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Review: THE COLLAPSING EMPIRE by John Scalzi

31568281I received the e-ARC of this book from Pan McMillan through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

When a fellow blogger mentioned that NetGalley had this title available for request I applied immediately: how could I not, since I’m a huge Scalzi fan? Not that I had many hopes of seeing my request accepted, since I’m well aware that my blog is a small one, with a low posting rate, but I had to try anyway. So you can imagine my delighted surprise when I received the confirmation email: the wait for the official release of the book would not have been long, granted, but the possibility of reading this new story right there and then was very exciting. To say the least…

The premise of The Collapsing Empire is that the impossibility of attaining faster-than-light travel has been bypassed by the discovery of the Flow, a sort of inter-dimensional set of “corridors” able to bring ships toward other worlds, not unlike a set of currents in an ocean.  Moving away from mother Earth, humanity has established a huge interstellar empire, the Interdependency, spreading among the stars in search of habitable worlds. Not finding any, with the exception of End – aptly named because it’s the terminus of the Flow – the Interdependency chose to build stations and artificial habitats where civilization flourished in a tightly connected web of mutual support.

Until the time when the story begins, the Flow has been believed to be set and immutable – that is, with the exception of the tragedy of Dalasysla, whose inhabitants were cut off from the Interdependency by what was termed a once-only destabilization of the Flow. People can choose selective blindness when it suits them, however, and for centuries they have blithely ignored the simple fact that something named ‘Flow’ is all but static, and the Flow is indeed destabilizing, or probably changing the direction of its currents, so that the human colonies that it connected until this moment are now threatened with permanent isolation, and probably extinction.

In times of such massive changes or upheavals that menace the fabric of society, there are those who prefer to turn a blind eye to it all, those who try to profit from the turmoil, and those who attempt to salvage the salvageable: these different positions constitute the core of the novel and should be discovered by reading it, so I will not reveal anything else about the plot, focusing rather on the central characters.

For those readers who enjoy the presence of solid female characters, The Collapsing Empire does not disappoint, on the contrary the most prominent figures in the story are mostly women, starting with Cardenia Wu-Patrick, the newly elected emperox of the Interdependency. Elected by default, it must be said, because she’s the sort-of-illegitimate daughter of the previous emperox and she entered in the line of succession due to an unfortunate accident in which the rightful heir was involved.   Finding the unexpected weight of the Interdependency on her shoulders, she tries to adapt to her new role, and it’s through the trial-and-error of her first few days, marred by some very harrowing circumstances, that her strength of character and quiet determination come to the fore – nicely balanced by a touch of humor and self-deprecating irony.  I believe that the story so far just showed the tip of the iceberg with Cardenia, and that this is one character who has many interesting developments in store for the readers along the way.

There is no story without an evil counterpart, and no one is more fit for this role than House Nohamapetan – one of the many trading Houses of the Interdependency – and its de-facto ruler lady Nadashe.  She is above all a skilled manipulator, an intelligent, ambitious woman who knows what she wants and how to get it: by contrast, her two brothers – equally scheming and ambitious – appear as no more than putty in her competent hands, and it’s no surprise that she is the one pulling all the strings. Even those leading to murder…

The most conspicuous, striking – and ultimately amusing – character remains however that of Kiva Lagos, representative of the Lagos trading House and my absolute winner in case of a contest among the novel’s figures: she is brash, outspoken and uncaring of any behavioral or diplomatic convention, and she peppers her speeches with an amount of profanity that would give the Expanse‘s Avarasala a run for her money –  although, unlike the more eloquent Avarasala, her four-letter vocabulary is exclusively limited to the f* word in all its declinations…   Needless to say, I loved Kiva since she first appeared on the scene: only a skilled writer like John Scalzi could deftly manage such a foul-mouthed character, and the endless stream of expletives hovering like a cloud around her, and at the same time turn Kiva Lagos into a reader’s number one choice for… well, heroine.  And I have not even mentioned her equally formidable mother!

As far as the narrative itself is concerned, the tone and mood are what I’ve come to expect, and enjoy, from a Scalzi novel: serious business interspersed with humorous commentaries on situations and the vagaries of the human mind, and an intriguing core concept that promises to develop into fascinating directions. One detail I’d like to mention in particular is the homage paid toward Iain Banks’ Culture series (or so I like to believe) in the names of the ships listed in the story: names like Yes Sir, That’s My Baby; Some Nerve!; If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.  It was both amusing and charming, and I appreciated it greatly.

My only complaint (if I can call it that) is that The Collapsing Empire is mostly dedicated to building the framework for this new series, and as such it’s focused on laying the foundation for the future developments, ending when separate events start coalescing into an intriguing whole: the novel does not close with a cliffhanger, not as such, but the promise of things to come is not enough – I want more, and I want it right now. Which means I’m happily on board to see how this will all pan out.

 

My Rating:

Salva

Review: HELL DIVERS, by Nicholas Sansbury Smith

28464896I received this book from NetGalley and Blackstone Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

I have no trouble admitting my weakness for post-apocalyptic scenarios (I can lay the blame on Stephen King’s The Stand for this…), so when I saw the synopsis for this novel I was immediately interested: the Earth surface has become uninhabitable after being ravaged by nuclear explosions in World War III, and what remains of humanity dwells on huge airships that have been transformed from instruments of death into arks in which the last survivors barely hang on through increasing difficulties.  The ships are old, overcrowded; supplies and foodstuffs are never enough to satisfy everyone’s needs; and the vessels require constant maintenance, achieved through scavenging runs operated by the titular Hell Divers.

These are men and women who dare the dangerous descent toward the radiation-riddled surface in search of spare parts or fuel cells in the abandoned pre-war depots: first they glide down to the surface braving constant electrical storms generated by the massive nuclear explosions of the war, then they have to scour the land for the needed supplies, trying to avoid the dangers and pitfalls on the ravaged ground, the broken-down cities and the hot zones where radiation still runs rampant.  As the story opens, a new threat is added to an already terrifying scenario: nightmarish creatures, the result of radiation-induced mutations, prey on the Hell Divers and their already dwindling numbers, adding a new level of hazard to a mortally dangerous profession.

The average life expectancy for a Hell Diver is fifteen runs, but the main character Xavier Rodriguez (simply called “X”) is a veteran with almost a hundred drops under his belt: disillusioned and despondent, he lives only for the scavenging missions, knowing that each one can be his last but apparently not caring either way. He lost his wife to cancer – a common occurrence on the ships, since the residual radiation cannot be shielded with one-hundred percent success, even far above ground – and he feels no anchor to the pitiful remnant of humanity living aboard the Hive, his days spent, like most of his fellow divers, on scavenging missions and the wild drinking bouts in-between each one.

With only two ships remaining afloat – Xavier’s own Hive and the Ares – humanity stands on the brink of extinction, and when Ares suffers a terminal breakdown and crashes to the ground, only X and the remaining Hell Divers stand between this same fate for Hive and the remote possibility of finally finding a landing place where try and rebuild some sort of civilization.

The picture painted in this premise is quite grim, and the most riveting part of the novel resides in the bleakness of the situation and the way in which human society – or what’s left of it – has adapted to the new living conditions: space aboard the ships is at a premium, and a good portion of it is devoted to raising crops and livestock to feed the survivors. Social differences have transcended color and gender and veered toward usefulness to the ship: engineers and farmers are among the privileged, right after the crew members and the Hell Divers, of course.  All the others are relegated to the cramped spaces of Below Deck, where illness, malnutrition and resentment run rampant, and where the more industrious manage to eke out a slightly better life through the sale of black market goods or straightforward crime.

Conditions on the ground are even worse: under the constant cover of roiling black clouds, where electrical storms rage in waves and the sun never shines through, the land is covered by the ice of nuclear winter; rubble and the remnants of once-proud skyscrapers dot the landscape and offer a perfect breeding and hiding ground to the Sirens: blind and hungry creatures gifted with razor teeth and an unerring sense for prey – the evolution of some hardy animal or perhaps of those humans who did non perish immediately after the holocaust.

It’s on this unforgiving background that the story develops, starting without preamble with a fateful dive and from there expanding the focus to humanity’s overall situation: it’s a quick, immersive story that captures your attention and keeps it there, with almost no space for a breather. This is more of an action-driven novel, which means that deeper characterization is sacrificed on the altar of pacing and narrative speed: on the plus side, this allows for an almost cinematic quality to the storytelling – and this would indeed make for a great movie with breath-taking visuals, where the Hell Divers’ descent through the cloud layer could work as an amazing opener, and the scenes of the attacking Sirens offer several nerve-wracking moments. Still, I would have liked something more from the characters, that at times tend to be more tropes than people: the disillusioned veteran, the beleaguered captain, the former thief-turned-diver who finds a new meaning in life, and so on. A few events seem a little too convenient as well, like the young orphan who finds himself in Xavier’s care and goes from grieving, sullen silence to affectionate acceptance almost overnight with no visible progression.

Nonetheless, these are simply personal issues and the fact remains that Hell Divers is an engaging story that holds one’s attention from start to finish and will certainly satisfy the readers’ need for adventure in a post-apocalyptic scenario. The kind of book that can keep you awake till the small hours…

 

My Rating:

Review: MAN MADE MURDER – Z. Rider

24980341I received this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Dean Thibodeaux is the lead guitarist in the failing band “Man Made Murder”: on the night before the band’s departure for a tour none of them is very sanguine about, he follows a shady biker to an abandoned shack, with the goal of buying some drugs, but the guy reveals himself as a vampire who then proceeds to attack Dean. The guitarist, badly hurt and shocked, manages to escape and drive over the vampire with his truck: once he rejoins the band for the tour he worries at the terrible changes his body is undergoing.    Carl Delacroix is a man obsessed: hunting for the individual he’s convinced killed his younger sister two years before, he goes on a relentless pursuit across the country, following a biker whose appearance and dress are quite similar to Dean Thibodeaux’s attacker’s…

This is the intriguing premise of Man Made Murder: this novel develops along two separate threads that are destined to connect and does so with a steady, fast-paced progression that manages to show the inevitability of events while at the same time keeping narrative and emotional tension at the highest levels. What happens to the two main characters can be described as a train-wreck in progress: you know how certain situations are going to end, and yet you are incapable of taking your eyes off the page and need to go on, to the bitter end.  There is an overall darkness in this story, a darkness of the soul that has nothing to do with what happens to the characters but is rather something they already carry within themselves.  It’s obvious for Carl, because of the enormous guilt weighing on him for the failure to protect his younger sister, but it’s less so for Dean who – despite the downward spiral of the band – has a lot going for him, not least the strong sense of camaraderie, of family, enjoyed by the group of musicians.

These are the book’s points of strength, and the very reason I stayed with it until the end – which is not a real end because this is the first volume in a trilogy and the last chapter hints at story developments that are just as intriguing as the premise: why then did I give such a low rating to Man Made Murder?

One of the reasons is characterization, and particularly Carl’s: on one side it’s understandable that he would cave in under the mountain of guilt for not being there when his sister needed him most, but his determination – his obsession – to find her killer when the police all but abandon the search is fueled more by whining self-recrimination than true desire to see justice done.  When he finally finds the man he believes killed his Sophie, events conspire to take his vengeance from him: does he rant and rave about the unfairness of it all? No. His attitude is rather: “Oh, well, the guy’s dead anyway and I didn’t even get blood on my hands. Let’s go home and have pizza!”  The situation gets even worse when Carl discovers a chilling truth about the man he thought was his only friend: he does not mourn so much his blindness in not seeing the signs, he grieves (and whines, of course) because now he’s all alone in the world…

To say I was puzzled would be a huge understatement: there was such a massive buildup in his search for vengeance and justice, that the aftermath seems like the proverbial mouse birthed by a mountain.

For his part, Dean seems to move in a sort of drugged state that’s understandable from the point of view of what happened – and is still happening – to him, but at the same time gives us nothing of who and what he is underneath all this.

Neither of these characters does anything to emotionally involve me: while I was able to follow the story with keen interest, for the reasons I stated above, I could not summon any empathy for them, and to me this is quite wrong.

The other factor at the root of my displeasure is the author’s seeming fascination with the f* word in its many variations, as well as with bodily functions: if, from a certain point of view, I understand that these are elements that contribute to the grittiness of a story, from another the abuse of those same elements can defeat its own purpose and turn gritty into grotesque.  I doubt that this was the intent in this particular choice, but my reaction to these endless repetitions was a mixture of boredom and annoyance: again, not the kind of reaction I expect from an otherwise riveting tale.  In other words, great ideas but faulty delivery, and a great disappointment.

My Rating:


Slow Bullets – Alastair Reynolds

23013875I received this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

My thanks to both NetGalley and Tachyon Publications for granting my request, since Alastair Reynolds is one of my favorite SF authors.

Slow Bullets is slightly different from the kind of narrative I grew used to after reading Reynolds’ books like Chasm City, Revelation Space, Redemption Ark or Absolution Gap: the scope here does not concern galactic civilizations or multi-layered political plots, but rather focuses on smaller-scale events that nonetheless manage to gain intensity and depth because of that reduced focus, and not in spite of it.

The main character here is Scur, a soldier who’s been conscripted to fight in a bloody war: when we first see her, a ceasefire has just been declared and yet she’s captured by the enemy and subjected to torture by Orvin, an infamous psychopathic killer from the opposite side.  Left for dead, she wakes up in a hibernation pod on a ship that’s undergone some form of catastrophic malfunction and is now orbiting what looks like a dead system.   The great majority of the slowly waking occupants of the hibernation pods seems to be composed of soldiers from both sides of the war, plus a smattering of civilians, and a skeleton crew: Scur takes on, almost by default, the job of organizing the survivors and finding out their chances of repairing the ship and trying to get back to their intended destination.

The questions about what happened and the need for survival, this last endangered by far-reaching frictions between the waking passengers, are compounded by the awareness that the ship is slowly, but surely, losing precious information because of a program rewriting initiated by the malfunction itself.  And memory is indeed at the core of this story, starting with the titular slow bullets – a recording device implanted in soldiers to keep score of their actions and also to store important memories and personal data.

The fact that Scur’s torture at the hands of Orvin occurs through the twisted use of a slow bullet underlines how memory can be painful as well as a comfort. So, as the marooned passengers slowly understand that their predicament could not be purely ascribed to an accident, as they realize their numbers are mostly composed by people no one wants around – because they are useless, or dangerous, or simply a burden –  they also recognize that only by letting go of their personal memories, of their past, they can start planning for the future.  It’s a terrible, sad realization, placed into stark relief by Scur’s attachment to her parents’ pictures, stored in her slow bullet – her only contact with them, with her past and the person she was before the war and her conscription in the army.   What she and the other survivors must accept the terrible necessity to give up that past to be able to build a future: even though the hope for that future is clearly expressed in the story, the price it requires seems too high, too heartrending.

All this is presented through Scur’s voice and point of view: her almost blunt, soldierly manner cracks at times to show a different person, one far less pragmatic and hardened than the one she shows to the world, and these chinks in her armor endeared her to me, made her real. Underneath the soldier, and survivor of a heated conflict, sometimes lurks a person who pines for her lost life, the missed opportunities, the untrodden paths that fate denied her: it’s never openly stated, never spoken out loud, but it’s there and it’s a form of quiet desperation that denies detachment and does not leave you untouched.

It’s a more intimate vision than what I encountered until now in Reynolds’ books, but for this very reason it felt more profound and poignant than any other I read so far, and it gave me a new level of interpretation for this author, and a key to a new way of reading his stories.

Highly recommended, both for Reynolds’ admirers and as an introduction to this author.

My Rating: 8/10

No Man’s World (omnibus) – Pat Kelleher

22609289I received this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an unbiased review.

The first time I read about the concept for this story I was intrigued: a battalion of soldiers fighting on the Somme, during WWI, is mysteriously transported on another planet, where they find themselves fighting another kind of war, against a hostile environment and predatory creatures. So, when I signed up at NetGalley and started browsing around, one of the first titles I saw was the omnibus containing all three novels in this series, and requested it right away – luck was with me, because I was swiftly granted the book.

The first thing I noticed, as I started reading, was the amount of research work that must have gone into crafting the background for the story: the details of trench life, warfare and of the day-to-day hellish existence of those soldiers are quite sharp and contribute to create a very clear image of the living conditions on the battlefield. Sometimes those details can be overwhelming, what with unusual terms and military jargon, but once the reader gets into the “vibe” of it all, it helps the immersion in the story itself, even when it shows the most unsavory aspects of it all.

It’s a known fact that life on the front is no walk in the park, but what WWI soldiers had to face was particularly awful: those young men had left home driven both by patriotic feelings and the desire to find honor and glory, sometimes even to escape dreary lives, but what they found in reality was worse than a nightmare. The trenches meant dirt and mud, rats and body lice;  cold, discomfort and unpalatable rations, and this was just the setting, because the constant shelling, the sorties that meant heavy casualties, the awareness of an enemy always ready to pounce and the horrid consequences of wounds, given the poor level of medical treatment, were enough to sap even the strongest of characters.

All this is rendered with stark realism, from the observation of the soldiers’ reactions during an attack or of their rare moments of quiet, when they find in shared camaraderie and in news from home a way to forget the cruel reality of warfare. Also quite real is the huge divide between the troops and the officers (some of them men as young and inexperienced as their underlings, but denied the luxury of showing fear and uncertainty) because it mirrors the social barriers that were in force at the time.

With these premises, I should have enjoyed the book – or rather books – quite a bit, but unfortunately the rich setting was offset by a characterization that was not as carefully rendered as the background. I’m aware that a plot-driven story must focus more on events than on the figures peopling them, but still I need some fully-fleshed characters to enjoy it: with the exception of Private “Only” Atkins, whose back-story is detailed in some depth, the other individuals are painted with such broad strokes that I found it difficult to care for them. Even the evil officer Jeffries, despite the satanic rituals and bloody trail of corpses behind him, failed to appear like a believable menace, and instead looked more like the proverbial mustache-twirling bad guy than a flesh-and-blood person.

Once the soldiers found themselves transported into an alien world, I would have expected more of a reaction after the initial shock and disbelief had been processed. Instead these men choose to stay in the trenches, carrying on with “business as usual” while waiting for an unlikely rescue: no sense of wonder, no desire to know what had happened to them.  Yes, there were forays to procure food and water, but the men showed no inclination to understand the world they had been brought to, or to look beyond the restricted confines of the corpse-riddled section of mud they had been transported with. A further point of puzzlement came from the liberal use of ammunitions and explosives, with no one mentioning the dwindling supplies or the fact that they could not be replenished. Worse still was the lack of perceivable reaction to the heavy losses suffered from the hostile environment: it was a jarring contrast with the realistic portrayal of the soldiers’ behavior in the first part of the novel.

My suspension of disbelief was stretched even thinner at the first contact with the planet’s indigenous dwellers: both the humanoid-looking ones and the insectoid “master race” spoke fluent English, with mannerisms and frames of reference not unlike those of their unexpected visitors.  That was indeed my turning point, the factor that brought me to finish at least the first book of the omnibus, The Black Hand Gang, but to go no further: when I lose faith in a story, in its ability to take hold of my imagination and carry it elsewhere, it means that something vital is missing.

I don’t mean to say that this is a bad book, but it does not fulfill my own requirements for a compelling story. At times it reminded me of those ‘50s or ‘60s movies, where characterization and believability were sacrificed in the name of moving the action forward at a fast pace: here some of the narrative choices were quite over the top, especially while picturing the consequences of meetings with the local flora and fauna. Nothing wrong with that either, but not exactly what I look for in a book.  Clearly not my “cup of tea”.

My Rating: 5/10