Reviews

Review: OUR WAR, by Craig DiLouie

 

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

My first encounter with Craig DiLouie’s work was through his previous novel, One of Us, a tale about children gifted with peculiar abilities, segregated from the rest of humanity and cruelly exploited.  Our War focuses on children as well, young people finding themselves enmeshed in war and having to fight, literally fight, to survive.

The premise states that an impeached president of the USA refuses to step down, starting a civil war between the opposing factions of his loyalist base and the Congress supporters who are asking for his resignation. The whole country is plunged in bloody strife and transforms into a series of war zones, with refugees trying to escape to marginally safer places, and bitter skirmishes happening along a very fluid, very dangerous battle line.

Ten-year- old Hannah and sixteen-year-old Alex Miller are brother and sister, running away from home with their terrified parents in search of an uncertain shelter from the warring parties: Alex, already a troubled teenager, runs from the family car in a surge of unfocused anger about the life he’s forced to leave behind, and ends up among the rebel forces loyal to the president, while the death of the father leaves Hannah and her mother to fend for themselves. When her mother is also killed by a sniper bullet, Hannah finds sanctuary with the Free Women militia, on the opposite side of the conflict.  Both kids, like many others, will learn how to wield weapons and kill – not just for survival but for a desperate need to find a place to belong in a world gone mad.

The adult point of view comes from Aubrey, a dedicated journalist working for the Indianapolis Chronicle, and from Gabrielle, a Canadian UNICEF worker bringing some much-needed humanitarian aid in the war-torn country. Both of them are very interesting characters – Aubrey tries not to succumb to fear and cynicism, and finds an unexpected well of courage in the goal of showing the world what is happening to children enrolled in the militia, and Gabrielle braves the dangers of the war to pay forward the debt she owes to the man who saved her life when she was little – but the real focus of the story is, of course, on the two young siblings, on the other kids they meet in their respective groups and on the way the horrors of war can shape (and twist) a young mindset and soul.

My previous experience with Craig DiLouie’s work should have prepared me for this starkly lucid depiction of a country in the throes of war and the consequences visited upon its people, especially the young ones, but Our War went well beyond anything I might have foreseen, hitting me with unexpected strength: there is such a heart-wrenching quality to the story being told here, that I too often felt breathless with the chilling impact of it all.  The suddenness with which society crumbles, once the conflict starts, reveals how thin our veneer of civilization is, how the savage side of our collective mind is always lurking beneath that surface layer: what’s truly terrifying, in the devastated world depicted in this book, is that it looks all too plausible, that the way politics have changed in the last handful of years have made the scenario in Our War a troublesome possibility rather than a flight of the imagination.

The way we approach politics these days, no matter the country one lives in, has turned away from a debate, however heated, of ideas, to become a constant barrage of insults, viciousness and other unsavory ingredients that have corrupted what should be a healthy exchange into a free-for-all where the warped logic of “us vs. them” has replaced any other kind of interaction.  We seem to have become too easily enmeshed in the kind of mob mentality that sees those with a different outlook (be it political, religious or whatever) not as someone with a divergent perspective but as blood enemies to be crushed. The step from partisan shouting to civil war appears all too brief and too easily taken, and this story highlights with terrible clarity the kind of steep incline we might all slide down on one of these days if we don’t re-learn some mutual respect and the ability to listen without being deafened and blinded by prejudice.

Our War shows us the possible consequences of underestimating that danger, consequences that would be mostly visited on the vulnerable ones, like children: Alex and Hannah quickly lose the carefree innocence that should be their right as they learn how to kill.  For both of them, what started as a form of defense transforms all too soon into an offensive stance: in Alex’s case because he finds himself attached to a group of people where many enjoy senseless violence for the sake of it, and he becomes somewhat addicted to the need for their approval, so that the only way the young boy has to obtain it is to become as trigger-happy as they are. Hannah, on the other hand, finds shelter with the Free Women and also the sense of family she lost as her loved ones disappeared one by one, therefore turning herself into a killer means being able to defend her newfound family and the protection – physical and mental – they provide.

Our War gives us a bleak picture of a possible (all too possible…) future, one that must compel us to seriously consider the dangers inherent in the habit of turning our differences into unsurmountable chasms, when even the slight glimmer of hope we find at the end does not seem enough to dispel the darkness left by looking into this potential abyss. 

Still, I would not have missed reading it for the world…

 

 

My Rating:

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Reviews

Review: THE RAGE OF DRAGONS (The Burning #1), by Evan Winter

 

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

The first time I heard about The Rage of Dragons, through a fellow blogger’s review, I was beyond intrigued when learning that the book takes a different approach to the usual fantasy themes by basing the story on an African-like background, which is indeed new and refreshing in the genre. Besides, how could I resist a tale of vengeance? Since my long-ago encounter with The Count of Montecristo I always found revenge stories to be quite compelling, so there was no doubt that this would be an intriguing read.

At the start of the story we meet the Omehi people, refugees in search of a place to settle in and re-build their society: they just landed in a promising location, but the natives’ fierce resistance forces them into a bitter conflict that is still ongoing some two hundred years later, when we encounter the novel’s main character, Tau.  In a society geared for endless war, everyone must be trained for combat, but Tau is not very sanguine about that and his goal is to finish his mandatory warrior training and then injure himself in a way that will allow him to still be a productive member of society in a non-belligerent role.

Fate, however, brings such an upheaval to Tau’s life that it sends him on a very different path, one that will turn him into the fierce warrior he never meant to be, so he can carry out his vengeance against those who wronged him.  And as Tau pursues that aim, the conflict with the Xideen keeps escalating and the future for the Omehi looks increasingly bleaker…

The Rage of Dragons started out in a very promising way for me, with its original approach and setting, but ultimately it failed to engage me fully, which saddened me quite a bit since I had hoped for more – or maybe set those expectations too high.  For example, the background is a potentially fascinating one: the novel is marketed as an African-inspired story and there is indeed an intriguing feeling in the descriptions of the scorched, unforgiving land settled by the Omehi, of the relentless sun beating down on people and their activities. The language is permeated by terms calling out to the African culture, and even though they sometimes overwhelm the readers, asking them for an effort of memory to place them in the right context, they enhance the difference from the more traditional fantasy storytelling. Still, I could not avoid the sensation that those elements of originality were only skin deep, because none of them helped in making me perceive the depth and complexity of such a different culture.

From the opening we learn that Omehi society is divided into two castes, nobles and commoners, assigned by matrilineal descent, and that women hold the highest powers: the ruler is a Queen and the magic wielders are women, which would lay the ground for a strong female presence throughout the story, and yet the narrative evidence is contradictory.  As far as the caste system is concerned, for example, we only know it’s there and that the nobles often misuse their influence for personal gain, but there is nothing more here aside from the perception of the inherent injustice of this social structure. Female figures, what few there are, hardly impact the storyline, giving me the unwelcome sensation that their apparent agency in Omehi culture is more a token one than the real thing.

Still, these misgivings would be minor ones, and easily ascribed to the “growing pains” of a debut work, if it were not for what turned out to be my major contention with The Rage of Dragons, which was its main focus – Tau. It was difficult, not to say impossible, to find a connection with the character: at first he comes across as a variation on the theme of the reluctant hero: he has no heart for fighting, which in a military culture is a huge problem indeed (those who are unwilling to fight are relegated to the role of ‘drudge’, little more than slaves forced to serve the community in the more menial and demanding tasks), while his plan for a self-inflicted injury, which would free him from military service while maintaining his status and freedom, sounds mildly cowardly and did little to endear him to me. Then tragedy strikes and Tau spins in the very opposite direction, training hard and succeeding quite shortly in becoming a fearsome warrior, which is somewhat difficult to believe given his initial lack of interest for warfare – even taking into account the powerful drive offered by his thirst for revenge, it’s a change I struggled to accept.

That desire for revenge (an element, as I said, that can powerfully drive any story) leads Tau to a single-mindedness that further alienated him from me, because it was not so much a tight focus on a goal but rather a tunnel vision to the exclusion of all else, be it the bonding with his comrades or the consequences of rash choices – and Tau is quite prone to the latter, to the point that I often wondered if he was stupidly foolish rather than powerfully driven. Moreover, the emphasis on hand-to-hand combat, which takes a considerable space in the overall narrative, turned out to be too much – at least for my tastes – and those descriptions, no matter their cinematic detail that would work very well on screen, felt boring and repetitive after the umpteenth flashing of bronze swords.

When all is said and done, I would not label The Rage of Dragons as a bad book, because it’s not, but in the end it felt to me as an unfulfilled promise, a story with a great potential that remained mostly untapped, and that’s the main reason for my overall disappointment. Which does not mean that this story could not get better along the way…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: CHILDREN OF RUIN (Children of Time #2), by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I received this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

When I approached this novel’s predecessor, Children of Time, I did so with some apprehension, since I’m mildly arachnophobic and the main characters in that story were indeed spiders: imagine my surprise when Adrian Tchaikovsky’s writing not only made my fear a moot point, but compelled me to root unabashedly for the eight-legged heroes of his saga…

The previous novel ended with a hint that there could be further territory to explore in this universe, whose most fascinating element comes from the fact that uplifted creatures are now the more populous, more advanced species, and mankind is still struggling with the aftermath of its civilization’s end. Children of Ruin starts where book 1 ended, with a mixed group of scientist – arachnids and humans – embarked on a voyage of discovery for new frontiers.

Like book 1, this sequel follows two different timelines: the ‘present’ aboard the ship Voyager with its mixed crew, and the more remote past, where a group of terraformers has to deal with the collapse of human civilization and the realization that they might be all that is left of mankind.  With a storyline that somewhat parallels that of the evolution of new intelligence on Kern’s World, home of the spiders, one of the scientists on the ship Aegean uses Dr. Kern’s uplift virus on his octopus specimens to create a viable race for the water world he’s focusing on, thus creating a new intelligent species.

As eager as I was to learn more about the arachnid-human association and their journey of exploration, together with the marvels of the organic ship they traveled on, Children of Ruin did not work for me as well as the first book in the series did, partly because of what I perceived as a form of pattern repetition, and partly because of pacing problems.  Still, I’d like to start with what I enjoyed in this new story.

The alliance between the survivors of mankind and the uplifted spiders is one that works but still needs to bridge many differences, chiefly where inter-species communication is involved: that was one of the most fascinating elements in this novel, with characters endeavoring to find the best approach – either simply linguistic or more mechanical – to understand each other without the mediation of the Kern personality residing in their computer.  And of course there are still the compelling arachnid social dynamics, where the females assert their dominance while the males struggle to obtain recognition in what I perceived as a pointed commentary worked through an interesting role reversal.

The human terraformers offer another thought-provoking perspective, especially in their reactions after the protracted silence from Mother Earth leads them to a dismal conclusion. They all appear as self-centered individuals, more focused on their scientific goals than on building a cohesive group so far away from home – in other worlds, an echo of Avrana Kern, multiplied by five, which made me think often about the author’s overall negative vision about humanity.

Then there are the octopuses, whose journey toward increased intellect somewhat parallels that of the spiders, but of course with substantial differences due both to their nature and to the liquid environment they live in, which offers fascinating angles in the creation of their society and its evolution, both planet-side and in space. For example, there are two curious details that stuck to my mind: one is that being boneless octopuses don’t suffer from the bone deficiencies that plague spaces after a prolonged permanence in microgravity; and two, for creatures that can move in several directions, there is no concept of ‘up’ or ‘down’ to upset directional perceptions as it happens to humans.

All of the above elements intrigued me of course, together with the addition of a new kind of creature bent on assimilating other forms of life to understand them, which added further pressure on the already tense situation between octopuses and the explorers from Kern’s World. Still, the octopuses’ evolution did not feel as compelling as that of the spiders in the first novel, and there was a great deal of space dedicated to their biological and psychological progress that felt more like a textbook than a work of fiction, lacking the irresistible quality of the evolutionary saga of the arachnids. Where I cared – so surprisingly, given my bias – for the way the spiders evolved in the course of the millennia of their history, I could not feel equally engaged with the octopuses’ journey, and what’s worse I could not feel any connection with the spiders featured in this novel: this perceived remoteness on my part was the main reason I was not invested in this story as I was with the first book.

Much of my reaction could be ascribed to the lack of novelty compared with its predecessor, since I could not erase the feeling of “been there, done that” that plagued me for most of the way, and moreover the overall plot gave off the feeling of being artificially intricate, lacking the beautiful, clear progression I enjoyed with Children of Time, which does not mean I did not enjoy this story but that I feel how a more… streamlined narrative would have worked better for my tastes.

I’m glad I read this, but nonetheless I can’t avoid the consideration that sequels often thread on dangerous ground, and this one might not have always successfully avoided the pitfall of such ground.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: VELOCITY WEAPON (The Protectorate #1), by Megan O’Keefe

 

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

When I saw Velocity Weapon showcased in the regular Orbit newsletter of upcoming titles, something immediately drew me to it, and I requested it with a bare minimum of knowledge about the story, which is unusual for me since I like to have an idea about what to expect from any given book.  What I found was a very immersive story peopled with characters that felt real and solid, and I breezed through it in a short time: since this is the first volume in a series, I hope that the next ones will come out soon, because there are so many questions I can’t wait to see answered.

This is not going to be an easy review to write because I must avoid any kind of spoiler: Velocity Weapon offers so many surprises, so many unexpected twists, that to even hint at any of them would be a huge disservice – my unconscious decision to approach it “sight unseen” proved to be the best choice, and I urge you to do the same to enjoy this remarkable novel as it deserves.

The background: the discovery in the 22nd Century of a technology – called Casimir Gate – able to bridge huge interstellar distances fostered widespread colonization. Many centuries later, the settlers of Ada Prime hold the key to the local Casimir gate, while their neighbors on Icarion must pay for the rights of transit through the gate, which has caused increasing political and military friction over time. As the novel opens, in one such skirmish Icarion forces took the Prime fleet by surprise, scoring a bloody victory: while bound to their system by the punishing gate tariffs, they reached substantial technological advances, one of them being the powerful weapon which destroyed the Primes’ convoy.

As the political and military pressures mount, the Keepers – Ada Prime’s ruling body – must decide how to respond, while Biran Greeve, newly minted Keeper, has to deal with the loss of his sister Sanda, who commanded one of the Prime ships lost in the battle near Dralee moon.  Sanda is not dead, however: she wakes up in a medical emergency cocoon, one leg missing from the knee down as a consequence of the battle, and the ship she finds herself on is empty of any other form of life. That is, empty except for the AI controlling the vessel – an Icarion ship named The Light of Berossus: what she learns from Bero, as the AI controlling it prefers to be called, is devastating. Icarion deployed their ultimate weapon, the Fibon Protocol, and in so doing obliterated not only Ada Prime but their own world as well: Sanda might very well be the only human alive in this portion of space, and what’s even more shocking comes from the revelation that it all happened 230 years before her awakening and that her emergency pod was the only one with a living survivor that Bero found in the debris field.

The two main narrative threads of Velocity Weapon follow the two siblings as they deal with the harrowing circumstances they find themselves in, and are offset with two other perspectives, one  of them Alexandra Halston, the 22nd Century creator of the Casimir gates, and the other Jules, a thief-scavenger who stumbles on a heist with unexpected consequences and deadly ramifications. I must confess that I struggled a little to understand Jules’ role in the overall story – her timeline is parallel to Biran’s but they are systems apart – but in the end the “big picture” started to take shape and I admired the way in which the author juggled all these elements into a cohesive and fascinating whole.

The story is indeed an absorbing one, offering unexpected discoveries and mind-boggling surprises (more than once I had to keep myself from reacting loudly to such surprises when I was reading in a public place, lest other people think I was out of my mind), but the real bone and muscle of this novel are the characters, especially Sanda.  The usual mold for a strong female character in the genre requires a hardened individual who is either brusque or forceful, or a combination of both, but Sanda goes beyond these limitations (not to say tropes): she is tough and resilient, granted, but she also possesses a good deal of compassion and a sense of humor that blend into a no-nonsense, hands-on approach which immediately endeared her to me. For example, when she wakes up on Bero and acknowledges the missing leg she remembers losing during the battle, she wastes no time on hysterics but rather looks for the best means of assisted locomotion and later on works on fashioning herself a prosthesis.

Where Sanda truly shines is in her interactions with Bero and the way the two of them slowly build a relationship based on cautious trust which at times slides into semi-affectionate banter (the exchange about kitten pictures on the internet is beyond precious): after a while she understands the ship’s AI suffers from a form of post-traumatic syndrome, caused by way the scientists manning the ship hurt its sense of self and its developing personality. Sanda’s realization she is dealing with what is in essence a psychologically damaged teenager brings to the fore her true nature along with her vulnerabilities, showing her for the wonderfully rounded and authentic character she is.

At first I did not connect as easily with Biran, Sanda’s brother: on the surface he looked too naïve and somewhat easily influenced, but as the story progressed I started to see he is made of the same stuff as his sister, just in a less apparent way. As he kept going on the path he choose (apologies for the cryptic phrasing, but it’s necessary) I understood how ready he was to sacrifice anything, even the position he had worked so hard to achieve, to fulfill his goal, and I started to warm to him – unexpectedly but with growing certainty.

In the end what can you expect from Velocity Weapon? Certainly a good space opera novel combining action scenes and character growth, but most importantly a story exploring the meaning of life, consciousness and freedom; the intriguing observation of political maneuvering and of plots building over a span of many years; and above all a very entertaining tale that will keep you with your nose in the book for the whole duration.  And looking for the next book with an eager eye…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: THE UNBOUND EMPIRE (Swords and Fire #3), by Melissa Caruso

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

The third and final installment in Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy is the brilliant finale of a remarkable series, but for me it also firmly places the author in my personal “buy sight unseen” category – which looks even more extraordinary if you consider that this is her debut work.  While I was captivated by this series and its characters since Book 1, I had the pleasure of being more and more engaged in the story with each new volume, her mastery of pacing, dialogue and characterization growing literally from chapter to chapter, and The Unbound Empire represents indeed the culmination of this journey.

Storywise, the events take place a short time after Amalia Cornaro’s harrowing experiences in the hostile territory of Vaskandar, where she participated in the Witch Lords’ Conclave, called by the powerful Lord Ruven attempting to create an alliance against Amalia’s own Raverra.  Taking advantage of the short respite before the storm, the young Cornaro heiress works to make her Falcon Reform Act a reality: the mage-marked of the Empire will not be subjected to forced conscription anymore and will be able to live wherever they want, provided that they are willing to help their country in time of need.

Amalia’s elation at this success is however short-lived: Ruven launches the first phase of his attack at the very heart of Raverra, undermining the Empire’s political stability with the intent of weakening it from the inside before launching the actual military assault. It will fall on Amalia to implement the first line of defense against the Witch Lord, and to try and remove his threat at any cost, so that in this final battle she will have to learn which lines she is prepared to cross as she balances the survival of her home against that of the people she loves.

When reviewers say they find it difficult to set any given novel aside for a moment, it might seem a hyperbole, but this was certainly not the case with The Unbound Empire: personally I begrudged every single moment in which I had to close my reader to attend to life’s everyday requirements, and in those moments I kept wondering what else would be in store for me once I could reopen the book and keep on reading.  The pace is artfully calibrated and increases exponentially as the stakes and dangers keep mounting and the situation takes on the most bleak of overtones: even taking into account the general ruthlessness of Witch Lords, whose powers tend to divest them of many, if not all, of the usual factors that make humans human, Ruven’s callousness surpasses that of his peers by many orders of magnitude.   

Moreover, Amalia often finds herself fighting on two fronts, because the political maneuverings in Raverra look as coldblooded as the Witch Lords’ schemes: now that she is gaining political clout and is starting to make her own path in the powerful circles to which she is destined, it becomes clear that she must harden herself to any eventuality and lose the scholar’s naiveté and self-absorption that used to be her comfort zone at the beginning of the story. I have to confess that I was hard-pressed to remind myself that Amalia is a young woman not yet out of her teens: one of my strongest contentions when dealing with YA characters is that they seem condemned to be depicted as whiny, prone to temper tantrums and moody inner dialogue, but Amalia Cornaro is nothing of the sort. Hardships and tragedy only serve to strengthen her resolve, and any sacrifice, any tough decision she is forced to make may grievously wound her soul but they never weaken her spirit.

One of the main themes of this series is the need for a balance between love, friendship and one’s duty – especially in dangerous times – and I enjoyed the way Melissa Caruso was able to blend all these elements into a cohesive and engaging whole, investing me with the intricacies of the sentimental triangle of sorts in which Amalia becomes involved. Again, what in lesser hands could have turned into somewhat annoying angst, does instead give life to several considerations about the weight of commitment to duty against the leanings of the heart, so that both the narrative developments and the characterization come out enhanced by the detours into “romance territory”, so to speak, instead of being weakened by them. And the unspoken but clearly highlighted notion that it’s possible to love two different people with the same depth of devotion, though expressed in different shades, is a great and enjoyable step forward in the exploration of this subject.

As I said in a previous review of this series, Marcello – the captain of the Falconers to whom Amalia is attracted – and Kathe – the mage lord whose courtship Amalia accepted for political expediency before becoming fascinated by his mercurial personality – represent the dual leanings of Amalia’s soul: Marcello is the safe harbor, the dependable, gentle person she could spend the rest of her life with; Kathe is both unfathomable and dangerous, yet here some hidden, more sensitive sides of his personality come into light, forcing Amalia to reassert her previous views on the man.  If anything, the uncertainty of the choice she will have to make between these two opposites serves to strengthen Amalia’s character and to show that despite the inevitable heartbreak she is capable to set aside the inclinations of her soul and to listen to the harsh necessities of her mind: I don’t want to spoil the details for you, but there are moments when having to decide between “want” and “must” she is able to weigh all the possibilities – like the true scientist she was at the beginning – and to pick the path that will fulfill the mission she was tasked with.  Not without pain, granted, but with an outstanding and admirable clarity of mind.

In this Amalia is supported by her Falcon Zaira, the young woman who can master balefire – the best weapon Raverra possesses against its enemies.  The slowly evolving, grudging friendship between them is one of the highlights of the overall story if not its best element.  Zaira herself is a fascinating character, one who had to survive on her wits alone while having to deal with the terrifying powers she possesses and which have already caused a great deal of grief in the past. For this reason Zaira tries to avoid any kind of emotional connection, afraid that the slightest lessening of her guard might cause harm to the people she cares for despite herself, and the brittle, skittish personality that comes from this is compounded by a propensity for sarcastic remarks that are both amusing and poignant, because they open a window on Zaira’s bruised soul.

Some of the best moments in this series come out of the interactions between Zaira and Amalia, and I enjoyed the way their friendship evolved – slowly and grudgingly – as these two persons who come from the opposite sides of the social scale move toward each other and become each other’s support in the traumatic events unfolding around them. It’s the guilt they have to deal with – Zaira for the tragic consequences of her unharnessed balefire; Amalia for the deaths caused by the necessities of war – that brings them together and forms a bond neither of them is willing to mention openly but still is a delightful sight to behold.

The Swords and Fire trilogy wraps up nicely with this third volume while leaving the door open for possible sequels, and I for one hope that Melissa Caruso will allow us to return to this world, because I think there are still many stories to be explored in here, and greatly enjoyed just as these three books were.

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE (Teixcalaan #1), by Arkady Martine

 

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

From the very first time I saw this book mentioned in the blogosphere I knew I would love to read it, since it promised to offer many of the themes I enjoy in speculative fiction, especially the in-depth examination of the cultural and political implications of a huge empire, one where the Dune-like vibes appeared to be quite strong – which never fails to attract my attention.  What I ultimately found was quite different, but in the end it did not matter much because A Memory Called Empire turned out to be a thought-provoking read.

The Teixcalaanli Empire has not extended its influence only through political or military annexation, but more subtly through the impact of its culture, one which is based on a poetry-inclined mode of expression that has become the model for what is viewed as ‘in’ – the very model of civilization. Even the systems not directly placed under the Empire’s control can fall prey to this fascination for Teixcalaanli civilization, as is the case with Lsel Station, a mining space enclave whose only political tie with the Empire is represented by its ambassador in the City, the central planet at the heart of the dominion. Mahit Dzmare, a young woman who has long been a student and enthusiast of all things Teixcalaanli, is summoned to replace the former ambassador, only to discover upon arrival that her predecessor is dead.

Stationer culture offers a unique perspective on the preservation of past experiences: they have developed a neural implant called imago machine which can store the memories of its holder and share them with a different host – the mechanical equivalent of a Trill symbiont from Star Trek or the ancestral memories received by Reverend Mothers through the ritual of the water of life in the Dune universe. Mahit carries the fifteen-years out of date imago of her predecessor, Yskander, and is still in the process of fully integrating with it given the swiftness of her assignment, but as soon as she visits Yskander’s body in the City’s morgue, the voice inside her head goes silent, either because of a shock sustained by the hosted personality or of some kind of unexpected malfunction.

By all intents and purposes, Mahit must therefore carry on her mission alone – a stranger in a strange land, no matter how much of the Teixcalaanli culture she has absorbed – and under the double pressure of having to discover what really happened to Yskander, which could very well have been murder, and the political turmoil agitating the Empire, seemingly bent toward a new campaign of expansion, this time headed in the direction of Lsel Station.  Not completely alone, though: the cultural attaché she was assigned, Three Seagrass, appears inclined to help her even when that means going against the rules, and the dramatic events they are part of – including a couple of attempts on Mahit’s life – keep drawing the two young women closer, in a sort of mirror attraction for each other’s culture that slowly turns into a personal one.  Still, despite finding a few allies in unexpected places, Mahit’s job looks like a mix of improvisation, deception and learning on the fly that never allows her a moment of respite, while the world all around her looks headed down a dangerous, uncertain path, one she must try to deflect at any cost, even personal safety.

A Memory Called Empire proved to be an intriguing read, as I expected, largely on the basis of the themes central to the story: one of them is the absolute belief at the root of Teixcalaanli society that it represents the best humanity can offer, the most civilized, refined example of mankind’s achievements; a belief that makes them view everyone else as a barbarian, dismissing them all too easily.  There are many instances where Mahit finds herself measured by this very yardstick instead of being accepted for her accomplishments in the culture she admires so much and in its aesthetic values, not to mention her own innate abilities. This leads to another interesting concept, the meaning of self and the way it can be defined – especially when confronted with the use of imago memories and the possibility of change introduced by the coexistence of one’s experiences with someone else’s.  Where the initial buildup appears somewhat slow, once the pieces are all set on the board, the action moves forward at a fast pace, with the last segment focused on a fight against time and apparently insurmountable odds, one who certainly kept me on the edge of my seat as I waited for the whole complicated scenario to unfold completely.

And yet… As captivating as this story was, as delightful some characters were (Three Seagrass being the winner in this contest, thanks to her elegantly witty repartees), I could not shake the feeling that there was something missing – which does not mean that I did not appreciate this book, only I could not be… captured by it, always remaining on the periphery, so to speak, and never truly losing myself in it. Even now, as I’m writing this, I have not managed to put my finger on the real reason for this  perception of distance and the best comparison I can find is through music: I enjoy listening to Mozart, I recognize the beauty of the works he shared with the world, but to me it’s a cold beauty, devoid of the heated passion I can find in Chopin or Rachmaninov, just to quote two of my favorite composers. 

This does not mean that I view A Memory Called Empire in a negative light – the rating I gave it should dispel any doubt about that: it’s only that though I recognize its brilliance, I failed to be engaged by it, probably because my heart wanted to be warmed by the story just as much as my mind had been intrigued by it…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: SIXTEEN WAYS TO DEFEND A WALLED CITY, by K.J. PARKER

 

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

Sometimes a book surprises you because it turns out to be completely different from what you expected, and in this case that surprise was a delightful one, indeed: I picked up this book on impulse, despite the scant information offered by the synopsis, because that unfathomable instinct that I’ve come to call “book vibes” was strongly drawn to it, and once again it proved to be right on target.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is the story of a siege, and also the story of the man defending the besieged city from the unknown assailants who are cutting through the Robur Empire’s territory like a hot knife through butter. Orhan is a colonel in the engineering corps of the Robur army despite being a “milkface”: the Robur, blue skinned and aggressive, have conquered Orhan’s people and look down on them as inferior, unworthy of consideration, the prime targets for slavery and abuse, but Orhan’s engineering skills have brought him to this favored position that allows him a modicum of freedom of movement and independence.

When a few pirate-like sorties against Robur military depots turn out to be a bold move by an unknown enemy, who is able to provision his army and turn the stolen ordnance and weapons against their former owners, Orhan understands that something dire is afoot and manages to close the gates of the empire’s main city before the invaders can storm the walls.  Not a military man by a long stretch (his favorite catchphrase is “I’m just an engineer”), he is however able to shore up the City’s defenses and to give it a chance of surviving beyond the mere hours that would have been the foregone conclusion if the assailants’ ruse had worked – and he manages this feat despite the ineffective short-sightedness of the ranking officials and the social turmoil always brewing under the surface.

Orhan’s success in what looks like a desperate undertaking comes from the fact that besides his engineering skills, which are quite remarkable, he’s a self-declared liar and a cheat, and he knows how to deal with all layers of society acting as a middleman between apparently incompatible parties, as testified by his greatest feat, the truce he forces on the two rival underground factions, the Blues and the Greens, compelling them to work together for the common survival and making them see reason beyond the age-old enmities, at least for a while; he also knows how to turn to his advantage the scant resources at his disposal, paying for them with somewhat counterfeit coins and carrying on through misinformation and double dealing, which seem to come to him as second nature.  A man more attached to the values of honor and integrity would not have managed to accomplish as much, while Orhan’s flexible standards grant him a far wider leeway – and success.

What’s truly amazing in Orhan’s achievement is that he keeps saving the City despite its inhabitants, who keep seeing him as a milkface interloper, an upstart who should know better than to try and rise above his station, and yet they end up being swept along by the man’s sheer force of conviction – and sometimes his fists, when needed.  One of the driving themes of the story is that of racism and rigid social stratification, and despite the lightly humorous tone employed by Orhan’s first-person narrative it’s not difficult to see how the Robur rule has created the kind of social order in which the dehumanization of some strata of the empire has become an accepted fact of life, even by those who are its main victims.   This is an element that plays an important part in the motivations of the invading enemy and in Orhan’s inner conflict once he learns the nature and identity of said enemy: I don’t want to delve deeper into this side of the story because it should be discovered on its own, but it’s interesting to note how the engineer’s apparently carefree approach to the question offers a great deal of food for thought and discussion on the subject of loyalty, even toward those who don’t deserve it.

Orhan’s personality is a deceptively simple one: on the surface, all he cares about is building things, his pride lays in a work well done and one that endures through time, so that the narrative of the siege is carried out in a humorous, self-deprecating tone that belies his true nature and his past history.  In the course of events, we are made privy to the facts and incidents that made Orhan the man he is now, and as the details pile up we begin to understand that there is more under the façade of the “simple engineer”, including something of a mean streak – not that it comes as a surprise, in consideration of his lying and cheating, but some of those instances shed a very peculiar light on him.  Ultimately, it becomes evident that Orhan is an unreliable narrator, not least because he’s the one dictating the story we are reading, and by his own admission he’s not averse to embellishing some of the facts to shine a more positive light on himself. Orhan gives a whole new meaning to the concept of reluctant hero, since he does not seem to mind embellishing some his deeds, but on the other hand he’s trying his best to avoid the trouble that comes from doing what needs to be done.

One of the best features in this book is its narrative quality, a lightly witty mood that’s kept constant all throughout the story and attains that right balance that’s often so difficult to manage and that K.J. Parker handles with no apparent effort. This, together with a steady pace, made breezing through the book a joy, marred only by what seems an abrupt ending, one that left me with too many unanswered questions and a strong desire to know what happened next. It’s the only blemish I can think of in this story that turned out to be so much more than I bargained for.

 

My Rating: