Reviews

THE QUICKSILVER COURT (Rooks & Ruin #2), by Melissa Caruso

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

With her Swords and Fire trilogy, Melissa Caruso quickly became one of my read-sight-unseen authors, and the start of her new Rooks and Ruins saga, The Obsidian Tower, happily propelled me into a new adventure set in the same world.  In that first book I enjoyed discovering her new central character, Ryx, whose “broken” magic kept her from any kind of human contact because her touch drains any kind of living energy: at the end of The Obsidian Tower, Ryx had been accepted in the found family of the Rookery, a group of secret agents of sorts, dedicated to fighting unruly magic use, but had also unwittingly allowed the escape of some demons so far locked up in the prison guarded by Ryx’s ancestral home of Gloaminguard.

As The Quicksilver Court starts, the already tense situation caused by the demonic escape heightened the political turmoil between the long-time opponents of Raverra and Vaskandar, and the Rookery is tasked with the mission of finding a terribly powerful artifact that could be hidden in a realm where politics are a quite slippery affair and every move could lead to disaster. As Ryx and her friends try to deal with the delicate situation, they are made aware that the escaped demons are further complicating the already knotty circumstances and that the Summer Palace in the realm of Loreice might prove a deadly trap. I don’t want to share more of the story because The Quicksilver Court offers such an almost unending stream of surprises, revelations and twists that to anticipate even the smallest of them would be very unfair to potential readers.

Plot-wise, the backbone of this story feels like one of those escape games where the players must find their way out in a constantly changing maze where unexpected dangers lurk, and no one can anticipate what awaits around the next (usually dark) corner: the overall effect is quite sinister, conferring to the novel a suffocating sense of impending doom that’s made even more ominous by the contrast with the chiseled beauty of the setting and the elegance of the denizens of Loreice’s Summer Palace, a place where fashion is used as a political statement.   Faced with a set of equally impossible choices, the Rookery needs to deal with terribly high stakes that end up transcending the “merely” political and move over the treacherous and apparently invincible terrain of demonic power.

Indeed, Ryx and the Rookery are put to the test in the most harrowing ways imaginable, which brings the revelation of many long-held secrets that might fracture their bond, and as far as Ryx herself is concerned those revelations bring forth a discovery that affects both her past and her future: to say that I was completely floored by this epiphany would be a huge understatement and at the same time I’m eager to see how this will affect her involvement in the Rookery for the next book.

The trials our protagonists are put through offer however a powerful way of expanding their characters and showing us more of their personalities and their past: there are some heartbreaking moments in which I felt for them deeply, because so far Melissa Caruso had presented them in a light-hearted fashion, even when they were facing difficult circumstances and almost-impossible tasks – the affectionate banter between them was one of the delights of the story, and seeing them so exposed and deeply wounded was difficult and painful to bear.  And yet, nothing brings characters into sharper relief than pushing them to the limits of their endurance, and seeing what they are truly made of: all of the Rookery members came through with flying colors, their inner dynamics certainly changed but in an interesting way that promises intriguing developments for the future.

As for Ryx, if I felt great empathy for her in the previous book, here she had my total admiration because she showed once and for all that despite the cruel drawbacks life heaped on her she has grown into a strong, determined individual who is unwilling to sacrifice her personal integrity, no matter the cost. For someone who was forced to live a sheltered life, she keeps showing a degree of flexibility and strength in the face of adversity that promise to turn her into a formidable person whose unbreakable core of humanity can temper any negative influence she might suffer.

Once again Melissa Caruso confutes the notion that the middle book of a trilogy is usually the flimsy one: with The Quicksilver Court she considerably raised the stakes in a narrative background that was already delightfully complicated, all the while adding intriguing facets to her characters and their internal relationships. My expectations for the final installment in the Rooks and Ruins trilogy (and for her future production) are quite high and I know they will not be disappointed.

All I have to do is just wait…

My Rating:

Reviews

INHIBITOR PHASE (A Revelation Space novel), by Alastair Reynolds – #SciFiMonth

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

It’s been a long time since I read Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy and I have to admit that I approached this new installment with some trepidation, because I know my memory of details and characters might be faulty: I saw that the author said Inhibitor Phase can be read as a standalone, and that’s partly true, because any reference to the previous works (and also the previous timeline of events) is offered in such a way as to provide enough information without need for lengthy and distracting explanations. 

Still, there is a number of details that surface now and then that can shed more light on the background if you are familiar with Revelation Space, and I was pleasantly surprised by the discovery that I remembered much more than I thought possible, which added to my enjoyment of the story.  Think of the difference in approach – according to your knowledge of Revelation Space or lack of it – as watching a movie in which the production hid some Easter eggs: old-time fans will recognize them and be delighted, but newcomers will enjoy the story nonetheless.

In the distant future envisioned by Alastair Reynolds, humanity scattered among the stars and made great progress, but encountered two huge dangers in its path: first the Melding Plague, a nanotech virus attacking both machinery and implants with horrifying consequences, particularly for those humans who had chosen to modify their bodies with augmentations. Centuries later, a worse threat manifested itself, that of the Inhibitors, also called “wolves”: hive-mind machines whose only goal was to annihilate any sentient life reaching beyond a certain level of technology. Inhibitor Phase starts a few decades after a devastating war that saw most of humanity succumb.

On the inhospitable world of Michaelmas, Miguel de Ruyter leads a small group of survivors living under the surface, hiding from Inhibitors by leaving as small a tech imprint as possible: when a ship in distress enters the system, Miguel tries to meet and destroy it before the wolves become aware of human activity, but the encounter propels him instead on a dangerous quest across the galaxy in search of a weapon that might one day tilt the balance in favor of humans and remove the Inhibitor threat once and for all. Miguel’s journey starts with something of a leisurely pace, but gains momentum and raises its stakes as it progresses, offering such surprises and revelations that often made me unsure about where the story would take me next – this is the main reason I’m struggling a little with this review because I don’t want to spoil anything: facing this novel with… innocence is indeed the best way to enjoy it.

Story-wise, Inhibitor Phase looks like a cross between a classic quest and a heist: the characters’ final goal is to procure a weapon from the secretive Nestbuilders, a weapon which might prove decisive in the battle against the Inhibitors, but to get there they need other items first, and some of them can only be obtained through dangers and sacrifice, which at times adds a layer of deep pathos to the adventure. There are elements of horror as well, particularly in the section in which the characters need to effect a dangerous exchange among the ruins of Chasm City, which was the background for a previous novel in the series: this encounter with the crime overlord – or rather lady, if you can use such term for this barbarous butcheress and her bloodthirsty Court of Miracles – is one of the most tense, most hair-raising passages in the whole novel.

Still, the adventure, the technological wonders and the obstacles to be overcome take second place in comparison with the personal journey facing the characters: identity is the main theme here, either hidden for personal reasons or convenience, or voluntarily suppressed to forget a dark past – I know I’m being cryptic here, but a few of the characters are not who they look on the surface, or who they think they are… Just as much as the quest for the Nestbuilders’ weapon forces the group to piece together information and parts, so the discovery of who they are, or were, is also a puzzle working slowly but steadily toward showing the reader the complete picture. What ties these different people together – even when they are wary or distrustful of each other – is their willingness to give everything they have to fulfill the goal of ridding the galaxy of the Inhibitor threat, and that spirit of sacrifice shows how much they value the survival of humanity and the potential for hope.

And speaking of humanity, be aware that this term has a far wider meaning here, because the people that once took off from Earth to venture into space have taken many forms in Reynolds’ universe, from the mind-linked Conjoiners to the cyborg-like Ultras. And yet one of the most human characters I encountered in Inhibitor Phase is a hyperpig, the result of past genetic manipulation and part of a race used for menial and dangerous tasks: Pinky (even though that’s not his real name) turned out to be my favorite, not in spite of but because of his gruff attitude that hid the psychological scars of a terrible past, and a great capacity for courage and selflessness. There is a magnificent sentence that defines Pinky perfectly: “You don’t have to be human to be people”, and it’s one that moved me deeply.

While I found that reading Revelation Space was a very immersive experience, sometimes it used to feel too much: too many characters to keep track of, too many narrative threads to follow, too much information – no matter how intriguing – to digest. This new novel in the saga appears almost streamlined when confronted with my recollection of the past, with a tighter pacing and only the barest details: in the end it makes for an enhanced reading experience and a totally engrossing story. I have no idea whether Reynolds intends to move forward with this story – although these premises are just begging to be developed – but if he decides to do so, I will be more than happy to see where he takes me next.

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

LIGHT CHASER, by Peter Hamilton & Gareth Powell – #SciFiMonth

A work written in cooperation by Peter Hamilton and Gareth Powell was bound to pique my curiosity, so as soon as this novella became available I had to read it: it was a strange experience – in a good way, of course – because it offered many tantalizing glimpses into what might have been a broader, much more layered narrative, while telling a compact, circumscribed story whose arc encompasses only a handful of pages.

The titular Light Chaser is Amahle, a lone traveler who is almost immortal: genetic modifications and the time-dilation factor of her ship’s near-lightspeed velocity allowed her to live for millennia as she completes her unchanging circuit through a number of planets where her visits are hailed as extraordinary events. Her employers, Ever Life, are the alien creatures called the Exalted and living on Glisten, the final port of call of each circuit: in the course of her stopovers Amahle retrieves her employers’ memory collars from the planets’ dwellers and leaves new ones for the next generations – these are artifacts that record a person’s life experiences for the vicarious enjoyment of the Exalted and are considered a great honor for the individuals so entrusted, who pass them on as precious heirlooms to the family’s various members.

Amahle herself experiences these lives as a form of pastime during the long journeys from one planet to the other, when her only companionship on the Mnemosyne comes from the highly advanced ship’s AI. Someday though, a man addresses the Light Chaser directly in one of those recordings, stating that his real name is Carloman, that they share a common history and – more important – that she should not trust the onboard AI.  I prefer to leave the synopsis at that, because the story is so short that more details would certainly spoil your enjoyment…

Memory is indeed the front and center theme in Light Chaser – and the ship’s name is certainly not a random choice, given that in Greek mythology Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory: the concept of the memory collars is an intriguing one, at first looking like a way of monitoring the evolutionary situation on the many planets in Amahle’s circuit – places that range from medieval societies to more technologically advanced ones – but then taking on a sinister connotation as the Light Chaser is made aware of the reality behind the clever smokescreen.  This change in perspective transforms the story into a puzzle-solving quest first and a history-changing mission later, with Amahle having to literally find herself again thanks to the mysterious Carloman’s clues scattered throughout other people’s memories and encounters she searches for in her collection of collars.

Given the novella’s shortness and its strong reliance on plot, characters are somehow left by the wayside, particularly where Amahle is concerned: I could never fully connect with her even though I was invested in her journey, but I guess this depends on the fact that she is detached from herself as well. In order to fulfill her ages-long mission, and to keep experiencing those vicarious memories, she must purge her own from time to time, in a way discarding the old to make room for the new: this entails losing pieces of herself and of her past, something that she struggles to reconnect with thanks to Carloman’s influence and the clues offered through his various appearances in the stored memories.

In the end, I came to understand that my lack of connection with Amahle was the result of her lack of connection with herself, of her loss of everything that made her the person she originally was: giving up the memories of her own past (and at some point we understand the reason she would choose to take that path, either consciously or not) she let herself drift aimlessly through space and time losing any power of choice – at some point Amahle likens herself to a comet:

 A frozen wanderer sidling in from the darkness to briefly warm myself by the light of the sun, before being flung back out on the next lap of my long, solitary orbit.

It’s only with the appearance of the enigmatic Carloman that she is able to regain that power as she reconnects piece by piece with the memories of who she was and who Carloman was to her. And to finally choose to break out of the unending cycle that kept her prisoner for so long while she believed she was the one in control…

If I have to find any fault in this story it might be in the way many details are left vague and incomplete: we get short peeks at those planetary societies Amahle visits and as soon as we become invested in their peculiar layout we are taken away by the Mnemosyne as it departs for another station of its circuit; or again we are kept wondering how Carloman – once his real identity is revealed – was able to do what he did (apologies for the ambiguity but I want to avoid spoilers here) time and again.  

On hindsight, this novella looks like a trailer for a much longer, much more layered novel that could have taken on the scope of a sweeping space opera – still, for all its shortness, Light Chaser works well offering an intriguing, and often suspenseful, story and some food for thought about identity and memory and the meaning of life.

It will be interesting to see if these two authors team up again and what they might come up with next…

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

DAY ZERO, by Robert Cargill – #SciFiMonth

Four years ago I discovered – and greatly enjoyed – Robert Cargill’s previous book, Sea of Rust, whose focus was on the post-apocalyptic landscape of an Earth devoid of human life after a devastating robot uprising. When Day Zero was announced as a prequel to that story I was curious to learn how that bleak world would come to be and how the rebellion would be depicted, but I did not expect to find such a poignant, emotional tale made even more so by the foreknowledge of what would happen after the A.I.s’ insurrection.

Day Zero does indeed portray the robot uprising but only as a background for the more intimate, far more touching story of a young boy and his robotic nanny. Pounce is a tiger-analogue nanny-bot that the Reinharts bought for their son Ezra, who is eight years old as the novel opens with Pounce’s disconcerting discovery that the box in which he was carried home is waiting in the attic for the day when Ezra will be too old for his furred, mechanical nanny and Pounce will be returned and sold to another family.  It’s a very unsettling revelation for the bot, because he’s profoundly attached to his young charge, who also loves him deeply and thinks  him as his best friend: it forces Pounce to consider – probably for the first time since his activation – that he’s more of an appliance than a family member as he viewed himself so far, and this awareness is quite disturbing.

Events manage to shunt these thoughts on the proverbial back burner when the advocate for robot freedom, Isaac, is killed by a terrorist act together with all the freed bots who have taken residence in their own city, Isaactown: a worldwide robot insurgence – aided by the deactivation of their failsafes – targets all humans and leads to a merciless massacre operated by household helpers against their former masters. Not every automaton chooses that road, however, as Pounce makes it his priority to lead Ezra out of the city toward a place of safety, wherever that might be in a world turned utterly mad.

I loved Pounce’s voice as the storyteller, just as I loved the interactions between him and Ezra who’s forced by the circumstances to mature swiftly but still retains enough childish innocence, but the front and center theme here is the duality between programming and evolution, between responses dictated by code and behavior learned through experience: while the majority of bots chooses to resort to mindless carnage, Pounce – and with him a few others – remains faithful to his task of protecting Ezra, not simply because that’s the directive imprinted by programming but because he acknowledges his love for the child, something that exceeds that programming and shows how adaptive learning can take unexpected paths.  There are some interesting musing from Pounce where he questions those protective, loving feelings and wonders whether they are the product of encoded design or the result of his own growth as a thinking entity: I believe that seeing most of his brethren choosing deadly violence, instead of following what should have been their programming, helps him embrace the concept of free will and the perception of what he is and what he wants to be. The concept is well expressed in the conversation between Pounce and another nanny bot:

[…] you choose to save him. You chose to activate Mama Bear. No one told you to do that.

And again:

The fact that it didn’t feel like a choice was the choice. You chose to love him like that.

These philosophical considerations are embedded in a non-stop, breathless tale of survival that kept me reading compulsively even though I knew, thanks to Sea of Rust, that humanity was helplessly doomed: this awareness added to the poignancy of the novel and made all the more precious the few moments where emotions and flashes of humor managed to brighten the story and give the reader some much-needed respite.  The author’s choice of focusing on the detail of these two people fighting for survival, rather than on the bigger scale of the uprising, gave Day Zero a greater human dimension (and I’m using the word ‘human’ in a very broad sense, of course): Pounce & Co.’s struggle to keep their children safe is imbued with the same level of determination we can see in their opponents as they seek to destroy every living being on the face of the Earth, and mirrors humanity’s conflicting drives, showing how these human constructs have managed to learn both the best and the worst from their creators.

This is particularly true where the appearance of supercomputers is concerned, particularly with CISSUS, which I remember from Sea of Rust: its desire for domination and its insidious negation of robot freedom through the request of joining (Borg-style) an aggregate in which their longed-for individuality will get lost, shows who the “bad guy” really is. Granted, humans might have either taken for granted their helpers, or in some instances mistreated them, but CISSUS is forcibly incorporating other bots with a false promise which barely hides its lust for power – and what’s more, I have developed this theory that the uprising was staged by these supercomputers rather than brought on by the attack on Isaactown, given that the short time between the bombing, the release of the software update freeing the robots from their constraints and the uprising was far too short for a spontaneous reaction. I’d love to hear what other readers think about this…

What I find surprising in Day Zero is that it should have suffered from my foreknowledge of humanity’s extinction, and yet I found it at times uplifting and hopeful if confronted with Sea of Rust: what made all the difference are indeed Pounce’s personality and the way he relates to Ezra. It was so heartwarming and emotional that it counterbalanced my awareness of the impending end of the world, and above all gave me a character that I loved unconditionally and will remain in my imagination for a long time.

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

SWEET TOOTH (Netflix Series – Season 1) – #SciFiMonth

When I first saw Sweet Tooth showcased among the various Netflix offerings, the mere mention of a worldwide pandemic as the inciting incident in the story was enough to turn me away: like many of us, I’ve had enough of the grim reality of this past year and a half to want to look for a fictional version of it in any medium.  But some time later someone wrote a very positive comment about it in the Facebook group of SFF lovers I follow, so I decided to give it a chance, and once again I find myself indebted to a fellow consumer of speculative fiction for a great discovery.

As the story begins we are told that a lethal pandemic swept the world at a time in which strange babies were being born, hybrid children showing animal features in varying degrees: it did not take long for the belief that the two events were connected to take root, so that these strange children were hunted mercilessly while the world as we know it collapsed. Gus, a mix between human and deer, is one such child: taken to live in the wilderness by the man who raised him like a father, he grew up with the conviction that the outside world was a burned wasteland, and that he should never, ever, go beyond the borders of the place where he grew up. 

Like in all fairy tales however (because Sweet Tooth feels a little like a fairy tale, mostly thanks to Gus’ innocent outlook) something happens that forces the child to leave his comfort zone and face the outside world as he starts a journey of discovery and growth across a profoundly changed Earth. He’s not alone, not for long, as he later meets first with Jeppard (a.k.a. Big Man), a former football player plagued by the darkness in his recent past, and then with Bear, a teenaged girl who had to grow up fast in the changed world. There are a few other points of view in the story, like that of Aimee, who made a new life for herself and her adopted daughter in a zoo, or Dr. Singh, desperately trying to find a cure for the virus so he can save his wife. And then there is mysterious General Abbot, the leader of the Last Men, a quasi-military organization dedicated to the hunt and extermination of the hybrid children.

Still, it’s Gus who steals the focus here with his candid point of view and the deep curiosity he shows as he discovers the world, even when it presents its ugliest face: much of the success of this character is certainly due to the young actor playing him with a mixture of sweetness and wonder that never falls into sappiness and offers a delightful counterpoint to Big Man’s gruffness and to the world’s dangers and horrors. Gus is such an engaging protagonist that any time the focus shifted to other characters I felt something akin to annoyance – no matter how their POV could be intriguing – because I was invested in his journey so deeply that I did not need, or want, other distractions.

Like most series nowadays, Sweet Tooth is a short one, only eight episodes, and once the viewer is caught up in it, it feels too short and leaves you wanting more – particularly considering the dire cliffhanger ending – so my advice would be to savor it slowly and take your time to appreciate the tale it wants to tell and the beautiful scenery of an Earth where human presence is so diminished as to allow nature to reclaim its dominion over the landscape.  

This is a story with a big heart and a great potential to be explored further, beyond the handful of themes already placed on the table: my hope is that the next season(s) will not be too long in the making. If you’re looking for a viewing experience with a good balance between dramatic presentation and “feel good” vibes, you will certainly find it here – enjoy 🙂

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

THE WRONG STARS (Axiom #1), by Tim Pratt – #SciFiMonth

The Wrong Stars is the first volume in a space opera series dealing with the far future of humankind and focusing on the ragtag crew of the White Raven, whose salvage & law enforcement operations are conducted under the aegis of the Trans-Neptune Authority, one of the political entities ruling human-controlled space.

During one of their explorations, Captain Callie Machedo and her crew encounter the wreck of an ancient Earth spaceship, part of the Goldilocks fleet – slow vessels equipped with cryosleep units to allow the bridging of vast distances – sent centuries before in search of habitable planets: only one onboard cryopod is still in operation, holding Dr. Elena Oh who, once revived, warns her rescuers about the threat of a dangerous alien life form she and her lost crew-mates encountered.  Callie and her people are mystified, since the only alien race humanity came across so far are the squid-like Liars who are certainly untrustworthy, as the name they came to be known by hints at, but quite far from a deadly menace. 

As the salvage operation turns into the attempted rescue of Elena’s trapped crew-mates, new revelations bring to light the existence of another, far more ancient alien race – the Axiom – which once ruled the galaxy and might still represent a deadly threat for humans and Liars alike, so that Callie and her people find themselves enmeshed into an action-packed race to discover the truth and, if possible, avert the doom that a return of the Axiom could entail.

As with most books, The Wrong Stars stands on the double supports of plot and characterization, with the former being the strongest element. There is hardly a moment’s respite in the breathless sequence of events and plot twists that creates the backbone of the story, enhanced by a series of progressive revelations that do little to ease the burden of impending catastrophe hanging over the characters’ heads, but instead keep raising the stakes for the group of intrepid explorers.  The universe in which the story is set is an intriguing one, and the author manages to give us a good picture of it without need for lengthy exposition, also conveying the notion that humanity has changed a great deal, both socially and physically – as indicated, for example, by the presence of engineer Ashok, who is a cyborg constantly on the lookout for further modifications and enhancements. Moreover, there is a vein of light humor running throughout the story, carried by the constant quips exchanged among the crew, that mitigates the seemingly endless adrenaline rush of the events, and offers a welcome respite during the tenser moments.

Unfortunately, the characters suffer from such a tight focus on the plot, and they looked to me rather like… signposts (for want of a better word) of what actual characters should be, with not enough depth for me to truly connect with any of them.  As I read I kept thinking that the potential for each character was not fully explored, particularly where the already mentioned Ashok is concerned, or the weirdly inseparable duo of Janice and Drake, or again the alien Liar named Lantern who at some point joins the team: they all looked to me more paint-by-the-numbers aspects of diversity than anything else, which proved disappointing in light of the hints at trans-humanity and post-humanity inhabiting this future universe, not to mention the potentially intriguing race of the Liars.

Another source of frustration comes from the excessively carefree attitude with which the crew launches into unknown dangers – and into a situation that could lead to the total annihilation of humankind: their lives are constantly at stake, but I never perceived their acknowledgment of this fact, and was in turn surprised and annoyed at the way they faced mortal dangers as if they were embarking in one of their routine missions. This kind of portrayal failed to make me worry about their survival – both as individuals and as a group – because the way the story is told clearly implicates that they will survive anything: the fact that they always manage to overcome any danger, no matter how dire, and beat the worst odds, robs any of their endeavors of the suspense necessary to make such actions believable.

And on top of it all, there is an equally unbelievable insta-love between Captain Callie and Dr. Elena: first of all, I was somewhat creeped out by the fact that Callie feels the pangs of physical attraction for Elena when first observing her frozen body in the cryo-pod – my suspension of disbelief did not pass this stress test, which later colored my consideration of the told-but-not-shown mutual attraction between the two of them.  Add the unnatural ease with which Elena accepts the fact that she’s been frozen for a few centuries and that the world she knew is no more, an ease that never takes into account the element of “future shock” one should expect in such a situation, and you will understand my problems with the characterization of this novel.

Still, the core concept of an ancient alien race poised to return and wreak havoc in the galaxy is an intriguing one, and it might be the encouragement I need to try the second book in the series – if nothing else to see if some of the problems I encountered here have been straightened out.

My Rating:

Reviews

TEN LOW, by Stark Holborn – #SciFiMonth

Ten Low is another discovery I owe to my fellow book lovers, and in this specific case to Tammy at Books, Bones and Buffy.  Her mention of Mad Max, Firefly and Dune was more than enough to pique my interest, and the story proved to be a non-stop, breathless adventure that led me to the discovery of a well-crafted, intriguing alien world.

Said world, or rather moon, is Factus, a place mostly inhabited by ex-convicts, smugglers and die-hard settlers trying to eke out a harsh life in a place that is mostly deserts and barren plains. Some sort of civil war has been going on for some time between two factions, The Accord and the Free Limits, with the former getting the upper hand and now dictating terms and policies all across the colonized worlds: it’s clear that there is a great deal of resentment still going on, something that still bleeds over interactions and colors the way day-to-day business is conducted. And let’s not forget the moon’s other problem, the low level of oxygen that requires painful adaptation and, in extreme cases, some highly sought-out oxy supplements in the form of marbles, that work just as well as currency.

The titular Ten Low used to be an army medic, and she was jailed for some unnamed crime (even though we’ll learn something about it in the course of the story): she’s an escaped convict, and one with a huge burden of guilt on her shoulders – what she calls the tally – that she endeavors to balance out by offering her medical services to anyone who needs them.  For this very reason, when she observes the crash of an Accord ship she rushes to the site to help the survivors, and manages to save a young girl – a child really, or so she appears, because Gabriella Ortiz is a famous general, part of an experiment in genetic enhancement that turned a number of children into chillingly effective military commanders.

Instead of being grateful, young Gabriella is quite harsh toward Ten, constantly calling her ‘traitor’ – one has to wonder if it’s the effect of the conditioning or if her attitude would have been the same nonetheless – but she has to bow, grudgingly, to Ten’s superior knowledge of survival on Factus, where the harsh environmental conditions are only one of the dangers the two have to face: outlaws, thieves and the feared Seekers, a sort of crazy cult whose adepts harvest the organs of their victims. In this sort of lawless world, reaching a modicum of safety for her young charge proves to be quite a journey for Ten, especially when she discovers that the crash was far from an accident and that Gabriella’s safety is threatened by more than the “normal” perils of Factus…

Ten Low is indeed an action-packed story, the kind that compels you to keep reading by presenting a chain of events that feels both inescapable and terrifying, not unlike being on a runaway train rolling at high speed toward a chasm: the lives of the characters are constantly in peril, to the point that even asking for help might lead to life-or-death situations, and there is hardly any room for a moment of relief. Still, the author manages to develop the characters quite well through their interactions, particularly where Ten and Gabriella are concerned: to me they are polar opposites, the former being someone burdened by a heavy, guilt-ridden past, the latter doggedly hanging on to what might prove a very tenuous, uncertain future.  It did not take me long to connect with Ten, thanks to her intriguing mix of willpower and vulnerability, of strength and dogged determination – not to mention the intriguing link with the “Ifs”, the weird alien creatures who seem able to manipulate the space-time continuum, are attracted by crossroad events that might lead to multiple resolutions and who appear very focused on Ten’s actions and choices.

Gabriella remains contemptuous and abrasive from beginning to end, and there are times when her snotty attitude really grated on my nerves: one might expect at least a modicum of gratitude for being saved from certain death, right? But after a while the young girl’s aloofness looks more like a defensive measure than anything else, and her dealings with Ten morph into sarcasm, as a way of not acknowledging a change in perspective that is nonetheless there.

Alongside them there are other awesome characters, like smuggler queen Falco and her G’hals – henchwomen, soldiers – which brings the… female quotient of this story into a quite high range: I loved how women can be as brave, ruthless and bloody-minded as men and yet, considering the harshness of this world, its “live and let die” philosophy, they still come across as capable of higher sentiments like loyalty and team integrity, turning them into well-rounded figures that made this story even more enjoyable.

If I wanted to find any fault with this novel it would be in the scarcity of the historical background, so to speak, since I’m still quite curious about the Accord/Free Limits conflict and the way that war was waged. While I acknowledge that such information would have proved a burden for such a fast-paced narrative, I would not mind gathering more information about this vision of the universe: should the author decide to go back to Factus and these characters, it might be the occasion to create some more depth for this world, and I hope that this will not be my last encounter with these characters and this environment – on the contrary, I look forward to it.

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

BECOMING SUPERMAN, by J. Michael Strackzynski

Biographies are not part of my usual “reading menu”, but in this very special case I decided to make an exception: J. Michael Strackzynski (JMS for brevity) is the creator – among an amazing number of other works in several mediums – of the SF show Babylon 5, which I consider the peak of televised storytelling, and not just where science fiction is concerned.   It was Babylon 5 which brought me to this book, because I’m in the middle of the complete rewatch of the series I’ve been promising myself for a while: since I’ve been aware of JMS’ autobiography for some time, I decided to read it in the hope of gleaning a few more details about the creation of my favorite show.  

What I found was a completely unexpected account of a dreadful childhood, a harrowing youth and a constant, never-ending struggle to keep faith with the uncompromising moral compass that was born as a reaction to those early horrors.  I am not going to dwell on those details from JMS’ past, suffice it to say that his childhood and youth can be labeled as a nightmare whose main players were an abusive, alcoholic and control-freak father, a psychically troubled mother incapable of defending herself or her children, and a grandmother about whom the less said, the better. Add to that a constant status of extreme poverty and endless moves across the country that prevented JMS from forming any lasting friendships, and you have the “perfect” recipe for disaster: he himself, at some point, writes that “If there is anything remarkable about my life, it is that I did not come out the other side a serial killer”.

What prevented him from turning to a life of crime or from becoming, in turn, an abuser or worse? Comic books – and more precisely the character of Superman, who gave the young JMS a role model to draw inspiration and guidance from, and a set of stories whose heroes made choices based on a set of moral guidelines that were sorely lacking from his home life.  There is a passage in the book in which the author describes the moment in which he realized he had a choice in front of him, that of following in his father’s footsteps or to negate this “heritage” and walk in the opposite direction: in that passage he tells how he drew a list of his father’s most frequent behaviors, and a list of all their antitheses that would guide his life from then on, and to which he would adhere without fail. And now that I’ve read this book, and this particular section, one of my favorite quotes from Babylon 5 comes to mind, and takes a deeper shade of meaning:

There is always choice. We say that there is no choice only to comfort ourselves with a decision we have already made.

Harsh as childhood and youth were for JMS, his adult life turned out to be one of struggle still, not only with financial issues but with his career as a writer: having discovered the power of narrative, he chose to become a crafter of stories in many different mediums, from animation to comic books to television and movies, but always keeping his unwillingness to compromise front and center, which did not help in dealing with censors or studio executives or all those “powers that be” convinced they knew better than anyone what the public wanted – or deserved.  What others might have labeled as a difficult personality, is instead a steadfast faithfulness to one’s own principles, even at the cost of losing everything: we can find this kind of attitude in many of his characters, which are heroes not because they perform great deeds, but because they are average people who find the courage to do the right thing in the most challenging circumstances, without ever giving up on the basic principles of decency and humanity.  It’s indeed not surprising that in the course of Babylon 5’s arc the final lines of Tennyson’s Ulysses are often quoted as a message in that direction:

[…] to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Given what I’ve learned from this autobiography, what so far was mere admiration for JMS’s writing skills in the creation of memorable characters delivering even more memorable lines (many of which I know by heart), turned into admiration for the person behind those stories, for the individual who had the moral fortitude to escape from the injuries of a terrible past and turn into a powerful, talented and inspirational storyteller.  Becoming Superman is a hard book to read at times, and yet it’s also a compelling one because of the underlying hope it manages to convey even in the bleakest moments, just as one of his characters says:

[…] hope that there can always be new beginnings – even for people like us.

I can only highly recommend this book: if you are aware of JMS’ work, it will open a new, enlightening window into his creative process; and if you are not, maybe it will drive you on a journey of discovery. In the end, you will find out that it was quite worth it.

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Reviews

INTO THE BLACK NOWHERE (Unsub #2), by Meg Gardiner

When, not long ago, I discovered Meg Gardiner as a crime/thriller writer, I vowed to read more of her works soon, and for once I was able to fulfill this promise to myself. Into the Black Nowhere is the second novel in the Unsub series, and once again it deals with the hunt for a serial killer – in this case, as I’ve since learned, one tailored on the heinous deeds of Ted Bundy.

Caitlin Hendrix, the protagonist of the search for the so-called Prophet, the serial murderer whose actions were portrayed in Unsub, is now working as the latest addition to the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit: at the start of the book the team is sent to Texas where a series of disturbing killings is plaguing the small town of Solace.  On Saturday nights women are disappearing literally into thin air, with practically no sign of a struggle, and when their bodies are found they are all dressed in nightgowns, fully made up and surrounded by Polaroid pictures of other victims – many, many more than the accounted-for recent disappearances.

When similar victims are targeted outside of town, it becomes clear that the FBI is dealing not only with a very clever perpetrator, but also one who is fully prepared to play a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with his pursuers, certain that he will prove smarter than them, and untouchable.  Thanks to some unexpected information provided by a woman who may have crossed paths with the killer in the past, and has been living in abject fear since then, the team sets their sights on an individual who seems to enjoy taunting them, and it will take all of Caitlin’s physical and mental stamina to gain the upper hand and stop the escalating killing spree.

Law enforcement procedures are front and center here, even more than they were in Unsub, which makes for an enthralling read – and one where the “gore factor” is kept to a minimum, focusing instead on the methods employed to build the different clues into as clear a picture as possible: what I liked most is the fact that we, as readers, are privy to the same level of information as the police forces, so that it feels as we are right in the center of the action and not observing it from an all-knowing, vantage position, which makes for a more intriguing story and one that moves with a breathless, relentless pace.  Even though at some point the identity of the killer ceases to be a mystery, the story never loses its momentum, turning from a fierce hunt for a nameless, faceless man, into a battle of wills and wits between opposing forces – a battle whose outcome is not certain until the very end, which offers many exciting action sequences and a constant adrenaline flow.

Character-wise, it was interesting meeting Caitlin again and seeing how her past experiences – those of her troubled youth and the more recent ones in the hunt for the Prophet – have left their mark on her and are coloring her present attitude: where in the first book she was out to prove that she could be an effective police officer despite her family’s heavy past, here she is the “rookie”, and needs to demonstrate that her previous success was not a fluke and that she could rightly belong in the FBI’s elite team.  Still, she is a flawed individual, one who is deeply scarred both physically and emotionally, and this factor is the one that lends her the human quality that many so-called kickass heroines lack: deep-seated insecurities play a pivotal role in her psychological makeup, but at the same time they prove (in this particular context) to be an asset of sorts when she decides to confront the killer on his hunting ground – an asset but also a danger, because her adversary is a cunning individual, ready to perceive and exploit any sign of weakness in his potential victims.  

These confrontations offer several moments of hair-raising uncertainty because there is no assurance that the outcome will be the hoped-for one.  Which brings me to the window opened by the author on the mind of the serial killer, whose trains of thought and motivations are showcased with no recourse to morbid detail or – worse – mustache-twirling inner musings: you see a man determined to pursue his murderous instincts but at the same time able to project a suave, non-threatening exterior that becomes even more terrifying when compared to the evil lurking beneath, and made me wonder more than once how many of these monsters are hiding under the façade of normalcy we see every day. It’s a chilling thought indeed…

Back to the characters, there is one who deserves a special mention: special agent Rainey is one of the senior officers in Caitlin’s team, and I very much enjoyed her no-nonsense attitude first, and then the fact that she acts as a form of distant mentor for Caitlin, guiding her with a delightful dry humor through the obstacles and pitfalls of her new profession. Rainey is both an experienced agent and a mother, combining her professional and personal lives into a seamless, apparently effortless whole: it’s the kind of depiction that can only reinforce a concept that fiction still has some troubles dealing with.

This second, riveting book from an author I only recently discovered can only persuade me to explore more of Meg Gardiner’s works (and I saw there is a good number of them): as samples of her writing skills both Unsub and Into the Black Nowhere are very encouraging for my future explorations of her novels, of which the third volume in this series will certainly be the next one – and soon.

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THE BLACKTONGUE THIEF (Blacktongue #1), by Christopher Buehlman

When an author I’ve previously read decides to write in a different genre I’m always more than curious, and this foray into fantasy from horror author Christopher Buehlman was no exception: a few fellow bloggers who read The Blacktongue Thief before me mentioned the appealing mix between humor and grimness, which led me to think the book’s overall tone would be in the same range as Joe Abercrombie’s, but once I started the novel I found something quite different, while equally enjoyable. If you’ve read Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld, you will know what I mean when I describe Buehlman’s approach to narrative as a fine balance between adventure, bleakness and humor, a mix fueled by the main character’s unique voice and his happy-go-lucky, irreverent attitude that endeared him to me from the very start and turned him into an entertaining, delightful protagonist who hogs the limelight with no effort at all.

Kinch Na Shannack is a member of the Takers Guild, which means he’s a thief, but sadly for him a very indebted one: the tuition fees he owes to the Guild have not been paid in full, and until he does – devolving his hard-earned profits to them – he must go around with a tattoo on his cheek that makes him the object of sonorous slaps in every tavern: those who hit him can get a free drink, courtesy of the Guild.  Hard-pressed to pay back his… ahem… student loan, Kinch falls in with a group of highwaymen, and the first victim they pick is quite the wrong one: Galva is a skilled warrior and she dispatches the would-be thieves without breaking a sweat.  Tasked by the Guild to attach himself to Galva, who is on a mission of rescue, Kinch strikes a bargain with her and the two embark on a journey through a land infested by giants, goblins and assorted monsters, gathering a young witch and a former countryman of Kinch along the way. Oh, and let’s not forget Galva’s quite impressive war corvid and the adorable Bully, blind cat with some surprises under his whiskers! 😀

Kinch is a thief indeed, not only because that’s his chosen profession, but because he literally steals the scene from the get go, relaying his adventures – and those of his companions – with a flippant, often profane delivery that nonetheless manages to convey a great deal of information about his world. And what a world this is, indeed… One that is barely recovering from a number of wars with flesh-eating goblins, and is now facing the very real possibility of an invasion by giants; a world where magic is present in many forms and can be learned and used though careful training – Kinch himself has acquired and can use a trick or two. And then there is the Takers’ Guild: not the only guild on the territory, but certainly the most powerful, and clearly willing to amass even more influence through ruthless political maneuvering and a spy system that would be the envy of many such entities in our very real world.

The quest involving Kinch and Galva, together with young witch Norrigal and the thief’s old pal Malk should be a noble one, at least in the intention of Galva the knight, who is on a mission to rescue her queen, but thanks to the uneven mix of the group it turns into a riotous adventure punctuated by weird meetings, bizarre happenings and a few truly scary encounters that pay due homage to the author’s roots in the horror genre. And here is one of the true achievements of the story, Buehlman’s ability to seamlessly blend Kinch’s devil-may-care delivery of the journey with a few moments of blood-chilling dread: it takes great skill to depict a scene in which sea-faring goblins are butchering a human captive for their meal and turn it into a song-driven affirmation of courage and life; or to showcase what looks like a game of tug-of-war and suddenly turn it into a deadly affair resulting in a very unexpected loss – if you’ve read the book and know what I’m referring to, I can tell you that I’m still reeling at the way that scene ended.

The whole story revolves around Kinch Na Shannack, of course, partly because he’s the – sometimes unreliable – narrator of it, but mostly because it’s a sort of coming of age journey: the thief is a grown man, as far as age is concerned, but he’s still trying to learn who he is, what he wants (apart from repaying his debt to the Guild, that is…) and where his loyalties lie. He might depict himself as a foul-mouthed, unscrupulous individual:

If honor decided to attend our adventures, I only hoped I’d recognize her; she’d been pointed out to me a few times, but we’d never really gotten acquainted.

or offer his more juvenile, irritating behavior in many situations:

The lead dog […] huffed two low barks. I barked back at him. I don’t know what I said, but it might have involved his mother, because he began to growl.

but under these masks he wears he’s basically a good person, and Kinch shows that when trouble and danger come knocking at the party’s door and his actions belie his outward flippant attitude.  He is… well, a heroic anti-hero, for want of a better definition, and that’s one of the reasons he captures the readers’ attention and keeps it firmly focused – and in so doing decrees the success of this story.

Perversely enough, this intense focus on Kinch – no matter how rewarding in the overall economy of the story – is the reason the other characters suffer a little and don’t get the space they deserve: they are well fleshed-out, granted, and offer the perfect foil to our reckless protagonist, but still they are somewhat relegated to the sidelines, and that bothered me a little because I would have loved to learn more about silently heroic Galva or impishly delightful Norrigal, but still I quite enjoyed this novel – particularly when the breathless finale kept me on the edge of my seat – and I more than look forward to seeing what Christopher Buehlman has in store for his brazen thief, and for us readers.

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