Reviews

SALVATION DAY, by Kali Wallace

 

Since watching the first Alien movie, I have come to equate ill-lighted, deserted ship corridors with dread and danger, and in this respect Salvation Day fits the bill in a delightfully scary way.

The background: a few centuries before the novel’s time frame, Earth was devastated by an event called the Collapse, which brought humanity on the brink of extinction. Hauling itself up by its proverbial bootstraps, the survivors decided to rebuild a better world, although only partly succeeding: the Councils are enclaves where the inhabitants can enjoy an optimal quality of life, away from the huge stretches of desert left by the Collapse; in these barren areas end up the people who either refuse to live in the Councils or are not granted citizenship, and the harsh life they lead fosters an increasing animosity toward the ruling hierarchy.

While before the Collapse a number of colony ships had left Earth in search of a new home for humanity, almost all of them disappearing without a trace, for a long time space was not a priority, and only recently mankind started to look again toward the stars, its bolder attempt being the construction of the ship House of Wisdom, a massive research vessel that should have been the first attempt to reach out again to deep space.  The dream, however, ended in nightmare when a deadly virus was released in the ship, killing everyone on board with the exception of a young child: since then, the vessel was placed in quarantine, enforced by a net of drones keeping everyone away.

As the story starts, a group of people belonging to a sect living in the deserted wastelands takes over a shuttle headed for one of the Moon cities, taking hostage a handful of graduate students, among them Jaswinder Bhattacharya, the sole survivor of the House of Wisdom. The kidnappers’ goal is to commandeer the derelict ship as a means of escape for the cult’s families, and to do that they need to deactivate the security drones using Jaswinder’s genetic imprint.  The group is led by Zahra, daughter of the man accused of releasing the deadly virus on House of Wisdom, but they all respond to their charismatic leader Adam, whose promises of a better life have inspired them all.

No plan ever survives its field deployment, however, and things start to go awfully wrong: just a handful of people manages to board House of Wisdom, half the terrorist complement and four of the hostages, and what they find contradicts any information so far released by the Councils about the deaths of the ship’s crew. There are no indications of a viral infection, most of the corpses floating in microgravity showing signs of extreme violence, while others barricaded in isolated areas seem to have died suddenly without any mark on them.  Jas knows that the official version was not the true one, but never said anything because he wanted to bury the terrible memories of the day in which he lost both his parents – still, he has no idea of the real threat facing the boarding party, and of the shocking discoveries waiting for them all on the deserted ship.

Reading the synopsis for Salvation Day, I thought it would turn out to be one of those blood-chilling thrillers where uncertainty about the situation and a hostile environment play a huge part in the story, and in some way it is – but in the end this novel is much more, especially where characters are concerned. Jas and Zahra are deeply flawed, and at first it’s not easy to create a connection with them: both scarred by traumatic events in their childhood they keep much of their inner workings bottled up, and for this reason they present to the outer world a façade that has little to do with their real personality.  It’s only as the story moves forward, and we put together the little pieces of their lives’ puzzles that we come to see them in a different light, and to understand the reasons for their actions.  The harrowing discoveries they make along the way help to create a sort of bridge between them – a tentative, unsteady one, granted – to the point that they find themselves working toward a common purpose: it’s interesting to learn they have both been led astray by lies, lies other visited upon them, lies they choose to believe because the alternative would be worse, and ultimately it’s the shared desire to expose those untruths that breaks the barriers between them.

As far as the story itself is concerned, it’s a deceptively conventional one, because the premise of the hijacking of a derelict ship does not walk the expected path, thanks to the twists and surprises disseminated through the story and enhanced by the excerpts of logs and diaries from the former doomed crew that pop up here and there building toward the final revelation – and let’s not forget the quotes from a message sent back in a probe by one of the colony ships departed before the Collapse, because it plays a vital role in the overall plot.

What’s more, in the honored tradition of science fiction narrative, Salvation Day offers much food for thought about the issues of our present, seen through the filter of the future: in this case it’s about the manipulation of truth in the name of higher goals or about the moral questions facing those who have the resources for survival, like the Councils, in respect of those who struggle in the wastelands, where it’s far too easy for desperate people to fall under the influence of any would-be dictator like the cult leader Adam.

This is a story with many layers, skillfully blended into a highly suspenseful background, and one that unfolds before your eyes not unlike a movie: I for one would appreciate seeing this turned into one, because its claustrophobic atmosphere, steeped in darkness barely illuminated by red emergency lights, from which emerge the floating corpses of the dead crew, would be very effective on screen just as it is in this well-crafted book.

 

My Rating:

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Reviews

Short Story Review: WEATHER (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.  A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

Weather is a novella-sized tale exploring in more depth the hostility between the Conjoiners and the rest of humanity, even that part of humanity that has chosen to meld flesh and machine: the Ultras, another of the factions in which the human race has fractured itself, combine mechanical and organic parts, either to augment some capabilities or to replace lost limbs, but they leave the mind well alone, finding the Conjoiner way of life beyond repulsive.

This story takes place aboard the Petronel, a cargo ship being chased by pirates: after a long, nerve-wracking pursuit, the Petronel’s crew chooses to stand and fight and, quite surprisingly, they get the best of their hunters, who have run afoul of some wandering space debris.  As they board the pirate ship to salvage equipment for repairs, the crewmen find a Conjoiner girl who had clearly been a prisoner and, not without some difficulty, take her aboard the cargo at the insistence of Inigo, the shipmaster, and against the objections of Captain Van Ness, who is highly distrustful of Conjoiners.

The two men have enjoyed, up until now, a close relationship borne of trust and mutual respect, but Inigo’s insistence in trying to deal with the girl – named Weather as a way to simplify her complicated designation – as a human being instead of a dangerous monster, drives a wedge between shipmaster and captain, to the point that the fracture seems impossible to reconcile. Only the danger presented by the failing drive – a Conjoiner model – will convince the captain to trust Weather, up to a point, and let her try to repair it so that the Petronel can reach its destination in time.

The rift between Conjoiners and the rest of humanity is represented here in all its bitterness, the past misunderstandings and troubles so deeply rooted that even the passing of time seems unable to lessen them, and Inigo finds himself trying to walk the fine line between two opposing feelings, while the story reaches its inevitable, bittersweet conclusion.

 

My Rating:

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Short Story Review: A SPY IN EUROPA (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.  A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

 

 

In the third story of this anthology the focus shifts from Clavain and the Conjoiners to follow another character entirely: Marius Vargovic is a highly skilled spy, enrolled for a mission on Europa, one of the major Jovian satellites, where he needs to contact a sleeper agent to retrieve an important substance that will prove pivotal in the struggle between the Demarchists and another faction for the control of political power.

The first part of the story follows more or less the usual patterns of spy lore: the agent arrives on site in disguise and mingles with the crowds of workers and tourists that move through Europa, then he meets his target while trying to look and sound inconspicuous, and finally he concludes his mission, heading for the retrieval point.  What comes as totally unexpected, as the story unfolds, comes from the descriptions of the place and the unforeseen turn of events that leads to the conclusion.

Europa looks like a fascinating and terrible place: not only the settlements around Jupiter are flourishing – mostly because the economy of Sol System’s inner planets is dwindling – but on Europa they are based on floating cities anchored to the moon’s frigid oceans thanks to a crucial technological discovery. The cities were built through the work of the Denizens, humans who had been genetically modified so they could survive in the cold depths of Europa’s seas, and have been used as little more than slaves ever since.

Vargovic’s task, on behalf of the Demarchists’ adversaries from Gilgamesh Isis, consists in taking possession of a material that will sabotage the cities, and to do so he needs to be surgically altered in a way that will allow him to live underwater for the critical part of his mission. But as such operations go, there are plots within plots involved and even the main operatives are unaware of every detail, so that Vargovic will have to face more than he could foresee, or had bargained for…

A Spy in Europa is a great change of pace and scope from its two predecessors, and at first I found myself a little disoriented, but as the story rolled forward, gaining momentum and upping the stakes, I was fascinated by its twists and turns, and highly surprised by the unforeseeable ending.

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Short Story Review: GLACIAL (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.  A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

 

The second story in this collection takes place some time after the events of Great Wall of Mars: Clavain is continuing his integration into Conjoiner society and is now part of an expedition on an ice-bound planet named Diadem, where the Conjoiners found an abandoned human base whose inhabitants are long dead.  Searching through the records, they discover that the group came from Earth as embryos, grown and taken care of by a set of robots: something of a common choice in the past when ships took a far longer time to travel between the stars. At some point, however, a viral infection caused the base dwellers to suffer a form of mental imbalance that ultimately led to their death: while exploring the now abandoned base, Clavain however discovers that one of the explorers died outside on the ice, and that what looked at first like an accident might be instead the consequence of a murder. And once the Conjoiners find one body preserved in cold storage, that of a man who hibernated himself in the hope of being rescued, Clavain can’t shake the suspicion that he might have had something to do with the death of his companions…

Glacial is in equal parts a mystery (which at some point turns into a murder mystery) and a journey of discovery for Clavain, who is still adapting to the Conjoiner nano-machines in his body and at the same time trying to keep hold of some aspects of his older self: while his companions can communicate more quickly and efficiently through direct mind-link, for example, he still prefers to talk, as if he were somewhat afraid that letting go of the last remnants of what he used to be, he might lose something important he will not be able to recover.  I liked very much his interactions with Galiana, the de facto leader of the small group of Conjoiner refugees he belongs to, and the affectionately amused way in which she stresses Clavain’s small quirks, just as I found intriguing the man’s need for some moments of solitude away from the constant flow of information that the Conjoiners take for granted.  The society he was “adopted” into is a fascinating one, and these small day-to-day details are fleshing out nicely the wider scope of Reynold’s Revelation Space background.

A less fascinating offering than its predecessor, but still a very interesting read.

 

 

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Short Story Review: GREAT WALL OF MARS (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

 

In this story several of the characters I remember from Revelation Space are present, offering some of the much-needed backstory I needed to put their narrative arc into perspective, not to mention to better understand their motivations.

War between the Demarchists and the Conjoiners has been going on for some time, the latter now entrenched on Mars while their adversaries systematically destroy the shuttles launched in the attempt to evacuate the base. At the origin of the conflict is the general abhorrence for the Conjoiners’ way of life, one that implies the use of neural implants that speed up the individual’s thought processes and work toward a sort of shared consciousness that augments the cognitive abilities of the group.  Nevil Clavain and his brother Warren have fought long against the Conjoiners and Nevil was their prisoner for some time: for this reason, tired of the constant war that seems to reach no turning point, he offers a diplomatic solution he means to achieve by contacting Galiana, the leader of the Martian group and Nevil’s former jailer, a person he believes will be disposed to listen to his proposal.

Unfortunately, the shuttle on which Clavain and another diplomat are traveling on suffers a catastrophic accident and his companion is killed, while Clavain barely reaches the safety of the Conjoiners’ compound. Once there, his diplomatic mission is thwarted by an unexpected development whose consequences will bring him to shift his perceptions and change the direction of his thinking and even his life.

This was a great start to the anthology, and a very satisfying read: the pace is relentless and the sense of urgency and impending doom add to the definite feeling that there is much more than what appears on the surface – both in the actual background in which the story is set and in the narrative scope.   Great Wall of Mars also worked perfectly in making me understand the character of Clavain, whose role in the Revelation Space trilogy is one of the pivotal ones: if the other stories in this collection will do the same for other aspects of that series, I’m certain that my planned re-read will be a great journey of discovery.

Reynolds at his best, indeed.

 

 

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Short Story Review: DEATH OF AN AIR SALESMAN, by Rich Larson

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

Short stories by Rich Larson always proved to be fascinating reads, and this one was no exception, even though the core concept was truly depressing.  The future on this version of Earth looks quite bleak: pollution has reached such levels that the very air is contaminated and people must wear filter masks and protective clothing to stay outside.  Society has changed for the worse as well: people live in stifling cubicles called “sleepstacks” where they spend their rest hours laying down and watching videos, until it’s again time to go to work, moving like ants in a huge anthill.

Maya is an air seller: the company she works for bottles clean air that she peddles through the city’s milling throngs, hoping that her sale rates will make her win the lottery ticket granting the lucky recipients a vacation to one of the company’s air farms, where the sky is blue, the grass green and the air free and clean – or so the adverts say.  One day she notices a boy wearing a bright red scarf, a color that stands out in the dreary drabness of the city, and she does all she can to get his attention despite their conflicting work shifts and the thickness of the crowds, in the old, never tired game of “girl meets boy”…

What’s morbidly fascinating in this story is the depiction of the unnamed city, with its thick, murky air and the swarms of pedestrians moving to and fro in what looks like tired resignation. It’s easy to picture this urban sprawl where the only color comes from garish neon advertising signs, or the appalling image of a plaza “where there are still the husks of dried-out vines and shrubs spilling from cracked concrete planters” speaking of the death of any kind of vegetation and possibly of any hope for the future.  And yet there is a ray of light in the end, despite everything, because of the two young people meeting amid the devastation and daring to dream about the future.

A small ray, but I will take it gladly…

 

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Review: POLARIS RISING, by Jessie Mihalik

 

There are times when some lighter reading is exactly what the doctor ordered: after happily losing myself in any number of books dealing with end-of-the world scenarios, galaxy-spanning conflicts or epic battles in ancient realms, a palate cleanser, so to speak, is not only desirable but required, so that books like Polaris Rising always seem like the right choice for the occasion.

What this novel promises is the kind of uncomplicated adventure, combined with some humor, which is exactly was I was looking for: I knew there was some romance added to the mix, but given the overall premise I hoped it would not prove too intrusive. Moreover, the story ticks all the boxes I was looking for in an entertaining, light read: a plucky heroine, a darkly mysterious male counterpart, a galaxy ruled by family corporations in constant economic and political warfare, and a mystery to be solved.

Ada von Hasenberg is the scion of one of the influential families at the top of the feeding chain, but since she’s only a fifth child her usefulness to the clan can only come from marriage to some other aristocrat, in that endless game of political give-and-take that’s been going on since the dawn of time.  Not being very sanguine about that kind of fate, Ada escaped and for the past two years managed to keep ahead of the “hunters” sent by her family to bring her back into the fold – and she manages that until the beginning of the novel where we meet her as she fights the mercenaries who just captured her with the promise of a rich bounty set by the von Hasenbergs.  Thrown into the brig of the mercs’ ship, she finds herself in the company of another prisoner, Marcus Loch, best known as the “Devil of Fornax Zero” and one of the most wanted men in the galaxy – a very dangerous cellmate indeed, but in these circumstances a very useful ally for the escape plan Ada is already concocting and which becomes even more urgent once she learns that her prospective fiancé is about to rendezvous with her captors to retrieve her.

From here on, the novel takes a path that could certainly be defined as predictable, if still entertaining: the tentative alliance between Ada and Loch is based on uneasy trust, charged silences and a smoldering mutual attraction that at times borders on comical absurdity, yet the author manages all of that with the kind of panache that helps to overlook the blatant (and in my opinion often unnecessary) deviations into a territory more suited to ‘bodice rippers’ than SF adventure.  Luckily there is enough of a main plot as to offer a reasonably solid background, and even though it looks somewhat thin in places or prone to lengthy infodumps, it might be enough to counterbalance the main characters’ passionate interludes. That is, if it weren’t for some glaring pitfalls that become more evident – and less bearable – as the story progresses.

For starters, Ada and Loch are quite over the top, as far as characters go: she all too often skirts into Mary Sue territory, what with her fighting abilities and physical prowess, the handy gadgets she can produce at the drop of a hat when the situation requires, or the easy way she meets any mechanical or navigational challenge – it’s all credited to her training as a major House heir, of course, but still it sounds like far too much for a single individual. For his part, Loch fits perfectly the cliché of the Brooding Guy With A Past, a man with a gruff exterior and an honorable soul – and of course he’s shaped like a Greek god cast in bronze, circumstance that causes Ada to lose her hard-gained cool in more than one occasion

The addition of some secondary characters, who should have offered an interesting balance, seems however more a nod to the necessity of peopling the story with someone besides the two protagonists, rather than anything else: these figures – Veronica,  the backwater planet fence who turns into a precious ally; Rhys, the arms dealer with ties to Loch’s past; Bianca, Ada’s older and very supportive sister – look more like stage props than flesh-and-blood people, and they are not given enough room to grow and become more defined, smothered as they are by the overwhelming presence of Ada and Loch.

Something I noticed, as I kept reading, was a sort of repetitive pattern that became stale after the second or third instance: the two protagonists keep being taken captive, one at a time, to allow the other to rescue them, and the wounds received in such rescue operations give way to another dreaded trope, that of the “hurt/comfort syndrome”: you can understand how my initial enthusiasm might have cooled considerably by then…

It would not have mattered much in the general economy of the novel, however, if Ada’s characterization had not sent such mixed signals: on one side we are told she’s strong, independent, capable and quite bold – at some point she goes on a dangerous solo mission to infiltrate a mining operation where a momentous secret might be held – so that we are led to expect a personality more suited to our modern sensibilities, not to mention the genre chosen to tell this story. On the other, she both shows a great deal of “girly” inclinations, like the meticulous description of the clothes she wears, that run contrary to the image the author wanted to present. Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles if compared to her sudden about face once the relationship with Loch becomes a thing: she turns to putty in his hands, and ultimately bows to his domineering attitude – as if she had been waiting all her life to find the kind of man who would sweep her off her feet and become the center of her world.  It would have annoyed me if I had been reading about a character set in Victorian England, but at least that would have been justified by the chosen time frame – not so for a story set in a distant future, and certainly not so for a character that until that moment had made of her freedom and independence the founding pillars of her life.

What do you do when you need a palate cleanser after the potential palate cleanser?   😀

 

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