Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Books that should be adapted into Netflix shows/movies

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point, ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday (created and hosted by  The Broke and Bookish) is now being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here.  

In one of my more recent posts I complained about Hollywood’s apparent inability to come up with enough original stories and the studios’ tendency of focusing on sequels, prequels and reboots when there is a TON of amazing books from which to draw inspiration. Maybe those studios executives don’t read enough…?

Anyway, the appearance – and success – of streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon and their brethren gives us much hope about the possibility of seeing our favorite stories translated for the small screen (which, given the average size of new television sets, is not so small anymore…).

In the aforementioned post, I expressed my hope that Megan O’Keefe’s Protectorate novels would be picked up for a TV series, but there is a long list of other books I would love to see developed with the same level of care and skill as is happening, for example, with James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse, stories that are not solely confined to the Science Fiction realm, but also come from Fantasy or Horror. And there is a great deal more than just ten, listed in no particular order, so apologies for ignoring the rules this time! 🙂

 

EMBERS OF WAR by Gareth Powell
DONOVAN by W. Michael Gear
THE MURDERBOT DIARIES by Martha Wells
OF BLOOD AND BONE by John Gwynne
THE FIRST LAW by Joe Abercrombie
THE POWDER MAGE by Brian McClellan
THE NEWSFLESH by Mira Grant
THE ILLUMINAE FILES by Amie Kaufmann and Jay Kristoff
OLD MAN’S WAR by John Scalzi
BLACKTHORN AND GRIM by Juliet Marillier
THE WOUNDED KINGDOM by R.J. Barker
RED RISING by Pierce Brown
REVELATION SPACE by Alastair Reynolds
GENERATION V by M.L. Brennan
THE PLAYER OF GAMES or USE OF WEAPONS by Iain Banks

 

 

I hope that some streaming platform executives are listening right now…

Reviews

UNRECONCILED (Donovan #4), by W. Michael Gear

 

The Donovan series has been one of my favorite stories of alien planet colonization from the very start, and with each new installment it manages to keep fresh and intriguing by adding new faces and new situations to the core elements and characters at its roots.  Capella III, a planet 30 light years from Earth, was named Donovan as a tribute to the first casualty from the initial wave of colonists: Donovan is a lush, promising world rich in precious minerals and with an abundance of fertile soil, but its nature – be it animal or vegetal – is beyond hostile and the population’s rate of survival is very low, even when taking all the possible precautions.

The original colonists have learned how to come to terms with their new home, but still life on Donovan is a dangerous one, even more so for the new arrivals – uncharitably called fresh meat – and particularly if their journey did not go as planned, as was the case of the ship Freelander, whose subjective journey went on for over a century and is now an empty derelict where weird ghostly apparitions and a mountain of bones are the only passengers; or of the Vixen, that appeared to arrive instantly at the planned destination but was in effect written off as lost for the past fifty years.

In this fourth novel of the saga, the ship Ashanti reaches Donovan after a journey that lasted seven years beyond its expected duration: knowing that the hydroponic tanks could not sustain the whole ship complement for so long, the passengers staged a revolt that forced Captain Galluzzi to seal them off in their deck, thus condemning them to starve to death so that the crew could reach Capella III alive. And yet the transportees somehow survived, led by the crazily charismatic leader Batuhan who turned anthropophagy into a religion, naming his followers the Unreconciled. The arrival of the Ashanti poses a new series of challenges for the Donovanians, who have to deal with a group of cannibalistic religious fanatics who represent both a danger for the colony and for themselves, since they are led by a madman who refuses to take any advice on how to deal with the planet’s threats.

One of main attractions of the Donovan series comes from the fact that the location offers the possibility of exploring new ground – and new dangers! – in each book, since the planet remains fairly uncharted due to its deadly challenges: in Unreconciled we get a glimpse of Tyson Station, a promising settlement that was previously abandoned and where the main characters face both the “old” dangerous critters, like slugs and gotcha vines and so forth, and a new one – a huge, very deadly beast no one had seen before and whose existence is not stored into quetzals’ TriNA memory, apart from a strong feeling of abject terror. And if even a quetzal can be so scared of this monster, you can imagine the kind of havoc it can wreak on humans…

The story itself is carried by the increasing sense of impending menace that comes from various directions: on one side we have the Unreconciled who seem, with only a few exceptions, to have completely bought into Batuhan’s insane belief that by consuming their enemies they will “purify” them and bring about a new, better world – one of the characters at some point states that anthropophagy comes from four basic motivations, survival, ritual, political, and pathological, and that the self-styled messiah has wrapped them all up into a twisted faith fueled by the despair of people facing certain death. Then there are the ever-present quetzals that seem more determined than ever to kill as many of the intruding humans as they can, acting with a cunning and a tactical organization that once again show them as the more formidable foes on the whole planet. And again there are the “simple” human machinations, with the constantly shifting balance of power between the administrators of Port Authority and the crime lord Dan Wirth who finds himself at a crossroads in his search for riches and power.   These elements are presented in alternating chapters that keep the story flowing at a fast pace and make for some electrifying sequences that simply beg to turn the pages faster and faster.

But the psychological angle of the characters, old and new, remains the most fascinating aspect of the story still: we see a more settled Talina, who has somehow reached a sort of armed truce with the quetzal essence stored in her consciousness; or a mellowed but still combative Kalico who seems to have found true purpose in a place and situation that’s the polar opposite of what she had in her old life; or again an older Kylee, who has found a way to reconcile her dual nature and reclaim part of her humanity thanks to her bond of friendship/apprenticeship with Talina. The new arrivals, though, offer great opportunities for reflection, in particular where Captain Galluzzi and the Unreconciled are concerned.

Ashanti’s captain is a very tormented man: faced with a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, he’s crushed by the weight of his decision and alternately desires and dreads the moment when he will be called to answer for it, so that he’s stunned when none of the punishment he envisioned is forthcoming, partly because there is no authority on Donovan designated to administer such punishment, and partly because the colonists – even Supervisor Aguila – have seen even direst consequences come from similar situations and know that there is no easy answer to the kind of dilemma Ashanti and other ships faced when confronted with impossible odds. I enjoyed how Shig Mosadek, Donovan’s resident philosopher, tries to help Captain Galluzzi reconcile himself with his actions and how he’s growing from a secondary character into one of the moral pillars of the colony, a delightful blend of wisdom and gentle humor that I’ve come to greatly appreciate.

The Unreconciled and their leader Batuhan, on the other hand, present another kind of dilemma: once the circumstances that brought them to seek survival in horrible ways are over, can they be brought back to the human fold? Can they be considered human still? What’s terrifying is that almost all of them, in a sort of perverted form of Stockholm’s Syndrome, keep believing in Batuhan’s dogma and are ready to follow him along the same bloody, flesh-consuming path even when Donovan starts doling out its deadly lessons. There are no easy answers to these dilemmas, and the book offers none, but the look we are afforded into the Unreconciled’s mindset is at the same time fascinating and horrifying.

There are a number of narrative threads still open in the Donovan saga, which makes me hope that more books in this series will be published: apart from the mystery of the new deadly creature discovered by Talina & Co., there is the angle of the oceanographers landed on the planet from Ashanti with the mission of exploring Donovan’s bodies of water – and if the land is so dangerous, what will the oceans hold in store for our adventurers? And the characters offer many more opportunities for growth that I’m certain Mr. Gear will have many more stories to tell us about them.

Keeping my fingers crossed…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

NETWORK EFFECT (The Murderbot Diaries #5), by Martha Wells

 

How do I love thee, Murderbot? Let me count the ways…

Network Effect was one of my most anticipated novels for the current year, and it delivered on all fronts: I was of course mildly concerned that the transition from novella size to full-length book might not work as well as expected, but that was not the case. On the contrary I hope that future installments in the saga of our beloved Sec Unit will maintain this trend, making me – and countless other Murderbot fans, I’m sure – quite happy with its continuing adventures.

The story in short: after relocating to Preservation Aux with its former client – and now not-friend – Dr. Mensah and her enlarged family, Murderbot is still trying to balance newfound freedom and the still present threats against Mensah, the last of which left her with some residual PTSD. The colony’s open-minded attitude is in direct antithesis to the corporations-ruled rest of the galaxy, making Sec Unit’s  protection duties even more difficult.  A planetary survey run by some of Mensah’s family members is cut short due to a vicious pirate raid, and as the Preservation ship makes for home they are attacked and captured by a mysterious group based on a vessel that’s an old acquaintance of Murderbot, although it behaves in a strange, disquieting fashion.

What follows is a high-octane adventure where a mystery about alien artifacts mixes with corporate greed, an abandoned colony and some heated battles in space and planetside: to say more would be a huge disservice – this story, like the others preceding it, must be enjoyed with as little prior knowledge as possible. The detail that I can safely share is that, in this case, more is better: the broader narrative space gives us more chances to delve into Murderbot’s psychological makeup, its evolution as a sentient being and the meaning of freedom and choice for artificial intelligences. A coming of age story together with a hero’s journey, told with a satisfying balance between humorous quips and deep introspection.

As usual, the tale is told from Murderbot’s point of view as it struggles to understand the “strange” behavior of its charges, especially when it does not compare with previously recorded experiences or with any kind of human custom learned through the huge amount of media that Sec Unit loves to consume: more than ever before we see how the fictional series it’s addicted to are the bridge between itself and humanity, the key to decipher our puzzling ways, and the means to make itself more like them – although Murderbot would strongly deny that last… In Network Effect media also becomes a sort of liberating factor, the window on a different way of being offered to another Sec Unit as Murderbot presents it with the chance to get rid of its governor module and be something else.

In this respect there are some passages where the whole concept of constructs is brought into the light, and offers a terrible, inhuman vision, made even more so by the apparently dispassionate tone our ‘hero’ employs in all its musings: we know from the very beginning of this saga that Sec Units are composed of mechanical and organic parts (and I for one am quite keen to learn more about how those organic parts are obtained…), and that their main job is to protect the employers from harm, even sacrificing their own existence. The downside comes from the fact that in case of a dire emergency, the Sec Unit is abandoned to its destiny, just like one might abandon an unthinking piece of equipment – it’s such a “fact of life” that it’s also regularly portrayed in the serialized media Murderbot watches, and speaks loudly about the callousness of the corporate world. This might be the main reason Murderbot offers the choice of freedom to Three, as its brethren is designated, because it has realized the cruelty of the laws governing them.

[…] because I was a thing before I was a person and if I’m not careful I could be a thing again.

The same goes for the infamous governor module: it’s not just a control system, it’s also a self-destruct apparatus: when the distance between client and unit exceeds a given limit, for example, it destroys the unit itself.  One of Murderbot’s most chilling reflections, as it contemplates Three’s indecision about employing the hack for the governor module, uses this very example to state how it sees its journey from construct to person:

Change is terrifying. Choices are terrifying. But having a thing in your head that kills you if you make a mistake is more terrifying.

I love how Murderbot constantly denies its feelings while being literally inundated by them, how it manages to rationalize them to itself while fooling none of its human companions, just as I enjoy their amused conspiracy in allowing it to maintain the fiction: the person who seems to better understand this is young Amena (the best addition to the cast so far), and this shows in her interactions with Murderbot, which are a mix of teenager annoyance and adult empathy, resulting in the most delightful exchanges throughout the book.  I have come to the conclusion that since Sec Unit’s journey toward self-determination is still underway, it can be viewed as a teenager – still unsure of its role in the wider world and still prey to emotional storms – so that only another teenager is the most qualified to get on an equal footing.

Last but not least, Network Effect features the return of a previous character, one whose role was crucial in Murderbot’s transition from its former existence: ART is the cybernetic opposite of Sec Unit in many personality traits, and the two renew here their troubled relationship, complicated by some events that are an integral part of the overall story – they may be at odds, and even quarrel bitterly, but there is a profound, undeniable bond between them that gets delightfully explored in this novel and promises interesting developments for the next installments.  Again, I don’t want to say too much about this part of the story, except that ART’s is a very welcome return and offers new insights into what makes Murderbot tick.

Humans tend to be the “guest stars” in this series, leaving the spotlight to constructs and artificial intelligences, and yet the latter are the ones to offer the deepest and most emotional insights in the overall story. So… please Ms. Wells, can we have more Murderbot soon?

 

My Rating:

Reviews

LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS (The First Law #3), by Joe Abercrombie

 

The long buildup created in the first two books of this series finds its amazing epilogue in this third volume, and in keeping with the style and overall mood of the story does not offer readers an upbeat ending – but that hardly matters as the characters’ journey is so compelling that it works just as well.

War and strife come from many fronts toward the Union and its capital Adua, where most of the action takes place: the Northmen, led by ruthless King Bethod, are moving steadily southward and the Union’s army finds it difficult to contain the barbarians’ forward momentum, despite the help from Bethod’s old enemies Dogman and Logen Ninefinger; the Gurkish are marching from the south to lay siege to Adua, where the sudden death of the king adds a further layer of trouble to a political situation in which complex machinations and back stabbing plots go on regardless of the impending danger.

Logen Ninefingers, together with the Dogman and his other comrades, has chosen to help Colonel West and the Union army in the fight against Bethod, his ultimate goal being to exact bloody revenge against the king of the Northmen, once his friend and now his bitter enemy. Jezal dan Luthar has returned to Adua a changed man, one whose greater desire is for a quiet life together with the woman he loves, but he’s unaware that a very different destiny waits for him in the city he calls home. Superior Glokta finds himself enmeshed in a many-layered web of intrigue in which the political maneuverings for the election of the new king are only the tip of the iceberg as he realizes that his very survival might be at stake. And Bayaz, the First of the Magi, seems to be everywhere, his long reach leaving nothing and no one safe from his mysterious goals…

There is so much that happens in this final novel of the First Law trilogy that certainly takes great skill to keep all the narrative threads and character journeys balanced, and Abercrombie manages that with apparent lack of effort as the situation drives inexorably toward the final showdown: the way the author moves between the various points of view and situations makes for a compulsive read that at times turns into oxygen-depriving anxiety, particularly during battle scenes, or a certain very realistic, very bloody duel where the tension almost transforms into physical discomfort.  While the outcome of the various plotlines remains uncertain until the very end and is reached through a series of twists and unexpected surprises, no one truly gets what they wanted or hoped for, as the old maxim about being careful regarding one’s desires shows its accuracy in several circumstances. Truly, no one comes out of this story unscathed, because events either overwhelm them, or change them profoundly, for good or bad: there is less humor in this final installment of the trilogy, even the gallows humor Abercrombie used all throughout the story, which here touches its bleakest moments. And yet it remains just as powerful and fascinating because of the underlying reality of its premise.

As far as characters go, I realized what a sorrowful one Logen Ninefingers is: a man whose destiny seems to lie in endless fights, both because of the nature of the world he lives in and because of his own nature and that of his… alter ego the Bloody Nine, but still a man with enough powers of introspection to understand that this is not a way of life, even as he acknowledges that there could not be a different one for him, no matter how much he might wish for something different.

He could’ve gone far away, and started new, and been whoever he wanted. But he’d tried that once already, and it had done him no good. The past was always right behind him, breathing on his neck.

There is a fascinating dichotomy in Logen: on the surface he’s the epitome of the savage warrior, a man who looks like a brute and who’s able to launch into mindless killing sprees; on the inside he’s gifted with great powers of understanding, of himself and those around him, that drive the ruthless self-analysis with which he recognizes the limited choices his former life left him: either go on with the endless, brutal struggle for survival, or to give in and accept the death he has been cheating for so long with the “still alive” mantra he recites after each bloody encounter.

Jezal dan Luthar is the character who sees the greatest transformation in the course of the story: he begins as a boorish dandy, interested only in drinking, womanizing and looking fashionable and wishing for glory and recognition. Where he partially adjusts his outlook through danger and hardship, he still retains some of his old flightiness until a massive, unexpected change in life shows him that the prestige and appreciation he craved for are only the outward trappings of duty and responsibility and that he needs to grow into the role that fell on him, or be crushed by it.  Much as I despised the Jezal of old, his capriciousness and shallowness, I was compelled to pity the man he becomes toward the end, because of the price he has to pay for it, something that reminded me of a very impassioned quote from my beloved Babylon 5, where Londo Mollari says: “When we first met I had no power and all the choices I could ever want. And now I have all the power I could ever want and no choices at all. No choice at all.” Tragic indeed…

As usual I left my very favorite individual for last – Sand dan Glokta. This potentially despicable character is instead the most relatable of them all, a man who was broken in body but not in mind and who has learned the fine art of survival in the most terrible of circumstances. Faithful to the dual nature of Abercrombie’s characters, he lives and breathes cynicism while secretly yearning for some of the joy that circumstances denied him, all the while trying to stay afloat in the poisonous atmosphere of Adua’s political circles.

The one good thing about every step being an ordeal. You soon learn how to tread carefully.

Friends are people one pretends to like in order to make life bearable. Men like us have no need of such indulgences. It is our enemies by which we are measured.

And that duality shows ever more clearly in the most dangerous circumstances, when his survival hangs by a thread and he appears ready to finally let go of the burden of his painfully crippled body, yet he welcomes any unexpected reprieve with phlegmatic relief: in a way I’ve come to believe that his continued survival, while certainly due to his ability to navigate the toxic circles he moves in, comes mostly from his apparent lack of fear for death, outwardly considered as a relief.   In a similar way, Glokta’s cynical approach is belied by his kind-hearted interest for the misfortunes of Ardee, his friend Colonel West’s sister, and the way the two of them become close by sharing a penchant for masking their deepest emotions with sarcastically delightful repartees: it’s through those interactions, and the way they affect their shared story, that the author offers the only glimmer of light and hope in the overall grimness of the story – a glimmer that feels both right and well deserved.

I’m glad I have still more books to explore in this world created by Joe Abercrombie, not to mention the upcoming ones in the new Age of Madness series, whose first volume A Little Hatred finally compelled me to read The First Law. This is a harsh, cruel world, granted, but it’s such a compelling one that making the effort to look past the blood and violence to the wonderfully crafted characters that people it becomes no effort at all.

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

THE SIEGE OF TILPUR (Powder Mage 0.1), by Brian McClellan

 

This novella from Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage series was an unexpected surprise, because I thought I had explored them all, so as soon as I saw this title I wasted no time to acquire and read it: the end of the saga left me somewhat pining for this world, and going back to it, even for a short number of pages, felt like a treat.

This is set in the far past of Field Marshal Tamas, at the time when he was a young sergeant in the Adran army, just 19 years old but already burning with the ambition to scale the ranks despite the apparently insurmountable obstacle of being low-born and therefore having little or no chances to rise beyond a certain level.

The Adrans have been laying siege to the enemy fortress of Tilpur for a long time, sacrificing a great number of soldiers against its strong, magic-enhanced walls, and after the latest bloody charge, one that still made no dent in the enemy’s defenses, Tamas is trying to find a way to breach them without losing too many lives and at the same time putting himself in the limelight that will finally show his mettle.

This younger Tamas is as driven as the older one I encountered in Promise of Blood, but he still has to develop the deep loathing for the nobles’ privileges that will inspire his later revolution: it’s here, however, that probably for the first time his ambition clashes with the… glass ceiling of those privileges and maybe sets him on the path that will make him the man we’ll know in the trilogy.

The Siege of Tilpur is both a social commentary on Adran society at the time of Tamas’ youth and a very engrossing tale of a commando-style incursion that will keep you glued to the pages until its very end.  Very recommended for every fan of McClellan’s work.

 

My Rating:

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: