Reviews

CHILDREN OF MEMORY (Children of Time #3), by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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 have to confess that I approached this book with some hesitation: while I enjoyed Children of Time (despite the spiders, which is saying a lot!), I was less sanguine about Children of Ruin, mostly because of the pacing, which at times felt a little too slow for my tastes.  Children of Memory does suffer slightly from some pacing problems and from a few lengthy philosophical digressions, but the mystery at its core was so intriguing that it kept me motivated to read on until the very end.

Unlike its predecessors, this third installment in the series focuses more closely on humans, and in particular on the humans of an ark ship, the Enkidu, traveling the long distance toward one of the promised terraformed worlds with its huge cargo of frozen colonists. When they reach their destination, a planet they will name Imir, the ship has suffered grievous damage and lost a significant part of its cargo – both people and machinery destined to the creation of the colony – while the crew also discovers that the terraforming project partially failed its goal: Imir is a cold, harsh world with extreme weather patterns, and it will require an enormous effort to establish even the basic living conditions. 

After a temporal jump of a few generations, the novel follows the colonization of Imir through the eyes of Liff, a pre-teen girl whose strong spirit is fueled by fairy tales of adventures and great discoveries: thanks to Liff we learn that the colony never truly took off beyond mere survival in what looks like a frontier environment, the constant breakdown of modern tools and machinery forcing the colonists toward a more primitive society than the one they hoped for. What’s worse, there is a strange obsession in the populace toward “Watchers” or “Seccers”, i.e. people outside of their limited community, who might be actively working against its survival: although it seems more myth than reality, this belief fosters an acute climate of suspicion that verges toward paranoia.

A different narrative thread focuses on the small crew of an exploratory vessel from the arachnid/octopus/human civilization we encountered in the two previous books: having reached Imir they debate on the best way to approach the colony, deciding that one of them will try to monitor it in incognito, posing as one of the colonists from the outlying failed farmsteads: Miranda, a combination of human appearance and Nodan consciousness (the parasitic life-form discovered in the previous book) joins the people of Imir working as a teacher, and on her meeting with Liff forms a strong bond with the keenly curious young girl.

Here is where the strangeness begins, because we are presented with often contradictory evidence about life on the planet: several generations have elapsed since the first landing, and yet Liff seems to think about Captain Holt (the expedition leader) as her grandfather; or she is seen living with both her parents while in other narrative segments she’s an orphan living with her inattentive uncle, and so on.  This is the mystery that captured my attention and led me to wonder what was truly happening on Imir, not forgetting the further element of a strange signal coming from the planet that leads the onboard A.I. patterned on Earth scientists Avrana Kern (a constant presence throughout the series) to investigate it with the help of the new uplifted species of Corvids we get to know in Children of Memory.

It’s not easy to recap this novel in a handful of spoiler-free sentences, because this book is as complex as it is intriguing: the main attraction for me was the solution to the contradictory experiences of young Liff (and here I have to admit that my own theories did not even come close to the reveal), but there is much more here to keep a reader engrossed.  Faithful to the pattern exhibited so far, Adrian Tchaikovsky presents us with a new uplifted kind of creature, the Corvids from Rourke’s world, another planet that proved hostile to humanity but where these birds’ intelligence evolved in a unique pattern of paired individuals forming a collective whole and represented here by Gethli and Gothi, whose discussions about sentience are nothing short of fascinating, besides offering some sparks of humor thanks to their peculiarly worded exchanges that at times reminded me of the chorus elements in Greek tragedies.

Equally intriguing are the observations on the composite society originated by the joining of humans, arachnids, octopusses and Nodan parasites who have learned to coexist peacefully and create a space-faring society whose curiosity about the rest of the universe is the main drive toward exploration. In this respect, the human-looking Miranda is a perfect example of this commonwealth of species: her search for knowledge is somehow marred by the dichotomy between outward appearance and inner substance, which leaves room for some interesting, and at times poignant, considerations about self-image and identity.

The colony on Imir offers other chances of commentary on human nature: the regression to a more primitive way of life, forced by the lack of equipment, seems to have brought on a parallel regression in mindset, since the inhabitants of Landfall (the sole planetary settlement) look more like villagers from a Medieval era rather than the inheritors of a modern society. Their dread and distrust of the “other” (which comes from a very specific reason) brings about a tragic “us vs. them” mentality that is depicted in a few dramatic scenes which effectively display the dangers of mob mentality when paired with fear and ignorance.

Children of Memory is however slightly weighted down by some philosophical digressions on the nature of sentience, which are intriguing on their own but – in my opinion – take more space than necessary in consideration of the need to learn the solution to the mystery that Imir presents to the visitors. Still these digressions were not enough to keep me from forging on and reaching the intriguing reveal: if that was the challenge that the author presented to his readers, I can say that I was able to meet it head on 😉

My Rating:

Reviews

EPISODE THIRTEEN, 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.

Every new book from Craig DiLouie is a surprise because – as far as my experience with his works goes – he never treads twice on the same ground, never sticks to any given theme or genre. With Episode Thirteen he chose to explore the world of professional ghost hunters, and while this is a ghost story, it does not develop in any predictable way, which adds to its appeal – and to its mystery.

Fade to Black is a moderately successful ghost hunting show which follows the scheme of similar reality programs by investigating allegedly haunted houses and seeking confirmation (or debunking) through the application of various scientific tools; lead investigators, and married couple, Matt and Claire Kirklin represent the two sides of the research: he’s the believer in the existence of paranormal phenomena, mostly because of his childhood experience with an imaginary friend who turned out to be anything but, while his wife is the skeptic, looking for scientific explanation of the weird occurrences encountered in their line of work.  The team also includes Kevin Linscott, tech manager and former police officer, who’s convinced to have been in the presence of a ghost in the course of one tour of duty; Jessica Valenza, an actress looking for visibility and affirmation while trying to raise a son on her own; and Jake Wolfson, the cameraman who is more focused on filming good takes rather than catching glimpses of ghosts.

After a great start, Fade to Black is experiencing some downturn in ratings that place a second season of the show on the line, so that Matt wants to craft a spectacular Episode 13 (the one before the series’ final segment) to insure that they will be able to go on.  The location for this episode is Foundation House, a crumbling manor where outlandish pseudo-scientific experiments were conducted in the ‘70s, involving the use of psychotropic drugs among other bizarre techniques: the mystery surrounding Foundation House, whose staff disappeared without a trace, is enough to insure some spectacular footage. The team approaches the location with a mixture of anticipation and dread for the future of the show, a feeling that is slowly intruding in their interpersonal and working relationships.  What they will find goes way beyond their wildest expectations and adds more mysteries to those already plaguing the spooky house…

Episode Thirteen is written with a style resembling that of found-footage movies, chronicling the fateful exploration of Foundation House through videos and transcripts, interviews, personal diaries and e-mails, building a picture of the characters with cinematic quality, revealing their inner workings without need for info-dumps: while the story starts with a deceptively leisurely pace, it slowly grows into an ominous tale and a compelling, compulsive read in which we get to know the characters just as the momentous events unfold.  If it’s easy to indulgently scoff at actual tv shows like Fade to Black, here the feeling of being faced with something which is as real as it is elusive is quite strong, and the suspension of disbelief does not require any effort at all.

What’s interesting about the characters is that they are not exactly likable, and yet they remain deeply intriguing from beginning to end, and it’s easy to identify with them as they witness the eerie, scary phenomena that plague the old manor and they deal with reactions that go from the classic “fight or flight” to the difficult battle between scientific curiosity and self-preservation.  As the story progresses and the team faces a true descent into Hell (both in the figurative and in the actual sense), their core personalities are revealed in stark relief, all the trappings people use to cover their true self coming undone in a very dramatic way.

It would be impossible for me to write more about the story without falling into spoiler territory, and this is a novel that must be approached with no prior knowledge whatsoever, so that it can deliver all its powerful impact in the most effective way: there is no body horror here, no splattered blood or any other physical manifestation typical of the genre, the dread is more psychological than anything else, mixed as it is with our innate fear of the unknown.

One warning only: once you pick up Episode Thirteen set aside some “quality time” to read it, and be aware that once you start the book it will be next to impossible to put it down for more than the few moments you will need to catch your breath – because you will need to remember to breathe, trust me…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE IVORY TOMB (Rooks & Ruin #3), 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.

Now that this second trilogy from author Melissa Caruso has reached its end it’s become clear to me that she likes to deliver her maximum narrative impact with the final book: the first two volumes in the Rooks & Ruin series set the playing field and shaped the main characters, and were certainly supported by a good dose of dramatic moments and momentous revelations, but The Ivory Tomb brings all those elements toward such a harrowing climax that at times I felt emotionally drained – and I say this in the most complimentary way possible.

Please be aware that this review will contain spoilers for the first two books in the series, so if you have not read them yet, you risk learning about important details that you had better discover on you own…

When we first met Ryx, the protagonist of the story, she led a forcibly sequestered life because her “tainted” magic made her touch deadly for any living thing, and it was only her meeting with the Rookery – a group of special agents dealing with out-of-bound magical phenomena – that she was allowed to interact with others in a normal way thanks to a jess (a sort of controlling bracelet) that muted her powers.  Not long after she became part of the Rookery, Ryx could not enjoy her period of grace for long, because the escape of several demons, held captive in the prison to which her castle guarded the portal, threw the world into renewed turmoil, further weighted by the double revelation that Ryx had long been the host for the demon of Disaster and that her beloved grandmother was now hosting the demon of Discord.  

The freed demons – particularly Carnage, Corruption and Hunger – are on a rampage in The Ivory Tomb, laying waste to everything and everyone they encounter on their path and doing their worst to compound such devastation by setting the Raverran and Vaskandar empires on the warpath through misinformation and the skillful rekindling of old grudges.  Poor Ryx finds herself torn in more than one direction as she tries to help her friends defuse the situation, capture the escaped demons and save the people she loves from becoming victims of the ravages of war. Not to mention avoid being imprisoned (or worse) herself because of the demon to which she has long been a vessel…

My sympathy for Ryx was born in the first volume of the series as I discovered how despite the harsh circumstances of her existence she managed to forge a character that was both kind and resilient, compassionate and determined, but here she truly shines brightly because she is faced with such odds that would have defeated the strongest of personalities, and yet she still finds the courage and the strength to move forward, to face whatever hurdle circumstances set on her path, while struggling with the dreadful revelation about her true nature and with the danger of being subsumed by Disaster and the avalanche of memories collected by the demon during its time through other hosts.

One of the most intriguing narrative elements in this series, and in particular in this final book, is the revelation that not all demons are… well, demonic, and that some of them are – or have been – capable of mastering their nature thanks to the people they interacted with: this is very true for Disaster’s past history which is revealed in a series of flashbacks as the barriers between the demon and Ryx become more permeable. Intriguing as they are, these flashbacks ended up being a little distracting for me, taking me away from the dire situation that was developing in the ‘present’, as Ryx and the Rookery tried to stay abreast of the havoc meted out by the other demons: it’s not the book’s fault, I want that to be clear, but simply my reaction at having to set aside for a moment what for me was the main – and more important – narrative thread.

The other element that bothered me a little was the lessened focus on the Rookery members, whose characterization and interactions had always been very enjoyable for me: again, I understand how it was necessary for the story to concentrate on other narrative paths, and I can rationally see the reason for this choice, but emotionally I felt a little… cheated, for want of a better word, for not being able to see them as much as I wanted.

On the other hand, I have to acknowledge Melissa Caruso’s wonderful skill in weaving a romantic thread in her narrative without making me roll my eyes in annoyance: she might very well be one of the few authors who are able to present a developing romantic relationship in their stories and to make me appreciate it despite my usual aversion to the theme.  Ryx and Severin make a delightful couple and their slow-burn romance feels appealing and true, their interactions are always consistent with their characters and the situations in which they develop, so that – let’s admit it – I was rooting for them all the time and hoping that they would enjoy a happy end.  Well done, Ms. Caruso, indeed…. 😉

The Ivory Tomb is not only the magnificent conclusion to a well-crafted saga, it’s above all a breathless, heart-stopping marathon through a series of events whose increasing stakes will compel you to turn the pages as quickly as you can. As for myself, I can only look forward to seeing what Melissa Caruso will have in store for her readers in the future: one thing is certain, it will be another great ride.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE STARS UNDYING, by Emery Robin (DNF @40%) – #SciFiMonth

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 always pains me when I have to DNF a review book, particularly because I tend to pick and choose them according to my tastes, which should enable me to target only novels I can be sure to enjoy, but sometimes this method fails and I’m faced with a story that does not work for me.

The Stars Undying had all the potential the be the kind of narrative I enjoy, enhanced by the fact that it’s inspired by the events surrounding the fateful meeting between the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra and roman conquerors Caesar and Mark Anthony, translated into a space opera background.  Princess Altagracia, the heir to the Szayet empire, has been overthrown by her own sister, who also claimed the Pearl, the computerized device that imparts to Szayet rulers the wisdom of their god. When the commander of the fleet from the empire of Ceiao, Matheus Ceirran, lands on Szayet, Gracia sees in him the opportunity to regain power by using her feminine wiles, but she soon understands that the game might be more complex and dangerous than that…

I have to admit that my troubles with this novel started from the very beginning: the author throws her readers into the thick of things with little or no background to sustain them, and if that usually does not worry me – since I do indeed enjoy a good challenge – the way in which the story flows felt both confused and confusing and I struggled to understand how that veritable avalanche of names and places and background details could form an organic picture.  More than once I backtracked through the chapters, driven by the definite sensation that I might have missed some pages or sections and that some vital information had eluded me, but I failed to find any helpful clue.

The story is told in alternating chapters equally shared by Gracia and Ceirran, and here is where I encountered more problems because their “voices” lack the kind of distinctiveness that would make their individual personalities stand out: if I was distracted and failed to take notice of the character name at the top of the chapter, I had a few moments of uncertainty about whose thread I was following because I could not readily distinguish between the two identities.  The fact that it took me close to ten days to reach the 40% mark before admitting defeat, is a signal that my progress through the book was an uphill, losing battle.

When all is said and done, I firmly believe that it’s more a kind of “it’s not you, it’s me” issue with this book than anything else: from what I’ve read online, the consensus is that The Stars Undying is a brilliant debut, and I don’t doubt it – it’s just not the kind of book, or narrative style, that I find suits my tastes and I truly look forward to the comments of my fellow bloggers to learn what I might have missed or misunderstood in this failed reading journey.

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

A DOWRY OF BLOOD (A Dowry of Blood #1), by S. T. Gibson

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

Vampire lore states that these creatures can mesmerize their victims, leaving them powerless to resist the lure of their captor: well, like a vampire, this book managed to mesmerize me from start to finish, making it almost impossible for me to put it down – I lost count of the number of times I told myself “just one more chapter, then I’ll stop”, only to keep reading on…

The vampire myth is one of my favorite themes in horror, so once I learned that A Dowry of Blood focused on a retelling of the story of Dracula and his brides it was a given that I would read it, but what I found was a very unexpected tale told in an equally unexpected narrative style, which added to my enjoyment of the book.  The narrator is Constanta, one of the famous vampire’s brides as she relates her story in an impassioned letter to her sire who, as we learn from the very first sentence in the book, she killed in an act that she describes as possessing “its own sort of inevitability”.

Constanta’s first encounter with the creature who will change her existence happens outside a Romanian village devastated by a brutal attack: she lies dying on the ground, images of her family’s massacre mixing with the awareness of her imminent demise, when this fascinating stranger makes her an offer that seems like salvation but which will lead her on a very unpredictable path. Her beginnings as the vampire’s bride flow in a mix of fascination and discovery that appear all the more extraordinary given Constanta’s origin as a poor peasant girl, but as time elapses it becomes increasingly clear that her husband/master’s outer veneer of charm hides a volatile, domineering disposition that becomes even more marked when their “family” comes to include the presence of Magdalena, a beautiful Spanish heiress, and later on of young Alexi, a penniless Russian actor.

More than being another story about vampires, A Dowry of Blood represents the deconstruction of their myth as it shows the other side of the coin represented by the fascinating lure of an immortal predator: here Dracula (even though his name is never actually mentioned) comes across as an abusive despot, a creature of fickle disposition, easily angered and possessed of a mean streak.   At first Constanta accepts it all as part and parcel of her new life, never having had the opportunity for a comparison – either in her previous life or in her new, immortal one – and living as she does in almost total isolation with her sire.  Things however change when Magdalena joins their “family”: the transition from jealousy to attraction to complicity allows Constanta to put her existence into perspective and to observe their lord’s treatment of his brides from an equidistant position, therefore bringing to light his manipulative and control-oriented tactics.  The situation worsens when starving actor Alexi is brought into their midsts, his lust for life and human companionship undiminished by the changes in his body: the younger man’s desire to keep a foot in both worlds – the living and the undead – takes the vampire lord’s stranglehold on his “family” to new heights, ultimately laying the foundations for his (untimely?) end.

Even though I’m usually not very comfortable with allegories, I can view this novel as one about toxic relationships –  and who better than a blood-sucking vampire to epitomize the draining of agency, self-worth and freedom caused by an abusive spouse?   Constanta is the classic example of the naive woman who finds herself married to a control freak who does everything in his power to establish his authority on her, either cutting off any chance of outside contact, or constantly belittling her, or both, in what she labels as “the cycle of brutality and tenderness” than informs their relationship.  She is only an extension of himself, something he created for his own ends, not for her benefit:

[…] I don’t think you ever truly saw me as a whole woman. I was always a student. A project. An accessory in the legal and decorative sense.

In the end, the mistake of the vampire lord comes from the choice to increase his entourage, because instead of adding more “accessories” to his dominion he unwittingly lays the basis for a found family: the strength of the bonds that unite Constanta, Magdalena and Alexi is what ultimately allows them to see their sire for what he truly is, and to find the courage to sever the ties linking them to him and to regain their freedom.  What finally struck me, once I finished the book, was the realization that in never using her husband’s name in the story (only hinting at his true identity in an oblique reference to the “troublesome Harkers”) Constanta took back the agency she was robbed of for so many centuries: in denying him his identity, his name, she exacted the perfect kind of vengeance against the constant theft of power and self-determination he visited on his brides.

I described A Dowry of Blood as a mesmerizing book, and the greatest part of such effect comes from the narrative style and the almost lyrical prose that took hold of my imagination and created a rich, three-dimensional picture of these characters and their surroundings: there is a gothic flavor to this story that nevertheless does not lapse into purple prose, blending the quaint and the modern into a seamless whole. If, like it seems, this is only the first volume in a saga, I more than look forward to what the author has in store for us in the next books…

My Rating:

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: