Reviews

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Rating:

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Reviews

Review: SOULKEEPER, by David Dalglish

 

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 saddens me to acknowledge the fact that I could not manage to finish reading Soulkeeper: this story started in a very promising way and maybe it created too many expectations from that beginning, leading me on the path to disappointment.  This is NOT a bad book in any way, I want to make this clear up front, only it’s not a book that agrees with me. Sometimes it happens…

Devin Eveson is a Soulkeeper, a mix between a warrior and a priest called to solve dire emergencies all over the Cradle, the realm where the story is set, and to dispatch the souls of the deceased toward the heavens.  As we meet him, he has just reached a village where a terrible plague with an inexorable fatality rate is decimating the people.  The plague is only one of the terrifying portents happening all over the Cradle: a flood of unstoppable black water brings decay to the buildings and crops it flows over, and turns the people caught in it into something resembling ferocious zombies; creatures of the wild, like wolves, attack unwary travelers and show the ability to speak, expressing malicious intent; mountains move threatening anything on their path, and mythical creatures, that so far were relegated to the realm of fantasy, make themselves known.

Even in the city of Londheim, Devin’s home base, things are looking bleak, indeed: the looming mountain at its door is the first sign of the changing times, but other clues show that is only the beginning.  The roof gargoyles become night predators seeking human flesh, and gigantic owls fall from the skies on careless citizens, but the most terrible fiend comes in the guise of Janus, a twisted creature who names himself “artist”, one who carves his works not in stone or wood, but using human flesh that it transforms and twists with cruel delight.

Thankfully, there is a sort of balance to all these dire omens: some people find themselves able to wield magic, which for some gifted individuals turns into the ability to heal the most cruel injuries or the most lethal illnesses: it’s a sign that the three Goddesses who watch over the cradle still battle in favor of humanity as the old evil that was never truly vanquished tries to reassert its hold on the world.

All these elements should have been enough to keep me glued to the book and read on in a compulsive manner, but unfortunately the pacing of the story proved to be somewhat uneven, alternating moments of high dramatic suspense with others where lightness rules, but the transitions did not feel quite smooth and I often found myself wondering where the story truly wanted to go or what its overall tone was meant to be.  While it’s true that it’s quite impossible to maintain a constant sense of impending dread and that some “breathing room” is necessary in the flow of a story, I confess I found it quite impossible to accept, for example, the juxtaposition of Janus’ brutality, whose depiction often had me reeling in horror, with the airy demeanor of Tesmarie, an onyx fairy who strongly reminded me of Disney’s Tinkerbell, or the wordless, Baby-Groot-cuteness of Puffy, a flame creature who Devin meets on his travels.

Other elements are presented but never fully fleshed: a prime example of this is offered by the Soulless, people who are born – as the word indicates – without a soul, and therefore incapable of independent thought or will.  These unfortunates are either employed as cheap labor in factories or, much worse, used as playthings by the more depraved elements of society.  One of the manifestations of the changing times is the return of the soul to many – if not all – of the soulless, with what could have been an interesting character exploration, since a Soulless is one of the people we encounter in the course of the story and she finds herself suddenly able to exercise her own will for the first time in her life.  Once again, though, this character’s journey of discovery feels far too superficial to be truly interesting, or poignant – or maybe once again I set my expectations too high to be happy with what I read.

Once I started skipping through the novel in search of the true “meat” of this story, which proved quite elusive to me, I realized that my interest kept diminishing and I could not hope to find any true connection with either the book or the characters, and even though I was already at seventy percent through I decided to give up, not without a hint of regret for what felt like an unfulfilled promise.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: THE GUTTER PRAYER (The Black Iron Legacy #1), by Gareth Hanrahan

 

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

In the past few days, The Gutter Prayer has been reviewed all over the place, so let’s join the fun…

This is the kind of book that requires extreme flexibility of mind from its readers, because it throws them into the thick of things from page one, and from there it keeps a constant, swift pace for most of its length, leaving them almost no time to metabolize the events or to consider them in depth – which in a way encapsulates both the pros and cons of this story.  If that breakneck speed works well for the progress of the story itself, which is built upon a series of twists and turns, discoveries and betrayals, it goes to the detriment of character development, because in the end it seems we never get to know those people well, or at least that was the impression I received.

The city of Guerdon is something of a safe port in a sea of turmoil, while the rest of the world is in the throes of the God War, a conflict in which divine entities battle for supremacy, generating hordes of refugees fleeing from mayhem and destruction. Guerdon avoided this fate some time before by taming its deities and turning them into the Kept Gods, beings whose powers are greatly diminished and only wielded through “saints”, ordinary people imbued with special faculties who act on the gods’ behalf.  This does not mean, however, that the city is a quiet place: the secular powers running Guerdon keep contending with each other for dominance, and it soon becomes clear that someone has been working in secret to tap the buried energies of the old gods to achieve that goal. In this scenario, the three main characters find themselves swept away by events that seem bigger than they are and that will test their powers for endurance and growth.

Carillon Thay, or Cari, is the only survivor of a once-influential family whose members where slaughtered when she was a small child. Trusted into the care of relatives, she ran away but was forced to return to Guerdon – penniless and desperate – and try to eke out a living among the thieves of the less-savory quarters of the city.  We meet her in the middle of a heist she’s working on with her friends Spar and Rat, and from that moment on she falls prey to terrifying visions that hint at something dark and dreadful at work.   Spar is the son of the former head of the Thieves’ guild, or Brotherhood, and he lives in the shadow of his famous father who died in prison without revealing the Brotherhood’s secrets despite beatings and torture: Spar wants nothing more than to follow in his father’s footsteps, but his dreams are crushed when he contracts the Stone Plague, an illness that turns its victims into pieces of rock.  And finally there’s Rat, a ghoul who tries desperately not to succumb too soon to his people’s inescapable drive for dead flesh and underground dwellings, staying near the surface as long as he can. The friendship between these three people, the bond they forge in spite of their differences, is indeed the brightest light in the grim scenario of The Gutter Prayer, and something that manages to withstand the worst kinds of test.

As the story progresses, we are taken through various parts of the city and learn of its structure and history, of its day-to-day workings and its horrors, especially the horrors: the Alchemists’ guild is one of the strongest powers in Guerdon, and among their creations are the Tallowmen, unfortunate people – mostly criminals and low-lives – who have been rendered into waxy shapes animated by a lit wick in the head; or the Gullheads, whose mere sight can inspire deep terror in the onlookers. But there are even worse players at large, like the Ravellers – nightmarish creatures who consume their victims and are able to take on their appearance so as to ensnare other targets; or the Crawling Ones, masses of worms that can mimic the human shape of the people whose soul they have eaten.

With such horrors as background and the revelation of the dirty political maneuverings that are the heart and blood of the city, Guerdon takes its rightful place among the flesh-and-blood characters and becomes more than a simple theater for events; more than once I was reminded of another city where darkness was stronger than light, China Mieville’s New Crobuzon from Perdido Street Station, but with an important difference: where the depiction of New Crobuzon stressed the element of decay almost to the point of basking in it – one of the reasons I did not enjoy that novel – here the negative aspects play as counterpoint to the story’s saving graces, and in particular to the themes of friendship and loyalty that are embodied in Cari, Spar and Rat.  Cari in particular looks like a whimsical creature, one whose fight-or-flight instinct tends toward the latter rather than the former, a person who at first seems superficial and self-centered but who slowly reveals her deep commitment to her friends, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for them. And if Spar’s nobility is clear from the very start, something that together with his stoic acceptance of the illness’ unavoidable progression quickly endeared him to me, Rat comes across as a more complex creature, one whose nature and leanings bring him to live always on the edge.

What we can learn about these characters and the many others that people the story, however, looks more like fleeting glimpses, and the reckless speed of the narrative often denies the possibility of delving deeper into their nature, of knowing them better, which unfortunately leads to an overall effect of detachment that is one of my main contentions with this novel: I need to feel invested in characters – either for good or bad – to really connect with a book, and The Gutter Prayer never fully let me do this, keeping me at arm’s length, so to speak.

There is nothing wrong in a plot-driven story, of course, but it seems… wasteful to build such intriguing characters only to employ them as little more than extras – and here comes my other big problem with this novel: a good number of these people ends up dead, and that in itself would not be so unexpected considering how the story unfolds, but all these deaths seem devoid of any emotional connection since they happen far too quickly and are immediately washed away by the tsunami of other events. Two are the instances where this narrative choice bothered me greatly: in one case it’s an heroic act that allows other people to escape, and it happens off-screen, only a flash in the darkness marking the character’s ultimate sacrifice; in the other the person falls from a great height and is seen no more, and even if there are momentous consequences in the wake of that fall, it’s as if the individual did not matter anymore. In both cases it felt as if the characters were only little motes in the grand scheme of things, and given my sympathy for both of them that was quite hard to accept.

Still, The Gutter Prayer is a solid, very enjoyable novel and as debuts go a reasonably well-crafted one, and I can certainly recommend it to all lovers of the genre.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: ONE OF US, 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.

One of Us is a classic example of a book that should not be judged by its cover, even though I initially was guilty of this very mistake: when looking at this title on the Orbit newsletter, the cover appeared so bland to my eyes that I was not even tempted to read the book’s synopsis. My bad.  Luckily for me, some of my fellow book bloggers possess a more open mind and a keener curiosity, and through their reviews I learned that I was missing out on a very intriguing story, so I rushed to correct my error.

I knew, going in, that I would find myself in the midst of a dark, harsh tale, one that would push several of my buttons, but when all is said and done I don’t regret having read it despite the anguish and rage and frustration that it engendered: this novel is like a mirror into mankind’s soul, and once we look at ourselves through it, what stares back at us is something we should try to grow up from if we want to keep calling ourselves ‘human’.

The story is set in an alternate 1984 (a curiously apt choice at that…): fourteen years before a teratogenic virus spread all over the world causing the birth of mutated babies, and while many did not survive long after birth, a good number of them made it through. Rejected by their families, they were confined in the Homes, virtual prisons where the “monsters” would grow up out of sight and out of mind, while the world community, in a rush of puritanical zeal, implemented a strict regime of screening and control on sexual intercourse, especially where young people were concerned, to avoid further spreading of the plague.

In the rural community of Huntsville, Georgia, one of the Homes lies on the outskirts of town, the kids it holds employed as cheap labor in the surrounding farms, while their scant education is geared toward destroying their sense of worth and implementing blind obedience: the “plague children”, as they are called, are nothing but slaves, living in squalid conditions that would make Dickensian tales pale in comparison, most of their “teachers” little better than the dregs of society, taking on the job for lack of worthier opportunities.   Yet something is changing, because with the onset of puberty many of the Home’s inmates start showing peculiar abilities, like reading or influencing minds, starting fires, flying, and so forth; a few of them are spirited away in secret installations where they are employed by the military or the intelligence services, but the rest of them, on the advice of Brain, try to keep their powers hidden.  Brain is one of the more feral looking children of the Huntsville home, and the one who possesses the keener intellect: the acute awareness he was born with made him understand that one day the showdown between the “normals” and the “monsters” would come, and he wants them to be ready to fight back – for themselves and their right to exist.   Once the conflict does erupt, the fury and resentment that have been long simmering under the surface – on both sides – flare up into a bloody climax fueled by mindless violence and carnage of apocalyptic proportions.

The first question that comes to mind while reading One of Us is the one about the definition of ‘monster’: does being born with a dog’s head and paws, or an upside-down face, or looking like a cross between a lion and a gorilla make you a monster? Or should the label apply to those who confine these hapless creatures into internment camps, literally (and gleefully) torturing them for the slightest deviation from the imposed discipline?  Humanity does not show its best in the sliver of society represented by the Huntsville community, one where the fear and loathing for the plague children comes out of the kind of blind ignorance that is proud of itself, which refuses even to consider an alternative to the illiterate narrow-mindedness that many wear like a badge of honor.

I was deeply distressed while reading about the children’s treatment in the Home, where constant abuse, filthy living conditions and abominable food were everyday occurrences, to the point that when one of them is incarcerated on a false accusation, he considers the jail cell – with its bare-bones cot and waste disposal facility – like an unhoped-for luxury: that simple thought, one that does not even touch upon the fact that the boy is being unjustly held, was both chilling and heartbreaking, moving me to unexpected tears.  That’s why I felt even more profoundly the anger that possessed me once the false premise of wrongdoing by one of the plague children drives the oh-so-good, law-abiding citizens of Huntsville toward a hate-fueled pogrom.   By that point, all concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ fly out of the window, with acts of cruelty (and a few exceptions of mercy) being performed by citizens and children alike.

The reason this story can hit so close to home comes from the realization that humankind can be cruel toward those it perceives as ‘different’, and it becomes even more so when its own well-being is threatened in some way, be it physical or economical: that’s the moment when the need for a scapegoat becomes undeniable, when the compulsion to heap the mounting frustration on the nearest available target reduces our better angels to silence.  The fact that this novel is set in our past – or an alternative version of it – does not make it any less actual, or help us dismiss the story as simple fiction, because we only need to turn to any news channel to see a version of it play out under our eyes.

As I said, One of Us is a dark, brutal read that might not be for everyone, but still I would recommend it, if nothing else because of its ability to make us think, to take a good look at ourselves and wonder if we can do better, or if we want to.  My only complaint with the book comes from the ending that seems to be fizzling out somewhat after the huge, well-crafted buildup: but it’s a minor complaint indeed, considering that this story will remain with me for a long, long time….

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: WAR CRY, by Brian McClellan

 

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

As a huge admirer of Brian McClellan’s work with the Powder Mages saga, I was more than eager to sample his foray into a different genre, and even though I enjoyed this intriguing novella, I ended up feeling somehow unsatisfied – not because of any negative reaction to story and writing, but because I would have liked to know more, read more about this world.

McClellan is not new to the novella format, and while I found that his shorter writings in the Powder Mage setting filled out the background and added interesting facets to the story and the characters, they worked so well because they were part of a greater whole, one I was already familiar with.  Here the author starts from the other side of the road, giving us a glimpse of a new, different world that simply begs to be expanded and deepened, and that’s the reason War Cry feels somehow… incomplete.

The main character here is a young man, Teado, who grew up during an unspecified conflict that has been going on for years, if not decades: we are not given any detail about the war, or the motivations and identity of the opposed factions, all we know is that the civilization level has a mid-twentieth century flavor, and that there is magic involved in the mix.  Teado, for example, is a Changer – a shapeshifter who can morph into a taloned creature almost impervious to bullets. There are also Smiling Toms, who are able to create illusions either to fool the enemy or to mask one’s own activities; and there is mention of Fire Spitters or Wormers, whose abilities are not actually explained but sound quite intriguing.

Teado’s platoon has been entrenched in its position for quite a while, carrying out guerrilla raids against the enemy, but their meager supplies dwindle and morale gets lower every day: the young man himself often toys with the idea of giving in to the enemy propaganda he listens to on the radio and turning himself over to the other side, since he’s tired and hungry and demoralized – only the thought of leaving his friends and maybe being forced to betray them has stopped him until now.   A risky operation against the enemy base that might offer the platoon the opportunity to resupply and hold on for some more time turns into something else, something that will expose the futility of a long, drawn-out conflict and the grey areas of warfare strategy.

The actual story takes second place to the intriguing background that in some way reminded me of the trench warfare from WW I or the long sieges from WWII, sharing with the latter the perception of technological level and society orientation: in particular the use of propaganda for the extra push on the war effort sounded like something out of the mid-40s’ historical records, and reminded me of the many documentaries on the period that I saw on the History Channel.

Still, it’s all just barely touched on, as is the use of magic: as a reader I kept wondering at the reasons for the war, at the identity of the opposing factions and their goal, and at the appearance of magic and its users in what looks like an alternate version of our own world.  It was slightly frustrating to be offered so many clues but no clear resolution, and I hope that this will not be just an isolated attempt at something different by Brian McClellan, but that it will develop into something more detailed and articulated, because what I saw in War Cry is not enough to satisfy my burning curiosity…

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: ANNEX (The Violet Wars #1), 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.

My previous experience with Rich Larson’s writing is limited to a short story I read some time ago, one that however left a lasting impression on me because of its lucid bleakness, so that once I learned this is his first full-length novel, I did not hesitate to see how that sharp storytelling translated into a longer work – and the answer is, very well.

As Annex opens, we readers are immediately thrown into the thick of things: a huge alien ship appeared over the city where the characters live, an image that strongly reminded me of Independence Day, and destroyed a number of buildings with a surgical attack. The surviving adults were then ‘clamped’, fixed with a neural interface connecting them to a virtual reality simulation of their normal lives, while they wander around, zombie-like. The children were rounded up and implanted with what they call a parasite embedded in their stomach, and are held in warehouses where mechanical constructs dubbed ‘whirlybirds’ keep them sedated and docile.

No other explanation is given about the aliens’ motivation or goals and that’s understandable since we witness events from the children’s point of view, and know just as little as they do: this might prove a little jarring at first, but the pace of the story is such that knowing the how and why of things matters less than the characters’ journey.  Two of them take the center stage from the very beginning: Bo is an eleven year old boy of Nigerian origins who managed to escape from one of the warehouses, driven by the need to find his older sister Lia, who was moved elsewhere by the aliens.  After his breakout, Bo meets with Violet and through her connects with a group of other escapees living in an abandoned theater and calling themselves the Lost Boys, led by teenaged Wyatt.  Violet is a transgender on the make: after the alien attack she saw the opportunity of granting herself what family and society denied her until that moment, and she’s been dosing herself with hormones to effect the desired transition.

The outside world Bo finds himself in is revealed in all its horror as he finds his place among the Lost Boys: besides the immanent presence of the ship and the accompanying gloom that prevents the sun from shining through – at some point it’s also shown that there is an impassable barrier at the city’s limits – the ruins are plagued by roving pods that look for stray children to capture and imprison in the warehouses and by the othermothers, bio-mechanical constructs that partly resemble the children’s real mothers and are built by the aliens to lure them out of hiding. Bo’s first act as a Lost Boy must be the killing of his othermother, to show that he’s disenfranchised himself from the world of adults, that his loyalties now lie only with his newfound family.

Both he and Violet were already outsiders before the invasion and this seems to make them uniquely able to survive in this changed world, and to retain a form of independence that the other kids lack, which in turn makes them easy prey for Wyatt’s manipulative skills: there is a strong parallel between Wyatt and the less idealized versions of Peter Pan, those where he looks less like the carefree boy and more like a scheming psychopath.  It’s indeed the arrival of Bo, and the discovery of the uncanny power he can wield through his parasite, that changes the dynamics among the Lost Boys and brings Wyatt’s underlying cruelty – and madness – to the surface, creating a dramatic turn of events inside an already tense situation.

What happens at that point requires some suspension of disbelief, since the children embark on a mission to fight the aliens and “save the world”, and frankly the sequence of events goes at times quite over the top, but the breakneck speed of this story, that develops in the brief space of few days, makes it easier to believe it all and to follow with growing nervousness Bo and Violet’s progress through the alien ship and the Lost Boys’ commando action against the alien invaders.

Much as I rooted for Bo and his quest to save his sister Lia, it was Violet’s journey that I found quite compelling: her status as a transgender person is an important issue and I appreciated how it was not her only defining trait but one of the facets that made her who she is. What I loved about her were the layers of inner conflict that made her stand out from the other characters: the struggle inherent in her gender identity; the struggle between her need for independence and her caring attitude toward the younger and needier Lost Boys; the struggle between her attraction toward Wyatt and the perception of his personality’s wrongness. But what really stood out was her inability to let go of her parents – the drunken father and the listless mother – whose house she visits regularly even though they are not aware of her presence, moving inside the implanted hallucinations of the alien clamp: the nightly visits to her former home speak highly of her continuing bond with the two most important people in her life, despite their rejection of her sexual inclination and in spite of Wyatt’s credo about clamped adults being “better off dead”, and make for one of the most deeply emotional scenes in the book.

The slowly accumulating revelations about the aliens’ intention, the children’s plight in this crazy world, their battle against the invader, all contribute to make Annex a compelling read – and I need to also mention the character of Gloom, a different kind of alien that Bo and Violet encounter at some point, a shape-shifting, self-defined saboteur whose true intentions still remain a mystery. As the first book in a trilogy, Annex introduces a fascinating background that begs for further expansion and promises a conflict whose ramifications and outcome are far from certain: I look forward to learning more about Violet & Co. and can hardly wait for the next book in the series.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: ADRIFT, by Rob Boffard

 

 

 

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 a book manages to surprise me by offering much more than I expected from it, it’s always a wonderful discovery: this was indeed the case with Adrift, a story that ended up being more than the sum of its parts, and a compelling read. The Red Panda is a dilapidated tour ship taking groups of tourists around Sigma Station to admire the Horseshoe Nebula, and this trip does not look much different than the countless others that preceded it: the travelers are restless and grumpy because they had to wait for their guide, young Hannah Elliot, who is on her first day on the job and understandably flustered and lost; Captain Volkova is a disgruntled veteran of the recent war that pitted Frontier and Colonies against each other, and prefers to keep to herself in the cockpit, drinking and chain-smoking; and last but not least, the ship’s barman just called in sick, so the tourists can forget any catering during the excursion.

If this collection of small annoyances can remind us of the unavoidable hiccups of organized tours, what happens next is totally, shockingly unexpected: out of the jump gate linking Sigma to the rest of the galaxy comes an unknown ship that proceeds to attack and destroy the station and the gate itself – only the Panda, thanks to Volkova’s piloting skills, manages to remain unscathed and out of sight of the enemy ship. With limited resources and a run-down vessel, the ten survivors of the attack face a bleak and short future: the destruction of the jump gate cut them off from any kind of communication and help, and with no easily reachable destination their life support and supplies will be depleted soon. Worse still, the attackers might return and this time discover there are still witnesses to what happened…

It’s at this point that what might have been a relatively simple survival story, set in a claustrophobic environment, turns instead into a detailed character study and one that singles out each personality, shifting our initial perspective for every one of them while showing the individuals’ changes brought on by the harrowing situation they find themselves into.  One of my favorite narrative themes is that of a group of people thrown together by unforeseen circumstances and forced to work together for their survival, and there could not be a less homogeneous crowd than the Panda’s passengers (and captain).  Hannah, the tour guide, is a young woman still trying to find herself and her path in life: shy, insecure, and plagued with a heavy burden of self-doubt, she finds herself in the improbable role of leader, if nothing else because she’s wearing the tour operator’s uniform.  At first I found it hard to sympathize with her, because she came across at somewhat whiny, but as circumstances forced her to take on the responsibility of keeping the group together, and as safe as possible, I warmed up to her and came to appreciate the effort she put into the unwanted task that fate dropped into her lap.

Another character whose outlook changed drastically is that of Jack, the equivalent of a present-day travel reviewer: he’s a man quite down on his luck due to a series of negative turns, and he has all but given up on everything and everyone, becoming a cynic and a listless drunkard.  During most of the story he tends to flow with the tide, letting his disillusionment with life guide his steps, and yet there is a powerful need for redemption in him, one that might lead him toward a much-needed change.

These are only two examples, but the entire group runs through some pretty wild alterations as the story unfolds: what happens aboard the Panda is indeed a thorough study on the effects of hopelessness and despair boiling over in the close quarters of the ship, a place with no escape – not just from the predicaments at hand, but more importantly from one’s own demons. And every one of the Panda survivors does have some demons to fight, even the two teenaged sons of the Livingstones, a couple on the verge of divorce.   What’s interesting here is that we are made privy to the characters’ background story, so that we are able to learn what shaped them in the past and what makes them the persons they are: these flashbacks are not only placed at very convenient points in the narrative, but they also blend in a seamless way with the survivors’ present predicament and in some fashion influence the way each character chooses his or her actions.

The Red Panda itself becomes a character at some point, because this dilapidated vessel, that probably never saw better days, is part and parcel of the troubles of its ten occupants and the way it’s described – the substandard parts, the accumulated grime, the scarce supplies that would have been inadequate even if tragedy had not struck – makes it stand out in sharp relief and share with the reader every one of its ominous creaks, obnoxious smells and claustrophobic environment.  Yet, like the humans it shelters, even the Panda becomes capable of unthinkable feats and manages to battle its way through incredible odds, to the point that it’s impossible not to root for it, as if it were somewhat alive and sentient.

Adrift is indeed the kind of story that compels you to turn the pages as quickly as you can as the narrative develops in often unpredictable, but always believable ways – maybe with the exception of the too-rapid change of heart of one particular character, that seemed much too quick given the beliefs that moved his actions and had informed his choices up to that moment.  Still, it was a little snag that I could easily move past in the breathless journey that was this highly enjoyable story.

 

My Rating: