Reviews

GLITTERATI, by Oliver K. Langmead

This is probably the weirdest book I have read so far, and even though I was somewhat prepared for this story – having been inspired to read it by the review of fellow blogger Tammy – still it turned out to be a very odd experience. Intriguing, but definitely odd…

The story is set in a somewhat dystopian version of our world, one that’s divided between normal, everyday people – although they are defined as ‘unfashionable’ or, worse, ’the uglies’ – and the glitterati, the fashionable elite whose only occupation and goal is that of looking fabulous (a word that recurs quite often in the book) by matching outfits and colors and appearance to the various days of the week, or situations or social gatherings. We observe this world through the eyes of Simone as he spends his days in what looks like a constant search for perfection, excellence, fabulousness. 

He and his wife Georgie are among the elite of this rarefied crowd, and Simone seems to have a knack for being a trend setter, but one day the “bubble” bursts as an inconvenient nosebleed mars his outfit of the evening: what might have been a simple – but fashionably devastating – accident turns into a new fashion statement when fellow glitterati Justine adopts it as her own, thus robbing Simone of the glamour of discovery. The Battle of Fashions between the two of them starts a no-holds-barred feud which includes the wearing of armor (fashionable, of course) and some dirty tricks. Simone and Georgie’s life is further complicated by the discovery of a child in their garden, a creature they literally don’t know how to handle, and a social downfall that will, however, change their perspective on life – and fashion.

Glitterati is a somewhat fun book blending a ferocious social commentary, which often veers into the grotesque, with a weird dystopian society that made me think of what The Hunger Games would have been if that story had been about fashion rather than survival – and a few of the outfit descriptions you can find in the book made me think of some Hunger Games characters as they were portrayed in the movies (think about Effie Trinket and you will see what I mean).  But the story is not all fun and foolishness, because there are some very dark elements in there: for example we learn that the Glitterati can have unpleasant memories removed, so that they can’t mar the perfection of one’s style and appearance by unexpectedly surfacing and upsetting their psychological balance. Even an event as mundane as a glass cut on the hand can be removed from memory, although the scene about the wound treatment is something that fell quickly (and quite inexplicably) into horror territory, and which made me wonder about the hows and whys of this bizarre world.

And here is where I was slightly disappointed by Glitterati, because as fun and entertaining the book is, there is no explanation about how this world came to be or what caused this almost unbelievable social divide in which the elite of the Glitterati does not need to work or to have money for their needs and seems to exist only to be admired. Granted, the novel is indeed a compulsive and absorbing read, but once you reach the end the questions start to pop up in your mind, making you challenge the basis of the whole scenario – and you find out that the story is sorely lacking in that sense, particularly when you get a fleeting glimpse of the true role of the elite during an ominous conversation between Simone and his lawyer, but nothing follows that tantalizing glimpse.

Still, it’s impossible not be become invested in Simone’s (and Georgie’s) journey as it turns from a never-ending run of dressing, partying and consumption of drugs into something more… human (for want of a better word): their relationship, as stylized and formal as it appears from their dialogue and interactions, speaks of a deeply rooted and genuine affection, turning them into what feels like a team, while the rest of the characters appear as if they all live in a self-centered fog of narcissistic admiration.   The changes they undergo – Simone in particular – develop in an organic, believable way and even though the ending seems a bit hurried, there is a glimmer of hope for a future in which they might be a little more real and grounded as people and not as the posing mannequins they have been at the beginning.

If you are looking for a story that’s way out of your comfort zone, but which will both entertain and horrify you, Glitterati might very well be the right choice: it might lack a bit of depth, but it will keep you enthralled from start to finish. And that’s not a bad thing at all…

My Rating:

Reviews

A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT (Wayfarers #2), by Becky Chambers

My previous experience with Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series had led me to expect, from this second installment, another easygoing journey into this multi-hued universe where everyone seems to coexist in peace with everyone else, and book 2 was that, indeed, but there were also other narrative elements that “spiced up” the mix and made my experience even more intriguing.

At the end of the first book, the ship’s AI Lovelace had to undergo a hard reset, which restored its functions but also erased the personality built over time by the interactions with the crew, causing them no little grief – particularly where tech Jenks was concerned.  A friend of Jenks, Pepper, offered Lovelace a different chance by installing the AI into an artificial body, shaped like a human female: the process being a very illegal one, Lovelace’s only option was to move in with Pepper and her mate Blue to their home on the outpost of Port Coriol, where the new being – now renamed Sidra – could learn how to act like an organic human and avoid any kind of suspicion. 

A Closed and Common Orbit is the chronicle of Lovelace/Sidra’s journey as she adapts to her new situation, whose unforeseen limitations and newfound freedoms make her adjustments far from easy; but the book is not focused only on Sidra, as she shares narrative space with another character, Jane 23, who is one of the many clones employed in a scrap recycling factory on a distant planet, where the girls are cruelly used as cheap labor by a totally amoral system.  The two stories interweave in alternating chapters, and present two different sides of a quest for identity and self-determination, for the means to survive in a world so different from the one where one’s awareness had set its roots: two very fascinating journeys, indeed, which run parallel for a while, until they intersect in a poignant way which then makes room for the kind of “happy ending” that seems to be Becky Chambers’ narrative trademark.

Sidra (formerly Lovelace) must now deal with the curtailing of her cognitive abilities and the limitations of the human form she now inhabits, which sometimes give way to a sort of agoraphobia, compounded by the need to keep her differences under control lest she reveal what she truly is, and endanger the friends who are helping her. Science fiction often presented us with instances of A.I.s trying to be more human, to transcend their programming and become more similar to their organic creators, but Sidra’s path is somewhat hindered by the longing for those abilities that are now precluded her, so that her story is focused on this seemingly irresolvable dichotomy. I liked how her friends Pepper and Blue go out of their way to ease Sidra’s transition, offering her the sense of friendship and family that her previous iteration had enjoyed aboard the Wayfarer, but what I truly loved were her interaction with the alien Tak and their almost-philosophical discussions about the meaning of life, sentience, love. Tak is an Aeluon, a creature whose language comes from the changing hues of its skin rather than actual words (even though it uses implants that allow it to communicate verbally), and I saw a sort of parallel between Tak and Sidra, both “strangers in a strange land” reaching out to each other with a depth of growing friendship that in my eyes overshadowed even the selfless one offered by Pepper and Blue.

Much as Sidra’s journey proved fascinating, I was drawn more intensely by the chapters focusing on Jane 23, on her discovery of an outside world beyond the confines of the factory where she was effectively enslaved, and her meeting with Owl, the A.I. of a derelict shuttle that offers Jane a safe place in the outside wasteland where packs of ferocious dogs roam among the piles of abandoned scraps. The theme of family is once again explored in these sections of the novel, a family of two where Owl is nothing more than a voice from the walls and a sketched face on the monitors, and yet the A.I. is able to give Jane the means to learn, grow and move beyond the limitations imposed by her earlier life: it’s fascinating to observe how much the relationship between Owl and Jane parallels that of a mother and daughter, with Jane going from the total trust of childhood to the rebellion of teenager years and finally to the understanding and affection that comes later.  And Owl is indeed at the center of a desperate search from a grown-up Jane (in her new identity), so that she can reconnect with her A.I. “mother” and fill the gaping void in her little family.

These two apparently distant storylines have more points of contact that one could imagine, and they do converge in a quite poignant fashion toward the latter part of the novel, where the various pieces of the puzzle begin to connect in a quite emotional way and solidify into a final picture where once again the ties of family, friendship and love are reaffirmed in the kind of rosy, but certainly not saccharine-sweet, picture that I have by now come to expect from Becky Chambers’ stories, which might look somewhat unrealistic from a jaded point of view, but which are quite comforting in their hopeful and optimistic outlook.

And that’s what we so deeply need now and again…

My Rating:

Reviews

EVERSION, by Alastair Reynolds

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

Alastair Reynolds’ name is always enough to make me pay attention to any new book he publishes: so far I’ve learned to expect space opera stories strongly based on science and dealing with a galaxy-wide scope of events, so my curiosity was piqued by the blurb for Eversion, which sounded like a very different take from those themes. It turned out to be a very unexpected, deeply engaging read that held my attention from start to finish and offered a quite unusual story that mixed some Groundhog Day vibes with tales of exploration and an alien mystery shrouded in a quasi-Lovecraftian shade of fear: in short, a story that compelled me to burn the proverbial midnight oil to see where the author would take me.

The novel starts, quite unexpectedly, on a sailing ship from the early 19th Century, the Demeter, traveling through the icy waters of Norway: Dr. Silas Coade, the ship’s surgeon, is the narrating voice of the story as he relates the goal of the expedition, a search for a mysterious construct – named the Edifice – that could be reached through a narrow passage in the ice. The expedition members include, besides the good doctor, the leader of the group, boisterous Master Topolsky; Coronel Ramos, a weapons and explosives expert; tormented mathematician Dupin, and a few others, including Lady Ada Cossile, a noblewoman of great knowledge and prickly disposition.  As their intended destination approaches, we get to know the various members of the group and learn about the frictions generated by such different characters sharing close quarters: once the passage is located, though, and the wreck of a previous visiting ship – the Europa – is discovered, tempers flare in a heated exchange of accusations, and then disaster strikes in a most unexpected way. But it’s not the end, because in the next chapter we find once again Dr. Coade on Demeter, only this time he finds himself on a late 19th Century steamship, forging the waters near Patagonia – and still looking for a mysterious passage and an equally mysterious Edifice…

The pattern repeats itself again as the time frame proceeds forward and Demeter morphs from sail ship to steamship to dirigible to spaceship, always seeking to uncover the mystery of the Edifice, always forging through a dangerous passage and always meeting with disaster in one form or another. Some elements remain the same throughout the various versions of the story, however: the characters and their respective roles; Dr. Coade’s addiction to drugs and his literary aspirations which take the form of speculative fiction in which he imagines more advanced technology; Ramos’ head injury which Coade treats successfully and which leads to a close friendship between the two men; Ada Cossile’s pointed remarks which seem to target the doctor more than anyone else, and the hints that she might know more about him than circumstances seem to warrant.  It all adds to a compelling narrative that kept me reading on as the picture gained more details with each new iteration, until the core of the puzzle was revealed and it opened the door toward the real situation and danger facing the complement of the Demeter.

The buildup of narrative pressure is certainly the strongest element in Eversion: from the moment in which the story resumes after the first catastrophic ending, although in a slightly different form, it’s clear that there is more at work here than meets the eye, and obtaining the answers to the many questions posed by the story becomes the main attraction in this compelling novel, where the new elements manage only to tease the readers’ imagination, leading them to formulate hypotheses that most of the times prove wrong. When I previously mentioned the Groundhog Day vibes I might have made this story sound like a series of repetitions, but it’s far from that, not only because of the changes in temporal and technological setting for each iteration, but also because there is always some new detail that adds something to the overall picture, while never offering a way to pierce the mystery.  Being kept guessing might prove somewhat frustrating, but it’s also a sure way to compel you to forge ahead and look for the final revelation – which will prove to be quite unexpected.

One of the other intriguing components in this novel is the enigma tied to the Edifice, a place whose size and shape appear almost Lovecraftian in their mind- and space-bending quality and also because of the bothersome messages left by the unfortunate crew of Europa about the horrors waiting there: there is nothing more chilling than an incomplete message about something terrible and inescapable coming from the depths, and here it’s also paired with Dr. Coade recurring dream about a

[…] stumbling progress down a stone tunnel, a scurrying nightmare charged with the terrible conviction that I myself were already dead.

which will get a startling but consistent explanation once the veil will be pierced.

Compared to Alastair Reynolds’ previous works, Eversion lacks the sense of galactic vastness one can find in them, but it’s the rather confined background of this story which allows him to explore in greater depth the characters (something which I felt was somewhat missing from his other novels) and to linger on their interactions and personalities. There is a greater focus here on friendship and interpersonal relationships, mixed with some intriguing discussions about ethics and the kind of acceptable sacrifices to be tolerated in the quest for knowledge: it all gains an intriguing meaning once we learn about the reality of the situation facing Coade and the crew of Demeter, adding depth and humanity to what, until that point, was just a puzzling mystery.

While quite different from my previous experience with Alastair Reynolds’ writing, Eversion proved to be a fascinating novel combining science fiction and mystery in a seamless blend: prepare for something unexpected but totally engrossing…

My Rating:

Reviews

YMIR, by Rich Larson

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

Chillingly grim but totally fascinating. If I were asked to sum up my experience with Ymir in five words, these would be the perfect choice: this novel’s blurb likens it to a spacefaring version of Beowulf, and there are indeed some connections to that famous epic (including a request for a monster’s arm as a trophy), but Ymir is very much its own story, and a compelling – if sometimes harsh – one.

The alien planet of Ymir is a frozen, forbidding wasteland in which humanity (or rather a genetically modified branch of it) toils by mining its resources under the aegis of the Company, a ruthless cartel which grinds its employees with little or no regards for their rights or comforts, and quashes any attempt at rebellion with swift brutality.  But the Company’s profit is threatened by grendels, alien constructs which are part flesh and part cybernetic components: a recent attack from a grendel in the depths of a mine cost the Company a number of workers and, far worse from their point of view, a stop to the extraction activities, so Yorick, the best grendel hunter in their employ, is dispatched to Ymir to solve the problem.

Yorick was kept in torpor (a sort of cold-storage suspended animation the Company employs to make its assets last longer, among other uses) for a long time, and once awakened he’s not happy to be returned to his home planet, from which he’s been absent for a subjective time of ten years, while on the world twenty have effectively elapsed.  The hunter is considered a traitor on his home world, since he joined the ranks of the Company and committed some serious atrocities in their employ, but what’s worse he has some huge unfinished business to deal with: before he left he violently clashed with his brother Thello, who shot him with a needle gun taking away the lower half of Yorick’s face, which has since then been replaced by a prosthesis (warning: this is something of a gross detail in the narrative).

The timing for the hunt could not be worse, however, because a widespread rebellion against the Company is brewing under the icy surface of the planet, and Thello might be at the center of it, forcing Yorick to deal with the conflicting emotions generated by his past associations and his present duties: the road he finds himself traveling is fraught with dangers, and they don’t come only from the grendel’s threat…

‘Fascinating’ was the word I first used for this novel, and it is indeed despite its bleakness, which starts with the descriptions of Ymir, where darkness and ice extend as far as the eye can see, taking their toll on the miners and reflecting in their living spaces, where there is almost no respite from the harshness of the land. The workers are just as hard and unforgiving as the environment they live in, the physical changes wrought on them from generations turning them into creatures as alien as the place they live in: there are several flashbacks from Yorick as he recalls his and Thello’s childhood, marred by the lack of acceptance from their peers – who called them half-breeds – and by their mother’s abusive behavior, a consequence of her though living and working conditions. Young Yorick wanted nothing else but to escape from Ymir, taking Thello with him, while his younger brother felt stronger ties with the place and its people, and that difference was the spark that ultimately led to their final, bloody encounter.

Still, family ties can exert a strong pull on Yorick, and from the start we see him torn between love and hate for Thello and the planet were they were born: getting to know Yorick, and connecting with him as a character, is the most difficult part of the book, because he’s not an easy or relatable figure.  Past actions have branded him a monster, and the old disfigurement added to the image, but what makes Yorick such a anti-hero is his self-destructive attitude: we see him literally wallowing in recreative drugs or in performance-enhancing drugs, and it’s clear that what’s left under that mountain of self abuse is a broken individual with little hope and almost no dreams – only nightmares. The skilled, heartless hunter is nothing but a shell under which the damaged child still dwells:

He takes his space like a gas giant, making his body as big as he can. […] Inside, when nobody can see him, he always makes himself small.

What ultimately saves Yorick from being a despicable character (and I assure you that looking past that constantly drugged fog is NOT easy…) is his desire to re-establish a bond with Thello, to still try and save him as he was unable to in the past.  I’m sorry I can’t say more because I risk treading on spoiler territory, but Yorick’s attempt at a redemption arc is what manages to bring to the surface what little humanity is left in him. And this is enough.

Ymir might not be the easiest book to read, but it offers such a compelling narrative that it will prove quite difficult to set aside.

My Rating:

Reviews

OGRES, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I’ve read only a handful of books by Adrian Tchaikovsky so far, but enough to expect a change in style and narrative perspective in each new work I pick up, and Ogres is no different, indeed. And while it would be difficult to pin this story down to a specific genre, there is the right amount or sheer weirdness in it that I feel it would be appropriate to classify it in one of its own.

Ogres starts like a fantasy tale, both in descriptions and mood: Torquell is the son of the village headman, and is what’s usually termed as a ‘lovable rogue’; he’s known for his scarce attitude toward learning or following in his father’s footsteps and even more for his reckless pranks, which are more often than not viewed with indulgent annoyance and the hope that he might one day grow into his expected role. Even his forays into the forest visiting the outlaws led by a certain Roben (here the tongue-in-cheek authorial divertissement is quite plain) is viewed as nothing more than the kind of youthful enthusiasm Torquell will one day outgrow. Hopefully.

But such an idyllic setting is marred as soon as we learn about the ogres: the real rulers of the world, the Masters everyone must obey and pay homage – and taxes – to. Ogres are bigger and meaner than actual humans (or monkeys, as they are scornfully called by their masters), their rule of the land a divinely bestowed right, their powers and appetites larger than life – sometimes extending to human flesh.  The arrival of Sir Peter, the village landlord, with his son Gerald, is the spark that will ignite once again Torquell’s fiery temper, leading him to an act that will forever change his life and propel him on a journey of discovery and change.

It’s with the appearance of the Ogres that the questions about this world start popping up: what, until that point, looked like a rural fantasy setting, moves toward a more modern territory with the appearance of cars, teeming cities and clearly advanced technology, so that I wondered about the Ogres’ nature and the true narrative placement of the story. Should it be considered a parallel, dystopian reality, or a SF story in which the Ogres are nothing more than aliens ruling the enslaved humans? Adrian Tchaikovsky dances around this issue for a long time, offering small details that manage to fill a little – but never completely – the picture: that is, until Torquell himself has gathered all the clues and finally arrives at the dreadful answer.

Torquell’s evolution, as a person, is the backbone of this novella, which feels quite tightly packed with information despite its brevity: he goes from happy-go-lucky, carefree youth to reluctant hero to charismatic leader, embracing the knowledge and thirst for learning that he had always spurned in the past, the process turning from a small pebble to an unstoppable avalanche and mirroring his rise as a leader with a growing following that threatens the status quo.  His journey allows the reader a closer look at this world, one where the huge social divide between the Ogres and their human subject is borne out of exploitation and fear, a world where failure to perform one’s assigned tasks results in savage mistreatment at best, or ends on an ogre’s table at worst. There are passages in which Torquell witnesses teeming slums, filled with hopeless people being worked to death, which might remind the readers of some Dickensian description of the industrial revolution, and others in which ogres fight senseless wars using humans as chess pieces on a board, their equally senseless deaths being nothing more than a game played by their masters.

All these revelations, everything that Torquell witnesses and learns, create an expanding picture that moves, slowly but surely, toward the final resolution, one that’s reached forging through a constant, oppressive sense of doom that is not lifted even when our “hero” amasses success after success, threatening the Ogres’ supremacy.  If there is any glimmer of hope visible at the end of this story, it’s a very remote one, and heavily dependent on our nature as people and on the troublesome realization that it might ultimately drive us to the extremes – and their consequences – depicted in this story.

My last, but by no means least, consideration about Ogres concerns the author’s use of the second person throughout the narrative – an unusual method, granted, but one which for me confers a feel of immediacy to the story that made it more real, more tangible: and in the end, where we learn who is addressing Torquell with that constant “you”, we are hit with the final, most unexpected twist in the whole story, one that would be a huge understatement to call ’surprising’. And one that proved to be the proverbial “cherry on top” of an irresistible narrative “cake”.  Superbly done indeed…

My Rating:

Reviews

DEAD SILENCE, by S.A. Barnes

Answering distress calls from space is a sure way of meeting countless forms of trouble, and Dead Silence proves this point once again with a compelling, claustrophobic story that successfully mixes science fiction and horror.

Claire Kovalik and her crew of four are nearing the end of their last tour of duty servicing Earth’s comweb relays: from now on, Verux Corporation’s maintenance will be done through automated drones and Claire – whose past history made her unfit for reassignment on any other kind of ship – is now destined to a dead-end groundside clerical job. This bleak future seems inevitable until the LINA (the maintenance ship under Claire’s lead) receives a distress signal from beyond the comweb’s farthest range: as impossible as it might seem, the call comes from the Aurora, a luxury vessel that disappeared in mysterious circumstances twenty years previously, during its maiden voyage. The discovery, together with the possibility of financial security obtained through a salvage operation, drives Claire and her crew to board the Aurora, but what they find is a nightmare scenario: frozen corpses floating in microgravity, the unmistakable signs of senseless violence, and cryptic sentences drawn in blood on the walls. What’s worse, the LINA’s crew seems increasingly affected by this gruesome scenario as they keep hearing voices or seeing other people, impossible as it looks on this ship of the dead: fighting against time to effect the repairs necessary to bring the Aurora back toward civilized space, Claire and her crew must battle with their inner demons and the inexplicable horror that influenced the passengers, driving them to murder or suicide in countless gruesome ways…

Dead Silence drew me in from the very start, mostly thanks to its split narrative alternating between a present in which Claire is trying to reconstruct what happened on the Aurora, relaying her fragmented recollections to two Verux officials, and the recent past in which the LINA crew faces the grisly mystery aboard the lost ship – there is also a third timeline, seen through brief flashbacks, in which we learn that Claire is the only survivor of a doomed colony decimated by a viral infection, and which explains the heavy psychological burden that she’s been carrying ever since.  Learning from the start that something went hideously wrong with the mission, and progressing forward toward the discovery in alternating timelines, is the factor that grabbed my interest from page one and compelled me to read on, fighting the mounting sense of dread that the story creates very skillfully.

As for Claire, she is a fascinating character because there are so many dark areas in her past that carry on in the present – including her suicidal thoughts at the prospect of being denied the freedom of space once the last repair tour will be over – and turn her into a possibly unreliable narrator, particularly when we learn that she seems to be the only survivor of the LINA as well, with no memory about what happened to her crew, except for some ghastly flashes of their deaths – provided, of course, that these are real memories and not part of the… visions that have been plaguing Claire since her childhood in the failed colony.  Claire is indeed not new at ghostly visitations, and at first, when she sees some weird images on board the Aurora, she believes them part of her psychological problems, but when her crew mates start having the same kinds of encounters – which become increasingly horrifying and realistic – it becomes clear that something else is at work here.

The descriptions of what Claire’s crew finds aboard the doomed ship are quite vivid, a frozen (literally so) tableau of what must have been the last moments for crew and passengers alike before the life support cut off, and it’s clear that some form of madness must have infected them all because there is evidence both of deadly struggles and of suicides, the latter apparently induced by some form of despair or terror. The dreadful scenario is magnified by the luxurious setting, that of a ship where no expenses were spared for the comfort and enjoyment of the wealthy passengers, and yet no level of opulence could save those people from the deadly dangers of space, which is revealed once again as a hostile environment set on killing any “trespassers”.   And whatever it is that pushed the people aboard Aurora toward violence is still present, encroaching on the minds of LINA’s crew, and further deteriorating the already tense interpersonal relationships between them as it enhances the climate of antagonism and distrust already present from the start.

I have to say that the author managed very successfully to infuse the story, from the very start, with a sense of dread and unshakable uneasiness, focusing them into a need to know what really happened, both to the Aurora and to Claire’s crew. I felt great sympathy for Claire because, despite her apparent unreliability, she comes across as an honest person, one whose life has been very difficult to say the least, but who is still capable of great feats of courage and determination in spite of the obstacles – material and psychological – on her path. 

Where the novel falters a little, in my opinion, is in the revelation of the underlying mystery of the Aurora’s disaster, because after the amazing buildup leading to it, it feels almost… mundane, for want of a better word, and while it might make sense in consideration of the background laid by the story, to me it seemed quite anti-climactic. Also, the lack of explanation about Claire’s “ability” to see ghosts was slightly disappointing, because the little clues linking back to her childhood trauma appeared to point toward something intriguing.  But these are minor problems in what proved to be a very appealing read, one that kept me awake until the small hours out of a burning need to see where the story would lead: as far as “space horror” goes, Dead Silence was a quite satisfactory find.

My Rating:

Reviews

A PALE LIGHT IN THE BLACK (NeoG #1), by K.B. Wagers (DNF @ 46%)

My first DNF of the year: statistically, it was bound to happen sooner or later, but still the disappointment stings…  The blurb for this book promised a space opera focused on an organization, the NeoG, labeled as the space equivalent of the Coast Guard, and on the crew of one particular ship, Zuma’s Ghost, also adding that “A routine mission to retrieve a missing ship has suddenly turned dangerous, and now their lives are on the line. Someone is targeting members of Zuma’s Ghost, a mysterious opponent willing to kill to safeguard a secret that could shake society to its core . . . a secret that could lead to their deaths and kill thousands more […]”. 

Quite intriguing, indeed, and the start of the novel – despite some slight info-dump concerning the characters – introduced some captivating themes, like the promotion and subsequent transfer of a beloved second in command coinciding with the arrival of a new officer, whose past history and present uncertainties would add some spice to the interpersonal mechanics aboard the ship.  Given these premises I expected a lively, adventurous story peppered with some interesting character evolution, but unfortunately things did not work that way at all.

From the very start the story seems focused solely on the annual Boarding Games that pit the various branches of Earth’s military against each other, with much space given to Zuma’s Ghost’s commander and crew lamenting their defeat in the previous edition of the Games, and their preparations for the upcoming session: up to the point where I stopped reading there were only a couple of instances in which the crew faced emergencies related to their actual job, and they were solved quickly, almost off-handedly, immediately going back to talk of the impending Games. From a quick online search I discovered that the more adventurous section of the story does come into play once the “Space Olympics” are over, but I could not find the strength to go through chapter after chapter of fights and simulated battles to reach what might have been the “meat” of the story.

To be entirely truthful, I have to admit I don’t care for team sports of any kind, so that might very well have colored my reaction to this story, but still I don’t understand the importance of the competition in the economy of the novel (at least as it’s presented in the blurb): a passing reference seems to indicate that the winning faction would get the greater portion of the government’s funds destined to military operations, and since NeoG did not gather any wins they are forced to go into space with sub-standard and/or old equipment. If that’s how things are in this future vision of humanity, it’s a ludicrous way indeed to manage a space-faring civilization…

Which brings me to the background, or rather scarcity of it: there are references to a Collapse that threatened to end civilization, but since it’s now four centuries in the past no more details are given about what it entailed, or how Earth overcame it; technology seems advanced enough – ships achieving light speed, instant communications spanning great distances with no time-lag, rejuvenating treatments keeping people young well beyond human standards, and so on – but it looks like an afterthought rather than an organic part of the whole. Then you are met with weird details like swords as onboard armament because “no one yet had the lock on a reliable handheld laser weapon”. Granted, once my inner Nasty Nitpicker is awakened, it tends to sink its teeth onto these trivial details and to never let go, but to me this speaks of poor planning, or editing, or both.

When all is said and done, A Pale Light in the Black looks like the kind of book I might have read – and probably enjoyed – a few decades ago, when I began reading SF: now that I have a good number of books under my proverbial belt, and that I have hopefully honed my tastes, books like this one feel totally unsatisfying.  This is not the droid… pardon me … the novel I was looking for.

Moving on….

My Rating:

Reviews

THE KAIJU PRESERVATION SOCIETY, by John Scalzi

I received this novel from Macmillan-Tor/Forge through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity

The past two years have indisputably affected us all, one way or the other, and yet it was still a surprise for me to learn that even a cheerful personality like that of writer John Scalzi, who comes across as an individual gifted with an inexhaustible reserve of whimsical humor, suffered from the heavy toll of the situation: in the Author’s Note at the end of this book he shares his difficult journey with a book he was attempting to write, a book that was ultimately put on the back burner in favor of this one. In Scalzi’s own words, that other book was a “brooding symphony”, while The Kaiju Preservation Society is a “pop song”, one “meant to be light and catchy”: I, for one, am very grateful that he was inspired to write it, because it turned out to be a delightfully escapist story that for a couple of days managed to entertain me, making me smile often and laugh out loud in several occasions. In these times, this is a precious gift, indeed.

At the onset of the Covid pandemic, Jamie Gray works in the marketing department of a food-delivery startup named füdmüd, from which he’s suddenly fired: in dire need of paying the bills, and with job opportunities vanishing quickly due to the crisis, he has no other choice but to accept work in actually delivering food to füdmüd’s clients.  Having been befriended by one of them, Jamie is offered a chance to work with the KPS and he accepts eagerly: what he does not know is that the job will entail direct contact with huge, Godzilla-like creatures in a very unusual, very unexpected environment. While making new friends and adjusting to the new work situation, Jamie will need all his resourcefulness and dexterity to deal with the unexpected challenges presented by this job, and to defeat the dastardly plot of the (required) evil corporation – and to lift things, of course, because that’s what he was hired to do…

Jamie is an easy person to get attached to, not least because he’s a nerd, his dialogue crowded with pop-culture and SF references that bring instant recognition and a sense of easy kinship: in the course of the story, he turns from a simple Things Lifter to a hero (even if an unassuming one) and where other less skilled writers might have fallen into the “Gary Stu Trap” with him, Scalzi takes that trope and turns it on its head, creating a fun, very relatable main character we can all root for.  He’s the lone Everyman in the midst of a group of quite talented scientists, and yet his penchant for SF-related themes allows him to take the mental steps necessary to adjust to the KPS environment and to thrive in it: I’ve often maintained that the kind of “mind training” offered by speculative fiction makes us nerds able to bridge chasms that might scare other people, because we can go that extra mile with no effort at all, and Jamie is indeed proof of that.

As far as personal interactions go, I found The Kaiju Preservation Society enjoys the same kind of easygoing, humorous banter I first encountered in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series: here it serves both to define characters and to provide the necessary scientific explanations (both real and imagined) that might otherwise have felt like weighty info dumps and that instead flow easily and at times even become entertainingly informative.  The sense of camaraderie, and then friendship, that binds these different people is a joy to behold and serves to balance out the unavoidable drama and loss that at some point hit the small community, forcing these dedicated, peaceful scientists (plus the Weight Lifter) to tap their reserves of courage and face an impending threat and the high stakes it brings about.

That threat comes – of course – from corporate greed and in particular from an individual Jamie knows well: this guy is the epitome of the mustache-twirling villain and, again, he might have turned into an unavoidable trope, but once again Scalzi manages to poke some fun at this particular cliché by shining a bright light on it instead of trying to mask it. It’s a well-know (and much scorned) habit for villains to launch in detailed monologues about their intentions before attempting to kill the heroes, and this particular bad guy indulges in it quite a bit, but here the habit of “monologuing” is openly addressed both by the villain and his would-be victims, turning what could otherwise have been a trite situation into another opportunity for John Scalzi’s peculiar brand of humor. In other words, this is a… tongue-in-cheek villain, one I both loathed and enjoyed.

Last but not least, this novel focuses on a singular and fascinating environment inhabited by these huge, towering creatures – and their proportionately big parasites – and sporting its own well-crafted ecosystem in which even the most outlandish feature has its reason to be, and is part of the fun in the story.  I quite enjoyed The Kaiju Preservation Society, not only for its amusement quotient, but because of its hopefulness and optimism: these elements might look utopian, given that in the real world things almost never work so well, but as I said at the start of this review, we all need a bit of light in the darkness now and then, to believe that good can triumph over evil, and this book provided these features at the right time. For which I’m certainly grateful…

My Rating:

Reviews

STARS AND BONES (A Continuance Novel), by Gareth Powell

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

Even if I had not already read – and greatly appreciated – Gareth Powell’s Embers of War trilogy, I would not have let this story pass me by: ark ships traveling into the unknown is one of my favorite themes, so there was no doubt I would enjoy the start of this new series. And I certainly did.

The core concept of Stars and Bones sees humanity embarked on a huge fleet of arks journeying away from Earth: seventy five years before the start of such journey, a very advanced race of powerful aliens understood we were going to destroy ourselves and our planet and therefore, to give Earth a chance to repair itself, mounted a massive exodus, relocating humans on these vast, customized arks that offered artificial environments and a comfortable home away from home.  While the majority enjoys the good life aboard the arks, some more adventurous individuals forge ahead exploring the emptiness of space in search of a new planet, and it’s on the surface of Candidate-623 that tragedy strikes when the scout ship sent there to check out a mysterious distress call breaks contact with the fleet.   Main character Eryn, whose sister was aboard the missing ship, goes to investigate with her own vessel, the Furious Ocelot, and what she finds is the kind of horrifying danger that might bring about the annihilation of the entire human race.

While it took me a little time to become fully invested in the story, once it launched into its core mystery and subsequent terrifying chain of events, I could not turn the pages fast enough because the threat Eryn and crew discover on Candidate-623 comes out of the same stuff nightmares are made of.  The beginning of the novel needs of course to establish the background and – more importantly – the path humanity took to get where it is when things start to go horribly wrong, and it does so through a series of flashbacks that, though quite informative, felt to me like a distraction from the main narrative thread: given the threat level encountered by the Furious Ocelot, I came to perceive any other kind of information as an obstacle to be cleared before reaching the “meat” of the story, and that’s the reason for my delay in getting immersed in it. Of course, once that… hurdle was past, there was indeed no turning back.

I don’t want to offer any more information about the plot because I’m convinced it must be as much of a surprise (albeit a scary one) as possible, but let me tell you that as I read I kept thinking that every space-faring expedition should make a certain 1979 movie a mandatory part of their training, so that when faced with mysterious signals people would know to exercise extreme caution, or better yet avoid its origin at any cost… 😉

If the story is quite shocking in its increasing threat, its background is quite enjoyable, particularly where the arks are concerned: think of immense ships that can be modified (both internally and externally) according to the specifications of their occupants, so that each ark becomes a very distinctive microcosm with its own peculiar environment and social customs. What is fascinating here is the way in which humanity has now adapted to the post-scarcity civilization offered by the Angels of Benevolence (the aliens who intervened to prevent Earth’s demise), crafting habitats and societies that range from an old-style consumer economy to a laid back tropical paradise, under the supervision of the ship’s A.I. – or envoy – whose appearance is tailored according to the ark’s style: in this respect, I’m still smiling at the recollection of the hammerhead shark look of the tropical environment’s envoy, swimming through the air with total nonchalance for the absurdity of the whole situation.  

Sentient ships seem indeed to be Gareth Powell’s favorite theme, and since I enjoyed reading about Trouble Dog in the Embers of War series, I was pleased to find a similar idea here and to become equally fond of Ferocious Ocelot’s envoy and of its interactions with the ship’s crew, and with Eryn in particular. Add to the mix the Ocelot’s ability to change its appearance according to the circumstances (from a portly gentleman in quiet times to a battle-ready guard when necessity arises), and its intelligently facetious repartees, and it’s no surprise that it turned out to be my favorite character in the novel.

Unfortunately, the human characters in this story did not fare equally well: some of them were woefully short-lived (prepare yourself for quite a number of sudden deaths), and Eryn herself turned out to be a little too inconsistent for my tastes – I did not truly dislike her, but I have to admit she made it quite difficult for me to connect with her. While I could sympathize with her grief over the loss of her sister, and with the huge burden of responsibility that the situation ends up placing on her shoulders, still she seems more focused on the emotional pains of the past to be the effective problem solver that the present situation requires.  For once, though, I don’t mind much my lack of total connection with the main character, because the story itself is so gripping that the non-stop action takes precedence over any other consideration, and the cinematic quality of some scenes makes me hope that this novel might one day be turned into a movie, because it would be a very spectacular one.

The surprising way in which Stars and Bones ends made me wonder whether the rest of the series will concentrate on other aspects of humanity’s journey, but previous experience with Gareth Powell’s works makes me quite optimistic about the next books, and also quite eager to see where the story will take me. Hopefully, the wait will not be too long…

My Rating:

Reviews

TV Review: THE EXPANSE Season 6

With the end of the book series and now of the TV version of this saga, I can certainly consider myself an Expanse orphan: both versions of this story are leaving a big gap in my SF horizon, one that will be hard, if not impossible, to fill…

This final season of The Expanse proved to be even more epic than its predecessors, leaving a great deal of room to well-orchestrated space battles – which might be the reason that the number of episodes was cut to just six, probably in consideration of the high budget that they required. But while the episodes were less than usual, there were no shortfalls in the characters’ evolution or in the political angles that have been the backbone of this saga, in both mediums.

In this season we have, on one side, the family of the Rocinante finally reunited after the harrowing events of the previous season, and if offscreen troubles required the removal of Alex’s character, the inclusion of Clarissa “Peaches” Mao to the ship’s complement leaves room for some welcome bonding scenes; on another side, Avasarala is battling with the practical and political aftermath of Earth’s bombing, still backed by former Martian marine Bobbie whose career switch as Avasarala’s aide has not changed her energetic approach to problems.  And again, Camina Drummer and her crew are still carrying out their rebellion against the darkly charismatic Marco Inaros, whose outer façade of Belter liberator is showing several cracks as his megalomania becomes more and more evident.

Individuals, and their reactions to events, have always been at the core of The Expanse, and they are still front and center here at the end of the journey: Naomi was put through the wringer in the previous season, and I approved of the choice of showing how she’s not over those trials, as dramatically proven through a scene where she freezes as she’s about to begin a spacewalk; Amos seems to have mellowed down a little – although with him one can never know – and his choice of adding Clarissa to the crew represents his unspoken willingness to give her another chance, just as he was when he joined the Roci’s family. Clarissa herself is dealing with her past and the heavy consequences of her actions, so that the first sign of acceptance from Holden looks to her like something of an absolution.  Holden is probably the one who seems to have changed less, but this makes sense because he’s the focus of that family, its moral compass if you want, and he needs to represent a fixed point for the others, which is the main reason for a very difficult choice he makes early on in the season.  As far as Alex is concerned, I appreciated how he’s mentioned in fond remembrance by his crewmates, placing a firm divide between the character and the actor who played him, whose actions forced the storyline to remove Alex from the Rocinante’s complement.

There are however two characters I have barely mentioned before and who drew my attention more keenly in this final season of The Expanse: one is Camina Drummer, who was fleshed out more on screen than she is in the books, and who thanks to the amazing performance by Cara Gee quickly became one of my favorites. Drummer’s journey through the series has been a long and complicated one, and I simply loved the combination of outward strength and inner, well-masked frailty that turned her into such a fascinating personality. In these last episodes of the show she looks even more determined and daring than ever, openly challenging Inaros in a scene that surpassed even the famous shipboard address from the bridge of the Behemoth we saw a couple of seasons ago. The message she sends to the leader of the Free Navy, whose actions have revealed his self-serving ruthlessness, is short but very powerful, and gives the full measure of this awesome character:

For his part, Inaros is depicted as your typical, irredeemable bad guy, who gathered almost unanimous consent from the Belters by unleashing their pent-up outrage through the vicious attack on Earth: his charisma barely hides a cruel, manipulative disposition that at times seems to come from deep-seated and unacknowledged insecurities. In other words, he’s the villain we all love to hate, and much of his successful portrayal is due to actor Keon Alexander who had the far-from-easy job of bringing him to life. Playing a convincing bad guy, and one who tethers on the edge of madness like Inaros, is far more difficult, in my opinion, because it requires a fine balancing act that not everyone can manage successfully: Keon Alexander did an amazing work on this character, one that left me divided between my loathing for Inaros and my admiration for the actor’s skills.   Which compels me to also mention Jasai Chase Owens as Filip Inaros, equally successful in showing the young man’s torn loyalties and his slow but inevitable drift from the toxic orbit of a father who had been his whole world for a long time.

Even though The Expanse has been given an appropriately wrapped-up finale, it’s impossible for book readers to forget that there are three more unexplored books in the saga, especially when the final TV season hinted at some of the Laconia storylines that make up the core of the final trilogy: those hints, which look disconnected from the rest of the story told in the final season, made me hope that there might be a remote possibility for a continuation, if not immediately maybe some time from now.  Whatever happens, though, I am aware that both the books and the TV series have merged together in my imagination, despite the differences between the mediums: The Expanse remains one of the best (if not THE best) space opera series I have known in my “travels” and one it will always be a joy to revisit in either form.

My Rating for Season 6: