Reviews

EVERSION, by Alastair Reynolds

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

Alastair Reynolds’ name is always enough to make me pay attention to any new book he publishes: so far I’ve learned to expect space opera stories strongly based on science and dealing with a galaxy-wide scope of events, so my curiosity was piqued by the blurb for Eversion, which sounded like a very different take from those themes. It turned out to be a very unexpected, deeply engaging read that held my attention from start to finish and offered a quite unusual story that mixed some Groundhog Day vibes with tales of exploration and an alien mystery shrouded in a quasi-Lovecraftian shade of fear: in short, a story that compelled me to burn the proverbial midnight oil to see where the author would take me.

The novel starts, quite unexpectedly, on a sailing ship from the early 19th Century, the Demeter, traveling through the icy waters of Norway: Dr. Silas Coade, the ship’s surgeon, is the narrating voice of the story as he relates the goal of the expedition, a search for a mysterious construct – named the Edifice – that could be reached through a narrow passage in the ice. The expedition members include, besides the good doctor, the leader of the group, boisterous Master Topolsky; Coronel Ramos, a weapons and explosives expert; tormented mathematician Dupin, and a few others, including Lady Ada Cossile, a noblewoman of great knowledge and prickly disposition.  As their intended destination approaches, we get to know the various members of the group and learn about the frictions generated by such different characters sharing close quarters: once the passage is located, though, and the wreck of a previous visiting ship – the Europa – is discovered, tempers flare in a heated exchange of accusations, and then disaster strikes in a most unexpected way. But it’s not the end, because in the next chapter we find once again Dr. Coade on Demeter, only this time he finds himself on a late 19th Century steamship, forging the waters near Patagonia – and still looking for a mysterious passage and an equally mysterious Edifice…

The pattern repeats itself again as the time frame proceeds forward and Demeter morphs from sail ship to steamship to dirigible to spaceship, always seeking to uncover the mystery of the Edifice, always forging through a dangerous passage and always meeting with disaster in one form or another. Some elements remain the same throughout the various versions of the story, however: the characters and their respective roles; Dr. Coade’s addiction to drugs and his literary aspirations which take the form of speculative fiction in which he imagines more advanced technology; Ramos’ head injury which Coade treats successfully and which leads to a close friendship between the two men; Ada Cossile’s pointed remarks which seem to target the doctor more than anyone else, and the hints that she might know more about him than circumstances seem to warrant.  It all adds to a compelling narrative that kept me reading on as the picture gained more details with each new iteration, until the core of the puzzle was revealed and it opened the door toward the real situation and danger facing the complement of the Demeter.

The buildup of narrative pressure is certainly the strongest element in Eversion: from the moment in which the story resumes after the first catastrophic ending, although in a slightly different form, it’s clear that there is more at work here than meets the eye, and obtaining the answers to the many questions posed by the story becomes the main attraction in this compelling novel, where the new elements manage only to tease the readers’ imagination, leading them to formulate hypotheses that most of the times prove wrong. When I previously mentioned the Groundhog Day vibes I might have made this story sound like a series of repetitions, but it’s far from that, not only because of the changes in temporal and technological setting for each iteration, but also because there is always some new detail that adds something to the overall picture, while never offering a way to pierce the mystery.  Being kept guessing might prove somewhat frustrating, but it’s also a sure way to compel you to forge ahead and look for the final revelation – which will prove to be quite unexpected.

One of the other intriguing components in this novel is the enigma tied to the Edifice, a place whose size and shape appear almost Lovecraftian in their mind- and space-bending quality and also because of the bothersome messages left by the unfortunate crew of Europa about the horrors waiting there: there is nothing more chilling than an incomplete message about something terrible and inescapable coming from the depths, and here it’s also paired with Dr. Coade recurring dream about a

[…] stumbling progress down a stone tunnel, a scurrying nightmare charged with the terrible conviction that I myself were already dead.

which will get a startling but consistent explanation once the veil will be pierced.

Compared to Alastair Reynolds’ previous works, Eversion lacks the sense of galactic vastness one can find in them, but it’s the rather confined background of this story which allows him to explore in greater depth the characters (something which I felt was somewhat missing from his other novels) and to linger on their interactions and personalities. There is a greater focus here on friendship and interpersonal relationships, mixed with some intriguing discussions about ethics and the kind of acceptable sacrifices to be tolerated in the quest for knowledge: it all gains an intriguing meaning once we learn about the reality of the situation facing Coade and the crew of Demeter, adding depth and humanity to what, until that point, was just a puzzling mystery.

While quite different from my previous experience with Alastair Reynolds’ writing, Eversion proved to be a fascinating novel combining science fiction and mystery in a seamless blend: prepare for something unexpected but totally engrossing…

My Rating:

Reviews

YMIR, by Rich Larson

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

Chillingly grim but totally fascinating. If I were asked to sum up my experience with Ymir in five words, these would be the perfect choice: this novel’s blurb likens it to a spacefaring version of Beowulf, and there are indeed some connections to that famous epic (including a request for a monster’s arm as a trophy), but Ymir is very much its own story, and a compelling – if sometimes harsh – one.

The alien planet of Ymir is a frozen, forbidding wasteland in which humanity (or rather a genetically modified branch of it) toils by mining its resources under the aegis of the Company, a ruthless cartel which grinds its employees with little or no regards for their rights or comforts, and quashes any attempt at rebellion with swift brutality.  But the Company’s profit is threatened by grendels, alien constructs which are part flesh and part cybernetic components: a recent attack from a grendel in the depths of a mine cost the Company a number of workers and, far worse from their point of view, a stop to the extraction activities, so Yorick, the best grendel hunter in their employ, is dispatched to Ymir to solve the problem.

Yorick was kept in torpor (a sort of cold-storage suspended animation the Company employs to make its assets last longer, among other uses) for a long time, and once awakened he’s not happy to be returned to his home planet, from which he’s been absent for a subjective time of ten years, while on the world twenty have effectively elapsed.  The hunter is considered a traitor on his home world, since he joined the ranks of the Company and committed some serious atrocities in their employ, but what’s worse he has some huge unfinished business to deal with: before he left he violently clashed with his brother Thello, who shot him with a needle gun taking away the lower half of Yorick’s face, which has since then been replaced by a prosthesis (warning: this is something of a gross detail in the narrative).

The timing for the hunt could not be worse, however, because a widespread rebellion against the Company is brewing under the icy surface of the planet, and Thello might be at the center of it, forcing Yorick to deal with the conflicting emotions generated by his past associations and his present duties: the road he finds himself traveling is fraught with dangers, and they don’t come only from the grendel’s threat…

‘Fascinating’ was the word I first used for this novel, and it is indeed despite its bleakness, which starts with the descriptions of Ymir, where darkness and ice extend as far as the eye can see, taking their toll on the miners and reflecting in their living spaces, where there is almost no respite from the harshness of the land. The workers are just as hard and unforgiving as the environment they live in, the physical changes wrought on them from generations turning them into creatures as alien as the place they live in: there are several flashbacks from Yorick as he recalls his and Thello’s childhood, marred by the lack of acceptance from their peers – who called them half-breeds – and by their mother’s abusive behavior, a consequence of her though living and working conditions. Young Yorick wanted nothing else but to escape from Ymir, taking Thello with him, while his younger brother felt stronger ties with the place and its people, and that difference was the spark that ultimately led to their final, bloody encounter.

Still, family ties can exert a strong pull on Yorick, and from the start we see him torn between love and hate for Thello and the planet were they were born: getting to know Yorick, and connecting with him as a character, is the most difficult part of the book, because he’s not an easy or relatable figure.  Past actions have branded him a monster, and the old disfigurement added to the image, but what makes Yorick such a anti-hero is his self-destructive attitude: we see him literally wallowing in recreative drugs or in performance-enhancing drugs, and it’s clear that what’s left under that mountain of self abuse is a broken individual with little hope and almost no dreams – only nightmares. The skilled, heartless hunter is nothing but a shell under which the damaged child still dwells:

He takes his space like a gas giant, making his body as big as he can. […] Inside, when nobody can see him, he always makes himself small.

What ultimately saves Yorick from being a despicable character (and I assure you that looking past that constantly drugged fog is NOT easy…) is his desire to re-establish a bond with Thello, to still try and save him as he was unable to in the past.  I’m sorry I can’t say more because I risk treading on spoiler territory, but Yorick’s attempt at a redemption arc is what manages to bring to the surface what little humanity is left in him. And this is enough.

Ymir might not be the easiest book to read, but it offers such a compelling narrative that it will prove quite difficult to set aside.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE PEACEKEEPER (The Good Lands #1), by B.L. Blanchard

I received this novel from 47North through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

The narrative core of The Peacekeeper comes from the blending of two elements: a classic whodunit investigation and an alternate version of our world in which the American continent was not colonized by European explorers, so that the Native populations were able to thrive and progress toward their own form of modern society.  No explanation is given about the historical “hiccup” which prompted the creation of this ramification from our reality (although I hope that the next books in the series will answer this question), but the result is a society which pays more attention to nature and its conservation, one that created a very interesting set of laws, a theme I will explore in more detail later on.

Such a well-balanced society is not, however, immune from acts of violence.  The novel’s main character is Chibenashi, the titular Peacekeeper (i.e. a police officer) in the small village of Baawitigong: his mother was brutally killed twenty years before, at the height of the Manoomin harvest festival, by her husband, who freely admitted his guilt for the murder and has been locked up in prison ever since.  Chibenashi, who at the time was a teenager and feels guilty for having indulged in drink that night, and therefore could not be there to save his mother, is carrying the heavy burden of caring for his younger sister Ashwiya, who never recovered from the trauma of the murder and is heavily dependent on her brother who is her only practical and emotional contact with the rest of the world.

On the twentieth anniversary of the tragedy, as the present Manoomin harvest is being celebrated, a new murder shakes the small community, and this time the victim is Meoquanee, Chibenashi’s neighbor and helper, and his mother’s closest friend. The modus operandi looks the same as the one from twenty years prior, and this casts heavy doubts on Chibenashi father’s guilt, prompting the Peacekeeper to travel to Shikaakwa (Chicago? I’ve been wondering ever since…) to examine the clues through the more advanced means offered by the big city.  Once there, Chibenashi will have to confront his past – and himself – in many ways, and the journey of discovery will take him on unexpected and quite harrowing paths…

The Peacekeeper can be enjoyed on more than one level: there is of course the alternate history section which shows a world that is at the same technological level of our own, with computers, smartphones and sophisticated investigative techniques, but that developed in such a way as to not overly stress the planet’s resources, in keeping with the Native Americans’ way of integrating with nature so that a balance can always be achieved.  This outlook is what also created a very intriguing justice system which does not rely on punishment but rather on rehabilitation through reparatory actions toward the victims, who need to be “made whole” again after their suffering.  It’s a utopian point of view – and the story itself shows how the system does not always work – but it’s a fascinating one and it’s showcased quite a bit throughout the story, turning it into one of its more captivating aspects.

Where the murder investigation is quite appealing, it’s not the focal point of the novel: I have to admit that early on I started suspecting a certain individual who in the end is revealed as the real killer, but the lack of surprise on this front did not detract from my eagerness in discovering the truth of it as Chibenashi follows the often contradictory clues from both murders – even though I had no doubt about the identity of the murderer, I wanted to know why, and how both killings were perpetrated. What really held my attention here is Chibenashi’s journey of discovery, not only of the mystery he’s investigating, but of himself and of what drives him.

Chibenashi is not an easy character to connect with, given that he’s somewhat depressed and isolated, but once I understood where his attitude came from, the almost impossible burden he toils under, I could not avoid feeling a great deal of sympathy for him and was able to forgive the sometimes abrasive way he deals with the people he comes in contact with, particularly once he finds himself as the proverbial fish out of water in Shikaakwa. Even though he never says it out loud – even to himself – Chibenashi is a trapped individual: trapped by his responsibility toward what’s left of his family, by the stigma of being the son of a murderer, by his inability to envision a life beyond the limited (and stifling?) confines of Baawitigong.  He is so used to the self-imposed limitations of his life, that he’s unable to conceive of anything else:

[…] you get so used to the pain that you don’t even notice it anymore […] You would only notice its absence.

That’s the reason I was able to root for him even when he took some questionable decisions, because I wanted to see him break free of the chains holding him down, and that’s why the difficult, painful journey that he takes as he investigates the case, turned into a very compelling read I feel confident in recommending if you want to read a mystery with a very unique slant.

Probably the resolution is the part where the story faltered a little for me, due to the real killer’s long, drawn-out explanation that for me took some of the wind out of the story’s proverbial sails, but it’s a very small “incident” in what proved to be an otherwise smooth and intriguing road. And I will certainly welcome more stories set in this fascinating version of our world.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE HUNGER OF THE GODS (The Bloodsworn Saga #2), by John Gwynne #wyrdandwonder

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

The Hunger of the Gods was one of the books I was most looking forward to this year, given that its predecessor, The Shadow of the Gods, was one of the best novels I read in 2021 and I was eager to find myself again in the company of the characters I had come to love in this Norse-inspired saga.

First things first, I need to express my appreciation for author John Gwynne’s choice to place at the start of the book not only a list of characters but a very useful synopsis of the events so far: even though I still had a good recollection of the previous novel, many details had by now escaped me, so it was important for me to regain my footing in the story before diving into the second volume. 

The action starts where we left it in book 1: the dragon goddess Lik-Rifa has been resurrected and her followers, the Raven Feeders, start with her the journey to reclaim the rule of the land and free the so-called Tainted – humans in whose veins runs the blood of gods – from their servitude; to that end they are training the Tainted children who have been kidnapped from their families in the use of powers bestowed by that blood.  Lik-Rifa is not, however, the only resurrected god, because the Battle Grim, led by Elvar, bring back to life the wolf-god Ulfrir with the goal of battling Lik-Rifa and freeing young Bjarn, the son of witch Uspa to whom Elvar has pledged a binding oath. And former warrior Orka, whose own son Breca is among the kidnapped children, is still in pursuit of the Raven Feeders, and reconnects with her old company of the Bloodsworn, the Tainted warriors she left long ago to raise a family and live in peace; young former thrall Varg is with them as well and he’s learning to master his powers as he seeks his own vengeance for the murder of his sister.

In this second book, these three main POVs are joined by some new ones, which offer a different perspective to the story while balancing the characters’ range with some… less positive traits: Bjorr – formerly attached to the Battle Grim – has been revealed as a mole for the Raven Feeders, and has now returned to them, but does not feel totally comfortable anymore with his old companions, memories of the camaraderie he shared with the Battle Grim, and guilt over his murder of the former band leader, often intruding in his thoughts, while the suffering of the kidnapped children never fails to weigh on his conscience. The dichotomy showed by Bjorr makes him a very interesting character, one with still a foot in his previous life: even though his stint with the Battle Grim was done in service of his goddess, he seems unable to completely accept her harsh rule and the methods she employs to reclaim power, turning him into a potential lynchpin for future events. 

Gudvarr, on the other hand, is another matter: his failure in capturing Orka after her incursion in Queen Helka’s hall has put him in a difficult position and he needs to establish his usefulness, while seeking glory and recognition – unfortunately he’s something of a coward, and the dichotomy between his outward behavior and his inner thoughts reveals this quite clearly: what I found surprising, given the pettiness of the character, is that I enjoyed reading about his exploits and his undeniable skill in taking advantage of situations. For starters, he represents a necessary balance to the heroism and endurance of the main characters, and then his ability to land on his feet more often than not is a very enjoyable counterpoint to his less-than-palatable attitude.

But of course the original trio of Orka, Elvar and Varg still enjoys the limelight here, as they travel on their individual paths toward the goals they set themselves: Orka is probably the one who exhibits the less changes, but it’s not surprising when considering that her focus is only on freeing Breca and avenging the murder of her husband at the hands of the kidnappers. All of Orca’s energy is concentrated in the fierce determination that keeps propelling her over hardships and dangers, and there is little room for anything else, apart perhaps from the growing gruff affection toward traveling companion Lif, who is slowly evolving from village fisherman toward warrior.  Things might change in the next book, however, given that Orka is at the root of the truly massive cliffhanger that ends this second installment – and which left me both stunned and not a little exasperated…

Varg, former thrall and now part of the Bloodsworn, is gaining confidence in his newly discovered abilities, but even more he’s getting settled in this found family that is both teaching him how to be a warrior and how to be part of a loving, caring group. He’s growing in confidence just as much as he grows closer to his companions, and it’s poignant to see how much this lonesome individual is thriving in the company of the Bloodsworn, even though the love they show him is more often than not of the though kind. Again, the story shows great balance here, juxtaposing the ferocious battle scenes, which are depicted in the usual cinematic way you can expect from John Gwynne, and the quieter moments when affectionate hazing or discussions about cheese (yes, I kid you not) serve to strengthen the bonds among these people.

In the first book of this series, Elvar was the one I felt less attached to, even though I recognized the potential in this character, a young woman who had given up a life of privilege to be free and gain some glory for herself: now that she’s stepped into the role of chief of the Battle Grim, she needs to re-think her approach – the responsibilities that the position heaped on her shoulder weigh heavily on her and help mature her, turning Elvar into a more thoughtful – but also more effective – person than she was at the beginning. And I have to admit that the chapter focusing on her return to her ancestral home was both gripping and emotionally satisfying, and I look forward to seeing how her journey will continue.

Where the characters proved extremely rewarding in their continued path, the story itself seemed to suffer a little from the “middle book syndrome”, in that the characters’ constant travels looked a bit meandering, slowing the pace and at times making me feel the compulsion to skip ahead – something that never happened to me with John Gwynne’s novels. With hindsight, I can see that it was a way of positioning the game pieces on the board – so to speak – and preparing the events for the final showdown, and I can say that I enjoyed the final chapters very much, given the adrenaline-infused series of events that they portray.  The slight lull I perceived might very well be the calm that precedes the storm we will certainly witness in the final book of the trilogy – one I’m bracing for and looking forward to with great expectations.

My Rating:

Image art by chic2view on 123RF.com

Reviews

THE KAIJU PRESERVATION SOCIETY, by John Scalzi

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

The past two years have indisputably affected us all, one way or the other, and yet it was still a surprise for me to learn that even a cheerful personality like that of writer John Scalzi, who comes across as an individual gifted with an inexhaustible reserve of whimsical humor, suffered from the heavy toll of the situation: in the Author’s Note at the end of this book he shares his difficult journey with a book he was attempting to write, a book that was ultimately put on the back burner in favor of this one. In Scalzi’s own words, that other book was a “brooding symphony”, while The Kaiju Preservation Society is a “pop song”, one “meant to be light and catchy”: I, for one, am very grateful that he was inspired to write it, because it turned out to be a delightfully escapist story that for a couple of days managed to entertain me, making me smile often and laugh out loud in several occasions. In these times, this is a precious gift, indeed.

At the onset of the Covid pandemic, Jamie Gray works in the marketing department of a food-delivery startup named füdmüd, from which he’s suddenly fired: in dire need of paying the bills, and with job opportunities vanishing quickly due to the crisis, he has no other choice but to accept work in actually delivering food to füdmüd’s clients.  Having been befriended by one of them, Jamie is offered a chance to work with the KPS and he accepts eagerly: what he does not know is that the job will entail direct contact with huge, Godzilla-like creatures in a very unusual, very unexpected environment. While making new friends and adjusting to the new work situation, Jamie will need all his resourcefulness and dexterity to deal with the unexpected challenges presented by this job, and to defeat the dastardly plot of the (required) evil corporation – and to lift things, of course, because that’s what he was hired to do…

Jamie is an easy person to get attached to, not least because he’s a nerd, his dialogue crowded with pop-culture and SF references that bring instant recognition and a sense of easy kinship: in the course of the story, he turns from a simple Things Lifter to a hero (even if an unassuming one) and where other less skilled writers might have fallen into the “Gary Stu Trap” with him, Scalzi takes that trope and turns it on its head, creating a fun, very relatable main character we can all root for.  He’s the lone Everyman in the midst of a group of quite talented scientists, and yet his penchant for SF-related themes allows him to take the mental steps necessary to adjust to the KPS environment and to thrive in it: I’ve often maintained that the kind of “mind training” offered by speculative fiction makes us nerds able to bridge chasms that might scare other people, because we can go that extra mile with no effort at all, and Jamie is indeed proof of that.

As far as personal interactions go, I found The Kaiju Preservation Society enjoys the same kind of easygoing, humorous banter I first encountered in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series: here it serves both to define characters and to provide the necessary scientific explanations (both real and imagined) that might otherwise have felt like weighty info dumps and that instead flow easily and at times even become entertainingly informative.  The sense of camaraderie, and then friendship, that binds these different people is a joy to behold and serves to balance out the unavoidable drama and loss that at some point hit the small community, forcing these dedicated, peaceful scientists (plus the Weight Lifter) to tap their reserves of courage and face an impending threat and the high stakes it brings about.

That threat comes – of course – from corporate greed and in particular from an individual Jamie knows well: this guy is the epitome of the mustache-twirling villain and, again, he might have turned into an unavoidable trope, but once again Scalzi manages to poke some fun at this particular cliché by shining a bright light on it instead of trying to mask it. It’s a well-know (and much scorned) habit for villains to launch in detailed monologues about their intentions before attempting to kill the heroes, and this particular bad guy indulges in it quite a bit, but here the habit of “monologuing” is openly addressed both by the villain and his would-be victims, turning what could otherwise have been a trite situation into another opportunity for John Scalzi’s peculiar brand of humor. In other words, this is a… tongue-in-cheek villain, one I both loathed and enjoyed.

Last but not least, this novel focuses on a singular and fascinating environment inhabited by these huge, towering creatures – and their proportionately big parasites – and sporting its own well-crafted ecosystem in which even the most outlandish feature has its reason to be, and is part of the fun in the story.  I quite enjoyed The Kaiju Preservation Society, not only for its amusement quotient, but because of its hopefulness and optimism: these elements might look utopian, given that in the real world things almost never work so well, but as I said at the start of this review, we all need a bit of light in the darkness now and then, to believe that good can triumph over evil, and this book provided these features at the right time. For which I’m certainly grateful…

My Rating:

Reviews

STARS AND BONES (A Continuance Novel), by Gareth Powell

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

Even if I had not already read – and greatly appreciated – Gareth Powell’s Embers of War trilogy, I would not have let this story pass me by: ark ships traveling into the unknown is one of my favorite themes, so there was no doubt I would enjoy the start of this new series. And I certainly did.

The core concept of Stars and Bones sees humanity embarked on a huge fleet of arks journeying away from Earth: seventy five years before the start of such journey, a very advanced race of powerful aliens understood we were going to destroy ourselves and our planet and therefore, to give Earth a chance to repair itself, mounted a massive exodus, relocating humans on these vast, customized arks that offered artificial environments and a comfortable home away from home.  While the majority enjoys the good life aboard the arks, some more adventurous individuals forge ahead exploring the emptiness of space in search of a new planet, and it’s on the surface of Candidate-623 that tragedy strikes when the scout ship sent there to check out a mysterious distress call breaks contact with the fleet.   Main character Eryn, whose sister was aboard the missing ship, goes to investigate with her own vessel, the Furious Ocelot, and what she finds is the kind of horrifying danger that might bring about the annihilation of the entire human race.

While it took me a little time to become fully invested in the story, once it launched into its core mystery and subsequent terrifying chain of events, I could not turn the pages fast enough because the threat Eryn and crew discover on Candidate-623 comes out of the same stuff nightmares are made of.  The beginning of the novel needs of course to establish the background and – more importantly – the path humanity took to get where it is when things start to go horribly wrong, and it does so through a series of flashbacks that, though quite informative, felt to me like a distraction from the main narrative thread: given the threat level encountered by the Furious Ocelot, I came to perceive any other kind of information as an obstacle to be cleared before reaching the “meat” of the story, and that’s the reason for my delay in getting immersed in it. Of course, once that… hurdle was past, there was indeed no turning back.

I don’t want to offer any more information about the plot because I’m convinced it must be as much of a surprise (albeit a scary one) as possible, but let me tell you that as I read I kept thinking that every space-faring expedition should make a certain 1979 movie a mandatory part of their training, so that when faced with mysterious signals people would know to exercise extreme caution, or better yet avoid its origin at any cost… 😉

If the story is quite shocking in its increasing threat, its background is quite enjoyable, particularly where the arks are concerned: think of immense ships that can be modified (both internally and externally) according to the specifications of their occupants, so that each ark becomes a very distinctive microcosm with its own peculiar environment and social customs. What is fascinating here is the way in which humanity has now adapted to the post-scarcity civilization offered by the Angels of Benevolence (the aliens who intervened to prevent Earth’s demise), crafting habitats and societies that range from an old-style consumer economy to a laid back tropical paradise, under the supervision of the ship’s A.I. – or envoy – whose appearance is tailored according to the ark’s style: in this respect, I’m still smiling at the recollection of the hammerhead shark look of the tropical environment’s envoy, swimming through the air with total nonchalance for the absurdity of the whole situation.  

Sentient ships seem indeed to be Gareth Powell’s favorite theme, and since I enjoyed reading about Trouble Dog in the Embers of War series, I was pleased to find a similar idea here and to become equally fond of Ferocious Ocelot’s envoy and of its interactions with the ship’s crew, and with Eryn in particular. Add to the mix the Ocelot’s ability to change its appearance according to the circumstances (from a portly gentleman in quiet times to a battle-ready guard when necessity arises), and its intelligently facetious repartees, and it’s no surprise that it turned out to be my favorite character in the novel.

Unfortunately, the human characters in this story did not fare equally well: some of them were woefully short-lived (prepare yourself for quite a number of sudden deaths), and Eryn herself turned out to be a little too inconsistent for my tastes – I did not truly dislike her, but I have to admit she made it quite difficult for me to connect with her. While I could sympathize with her grief over the loss of her sister, and with the huge burden of responsibility that the situation ends up placing on her shoulders, still she seems more focused on the emotional pains of the past to be the effective problem solver that the present situation requires.  For once, though, I don’t mind much my lack of total connection with the main character, because the story itself is so gripping that the non-stop action takes precedence over any other consideration, and the cinematic quality of some scenes makes me hope that this novel might one day be turned into a movie, because it would be a very spectacular one.

The surprising way in which Stars and Bones ends made me wonder whether the rest of the series will concentrate on other aspects of humanity’s journey, but previous experience with Gareth Powell’s works makes me quite optimistic about the next books, and also quite eager to see where the story will take me. Hopefully, the wait will not be too long…

My Rating:

Reviews

AGE OF ASH (Kithamar #1), by Daniel Abraham

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’m quite familiar with Daniel Abraham’s fantasy production, having greatly enjoyed both The Long Price Quartet and The Dagger and the Coin series, and of course I know that under the shared pen name of James S.A. Corey he’s the co-author, together with Ty Franck, of the successful SF series The Expanse, so that when the start of this new fantasy saga was announced I was more than eager to see for myself what it was about.

The city of Kithamar has a long history of power and prosperity, but also of violence and strife: as the novel starts, the uneasy peace between the two ethnic groups living in the city is shaken by the death of the former ruler and the ascendance of his successor – many wonder, given the troubled times, how long he will be able to remain in his place. But Age of Ash is not so much the tale of people in power, but rather of the city’s inhabitants: first we meet Alys, a very proficient member in a band of thieves, one of the most lucrative occupations among Kithamar’s underprivileged. The murder of her brother sends her on a very different path, however: searching for answers first and then for vengeance, Alys finds herself enmeshed with convoluted political maneuvers and the dark, ancient secret behind Kithamar’s rule – a secret that might claim her life.  Sammish is another member of the dsmr band, her skill in being inconspicuous a very valuable one for thieving, but a hindrance in her desire to be noticed by Alys on whom she has a crush: when Alys’ focus on vengeance becomes all-encompassing and takes her into the orbit of some shady characters, and once the mysterious Saffa – a woman searching desperately for her kidnapped child – opens Sammish’s eyes on the evil undercurrents of powers in Kithamar, the girl will have to deal with conflicting loyalties and a newfound awareness of the world she’s living in.  The third main POV comes from Andomaka, a noblewoman with great aspirations to power and the member of a weird religious cult holding the secret behind the workings of the power handout between rulers: she is strong, ambitious and ruthless, the true representative of the caste that has been governing Kithamar throughout the centuries.

The slow burn of Age of Ash might have proved discouraging if I had not been prepared: previous experience with Daniel Abraham’s novels taught me that he likes to carefully prepare the playing field and that the beginnings of his series require a little patience, which is always rewarded in the end. In this particular case, the “preliminary” work serves to create the image of a living, breathing city in all its colorful detail: shopkeepers and artisans plying their trade in the winding streets and alleys of Kithamar, urchins running underfoot and thieves moving like smoke in crowded areas; the various districts, looking like enclaves where the two ethnicities coexist in a delicate balance, giving way to the mansions of the more affluent citizens and of the nobility – these elements are pictured in such a vivid manner that after a while they feel three-dimensional, to the point that it’s almost possible to hear the sounds and perceive the smells. We are led through the city in its better times, like the harvest, which brings abundance of food and a festive atmosphere, when street revelries offer the chance for celebration and great thieving opportunities in the crowded passages; and we see it in the bitter cold of winter, when food is scarce and ice covers the ground and hangs from the roofs in big icicles, when the poorest have to choose between eating or warming their homes, a time when darkness and gloom prey heavily on everyone’s mind.

While I enjoyed such richness in the world-building, I found myself somewhat distanced from the characters, particularly where Alys is concerned: the single-minded focus on her quest leaves little space for any kind of emotional connection or feeling of sympathy. Even her grief at the loss of her brother shows this kind of hard edge (for want of a better definition) that turns it into something cold and soulless, devoid of any spark of humanity.  I ended up feeling greater empathy with Sammish, not least because she exhibits a greater capacity for emotional and psychological growth throughout the story and because what looks like childish infatuation morphs, in the end, into a willingness to help her friend and to do the right thing, not just for Alys but for the city as well. The unassuming girl who can move through crowds unnoticed shows more courage and heart, in the end, than the one who should be the main focus of the story, and this comparison did not help me at all in my reflections on Alys’ character: this is however only the first book in a series so I’m also suspending my judgment while waiting to see how the story progresses and what kind of surprises the author has in store for his readers.

And speaking of the plot itself, there are many unresolved threads here – particularly where Andomaka’s actions and her connection with the religious cult are concerned – that will certainly be further explored in the next books: there is a lot of intrigue, with longtime ramifications, that simply begs to be developed more fully. The complex, creepy layers of Kithamar’s power management and its handling through the generations are barely touched here and I can hardly wait to see how the continuation of the story will deal with them, and with Andomaka’s plans, about which I can’t afford to say more because that way lie some massive spoilers.

The start of this new series is indeed a very promising one, and I can’t shake the feeling that this first installment barely scratched the surface of a story that holds many more surprises in store for me. Time, of course, will tell what they are…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE LIAR’S KNOT (Rook & Rose #2), 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.

It’s been less than a year since I read and enjoyed the first book in this series, The Mask of Mirrors, so I was quite eager to see how the story of Ren’s “long con” continued, given the unexpected developments and the intrigue-laden background that made that novel such an enticing read. Well, I was quite enthusiastic about the way in which The Liar’s Knot moved the story forward, keeping the pace lively while at the same changing the stakes in the game.

Former street rat Ren succeeded in her goal of being accepted by House Traementis after posing as a long-lost relative, but she’s come to unexpectedly care for her adoptive family and the misfortunes that are slowly bringing it down, to the point that she’s risking much to unravel the longtime plots woven against them, and in so doing she discovers that the problem is far more widespread and possesses deeper roots encompassing the whole city of Nadezra. Juggling her three personalities – noblewoman Renata Viraudaux, fortune-teller Arenza Lenskaya and the mysterious Black Rose – becomes even more difficult as perilous currents threaten to upset the city’s fragile balance and her carefully constructed personalities are in danger of being unmasked.

Captain Grey Serrado is experiencing even more conflict than before: while it’s never been easy to be a Vraszenian officer of the Vigil in a Liganti-ruled city, other problems are surfacing that make his difficult path even harder, and his quest to avenge his brother’s death even more complicated. Moreover, his growing feelings for Renata/Arenza are adding another layer to an already burdensome mix…

Last but not least, crime lord Derossi Vargo, even after being accepted in Nadezra’s high society, struggles with his past and the burning thirst for power that has fueled all his endeavors, and that struggle starts to show some chinks in his apparently impenetrable armor.

Where the first book in the series was more focused on Ren’s daring gamble of passing for a noblewoman to finally gain some financial security for herself and her adopted sister Tess, here the story rests more on a deeper world-building and on the exploration of Nadezran society, a world where intrigue, appearances and ruthless political maneuvering make one’s life quite complicated – not to say dangerous.   At the end of The Mask of Mirrors the dramatic events in which Ren played a considerable part had left Nadezra shaken and its people struggling to recover a semblance of normalcy. In The Liar’s Knot we start to perceive that the corruption – both political and magic-related – runs far deeper and threatens to destroy the uneasy balance between the various factions, and that many of those in charge have little or no care for the consequences, as long as they can be assured more power.

The universe created by the authors (M.A. Carrick is the pen name uniting Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms) is a very complex, many-layered one and here we see much more of the magic system underlying it – both its wonders and its dangers – while the sense of impending doom, of time dangerously running out, becomes more and more tangible with each new chapter. And against that doom our characters fight with all their resources, to the point of forging unexpected alliances that would have looked impossible in the first book of the saga.  Ren, Serrado, Vargo and even the Rook (the masked avenger who has been righting the city’s wrongs for two centuries) come to team up against the evil threatening Nadezra, and even when that alliance feels uneasy they manage to work together well: given that all of the characters here are holding secrets (be they identity- or goal-related) the teamwork is at times fraught with suspicion, adding more fuel to an already tense situation, and proving quite entertaining for the readers who enjoy the privilege of holding all the information while the characters possess only a limited amount of it.

This fragmented knowledge also gives way to many misunderstandings that put at risk the fragile ties that some characters are building – one such case creates a quite dramatic scene between two of them (and no, I’m not offering any spoilers here…) – but the authors very wisely choose not to drag this situation beyond the breaking point: I very much enjoyed their choice of having the characters unburden themselves of some of their secrets, with the double effect of clearing the air and strengthening their alliance on one side, and of creating some poignant moments where they could be their true selves, even if only for a short while. I found this quite emotionally satisfying.

Character-wise, Ren here is stretched to the limits of her endurance: the drawn-out need to play many roles is starting to weigh on her, compounded by the distance she’s forced to keep with Tess – sister and confidante – because she cannot be seen to be too close to her “maid”. This forces her to rely on others – Grey and Vargo – for support and despite her understandable reluctance one can see how the choice is helping her to bring the better parts of her personality to the fore, particularly where her intrinsic kindness is concerned.

Grey Serrado was something of a mystery to me in the first book, and I perceived there were untapped depths in his character: here he’s given more space to grow and to reveal more of himself to the reader, so that he grew on me more than it happened before, even though I have to admit that he pales in comparison with Vargo, who appeared from the beginning as the more intriguing among the many figures of this story.  We see much more of him in The Liar’s Knot, and what we see fills out his personality in a wonderful way, particularly when we come to understand that under the thick skin of the ruthless crime lord there is a history of pain and vulnerabilities seeking redress from a society that always snubbed him.

And it would be impossible to talk of Vargo without also mentioning Alsius, the venomous spider riding on the man’s coat and telepathically linked to him: all of my questions from book 1 received an answer here – and some of those answers are quite momentous! – and the authors also gave him and independent voice that proved to be delightfully funny and quite enjoyable.

The Liar’s Knot is an intense, totally engrossing read that moves forward the series through quite dramatic developments and that keeps the reader enthralled with its many twists and revelations, very effectively giving the lie to the notion that a series’ middle book tends to be weaker: with the foundations laid by the saga so far, we can only expect an explosive conclusion, and I am more than looking forward to it.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE QUICKSILVER COURT (Rooks & Ruin #2), by Melissa Caruso

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

With her Swords and Fire trilogy, Melissa Caruso quickly became one of my read-sight-unseen authors, and the start of her new Rooks and Ruins saga, The Obsidian Tower, happily propelled me into a new adventure set in the same world.  In that first book I enjoyed discovering her new central character, Ryx, whose “broken” magic kept her from any kind of human contact because her touch drains any kind of living energy: at the end of The Obsidian Tower, Ryx had been accepted in the found family of the Rookery, a group of secret agents of sorts, dedicated to fighting unruly magic use, but had also unwittingly allowed the escape of some demons so far locked up in the prison guarded by Ryx’s ancestral home of Gloaminguard.

As The Quicksilver Court starts, the already tense situation caused by the demonic escape heightened the political turmoil between the long-time opponents of Raverra and Vaskandar, and the Rookery is tasked with the mission of finding a terribly powerful artifact that could be hidden in a realm where politics are a quite slippery affair and every move could lead to disaster. As Ryx and her friends try to deal with the delicate situation, they are made aware that the escaped demons are further complicating the already knotty circumstances and that the Summer Palace in the realm of Loreice might prove a deadly trap. I don’t want to share more of the story because The Quicksilver Court offers such an almost unending stream of surprises, revelations and twists that to anticipate even the smallest of them would be very unfair to potential readers.

Plot-wise, the backbone of this story feels like one of those escape games where the players must find their way out in a constantly changing maze where unexpected dangers lurk, and no one can anticipate what awaits around the next (usually dark) corner: the overall effect is quite sinister, conferring to the novel a suffocating sense of impending doom that’s made even more ominous by the contrast with the chiseled beauty of the setting and the elegance of the denizens of Loreice’s Summer Palace, a place where fashion is used as a political statement.   Faced with a set of equally impossible choices, the Rookery needs to deal with terribly high stakes that end up transcending the “merely” political and move over the treacherous and apparently invincible terrain of demonic power.

Indeed, Ryx and the Rookery are put to the test in the most harrowing ways imaginable, which brings the revelation of many long-held secrets that might fracture their bond, and as far as Ryx herself is concerned those revelations bring forth a discovery that affects both her past and her future: to say that I was completely floored by this epiphany would be a huge understatement and at the same time I’m eager to see how this will affect her involvement in the Rookery for the next book.

The trials our protagonists are put through offer however a powerful way of expanding their characters and showing us more of their personalities and their past: there are some heartbreaking moments in which I felt for them deeply, because so far Melissa Caruso had presented them in a light-hearted fashion, even when they were facing difficult circumstances and almost-impossible tasks – the affectionate banter between them was one of the delights of the story, and seeing them so exposed and deeply wounded was difficult and painful to bear.  And yet, nothing brings characters into sharper relief than pushing them to the limits of their endurance, and seeing what they are truly made of: all of the Rookery members came through with flying colors, their inner dynamics certainly changed but in an interesting way that promises intriguing developments for the future.

As for Ryx, if I felt great empathy for her in the previous book, here she had my total admiration because she showed once and for all that despite the cruel drawbacks life heaped on her she has grown into a strong, determined individual who is unwilling to sacrifice her personal integrity, no matter the cost. For someone who was forced to live a sheltered life, she keeps showing a degree of flexibility and strength in the face of adversity that promise to turn her into a formidable person whose unbreakable core of humanity can temper any negative influence she might suffer.

Once again Melissa Caruso confutes the notion that the middle book of a trilogy is usually the flimsy one: with The Quicksilver Court she considerably raised the stakes in a narrative background that was already delightfully complicated, all the while adding intriguing facets to her characters and their internal relationships. My expectations for the final installment in the Rooks and Ruins trilogy (and for her future production) are quite high and I know they will not be disappointed.

All I have to do is just wait…

My Rating:

Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: