Reviews

CATALYST GATE (The Protectorate #3), by Megan O’Keefe

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 imagine that the beginning of any story must be a difficult time, with ideas crowding on the writer’s mind and clamoring for release, but I also believe that bringing it to a close must be equally trying, if one wants to tie up all the narrative threads in a satisfactory way for creator and readers alike: Megan O’Keefe managed to do so very well, and in a breath-stopping, compelling way. 

What started as a more personal journey in the first book of the trilogy, Velocity Weapon, which focused on the main character Sanda Greeve and her discoveries aboard the AI-driven ship Light of Berossus, then turned into a system-wide menace in the second installment, Chaos Vector, to be ultimately expanded into the threat of galactic annihilation in this conclusive volume of the trilogy, one that I once again hope will be optioned for a TV series by some enlightened network executives, if such creatures exist, because this story deserves to be enjoyed in both mediums, and it possesses every quality to turn into a visually stunning, story-intense show.  

In the final book of the saga we find all of the people we got to know along the way, and can enjoy their expanded characterization and the huge twists and revelations that keep coming at them, and at the readers, with a relentless pace that still manages to offer a cohesive, engaging story never missing its focus despite the complex interweaving of its many narrative threads.  While Megan O’Keefe keeps faithful to the structure of the three main POVs employed until now – Sanda, her brother Biran and Jules Valentine – she still finds a way to flesh out the secondary characters with depth and facets that add layers to the story and make you care for them quite deeply, and it hardly matters whether these characters are actual people or not, because Bero – the A.I. entity who is Sanda’s major ally – comes across as a delightful personality, capable of both great determination as well as subtle humor.

What was hinted at before and becomes dramatically clear in Catalyst Gate is that humanity, despite its amazing progress, has not evolved beyond its own self-centeredness and petty squabbles, that reaching for the stars and expanding its civilization there has not cured them of the need to conquer without thinking about possible consequences: once the danger threatening mankind is revealed as the repercussion of an act of extreme hubris, I kept thinking about a sentence in Tolkien’s LOTR about the Dwarves “delving too greedily and too deep” and therefore releasing their own nemesis. The scourge that humans unleashed is the main element driving the story here, and it does so through a series of interconnected threads that impart an almost impossible acceleration to it: more than once I felt the need to stop and come up for air, trying to distance myself a little from the constant adrenaline surge of the action, but I could not stop for long because the story kept attracting me like a powerful magnet. 

It’s amazing to understand, in the end, how the past and the present are closely tied, how the glimpses of humanity’s road to the stars connect with the events in the current timeline, and there are some quite harrowing, edge-of-your-seat moments as the various characters try to piece together those revelations from that past with the dangers of the present, all the while dealing with their own problems – and secrets.  Yes, because there are still many truths still to be revealed in Catalyst Gate: if you thought that all the jaw-dropping surprises had been used up in the previous books, well, think again, because there are quite a few still in store for you. And some will prove to be more than unexpected…

Characters are still shining as brightly as in the previous installments, from Biran who finds himself having to step into his position with the kind of strength and hard resolve that seemed far from his personality; to former spy Tomas, who is still trying to understand his place in the world and the direction his newfound emancipation must take, but knows for certain where his loyalty must lie; to Bero, once the captive A.I. on the ship Light of Berossus and now a powerful player in the galactic milieu, yet one possessed with a delightfully childish glee about its skills (“I continue to be the most effective weapon in the known universe”).  Nor are the secondary players forgotten here, particularly where Sanda’s motley crew is concerned: Megan O’Keefe took these disparate individuals and turned them into one of the most engaging, most enjoyable fictional found families I ever encountered, one whose banter – even in the face of possible destruction – offers welcome rays of light in a very dark, very troublesome background.

And of course Sanda: I connected with this character from day one, admiring her resilience and her no-nonsense approach to problems, even physical ones, like the loss of one leg which has been affecting her from the very start and served to showcase her attitude and personality quite effectively. Sanda is indeed the perfect modern heroine, one who can both kick ass and be affectionate and caring toward her families – the one she started with and the one she built around her. The perfect balance between human frailties and courage, the way she can face even the most desperate situation with tenacity and determination have been the best features in Sanda Greeve, and those that made this series quite special besides its enthralling core story.

As I said at the start of this review, bringing a saga of such magnitude as The Protectorate to its close might hold its own pitfalls, but Megan O’Keefe proved to be a very skillful weaver here, always keeping a tight control on her creature and delivering an end that is both satisfactory and emotionally appealing.  If you are looking for a compelling space opera series with depth and substance, you need look no further.

My Rating:

Reviews

INTERGALACTIC – Season 1 (spoiler-free review)

When the Sky platform announced the arrival of this new SF series, to be released starting from May 31st, I was very intrigued by the details revealed in the promotional trailers, particularly by the protagonists, a group of women convicts who steal a ship and make a run for the planet Arcadia, possibly the last place in the known universe where Earth’s oppressive regime does not reach.  The echoes of Farscape and Firefly in the plot represented the main attraction for me, and I was eager to see where this new SF adventure would take my imagination.

In the year 2143 Earth has undergone some devastating changes of an unspecified nature, although it would be easy to imagine something related to climate: political power now resides with the Commonworld, whose goal to preserve what’s left of our planet is pursued with an iron fist and a totalitarian bent that add a dystopic layer to the overall background. The first sequences of the pilot episode show us a new and futuristic city of London built on the crumbling ruins of the old one, where the destitute and the criminals still eke out a life of sorts.  Ash Harper, a young and on-the-rise pilot/police officer and the daughter of a powerful woman, just concluded the chase of an elusive thief and is celebrating her future prospects when she is suddenly arrested on the charge of having stolen some precious substance: summarily tried, she is placed on a transport ship, the Hemlock, together with other convicts destined to off-world deportation – including the one she caught just a few hours prior.  Once Ash’s mother manages to discover that the evidence against her was forged, it’s too late: the Hemlock is underway and the prisoners have staged a rebellion that left them in control of the ship and of a very useful hostage…

What follows is a madcap chase through the galaxy, with stopovers on various alien planets, as the group searches for the coordinates to Arcadia, where they will be free: for Ash, who finds herself in a very dangerous situation given her company, the adventure will also turn into an eye-opening journey where she will learn about the Commonworld’s dark side and will get to know her traveling companions, some of whom are not truly criminals but rather victims of the government’s ruthless strategies.

With such intriguing premises I frankly expected something more, but was somewhat disappointed: this first season is mildly enjoyable and each episode holds enough twists and character reveals to prove engaging, but I could not shake the feeling that both creators and cast did not give their best here.  More than once, moving from one episode to the next, I wondered if I had not missed some other narrative segment, because the story felt uneven, missing some vital connection that would make the current situation more clear: while I don’t enjoy long, drawn-out info dumps – in any medium – much of what was presented on screen seemed to suggest a kind of background knowledge that was never offered to the viewers, which gave the narrative flow an uneven quality that inflicted a serious handicap to the show’s overall quality.

Characterization suffers its own troubles as well: what could have been a refreshing, all-female crew (there are also two men on board, but they mostly remain on the margins of the story), squandered its potential by turning these women into merely aggressive stereotypes, once again reinforcing the notion that strength in a woman has to express itself into belligerence and outright hostility.  This less than original choice was compounded in some instances by over-the-top acting that felt far too excessive to be credible, and by several lines of dialogue that went from unsubtle to cringe-worthy.  Feeling a connection with these characters proved quite difficult, if not impossible, and even when some revelations about their individual pasts hinted at the possibility of seeing the real person behind the mask, their return to the previous, wildly hostile behavior obliterated any chance for real character growth.

Still, there is some potential in this story, whose short run of only 8 episodes probably penalized its possibilities for a more organic development: from the middle of the season, several elements seem to point out toward a wider narrative scope, and for this reason I will give the next season of this series a chance, to see if it possesses the “courage” to evolve beyond the stereotypes it leans on and to find a better-defined identity. First seasons tend to suffer from growing pains, and I’m curious to see if Intergalactic can go beyond these pains and turn into a story worth following.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE LAST WATCH (The Divide #1), by J. S. Dewes

First things first, my thanks to Tammy at Books, Bones and Buffy because she was the first of my fellow bloggers to review The Last Watch and literally propel me toward this book and its gripping story: I cannot turn away from a promising space opera novel, and this one met all my expectations, and makes me look forward with eagerness to its sequel which is happily slated to come out in a short time.

Long ago, humanity fought a bloody war with the alien Viators, bent on conquest and/or destruction of the races they encountered on their path: humanity managed to prevail and the Viators retreated back beyond the rim of the universe, a border called the Divide. Fearing that the alien invaders would return one day, humans set up a border patrol, the Sentinels, in a line of ships and buoys monitoring the Divide’s activity.  The task, however, was not assigned to rotating crews but rather to the fleet’s misfits, criminals and the unwanted at large, as a way to permanently exile them while still making them useful: practically abandoned at the edge of the universe, far from the Core where life and civilization move forward, the Sentinels keep watch aboard old ships that are literally falling apart, as their requests for spare parts and essential supplies take far too long to be fulfilled, if ever.  The overall feeling is that the central government stopped worrying long ago about the Viators’ return and that it also choose to apply the saying “out of sight, out of mind” to the men and women assigned to guard their backyard.

Adequin Rake is the captain of one of the Divide’s capital ships, the Argus, and as the story opens she feels all the boredom and futility of a duty in which even her superiors seem to have lost interest, but soon enough she finds herself faced with a series of problems: starting with the new recruit, Cavalon Mercer, who does not come from the military as the rest of her personnel, and sports a rakish attitude that’s out of place in the ranks; then she must deal with a series of strange phenomena that impact the already struggling systems of the Argus, while to top it all, the Divide seems to be closing in at an alarming rate on the deployed Sentinel ships, an ominous indication that the universe might be contracting…  This is only the beginning of the adventure, and if these troubles look more than enough to keep your adrenaline flowing… well, think again, because they will pile up in a harrowing sequence that will task to the very limits Rake’s and her crew’s ability to react.

The Last Watch has been presented as a cross between The Expanse and the theme of the Night Watch in Game of Thrones: while I tend to be wary of these comparisons, I have to admit that there are some connections there, but this novel is its own story and it successfully melds some intriguing scientific notions with interesting and relatable characters and a space opera flavor that keeps things lively throughout the book. I was surprised to learn that this is a debut novel because, apart from a couple of “hiccups” I will mention later, it feels like the work of a seasoned writer, which makes me look forward to the next volume with great impatience.

Characters and plot share equal space in this story, in what I discovered is a very effective combination, and if some details about the political and military structure of the universe, or the events that led to the present, are left a little on the vague side, I can always hope that the next books will widen the horizon: the pace in The Last Watch, after the introduction of background and characters, is relentless and it would have been weighted down by too many details, so I’m quite happy with what I got.  Even though this is a space opera novel, the cast of characters remains contained to a handful of people, which makes it very easy to connect with them: the first we meet is Cavalon Mercer, the odd man out since he does not come from the military – on the contrary, he’s the scion of the ruling family, but his continuing acts of rebellion against his grandfather’s ruling strategies finally led him to exile, and he finds himself forcibly enrolled with the Sentinels, and in dire need to hide his true identity, since the Mercer family does not instill much sympathy in the ranks.

From the very start, Cav’s rakish, impertinent attitude is no help in keeping the low profile he needs, and puts him in dangerous social situations, but as the story progresses and his skills come to the fore, often proving instrumental in solving some dire straits, both Captain Rake and the closest crewmates start to warm up to him and accept him as one of their own. Some of Cavalon’s talents require a little suspension of disbelief, because it often looks as if he possesses the right skill at the right moment, making him something of a proverbial Gary Stu: while it’s true that as the heir of the ruling family he might have had a lot of time on his hands, and therefore the opportunity to become acquainted with many aspects of science, it does sound somewhat preposterous that he would be proficient in fields ranging from medicine to engineering.  Luckily for him (and for the readers…) Cav counterbalances this wide knowledge with a far-from-heroic attitude and a healthy fear for his wellbeing that manage to make him quite sympathetic. 

Captain Rake is indeed able to see beyond Cavalon’s smoke screen and to understand that offering her trust and keeping him engaged she will be able to bring the real person to the surface, and turn him into the man he needs to be for the good of the team.  I liked Adequin Rake from the very beginning: here is a woman who distinguished herself in the war against the Viators but for some reason (which we will learn along the way) she was sent to the Divide and is now battling with depression at what she perceives as a futile role. When things start going sideways, however, she shows great determination, courage and moral strength against both the impending doom and the discovery that the central government might have abandoned the Sentinels to their destiny. What’s more, I enjoyed the way she connected with Cavalon as a mentor and guide, leading to what promises to be a rewarding friendship between two very different personalities.

Besides these two main figures there is a number of secondary characters that are wonderfully drawn and given very distinctive qualities that make them much more than simple background extras: from scientist Mesa, a genetically engineered human/Viator hybrid, to gum-chewing Emery, to serious and dependable Jackin, they help fill out this story by giving the reader other people to care about apart from the main characters, and by showing other angles of this universe through their eyes rather than through lengthy exposition.  

The Last Watch seems more like an introduction to this universe than the first installment in a promising series, and as such it left me with a lot of questions about the narrative nooks and crannies that were left unexplored, but what this book managed to do was to hold my attention from start to finish and to make me look forward to the next volume, where I hope to find the answers to those questions. That is, besides the continuation of this amazing adventure, of course…

My Rating:

Reviews

BLACK SUN (Between Earth and Sky #1), by Rebecca Roanhorse – #Wyrdandwonder

Thanks to the previous two books I read by Rebecca Roanhorse, both part of her Sixth World series, I had come to expect a good, absorbing story from her newest work, but Black Sun proved to be so much more than I had anticipated and it took me completely by surprise. An enthralling, delightful surprise.  Set in a world that takes inspiration from pre-colombian cultures and then adds many original details, combining them into a fascinating, complex background, Black Sun follows the journey of four main characters destined to converge in the city of Tova on a very special day, as yearly festivities and an ominous prophecy will merge with unpredictable results.

Xiala is a mercenary sea captain and a Teek, which means she comes from a matriarchal seafaring society from which she was exiled after a tragic event: imprisoned after a violent altercation with her former employer and a drunken night on the town, she is released after accepting to transport a young man to the city of Tova in time for Convergence, the winter solstice that this year will also see the alignment of Earth, Sun and Moon. The passenger is Serapio, molded from infancy to be the vessel of a vengeful god and for this reason deeply scarred and blinded – but not helpless, not at all.  Naranpa is the highest priest in the city of Tova, but her role is in constant jeopardy because of the inner political maneuvers inside the priesthood, and their inability to accept her humble origins. And then there is Okoa, son of the Carrion Crow clan’s matron: back in Tova from the military academy, he finds himself dealing with family problems and uneasy alliances.

The novel unfolds through time jumps that don’t feel at all confusing as they are wielded with great skill and keep adding new information to the very complex tapestry that is this story: seeing this world through the different points of view also confers great depth to it and its history, turning it into a vivid, three-dimensional creation that is very easy to slip into, just as it’s difficult to move out of, because it tends to entangle you into its awesome complexity. Moreover, the time jumps keep enhancing the sense of impending doom that becomes more and more palpable as the day of Convergence draws near.

The setting is indeed fascinating, not just because of the different locations visited as the characters engage in their travels, but because it’s created through a blend of vivid descriptions and fascinating legends that shape the world into something tangible and vibrant, gifted with a definite cinematic quality. If this is true for all descriptions in the novel, it is even more so where the city of Tova is concerned: a place of high peaks and deep chasms spanned by aerial bridges that can give you vertigo by proxy, a city teeming with life and at the same time rife with the danger of death, a death that can come through accidents – like slipping down an icy bridge into a bottomless ravine – or through malice – like being killed by a hired assassin or the member of a rival clan.  There is a definite sense of urgency in Tovan day-to-day activities, be they the comfortable kind enjoyed by the elite or the hand-to-mouth existence of the dwellers in the Maw, the lowest level of the city where poverty, crime and the offer of illicit pleasures are a way of life. It does not take long for the reader to perceive that Tova is like a pressure cooker ready to explode, that social strain and the priesthood’s iron rule and inner conflicts, together with never-ending clan rivalries, are bringing that pressure to the boiling point: add to that the long-held thirst for revenge harbored by Carrion Crow for the Night of Knives, when the priesthood tried to exterminate the clan, and you know it’s all fated to end in blood.

In this tense but intriguing situation the characters shine and add a further level of allure to the story, even though Okoa is mostly kept on the sidelines in favor of the other three, with some hope he will play a bigger role as the story moves forward. Naranpa is the one who required more time for me to truly appreciate her, but I guess it was mostly because I was still orienting myself in this world: once I got to know her better I could only admire her tenacity in clinging to her exalted post, despite her own self-doubts and the insecurities carried over from an impoverished childhood. Nara, as she’s often called, does not care so much for power in itself or for politics, but rather for the good of the city: she understands that to bring peace and prosperity to Tova things have to change, and for that she is challenged every step of the way by her fellow priests, when she is not actually threatened with death. Nara’s journey throughout Black Sun is a hard one, and while many times I felt frustrated in witnessing the obstacles she had to face, I cannot wait to see what Rebecca Roanhorse has in store for her along the way.

If Nara is an outsider with little chances of ever blending in, Xiala and Serapio are just as isolated, even though in different ways. I liked Xiala from the very beginning: her personality is a mix of defiance and vulnerability, accentuated by the way people relate to her as a Teek, a woman whose mysterious Song can placate stormy waters, call favorable winds and keep at bay dangerous creatures. For this reason Teeks are highly sought after, but at the same time despised and feared, and even killed for their precious bones gifted with magical properties: all this comes to the fore in the course of the sea voyage to Tova, when Xiala shows a very peculiar talent and the crew mutinies out of fear.  It’s therefore not surprising when she forms a bond with Serapio, an outcast like herself, and that they can understand each other on a deeper level, as shown by the exchange of stories and myths during the long nights over the sea.

Serapio might very well be the central character here, a sort of anti-hero who is at the same time powerful and vulnerable: shaped from childhood to be an instrument of vengeance, leading a loveless life as he was being molded into the desired weapon, he nonetheless shows a form of quiet humanity, a sort of sad gentleness that managed to break my heart, particularly when he contemplates what will be his ultimate destiny, 

[he] hoped that the pain would not be too great. He had made friends with it, yes, but it was a wary friendship.

a destiny he did not choose himself but at the same time one he has accepted as the only possible one. The author describes his journey in such a way that even as he fulfills his preordained role in a frenzied dance of violence and blood I could not help myself and felt only pity for him.

When all is said and done, Black Sun will certainly attract you because of the exotic background that sets it apart from the usual epic fantasy offerings, but it’s through the strength and human depth of its characters that it will keep you coming back for more. 

My Rating:

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Reviews

SHADOW AND BONE SEASON 1 (Netflix series) – #Wyrdandwonder

Before embarking in the review for the first season of the series inspired by Leigh Bardugo’s trilogy I need to state that I have not read her books, so I came to this story in total ignorance of its background and characters, which makes me unable to compare the two mediums – although, from what I was able to gather on various comments online, it would seem that the translation from books to screen was reasonably faithful to the source material.  I also learned that the script is a mix between the Shadow and Bone trilogy proper and the story portrayed in the Six of Crows duology, which for me added a nice counterpoint to the core narrative (and compelled me to finally add Six of Crows to my reading queue, after leaving it to languish on my TBR for far too long).

The story, in a nutshell: the kingdom of Ravka (which bears an uncanny resemblance to Tsarist Russia from the 19th Century) is split in two by a phenomenon called the Fold, an area of turbulent darkness inhabited by the Volcra, ravenous and nightmarish creatures. The kingdom is further divided by the separation between its mundane inhabitants and the Grisha, people with the ability to manipulate elemental forces, and for this reason both feared and despised. Young Alina Starkov, an orphan serving in the military, discovers that she holds a unique power, that of summoning light – a power that might vanquish the Fold and its terrible creatures forever: for this reason Alina finds herself at the center of a power struggle whose main strings are connected to General Kirigan, also a powerful Grisha, whose goals might not be completely straightforward…

As I said, I came to this series with no previous background, and at first I was a little lost in trying to connect all the dots, particularly because there are three main narrative lines in the story: the one focused on Alina, the one following the Crows (a band of thieves looking for the heist that will make their fortune) and the one about a Grisha who’s been kidnapped by enemies of Ravka.  Once I got my bearings however, I was able to enjoy the story and get invested in it, although I have to admit that sometimes it felt as if the viewers were forced to bite off more than they could chew: my lack of knowledge of the books series played a part in this, of course, but I had the impression that a couple more episodes, besides the eight slated for this first season, might have given the narrative more room to breathe.  The crowded storylines, while offering the possibility of moving across Ravka with the change of POW and therefore exploring the setting in its different locations, left little room to truly grow attached to the characters who seemed to me more like archetypes than living and breathing creations with which to establish the necessary emotional connection.

And indeed the archetypes abound in this first segment of the story: Alina is the classic orphan, shunned and underrated, who is later discovered as the holder of a vital power that will turn her into the proverbial Chosen One. She moves through all the required stages of… chosenhood (is that a word? 😀 ), from denial to wonder to acceptance and for most of the time she lets herself go with the flow, sometimes making ill-advised choices or trusting the wrong people, in what are the established canons of YA literature. There is also the hint of a love triangle that – to my enormous relief – did not last long, momentarily shifting Alina’s affections from her childhood friend Mal to the enigmatic General Kirigan, the Shadow Summoner.  This latter represents another YA firm staple, that of the darkly brooding character who serves as the antithesis to the shining wholesomeness of Mal, who in turn is not exempt from the expected mix of courage and willing sacrifice.

The three Crows, while following some of the genre’s criteria, appear more intriguing, mostly because we are shown only the surface of their personality and perceive that there is much more in their backgrounds worth exploring: Kaz, their leader, clearly suffered some tragedy in his past, which forced him to don a cynical protective armor; Inej is a former slave with the skills of a ninja and a powerful drive for freedom; and Jesper (my absolute favorite) is a sharp-shooter and a lovable maverick.  I liked very much how their narrative threads intersected with Alina’s and even more the fact that they might feature more prominently in the seasons to come: nothing like a good crew ready to launch into a daring heist to keep my attention focused, even more than the main events did, at times.

If the characters still need more room to grow and expand, the series’ settings are its best feature so far: from the hints about the social and racial divides at the roots of Ravkan society to the gorgeous costumes to the amazing visuals, all contribute to paint this world quite vividly and turn it into a believable reality.  The scenes alternate between the bright light of some interior settings to the outside panoramas of chilly, snowbound vistas that give way to the fearsome darkness of the Fold, in my opinion one of the best CGI creations of the series: when the characters travel through this area where thunder rumbles constantly, you are instantly assailed by the ominous sensation that something terrible is about to happen, and the choice of not fully showing the predatory Volcra, but rather offering only swift, almost subliminal glimpses of their appearance, makes them even more terrifying than a full manifestation and intensifies the sense of fear they must inspire. 

This first season of Shadow and Bone might not have been perfect, and was certainly too brief for the huge amount of information it had to deliver, but when all is said and done it shows great promise that I hope to see fulfilled in the seasons yet to come, and I’m looking forward to them with great interest.

My Rating:

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Reviews

THE SPIDER’S WAR (The Dagger and the Coin #5), by Daniel Abraham – #Wyrdandwonder

Despite my best intentions, it took me over four years to come to the conclusion of this five-book saga, mostly because other titles kept distracting me from the goal, but now that I have finally reached the end I can say it was a very engaging and very satisfying read. 

The central theme of the series, as indicated by its name, is the duality of power: exerted by armies on one side and by the laws of economy on the other, in a constantly shifting tug-of-war that in the course of the whole story sees lands ravaged by conflict and struggling to resurface from its devastation. 

As the previous book, The Widow’s House, reached its end, the army from Antea was continuing its campaign of conquest and annexation under the banner of the Spider Goddess: Geder Palliako, the former nobody risen to the position of Regent for young Antean king Aster, still trusts the counsel of priest Basrahip but at the same time is unable to deny any longer the inner turmoil that comes from the realization that Antea is dealing with a war on too many fronts, and that even the evil power of persuasion of the priests’ voices can do little for tired, overtaxed and ill-supplied soldiers.

Geder’s adversaries – Cithrin bel Sarcour and the Medan bank; former mercenary Marcus Wester; Clara Kalliam, the widow of one of Geder’s first political victims, just to name a few – are pooling their forces to try and overthrow the Antean invasion and defeat the Goddess’ masterminds. It’s a multi-pronged assault, one which sees Cithrin on one side concocting a daring scheme based on “war gold”, which is nothing more than the invention of paper currency, and Marcus on the other planning to use the last surviving dragon, Inys, to strike the final blow. Clara, for her part, plays a subtle and dangerous double game from inside the enemy’s lines as the conspirators set up a daring scheme that involves suborning Geder himself.

It’s hard to summarize a story that has been running for five books and which sees here, in its final installment, a series of twists and turns that flow into a hair-raising epilogue – one that includes a dragon breathing fire and destruction – and to say the truth, the story itself looks less important than the characters driving it: throughout the series we saw these characters change – some for the best, some for the very worst – and the focus on their struggles always held my attention more than anything else. Daniel Abraham’s characters feel like flesh-and-blood people and particularly in this last book I felt myself invested in their individual journeys and I enjoyed the author’s way of not closing neatly those journeys but rather showing that they still had a long road to travel, even though it’s not one we will be able to follow.

Marcus Wester might be the archetype of the tired warrior carrying a painful baggage from his past, and at times he looked nothing more than that, but in the end he comes across as much more through his interactions with other characters, like Master Kit, the former spider priest turned actor, or like Yardem Hane, fellow soldier and laconic “conscience” whose sparsely worded replies have been a constant source of delightful humor throughout the story. Wester’s steadfastness is one of the rocks on which Cithrin’s growth can stand: from scared girl saddled with an important assignment to confident banker able to make or break the destinies of a country, Cithrin is the coin to Wester’s dagger, just as their dealings are the representation of the series’ dual view of the world.

My sympathies, however, have mostly focused on Clara Kalliam: I’ve been fascinated with her character from her appearance in the first book, and her elevation to POV figure made me quite happy because this lady is one of the players who enjoys the best focus in the course of the saga. At the start of her story-arc she is the accomplished wife and mother, the quiet, unassuming strength behind her husband’s power, and she fully comes to her real potential only by passing through the fire of tragedy and loss: far from diminishing her, the downfall allows her to shed the chains of convention and to play different roles – behind-the-scenes politician, revolutionary, spy – all the while hiding behind the masks of court socialite or frail old woman, and setting in motion many of the events that ultimately change the course of history.

The theme of roleplaying is indeed a recurrent one in The Dagger and the Coin: although some real actors are actual characters in the story, and their leader Master Kit is quite proficient at hiding in plain sight, everyone sooner or later must play a role – or many – and not just Clara. Cithrin starts by pretending to be older and more accomplished than she is, and then goes on affecting a brash certainty she does not possess; Marcus Wester charms Inys by feigning submission, and so on. In this world where the Goddess’ priests are able to detect lies, deception requires subtlety and often means walking on a tightrope over the abyss…

And then there is Geder: I don’t remember changing my mind about a fictional character as much as I did for Geder – where at first he elicited my sympathies, given how he started his journey as the proverbial fish out of water, his personality took some unexpected directions that made him loathsome. If he had simply turned into a villain, it would have been easy to hate him outright, but even when he is responsible for the worst atrocities, he finds a way to justify those choices as necessary and unavoidable, showing that he is as much a victim of circumstances as he is their enabler – a willing pawn, granted, but one who clearly enjoys the better consequences of those choices….  Here in The Spider’s War he goes way overboard, burning away any remaining dregs of pity I might have harbored because of his past: his desire for recognition, for respect, and the price he’s ready to pay to get them, turned him into a monster – a bumbling, insecure and troubled one, true, but still a monster. And for this very reason the way his narrative journey ends does not feel completely believable: I can’t say much about it because I want to avoid spoilers, but to me what happens does not have the “flavor” of an organic development.

This dissonance, and the way the ending winds down – almost with the proverbial whimper instead of the expected “bang” – are the reasons I can’t rate this final book as high as its predecessors, although I still consider The Dagger and the Coin one of the best fantasy series I have read so far, and Daniel Abraham as a very, very accomplished author.

My Rating:

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Reviews

TRUNK MUSIC (Harry Bosch #5), by Michael Connelly

The more I move forward with this series, the more I’m glad that I started reading it propelled by my enjoyment of the TV show it inspired: not only it offers a welcome digression from a steady “diet” of science fiction and fantasy, therefore helping me avoid reader fatigue, it also showcases an engaging character whose personal journey is still ongoing as he deals with interesting murder cases, the complex social microcosm of a big city like Los Angeles and the even more convoluted political ramifications between law enforcement agencies.

Returning to work after the compulsory leave of absence described in the previous book, Harry Bosch is eager to go back to solving homicides, and the first one he’s called to investigate looks like a mob hit: a body is found in the trunk of an abandoned Rolls Royce, and once the victim’s identity is revealed (a small-time producer of porn movies with a side occupation as a money launderer) everything seems to point toward organized crime.  Some details, however, don’t add up and the investigation leads Bosch and colleagues along several paths, both in L.A. and in Las Vegas, where the victim was a frequent visitor: it’s here that the detective makes an unexpected encounter with someone from his past, a chance meeting that is fraught with uncomfortable memories and unrepressed emotions. As the hunt for the killer becomes more complicated Bosch faces a web of misdirections and red herrings – as does the reader – but nothing, not even a false accusation of having planted evidence, will distract him from following his leads with the usual dogged determination, until he solves the case.

In my review of the previous book in the series I spoke of a turning point for the main character, and here the differences in personality and approach to situations are indeed remarkable: Harry Bosch is still relentless in his pursuit of the truth, and he’s still prone to ignoring the rules when they clash with his methods, but while in the past he might have looked possessed by an inner darkness, now he’s more at peace with himself and this attitude reflects on the way he deals with people. It’s possible that having finally solved his mother’s murder he gave himself the permission to be more human, to be happy and to reach out to other people: this new approach is evident in his relationship with his old-time partner Edgar and with the new one assigned to the team, Kiz Rider, who is a brilliant, on-the-rise detective. Rider, and Lieutenant Grace Billets, Bosch’s new chief, are welcome additions to a story that was begging for a few female figures of substance: in particular I was happy for the arrival of Billets because I enjoyed her TV character very much, and because she marks a huge difference from the previous commander, since she is stern and tough but also knows how to give some slack to her detectives when it’s necessary to get things done.

While this “new” Bosch still indulges in his lone-wolf attitude at times, here in Trunk Music we see how he’s able to work with a team – of which he has been given command with a show of faith in his skills as a coordinator – and to ask for the cooperation of other people instead of getting it literally at gunpoint as he used to do in the past: it’s as if he’s been trying to rebuild himself, just as he’s now rebuilding the house that was wrecked by the earthquake in the previous book, and the parallel about new beginnings extends also to his private life, where the chance encounter I mentioned before leads to a momentous change that sees him involved in a stable relationship.  One of the reasons I’m enjoying this series so far is Connelly’s ability of showing his character’s evolution through the experiences he deals with: in this book he faces his own feelings for a woman from his past and comes to admit his vulnerability where she is concerned, but at the same time he’s able to avoid being distracted by those same feelings in his search for the truth. What comes out is a more rounded – and more human – character than the one presented at the beginning of the series, and makes him more relatable and sympathetic.

Of course the investigative parts of the story are no less intriguing than the characters peopling it: the old-fashioned detective activity is still present, of course, with witness questioning, search for connections and so forth, but some details of the forensic angle start to come into play more than they did before – which never fails to intrigue me because I’m totally fascinated by the scientific side of police work. And in this particular case there are several clues that seem marginal at first, only to be later revealed as pivotal in the solution of the case: nothing is left to chance here, there are no hanging threads that end up nowhere, there is instead a fascinating organization at the roots of these stories that leads the reader, alongside the detectives, toward the final revelation and the surprises awaiting there, because there are no foregone conclusions here and the sustained, never slacking pace of the story carries you from step to step while keeping you totally immersed in its progress.

An important consideration, that became more noticeable in Trunk Music, is how the books and the TV series they inspired are similar but never the same: since I encountered these stories in their televised form first, I thought that the “excitement factor” might be diminished by my foreknowledge of the way they went, but this fifth book confirmed how the TV scripts changed many of the pieces on the playing field, allowing me to enjoy the books because of the marked differences between the two mediums. Which leads me to believe that I have still many surprises awaiting me down the road…

My Rating:

Reviews

COLLATERAL DAMAGE (ST: TNG), by David Mack

After the heart-stopping intrigue of Control and the quieter transition of Available Light, I finally reached the conclusion of this narrative arc focused on the infamous Section 31 and its heavy-handed involvement in Federation policy.  Well, in truth there are two more books that deal with past events leading to the present confrontation, but I discovered their existence only recently, and I plan to read them in the near future: I’m aware it’s a strange, backward way of following the development of this storyline, but on the other hand the novels I read so far did a great job of filling the background and making those issues understandable, so it will be more a matter of connecting the dots than anything else…

Back to Collateral Damage: after the discovery of Captain Picard’s involvement in the plot to depose a former, corrupted Federation president, who was then killed on the orders of Section 31, the Enterprise’s captain is called back to Earth to testify about his connection to the events; although he was not aware of president Zife’s murder, he still has to answer for his past role in the conspiracy to remove him from office, and the tribunal will have to decide if he should be deferred to a court martial.  The novel’s secondary plot focuses on the Enterprise chasing a group of rogue Nausicaans who interfered in a Starfleet Intelligence operation, stealing a powerful weapon they intend to use as a blackmail tool to pursue their desperate goal.

While I have sometimes complained about the thinness of B-plots in tie-in novels, this is not the case here: on the contrary, I can easily say that Collateral Damage stands on two outstanding A-plots that enhance and complement each other, turning the story into a compelling narrative and ultimately dealing with the same kind of dilemma – the consequences of one’s actions and choices – from two different points of view.  In the few instances in which we saw Nausicaans on screen, they were depicted as quarrelsome and brutish, but here their acts – reprehensible as they are – come from desperation and loss, since their homeworld was destroyed and the handful of survivors did not receive the expected support from a Federation far too distracted by its own problems. 

This thread of the novel held my attention in many ways: for starters it offered an in-depth view of the Nausicaan culture, a rich and layered one that contradicts those few glimpses seen on screen, the effect strengthened by the use of exotic language as a means of conveying the sense of alienness of the characters. Then there is the question about the lack of Federation response to the tragedy suffered by the Nausicaans: as I remarked in previous reviews, this is not the Federation envisioned by Roddenberry, and it’s quite far from the utopian ideal of its creator – it’s an entity whose mistakes can have shocking consequences and worse, it’s guilty of turning a blind eye toward the suffering of others, showing the first(?) cracks in what so far had seemed a flawless exterior, allowing the repercussions of that failure to bite it, hard, on the behind.  

The resolution of this narrative line is one that feels right in many ways: first because it owns the Federation’s past mistakes and then acknowledges that there is always room for mutual understanding, even in the worst circumstances, and second because it allows Worf, who is in command of the Enterprise for this mission, to shine as a character and to show enormous growth, something that rarely happens in tie-in novels where the unwritten rule seems to require crew-members be kept in a sort of unchanging limbo. This author is clearly not afraid to take those characters and let them move forward on the strength of past experiences and gained wisdom, and they benefit from this choice by becoming their own persons, delightfully three-dimensional and believable.

Where the Nausicaan angle offers a lively and often tense narrative, the part of the novel dedicated to Picard’s trial – the one I was eagerly waiting for – is equally fascinating, sustained by a keen focus on the technical elements of the proceedings, one that turns those scenes into emotionally gripping moments.  There is a great deal of well-portrayed courtroom drama here, a theme I enjoy and that is built up by the apparent desire of prosecutor Louvois to find Picard guilty and to ruthlessly destroy his image and career. It makes for some very tense narrative segments, where I experienced genuine worry for the path the events were taking, but the true core of the story resides in the two-pronged question of the far-reaching consequences of one’s actions on one side (a mirror to the theme of the Nausicaans abandoned to their destiny), and about the dilemma of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons on the other.

There is of course no clean-cut answer to the second question: removing corrupted president Zife was a necessary choice given the situation at the time, but we see Picard wrestling with the moral implications of his actions and feeling that some of the other conspirators’ stigma has tainted him as well. Although not involved in the decision to kill Zife, he perceives that his integrity – the character trait he clearly most cares about – has been compromised and that, as he tells Louvois in their parting exchange, “None of us is innocent […]. Not anymore.”  This loss of innocence is shared by the whole Federation, for a long time unknowing hostage of an organization that forged policy with means that went dramatically against everything the Federation itself stood for.  It’s a bitter acknowledgement, but again it feels more true – humans being humans – than the polished, utopian perfection we used to see on screen; and no matter how bleak this consideration looks, it leaves room for the hope that humanity might learn from its mistakes and keep striving for better ideals.

With Collateral Damage I once again found myself enjoying a tie-in novel that had the courage to explore the darker side of its background, and in so doing went well beyond the pure entertainment value of its brethren, making me think about serious issues while keeping me thoroughly engrossed. A rare and welcome combination, indeed.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE CROSSING PLACES (Ruth Galloway #1), by Elly Griffiths

I discovered this thriller series thanks to fellow blogger Sarah at Brainfluff, and before launching into this review I have to thank her for the post that piqued my curiosity and led me to learn more about this intriguing character.

Dr. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archeologist living on the Norfolk coast, in a bleak but suggestive area of salt marshes, strong winds and compelling Iron Age relics. In her late thirties, Ruth teaches at the nearby university and lives alone with her two cats in a cottage facing the boundary between land and sea: hers is a quiet, contented life, her seclusion a choice rather than the product of circumstances.  The quiet routine is one day shattered by the visit of Chief Inspector Nelson, tasked with the investigation of a young girl’s disappearance and obsessed by a similar case from the past, one he was unable to solve: the discovery of human bones on a nearby beach compelled Nelson to seek Ruth’s help in finding out if they belong to the missing girl.

Ruth’s examination brings her to the conclusion that the remains are from the Iron Age, but still Nelson’s case haunts her, particularly because someone – probably the abductor of the first child – keeps writing taunting letters to the inspector, using terms that only someone versed in archeology would know. The parallel between the Iron Age ritual sacrifices and the mystery of the kidnapped girls preys on Ruth’s mind and she finds herself progressively more embroiled in the riddle, to the point that her life might be in danger…

I enjoyed The Crossing Places quite a bit, thanks to its many unique elements: first there is the isolated, windswept background of the Norfolk coast salt marshes – I searched the web for more information and the pictures I found showed that despite the apparent bleakness there is a sort of… savage beauty to the place, and I was able to understand Ruth’s fascination with the area, and her desire to remain immersed in such a changeable environment.  This is a very atmospheric story and the salt marshes are the perfect setting for a mystery encompassing several years and developing along a very circuitous route riddled with false trails and red herrings, not unlike the treacherous paths running along the marshes.

And then there is Ruth, a very unusual heroine for the genre: she is a quiet, reserved person who has learned to deal with the vagaries of life and built herself an existence tailored on her own preferences, uncaring of the conventions and requirements of society and family. Composed and almost withdrawn, she is not however the kind of person who allows others to rule her choices, and therefore the perfect foil for the brusquely driven, almost overbearing Nelson, with whom she establishes a relationship that’s mostly based on mutual respect and the acknowledgment that their differences can complement each other rather than clash. This is portrayed quite well in the dovetailing of current police investigation and archeological research, which are not so different after all, as someone says at some point: for Ruth it’s a brief step from her study of the Iron Age girl’s remains, and the reasons for her burial in that particular site, to the burning curiosity to learn the fate of the missing girls – she knows that in each case they were sacrificed, one because of religious beliefs and the others because of someone’s twisted goals, and her inquisitive mind needs to put all the pieces together to form a complete picture.   But what I liked most in Ruth’s character is that while she acknowledges that reaching one’s middle age carries its own load of regrets and missed opportunities, she totally owns her choices and has found a way to turn them into a kind of existence she can be comfortable with, if not exactly happy.

The mystery at the core of the novel is an intriguing one, particularly as it focuses on the scenes from the point of view of a girl imprisoned in what looks like a cell, both expecting and dreading the infrequent visits of her captor: it’s clear from the start where those interludes are leading, just as it’s easy to figure out who the kidnapper/killer might be, because in spite of the false trails scattered here and there the clues appear to point in that direction, but that hardly matters because the fascinating aspect of this mystery lies in the foreboding and menacing flavor of the story, enhanced by the very peculiar background in which it’s set.

The Crossing Places is a good, if sometimes imperfect story: having checked, I discovered it’s the author’s debut novel, which helps me make allowances for some of the “blemishes” I encountered along the way and to hope that some of them will be straightened out in the next works.  At the start of the story we get Ruth’s physical description through one of the most abused ways, i.e. through the character looking into a mirror: I freely acknowledge that it’s one of my (too many…) pet peeves, but for some reason it never fails to bother me, because it speaks of a certain unwillingness to find other means to get that kind of description across. Then there is the detail about Ruth being slightly overweight, a detail too often repeated – to the point where it seems to define her in spite of her academical and personal achievements, as if she were more concerned with appearance than substance, in open contradiction with her otherwise well-balanced personality.

These are however minor disturbances, and they were not enough to prevent me from total immersion in the story or from looking for the next novels in the series, with the hope that some of the problems that afflict this book will be straightened out in the course of the journey.

My Rating:

Reviews

SHARDS OF EARTH (The Final Architects #1), by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I received this novel from Pan/McMillan through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Shards of Earth is my sixth book from Adrian Tchaikovsky and one unlike the others I read so far: this author moves from one kind of story to another with enviable ease, so that I’m now certain that no matter which work of his I pick up, I will be pleasantly surprised by what I find. This first volume in the Final Architects series brings us fully into the space opera genre with a story spanning many worlds and civilizations and introducing the most terrible kind of adversary, one which does not seem to act out of malice or thirst for power, but simply because that is its way – one for whom the words collateral damage or consequences seem to hold no meaning at all.  More than once I have wondered how events of the past year have weighed on Adrian Tchaikovsky’s imagination as he crafted the Architects, entities that work according to their own inner programming (not unlike a virus!), unaware of the damage they are inflicting…

At the start of the novel, galactic civilization is two generations past a catastrophic event which threatened to annihilate every form of life – human or alien – in the universe: moon-sized things appeared literally out of nowhere, changing the shape of the worlds they encountered in a sort of destructively “artistic” way, erasing in the process all life present on those worlds. The Architects – so the mysterious entities were named – seemed attracted only by inhabited worlds, and their deadly attention did not spare either alien or human civilization: Earth was one of the worlds so reshaped, and the people who were able to escape from the cataclysmic remolding of their worlds lived like refugees under the constant threat of the appearance of an Architect in their skies.  A last, desperate attempt was made to contact the aliens by genetically enhancing a group of human volunteers (called the Intermediaries) who would be able to communicate with the Architects in the hope of stopping the destruction: during an all-out battle involving the allied fleet created to face the threat, the Intermediaries were able to stop the mindless carnage, and the aliens disappeared just as swiftly as they had manifested.

Some fifty years after the end of the war, what had been an alliance forged under the threat of annihilation has now fractured into a number of governing bodies more often than not at odds with each other: danger forgotten, every one of them – including some criminal conglomerates – seeks power and dominance over the others. The Intermediaries, already marked in body and mind by the transformation, did not fare so well and most of them died, while a program to create more is underway using convicted criminals, not so much as a defense against a return of the Architects – which many deem impossible – but rather because one of the side effects of the genetic enhancing is the ability to navigate unspace, the ghastly nowhere between worlds.  Idris Telemmier is the last one of the original group of Intermediaries, and he now works as a navigator for a crew of interstellar scavengers on a ship very aptly named Vulture God: he does not age, nor does he need sleep, but he’s a very troubled individual and all he wants is to be forgotten and to forget – as impossible as it is – the horrors he had to witness, which makes a strange discovery, made by the Vulture God’s crew in the far reaches of space,  even more disturbing: the Architects might be coming back…

It takes a while for Shards of Earth to make the reader comfortable within its pages, or at least that was my experience at first: Tchaikovsky wastes almost no time in explaining his universe, plunging the audience in medias res so that one feels a little lost – that is, until a closer look at the character and civilizations list, not to mention the useful timeline, opens a window on this huge, complex background and everything falls into place.  The aliens peopling the Galaxy are indeed quite bizarre creatures, confirming the author’s richness of imagination: they are not only weird-looking, but they come from equally outlandish civilizations and their interactions with the humans can go from the humorous to the quite terrifying. Yet it’s the human (or post-human…) characters I connected with more deeply, particularly the crew of the Vulture God, which gave me the same kind of wonderful vibes I could find in Firefly or The Expanse, making me feel perfectly at home with this group of mismatched individuals.

Idris is the one who required more “work” from me because at first he comes across as gloomy and sullen: it’s only as his story comes into light, bit by bit, that it’s possible to understand the depth of the damage inflicted on him first by the procedures necessary to turn him into an Intermediary, then by his war experiences and finally by the constant journeys into unspace – the navigational medium that can turn an unmodified human into a crazed wreck and weighs on an Intermediary with the conflicting sensations of loneliness and of a looming, threatening presence.  If Idris is able to still maintain a grip on sanity it’s because of the bond he forged with his crew-mates, an apparently ill-assorted group that has grown into a found family whose interactions are a joy to behold – from expansive captain Rollo who calls the members of his crew “children”, to dour drone specialist Olli, whose stunted body made her a wizard in remote control of machinery; from  crab-shaped alien tech Kit to lawyer Kris, whose main job is to protect Idris from being indentured by unscrupulous conglomerates, they all create a wonderful sense of familial cohesion that looks like the only barrier separating Idris from a devastating breakdown.

That’s the main reason the arrival of an old acquaintance of Idris places them all on defensive mode: Solace is a member of the Parthenon, a human faction that long ago left Earth establishing a society of parthenogenically created women-soldiers – she and her sisters fought valiantly against the Architects, but are now looked on with suspicion, not least because there is a great deal of misinformation about their civilization and goals.  Solace is tasked with convincing Idris to help the Parthenon create their own Intermediaries, should they be needed with the possible return of the Architects, and when she joins the Vulture God she initially upsets the balance aboard the vessel, but as the days go on and a series of dramatic events plagues the crew, she feels torn between commitment to her duty and the growing sense of belonging that her adventures aboard the ship are bringing about.

As far as space opera goes, Shards of Earth is a perfect, quite engaging representative of the genre, and for this very reason I refrained from mentioning any detail from the fast-paced string of events at the core of this story. What I’m more than happy to share, however, is that the last 15-20% of the novel moves from a fast pace to a breakneck speed that had me turning the pages as quickly as I could, because the stakes were enormous and the various revelations beyond compelling.  And the good news is that although this is the first volume in a series, it does not end in a cliffhanger: granted, we understand that the various pieces have just been set in motion on this galactic chessboard, but this segment of the story is tied up quite satisfactorily – although I would not mind reading the next book right now 😉

If you are a fan of Adrian Tchaikovsky, I’m certain you will enjoy the depth and scope of his new work, and if you never read any of his books, this might very well be an amazing introduction. Either way, you will not be disappointed….

My Rating: