SISTERS OF THE FORSAKEN STARS (Our Lady of Endless Worlds #2), by Lina Rather

It took me some time to get back to this future world in which living ships forge the vast interstellar distances and work as “traveling convents” for the nuns aboard, bringing help and comfort to those in need, but after the first few pages I felt again comfortable in this universe.

The sisters of the order of Saint Rita are dealing with the aftermath of the events from Sisters of the Vast Black, at the end of which they suffered heavy losses, both human and non-human, considering the death of their living ship-convent, named Our Lady of Impossible Constellations.  Presently the nuns are traveling on a new ship, but it’s still a youngling so it needs constant care and nutrients, and since they broke any ties with the Church and Earth government funds are scarce and they have to keep a low profile and make do with what they can scrounge along the way.

Much of the story in Forsaken Stars hinges around these difficulties and the even greater threat of discovery: the nuns’ actions in revealing Earth’s responsibility in the deadly plague hitting rebellious colonies have turned them into a sort of heroic figures, taken as example and inspiration by those who are eager to shake off the yoke of Earth Governance, and they are constantly debating about how to travel the thin line separating their mission of help to those in need from the danger of becoming figureheads.  The uncertainty weighing on the sisters is further enhanced by the arrival of two new people: Kristen, a young postulant asking to join the convent and Eris, the long-lost sister of Ewostatewos: the former represents the unknown factor that might unsettle the fragile balance aboard the ship, the latter is like an unwelcome spotlight shining on them because she is clearly on the run, and therefore a wanted individual.

Unlike the first book in the series, Forsaken Stars seems a little less…cohesive, for want of a better word, somewhat meandering at times, but with hindsight I can see how this uncertainty in plot is a mirror for the uncertainty plaguing the nuns who have lost their support system and have to forge a completely new way of doing things – and surviving – which might take some time before it’s ironed out into the precise mechanism it used to be with Our Lady of Impossible Constellations.  Moreover, the nuns are dealing with the emotional fallout of their losses – even though not all of them are due to death, since former  Sister Gemma left the convent to join her lover Vauca, an engineer on the deadship (i.e. a conventional construct) Cheng I Sao, where they try to nurture the failed shiplings in the hope of creating something new when they are not viable as future liveships.

If the plot feels a little meandering, what remains steady and strong is the sense of community among the nuns, particularly where external forces are trying to change (or co-opt) them or when personal issues threaten to intrude on their concept of faith, which here seems to be more oriented toward belief in the rightness of good works rather than adherence to dogma – and here I have to say that I appreciated how these nuns’ faith stands on the willingness to do good, to help the needy and, if possible, prevent the cruelty humans enjoy inflicting each other. 

There are a few passing references to the difference between these space-faring nuns and the ones living on planets and conducting a more traditional monastic life of prayer and contemplation, references that I interpreted as respect for the kind of hands-on approach exhibited by the protagonists.  It must also be said that physical distance from the Church – even before the nuns cut their ties with it and Earth – already prompted the nuns to find their own way to deal with spiritual matters, showing how doctrine cannot remain unchanged when the conditions for its applicability change due to the unpredictability of life away from humanity’s home planet.

Where the start of this second installment shows the nuns in a state of flux, the dramatic events happening toward the end of the book bring it out of the perceived middle-book syndrome and point toward a road fraught with dangers, yes, but also with great possibilities: while the short form of this novella suffers from a certain lack of development that cries out for a longer narrative span, it also leaves ample room for the expansion of the story in many possible directions.  It will be interesting to see where it will lead us next….

My Rating:


DESCENDANT MACHINE (Continuance #2), by Gareth Powell

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

I was looking forward to the continuation of this series, where the author Gareth Powell portrays a wandering humanity relocated on huge ark-ships by the powerful aliens called Angels of Benevolence. Descendant Machine is not exactly the direct continuation of the first book, Stars and Bones, since it takes place some fifty years after the events depicted there, and as such it can be read as a stand-alone, although I would recommend reading the first volume as well, to better appreciate the nuances of characters and backgrounds.  Before delving into my review I would like to share a detail about the writing of this book: in the Afterword, Mr. Powell speaks about the difficult genesis of Descendant Machine, since the first draft was completely lost due to some technical problems, and he had to start again from scratch. Everyone who lost some important file to computers’ quirks understands what kind of blow that must have been, so this book also stands as the proof that no situation is unsurmountable, no matter how dire it looks – and in light of the events that constitute the core of this novel, I wonder how much of this realization went into the crafting of the story itself…

Nicola Mafalda is the pilot of the scout ship Frontier Chic, belonging to the Vanguard – the exploratory arm of the Continuance, the vast fleet of ark ships on which humanity has been forging the vastness of space for the past 125 years.  At the start of the novel, Nicola is ferrying passengers to Jzat, a planet inhabited by furry, four-armed humanoids who have been studying for generations a mysterious object orbiting their planet: the Grand Mechanism – the same size as Saturn’s rings, the object has been the source of endless debate about its origins and function, and there is a growing faction on Jzat that’s set on opening the Mechanism to uncover its secrets and, hopefully, reap the rewards that its superior technology might offer.

What started as a pretty routine run ends quite badly for Nicola and the Frontier Chic (I will let you discover how badly on your own…) and when we see her again she’s recuperating from the ordeal on one of the arks: contacted by her superiors, she is sent – not exactly willingly – to look for a Jzat mystic, the Rav’nah Abelisk, the latest in a long line of custodians of the Mechanism’s secrets, to obtain his help in avoiding the disasters that might follow the opening of the construct. Fighting against time and the Jzat faction bent on harnessing the Mechanism’s powers, Nicola faces dangers, betrayals and a threat to the end of the universe as we know it, in a non-stop, enthralling story whose stakes keep mounting from one chapter to the next.

Descendant Machine is written in alternating POV chapters belonging respectively to Nicola Mafalda, to the Frontier Chic’s envoy (envoys are the ships’ avatars) and to Orlando Walden, a young, bright scientist whose letters to his lover Ramona are a delightful mix of purple prose and self-centeredness.  This narrative choice keeps the novel moving along at a swift pace, turning it into a compulsive read once the pieces are all set on the board and the action rolls on with unstoppable momentum, without however forgetting a good number of well-placed sparkles of humor and a few forays into emotions that feel natural and organically developed and contribute to the excellent narrative balance of this story.

I enjoyed Nicola’s portrayal very much: she possesses a delightfully snarky disposition that does not shy away from a consistent use of profanity, but which also hides the self-doubt and vulnerabilities that round up her character into a very relatable one.  If she can be all business when performing her tasks, it’s in her dealings with the Chic’s envoy that we are able to see the real Nicola: here lies one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel, because we learn that Vanguard’s navigators and their envoys are somewhat mentally linked to better travel the intricacies of the Substrate (or hyperspace), and therefore share a bond that is as deep as it is unique.  The voice of the Chic’s envoy is an equal mixture of intelligence, humor and shrewdness that works as the perfect foil for Nicola’s prickly attitude and the exchanges between the two of them are among my favorite sections of the book, particularly where the undeniable affection underlying their relationship comes to the fore.

The chapters devoted to Orlando Walden are of a very different nature for two reasons: on one side they explore his personality through the impassioned letters sent to Ramona, his love for her expressed in a flowery and childish way that’s quite funny; on the other they afford readers a peek into the mindset of the Openers – the faction set on uncovering the Mechanism’s secrets – and in particular of their leader Aulco, whose speeches pave the road for some humorous pokes at the sectarian kinds of politics we have seen crop up in recent years.   

Narratively speaking, Descendant Machine enjoys a lighter tone in respect of its predecessor, even though it does not lack for drama or the levels of tension that accompany the possibility of seeing the universe as we know it vanish in a puff of smoke – from my point of view, it’s space opera of the most gratifying kind, where alongside the more adventurous themes you will find deeper considerations about life and death, love and friendship, the strength to accept one’s end for a higher purpose, and much more.  Once again I can rest assured that Mr. Powell is very comfortable in this genre, as well as skilled, and that I will welcome every new book of his with great expectations.

My Rating:


PARADISE-1, by David Wellington

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

Despite a very intriguing premise, Paradise-1 proved to be a disappointing, and at times frustrating, read. This novel had so much potential, at least judging by the synopsis, but unfortunately the execution fell quite short of my expectations and I managed to finish the book only thanks to sheer willpower and a small measure of curiosity to see where the story would go. It was an uphill struggle all the way, and more than once I was tempted to DNF the novel, but I feel guilty doing so with review books, so I managed to keep reading till the (bitter?) end…

Firewatch Lieutenant Petrova, Dr. Lei Zhang and pilot Parker are rudely awakened from cryo-sleep as their ship, Artemis, is attacked by an unknown foe as they are nearing their destination, the colony named Paradise-1.  Once reached the safety of the only intact section of the vessel, the three discover that their onboard AI is malfunctioning, that there are a lot of unresponsive ships in orbit around Paradise-1, and that one of them is firing against Artemis using a mass driver.   This is only the first of the dangers the trio will have to face, because ships’ AIs and humans alike have fallen victims to something dangerously invasive whose nature they will have to discover if they hope to fight it – and to stay alive.

The beginning of Paradise-1 offers an intriguing, adrenaline-infused introduction to the story, and depicts very well the sense of disorientation suffered by characters who are so rudely awakened from suspended animation into a potentially fatal situation, but as soon as the three manage to reach the relative safety of the ship’s bridge and try to assess the situation, the “narrative troubles” start – or at least that’s the way it was for me.  The fast pace with which the novel had started becomes mired in weirdly absurd dialogue and an overall tone that seems unsure about where to settle, whether on drama or light humor, while the addition of some hints at romance looks as if inserted to check a required box, rather than being an organically developed situation.

I guess that the proverbial “bubble” burst for me with the discovery of a recorded message illustrating the goal of the mission: the crew of Artemis was sent to Paradise-1 to investigate the disappearance of a great number of ships, but the powers that be chose not to warn the three of them about what they could expect and, worse, the ship was sent at the same coordinates of the previous disappearances. This compelled me to take a step back and wonder: what could be accomplished by sending another crew in, blind and ignorant, instead of making a more cautions approach, arming the crew with the relevant information?   It seemed such an absurd waste of people and material as far the story’s internal logic was concerned, and such an absurdity if translated into “real” decision making , that it pulled me out of the narrative rhythm. After that, I stated to notice details that made no sense, when they were not simply ludicrous: as an example I will mention the medical laser, one powered by a cord inserted into an actual outlet, that’s used outside Artemis as a defensive weapon against an approaching ship – that must have required one hell of an extension cord!  Granted, these are not end-of-the-world details, but they were enough to break my suspension of disbelief and to wake the Grumpy Nitpicker that’s always lurking in the background, ready to pounce…

At this point the story veers into all-out horror: to keep spoilers to the minimum I will only say that something manages to drive crews and ships’ AIs to utter madness, which manifests in disturbingly bloody ways. Sadly, the horror factor is more than overdone, resulting not so much into shocking scenes, but rather into grotesque episodes that made me think of those horror B-movies where you laugh at the scary parts as you reach for more popcorn.  One example?  A twisted AI wants to consume its victims and to be able to do so constructs a sort of metal mouth (equipped with vicious teeth) connected to a digestive system….    Worse still, the crew of Artemis find themselves in this kind of hairy situation not once, but three times, just in case we had not been scared enough the first one. I regret to say I wasn’t.

At the end of the 700+ pages of the book, an end I reached with difficulty because I had lost all interest in the characters’ journey or their fate, I hoped to find at least an explanation for the whole, confused mess, but I was not so lucky. For the third (and blessedly final) time our heroes are subjected to horrific experiences – now the terror is only psychological rather than physical, but that does not render the repetition more palatable – and finally reach planetfall. Where I hoped some answers would be provided – spoiler: they are not, because the novel ends quite abruptly in the worst kind of cliffhanger.

I’m aware that this ended up being more of a rant than a review, but I feel somewhat entitled to it after slogging through the absurd mess that Paradise-1 was for me.  I know a few of my fellow bloggers have this book on their TBR and I can’t wait to compare notes…

My Rating:


INFINITY GATE (Pandominion #1), by M. R. Carey

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

Every book I read, so far, from M.R. Carey proved to be an intriguing, engrossing journey, so when I saw Infinity Gate showcased on the monthly Orbit newsletter I requested it without even taking a look at the synopsis. Once again I found myself totally immersed in a story whose only downside was that it ended too soon.

Infinity Gate starts from the premise of the existence of an uncounted number of Earths, a multiverse where each iteration can be either quite close to the reality we’re familiar with, or so wildly different as to be unrecognizable.  Scientist Hadiz Tambuwal lives in what we might consider as our primary Earth, but one where resources are almost depleted and wars are being fought for whatever’s left.  Finding herself practically alone in the university complex near Lagos, in Nigeria, she spends her time perfecting her studies and one day stumbles on an amazing discovery: the possibility to jump from one reality to another – and therefore a chance for a better life, even for a way to save her own dying planet.  

With the help of Rupshe, a self-aware A.I. residing on the university grounds, Hadiz starts exploring the almost infinite versions of Earth, but in so doing she catches the attention of the Pandominion, a coalition of Earth-like worlds linked by the discovery of the Step plates, the means of jumping from one reality to another.  The Pandominion is at war with another aggregation of worlds, the Ansurrection: these are planets ruled by machine intelligence and so far the war has claimed many victims and many worlds; fearing that Hadiz’s jumps might be related to the Ansurrection’s encroaching, the Pandominion sets its armed force, called the Cielo, on her tracks.

Hadiz’s storyline runs parallel to that of Essien Nkanika, living in a world not much different from hers, and the meeting between them will change Essien’s life – one that has already seen much suffering and deprivation – in a very dramatic way.  The third main character in the novel is that of  Topaz Tourmaline FiveHills, a young girl living on Ut, an Earth-like planet where the dominant life form descends from rabbits: Topaz – or Paz as she likes to be called – will see her life upturned by a devastating event and will have to make some hard choices she was not prepared for.

Curiously enough, for a story told through multiple POVs, Infinity Gate chooses the unusual way of following these three characters in a linear way instead of alternating chapters between them: at first this choice felt weird, because each time the reader must start anew with a different perspective that seems to have no connection with the previous one, but in the end it was revealed as a very clever way of making the reader invested in each character’s journey and at the same time of exploring the Pandominion in its many facets without need for long and distracting info-dumps.

The Pandominion looks, on the surface, as a conglomeration of advanced worlds graced by an utopian life-style, but as soon as the focus moves on its inner workings it’s easy to see that it’s not like Star Trek’s Federation at all: some of the people at the top are quite ruthless and the existence of the Cielo, the inter-planetary army whose armor-clad soldiers elicit apprehension with their sole presence, points toward a rule that’s quite far from benevolent.  The Ansurrection, on the other hand, seems driven by an apparently unthinking drive to replicate its machines and the discovery of several worlds where any form of life has been obliterated does not bode well for their intentions.

The characters who move on this intriguing – if slightly unsettling – background are wonderfully depicted and fully fleshed: Hadiz Tambuwal looks like a single-focus-driven scientist who is more at ease among the instruments of her laboratory than among people, and yet there is a poignant streak of vulnerability in her that comes across in the course of her meeting with Essien Nkanika, a young man who has learned to stop at nothing to ensure his own survival, like accepting to join the Cielo where his humanity risks to be taken away from him piece by piece.  My favorite character, however, remains Paz, a young girl (rabbit-shaped, granted, but still a girl) who finds herself dealing with exceptional events she was not prepared for: the way she finds a well of courage and resiliency she did not know she possesses, while still remaining true to herself, gives way to a character journey I found both compelling and heart-wrenching.

It’s not going to be a spoiler when I say that these three are destined to meet: the greater attraction in this novel stands in the expectation of that encounter and in the different, often difficult paths they travel before that can happen.  This first book in the series merely lays the ground for what will develop into the main story, and yet it does not feel like a simple setting of the playing field because you can almost hear the various pieces clicking into place, each new addition boosting the tension level to new heights, particularly where Paz’s experiences are concerned: there is a long, tense segment dealing with them, toward the final part of the novel, where I was literally unable to put the book down because the various moving parts were in such a state of flux that anything could happen and failure seemed like a chilling possibility.   It’s difficult to describe this book without giving away precious – and spoilery! – details, but trust me when I tell you that reading it without any prior knowledge is indeed the best way to go.

Infinity Gate closes with the equivalent of a “…to be continued” but at the same time it ends this part of the story neatly: previous experience with M.R. Carey’s other series tells me that the next books will come along with infallible cadence, and I already look forward to seeing where the story will take us next.

My Rating:


STATION ELEVEN, by Emily St.John Mandel

This book has been mentioned quite often in the blogosphere and it was also recommended to me by a friend, but for some reason I kept sliding it down the TBR list – which is far from unusual for me, since I tend to be easily distracted by other titles. Now that I finally read it, I wonder if my constant delay was not in part due to a sort of “warning” from what I call my “book radar”, because while I did not dislike Station Eleven, it also failed to completely captivate me.

The book’s premise is that a virulent strain of flu wipes out something like 90 percent of Earth’s population and the story follows some of the survivors in the post-apocalyptic world left after the flu’s passage.  These characters all have some sort of link to renowned actor Arthur Leander, whose death on stage, during a representation of King Lear, happens on the eve of the pandemic outbreak: Kirstin is a young actress who was somehow befriended by Leander and witnessed his death – a scrapbook containing the highlights of the actor’s career, and a couple of issues of a graphic novel written by one of his wives, titled Station Eleven, represent the only link Kirstin has with a past she struggles to remember; Jeevan, a former paparazzo, is a paramedic in training who unsuccessfully tries to save Leander’s life  and later on watches the world unravel from the window of the building where he and his brother are holed up.  Then there is the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians moving from settlement to settlement performing Shakespeare’s dramas for the survivors,  and trying to keep civilization alive, somehow; and lastly, in the flashbacks sections of the novel, we learn about the life of Miranda, Arthur Leander’s second wife and author of the Station Eleven graphic novel that also gives the book its title.

First things first, let’s deal with the proverbial elephant in the room: it’s possible that if I had read the book when it came out, its premise would have had a different impact on me, because now that global pandemics are not a thing limited to speculative fiction, I don’t find it so easy to look at this theme dispassionately. Granted, what recently happened worldwide did not turn into the extinction event portrayed here or in similarly themed books like King’s The Stand, but still, knowing the possibility exists makes for some very uncomfortable reading – at least for me. St.John Mandel does not dwell too deeply on the details of our civilization’s unraveling, preferring to focus on the emotional and psychological impact it has on the characters, and while this choice makes for a more muted narrative, it also detaches the reader from the end of the world as we know it, so that taking away most – if not all – of the tragedy of such an end also robs the story of any dramatic impact.  Even the appearance of a self-proclaimed Prophet and his vicious adepts fails to introduce an element of real danger and fear into the story – my perception here is that it was another missed opportunity.

Which brings me to the characters: sadly, most of them failed to capture my attention, adding to the unwelcome sense of detachment I experienced throughout the novel. Kirsten is robbed of a past she hardly remembers, at the same time depriving the readers of any details of the fracturing of civilization, and her journey through the deserted country as she tries to reconnect with the Symphony fails to convey the real sense of loss of a whole civilization. The Traveling Symphony members are further divested of any individual traits including their names, since most of them are identified by the name of their instrument of choice: granted, their valiant effort to keep culture and civilization alive in the wasteland is admirable and it brings some touches of poignancy to the story, but for me it was not enough to help me connect with them, either individually or as a whole.

The only character that managed to gain some relief is that of Miranda, thanks to her efforts at making a life for herself out of the all-encompassing sphere of a very self-centered Arthur Leander: the graphic novel she works on for most of her life is the representation of an idealized existence and it also works as a bridge between the “before” and “after” thanks to the hopeful outlook it offers to those fortunate enough to get hold of some copies, but that’s all and it’s not enough to offer some much needed strong characterization to the book, a situation hindered by the fact that she’s a figure from the past and therefore lost forever in the “present”.

I realized that I’ve depicted this novel in less than enthusiastic tones, and in its defense I have to acknowledge that the writing is fluid and at times poetic, particularly when describing the vast expanses of empty land where nature is repossessing the last traces of our civilization, but if I have to be honest I would have preferred a grittier portrayal of this end – a “bang” rather than the melancholic “whimper” threaded through the story.  It’s not the book’s fault, of course, but simply a matter of personal preferences….

My Rating:


RECKONING (Donovan #6), by W. Michael Gear

Every time I learn of a new Donovan book I know I’m in for a treat: this series does not only focus on one of my favorite SF themes, the colonization of an alien planet, but it also offers new narrative avenues with each installment, so that the series remains fresh and highly enjoyable.

Reckoning takes a slightly different approach from its predecessors in that it does not explore one of the many dangers facing the colonists in their battle for survival on this very hostile planet, but rather on the evolution of the characters I have come to know and appreciate over time. Of course Donovan and its many hazards are still front and center, but this time the menace comes from Earth and the Corporation, whose visiting representatives have come to take in hand the situation.

With the return of Ashanti, one of the ships that managed to survive the dangers of interstellar travel, laden with its rich cargo of rare metals and precious stones mined on Donovan, the Corporation understands that such wealth in the hands of individuals (like the criminal Dan Wirth, who came back home with his massive plunder) might end up unsettling the balance of power in the Solar System, so a group of representative from some of the most influential families boards the ship Turalon with the goal of asserting the Corporation’s rule on Donovan. They are joined by a Board appointed Inspector General, who will audit Kalico Aguila’s actions so far and decide if she’s gone far too native to be allowed to continue in her role as Board Supervisor.

As Turalon approaches the planet we readers are presented with the underhanded maneuvers that the four representatives play in the attempt of gaining dominance even before making planetfall: they are not only powerful, ruthless individuals who stop at nothing to achieve their goals, they help us see that the corporate boardrooms in the Solar System are as dangerous as Donovan’s jungles and these scions of influential families are bloodthirsty predators in the same league as quetzals. And yet we readers already know that statistical data about Donovan and the hard facts of planetary life are two different things, so part of the enjoyment in reading a new book comes from the reactions of the “fresh meat” (as new arrivals are called) to the reality of life on the ground and in the few areas that colonists have come to claim as their own.  

This is particularly true for Falise Taglioni, the sister of Derek (Dek) Taglioni whose full adaptation to Donovan we saw in previous installments: Falise is not only the family’s cold-blooded assassin, she is a spoiled brat far too used to having her way, so that her constant refusal to adapt to groundside conditions offers several opportunities for entertainment – both for the readers and the locals. The disparity between her outlandish outfits and the frontier environment at Port Authority serves the author well in demonstrating the dichotomy between the light-years-distant corporate mindset and the reality of life on Donovan.  Like Kalico Aguila before her, Falise will have to accept the fact that mankind must adapt to the environment rather than taming it to its desires and learning the hard way that, as the saying goes, people get to Donovan to stay or die of find themselves. The way in which Falise will find herself while remaining true to her core nature is certainly one of the most intriguing facets of this novel.

As far as the “old” characters in the series are concerned, the focus here shifts a little from Talina or Dek, to follow more closely Kalico Aguila and young Kylee. The first is well aware that her tenure on Donovan might be at its end, given that the Inspector General is clearly out for her blood – and with him we have one of the most despicable characters created by the author, one that I’m sure you will all hate with a passion.  Kalico has not only invested all her energies in the mining of planetary resources, she has become a Donovanian through and through (and has the scars to prove it…): she is one of the people for whom the titular reckoning has arrived and might signify the end of her role on Donovan and a return in disgrace to the Solar System.  The way in which this particular situation develops represents one of the more compelling and satisfying segments of the novel, one that I followed with a mixture of anxiety and amusement – the latter sentiment due to the sheer unpredictability of the colonists…

Kylee held the biggest surprise in store for me: while I found her character intriguing in her past appearances in the series, I did not exactly connect to her, but here – grown up and struggling to reconcile her hard-earned maturity with the pains of adolescence – I enjoyed her sections and above all the practical, foul-mouthed approach to life she shows, particularly in her dealings with Falise Taglioni, to whom she acts as a sort of mentor in all things Donovan.  The interactions between the two of them – the hardened survivor and the spoiled outworlder – offer some of the most entertaining segments in the novel and have managed to change my outlook about Kylee herself.

This sixth book in the series is aptly titled Reckoning, because many of the proverbial chickens come home to roost here, and that’s one of the reasons I found the book quite engrossing, literally flying from one chapter to the next in my eagerness to know how the various situations would be resolved. While it’s true that we learn nothing new here about the planet itself and its dangers, the interpersonal relationships and the unavoidable clash between the colonists and the new arrivals (not to mention a couple of unexpected murders and a few quetzal incursions) were more than enough to keep my attention riveted and to fuel my expectations for the next book in line – I know I will not be disappointed.

My Rating:


CHILDREN OF MEMORY (Children of Time #3), by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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 have to confess that I approached this book with some hesitation: while I enjoyed Children of Time (despite the spiders, which is saying a lot!), I was less sanguine about Children of Ruin, mostly because of the pacing, which at times felt a little too slow for my tastes.  Children of Memory does suffer slightly from some pacing problems and from a few lengthy philosophical digressions, but the mystery at its core was so intriguing that it kept me motivated to read on until the very end.

Unlike its predecessors, this third installment in the series focuses more closely on humans, and in particular on the humans of an ark ship, the Enkidu, traveling the long distance toward one of the promised terraformed worlds with its huge cargo of frozen colonists. When they reach their destination, a planet they will name Imir, the ship has suffered grievous damage and lost a significant part of its cargo – both people and machinery destined to the creation of the colony – while the crew also discovers that the terraforming project partially failed its goal: Imir is a cold, harsh world with extreme weather patterns, and it will require an enormous effort to establish even the basic living conditions. 

After a temporal jump of a few generations, the novel follows the colonization of Imir through the eyes of Liff, a pre-teen girl whose strong spirit is fueled by fairy tales of adventures and great discoveries: thanks to Liff we learn that the colony never truly took off beyond mere survival in what looks like a frontier environment, the constant breakdown of modern tools and machinery forcing the colonists toward a more primitive society than the one they hoped for. What’s worse, there is a strange obsession in the populace toward “Watchers” or “Seccers”, i.e. people outside of their limited community, who might be actively working against its survival: although it seems more myth than reality, this belief fosters an acute climate of suspicion that verges toward paranoia.

A different narrative thread focuses on the small crew of an exploratory vessel from the arachnid/octopus/human civilization we encountered in the two previous books: having reached Imir they debate on the best way to approach the colony, deciding that one of them will try to monitor it in incognito, posing as one of the colonists from the outlying failed farmsteads: Miranda, a combination of human appearance and Nodan consciousness (the parasitic life-form discovered in the previous book) joins the people of Imir working as a teacher, and on her meeting with Liff forms a strong bond with the keenly curious young girl.

Here is where the strangeness begins, because we are presented with often contradictory evidence about life on the planet: several generations have elapsed since the first landing, and yet Liff seems to think about Captain Holt (the expedition leader) as her grandfather; or she is seen living with both her parents while in other narrative segments she’s an orphan living with her inattentive uncle, and so on.  This is the mystery that captured my attention and led me to wonder what was truly happening on Imir, not forgetting the further element of a strange signal coming from the planet that leads the onboard A.I. patterned on Earth scientists Avrana Kern (a constant presence throughout the series) to investigate it with the help of the new uplifted species of Corvids we get to know in Children of Memory.

It’s not easy to recap this novel in a handful of spoiler-free sentences, because this book is as complex as it is intriguing: the main attraction for me was the solution to the contradictory experiences of young Liff (and here I have to admit that my own theories did not even come close to the reveal), but there is much more here to keep a reader engrossed.  Faithful to the pattern exhibited so far, Adrian Tchaikovsky presents us with a new uplifted kind of creature, the Corvids from Rourke’s world, another planet that proved hostile to humanity but where these birds’ intelligence evolved in a unique pattern of paired individuals forming a collective whole and represented here by Gethli and Gothi, whose discussions about sentience are nothing short of fascinating, besides offering some sparks of humor thanks to their peculiarly worded exchanges that at times reminded me of the chorus elements in Greek tragedies.

Equally intriguing are the observations on the composite society originated by the joining of humans, arachnids, octopusses and Nodan parasites who have learned to coexist peacefully and create a space-faring society whose curiosity about the rest of the universe is the main drive toward exploration. In this respect, the human-looking Miranda is a perfect example of this commonwealth of species: her search for knowledge is somehow marred by the dichotomy between outward appearance and inner substance, which leaves room for some interesting, and at times poignant, considerations about self-image and identity.

The colony on Imir offers other chances of commentary on human nature: the regression to a more primitive way of life, forced by the lack of equipment, seems to have brought on a parallel regression in mindset, since the inhabitants of Landfall (the sole planetary settlement) look more like villagers from a Medieval era rather than the inheritors of a modern society. Their dread and distrust of the “other” (which comes from a very specific reason) brings about a tragic “us vs. them” mentality that is depicted in a few dramatic scenes which effectively display the dangers of mob mentality when paired with fear and ignorance.

Children of Memory is however slightly weighted down by some philosophical digressions on the nature of sentience, which are intriguing on their own but – in my opinion – take more space than necessary in consideration of the need to learn the solution to the mystery that Imir presents to the visitors. Still these digressions were not enough to keep me from forging on and reaching the intriguing reveal: if that was the challenge that the author presented to his readers, I can say that I was able to meet it head on 😉

My Rating:


DUNE MESSIAH (Dune #2), by Frank Herbert

I have often lamented the fact that re-reading books I enjoyed in the past can sometimes lead to deep disappointments, due to changed tastes and to the evolution of writing styles, so I’m glad to acknowledge that my re-read of Dune Messiah did not incur in that kind of problem and, on the contrary, made me enjoy the novel even more than on my first encounter.  The younger me who read Messiah for the first time was disappointed by the lack of epic-ness that was so much a part of the first book, nor did she enjoy seeing Paul Atreides become somewhat diminished; now I was finally able to appreciate what Frank Herbert was doing with his character and the world he had created.

The story starts twelve years after the final events in Dune: Paul Atreides has extended his power over the empire, mainly through a galaxy-wide war of conquest waged by his Fremen armies and fueled by the religious fervor that invested him with near godhood; it’s the jihad he foresaw and tried to avoid, to no avail – we learn that it ‘killed sixty-one billion, sterilized ninety planets, completely demoralized five hundred others’, a series of staggering numbers that, instead of consolidating his rule, has created mistrust and discontent, so that now some of his enemies (and some of his former allies as well) are plotting to dethrone him, putting an end to his rule.  Prescience already warned Paul of what’s brewing in the shadows, and here we see him trying to navigate the possible futures, knowing that every one of them will entail devastating losses and even worse consequences.

What Dune Messiah amounts to, in the end, is the story of a man gifted with amazing powers and yet powerless to prevent the catastrophes he envisioned: despite the prodigious skills he acquired through both nature and motherly teachings, he remains a human being, with all the frailties and contradictions this entails, and seeing them, seeing his struggles and the pain they carry with them, helped me connect with his character on a level I had not reached in the first book.  Which brings me to a consideration that struck me, this time over, as I thought about Paul’s dilemma and the road he would/could not choose here, leaving it open (as I already know it will happen) for his son to take: in my review of Dune I mentioned how I consider it a landmark in SF just as Tolkien’s LOTR is for fantasy, to the point that I saw a sort of parallel between Paul and Frodo. Paul knows – has seen – a way out of those devastating futures, the terrible purpose that will turn into the Golden Path for young Leto, but is unable, or unwilling, or both, to accept it and ultimately gives up, choosing to wander alone in the desert, maybe to die; Frodo reaches the end of his perilous journey only to fail – and he was destined to fail since he was only the Ring Bearer, not the Ring Destroyer, thanks to Tolkien’s always precisely chosen wording – carrying forever the burden of that failure and equally choosing exile, no matter how pleasant, to remove himself from it.   I’m aware the comparison might be quite a stretch, but it’s one I can’t seem to get out of my mind, and I would love to hear what my fellow bloggers think about it….

Back to the novel itself, I found that despite the reduced page count, if compared with its predecessor, it expands the reader’s knowledge about the universe where the story takes place: the main narrative focus is still set on Arrakis, granted, but the presence, amid the conspirators aiming to remove Paul from power, of a Guild navigator and of a Tleilaxu Face Dancer shows us a glimpse of the various powers inhabiting the galaxy. The navigator is described as something only vaguely resembling the human being it must originally have been, the exposure to the spice gas that renders it capable of forging paths through space having transformed the creature in a weirdly horrific way, but the truly fascinating character is that of Scytale, the Face Dancer.  A bio-engineered shape shifter, Scytale is the product of Tleilaxu gene manipulation, and an intriguing creature as well, particularly in the peculiar affinity for the people it must impersonate – and therefore kill – that translates into a sort of sympathy (the Face Dancer’s own words) for the victim, almost a regret for the necessity of the act. It’s a choice that turns Scytale into much more than a simple enemy, a simple killer, and gifts its personality with depth and intriguing shades.

The Tleilaxu are also involved in another part of the plan against Paul Atreides because they bring one of their creations to his court in an attempt to distract and destabilize him: their skills in bio-manipulation can literally bring the dead back to life – through a process that might be cloning, even though it’s never explained – in the form of gholas, perfect copies of the dead although deprived of their memories. The ghola which is brought to Paul’s court is no one but his former instructor and friend Duncan Idaho, who gave his life to allow Paul and his mother to escape from the Harkonnens.  Duncan is a character who does not enjoy great narrative space in Dune, and yet he leaves a deep impression, to the point that his reappearance hits the readers just as much as the intended target in the story.  There is a poignant quality to Duncan’s journey, the drama of a person who knows there is a past waiting for him to be unlocked, and also that such unlocking will require a high price to be obtained, and it’s almost as touching as that of Paul, of his dilemma and of the bittersweet meeting with his old-time friend.

As a sequel, Dune Messiah works far better on a re-read, particularly when one is aware of what will come after: it is indeed a bridge between the two distinct halves of the Atreides’ family history, but most importantly it sets aside the more “adventurous” themes of its predecessor for an in-depth examination of the nature of power and how it can betray its wielders, no matter how many skills they can call into play.  The author’s choice of mixing what might have been a somewhat dry commentary with some powerful emotions is what turns this novel into a touching journey and one that is enhanced – not lessened – by hindsight.

My Rating:


ELDER RACE, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This Adrian Tchaikovsky novella packs several themes in a successful mix between science fiction and fantasy that I found delightfully entertaining. The story is equally divided between two points of view: Lynesse Fourth Daughter is the wayward scion of the realm of Lannesite, more interested in the lore and legends of her people than in the practical duties of a queen’s daughter, and so she’s always getting into trouble and harshly reprimanded by her mother and elder sisters.  Nyr Illim Tevitch is a lowly anthropologist assigned to study Lynesse’s society, a distant offshoot of human colonization: he’s been left alone to monitor the culture, since his companions returned to Earth some time ago and never came back, prompting Nyr to accept the dire fact they might never do so and that he might end his last days alone.

Rumors of a demon plaguing the nearby lands have reached the court and been dismissed by the queen as nothing more than the peasants’ excessive fantasy, while Lynesse is convinced that the realm might be threatened by a danger similar to that faced by her ancestress Astresse Once Regent, who successfully vanquished it with the help of the sorcerer Nyrgoth Elder.  So, against her mother’s wishes, she takes the long journey toward the wizard’s tower to ask for his help on the strength of the ancient compact signed with her great-grandmother.  The “wizard” is of course the anthropologist who long ago, and against the rule that prohibited the observing scientists to have any contact with the locals, lent his help to Astresse, and is now whiling away the long, empty years in suspended animation.

Lynesse’s resemblance with her ancestress – for whom it’s clear that Nyr harbored some very strong feelings – and her impassioned request for help clash with the scientist’s deeply settled despondency and depression, not to mention the sense of guilt for having already broken the rules once, and his unwillingness about doing so again, even though it’s become clear by now that there will be no retribution from back home,  given the too-long silence from Earth.  Still, the young woman’s determination and some curiosity to inspect the disconcerting phenomenon that Lynesse describes as a “demon”, ultimately convince Nyr to travel with her and her companion Esha Free Mark to the affected lands, in a journey that will prove enlightening for both of them.

The clash of different cultures has long been one of the main themes in science fiction, but here in Elder Race the conflict – and ensuing misunderstandings – come from two different lines of evolution of the same people, just as the two points of view, Lynesse and Nyr, represent the two genres merged in this story.  From the fantasy-inspired outlook of Lynesse, Nyr’s abilities and technological tools are nothing short of magic, and serve only to reinforce her faith in the powers of the aloof wizard, and in his ability to find and vanquish the demon infesting the land.  For his part, Nyr is battling with his own conscience and the contrasting feelings engendered by the bizarre situation, and keeping them at bay with the Dissociative Cognition System, or DCS, an implant that allows him to disconnect himself from his feelings so that he can conduct his observations with emotionless detachment – the only downside of the DCS being that he must turn it off at regular intervals to avoid a dangerous accumulation of repressed emotions, a practice that ends up enhancing the aura of mystery surrounding him from the locals’ perspective.

The theme of the Heroical Quest is played to the hilt in Elder Race, and with no small amount of tongue-in-cheek humor, particularly where the language barrier comes into play, giving way to an amusing “comedy of errors” flavor that reaches its peak as Nyr tries to explain the hard reality to Lynesse, only to see technical details turned into fairytale terms by a translation that shares very little ground with the common language once employed by the original colonists.  There is a chapter where the two versions are given side by side, and the gap between the actual reality and the one perceived by Lynesse shows, in a quite amusing way, the chasm that has opened between the two cultures, so that, for example, the term “scientist” used by Nyr becomes “wizard” in Lynesse’s tongue, taking the reader straight to Arthur Clarke’s famous sentence about advanced technology and magic…

Nyr’s frustration, and Lynesse’s difficulty in connecting with him, are not only the product of the changes in language but also of the changes in the way one looks at the world: where the anthropologist (especially when he engages the DCS) bases his observation on hard science and provable facts, Lynesse is driven by the stories she heard from early childhood, stories of heroic deeds and slain monsters, of weird magic and amazing feats, so that the two of them are kept apart not only by the terms that are lost in translation, but more importantly by a legendarium that for the girl is as close as humanly possible to reality while for the scientists it’s an unexplored land.  If you have seen that superb Star Trek: TNG episode titled Darmok, you will know what it means to be unable to understand someone whose language is so steeped in legends as to be totally incomprehensible.

And yet, despite these seemingly unsurmountable obstacles, the two manage to form an effective team: where words fail them, actions and – above all else – faith in each other’s commitment to the quest end up creating a bond that is a delight to behold and that adds a touch of sweetness to the mix of adventure and humor that are the main ingredients of the story, a story that despite its shortness ended up being even more enjoyable than Adrian Tchaikovsky’s longer and more complex books.

My Rating:


JETTISON: short movie Review

A week ago I posted a sort of teaser introduction to this short movie by director JJ Pollack, which has finally been released today and can be viewed on the DUST channel on YouTube. 

As I anticipated, Jettison focuses on a young woman, Rebka, who ships out to fight an interstellar war, and becomes the victim of time-dilation due to the relativistic consequences of faster-than-light travel.

The inspiration for Jettison comes – in the director’s own words – from Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, to which homage is paid in the choice of some names mentioned in the story: like Haldeman’s main character, Rebka finds herself dealing not only with the harsh realities of war, but with the crueler impact of relativity which manages to take away everything she cares for.   

The director’s choice of filming Rebka’s story in black and white adds a further dramatic layer to her journey, enhancing the starkness of her condition and the encroaching sense of alienation engendered by the increasing time differential between herself and the family she left home – and between her and the friends/lovers she meets as a soldier.

No information is given about the enemy Rebka and her fellow soldiers are fighting, but it’s not important because the focus here is set inwards rather than outwards, so that it hardly matters wether this enemy is human or alien, nor does the story need any alien landscapes or special effects to convey its meaning.

One of the details that I found most striking is revealed in two similar scenes where we see Rebka in a holding capsule prior to departure: in the first one she’s anxious because her encounter with the unknown is becoming a reality, but she’s also excited, ready to face any challenge her new life will present; in the second iteration, she’s already been subjected to painful losses and the realization that there is no going back, not really, and we see her crying in hopeless despair.

I was surprised at the depth of information and character development that could be packed in such a short movie where minimal dialogue is employed to carry out the story and much is left to the images: my advice would be to watch Jettison more than once, because there are many details that might elude you the first time, and its impact increases with each new viewing.

As for me, I’m very grateful for the opportunity I was given by JJ Pollack to expand my “explorations” in a new, intriguing direction, and to take inspiration from Jettison for a long-overdue reread of Joe Haldeman’s classic novel.

My Rating: