Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

IN THE SHADOW OF LIGHTNING (Glass Immortals #1), by Brian McClellan

A new series by Brian McClellan was more than enough to make me pay attention: my only doubt – before starting this first book – was about how it would compare with his Powder Mage world and if I would miss the richly intriguing background of that famous saga.  To my relief, I soon discovered that this world stands very well on its own and it proved to be just as engrossing as the author’s older creation.

In this world, glass (or rather godglass) can be imbued with magic properties that confer special abilities to wearers: added strength and stamina, curative powers, enhanced sight – the list seems almost endless. Then there are the glassdancers, gifted individuals who can actually command glass and perform incredible feats with it: Demir Grappo is such an individual, and the scion of one of the ruling families in the nation of Ossa. When we meet him at the start of the novel, he’s gained a high rank in the Ossan army at a very young age, and just obtained a decisive victory in war, which bestowed him the title of Lightning Prince. Something goes wrong with the chain of command, however, and the newly conquered city is brutally sacked despite Demir’s orders to the contrary and so, ridden by profound guilt and horror for the atrocities he witnessed, he choses voluntary exile from his home country.  Only several years later he returns home, called back to his family’s duties after the assassination of his mother: what Demir will have to deal with is not only the investigation in his mother’s murder, but a number of political machinations and an encroaching threat that might change the world forever.

Demir’s journey crosses with that of Thessa, a siliceer or godglass forger, swept up by the tides of war into a situation that will put to the test her abilities and her strength of character; of Kizzie Vorcien, the bastard daughter of a powerful family ruler and a capable enforcer; and of Idrian, a breacher, which is something of a glass-strengthened super soldier.  Last but not least, among the main characters figures Baby Montego, a retired champion of cudgel fighting (a bloody sport very popular in Ossa) and Demir’s childhood friend.

The novel’s background is what I’ve come to expect from Brian McClellan: an 18th Century-inspired world where the Industrial Revolution is in its infancy and where glass-derived magic permeates all strata of society with various levels of intensity due to the strict class system on which said society is based – which of course leaves ample room for political maneuvering, conspiracies and convoluted plots that don’t stop even before murder or the kindling of a senseless war to reach the desired goals.  Glass magic is an intriguing element of the story, particularly because (not unlike the overuse of gunpowder in McClellan’s other world) there are aftereffects to take into account, from the loss of efficacy, over time, of single pieces of magic-imbued glass to the much more dire glassrot, an affliction that plagues people when they exceed the limits of glass use, and which could also lead to deterioration and death.

Narrative threads and characters interweave in an increasingly convoluted plot that reserves many surprises for the readers, including the final twist which left me not a little perplexed for its SF overtones – something I had not expected and which leaves me very curious to see where the author will take us next. But of course my most intense focus remained on the characters themselves.  Demir is something of a damaged hero, a complex personality, energetic and mercurial on one side – the one he offers to the world – and profoundly wounded on the more private other, since he’s still dealing with the aftermath of the wartime episode that affected his life and career. Where he appears to the world as a functional leader, certain of his skills and completely in control, he’s plagued by what looks like PTSD symptoms when he’s alone and the ghosts of the past weigh heavily on him.  Still, he manages to remain a very caring person where the people he feels responsible for are concerned, and unlike other members of the higher strata of society he struggles to do the right thing – probably in the constant search of atonement for what he perceives as his guilt in past events.

His old-time friends Kizzie and Baby Montego ended up being my favorite characters: as the bastard of the powerful Vorcien patriarch, she keeps looking for the way to fit in, juggling her need to belong with an inner core of integrity, a trait that together with her amazing fighting skills earned my respect and fondness from the get go.  Baby Montego (the ‘baby’ part of his name being a clear tongue-in-cheek quip) is a larger than life person in both the actual and the figurative sense: there is a delightful duality in this man who made his name practicing a violent, bloody sport and yet remains outwardly sweet and gentle – unless his friends are threatened, of course. The two of them are Demir’s older friends, their relationship going back to their childhood, and I enjoyed their interactions immensely – truly one of the joys of this novel.   Breacher Idrian is also a multi-faceted character: a powerful soldier, well respected by superiors and troops alike, but dealing with a form of encroaching madness barely kept at bay through his godglass artificial eye, something that indeed erodes his outward strength but at the same time humanizes him profoundly.

On the other hand, while Thessa earned my sympathy for her plight, particularly in the first half of the novel, she never managed to completely captivate me despite being Demir’s narrative counterpart: I could admire her strength, resourcefulness and courage and the fact that she could seamlessly blend her kind disposition with a fierceness that knows no obstacles. And yet in the end she left me a bit cold, probably because she is depicted as unfailingly brilliant and that might have led me to see some “Mary Sue” shades in her personality that did not agree with me. Nonetheless, the jury is still out and I’m looking forward to seeing where her path will take her: it would not be the first time that Brian McClellan ends up surprising me with some unexpected character development…

In the Shadow of Lightning won me over with its fast pace, layers of intrigues and relatable characters, and I’m more than looking forward to the next books in the series: once again Brian McClellan proved to be a skilled storyteller whose novels have by now become a “must read” no matter what.

My Rating:

Reviews

DUNE MESSIAH (Dune #2), by Frank Herbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Reviews

THE IVORY TOMB (Rooks & Ruin #3), by Melissa Caruso

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

Now that this second trilogy from author Melissa Caruso has reached its end it’s become clear to me that she likes to deliver her maximum narrative impact with the final book: the first two volumes in the Rooks & Ruin series set the playing field and shaped the main characters, and were certainly supported by a good dose of dramatic moments and momentous revelations, but The Ivory Tomb brings all those elements toward such a harrowing climax that at times I felt emotionally drained – and I say this in the most complimentary way possible.

Please be aware that this review will contain spoilers for the first two books in the series, so if you have not read them yet, you risk learning about important details that you had better discover on you own…

When we first met Ryx, the protagonist of the story, she led a forcibly sequestered life because her “tainted” magic made her touch deadly for any living thing, and it was only her meeting with the Rookery – a group of special agents dealing with out-of-bound magical phenomena – that she was allowed to interact with others in a normal way thanks to a jess (a sort of controlling bracelet) that muted her powers.  Not long after she became part of the Rookery, Ryx could not enjoy her period of grace for long, because the escape of several demons, held captive in the prison to which her castle guarded the portal, threw the world into renewed turmoil, further weighted by the double revelation that Ryx had long been the host for the demon of Disaster and that her beloved grandmother was now hosting the demon of Discord.  

The freed demons – particularly Carnage, Corruption and Hunger – are on a rampage in The Ivory Tomb, laying waste to everything and everyone they encounter on their path and doing their worst to compound such devastation by setting the Raverran and Vaskandar empires on the warpath through misinformation and the skillful rekindling of old grudges.  Poor Ryx finds herself torn in more than one direction as she tries to help her friends defuse the situation, capture the escaped demons and save the people she loves from becoming victims of the ravages of war. Not to mention avoid being imprisoned (or worse) herself because of the demon to which she has long been a vessel…

My sympathy for Ryx was born in the first volume of the series as I discovered how despite the harsh circumstances of her existence she managed to forge a character that was both kind and resilient, compassionate and determined, but here she truly shines brightly because she is faced with such odds that would have defeated the strongest of personalities, and yet she still finds the courage and the strength to move forward, to face whatever hurdle circumstances set on her path, while struggling with the dreadful revelation about her true nature and with the danger of being subsumed by Disaster and the avalanche of memories collected by the demon during its time through other hosts.

One of the most intriguing narrative elements in this series, and in particular in this final book, is the revelation that not all demons are… well, demonic, and that some of them are – or have been – capable of mastering their nature thanks to the people they interacted with: this is very true for Disaster’s past history which is revealed in a series of flashbacks as the barriers between the demon and Ryx become more permeable. Intriguing as they are, these flashbacks ended up being a little distracting for me, taking me away from the dire situation that was developing in the ‘present’, as Ryx and the Rookery tried to stay abreast of the havoc meted out by the other demons: it’s not the book’s fault, I want that to be clear, but simply my reaction at having to set aside for a moment what for me was the main – and more important – narrative thread.

The other element that bothered me a little was the lessened focus on the Rookery members, whose characterization and interactions had always been very enjoyable for me: again, I understand how it was necessary for the story to concentrate on other narrative paths, and I can rationally see the reason for this choice, but emotionally I felt a little… cheated, for want of a better word, for not being able to see them as much as I wanted.

On the other hand, I have to acknowledge Melissa Caruso’s wonderful skill in weaving a romantic thread in her narrative without making me roll my eyes in annoyance: she might very well be one of the few authors who are able to present a developing romantic relationship in their stories and to make me appreciate it despite my usual aversion to the theme.  Ryx and Severin make a delightful couple and their slow-burn romance feels appealing and true, their interactions are always consistent with their characters and the situations in which they develop, so that – let’s admit it – I was rooting for them all the time and hoping that they would enjoy a happy end.  Well done, Ms. Caruso, indeed…. 😉

The Ivory Tomb is not only the magnificent conclusion to a well-crafted saga, it’s above all a breathless, heart-stopping marathon through a series of events whose increasing stakes will compel you to turn the pages as quickly as you can. As for myself, I can only look forward to seeing what Melissa Caruso will have in store for her readers in the future: one thing is certain, it will be another great ride.

My Rating:

Reviews

EMPIRE OF SILENCE (Sun Eater #1), by Christopher Ruocchio – #SciFiMonth

When I first saw this novel mentioned by one of my fellow bloggers I was intrigued by the story but did not follow immediately on the desire to read it, so that when I recently went back to look for it I discovered that the series now amounts to four published novels, with a fifth slated to come out by the end of the year (not to mention a few novellas filling out some narrative corners).  It might be enough to cool the enthusiasm of anyone with an already over-bloated TBR, yet I choose to pursue my initial interest in the story, and now I’m certainly glad I did.

The series takes place some 20.000 years in the far future, when humanity has moved out into the stars creating the Sollan Empire, ruled according to a strict class system: Hadrian Marlowe is the protagonist of the saga and at the very start of the novel, written as Hadrian’s memoir, we learn that to remove the menace of the alien Cielcin, with whom humans had been at war for centuries, he destroyed a sun, and in so doing he obliterated both the Cielcin and billions of humans as well.    In his youth, as the eldest son of the Marlowe family (lesser nobility from the planet Delos whose uranium mining facilities empowered them with notable financial clout) Hadrian had some difficulties in accepting his role, being gifted with scholarly inclinations and an impulsive character, neither of which sat well with his cold and ruthless father. When an incident threatened his public image, Hadrian was to be replaced as heir by his younger brother Crispin, and sent to the Chantry, the Empire’s religious power worshipping the memory of lost Earth and professing a strict dogma enforced through methods resembling those of the Spanish Inquisition.  Trying to evade a fate he found abhorrent, Hadrian ended up on the planet of Emesh, alone, penniless and unable to reveal his identity for fear of being forcibly sent to the Chantry: to survive he entered the brutal gladiatorial games of the Colosso, where a chance encounter with a Cielcin prisoner launched him on the path that would turn him into the man who destroyed a sun…

This is a very compressed synopsis for a novel depicting the early years of a quite eventful life, of which Empire of Silence is only the first part: there is a great deal to parse in this first book of the saga, which proved to be a compelling read despite a few setbacks that can be easily attributed to the novel being a debut work – and as such it’s still a very well crafted one, its problems easily forgiven and forgotten in the engaging tale of Hadrian Marlowe’s journey from riches to rags to… whatever will come along the way. If at times the narrative loses its momentum, stalled by what might feel like an excessive focus on details or inner musings, it’s understandable that the author wanted to give his readers a full immersion in the world he created and let himself be swayed by maybe too much enthusiasm. Still, those moments were not enough to drive me away, because I have to admit that with such a powerful “hook” as the knowledge of Hadrian’s future, the exploration of his past becomes compelling and compulsory.  

The world building is fascinating: the empire is ruled by a feudal system that borrows many elements from the Roman Empire, even employing many of its terms and some of its customs like the gladiatorial games in the Colosso, which amuse the nobility and enthrall the populace according to the age-old rule of panem et circenses. The few alien races encountered during humanity’s expansion have been enslaved and are used either as workforce or fodder for the games in the Colosso, any consideration for their rights smothered by the Chantry’s ruthless doctrine and the abject fear they inspire.   The ruling classes – or palatines – enjoy genetic enhancements which confer them improved physiques and a longer life-span, the physical differences setting them apart from the rest of the populace just as much as their social station does.  It’s an intriguing society we see depicted in this series, one where such technological advancement as genetic engineering go hand in hand with a deep loathing for machines and computers, which is enforced by the Chantry under the stigma of heresy.

The alien Cielcin are presented as equally intriguing, their motives and actions filtered through the wartime propaganda so that readers are left to wonder if they are truly the proverbial monsters or if there is more to their quest than the simple need for expansion: the protracted meetings between Hadrian and a captured Cielcin officer – one of the most harrowing segments of the story, due to the descriptions of callous torture inflicted by Chantry interrogators – seem to lead toward a different interpretation, which of course begs the question about Hadrian’s act of genocide disclosed at the very start of the novel.

As Hadrian describes the background in which his life takes place, he also proceeds in revealing himself with little or no attempt at sugarcoating: he freely shares his triumphs and his mistakes, the impulsive choices which often tend to land him in a situation that’s worse than the one he was trying to escape, his capacity for compassion and the mad urges that put him in danger more than once. There were times when I felt like slapping some sense into him, often forgetting that – at this point in the story – he’s still relatively young and therefore prone to mistakes, not to mention a victim of his upbringing and the cold environment in which he grew up, whose influence we learn by contrast once Hadrian establishes a rapport with his fellow arena fighters:

They cared because they chose to, and they did so with a gruff but quiet indelicacy that propped me up in my despair and whispered that this was what it was to have a family.

Being aware from the beginning of Hadrian’s fate might rob the reading journey of some surprises – we know that any danger he faces will not be a mortal one, for example – but on the other hand we are keenly curious to learn how such an epilogue will come to be, and that is the main attraction of this saga. The first book ends with the start of what promises to be an adventurous voyage of discovery, and while not being a dreaded cliffhanger, it left me anxious to know what kind of challenges the protagonist will face in the next installment. And luckily for me, I will not have to wait long to discover it 🙂

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

DUNE (Dune #1), by Frank Herbert – #SciFiMonth

Re-reading favorite books has become something of a luxury since I started blogging, because the pressure to keep up with new titles has made it next to impossible to revisit those “old friends”. But there are always exceptions, and since enthusiastically appreciating the recent movie version of Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve I’ve been promising myself a re-read of Frank Herbert’s saga – or at least of the first three novels, which I’ve always seen as their own self-enclosed narrative cycle.

Reviewers who are far better (and far more articulate) than I am at issue analysis, have already written much about the Dune saga’s core themes, its social and political ties with the real world, its writing style and so forth, so there will be nothing of this in my reviews: my approach to books tends to be more… emotional  (for want of a better word) than anything else, and that’s what’s going to happen here since this novel for me represents THE landmark in Science Fiction – just as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is for Fantasy, both books being gifted with something of an enduring timeless quality.

The story of young Paul Atreides, from scion of an important family to hunted survivor fighting for his life to charismatic leader, is more than well known: a mix of a hero’s journey with a coming of age tale, set on the background of the complex, often deadly, politics of a vast galactic empire where the balance of power hangs between economic interests, shifting alliances and the machinations of mysterious organizations with a precise agenda to follow.  When I first read Dune, a few decades ago, this complexity, and the mix between classic SF themes and some fantasy elements, proved to be quite fascinating: a feudal system of government, with its infighting between ruling Houses; the secretive Navigators’ Guild whose adepts could forge vast distances through a form of prescience, or again the order of Mentats – human computers acting as surrogates for banned thinking machines. 

These were all intriguing details that caught my attention from the get go, but the most thought-provoking concept was that of the Bene Gesserit, a school of highly trained women capable of great mental and physical feats, and driven by the goal of creating a sort of super-being through a painstaking, ages-long project of genetic manipulation.  To the twenty-something me of back then that proved to be far more appealing, to the point that I tended to focus more on Lady Jessica’s arc than her son Paul’s – even though his story remained riveting throughout; re-reading the novel now, I’m still intrigued by all things Bene Gesserit, but my approach to the narrative is more balanced, while acknowledging that for the time in which the book was first published such focus on female agency was indeed a revolutionary notion. 

If all of the above held me in thrall, it was the move to Arrakis, the desert planet, one of the most captivating alien places I ever read about, that literally blew my mind: endless sands, no water, killing winds, and above all the giant sandworms roaming under the surface, and their tie with the precious melange, the life-prolonging spice whose mining could make or break the fortunes of the empire.  And of course the Fremen, the desert dwellers who had learned to adapt to such an unforgiving environment, creating a society that went beyond mere survival and that showed indications of sophistication under the apparently basic nomadic and savage outer layer.  Mix all this with what is ultimately a tale of revenge and search for freedom, and it’s hardly surprising that the younger me was forever impressed, and that a couple of re-reads in the following years never managed to try and go beyond this undoubtedly intriguing surface.

So, what about older and (hopefully) wiser me? Of course, being now well acquainted with the story arc, I was able to concentrate more on the characters, and to appreciate their development and shades of personality, just as much as I did for the writing and the style of storytelling. Where on my first read I just lightly trod over the “adventurous” surface, now I could enjoy some thought-provoking deeper reflections.  First of all, the narrative tapestry is constructed in such a way that the various pieces of the puzzle combine to create an ever-growing sense of doom for the first part of the novel: even with the help of hindsight, it’s clear, very early on, that the Atreides’ move to Arrakis is going to end in catastrophe – and I wonder if even the choice of their name, taken straight out of the tragic Greek myth, represented a clue in plain sight for all to see…  Despite this inevitable conclusion, and my actual knowledge of it, I was drawn into the story’s flow as if reading it for the first time, which should be a testament to Frank Herbert’s narrative skills in weaving this complex mix of galactic politics, greed, personal ambition and revenge into a novel that still feels fresh despite being written almost sixty years ago.  There indeed goes another reason for my reluctance to re-read books: the fear that the writing might not work anymore for my changed tastes – to my deep relief, such was not the case with Dune.

But of course it was Paul Atreides’ character that drove many of those deeper musings I quoted above. On the outer layer he’s a teenager who led a solitary – if charmed – life until his family’s relocation to Arrakis: a boy with little opportunity to interact with his age peers, schooled by his mother in the ways of the Bene Gesserit that, on the cusp of events, are revealed as a means of unleashing some untapped potential that might set him apart from the rest of humanity. Something that would be a huge burden on anyone, let alone a 15-year old boy… And here, I think, lies the core of Paul’s personal tragedy, that of not being completely (if at all…) the master of his own destiny, which is later compounded by the growing talents of precognition that will show him a future – or a set of futures – that seem to hint at their tragic inevitability.  Paul’s transformation into the charismatic leader of the Fremen does not hold any hint of glory, but is rather tainted with the recurring awareness of the terrible purpose which haunts his waking nightmares.  This time around I was able to feel some form of empathy for Paul, something which was absent in my first visits with the saga: Herbert’s characters, though intriguing, always manage to keep some distance from the readers, so now for the first time I was able to perceive his humanity under the mantle of predestined hero that Herbert had placed on his shoulders.

Where the first book of the Dune saga ends with something that might look like a happy end, with revenge obtained, the villains vanquished, the Fremen once again the masters of their own world, there is still a perceivable cloud hanging over it all that will carry on to the next book and the conclusion of Paul’s narrative arc, a warning – if you want – that happy endings are a mere illusion and that this story, fictional as it is, might rather be a reflection of reality.  And maybe that’s one of the reasons, if not the main one, of the hold that this novel can still exert on readers’ minds so many decades after its inception…

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

RECORD OF A SPACEBORN FEW(Wayfarers #3), by Becky Chambers #SciFiMonth

No two books end up being the same. This is indeed what one should be aware of when approaching a new novel in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, because each one takes the readers in a different direction from the previous ones. And so I went from the group of space travelers in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet to the personal journeys of Lovelace and Jane 23 in A Closed and Common Orbit, only to find myself sharing the lives of the people from the Exodus Fleet – a cluster of connected spaceships that had left the Earth in its decline to create a space-faring society – with Records of a Spaceborn Few.

The story starts with a catastrophic explosion aboard one of the vessels in the Fleet and with the aftermath – emotional, psychological and also practical – of this event, seen through the eyes of a number of characters: Isabel is one of the Archivists, people tasked with recording the history of the Fleet, as well as presiding over the births, and the deaths, of its members; in the latter case, Eyas the Caretaker pays homage to their remains and their return (sort of) into the cycle of life; Tessa (the sister of Captain Ashby from book 1) works in the salvage department and has to deal with huge issues like her daughter’s trauma after the explosion, her father’s failing health and the need to move to a different job; and then there’s young Kip, who’s still trying to find his way and is not sure that his future will take place in the Fleet. The only non-Fleet character we follow in the novel is that of Sawyer, a descendant of former Exodans who choose a planet-bound life: he takes the inverse journey and comes aboard the Asteria – the ship on which most of the story takes place; his destiny will cross that of a few of the people mentioned above, influencing their outlook and their choices for the future.

There are many themes I enjoyed in the novel, not least the one about a space-faring society that forsook a ground-based life to forge its existence in the depths of space, with all the interesting social modifications that such a life implies: there is a similarity here to one of my favorite SF tropes, that of generation ships forging the unknown, and even though the Exodans have established their society in the proximity of a sun they were allotted by the Galactic Commons, their way of life is not so different from that depicted in generation arks traveling in search of a new planet to colonize.   The sense of community is the strongest element at play here, together with that of legacies passed from one generation to the next: one of the most fascinating details comes from the descriptions of the quarters allotted to the various families and of the way each group of dwellers left the imprint of their hands on a wall, as a mark of their passage and as an encouragement to those that came after to improve and build on that ground.  Exodans left their home with the keen awareness of having mortally wounded their home planet, and with the burning desire to avoid such mistakes in the future: keeping score of their progress toward a better society, a better breed of people, is indeed a way to try and avoid those mistakes – as Isabel says, we tend to be:

[…] a longstanding species with a very short memory. If we don’t keep records, we’ll make the same mistakes over and over.

It’s not surprising, then, that a similar focus on trying to create what sounds like an utopia, and a sort of insistence on traditions, might feel suffocating for younger generations, here represented by young Kip who struggles between the love for his family and his desire to look beyond the metal walls of a ship, no matter how comfortable or secure that existence might be.  So it’s interesting that he ends up being profoundly touched by the inverse journey taken by Sawyer (who does not seem much older than he is) when he chooses to join the Fleet and finds himself on a very unexpected path. (I apologize if this sounds a little cryptic, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers…)

Given all these intriguing premises, it came as a surprise that I was not as invested in this story and these characters as I hoped: while I enjoyed the book overall (by now I know that Becky Chambers’ novels will always play well with me), I felt as if something was missing, and I’m still struggling to understand what it was. My involvement always remained on the surface, and while interested in what was happening to these people, I could not form any emotional ties with them, even in the direst of situations.  Probably the contrast with the more adventurous bent from the first book, or with the deep personal journeys of the second, led me to believe that I would be able to get the same level of in-depth perception here, but the chronicle form of the narrative seemed to prevent that – even though the title itself should have represented something of a warning…

Still, Record of Spaceborn Few turned out to be a pleasant read, and my hope is that with the next issues in this series I will be able to recapture the sense of wonder and the character involvement that I experienced in the previous books.

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
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: