Reviews

THE LAST WATCH (The Divide #1), by J. S. Dewes

First things first, my thanks to Tammy at Books, Bones and Buffy because she was the first of my fellow bloggers to review The Last Watch and literally propel me toward this book and its gripping story: I cannot turn away from a promising space opera novel, and this one met all my expectations, and makes me look forward with eagerness to its sequel which is happily slated to come out in a short time.

Long ago, humanity fought a bloody war with the alien Viators, bent on conquest and/or destruction of the races they encountered on their path: humanity managed to prevail and the Viators retreated back beyond the rim of the universe, a border called the Divide. Fearing that the alien invaders would return one day, humans set up a border patrol, the Sentinels, in a line of ships and buoys monitoring the Divide’s activity.  The task, however, was not assigned to rotating crews but rather to the fleet’s misfits, criminals and the unwanted at large, as a way to permanently exile them while still making them useful: practically abandoned at the edge of the universe, far from the Core where life and civilization move forward, the Sentinels keep watch aboard old ships that are literally falling apart, as their requests for spare parts and essential supplies take far too long to be fulfilled, if ever.  The overall feeling is that the central government stopped worrying long ago about the Viators’ return and that it also choose to apply the saying “out of sight, out of mind” to the men and women assigned to guard their backyard.

Adequin Rake is the captain of one of the Divide’s capital ships, the Argus, and as the story opens she feels all the boredom and futility of a duty in which even her superiors seem to have lost interest, but soon enough she finds herself faced with a series of problems: starting with the new recruit, Cavalon Mercer, who does not come from the military as the rest of her personnel, and sports a rakish attitude that’s out of place in the ranks; then she must deal with a series of strange phenomena that impact the already struggling systems of the Argus, while to top it all, the Divide seems to be closing in at an alarming rate on the deployed Sentinel ships, an ominous indication that the universe might be contracting…  This is only the beginning of the adventure, and if these troubles look more than enough to keep your adrenaline flowing… well, think again, because they will pile up in a harrowing sequence that will task to the very limits Rake’s and her crew’s ability to react.

The Last Watch has been presented as a cross between The Expanse and the theme of the Night Watch in Game of Thrones: while I tend to be wary of these comparisons, I have to admit that there are some connections there, but this novel is its own story and it successfully melds some intriguing scientific notions with interesting and relatable characters and a space opera flavor that keeps things lively throughout the book. I was surprised to learn that this is a debut novel because, apart from a couple of “hiccups” I will mention later, it feels like the work of a seasoned writer, which makes me look forward to the next volume with great impatience.

Characters and plot share equal space in this story, in what I discovered is a very effective combination, and if some details about the political and military structure of the universe, or the events that led to the present, are left a little on the vague side, I can always hope that the next books will widen the horizon: the pace in The Last Watch, after the introduction of background and characters, is relentless and it would have been weighted down by too many details, so I’m quite happy with what I got.  Even though this is a space opera novel, the cast of characters remains contained to a handful of people, which makes it very easy to connect with them: the first we meet is Cavalon Mercer, the odd man out since he does not come from the military – on the contrary, he’s the scion of the ruling family, but his continuing acts of rebellion against his grandfather’s ruling strategies finally led him to exile, and he finds himself forcibly enrolled with the Sentinels, and in dire need to hide his true identity, since the Mercer family does not instill much sympathy in the ranks.

From the very start, Cav’s rakish, impertinent attitude is no help in keeping the low profile he needs, and puts him in dangerous social situations, but as the story progresses and his skills come to the fore, often proving instrumental in solving some dire straits, both Captain Rake and the closest crewmates start to warm up to him and accept him as one of their own. Some of Cavalon’s talents require a little suspension of disbelief, because it often looks as if he possesses the right skill at the right moment, making him something of a proverbial Gary Stu: while it’s true that as the heir of the ruling family he might have had a lot of time on his hands, and therefore the opportunity to become acquainted with many aspects of science, it does sound somewhat preposterous that he would be proficient in fields ranging from medicine to engineering.  Luckily for him (and for the readers…) Cav counterbalances this wide knowledge with a far-from-heroic attitude and a healthy fear for his wellbeing that manage to make him quite sympathetic. 

Captain Rake is indeed able to see beyond Cavalon’s smoke screen and to understand that offering her trust and keeping him engaged she will be able to bring the real person to the surface, and turn him into the man he needs to be for the good of the team.  I liked Adequin Rake from the very beginning: here is a woman who distinguished herself in the war against the Viators but for some reason (which we will learn along the way) she was sent to the Divide and is now battling with depression at what she perceives as a futile role. When things start going sideways, however, she shows great determination, courage and moral strength against both the impending doom and the discovery that the central government might have abandoned the Sentinels to their destiny. What’s more, I enjoyed the way she connected with Cavalon as a mentor and guide, leading to what promises to be a rewarding friendship between two very different personalities.

Besides these two main figures there is a number of secondary characters that are wonderfully drawn and given very distinctive qualities that make them much more than simple background extras: from scientist Mesa, a genetically engineered human/Viator hybrid, to gum-chewing Emery, to serious and dependable Jackin, they help fill out this story by giving the reader other people to care about apart from the main characters, and by showing other angles of this universe through their eyes rather than through lengthy exposition.  

The Last Watch seems more like an introduction to this universe than the first installment in a promising series, and as such it left me with a lot of questions about the narrative nooks and crannies that were left unexplored, but what this book managed to do was to hold my attention from start to finish and to make me look forward to the next volume, where I hope to find the answers to those questions. That is, besides the continuation of this amazing adventure, of course…

My Rating:

Reviews

LATER, by Stephen King

My years-long negative streak with Stephen King’s books seems to be definitely over: the last few books of his I read all turned out to be as engaging as the stories I used to enjoy, and Later is only the last example in my lineup of positive reads.

Even though it’s a shorter story when compared with King’s usual production, Later sports all the elements that I’ve come to expect from the Master of Horror: this novel might not be classified as his usual horror creation, since there are not many blood-chilling elements in it, and there is also a mystery/crime component added that changes a little the expected parameters, but in the end this proved to be an entertaining, page-turning read, and one I enjoyed very much.

Jamie Conklin sees dead people: not exactly ghosts as was the case for the young protagonist of Shyamalan’s movie alluded to here with a sort of tongue-in-cheek humor, but rather people newly departed and on their way to the Great Beyond. Jamie is able to see and hear them (although after a while their voice fades, as do they before disappearing forever) and to ask them questions to which the dead are compelled to reply truthfully.  Jamie’s single mother runs a literary agency and she’s able to stay afloat – barely – thanks to the best selling author of a successful series: when the man suddenly dies just as he was outlining his last novel, the one where all the mysteries hinted at in previous books would be revealed, Tia Conklin needs Jamie to contact the deceased author to get all the information he can gather on the story, so she can ghost-write it and keep the company in business and financial health.

The trouble starts when Liz Dutton, Tia’s former girlfriend and a cop with too many problems and not enough scruples, decides to use Jamie’s talent to discover where a serial bomber, who just took his own life, did hide his latest explosive package: something ancient and evil rides on the shoulders of the man and starts haunting Jamie, forcing him to resort to a harrowing ritual to get rid of the creature. That is, until the boy needs the thing’s help against Liz when the dishonorably discharged ex-cop kidnaps Jamie for one last, heinous act…

Very few authors can successfully filter the problems and inconsistencies of the world through the eyes of a child as Stephen King does: unlike other protagonists of his stories, Jamie is not shunned, bullied or otherwise made to suffer by peers or adults, but he does witness his mother’s struggles to survive in an unsettled economy and through a difficult relationship, all the while dealing with a “gift” that sets him apart from other kids, forcing him to keep secrets, and ultimately places him in danger. Jamie’s voice, as he grows up over the years from childhood to young adulthood, feels true and natural and for this reason it’s easy to connect to him and see the world through his eyes: innate resilience helps him navigate through the difficulties posed by his peculiar talent, particularly in the instances where his innocence is threatened. This is another theme dear to King, the way in which the adult world (or the supernatural) can rob children of that innocence, exposing them too early to situations that require them to grow before their time: in Jamie’s case this is compounded by Liz’s relentless focus first and greed later, so that he’s forced to come into contact with the darker aspects of the human mind, which more often than not are far more  frightening than actual supernatural horror. 

Young Jamie is able to find some balance in this very unusual existence thanks to the certainty of his mother’s love – even though he’s quite aware of her flaws both as a parent and an adult – and the guidance of old Professor Burkett, the closest thing to a father figure he can depend on: the relationship between Burkett and Jamie, both in life and after the old man’s death, reminded me somehow of the dynamic explored in Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, one of the short stories from King’s If It Bleeds collection.  The somewhat cranky professor, like many of Stephen King’s memorable figures, is the one providing Jamie with a stable anchor and a perspective that helps the boy focus on the problems at hand rather than his fear, and offers a delightful dynamic between wide-eyed youth and grumpy old age that is one of the author’s trademarks.

There might be nothing new, narratively speaking, in this novel, but it does not matter much in the face of the story’s easy flow, which is carried by the constant curiosity engendered by Jamie hinting at other developments to be disclosed, indeed, later: the young protagonist keeps his audience captivated like serialized novels did in the latter part of the 19th Century, by promising further revelations yet to come.  This choice led me to wonder weather Jamie might be considered an unreliable narrator – either embellishing or changing events to suit them to the overall flavor of his story: that’s a doubt that surfaced for me once a detail of Jamie’s origin is revealed, because he himself first offers an explanation for the chain of events, only to deny its accuracy in the next page.

This detail (I will not spoil it, but if you’ve read the book you know what I am referring to) does not affect the story in any way – and I’ve kept wondering what it should mean in the overall scheme of it – but rather offers an off-key note to the ending which, in my opinion, would have stood quite well on its own without this added… baggage.  Still, Later feels like vintage King, indeed, and I would recommend it to his longtime fans – and not only them.

My Rating:

Reviews

DEAD SPACE, by Kali Wallace

After my engrossing first encounter with Kali Wallace’s previous book, Salvation Day, I had great expectations for her new novel and I’m happy to report they were all met, if not surpassed: the synopsis made me think about a delightfully tense SF movie from the ‘80s, Outland, and there were some similar vibes here, mostly due to the background in which the story takes place, although Dead Space moves in quite a different direction.

Hester used to be a gifted AI expert, part of a deep space expedition toward Titan, where the exploration of Saturn’s biggest satellite would be assisted by Vanguard, an evolved form of artificial intelligence capable of learning and adapting, Hester’s ultimate achievement. Unfortunately the Symposium, the science ship built for the mission, had been infiltrated by extremists who managed to sabotage it and kill most of the science team. Hester survived, although devastated both mentally and physically: the left side of her body is now mostly prosthetics, implanted by the doctors of Parthenope Enterprises, the corporation to which she is now in deep debt. To repay it, Hester has accepted to work as security analyst on the mining colony of Hygiea – a thankless, menial job that crushes her already defeated spirit and misuses her brilliant mind.

When one of her Symposium friends, another survivor of the disaster now working in a different mining outpost, is killed in mysterious circumstances shortly after having sent Hester a weird message, she joins the investigative team to discover what truly happened to her old colleague David and finds herself embroiled in a spiral of conflicting clues and unsettling revelations that is only the surface layer of a deeper, far more dangerous conspiracy, and she will need to rekindle all her old skills and determination if she wants to survive and avoid disaster on a massive scale.

Like Salvation Day, this novel offers a view of the future that’s far from comforting: the drive for space seems to have been taken over by big corporations whose sole purpose is to exploit the resources in the Solar System, gaining as much profit as possible with the minimum of expenditure in the areas of workers’ comfort or safety. It does not take much, as Wallace describes the mining outposts disseminated throughout the Belt, to compare this background with Earth’s mining towns of old, where the miners’ wages were spent almost entirely in company-owned shops and utilities, therefore creating a vicious circle of legalized indentured slavery.  Hygiea and Nimue (the site of the investigation for David’s murder) represent this set-up in dreary relief, so that it’s easy to picture ill-lighted, barely maintained tunnels, none too clean, inhabited by a gloomy humanity whose sole, desperate goal is to beat the system of diminishing returns that keeps them tied to these balls of rock. 

There is a claustrophobic quality to the story – which seems to be Kali Wallace’s skillful trademark – that works hand in hand with Hester’s despondent attitude, and even if she is not prone to self-pity, one can feel the quiet despair that has turned her once-brilliant personality into the sharp, cutting posture of someone who feels detached from humanity, sometimes even her own:

[…] didn’t stop people from looking at me and seeing only the metal.

It doesn’t take much, however, to bring her out of this self-imposed numbness: once the investigation into David’s murder starts and progresses from the first appearance of a personal attack from a co-worker to something more complex, and with far-reaching implications, once the dangers pile up and Hester’s life is threatened at every step of the way, she is finally able to wake up her old self, the one that was smothered by post-traumatic stress and the thankless job she has been trapped into. When the real Hester emerges, we are finally able to see the intelligent, intense person who dreamed of exploring a new world and dared to create something amazing and revolutionary as Vanguard, the person we see in the brief flashbacks before the Symposium disaster.  What happens on Nimue, as ghastly and horrifying as it is, is the systemic shock she needs to finally process her grief and loss and reclaim the keen scientific mind that had propelled her in the past.

Even though Hester’s journey is front and center, there are a few other interesting characters peopling the story, starting from David – her murdered friend – whom we see in the flashbacks and through the descriptions of his coworkers on Nimue: like Hester, the before and after personalities are as different as day and night, stressing once more how the Symposium tragedy shattered these lives, not only through physical damage or because of the heavy debt incurred with medical expenses, but above all for the death of their dreams of advancing science, of learning the mysteries of the cosmos, of making a difference for humanity.  It’s also worth mentioning the Nimue staff which, in pure whodunit style, share a common lack of reliability that enhances the sense of foreboding and danger that permeates the investigation from the very start.

And again, Hester’s partners in the investigative team are quite intriguing, particularly the unit’s leader Adisa, whose Martian origin constitutes a handicap: some time before the Mars settlers rebelled against their inhuman living conditions and the revolt was stamped out with ruthless efficiency, while the powers that be chose to lay the blame for the war on the hapless colonists, who are now the object of scorn and racial slurs.  I was intrigued by these hints about the conflict, just as I was by the apparently self-effacing Adisa who, when push comes to shove, exhibits some very unexpected abilities, but unfortunately the pacing of the story did not allow more than a few, tantalizing glimpses, and that’s my only small disappointment with this novel because I wanted more and would not have minded a deeper digression into this particular topic.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the breathless, adrenaline-rich new story that Kali Wallace gave us with her latest work, a well-crafted mix of thriller, science fiction and social commentary that offers many layers of character exploration while keeping you entranced with a deadly puzzle to solve. Highly recommended.

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story: BADASS MOMS IN THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, by Rae Carson

Click on the link to read the story online

It’s been quite some time time since I read and reviewed a short story, but this one caught my interest when I saw it mentioned by fellow blogger Andreas: among the themes that never fail to catch my attention are vampires and zombies, and although I would rather not dwell on what this says about me 😀 I have to admit that in this case the mention of ‘badass moms’ did pique my interest, and I was not disappointed.

In this version of our world, the zombie apocalypse happened some ten years prior and the survivors have found ways to keep going, despite all those encroaching, mindless flesh eaters. There is one big problem though: when a woman is near childbirth something seems to act as a powerful lure for the zombies, and such is the case for Brit, whose child is ready to come into the world. As the contractions start, she and her mate Marisol run toward the ‘birthing hideout’ where they will be safe – more or less – from the ravenous hordes: a shipping container in an abandoned rail yard.

Badass Moms is a short, quick and breathless story whose value lies more in the questions it poses, like the choice of having children in a world gone mad – and bloody dangerous – and the way in which life always tries to go on no matter what. I also enjoyed the brief (too brief…) glimpses of this survivors’ enclave that seems to be composed of women only, hardened by hardships and loss but still able to tap into their humanity and compassion when the need arises: “Eyes up, knives ready” is their mantra, but it’s more a declaration of courage than a show of ruthlessness, and I liked the picture this painted.

My Rating:

Reviews

ADRIFT (Donovan #5), by W. Michael Gear

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

Welcome (back) to Donovan… The most dangerous, most deadly planet explored by mankind returns with the newest perspective on its perils: I’m so glad that author W. Michael Gear decided to go further than the initially planned trilogy set in the extraterrestrial world of Donovan, because there is just so much to explore here, certainly material enough for several more installments in this series.  So far, each book has taken us to a different area of the world and the focus on new characters in each volume – besides the “regulars” that always make an appearance – has helped in keeping the narrative fresh and intriguing.

In Adrift we follow three different storylines, two of them concerning characters we already met: former corporate supervisor Kalico Aguila is determined, more than ever, to make her mining project work, and such determination – together with the harrowing experiences she faced and overcame on the planet – has turned her from the hated face of the Corporation into a Donovanian through and through, another hardy settler driven to forge a new life on the alien planet and a respected member of the community, one capable of inspiring loyalty and even affection. Talina Perez, the security chief carrying Donovanian DNA – or rather TriNA – that has transformed her into a sort of hybrid, able to better integrate in the environment, has taken under her wing Derek Taglioni, once a powerful corporate leader and now one of the most tenacious explorers: in the previous installment, the man willingly accepted some quetzal TriNA, but an accident has now infected him with more than he could manage, and Talina – knowing how unpredictable the transformation can be – takes him away from Port Authority for his own sake and the safety of the other inhabitants of the small enclave.

The third point of view concerns the Maritime Unit, a group of scientists ferried by the latest ship with the goal of exploring Donovan’s oceans: after their harrowing experiences aboard  Ashanti, where a number of passengers turned into a cannibalistic sect, they are eager to start their work in the self-sustaining pod placed on the chosen seabed. Like most new arrivals, the scientists are not overly worried by the old-timers’ warnings about Donovan’s dangers: after so many years spent in an enclosed space, living with the fear of the savage Unreconciled, they want to offer their children the joys of nature, and the chance of exploring the possibilities of the new world. But Donovan being Donovan, they have no idea of what kind of threats this planet has in store for them…

Adrift might very well be the best Donovan book to date: the constant change of perspective between the three main narrative threads imparts a sense of urgency and impending doom to the story that is more nerve-ravaging than what I experienced in previous books. Where in other novels this kind of shift might prove irritating or distracting, here all its does is compel you to turn the pages faster to learn what else is happening to the characters: even though the three separate storylines don’t mix (except for a brief moment toward the end) they all serve to showcase the extreme hostility of this world and the way the people have to adapt to survive, how they must never, ever, take anything for granted. By this fifth book we have learned that Donovan can throw anything at the people trying to colonize it, and we are made aware that there might never be an end to the hostility ingrained in the planet’s ecosystem, and that the unwary will not survive long.

While it was fun to reacquaint myself with Talina, Kalico, and other Port Authority settlers, who have now become almost like household names, my attention was riveted by what happens on the Maritime Unit’s pod: so far the Donovan series has offered a mix of science fiction, adventure and the strangeness of an alien world, but with Adrift horror has been added to the mix, and in significant quantity.   In my review for book 4, Unreconciled, I asked myself what kind of menace might be in store for the oceanographers, because if the land held so many dangers, the sea was bound to do so as well: never, in my wildest imaginings, I would have conceived of a peril so insidious as the one the scientists face, even worse than the half-seen monster that toward the end of that book dispatched the man-eating Unreconciled.  Since I intend to keep this review as spoiler-free as I can, I will not reveal any details, but suffice it to say that the ocean-based pod becomes the theater of a closed-space horror story that could easily give the Alien franchise a good run for its money, particularly because it all starts in such an offhand way that no one really understands what’s going on until it’s too late. And because the deadly threat comes from the most unexpected direction…

There are truly no limits to W. Michael Gear’s power of imagination as he crafts new creatures in the wild, deadly Donovan ecosystem, gifting them not only with predatory instincts but also with various levels of intelligence: survival on this planet is not only a matter of physical strength or improved protections, what truly counts here is the ability to think and plan several moves ahead of your opponents in the food chain. And no matter how many victories humans are able to score, either the price they have to pay for them is quite steep, or those victories are only temporary, because something bigger, stronger or more determined to kill them will always loom over the horizon.  And I can’t wait to see what this author has in store for us (and his characters) next.

Welcome to Donovan… 😉

My Rating:

Reviews

THE FIRST OMEGA, by Megan O’Keefe

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

I discovered Megan O’Keefe through the first two novels in her Protectorate space opera series, so once I saw the notice for this post-apocalyptic novella that promised a Mad Max-like setting, I had no doubt that I would sample the author’s change of narrative tone: brief as it was, it turned out to be a very intriguing read, and my hope is that Ms. O’Keefe might decide to expand this small seed into a full-length novel, one of these days.

Climate change, or some other upheaval, transformed the face of the Earth, and what once was habitable land has turned into a deserted waste, crossed only by the automatic trucks that carry goods and supplies over the old Route 66, that still connects the East and West coast of the United States. Pirates, or desperate people (it would be hard to set the difference in this time and place) constantly try to steal from these trucks, so the corporation running them, Pac At, set up a sort of policing system through bounty hunters: Riley is one of them, her territory in the arid west, toward the end of the line.

Riley is not her name, she has forgotten it and uses it only because the cranky Ma Rickets calls her thus, for no reason she can understand. To everyone else, especially the desperate people trying to eke out a meagre living in the desert, she is Burner, because that’s what her touch does to you if – or rather when – she catches you.  On her latest assignment, however, Riley is surprised to find the attackers already dead, their bodies decomposing although a very short time elapsed since the assault, and in the truck only one living person: a young girl with too-bright eyes that look uncannily like Riley’s own eyes. Her name is Omega…

Given the shortness of this novella I would not feel comfortable sharing any more details, for fear of revealing too much. What I can offer is that this is a story focused on identity and growth, of conditioning that goes beyond its intended programming and the meaning of justice when lawlessness is the only rule in no-man’s land.  The few (too few…) pages of this story manage to flesh out Riley’s character in a very interesting way, and to reach moments of poignancy I would not have expected from such a harsh, unforgiving setting and merciless environment.

The narrative style is quite different from what I was used to in O’Keefe’s Protectorate series: like the desert where it’s set, it’s a bleak, stark prose that paints Riley with a sharp and cutting economy of words that leave no room for kindness and yet highlight a character of surprising depth and humanity, one that simply begs to be explored with more detail and more backstory.  Hopefully one of these days the author will come back to this world and give us more…

My Rating:

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CIRCE, by Madeline Miller – #Wyrdandwonder

My old love of the classics and my fascination with Greek myths found new enthusiasm thanks to this book which offers a new perspective on the figure of Circe, or rather gives a convincing background for the deeds she is most known for.  Daughter of the sun god Helios and the naiad Perse, she was the object of disdain among the other gods and goddesses because of her plain looks and human-sounding voice: her parents themselves favored her other siblings over her, condemning Circe to a life on the margins of such exalted company.

At first we see Circe as the proverbial wallflower, trying to fit in among her peers but always being the loner, but little by little a form of defiance comes to the surface, first by offering comfort to a tortured Prometeus, guilty of having gifted humanity with fire, and then by discovering and wielding her magical skills, for which she is banished forever to the island of Aiaia to live in perpetual solitude. And yet this is the moment when Circe truly starts to thrive, turning loneliness into the exercise of utter freedom and the chance to learn the herb lore and incantations for which she will become known. And to be her own woman, one who will ultimately be able to stand up to the gods, like mighty Athena, because Circe’s power is something gained through willpower and application and not something unthinkingly given at birth and taken for granted.

Myths have taught us that the gods of the Greek pantheon were fickle and cruel creatures, whose favorite pastime was to drive mortal men toward conflict or to seduce mortal women, but the gods portrayed in Circe go way beyond the depiction of legends and show all their heartless cruelty and mockery for humankind – or for their own kind when perceived as weak.  Distance offers Circe this kind of understanding, the ability to see beyond the projected aura of glory and to find these beings wanting and ultimately contemptible, as she does when considering her own father’s attitude:

So many years I had spent as a child sifting his bright features for his thoughts, trying to glimpse among them one that bore my name. But he was a harp with one string, and the note it played was himself.

Circe’s banishment will not keep her isolated forever, though, and the story shows her meeting many of the figures of legend that have become household names, like Daedalus or Medea or Odysseus, whose sojourn on the island will mark a huge turning point for her growth as an individual. But before that happens, Circe will go through some harrowing experiences that will shape her into the figure passed on by myth: her infamous ability of transforming men into pigs has its roots into her gift of altering people by bringing their true nature to the surface – just as she did in the past by turning the cruel naiad Scylla into the monster of legend. The group of shipwrecked sailors Circe welcomes into her home first thank her for the help, but then they start to ask about “the man of the house”, so to speak, demanding to know where her husband, or father or brothers might be: learning she is alone they proceed to have their way with her, because the lack of male authority or protection just robbed her of any consideration or respect. When she retaliates by transforming them into pigs, she is just bringing their true nature to the surface.

By observing Circe’s myth from this angle – which some might define feminist – the author wants to offer a new point of view on these female figures from mythology, understanding that their portrayal has been constantly filtered through a male perspective, where women’s agency was seen as something dangerous: painting them as witches, monsters, or simply femmes fatales who instigated wars and ruin, must have been a way of giving a “safe” context to such exercises of freedom. Again Circe’s considerations come into play when she says that “humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets”, in a clear reference to the way Homer described her and others like her, by showing them as a danger to be overcome, an enemy to be brought down.

Here Circe’s dealings with Odysseus, during his long stay on Aiaia, stand on an equal footing – not the total submission sung by Homer – and although she comes to love him, she is never blind to his shortcomings or to the fact that love does not entail ownership – something she will learn the hard, painful way with their son, Telegonus. Motherhood is indeed the ultimate growth factor in Circe’s emotional and personal journey, because she finds herself dealing with a totally new experience without outside help or previous knowledge: her strength is put to the test through sleepless nights and fears for the child’s safety, concerns that any mother will certainly be able to relate to, as they will with the selfless dedication that brings her to create a magical shield over the island to keep him safe, one that exhausts her and yet is never acknowledged as such:

For sixteen years I had been holding up the sky, and he had not noticed.

In the end, Circe’s exile does not only separate her physically from her godlike peers and the toxic influence of the realm where she grew up, it distances her from their inability to grow through experience, or even suffering: such is the destiny of mortals, however, and in the end it’s through mortality that she achieves a sense of her own worth and of her place in the world. Madeline Miller’s novel did create a magnificent character out of the myth, and one that feels not only relatable but also real, the protagonist of a poignantly emotional journey.

My Rating:

image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com
Reviews

BLACK SUN (Between Earth and Sky #1), by Rebecca Roanhorse – #Wyrdandwonder

Thanks to the previous two books I read by Rebecca Roanhorse, both part of her Sixth World series, I had come to expect a good, absorbing story from her newest work, but Black Sun proved to be so much more than I had anticipated and it took me completely by surprise. An enthralling, delightful surprise.  Set in a world that takes inspiration from pre-colombian cultures and then adds many original details, combining them into a fascinating, complex background, Black Sun follows the journey of four main characters destined to converge in the city of Tova on a very special day, as yearly festivities and an ominous prophecy will merge with unpredictable results.

Xiala is a mercenary sea captain and a Teek, which means she comes from a matriarchal seafaring society from which she was exiled after a tragic event: imprisoned after a violent altercation with her former employer and a drunken night on the town, she is released after accepting to transport a young man to the city of Tova in time for Convergence, the winter solstice that this year will also see the alignment of Earth, Sun and Moon. The passenger is Serapio, molded from infancy to be the vessel of a vengeful god and for this reason deeply scarred and blinded – but not helpless, not at all.  Naranpa is the highest priest in the city of Tova, but her role is in constant jeopardy because of the inner political maneuvers inside the priesthood, and their inability to accept her humble origins. And then there is Okoa, son of the Carrion Crow clan’s matron: back in Tova from the military academy, he finds himself dealing with family problems and uneasy alliances.

The novel unfolds through time jumps that don’t feel at all confusing as they are wielded with great skill and keep adding new information to the very complex tapestry that is this story: seeing this world through the different points of view also confers great depth to it and its history, turning it into a vivid, three-dimensional creation that is very easy to slip into, just as it’s difficult to move out of, because it tends to entangle you into its awesome complexity. Moreover, the time jumps keep enhancing the sense of impending doom that becomes more and more palpable as the day of Convergence draws near.

The setting is indeed fascinating, not just because of the different locations visited as the characters engage in their travels, but because it’s created through a blend of vivid descriptions and fascinating legends that shape the world into something tangible and vibrant, gifted with a definite cinematic quality. If this is true for all descriptions in the novel, it is even more so where the city of Tova is concerned: a place of high peaks and deep chasms spanned by aerial bridges that can give you vertigo by proxy, a city teeming with life and at the same time rife with the danger of death, a death that can come through accidents – like slipping down an icy bridge into a bottomless ravine – or through malice – like being killed by a hired assassin or the member of a rival clan.  There is a definite sense of urgency in Tovan day-to-day activities, be they the comfortable kind enjoyed by the elite or the hand-to-mouth existence of the dwellers in the Maw, the lowest level of the city where poverty, crime and the offer of illicit pleasures are a way of life. It does not take long for the reader to perceive that Tova is like a pressure cooker ready to explode, that social strain and the priesthood’s iron rule and inner conflicts, together with never-ending clan rivalries, are bringing that pressure to the boiling point: add to that the long-held thirst for revenge harbored by Carrion Crow for the Night of Knives, when the priesthood tried to exterminate the clan, and you know it’s all fated to end in blood.

In this tense but intriguing situation the characters shine and add a further level of allure to the story, even though Okoa is mostly kept on the sidelines in favor of the other three, with some hope he will play a bigger role as the story moves forward. Naranpa is the one who required more time for me to truly appreciate her, but I guess it was mostly because I was still orienting myself in this world: once I got to know her better I could only admire her tenacity in clinging to her exalted post, despite her own self-doubts and the insecurities carried over from an impoverished childhood. Nara, as she’s often called, does not care so much for power in itself or for politics, but rather for the good of the city: she understands that to bring peace and prosperity to Tova things have to change, and for that she is challenged every step of the way by her fellow priests, when she is not actually threatened with death. Nara’s journey throughout Black Sun is a hard one, and while many times I felt frustrated in witnessing the obstacles she had to face, I cannot wait to see what Rebecca Roanhorse has in store for her along the way.

If Nara is an outsider with little chances of ever blending in, Xiala and Serapio are just as isolated, even though in different ways. I liked Xiala from the very beginning: her personality is a mix of defiance and vulnerability, accentuated by the way people relate to her as a Teek, a woman whose mysterious Song can placate stormy waters, call favorable winds and keep at bay dangerous creatures. For this reason Teeks are highly sought after, but at the same time despised and feared, and even killed for their precious bones gifted with magical properties: all this comes to the fore in the course of the sea voyage to Tova, when Xiala shows a very peculiar talent and the crew mutinies out of fear.  It’s therefore not surprising when she forms a bond with Serapio, an outcast like herself, and that they can understand each other on a deeper level, as shown by the exchange of stories and myths during the long nights over the sea.

Serapio might very well be the central character here, a sort of anti-hero who is at the same time powerful and vulnerable: shaped from childhood to be an instrument of vengeance, leading a loveless life as he was being molded into the desired weapon, he nonetheless shows a form of quiet humanity, a sort of sad gentleness that managed to break my heart, particularly when he contemplates what will be his ultimate destiny, 

[he] hoped that the pain would not be too great. He had made friends with it, yes, but it was a wary friendship.

a destiny he did not choose himself but at the same time one he has accepted as the only possible one. The author describes his journey in such a way that even as he fulfills his preordained role in a frenzied dance of violence and blood I could not help myself and felt only pity for him.

When all is said and done, Black Sun will certainly attract you because of the exotic background that sets it apart from the usual epic fantasy offerings, but it’s through the strength and human depth of its characters that it will keep you coming back for more. 

My Rating:

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Reviews

SHADOW AND BONE SEASON 1 (Netflix series) – #Wyrdandwonder

Before embarking in the review for the first season of the series inspired by Leigh Bardugo’s trilogy I need to state that I have not read her books, so I came to this story in total ignorance of its background and characters, which makes me unable to compare the two mediums – although, from what I was able to gather on various comments online, it would seem that the translation from books to screen was reasonably faithful to the source material.  I also learned that the script is a mix between the Shadow and Bone trilogy proper and the story portrayed in the Six of Crows duology, which for me added a nice counterpoint to the core narrative (and compelled me to finally add Six of Crows to my reading queue, after leaving it to languish on my TBR for far too long).

The story, in a nutshell: the kingdom of Ravka (which bears an uncanny resemblance to Tsarist Russia from the 19th Century) is split in two by a phenomenon called the Fold, an area of turbulent darkness inhabited by the Volcra, ravenous and nightmarish creatures. The kingdom is further divided by the separation between its mundane inhabitants and the Grisha, people with the ability to manipulate elemental forces, and for this reason both feared and despised. Young Alina Starkov, an orphan serving in the military, discovers that she holds a unique power, that of summoning light – a power that might vanquish the Fold and its terrible creatures forever: for this reason Alina finds herself at the center of a power struggle whose main strings are connected to General Kirigan, also a powerful Grisha, whose goals might not be completely straightforward…

As I said, I came to this series with no previous background, and at first I was a little lost in trying to connect all the dots, particularly because there are three main narrative lines in the story: the one focused on Alina, the one following the Crows (a band of thieves looking for the heist that will make their fortune) and the one about a Grisha who’s been kidnapped by enemies of Ravka.  Once I got my bearings however, I was able to enjoy the story and get invested in it, although I have to admit that sometimes it felt as if the viewers were forced to bite off more than they could chew: my lack of knowledge of the books series played a part in this, of course, but I had the impression that a couple more episodes, besides the eight slated for this first season, might have given the narrative more room to breathe.  The crowded storylines, while offering the possibility of moving across Ravka with the change of POW and therefore exploring the setting in its different locations, left little room to truly grow attached to the characters who seemed to me more like archetypes than living and breathing creations with which to establish the necessary emotional connection.

And indeed the archetypes abound in this first segment of the story: Alina is the classic orphan, shunned and underrated, who is later discovered as the holder of a vital power that will turn her into the proverbial Chosen One. She moves through all the required stages of… chosenhood (is that a word? 😀 ), from denial to wonder to acceptance and for most of the time she lets herself go with the flow, sometimes making ill-advised choices or trusting the wrong people, in what are the established canons of YA literature. There is also the hint of a love triangle that – to my enormous relief – did not last long, momentarily shifting Alina’s affections from her childhood friend Mal to the enigmatic General Kirigan, the Shadow Summoner.  This latter represents another YA firm staple, that of the darkly brooding character who serves as the antithesis to the shining wholesomeness of Mal, who in turn is not exempt from the expected mix of courage and willing sacrifice.

The three Crows, while following some of the genre’s criteria, appear more intriguing, mostly because we are shown only the surface of their personality and perceive that there is much more in their backgrounds worth exploring: Kaz, their leader, clearly suffered some tragedy in his past, which forced him to don a cynical protective armor; Inej is a former slave with the skills of a ninja and a powerful drive for freedom; and Jesper (my absolute favorite) is a sharp-shooter and a lovable maverick.  I liked very much how their narrative threads intersected with Alina’s and even more the fact that they might feature more prominently in the seasons to come: nothing like a good crew ready to launch into a daring heist to keep my attention focused, even more than the main events did, at times.

If the characters still need more room to grow and expand, the series’ settings are its best feature so far: from the hints about the social and racial divides at the roots of Ravkan society to the gorgeous costumes to the amazing visuals, all contribute to paint this world quite vividly and turn it into a believable reality.  The scenes alternate between the bright light of some interior settings to the outside panoramas of chilly, snowbound vistas that give way to the fearsome darkness of the Fold, in my opinion one of the best CGI creations of the series: when the characters travel through this area where thunder rumbles constantly, you are instantly assailed by the ominous sensation that something terrible is about to happen, and the choice of not fully showing the predatory Volcra, but rather offering only swift, almost subliminal glimpses of their appearance, makes them even more terrifying than a full manifestation and intensifies the sense of fear they must inspire. 

This first season of Shadow and Bone might not have been perfect, and was certainly too brief for the huge amount of information it had to deliver, but when all is said and done it shows great promise that I hope to see fulfilled in the seasons yet to come, and I’m looking forward to them with great interest.

My Rating:

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Reviews

THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB’S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES, by Grady Hendrix – #Wyrdandwonder

The word “vampire” in a book’s title is often enough to draw my attention, but here the connection with a book club, and the more than positive reviews from some of my fellow bloggers, made it next to impossible for me to ignore this novel. In the end, I found much more than I hoped for in Southern Book Club, because the fundamental horror of the genre is only the vehicle for the creation of a few intriguing characters and for some thought-provoking social commentary.  Will it be a perfect fit for the fantasy component of Wyrd and Wonder? I hope so,  because I think that the huge amount of weirdness of the story might make it a good candidate, even if it’s not set in some castle-dotted realm…

Patricia is your typical suburban wife (the story is set in the decade between the late ’80s and the late ’90s) with a workaholic, distant husband, two growing children and a lot of commitments – plus the recent burden of a mother-in-law whose health, both physical and mental, is declining at a rapid pace. One of the rare moments she can take for herself comes from the monthly discussions of her book club, and as the story opens she’s distressed because she had no time to read the current volume, the latest highbrow choice in what seems like a long list of intellectually worthy but uninspiring books.  The disaster of her presentation becomes the drive to create a more interesting club together with her friends Grace, Slick, Maryellen and Kitty, united in their inclination for thrillers and true crime stories. 

The quiet routine of Old Village, the suburb where Patricia and her friends reside, is however shaken by a series of apparently unrelated events: her elderly neighbor physically assaults her one evening, chewing off one earlobe, then dies in hospital not much later; the woman’s nephew, James Harris, takes residence in the now-vacant house, but has strangely nocturnal habits, no readily available ID and a lot of cash; Patricia’s mother-in-law is assaulted by a horde of rats (a truly horrible, blood-curling scene); and the close-by area of Six Mile is beset by a series of disappearances, followed by suicides, of young people believed to be under the influence of drugs.  The full picture seems to come together only when Mrs. Greene, once the caregiver for Patricia’s mother-in-law, presents her with clues that point to James Harris as a predator of a most unusual and shocking kind.  Patricia’s first attempt at calling attention to the man fails miserably, causing her a great deal of grief, and only when the danger starts encroaching on her children does she find the strength and the courage to go on the offensive again – but not alone…

There is little doubt that Harris is a vampire, no surprise there: it becomes clear from the very first time Patricia sets eyes on him as he lies comatose and shriveled, only to appear in full health the following day – that is, except for his intolerance to sunlight. And she sees him later on as he’s feeding on his latest victim, revealing all the inhumanness of his nature. But Patricia and her friends have a hard time unmasking him, for a number of reasons, all of which are guaranteed to fuel the readers’ anger, if they are so inclined: for starters, Harris has managed to insinuate himself in the social fabric of the area, his affable, pleasant demeanor gaining him easy entry in the homes on the neighbors – and let’s not forget what happens once you invite a vampire in your home… Then his early victims are all part of the black community: this is the deep South of some 30 years ago, after all, and no one seems to really care about the deaths of a number of kids from a low-income, run-down neighborhood – not the authorities, nor the otherwise “concerned” citizens – so that Harris knows he has an almost-unlimited reservoir of vulnerable prey to draw from.  Last but not least, the early charge against him comes from a group of women whose husbands are his friends and business partners and who are more than readily disposed to undermine their wives’ credibility, to silence them with scorn or violence, and to set them one against the other, to divide and isolate them.

What happens after that first, failed attempt is just as sickening as witnessing an actual vampiric assault, because that’s a scene rooted in the realm of fantasy, while the patronizing silencing of women – mothers, wives – is a sadly realistic scenario: worse, Harris also manages to infiltrate the only territory these women called their own, the book club, turning it into a male-driven society where the wives have lost their voice even in the choice of reading material.  Divide et impera: by sowing a barely concealed fear of consequences, Harris and his (more or less) unwitting cronies create an environment in which acceptance comes only from conformity, from compliance with the rules, where the barest hint at dissonance bears a heavy stigma and brings discrimination. It’s only when Harris’ greed gets the better of his carefulness and he starts targeting his neighbors’ children that Patricia finds once again her determination and enrolls her friends’ help to remove the threat to their families: where on one side this turns into a couple of prolonged, blood-chilling narrative sequences I still cringe in recollecting, on the other it showcases these women’s bravery and the power of their friendship. Not to mention the inner steel underlying their deep-seated outer politeness: “He thinks we’re what we look like on the outside: nice Southern ladies. Let me tell you something…there’s nothing nice about Southern ladies.”

These ladies are not perfect heroines however, their audacious endeavor marred by the realization that the drive to act only comes when their families are threatened, when some of them are subjected to intimidation and brutal violence aimed at ensuring their silence, a silence made easier because the victims were not part of their community.  The racial and social rift works fully in favor of Harris’ plan here, and even if ultimately the group of friends chooses to take matters into their own hands, there is a bittersweet flavor to the ending that acknowledges how theirs was just an action driven by the momentary need, and not a true change in outlook.

Still, I quite enjoyed Southern Book Club and its interesting mix of horror and social analysis and look forward to sampling more of this author’s works in the (hopefully) near future.

My Rating:

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