Reviews

THE WISDOM OF CROWDS (The Age of Madness #3), by Joe Abercrombie

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

Lord Grimdark did it again: with The Age of Madness he gave us a new, immersive trilogy set in the world of the First Law, and while he kept us all glued to the story with the two previous installment, he literally ended this narrative cycle with much, much more than a proverbial “bang” (or rather, a whole lot of them…).

The widespread turmoil on which the first two books in this series were focused, reaches here its bloody peak: previously, in Adua King Orso’s popularity was at its all-time low and the conspiracy mounted against him – led by his former friend and ally Leo dan Brock, together with Leo’s wife Savine dan Glokta – failed only thanks to a timely warning.  What should have been the rebels’ decisive battle ended with Orso as the winner, Leo losing the gamble and some body parts, and he and a heavily pregnant Savine as prisoners in the city they hoped to rule.  In the North, Rikke was sitting on her father’s chair, but still faced the encroaching armies of Black Calder and his brutal son Stour Nightfall, while trying to consolidate her power, forge new alliances and avoid constant betrayals.

As the final book opens, Orso has little time to enjoy his victory: after decades of bad, myopic management from the ruling council, the city of Adua is now a powder keg ready to explode, and explode it does in the throes of the Great Change – think of it as a bloodier, far scarier version of the French Revolution, complete with its own reign of Terror and mass executions carried out through worse means than the guillotine. Angry mobs sweep the city, destroying everything in their path, killing indiscriminately and taking the king prisoner, while Leo and Savine find themselves hailed as heroes.  And in the North, Rikke seems on the verge of losing it all, as her allies dwindle and Black Calder keeps amassing a force capable of sweeping the land and crowning him as its sole ruler…

The above gives just the bare bones of the complex interweaving of narrative threads and character journeys that turn this novel into a compulsive – if often horrifying – read: there are many more POVs than the main ones I mentioned, and each one moves the story forward without overshadowing the others, reinforcing instead the perception of a building avalanche that moves inexorably toward its intended destination. Not that it’s easy to see what exactly this destination is, particularly once readers are faced with some massive revelations – like the big one toward the end – and a constant barrage of betrayals and treachery that is guaranteed to have your head spinning wildly.

The Wisdom of Crowds is mainly a study of the effects of long-suppressed rage at widespread injustice, and of what happens when exasperation’s fires are fed beyond their conflagration point: the wisdom in the title is used in a darkly sarcastic way, of course, because what we witness in the course of the Great Change is the total obliteration of any civilized rule and a plunge into the kind of collective madness that occurs when the baser animalistic instincts take the place of the oh-so-thin veneer of civilization draped over them.  

As usual, Joe Abercrombie manages to seamlessly blend his peculiar brand of humor into the most appalling situations, managing to elicit a smile – or even a laugh – when least you expect it, while pointing out how far easier it is to destroy what does not work anymore than to find the means to build something better.  We are treated to several scenes in which the new government spends inordinate amounts of time foolishly debating the wording of those changes without actually implementing any, while nearby the madwoman named Judge sends hundreds of people – guilty and innocents alike – to their death.

Such upheavals are of course bound to impart profound changes on the characters we have come to know, and it’s hardly surprising that some of them end up being quite different from the people they were at the beginning of the story.  Savine is certainly a case in point: while she retains some of her former drive for power and self-preservation, her harrowing encounters with danger and death, and her recent motherhood, seem to have awakened her conscience, slightly tempering her ambition and making her more human. It’s not a complete turnover, of course, not given her established personality and the teachings imparted by her father Sand dan Glokta, but it’s a definite improvement over the ruthless socialite bent on profit at any cost that she was at the beginning.

King Orso and Leo dan Brock seem to exchange their respective roles here: the former was a reluctant ruler who preferred drinking and womanizing over learning the rules of kinghood, the latter was the highly praised warrior and hero with a bright destiny in his future. Events transform them profoundly, and where Orso becomes a true king in his captivity, submitting to it with humorous gallantry and ultimately showing a kind of subdued bravery that moved me deeply, Leo turns into an embittered, violence-prone individual more focused on the lost glories of the past than on the needs of the present.

A truly tragic figure is that of Gunnar Broad, the former soldier who keeps promising – to himself and his family – that he’s through with bloody violence: events keep proving him wrong and he finds himself constantly enmeshed in situations that force him to rely on his darker instincts. In a way he reminds me of the Bloody Nine, who strove to be a better man without ever managing to fulfill this vow.

I’ve left my favorite character for last: Rikke. As the daughter of the Dogman, all her life she’s been weighted down by her father’s legend and the need to prove herself, a girl, in the world of these Northern hard warriors – and by the heavy toll of her unpredictable precognitive ability.  Here she comes into her own, successfully managing to balance the ruthless strength necessary to rule (“make your heart a stone”) with the desire to act for the best of her people. You will encounter many surprises along Rikke’s journey, together with the heartwarming relationships with her two closest advisors, the cunningly uncouth hill woman Isern-i-Phail and the grizzled Caul Shivers, who seems to have found some inner balance here, if confronted with the man I came to know in Best Served Cold.

Joe Abercrombie’s novels always prove such an immersive experience that it’s hard to move out of his world and return to reality: my only solace is represented by the standalone First Law books I have still to read and the implied promise of this one that the story is not over, that there are some still-hanging threads that might, one day, turn into other equally engrossing books. Time will tell…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BONE SHIP’S WAKE (The Tide Child #3), by R.J. Barker

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

The Bone Ship’s Wake is the amazing conclusion of a sea-faring adventure that’s both dark and hopeful, one that led me through an emotional rollercoaster in whose aftermath I’m still trying to deal with the mixed feelings of wonder and anguish it engendered: hopefully I will be able to convert them into an organic – and spoiler-free! – review…

When we previously left the crew of the Tide Child, they were suffering from many kinds of losses: crew-mates had perished, people had been grievously wounded, and worse still, ship-wife Meas had been taken prisoner, her dream of uniting the folks from the Hundred and Gaunt Isles into a better kind of life apparently doomed.  Hurt but not beaten, Meas’ deck-keeper Joron Twiner turns the rebel fleet into a pirate armada, with the double goal of weakening the Hundred Isles’ power and of gaining intelligence on Meas’ fate – and if possible of freeing her.  But despite the bloody successes and the dire fame he’s gained as the Black Pirate, Joron knows that his time is running out: the fleet under his command is losing irreplaceable ships, despite the victories; he’s being consumed by the unforgiving Keyshan’s Rot, that will ultimately lead him to madness and death; and his hopes of finding Meas alive diminish with every passing day.

As I noted in the previous reviews for this series, there is a perfect balance between plot and characterization here, both halves of the story sustaining and enhancing each other in a perfect blend that offers both impeccable pacing and outstanding character journeys that kept me reading on until all hours: this is the kind of book where you keep promising yourself “just one more chapter”, and before you realize it, it’s 2 a.m.  Or even later…

Story-wise there is a definite sensation of both time running out and of impending doom, fueled by the long, suspenseful sea chases that see the crew of Tide Child forced to play a game of wits and endurance with more powerful (but certainly not more cunning!) foes: here is where we can see more than ever the depth and breadth of the author’s imagination as he conceived of this sea-faring world, traveled by ships built out of dragon bones, whose depiction required the creation of a whole new set of naval terms that establish the alienness and the unending wonder of this background while reminding us at the same time of more familiarly sounding shipboard tales. Where the hardships of the situation are described in stark relief, there is still a heart-warming sense of common purpose in the Tide Child’s crew, one that looks even more extraordinary when recalling that they, like all black ships’ complements, are condemned criminals, their service aboard such vessels nothing more than a delayed death sentence: still, through Meas’ past example and Joron’s constantly growing leadership skills, these convicts have turned into a tight crew, one that’s proud of its own accomplishments and is able to work as a single, well-coordinated entity toward their goal.

In this final volume, the secondary characters we have already come to know well come more directly into the light, shining with added depth and pathos as their arcs move along an inexorably established path: people like Cwell, Mevans, Farys, Solemn Muffaz – just to name a few – become more rounded and also more dear to us as the story progresses and we are painfully aware that while this author is hardly tender toward his creations, we are unable to force ourselves not to care for them and their destiny.

But it’s the main characters who keep stealing our hearts and minds, and The Bone Ship’s Wake does its very best to break our hearts as it shows their continuing journey. Meas figures prominently in the very first chapter, one that’s quite hard to read and which sees her stripped of all the strength and assurance that made her such a formidable ship-wife and such an inspirational leader: proud, “lucky” Meas is apparently robbed of all the attributes that made her such a famous and respected captain, only to learn, once she sees herself as vulnerable and diminished, that her legend is still capable of arousing deep loyalty and faith in her crew, even in those who have not met her yet.  There is a scene, toward the end, involving a very special flag, that symbolized this earnest devotion and which I found deeply touching.

As for Joron, he continues to grow into a very capable commander, even though he still thinks of himself as a mere caretaker for the rule of Tide Child: for Joron, the one and only worthy ship-wife remains Meas, even as he takes the reins of the rebel fleet and scours the seas in search of information – or vengeance.  This is a man who is resigned to his mortality and that of his companions, but still wants every sacrifice to count for something: when I think back to the person he was at the start of the series, of the way the crew ignored him – or worse – I realize he’s done an incredible work on himself, much as he wants to deny it, and this reflects on the people around him, who are ready to sacrifice everything in the name of the esprit de corps that he and Meas have nurtured as a replacement for the careless waste of lives that the cruel laws of the Hundred Isles implemented for so long.

And last but not least – not by a long way – the Gullaime: from the first book I felt an immediate kinship with this birdlike creature capable of summoning the winds, whose fate appears inextricably linked with Joron’s. Their subdued friendship, the way they took to one another beyond the need for words, has so far been one of the brightest lights in this grim background, but here their bond takes on such a poignant depth that I found myself on the verge of tears more than once – and I don’t cry easily… This final book brings about a number of revelations about the Gullaime and the role of the Tide Child’s windtalker in the grand scheme of things, but for me the most touching moment is the one where the Gullaime uses the word friend in addressing Joron: more than the fulfillment of the prophecy that we’ve learned unites the man and the bird, and which carries its own heavy emotional baggage, it’s that moment that will always remain in my mind every time I will think about the Gullaime, one of the best and most “real” fantasy creatures I ever encountered in my bookish travels.

Where the Wounded Kingdom series marked for me the discovery of a new, powerful voice in the fantasy genre, the Tide Child saga confirms its author as an outstanding writer, one capable of beguiling you with his stories as he uses them to break your heart. But that’s all right, nonetheless…

My Rating:

Reviews

CATALYST GATE (The Protectorate #3), by Megan O’Keefe

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

I imagine that the beginning of any story must be a difficult time, with ideas crowding on the writer’s mind and clamoring for release, but I also believe that bringing it to a close must be equally trying, if one wants to tie up all the narrative threads in a satisfactory way for creator and readers alike: Megan O’Keefe managed to do so very well, and in a breath-stopping, compelling way. 

What started as a more personal journey in the first book of the trilogy, Velocity Weapon, which focused on the main character Sanda Greeve and her discoveries aboard the AI-driven ship Light of Berossus, then turned into a system-wide menace in the second installment, Chaos Vector, to be ultimately expanded into the threat of galactic annihilation in this conclusive volume of the trilogy, one that I once again hope will be optioned for a TV series by some enlightened network executives, if such creatures exist, because this story deserves to be enjoyed in both mediums, and it possesses every quality to turn into a visually stunning, story-intense show.  

In the final book of the saga we find all of the people we got to know along the way, and can enjoy their expanded characterization and the huge twists and revelations that keep coming at them, and at the readers, with a relentless pace that still manages to offer a cohesive, engaging story never missing its focus despite the complex interweaving of its many narrative threads.  While Megan O’Keefe keeps faithful to the structure of the three main POVs employed until now – Sanda, her brother Biran and Jules Valentine – she still finds a way to flesh out the secondary characters with depth and facets that add layers to the story and make you care for them quite deeply, and it hardly matters whether these characters are actual people or not, because Bero – the A.I. entity who is Sanda’s major ally – comes across as a delightful personality, capable of both great determination as well as subtle humor.

What was hinted at before and becomes dramatically clear in Catalyst Gate is that humanity, despite its amazing progress, has not evolved beyond its own self-centeredness and petty squabbles, that reaching for the stars and expanding its civilization there has not cured them of the need to conquer without thinking about possible consequences: once the danger threatening mankind is revealed as the repercussion of an act of extreme hubris, I kept thinking about a sentence in Tolkien’s LOTR about the Dwarves “delving too greedily and too deep” and therefore releasing their own nemesis. The scourge that humans unleashed is the main element driving the story here, and it does so through a series of interconnected threads that impart an almost impossible acceleration to it: more than once I felt the need to stop and come up for air, trying to distance myself a little from the constant adrenaline surge of the action, but I could not stop for long because the story kept attracting me like a powerful magnet. 

It’s amazing to understand, in the end, how the past and the present are closely tied, how the glimpses of humanity’s road to the stars connect with the events in the current timeline, and there are some quite harrowing, edge-of-your-seat moments as the various characters try to piece together those revelations from that past with the dangers of the present, all the while dealing with their own problems – and secrets.  Yes, because there are still many truths still to be revealed in Catalyst Gate: if you thought that all the jaw-dropping surprises had been used up in the previous books, well, think again, because there are quite a few still in store for you. And some will prove to be more than unexpected…

Characters are still shining as brightly as in the previous installments, from Biran who finds himself having to step into his position with the kind of strength and hard resolve that seemed far from his personality; to former spy Tomas, who is still trying to understand his place in the world and the direction his newfound emancipation must take, but knows for certain where his loyalty must lie; to Bero, once the captive A.I. on the ship Light of Berossus and now a powerful player in the galactic milieu, yet one possessed with a delightfully childish glee about its skills (“I continue to be the most effective weapon in the known universe”).  Nor are the secondary players forgotten here, particularly where Sanda’s motley crew is concerned: Megan O’Keefe took these disparate individuals and turned them into one of the most engaging, most enjoyable fictional found families I ever encountered, one whose banter – even in the face of possible destruction – offers welcome rays of light in a very dark, very troublesome background.

And of course Sanda: I connected with this character from day one, admiring her resilience and her no-nonsense approach to problems, even physical ones, like the loss of one leg which has been affecting her from the very start and served to showcase her attitude and personality quite effectively. Sanda is indeed the perfect modern heroine, one who can both kick ass and be affectionate and caring toward her families – the one she started with and the one she built around her. The perfect balance between human frailties and courage, the way she can face even the most desperate situation with tenacity and determination have been the best features in Sanda Greeve, and those that made this series quite special besides its enthralling core story.

As I said at the start of this review, bringing a saga of such magnitude as The Protectorate to its close might hold its own pitfalls, but Megan O’Keefe proved to be a very skillful weaver here, always keeping a tight control on her creature and delivering an end that is both satisfactory and emotionally appealing.  If you are looking for a compelling space opera series with depth and substance, you need look no further.

My Rating:

Reviews

ADRIFT (Donovan #5), by W. Michael Gear

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

Welcome (back) to Donovan… The most dangerous, most deadly planet explored by mankind returns with the newest perspective on its perils: I’m so glad that author W. Michael Gear decided to go further than the initially planned trilogy set in the extraterrestrial world of Donovan, because there is just so much to explore here, certainly material enough for several more installments in this series.  So far, each book has taken us to a different area of the world and the focus on new characters in each volume – besides the “regulars” that always make an appearance – has helped in keeping the narrative fresh and intriguing.

In Adrift we follow three different storylines, two of them concerning characters we already met: former corporate supervisor Kalico Aguila is determined, more than ever, to make her mining project work, and such determination – together with the harrowing experiences she faced and overcame on the planet – has turned her from the hated face of the Corporation into a Donovanian through and through, another hardy settler driven to forge a new life on the alien planet and a respected member of the community, one capable of inspiring loyalty and even affection. Talina Perez, the security chief carrying Donovanian DNA – or rather TriNA – that has transformed her into a sort of hybrid, able to better integrate in the environment, has taken under her wing Derek Taglioni, once a powerful corporate leader and now one of the most tenacious explorers: in the previous installment, the man willingly accepted some quetzal TriNA, but an accident has now infected him with more than he could manage, and Talina – knowing how unpredictable the transformation can be – takes him away from Port Authority for his own sake and the safety of the other inhabitants of the small enclave.

The third point of view concerns the Maritime Unit, a group of scientists ferried by the latest ship with the goal of exploring Donovan’s oceans: after their harrowing experiences aboard  Ashanti, where a number of passengers turned into a cannibalistic sect, they are eager to start their work in the self-sustaining pod placed on the chosen seabed. Like most new arrivals, the scientists are not overly worried by the old-timers’ warnings about Donovan’s dangers: after so many years spent in an enclosed space, living with the fear of the savage Unreconciled, they want to offer their children the joys of nature, and the chance of exploring the possibilities of the new world. But Donovan being Donovan, they have no idea of what kind of threats this planet has in store for them…

Adrift might very well be the best Donovan book to date: the constant change of perspective between the three main narrative threads imparts a sense of urgency and impending doom to the story that is more nerve-ravaging than what I experienced in previous books. Where in other novels this kind of shift might prove irritating or distracting, here all its does is compel you to turn the pages faster to learn what else is happening to the characters: even though the three separate storylines don’t mix (except for a brief moment toward the end) they all serve to showcase the extreme hostility of this world and the way the people have to adapt to survive, how they must never, ever, take anything for granted. By this fifth book we have learned that Donovan can throw anything at the people trying to colonize it, and we are made aware that there might never be an end to the hostility ingrained in the planet’s ecosystem, and that the unwary will not survive long.

While it was fun to reacquaint myself with Talina, Kalico, and other Port Authority settlers, who have now become almost like household names, my attention was riveted by what happens on the Maritime Unit’s pod: so far the Donovan series has offered a mix of science fiction, adventure and the strangeness of an alien world, but with Adrift horror has been added to the mix, and in significant quantity.   In my review for book 4, Unreconciled, I asked myself what kind of menace might be in store for the oceanographers, because if the land held so many dangers, the sea was bound to do so as well: never, in my wildest imaginings, I would have conceived of a peril so insidious as the one the scientists face, even worse than the half-seen monster that toward the end of that book dispatched the man-eating Unreconciled.  Since I intend to keep this review as spoiler-free as I can, I will not reveal any details, but suffice it to say that the ocean-based pod becomes the theater of a closed-space horror story that could easily give the Alien franchise a good run for its money, particularly because it all starts in such an offhand way that no one really understands what’s going on until it’s too late. And because the deadly threat comes from the most unexpected direction…

There are truly no limits to W. Michael Gear’s power of imagination as he crafts new creatures in the wild, deadly Donovan ecosystem, gifting them not only with predatory instincts but also with various levels of intelligence: survival on this planet is not only a matter of physical strength or improved protections, what truly counts here is the ability to think and plan several moves ahead of your opponents in the food chain. And no matter how many victories humans are able to score, either the price they have to pay for them is quite steep, or those victories are only temporary, because something bigger, stronger or more determined to kill them will always loom over the horizon.  And I can’t wait to see what this author has in store for us (and his characters) next.

Welcome to Donovan… 😉

My Rating:

Reviews

THE FIRST OMEGA, by Megan O’Keefe

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

I discovered Megan O’Keefe through the first two novels in her Protectorate space opera series, so once I saw the notice for this post-apocalyptic novella that promised a Mad Max-like setting, I had no doubt that I would sample the author’s change of narrative tone: brief as it was, it turned out to be a very intriguing read, and my hope is that Ms. O’Keefe might decide to expand this small seed into a full-length novel, one of these days.

Climate change, or some other upheaval, transformed the face of the Earth, and what once was habitable land has turned into a deserted waste, crossed only by the automatic trucks that carry goods and supplies over the old Route 66, that still connects the East and West coast of the United States. Pirates, or desperate people (it would be hard to set the difference in this time and place) constantly try to steal from these trucks, so the corporation running them, Pac At, set up a sort of policing system through bounty hunters: Riley is one of them, her territory in the arid west, toward the end of the line.

Riley is not her name, she has forgotten it and uses it only because the cranky Ma Rickets calls her thus, for no reason she can understand. To everyone else, especially the desperate people trying to eke out a meagre living in the desert, she is Burner, because that’s what her touch does to you if – or rather when – she catches you.  On her latest assignment, however, Riley is surprised to find the attackers already dead, their bodies decomposing although a very short time elapsed since the assault, and in the truck only one living person: a young girl with too-bright eyes that look uncannily like Riley’s own eyes. Her name is Omega…

Given the shortness of this novella I would not feel comfortable sharing any more details, for fear of revealing too much. What I can offer is that this is a story focused on identity and growth, of conditioning that goes beyond its intended programming and the meaning of justice when lawlessness is the only rule in no-man’s land.  The few (too few…) pages of this story manage to flesh out Riley’s character in a very interesting way, and to reach moments of poignancy I would not have expected from such a harsh, unforgiving setting and merciless environment.

The narrative style is quite different from what I was used to in O’Keefe’s Protectorate series: like the desert where it’s set, it’s a bleak, stark prose that paints Riley with a sharp and cutting economy of words that leave no room for kindness and yet highlight a character of surprising depth and humanity, one that simply begs to be explored with more detail and more backstory.  Hopefully one of these days the author will come back to this world and give us more…

My Rating:

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

SHARDS OF EARTH (The Final Architects #1), by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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

Shards of Earth is my sixth book from Adrian Tchaikovsky and one unlike the others I read so far: this author moves from one kind of story to another with enviable ease, so that I’m now certain that no matter which work of his I pick up, I will be pleasantly surprised by what I find. This first volume in the Final Architects series brings us fully into the space opera genre with a story spanning many worlds and civilizations and introducing the most terrible kind of adversary, one which does not seem to act out of malice or thirst for power, but simply because that is its way – one for whom the words collateral damage or consequences seem to hold no meaning at all.  More than once I have wondered how events of the past year have weighed on Adrian Tchaikovsky’s imagination as he crafted the Architects, entities that work according to their own inner programming (not unlike a virus!), unaware of the damage they are inflicting…

At the start of the novel, galactic civilization is two generations past a catastrophic event which threatened to annihilate every form of life – human or alien – in the universe: moon-sized things appeared literally out of nowhere, changing the shape of the worlds they encountered in a sort of destructively “artistic” way, erasing in the process all life present on those worlds. The Architects – so the mysterious entities were named – seemed attracted only by inhabited worlds, and their deadly attention did not spare either alien or human civilization: Earth was one of the worlds so reshaped, and the people who were able to escape from the cataclysmic remolding of their worlds lived like refugees under the constant threat of the appearance of an Architect in their skies.  A last, desperate attempt was made to contact the aliens by genetically enhancing a group of human volunteers (called the Intermediaries) who would be able to communicate with the Architects in the hope of stopping the destruction: during an all-out battle involving the allied fleet created to face the threat, the Intermediaries were able to stop the mindless carnage, and the aliens disappeared just as swiftly as they had manifested.

Some fifty years after the end of the war, what had been an alliance forged under the threat of annihilation has now fractured into a number of governing bodies more often than not at odds with each other: danger forgotten, every one of them – including some criminal conglomerates – seeks power and dominance over the others. The Intermediaries, already marked in body and mind by the transformation, did not fare so well and most of them died, while a program to create more is underway using convicted criminals, not so much as a defense against a return of the Architects – which many deem impossible – but rather because one of the side effects of the genetic enhancing is the ability to navigate unspace, the ghastly nowhere between worlds.  Idris Telemmier is the last one of the original group of Intermediaries, and he now works as a navigator for a crew of interstellar scavengers on a ship very aptly named Vulture God: he does not age, nor does he need sleep, but he’s a very troubled individual and all he wants is to be forgotten and to forget – as impossible as it is – the horrors he had to witness, which makes a strange discovery, made by the Vulture God’s crew in the far reaches of space,  even more disturbing: the Architects might be coming back…

It takes a while for Shards of Earth to make the reader comfortable within its pages, or at least that was my experience at first: Tchaikovsky wastes almost no time in explaining his universe, plunging the audience in medias res so that one feels a little lost – that is, until a closer look at the character and civilizations list, not to mention the useful timeline, opens a window on this huge, complex background and everything falls into place.  The aliens peopling the Galaxy are indeed quite bizarre creatures, confirming the author’s richness of imagination: they are not only weird-looking, but they come from equally outlandish civilizations and their interactions with the humans can go from the humorous to the quite terrifying. Yet it’s the human (or post-human…) characters I connected with more deeply, particularly the crew of the Vulture God, which gave me the same kind of wonderful vibes I could find in Firefly or The Expanse, making me feel perfectly at home with this group of mismatched individuals.

Idris is the one who required more “work” from me because at first he comes across as gloomy and sullen: it’s only as his story comes into light, bit by bit, that it’s possible to understand the depth of the damage inflicted on him first by the procedures necessary to turn him into an Intermediary, then by his war experiences and finally by the constant journeys into unspace – the navigational medium that can turn an unmodified human into a crazed wreck and weighs on an Intermediary with the conflicting sensations of loneliness and of a looming, threatening presence.  If Idris is able to still maintain a grip on sanity it’s because of the bond he forged with his crew-mates, an apparently ill-assorted group that has grown into a found family whose interactions are a joy to behold – from expansive captain Rollo who calls the members of his crew “children”, to dour drone specialist Olli, whose stunted body made her a wizard in remote control of machinery; from  crab-shaped alien tech Kit to lawyer Kris, whose main job is to protect Idris from being indentured by unscrupulous conglomerates, they all create a wonderful sense of familial cohesion that looks like the only barrier separating Idris from a devastating breakdown.

That’s the main reason the arrival of an old acquaintance of Idris places them all on defensive mode: Solace is a member of the Parthenon, a human faction that long ago left Earth establishing a society of parthenogenically created women-soldiers – she and her sisters fought valiantly against the Architects, but are now looked on with suspicion, not least because there is a great deal of misinformation about their civilization and goals.  Solace is tasked with convincing Idris to help the Parthenon create their own Intermediaries, should they be needed with the possible return of the Architects, and when she joins the Vulture God she initially upsets the balance aboard the vessel, but as the days go on and a series of dramatic events plagues the crew, she feels torn between commitment to her duty and the growing sense of belonging that her adventures aboard the ship are bringing about.

As far as space opera goes, Shards of Earth is a perfect, quite engaging representative of the genre, and for this very reason I refrained from mentioning any detail from the fast-paced string of events at the core of this story. What I’m more than happy to share, however, is that the last 15-20% of the novel moves from a fast pace to a breakneck speed that had me turning the pages as quickly as I could, because the stakes were enormous and the various revelations beyond compelling.  And the good news is that although this is the first volume in a series, it does not end in a cliffhanger: granted, we understand that the various pieces have just been set in motion on this galactic chessboard, but this segment of the story is tied up quite satisfactorily – although I would not mind reading the next book right now 😉

If you are a fan of Adrian Tchaikovsky, I’m certain you will enjoy the depth and scope of his new work, and if you never read any of his books, this might very well be an amazing introduction. Either way, you will not be disappointed….

My Rating:

Reviews

THE SHADOW OF THE GODS (The Bloodsworn Saga #1), by John Gwynne

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

A Time of Dread was the book that helped me discover author John Gwynne, that first book in the amazing Of Blood and Bone trilogy then leading me to retrace his narrative path with the previous series The Faithful and the Fallen, of which I still have two books to explore. When this new work was announced I was beyond eager to see where Mr. Gwynne would take us next and also certain that I would enjoy this story as I did the other ones: well, The Shadow of the Gods managed not only to surpass my expectations, it even outclassed his other novels I read so far – and they were already outstanding works in their own rights! 

This will be a spoiler-free review, because I was fortunate enough to read the e-ARC some time before the expected publication, and I don’t want to deprive potential readers of the sheer joy of discovering this amazing story on their own. Still, I can talk freely about this extraordinary world and the awesome characters peopling it, to give you an idea of the breath-taking journey that’s in store for you. Since the Bloodsworn Saga is based on Norse lore and mythology, I had an advantage thanks to my recent experience with the TV series Vikings, being already familiar with some of the terms and above all with the appearance of the characters, so it was easy for me to picture people and backgrounds and I felt at home practically from page one.

The land of Vigrid was once dominated by the gods, who wrecked the world in the war they waged against each other: in the new world born out of the ashes of the old one, the bones of the dead gods hold special power and are therefore much sought after by overlords seeking to extend their dominions. There are monsters as well in Vigrid, called vaesen and lying in wait for the unwary traveller or trying to attack unprotected homesteads – and then there are the Tainted, humans in whose veins runs some of the gods’ blood, gifting them with special powers: they are either hunted down like animals, or captured, enslaved and exploited.  

Three are the main characters of the story: Orka, once a renowned warrior and now making her living as a huntress, together with her husband and young child; Varg, a former thrall (slave) on the run from his old master and driven by the need to avenge the death of his sister; and Elvar, the daughter of a powerful jarl, who renounced a life of privilege to join the warband of the Battle-Grim, in search of fame and glory. I was certain that these three separate threads would converge sooner or later, since there seems to be something brewing in the world, something sinister that starts with brutal attacks on isolated homesteads and the kidnapping of young children, so that Orka’s search for her own stolen child slowly but surely moves toward the meeting with the Bloodsworn – the warband in which Varg has been accepted and that took on a perilous but well-paid assignment – and probably with the Battle-Grim, whose need for wealth has taken them toward the most dangerous, monster-infested part of the world. The Shadow of the Gods is but the prelude to what promises to be an engrossing story, and reaching the last page left me eager to see where this amazing new saga would take me next.

John Gwynne’s novels always achieve a well-balanced mix between plot and characterization – one of the reasons they always prove so satisfying – and this new work is a case in point: as the characters engage in their individual journeys we are made familiar with the land of Vigrid and with its history, we are presented with wide plains and rocky expanses, with river marshes and frigid tundra, and we feel as if we shared the characters’ paths and the difficulties they entail. We are also able to visit a city built inside the huge skeleton of a fallen god, a place of constant twilight that made me feel quite uneasy (and with good reason…), and then we travel by sea, sharing the effort of warriors who lay down their weapons for a while to take up the oars and guide their ship through perilous seas. There is a constant cinematic aspect to the descriptions here that makes the storytelling vivid and three-dimensional, without losing the “fireside tale” quality that for me has become the author’s trademark. And of course I can’t forget the battles: with John Gwynne’s novels I never skip the description of battles because they are realistically detailed and – no matter the brutality of the clash – always dramatically fascinating.

But of course, even in this stunning background, the characters are the elements that make these stories truly shine, and in The Shadow of the Gods both main and secondary ones are responsible for breathing memorable life into the novel.  I needed some time to warm up to Orka at first, mostly because she comes across as somewhat harsh and demanding in her dealings with her son, while her husband looks like the softer one of the two. But once Orka’s mother instinct is put to the test, it’s easy to understand how her apparent sternness is only a means of steeling young Breca against the world’s dangers, and her determination and ferociousness in rescuing him from his kidnappers are as white-hot as her love for him.   Elvar, on the other hand, looks like she’s still evolving and trying to find her destiny: refusing to be used as a pawn in her powerful father’s political dealings, she choose to join a warband as a form of freedom and rebellion at the same time: what she’s still learning is that, no matter what one’s life choices are, there is always a price to pay for them. And finally Varg, who like Orka is desperately trying to fulfill an oath: his life as a slave has been a harsh, lonely one, and the loss of his sister – the only person he could trust – has turned him into a haunted, mistrustful person, to the point that the most difficult task he faces with the Bloodsworn is to accept friendship and camaraderie, truly a heart-breaking side of his character, and one that offers some poignant insights once he starts to fraternize with his new companions.

The beauty of these characters is that they are all inherently flawed and probably not “hero material” in the usual meaning of the term, but I have come to care deeply for them (and particularly for Orka and Varg) because they are driven by the strength of their love for friends and family, and because they have the ability to create a bond – as strong as the one of blood – with the people they live and fight with. This is one of the themes at the core of John Gwynne’s novels, the backbone of loyalty and devotion that can bind individuals tied by a common goal, and here it’s present in a superbly gritty and emotional form. It might be a little early to say that his might be my best read for 2021, but I’m not sure I will find others capable to bring out the immersive delight I experienced with The Shadow of the Gods – and this is only the beginning of the whole story…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE FALL OF KOLI (Rampart Trilogy #3), by M.R. Carey

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

Approaching a series ender often brings contrasting emotions, particularly the concern that it might not live up to expectations: well, this was definitely NOT the case with The Fall of Koli, the amazing, adrenaline-infused final book in M.R. Carey’s Rampart series set in a post-apocalyptic future where humanity hangs on to survival by its fingernails. As is my habit, I will try to refrain from spoilers as much as I can, but be aware that some details from previous books might be mentioned.

Young Koli Woodsmith was exiled from his native village of Mythen Rood in book 1: in this future, dystopian England, the few remaining – and functioning – items of tech from the old civilization are both weapons of defense and the way for the village’s ruling clan to keep hold of their power. Having stolen a piece of tech for himself, thus uncovering a long-guarded secret in Mythen Rood, Koli is forced to leave home and start a journey across the land, gathering two unlikely companions: Ursala from Elsewhere, a sort of traveling physician, and Cup, former member of a death cult. In book 2, the three companions undertake a voyage toward mythical London, where they might find a way to revive a dying civilization, and at the end of that second book we are left with a disturbing cliffhanger.

The Fall of Koli defies any expectation one might have entertained about the story’s progression, both in developing events and in the way the story is told: equal narrative space is given to Koli and his companions and to the situation in Mythen Rood, where Koli’s one-time friends Spinner and Jon, together with the other villagers, face a deadly threat from a nearby enclave, whose superior firepower and aggressive attitude might end in death and destruction. I have come to see this series’ storytelling as the expanding circles forming when one throws a stone in water: at first we learn about the small, confined world of Koli’s home village, then we see a little of the outside world and its many dangers, and once we reach this last installment we finally understand how the world as we know it ended, what remains of its former power and what threat that dormant power represents.

The regular shifts in narrative perspective turn the story into a compulsive read, and the raising stakes on both sides of the action keep the tension at high levels, making it clear that any kind of ending is possible, and that it might not contemplate a happily-ever-after for everyone. Where the situation in Mythen Rood might look like a classic post-apocalyptic scenario where the strongest and better armed always overpower the weakest, the sections concerning Koli & Co. become progressively more disturbing as the real nature of the Sword of Albion, whose recorded message prompted the group’s journey toward London, is revealed and the individuals the travelers meet look more sinister and threatening with every passing day.

Where the overall scenario is compelling, the characters’ journey is no less intriguing: Koli is probably the one who changes less than others, but the fact that he appears to remain true to himself throughout the story does not detract from his innate kindness, selflessness and capacity for compassion, which are the traits that best define him. Koli might not be the “hero” in the widely accepted definition of the word because his strength does not come from particular acts of bravery: what defines him and makes him so relatable is his capacity for connecting to people and understanding their worth, for seeing the possibilities of redemption and change as he did with Cup before and as he does here with Stanley Banner, a truly creepy character on the outside, whose tragic destiny comes to the fore thanks to Koli’s refusal to consider circumstances only in black and white.

Spinner, once Koli’s love interest and now a prominent figure in the hierarchy of Mythen Rood, enjoys a greatly transformative journey: from young girl set on obtaining through marriage a comfortable position in the village’s society, she moves on to the role of fiercely protective mother first and equally fierce defender of her small world once outside threats come knocking on the door. In a way, Spinner achieves what Koli had set out to do and failed at: by throwing a monkey wrench in the workings of Mythen Rood’s balance of power, she helps wake her people from a sort of complacent status quo that might ultimately have led them to extinction.  Her growth is much more pronounced than Koli’s but still she tempers it with compassion and a fine understanding of her fellow citizens’ psychological traits, mixing it with a determination that belies her young age: I enjoyed Spinner’s chapters greatly and her journey was a very compelling counterpoint to Koli’s own adventures.

Last but not least Monono: Koli and Spinner are the story’s two main focuses, granted, but the Dream Sleeve’s AI personality is further explored in this third book, offering an enlightening view on her abilities and the true changes brought on by the software upload that took her to a different level of performance. Monono’s “voice” remains the same charmingly cute girl-analogue we have learned to know and love, but here – where she gets her own point of view chapters – we discover something else, a capacity for viciousness that belies the effervescent tone she employs in her dealings with humans. It’s true that at times Monono’s quips and pop-culture references provide some light relief to an increasingly tense situation – see when she mentions the Stepford Wives or the Boys from Brazil, or when she calls Morticia and Gomez the oh-so-creepy Lorraine and Paul Banner – but when she shows her true nature it’s impossible not to consider the threat other AIs have represented in fiction and to see Monono in a troublingly different light. The only factor keeping her from going down the same road as, for example, HAL 9000 or the more recent AIDAN, is Koli: the young man’s inherent kindness is indeed the balancing element conferring the human angle Monono needs to avoid that pitfall, as she says herself:

I’m not forgiving by nature, and every shit I give about your species is given – grudgingly – because I was stupid enough to get involved with a boy from the wrong side of tracks. A boy made of flesh and blood.

Be warned, The Fall of Koli does not tie up nicely the narrative threads explored throughout the trilogy since it reserves some space for tragedy and loss, but nonetheless the poignant ending of the series is both surprising and satisfactory and closes a compelling story-arc in the best possible way I could have asked for.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE MASK OF MIRRORS (Rook & Rose #1), by M.A. Carrick

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

When I first became aware of The Mask of Mirrors I was intrigued because it promised to portray many of the elements I enjoy in a story, like a daring confidence game, many political maneuverings and an interesting social background. The book contains all of that and much more, delivering a story that went well beyond my initial expectations.

The city of Nadezra, formerly the center of the Vraszenian culture, has been for several generations under Liganti domination, the original inhabitants looked on by the conquerors as second-class citizens: in the past, the stipulation of the Accords created a sort of truce between the two factions, but social and political unrest are always ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. Ren, a former Vraszenian street urchin now graduated to successful con artist, has concocted a daring plan to insinuate herself in the powerful Traementis family posing as Renata Viraudax, the daughter of a relative who left Nadezra long ago: once accepted by these Liganti nobles she hopes to be able to enjoy all the comforts of wealth for herself and her adopted sister Tess, now posing as Renata’s maid.

Unfortunately, the Traementis are not as influential or wealthy as they used to be, and Ren finds herself enmeshed in ever-convoluted political schemes geared toward helping the Traementis regain their former status so that she can help herself in turn. This plot-within-plot game, however, turns out to be more than Ren could possibly handle, because it dovetails with someone’s malicious strategy to foment a Vraszenian insurrection whose short- and far-reaching consequences are worryingly unclear….

While I am reluctant to reveal more about the plot to avoid spoiling your pleasure in uncovering it as the story develops, I can enjoy much more freedom in the description of the fascinating background in which the novel is set, and of the wide range of characters peopling it: these two elements blend in a captivating whole, and if the pacing feels slightly on the slow side at the start of the book, I can assure you that once the avalanche starts its inexorable downward shift, it gains speed at a breakneck, breath-stealing pace until the conclusion.

Nadezra is a fascinating place: a city built on a series of islands connected by bridges and waterways, its Venice-like quality enhanced by the description of dark alleys and wide plazas, of canals hosting floating markets or covered by impenetrable fogs that conceal both beauty and misdeeds. It’s also a place of glaring contradictions where the mansions of the affluent give way to the poorest hovels or to the crumbling buildings from which  crime lords direct their armies of young thugs.  And where magic permeates many of the aspects of everyday life.

The two coexisting cultures engage in different kinds of magic: the Liganti employ numinatria, which requires channeling power through a form of numerology focused by special geometrical shapes, while the Vraszenian prefer a form of Tarot based on a deck of cards that show the pattern shaping any given individual’s life. Moreover, objects can be imbued, i.e. gifted with special properties that make them more effective in their everyday use. In this world magic is so pervasive as to be almost mundane at times, but it also plays a pivotal role in the story arc, and with literally mind-bending effects and consequences.

In such a fascinating background, the characters are equally intriguing, starting with Arenza or Ren, both as herself and in the assumed persona of Renata Viraudax: she is a consummate con artist with a harsh past, playing a dangerous scheme to ensure a comfortable future for herself and her adopted sister Tess. Ren is the perfect representative of Nadezran society, one where playing a part, saying a thing while thinking another, is the rule, and she manages this feat with consummate ability. It took me a little while to warm up to Ren (even though I enjoyed her character from page one) because of the callous way in which she acts, but as the story progressed I was able to see her frailties and insecurities, to learn the horrors of her past and to understand where she comes from, emotionally.  

The perfect (and quite enjoyable) foil for Ren is represented by Derossi Vargo, a powerful mobster whose ambitions of cleaning up his act and joining respectable society make him an interesting, multi-layered character whose very unpredictability is his most fascinating quality. To call him ambiguous would be a massive understatement, and he maintains this ambiguity to the very end, where an important revelation enhanced my expectations for the next book in the series, particularly in respect of my deep curiosity about the identity and role of a certain Alsius – if you read the book, you know what I mean… 

On the opposite side of the personality spectrum is Grey Serrado, a Vraszenian who joined the the city’s law enforcement ranks and is forced to walk a fine line between the pull of his origins and the need to bring order and justice to a city where both concepts are too often mistreated if not ignored: the tight rope of conflicting loyalties he’s forced to walk soon managed to earn my sympathy, and I hope he will be given more narrative space in the next installments, because I feel there is still an untapped potential there, one that the final section of the novel seems to point at.

And then there is the Rook, a mysterious, hooded and masked figure whose acts in defense of the poor and the weak have become legendary – and have been for some two hundred years, hinting at a series of people taking up that mantle over time.

These are the major players, but there are other figures I was able to appreciate, like Donaia Traementis, the iron lady at the head of the failing house, whose strength of character, even in the face of many adversities, is a delight to behold; or young Tess, Ren’s sidekick, accomplice and moral support, whose skills with needle and fabric offer many delightful descriptions of the gorgeous clothes that are such a great part of the story’s background. But the list does not end here, of course…

I had a great deal of fun with The Mask of Mirrors, its skillful blend of adventure, mystery and drawing-room verbal battles creating a rich, multi-layered story I enjoyed losing myself in: the seamless transitions from day-to-day life to vicious political battles, from high-end social gatherings to drug-induced, reality-bending nightmares, proved to be so compelling that it was hard to put the book down, and I hope that authors Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms – working here under the pen name of M.A. Carrick – will not make us wait too long for the next installment in this very promising series.

My Rating: