Reviews

THE PHLEBOTOMIST, by Chris Panatier

To call this novel ‘surprising’ would be a massive understatement: what began as a story set in a dystopian future soon turned into something else, something very unexpected – and this sudden twist ended up enhancing my enjoyment of the story, to which I happily sacrificed some sleep just to see where it would lead me in the end.

War-torn Earth of the near-future is in a sorry state indeed: after the first bomb, named Chrysalis with a notable display of gallows humor, many others fell, unleashing destruction and death. The people now living in the Grey Zones, the ones where radioactive contamination struck more heavily, are in constant need of blood to survive and, if lucky, to recover, therefore a national program of blood donations has been instituted, driven by Patriot, an organization that coordinates the distribution of blood to the needy.

Blood donation has become mandatory: according to Patriot’s newscasts, each day there is a quota to be filled so that the needy people in the Grey Zones can be saved, and every adult must contribute. To implement the scheme, wages and food distribution are linked to blood donation so, in short, citizens can either supply their quota, or go hungry.  What’s worse, the value of an individual’s blood depends on its type: the O group being at the top of the chain, since they are universal donors, and the AB negatives finding themselves at the very bottom, given the diminished demand for their blood. In other words, if type O citizens can live a moderately comfortable life, AB-negs exist on the very threshold of starvation.

Willa Wallace is a phlebotomist, working in one of the many blood-donation centers where citizens go to fulfill their “civic duty”, her only focus that of providing for her grandson Isaiah, the only surviving member of Willa’s family after her daughter died from anaemia  due to far too many blood donations. One day, however, something brings her out of her self-imposed shell: the fall of a blood-carrying drone leads her to a momentous discovery that will forever change her life, as well as her knowledge and perception of the world.

And no, I’m not going to tell you what this discovery is, because this is the huge twist I mentioned at the beginning and it’s only right and proper that you find out on your own… 😉

Plot being off-limits, I can concentrate on the characters, starting with Willa: she is a… narrative exception, in that she’s in her sixties and a grandmother, as far from “hero material” as one could imagine, which makes her transformation into a rule-breaker and a warrior quite surprising but at the same time very believable, because she gets there by degrees, arriving at such changes from the sum of her experiences, her wisdom and the care-giving core at the basis of her personality and chosen work. It’s this last element, the compulsion to keep her grandson (and later on other children) safe that transforms her from nondescript older citizen into a determined, and sometimes ruthless, fighter –  and I loved to see Willa literally take up arms and show no mercy to those who wanted to harm her own.

Grandma Willa is not the only compelling character in The Phlebotomist, though, because she is flanked by two other wonderful figures: Lock (short from her nickname “The Locksmith”), a middle-aged ex marine who fights Patriot’s influence from several underground locations, and who teams with Willa once the grim reality of their world is revealed. I loved Lock’s devil-may-care attitude in the direst of situations, and the way she always seems ready to provide a technical solution to their problems – or an explosive one. And finally there is Kathy, a teenager the two women have rescued from an appalling situation, a girl who had to grow beyond her years and is not afraid of fighting and killing, but still shows some heart-breaking frailties.  This triumvirate of women of different ages, from different walks of life, is the true heart of the story and the force that drives it to the end.

There is another character I want to mention, one who complements this very unusual group and one I felt for very strongly: Everard, one of Lock’s associates and the main caregiver for a group of orphaned children that the outlaws are trying to raise despite many difficulties.  Again I can’t say any more about his story-arc because of spoilers, except that it touched me deeply and showed in no uncertain terms how hideously cruel this world is.

The world in which this cast of characters moves is both terrible and intriguing: humanity always found ways to fracture itself into separate groups, to establish various levels of classification and worth, and here it’s the very essence of life that creates these differences – blood is blood, it’s the substance running in the veins of every human being on Earth, and yet this dystopian society has found a way of using it to create breaches inside society, sometimes pitting humans against each other, because in Willa’s world blood muggings are a dire reality.  There is no authorial comment about this situation, but it’s far too easy to extrapolate one from the story, and to have to acknowledge the sad truth that we are still unable to go past more or less artificial ways of classifying ourselves within a system of values…

Unless I’m mistaken, The Phlebotomist is its author’s debut novel: with such an impressive start I can only look forward to read more of his works soon, especially if he will choose to return to this world – the ending is an open one, and that hopefully leaves room enough for a sequel.

Highly recommended.

My Rating:

Reviews

EOS 10 – SF podcast – Season 1

Today I would like to share one of my most recent finds: while I don’t usually listen to audiobooks because I tend to get distracted if I don’t have a page to focus on, I was looking for something to listen to – besides music – while taking a walk or doing some chores around the house, but still the kind of work that did not require the same level of commitment and attention as an average-length book.

Podcasts sounded like a good alternative, because their shorter duration would be perfect against the “threat” of distraction, so I did some research on the internet and the first one that caught my eye was this serialized SF story, now in its fourth season, set on a remote space station where humans and aliens mix. At the beginning of the story, Dr. Ryan Dalias is sent to EOS 10 as a back-up for the resident main physician, renowned Dr. Horace Urvidian, who has become a hopeless alcoholic.  It’s not surprising that the first meeting of the two does not go very well, particularly considering Dr. Urvidian’s abrasive character and rough disposition – even in the rare instances when he’s sober. The main cast also includes senior nurse Jane Johns, practical and irreverent (and one wonders if the latter is the result of some time spent with Dr. Urvidian); Levi, a deposed royal who now works as a dishwasher in a restaurant, dreaming of one day regaining his former position – that is, when he does not haunt the infirmary, being a hypochondriac; and Akmazian, smuggler, terrorist, spy and probably a few other equally unsavory occupations.

This first season mainly introduces the various characters and gives us something of their backstory – mainly for Dalias and Urvidian – and shows the two slowly and very, very cautiously building a bond of mutual respect and understanding, while we learn something about the universe in which the story takes place and about the station itself. The overall tone is light and humorous, at times bending toward the farcical, as it happens in episode 4 where a close encounter with an alien aphrodisiac causes unexpected and very embarrassing consequences for Dr. Dalias. Just to give an idea of the overall flavor of this podcast, think of a cross between Star Trek: DS9 and Grey’s Anatomy, wrapped up in the delightful craziness of Galaxy Quest.  This lightness however leaves enough room for more serious themes like addiction, or the tragic consequences brought on by outright refusal of traditional medicine, just to name a couple, although the balance still tends toward the whimsical.

I have quite enjoyed this first season, and not just because it kept me company as I was otherwise engaged: I am now invested in these characters and their stories, and can heartily recommend this podcast as a quick and fun intermission between more serious reading – or listening! – material.

My Rating:

Reviews

STAR TREK: AVAILABLE LIGHT, by Dayton Ward

Continuing from linked book Control, detailing the struggle against the shady organization called Section 31 and the disclosure of its dark deeds by the work of an investigative reporter, Available Light offers a two-pronged story that on one side follows the ongoing investigation into Section 31 and its Starfleet high-ranking members, and on the other a more run-of-the-mill adventure of the Enterprise-E tasked with an expedition into an unexplored region of the galaxy.

On Earth, the Section 31 officers are being hunted down and arrested, despite their attempts at hiding or keeping a low profile, and a case against them is being mounted by Federation authorities: figures we learned to know in the course of the various Trek series, like Admirals Ross and Necheyev, make their appearance as we learn of their involvement in the organization and in the forced deposition of a former, crooked Federation president, who was subsequently murdered.  What’s sadly surprising is that Captain Picard had taken part in the events leading to the deposition of president Zife, and although he was not entangled in the man’s murder, his unwitting connection with Section 31 threatens to stain his reputation and puts him under an unwelcome spotlight, not to mention Starfleet’s embarrassment at the blemish falling on such a renowned officer.

Meanwhile, in deep space, the Enterprise encounters what appears like a huge derelict ship: the boarding party finds that the vessel is however in pristine condition and this mystery leads to the discovery that it’s one of several arks bringing the population of a doomed planet toward a new home. To face the long voyage, they decided to employ a combination of transporter and holodeck technology that enabled them to live a sort of virtual life while in transit, but a malfunction in the energy distribution system is threatening their existence, so that they need the Enterprise’s help to survive and continue their voyage. 

As I said, this novel moves on two quite different tracks, and this dichotomy makes for a somewhat uneven narrative: while the eventful and intriguing plot about the alien craft supplies the ‘adventure’ part of the story, it is nothing more than the kind of standard fare we could find in any one of the televised episodes, and in my opinion it does not hold a candle to the much more interesting segment concerning the investigation and trial preparation against Section 31, which was explored only as the B-plot.  Granted, the chapters devoted to the Enterprise’s mission allow the reader to get to know in depth the ‘new faces’ in the ship’s complement: time has passed since our last look at this crew on a screen and there have been many changes here, so it’s interesting to see who these new people are and how they are filling the proverbial shoes of the crew members we used to know so well.  Still, I could not avoid a sensation of “been there, done that” as the story developed on the well-oiled rails of strange encounters, initial misunderstandings, brief conflict and then peaceful cooperation: nothing wrong in that, of course, but the number of pages devoted to a fairly predictable script seemed too high when there was a much more intriguing narrative track to sink one’s teeth in – particularly after the breath-stopping narrative I enjoyed with Control.

It’s widely recognized that conflict offers the best opportunities for plot and character development, and the Section 31 thread looks like the perfect opportunity to explore – borrowing the saga’s famous motto – territory where no one has gone before: the discovery that despite the high ideals animating the Federation, it could nevertheless harbor a secret organization acting more often than not against those ideals and pursuing questionable goals through disreputable deeds.  Such a concept might have greatly enraged creator Gene Roddenberry, whose utopian vision of the future did not include such elements, but still it holds great storytelling potential and the possibility to explore the moral quandary of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons – provided that one could truly determine what those right reasons are, of course.

Sadly, we don’t see enough of the difficult work of obtaining enough information to prosecute the officers responsible for Section 31’s actions, nor are we afforded a deeper look into the public’s reactions to what amounts to a mediatic bombshell that must surely have shaken the Federation to its foundations.  There are long discussions between the new Federation president, Starfleet’s commanding admiral and the Federation’s Attorney General Louvois (whom we met in one of my favorite TNG episodes, The Measure of a Man) about how to proceed, how much to reveal to the public and what to do with Picard – who holds the difficult position of being a distinguished and respected hero but is now tainted by his connection with the conspirators – and some of the moral implications of the whole sorry mess are touched on, but never delved in too deeply.  Picard’s side of the situation is fortunately given more narrative room, as we see him struggle with his conscience and his principles: his superiors would like to keep him out of it entirely, considering that his involvement was a matter of misplaced good faith rather than intentional wrongdoing, but still he’s faced with an ethical dilemma, and remembering the precept that a Starfleet’s officer first duty is to the truth, he decides to return to Earth and offer his statement on the facts as he knows them. He also knows that this is the only avenue open to him if he wants to hold on to his integrity, and he’s ready to face any consequence that might be in store for him – which is perfectly in character with his personality as we got to know it on screen.

Much as I felt somewhat cheated of an intriguing storyline here, there is the promise of more on the subject of Section 31 in the next novel in this sequence, Collateral Damage, where I hope that what I sorely missed here will be explored in depth.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE LAST COYOTE (Harry Bosch #4), by Michael Connelly

In my exploration of this crime/thriller series I have arrived at an important marker for the definition of Harry Bosch’s character, one where his past is explored in depth opening a window on how that past shaped his personality.

As The Last Coyote opens, Bosch is home on involuntary leave after he threw his superior officer through a glass wall: while his situation is being examined, he’s been remanded to a series of counseling sessions with the department’s psychiatrist, Dr. Hinojos, where he keeps resisting the doctor’s attempts at understanding what makes him tick. Feeling increasingly restless, despite being busy with trying to fix his house after a damaging earthquake, he decides to tackle a cold case that is very close and personal – his mother’s murder, which happened when he was a young boy, and is still unsolved. 

The investigation will not only compel Bosch to revisit the past with all its hurts, but most importantly will force him to face himself and understand why he is the person he is now – not to mention that, story-wise, this is a journey that provides many surprises for the reader as well: since I met this character through the TV version first, I thought I knew how events would move forward, but I was delighted to discover that, despite the similarities, there are many narrative threads that are completely different, so I’m certain that future books will offer as many unforeseen developments as this one did.

There is an interesting parallel here between Bosch’s house – marked for demolition since the earthquake undermined its foundations – and his present life: in previous books we saw him always pushing the boundaries and going out of his way to thumb his nose at people in authority, but now he has indeed crossed a dangerous line, and it hardly matters that his commanding officer is an inept bureaucrat with a penchant for stupid taunts, the fight that ended with the lieutenant flying through a glass wall might very well be the last straw in a long series of insubordinate stunts.  So, just as the house is condemned – no matter how much work Bosch puts into it – his whole career is in a precarious situation, and the decision of pursuing the investigation in his mother’s murder seems like the only element in his life he can control: until now we saw Bosch relentlessly seeking the truth for the victims of his cases, in this instance he does the same for himself and his mother.

The reason his mother’s murder is still a cold case some 35 years after the fact is two-fold: on one side there were not enough clues that would lead to a suspect, and on the other she was a hooker, which placed her very low on the scale of “worthy” subjects – this must be at the roots of Bosch’s personal philosophy concerning victims, that everybody counts, or nobody counts. His dogged determination to get to the roots of every case he’s assigned to must come from the realization that justice is not dealt impartially or fairly, and that a victim’s standing determines the level of energy poured into any given case.  What’s interesting here is that Bosch does not feel “tainted” by the knowledge of his mother’s profession, that even in his adult years he holds on to the awareness of her love for him; there is a sentence that sums up his feelings quite clearly and shows the depth of his sense of loss – and ultimately the vulnerability he tries to conceal from the world:

“I don’t blame her for anything. I blame the man who took her from me. […] All I know is that she did all she could to get me out of there.[…] She never stopped trying. She just ran out of time.”

As the investigation proceeds – revealing some unexpected ties into the Los Angeles political scene – so does Bosch’s journey of self-discovery thanks to Dr. Hinojos’ treatment: I really enjoyed the psychiatrist’s character because this is the first woman in the series who does not bend or break under the detective’s rough manners, but instead faces him head on and even forces him to look inside himself and dig for the truth. I hope this is the first in a hopefully long list of female characters who can be strong without being either a proverbial dark lady or a heartless operator, the indication that – narratively speaking – times are changing and moving toward a less biased point of view.

Story-wise, The Last Coyote offers a compelling look into Bosch’s investigation as the old clues are lined up and explored, leading toward interesting directions – and a few red herrings that made the final revelation even more remarkable. I enjoyed many of the twists scattered through the book, particularly the one where Bosch quite childishly uses his boss’ identity to mask his inquiries and get broader access, only to have this prank backfire in a spectacularly dramatic way.

This book has all the flavor of a turning point in the series: the past is finally dealt with, the damaged house, Bosch’s lair and refuge if you want, is torn down – there are many indications that the next volume will see some changes both in the main character and in the way he faces his job. Curiosity will certainly lead me to the next volume in the series in a very short while…

My Rating:

Reviews

SOME CHOOSE DARKNESS (Rory Moore/Lane Phillips #1), by Charlie Donlea

I became aware of this author’s work through the review Mogsy at Bibliosanctum posted for the second book of this series: intrigued by what I was reading, I searched for the series’ starter and found both an amazing thriller and a new writer to keep firmly on my radar.

Some Choose Darkness moves on two different temporal lines: the past, set between the years 1979 and 1981, and the present, alternating chapters from both timelines and building a sense of impending doom that compelled me to turn the pages at a very fast rate. Between the end of the ’70s and the start of the ’80s, a serial killer nicknamed “the Thief” preyed on young women in the Chicago area, and  several of them disappeared: we see their end through the eyes of the killer, who enjoys torturing his victims in a very gruesome manner, and we also follow the obsessive search for clues from a troubled woman, Angela Mitchell, who manages to uncover the killer’s identity. 

In the present, almost 40 years after the Thief was apprehended on the charge of murdering Angela, whose body was however never found, the killer is ready to be released on parole and since his lawyer just died, the case is shifted to the man’s daughter, Rory Moore, who normally works for the police as a forensic reconstructionist on cold cases. The Thief is convinced that Angela is still alive, and he asks Rory to continue the search for the woman started by her father: intrigued by the mystery she’s faced with, Rory launches on a journey of discovery not unlike the one that faced Angela as she pieced together the clues about the serial killer, and in both timelines the two women will face chilling discoveries…

Some Choose Darkness focuses more on the psychological aspects of the story (although there are enough twists and revelations to keep your adrenaline running high) and does so by following the path of the two center figures in both timelines, who share many similarities: Angela Mitchell is the typical suburban wife, with a nice house and a caring husband, but she’s afflicted both by an obsessive/compulsive disorder and relational difficulties comparable to autism. Although frightened by the news about the disappearance of young women in the summer or 1979, she keeps collecting newspaper clippings on this story and compiles detailed profiles for the missing women: her husband’s worry about this obsession, that is clearly exacerbating her condition, and her only friend’s doubts about the conclusions Angela reaches, only lead the woman to keep searching and to finally come to a revelation that will place her life in extreme danger.

For her part, Rory suffers as well from a borderline form of autism and OCD, but she channeled it all into the ability to extrapolate data in a very unconventional way, which – together with her eidetic memory – turns her into a quirky, but effective, investigator and a powerful asset for the Chicago PD.  Once tasked by her client with examining clues about Angela Mitchell’s continued existence, Rory is enthralled by her discoveries and the mystery surrounding the woman, and as she tries to solve the puzzle she finds herself on an unexpected path, where momentous revelations will change her life forever.

The most fascinating element in this novel comes from the two protagonists, both troubled by behavioral issues but not succumbing to them, on the contrary putting the differences engendered by their psychological makeup to use: the comparison between the two timelines’ approach to their affliction underlines all the difficulties encountered by Angela as she’s treated with various degrees of contempt by acquaintances and even by the media – even when her findings help apprehend the Thief, she’s depicted by reporters as a mental wreck, with little or no acknowledgment of her role in the solution of the crime.  The way the author represents her is very different, however, because he manages to showcase an inner strength in Angela, one that first carries her forward in a relentless search for the truth and then urges her to take an arduous, heart-breaking path.

Rory is an equally strong figure: unlike Angela she enjoyed the understanding and support of her parents, so she has been able to create a series of coping mechanisms that allow her to lead a normal life and to carve a unique working niche in which her talents can be put to the best of uses.  There is a fascinating narrative thread in which we learn about Rory’s side activity in repairing damaged porcelain dolls: if on one side it shows her need to set things right, restoring the integrity and the beauty of these objects, on the other it’s easy to see how they might be a representation of herself, and the unexpressed statement about Rory’s will of repairing herself without external help.

These two fascinating characters are set in a very enthralling story, one where the two timelines enhance each other leading the readers toward the final showdown in a progression where you can only expect the unexpected: the pacing, as I noticed, is relentless, revelations and discoveries come in a natural way that never feels forced or contrived, and the build-up of tension becomes at times unbearable while keeping you glued to the pages with irresistible fascination.

What I liked most about Some Choose Darkness is that while we get acquainted with the killer’s mentality, the story is not so much about him but rather about the women pitted against his deranged world-view and cruelty.  The character of Rory is a fascinating one, and I enjoyed witnessing how her mind works, so I will keep following her journey in the books that see her protagonist, together with other novels from this newly discovered author who made me a fan with just one book…

My Rating:

Reviews

SECRET SANTA, by Andrew Shaffer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have fun… 🙂

My Rating:

Reviews

AWAKENED (Awakened #1), by James Murray & Darren Wearmouth

The theme of the abominable, blood-thirsty creature hunting humans in dark, confined spaces is one that’s been used often to promote a claustrophobic feeling of horror in the readers or viewers, one of the best examples being that of the xenomorphs in the Alien franchise. Awakened multiplies this effect by creating a veritable horde of terrifying critters haunting the bowels of New York’s subway system.

Mayor Tom Cafferty’s crowning achievement is the implementation of the Z Train track connecting the city of New York with neighboring New Jersey by digging under the Hudson River. Despite a major incident during the construction – an incident that opens the book with an adrenaline-infused, and quite ominous, prologue – the ambitious project is finally ready for inauguration, and the state of the art terminal station is packed with guests and media people, and even graced by the arrival of the President.

The expectant crowd waiting for the first train is however first mystified by its delayed arrival after loss of communication, and then shocked by the appearance of the wrecked, empty cars, gruesomely drenched in blood. The first hypothesis of a terrorist attack is strengthened by rising levels of methane gas that could kill the attending crowds in a short time, and the situation is made worse by the total lockdown imposed by Secret Service agents bent on protecting the President’s life. It soon becomes evident, however, that the attack on the train was no terrorist strike and that the so-far untapped depths under the city are home to an ages-old menace that’s been disturbed by recent human activities and is now out for blood…

Awakened is the kind of “popcorn thriller/horror” that relies heavily on plot and does not care much about characterization, and as such it could have worked very well for a total immersion in a scary, monsters-of-the-week story asking only for a modicum of suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately the authors choose to reach beyond the parameters of this kind of narrative and added further elements, like a decade-old secret organization born out of a former Nazi’s plans, or a conspiracy theory linked to this organization and involving various world governments. 

On the positive side, I enjoyed the mounting terror experienced by the people trapped in the subway station, and the escalation of the stakes building against their survival, and even though the characterization was somewhat stereotyped, it was of the kind one can expect in this kind of narrative environment: from the quiet guy turning hero to the unexpected double player who betrays the others, to the estranged wife seeking solace elsewhere – the downside is, unfortunately, that the reader is unable to bond with any of them and rarely cares about their survival or early demise. The environment of the oppressive subway tunnels is made even more disturbing by the awareness of the tons of water under which the galleries run, and together with the other elements – the monsters, the methane levels, the impossibility of using conventional weapons because of the explosive danger – makes for a compelling story that simply begs to be consumed quickly.

The negatives, however, gather more and more weight as the novel progresses: the harvesting of pregnant women by the creatures is never explained, and the scene of one of them slowly opening a victim’s shirt with a talon feels more ludicrous than scary; the monsters themselves generate a lot of unexplained questions: we are told that they are intelligent and quick learners, for example, and yet they seem little more than pack animals grunting their way toward the intended victims, while in other instances they exhibit the ability to perfectly mimic human voices to lure people toward their demise.  These are minor annoyances, still, in the face of bigger ones like the representation of the shady Foundation for Human Advancement, which for decades has been keeping the creatures at bay while blackmailing governments for funds: this truly baffled me, because no one seems to be aware of those demons’ existence, and yet politicians have been funding the organization for decades on the basis of pure… faith, for want of a better word. And let’s not go into the Nazi origins of the group, because it feels like such an overused trope, the kind that worked well in the early Bond movies and here is resurrected, complete with the required scene in which the evil guy details his dastardly plans to the heroes while gleefully twirling his mustache.

It was disappointing to see how a novel with the potential to be a good – if somewhat predictable – science fiction/horror story slowly downgraded into a clutter of ideas haphazardly thrown together with little rhyme or reason, which in the end defied its initial purpose. As Coco Chanel was fond of saying about her dressing philosophy, less is more, and it’s a pity that the writers decided to ignore this little piece of wisdom, burdening their story with so much unnecessary baggage.

My Rating:

Reviews

RING SHOUT, by P. Djèlì Clark

Ring Shout is the kind of book I jokingly call “a Tardis-like story”, one that is much bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside: it’s a well-crafted mix of historical fiction and horror that kept me compulsively turning the pages, and what’s more prompted me to search for its many references to facts or details I knew nothing about, so that I ended up with a little more knowledge than I possessed before I started reading, which is always a definite plus for me.

The story is set in Georgia, in 1922: never-vanquished racism is experiencing a resurgence thanks to the 1915 first showing of D.W. Griffith’s movie The Birth of a Nation, which offered a sort of heroic aura to members of the Ku Klux Klan, whose heinous actions are here made worse by the appearance of monstrous, extra-dimensional creatures called Klu Kluxes – essentially supernatural beasts able to wear human form.  Griffith himself is portrayed as an evil sorcerer using his movie to propagate hateful, racist ideas to a wider public: while the very real writings of white suprematist Thomas Dixon reached a wide public, it was not considered wide enough, so that it was understood that a more capillary means of propagation was needed, hence the movie:

[…] books could only reach so many. That’s when D.W. Griffith took ahold of it. […] Dixon and Griffith had made a conjuring that reached more people than any book would.

Against this encroaching tide of evil, three very badass young women battle daily to keep the beasts as contained as possible: Maryse is a sort of “chosen one” heroine, able to summon a magical sword animated by the spirits of those who sold their people into slavery; Sadie is an exceptional, fearless sniper, wielding her Winchester rifle, affectionately called Winnie, with gleeful skill; and Cordelia (nicknamed Chef for her ability to cook devastating explosives) is a veteran of WWI dealing with post-war trauma. As the three engage the Ku Kluxes through guerrilla sorties – selling bootleg liquor in their free time – a new menace appears on the horizon through the ominous figure of Butcher Clyde, who rallies both Klansmen and Ku Kluxes for what might be a devastating engagement that threatens to unleash a new, pervasive form of destruction, touching both body and spirit.

As I said, I learned many new interesting facts by following the historical leads contained in this novella: even though I was aware of the existence of Griffith’s movie, I ignored both the story it portrayed and its not-so-subtle racism, just as I heard for the first time the term Ring Shout, which depicts a traditional dance brought from Africa by its enslaved people and offering strength from mixing Christian themes with reverence for one’s ancestors and the wisdom their example can offer. And another first is represented by the mention of Night Doctors, mythical figures used as a scaremongering technique by slave owners to prevent their laborers from running away.

These fascinating real-world details mix quite seamlessly with the breathless pace of the story and its horrific elements, whose Lovecraftian quality seemed to me a sort of tongue-in-cheek poke at racism, given that Lovecraft was well-known for his views on the subject, so that the presence of Cthulhu-like monsters wearing the guise of human beings can speak volumes on the effect that mindless hate and prejudice can have on people. Not to mention the further message that evil need not necessarily wear the face of a slavering monster from Hell, because it can be strengthened just as easily by witnessing injustice and choosing to do nothing about it, or worse, allowing it to prosper by supporting it wholeheartedly.

Even though set in the recent past, Ring Shout brings home in no uncertain terms the awareness that the issues of that past are still present today, unchanged and unchangeable: I like the way the author avoided the use of a preaching tone, but rather blended the more horrifying aspects of the story with some unabashed, witty banter that gifted the narrative with an easily flowing current but was nevertheless able to carry the message home quite clearly. Still, this apparent lightness never shifts attention from important themes, or the realization that now, like back then, humankind is divided by chasms that seem to get deeper with every passing day, that mindless hatred and anger are turning people into virtual monsters, driving them to forget their very humanity in the name of the oh-so-very dangerous mentality of “us and them”. 

The concept of the movie as a recruiting force (for want of a better word), as the images on screen bring the spectators’ worst instincts the surface, is one that I found profoundly disturbing: just as people at the start of the 20th Century felt legitimized in publicly supporting racism by seeing it portrayed in a widely popular movie, now, a hundred years later, their “inheritors” feel the same way because figures invested with authority give them the unspoken permission to be openly and proudly as racist as their ancestors.  Hate of the other has long been a way of mitigating one’s perceived inadequacies, as one of the characters underlines so well:

White folk earn something from that hate. Might not be wages, but knowing we on the bottom and they set above us – just as good, maybe better.

reminding us that such feelings can be a powerfully dangerous tool when wielded by the wrong person…

Despite its short number of pages, Ring Shout is a deep, and deeply engrossing story, a way to explore both factual history and the recesses of the human soul – and above all a thought-provoking book that we should not miss at any cost.

My Rating:

Reviews

CALL OF THE BONE SHIPS (The Tide Child #2), by R.J. Barker

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

From the very first book in RJ Barker’s The Wounded Kingdom series I knew I had encountered a talented new voice in the fantasy genre, so I should not have been surprised that his new saga The Tide Child would follow on the same footsteps, but once again I discovered how this author is able to surpass himself with each new work he publishes: Call of the Bone Ships is the gripping sequel to an outstanding first volume, and it drew me into this world even more deeply than its predecessor did.

We’re back aboard the Tide Child, the black ship of the forsaken among the islanders peopling this world, and her captain – pardon me, shipwife – Meas Gilbryn is bent on ending the long war between her people, the dwellers of the Hundred Isles, and the Gaunt Islanders, and to this effect she had a hand in the creation of a place, Safeharbour, where both groups could live together. It’s a short-lived dream, however, and soon enough Meas, her second Joron and the whole crew must face both the threat to their own existence and the mystery of the mass abductions of weak and powerless people, carried in slave ships to an unknown destination and killed for some dark, loathsome purpose. This is as much of the story as I feel comfortable in sharing, because to say more would deprive any reader of the joy and terror of discovering what this book has in store for them.

With Call of the Bone Ships you don’t need to choose between a character- or plot-driven story, because you can have both: there are long sea chases, battles, mutinies and a dreadful mystery to be solved in what at times becomes an undercover operation, complete with double-dealing agents; there are the delightful details of everyday life at sea on a very peculiar ship that’s crafted out of dragon bones; and again one can meet amazing creatures, or terrifying ones. But what carries this novel more than anything else is the strength of its characters: in the series’ opener they were introduced and we got to know them a little, together with the fascinating world they inhabit, but here – now that the needs for background have been fulfilled – they are given more than enough room to expand. And shine.

“Lucky” Meas moves a little to the sidelines here, although she remains the strong, determined leader capable of taking a motley group of rejects and turning them into a loyal and proud crew: one might say that she is the heart and soul of the ship and the inspiration that drives them to move forward even in the face of certain death. But here she leaves more room for Joron Twiner, her deck-keeper or first officer, to grow into a more rounded, many-faceted character.  Where he started his journey as a despondent, defeated individual, he slowly gained more confidence in himself and a measure of pride in his accomplishments under Meas’ tutelage: in this book we see him not only reach new levels of self-respect and wisdom, but also inspire the same feelings in the rest of the crew as he earns their own consideration and loyalty.

Perversely enough, though, this newfound connection with the rest of the crew and the way he has come to care for them – shown in many little gestures of appreciation and understanding – leave him exposed, vulnerable: now that he has something worthwhile to lose, he’s bound to suffer under the cruel blows of chance as he was not when he had nothing of value he could call his own. And in the course of the story Joron will lose much, in more ways than one, which will remind us that this is a harsh, unforgiving world, that always exacts a price for the small favors it chooses to bestow on people.

Together with Joron, we gain a better understanding of a few secondary characters aboard the Tide Child, and if some of them are not exactly friendly or trustworthy, it all adds to the delightful variety offered by this crew and enhances the story with little and big details that build on its substance. Among these characters, however, the one that stands out more is that of the Gullaime, the avian creature able to summon the winds necessary to propel the ship, or to tame the fury of storms.  The first glimpse we were given of the Gullaime in the first book was that of a wretched creature, kept in the darkness of the hold and summoned only when need arose, but otherwise considered as a useful tool rather than a living being: the different outlook imposed by Meas has now morphed the Tide Child’s Gullaime into an assertive, curious individual and a valued member of the ship’s complement, but it’s in his interactions with Joron that the Windtalker sparkles with intriguing life and opens the way to a number of questions that simply beg to find an answer. There is a so-far barely explained bond between the Gullaime and Joron, one that takes the form of a pervasive song whose effects have been touched on but not completely disclosed, and yet this takes second place to the emotional connection between the two of them that seems to go beyond the confines of mere respect and friendship. I am eager to have this mystery unveiled, but for now I count myself very happy to have witnessed the many, meaningful interactions between the two of them.

There is a great amount of emotional content in Call of the Bone Ships because it offers a number of poignant personal interactions, made even more so by the contrast with the harsh shipboard life and the drama of the quest in which Meas, Joron and the crew are involved. Together with the captivating descriptions of life at sea, of powerful storms and creature-infested waters, these moments gift the book with a lyrical quality that runs seamlessly throughout the story and turns it into a compelling and exciting read. If you have not read The Tide Child series yet, do yourselves a favor and pick it up: you will not regret it.

My Rating:

Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: