Reviews

THE CLOSERS (Harry Bosch #11), by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch’s return to the LAPD, after a three-years hiatus in which he tried to reinvent himself as a private investigator, marks Michael Connelly’s return to third-person narrative, which had been shifted to first-person in the previous two books, as if to mark the similarity between Bosch’s new chosen profession and the classic noir narrative of the solitary P.I.  The switchback does not affect the reader’s immersion in the story, of course, although I’m still curious about the author’s choice and wondering if it was an experiment he then decided to abandon.

Harry is back to his old stomping ground, armed once again with the badge that will allow him to open doors and be as effective as humanly possible in seeking justice for the victims: enrolled in the refurbished cold cases department, now renamed Open Unsolved Unit, he teams up with his old partner Kizmin Rider as the two are assigned a case from 1988, that of the murder of sixteen-year old Rebecca Verloren, who was abducted from her home and then killed. The murder had been mismanaged from the start, initially mistaken as a runaway case, and then as suicide: once forensic evidence pointed to murder, too many of the vital clues had been lost, making it impossible to find a perpetrator.  Now the analysis of DNA evidence (much improved since then) seems to point to a small-time felon who used to live near Rebecca: Bosch and Rider will have to review what evidence survived the passing of time and find a way to connect the pieces into a viable picture.  The passage of time will not be the only obstacle they will encounter on their path, since resistance from inside the police department and some ever-present political maneuvering threaten to crush their efforts, and to nip Bosch’s new career in the bud as the figure of former Chief of police Irving looms quite large on the horizon…

The transformation of Harry Bosch from the “loose cannon” he used to be into a more thoughtful, more sedate detective continues in this 11th novel of the series, and apart from the fact that this change is appropriate – since no individual remains the same throughout their life – it also marks the passing of time and the differences in outlook that experience (and hopefully wisdom) can visit on people. There are some moments in which the “old” Harry seems to surface, the one who preferred to cut corners and defy the system to bring justice to the victims, but here he appears more inclined to listen to his better angels and, more importantly, to his partner’s cooler advice.  One of the elements I more appreciated in this book is the working relationship between Bosch and Rider, one that comes from mutual respect and the appreciation of one another’s strengths. 

He was back on the job with her less than a day and they had already dropped back into the easy rhythm of their prior partnership. He was happy.

Kiz Rider’s character is a skillful blend of hard-won competence and innate empathy, all rolled into a no-nonsense person who is not afraid of calling out her former mentor on his flaws, or warning him that he might jeopardize both the investigation and their careers with his unorthodox choices.  The “old” Harry might have scoffed at such warnings and kept going, the “new” one not only listens, but has the honesty of admitting his faults and attempting to correct them: the two of them complement each other very well, and I hope that Michael Connelly will let us have more of this successful investigative duo in the next books, because I enjoyed it quite a bit.

As far as the story itself goes, it’s less “adventurous” than the previous ones, given that it follows the investigation as Bosch and Rider start back from scratch, collecting all the surviving evidence and trying to gather any new detail that might help them in finding the perpetrator, but I appreciated it all the same because I’m always fascinated by the mechanics of investigation, especially wherever forensic clues are concerned.  What truly stands out in The Closers is the depiction of a crime’s emotional fallout for the victim’s relatives, particularly when they are not afforded any form of closure: here we see how Rebecca’s parents never recovered from their child’s murder – the mother living in the same house and keeping her daughter’s room as she left it, a shrine to the memory of a life lost when its potential was still to be explored; the father falling into an abyss of despair and alcohol from which he’s trying to emerge in small, painful steps.  These parents’ anguish touches Bosch in quite a poignant way, which is hardly surprising because he’s a father now and, even though it remains unexpressed, the thought that he might lose his daughter to the cruelty of the world lurks just behind his awareness, lending him the drive to bring some form of justice to these bereaved parents.

The investigation, slow-paced as it is, moves unfailingly toward its resolution, one that proved quite surprising to me, and in so doing explores all the avenues offered by the few clues the detectives can work with: we see them research the possibilities of sex crime, and then of hate crime – which also affords a diversion into the murky world of racism and white supremacy – and once again opens a window into the multilayered aspects of a big city like Los Angeles, one that

[…] shimmered out there like a million dreams, not all of them good

And Bosch is certainly back to shine his own light on the pockets of darkness nesting among those bright dreams, he’s back in his true element and not the proverbial fish-out-of-water he felt like in the previous two books: on this respect, there is a very enlightening passage in which he tells Rider that he had noticed how he walked favoring one leg, only to become aware that he was unconsciously compensating for the lack of the service weapon at his side – not so much the gun in itself, but what it represented for his ability to respond to the unheard cries of the victims.  This new start in his life is exactly what he always wanted, and needed, to satisfy his drive for justice, and it feels like the start of new, intriguing chapter in this character’s journey.

My Rating:

Reviews

DYER STREET PUNK WITCHES (Ordshaw #7), by Phil Williams

I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks for this opportunity.

And so we’re back to the fictional city of Ordshaw, where magic lurks just beyond the corner of your eye, after the slight “detour” which brought us around the world with Phil William’s Ikiri Duology, even though that story also showed some connection to this main site of weird phenomena.

Kit Fadoulous used to be the leader of the punk rock band of the Dire Grrls together with her friends Madison and Clover, and at some point in their career they found online Betsy Burdock’s Book of Spells, a sort of do-it-yourself grimoire which changed their lives, teaching them to enhance their music with spells.  As the story starts, it’s a few decades after those “golden years” and Kit has taken on the job of editor for an independent paper focused on pointing out local authorities’ failings and on promoting worthy enterprises. She now lives in one of Ordshaw’s worst areas, one that is both crime ridden and abandoned to its own devices, and lost contact with her former friends: still surrounded by an aura of mystery and a whiff of witchcraft, Kit barely manages to keep he publication afloat, and her situation becomes even more complicated when a friend from the past warns her about the return of an old foe, bent on resurrecting the ancient gang wars – and he seems to have enrolled someone able to summon magic…

As is often the case with the Ordshaw series, saying too much about the plot would spoil the enjoyment of the story, and there is much to be discovered here, particularly because each chapter begins with a look at the past of Kit and her band – and how their art mixed with witchcraft and the gangs’ territorial wars, often with unpredictable and dramatic results – and then proceeds to add more details to the overall picture of the present, moving with a swift pace toward some final revelations that end up being quite surprising.  What’s different here, in respect of the other books in the series, is that the weirdness does not come from otherworldly phenomena or creatures, but from the wielding of magic through spells which are reinforced by the mixing of very, very strange elements: the excerpts from Betsy Burdock’s book are both intriguing and fun, enhanced by the fictional author’s unique brand of humor, and I enjoyed them very much.

Kit is an intriguing character (one, I have to admit, I was curious about since this book’s cover reveal some time ago): still very much tied to her punk rock singer persona in the manner of dress and the way she relates to others, there is a definite layer of wisdom through adversity added to her personality that instantly endeared her to me, a reaction that deepened as I understood that she carries a heavy burden from the past and from the fracturing of what used to be a very strong bond with her bandmates.  Every reference to that past is tinged with poignant regret and a sense of guilt that Kit probably tries to assuage through her tireless work in favor of the community: using magic imbued the three girls with a heady sense of power, but Kit has come to realize that the payoff was far too steep – there is one instance in which she warns about the consequences of that carelessly wielded magic, summarizing its noxious effects:

We don’t know how to heal things. Only how to break them.

Other characters, like Ellie – Kit’s virtual second in command at the paper – or newcomer Aaron, a young man who seems scared of his own shadow until he reveals unexpected talents, move around Kit like planets around the sun, helping to better define her psychological makeup and to underline her strengths and frailties. 

And of course there is always the city of Ordshaw acting as both background and character: as I often commented, talking about this series, there is a storytelling quality to these books that makes me imagine this city as colored in sepia tones, or immersed in a sort of perennial dusk: here that sensation is enhanced by the descriptions of the area where Kit operates, the community of St. Alphege, a once lively but now run-down sector where organized crime put some very deep roots and where the distraction of local authorities did nothing to improve the citizens’ living conditions.

[…] bare brick walls and windows barred like a prison, roads pocked with holes and pavements dotted with weeds. Even the sky’s blanket grey conspired to give the estate a miserable appearance.

Dyer Street Punk Witches (which is available from today) is loosely related to the rest of the series, so it can be read as a stand-alone, but if it can make you curious about the other Ordshaw stories, know that this unusual Urban Fantasy saga will prove both intriguing and entertaining in its peculiar weirdness…

My Rating:

Reviews

THIS CHARMING MAN (The Stranger Times #2), by C.K. McDonnell

The second installment in this Urban Fantasy series cemented the impression I derived from The Stranger Times: that CK McDonnell’s take on the genre is a winning one, moving away from its usual mix of magic, darkness and characters’ inner demons to create a blend where humor and the uncanny fuse into a story that remains engaging and entertaining from start to finish, even when actual monsters come into play.

In the first volume the author introduced the motley group of people working at the Stranger Times, the paper reporting on weird occurrences not so much as a way of lending them credit but rather of exploring the supernatural as a duty to the public.  We therefore were able to know the chief editor, Vincent Banecroft – on the surface an unpleasant individual given to heavy drinking and scarce personal hygiene; his long-suffering secretary Grace and her daily battles against her boss’ endless streams of profanity; the intern Stella, a young woman whose origins (and powers) are shrouded in mystery; reporters Reggie and Ox, peculiar but lovable people. The new addition to the staff, Hannah, came to work for the paper as a last resort after facing the troubles of a messy divorce.

At the start of This Charming Man, some time has elapsed but the paper’s troubles keep piling on: the latest problem coming from the realization that the workers renovating the building’s facilities have also installed a secret trapdoor, most certainly as a first step in kidnapping Stella, whose supernatural abilities make her a coveted target. But that’s not everything, because the city of Manchester, where these stories are set, seems to be plagued by a series of vampiric attacks, in dramatic contrast with the tenet – accepted both by mundane and supernatural circles – that vampires don’t exist…. On top of that (did you think the above could be more than enough? Well, think again!) Ox has some serious financial problems, of the kind that involves gambling debts and unsavory characters – those of bodily harm persuasion; Hanna is dealing with her as-yet-to-be-determined feelings for a police inspector with…er… an undisclosed passenger in his head; and we get to know some new players, among them a man who can answer only in the most unadulterated truth, and lives on a boat together with a talking dog. 

One of the best elements in This Charming Man is that the main characters grow in depth and facets, so that  we get to know them better – or to change our first impression of them: this is mainly the case for Vincent Banecroft, whose abrasive outward attitude hides an inner pain for the loss of his wife, whose spirit he tries to contact through the help – as flimsy and difficult to handle as it is – of the ghost of Simon, the young man who wanted to work for Banecroft but lost his life in the previous book.  Seeing the Stranger Times’ editor literally grasp at moonbeams to reconnect with his dead wife changed my perspective on his personality and while I cannot say that I now view him with sympathy – because he’s foul-mouthed, foul-tempered and despotic as ever – I can see where he comes from, and many of his attitudes make more sense.

Hannah also improved a great deal: she is far less of a fish out of water than she was in the first book – or at least she is where her work at the paper is concerned, because when it comes to dealing with Inspector Sturgess and her as-yet unformed feelings about him it’s another matter. But when she has to deal with Banecroft, his temper and his idiosyncrasies, Hannah can turn into something of a dragon, and she has no qualms in battling with him word for word: their heated exchanges are among the best sections of the story, and I like to see – or rather, to perceive – how her boss must secretly enjoy this new facet from his newest acquisition.   There are also moments in which we see Hannah bonding with her colleagues, particularly Reggie with whom she teams up during an investigation: in this way even Reggie’s character is given a chance to gain more depth and to come more into the light.

As for the story itself, I could not help but be intrigued by the appearance of vampires, and the way they are portrayed here – as a form of mysterious infection rather than the mere product of an attack – adds to the attraction of the story, where both the Founders and the Folk (the movers and shakers working behind the scenes) have an interest in the proceedings, an interest that is not exactly benign…  Not every question gets an answer in this second book, and the still-hanging narrative threads look very promising so that I can look forward with great interest to the next volume in the series, knowing that it will prove as intriguing and amusing as the previous ones: what I saw so far of this continuing story offers a delightful mix of humor and weirdness and enjoyable character that makes The Stranger Times a more than welcome addition to my TBR.

My Rating:

Reviews

Waiting on Wednesday: Dyer Street Punk Witches, by Phil Williams

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly meme first showcased at Breaking the Spine and now twinned with “Can’t Wait Wednesday” at Wishful Endings: this weekly meme offers the chance to highlight the upcoming releases that we’re looking out for.  

Until now I never wrote a post for WoW, but recently author Phil Williams was kind enough to contact me with the ARC for his new book, which shares the background of his previous works, i.e. the magic-infested British city of Ordshaw, and the approaching publication date for this new novel prompted me to take advantage of the meme.  

At the start of this year I posted a cover reveal for Dyer Street Punk Witches (follow the LINK if you’re curious about this new story), but today I’m doing something different: Mr. Williams is issuing a set of trading cards for the characters in the book, and here is one of them:

Oscar Tallice is not exactly what you might define as a “good guy”, particularly when you focus on some of the descriptions the author shares about this character, like the “mischievous, untrustworthy glint in his eye and his square-edged, teeth-clenched smile” or the fact that “there’s always an undercurrent of violence” with him. Let me tell you, however, that the some of the examples of humanity you will meet in Dyer Street Punk Witches will make you feel uneasy more often than not…

Are you intrigued? Well, the wait is not going to be too long: on September 12th the book will become available – and so will be my review and that of the other bloggers fortunate enough to have read this novel in advance 😉   Meanwhile, you can take advantage of the QR code embedded in the image to be taken directly to the book’s page on Phil Williams’ site and learn a bit more about Kit, the ass-kicking protagonist of this new Ordshaw adventure.

Happy reading!

LAST MINUTE UPDATE:

Mr. Williams is doing a pre-order promo for the whole deck of trading cards, so I’m sharing the LINK: I encourage you to take a look at all the amazing characters peopling this story

Reviews

LOW TOWN (Low Town #1), by Daniel Polansky

Grimdark fantasy requires a anti-hero at its core, and in Daniel Polansky’s Low Town this role is fulfilled by Warden, the de facto ruler of the worst part of the city of Rigus, the titular Low Town: Warden is a drug dealer (and user), a crime lord and violent enforcer, someone who often pays the corruptible officials to look the other way. On the surface, there would be little to no appeal in such such a character, but the way Polansky paints him, giving the readers access to his inner thoughts through first-person narrative, changes our perspective soon enough.

Warden’s life was never an easy one: orphaned at a tender age when the Great Plague decimated the population of Rigus, he quickly learned to fend for himself acquiring street wisdom and cunning, and once he was old enough he enlisted in the army where he distinguished himself in war. On his return to civilian life he became a law enforcer, once again leaving his mark in the feared secret police branch of Black House, but something happened that made him quit and return to his old turf, where he became the man he is today: ruthless, cynical and with self-destructive tendencies.  As the story starts, however, we see a different side of Warden as Low Town is plagued by the disappearance of a number of children, whose desecrated bodies are later found, to the horror of the community: set on finding the perpetrators of these hideous acts, Warden sets on a personal crusade that will take him into contact with the seediest corners of the city as well as the higher spheres of society, in a journey peppered with false starts and red herrings, and also touched by this world’s peculiar kind of magic.

The story’s background is depicted quite vividly through Warden’s movements across the city: dirty, chaotic, dangerous, and yet quite alive in its noir vibe that is one of the compelling elements of the novel; it’s the perfect breeding ground for drug dealers and violent gangs, and this widespread corruption is not limited to the slums, because the higher-ups are just as bad as the people they rule upon, making this city a place where survival requires strength and viciousness – or, to quote Warden’s own words:

It’s a cold world. I’ve adjusted to the temperature.

And yet, despite his cynicism and the brutality he employs against rivals and people who cross his path, Warden does have some redeeming qualities which show, more than through his actions or his thoughts, through the kind of company he keeps when he’s not fulfilling his role as crime lord: Alphonsus and his wife, who manage the Staggering Earl, the pub that is Warden’s home and refuge, and who both look after him with a kind of disconsolate acceptance of the man’s dangerous life-style; the Crane, the elderly, ailing magician who used to be his point of reference in his days as a street-wise dweller; Wren, the savvy urchin he takes on as an apprentice and deals with through a form of tough love that speaks louder than any words.

Given this premise, it’s not surprising to see Warden launch himself in the hunt for the monster who is abducting and killing children in Low Town, in a quest that reminded me of the lonely adventures of the private detectives that noir literature made us familiar with: and indeed Rigus and the enclave of Low Town don’t feel that different – despite the medieval-like background – from any description of New York or Los Angeles in the ’40s and ’50s where those crime thrillers were set.   And like those modern detectives, Warden often risks his life and is assaulted and viciously beaten by people who don’t appreciate his nosy attitude or more simply see the opportunity of settling old scores.  It’s in these circumstances – like a breathtaking chase through the alleys and canals of the city – that Warden’s gritty determination shines through, together with the desire to do justice for those young, innocent victims who have no one to speak for them: though unexpressed, the reasoning for such persistence is clear, since he must see himself reflected in them, just as he sees something of himself in young Wren.  And that’s the main redeeming quality for this character, who might appear despicable at a superficial glance, but who ends up showing a good heart and something approaching a conscience, despite the constant, cynical denial that does not manage to completely mask what’s underneath.

My “graduation” from Daniel Polansky’s short fiction to this full-length novel proved to be a very immersive, quite compelling journey and the discovery of a character who might not make it easy to relate to him, but still is too intriguing to simply dismiss as a “crusty bad guy”. There are many untraveled areas in his past and in his psychological makeup that I’m certain will make for some interesting exploration in the next novels of the series. Hopefully, I will be able to return to the fascinating seediness of Low Town soon…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE ASHES OF LONDON (Marwood & Lovett #1), by Andrew Taylor

This novel proved to be one of those precious finds that offer, besides an intriguing story to follow, a peek into a historical period I know next to nothing about, so that I feel compelled to search online more details and learn something new in the process.  The background for The Ashes of London is that of the Restoration, the time in which King Charles II ascended to the throne of England after the execution of his father, Charles I, and Oliver Cromwell’s rule: in September 1666 the city of London was devastated by fire, and it’s during the final days of this disastrous occurrence – and its aftermath – that the book’s events take place.

James Marwood is a civil servant trying to keep a low profile in the hope that his masters forget he’s the son of one of the revolutionaries whose movement brought about the demise of the previous king: saddled with the difficult task of caring for his ailing father, whose time in prison after the conspiracy’s failure left him weakened in both body and mind, Marwood is torn between his filial duties and the need to further his career so that he can tend to what’s left of his family in reasonable comfort.  Catherine Lovett is the daughter of one of the conspirators as well, her father being a wanted fugitive: she’s been left in the care of an uncle who is keen on marrying her off to a very unsavory character, while all she dreams about is architectural design, an unheard-of pastime for a woman in those days.   The paths of these two characters are destined to cross, in part due to various circumstances and in part because of both their fathers’ affiliations, while the city of London tries to recover from the still-smoldering fires and a series of bizarre murders reveals the dangerous undercurrents running through the political and social fabric of the realm.

I very much appreciated the intriguing mix at the roots of this book, where historical fiction blends with a crime investigation and a good dose of political plotting and conspiracies, but most of all I enjoyed the “time travel” opportunities offered by the story, thanks to the descriptions of the day-to-day life of 17th Century England and the great social turmoil lurking under the surface. What I found particularly fascinating were the details of the city of London, which the author was able to depict with a cinematic, quite evocative quality that brought to life the sounds, sights – and unfortunately smells – of a bustling city which was grievously wounded by the Great Fire.  There is an intriguing parallel here between the precarious political situation, in which the new King knows he still has to deal with the remnants of the conspiracy which prompted his father’s downfall, and the daily struggles of the citizenry, whose houses have been destroyed by the fire and have to live in ramshackle hovels or in the ruins of their burned-out homes, with no certainty about the immediate future.  This is the background on which the main themes of civil unrest and inequality stand, together with a look at the social mores of the times and their consequences on people, particularly the two main characters.

James Marwood was soon able to inspire my sympathy, not least because his POV is written in the first person, allowing us to be instantly privy to his thoughts and troubles: as he deals with his professional duties, which are carried on through the double difficulty of being effective while keeping a low profile, we understand he’s a decent human being gifted with a good heart, and if sometimes he struggles with the frustration of having to care for a father who tethers between dementia and the dreams of a “new order”, he does so with such a deeply ingrained affection and respect for the old man, that it’s impossible not to feel for him.

Catherine, on the other hand, is more feisty and combative (often, and with reason, very fiercely so), and she’s also very “modern”, character-wise, because of her keen interest for architecture, which leads her to dream of a more unfettered life – practically an impossibility in those times. She is no frivolous dreamer, though, and when circumstances require her to adapt to change, sometimes through harrowing events, she shows a resiliency and an inner strength that are nothing if not admirable.  Both Cat and Marwood suffer for the sins of their respective fathers, offering the opportunity for a commentary on a society that visits those sins on the innocent offspring of past conspirators.

Alongside these two main characters move a number of intriguing figures which help depict quite clearly the atmosphere of the times through their greed and depravity, cunning and coarseness, without forgetting the proverbial movers and shakers – some of them real-life persons – who complete this fascinating picture of an era of turmoil and change.  Among them I want to mention Mistress Alderley, Cat’s aunt, who under her unprepossessing exterior shows great skills in being the proverbial power behind the throne in more ways than one; or the ruling monarch Charles II, who in a very human moment shows his desire to know more about the father he barely knew before he was killed; and again Edward, Cat’s despicable cousin who represents the entitled attitude of the lesser nobility who believes nothing and no one can stand in their way.

The Ashes of London is a very immersive portrayal of a time and a place I know I will enjoy visiting again through the next books, and it represents one of the best bookish finds of this year so far.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE NARROWS (Harry Bosch #10), by Michael Connelly

With book 10 in the Harry Bosch series I continue my exploration of the “uncharted lands” of this character, as opposed to what I’ve experienced so far in the seven seasons of the TV show inspired by it, which means that on top of the skilled storytelling I’ve come to expect from Michael Connelly I can now enjoy totally new investigations, an element that adds more spice to these engaging stories.

The Narrows starts with two apparently unrelated narrative threads:  one concerns the return of the serial killer protagonist of the novel The Poet, and of FBI agent Rachel Walling, who was far from convinced that her quarry had died in the final shootout that ended the chase; the other features Bosch as he’s contacted by the widow of former FBI agent Terry McCaleb (encountered in A Darkness More than Night), because she’s convinced that the heart attack that ended her husband’s life was far from a natural occurrence, and needs Bosch’s help to uncover the truth. 

As events unfold, it becomes clear that the two investigations are strictly linked, so that Bosch and Walling must combine their skills to catch the killer and end his reign of terror, while dealing with several obstacles on their path: Walling, who was sent to a dead-end assignment after the debacle with the Poet, is chafing under the restraints imposed by her role as a mere observer, and feels that the team leader is more preoccupied with the political implications of the chase, rather than with the success of the mission. Bosch, for his part, is even more keenly aware that without a badge many doors are closed to him, and the long-standing rivalry between law enforcement agencies is clipping his proverbial wings, leaving him with little room to maneuver. And on top of it all, he and Walling are both strong, determined people, and cooperation does not come too easy to either of them, reducing their field effectiveness when they really need it at full strength.

The Narrows is truly what many like to call a “page turner”, blending the chase for a dangerously intelligent serial killer with a fascinating collection of clues that paint the whole picture through a logical progression that nonetheless proves both exciting and distressing, thanks to the many red herrings that take characters and readers off track so that it’s almost impossible to predict what will come next. By now I’ve acquired enough familiarity with Michael Connelly’s “modus operandi” to know that I need to pay attention to the smallest detail he lays down, because sooner or later it will fit into the bigger picture, offering a deeper understanding of the story.   It’s worth mentioning how the narrative is split between the first person when the author deals with Harry Bosch (a trend initiated with the previous novel) and the third person with the other characters: it gives the story a very peculiar quality and at the same time is reminiscent of the classic noir novels where the P.I. protagonists (the role Harry is playing now) offered their point of view as a form of internal monologue.

The background – again the cities of Los Angeles and Las Vegas are front and center here – comes alive through the author’s descriptions and becomes another character of the story, enhancing it with a cinematic quality that alternates the glamorous and the gritty in a very balanced blend. The best example is offered by the titular Narrows, which is a man-made channel created to funnel the excess of rainwater and avoid the flooding of the city of Los Angeles. Bosch mentions it in passing:

[…] the river. Trapped between those walls. When I was a kid we called it ‘the narrows’. When it rains like this the water moves fast. It’s deadly. When it rains you stay away from the narrows.

offering a foreshadowing for future events that I found very intriguing – on hindsight.

Where the story is the frame, characters are its true substance: from the minor roles – like the unpleasantly entitled FBI team leader, or the other agents, or again McCaleb’s grieving widow and his partner in the boating operation – to the two protagonists, Bosch and Walling, everyone is clearly defined no matter how much page space they occupy, and in the case of these two we can see the evolution from the last time we met them.  Walling is disillusioned after her posting in a remote location where her investigative skills are hardly necessary, but she is far from beaten, and her determination in catching the Poet is quite admirable, even when she chooses to go against the rules: in this she is the perfect complement for Bosch, who never cared much for authority, so that I was delighted to observe these two unlikely “partners in crime” as they pursued the leads with little or no concern for the consequences.

As for Bosch, while he’s still the proverbial dog with a bone with every case that catches his attention, he’s a very different private person: discovering the existence of his 4-years old daughter changed his perspective on life, and even managed to soften him in his personal approach. The man who can relentlessly pursue bad guys is also able to sit down and read stories to his child, reveling in the joy of her closeness and the candor of her affection; the reality of this daughter whose existence he ignored until a short while ago forces him to consider his actions – and their consequences – for the long-range effects they might have.  Where Bosch used to be a loner, he now has a very important focus in his life, one that certainly informs his choices for the present and the future.

[…] the innocence of a child will bring you back and give the shield of joy with which to protect yourself.

Along with these changes in Bosch’s personal life, more might be forthcoming in his profession, thanks to the offer he receives to participate in a newly-formed division of the LAPD dealing with cold cases: the pull of these forgotten victims might be strong enough to make him go back to his old job, giving voice to those who cannot do it for themselves anymore. Once again, I can only look forward to what awaits me down the road with this very intriguing character.

My Rating:

Reviews

A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT (Wayfarers #2), by Becky Chambers

My previous experience with Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series had led me to expect, from this second installment, another easygoing journey into this multi-hued universe where everyone seems to coexist in peace with everyone else, and book 2 was that, indeed, but there were also other narrative elements that “spiced up” the mix and made my experience even more intriguing.

At the end of the first book, the ship’s AI Lovelace had to undergo a hard reset, which restored its functions but also erased the personality built over time by the interactions with the crew, causing them no little grief – particularly where tech Jenks was concerned.  A friend of Jenks, Pepper, offered Lovelace a different chance by installing the AI into an artificial body, shaped like a human female: the process being a very illegal one, Lovelace’s only option was to move in with Pepper and her mate Blue to their home on the outpost of Port Coriol, where the new being – now renamed Sidra – could learn how to act like an organic human and avoid any kind of suspicion. 

A Closed and Common Orbit is the chronicle of Lovelace/Sidra’s journey as she adapts to her new situation, whose unforeseen limitations and newfound freedoms make her adjustments far from easy; but the book is not focused only on Sidra, as she shares narrative space with another character, Jane 23, who is one of the many clones employed in a scrap recycling factory on a distant planet, where the girls are cruelly used as cheap labor by a totally amoral system.  The two stories interweave in alternating chapters, and present two different sides of a quest for identity and self-determination, for the means to survive in a world so different from the one where one’s awareness had set its roots: two very fascinating journeys, indeed, which run parallel for a while, until they intersect in a poignant way which then makes room for the kind of “happy ending” that seems to be Becky Chambers’ narrative trademark.

Sidra (formerly Lovelace) must now deal with the curtailing of her cognitive abilities and the limitations of the human form she now inhabits, which sometimes give way to a sort of agoraphobia, compounded by the need to keep her differences under control lest she reveal what she truly is, and endanger the friends who are helping her. Science fiction often presented us with instances of A.I.s trying to be more human, to transcend their programming and become more similar to their organic creators, but Sidra’s path is somewhat hindered by the longing for those abilities that are now precluded her, so that her story is focused on this seemingly irresolvable dichotomy. I liked how her friends Pepper and Blue go out of their way to ease Sidra’s transition, offering her the sense of friendship and family that her previous iteration had enjoyed aboard the Wayfarer, but what I truly loved were her interaction with the alien Tak and their almost-philosophical discussions about the meaning of life, sentience, love. Tak is an Aeluon, a creature whose language comes from the changing hues of its skin rather than actual words (even though it uses implants that allow it to communicate verbally), and I saw a sort of parallel between Tak and Sidra, both “strangers in a strange land” reaching out to each other with a depth of growing friendship that in my eyes overshadowed even the selfless one offered by Pepper and Blue.

Much as Sidra’s journey proved fascinating, I was drawn more intensely by the chapters focusing on Jane 23, on her discovery of an outside world beyond the confines of the factory where she was effectively enslaved, and her meeting with Owl, the A.I. of a derelict shuttle that offers Jane a safe place in the outside wasteland where packs of ferocious dogs roam among the piles of abandoned scraps. The theme of family is once again explored in these sections of the novel, a family of two where Owl is nothing more than a voice from the walls and a sketched face on the monitors, and yet the A.I. is able to give Jane the means to learn, grow and move beyond the limitations imposed by her earlier life: it’s fascinating to observe how much the relationship between Owl and Jane parallels that of a mother and daughter, with Jane going from the total trust of childhood to the rebellion of teenager years and finally to the understanding and affection that comes later.  And Owl is indeed at the center of a desperate search from a grown-up Jane (in her new identity), so that she can reconnect with her A.I. “mother” and fill the gaping void in her little family.

These two apparently distant storylines have more points of contact that one could imagine, and they do converge in a quite poignant fashion toward the latter part of the novel, where the various pieces of the puzzle begin to connect in a quite emotional way and solidify into a final picture where once again the ties of family, friendship and love are reaffirmed in the kind of rosy, but certainly not saccharine-sweet, picture that I have by now come to expect from Becky Chambers’ stories, which might look somewhat unrealistic from a jaded point of view, but which are quite comforting in their hopeful and optimistic outlook.

And that’s what we so deeply need now and again…

My Rating:

Reviews

A DRINK BEFORE WE DIE (Low Town #0.5), by Daniel Polansky – #wyrdandwonder

Read the story online

For the last day of Wyrd&Wonder 2022, I’m glad to celebrate it with my latest happy discovery: a short while ago I reviewed a short story by Daniel Polansky, an author I had previously encountered through some other short offerings, and a comment from fellow blogger Sarah led me to learn more about Polansky’s Low Town series, which Sarah mentioned with great fondness. Luckily for me I was able to get my proverbial feet wet with this prequel story which I was able to find online, and which prompted me to acquire the first book in the series immediately afterwards.

In the imaginary city portrayed in this story, Low Town is one of its seediest areas, under the control of a local crime lord who goes by the name of Warden, and is the first-person narrator as well. In Low Town anything goes: drug trade, liquor trade, every kind of more or less illicit trade one can imagine, and Warden rules it all through a deceptively nonchalant attitude – that is, until a rival consortium starts trying to undermine his rule and not-so-gently remove him from his place, so Warden goes on the offensive – but in a very crafty, very offhand way that belies both his determination and his underlying ruthlessness.

I was quite surprised at how I “clicked” with the character of Warden, given that he’s a hardened criminal who does not balk at bloodily removing any obstacle on his path, and does so in the perfect spirit of the place he rules:

”…the locals are unfriendly, unfriendly by the standards of an unfriendly city in an unfriendly world, and the local guard know better than to waste their time trying to police the place, like a doctor knows better than to bandage a corpse”

And yet, the combination of Warden’s laid-back attitude (which is anything but, in truth) with a peculiar kind of humor, that sometimes becomes of the self-deprecating kind, managed to endear him to me very quickly, and to make me want to learn more about him and the world he lives in. And so Low Town is now comfortably sitting on my e-reader, and I’m very much enjoying this story as well, which I’m reading as I write this review…

With my sincerest thanks to fellow blogger Sarah for the recommendation! 🙂

My Rating:

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Reviews

THE JUSTICE OF KINGS (Empire of the Wolf #1), by Richard Swan – #wyrdandwonder

Much as I was intrigued by the synopsis for this book, what I found in it went well beyond my expectations, offering a fascinatingly different point of view on a medieval-analogue background undergoing far-reaching changes.  Sir Konrad Vonvalt is an Emperor’s Justice, a traveling judge performing his circuit throughout his allotted slice of the Sovan empire and acting not only as judge but also as jury and, if required, as executioner whenever crimes are committed.  

Vonvalt is accompanied in such travels by his guard/factotum Bressinger and by his clerk (and potential judge in training) Helena, and the tale is indeed told through a much older Helena’s memoirs. As the story starts, Vonvalt and his small retinue are trying to shed some light on the murder of a noblewoman, and in the course of the investigation discover that the case is tied to a far-reaching chain of events that might lead to the unraveling of the empire’s fabric, and to the very end of the Imperial Justice system.

I appreciated the choice of having Helena as a chronicler, because the wisdom (and some disillusionment) of the older woman help put the account into perspective and turn her into a quite reliable narrator, observing the facts – and her own past self – through the lens of experience. The three main characters form an interesting team: Sir Konrad is a serious, and at times moody, individual but he also possesses an inner core of conviction and respect for the law that he tries to transmit to Helena, whom he clearly envisions as his successor; his usual sternness does not always manage to cover a fatherly attitude that at times comes through but is almost never perceived as such by the younger woman, so that the sometimes strained relationship between the two of them often reminded me of Merela and Girton in the Wounded Kingdom saga.  Bressinger, on the other hand, represents a more approachable adult for Helena, and despite his gruff, world-weary approach and his shifting moods, he’s the one she feels more inclined to confide in.  

Helena herself is what you might call a survivor: orphaned by one of the many wars of annexation that gave birth to the Sovan empire, she learned at a very tender age to fend for herself, and was rescued by Sir Konrad who saw the promise in the young woman and decided to give her a chance for a better future. The Helena described in the story is a mixture of innocence and strength, determination and uncertainty: it’s clear that her childhood left her somewhat emotionally stunted, and she does not know yet what she wants to do with her life – following in Sir Konrad’s footsteps would certainly give her the status and security she did not have in her early life, but Helena is not sure that this is what she truly wants, and she’s often chafing at the restraints that her present role is imposing on her.

These interesting character dynamics take place in an equally interesting background: the Sovan empire is the result of some bloody wars – Sir Konrad himself did fight in one – and the judicial system put in place by the emperor is viewed as the glue that should hold it all together, which is the reason Vonvalt is always so meticulous in weighing all the aspects of his profession and authority, careful that the meting out of justice never turns into mere vengeance or an expression of unchecked power.  And that’s where the unrest running throughout the empire stands: a struggle is brewing between the religious and secular powers, hinted at for the first time through the opposing views of Sir Konrad and the priest Claver over the behavior of some villagers, which the former chooses to simply reprimand while the latter would like to kill as an example to the rest of the world. The clash between Vonvalt’s concept of justice and Claver’s excess of zeal looks like the spark that might ignite the empire – and in truth we understand this is more than a possibility thanks to the opening sentence of the novel, in which the events at the small village where the two men battle are foreshadowed as the spark for the coming upheaval.

But such a spark must find a consistent amount of kindling to start the proverbial fire, and that comes to light in the course of Sir Konrad’s investigation, which proves to be the microcosm of what is brewing in the empire: the murder mystery (which is an intriguing addition to the fantasy setting) allows the readers to get a close-up view of Sovan society in the merchant town of Galen’s Vale, with its intricate political ties and the buried secrets of a small community which – as so often happens in such investigations, no matter the time frame in which they happen – come unraveled as Sir Konrad leaves no stone unturned in his search for truth and for the murderer.   

The murder inquiry also offers the chance for the introduction of the only “magical” elements present in the story: Justices like Vonvalt are empowered by special skills, like the Emperor’s Voice, which compels anyone subjected to it to speak the truth, no matter what; and then there is the much darker element of necromancy, the ability to connect to a recently dead individual to learn either the details of their deaths or the secrets they carried to the grave. This latter skill is disturbing – in one occasion Helena participates in the ritual and is grievously affected by it – and also taxing for the individual performing it, introducing a welcome limitation to what might otherwise have been a deus-ex-machina narrative device: the concept here is that such powers must be used sparingly and only in the direst of circumstances, both to prevent the tainting of one’s soul and the corruption of one’s skills in pursuing truth and justice.  

In the end, The Justice of Kings proved to be a compelling story of a world in the early throes of disruption, and if sometimes the pace falters between the detail-rich murder investigation and the echoes of developing unrest, the narrative remains consistently fascinating and the characters worthy of further exploration. Given this premise, I more than look forward to the next installment in the series.

My Rating:

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