Reviews

FUGITIVE TELEMETRY (The Murderbot Diaries #6), by Martha Wells

I received this novel from Macmillan/Tor-Forge through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

A new Murderbot novella is something I always look forward to, because I am completely invested in the journey of this cybernetically-enhanced construct and its interaction with the humans that have accepted it into their extended family.

Fugitive Telemetry is slightly different from its predecessors in that it’s not so much an adventure against evil intergalactic corporations as it’s a murder mystery in which our SecUnit takes on the role of detective, and does so relying mostly on its deductive capacities rather than the impressive technical skills it has shown so far. As far as temporal placing goes, this novella follows after book 4, Exit Strategy, and comes before the longer work Network Effect: Murderbot is very actively on the lookout for GrayCris operatives that might still be threatening Dr. Mensah’s life, so that when the body of a murdered man is found on Preservation Station, the first hypothesis for our SecUnit is that there might be a connection with the previous attempts on its legal guardian.

Since murder is quite an unusual event on Preservation Station, MurderBot offers its services in the investigation: on one side it wants to be sure that the dead man is in no way connected with GrayCris operatives, on the other it knows it might be a good opportunity to show other humans that it’s not a danger to Preservation and that, on the contrary, it can be an asset. Easier said that done, though, because suspicion and mistrust run rampant among the police force, such as it is, on the station, and Murderbot has been requested not to use the full potential of its cybernetic enhancements, which means that it will not be able to hack various data-gathering systems and it will have to rely on its rational powers alone and whatever information the humans are willing to share.

Watching MurderBot play detective is a fun experience on many levels: on one side, having to work without its usual tools, the SecUnit must fall back on the investigative techniques it learned by watching its beloved media, which is a tongue-in-cheek take on the genre; on the other, the barely veiled wariness of the humans it comes into contact with brings on new levels of snark in MB’s inner musings that are nothing short of delightful. Still, it’s clear that it has learned a lot about how to interact with humans, and even though it seems very keen on winning the undeclared challenge with the station’s police operatives, it also shows an unusual self-control in the face of what it considers some very stupid attitudes and questions. There are however a couple of instances in which that control slips, like the discussion on the reasons the body was dumped in such a public place: 

Murderbot: “No, I didn’t kill the dead human. If I had, I wouldn’t dump the body in the station mall”

Lead Investigator: “How would you dispose of a body so it wouldn’t be found?”

Murderbot: If I told you, then you might find all the bodies I’ve already disposed of.”

Which begs the question whether its was a provocative joke or not…

As the investigation progresses, the findings lead in a very unexpected direction and once again the SecUnit finds itself entangled with the rescue of some humans, and the deeper ramifications of the circumstances that brought these people into such a dangerous situation: without entering spoiler territory, I would like to point out that, no matter its antisocial declarations, there is a deep core of altruism in MurderBot that brings it to quite heroic actions, even when he ends up being shot at as a reward, as is the case here.

One of the delightful discoveries of this novella is the deepening connection that MB is forging with its adopted family (those it refers to as “Mensah or any of my other humans”), to the point that it’s learned how to rely on them when need arises, or even to ask  for outright help: their reaction at that request is one of my favorite moments, indeed, but it also shows how they have come to care for their latest member, and how MurderBot is coming to understand the rewards of interacting with flesh-and-blood people, of lowering one’s barriers and letting the world come closer.

On the other hand, the SecUnit’s scorn for the station’s bots remains unaltered: it’s clear it views them as inferior and even pathetic in their willingness to be useful and friendly, or in adopting charming names for themselves: one such example is that of JollyBaby, whose designation goes against its appearance and capacities – the surprise it will reserve for MurderBot toward the end is one that brought a huge smile on my face, and the hope that MB will be able to temper its snobbish attitude in the near future 😉

To sum it all up, Fugitive Telemetry is another captivating installment in the “MurderBot Saga”, one that adds some more facets to the main character while offering a quick, entertaining story and a wider view on the background it’s set on. The only thing that’s missing this time are the references to MB’s beloved media: the course of the investigation is such that there is literally no time to indulge one or more episodes of, say, Sanctuary Moon – and even MurderBot at some point wishes to simply “watch media and not exist”, which is a desire we can all sympathize with, particularly at the end of a hard day… A sign that the SecUnit is far more human than it can conceive of! 

Can we have another story soon, Ms. Wells, please?

My Rating:

Reviews

FIREWALKERS, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Even though I have read only a small percentage of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s works, I can see from this limited sample that his imagination can take very different roads from one book to the next, and Firewalkers is a prime example of this.

In a not-so-distant future in which climatic changes have wrought havoc on Earth, the planet is divided between areas where floods from the melting icecaps are submerging most of the land, and areas – like the equatorial belt – where desertification and rising temperatures have transformed once lush jungles into arid wastelands. The equator is still a sought-after location, though, because it’s the place where the anchor points for space elevators have been built, bringing people to the safety and comfort of the huge ships in construction. That is, those who can afford it, which is only a privileged few. The others try to eke a meager existence by servicing the crumbling infrastructure that supports the anchor and elevator and the arrays of solar panels feeding energy to them.

In one such settlements live the three main characters of the story, young people whose job is to cross the scorching, dusty desert to service and repair the solar panels located in distant areas that were once inhabited and have now been abandoned to the encroaching sands. These Firewalkers, so called because their young bodies are better suited to withstand the broiling heat of the desert, regularly endure the extreme environmental conditions to earn the relatively higher pay such jobs can bring in, risking their lives each time to provide for themselves and their families.

Nguyēn Sun Mao is the descendant of Vietnamese refugees escaped from the floods that obliterated their country and he’s the point man of the group; Lupé is of African descent and represents the engineering genius in the team, as she is able to repair or jerry-rig practically anything; then there is Hotep, so called because she protects her fair complexion under mummy-like bandages, and she is the technical expert. The three of them have been working together for some time and forged a successful unit, so that they are often given the more difficult assignments – and the most dangerous of course.

This latest assignment brings them toward a rarely – if ever – explored area, one where what remains of the palatial mansions of the rich crumbles under heat and neglect, and where unknown dangers, and even monstrous creatures are rumored to dwell. The three Firewalkers’ journey soon evolves into the search for clues to unveil a mystery, and in the discovery that something does indeed lurk in the deep desert, but it’s nothing they would have ever imagined.  The story takes on a sort of quest-like flavor, with our heroes facing known and unknown perils as we get to know their personalities and quirks, while being shown how the world we know has been changed by the damage humanity inflicted on it.

The ground crunched lifeless beneath his feet […] the sun the head of a white hot rivet driven in by some celestial smith.

The story’s main focus is on Mao, a boy in his late teens possessed with the maturity of a far older man, because the kind of life he and his crewmates lead tends to burn people away at an accelerated rate: there is little room for hope in this world, and yet we see him try to do his best in the worst of circumstances, trying to take some pride in what he does and exhibiting a natural, if laid back, quality of leadership that brings his two companions to trust him and abide by his decisions no matter how uncertain and dangerous the path. Maybe because

[…] it was Mao who had most experience walking on the surface of an alien world, even if it was Earth.

Lupé, as befitting an engineer – even one as self-taught as she is – is both efficient and business-like, never allowing dangers, either real or imagined, to get between her and the machinery she is repairing or adjusting. As the one in her family with the best-paying job, her young shoulders are burdened by the weight of keeping them as comfortable as possible, and she translates this responsibility to her traveling mates as well: there is one scene in which she keeps servicing their transport’s life support even as some problem approaches, and we see her keeping up the work with the steadiness of a much more seasoned veteran, something that is both admirable and heartbreaking.

And last, but not least, Hotep: she is the wild card of the group in that she was born in space as one of the privileged, but was sent down to Earth – literally discarded – by parents who could not bear her psychological problems and quirky, non-conformed behavior. Her prickly character, like the bandages she wears, is a way of masking the deep pain of abandonment, the resentment at the sheer, heartless injustice and betrayal she was subjected to.  It’s through Hotep’s situation that we can perceive the cruel divide in Earth’s people, because if her parents hardly flinched at condemning their own daughter to a short life of hardships and suffering without a qualm, what about the few privileged that could escape from the dying planet and are living in comfort and luxury while the rest of the population slowly dies of heat, thirst and diminishing food?

The themes developed in this story are of course climate and environmental changes, and the social upheavals following them, but there are other elements that are equally intriguing, like the construction of the massive ships in Earth orbit – probably more arcologies than mere vessels – and the space elevators connecting them to the surface. What I found truly fascinating are the remains of the previous civilization – our actual civilization, I believe – and the way the protagonists observe them as though they were relics from a more distant past, and that they are unable to connect with for lack of common references. There are several instances in which Mao & Co. talk about tv shows from the past – still being aired – and how the people depicted in there, their way of life, look more alien than extraterrestrial creatures: this, more than anything else shows us readers how our world has changed from the present conditions.

Firewalkers is a dense book indeed, in the sense that it holds many concepts in a relatively small number of pages, and that’s its only flaw from my point of view: this kind of story should have deserved more space to “breathe” and fulfill its amazing potential. For this same reason, the ending felt to me somewhat abrupt and less satisfying than I would have expected from the initial buildup, but still it was an engrossing read, and a further incentive to explore Adrian Tchaikovsky’s other works.

My Rating:

Reviews

MEMENTO (The Illuminae Files #0.5), by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

The Illuminae Files is one of my favorites SF series and apart from offering a compelling story and characterization it established a record with me, because it portrayed an array of YA characters who felt well-crafted and believable, without all the annoying traits afflicting teenagers in the genre.  So, when I heard of the publication of this novella that acts as a prequel to the main trilogy I was nothing short of thrilled.

The story is set just a short time before the attack on the Kerenza IV colony, the incident starting the whole bloody mess. The protagonist here is Olivia Klein, a young and starry-eyed tech recently enrolled on the Alexander, the ship where an advanced A.I. has been installed: AIDAN (the acronym for Artificial Intelligence Defense Analytics Network) is still being fine-tuned and Olivia has been assigned to the team responsible for the improvement of AIDAN’s integration with the system and  its responses.  While the techs study AIDAN’s behavior, so AIDAN does study the humans calibrating its performance, and does so with childlike but still disturbing, innocence: the very embarrassing questions it asks of Olivia about her budding romance with her superior Ethan Wolfe are a good example of such curiosity and, together with some queries about ethics and morality, also offer the first hints that something might be… well, not exactly wrong, but weird in AIDAN’s functioning parameters.

Alexander’s intervention at Kerenza, and the crippling attack it’s subjected to, turn out to have dire consequences on AIDAN’s logic processes, and the AI starts exhibiting the first signs of the deadly behavior that is one of the pivotal themes in the trilogy: the fact that it now refers to itself as “I” instead of using the third person is probably the first sign of the “madness” that has come to possess it…

Memento, for all its brevity, works like a punch in the stomach – of course, having read the trilogy, I knew how the story develops and was aware of the tragic consequences of the Kerenza attack, but in this case being forewarned did not forearm me against the emotional impact delivered by the novella.  I felt particularly sorry for Olivia, because I knew that all her youthful enthusiasm would meet a catastrophic end, but at some point a certain discovery about her past made her character arc all the more poignant and tragic.

But of course AIDAN is at the center of it all here, and again I experienced the mixed feelings that accompanied me all through the narrative arc of the Illuminae Files: the AI is a construct undergoing a process in which it questions its own identity, goals and reasons of existence and it does so based on the input set by human beings, who are by nature imperfect and fallible – which on hindsight makes those fatal consequences almost inevitable, and turns AIDAN into a character that is in equal measure fascinating and appalling.

Like the three full-length books previously published, Memento is told through transcripts,  memos and personal messages that manage to tap the characters’ emotional depths and to make you feel invested in their journey, even despite the small number of pages of this story – which is indeed the only complaint I have about this shorter work: I would not have minded a longer book indeed…

My Rating:

Reviews

TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE, by Becky Chambers

In recent times I’ve often seen my fellow bloggers write enthusiastic reviews of Becky Chambers’ novels, and curiosity drove me to add her first book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, to my TBR, but it was a comment about this novella that compelled me to start with her latest work, both because it afforded a quick peek into this author’s writing style and because of its intriguing concept of somaforming – the adaptation of the human body to alien environments in antithesis to the change of environment, or terraforming as a means to create a suitable living space.

This initial detail is what informs the structure, the soul of the story if you want: a team of four scientists – Ariadne, Chikondi, Elena, and Jack – depart from Earth on the Merian, a long-range ship tasked with the exploration of a promising planetary system. Since the voyage will take several decades, the four explorers will go into suspended animation while in transit and during that time their bodies will undergo the necessary transformations that will allow them to survive in extreme conditions, like higher gravity or radiation exposure.  The story is told in the form of a message/diary sent by Ariadne back to Earth, and from it we learn about the overcrowding and environmental troubles in our home planet, conditions that are driving humanity to search for viable places for colonies: what’s interesting here is that such expeditions are funded by a non-profit organization based on what essentially sounds like crowdfunding, which allows for a purely scientific research free from any kind of corporate exploitation.

The tone of the novella is set by the sense of wonder coming across in the descriptions of the four planets visited by the explorers, the awe created by such diverse and astonishing landscapes: the four scientists are naturally intrigued by their findings and the discoveries they make in their travels, but they are also capable of pure joy at the alien vistas opening before their eyes. 

As an astronaut, you know conceptually that you’re going to another world, that you’re going to see alien life. You know this, and yet there is nothing that can prepare you for it.

There is also a strong sense of family uniting them as well, the unspoken but ever-present awareness that they depend on each other in this little pocket of home away from home, and the definite sense of effortlessness in the ties that have come to bind them: shared love of pure science, of course, but also the realization that their individualities contribute to the healthy whole that is the Merian’s microcosm.

Love of science – a science imbued with that sense of wonder and joy of discovery I spoke before, and therefore free from any pedantic connotation – and love of knowledge for its own sake are the underlying themes of the story and they stand at the root of the final conundrum facing the four explorers: a difficult decision that they don’t feel entitled to take on their own because it requires the support of all those who sent them into deep space to find the answers Earth needs. Just as the crew of the Merian did not travel so long with conquest or profit in mind, so they feel the need to engage their backers – or their descendants – in the next choice to be made: being so far away from home does not free them from the responsibilities and the moral obligations that have driven them so far, and so the poignant core of Ariadne’s message is “Where we go from there is up to you”, the willingness to share discoveries and goals and to invest in the hope for humanity’s future.

If this first sample of Becky Chamber’s writing is indicative of what I can expect from her longer works, I believe I will quite enjoy the full-length novels I already set my eyes on…

My Rating:

Reviews

SISTERS OF THE VAST BLACK – Lina Rather

Before I start my review I want to share the circumstances in which I came in possession of this book: a short while ago, fellow blogger Lashaan at Bookidote was celebrating his blog’s fifth anniversary with a giveaway, and I was one of the lucky winners, choosing Lina Rather’s novella as my prize. Thank you again Lashaan!

The notion of “nuns in space” might sound bizarre, or fit for some humorous tale, but Sisters of the Vast Black turned out to be a quietly emotional, introspective story able to pack a great deal of thought-provoking concepts into a short number of pages. Its immediate attraction for me came from the very peculiar ship the titular nuns travel on: a living ship, a creature offering a symbiotic partnership to its human travelers, and capable of adjusting its inner spaces to suit these companions – I felt an immediate connection with the Leviathan Moya, from the SF series Farscape, and the similarities between these two space-bound creatures helped me to feel immediately comfortable in the environment of Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, as the nuns’ ship/traveling convent was christened.

The story: in the distant future humanity has scattered all over the Solar System and beyond and is now still recovering from a brutal war between Earth Central Government and the rebellious colonies, a conflict where man-made destruction walked hand-in-hand with terrible plagues that wiped out entire settlements.  The nuns traveling aboard the Our Lady belong to the order of Saint Rita and their duties include offering medical help where required, and officiating marriages and baptisms, but more than anything else working as the connective tissue for this dispersed humanity.  

They come from widely different backgrounds, but are united by their desire to offer help and comfort to all who need them. The main figures include the Reverend Mother, an elderly woman who made a vow of silence and communicates only through hand signs; sister Faustina, tech-oriented and quite practical, who joined the convent to escape a life of  deprivations; sister Gemma, the living ship specialist who harbors a guilty secret; and sister Lucia, the group’s doctor and a person fully dedicated to helping those in need. 

The day-to-day descriptions of the nuns fulfilling their chores are interspersed with thought-provoking discussions about the nature of their ministry and the way in which theology and practical necessities can blend into new and unforeseen combinations, or the means to insure a beneficial coexistence of faith and science: these nuns have been away from “home” – i.e. Earth and the rules of government and dogma both – for a long time, and have often had to improvise when faced with situations where the old precepts did not apply. In the vastness of space the spirit of the law (or of doctrine) takes precedence on its literal application, a fact that becomes more evident with the arrival of a newly-minted priest from the Vatican, his zeal in sharp divergence with the nuns’ hands-on approach to issues.

The story takes a sharp turn toward drama once a call for help from a recently visited colony lifts the veil from the ominous new way in which the Central Government tries to re-establish its supremacy on Earth’s distant colonies: the nuns will have to decide between blindly obeying the rules of a distant entity or doing what is right, and humane – and paying the price for such a decision. There is a quiet poignancy in the description of their dilemma, and of the way it’s resolved, that I found quite moving not in spite of, but thanks to the apparently unassuming, but very compelling, way in which it’s portrayed. On hindsight, I realized that in the short space of this novella, the author had managed to draw a clear portrait of her characters and to make them come alive for me in such a way that they remained in my thoughts – almost like an afterimage – for quite some time after I closed the book.

I hope to read more from Lina Rather, because this sample of her work set her firmly on my radar, and I would welcome another look into this world.

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

COME TUMBLING DOWN (Wayward Children #5), by Seanan McGuire

 

This new installment in McGuire’s Wayward Children series held the double incentive of following up on a previous story, Down Among the Sticks and Bones – one of my favorites – and I was eager to move back to the world of the Moors, its delightful Hammer Horror mood and the characters of twins Jack and Jill.

The last time we saw them, Jack was carrying back to the Moors the body of her sister Jill, that she herself had killed (not that death is exactly final there…); now the novella opens on Eleanor West’s Home and the arrival, after a lightning storm, of Alexis (one of the Moors’ dwellers) with an unconscious Jill in her arms – only it’s not exactly Jill, since there has been an exchange of bodies between the two sisters. Jack-as-Jill asks her former schoolmates to follow her to her world and help her regain her body, one of the compelling reasons for it being that otherwise the carefully maintained balance in the Moors will be thoroughly upset.

That’s as much as I feel entitled to share, since both the group’s journey and the quest’s final outcome must be explored without spoilers, so I prefer to concentrate on the story’s main components – and to get it all off my chest right away, I’m sorry to report that Come Tumbling Down ended being something of a disappointment. Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoyed reading it and I still look forward to the next novellas in the series, but in this case – not unlike what happened with Beneath the Sugar Sky – the overall result fell a little short of the mark.

The writing was as good as ever, as was the world-building, but the characterization seemed to lack the in-depth look I’ve come to expect from Seanan McGuire: as was the case with the third novella of the series, this is a choral story and this choice seems to have diluted the strength in characterization that’s typical of this author when she concentrates on one or two individuals only.

The writing style is as mesmerizing as expected, moving from weirdness to gallows humor to drama with seamless transitions, and it’s the true glue that keeps the various elements together. The further look into the world of the Moors is both fascinating and scary: we shift from the dual perspective of the main players – the vampire lord and the mad scientist – to see other parts of the realm, and learn that other kinds of monsters dwell here. The peek into the domain of the Drowned Gods and its human-inhabited village is truly horrifying and it carries some delightfully fearsome Lovecraftian vibes (Innsmouth, anyone? 🙂 ), that together with the march of resurrected skeletons at the height of the story makes for the highest point of the tale.

The core concept of identity at the root of the series is still strong: the young people at Eleanor West’s academy share a feeling of alienation with our primary world and can find fulfillment and a sense of belonging only by crossing the magical doors leading them to the various alternate worlds they inhabit for a while. Here that quest for identity gains a new layer of meaning: the body exchange perpetrated by Jill and suffered by Jack might not look like such a tragedy from the outside, since they are identical twins, but through Jack’s own words we learn that what we do with out bodies, and how much our minds form connections with them, creates unique bonds that go way beyond simple muscle memory, and whose severing causes intense trauma.

Where all of the above created a strong foundation for the story, the characters felt a little unsubstantial this time: I could not connect emotionally with any of them, not even when some truly horrifying things happened, and what’s worse I’m still puzzling over the need for the whole group to travel to the Moors, since their contribution to Jack’s “mission” was quite minimal, if any, especially during the final showdown – something that happened far too quickly and with the kind of ease that belied Jack’s passionate request for help.

The other major point of contention comes from the concept that in the Moors death is not a permanent state: we go from Frankenstein-like electrically induced revivals, to the unexpected resurrection of people who seemed to tragically lose their lives, and what it all comes down to – at least for me – is the fundamental irrelevance of any dramatic turn of events. Granted, there is always a price to be paid for a return to life (or something approaching it), but in the end it removes personal stakes or any emotional impact attached to the loss of a given character.

While somewhat frustrated by the way this much-looked-for installment turned out, I still hope that the next one will be more in keeping with the series’ overall tone and mood.

 

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

Review: THE CITY SCREAMS (An Ordshaw Novella), by Phil Williams

 

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

When Phil Williams sent me the copy of The City Screams, I hoped it would expand on the themes encountered in his previous two novels, Under Ordshaw and Blue Angel, since there are many dark corners in there that I would love to explore. What I found was instead a very different kind of story, one that however was both intriguing and fascinating: instead of investigating further the mysteries of the imaginary city of Ordshaw, here we travel to Japan, following the journey of an Ordshaw citizen, Tova Nokes, as she lands in Tokyo to undergo a revolutionary medical procedure.

Tova lost her hearing at a very young age, and although she adapted to her disability as she grew up, the offer from Mogami Industries to be part of their experimental surgery, one that will return her hearing, is too good to pass up. Moreover, aside from the opportunity to visit a different country, there is a bonus thrown in: the chance to meet Tova’s idol, the rock singer Natalie Reid – another Ordshaw citizen – and to finally be able to hear her music.

The operation does not seem to sort the desired effect, though, and all Tova is able to hear, once the new implant is activated, are anguished screams coming from all over the city – and the disembodied voice of someone called Ki, who tries to warn her about a sort of unspecified danger she must avoid at all costs. From that moment on, Tova will find herself enmeshed into a breathless adventure that looks more like an obstacle course than anything else, and it will take all her resourcefulness and strength to stay above water and keep hold of her sanity.

First things first, I just loved the Japanese setting in The City Screams: if on one side the story showed that Ordshaw is not unique in its peculiarities, on the other the alien-ness of the parallel world coexisting and interweaving with our primary one is enhanced here by the social and cultural differences of a society so dissimilar to ours, despite some of its leanings toward western mores. What’s truly intriguing here is Tova’s point of view: she is not only the proverbial stranger in a strange land, she also lacks one of her senses, which makes those new and surprising sights even more perplexing, adding to the sense of displacement she suffers once a maelstrom of weird events threatens to overwhelm her.

It’s quite easy to care for Tova as a character: despite the disability, she has managed to build herself a good life, one centered around family, work, friends – like the sisterly Ren – and boyfriend Ethan, who however does not shine for his supporting attitude.  Not unlike Pax, the central character of the other two novels in the Ordshaw series, Tova is a strong, determined person and at the same time a quite average one, but when push comes to shove she is able to unearth a reservoir of toughness and resilience that carry her over the increasing obstacles she finds on her path, starting with the anguish caused by the failure of the “miracle” implant.

Tova might not be the classic heroine, and she certainly is not the ass-kicking kind of person modern literature and movies have led us to expect, but for this very reason she feels real and relatable, an ordinary person forced to face extraordinary (and baffling!) circumstances and meeting them with admirable resourcefulness. The best moment in her growth came for me when Tova realizes that until that moment she had let others determine what she could or could not do, allowing them to put fetters on her ability to deal with life’s little and big problems – the moment when she consciously choses to walk on her road and not the one others picked for her:

 

[…]It was easier to stay in a bubble, not push it. The story of Ethan’s life. Hell, the story of her life before coming out here. After a thought, Tova casually signed, “F*** off, Ethan, I can take care of myself.”

 

What’s not to admire, indeed…  🙂

The City Screams, like its companion novels, leaves us with some unanswered questions, since the author clearly wants to keep the most important cards close to his chest for a final revelation, so this novella does feel somewhat… incomplete, especially when the real motivation for the mysterious Ki’s actions is revealed and ultimately sounds quite shallow and self-serving.  But meeting Tova is worth accepting a few more gray areas in the overall narrative, and the author’s words about finding her again in the near future – probably in the final book of the series – give me a renewed enthusiasm for this Urban Fantasy arc and its as-yet unexplored threads.

 

My Rating: