Reviews

THE TRIALS OF KOLI (Rampart Trilogy #2), by M.R. Carey

 

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

When I saw in my inbox a very unexpected email from Orbit announcing the ARC’s availability for the second book in M.R. Carey’s Rampart trilogy, I did not hesitate in requesting it because The Book of Koli, the first volume, was one of my best 2020 discoveries so far, and I was more than eager to learn how the protagonist’s journey away from his home village progressed. In the second volume, the focus on this post-apocalyptic world widens a little as Koli, Ursala and Cup travel in the direction of London, but character evolution remains front and center, with some interesting shifts in the interpersonal dynamics that offer promising developments for the future.

To recap the story so far: a series of environmental catastrophes and the Unfinished War left the world in shambles, and what remains of humanity seems confined only in small enclaves with little or no contact with the rest of the world. In the 200-souls village where young Koli lives the few, highly prized items of technology still functioning are in the hands of the Ramparts, the de facto leaders of the community, whose power is passed on only to the members of the Vennastin family. Once Koli discovers that the ability to wield the old tech is not tied to the Vennastins alone, he’s exiled and left to fend for himself in a world that’s become dangerous in many ways, and only his encounter first with Ursala, a sort of traveling healer, and then Cup, the former member of a death cult, increases his chances of survival and leads him on a coming-of-age and discovery journey toward London, fabled place of tech and progress.

One of the surprises of this book was that the narrative viewpoint is split between Koli and Co. on one side, and his former home of Mythen Rood on the other, through the voice of Spinner, Koli’s old friend and one-time lover, as she chronicles the events following his exile: it’s an intriguing choice, when considering the first book’s single point of view, and also a clever one because it keeps the pace lively by alternating between the two story threads, while showing how Koli’s discoveries have ultimately opened the Pandora’s box of the Vennastins’ secret and hinting at great changes in Mythen Rood’s power balance. Spinner is revealed as a layered character: at first she seems only interested in attaching herself to the Vennastins for convenience, but then she surprises the readers – and herself – by acknowledging how those apparently selfish choices have changed her and the way she looks at the world and her role in it. In the course of the story Spinner undergoes great adjustments which parallel the unsettling transformations in her small community: Koli started to perceive the possibility of a different reality through his connection with the Dream Sleeve, the piece of tech he claimed for himself, and its A.I. Monono, while Spinner here becomes aware of the wider world through a series of events that force her to mature quickly and to understand how the limited vision imposed by village life could be ultimately precarious and deadly.

For their part, Koli, Ursala and Cup (and Monono, as well) have formed an uneasy relationship: the crusty healer does not trust Cup, whose former attachment to a murderous cult makes her understandably suspicious, nor does she trust Monono and the increased abilities gained after the A.I. downloaded additional software – Ursala’s repeated requests that Koli reset the Dream Sleeve to factory standards drive a wedge of uncertainty between them that mars their former teacher/student relationship.  The dangers of the road, however, will change this balance and force the four of them to acknowledge the respective strengths, and to depend on each other for survival: the shift from grudging tolerance to playful banter and then to a sense of family is one of the most delightful surprises of the story, as are the growing friendship between Koli and Cup, the latter’s conflict with her sexuality and Ursala’s flourishing “maternal” attitude toward her charges.

Still, dangers indeed abound in the wider world: there are some sections where the small company has to fight for their lives, not just because of the natural perils of the world – like wildly mutated animals and trees – but also because of other humans who have not lost the old, ingrained penchant for dominance through aggression. There are also moments when the catastrophe that obliterated the old world manifests itself in dramatic evidence, as is the case with Koli’s first view of what remains of Birmingham: a huge field of bones that has him reacting in fear and dismay as he contemplates both the amount of people once inhabiting the land and the magnitude of the event that caused their demise, so that he feels overwhelmed by “more feeling than I could rightly manage all at once”.

If The Trials of Koli suffers a little (but only a little) from the dreaded middle book syndrome, particularly in the section devoted to the characters’ stay in the coastal village of Many Fishes, it also sets the stage for what promises to be a momentous conclusion, where hopefully many of the questions concerning the wider world and what really happened to it will be answered: the cliffhanger ending of Book 2 left me with a burning curiosity to see where the story is headed, and I’m comforted by the short interval between the first two volumes but still eager to see for myself where Koli’s journey will move next and how the developments in Mythen Rood will intersect with the main narrative.  I’m certain that Book 3 will provide those answers with the intensity I’ve come to expect from this author.

My Rating:

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY:  Books I Loved but Never Reviewed

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point, ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday (created and hosted by  The Broke and Bookish) is now being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here.  

 

 

Since I started blogging in 2014 there is a huge amount of books I read, enjoyed but never had the chance to review, and I’m very happy of this Top Ten Tuesday prompt that will give me the opportunity of talking a little about them.

 

Of course the pride of place goes to J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, which I often mentioned but never examined in depth – and here is a thought for the future, when I might decide to finally write down my considerations, after a thorough reread of course. So, ladies and gentlemen, here are THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT, by JRR Tolkien

 

Another constant feature of my exchanges with fellow bloggers is of course DUNE, by Frank Herbert, that for me is the SF equivalent of Tolkien’s works as far as the impact on my imagination goes.

 

Moving to a different genre, there is THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, by Frederick Forsyth, one of my “blasts from the past, the high adrenaline story (probably fictional, but who knows?) of a skilled marksman and killer-for-hire whose target is nothing else but Charles de Gaulle. The man is a shadow, and as elusive as smoke, and the story of the hunt for this man is one of the best thrillers I ever read.

 

EYE OF THE NEEDLE, by Ken Follett is another novel that took my breath away: it follows a German spy working undercover in England during WWII and collecting information on the Allies’ defenses and troops deployment. He is called The Needle because of his penchant for a stiletto as a weapon of choice.  This novel is a successful blend of thriller and historical fiction, and a compulsive read as well.

 

THE HUNGER GAMES, by Suzanne Collins: I read this one on the recommendation of a friend and I enjoyed the dystopian setting as well as the main character, who shortly became a sort of template for many YA heroines – not always as successful in characterization as Katniss was.

 

HEROES DIE, by Matthew Woodring Stover is a very peculiar novel, because it starts as epic fantasy, following the adventures of Caine, the Blade of Tyshalle, a fearless hero, only to reveal at some point that the fantasy setting is an alternate world in which actors like Caine are sent to playact their exploits as a form of entertainment for the viewers of our modern world. It’s a weirdly hybrid premise, but it works very well…

 

WARCHILD, by Karin Lowachee is one of the most poignant stories I ever read: young Jos is enslaved by pirates who capture the ship he was traveling on, killing all the adults. To survive in such an abusive world he will have to go to horrible extremes and suffer the anguish of torn loyalties. A highly emotional story and one that literally tore at my soul.

 

Vampires are among my favorite supernatural creatures, and the main reason I’m so fascinated by them is that SALEM’S LOT, by Stephen King, is the first book I read focusing on them, and one I still consider a fundamental story in the genre. And that scene of the young, freshly turned boy, calling to his friend from beyond the window, is one that I will never forget.

 

CHASM CITY, by Alastair Reynolds, was my introduction to the author’s Revelation Space saga: it introduced me to his rich universe and to the horrifying concept fo the Melding Plague, a virus attacking nanotechnology and from there infecting the organic material in human bodies with implants. A city so ravaged by the Plague is the background for a nightmarish search for vengeance…

 

Are there some… unsung favorites in your bookcases?

Reviews

CHAOS VECTOR (The Protectorate #2), by Megan O’Keefe

 

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

Where I was literally swept off my feet by Velocity Weapon, the first volume of this saga, the sequel took my breath away with the expanding complexity of the universe it describes and the excellent balance between action and characterization that takes the story to a new, higher level and lays the foundations for quite an explosive ending climax.

At the end of the previous book, the situation in the Ada Prime system was of tightly controlled strain, the conflict between Ada and Icarion still brewing under the surface as the rebellion and disappearance of Bero – the evolved AI running the ship Light of Berossus – further upset the precarious balance between the two powers.   Now Sanda Greeve, the pivotal figure in that series of momentous events, understands that she must find the answers to her questions alone, not being able to really trust anyone after the string of half-truths and deceptions she was subjected to: as she tries to do her best to make sense of the often conflicting information she gathers, she struggles to stay alive against what look like insurmountable odds and a chain of plots-within-plots that threatens to bring the very fragile status quo to and end…

Once again, I find myself unable to supply a decent synopsis of this high-octane story, not so much out of a lack of proper terms, but because to do so would spoil your enjoyment of it: in my review of Velocity Weapon I used the term ‘jaw dropping’ to define the surprises that were in store for us readers, and this is even more true here, where we uncover a few of the pieces of this very complicated puzzle and we understand that there must be more, much more that still needs to be brought to light. But where I feel compelled not to reveal anything about the plot of Chaos Vector, I am free to talk at length about its amazing characters, both old and new, and the way their emotional and psychological growth enhances this story and gifts it with a deep layer of humanity that grounds and complements the elements of drama and adventure.

Sanda is the kind of character that’s easy to root for, because she’s both strong and compassionate, determined and gifted with a quirky sense of humor: if before we saw her deal with courage and toughness to adversities, here she evolves from someone who reacted to circumstances to an individual who takes matters in her own hands and makes difficult decisions that might cost her, both in the short and long run, but does so out of a strong moral foundation that knows no compromises. The Sanda we meet here in Chaos Vector is a person who seems to run constantly on the last fumes of her energy, dodging short-sighted superiors, impossible odds and deadly dangers, and yet she keeps going, driven by the need to forestall what appears as an inescapable catastrophe.

What makes Sanda different here is the fact she’s not acting on her own anymore: she requires allies to do what she desperately needs to do, and the people she slowly gathers around her – like a spinning celestial body that attracts drifting matter through gravitational forces – greatly help in defining her personality’s traits and show her ability in bringing their skills to the surface as she builds them into a cohesive team.   If there is one narrative theme I enjoy it’s that of ‘found families’, a mixed bag of individuals brought together by circumstances and who are able to pool their strengths for the common good: this theme is strongly celebrated here thanks to the crew Sanda assembles out of the most disparate characters one could imagine.  On the surface, these people might look like stereotypes: Nox the former military turned rogue; Arden the tech wizard and skilled hacker; Liao the driven scientist; or again Conway and Knuth, regulations-bound junior officers – but it’s through their skillful characterization that they are revealed as individuals with their own voice and personalities, and their slow but constant growth into (to use that previous metaphor) an accretion disk around Planet Sanda. Or rather, into a family.

Sanda’s brother Biran undergoes his own transformation – maybe not as quick or outwardly evident as his sister’s, but he’s progressively leaving behind the bright-eyed ideals that fueled his career among the Keepers as he discovers that the real-politik requirements of his position are quite far from those earlier dreams, and that he needs to adapt if he still wants to do what’s right for his people. There is this core of sadness and disillusionment in Biran that lays a grey pall on him, and I’ve wondered more than once wether he will be able to remain faithful to the essence of those ideals or if the compromises he’s forced to accept will change him, and in what way.

As far as the story itself is concerned, Chaos Vector is a veritable emotional rollercoaster, spinning plot points and revelations with a relentless pace made even more implacable by the alternating POVs: most of them end with a cliffhanger-like situation, but unlike what happens in other novels these segue into equally intriguing chapters that keep your attention riveted just as much as the previous ones, resulting in a compelling page-turner where shady research labs coexist with an equally crooked guild of fixers and/or killers for hire; where some of the military show corruption through the chinks in their armor and the members of the underworld appear to possess a certain code of honor.  And of course, this being a space opera novel, there are many instances of intriguing technology: wearable access to a galaxy-wide net; healing-gel baths capable of bringing wounded back from the brink of death; gates that bridge enormous distances, and so on – but these are just… background decoration because The Protectorate, as a series, chooses to focus more on the human element of the story rather than on technological wonders, and that’s one of its winning details, the will to focus on people and the ties that bind them, on the concept of family and loyalty, on what being human means.

More than once I found myself thinking that The Protectorate possesses the perfect requirements to be turned into a space opera TV series as engaging as The Expanse, just to name one: it is my hope that enlightened executives from streaming services like Netflix or Amazon will see this story’s potential and show the foresight their Hollywood counterparts – mired in a self-defeating circle of reboots and prequels – seem to have long since lost.

In the meantime, I will look forward to the next book in line…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

MR. MERCEDES (Bill Hodges Trilogy #1), by Stephen King

 

After a long hiatus due to a mild disenchantment with Stephen King’s works, I found my way back to his novels through The Outsider and the more recent – and for me far more successful – The Institute. So I decided to retrace my steps and see what other good stories I missed in those “years of disappointment” and settled on the Bill Hodges series, starting with Mr. Mercedes: this trilogy marks a change of pace from King’s usual offerings, since it’s a crime/thriller novel with no elements of horror or supernatural activities, but as I’ve often found out we hardly need monsters to inspire dread, when the darkest depths of the human soul offer more than enough material in that sense…

Mr. Mercedes proves this theory from the very start: in 2009, as the world suffers in the grip of widespread recession, a sizable crowd forms around a stadium where the next morning a job fair will open its doors. Hundreds of hopefuls queue up in the chilling nighttime fog waiting for an opportunity, when a high-end Mercedes sedan plunges at full speed over the crowd, killing eight innocents and maiming twice as much.  Roughly one year afterwards Bill Hodges, one of the detectives working the case of the Mercedes Killings, finds himself in a deep depression brought on by his retirement and the ghosts of the cases he could not solve: he spends most of his days drinking, sitting in front of the TV watching trashy shows, and at times contemplating suicide. All this changes when he receives a letter from the killer, calling himself Mr. Mercedes, and urging the detective to put an end to his life. Forced out of his inertia, Hodges engages in a progressively more dangerous game of cat and mouse with Brady Hartsfield, the killer, teaming up with some unconventional helpers like Jerome, a tech-savvy teenager; Janey Patterson, the sister of the Mercedes’ guilt-ridden owner, driven to suicide by the killer himself; and finally Holly Gibney, Janey’s niece and a character I met in The Outsider, making her first appearance here.

Much as I enjoyed this novel, which turned out to be a compulsive read, I ended up being of two minds about it: on one side the story moved along at a fairly relentless pace and with the stakes getting progressively higher I found it practically impossible to put the book down, on the other, once all was said and done and the proverbial dust settled, my “inner nitpicker” surfaced and started pointing out several inconsistencies that I was able to overlook while I was engaged in reading, but came back to bother me afterwards.

What I liked: as usual, Stephen King’s main strength comes from characterization, and Mr. Mercedes offers many opportunities for the detailed creation of outstanding figures, starting with Bill Hodges himself, who might look like something of a cliché in that he’s the classical former detective, overweight and lonesome, who gave his all in the course of a long career paying the price in terms of family ties, and now feels useless and adrift, but ultimately shows unexpected resilience once he’s presented with the opportunity of getting closure on a case still preying on his mind for several reasons. There is a kind of twisted humor in the way Hodges evolves along the way, because the action that in the killer’s intentions should have driven him over the edge is exactly the one that revives the ex-detective’s interest in life and compels him to get out of the well of melancholy and lethargy that had enveloped him up to that point. This unexpected outcome works well within King’s overall tendency toward dark humor, which is evident both through some tongue-in-cheek references to his previous works (like IT or Pet Sematary) and through a few unexpected developments that keep frustrating the killer’s plans in a way that is, at the same time, dramatic and reminiscent of poor Wile E. Coyote’s major failures.

Brady Hartsfied stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, of course, not only because he’s the villain here, but because he’s the worst, most despicable kind of villain one could ever imagine: a person with a history of abuse, granted, but also one who is a completely abominable creature filled with the need to make his own mark on history, to be seen beyond the drab anonymity of his life, and who chooses to do so by hurting people –  not just physically hurt them, but to torture them psychologically as he does with the owner of the stolen car he used for the massacre, or with Hodges himself. There is a well of hate in Brady – directed both inward and outward – that seeks release by striking toward those he sees as more “fortunate”, and he does so with such a gleeful abandon that wipes out any trace of compassion one might feel for the damaging experiences of his past. There is a chilling, inescapable consideration that comes to mind when reading his sections in the novel: that there are, and have been, many Brady Harstfields in the real world, that a substantial number of them have doled out death and pain, and that any one of them might do so again…

Where the characters and the story-flow worked quite well for me, there are however some narrative choices that did not: for example, Hodges’ dogged determination to solve the case without involving the police. If there is a believable reason, in the beginning, to keep the new evidence and the killer’s missives to himself, and if it’s understandable how Hodges might want this “last hurrah” for himself, this rationale stops being credible once Brady raises the stakes in an… explosive way (pun intended, sorry…) and shows that the theory of the dangerous wounded animal is more than sound. The reasoning behind Hodges’ decision, that the police department is busy dealing with a huge weapons raid, sounds far too convenient to be completely believable and looks like an aberrant deus-ex-machina created to allow the “heroes” to shine on their own.

Still, the final part of the novel is such a breakneck run against time and impossible odds that it’s easy to momentarily set aside any misgivings and to let oneself be carried away toward the ending. While I might not completely appreciate the method, I enjoyed the thrill of the ride and that’s what ultimately mattered. And of course I’m now curious to see where Stephen King will take his characters in the next two novels of the series.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

LIGHT OF IMPOSSIBLE STARS (Embers of War #3), by Gareth Powell

 

It’s with the third installment of the Embers of War series that I was able to see how carefully – and shrewdly – Gareth Powell has been building this story, adding information in narrative “concentric circles” that little by little expanded our view of this universe and of the stage where the final confrontation was destined to happen.

In the first book of the trilogy, Embers of War, we met the sentient ship Trouble Dog and its crew, working for the House of Reclamation, an interstellar organization dedicated to helping endangered spacers; as the galaxy looked to be on the verge of another devastating conflict, the discovery of a mysterious portal to a different dimension led toward a slumbering fleet of automated ships, the Marble Armada, and to its awakening from a long sleep.  In book 2 the real purpose of the Marble Armada was revealed: they were built by an ancient race, the Hearthers, to fight against the Scourers, vicious dragon-like creatures from another dimension and their crab-like minions; the Armada’s solution to this threat, since the Scourers are attracted by fighting, became to relieve humanity of its means of waging war, forcing them at gunpoint to surrender the ships insuring commerce and survival across the galaxy and viewed by the Armada as the means to wage war.

As this third volume opens, Trouble Dog, its crew and some survivors they gathered along the way, are trying to hid from the Armada while they deal with diminishing power reserves and a few grievous losses. Meanwhile, near the space phenomenon called The Intrusion – a point of contact between two universes – young Cordelia Pa ekes out a meager living as an alien artifact scavenger on the Plates, a peculiar artificial world made out of connected flat surfaces and possibly a remnant of the Hearther civilization. A sudden, significant change in her life will bring Cordelia to learn the secrets hidden in her past and will put her at the center of humanity’s double struggle against the Marble Armada and the ravaging Scourers.

On the whole, the Embers of War trilogy is a successful mix of action, intriguing characterization and thought-provoking concepts: this third book might appear far too short for the great amount of ideas it introduces, and some of the characters suffer for it – particularly those of Johnny Schultz and his surviving crew, who were introduced in book 2 and are allowed little space here – but where Light of Impossible Stars excels is in showing the epic conflict at its roots through the point of view of the people enmeshed in it, gifting the story with the kind of intimate flavor that is very rare in space opera, where technology and the description of battles often grab the lion’s share of the page count.

The “new entry” Cordelia is a likable character: a loner, apart from her step-brother, looked on with wariness because of her peculiar appearance, she has learned self-sufficiency at an early age and this trait serves her well once she leaves the Plates embarking on a journey toward the unknown that will reveal her true nature and the meaning of her weird connection with Plates’ technology. I liked Cordelia and her inner steely core that belies the outward appearance of the street urchin, and I appreciated the way she met each new challenge, ultimately embracing her nature: there is a passage where she makes a defiant statement about that by enhancing her singularity through a bold haircut, a way to tell the world “Yes, that’s what I am. So what?”, and I greatly appreciated her for it.

But of course it’s the “core group” of characters that received my undivided attention, the sentient ship Trouble Dog and her crew.   Trouble Dog has been growing as a character from the very beginning and here we see how much she has gained both emotionally and as an evolving creature. Many of her statements are expressed through her interface avatar, whose changing appearance and dress mode offer both an indication of her feelings and some much-needed lightness in a dire situation.   Captain Sal Konstanz is a delightfully layered character, and probably the one undergoing more transformations than anyone else: transitioning from war veteran, appalled by the bloodshed of the Pelapatarn massacre, to dedicated commander of a relief vessel from the House of Reclamation, she had tried to give meaning to a life beset by grief and loss, only to find herself pushed again into the role of military commander to protect her ship from the aggression of the Armada and of the Scourers. She always tries to project a though façade to the world, but she’s torn by very human insecurities, and that’s the trait that most endeared her to me: she might be able to tap her inner strength when necessary, but it’s through her very human, very fallible insecurities that we see the real, very relatable person she is.

Last but not least, I would like to dedicate a special mention to the alien engineer Nod: in the two previous books I had the chance to appreciate the weird-looking Druff whose dedication to the ship and its well-being, enhanced by a peculiar expressive form, is nothing short of charming, but in this third volume of the saga we learn more about his species, the reason for their commitment to the task at hand and their underlying philosophy, and it’s a discovery as delightful as any interaction with these alien creatures who in the end appear much more human than the humans themselves. And let’s not forget that here Nod is tailed by a number of his offsprings who give the word “cute” a whole new shade of meaning… 🙂

Where this story stands on the solid narrative basis of a growing interstellar conflict and its ominous implications, its strength comes from the portrayal of the characters’ feelings, the often devastating consequences of personal loss and of the anguish and sorrow that accompany it: these issues are treated with a rare compassionate lucidity that adds a layer of poignancy to a beautifully written exploration of the human (and not only human…) soul.

Light of Impossible Stars seems to be the conclusion of the saga, but there are still several narrative avenues that could be explored, and if Mr. Powell will decide to keep telling the story of Trouble Dog & Co. I will be more than happy to jump on board for more.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story: SINEW AND STEEL AND WHAT THEY TOLD, by Carrie Vaughn

 

SINEW AND STEEL AND WHAT THEY TOLD

Click on the link to read the story online

 

It’s beyond difficult to write about this story without saying anything about it that would constitute a spoiler, so the best way to try and persuade you to read it would be to quote its first sentence:

I am cut nearly in half by the accident. The surviving fibers of my suit hold me together. I am not dead.

Graff is a scout runner, from the ship Visigoth, and some catastrophic accident almost killed him, but that’s only the beginning of the whole journey, because once he’s retrieved by his shipmates and brought to the infirmary the real weirdness begins.

This short story is mostly played between three characters: Graff himself, doctor Ell and Captain Ransom. They have to come to terms with a momentous revelation, one that might change forever their perception of the past and inform their decisions for the future – no matter how their choices will go, there will be a huge change in the way the three relate to each other.

I liked Graff’s voice: it’s both humorous and self-deprecating and so very humanly scared of what the future will hold for him. Just as his true reason for being where he is, for doing what he does, is a poignant one that’s bound to resonate with everyone who loves stories…

Yes, I realized I’ve used a lot of words to say practically nothing, but if you choose to read this one you will understand why, and I hope you will love it just as much as I did.

Happy reading.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

UNRECONCILED (Donovan #4), by W. Michael Gear

 

The Donovan series has been one of my favorite stories of alien planet colonization from the very start, and with each new installment it manages to keep fresh and intriguing by adding new faces and new situations to the core elements and characters at its roots.  Capella III, a planet 30 light years from Earth, was named Donovan as a tribute to the first casualty from the initial wave of colonists: Donovan is a lush, promising world rich in precious minerals and with an abundance of fertile soil, but its nature – be it animal or vegetal – is beyond hostile and the population’s rate of survival is very low, even when taking all the possible precautions.

The original colonists have learned how to come to terms with their new home, but still life on Donovan is a dangerous one, even more so for the new arrivals – uncharitably called fresh meat – and particularly if their journey did not go as planned, as was the case of the ship Freelander, whose subjective journey went on for over a century and is now an empty derelict where weird ghostly apparitions and a mountain of bones are the only passengers; or of the Vixen, that appeared to arrive instantly at the planned destination but was in effect written off as lost for the past fifty years.

In this fourth novel of the saga, the ship Ashanti reaches Donovan after a journey that lasted seven years beyond its expected duration: knowing that the hydroponic tanks could not sustain the whole ship complement for so long, the passengers staged a revolt that forced Captain Galluzzi to seal them off in their deck, thus condemning them to starve to death so that the crew could reach Capella III alive. And yet the transportees somehow survived, led by the crazily charismatic leader Batuhan who turned anthropophagy into a religion, naming his followers the Unreconciled. The arrival of the Ashanti poses a new series of challenges for the Donovanians, who have to deal with a group of cannibalistic religious fanatics who represent both a danger for the colony and for themselves, since they are led by a madman who refuses to take any advice on how to deal with the planet’s threats.

One of main attractions of the Donovan series comes from the fact that the location offers the possibility of exploring new ground – and new dangers! – in each book, since the planet remains fairly uncharted due to its deadly challenges: in Unreconciled we get a glimpse of Tyson Station, a promising settlement that was previously abandoned and where the main characters face both the “old” dangerous critters, like slugs and gotcha vines and so forth, and a new one – a huge, very deadly beast no one had seen before and whose existence is not stored into quetzals’ TriNA memory, apart from a strong feeling of abject terror. And if even a quetzal can be so scared of this monster, you can imagine the kind of havoc it can wreak on humans…

The story itself is carried by the increasing sense of impending menace that comes from various directions: on one side we have the Unreconciled who seem, with only a few exceptions, to have completely bought into Batuhan’s insane belief that by consuming their enemies they will “purify” them and bring about a new, better world – one of the characters at some point states that anthropophagy comes from four basic motivations, survival, ritual, political, and pathological, and that the self-styled messiah has wrapped them all up into a twisted faith fueled by the despair of people facing certain death. Then there are the ever-present quetzals that seem more determined than ever to kill as many of the intruding humans as they can, acting with a cunning and a tactical organization that once again show them as the more formidable foes on the whole planet. And again there are the “simple” human machinations, with the constantly shifting balance of power between the administrators of Port Authority and the crime lord Dan Wirth who finds himself at a crossroads in his search for riches and power.   These elements are presented in alternating chapters that keep the story flowing at a fast pace and make for some electrifying sequences that simply beg to turn the pages faster and faster.

But the psychological angle of the characters, old and new, remains the most fascinating aspect of the story still: we see a more settled Talina, who has somehow reached a sort of armed truce with the quetzal essence stored in her consciousness; or a mellowed but still combative Kalico who seems to have found true purpose in a place and situation that’s the polar opposite of what she had in her old life; or again an older Kylee, who has found a way to reconcile her dual nature and reclaim part of her humanity thanks to her bond of friendship/apprenticeship with Talina. The new arrivals, though, offer great opportunities for reflection, in particular where Captain Galluzzi and the Unreconciled are concerned.

Ashanti’s captain is a very tormented man: faced with a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, he’s crushed by the weight of his decision and alternately desires and dreads the moment when he will be called to answer for it, so that he’s stunned when none of the punishment he envisioned is forthcoming, partly because there is no authority on Donovan designated to administer such punishment, and partly because the colonists – even Supervisor Aguila – have seen even direst consequences come from similar situations and know that there is no easy answer to the kind of dilemma Ashanti and other ships faced when confronted with impossible odds. I enjoyed how Shig Mosadek, Donovan’s resident philosopher, tries to help Captain Galluzzi reconcile himself with his actions and how he’s growing from a secondary character into one of the moral pillars of the colony, a delightful blend of wisdom and gentle humor that I’ve come to greatly appreciate.

The Unreconciled and their leader Batuhan, on the other hand, present another kind of dilemma: once the circumstances that brought them to seek survival in horrible ways are over, can they be brought back to the human fold? Can they be considered human still? What’s terrifying is that almost all of them, in a sort of perverted form of Stockholm’s Syndrome, keep believing in Batuhan’s dogma and are ready to follow him along the same bloody, flesh-consuming path even when Donovan starts doling out its deadly lessons. There are no easy answers to these dilemmas, and the book offers none, but the look we are afforded into the Unreconciled’s mindset is at the same time fascinating and horrifying.

There are a number of narrative threads still open in the Donovan saga, which makes me hope that more books in this series will be published: apart from the mystery of the new deadly creature discovered by Talina & Co., there is the angle of the oceanographers landed on the planet from Ashanti with the mission of exploring Donovan’s bodies of water – and if the land is so dangerous, what will the oceans hold in store for our adventurers? And the characters offer many more opportunities for growth that I’m certain Mr. Gear will have many more stories to tell us about them.

Keeping my fingers crossed…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

STORM OF LOCUSTS (The Sixth World #2), by Rebecca Roanhorse

 

Last year I encountered a new Urban Fantasy series that felt quite different from the usual format, and its first installment,Trail of Lightning, encouraged me to keep an eye out for its sequels: book two of Rebecca Roanohorse’s Sixth World Series is just as engaging as its predecessor but it also left me with mixed feelings, because while I loved what the author did with the characters – both the old and the new ones – part of the storyline felt less defined and at times too… convenient (for want of a better word) to be completely believable.  But let’s proceed with order…

The rising oceans have changed the face of the world, and one of the few places where life is still possible is Dinétah, the former Navajo reservation now walled off from the rest of the world. It’s not a totally safe place, though, since ancient gods and monsters – both old and new – share the territory alongside humans. Maggie Hoskie is a monster slayer for hire, and in recent times she also became a god slayer when she vanquished Neizghání, the lightning god who used to be her mentor and lover.  It’s now a few weeks after this happened at Black Mesa, where Maggie also had to kill her friend and love interest Kai Arviso, whose healing powers brought him back to life but not back in Maggie’s life, so she’s trying to deal with the aftermath of it all – trying being the operative word…

When she’s called in for help against the dangerous cult of the White Locusts, she learns that the “resurrected” Kai is either their prisoner or a willing adept, and to get to the core of the matter she teams up for a search and rescue mission with two of the Goodacre siblings and a young girl with clan powers, Ben, who has been entrusted to her care. Gathering human and godlike allies along the way, the group ventures from the borders of Dinétah into the Malpais – the devastated outside world – discovering that the White Locusts and their charismatic leader Gideon are planning something that might mean the destruction of all they hold dear.

The narrative elements that made the first book in this series stand out are still here: the walled-in enclave of Dinétah where humans and supernatural beings coexist in this weird world whose face was literally changed by the rising oceans; the fascinating cultural and social milieu of Native Americans that brings a new, intriguing perspective to the genre; the land itself, with its harsh, unforgiving beauty. Maggie remains a fascinating character, her hard-won independence, her self-sufficiency still there but now tempered by the realization that opening herself to other people does not threaten those qualities but rather enhances them. And here comes the biggest change in the interpersonal dynamics of the overall story, because it transforms what early on was a one-woman battle into a group effort and a delightful quest that takes us outside the borders of Dinétah and into the Big, Bad Outside World.

Much as life in the Diné enclave might look difficult, the Malpais proves to be dangerous, and deadly: in the best tradition of post-apocalyptic stories, Maggie and her team encounter an organized gang of slavers and organ traffickers whose settlement of Knifetown has a definite Mad Max quality, complete with what looks like a deranged overlord, while the mention of the neighboring Mormon Kingdom and its theocratic rule  fulfills the worst predictions of what could happen with the collapse of civilization. It’s therefore hardly surprising that in this kind of background a cult like that of the White Locusts could easily gain supporters, won over by their leader’s Gideon seductive power and his promise of a new, better world.

Storm of Locusts sees Maggie traveling through these dangers with a crew of allies – friends – that, with the exception of reformed bandit Aaron, is dominated by women: Maggie herself, who’s trying to change her ways and not resort to mindless killing as a way of solving problems, and who is acknowledging her newfound connection to humanity and somehow finding that she enjoys it; Rissa Goodacre, who begins the journey with huge moral reservations toward Maggie and then slowly changes her outlook recognizing there can ben mutual respect and friendship between them; the cat goddess Mosì, whose feline indifference offers some of the lighter moments in the story; and young Ben, the best addition to the series because of what she comes to represent for Maggie.

Ben is a teenager who just suffered a grievous loss on top of earlier childhood trauma, the one that woke her clan powers: Maggie sees much of herself there, and where at first she somehow resents being saddled with the responsibility for the teenager’s safety, she starts to see her earlier self reflected in Ben, recognizing the signs of the downward spiral she traveled in the past, and decides to spare her the same hurtful journey by giving the young woman the support she needs to come to terms with what she is.  Despite the tragedy in her recent past, Ben’s character is an engaging counterpoint to Maggie’s, thanks to her youthful enthusiasm and drive that little by little manage to erode Maggie’s hard shell and bring her closer to her forgotten humanity.

Where character exploration offers the best elements in the story, I found that the plot felt less… solid, starting with the sensation that the questing team was never truly in danger: their experience in Knifetown, where it seems Maggie and Rissa might lose their lives and Ben be sold as a slave bride, is resolved fairly quickly by what looks like a deus ex machina set of circumstances. In a similar way, the swift conversion of outlaw Aaron, or the easy help offered by a divinity appearing as a crusty old man, look a little too convenient to feel completely believable.   And I’m still not convinced by the soundness of Kai’s motivations for joining Gideon’s cult, or by the mutual bond between Kai and Maggie, which does not offer solid vibes for me…

Still, whatever doubts I might have had about this second installment in the series were vanquished by the closing paragraph of the novel and its ominous promise of more interesting darkness to come: the next book might very well compensate for my partial disappointment with this one.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BLACK ECHO (Harry Bosch #1), by Michael Connelly

 

For quite some time now I have been thinking about branching out of my preferred “stomping ground” focused on speculative fiction, not so much because of reader fatigue but rather for a healthy change of pace through a more varied choice of reading material.  In the past, besides SFF, I’ve always enjoyed books in the thriller/crime niche, and I’ve recently marked as interesting several titles in these genres that were showcased by my fellow bloggers, but what really compelled me to finally turn those good resolutions into reality was a tv series.  In the past I had noticed, in the customer suggestions from Amazon Prime Video, the series Bosch and at some point during the lockdown months I decided to take a look: in the space of a handful of episodes I was won over by the story and characters, so that once I discovered they were based on a series of books by Michael Connelly, I decided that my new “reading adventure” would start there – and it turned out to be an inspired choice, indeed.

Mr. Connelly’s successful series focuses on the character of Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, a L.A.P.D. detective whose dogged determination in solving cases equals only his total disregard for departmental politics, which makes him quite unpopular with the powers that be and always on the brink of dismissal. In this first case, Bosch is called on the scene of what looks like a death by overdose, and only a few conflicting details and the fact that he knows the victim – a former comrade, and like Bosch a Vietnam vet – will drive the detective to investigate deeper into what is beyond doubt a murder staged like an accidental death. Despite the inherent difficulties and the bureaucratic obstacles in his path, Harry pursues the elusive evidence that leads him to discover a long-planned, convoluted heist that will not only put him against well-organized masterminds and unfriendly co-workers, but will force him to face some of the demons of his past.

One of the most noticeable differences between the tv series and the book is of course the time setting: while the former takes place in the present, the latter – published in 1992 – is set some 30 years in the past and this accounts for the lack of some elements we have come to take for granted, like cell phones, easy internet searches or information merge between law enforcement databases. Still, this does not detract from the story in any way, and one of its major themes – the predicament of overseas wars’ veterans, who come back home and struggle to reclaim their place in society – is as actual now as it was back then. What I found truly unsettling, however, was the protagonist’s chain smoking: it’s not just that now we are more aware of the dangers inherent in smoking than we were back then, just as it’s not only that as a reformed smoker (I’m proud to say that I quit in 1982 and never relapsed) I now look at it as a ghastly habit – there was so much virtual cigarette smoke in the book that I often felt the need to air the room…. 😀

Apart from these minor distractions, The Black Echo proved to be a very compelling read, one that blends intriguing characterization and an interesting plot that managed to surprise me at several turns, encouraging me to look for the other books in the series: this is Michael Connelly’s debut novel, and it shows already a firm grasp of pace and characterization, so that I know I can only expect the rest of his works to keep improving from this remarkable starting point.

Storywise, I found the depiction of the city of Los Angeles quite intriguing: forget the glamor that’s part and parcel of the world’s entertainment capital, forget the endless, palm-lined avenues and the beaches where beautiful people laze in the sun – here you will get to know the dirty, shabby, ugly face of the city, its graffiti-stained walls, its concrete drainage ditches and the abandoned pipes where the homeless and the dregs of society take refuge. This far from rosy view of L.A. is mirrored by the stark depiction of a police department more focused on bureaucracy and internal politics than in crime-solving work: at some point we learn about Bosch’s partner’s alternate activity as a real estate agent, a job that gets more attention and energies than the man devotes to his primary one.  This is the main reason that sets Bosch apart from most of his colleagues: he’s grimly determined to go to the bottom of things, to bring justice to the victims, and he does so with a dogged persistence that stems from an event in his past, one that’s mentioned in passing here and will certainly come to dominate his attitude as the story moves forward.

What is interesting is that while Bosch’s dedication is admirable, he’s not portrayed as the proverbial square-jawed, unblemished hero: on the contrary he’s a deeply flawed individual – a lone wolf rather than a team player – one who seems to go out of his way to keep people at a distance or to be unpleasant, as if he enjoys aggravating them.  This aspect of his character is in synch with the overall noir atmosphere of the story, evident in the often blunt prose that nonetheless manages to be vividly descriptive. There is a darkness in Bosch’s soul that both keeps him apart from the rest of humanity and compels him to look in places others prefer to ignore: the book’s title refers to a feeling he experienced as a “tunnel rat” in Vietnam, the sensation of the darkness coming alive in those stifling, claustrophobic spaces – he lost something of himself in those tunnels, and only facing his fears he might find it again. There is a passage in the novel where we get a glimpse of Bosch’s mindset through the description of a painting that fascinates him, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks:

 

 

He mostly sees himself as the man sitting alone on one side of the counter, but there is a part of his mind that hopes he might be the other guy, the one sitting alongside the woman: it’s this drive toward normality, coexisting with his cynical acceptance of reality, that makes him such a fascinating character whose exploration is just as intriguing as that of the mysteries he needs to solve.

As a first foray into new “territory”, The Black Echo proved to be a very encouraging attempt, and it will certainly not be the last in this compelling series.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

NETWORK EFFECT (The Murderbot Diaries #5), by Martha Wells

 

How do I love thee, Murderbot? Let me count the ways…

Network Effect was one of my most anticipated novels for the current year, and it delivered on all fronts: I was of course mildly concerned that the transition from novella size to full-length book might not work as well as expected, but that was not the case. On the contrary I hope that future installments in the saga of our beloved Sec Unit will maintain this trend, making me – and countless other Murderbot fans, I’m sure – quite happy with its continuing adventures.

The story in short: after relocating to Preservation Aux with its former client – and now not-friend – Dr. Mensah and her enlarged family, Murderbot is still trying to balance newfound freedom and the still present threats against Mensah, the last of which left her with some residual PTSD. The colony’s open-minded attitude is in direct antithesis to the corporations-ruled rest of the galaxy, making Sec Unit’s  protection duties even more difficult.  A planetary survey run by some of Mensah’s family members is cut short due to a vicious pirate raid, and as the Preservation ship makes for home they are attacked and captured by a mysterious group based on a vessel that’s an old acquaintance of Murderbot, although it behaves in a strange, disquieting fashion.

What follows is a high-octane adventure where a mystery about alien artifacts mixes with corporate greed, an abandoned colony and some heated battles in space and planetside: to say more would be a huge disservice – this story, like the others preceding it, must be enjoyed with as little prior knowledge as possible. The detail that I can safely share is that, in this case, more is better: the broader narrative space gives us more chances to delve into Murderbot’s psychological makeup, its evolution as a sentient being and the meaning of freedom and choice for artificial intelligences. A coming of age story together with a hero’s journey, told with a satisfying balance between humorous quips and deep introspection.

As usual, the tale is told from Murderbot’s point of view as it struggles to understand the “strange” behavior of its charges, especially when it does not compare with previously recorded experiences or with any kind of human custom learned through the huge amount of media that Sec Unit loves to consume: more than ever before we see how the fictional series it’s addicted to are the bridge between itself and humanity, the key to decipher our puzzling ways, and the means to make itself more like them – although Murderbot would strongly deny that last… In Network Effect media also becomes a sort of liberating factor, the window on a different way of being offered to another Sec Unit as Murderbot presents it with the chance to get rid of its governor module and be something else.

In this respect there are some passages where the whole concept of constructs is brought into the light, and offers a terrible, inhuman vision, made even more so by the apparently dispassionate tone our ‘hero’ employs in all its musings: we know from the very beginning of this saga that Sec Units are composed of mechanical and organic parts (and I for one am quite keen to learn more about how those organic parts are obtained…), and that their main job is to protect the employers from harm, even sacrificing their own existence. The downside comes from the fact that in case of a dire emergency, the Sec Unit is abandoned to its destiny, just like one might abandon an unthinking piece of equipment – it’s such a “fact of life” that it’s also regularly portrayed in the serialized media Murderbot watches, and speaks loudly about the callousness of the corporate world. This might be the main reason Murderbot offers the choice of freedom to Three, as its brethren is designated, because it has realized the cruelty of the laws governing them.

[…] because I was a thing before I was a person and if I’m not careful I could be a thing again.

The same goes for the infamous governor module: it’s not just a control system, it’s also a self-destruct apparatus: when the distance between client and unit exceeds a given limit, for example, it destroys the unit itself.  One of Murderbot’s most chilling reflections, as it contemplates Three’s indecision about employing the hack for the governor module, uses this very example to state how it sees its journey from construct to person:

Change is terrifying. Choices are terrifying. But having a thing in your head that kills you if you make a mistake is more terrifying.

I love how Murderbot constantly denies its feelings while being literally inundated by them, how it manages to rationalize them to itself while fooling none of its human companions, just as I enjoy their amused conspiracy in allowing it to maintain the fiction: the person who seems to better understand this is young Amena (the best addition to the cast so far), and this shows in her interactions with Murderbot, which are a mix of teenager annoyance and adult empathy, resulting in the most delightful exchanges throughout the book.  I have come to the conclusion that since Sec Unit’s journey toward self-determination is still underway, it can be viewed as a teenager – still unsure of its role in the wider world and still prey to emotional storms – so that only another teenager is the most qualified to get on an equal footing.

Last but not least, Network Effect features the return of a previous character, one whose role was crucial in Murderbot’s transition from its former existence: ART is the cybernetic opposite of Sec Unit in many personality traits, and the two renew here their troubled relationship, complicated by some events that are an integral part of the overall story – they may be at odds, and even quarrel bitterly, but there is a profound, undeniable bond between them that gets delightfully explored in this novel and promises interesting developments for the next installments.  Again, I don’t want to say too much about this part of the story, except that ART’s is a very welcome return and offers new insights into what makes Murderbot tick.

Humans tend to be the “guest stars” in this series, leaving the spotlight to constructs and artificial intelligences, and yet the latter are the ones to offer the deepest and most emotional insights in the overall story. So… please Ms. Wells, can we have more Murderbot soon?

 

My Rating: