Reviews

CATALYST GATE (The Protectorate #3), by Megan O’Keefe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

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

A Murderbot Diaries story set after Exit Strategy

Click on the link to read it online

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

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

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

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

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

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

An unmissable addition to the wonderful Diaries continuing tale.

My Rating:

Reviews

DEAD SPACE, by Kali Wallace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Donovan… 😉

My Rating:

Reviews

THE FIRST OMEGA, by Megan O’Keefe

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

WINTER’S ORBIT, by Everina Maxwell

On my own I would probably not have given this novel a second glance: slated as a mix between SF and romance, I might not have considered it as the right choice for my tastes, but a couple of reviews from fellow bloggers I trust convinced me to give it a chance, and with hindsight I’m glad I did. Granted, there is an element of “fluffiness” to this story that would not normally enter into my reading parameters, but sometimes it’s a matter of the right tone for the right moment, and since I had just finished a very intense novel, a lighter one felt exactly like what I needed.

Iskat is the pivotal world in a multi-planet alliance which is in turn part of the Resolution, a galaxy-wide confederacy managed by the mysterious (and not a little weird) Auditors: to insure political stability, the inter-planetary treaties between Iskat and the other worlds are sealed by marriages, whose validity is periodically scrutinized by the Auditors.  The relations between Iskat and the vassal world of Thea have never been ideal, and close to the next Auditor’s visit, the Iskan half of the political marriage, Prince Taam, dies in a flight accident: to affirm once again the ties between the two worlds, the Iskan Emperor orders a swift marriage between Prince Kiem, Taam’s cousin, and the Thean widower Jainan.

Kiem is something of a loose cannon, always involved in some kind of mischief and therefore well-known to the gossip press: he’s far from happy to be tied in marriage with a person who looks his exact opposite, and is still in mourning as well, but politics require everyone to do their duty, so the two start their married life, not without a lot of awkwardness and great difficulties in communication. As Kiem and Jainan walk the uneasy path of shared obligations, a number of details about the deceased Team seems to point toward shady deals and the suspicion that his death might not have been an accident. While political pressures mount and the clues hint at a far-ranging conspiracy, Kiem and Jainan find themselves getting closer, and more and more involved toward uncovering what might turn out to be a great danger to the stability of their area of space.

Let me start by dealing with the proverbial elephant in the room, i.e. the romantic angle represented by the narrative thread that sees Kiem and Jainan move from total strangers, forced into a marriage of convenience, to lovers. This is a frequent theme wherever romance is involved, and there was no doubt, from the very start, that these two would walk in that direction: the uncomfortable personal interactions, the misunderstandings, the lack of proper communication – all these elements are the classic staples of this kind of story, as is the situation that sees them alone and in danger after a flier crash, and leads them to finally speak frankly and acknowledge their mutual attraction.  I am now aware that this novel started as a work of fan fiction, and as such it contains many of the tropes that fuel this kind of work, but it is all handled with such a light touch that it’s easy to lie back and enjoy the ride, even when you know from the start where it will end, even if the transition from virtual strangers to lovers feels a little too swift.

There is however a section of the story that seems somewhat forced: Jainan is indeed the poster child for the abused spouse in a toxic marriage, including the feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy at the roots of his psychological makeup, but it seems strange that none of the abuse he suffered before ever surfaces when the story is narrated through his point of view. As a reader I saw the symptoms were there, in glaring neon light, but none of it is ever brought to the surface until the moment of the “big revelation”, that is hardly surprising for the readers, unlike what happens to the characters.  And while Kiem, despite his outward recklessness, is shown as a people’s person, able to make easy connections in any social situation, he never suspects the real reason for his spouse’s self-effacing attitude until he discovers hard evidence of it. I understand the need to stretch things a bit to enhance the reveal’s impact, but I would have liked a more organic approach.

Still, despite these minor quibbles, the overall story turned out to be quite enjoyable, presenting a galactic milieu where economic and military interests are at odds with each other, and where politics can be dangerously cut-throat: of course the background takes second place to Kiem and Jainan’s journey, and sometimes the details of this world are shunted to the sidelines in favor of the main story, to the point I sorely missed a closer look at this galactic empire and its many intriguing customs, like the one where gender identity is expressed through the materials employed in ornaments, which in turn made me wonder whether there are no other distinguishing factors that point to an individual’s gender. This detail is not explained and it remains one of my top curiosities about the novel, and the main reason I remain somewhat dissatisfied with the background, even though the overall flavor of the book reminds me somewhat of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan universe, which in turn makes me feel quite at home, thanks to the blend between the serious and the humorous that lends a very pleasant quality to the story.

I don’t know if Winter’s Orbit is a stand-alone novel or the first in a series, but I hope on the latter because I would not mind a deeper exploration of the setting – maybe with a little less romance 😉 – and a focus on some of the secondary characters, like Kiem’s amazing assistant Bel, to get a wider and deeper understanding of this version of humanity’s future.

My Rating:

Reviews

COLLATERAL DAMAGE (ST: TNG), by David Mack

After the heart-stopping intrigue of Control and the quieter transition of Available Light, I finally reached the conclusion of this narrative arc focused on the infamous Section 31 and its heavy-handed involvement in Federation policy.  Well, in truth there are two more books that deal with past events leading to the present confrontation, but I discovered their existence only recently, and I plan to read them in the near future: I’m aware it’s a strange, backward way of following the development of this storyline, but on the other hand the novels I read so far did a great job of filling the background and making those issues understandable, so it will be more a matter of connecting the dots than anything else…

Back to Collateral Damage: after the discovery of Captain Picard’s involvement in the plot to depose a former, corrupted Federation president, who was then killed on the orders of Section 31, the Enterprise’s captain is called back to Earth to testify about his connection to the events; although he was not aware of president Zife’s murder, he still has to answer for his past role in the conspiracy to remove him from office, and the tribunal will have to decide if he should be deferred to a court martial.  The novel’s secondary plot focuses on the Enterprise chasing a group of rogue Nausicaans who interfered in a Starfleet Intelligence operation, stealing a powerful weapon they intend to use as a blackmail tool to pursue their desperate goal.

While I have sometimes complained about the thinness of B-plots in tie-in novels, this is not the case here: on the contrary, I can easily say that Collateral Damage stands on two outstanding A-plots that enhance and complement each other, turning the story into a compelling narrative and ultimately dealing with the same kind of dilemma – the consequences of one’s actions and choices – from two different points of view.  In the few instances in which we saw Nausicaans on screen, they were depicted as quarrelsome and brutish, but here their acts – reprehensible as they are – come from desperation and loss, since their homeworld was destroyed and the handful of survivors did not receive the expected support from a Federation far too distracted by its own problems. 

This thread of the novel held my attention in many ways: for starters it offered an in-depth view of the Nausicaan culture, a rich and layered one that contradicts those few glimpses seen on screen, the effect strengthened by the use of exotic language as a means of conveying the sense of alienness of the characters. Then there is the question about the lack of Federation response to the tragedy suffered by the Nausicaans: as I remarked in previous reviews, this is not the Federation envisioned by Roddenberry, and it’s quite far from the utopian ideal of its creator – it’s an entity whose mistakes can have shocking consequences and worse, it’s guilty of turning a blind eye toward the suffering of others, showing the first(?) cracks in what so far had seemed a flawless exterior, allowing the repercussions of that failure to bite it, hard, on the behind.  

The resolution of this narrative line is one that feels right in many ways: first because it owns the Federation’s past mistakes and then acknowledges that there is always room for mutual understanding, even in the worst circumstances, and second because it allows Worf, who is in command of the Enterprise for this mission, to shine as a character and to show enormous growth, something that rarely happens in tie-in novels where the unwritten rule seems to require crew-members be kept in a sort of unchanging limbo. This author is clearly not afraid to take those characters and let them move forward on the strength of past experiences and gained wisdom, and they benefit from this choice by becoming their own persons, delightfully three-dimensional and believable.

Where the Nausicaan angle offers a lively and often tense narrative, the part of the novel dedicated to Picard’s trial – the one I was eagerly waiting for – is equally fascinating, sustained by a keen focus on the technical elements of the proceedings, one that turns those scenes into emotionally gripping moments.  There is a great deal of well-portrayed courtroom drama here, a theme I enjoy and that is built up by the apparent desire of prosecutor Louvois to find Picard guilty and to ruthlessly destroy his image and career. It makes for some very tense narrative segments, where I experienced genuine worry for the path the events were taking, but the true core of the story resides in the two-pronged question of the far-reaching consequences of one’s actions on one side (a mirror to the theme of the Nausicaans abandoned to their destiny), and about the dilemma of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons on the other.

There is of course no clean-cut answer to the second question: removing corrupted president Zife was a necessary choice given the situation at the time, but we see Picard wrestling with the moral implications of his actions and feeling that some of the other conspirators’ stigma has tainted him as well. Although not involved in the decision to kill Zife, he perceives that his integrity – the character trait he clearly most cares about – has been compromised and that, as he tells Louvois in their parting exchange, “None of us is innocent […]. Not anymore.”  This loss of innocence is shared by the whole Federation, for a long time unknowing hostage of an organization that forged policy with means that went dramatically against everything the Federation itself stood for.  It’s a bitter acknowledgement, but again it feels more true – humans being humans – than the polished, utopian perfection we used to see on screen; and no matter how bleak this consideration looks, it leaves room for the hope that humanity might learn from its mistakes and keep striving for better ideals.

With Collateral Damage I once again found myself enjoying a tie-in novel that had the courage to explore the darker side of its background, and in so doing went well beyond the pure entertainment value of its brethren, making me think about serious issues while keeping me thoroughly engrossed. A rare and welcome combination, indeed.

My Rating:

Reviews

UNCONQUERABLE SUN (The Sun Chronicles #1), by Kate Elliot (DNF 62%)

I had high expectations for this novel – maybe too high – based on the story’s premise: an interstellar backdrop where conflicting powers measure their strength through politics and open war, where intrigue between influential families leads toward a constant shift of alliances and betrayals, while at the center of all this we follow a main character described as the female equivalent of Alexander the Great – the potential for a Dune-like epic was irresistible, but unfortunately Unconquerable Sun did not fulfill its promises as I hoped.

The Republic of Chaonia has managed to subdue or assimilate most of its enemies, and queen-marshal Eirene built her power-base through military victories and political alliances, a few of these signed though marriage contracts, like the one binding Eirene to Prince Joao and producing the heir, Princess Sun.  Sun is struggling to make a name for herself, moving out of her mother’s encompassing shadow, by taking an active part in Chaonia’s military campaigns, but a sudden shift in the political winds turns her almost overnight into a fugitive, so she must rely on her finely-honed wits, the support of her Companions, and the help of a rival family’s member to regain her rightful place and overthrow an insidious conspiracy enacted by Chaonia’s most dangerous foes.  The other two main POVs in the novel come from Persephone Lee, who unsuccessfully tries to escape her powerful family’s machinations by enrolling in the military academy under an assumed name, and ends up among Sun’s Companions; and from Apama, a pilot in the fleet of the Phene, Chaonia’s main adversaries: this was the most interesting character for me, and one of my main disappointments in the story came from the almost negligible “screen time” allotted to her after she was introduced.

At the start of the book I was intrigued, both by the fascinating background of this vast galactic milieu and by the potential shown by the characters: sadly, after a while it all seemed to turn into a confused and confusing jumble of daring escapes, heated battles and things going spectacularly boom, which might be all right if one wants only *adventure* and a plot-heavy story, but I prefer relatable characters in my reading material, and I soon realized that there was too little of that in this novel. More than once I thought that this story might work better as a movie – and as such it reminded me of The Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending, where the action overwhelmed any other consideration – but as a book I found it unfortunately lacking.

The sheer number of characters makes for a distracting experience because there is no time or space to get to know them, or to be able to differentiate between them – which is particularly true for Sun’s Companions –  to the point that any harm befalling them leaves no lingering traces, and even when the story focuses on the main ones, like Sun or Persephone, it’s difficult to see them as people rather than stereotypes. Sun is presented as very determined, but from my point of view she comes off rather as an overbearing spoiled brat, and Persephone – who is strangely given a more detailed focus than the actual main character – is an unpleasant combination of meanness and self-pity, while the author keeps telling us that she is a shrewd operator, mostly by calling her “the wily Persephone” in the title of each chapter where she is the focus. And goodness, does she make a lot of embarrassing mistakes for someone who spent the last few years in the academy being honed for military service!

Despite these problems, which became evident after the first handful of chapters, I kept on reading in the hope that the story would find its footing and become the compelling tale promised by the blurb, but as the page count progressed it became more and more apparent that I would not find what I looked for: even skimming over the most repetitive sequences of Sun & Co. running for their lives and then being involved in a long, drawn-out battle that went on and on and on, I failed to find anything that would hold my interest.  Once the characters started to adopt the less palatable traits of the YA mold, like unnecessary cattiness or insta-lust for anything moving into their field of vision (yes, Persephone, I’m looking right at you…), I knew that Unconquerable Sun would turn into a lost cause: as Sun took over a Chaonian vessel, ousting a seasoned captain to take command of the operations, I knew that this “Mary Sue maneuver” would be the proverbial straw, and decided to put an end to my suffering.

I’m aware that my personal biases are responsible for my negative reaction to this novel, which is the main reason I must warn you to take my opinion with a grain of salt, but when all is said and done, this is certainly not a book for me.

My Rating:

Reviews

FUGITIVE TELEMETRY (The Murderbot Diaries #6), by Martha Wells

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.

A new Murderbot novella is something I always look forward to, because I am completely invested in the journey of this cybernetically-enhanced construct and its interaction with the humans that have accepted it into their extended family.

Fugitive Telemetry is slightly different from its predecessors in that it’s not so much an adventure against evil intergalactic corporations as it’s a murder mystery in which our SecUnit takes on the role of detective, and does so relying mostly on its deductive capacities rather than the impressive technical skills it has shown so far. As far as temporal placing goes, this novella follows after book 4, Exit Strategy, and comes before the longer work Network Effect: Murderbot is very actively on the lookout for GrayCris operatives that might still be threatening Dr. Mensah’s life, so that when the body of a murdered man is found on Preservation Station, the first hypothesis for our SecUnit is that there might be a connection with the previous attempts on its legal guardian.

Since murder is quite an unusual event on Preservation Station, MurderBot offers its services in the investigation: on one side it wants to be sure that the dead man is in no way connected with GrayCris operatives, on the other it knows it might be a good opportunity to show other humans that it’s not a danger to Preservation and that, on the contrary, it can be an asset. Easier said that done, though, because suspicion and mistrust run rampant among the police force, such as it is, on the station, and Murderbot has been requested not to use the full potential of its cybernetic enhancements, which means that it will not be able to hack various data-gathering systems and it will have to rely on its rational powers alone and whatever information the humans are willing to share.

Watching MurderBot play detective is a fun experience on many levels: on one side, having to work without its usual tools, the SecUnit must fall back on the investigative techniques it learned by watching its beloved media, which is a tongue-in-cheek take on the genre; on the other, the barely veiled wariness of the humans it comes into contact with brings on new levels of snark in MB’s inner musings that are nothing short of delightful. Still, it’s clear that it has learned a lot about how to interact with humans, and even though it seems very keen on winning the undeclared challenge with the station’s police operatives, it also shows an unusual self-control in the face of what it considers some very stupid attitudes and questions. There are however a couple of instances in which that control slips, like the discussion on the reasons the body was dumped in such a public place: 

Murderbot: “No, I didn’t kill the dead human. If I had, I wouldn’t dump the body in the station mall”

Lead Investigator: “How would you dispose of a body so it wouldn’t be found?”

Murderbot: If I told you, then you might find all the bodies I’ve already disposed of.”

Which begs the question whether its was a provocative joke or not…

As the investigation progresses, the findings lead in a very unexpected direction and once again the SecUnit finds itself entangled with the rescue of some humans, and the deeper ramifications of the circumstances that brought these people into such a dangerous situation: without entering spoiler territory, I would like to point out that, no matter its antisocial declarations, there is a deep core of altruism in MurderBot that brings it to quite heroic actions, even when he ends up being shot at as a reward, as is the case here.

One of the delightful discoveries of this novella is the deepening connection that MB is forging with its adopted family (those it refers to as “Mensah or any of my other humans”), to the point that it’s learned how to rely on them when need arises, or even to ask  for outright help: their reaction at that request is one of my favorite moments, indeed, but it also shows how they have come to care for their latest member, and how MurderBot is coming to understand the rewards of interacting with flesh-and-blood people, of lowering one’s barriers and letting the world come closer.

On the other hand, the SecUnit’s scorn for the station’s bots remains unaltered: it’s clear it views them as inferior and even pathetic in their willingness to be useful and friendly, or in adopting charming names for themselves: one such example is that of JollyBaby, whose designation goes against its appearance and capacities – the surprise it will reserve for MurderBot toward the end is one that brought a huge smile on my face, and the hope that MB will be able to temper its snobbish attitude in the near future 😉

To sum it all up, Fugitive Telemetry is another captivating installment in the “MurderBot Saga”, one that adds some more facets to the main character while offering a quick, entertaining story and a wider view on the background it’s set on. The only thing that’s missing this time are the references to MB’s beloved media: the course of the investigation is such that there is literally no time to indulge one or more episodes of, say, Sanctuary Moon – and even MurderBot at some point wishes to simply “watch media and not exist”, which is a desire we can all sympathize with, particularly at the end of a hard day… A sign that the SecUnit is far more human than it can conceive of! 

Can we have another story soon, Ms. Wells, please?

My Rating: