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The Dying of the Light – G.R.R. Martin

Dying-of-the-LightIn my search for more of the “magic” that is GRR Martin’s prose in his acclaimed saga A Song of Ice and Fire, I read some of his other works, discovering what an accomplished story-teller he can be even outside of the realms of Westeros, and how wide his narrative range can be.

Dying of the Light is one of these amazing finds.  Published for the first time in 1977 (his very first novel, I believe), it’s a science fiction story set on the rogue planet Worlorn: hurtling through space in its aimless course, for the first time since its creation the planet crosses a region densely packed with suns, and gets a chance for warmth and life, however fleeting.

The 14 existing galactic civilizations declare a Festival on Worlorn, each of them building a city to showcase their culture and its accomplishments: when the story begins, the Festival is long over, the cities mostly abandoned, the planet headed once more into the cold blackness of space.

From Worlorn Dirk t’Larien receives a whisperjewel – a psi-encoded memory storage from his former lover Gwen Delvano. It’s a summons, based on an old promise made when they both had the jewels crafted for them: never reconciled with the end of the relationship, Dirk departs for the rogue planet full of hope and dreams.  Once there, though, Gwen welcomes him with puzzlement, looking distant and ill-at-ease, and soon Dirk discovers she’s bound to another man, Jaan Vikary, a highborn from the aggressive and patriarchal society of High Kavalaan.  Now convinced that the summons was Gwen’s way to forever cut the ties with Dirk, saying a final goodbye, t’Larien slowly learns that Kavalar culture requires a woman to be little more than a chattel, to be shared between her mate and his teyn, a sort of blood brother, a bond that stands as the foundation of all things Kavalar.

The “marriage” is not an easy one, complicated by Jaan’s peculiar customs and his society’s preoccupation with racial purity and mutations, therefore Dirk slowly comes to the conclusion that the whisperjewel represented a mute appeal from Gwen to save her from the unhappy liaison.  The situation becomes more problematic as we learn that other Kavalars on Worlorn practice a form of hunt whose prey are the creatures they deem inferior and non-human, which includes everyone else by their standards, so that Jaan’s attempts at stopping the bloody sport and bringing his planet to a higher galactic standard further inflame the already volatile tempers.

Soon Dirk find himself enmeshed in a political and personal struggle, complicated by his feelings for Gwen and a slowly unfolding web of discoveries that create a fascinating cultural backdrop and change his world-view, leading to a breath-stopping open ending.

Even that early in his career GRR Martin could create spellbinding tapestries, dotted with beautiful characters that sport the many shades of gray I have come to expect from his writing.  Kavalar culture is fascinatingly explored in the juxtaposition between Jaan Vikary, the equivalent of a Renaissance man, and his teyn Garse Janacek, a man torn between duty to the old customs and his ties of loyalty and friendship to Jaan.  Strangely enough, despite the obvious shortcomings of their mind-set, I found them both more likable than the “hero” Dirk t’Larien, whose stubbornness and sometimes childish pique offer an interesting contrast that reveals Gwen’s unvoiced doubts and regrets.  Gwen herself is a wonderful creation: a woman still in search of herself, she seems to be wandering aimlessly through her life (much like the rogue planet where the action takes place), taking life and warmth from the suns she passes by. But in the end she surprises the readers with an unsuspected show of strength, as ultimately does Dirk, whose changes and inner growth take us to the very last pages of the book.

If you like George Martin’s works, this one will not disappoint you: you will find many of the themes he further explored in the ASOIAF saga, together with spellbinding writing that often touches on the lyrical, and a fascinating story that will reserve many revelations.

My Rating: 7,5/10

The Newsflesh Trilogy – Mira Grant

Mira Grant (that is, Seanan McGuire) just announced the arrival of a new short story in her Newsflesh universe, so – in what is becoming something of a tradition for me – I thought about retracing my reading experience with her previous novels.

Zombies were not exactly my kind of narrative trope: not on the screen and certainly not in book form. So I’m still unsure about what made me pick up the first book of Mira Grant’s Newsflesh Trilogy: probably some glowing review that underlined how different it was from the usual fare – no matter the reason, after the first few pages I was hooked, and at the same time discovered a new author, one that’s quickly entered my “buy whatever comes out” list.

Mira Grant is the pen name of Urban Fantasy author Seanan McGuire – I plan on recapping soon her still ongoing, successful series about private investigator October Daye, but for now I’ll concentrate on the alter ego who created this stunning, ground-breaking trilogy: Feed, Deadline and Blackout.

The premise: twenty-odd years from now the world will be dramatically changed by a zombie epidemic whose origins come from the accidental interaction of two experimental viral cures for cancer and the common cold. Exposure to this mutated virus (Kellis-Amberlee, from the names of the two scientists working on the projects) does indeed cure the targeted ailments but also resuscitates the dead – in the Newsflesh world it’s called “amplification”.  There are two short stories that expand on this premise, and I recommend them both to better understand the train of events: one is Countdown (the tale of the incident that started it all) and the other is San Diego 2014: the last stand of the California Browncoats (the start of the epidemic seen through the eyes of the famous convention’s participants).

The ground-breaking choices I mentioned come from the fact that the usual bloody scenarios of a zombie apocalypse are strictly kept as background information: yes, the un-dead move around searching for victims – not so much to consume their flesh but rather to spread the contagion, in a sort of viral prime directive – and there are whole sections of the world made uninhabitable by the concentration of zombies, but what Mira Grant focuses on is not the cheap thrill of blood-and-gore images but rather the way people and society have changed because of the epidemic.

Amplification has forced people to completely review their way of living: houses have become fortresses capable of withstanding massive attacks from the un-dead; pets above a certain body weight – say a small dog – are out of the question, because above that limit they are subject to amplification just as humans are, and the phenomenon extends, of course, to other common animals as cows or horses, whose mass makes them as deadly as infected people.  And then there is the terrible choice that everyone must be prepared to face: when one of your loved ones, or friends, dies and then amplifies before your eyes, you have to decide between survival and the impulses of your heart.  How would that change the unwritten laws of society?  How would it affect ethics and morality?

Fear is therefore the main driving force of society: fear of the infected, of course, but also fear of excessive proximity or crowded areas – someone dying of a heart attack in a crowd could amplify and start a new outbreak; fear of contagion, that requires constant blood checks before entering any enclosed space, be it a coffee shop or one’s own home; fear of whatever and whoever can’t be controlled.  An enlightening quote summarizes the situation all too well: “...we have embraced the cult of fear, and now we don’t seem to know how to put it back where it belongs.”  Fear can also be a powerful means of control, because a scared and divided humanity is much more easily subdued – or lied to.

The antithesis of fear is truth, and its… paladins, for want of a better word, are bloggers: the first to recognize the threat of the virus and to spread the word when the government still hid behind carefully worded statements. Bloggers are, at the start of the story, a force to be reckoned with, and the new heroes of a world that keeps turning in upon itself with every passing day.  Enter Georgia and Shaun Mason, highly successful bloggers who have been selected, together with their team, to follow the presidential campaign of candidate Ryman: this represents an enormous opportunity for visibility, but it will also lead them along very unexpected and terrifying paths.

This is all I dare reveal about the story, because its hair-raising twists and turns must be discovered on their own: suffice it to say there is not one moment when the tension lets go, and where drama is delivered without pulling any punches – no matter how painful they can be to the readers.

What really matters, and what I can safely share here, is that it’s a fascinating look at a profoundly changed society, and also a character-driven narrative that will keep you on your toes from start to finish.

Not the easiest of books, granted, nor something I would recommend before bedtime either – but still I urge you to read them, because Mira Grant’s storytelling and powerful characters are worth the extra effort needed to find the necessary strength to do it.

My Rating: 8,5/10

The Expanse Trilogy – James S. A. Corey

James S.A. Corey is the pseudonym for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the first best known for his Long Price Quartet and Dagger and the Coin series, and the second for his collaboration with GRR Martin.  Together they have penned one of the best space opera series I ever read and, to my extreme satisfaction, are hard at work on a second one: talking with Mulluane from Dragons, Heroes and Wizards about the new book, I thought it was a good idea to share a few details about the first three volumes, so here we go…

What makes these books stand out is the human dimension of backgrounds and characters: the words space opera often make us think about vast empires, galaxy-spanning wars and wondrous technology, but this is not the case here. The theatre where the action unfolds is our own Solar System in an advanced stage of colonization, where the older and more established outposts – like the Moon or Mars – enjoy a comfortable way of life, while the newer ones, like the civilization growing in the Asteroid Belt, still deal with problems like microgravity and its deep effects on human physiology, or the rising prices of air and water in a hostile environment.  Political and economical tensions are always one step away from flaring into all-out conflict, and there are forces working – more or less covertly – to tip the balance one way or the other.  Add to that a few realistic details like communications lag across vast distances or the problems of space travel, which requires a constant battle against the pain of acceleration – endured through the use of drugs – and you have a very relatable universe, as are the characters that people it.

Summing up the story is far from easy, especially when trying to avoid any spoilers, so I’m not even going to try. The first book, Leviathan Wakes, follows mainly two characters: Miller – a middle-aged police officer who has lost all his drive and motivations, and wakes up only when what looks like an open-and-shut case he’s been assigned turns into something else, something both suspicious and frightening; and Holden, ex military now working on an ice cargo hauler: he’s the kind of person who wants to do the right thing, to be a good guy, and more often than not makes huge mistakes, with unpredictable consequences. The novel alternates chapters between these points of view until the two men meet and face an unforeseen danger that adds some touches of horror to the story.  The other two books, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate, expand on this core theme, widening the picture to include complex political scheming tied with economic interests, and convoluted games of power that still dare to go on despite an all-encompassing menace.

All this, however, is just background – a solid background, granted, that helps move the story along, often in unexpected directions. The real focus is on characters, on the way they deal with events, on the way physiological and mental changes affect people from the different habitats where human expansion brought them.  One of the interesting aspects I encountered is indeed in these differences, because the physiological adaptation that has made the Belters thinner and taller than Earth norm, seems to have created a sort of racial differentiation that goes beyond skin color. In other words, we might go to space someday, but we will still bring our short-sightedness and prejudices along with us…

Most importantly, though, the novels deal with choices, with the often tragic consequences engendered by those choices, even when they are made with the best of intentions. Because we all know what paves the road to Hell, after all…

Holden, and his crew of almost-rogues, embody that concept very well: enmeshed against their will in something too big for them to handle, they try to do their best with the limited options at their disposal. In the first book there’s a marked antithesis between Holden and Miller, between idealism and the need to set things right on one side, and tired cynicism on the other, the bitter acceptance of the impossibility of seeing the “good guys” win. Despite their differences – or maybe because of them – these two men form a strange alliance that will be the one of the driving forces of the story.

This focus on humanity goes on in the following books, exploring more deeply the characters of Holden’s crew – a closely-knit group for whom I felt an immediate attachment – and several other players, big and small, who feel as fleshed-out and solid as the main protagonists. A special mention goes to the female characters, that the authors created without using a single strand of cliché in their DNA: Naomi, of the Rocinante’s crew, smart, though and outstandingly excellent in her job, gifted with a wry sense of humor; Martian marine Bobbie, steadfast and powerful, a fighter in more ways than one, but still possessed of a softer side; shrewd politician Avarasala, who knows how to wield her power, and can cuss like a hardened sailor; minister Anna, gifted with a steel resolve under the caring attitude.  They are far from perfect, but I liked them exactly for this reason – because they feel real.

Given that each of the separate books of the trilogy managed to raise already hight stakes, it’s hardly surprising I was waiting with feverish anticipation to read the next installment (the first in a new trilogy, according to what I’ve read online): even though the main narrative threads have been brought to an end, many more have appeared and they would seem to point to a further widening of the picture, both in scope and in setting.   Cybola Burn, the fourth volume, came out on June 5th and so far it looks very promising so… stay tuned for the forthcoming review!

My Rating: 9/10

A Retrospective Look: Dune, by Frank Herbert

Thanks to a recent discussion with Mulluane from Dragons, Heroes and Wizards over at Pinterest, I’ve been thinking about this book, one of my all-time favorites, and one of my rare multiple re-reads. I think I revisited it almost as much as I did Lord of the Rings, which is interesting, since Dune might very well be my iconic science fiction book, as LOTR is for fantasy.

Interesting because – and that was part of the discussion I mentioned above – Dune‘s genre has long been the subject of debate, my idea being that it stands on some undefined middle ground between the two: the action unfolds in a very distant future and concerns a vast galactic empire, spanned by ships that travel enormous distances almost in the wink of an eye, and yet the technology is… subdued, for want of a better word, and  is never the focus of the story. Many references are made to the Butlerian Jihad, the movement that banned the use of computers and stressed the powers of the human mind, and such powers are reflected in the use of Mentats – humans who have been trained in logical thought – and the abilities of the Bene Gesserit, the all-female secret society working, slowly but surely, toward their mysterious goals.

These elements, coupled with the murderous political intrigue that constitutes the backbone of the story, the internal strife between the Empire’s noble houses and the amazing world-building underlying the concept of Arrakis, the desert world, would not be out of place in a fantasy novel, and the same can be said about the protagonist’s story-arc: Paul Atreides/Muad’Dib goes from sheltered heir of House Atreides to religious leader of an oppressed people seeking freedom, passing though the harrowing grind of loss and betrayal.    Moreover, there is a heavy emphasis on esoteric powers, prophecies and melange-induced prescience: all concepts that can be found in many fantasy storylines…

Apart from the debate about genre, that I believe will go on for as long as Dune remains one of the pillars of spec-fic literature (and that’s a good way to label it, nicely skirting the issue…), the question I asked myself is: what makes this book so unforgettable, and what compels me (and others) to go back to it time and time again?

One of the reasons must be its timeless quality: Dune is almost 50 years old, and yet does not show its age, as some of the classics of that period do.  Frank Herbert’s language, though sometimes ponderous and convoluted, does not carry a time stamp that immediately identifies it as a product of the mid-sixties.  Some of its themes, as well, are even more actual today than they were at the time of the first publication: the war for precious, finite commodities that engenders political schemes and conflicts is something modern readers are acquainted with in many ways.

But I think that the characters are the real magnet of the story: what’s amazing, and also very modern, is that most of them – if not all – are not totally likable people, are not “hero material” according to an old-fashioned, black-and-white concept. And yet we, the readers, root for them and want them to succeed.

Seen through today’s filters, Paul Atreides – who ultimately exploits the Fremen’s desire for freedom riding a corpus of religious legends he tailors after his needs – would not be so different from GRR Martin’s Tyrion Lannister, just to quote one of my favorite examples: not a bad guy, but not a good one either. Just the right blend of light and darkness that makes today’s “heroes” more interesting, and believable, despite the shadows lurking behind their backs.

All of the above are good reasons, granted, but sometimes the need to analyze a story makes us forget the main one: we are captivated by it because it’s a great story, a compelling tale of honor and betrayal, of sacrifice and determination, love, hate, passion and wisdom. And let’s face it, that’s all that matters in the end, isn’t it?