Reviews

COLLATERAL DAMAGE (ST: TNG), by David Mack

After the heart-stopping intrigue of Control and the quieter transition of Available Light, I finally reached the conclusion of this narrative arc focused on the infamous Section 31 and its heavy-handed involvement in Federation policy.  Well, in truth there are two more books that deal with past events leading to the present confrontation, but I discovered their existence only recently, and I plan to read them in the near future: I’m aware it’s a strange, backward way of following the development of this storyline, but on the other hand the novels I read so far did a great job of filling the background and making those issues understandable, so it will be more a matter of connecting the dots than anything else…

Back to Collateral Damage: after the discovery of Captain Picard’s involvement in the plot to depose a former, corrupted Federation president, who was then killed on the orders of Section 31, the Enterprise’s captain is called back to Earth to testify about his connection to the events; although he was not aware of president Zife’s murder, he still has to answer for his past role in the conspiracy to remove him from office, and the tribunal will have to decide if he should be deferred to a court martial.  The novel’s secondary plot focuses on the Enterprise chasing a group of rogue Nausicaans who interfered in a Starfleet Intelligence operation, stealing a powerful weapon they intend to use as a blackmail tool to pursue their desperate goal.

While I have sometimes complained about the thinness of B-plots in tie-in novels, this is not the case here: on the contrary, I can easily say that Collateral Damage stands on two outstanding A-plots that enhance and complement each other, turning the story into a compelling narrative and ultimately dealing with the same kind of dilemma – the consequences of one’s actions and choices – from two different points of view.  In the few instances in which we saw Nausicaans on screen, they were depicted as quarrelsome and brutish, but here their acts – reprehensible as they are – come from desperation and loss, since their homeworld was destroyed and the handful of survivors did not receive the expected support from a Federation far too distracted by its own problems. 

This thread of the novel held my attention in many ways: for starters it offered an in-depth view of the Nausicaan culture, a rich and layered one that contradicts those few glimpses seen on screen, the effect strengthened by the use of exotic language as a means of conveying the sense of alienness of the characters. Then there is the question about the lack of Federation response to the tragedy suffered by the Nausicaans: as I remarked in previous reviews, this is not the Federation envisioned by Roddenberry, and it’s quite far from the utopian ideal of its creator – it’s an entity whose mistakes can have shocking consequences and worse, it’s guilty of turning a blind eye toward the suffering of others, showing the first(?) cracks in what so far had seemed a flawless exterior, allowing the repercussions of that failure to bite it, hard, on the behind.  

The resolution of this narrative line is one that feels right in many ways: first because it owns the Federation’s past mistakes and then acknowledges that there is always room for mutual understanding, even in the worst circumstances, and second because it allows Worf, who is in command of the Enterprise for this mission, to shine as a character and to show enormous growth, something that rarely happens in tie-in novels where the unwritten rule seems to require crew-members be kept in a sort of unchanging limbo. This author is clearly not afraid to take those characters and let them move forward on the strength of past experiences and gained wisdom, and they benefit from this choice by becoming their own persons, delightfully three-dimensional and believable.

Where the Nausicaan angle offers a lively and often tense narrative, the part of the novel dedicated to Picard’s trial – the one I was eagerly waiting for – is equally fascinating, sustained by a keen focus on the technical elements of the proceedings, one that turns those scenes into emotionally gripping moments.  There is a great deal of well-portrayed courtroom drama here, a theme I enjoy and that is built up by the apparent desire of prosecutor Louvois to find Picard guilty and to ruthlessly destroy his image and career. It makes for some very tense narrative segments, where I experienced genuine worry for the path the events were taking, but the true core of the story resides in the two-pronged question of the far-reaching consequences of one’s actions on one side (a mirror to the theme of the Nausicaans abandoned to their destiny), and about the dilemma of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons on the other.

There is of course no clean-cut answer to the second question: removing corrupted president Zife was a necessary choice given the situation at the time, but we see Picard wrestling with the moral implications of his actions and feeling that some of the other conspirators’ stigma has tainted him as well. Although not involved in the decision to kill Zife, he perceives that his integrity – the character trait he clearly most cares about – has been compromised and that, as he tells Louvois in their parting exchange, “None of us is innocent […]. Not anymore.”  This loss of innocence is shared by the whole Federation, for a long time unknowing hostage of an organization that forged policy with means that went dramatically against everything the Federation itself stood for.  It’s a bitter acknowledgement, but again it feels more true – humans being humans – than the polished, utopian perfection we used to see on screen; and no matter how bleak this consideration looks, it leaves room for the hope that humanity might learn from its mistakes and keep striving for better ideals.

With Collateral Damage I once again found myself enjoying a tie-in novel that had the courage to explore the darker side of its background, and in so doing went well beyond the pure entertainment value of its brethren, making me think about serious issues while keeping me thoroughly engrossed. A rare and welcome combination, indeed.

My Rating:

Reviews

UNCONQUERABLE SUN (The Sun Chronicles #1), by Kate Elliot (DNF 62%)

I had high expectations for this novel – maybe too high – based on the story’s premise: an interstellar backdrop where conflicting powers measure their strength through politics and open war, where intrigue between influential families leads toward a constant shift of alliances and betrayals, while at the center of all this we follow a main character described as the female equivalent of Alexander the Great – the potential for a Dune-like epic was irresistible, but unfortunately Unconquerable Sun did not fulfill its promises as I hoped.

The Republic of Chaonia has managed to subdue or assimilate most of its enemies, and queen-marshal Eirene built her power-base through military victories and political alliances, a few of these signed though marriage contracts, like the one binding Eirene to Prince Joao and producing the heir, Princess Sun.  Sun is struggling to make a name for herself, moving out of her mother’s encompassing shadow, by taking an active part in Chaonia’s military campaigns, but a sudden shift in the political winds turns her almost overnight into a fugitive, so she must rely on her finely-honed wits, the support of her Companions, and the help of a rival family’s member to regain her rightful place and overthrow an insidious conspiracy enacted by Chaonia’s most dangerous foes.  The other two main POVs in the novel come from Persephone Lee, who unsuccessfully tries to escape her powerful family’s machinations by enrolling in the military academy under an assumed name, and ends up among Sun’s Companions; and from Apama, a pilot in the fleet of the Phene, Chaonia’s main adversaries: this was the most interesting character for me, and one of my main disappointments in the story came from the almost negligible “screen time” allotted to her after she was introduced.

At the start of the book I was intrigued, both by the fascinating background of this vast galactic milieu and by the potential shown by the characters: sadly, after a while it all seemed to turn into a confused and confusing jumble of daring escapes, heated battles and things going spectacularly boom, which might be all right if one wants only *adventure* and a plot-heavy story, but I prefer relatable characters in my reading material, and I soon realized that there was too little of that in this novel. More than once I thought that this story might work better as a movie – and as such it reminded me of The Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending, where the action overwhelmed any other consideration – but as a book I found it unfortunately lacking.

The sheer number of characters makes for a distracting experience because there is no time or space to get to know them, or to be able to differentiate between them – which is particularly true for Sun’s Companions –  to the point that any harm befalling them leaves no lingering traces, and even when the story focuses on the main ones, like Sun or Persephone, it’s difficult to see them as people rather than stereotypes. Sun is presented as very determined, but from my point of view she comes off rather as an overbearing spoiled brat, and Persephone – who is strangely given a more detailed focus than the actual main character – is an unpleasant combination of meanness and self-pity, while the author keeps telling us that she is a shrewd operator, mostly by calling her “the wily Persephone” in the title of each chapter where she is the focus. And goodness, does she make a lot of embarrassing mistakes for someone who spent the last few years in the academy being honed for military service!

Despite these problems, which became evident after the first handful of chapters, I kept on reading in the hope that the story would find its footing and become the compelling tale promised by the blurb, but as the page count progressed it became more and more apparent that I would not find what I looked for: even skimming over the most repetitive sequences of Sun & Co. running for their lives and then being involved in a long, drawn-out battle that went on and on and on, I failed to find anything that would hold my interest.  Once the characters started to adopt the less palatable traits of the YA mold, like unnecessary cattiness or insta-lust for anything moving into their field of vision (yes, Persephone, I’m looking right at you…), I knew that Unconquerable Sun would turn into a lost cause: as Sun took over a Chaonian vessel, ousting a seasoned captain to take command of the operations, I knew that this “Mary Sue maneuver” would be the proverbial straw, and decided to put an end to my suffering.

I’m aware that my personal biases are responsible for my negative reaction to this novel, which is the main reason I must warn you to take my opinion with a grain of salt, but when all is said and done, this is certainly not a book for me.

My Rating:

Reviews

FUGITIVE TELEMETRY (The Murderbot Diaries #6), by Martha Wells

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.

A new Murderbot novella is something I always look forward to, because I am completely invested in the journey of this cybernetically-enhanced construct and its interaction with the humans that have accepted it into their extended family.

Fugitive Telemetry is slightly different from its predecessors in that it’s not so much an adventure against evil intergalactic corporations as it’s a murder mystery in which our SecUnit takes on the role of detective, and does so relying mostly on its deductive capacities rather than the impressive technical skills it has shown so far. As far as temporal placing goes, this novella follows after book 4, Exit Strategy, and comes before the longer work Network Effect: Murderbot is very actively on the lookout for GrayCris operatives that might still be threatening Dr. Mensah’s life, so that when the body of a murdered man is found on Preservation Station, the first hypothesis for our SecUnit is that there might be a connection with the previous attempts on its legal guardian.

Since murder is quite an unusual event on Preservation Station, MurderBot offers its services in the investigation: on one side it wants to be sure that the dead man is in no way connected with GrayCris operatives, on the other it knows it might be a good opportunity to show other humans that it’s not a danger to Preservation and that, on the contrary, it can be an asset. Easier said that done, though, because suspicion and mistrust run rampant among the police force, such as it is, on the station, and Murderbot has been requested not to use the full potential of its cybernetic enhancements, which means that it will not be able to hack various data-gathering systems and it will have to rely on its rational powers alone and whatever information the humans are willing to share.

Watching MurderBot play detective is a fun experience on many levels: on one side, having to work without its usual tools, the SecUnit must fall back on the investigative techniques it learned by watching its beloved media, which is a tongue-in-cheek take on the genre; on the other, the barely veiled wariness of the humans it comes into contact with brings on new levels of snark in MB’s inner musings that are nothing short of delightful. Still, it’s clear that it has learned a lot about how to interact with humans, and even though it seems very keen on winning the undeclared challenge with the station’s police operatives, it also shows an unusual self-control in the face of what it considers some very stupid attitudes and questions. There are however a couple of instances in which that control slips, like the discussion on the reasons the body was dumped in such a public place: 

Murderbot: “No, I didn’t kill the dead human. If I had, I wouldn’t dump the body in the station mall”

Lead Investigator: “How would you dispose of a body so it wouldn’t be found?”

Murderbot: If I told you, then you might find all the bodies I’ve already disposed of.”

Which begs the question whether its was a provocative joke or not…

As the investigation progresses, the findings lead in a very unexpected direction and once again the SecUnit finds itself entangled with the rescue of some humans, and the deeper ramifications of the circumstances that brought these people into such a dangerous situation: without entering spoiler territory, I would like to point out that, no matter its antisocial declarations, there is a deep core of altruism in MurderBot that brings it to quite heroic actions, even when he ends up being shot at as a reward, as is the case here.

One of the delightful discoveries of this novella is the deepening connection that MB is forging with its adopted family (those it refers to as “Mensah or any of my other humans”), to the point that it’s learned how to rely on them when need arises, or even to ask  for outright help: their reaction at that request is one of my favorite moments, indeed, but it also shows how they have come to care for their latest member, and how MurderBot is coming to understand the rewards of interacting with flesh-and-blood people, of lowering one’s barriers and letting the world come closer.

On the other hand, the SecUnit’s scorn for the station’s bots remains unaltered: it’s clear it views them as inferior and even pathetic in their willingness to be useful and friendly, or in adopting charming names for themselves: one such example is that of JollyBaby, whose designation goes against its appearance and capacities – the surprise it will reserve for MurderBot toward the end is one that brought a huge smile on my face, and the hope that MB will be able to temper its snobbish attitude in the near future 😉

To sum it all up, Fugitive Telemetry is another captivating installment in the “MurderBot Saga”, one that adds some more facets to the main character while offering a quick, entertaining story and a wider view on the background it’s set on. The only thing that’s missing this time are the references to MB’s beloved media: the course of the investigation is such that there is literally no time to indulge one or more episodes of, say, Sanctuary Moon – and even MurderBot at some point wishes to simply “watch media and not exist”, which is a desire we can all sympathize with, particularly at the end of a hard day… A sign that the SecUnit is far more human than it can conceive of! 

Can we have another story soon, Ms. Wells, please?

My Rating:

Reviews

THE CROSSING PLACES (Ruth Galloway #1), by Elly Griffiths

I discovered this thriller series thanks to fellow blogger Sarah at Brainfluff, and before launching into this review I have to thank her for the post that piqued my curiosity and led me to learn more about this intriguing character.

Dr. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archeologist living on the Norfolk coast, in a bleak but suggestive area of salt marshes, strong winds and compelling Iron Age relics. In her late thirties, Ruth teaches at the nearby university and lives alone with her two cats in a cottage facing the boundary between land and sea: hers is a quiet, contented life, her seclusion a choice rather than the product of circumstances.  The quiet routine is one day shattered by the visit of Chief Inspector Nelson, tasked with the investigation of a young girl’s disappearance and obsessed by a similar case from the past, one he was unable to solve: the discovery of human bones on a nearby beach compelled Nelson to seek Ruth’s help in finding out if they belong to the missing girl.

Ruth’s examination brings her to the conclusion that the remains are from the Iron Age, but still Nelson’s case haunts her, particularly because someone – probably the abductor of the first child – keeps writing taunting letters to the inspector, using terms that only someone versed in archeology would know. The parallel between the Iron Age ritual sacrifices and the mystery of the kidnapped girls preys on Ruth’s mind and she finds herself progressively more embroiled in the riddle, to the point that her life might be in danger…

I enjoyed The Crossing Places quite a bit, thanks to its many unique elements: first there is the isolated, windswept background of the Norfolk coast salt marshes – I searched the web for more information and the pictures I found showed that despite the apparent bleakness there is a sort of… savage beauty to the place, and I was able to understand Ruth’s fascination with the area, and her desire to remain immersed in such a changeable environment.  This is a very atmospheric story and the salt marshes are the perfect setting for a mystery encompassing several years and developing along a very circuitous route riddled with false trails and red herrings, not unlike the treacherous paths running along the marshes.

And then there is Ruth, a very unusual heroine for the genre: she is a quiet, reserved person who has learned to deal with the vagaries of life and built herself an existence tailored on her own preferences, uncaring of the conventions and requirements of society and family. Composed and almost withdrawn, she is not however the kind of person who allows others to rule her choices, and therefore the perfect foil for the brusquely driven, almost overbearing Nelson, with whom she establishes a relationship that’s mostly based on mutual respect and the acknowledgment that their differences can complement each other rather than clash. This is portrayed quite well in the dovetailing of current police investigation and archeological research, which are not so different after all, as someone says at some point: for Ruth it’s a brief step from her study of the Iron Age girl’s remains, and the reasons for her burial in that particular site, to the burning curiosity to learn the fate of the missing girls – she knows that in each case they were sacrificed, one because of religious beliefs and the others because of someone’s twisted goals, and her inquisitive mind needs to put all the pieces together to form a complete picture.   But what I liked most in Ruth’s character is that while she acknowledges that reaching one’s middle age carries its own load of regrets and missed opportunities, she totally owns her choices and has found a way to turn them into a kind of existence she can be comfortable with, if not exactly happy.

The mystery at the core of the novel is an intriguing one, particularly as it focuses on the scenes from the point of view of a girl imprisoned in what looks like a cell, both expecting and dreading the infrequent visits of her captor: it’s clear from the start where those interludes are leading, just as it’s easy to figure out who the kidnapper/killer might be, because in spite of the false trails scattered here and there the clues appear to point in that direction, but that hardly matters because the fascinating aspect of this mystery lies in the foreboding and menacing flavor of the story, enhanced by the very peculiar background in which it’s set.

The Crossing Places is a good, if sometimes imperfect story: having checked, I discovered it’s the author’s debut novel, which helps me make allowances for some of the “blemishes” I encountered along the way and to hope that some of them will be straightened out in the next works.  At the start of the story we get Ruth’s physical description through one of the most abused ways, i.e. through the character looking into a mirror: I freely acknowledge that it’s one of my (too many…) pet peeves, but for some reason it never fails to bother me, because it speaks of a certain unwillingness to find other means to get that kind of description across. Then there is the detail about Ruth being slightly overweight, a detail too often repeated – to the point where it seems to define her in spite of her academical and personal achievements, as if she were more concerned with appearance than substance, in open contradiction with her otherwise well-balanced personality.

These are however minor disturbances, and they were not enough to prevent me from total immersion in the story or from looking for the next novels in the series, with the hope that some of the problems that afflict this book will be straightened out in the course of the journey.

My Rating:

Reviews

SHARDS OF EARTH (The Final Architects #1), by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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

Shards of Earth is my sixth book from Adrian Tchaikovsky and one unlike the others I read so far: this author moves from one kind of story to another with enviable ease, so that I’m now certain that no matter which work of his I pick up, I will be pleasantly surprised by what I find. This first volume in the Final Architects series brings us fully into the space opera genre with a story spanning many worlds and civilizations and introducing the most terrible kind of adversary, one which does not seem to act out of malice or thirst for power, but simply because that is its way – one for whom the words collateral damage or consequences seem to hold no meaning at all.  More than once I have wondered how events of the past year have weighed on Adrian Tchaikovsky’s imagination as he crafted the Architects, entities that work according to their own inner programming (not unlike a virus!), unaware of the damage they are inflicting…

At the start of the novel, galactic civilization is two generations past a catastrophic event which threatened to annihilate every form of life – human or alien – in the universe: moon-sized things appeared literally out of nowhere, changing the shape of the worlds they encountered in a sort of destructively “artistic” way, erasing in the process all life present on those worlds. The Architects – so the mysterious entities were named – seemed attracted only by inhabited worlds, and their deadly attention did not spare either alien or human civilization: Earth was one of the worlds so reshaped, and the people who were able to escape from the cataclysmic remolding of their worlds lived like refugees under the constant threat of the appearance of an Architect in their skies.  A last, desperate attempt was made to contact the aliens by genetically enhancing a group of human volunteers (called the Intermediaries) who would be able to communicate with the Architects in the hope of stopping the destruction: during an all-out battle involving the allied fleet created to face the threat, the Intermediaries were able to stop the mindless carnage, and the aliens disappeared just as swiftly as they had manifested.

Some fifty years after the end of the war, what had been an alliance forged under the threat of annihilation has now fractured into a number of governing bodies more often than not at odds with each other: danger forgotten, every one of them – including some criminal conglomerates – seeks power and dominance over the others. The Intermediaries, already marked in body and mind by the transformation, did not fare so well and most of them died, while a program to create more is underway using convicted criminals, not so much as a defense against a return of the Architects – which many deem impossible – but rather because one of the side effects of the genetic enhancing is the ability to navigate unspace, the ghastly nowhere between worlds.  Idris Telemmier is the last one of the original group of Intermediaries, and he now works as a navigator for a crew of interstellar scavengers on a ship very aptly named Vulture God: he does not age, nor does he need sleep, but he’s a very troubled individual and all he wants is to be forgotten and to forget – as impossible as it is – the horrors he had to witness, which makes a strange discovery, made by the Vulture God’s crew in the far reaches of space,  even more disturbing: the Architects might be coming back…

It takes a while for Shards of Earth to make the reader comfortable within its pages, or at least that was my experience at first: Tchaikovsky wastes almost no time in explaining his universe, plunging the audience in medias res so that one feels a little lost – that is, until a closer look at the character and civilizations list, not to mention the useful timeline, opens a window on this huge, complex background and everything falls into place.  The aliens peopling the Galaxy are indeed quite bizarre creatures, confirming the author’s richness of imagination: they are not only weird-looking, but they come from equally outlandish civilizations and their interactions with the humans can go from the humorous to the quite terrifying. Yet it’s the human (or post-human…) characters I connected with more deeply, particularly the crew of the Vulture God, which gave me the same kind of wonderful vibes I could find in Firefly or The Expanse, making me feel perfectly at home with this group of mismatched individuals.

Idris is the one who required more “work” from me because at first he comes across as gloomy and sullen: it’s only as his story comes into light, bit by bit, that it’s possible to understand the depth of the damage inflicted on him first by the procedures necessary to turn him into an Intermediary, then by his war experiences and finally by the constant journeys into unspace – the navigational medium that can turn an unmodified human into a crazed wreck and weighs on an Intermediary with the conflicting sensations of loneliness and of a looming, threatening presence.  If Idris is able to still maintain a grip on sanity it’s because of the bond he forged with his crew-mates, an apparently ill-assorted group that has grown into a found family whose interactions are a joy to behold – from expansive captain Rollo who calls the members of his crew “children”, to dour drone specialist Olli, whose stunted body made her a wizard in remote control of machinery; from  crab-shaped alien tech Kit to lawyer Kris, whose main job is to protect Idris from being indentured by unscrupulous conglomerates, they all create a wonderful sense of familial cohesion that looks like the only barrier separating Idris from a devastating breakdown.

That’s the main reason the arrival of an old acquaintance of Idris places them all on defensive mode: Solace is a member of the Parthenon, a human faction that long ago left Earth establishing a society of parthenogenically created women-soldiers – she and her sisters fought valiantly against the Architects, but are now looked on with suspicion, not least because there is a great deal of misinformation about their civilization and goals.  Solace is tasked with convincing Idris to help the Parthenon create their own Intermediaries, should they be needed with the possible return of the Architects, and when she joins the Vulture God she initially upsets the balance aboard the vessel, but as the days go on and a series of dramatic events plagues the crew, she feels torn between commitment to her duty and the growing sense of belonging that her adventures aboard the ship are bringing about.

As far as space opera goes, Shards of Earth is a perfect, quite engaging representative of the genre, and for this very reason I refrained from mentioning any detail from the fast-paced string of events at the core of this story. What I’m more than happy to share, however, is that the last 15-20% of the novel moves from a fast pace to a breakneck speed that had me turning the pages as quickly as I could, because the stakes were enormous and the various revelations beyond compelling.  And the good news is that although this is the first volume in a series, it does not end in a cliffhanger: granted, we understand that the various pieces have just been set in motion on this galactic chessboard, but this segment of the story is tied up quite satisfactorily – although I would not mind reading the next book right now 😉

If you are a fan of Adrian Tchaikovsky, I’m certain you will enjoy the depth and scope of his new work, and if you never read any of his books, this might very well be an amazing introduction. Either way, you will not be disappointed….

My Rating:

Reviews

AFTERSHOCKS (The Palladium Wars #1), by Marko Kloos

Thanks to SciFi Month this past November I felt the need to add more SF books to my reading queue, and a quick peek at my ever-growing “wanted” list reminded me of this novel that had looked very intriguing when I saw it mentioned online.  Although a bit wary about it, since Military SF does not always agree with me, I soon discovered to my joy that this series is more about people than technology, and that Aftershocks is the promising beginning to an interesting saga.

The six-planets system in which the story is set is slowly recovering after a devastating war started by the Gretians against the other five settlements, who in response created the Alliance and defeated Gretia, which is now occupied by the winning side and struggling under political turmoil and the effort of paying for the reparations imposed by the Alliance.  Aftershocks follows the journey of four individuals from different extractions, offering a multifaceted view of the scenario in which the events take place: their various experiences contribute to the accumulating clues that paint a picture of a complex and intriguing situation still in the first stages of its development.

Aden is a Gretian POW and a former member of the Blackguards, Gretia’s elite troops, although his role as an intelligence operative kept him from the atrocities committed by this infamous corps: after five years of a quite comfortable imprisonment on an arcology orbiting Rhodia, he is released together with the other Blackguards but does not feel like going back to a home he left in anger long before the war.  Idina is a sergeant in the Alliance contingent enforcing the occupation on Gretia and she struggles with her post-war feelings about the defeated adversaries, particularly because she now needs to work alongside some of them in the peacekeeping activities required by her present role. Dunstan is a captain in the Rhodian navy, suddenly thrown from his somewhat boring patrol duty into an escalating conflict with pirates who seem focused in something more than a simple looting spree of merchant ships. And then there is Solveig, the daughter of a former Gretian magnate, who finds herself at the head of the company and must deal with a conflict between her duties to the company and her family ties.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Aftershocks is its depiction of a multi-planetary society going through the aftermath of a bloody war caused by the desire to control valuable resources – particularly Palladium – rather than by a mere expansionist drive, so that the end of the conflict has left in its wake a sense of unspoken unease: my take on the situation is that everybody might be worried about a repeat of the attempt by someone else – the Alliance operatives are acting together, indeed, but certain events in the story led me to believe that someone could be “stirring the pot”, so to speak, to create suspicion and mistrust, playing both sides against the middle to gain the upper hand. The first clues seem to point that way, and what little is shown in this first book had me totally hooked and eager to see where the story will lead.

Given the complexity of this scenario, the author quite skillfully depicts the background by moving constantly between the various POVs: their disparate origins offer the chance of describing their respective worlds without need for lengthy info-dumps, while their reactions to the current situation offer a similar opportunity for a few flashbacks on the war, so that readers find themselves quite comfortably set in the story and able to follow the characters in their individual journeys.  Of the four, Dunstan seems the more prosaic, but I believe this comes from the fact he enjoys less exposure than the others: I hope that as the story progresses he will find himself in the thick of the action, and that the blend of military competence and humanity that are his most notable qualities will allow him to emerge in finer detail.

Aden, on the other hand, is the one with more time in the spotlight: he’s adrift in more ways than one, since he joined the military to escape from a smothering home only to find himself embroiled in a war he did not look for. Quite skilled, thanks to his previous intelligence duties, he however possesses an unpretentious disposition and a deep honesty that make him easily likable: hopefully, the next books will reveal more about his past and offer more clues about his present.

Idina is a quite complex character: her combat role in the war forced her to face its worst aspects and while she’s not exactly suffering from PTSD, those experiences have left a deep mark on her – having to work alongside her former enemies she must deal with very complex feelings that become even more difficult to analyze when she finds herself at the center of a tragic event whose origins and consequences defy interpretation.

Solveig enjoys too little narrative space to be clearly defined, but I see a great potential in her personality, mostly because she’s aware of being classified as “daddy’s daughter” by other people who seem unable to perceive her qualities: still, there is an iron core to her whose evolution I quite look forward to.

As I said, Aftershocks retains all the qualities and ingredients for an engaging space opera, and I certainly enjoyed it as a starting point for the series, but I have a big complaint about it, one that prevents me from giving it the full four stars that the book deserves: it’s too short – to use a cinematic comparison, what we can enjoy in this first volume feels more like a long trailer rather than the full movie, because the characters’ arcs are sketched but not brought to any satisfying stage, just as the story itself is cut just when the individual paths seem to be about to reach a turning point.

Luckily enough, there is already a second book in print, so I will not have to wait too long to see how events unfold, but I can’t help wondering if this narrative choice is going to be repeated in the future, because being left in the lurch is not a pleasant experience… 😉

Still, I feel like recommending this series to all enthusiasts of the genre.

My Rating:

Reviews

TV Review: THE EXPANSE, Season 5 (Spoiler Free)

There was a number of reasons I was looking forward to this fifth season for the screen version of my favorite space opera series, The Expanse: first, it’s one of the most dramatic segments in the narrative arc, the point of convergence of several threads that include the violent reaction of some extremist fringes in Belter society to the decades-long exploitation by Earth and Mars; the never ending struggle to use the alien protomolecule for power leverage; and the profound changes – political and economical – brought on by the discovery of the ring system and its portals to many habitable worlds. And then there is the character development enjoyed by some members of the Rocinante crew, who are cut off from each other by circumstances, so that they enjoy their own separate arc, therefore gaining much more depth and a better definition of their past and of the way they became the people they are in the present. Much as it’s hard to see them so scattered, because time and hardships have built the four of them into a family, the separation does not only achieve the goal of adding compelling layers to their psychological makeup, it also offers the opportunity to follow the various narrative components of the story through their eyes and experiences.

James Holden, who until now has been the fulcrum of the events and the front-and-center character, is left a little on the sidelines in this fifth season, allowing the spotlight to shine on his crew-mates, particularly Naomi and Amos, and we see him feeling somewhat adrift now that the rest of his found family has departed from the Roci to meet their personal needs that, although in different ways, are all centered around family matters. Avasarala is suffering under similar circumstances since losing her position as Secretary General of the UN, and her tight focus on politics and power has cost her the estrangement from her husband as well, so that her initial story arc follows a similar path to Holden’s, that of someone in search of direction – not that I doubted for a single minute that she would find it…

The common factor for Naomi, Amos and Alex, as they depart from the Roci, is their need to deal with the past and for all of them this journey will have quite unexpected consequences: Alex goes back to Mars to try and reconnect with his estranged family, but time and his previous attitude have made this impossible. Of the three this felt to me as the less compelling thread and it became more interesting only once Alex met with Bobbie Draper, now engaged in the investigation about the strange goings-on apparently implicating the Martian Navy in smuggling operations.  As the two team up to shed some light on the mystery of the diverted equipment and the ramifications that seem to involve some of the higher echelons in the Martian military, we see how the discovery of the ring gate, and the number of habitable planets beyond it, has impacted on the Martian dream of terraforming the planet and turning it into an Earth-like world – after all, why toil for decades, if not centuries, when there are countless worlds out there ready to be colonized? What once was a tight society united by a common goal has now lost its inner cohesion and is rapidly turning into a despondent civilization ready to crumble: Bobbie’s sorrow as she observes the death of the ideals that fueled her world is saddening, but at the same time her resolve in getting to the roots of the puzzle shows that she is the same fighter we have come to know and love.

Amos’ travels bring him back to Earth instead, and more precisely to Baltimore, the city he had run from at a young age to carve his life in space: Lydia, the woman who cared for him like a mother, died recently and he wants to pay his respects. When I read the book, this was the story section that helped me focus better on Amos’ character: back then I had not yet read the novella The Churn, which opens a huge window on Amos’ past, so that the events  depicted in Nemesis Games finally gave me a perfect grasp on his personality. The TV series has been able to flesh this character in a more organic way, and I enjoyed the way the actor has been able, in this season, to seamlessly blend Amos’ outward fierceness with his unexpected softer side, particularly when he decides to visit Clarissa “Peaches” Mao in the maximum security prison where she has been sent. The unspoken reason for such a visit is that he somehow feels connected to the young woman through their shared violent past and that he probably wants to offer her the hope that there might be a form of redemption down the road, as was the case for Amos thanks to his ties with the Roci’s family.  Which might indeed be the kind of opportunity “Peaches” is given at the end of the season…

From my point of view, though, the most important, most intense thread is the one focused on Naomi: we already learned that she has a son she had to abandon to escape from involvement with the most radical fringes of the OPA. Now that she knows her former lover Marco Inaros, the father of that child, has become a dangerous terrorist, she wants to save her son Filip from the same fate she escaped long ago – if that is still possible.  When I started watching The Expanse  in Season 1, I felt that Dominique Tipper was the perfect Naomi as I pictured her from reading the books: here, in this fifth season, she gives her absolute best performance so far, one that is both physically and emotionally heartbreaking as she deals with the choices of the past and their consequences. I was able to perceive Naomi’s pain and regret as she seeks to connect with a son who does not know her – apart from what he’s been told by a manipulative father – and tries desperately to drag him away from Inaros’ toxic influence; and I felt just as physically ill during the long, painful sequences where she attempts a desperate gamble to undermine the terrorist leader’s callous plan to destroy her friends. If you saw the episodes I’m referring to, you will not be surprised if I tell you that I needed to remind myself to breathe, because Naomi’s struggles with the situation on the derelict ship were so vivid and intense that for a while I could not remember it was just a TV show.

And speaking of Naomi, I’d like to point out how many other amazing female characters people this series – both in the books and on screen: I’ve spoken often of Avasarala and her aggressive but effective approach to power, but she’s not alone. Bobbie Draper is another amazing character, and the way she faces challenges – either with or without a powered armor – has always been one of my favorite elements in the story; and in this season we see more of journalist Monica Stuart, whose courage and persistence in following leads elevates her above the professional norm. But the one I want to talk about more extensively is Drummer, portrayed by the very talented Cara Gee: this character has been fleshed out more in the TV series, and I’ve been always looking forward to her appearances, where her determination and strength of character manage to hide a form of vulnerability that becomes more apparent in this season where she has to deal with many painful losses and very hard decisions.  From her famous speech on the bridge of the Behemoth in the previous season to the present interactions with her crew, struggling to find a way between the Belter ideals and Inaros’ violent approach, she emerges as a compelling figure where strength and gallows humor combine to create a fascinating personality that is so easy to connect to and enjoy watching.

Given how much further depth this show has managed to achieve with this fifth season I’m saddened at the thought that the sixth will be the last one, leaving the last three books in the series (the ninth of which should be out toward the end of the year) out of the screened story. Still, this continues to be a brilliant, deeply engaging series that fully deserves all the praise that it rightfully receives.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE SHADOW OF THE GODS (The Bloodsworn Saga #1), by John Gwynne

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

A Time of Dread was the book that helped me discover author John Gwynne, that first book in the amazing Of Blood and Bone trilogy then leading me to retrace his narrative path with the previous series The Faithful and the Fallen, of which I still have two books to explore. When this new work was announced I was beyond eager to see where Mr. Gwynne would take us next and also certain that I would enjoy this story as I did the other ones: well, The Shadow of the Gods managed not only to surpass my expectations, it even outclassed his other novels I read so far – and they were already outstanding works in their own rights! 

This will be a spoiler-free review, because I was fortunate enough to read the e-ARC some time before the expected publication, and I don’t want to deprive potential readers of the sheer joy of discovering this amazing story on their own. Still, I can talk freely about this extraordinary world and the awesome characters peopling it, to give you an idea of the breath-taking journey that’s in store for you. Since the Bloodsworn Saga is based on Norse lore and mythology, I had an advantage thanks to my recent experience with the TV series Vikings, being already familiar with some of the terms and above all with the appearance of the characters, so it was easy for me to picture people and backgrounds and I felt at home practically from page one.

The land of Vigrid was once dominated by the gods, who wrecked the world in the war they waged against each other: in the new world born out of the ashes of the old one, the bones of the dead gods hold special power and are therefore much sought after by overlords seeking to extend their dominions. There are monsters as well in Vigrid, called vaesen and lying in wait for the unwary traveller or trying to attack unprotected homesteads – and then there are the Tainted, humans in whose veins runs some of the gods’ blood, gifting them with special powers: they are either hunted down like animals, or captured, enslaved and exploited.  

Three are the main characters of the story: Orka, once a renowned warrior and now making her living as a huntress, together with her husband and young child; Varg, a former thrall (slave) on the run from his old master and driven by the need to avenge the death of his sister; and Elvar, the daughter of a powerful jarl, who renounced a life of privilege to join the warband of the Battle-Grim, in search of fame and glory. I was certain that these three separate threads would converge sooner or later, since there seems to be something brewing in the world, something sinister that starts with brutal attacks on isolated homesteads and the kidnapping of young children, so that Orka’s search for her own stolen child slowly but surely moves toward the meeting with the Bloodsworn – the warband in which Varg has been accepted and that took on a perilous but well-paid assignment – and probably with the Battle-Grim, whose need for wealth has taken them toward the most dangerous, monster-infested part of the world. The Shadow of the Gods is but the prelude to what promises to be an engrossing story, and reaching the last page left me eager to see where this amazing new saga would take me next.

John Gwynne’s novels always achieve a well-balanced mix between plot and characterization – one of the reasons they always prove so satisfying – and this new work is a case in point: as the characters engage in their individual journeys we are made familiar with the land of Vigrid and with its history, we are presented with wide plains and rocky expanses, with river marshes and frigid tundra, and we feel as if we shared the characters’ paths and the difficulties they entail. We are also able to visit a city built inside the huge skeleton of a fallen god, a place of constant twilight that made me feel quite uneasy (and with good reason…), and then we travel by sea, sharing the effort of warriors who lay down their weapons for a while to take up the oars and guide their ship through perilous seas. There is a constant cinematic aspect to the descriptions here that makes the storytelling vivid and three-dimensional, without losing the “fireside tale” quality that for me has become the author’s trademark. And of course I can’t forget the battles: with John Gwynne’s novels I never skip the description of battles because they are realistically detailed and – no matter the brutality of the clash – always dramatically fascinating.

But of course, even in this stunning background, the characters are the elements that make these stories truly shine, and in The Shadow of the Gods both main and secondary ones are responsible for breathing memorable life into the novel.  I needed some time to warm up to Orka at first, mostly because she comes across as somewhat harsh and demanding in her dealings with her son, while her husband looks like the softer one of the two. But once Orka’s mother instinct is put to the test, it’s easy to understand how her apparent sternness is only a means of steeling young Breca against the world’s dangers, and her determination and ferociousness in rescuing him from his kidnappers are as white-hot as her love for him.   Elvar, on the other hand, looks like she’s still evolving and trying to find her destiny: refusing to be used as a pawn in her powerful father’s political dealings, she choose to join a warband as a form of freedom and rebellion at the same time: what she’s still learning is that, no matter what one’s life choices are, there is always a price to pay for them. And finally Varg, who like Orka is desperately trying to fulfill an oath: his life as a slave has been a harsh, lonely one, and the loss of his sister – the only person he could trust – has turned him into a haunted, mistrustful person, to the point that the most difficult task he faces with the Bloodsworn is to accept friendship and camaraderie, truly a heart-breaking side of his character, and one that offers some poignant insights once he starts to fraternize with his new companions.

The beauty of these characters is that they are all inherently flawed and probably not “hero material” in the usual meaning of the term, but I have come to care deeply for them (and particularly for Orka and Varg) because they are driven by the strength of their love for friends and family, and because they have the ability to create a bond – as strong as the one of blood – with the people they live and fight with. This is one of the themes at the core of John Gwynne’s novels, the backbone of loyalty and devotion that can bind individuals tied by a common goal, and here it’s present in a superbly gritty and emotional form. It might be a little early to say that his might be my best read for 2021, but I’m not sure I will find others capable to bring out the immersive delight I experienced with The Shadow of the Gods – and this is only the beginning of the whole story…

My Rating:

Reviews

FIREWALKERS, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Even though I have read only a small percentage of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s works, I can see from this limited sample that his imagination can take very different roads from one book to the next, and Firewalkers is a prime example of this.

In a not-so-distant future in which climatic changes have wrought havoc on Earth, the planet is divided between areas where floods from the melting icecaps are submerging most of the land, and areas – like the equatorial belt – where desertification and rising temperatures have transformed once lush jungles into arid wastelands. The equator is still a sought-after location, though, because it’s the place where the anchor points for space elevators have been built, bringing people to the safety and comfort of the huge ships in construction. That is, those who can afford it, which is only a privileged few. The others try to eke a meager existence by servicing the crumbling infrastructure that supports the anchor and elevator and the arrays of solar panels feeding energy to them.

In one such settlements live the three main characters of the story, young people whose job is to cross the scorching, dusty desert to service and repair the solar panels located in distant areas that were once inhabited and have now been abandoned to the encroaching sands. These Firewalkers, so called because their young bodies are better suited to withstand the broiling heat of the desert, regularly endure the extreme environmental conditions to earn the relatively higher pay such jobs can bring in, risking their lives each time to provide for themselves and their families.

Nguyēn Sun Mao is the descendant of Vietnamese refugees escaped from the floods that obliterated their country and he’s the point man of the group; Lupé is of African descent and represents the engineering genius in the team, as she is able to repair or jerry-rig practically anything; then there is Hotep, so called because she protects her fair complexion under mummy-like bandages, and she is the technical expert. The three of them have been working together for some time and forged a successful unit, so that they are often given the more difficult assignments – and the most dangerous of course.

This latest assignment brings them toward a rarely – if ever – explored area, one where what remains of the palatial mansions of the rich crumbles under heat and neglect, and where unknown dangers, and even monstrous creatures are rumored to dwell. The three Firewalkers’ journey soon evolves into the search for clues to unveil a mystery, and in the discovery that something does indeed lurk in the deep desert, but it’s nothing they would have ever imagined.  The story takes on a sort of quest-like flavor, with our heroes facing known and unknown perils as we get to know their personalities and quirks, while being shown how the world we know has been changed by the damage humanity inflicted on it.

The ground crunched lifeless beneath his feet […] the sun the head of a white hot rivet driven in by some celestial smith.

The story’s main focus is on Mao, a boy in his late teens possessed with the maturity of a far older man, because the kind of life he and his crewmates lead tends to burn people away at an accelerated rate: there is little room for hope in this world, and yet we see him try to do his best in the worst of circumstances, trying to take some pride in what he does and exhibiting a natural, if laid back, quality of leadership that brings his two companions to trust him and abide by his decisions no matter how uncertain and dangerous the path. Maybe because

[…] it was Mao who had most experience walking on the surface of an alien world, even if it was Earth.

Lupé, as befitting an engineer – even one as self-taught as she is – is both efficient and business-like, never allowing dangers, either real or imagined, to get between her and the machinery she is repairing or adjusting. As the one in her family with the best-paying job, her young shoulders are burdened by the weight of keeping them as comfortable as possible, and she translates this responsibility to her traveling mates as well: there is one scene in which she keeps servicing their transport’s life support even as some problem approaches, and we see her keeping up the work with the steadiness of a much more seasoned veteran, something that is both admirable and heartbreaking.

And last, but not least, Hotep: she is the wild card of the group in that she was born in space as one of the privileged, but was sent down to Earth – literally discarded – by parents who could not bear her psychological problems and quirky, non-conformed behavior. Her prickly character, like the bandages she wears, is a way of masking the deep pain of abandonment, the resentment at the sheer, heartless injustice and betrayal she was subjected to.  It’s through Hotep’s situation that we can perceive the cruel divide in Earth’s people, because if her parents hardly flinched at condemning their own daughter to a short life of hardships and suffering without a qualm, what about the few privileged that could escape from the dying planet and are living in comfort and luxury while the rest of the population slowly dies of heat, thirst and diminishing food?

The themes developed in this story are of course climate and environmental changes, and the social upheavals following them, but there are other elements that are equally intriguing, like the construction of the massive ships in Earth orbit – probably more arcologies than mere vessels – and the space elevators connecting them to the surface. What I found truly fascinating are the remains of the previous civilization – our actual civilization, I believe – and the way the protagonists observe them as though they were relics from a more distant past, and that they are unable to connect with for lack of common references. There are several instances in which Mao & Co. talk about tv shows from the past – still being aired – and how the people depicted in there, their way of life, look more alien than extraterrestrial creatures: this, more than anything else shows us readers how our world has changed from the present conditions.

Firewalkers is a dense book indeed, in the sense that it holds many concepts in a relatively small number of pages, and that’s its only flaw from my point of view: this kind of story should have deserved more space to “breathe” and fulfill its amazing potential. For this same reason, the ending felt to me somewhat abrupt and less satisfying than I would have expected from the initial buildup, but still it was an engrossing read, and a further incentive to explore Adrian Tchaikovsky’s other works.

My Rating:

Reviews

BEHIND HER EYES: Netflix miniseries

When I saw the announcement for this miniseries inspired by the novel written by Sarah Pinborough I was very curious about it: I read the book in 2019 and, unlike previous Pinborough works I encountered, I was somewhat mystified by it, or rather by the double twist in its ending. With the help of hindsight I can now understand that the main factor in my reaction was the unexpected turn of the story from psychological to supernatural thriller which at the time had seemed too abrupt and… well, over the top.

Now “armed” with full knowledge of the plot, I was able not only to enjoy the Netflix miniseries, but to look back at the written story with different eyes and to better appreciate it with hindsight: if this experience taught me anything it would be that I must expect the unexpected – and more – from Sarah Pinborough’s works I still have to read, because read them I certainly will.

Back to Behind Her Eyes: on the surface it’s the story of a convoluted triangle between Louise, a single mother; David, a psychiatrist and Louise’s employer, and Adele, David’s wife. Louise meets David in a bar and at the end of the evening the two share a kiss; the following day, Louise discovers that the handsome stranger she just met is her employer and she vows to avoid any further entanglement – that is, until she accidentally meets Adele, his wife, and strikes a friendship with the woman, who seems very lonely and tormented.  Torn between her growing attraction toward David and the deepening friendship with Adele, Louise becomes entangled in the troubles of their difficult marriage, one where it’s hard to understand whether Adele is the victim of an abusive husband or the subtle manipulator in a toxic relationship. Louise’s situation is further complicated by the night terrors she suffers from and to which Adele offers a solution in the form of lucid dreaming, the learned ability to control one’s dreams instead of being controlled by them – an ability that will later manifest an unexpected side effect…

While I usually find that books portray stories much better than their screen versions, there are exceptions, and Behind Her Eyes is one of them: in this specific case, where the book had to keep the cards close to its proverbial chest to prevent readers from seeing too soon where it was headed, the visual clues of the miniseries were more subtle and allowed the events to build up in a more organic way, so that the final revelation was of course a huge surprise but it did not feel as extravagant as was the case for the book – although I have to admit that foreknowledge might have played a part here.  It would be interesting to hear the reactions of people who did not read the book, how they dealt with the lineup of cues and how the final revelation affected them, but from my point of view the screen version made the ending more believable, even taking into account the sheer weirdness of it.

Book and screen version are however similar in the portrayal of the main characters: all three of them are depicted in shades of gray, and all of them exhibit some unpleasant trait, although I must admit that screen-Louise comes across as far more sympathetic than book-Louise, since she is far less self-centered and feels more real in her attachment to her child, one of the details that did not convince me completely in the book.  For once, however, I don’t feel it necessary to truly compare book and screen version, because I’ve rather come to see them as complementary to each other: of course, in both cases you have to accept the uncanny, metaphysical elements in the story to truly appreciate it, but I believe that with the foreknowledge of their presence in both versions of events your enjoyment of the book or the miniseries will be enhanced.

My Rating: