Reviews

INTERGALACTIC BOOK TAG

Time for another of my beloved tags, taken from THIS very useful list: this one probably intended to use the space inspiration only as an inspirational guideline, but since SciFi Month is quickly approaching and I want to remind everyone that it’s one of the most intriguing events in the blogosphere, I will focus my answers on SF books only. Take it as an “appetizer” for the great SF “meal” that will start on November 1st.

SPACE: NAME A BOOK THAT IS OUT OF THIS WORLD – THAT TAKES PLACE IN A WORLD DIFFERENT FROM OUR OWN.

That’s an easy one for a dedicated SF reader, since a great number of stories takes place away from Earth, but if I had to choose one particular extra-terrestrial world I would pick Donovan, one of the most dangerous, scary and awe-inspiring places I ever read about.

BLACK HOLE: NAME A BOOK THAT COMPLETELY SUCKED YOU IN.

Again, there is a long list of books that fulfill this requirement, and among them there is certainly the Red Rising trilogy, one of the most gripping, hair-raising stories I remember reading.

LIGHTSPEED: NAME A BOOK YOU ARE ANTICIPATING SO MUCH THAT YOU WISH YOU COULD TRAVEL AT LIGHTSPEED TO GET TO IT.

No need to think it over on this one: the final installment in The Expanse, my favorite space opera series. Leviathan Falls will come out next month, but it seems far too long a wait all the same…

NEBULA: NAME A BOOK WITH A BEAUTIFUL COVER.

Too many of these to be able to pick only one, but I have to say that among those that stand out there is The Doors of Eden, a multi-layered adventure from the very prolific mind of Adrian Tchaikovski.

GRAVITY: NAME YOUR FAVORITE ROMANTIC PAIRING THAT SEEMS TO HAVE GRAVITATIONAL PULL TO EACH OTHER.

*OUCH* this is a difficult one, since I’m somewhat allergic to romance in my reading, but if I have to mention a couple I enjoy reading about it could be Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan, created by Lois McMaster’s Bujold: their story is devoid of the usual trappings of romantic involvement and for that reason it feels real and believable. And to top it all, they are the parents of the incomparable Miles!

THE BIG BANG: NAME THE BOOK THAT GOT YOU STARTED ON READING.

Oh my! That’s an impossible question: from what I’ve been told, I’ve always had my nose in a book as soon as I learned reading, so I have no idea where I started. But it must have been a good one, since I never stopped 😀

ASTEROID: NAME A SHORT STORY OR NOVELLA THAT YOU LOVE.

Any one from the Murderbot Diaries. To know Murderbot is to fall in love with this series-loving, grumpy sec-unit learning what it means to be a person.

GALAXY: NAME A BOOK WITH MULTIPLE POVS.

One of the best series I recently read dividing its focus on various characters (one of them a delightful sentient spaceship) is Gareth Powell’s Embers of War: if you have not read it yet, I can highly recommend it 🙂

SPACESHIP: NAME A BOOK TITLE THAT WOULD BE A GREAT NAME FOR A SPACESHIP.

Megan O’Keefe’s The First Omega: it sounds both intriguing and ominous and it somehow reminds me of the spaceship names found in Iain Banks’ Culture novels…

And now it’s your turn: sounds like a good way to summon the right mood for SciFi Month, doesn’t it? 😉

Reviews

DUNE 2021 – Part One: movie review

When asked by a friend to summarize with just one word my reactions to the newest Dune screen incarnation, I replied “Finally!”, because that’s how I felt once the movie was over: finally, Frank Herbert’s work has been translated on the big screen with as much accuracy in respect of the original material as the change in mediums allows.

It’s not perfect, granted, mostly because we were prevented from appreciating the whole story due to a deplorable lack of faith from the industry which led to the filming of just one half of the story before committing to the project in its entirety, but I appreciated and enjoyed Denis Villeneuve’s vision in a way I was unable to with the previous attempts.

And before launching into the review proper, I feel the need to address the proverbial elephant in the room, i.e. the comparison with the 1984 movie directed by David Lynch (I prefer to forget the existence of the 2000 TV mini-series for a number of reasons I will not list here).  I rewatched Lynch’s Dune a couple of weeks before the new movie’s theatrical release, and while I still maintain that it is visually amazing, I could see more clearly its shortcomings, which have less to do with the changes in viewers’ tastes and styles of cinematography than with the director’s “imprint”.

The 1984 movie feels excessively burdened by the huge amount of inner musings employed to convey Herbert’s complex world-building,  and it suffers from unequal pacing since it follows more or less faithfully the original material in its first half, only to rush far too quickly in the second. Moreover, some of the acting – particularly where the Harkonnens are concerned – is way over the top, as if screenwriter and director feared that the audience would be unable to understand they were the “bad guys”: the choice to have them constantly laugh maniacally and to add a good portion of blood and gore to their scenes had the effect – at least from my point of view – of turning them into caricatures rather than figures to be feared. I’m not completely onboard with the way the character of Paul Atreides was written and performed, as well, but I don’t want to indulge in a prolonged nitpicking session…

As far as visuals go, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune looks more… pared down to essentials, for lack of a better definition: buildings and ships lean toward stark geometric forms, costumes tend more to the utilitarian than the flashy and the overall photography shows a preference for darker, primal shades – the greys, blues and blacks of Caladan and the earth and sand tones of Arrakis.  This choice had the effect, for me, to enhance my concentration on the characters and my immersion in the images and the story which, no matter how familiar I am with it, remains a compelling one: after all, that’s what we look for in works of the imagination – for an absorbing tale, one that can take us away from everyday reality for a while.

Equally pared-down, but still able to convey the necessary information, is the world-building: I tried to put myself in the shoes of a viewer not familiar with Herbert’s work and found that the story is quite understandable even without the huge voiceover info-dumps of its predecessor: I know for a fact that SFF audiences possess the kind of mental agility that allows them to connect the dots without need for external help, and it looks as if Villeneuve relies on this very assumption as he presents this future background without offering footnotes, or just hinting at them in a few brief snippets of dialogue.

And last but not least, I appreciated how the character of Paul Atreides was portrayed: not the carefree young man who finds himself invested with the promise of godhood and in the end totally embraces it, but rather a teenager quite unsure of his role in life who discovers he’s been maneuvered toward a path not of his own choosing, which in the end will cause first a profound breach with the mother who shaped him so and then will leave him somewhat distrustful of the future role he’s called to play.  This is the way I always envisioned Paul in the book, and I hope that Part 2 of the movie – if it will be filmed – will focus more on this aspect of his personality rather than on the “hero’s journey” side of his narrative arc, which to me is far less relevant than the existential turmoil that’s part of his psychological makeup.

It’s difficult to review what is essentially half a story, and I have to admit that at the end of the 2 and a half hours of screen time I felt the incompleteness of it all – even though the movie ends in such a way as to organically support the infamous “to be continued” – but rather than be disappointed for the lack of closure, I prefer to remain optimistic that the public will acknowledge the validity of this first installment and reward it with the success necessary to allow its completion.

My Rating:

Reviews

PLANETSIDE (Planetside#1), by Michael Mammay

More than once I’ve mentioned how Military SF can be problematic for me, since the focus on battles, strategy and technology in many novels tends to go the the detriment of characterization and story: this was not the case with Planetside, although after a promising start this book turned out to be a different kind of letdown.

Colonel Carl Butler, once a well-known war hero, is living in semi-retirement filling a teaching position, when his old friend General Serata calls him to investigate an issue which might have huge political repercussions: the son of a High Councilor, wounded in battle on a disputed planet, has disappeared after being evacuated on the medical ship, and Butler is dispatched to learn what happened.  Cappa is a planet where spacefaring humans found a local intelligent population: needing to mine the planet’s resources, humans have built a sort of uneasy truce with the Cappans, but there are insurrectionary fringes that still fight the occupying forces.  On his arrival at the space station orbiting Cappa, Butler finds himself mired in a web of conflicting information, blind alleys and red herrings, and the first inklings of a deeper trouble that might compromise the mining operations and the Earthers’ occupying force, so that his efforts at finding the truth – not to mention the whereabouts of the lost Lieutenant Mallot – are constantly met with lack of cooperation and a few attempts on his life.

The start of the novel is an intriguing one because it looks more like a mystery than a SF-Mil story and Butler’s voice is quite captivating: he comes across as brazen and uncaring of the toes he steps on in the course of his investigation – as a matter of fact he seems to enjoy ruffling everyone’s feathers, aware as he is that in his position he has nothing to lose.  Moreover, he’s a heavy drinker, and that brings him closer to the typical figure of the investigator in noir detective stories, which confers an appealing, old-fashioned patina to the otherwise futuristic narrative.  I liked how Butler’s personality comes to the fore through dialogues and his interactions with other characters, and his dry, not always appreciated, brand of humor tempers the military bearing turning him into a quite intriguing figure. The investigation itself is fascinating because we see Butler and his team-mates gathering different kinds of information, which allows the reader to get a clear picture of the background in which the story is set, without needing to fall into the trap of long, boring infodumps.

The first alarming cracks in the story appear with the description of humans’ cavalier attitude when landing on a new world: we learn that they take steps to “preserve” autochthonous species by relocating them, but that the needs of humans are always the deciding factor – which to me has quite an ominous sound. Worse still, Butler conveys the information that 

“If a planet unsuitable for humans had indigenous life that affected mining, we could simply destroy it from space with XB25s. Planet busters. As long as it didn’t hurt the commercial value, nobody cared.”

Apart from the narrative foreshadowing that this sentence implies, what truly shocked me here is the nonchalant acceptance of what amounts to genocide, not to mention the destruction of an existing ecosystem, that is carried out with such careless ease. Maybe I have watched too much Star Trek and become used to its utopian mindset, but there must be an intermediate way between the opposing philosophies of the Prime Directive on one side and the “humans first” attitude of this future vision.  

Which leads me to the big issue that brought down my rating for this book: at some point Butler is made aware of the possibility that the Cappans might have come into possession of higher technology that could help them in fighting the humans’ occupation – which, let me add, would have been their right – and that the planet’s dwellers have been used in genetic experiments of hybridization, a circumstance that would certainly not help in mutual understanding.  So, to avoid further trouble, the colonel resorts to a devastating solution that will remove the “Cappan menace” while maintaining the humans’ ability to exploit the planet’s resources. And he does so with what looks like such untroubled determination, such a blatant absence of moral quandaries, that any sympathy I might have harbored for his character at the beginning vanished immediately. Butler’s actions are not so dissimilar from other, real-life choices of actual military commanders in the recent past, granted, but what I find deeply disturbing is the matter-of-factness of the decision, and the total absence of inner turmoil that such a path should have engendered.  Not to mention the fact that he’s able to board a ship headed for home without anyone batting so much as an eyelash.

The abrupt ending of the book did not help me in metabolizing my feelings of horror and anger, and while I’m aware that there are two more books in this series and that the next one might portray Butler facing judgement for his actions or seeing the repercussions for such wanton destruction, I am so appalled right now that I can’t contemplate moving forward with the story.

My Rating:

Reviews

STAR TREK: A TIME TO HEAL, by David Mack

As the second book in this duology, A Time to Heal focuses on the aftermath of of the events portrayed in A Time to Kill: where book one leaned more toward action, this second volume looks more closely to the consequences of those acts, and the impact they have on the characters. And it’s often an harrowing tale…

Having failed in his bid for supremacy through aggression, former Prime Minister Kinchawn – now ousted by his second in command and by the new Tezwan government – has gone into hiding while his loyalists carry out a war of attrition through terrorist acts that target both their own compatriots and the Federation relief personnel who came to help the distressed population of the planet.  The crew of the Enterprise is also frantically searching for Cmdr. Riker, who was taken prisoner by Kinchawn’s loyalists during the commando strike against the weapon emplacements, a search that is made more difficult by the severe losses incurred from the loyalists’ strikes and by the rapidly deteriorating political situation, which is not helped by president Zife’s attempts at hiding the Federation’s hand in creating the present conditions.

By now I have become used to David Mack’s grimmer version of the Trek universe, and I appreciated his “no holds barred” choice of showing the harsher realities of war – which in this specific case is a war of attrition: Star Trek rarely dwelled on the stark details of war, even on Deep Space 9 where the conflict with the Dominion held such a large portion of the story. With the exception of a single episode, war – and here I mean ground combat, the close and personal kind – has more often than not been something that happened off screen, offering something of a sanitized version of the real thing.  A Time to Heal takes us at the center of the events developing on ravaged Tezwa and we are not spared any detail of the bloody guerrilla tactics of Kinchawn’s loyalists who strike with equal ferociousness their compatriots and the Federation personnel, whose ranks are severely depleted – both in security forces and in medical staff.

These circumstances offer great opportunities for character development, because the reactions to the constant attrition of these attacks speak loudly about the way individuals are changed by events outside of their control: from the pain of the security officers forced to send their people into potentially lethal situations, to the heartbreak of medical personnel having to deal with the wounded, the maimed, the dying on a daily basis with no end in sight, to the grim resolve of those who until that moment had tried to adhere to higher ideals and find themselves forced to respond to cruelty with the same degree of ruthlessness – no one comes out of this page in Trek history unscathed, or unchanged.

One of the characters that is more dramatically altered is the otherwise serene Counselor Troi, as her anguish for Riker’s fate compels her to resort to psychological torture of a captured officer from Kinshawn’s army, in the attempt to learn where the Enterprise’s XO has been taken: Troi goes down a very dark road here, and only at the very last moment she is forced to acknowledge that despair and a desire for retribution have taken her almost beyond the brink of decency.  It’s hardly necessary for her to recall the famous quote from Nietzsche to understand that her fight against her opponent’s darkness almost took her inside that darkness where monsters lurk and stare you in the eye.

Even Captain Picard is affected deeply by the rapidly degenerating situation, and it looks as if he’s more prone to reacting, rather than acting proactively as used to be his modus operandi: in later books by this author he appears less sure of himself, burdened by guilt and the awareness of having been forced to renounce some of his principles, so I believe that the downward spiral might have started here, as he finds himself confronted with a kind of brutality the Federation is not used to. We rarely – if ever – saw Picard out of his element as he’s shown here, but his decision to endorse Zife’s removal from office ends up being the less damaging path in a range of impossible choices. That this decision weighs heavily on his conscience, and will come later to haunt him and endanger his career, only manages to make him more human and approachable that he ever was before.

And to add more weight to the awareness that this is the start of a downward slide for the Federation and its professed ideals, there are the constant glimpses of something ominous moving behind the scenes: with the hindsight offered by the later books I read before this, it’s easy to perceive the long hand of Section 31 and its henchmen, and to find those hints even more disturbing as the realization of how pervasive the darkness already is. For this reason I’m still wondering, as I write this, at the choice of title for this book, because there is very little healing in here, if any, even though this did nothing to detract from my appreciation of a compelling story and my respect for this author’s skills in dealing with a well-know franchise and taking its tie-in books to a higher level.

My Rating:

Reviews

STAR TREK: A TIME TO KILL, by David Mack

Not long ago I rekindled my interest in the Star Trek tie-in novels thanks to the narrative thread concerning the shady Section 31 and its heavy involvement in Federation policies: through David Mack’s Control and Collateral Damage I learned of a dark event in the continuing story, one concerning a corrupt Federation president and the unavoidable conspiracy to remove him from office.  At the time, most of the people involved in the situation, including Captain Picard, did not know that Section 31 had decided to later kill president Zife, which in the end caused the Enterprise’s captain to be prosecuted for his role in the whole sorry mess.  

A Time to Kill, and its companion novel A Time to Heal, portray the circumstances that led to the massive interstellar crisis which later decreed Zife’s removal from office: these books represent a prequel to the ones I mentioned before, and they helped me put in better focus the overall story – they are also part of a longer series filling the blanks between the end of the Dominion War and the events of the movie Nemesis, which marks several changes in the composition of the Enterprise’s complement.

In the darkest hours of the Dominion War president Zife and his closest advisors (probably prompted by Section 31) decided to arm the planet Tezwa, lying close to the Klingon border, with a new kind of devastating weapon as a last resort against the invasion, although it was a choice in direct violation of the treaties between the Federation and the Empire.  Now that the Dominion threat is no more, Kinchawn – Tezwa’s new Prime Minister and a power-hungry individual – threatens to encroach on Klingon territory, knowing that those same weapons would give him a formidable advantage.  Picard and the Enterprise are sent to defuse this potentially explosive situation, but lack of knowledge of the powerful armament’s existence, or of the Federation’s higher echelons’ involvement, places him and his crew in a disastrous situation that looks more like a no-win scenario with every passing hour…

As I found out with the two previous Star Trek tie-in books written by David Mack, this is not the kind of story we saw in the televised episodes, where no matter how dire the situation, or how troublesome the political implications, at the end of the episode’s 45 minutes a solution is found and everything is tied up nicely: A Time to Kill is a thrilling mix of action sequences and behind-the-scenes machinations that combine to depict what is probably the worst diplomatic crisis ever faced by the Federation and make this novel a compelling page turner. The story also focuses on a good number of new faces among the Enterprise’s complement, which helps in broadening the narrative scope and gifting the novel with a definite choral feel by presenting these people with a depth of background, motivations and dilemmas that turn them into something more than cardboard characters to be introduced in one scene and killed off in the next.

One major thread in the story concerns the commando-style mission carried out by the crew to destroy the six weapons emplacements scattered across the planet before the guns can be used against the advancing Klingon fleet: the POV shifts between the various teams, and the problems they encounter in the mission, provide all the adrenaline one could ask for – and more – and offer a dramatic counterpoint to the equally difficult diplomatic situation faced by Captain Picard, who’s compelled to ask his former officer Worf, now the Federation ambassador to the Klingon empire, to perform a covert and dangerous operation on his own homeworld.  

Nonetheless, even though these sections offer a compelling read, I found that what happens on Earth in the rarefied heights of politics represents the true backbone of the story, mostly because I discovered that the infamous president Zife looks little more than a front for his Machiavellian chief adviser – a man gifted with great strategic skills but cursed with a chilling lack of empathy –  and that the Section 31 masterminds are the real movers and shakers of the whole scenario. What I find fascinating here is the strong House of Cards vibes I derived from this part of the story, where cut-throat politics and scheming feel very unlike what we have been shown of the Federation so far, while making me wonder how much of its flawless public image was really just a façade.  It all fits with what I’ve learned so far about Section 31’s involvement in the management of Federation politics, and it also shows the author’s skill in developing this concept of the darkness at the core of the utopia, and expanding it in the later books.

Character-wise, A Time to Kill offers some intriguing angles on the ones we know best, showing how recent events plagued them with some insecurities which weigh heavily on the choices they have to make: in a sense this makes them more sympathetic and helps to show they are normal people trying to deal with extraordinary issues, rather than larger-than-life heroes. Oddly enough, I find I like these characters more when they are less heroic and invincible, because they end up feeling more real.

As the first part of a duology, this book ends with something of a cliffhanger and I count myself fortunate to have had the possibility of reading the sequel back to back, because the wait would otherwise have been hard to bear…

My Rating:

Reviews

CATALYST GATE (The Protectorate #3), 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.

I imagine that the beginning of any story must be a difficult time, with ideas crowding on the writer’s mind and clamoring for release, but I also believe that bringing it to a close must be equally trying, if one wants to tie up all the narrative threads in a satisfactory way for creator and readers alike: Megan O’Keefe managed to do so very well, and in a breath-stopping, compelling way. 

What started as a more personal journey in the first book of the trilogy, Velocity Weapon, which focused on the main character Sanda Greeve and her discoveries aboard the AI-driven ship Light of Berossus, then turned into a system-wide menace in the second installment, Chaos Vector, to be ultimately expanded into the threat of galactic annihilation in this conclusive volume of the trilogy, one that I once again hope will be optioned for a TV series by some enlightened network executives, if such creatures exist, because this story deserves to be enjoyed in both mediums, and it possesses every quality to turn into a visually stunning, story-intense show.  

In the final book of the saga we find all of the people we got to know along the way, and can enjoy their expanded characterization and the huge twists and revelations that keep coming at them, and at the readers, with a relentless pace that still manages to offer a cohesive, engaging story never missing its focus despite the complex interweaving of its many narrative threads.  While Megan O’Keefe keeps faithful to the structure of the three main POVs employed until now – Sanda, her brother Biran and Jules Valentine – she still finds a way to flesh out the secondary characters with depth and facets that add layers to the story and make you care for them quite deeply, and it hardly matters whether these characters are actual people or not, because Bero – the A.I. entity who is Sanda’s major ally – comes across as a delightful personality, capable of both great determination as well as subtle humor.

What was hinted at before and becomes dramatically clear in Catalyst Gate is that humanity, despite its amazing progress, has not evolved beyond its own self-centeredness and petty squabbles, that reaching for the stars and expanding its civilization there has not cured them of the need to conquer without thinking about possible consequences: once the danger threatening mankind is revealed as the repercussion of an act of extreme hubris, I kept thinking about a sentence in Tolkien’s LOTR about the Dwarves “delving too greedily and too deep” and therefore releasing their own nemesis. The scourge that humans unleashed is the main element driving the story here, and it does so through a series of interconnected threads that impart an almost impossible acceleration to it: more than once I felt the need to stop and come up for air, trying to distance myself a little from the constant adrenaline surge of the action, but I could not stop for long because the story kept attracting me like a powerful magnet. 

It’s amazing to understand, in the end, how the past and the present are closely tied, how the glimpses of humanity’s road to the stars connect with the events in the current timeline, and there are some quite harrowing, edge-of-your-seat moments as the various characters try to piece together those revelations from that past with the dangers of the present, all the while dealing with their own problems – and secrets.  Yes, because there are still many truths still to be revealed in Catalyst Gate: if you thought that all the jaw-dropping surprises had been used up in the previous books, well, think again, because there are quite a few still in store for you. And some will prove to be more than unexpected…

Characters are still shining as brightly as in the previous installments, from Biran who finds himself having to step into his position with the kind of strength and hard resolve that seemed far from his personality; to former spy Tomas, who is still trying to understand his place in the world and the direction his newfound emancipation must take, but knows for certain where his loyalty must lie; to Bero, once the captive A.I. on the ship Light of Berossus and now a powerful player in the galactic milieu, yet one possessed with a delightfully childish glee about its skills (“I continue to be the most effective weapon in the known universe”).  Nor are the secondary players forgotten here, particularly where Sanda’s motley crew is concerned: Megan O’Keefe took these disparate individuals and turned them into one of the most engaging, most enjoyable fictional found families I ever encountered, one whose banter – even in the face of possible destruction – offers welcome rays of light in a very dark, very troublesome background.

And of course Sanda: I connected with this character from day one, admiring her resilience and her no-nonsense approach to problems, even physical ones, like the loss of one leg which has been affecting her from the very start and served to showcase her attitude and personality quite effectively. Sanda is indeed the perfect modern heroine, one who can both kick ass and be affectionate and caring toward her families – the one she started with and the one she built around her. The perfect balance between human frailties and courage, the way she can face even the most desperate situation with tenacity and determination have been the best features in Sanda Greeve, and those that made this series quite special besides its enthralling core story.

As I said at the start of this review, bringing a saga of such magnitude as The Protectorate to its close might hold its own pitfalls, but Megan O’Keefe proved to be a very skillful weaver here, always keeping a tight control on her creature and delivering an end that is both satisfactory and emotionally appealing.  If you are looking for a compelling space opera series with depth and substance, you need look no further.

My Rating:

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

Short Story: HOME: HABITAT, RANGE, NICHE, TERRITORY, by Martha Wells

A Murderbot Diaries story set after Exit Strategy

Click on the link to read it online

It’s been a while since I visited the Tor.com section that lists short stories, and my return to the site was marked by an exciting find: a brief tale by Martha Wells set in the Murderbot saga, and more precisely right after Exit Strategy. You can imagine how I whooped with delight at this discovery…

What’s interesting in Home: Habitat… is that the POV for once is not Murderbot’s but rather Dr. Mensah’s as she deals with the double trouble of dealing with her PTSD, after her kidnapping at the hands of GrayCris operatives, and of making her compatriots in Preservation Alliance accept the Sec-Unit as a worthy individual rather than a killing machine.

The usual “gang” is all here, of course, the group of humans who accepted Murderbot as one of their own, and as usual it’s a delight to see them and witness their exchanges, but the different focus of this story helps us see MB from a different perspective, particularly where its body language is concerned: the way it prefers not to meet the humans’ gaze directly, or its insistence in forwarding outlandish weapons requests, which sounds more like a way of joking with Mensah rather than anything else. Not that Murderbot would ever admit to making a joke or trying to ease the good doctor’s spirits, of course… 😉

Still, there is room, despite the brevity of the tale, for some intriguing considerations about MB’s status – and that of its brethren: the Corporate Rim’s way of doing business has implemented a form of slavery that might be hiding under the guise of contracts, and more civilized institutions, like Preservation, do all they can to guarantee other humans’ rights; again, on Preservation A.I.s are assured of their rights as citizens thanks to their self-awareness. But, as Mensah muses at some point, Murderbot falls between these two extremes, and as such it’s not considered worthy of protection: it’s totally new territory and she’s determined to change the rules because she – as her other companions – has perceived the potential in what others see only as an instrument of death.

”…they are all aware of what they are and what’s been done to them. But the only choice they are ever offered is obedience or pain and death”

In the overall lightness of the series, this is a very serious consideration and one that sheds more light into Mensah’s determination to insure Murdebort’s acceptance into a more civilized society.

An unmissable addition to the wonderful Diaries continuing tale.

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

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: