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:

Reviews

SECRET SANTA, by Andrew Shaffer

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

Lussi Meyer is going through a rough patch: having lost her job at a publishing house some months before, she has uselessly hunted for employment for quite some time and is nearing despair. Her last chance lies in the interview she has obtained with Blackwood-Patterson, an old and somewhat stuffy publishing house specialized in high profile books, not exactly the right fit for her previous career as a horror editor, but whatever helps pay the bills will be welcome.

A bizarre (very bizarre!) set of circumstances sees Lussi not only hired but placed in the position of senior editor: the new management wants to move toward a more modern approach to publishing, and she needs to find the “next Stephen King” before the end of the year if she wants to maintain her job.  The reception Lussi gets from her new colleagues is far from warm, and she finds herself the target of some serious hazing, the latest episode being the Secret Santa gift she receives: a weird wooden doll with very disquieting features.

Not long after that, some of her co-workers become victims of freaky accidents, and Lussi comes to the conclusion that the doll is somehow involved: what she doesn’t know is that her own life might be in danger…

I enjoyed this shortish book quite a bit: for starters it’s set in the ‘80s, with many period references I found both interesting and amusing, particularly where the horror scene was concerned since it enjoyed a revival in those years, and Lussi is quite versed in the matter also thanks to her keen interest in the genre from her early youth.  Then there is the eerie background of Blackwood-Patterson, a place peopled by very peculiar characters that would not have been out of place in the Addams’ house; and last but not least the building itself, with its definite Gothic flavor, the old-fashioned look and dark interiors barely lighted by quaint, feeble lamps, and its many shadows lurking from dark corners.

Still, don’t expect to find paralyzing horror in Secret Santa, because the story is laced with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor and peppered with creepy episodes that would be perfectly at home in a parody movie of the genre, as the author delights in poking some fun at its tropes.  Lussi is the perfect example of this tone because, unlike the protagonists of those movies, who seem always destined to some gruesome and bloody end, she navigates her troubles with considerable spirit and, far from being the stereotype of the damsel in need of rescue, she keeps managing to rescue herself very well, and to help others along the way – mainly her friend and horror author Fabien Nightingale.

The element of the creepy doll is certainly the main theme of the story, and another way for the author to indulge in the dark humor running through this book: disturbing dolls are quite frequent in horror, particularly in its visual aspect, and her the doll in question is also a far cry from the kind one would find in a child’s playroom, which adds a few more layers of ghoulishness to the whole recipe.  Mix that with a gloomy, scary building that soon becomes another character in the novel, and you get an amusing page turner that will make you look at the coming holidays from a very different point of view.

Have fun… 🙂

My Rating:

Reviews

NOPHEK GLOSS (The Graven #1), by Essa Hansen

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

It’s once again time for an unpopular opinion on a book that seems to mostly receive high accolades: I requested Nophek Gloss because of its promise of a space-faring adventure and revenge quest (I can never resist a good vengeance story), but found myself struggling to move forward – I set it aside twice, hoping that some distance might foster a different perspective, but once I reached the 58% mark and realized that I was forcing myself to read, I knew I had to admit defeat and walk away from it.

Nophek Gloss starts with an adrenaline-infused inciting incident: 14 year old Caiden and his family live on what looks like an artificial environment, raising cattle; his knowledge of life is quite limited, yet he feels the need to always question rules that have been there for a long time. A devastating epidemic, however, kills the cattle that the colonists are tending and their overseers load all the people on a huge transport with a vague promise of relocation to a new facility. What follows is instead the devastating, bloody end of all that Caiden knew and loved, so that the only thing fueling his will to survive is the burning need to find the ones responsible for his loss and make them pay.

I opened this book with great expectations – maybe too great – and at first it appeared to be all that I was looking forward to, but just as the story reached its first turning point for Caiden (i.e. his encounter with a diverse group of mercenaries who took him in, offering him the chance both to survive and to learn the skills he would need to reach his goal) everything became chaotic and I began to lose my grip on the narrative.  

The universe in which Nophek Gloss is set is rather a conglomeration of universes whose borders can be traversed, each one possessing unique qualities and endless life forms: the problem for me is that this kaleidoscope of worlds, aliens and technologies is offered in what to me amounted to a massive sensory overload – there is a LOT of it, all thrown at the reader with hardly any time to process it before more details are added to an already confused and confusing tapestry.  I don’t mind having to work my way through a story, visualizing or extrapolating what the author is keeping on the sidelines, but here most of it looks like a jumble of terms with no rhyme or reason to it – remember the worst moments of Star Trek’s so-called technobabble? Something like: “reroute the pre-ignition plasma from the impulse deck down to the auxiliary intake”… Well, a good portion of this novel made me feel that way, and it bothered me because it made little or no sense and kept me from forming a mental image of the world the author was trying to show.

Caiden is the other almost insurmountable problem I faced: granted, he’s a teenager and he undergoes a horribly traumatic experience, so it’s understandable that he would suffer from PTSD and survivor’s guilt and would be consumed by the need to exact his revenge on the ones responsible for the situation, but there is no space for anything else in Caiden’s psychological makeup, and that makes it very difficult to see the humanity – if any – behind that huge wall of mindless hate. And I don’t use the word ‘mindless’ carelessly, because Caiden never fails to bodily launch himself against those offenders as soon as he sees one: it doesn’t matter that his new friends advise caution, or that he keeps entering a fight he’s not equipped to win, because as soon as he sets his sights on them he charges like the proverbial bull shown the red cape. And he does that repeatedly, as if every encounter were followed by a complete memory erasure that made him forget past experiences, or – worse – as if he were unwilling to learn from his mistakes.

Worse, the 14 year old accepts a procedure that bestows six years of physical growth on him, together with the sum of knowledge his previously secluded life could not provide: this could have been an interesting way of bringing him to adulthood in a brief span of time, narratively speaking, but keeping his reactions those of a teenager – an unthinking teenager at that – makes that a moot point, because what use is a grown body when your emotions remain those of a child? Not to mention that this choice did little to endear Caiden’s character to me…

When all is said and done, I guess it all comes to personal preferences rather than authorial skills: Nophek Gloss is certainly an ambitious, imaginative story with a rich background, but sadly it’s not the kind of story I can bring myself to enjoy.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE CHILDREN OF RED PEAK, by Craig DiLouie

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

This is my third book from author Craig DiLouie – the previous ones being One of Us and Our War – and it will certainly not be my last: in The Children of Red Peak he once again takes us on the hard but compelling path of betrayed innocence and damaged youth, and does so with clarity and empathy while not sparing any kind of emotional punch.

Siblings Angela and David, and their friends Deacon, Beth and Emily are the only survivors of a terrible event that occurred fifteen years ago: they were part of the religious group called Family of the Living Spirit, and on that fateful night, as the group committed mass suicide in the belief that the end of the world was near, they barely escaped from the Californian retreat at Red Peak, from which – incomprehensibly – no bodies were ever recovered once the alerted authorities reached the area. Now grown up and separated by their different life choices, they meet after a long time for Emily’s funeral: their friend ended her life quite unexpectedly and this event forces them to connect again with a past they would rather forget.

The story alternates between the present and flashbacks to the past, where we see how the community, secluded from the world as it was, was a place of peace and comfort, of hard, honest labor and shared kindness – that is, until something changed drastically and the relocation to Red Peak brought on a downward shift that culminated in that horrific night.

The remaining four survivors have not escaped unscathed, of course: Angela is a hardened police officer in Las Vegas; her brother David is married and has two children, but he keeps apart from them preferring to drown himself in his work; Deacon is now a musician pouring all his anguish and pain into the songs he writes; and Beth has become a psychologist, but is clearly suffering from PTSD, no matter how much she denies it.  Emily’s suicide convinces them that they must go back to Red Peak, where it all happened and where something dreadfully mysterious both seemed to influence the adults and to cause their disappearance in such a fashion that no one could believe possible, not the authorities who interrogated them, nor the five youngsters themselves.  Facing once again the place where it all happened (and where, by the way, similar uncanny occurrences were recorded in the past) might bring the four of them the closure they need, and maybe offer the answers to the questions that still plague them after fifteen harrowing years.

The news have offered us examples of the tragic consequences of extreme religious beliefs carried beyond their intended original purpose – what happened in Guyana with Jim Jones’ community being a most dramatic one and an appropriate comparison with the events described in this novel – and The Children of Red Peak tries to analyze the issues that could lead a well-intentioned congregation toward a self-immolating path. True, there is an unknown, unfathomable element added here, but some of the dynamics explored before the fateful move to Red Peak are completely human, and the author shows a notable degree of compassion when he examines the adults’ behavior, particularly that of the leader Reverend Peale, a man driven by honest beliefs, and the will to establish a community where strong faith and the desire to create a safe environment far from the hurts and the dangers of the outside world, are the foundation of the Family.

As I read I often wondered if that kind of separation from the rest of the world, combined with the strong belief that the end times were at hand and that the members of the Family had to be prepared for them, did not act as a catalyst for the appalling developments after the move to Red Peak, where punishing climate, exhausting labor and poor nutrition brought everyone to a state of extreme susceptibility to Peale’s instructions and to the mysterious force dwelling in the mountain. As the children observe:

Their home had changed from a lush valley to a desert mountain, their parents had traded contentment for a forced cheerfulness […]

There is no condemnation for the adults’ actions as they prepare for the afterlife through gruesome acts of “purification” (and I can assure you I recoiled at some descriptions), but only the compassion of an observer who tries to understand how the best teachings, and the best intentions, can be led so dramatically astray and how – and this is my own consideration – a too-tight focus on the goal based solely on dogma, and not a healthy dose of reason, can make people blind to consequences.   

This lack of condemnation walks hand in hand with a lack of answers to the many questions the story lays down, leaving the ending open to interpretation, as it’s only right considering the complex issues at the core of the novel, and as I’ve come to expect from Craig DiLouie’s works, where thought-provoking ideas are posed to the readers so they can draw their own conclusions.

The Children of Red Peak has been DiLouie’s most traumatic work for me so far, but it’s also one that will instigate many considerations for a long, long time.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE TROUBLE WITH PEACE (The Age of Madness #2), 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.

When I read A Little Hatred, the first volume in Joe Abercrombie’s new saga, I had not yet fulfilled the long-standing promise to myself to read his First Law trilogy, yet still I managed to enjoy the new story very much, despite missing the connection with past events and characters contained in the previous books. Now that I have managed to catch up with that past, I am finally able to appreciate all the subtler nuances of story and characterization that make this world one of the best creations in the genre.  And what an amazing journey this was!

As the title suggests, peace is not an enduring status in the Circle of the World: the political  scene in the Union is still in flux and the newly named king Orso finds himself hemmed in between the rock of social unrest and the hard place of his own advisory council, whose disdain for his ruling abilities is barely concealed. Savine dan Glockta lost much of her prestige after the harrowing experiences of the Breakers’ revolt, and her need to regain the standing she enjoyed compels her to make alliances whose wisdom might not survive the harsh light of day.  Leo dan Brock, Lord Governor of Angland – the buffer state between the Union and the “barbaric” North – still pines for triumphs and glorious battles and is far too easily drawn into a dangerous conspiracy by shrewd politicians harnessing his brawn in service of their subtly nefarious brains.

Things are hardly better in the North, where the self-declared king Stour Nightfall is bent on attacking again the Union to expand his territories, meanwhile bolstering his rule through violence and cruelty, not only against opponents but also against those of his own men foolish enough to raise objections.  As a first step he sets again his sights on Uffrith, the domain of the Dogman, where Rikke, the old hero’s daughter, is trying to come to terms with her prescient gift – the Long Eye – and is ready to undergo the most harrowing of rituals to harness that power and put it to the service of her people.

This is the bare-bones premise from which The Trouble With Peace takes flight, developing into a tale of convoluted political schemes, social unrest, conspiracies, revolution and, above all, an engrossing examination of the human soul filtered through conflicting desires and shameful or tragic paths.  Where the action scenes remain among the most engagingly cinematic I ever encountered – alternatively focusing on heroic feats and very human moments of pure terror and cowardice – Joe Abercrombie’s storytelling shines the brightest when he shapes his characters, be they the main ones or the secondary figures, who get just as much attention and detail as everyone else, contributing to the richness of the narrative canvas.  A shining example of this careful design comes from the portrayal of a bloody act of sabotage that is relayed several times from the point of view of a number of different people: the repetition of events helps to create a three-dimensional picture not just of the fact itself, but of the societal medium in which it happens and the way its members figure into it.

What’s most extraordinary in this story is that the moral ambiguity of the characters works both ways, with no clear definition of right or wrong, and the main examples of this grey area are King Orso and Leo dan Brock: while the narrative focus is on either one of them, it’s easy for the reader to sympathize with him, to see his reasons or at least to understand where they come from, but once the point of view shifts to the other one, the same happens, making us realize that truth and righteousness are simply a matter of perspective. Both characters have their merits, narratively speaking, because if on one side Orso seems to grow into his role, finding strength and the foundations of his role through the troubles he has to deal with, 

He sometimes could hardly face breakfast, was alarmed by the notion of choosing a shirt, but epic disaster appeared to have finally brought out the best in him.

on the other Leo comes across as an ultimately tragic character, one who is driven by high ideals toward a very dangerous, very uncertain path. 

Savine dan Glokta’s journey continues on the controlling and manipulative trail that was her peculiar modus operandi from book 1, but a part of her ruthless self did get lost during the Breakers’ tumults and the traumatic experiences she endured, so it appears here as if she lost both the edge and the keen foresight that once allowed her to be always five moves ahead of her opponents. Despite a constant show of willpower, and a relentless drive that propels her toward any goal, it’s clear that some key element of her personality is now missing, exposing her to fate’s vagaries in an unprecedented way.

Rikke’s character arc, on the other hand, moves in the opposite direction: from the half-savage, tormented girl plagued by unwanted and uncontrollable visions of the future, she grows here into her own woman – and one ready to pay the price necessary to harness her gift and turn it into the tool she needs to lead her people. She became my favorite character in this book, both for the combination of strength and gallows humor that allows Abercrombie’s peculiar narrative style to shine even more, and for the way she transforms into a crafty leader, the perfect embodiment of this world’s survivor, one who knows that shrewd manipulation and back-stabbing politics are the best weapons she can wield.

If the main protagonists do indeed carry the story on their proverbial backs, the secondary figures are just as fascinating, offering complementary points of view and enhancing the sense of full immersion created by the novel: Caul Shivers, Broad, Isern-i-Phail or Vick dan Teufel – just to name a few – enjoy their own share of the limelight, adding depth to the events being carefully built before our own eyes, and the biggest surprise, toward the end of the book, comes exactly from two of those “lesser” players. As the novel seems ready for an epilogue, with the narrative threads brought to what looks like a neat wrap-up that made me wonder if this was not set as a duology, the end is carried by two of those secondary figures – one from the previous trilogy and one from the newest arc – whose actions open the door to what promises to be an amazing, gloriously devastating finale I can hardly wait for.

Thankfully, I still have the stand-alone books in this saga to sustain me while I bide my time…

My Rating:

Reviews

HOW TO RULE AN EMPIRE AND GET AWAY WITH IT (The Siege #2), by K.J. Parker

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 enjoyed reading K.J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, therefore I was very curious to see how the story would be carried forward with a new main character: from the very start Notker, the protagonist of this novel, spoke with a very unique, very entertaining voice and made this new sojourn in the city a delightful time.

The city is now in its seventh year of the (so far not very successful) siege by the ever-growing army of the so-called milkfaces: the blue-skinned Robur ruled over this part of the world for a long time, placing the light-skinned inhabitants in a practically and culturally subservient position. Once the oppressed decided to put an end to the Robur dominion, the siege of the city began and, as we saw in the previous book, it was thanks to the milkface engineer Orhan if the invading army’s attempts at overruling its defenses did not succeed.  As the story opens, we learn that the Robur, not exactly happy to acknowledge Orhan’s endeavors, have tweaked history a bit and heaped the glory for their salvation on the shoulders of Lysimachus – Orhan’s former bodyguard and a far more acceptable Robur – making him the public face of government.

Unfortunately, one of the stones regularly launched by the invaders’ trebuchets falls on on a building where Lysimachus and other officials are present, killing him instantly: the effect on public morale would be devastating, so the city’s de-facto rulers decide to employ a body double to keep Lysimachus alive in the eyes of the citizens. Enter Notker, a struggling actor and playwright, whose skills as an impersonator are well known: he’s enrolled for the charade despite his deep misgivings, and day after day he surprises even himself by growing so well into the role that at times he finds it hard to avoid blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction.  He becomes so good in his role that his personality – at least on the surface – undergoes important changes, as do his goals, or at least that’s what he seems to convey…

Indeed “seems” is the pivotal word here: where Orhan was an unreliable narrator simply because we saw events only from his point of view, Notker is even more unreliable because he’s a professional liar – after all what are actors if not people who can don many personalities as they would do with clothes?  So in his case we not only witness events from his angle, we know he is putting on a mask, playing a role, and this adds a further layer of misdirection on anything he says or does. What’s more, Notker seems to enjoy being Lysimachus, not just for the power he finds himself able to wield, but because he has such a low esteem for himself that he seems to prefer living a lie than showing the real person underneath:

[…] being me has never been easy. And on balance I’d far rather be anybody else but me.

If Notker is clearly unreliable, on the other hand he’s witty and funny and – veteran actor that he is – he manages to infuse a light note in everything he describes, be it a political conspiracy, a particularly bloody assault on the walls or a difficult negotiation with the Themes, the two factions that run the city’s working class and are in constant, fierce competition with each other. What emerges from his light-hearted chronicles, however, is a sort of moral code, no matter how heavily disguised, that adds an intriguing facet to Notker’s character and slowly turns him from the initial lovable rogue into a sympathetic character: if absolute power can corrupt, it can also sometimes change people for the better, make them care for something beyond their immediate needs.  Or, to use Notker’s own words:

[…] that’s the risk with staying in character. Sooner or later the character stays in you.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn more about our protagonist and his difficult childhood under the wing of an overbearing father with a penchant for violence that the man channeled into a career as a Theme enforcer: despite Notker’s almost-fond recollections of those fatherly lessons, we can perceive his desire to detach himself from such an heritage, and that’s another reason it’s easy to empathize with him and to understand his need to forge his own destiny, but also to do something good once he finds himself in the position to do so.

Unlike Orhan, who remained front and center in his version of the story, Notker is paired with another interesting character, fellow actress and onetime lover Hodda: the author often mentions, with tongue-in-cheek humor, that one of the main requirements for a successful play is the presence of a strong female character and Hodda fits this specification to perfection, not only because she’s a determined, independent woman who brings these qualities to her roles, but also because she’s practical and resolute and faces life with a no-nonsense attitude that’s very refreshing. Her dealings with Notker, even when circumstances bring them very close, are always based on those traits, and she often acts as the voice of reason (a voice laced with a strong dose of scorn, granted) tempering Notker’s wildest flights of fancy.  Both in this story and the previous one the author brought to life this kind of female character – women who combine a sharp tongue with an even sharper intellect, who take no flak from men and know what they want from life and how to get it, and Hodda here is their rightful representative.

How to Rule an Empire… like its companion novel is a fun journey that nonetheless compels you to seriously think about people and what drives them, that successfully mixes drama and comedy always keeping a good balance between these elements and that presents you with memorable characters while telling a fast-paced story able to hold your attention from start to finish. For me, a perfect combination….

My Rating: