Reviews

THE FALL OF KOLI (Rampart Trilogy #3), 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.

Approaching a series ender often brings contrasting emotions, particularly the concern that it might not live up to expectations: well, this was definitely NOT the case with The Fall of Koli, the amazing, adrenaline-infused final book in M.R. Carey’s Rampart series set in a post-apocalyptic future where humanity hangs on to survival by its fingernails. As is my habit, I will try to refrain from spoilers as much as I can, but be aware that some details from previous books might be mentioned.

Young Koli Woodsmith was exiled from his native village of Mythen Rood in book 1: in this future, dystopian England, the few remaining – and functioning – items of tech from the old civilization are both weapons of defense and the way for the village’s ruling clan to keep hold of their power. Having stolen a piece of tech for himself, thus uncovering a long-guarded secret in Mythen Rood, Koli is forced to leave home and start a journey across the land, gathering two unlikely companions: Ursala from Elsewhere, a sort of traveling physician, and Cup, former member of a death cult. In book 2, the three companions undertake a voyage toward mythical London, where they might find a way to revive a dying civilization, and at the end of that second book we are left with a disturbing cliffhanger.

The Fall of Koli defies any expectation one might have entertained about the story’s progression, both in developing events and in the way the story is told: equal narrative space is given to Koli and his companions and to the situation in Mythen Rood, where Koli’s one-time friends Spinner and Jon, together with the other villagers, face a deadly threat from a nearby enclave, whose superior firepower and aggressive attitude might end in death and destruction. I have come to see this series’ storytelling as the expanding circles forming when one throws a stone in water: at first we learn about the small, confined world of Koli’s home village, then we see a little of the outside world and its many dangers, and once we reach this last installment we finally understand how the world as we know it ended, what remains of its former power and what threat that dormant power represents.

The regular shifts in narrative perspective turn the story into a compulsive read, and the raising stakes on both sides of the action keep the tension at high levels, making it clear that any kind of ending is possible, and that it might not contemplate a happily-ever-after for everyone. Where the situation in Mythen Rood might look like a classic post-apocalyptic scenario where the strongest and better armed always overpower the weakest, the sections concerning Koli & Co. become progressively more disturbing as the real nature of the Sword of Albion, whose recorded message prompted the group’s journey toward London, is revealed and the individuals the travelers meet look more sinister and threatening with every passing day.

Where the overall scenario is compelling, the characters’ journey is no less intriguing: Koli is probably the one who changes less than others, but the fact that he appears to remain true to himself throughout the story does not detract from his innate kindness, selflessness and capacity for compassion, which are the traits that best define him. Koli might not be the “hero” in the widely accepted definition of the word because his strength does not come from particular acts of bravery: what defines him and makes him so relatable is his capacity for connecting to people and understanding their worth, for seeing the possibilities of redemption and change as he did with Cup before and as he does here with Stanley Banner, a truly creepy character on the outside, whose tragic destiny comes to the fore thanks to Koli’s refusal to consider circumstances only in black and white.

Spinner, once Koli’s love interest and now a prominent figure in the hierarchy of Mythen Rood, enjoys a greatly transformative journey: from young girl set on obtaining through marriage a comfortable position in the village’s society, she moves on to the role of fiercely protective mother first and equally fierce defender of her small world once outside threats come knocking on the door. In a way, Spinner achieves what Koli had set out to do and failed at: by throwing a monkey wrench in the workings of Mythen Rood’s balance of power, she helps wake her people from a sort of complacent status quo that might ultimately have led them to extinction.  Her growth is much more pronounced than Koli’s but still she tempers it with compassion and a fine understanding of her fellow citizens’ psychological traits, mixing it with a determination that belies her young age: I enjoyed Spinner’s chapters greatly and her journey was a very compelling counterpoint to Koli’s own adventures.

Last but not least Monono: Koli and Spinner are the story’s two main focuses, granted, but the Dream Sleeve’s AI personality is further explored in this third book, offering an enlightening view on her abilities and the true changes brought on by the software upload that took her to a different level of performance. Monono’s “voice” remains the same charmingly cute girl-analogue we have learned to know and love, but here – where she gets her own point of view chapters – we discover something else, a capacity for viciousness that belies the effervescent tone she employs in her dealings with humans. It’s true that at times Monono’s quips and pop-culture references provide some light relief to an increasingly tense situation – see when she mentions the Stepford Wives or the Boys from Brazil, or when she calls Morticia and Gomez the oh-so-creepy Lorraine and Paul Banner – but when she shows her true nature it’s impossible not to consider the threat other AIs have represented in fiction and to see Monono in a troublingly different light. The only factor keeping her from going down the same road as, for example, HAL 9000 or the more recent AIDAN, is Koli: the young man’s inherent kindness is indeed the balancing element conferring the human angle Monono needs to avoid that pitfall, as she says herself:

I’m not forgiving by nature, and every shit I give about your species is given – grudgingly – because I was stupid enough to get involved with a boy from the wrong side of tracks. A boy made of flesh and blood.

Be warned, The Fall of Koli does not tie up nicely the narrative threads explored throughout the trilogy since it reserves some space for tragedy and loss, but nonetheless the poignant ending of the series is both surprising and satisfactory and closes a compelling story-arc in the best possible way I could have asked for.

My Rating:

Reviews

FIREFLY: THE MAGNIFICENT NINE (Firefly #2), by James Lovegrove

It was March 2019 when I read and reviewed the first book of this new series which brings back the adventures of the Serenity crew after the premature termination of the TV show, and despite having promised myself that I would follow closely the new issues, I once again managed to take a trip on the road to Hell, paved with good intentions and missed books…

Better late than never, however, here I am with book 2, a novel that through the title (with its reference to The Magnificent Seven movie) and its cover (Jayne wearing the infamous hat seen in one of the episodes) showcases quite clearly Firefly’s successful mix of Wild West and Science Fiction, and promises to keep Jayne Cobb front and center in the story.

It’s business as usual aboard Serenity, what with not enough paying jobs, the ship needing costly repairs and the crew engaging in some squabble: the latest of these originates from River parading around wearing Jayne’s ridiculous hat and Jayne demanding bloody retribution – that is, until he receives a message from an old flame, asking for his help. Tethys is a dry, deserted world where only a few hardy settlers choose to eke out a meagre life, which is now jeopardized by a bunch of outlaws, calling themselves the Scourers: led by merciless Elias Vandal, the Scourers take possession of the area’s wells, exacting a price from the colonists for the water that should belong by right to the hard-working settlers, whose choices are either pay or be killed in the most brutal of fashions.

Temperance McCloud, Jayne’s old lover, begs him to come to her help and that of her fellow citizens, and the mercenary manages to overcome Captain Reynolds’ quite understandable objections – not that it takes much to wake up Mal’s inner Don Quixote. When Serenity lands on Tethys the situation looks even more critical: the crew is vastly outnumbered, and an attempt at resolving the issue through a duel sends Jayne to the infirmary, grievously wounded but still willing to do his best, particularly because of Temperance’s teenaged daughter, whose name is Jane and whose age raises well-founded questions about the identity of her father…

Even more than its predecessor, The Magnificent Nine recaptures the flavor of many Firefly episodes, with the crew of Serenity launching themselves into an adventure laden with unknowns and potential trouble, but doing it anyway because – no matter their outwardly skeptical approach to life – they are good guys and when push comes to shove their collective hearts are in the right place.  Jayne Cobb’s character is the one who gets the spotlight here, as well as the inkling that his cynicism might not be as deeply rooted as he shows the world: of course he remains the usual coarse-mannered, selfish individual we all know and love (?), but there are moments when some chinks in that armor let us perceive a different kind of person who might be buried deeply inside the rude mercenary, someone who is capable of selfless gestures and integrity.

The rest of the Serenity’s crew (with one exception) feels no different from what we saw on screen and their interactions, the gallows-humor banter and the speech style all contribute to make this story look like a seamless addition to the handful of filmed episodes that were aired during the too-brief life of this show. The overall mood is on the same level as the series’, with seriousness and humor twining together to offer an adventure that can be both hair-raising and funny – that is, until some bits of dialogue happen to foreshadow the upcoming events of the movie Serenity, reminding us that some members of the crew will not accompany us for the whole screened journey, and adding a poignant quality to those sentences. The one that proved most painful for me was the mention of a certain character’s old-time instructor, who advised his pupils to learn how to “soar like a leaf in the wind”. Talk about sucker punches!

The only exception I mentioned above is River: in most of her interactions she acts and speaks in far too “sane” a manner that is in stark contrast both with her on-screen portrayal and with what we know about her and the appalling treatment she received in the Alliance’s “special school” where she was trained to be… something else.  It’s a jarring divergence with all that we know and learned about River and a blemish on the overall characterization for this story.

The other issue I had with the novel was with some of the “bad guys”, because they fell into the trap of long explanations of their motives and intentions: these sections represented for me both an annoying trope and a slow-down of the otherwise fast pacing of the story, and in one specific case led to a too-swift and difficult to believe change of heart from one of the Scourers.  It was, however, only a minor irritation, and it did not prevent me at all from enjoying the book or from wanting to move forward with the series.

If you are a Firefly fan, this book (and most probably the others in the series) is the best way to recapture the “magic” of the show and to keep the Serenity flying in our imagination.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE EXPANSE PODCAST: Ty and That Guy – Episode 1

Season 5 of The Expanse aired its last episode on February 3rd, 2021, with its most compelling narrative arc so far, which is hardly surprising since it portrayed the events of Nemesis Games, one of the best books in this amazing series. As I was looking for some cast interviews and discussions on the recently concluded season, I stumbled on the information for this podcast, hosted by Ty Franck (who together with Daniel Abraham gave life to the authorial duo of James S.A. Corey) and Wes Chatam (the actor who plays Amos Burton on the screen). The second half of the podcast’s name comes from a remarkable “Amos Moment” in Season 3, the famous line: “I am that guy” – one of my favorite scenes, indeed…

The podcast is a sort of companion to the YouTube aftershow chats that went online once the single episodes aired on Amazon: I still have to watch the after shows, because I want to do a complete re-watch of Season 5, prior to writing my review, but the podcast looks like an interesting way of… filling the corners, so to speak, and learning something more about the genre at large.

In this first episode, the two hosts talk about the way the 1979 movie Alien inspired the creators of The Expanse: it was a fascinating listening experience because of the parallels between the two worlds, certainly, but also because it helped me to look at both The Expanse and Alien from angles I had never considered before.  For example, both aboard the Nostromo and in the Belt you can forget the glitzy atmospheres of many SF backgrounds, like Trek’s: Alien’s ship and the Belter settlements are working environments, often cramped, dark, dirty, and the people living in them are not dashing, well-dressed officers doing heroic deeds, but ordinary persons doing their job and working hard for their wages. 

While talking about Ridley Scott’s seminal movie, Franck and Chatam explore The Expanse’s themes and characters starting from Season 1, and I was surprised and delighted by the fascinating details that came out of the chat: both of them are fun, charming people and listening to them was a joy. If you are a fan of The Expanse – both the books and the TV series – I can heartily recommend this podcast: it will turn out to be time well spent 🙂

If you are interested, here are the links:

Spotify

Apple

YouTube

Twitter

Enjoy!

Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Bookish Valentine’s Day

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

Even though romance is quite low on the list of themes I enjoy in my books, I wanted to find a way to follow the parameters of this week’s Love Freebie in honor of Valentine’s Day, and after some thought I decided that listing the book series that are closer to my reader’s heart would be a more than acceptable compromise.

So I picked up 5 each among my favorite Fantasy and Science Fiction series, to balance out the mix. For Fantasy the winners are:

Powder Mage – Brian McClellan

The Wounded Kingdom – RJ Barker

Blackthorn and Grim – Juliet Marillier

The First Law – Joe Abercrombie

Of Blood and Bone – John Gwynne

On the whole these are all quite… energetic series, with a good share of battles, duels and recklessly spilled blood, which might not look very fitting for a Valentine’s Day celebration, but they all managed to transport me in another time and place and made me care for their characters, which is reason enough to sustain my deep affection for these stories.

Moving over to Science Fiction, my choice fell on these:

The Expanse – James S.A. Corey

Donovan – W. Michael Gear

The Murderbot Diaries – Martha Wells

Embers of War – Gareth Powell

Vorkosigan Saga – Lois McMaster Bujold

There is a little more lightness here, mostly thanks to the tongue-in-cheek humor coming from Murderbot and to Miles Vorkosigan’s happy recklessness, but these series still delight me for their wonderful combination of drama and humor and I know they will always be at the top of my lists.

And now it’s your turn: where did you lose your bookish hearts? 😉

Reviews

MEMENTO (The Illuminae Files #0.5), by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

The Illuminae Files is one of my favorites SF series and apart from offering a compelling story and characterization it established a record with me, because it portrayed an array of YA characters who felt well-crafted and believable, without all the annoying traits afflicting teenagers in the genre.  So, when I heard of the publication of this novella that acts as a prequel to the main trilogy I was nothing short of thrilled.

The story is set just a short time before the attack on the Kerenza IV colony, the incident starting the whole bloody mess. The protagonist here is Olivia Klein, a young and starry-eyed tech recently enrolled on the Alexander, the ship where an advanced A.I. has been installed: AIDAN (the acronym for Artificial Intelligence Defense Analytics Network) is still being fine-tuned and Olivia has been assigned to the team responsible for the improvement of AIDAN’s integration with the system and  its responses.  While the techs study AIDAN’s behavior, so AIDAN does study the humans calibrating its performance, and does so with childlike but still disturbing, innocence: the very embarrassing questions it asks of Olivia about her budding romance with her superior Ethan Wolfe are a good example of such curiosity and, together with some queries about ethics and morality, also offer the first hints that something might be… well, not exactly wrong, but weird in AIDAN’s functioning parameters.

Alexander’s intervention at Kerenza, and the crippling attack it’s subjected to, turn out to have dire consequences on AIDAN’s logic processes, and the AI starts exhibiting the first signs of the deadly behavior that is one of the pivotal themes in the trilogy: the fact that it now refers to itself as “I” instead of using the third person is probably the first sign of the “madness” that has come to possess it…

Memento, for all its brevity, works like a punch in the stomach – of course, having read the trilogy, I knew how the story develops and was aware of the tragic consequences of the Kerenza attack, but in this case being forewarned did not forearm me against the emotional impact delivered by the novella.  I felt particularly sorry for Olivia, because I knew that all her youthful enthusiasm would meet a catastrophic end, but at some point a certain discovery about her past made her character arc all the more poignant and tragic.

But of course AIDAN is at the center of it all here, and again I experienced the mixed feelings that accompanied me all through the narrative arc of the Illuminae Files: the AI is a construct undergoing a process in which it questions its own identity, goals and reasons of existence and it does so based on the input set by human beings, who are by nature imperfect and fallible – which on hindsight makes those fatal consequences almost inevitable, and turns AIDAN into a character that is in equal measure fascinating and appalling.

Like the three full-length books previously published, Memento is told through transcripts,  memos and personal messages that manage to tap the characters’ emotional depths and to make you feel invested in their journey, even despite the small number of pages of this story – which is indeed the only complaint I have about this shorter work: I would not have minded a longer book indeed…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE PHLEBOTOMIST, by Chris Panatier

To call this novel ‘surprising’ would be a massive understatement: what began as a story set in a dystopian future soon turned into something else, something very unexpected – and this sudden twist ended up enhancing my enjoyment of the story, to which I happily sacrificed some sleep just to see where it would lead me in the end.

War-torn Earth of the near-future is in a sorry state indeed: after the first bomb, named Chrysalis with a notable display of gallows humor, many others fell, unleashing destruction and death. The people now living in the Grey Zones, the ones where radioactive contamination struck more heavily, are in constant need of blood to survive and, if lucky, to recover, therefore a national program of blood donations has been instituted, driven by Patriot, an organization that coordinates the distribution of blood to the needy.

Blood donation has become mandatory: according to Patriot’s newscasts, each day there is a quota to be filled so that the needy people in the Grey Zones can be saved, and every adult must contribute. To implement the scheme, wages and food distribution are linked to blood donation so, in short, citizens can either supply their quota, or go hungry.  What’s worse, the value of an individual’s blood depends on its type: the O group being at the top of the chain, since they are universal donors, and the AB negatives finding themselves at the very bottom, given the diminished demand for their blood. In other words, if type O citizens can live a moderately comfortable life, AB-negs exist on the very threshold of starvation.

Willa Wallace is a phlebotomist, working in one of the many blood-donation centers where citizens go to fulfill their “civic duty”, her only focus that of providing for her grandson Isaiah, the only surviving member of Willa’s family after her daughter died from anaemia  due to far too many blood donations. One day, however, something brings her out of her self-imposed shell: the fall of a blood-carrying drone leads her to a momentous discovery that will forever change her life, as well as her knowledge and perception of the world.

And no, I’m not going to tell you what this discovery is, because this is the huge twist I mentioned at the beginning and it’s only right and proper that you find out on your own… 😉

Plot being off-limits, I can concentrate on the characters, starting with Willa: she is a… narrative exception, in that she’s in her sixties and a grandmother, as far from “hero material” as one could imagine, which makes her transformation into a rule-breaker and a warrior quite surprising but at the same time very believable, because she gets there by degrees, arriving at such changes from the sum of her experiences, her wisdom and the care-giving core at the basis of her personality and chosen work. It’s this last element, the compulsion to keep her grandson (and later on other children) safe that transforms her from nondescript older citizen into a determined, and sometimes ruthless, fighter –  and I loved to see Willa literally take up arms and show no mercy to those who wanted to harm her own.

Grandma Willa is not the only compelling character in The Phlebotomist, though, because she is flanked by two other wonderful figures: Lock (short from her nickname “The Locksmith”), a middle-aged ex marine who fights Patriot’s influence from several underground locations, and who teams with Willa once the grim reality of their world is revealed. I loved Lock’s devil-may-care attitude in the direst of situations, and the way she always seems ready to provide a technical solution to their problems – or an explosive one. And finally there is Kathy, a teenager the two women have rescued from an appalling situation, a girl who had to grow beyond her years and is not afraid of fighting and killing, but still shows some heart-breaking frailties.  This triumvirate of women of different ages, from different walks of life, is the true heart of the story and the force that drives it to the end.

There is another character I want to mention, one who complements this very unusual group and one I felt for very strongly: Everard, one of Lock’s associates and the main caregiver for a group of orphaned children that the outlaws are trying to raise despite many difficulties.  Again I can’t say any more about his story-arc because of spoilers, except that it touched me deeply and showed in no uncertain terms how hideously cruel this world is.

The world in which this cast of characters moves is both terrible and intriguing: humanity always found ways to fracture itself into separate groups, to establish various levels of classification and worth, and here it’s the very essence of life that creates these differences – blood is blood, it’s the substance running in the veins of every human being on Earth, and yet this dystopian society has found a way of using it to create breaches inside society, sometimes pitting humans against each other, because in Willa’s world blood muggings are a dire reality.  There is no authorial comment about this situation, but it’s far too easy to extrapolate one from the story, and to have to acknowledge the sad truth that we are still unable to go past more or less artificial ways of classifying ourselves within a system of values…

Unless I’m mistaken, The Phlebotomist is its author’s debut novel: with such an impressive start I can only look forward to read more of his works soon, especially if he will choose to return to this world – the ending is an open one, and that hopefully leaves room enough for a sequel.

Highly recommended.

My Rating:

Reviews

EOS 10 – SF podcast – Season 1

Today I would like to share one of my most recent finds: while I don’t usually listen to audiobooks because I tend to get distracted if I don’t have a page to focus on, I was looking for something to listen to – besides music – while taking a walk or doing some chores around the house, but still the kind of work that did not require the same level of commitment and attention as an average-length book.

Podcasts sounded like a good alternative, because their shorter duration would be perfect against the “threat” of distraction, so I did some research on the internet and the first one that caught my eye was this serialized SF story, now in its fourth season, set on a remote space station where humans and aliens mix. At the beginning of the story, Dr. Ryan Dalias is sent to EOS 10 as a back-up for the resident main physician, renowned Dr. Horace Urvidian, who has become a hopeless alcoholic.  It’s not surprising that the first meeting of the two does not go very well, particularly considering Dr. Urvidian’s abrasive character and rough disposition – even in the rare instances when he’s sober. The main cast also includes senior nurse Jane Johns, practical and irreverent (and one wonders if the latter is the result of some time spent with Dr. Urvidian); Levi, a deposed royal who now works as a dishwasher in a restaurant, dreaming of one day regaining his former position – that is, when he does not haunt the infirmary, being a hypochondriac; and Akmazian, smuggler, terrorist, spy and probably a few other equally unsavory occupations.

This first season mainly introduces the various characters and gives us something of their backstory – mainly for Dalias and Urvidian – and shows the two slowly and very, very cautiously building a bond of mutual respect and understanding, while we learn something about the universe in which the story takes place and about the station itself. The overall tone is light and humorous, at times bending toward the farcical, as it happens in episode 4 where a close encounter with an alien aphrodisiac causes unexpected and very embarrassing consequences for Dr. Dalias. Just to give an idea of the overall flavor of this podcast, think of a cross between Star Trek: DS9 and Grey’s Anatomy, wrapped up in the delightful craziness of Galaxy Quest.  This lightness however leaves enough room for more serious themes like addiction, or the tragic consequences brought on by outright refusal of traditional medicine, just to name a couple, although the balance still tends toward the whimsical.

I have quite enjoyed this first season, and not just because it kept me company as I was otherwise engaged: I am now invested in these characters and their stories, and can heartily recommend this podcast as a quick and fun intermission between more serious reading – or listening! – material.

My Rating:

Reviews

STAR TREK: AVAILABLE LIGHT, by Dayton Ward

Continuing from linked book Control, detailing the struggle against the shady organization called Section 31 and the disclosure of its dark deeds by the work of an investigative reporter, Available Light offers a two-pronged story that on one side follows the ongoing investigation into Section 31 and its Starfleet high-ranking members, and on the other a more run-of-the-mill adventure of the Enterprise-E tasked with an expedition into an unexplored region of the galaxy.

On Earth, the Section 31 officers are being hunted down and arrested, despite their attempts at hiding or keeping a low profile, and a case against them is being mounted by Federation authorities: figures we learned to know in the course of the various Trek series, like Admirals Ross and Necheyev, make their appearance as we learn of their involvement in the organization and in the forced deposition of a former, crooked Federation president, who was subsequently murdered.  What’s sadly surprising is that Captain Picard had taken part in the events leading to the deposition of president Zife, and although he was not entangled in the man’s murder, his unwitting connection with Section 31 threatens to stain his reputation and puts him under an unwelcome spotlight, not to mention Starfleet’s embarrassment at the blemish falling on such a renowned officer.

Meanwhile, in deep space, the Enterprise encounters what appears like a huge derelict ship: the boarding party finds that the vessel is however in pristine condition and this mystery leads to the discovery that it’s one of several arks bringing the population of a doomed planet toward a new home. To face the long voyage, they decided to employ a combination of transporter and holodeck technology that enabled them to live a sort of virtual life while in transit, but a malfunction in the energy distribution system is threatening their existence, so that they need the Enterprise’s help to survive and continue their voyage. 

As I said, this novel moves on two quite different tracks, and this dichotomy makes for a somewhat uneven narrative: while the eventful and intriguing plot about the alien craft supplies the ‘adventure’ part of the story, it is nothing more than the kind of standard fare we could find in any one of the televised episodes, and in my opinion it does not hold a candle to the much more interesting segment concerning the investigation and trial preparation against Section 31, which was explored only as the B-plot.  Granted, the chapters devoted to the Enterprise’s mission allow the reader to get to know in depth the ‘new faces’ in the ship’s complement: time has passed since our last look at this crew on a screen and there have been many changes here, so it’s interesting to see who these new people are and how they are filling the proverbial shoes of the crew members we used to know so well.  Still, I could not avoid a sensation of “been there, done that” as the story developed on the well-oiled rails of strange encounters, initial misunderstandings, brief conflict and then peaceful cooperation: nothing wrong in that, of course, but the number of pages devoted to a fairly predictable script seemed too high when there was a much more intriguing narrative track to sink one’s teeth in – particularly after the breath-stopping narrative I enjoyed with Control.

It’s widely recognized that conflict offers the best opportunities for plot and character development, and the Section 31 thread looks like the perfect opportunity to explore – borrowing the saga’s famous motto – territory where no one has gone before: the discovery that despite the high ideals animating the Federation, it could nevertheless harbor a secret organization acting more often than not against those ideals and pursuing questionable goals through disreputable deeds.  Such a concept might have greatly enraged creator Gene Roddenberry, whose utopian vision of the future did not include such elements, but still it holds great storytelling potential and the possibility to explore the moral quandary of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons – provided that one could truly determine what those right reasons are, of course.

Sadly, we don’t see enough of the difficult work of obtaining enough information to prosecute the officers responsible for Section 31’s actions, nor are we afforded a deeper look into the public’s reactions to what amounts to a mediatic bombshell that must surely have shaken the Federation to its foundations.  There are long discussions between the new Federation president, Starfleet’s commanding admiral and the Federation’s Attorney General Louvois (whom we met in one of my favorite TNG episodes, The Measure of a Man) about how to proceed, how much to reveal to the public and what to do with Picard – who holds the difficult position of being a distinguished and respected hero but is now tainted by his connection with the conspirators – and some of the moral implications of the whole sorry mess are touched on, but never delved in too deeply.  Picard’s side of the situation is fortunately given more narrative room, as we see him struggle with his conscience and his principles: his superiors would like to keep him out of it entirely, considering that his involvement was a matter of misplaced good faith rather than intentional wrongdoing, but still he’s faced with an ethical dilemma, and remembering the precept that a Starfleet’s officer first duty is to the truth, he decides to return to Earth and offer his statement on the facts as he knows them. He also knows that this is the only avenue open to him if he wants to hold on to his integrity, and he’s ready to face any consequence that might be in store for him – which is perfectly in character with his personality as we got to know it on screen.

Much as I felt somewhat cheated of an intriguing storyline here, there is the promise of more on the subject of Section 31 in the next novel in this sequence, Collateral Damage, where I hope that what I sorely missed here will be explored in depth.

My Rating:

Reviews

ALONE TOGETHER: A DS9 COMPANION

Sometimes it’s the unlooked-for finds that turn out to be the best: a few weeks ago, while surfing on YouTube, I found the link to this online four-part story, a sort of continuation of the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine.  Further investigation revealed that it’s part of a much larger collection of videos on the YouTube channel of actor Alexander Siddig, best known as Doctor Julian Bashir in the series.

On this channel, the actor keeps in touch with his fans, and at some point he thought he would cheer them up, helping them forget the… Pandemic Blues, by asking a few of his co-stars on DS9 to read online this script, penned by Canadian author Matthew Campbell.

Each one of the participating actors contributed from his or her home (via the ubiquitous Zoom, I presume), giving life to a story that’s both fascinating and actual, since it also deals with a pandemic, in this case hitting hard on the Cardassian homeworld. Besides Alexander Sidding, reprising his role of Dr. Bashir, you will see and hear Andrew Robinson as Garak, and enjoy the cameo contributions by Cirroc Lofton (Jake Sisko), Nana Visitor (Kira) and Armin Shimerman (Quark).

Don’t expect props, CGI or even makeup (although at some point a delightfully funny set of dentures makes its appearance…), but if you listen without looking at the screen, it’s like being back once again on the station and watching the characters we know so well come back to life.  I enjoyed this four-part online story so much that I started a complete rewatch of Deep Space Nine (thank you, Netflix! 😀 ), discovering that, unlike some of its Trek brethren, it has not only withstood time very well, but it feels as actual and fresh as if it were created today.

So, here are the links to the four chapters of the story: enjoy!

Reviews

NOPHEK GLOSS (The Graven #1), by Essa Hansen

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

It’s once again time for an unpopular opinion on a book that seems to mostly receive high accolades: I requested Nophek Gloss because of its promise of a space-faring adventure and revenge quest (I can never resist a good vengeance story), but found myself struggling to move forward – I set it aside twice, hoping that some distance might foster a different perspective, but once I reached the 58% mark and realized that I was forcing myself to read, I knew I had to admit defeat and walk away from it.

Nophek Gloss starts with an adrenaline-infused inciting incident: 14 year old Caiden and his family live on what looks like an artificial environment, raising cattle; his knowledge of life is quite limited, yet he feels the need to always question rules that have been there for a long time. A devastating epidemic, however, kills the cattle that the colonists are tending and their overseers load all the people on a huge transport with a vague promise of relocation to a new facility. What follows is instead the devastating, bloody end of all that Caiden knew and loved, so that the only thing fueling his will to survive is the burning need to find the ones responsible for his loss and make them pay.

I opened this book with great expectations – maybe too great – and at first it appeared to be all that I was looking forward to, but just as the story reached its first turning point for Caiden (i.e. his encounter with a diverse group of mercenaries who took him in, offering him the chance both to survive and to learn the skills he would need to reach his goal) everything became chaotic and I began to lose my grip on the narrative.  

The universe in which Nophek Gloss is set is rather a conglomeration of universes whose borders can be traversed, each one possessing unique qualities and endless life forms: the problem for me is that this kaleidoscope of worlds, aliens and technologies is offered in what to me amounted to a massive sensory overload – there is a LOT of it, all thrown at the reader with hardly any time to process it before more details are added to an already confused and confusing tapestry.  I don’t mind having to work my way through a story, visualizing or extrapolating what the author is keeping on the sidelines, but here most of it looks like a jumble of terms with no rhyme or reason to it – remember the worst moments of Star Trek’s so-called technobabble? Something like: “reroute the pre-ignition plasma from the impulse deck down to the auxiliary intake”… Well, a good portion of this novel made me feel that way, and it bothered me because it made little or no sense and kept me from forming a mental image of the world the author was trying to show.

Caiden is the other almost insurmountable problem I faced: granted, he’s a teenager and he undergoes a horribly traumatic experience, so it’s understandable that he would suffer from PTSD and survivor’s guilt and would be consumed by the need to exact his revenge on the ones responsible for the situation, but there is no space for anything else in Caiden’s psychological makeup, and that makes it very difficult to see the humanity – if any – behind that huge wall of mindless hate. And I don’t use the word ‘mindless’ carelessly, because Caiden never fails to bodily launch himself against those offenders as soon as he sees one: it doesn’t matter that his new friends advise caution, or that he keeps entering a fight he’s not equipped to win, because as soon as he sets his sights on them he charges like the proverbial bull shown the red cape. And he does that repeatedly, as if every encounter were followed by a complete memory erasure that made him forget past experiences, or – worse – as if he were unwilling to learn from his mistakes.

Worse, the 14 year old accepts a procedure that bestows six years of physical growth on him, together with the sum of knowledge his previously secluded life could not provide: this could have been an interesting way of bringing him to adulthood in a brief span of time, narratively speaking, but keeping his reactions those of a teenager – an unthinking teenager at that – makes that a moot point, because what use is a grown body when your emotions remain those of a child? Not to mention that this choice did little to endear Caiden’s character to me…

When all is said and done, I guess it all comes to personal preferences rather than authorial skills: Nophek Gloss is certainly an ambitious, imaginative story with a rich background, but sadly it’s not the kind of story I can bring myself to enjoy.

My Rating: