my “history” with this series: since most, if not all, of my reading happens through ebooks, I acquired the first two installments of the series in that format, and although I enjoyed the story immensely I was also aware that the peculiar narrative form chosen by the authors – which includes memos, transcripts, graphics and even sentences deployed in strange and convoluted patterns – did not work as well on an e-reader as it would on a printed page. For this reason I also bought the physical books for Illuminae and Gemina to see what I had missed, and once the date of publication for Obsidio was announced, I decided to directly acquire the physical book and read the story in the… old-fashioned way.  And it was indeed a good decision, because this is an amazing way of telling a story.

Please be aware that this review might contain spoilers for the first two books: if you have not read them, don’t go any further!

Obsidio closes the circle that started in Illuminae with the assault on the mining colony of Kerenza, perpetrated by BeiTech Corporation against what they deemed an illegal operation: in the first book we followed the survivors of the attack as they attempted to flee on a handful of ships to reach the Heimdall transit station; the second volume focused on BeiTech’s attempt to eliminate them, and therefore any witness to the massacre, by taking control of Heimdall.  Here, the few who escaped both assaults – now crowded aboard the very stressed-out Hypatia and the newly acquire Mao – have decided that going back to Kerenza is the only viable choice, which becomes all the more imperative once they learn that BeiTech intends to kill the remaining miners on the planet once they have extracted the precious hermium that is the planet’s main resource, leaving no trace of their heinous crime.

All the characters we encountered along the road are present here: Kady and Ezra, Hanna and Nik and Nik’s cousin Ella, as well as the other people (those still alive, that is…) who shared their journey.  Their trials on the crowded ships, their plans for the coming battle and their hopes and fears act as a counterpoint to the events on Kerenza itself, where we make the acquaintance of Asha Grant (Kady’s cousin) and her ex boyfriend Rhys, now one of the BeiTech “ground pounders” from the occupying force.  I must say that I found the planet-bound sections quite fascinating, both in terms of narrative impact and of character exploration: even though the previous relationship between the two youngsters feels a little convenient (in my opinion it would have worked just as well if they had been complete strangers), it helps in highlighting the dire situation of the miners on one side and of the soldiers on the other, showing how extreme circumstance can bring to the surface both the best and the worst in human beings.

The miners know their life expectancy is limited, and are doing their best to try and draw out that timeline in the hope of rescue, as improbable as it might look, so that we can witness acts of courage and self sacrifice as well as foolish choices driven by rage, despair and the burning need for vengeance.  The BeiTech soldiers, for their part, range from the “just following orders” kind – some of them even enjoying the power of life and death they are given over their victims – to those who are painfully aware of the atrocities they are committing, but are unable to act differently because they know any kind of defiance would be futile.  There are some scenes where these soldiers try to forget the unpleasantness of their duties by spending time in endless card games interspersed with heavy banter, but one can somehow feel the desperate effort this is, and in some way perceive the humanity that the robot-like armor encasing them cannot completely conceal.

As fascinating as all of the above was, the events transpiring aboard the ship headed for Kerenza were the ones that drew my more intense focus, because they mixed the efforts at survival with the frantic plans to overcome BeiTech’s stranglehold on Kerenza – a David vs. Goliath kind of struggle that was fraught with uncertainty and the ever-present awareness of potential failure.  The young people who were at the center of previous events, forced by circumstances to grow up quickly and make harrowing choices, here must wage a war on two fronts: one represented by the might of BeiTech and its aggressive power, and one represented by several adults who are unable – or unwilling – to give them the credit they are due and still view them as children, underestimating them and forcing them to prove themselves time and again.  This thread adds a very frustrating element to the story, but also one that was both electrifying and suspenseful.

And last but not least I must mention AIDAN, the insane, murderous AI with a conscience (much as that might appear as a contradiction!) who despite the horrible acts of the past, and the present, keeps growing in his understanding and acceptance of human emotions. There is a section, here in Obsidio, where AIDAN makes a hard choice that is both appalling and necessary, fully aware of the consequences but also aware that not to act would be a worse option:

And in the end, I suppose it will not matter what they name me. […] And it does not matter what they believe. […]  I am not good. Nor am I evil. I am no hero. Nor am I villain. I am AIDAN.

It’s a bleak choice, and the dispassionate (?) way in which AIDAN observes it stresses even more the AI’s loneliness, one that never fails to tug at my heart because – no matter how many deaths he’s responsible for – AIDAN strikes me as the proverbial child looking into a warm home from the outside cold, knowing that he will never be part of it.  The fact I have used “he” and not “it” to speak about AIDAN is a clear indication of what I feel about this character and his journey, one that should be discovered on its own…

As the conclusive book in what has been an electrifying trilogy, Obsidio works quite well and manages to keep the suspense and uncertainty about the outcome until the very end, and if it cheats a little in one particular regard (spoiler territory, so I apologize for being cryptic), I can forgive it in the name of the amazing narrative tension that carried me from start to finish.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: THE TYRANT’S LAW (The Dagger and the Coin #3), by Daniel Abraham

 

Once again I managed to let a long time elapse between this book and its predecessor, but once I returned to this world I discovered that my memory of it was as fresh and sharp as if I had finished Book 2 just yesterday, and this can show you the measure of Daniel Abraham’s skill as a storyteller and the impact of his characters on a reader’s imagination.

When considering epic fantasy it’s easy to think about grand, sweeping stories that encompass vast expanses of territory and a huge cast of characters, and while Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin series does take place in such a background, it manages to advance the plot through a limited number of P.O.V. characters, namely four, and to switch seamlessly between them keeping a constant rhythm that helps you fly through the novel and find yourself at the end of the book wanting for more.  Granted, The Tyrant’s Law is in the unenviable position of being the middle book in a series of five, and there are moments when it seems to lag a little, but it’s just an impression, and an incorrect one, since in the end I saw what the author was doing here, which is build some momentum that will certainly propel the final two books toward their intended goal.

The world in which this story grows has never been a peaceful one: legends speak of bloody conflicts in the past – an era in which dragons ruled, the only sign of their existence in present times represented by the jade-paved roads that connect the cities – and the co-existence among the thirteen races who roam through the lands is not an easy one; moreover, in the first book readers witnessed the wanton destruction of a flourishing city and the slaughter of its inhabitants.  Now, however, those conflicts seem to have been rekindled with a vengeance, and the unrest that fueled a civil war in the imperial city of Camnipol is spreading throughout the world, taking on the ugly new face of a bid for power masked under a cultural, religious and racial battle for supremacy through conquest and submission.

The new, rising power is represented by the spider goddess’ priests and their goal to subjugate everyone under the goddess’ banner: after securing themselves a position of supremacy by backing the former nobody Geder Palliako, they proceed to focus their conquering drive by finding a convenient scapegoat in the form of one of the thirteen races, the Timzinae, and conducting a genocidal campaign of hate and distrust that justifies any action they take.  It’s nothing new either in the imagined or in the real world, and this awareness keeps imbuing the story with chilling overtones that feel even more terrifying for their historical familiarity.

Two of the main characters, Captain Marcus Wester and Master Kit (former priest now turned apostate and hiding as an actor troupe leader) try to find a weapon against the encroaching power of the goddess and her priesthood, and embark on a long, dangerous journey in search of a powerful artifact that might destroy the goddess herself.  I already remarked, in my review of the previous book, how diminished Marcus Wester looked once he stepped away from his role as a military leader, and here he still has not regained that former strength that had made him stand out as a character at the beginning of the narrative arc. Even through the hardships he and Kit have to face, and despite the great resilience he shows in the course of their quest, I found it difficult to really feel interested in Marcus’ journey, and I have to admit that I found his P.O.V. chapters the less engaging of the book, at least in comparison with what happens to the other characters.   The last segment where he appears, though, holds the promise of a big change, and I look forward to seeing what will happen with the amazing discovery he and Master Kit are faced with at the end of the novel.

Despite being confined somewhat in the sidelines here, Cithrin enjoys a much more interesting character arc: after demonstrating to her employers, the Medean bank, that she is an able businesswoman, she is officially apprenticed to an important branch in Timzinae territory, and finds herself a little lost, and disappointed.  The harsh experiences that tempered her in the fateful escape from Vanai led her to believe she could do anything, and made her not a little self-centered: here she must deal with the knowledge that she still has a great deal to learn, especially where the real value of money is concerned.  When Geder’s army takes control of the city and starts its cruel oppression of the Timzinae, she realizes what the true power of money is, and it’s the kind of revelation that is bound to change her outlook and thought processes in a major way – this becomes clear in a fateful choice she makes that will certainly have major repercussions along the way, and I can’t wait to see which will be the direction that Daniel Abraham has chosen for this girl who is finally starting to perceive the realities beyond the bank’s ledgers.

As for Geder… well, he is a wonderful character in the sense that he’s complex and unpredictable at the same time, but he’s also a horrible one. While reviewing the two previous books I already commented on his decisions to mete unthinking destruction with the same lack of empathy one might reserve for insects, but it’s the changes through which he is going that prove to be the most appalling. The man who started out as a bumbling, book-loving nerd, finds himself suddenly gifted with great power, flattered and bowed to by the same people who used to despise and ridicule him, and while he does not gloat about his change of fortunes, there is a deep well of unexpressed resentment in him, of desire for retribution, that drives his actions in the most nasty and shocking of directions.  The person who best describes him is indeed Cithrin, with whom he fell in love as they hid in a basement during the worst of the civil unrest in Camnipol:

“Geder’s not a cunning man,” Cithrin said. “He’s… he’s just a man of too little wisdom and too much power.”

“He is a terrible person, you know. But he’s also not. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who managed to make himself so alone.”

And it’s Geder’s infatuation for Cithrin which might be the proverbial straw that will snap his last, feeble ties with reason and humanity and send him further down the road to hell.  Whether I will still pity him in the future, as I did in the past… only time will tell.

I’ve saved discussing my favorite character for last, because her chapters were the ones I most looked forward to, and her arc the most intriguing and fascinating of the whole saga: Clara Kalliam, former lady of substance in the community of Camnipol, is now the widow of a traitor and has fallen down to the bottom of social standing, but being the dragon lady she is, she might be powerless but she is not broken. I totally loved how she maintains appearances and keeps working her contacts, a true spider weaving a complex web geared toward the fulfillment of her plan – because she has one, and it’s both ambitious and far-reaching.  Where other women might have fallen prey to despair and given up the fight, she understands that her reduced standing has given her a freedom of movement that she did not possess when she had to conform to society’s strict rules:

Her actions and opinions were impotent, and so they could be anything. She was already fallen, and so she’d been freed.

What Clara has set in motion will certainly change the fate of many, and I am beyond eager to see where her machinations will take the rest of the story: the simple fact that the next book’s title is The Widow’s House sounds very, very promising…

As a middle book in the narrative arc, The Tyrant’s Law might deceptively look like a transition novel, but in the end it proved to be the beginning of a huge game change, one that will keep me reading on with keen interest.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: SUFFER A SEA CHANGE (October Daye #12.1), by Seanan McGuire

 

At the end of October Daye’s latest novel, Night and Silence, there was a welcome surprise, the novella Suffer a Sea Change which explores at some length (and promises more for the future, hopefully) one of the most poignant narrative elements of its parent novel.

A synopsis is out of the question, since it would spoil both the main book and the enjoyment of this novella, so what I can share is that it deals with a very interesting point of view character: Gillian, October’s daughter, the daughter that for so many years felt abandoned and betrayed by her mother, not knowing the real reason for Toby’s prolonged absence and her choice not to be part of Gillian’s life anymore.

One of the details I immediately noticed was how Gillian’s inner ‘voice’ is similar to Toby’s: finding herself in a scary, unusual situation, she often resorts to that form of dry sarcasm that is her mother’s way of dealing with fear and helplessness.

Gillian’s nature might be closer to her mother’s than she suspects, and this might be one of the elements that could bring them together – and considering what a weak, contemptible person Cliff turned out to be in Night and Silence, or in light of the discovery of step mother Miranda’s not-so-crystalline motivations, I believe that an intelligent young woman like Gillian might be able to see the whole picture once she’s been given all the elements she needs.

My hope for a reconciliation lies mostly in some considerations from Gillian, like this one:

 

I hadn’t quite been able to work up the energy to hate her. When I thought about her, it made me sad, not angry […]

 

or this one:

 

I had spent so much of my life hating my biological mother that it was like a physical pain in my gut to realize that she might not be the villain of the piece after all.

 

It’s clear that Gillian needs to come to terms with her confused feelings about her mother, but first she will have to work through her own problems, and adapt to a different outlook on life, and that is the promise that comes across in this short story: that she will not be alone in doing so and that the greatest help might come from the Luidaeg brings me to hope for some very interesting developments where the Sea Witch is concerned, especially in relation to Toby and the people she cares about.

There is a great deal of emotion and character development in this short story, but I can safely say it’s one of the best I read among the companion tales to October’s main journey: the promise is there, all we have to do is for it to be fulfilled – in time.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: NIGHT AND SILENCE (October Daye #12), by Seanan McGuire

 

Even risking to sound like a broken record, I need to stress once more how this series keeps raising the stakes from one book to the next, how far it is from generating any kind of “reader fatigue” and how much I keep feeling invested, as a reader and a huge fan, in the ongoing story of October and friends.

More than in previous instances, this will be a difficult book to review because talking about it without giving away any spoilers is going to be a monumental feat, but I will try anyway, focusing rather on the character development and the emotional responses engendered by this twelfth installment in what I consider one of the best Urban Fantasy series of these years.

Since the blurb on GoodReads or other sites already mentions it, I feel safe in reporting that the main focus of Night and Silence is the kidnapping of Gillian, Toby’s estranged daughter, who disappeared from the Berkley campus leaving only an empty car and some traces of blood.  After the events of the previous book, Toby and her extended family are not in the best of shape: Tybalt and Jazz are dealing with their own version of PTSD, the King of Cats more than Jazz, and the distance he’s put between himself and Toby is hurting them both, leaving them unbalanced and vulnerable.  The appearance of Cliff, Toby’s former lover and Gillian’s father, and of Miranda, Cliff’s new wife, at Toby’s door, accusing her of the girl’s disappearance, launches a breakneck chase all over San Francisco, both in the mundane parts of the city and in the fae encroaching realms – a chase that will bring to light many unexpected revelations and a couple of actual narrative bombshells.  Not to mention a lot of shed blood – and I mean a lot: this might very well be the book in which October bleeds more than in any previous installment of the series…

 

“You lost a great deal of blood.”
“I didn’t lose it,” I said. “I know exactly where it is.”

I will freely admit that at first I was not completely sold on the kidnapping angle, since this particular story-line had already been explored in a previous book, but I should not have worried – as I soon became aware – because Seanan McGuire had no intention to retread old paths and managed to lead both her characters and her readers on a breathless adventure that paves the way for a number of unpredictable scenarios that will be the fuel for the next volumes.

What Night and Silence does very well is make us think about the meaning of family, and family ties, and the detail that comes to the fore with dramatic intensity is the contrast between what I might call Toby’s ‘original’, human-oriented family, made of Cliff and Gillian, and the one she built around herself with May, Tybalt, Quentin and all the other friends she’s made along the way.  Once more we are reminded of the fact that when October came back from her involuntary 14-year stint as a fish in a pond, Cliff did not even give her the chance to explain (hard as that might have been without revealing the existence of Faerie), and literally slammed the door in her face. He does not come across as a very nice or considerate person, and here he appears as completely subjected to his wife Miranda’s will: together they have done their best (or rather, their worst) to fuel Gillian’s pain and lack of understanding for Toby’s disappearance into a full-fledged hate of the girl’s natural mother.  And once a huge revelation about Miranda’s history and motivations becomes clear, the extent of their combined efforts takes on a sinister light that made me despise them even more, particularly when I kept witnessing Toby’s resigned acceptance of Gillian’s rejection: she can fight like an enraged lioness for the sake of her child, but she will not try to change the young woman’s point of view, and that’s quite painful to see.  On the other hand, there is a very intense conversation with Cliff, at some point, where finally October makes him face his responsibilities, and it’s a welcome exchange. Much welcome.

The only bright lights in this quite bleak panorama come from Tybalt and the Luidaeg: the King of Cats might be still recovering (and it looks like it’s going to be a long, long road) from his ordeal at the hands of Amandine, he might feel diminished in his ability to be an effective ruler, but when October is in dire need of his help he does not hesitate and shows that the strength of old is still there, ready to be deployed for the sake of the woman he loves.   I make no mystery that I’m not exactly partial to romance in my reading material, but in the case of October and Tybalt I’m always ready to make an exception, and I believe that’s because their relationship feels very real, with no need for the usual frills of a romantic entanglement: they are not simply lovers, they are friends and comrades who have learned their mutual strengths and weaknesses and know how to support each other when need arises.  The combination of Toby’s cynical approach to life and Tybalt’s old-world manner of expression makes for many delightful exchanges that always bring a smile to my face.

As for the Luidaeg… well, my favorite character after October truly shines here in Night and Silence: she is her usual gruff and abrasive self of course, and that’s to be expected, but she also shows her deep capacity for love and affection that the brusque manner she uses as a cover does not mask very well. Among the many revelations offered by this book, there are some concerning the Luidaeg that shine a new light on her character and, most important, on her past and the circumstances that made her who she is, that is, besides what we already knew about her…     What the Luidaeg does here for October and her own is the proof (as if we needed one…) of her deep affection for this changeling and also of the feeling of responsibility she harbors for Toby – I would be tempted to say that she is more of a mother than Amandine could ever be, even though I can almost hear her vehement denial of this conclusion…

If The Brightest Fell ended with many unresolved question and a dark pall hanging over the characters, Night and Silence offers a slight glimmer of hope for the future: it might not look much, at face value, but the potential for the righting of some wrongs in there, even though we already know that October and her friends’ path will never be smooth or easy.  But we would not want it any other way…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE AUTUMN REPUBLIC (Powder Mage #3), by Brian McClellan

 

My long and meandering way through this series has come to an end, and it was a very satisfying one, both story- and emotion-wise.  I used the words ‘long and meandering’ because I read the first volume Promise of Blood not long after it was published, and although I did like it, I did not feel strongly compelled to move forward with the series, since I had some slight issues with the book, mostly concerning the pacing and some characterizations.  Then some time ago I had the lucky opportunity of reading the ARC for the first volume of the sequel trilogy, Gods of Blood and Power, and I found there a more mature, more masterful control of story and characters, so that I decided to go back to… the origins so to speak, and discovered that hindsight helped me through the little ‘hiccups’ of the first book, so that once I reached the second, The Crimson Campaign, and this third installment, I could enjoy the tighter narrative and far more engaging storytelling. By now, Brian McClellan has become one of my favorite fantasy authors, one whose books I can always look forward to.

This final segment of the trilogy brings to a conclusion many of the threads that have been developing until now, bringing to a cusp the aftermath of Tamas’ revolution, the renewed conflict with the Kez and the resurgence of the ancient gods, and it does so with a sustained pace that never knows a moment of dullness. As enthralling as the events are, I would prefer to focus my review on the characters that move through them, because in The Autumn Republic they are explored in greater depth, and from new angles.  The only one I’m still unable, after three books, to really warm up to is Inspector Adamat: if I can sympathize with his past and present troubles and his ardent desire to keep his family safe, his segments are the ones that elicit the least interest in me as a reader, since I have been constantly incapable of forming any kind of attachment to this character.

It’s quite a different song for all the others, some of which we get to know better in this book, particularly Nila, the young laundress who recently discovered her Privileged powers: if at the beginning I wondered what part she was destined to play in the overall arc, here she fits wonderfully as the foil for Borbador, the only surviving member of the Adran cabal and Taniel’s long-time friend. Bo’s sometimes cavalier attitude toward his Privileged status and abilities might be tempered by what is basically a good nature and his affection for Taniel, but in the end he comes across as something of a spoiled child, and it falls on Nila, who he has taken on as an apprentice, to remind him of his duties as a human being and to cut him down to size when necessary.  I enjoyed quite a bit the interactions between the two of them and the way they end up supporting each other: what becomes clear at some point is Bo’s loneliness, and his yearning for the carefree days when he was part of Tamas’ family, so that I want to see this developing relationship between Bo and Nila as a way to re-create that sense of family he so clearly misses.

Vlora’s character enjoys some defining scenes in The Autumn Republic, and knowing the direction of her narrative arc in the following trilogy made me appreciate the hints of the more assertive personality she will develop later: here she is still trying to make amends for her past mistakes, and not for the first time I wondered at some of the comments I read about her not coming across as a very likable person, since I felt great sympathy for her since day one. Granted, she acted improperly and caused a great deal of grief, but almost no one (either readers or other characters) seemed to take into account her sense of loneliness and neglect that others manipulated for their own purposes, and that’s the reason I always felt more inclined to forgive her lapse.  Here she is able to mend her fences with both Tamas and Taniel, and at the same time starts on the road toward becoming her own woman instead of someone else’s protégée or betrothed, the beginning of a newfound independence that I can only approve of.    

Taniel, for his part, looks far more human than in previous instances: maybe being separated from Ka-poel (whose absence through most of the book is my only real complaint concerning this third volume) and his final admission about his feelings for her managed to shed a better light on him from my perspective. The whiny boy seems to be gone at last, and even though I still see some shadows in his character, he looks like a more grounded person, one who can recognize his failings and start to work on them. This becomes clear in his exchanges with Tamas, where for the first time in the series they actually speak to each other like father and son and not like two estranged acquaintances: their reciprocal admission of love, and the unspoken forgiveness for their past mistakes, is one of the more emotional passages in The Autumn Republic, one I realize I had been waiting for since book 1 and one that the author was able to convey with admirable deftness, down to a wonderful shared laugh that melts all the old misunderstandings and brings them together more than any words could.

Which finally brings me to Tamas, who has remained my favorite character throughout the story – faults included.  Here he sees his years-long planning nearing its conclusion, even though he’s aware that this does not mark the end of the struggle or that things did not turn out exactly as he envisioned them. There is a definite sense of needing to finally pass the reins to someone else, to give in to the weight of the years and the big and small injuries sustained during a long, hard career and the tight focus on his goal.  Tamas started taking stock of his past since the previous book, where he was assailed by some doubts about his ability to lead, so now that he sees himself at a crossroads and understands he left many things unsaid and undone, he feels compelled to correct any mistake he made along the way. Much as I enjoyed reading about his brilliant military strategy and his unwavering faith in the mission he set for himself, this softer side of Tamas complements wonderfully what was shown of the man until now, making him a more rounded and even more likable character – the true star of the narrative arc.

If I had read this trilogy when it came out, I would now be feeling quite bereft because I developed a deep fondness for this new fantasy genre and even more for the world Brian McClellan created, but as luck would have it, there is now more to be discovered in the next trio of books – and hopefully in many more that could follow.  The conclusion to the Powder Mage trilogy felt perfect in its promise for what is yet to come, but even more in the deeply touching feelings it engendered, even though they were tinged with sorrow: unfortunately this end is a bittersweet one, and if I understand the need for some of the author’s choices, I’m still in mourning for some of them – Brian McClellan has shown time and again he never pulls his punches, but when he sacrifices his characters he does so in a way that’s so balanced, in description and emotions, that I can forgive him for the pain we have to deal with…

The Powder Mage trilogy has now taken its place among my favorite stories, and it’s a world I will always enjoy visiting, in any form the author chooses.

 

My Rating: