Reviews

Review: EMPIRE OF DUST (Psi-Tech #1), by Jacey Bedford

 

There are several interesting themes, at the basis of this debut novel, that I found intriguing, telepathy being the foremost of them, and I enjoyed how it was woven into the background of a galaxy-spanning civilization ruled by corporations and therefore plagued by the usual afflictions of economic interests and greed.  The end result might not have been completely successful at times, but it was a fast and entertaining read, and one that holds the promise of developing into something much more substantial.

The main character, Cara Carlinni, is a telepath on the run: formerly employed by one of the two big galactic corporations, Alphacorp, she is now hiding from her boss and former lover Ari Van Bleiden because of the vital information she possesses and that could damage him if it came out into the open.  Empire of Dust‘s take on telepathy is an intriguing one: people with such potential (which does not limit itself to mind reading) are enrolled by the big corporations and provided with an implant that enhances such abilities, allowing them to communicate across vast distances, for example, or to merge with a ship’s instruments to better guide it through space.  The implants also work as a sort of locator beacon, and for this reason Cara is not activating it (although that causes her a great deal of stress) and taking menial jobs to survive.

Having been discovered once again by Van Bleiden’s minions, Cara connects with another telepath, Ben Benjamin, working for Alphacorp’s rivals, the Trust, and manages to escape on his ship. Despite the initial difficulties in their encounter, Ben decides to help her escape and recruits her, under a false identity, for the latest mission he’s been assigned to together with a team of specialized telepaths, that of assisting a group of anti-technology colonists settle on the new world of their choice and start a back-to-the-origins kind of life.  Of course Van Bleiden’s hounds have not given up their search, and other kinds of corporate mischief threaten the safety of both Cara and Ben, not to mention that the difficult co-existence between the telepaths and the Luddite colonists adds another level of danger to the mission.  And of course between the two main characters some feelings are developing…

As I said, while Empire of Dust proved to be an entertaining read, and one that showed some promise for the future, I could not avoid feeling that in some instances it felt a little old fashioned, reminding me of the kind of stories written in the ’60s or thereabouts, stories that at times glossed over in-depth examination in favor of advancing the plot: there is nothing wrong about this kind of choice, of course, but when I’m given glimpses of an advanced civilization and the way it works, I like to know more, to see how certain details came to be to better understand how they apply to the story.  This novel gave me the impression that there was much more underlying the events being described, but that the author had shied away from delving deeper into them, so that my curiosity ended up bordering into mild frustration.

On the other side of the spectrum, though, the theme of the Ecolibrians, the colonists searching for a virgin world to be colonized in the old way, without assistance from machines and other technological implements, is an intriguing one: the “return to nature” movement is not a novel idea, but here it proves interesting because of its desire for a simpler way of life, despite all the drawbacks that such a choice entails, especially in a new, potentially hostile world whose dangers have not been completely assessed.  In any technologically advanced society there are always people who feel the need to distance themselves from the perceived slavery to everyday’s gadgets, and in this novel the colonists make us think of the mid-nineteenth century adventurers who moved west on oxen-driven wagons, bent on facing the unknown in search of a better way of life.  Of course there are always extreme elements driven by the need to step even further, and those depicted in Empire of Dust provide for some of the more dramatic, tension-filled moments, showing us how human nature basically remains the same, no matter the location or the time frame.

The same duality in plot I mentioned above extends to characterization as well: the “good guys” are portrayed well and give birth to rounded, believable figures it’s easy to picture in one’s mind.  I quite enjoyed the slow-building relationship between Cara and Ben, the way their interaction started off with unspoken truths and withheld secrets, to move gradually toward trust and then love – and I’m glad to report that the love story is not central to the novel, but only one of its elements. As a matter of fact, I ended up rooting for them and hoping that the misunderstandings and problems that afflicted their relationship would be resolved: these two start out as co-conspirators, move on to comrades and partners in danger and then progress toward something deeper – no insta-love here, thankfully.

Unfortunately, I can’t say as much about the antagonists, since they on the whole look more like the cookie-cutter variety of baddies, and if any of them sported some mustache I’m sure they would have twirled them evilly. Here lies my main contention with Empire of Dust, because the “bad guys” are all irredeemably bad, and just for the sake of it – especially Ari Van Bleiden and his theatrically cruel sidekicks.  I would have enjoyed a little more depth in them, and not characters merely driven by malice for the sake of it.

On the whole, however, this was a very enjoyable novel, and I have no difficulty in ascribing any flaw I detected to its nature as a debut work: the promise for better pacing and characterization is there and I will certainly keep on reading this series in the hope to see those promises flourish.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Short Story Review: CANOE, by Nancy Kress

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

 

CANOE, by Nancy Kress

Another story from an author I’ve encountered before in very interesting reads: this time she offers a quite poignant story of a small exploration crew and of a huge discovery in the farthest reaches of space.

The Herschel is a new breed of ship sporting a revolutionary kind of drive that can take it well away from the Solar System, and its four-people (plus one artificial construct) crew is headed toward Luhman 16, the first alien system to be visited by humans – a system comprised of two stars and six planets.  The most interesting of them, an ice-covered planet with sixteen moons, suddenly appears to be escaping its sun’s hold, plunging into the even colder depths of space: knowing that their time for exploration is limited, the crew of the Herschel rush to complete, as far as possible, all the measurements they were scheduled to do, and suddenly something quite unexpected meets their eyes.

The two men and two women in the Herschel’s crew are highly trained professionals but also human beings, with all the flaws and troubles that we have been carrying with us since the dawn of time, and that we will probably take along once we’ll take to space, so that the long voyage, the protracted inactivity and the unavoidable boredom have taken their toll on their interpersonal relationships, especially that of Rachel, a biologist of Samoan origins, and Peter, the scion of an influential WASP family – the two have indulged in a brief fling that ended in a terrible row, straining the already tense atmosphere aboard the ship.

But such petty troubles vanish almost instantaneously once an unexpected discovery changes the scope and goals of the Herschel’s mission, forcing the four of them to re-assess their outlook on it and their long-term goals: Rachel in particular, thinking about her exploring ancestors who braved the oceans in search of new homes, strongly feels that need to the point that it becomes her primary drive.

At times poetic and quite touching, this is a story that will remain with me for a long time.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: 13 MINUTES, by Sarah Pinborough

 

My previous experience with Sarah Pinborough’s work through her novels Mayhem and Murder led me to expect only the best from this author, but I have to say that with 13 Minutes those expectations were more than exceeded: from start to finish this story kept me glued to the book in an adrenaline-rich rollercoaster that gave the label of ‘unputdownable’ a whole new level of meaning.

16-year old Natasha is rescued from the icy river in which she fell, and literally brought back to life by the paramedics, since she was clinically dead for 13 minutes. No one knows how she ended in the freezing waters, least of all Natasha herself who suffers from retrograde amnesia, so the investigators are looking both at attempted suicide – although nothing in Natasha’s life appears to lead in this direction – and at foul play.

This latter option seems to gain some substance when Natasha notices the strange behavior of her two best friends, Jenny and Hayley, who seem to be hiding something: the three of them, dubbed “the Barbies” by their school mates because of their looks and popularity, used to be a close knit group standing at the top of their peers’ social standing, equally admired and envied by everyone, but now there seems to be an insincere overtone in Jenny’s and Hayley’s demeanor, something that alarms and arouses Tasha’s suspicions.  For this reason she places some distance between herself and the other two Barbies, and reconnects with Rebecca, who used to be her best friend when they were younger and was mercilessly discarded when Tasha opted to move in more glamorous circles.

For her own part Becca, despite the devil-may-care attitude developed after being shunned by Tasha, is all too eager to resume the friendship and is able to silence her qualms about ditching her new friend Hannah, a plain but steadfast girl with whom she’s become close, in her turn adopting the same heartless approach exhibited by Tasha in the past: she’s aware of the profound injustice of the whole situation, but at the same time she is consumed by the need to get to the bottom of the mystery and in that way regain her place by Tasha’s side.

From this point on, the hints and clues about what might really have happened in that fateful night are laid out in a breadcrumb trail that offers misdirections and red herrings rather than answers, until the final revelation that comes as a shock and a surprise – at least that’s what it turned out to be for me since I could never have figured out that this was the intention of the author all along.

The first consideration that came to my mind once I closed the book was that I’m glad to have gone through my teenage years without major troubles, never having had to face the kind of peer pressures that Sarah Pinborough describes in this novel: granted, when I was a teenager (which was a very, very long time ago…) there was none of the aggressive viciousness described here, none of the sick thrill of ganging up on a victim for the simple pleasure of seeing to their moral and social destruction – of course there were closed groups and cliques even back then, but those who were not part of them were simply left to their own devices, not targeted as the victims of choice in the guise of Stephen King’s Carrie, for example.

Here though, physical looks and social standing seem to be the parameters by which people are measured, with those at the top (in this case the Barbies) laying down the laws ruling the microcosm represented by the school environment. Such a volatile mix is also compounded by the presence of social media and their swift diffusion of news, comments and judgements which can make or break one’s image with a viral swiftness of propagation.  When considering the ease with which the mere perception of an individual can be changed on the sole basis of a post or a comment that’s shared almost instantly across the web, it’s uncomfortably evident that this is nothing short of a lethal weapon that’s being wielded by people who seem ignorant of its inherent danger – or are they?  While it’s clear that teenage years are the most difficult transition time in the growth of a human being, it’s also evident that what used to be unthinking childish malice ends up becoming a well-honed knife these young people know how to wield with unerring, cruel precision.

On this disturbing background, the main characters all come across as quite unlikable, a mix of shallowness and immaturity that does not spare even Becca, who on the surface prides herself in not caring for the Barbies’ less… grounded interests, but deep down feels the need to belong, to be accepted, and for the sake of this acceptance does not think twice about adopting the other girls’ mean standards of behavior.  What’s interesting here is that the story changes its point of view every time the author switches from one character to another, and after a while it becomes clear that many of them – if not all – are unreliable narrators, some of them because they don’t have all the clues to move forward, and some of them because they are lying outright, as the reader discovers at some point.

And this is indeed the major strength of 13 Minutes: Sarah Pinborough leads her readers through a merry chase in which she keeps offering ambiguous leads that take them toward dead ends, each time building what seems like a sure development only to pull the rug from under their feet at the last minute, and leaving them clueless and disoriented and back to square one. Manipulation is indeed the code word here: of emotions, needs and desires visited by characters on each other, and of expectations and perceptions offered by the author to her readers and then dismantled with a snap of her fingers.

I am unable to recall a story that both baffled and impressed me in such a way, but one thing is certain, that my admiration for Ms. Pinborough’s skills reached new heights and confirmed her in the “must read everything she writes” position she already enjoyed.

Very highly recommended…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE INFLUENCE MACHINE, by Sean McMullen

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

THE INFLUENCE MACHINE, by Sean McMullen

A delightful tale with some steampunk overtones, set in Victorian England (or maybe an alternate version of it) in which Scotland Yard inspector Albert Grant finds himself confronted with extraordinary events and an equally extraordinary young woman who makes him change his outlook on the world.

Despite his young age – he’s twenty-four years old – Grant is as cynical as they get: the son of an impoverished family, he was sent to the best schools where he learned modern scientific methods to be applied to police work. Despised and ridiculed by his peers for his family’s misfortune and kept at a distance by his colleagues because of his superior education, he lives in a sort of cocoon made of loneliness and contempt that at times turns to disappointment when he realizes that there is no amount of scientific knowledge that can outdo the street-wise experience of a beat policeman.

So, when he’s called to investigate the case of Lisa Elliot, a young lady who was arrested on suspicion of illegal activities, he finds in her a kindred spirit and someone with whom he can discuss scientific facts with the certainty of being understood. For her part Miss Elliot shows him an incredible device that can afford a glimpse into the future or maybe an alternate reality, something that instantly draws the attention of the powers that be and sets in motion an unpleasant chain of events.

Among the details I most enjoyed in this story are the underlying comment about the Victorian era’s mindset, especially toward women, and the tentative friendship between Grant and Constable Duncan, a man that the inspector first treats with his usual disdain, only to slowly change his opinion and start forming a working relationship based on mutual respect.

A very pleasant read, indeed…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: A VEIL OF SPEARS (A Song of the Shattered Sands #3), by Bradley Beaulieu

 

It took me a while to finally get to this third installment in Bradley Beaulieu’s Song of the Shattered Sands, but I finally managed to learn what happened after the ending of book 2, where many narrative threads were left in a state of flux, and to satisfy my burning curiosity.

Over the course of the previous two books in this series, whose scope has now grown from the initial three to six volumes, the focus broadened from Çeda’s revenge quest to a more complex political scenario of alliances and betrayals, political maneuvering and old mysteries, just as the background expanded from the fascinating city of Sharakhai to the outlying desert wastes and neighboring realms.   While this has enriched the narrative, adding many more facets to it, it has also proved to be something of a mixed blessing, because at times I felt quite lost by the number of players and their conflicting or interlacing agendas, and by the revelations that came to light as Çeda’s journey progressed, so that once the gods and demons of the story’s pantheon came into play as well, interfering in a more direct way with the warring humans and their plans, I could not avoid being somewhat overwhelmed by something approaching sensory overload.

On one hand I understand how the story could not be sustained only by Çeda’s mission, since that particular narrative thread had a limited scope and it would have been difficult to carry it forward for the now increased number of books, but on the other I could not avoid the sensation – less apparent in book 2 and much stronger here – that the story sometimes takes a meandering path that feels a little… wasteful, for want of a better word: the tight pacing I encountered in Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, one of the many reasons I loved that book deeply, faltered a little in the second volume and it does so a bit more in this one – at least in my perception – and I could not keep myself from worrying that the extension of the series to six volumes might ultimately weaken the strong concept at the basis of this work and also the role of the main character.

Yes, because Çeda surrenders the limelight here even more often than in book 2, and I have to admit that I missed her strong presence and her determined focus every time the point of view shifted to another character, no matter how interesting: granted, the difficult path walked by Ramahd as he aids Queen Meryam in her schemes while trying to hold on to his own humanity and basic decency is a fascinating one, just to name one example; just as the first cracks appearing in what used to be the Kings’ united front, now that the first deaths have started to upset the balance of power, look like a prelude to their downfall; or again it’s good to see how Emre, Çeda’s longtime friend and once-lover, continues his growth from a street thief to a warrior inspired by an ideal bigger than himself.  Still, not one of them holds for me the same relevance as Çeda does, and every time she has to step aside and let other stories take center stage, my interest does flag a little…

That said, Çeda still remains the lynchpin on which much of the plot revolves, thanks to the inner strength that is tougher than her doubts, to her fierce loyalty and single-mindedness, even more so in this book where many of the separate factions working to undermine the Kings’ merciless rule start uniting in a common purpose, a development that promises to bring exciting consequences in the next books – especially as we get closer to the final showdown.  Moreover, it’s through Çeda that we learn other anguishing aspects of the asirim’s tragedy, of the callous lie that ensnared them and led to their transformation, and of the huge reservoir of anger and hatred that moves them: as terrifying as they are, now that I know about their origins I cannot avoid a deep sense of pity for all that they have lost.   And again, Çeda’s meeting with the branch of the family she never knew, because of her mother’s estrangement from them, offers a delightful pause in her harrowing search, and gives her some much needed roots to anchor her down and lessen her feeling of isolation.

These more… personal elements, however, end up being a little lost in the grander scheme of things that is taking shape as the story unfolds in all its complexity, and that’s the main reason of my slight – but unavoidable – disappointment with book 3 and the persistent sensation that ‘more’ is not necessarily ‘better’: while the scope of the battle was confined to a limited number of characters, it was easier to keep abreast of them, their plots and schemes and endeavors, but now that the players on stage are more numerous, and have been joined by gods, demons, sand wyrms and whatnot, I feel a little lost and confused and wonder if what started as a good vengeance and political upheaval story will not morph into something else…

Still, I know I’m looking forward to the next installment for this series: my desire to see Çeda succeed in her quest is indeed stronger than any of the doubts I expressed above.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

TV Review: THE EXPANSE, Season 3 (spoiler free)

 

The on-screen translation of one of the best space opera book series to see the light in recent times has now reached its third season – one that for some harrowing days also seemed destined to be the final one, a subject to which I will return in a short while.

What never ceases to amaze me, in this visual version of James S.A. Corey’s epic, is the fact that even as a book reader I never experienced any dull moment, never took anything for granted, because the pace of the story is such that expectations always run high, even for those who know how the narrative journey develops.  This has become particularly true with this third season, where actions and characters have been shifted in unexpected ways, or changed completely, so that the viewing experience has become fraught with uncertainty for book readers as well as newcomers to The Expanse’s storyline.  If, with the previous two seasons, I was merely eager to see how certain events would be portrayed on screen – and still found myself enthralled by the way the creators managed that – now I am often speculating, together with non-book-readers, about how the story will move forward, what will happen to the characters, and so on.  The joy of seeing this amazing epic brought to the small screen is now combined with the deep sense of wonder and expectation that should always be part and parcel of any such experience.

The actors’ portrayal of the characters keeps being very enjoyable, and the characters themselves continue to gather new facets and offer deeper insights on their psychology and what makes them tick: we are given, for example, an important revelation about Naomi’s past (one that in the books happens much, much later than the point reached by the TV series), one that explains many of her past and present actions, and from my point of view gives some subtext to Dominique Tipper’s choice to always add a veil of wistfulness to her interpretation of Naomi, one that might have been a subtle form of foreshadowing.   Another delightful surprise came from Amos and the friendship he creates with distraught scientist Prax, who is desperately trying to find his missing daughter: actor Wes Chatam managed to keep his Amos the strong-armed, borderline psychopathic character we all know and love, but at the same time showed his gentler streak in his support of Prax, all without once changing Amos’ basic ruthlessness – not a mean feat indeed, and one that reached its peak in the famous (if you saw the show) “I am that guy” scene.

Fans of both Bobbie Draper, the Martian marine, and of Chrisjen Avasarala, the consummate, foul-mouthed politician, will certainly have enjoyed as I did their exchanges and how the balance of power shifts between the two of them according to the situation: where politics and the handling of people is concerned, Avasarala holds the upper hand, applying all her skills and craftiness to the manipulation of anyone unlucky enough to find themselves on her path, and at the same time she acts as a teacher to Bobby, who is indeed an amazing warrior, but suffers from a form of innocence where interpersonal talents are required.  On the other hand, when they are in danger and fighting for their lives, the roles become reversed, and it’s Bobbie’s turn to impart vital knowledge that can make the difference between life and death: the shared dangers they faced and are still facing have created a bond of mutual trust and respect between them, so that they know that any advice coming from the other is based on sound experience and can be heeded without reservations.

And these are only a handful of examples of what one can expect from this set of remarkable characters…

Story-wise, the third season looks more articulated and far-reaching: the mystery about the origins of the alien protomolecule now encompasses the questions about its goals (especially after the creation of the huge space ring), and intersects in a dramatic, breath-stealing way with the conspiracy to weaponize the alien substance and use it to affect the already precarious political balance of the Solar System. We spend more time on Earth, witnessing the power play between contrasting political forces, but we are also afforded a much closer look at Belter society and interactions as the Belters ask for a front seat on the general playing field thanks to their retrieval of the Mormon ship Nauvoo, now renamed Behemoth.   And speaking of space, it’s worth mentioning how well The Expanse shows the mechanics of life in vacuum, be it on a ship or a station, and the effects of microgravity on day-to-day existence or on the human body: space is vast and dangerous, we are all aware of this fact in one way or another, but it’s through some details of this show that the full impact of this reality hits home. One of the most striking scenes I can remember is that of the corridors of a damaged ship, where the bodies of the dead keep floating in an upright position because their magnetic boots keep them anchored to the deck; or the information about the effects of microgravity on a wound, because blood clotting cannot happen in gravity’s absence.

This attention to detail is one of the series’ distinguishing marks, and one of the aspects that many commentators have touched on, together with the excellent writing and the high-quality of character portrayal, so that it is unanimously acknowledged that The Expanse is one of the best genre shows on air at present.  Which leads me to the inevitable discussion about the proverbial elephant in the room, i.e. SyFy’s decision not to carry the show after its third season, a piece of news that came as a very cold shower around the middle of Season 3’s run.

When I wrote my review for Season 1 of The Expanse, I commended SyFy’s choice to commit to a quality story (and as a book reader I knew it had quality to spare), taking a step into the right direction for the network’s own chosen field, that had been neglected for some time in favor of other kinds of entertainment that had little or nothing to do with science fiction. You can therefore imagine my dismay when I learned of the decision to take The Expanse off their schedule, because of insufficient ratings due to SyFy’s distribution contract, which provided only for live viewing, a choice that apparently was not enough for the network’s goals.

Now, I have no idea about the workings of such contracts, so I might be barking up the wrong tree here, but it would seem to me that SyFy did not take into account the huge changes in the way TV viewing is approached now: live, direct viewing has dwindled in favor of streaming services or the more mundane recording of a show – not everyone can be in front of their TV on a given day and hour, our lives just make that difficult if not impossible, so that it’s far easier to record something we are interested in, to watch it later. So, basing the ratings of a show just on live viewing seems like a very narrow-minded interpretation, or an imperfect understanding of the modern dynamics of viewership, or both. Which leads to what, in my opinion, was a short-sighted and unfortunate decision that, despite the words of praise for the show expressed in the official announcement, immediately recalled other equally unfortunate and short-sighted decisions taken by SyFy in the past, as titles like Stargate: Universe or Farscape, just to name two, come to mind.

Luckily for The Expanse, though, the show is not produced by SyFy themselves but by Alcon Entertainment, and they immediately set to work in search of a new home for the series, backed up by a huge, really huge, fan involvement that included the signing of a petition to save The Expanse, and which brought on the involvement of Amazon and its owner Jeff Bezos – a fan of the book series even before the show aired – with the result that Season 4 (and the next ones, we hope…) will see the light on Amazon Video.  While I am relieved to know that the Rocinante and its crew will keep on traveling through space, I am also sad to have witnessed this further misstep from SyFy, one that – in my opinion – once again undermines their reliability as a network dedicated to quality science fiction.  And quality is always something one should strive for, especially in this genre…

That said, I am happy to close on the positive note of The Expanse’s new – and certainly more trustworthy – home and look forward to what Season 4 will bring.  Please, keep the Roci flying!

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE ROOK (The Checquy Files #1), by Daniel O’Malley

 

When a book starts with a character waking up in a public park with no memory of one’s own identity, and surrounded by corpses wearing latex gloves, you know the authorial promise underlying such a story is that of a thrilling adventure and a journey of discovery, and that’s what’s in store for Myfanwy Thomas as she comes to under a torrential rain, with only a letter in her pocket working as an anchor to what used to be her life.

Dazed and terrified, Myfanwy follows the instructions in the letter – a missive penned by her old self who knew that her memory would be wiped and took every step to insure that her newborn persona possessed all the elements to carry on as best as she could. Myfanwy Thomas is – or rather was – a member of the Checquy, a British secret organization that for centuries has collected and trained as operatives all the people who showed supernatural abilities, employing them against any equally supernatural threat against the country.

A timid, unassuming person, Myfanwy however rose to the position of Rook in the Checquy thanks to her superior administrative abilities, which acted as compensation for her reluctance to employ her power of controlling other people’s bodies through her mind.  For some reason, though, someone in the Checquy choose to mind-wipe her, so that Myfanwy – being forewarned by several sources gifted with precognition – decided to leave to her “successor” a thick file of information about her past life and her work, so that the new Myfanwy could step into the old one’s life and even try to uncover the identity and motives of the person who harmed her in such a way.

As a premise, this does sound quite intriguing, and for the initial chapters the story did prove fascinating, provided that I exerted some light suspension of disbelief, but after a while my objections started piling up in such a way that like the proverbial elephant in the room I could not ignore them anymore, and I had to acknowledge the fact that the execution of this story ended up ruining my enjoyment of it. The uneven pace, the improbable characterization and the overall mood – that seemed to hover uncertainly between suspenseful drama and snarky humor – all added up to a huge disappointment that would have made me stop reading there and then if I had not held to the slender thread of curiosity that required I learn how this convoluted scheme would be resolved.

First problem: the pacing. The foretold wiping of her memory allows old-Myfanwy to leave extensive notes for new-Myfanwy so she can have enough elements to more or less safely navigate through her life, and in the beginning this narrative choice looked like an interesting way of detailing some necessary background. That is, until it got completely out of hand: every time a situation warrants information that new-Myfanwy does not possess, a document in the huge purple binder that old-Myfanwy left her comes to the rescue, listing in often excruciating detail some past event or the personal data on Checquy officers she needs to work with.  When that happens in the middle of a dramatic episode, the change in narrative speed feels jarring and the information – as useful as it might be – just like an obstacle to be overcome before going back to the heat of the moment. Repeat this instance a sufficient number of times, and what used to be simply upsetting becomes monumentally annoying, especially since the level of detail provided is so burdened with useless trivia that the temptation of skipping ahead to the real meat of the story becomes irresistible.  Too much of a good, useful thing is not necessarily a good thing, and in this instance the author seemed to forget – or ignore – the fact that overloading the readers with a plethora of details would prove distracting, or worse.   And then there is one question that kept nagging at me: the infamous purple binder in which old-Myfanwy crammed her previous life is a prominent feature in the story, to the point that new-Myfanwy is always carrying it around and scanning it, even in the presence of other people, which might have raised some eyebrows or given away her little problem with amnesia – and yet it never happens, which to me seems improbable at best.

Problem number two: characterization. After the initial shock of being “born” again with no memory of self, Myfanwy comes across as something of a Mary Sue: armed only with the information in the letter left by her predecessor, she proceeds to step into old-Myfanwy’s shoes with apparent little or no difficulty.  What’s more, while her previous incarnation was a timid, self-effacing creature that garnered little respect from her peers, this new woman is decisive, assertive and quite proactive, especially where her job is concerned: she can make quick, effective decisions on the direst of situations and she has no qualms about employing her supernatural powers with a strength no one suspected she possessed or felt the desire to apply – and yet no one even bats an eyelash or comments on such amazing personality changes, which sounds eminently strange for anyone, let alone a secret organization where layered screenings and security measures against enemy infiltration abound.  On the other hand, the new Myfanwy (just like the old one) has problems with social interactions, so that when faced with official meetings she reverts back to her awkward girl persona who worries more about the state of her hair or the complexities of a daring dress than about the current problem, which led me to wonder whether it was a matter of inconsistent characterization or the usual glitch that occurs when a male author writes from a female perspective. Or maybe it’s just snarky old me…

And finally, the overall mood: more than once, while reading The Rook, I was reminded of one of my main contentions with Andy Weir’s The Martian, which was the light tone that often seemed inappropriate when applied to the situation being described.   Here I encountered the same problem, as if the author were undecided whether to keep this story in a playful vein or stress the dramatic side of it, which consists of scary manifestations that end in a high number of casualties, when not dealing with the political maneuvering inside the Checquy, which appears no less vicious than an enemy’s attack.  This uncertainty about what I was reading, which could be seen as either a dark thriller with fantasy elements or a humorous take on the genre, certainly did not help in my assessment of this story, or my enjoyment of it,  and the last pages, plagued by a lot of convoluted explanations and the mandatory Evil Guy Gloating Before Killing the Heroine sounded the… death knell for this story, and I stopped reading before reaching the end, because I could not bear to go on anymore – which is a pity since the premise had all the numbers to result into a compelling book.

 

My Rating: