Reviews

TO SLEEP IN A SEA OF STARS, by Christopher Paolini

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

I was very curious to sample Christopher Paolini’s writing: although aware of his Inheritance fantasy cycle, I never read it, and the brief excerpt for To Sleep in a Sea of Stars that I found online, once the campaign for this book was launched, sounded very intriguing, sporting many of the elements I enjoy in Science Fiction. Unfortunately, after a promising and intriguing beginning, I felt myself progressively losing interest in the story and I had to abandon it at the 32% mark – namely at page 262 of its quite considerable 800+ pages run.

In short, the novel focuses on Kira Navarez, an exobiologist attached to a corporation conducting feasibility studies on planets marked for possible colonization. At the beginning of the story Kira and the rest of the team are preparing to leave their latest assignment when in the course of a last-minute survey Kira stumbles on an alien artifact: this encounter leaves her profoundly – even dangerously – changed and launches a series of events culminating in an alien invasion and a devastating intergalactic war.

Where the premise sounds intriguing – and there is no doubt that the inciting incident back at the base has a delightfully creepy Alien vibe – the execution did not meet my (admittedly fastidious) tastes. The novel leans heavily toward plot rather than characterization, and this for me is certainly a problem because I need to connect with characters to enjoy a story; moreover, what characterization there was – either concerning Kira or the secondary figures – felt flat and at times more in service of the plot than of the characters themselves.

Kira’s personality is very contradictory: she is presented as an exobiologist driven by the need to explore new worlds, to apply her knowledge to the expansion of humanity, and yet once she falls in love with one of her co-workers and he proposes marriage she’s ready to throw it all to the four winds in exchange for marital bliss, children and the dream of a white-fenced house.  Then she is subjected to a very traumatic loss and even more traumatic experiences of torture and experimentation, and yet none of this seems to leave her with any permanent scars, or the remotest hint of PTSD.  To top it all off, she evolves in a very, very short period of time from a mousy, lab-bound scientists into this super-hero, ass-kicking warrior without any perceivable hint of how the transformation took place.

Secondary characters fare little better, since they looked to me more formulaic than gifted with distinctive personalities, and so we have, for example, a lovably roguish ship captain; a stern, uncompromising XO; a kindly doctor; and the required gangly and goofy teenager. All of the above provided sometimes wooden, sometimes embarrassing dialogues that although set into a highly energetic but somewhat confused story made my progress through the novel an arduous slog, compounded by what looked like excessive wordiness.  Still, I tried to soldier on because the angle of the alien invasion, with its hordes of weird, scary creatures, is certainly intriguing, but I was also puzzled by the overall tone which at times seemed to veer toward YA standards, although the novel is labeled as adult fiction – a prime example being the description of shipboard pets which include a cat and a pig (yes, a pig, I kid you not), both of them provided with velcro-like adhesive pads so they could move in free fall….

While I can see the potential for this story, I have to acknowledge my disappointment in the way it is delivered: it is certainly a classic case of “it’s not you, it’s me” and I’m looking forward to learning what other fellow bloggers will think of this novel, particularly when I’m aware of the finicky personal tastes I quoted above. 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BOOK PREDICTIONS TAG

 

Thanks to Way Too Fantasy here is another fun, book-oriented tag post, originally created by @bookprincessreviews 

What this tag needs is for me to dust off my crystal ball and share the predictions for my…

 

NEXT READ

This is an easy one: author Phil Williams – whose Sunken City novels I had the pleasure of reviewing – contacted me with the news of his next book, whose publication is slated for the second half of September.  Kept From Cages is, in Mr. Williams’ own words, a “fast-paced supernatural action-thriller” peopled with new characters but still tied to the Ordshaw world. My curiosity was quite piqued by his mention of “criminal jazz musicians” and I will start reading as soon as I finish my current book, which means in the next handful of days…

 

NEXT 5 STAR READ

Another easy prediction: I was overjoyed in receiving the bi-monthly Orbit newsletter and learning that the new Age of Madness book from Joe Abercrombie, The Trouble with Peace, is included in the September/October NetGalley releases. There is absolutely no doubt that this will turn into a 5-star read as have all the previous Abercrombie novels I have enjoyed in the past.

 

NEXT 1 STAR READ

Well… No one would pick a book with the foreknowledge that it will turn out into such a disappointing read – and picking up a book with so little promise, to say the least, would sound like an exercise in masochism, so I’m going to focus on my unwavering optimism and predict that there will be no such black marks on the next books I will pick up.

 

NEXT LOVE INTEREST OR CHARACTER THAT SEEMS REALLY COOL

I will go with “character that seems really cool” and name Circe, from the protagonist of Madeline Miller’s novel with the same title: the book promises to deliver an new and interesting angle on the mythical figure who, according to legend, imprisoned men transforming them into pigs. My love of mythology goes back to my school days, so it will certainly be a fascinating experience to revisit this story from a different point of view.

 

NEXT BOOK I WILL BE BUYING

To Be Taught, if Fortunate, by Becky Chambers: I have already acquire the first book from this author, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet thanks to the enthusiastic reviews from many of my fellow bloggers, but on a recent post I learned about this novella, that can be read on its own, and I decided to start the… experiment with a shorter work, so that my curiosity will be satisfied sooner.

 

It’s your turn now: wave your magic wands, peer into your enchanted mirrors, and let us know what your bookish future looks like!

 

Reviews

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY:  Books I Loved but Never Reviewed

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Are there some… unsung favorites in your bookcases?

Reviews

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE TBR TAG

If there is a Taggers Anonymous association I might need to go their meetings, because I seem to be addicted to tag posts lately 😀    I recently saw this one on Bookforager’s blog and I decided to give it a spin, so here is my take in this new bookish tag…

 

How do you keep track on your TBR list?

That’s easy – sort of… I do practically all of my reading in e-book format, so the books I still have to read are stored in a folder on my computer, and from there they are copied on the e-reader when the mood strikes me to read them. After that, they are saved on a dedicated USB drive that also works as a backup for the as-yet-unread books. Neat and dust-free! 😉

I have been thinking lately about listing my TBR books in an excel file, complete with the date they were added, so I can have a better idea of their “age”, but for now it’s still an idea…

 

Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?

See above. Ebooks all the way!

 

 

How do you determine which book from your TBR to read next?

Mood determines what I read next, I have no say in the decision process… 😀

Jokes aside, and unless I have a NetGalley ARC lined up (in which case I have to be mindful of the 54 days expiry date for the book), I take a virtual “stroll” through my stored files and choose the book that most appeals to me in that moment.

 

 

Name a book that has been on your TBR the longest.

Iain Banks’ CONSIDER PHLEBAS, his first Culture novel: the date of the file tells me it was saved there in 2013, the year before I started blogging. Shame on me!

 

 

Name a book that you recently added to your TBR list.

THE CITY OF BRASS, by S.A. Chakraborty: all of my fellow bloggers who have read the trilogy that starts with this volume speak highly of it, and I thought it was high time for me to see for myself. I have high expectations for this one…

 

 

Is there a book that’s on your TBR list strictly because of its beautiful cover?

Not really. A particularly intriguing cover might attract my attention, but it’s the synopsis that really closes the deal for me.

 

 

Is there a book on your TBR that you never plan on actually reading?

Well, a wise person taught me that “always” and “never” are words far too binding to be used lightly, so I will admit that, right now, I don’t feel strongly motivated to read GRR Martin’s FIRE AND BLOOD: my disappointment at the way the ASOIAF saga was wrapped up in the tv series, and my lack of faith in Martin’s willingness to conclude the book series have cooled the initial enthusiasm in a considerable way.

 

 

Name an unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for.

I have no ARCs on my TBR as I’m writing this, but I’m looking with interest at Joe Abercrombie’s THE TROUBLE WITH PEACE, the second volume in his new series The Age of Madness. I enjoyed the first book so much that it finally drove me to read The First Law trilogy.

 

 

Is there a book on your TBR that basically everyone has read but you?

THE WAY OF KINGS, by Brandon Sanderson: it would seem that I am the only person on Earth (and probably in the rest of the Solar System as well) who has not read a Sanderson novel. Please don’t shoot me!!!!

 

 

Is there a book on your TBR that everyone recommends you read?

Becky Chambers THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET: all of my fellow bloggers who read it are very enthusiastic about both this book and the others in the series, so I will have to start it one of these days, possibly sooner rather than later.

 

 

A book on your TBR you’re very excited to read.

James Islington’s THE SHADOW OF WHAT WAS LOST: other bloggers’ reviews hint at a very layered, very immersive story, and I’m waiting for the right moment to start it – since it’s a very hefty volume, I know I will need a distraction-free moment, so for now I’m biding my time, but still keep looking at this book with great anticipation.

 

 

The number of books on your TBR shelf.

Don’t make me count them, please! I might fall into an abyss of despair…

 

 

If you found this tag intriguing, jump in and share your TBR goodies!!!
Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Most Surprising Books

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

 

Strange as it might sound, having to choose a topic instead of following the one listed for this week proved to be more difficult than I had imagined, until I decided to showcase books that were surprising reads, for many different reasons.

 

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, by M.R. Carey

I added this novel, my first but not the last by this author, to my TBR expecting a horror story focused on a zombie-like worldwide epidemic, but what I found was a deeply emotional coming-of-age tale centered on a compelling character balanced between childish innocence and world-wise maturity.

 

SOULLESS, by Gail Carriger

Where I enjoy Urban Fantasy and – in lesser measure – steampunk, I’m aware that these genres leave little space for humor, especially of the tongue-in-cheek kind, so I was delighted to find this element present in spades in Gail Carriger’s saga about Alexia Tarabotti, weird heroine that sat firmly in my preferences from the moment in which, attacked by a ravenous vampire, she protested about not having been “properly introduced” first…

 

SEA OF RUST, by C. Robert Cargill

A novel about robots inheriting the Earth after humanity’s downfall might sound like a very dry story, but that’s not the case of this book, chronicling the journeys of Brittle, an artificial being traveling the desolate lands left after the disappearance of mankind and trying to survive against its own predatory kind. A deeply emotional story, no matter how strange this might sound with this kind of protagonists.

 

OUTPOST,  by W. Michael Gear

Stories centered on the colonization of alien worlds are among my favorite kind of read, but the ones with a fresh approach to the theme are rare: such is the case of the Donovan series, where the intriguing – and very, very deadly – alien world offers a fascinating background to strong, engaging characters and their struggles for survival and expansion. An ongoing series that four books into its run is still able to offer many surprises.

 

EMBERS OF WAR, by Gareth Powell

Again, a strong beginning to a brilliant space opera series – but the best and more remarkable element here comes from Trouble Dog, a sentient spaceship that is not just the product of an advanced A.I., but integrates actual human neurons and a very definite personality, capable of a wide range of emotions. The interactions of Trouble Dog’s avatar with its human crew are without doubt one of the best features of this story.

 

KILL CREEK, by Scott Thomas

A haunted house; a disparate group of people settling there for a fateful night; things that go bump into the night. If this sounds like deja vu, think again, because nothing in this novel is what you might expect from the premise. Not even the house…

 

CHILDREN OF TIME, by Adrian Tchaikowsky

I hate and fear spiders – and all manners of creepy-crawlies you could name – so one would think that I would reel in horror from a story in which evolved spiders come to create a civilization that ultimately moves into space. And yet, Mr. Tchaikowsky managed to make me root for these spiders, to take active interest in their evolution and to enjoy this novel very much.

 

TRAIL OF LIGHTINING, byRebecca Roanhorse

A new concept for Urban Fantasy lies at the core of this book, because if focuses on the culture and traditions of Native Americans, and in particular of the Diné – or Navajo. It was therefore a double journey, both narrative and cultural, and it compelled me to learn more about a civilization I knew next to nothing about.

 

BROTHERHOOD OF THE WHEEL, by R.S. Belcher

There are two elements that proved surprising here: the concept that the Knight Templars of old would morph into an organization, drawn from people traveling the roads like truckers or patrolmen, dedicated to the protection of travelers; and the fact that the main character is so outwardly different from the concept of hero as humanly possible, and yet he gained my affection in no time at all.

 

HOW RORY THORNE DESTROYED THE MULTIVERSE, by K. Eason

A fairy tale retelling of Sleeping Beauty, complete with gifts – and curses – from the fairies, set on a science fiction background? It sounds quite weird and not something that would meet my tastes, but this story is quite deceptive in its premise and it turned out to be a delightful read, complete with a very unexpected, very relatable heroine.

 

 

And what are the books that surprised you? 🙂

Reviews

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

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

 

SINEW AND STEEL AND WHAT THEY TOLD

Click on the link to read the story online

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping my fingers crossed…

 

My Rating: