Reviews

DREADFUL COMPANY (Dr. Greta Helsing #2), by Vivian Shaw – Wyrd & Wonder 2020

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in Vivan Shaw’s Urban Fantasy series, and did not wait long to add this second volume to my reading queue: Dreadful Company proved to be an even faster and more entertaining read, adding further depth to the characters I already knew and presenting a few new ones that spiced up the mix in a very interesting way.

The story opens with Greta traveling to Paris for a symposium of supernatural medicine in the company of her vampire friend Lord Ruthven. What could have been a pleasant, if slightly boring, diversion from her work in London becomes first a puzzle when Greta finds not one but two weird critters in her room – beings that are magically summoned rather than being born – and then turns into a harrowing experience as she is kidnapped by a local vampire coven whose ruler, the dangerously capricious Corvin, intends to use her as bait to exact vengeance on Ruthven, with whom he clashed, and lost, in the past.

The situation is further complicated by some weird ghostly manifestations pointing toward a lessening of the barrier between the mundane plane and the afterworld, which require the summoning of two licensed psychopomps and the intervention of a demonic overseer in the person of Greta’s special friend Fastitocalon, who had been recuperating his health in Hell.  As it becomes clear that the critters found by Dr. Helsing and the vampire coven are tied into these “reality hiccups”, the guardian of Paris, werewolf St. Germain, joins forces with Ruthven, Varney and the rest of Greta’s friends in what turns into a mixed rescue & restoration enterprise that kept me turning the pages with highly amused enthusiasm.

Not unlike what happened in Strange Practice, Greta often cedes the limelight to the other players and while this might look somewhat odd, it also allows them to gain more substance and provides a welcome balance to the story. Still, the distressing situation in which she finds herself here puts Greta’s personality into sharper focus and we see how it’s made out of equal measures of kindness, dedication and common sense: being a prisoner does not exempt her from being a doctor first and foremost, so that she has no reservations in treating one of her captors’ wounds, or in feeling deep pity for the youngest member of the coven once she realizes that the girl has been turned without permission and then left to her own devices to face the transformation into a vampire.  If I wrote, in my review of the first book, that Greta looked less substantial than the other characters, I have come to understand that her reserved attitude hides a core of strength and cleverness that comes to light when need arises, and which in this particular circumstance leads her to take matters in her own hands without waiting for rescue to come her way.

It is of course interesting to see Lord Ruthven shaken out of his usual aplomb as he realizes that Greta is in danger at the hands of an old adversary, or to witness the blossoming closeness between Varney and the doctor – while not a fan of romantic entanglements, I’m quite curious to see how this vampire/human relationship will progress – but this time around I truly enjoyed getting to know the new characters on the scene. The overseer of the Parisian supernatural population, Alceste St. Germain, is one of my favorites: a werewolf with a penchant for historical studies, he’s gruff but hospitable – I loved seeing how he turned his house into a command center for the rescuers without batting an eyelash; the two psychopomps are a source for tongue-in-cheek humor and oblique references to horror and gothic themes, their names also an indication of the main facets of their personality – where Gervase Brightside was fun, Crepusculus Dammerung was downright hilarious.

The vampire Grisaille is an interesting study of the bloodsucker mentality from a different perspective than that offered so far by Ruthven and Varney, while the other members of the coven – particularly their vile leader Corvin – manage to appear dangerous and ludicrous at the same time: lacking the kind of moral foundations at the roots of Ruthven’s psychological makeup, for example, they seem more inclined to follow a behavioral template taken from folklore and so tend to dress with flamboyant bad taste and cover themselves with body glitter, in a pathetic – if weirdly entertaining – imitation of a certain vampire saga. Still, they are nonetheless dangerous: partly in fear and partly in devotion of their leader, they prey on hapless humans that are drained and discarded as nothing more than… food rations, and the scenes of their blood-and-drugs orgies represent the more serious and shocking side of the story.

To balance these dreadful narrative elements there are the delightful callbacks to several gothic myths, mainly that of the Phantom of the Opera, one of my all-time favorites, and the appearance of these furry critters, summoned from a different plane of reality, who are unabashedly cute and offer a few rays of light in the darkest sections of the story, without forgetting the intangible entity that Greta summons at some point and can become visible only while covered in cloth – try to imagine a helpful, cuddly ghost as an improbable but precious ally…

At the end of this second novel in the series much has changed for the main characters and they seem destined to walk some different paths than the ones they were traveling when we met them for the first time: given the entertaining mix of adventure, drama and humor that’s typical of these books I know I can look forward to the next one with great anticipation.

 

My Rating:

 

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Reviews

FOUNDRYSIDE (Founders #1), by Robert Jackson Bennett – Wyrd & Wonder 2020

 

While I’ve been aware of this novel, and of its success among my fellow bloggers, for quite some time, I did not manage to add it to my reading queue until I started seeing several posts of people looking forward to its sequel, at which point I decided it was high time for me to download Foundryside on my e-reader. What I found, once I started this long-delayed reading experience, was a compelling story filled with memorable characters, and a very intriguing, very peculiar world.

Tevanne is a city split in two wildly different halves: on one side there are the campos, the walled enclaves where the four ruling merchant companies and their operatives dwell in security and comfort; on the other the commons, the slums where the rest of the population ekes a meager existence threatened by poor living conditions and rampant crime.  Sancia Grado is a skillful thief gifted with some uncanny abilities, and as we meet her she’s in the middle of a risky but lucrative heist that will get her the money she desperately needs to remove the metal plate implanted in her head, the one that allows her to “commune” with inanimate objects but also inhibits any normal human contact.

The theft is successful, but there are some details in the whole operation that Sancia finds suspicious, and so she decides, against all common sense, to take a look into the box she stole – a choice with unforeseen and dangerous consequences, but also one leading her toward an unexpected path that will gain her a weird but precious friend as she finds herself enmeshed in a long-planned strategy for upheaval and dominance.

The most striking element in Foundryside is the magic system permeating this world: it was discovered long ago that through scriving – i.e. the engraving of simple or complex symbols upon any given object – it was possible to change the properties of matter and the way it interacts with reality.  In other words, a well-conceived scriving could for example convince a piece of wood that it possesses the softness of clay, thus making it easier to carve it in the desired shape. Applied to any substance or item, scriving turns this apparently low-tech society, which seems loosely based on 16th Century Europe, into a more modern world, with driverless carriages needing no dray animals, arrows that behave like ballistic missiles, floating self-powered lights and so on.

What’s fascinating about scriving is that it does not alter the fundamental attributes of things, it just “persuades” them to accept a change in perception and therefore to perform beyond the limits of their nature: more than once I was reminded of the lines of code that build a computer program and lead the machine to execute certain tasks, and in this parallel resides the distinctive feeling of modernity that permeates this world, lending it a steampunk quality that sets it aside from other works in the genre, and maybe places it in a genre of its own. Another intriguing angle of this premise is that a scriver can ‘fool’ objects, which in turn would lead to the assumption that inanimate objects possess a sort of awareness of their existence and function – either normal or modified – which can be detected as some kind of inner, obsessive monologue that at times can be quite disturbing…

There is an exception to this, however, and it’s Clef: I’m thorn between the desire to talk at length about the joys of this character and the need to refrain from spoilers, and I reluctantly have to take the latter road, because Clef and his delightful interactions with Sancia are indeed the highlights of this story and should be enjoyed as the surprise they are.  I want to share one thought, however: having read Foundryside shortly after The Book of Koli I could not avoid making comparisons between Clef and Monono, and even though I’m aware it’s like comparing apples and oranges I can’t avoid thinking that my enjoyment of her personality must have prepared the way for my appreciation of Clef and his tongue-in-cheek peculiar brand of humor.

Back to Sancia, she is an intriguing, multilayered character: on the surface she appears like your classic street urchin, hustling a living as a thief in the dilapidated section of Tevanne, but as we get to know her better we learn of her past as a slave on the far-off plantation islands and of her ghastly experience as the subject of medical experiments that awarded her the talent to learn the inner workings of anything she touches, but also the related curse of being unable to be physically close to anyone. Sancia’s condition gives loneliness a whole new shade of meaning, and if she appears to have adapted to it, it’s easy to perceive her burning desire for normality, for the kind of life she has been denied since birth, just as it’s easy to cheer for her as we witness her daring exploits and her stunning transformation.

On the other side of the social scale we find another interesting character, Gregor Dandolo, scion of one of the dominant merchant families: in theory he has everything – power, money, prestige, but there is something deep inside him that makes him strive for justice in a city where this word is almost unknown. Once we get to know him better we learn of a tragic event in his past that might be shaping his present attitude, but it’s only toward the end that the truth about that past is revealed, and it’s far worse than humanly imaginable…  Previous tragedies might be the link subconsciously connecting him to Sancia despite their profound differences, because they are both deeply damaged people, but in the end I’m glad this connection was not explored through the conventional path of emotional entanglement, leaving room for something different that I hope will offer some compelling narrative threads in the next book.

If Sancia’s journey is the focus of the story, there is ample space for other characters as well, and the other two that shine here are those of master scriver Orso Ignacio and of his unflappable assistant Berenice: his scathing, irritable disposition and his appearance as a foul-tempered mad scientist offer the perfect foil for Berenice’s unruffled, almost amused approach to her employer’s tantrums, which coupled with her endless supply of scrived devices for any foreseeable necessity makes her a delightful addition to the whole cast.

Where it would be difficult to categorize Foundryside in the genre, because of its unique blend of diverse narrative themes, it’s easy to acknowledge its intriguing analysis of subjects like power and the way it affects those who wield it; or freedom and survival and how the latter becomes meaningless without the former; or again the limits in the research and application of science, and which kind of ethics should be observed. I enjoyed very much how the novel started as a run-of-the-mill heist and then transformed into an exciting race against time and human greed while the world was subjected to profound changes, and if at times the explanations about the workings of the magic/science of scriving became a little too intrusive, it still turned out into a stunning reading experience that I hope to replicate with the next book.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE WHEEL, by R.S. Belcher – Wyrd & Wonder 2020

 

I’ve had this book in my reading queue for quite a while, and despite my curiosity to sample another work from R.S. Belcher, whose Six-Gun Tarot made a good impression on me, I kept postponing it in favor of other titles, but once I started it I made up for my endless procrastination by reading it in the short space of two days, which for me and my limited free time is something of a record.

The premise for this delightfully horrific story is that the legendary Knights Templar did not disappear with time, but remodeled themselves as guardians of the roads and highways of the world, protecting travelers from the ordinary and supernatural predators roaming in search of easy prey. The operative arm of the Brotherhood is drawn from the people who make their living on such roads – truck drivers, patrolmen, road workers – and there is also a number of affiliates or sympathizers in law enforcement who make the task of these modern knights easier.

The first Brother we meet is Jimmie Aussapile, a trucker – the kind of person one might not so easily associate with a hero: middle-aged, paunchy, balding on top but growing long, greying hair down his nape, and with a very nasty habit of chewing tobacco, which stains his teeth. And let’s not go into his dressing style… But looks can be deceptive, and Jimmie is soon revealed for a big-hearted, staunch defender of the weak as he hunts a predator with a huge number of victims on his record: to capture the monster, Aussapile ends up being late for the delivery of his cargo, thus endangering his already shaky financial situation – and with a wife and daughter depending on him, plus a new baby on the way, this is the kind of problem he hardly needs.  Still, when he picks up a ghostly hitchhiker who sets him on the trail of a long list of disappeared teenagers, Jimmie is unable to look the other way, and he will soon find himself enmeshed in a dangerous quest that might cost him much more than financial stability.

Jimmie soon joins forces with Lovina, a New Orleans police officer investigating a case of missing kids that soon reveals its connections with Aussapile’s new expedition, and with Heck, member of a biker gang loosely associated with the Brotherhood and tasked with becoming Jimmie’s squire to fight the good fight. The three of them will come face to face with an ancient evil that has been long preying on the land and established its center of power in the isolated town of Four Houses, a place people can’t leave and that doesn’t seem to exist on the maps or in the common knowledge.

The Brotherhood of the Wheel is the kind of book that makes it hard to put it down, and I begrudged every instance in which I had to do so: it’s not only fast-paced and compelling, it makes you root for the good guys to succeed, and to hate the villains with a passion – which means that the characters are indeed drawn in a compelling way. Jimmie is nothing short of adorable – that is, apart from the tobacco-chewing 😀 – because it’s clear from the start that he puts his heart and soul in what he does, and even if he’s conflicted about the possible repercussions this duty could have on his family, he knows he’s trying to make the world a better place for them and for all the families on Earth. Speaking of which, the sections devoted to Jimmie as a family man are wonderful interludes in the breathless, horror-infused narrative, and it’s thanks to them that this unlikely hero is revealed in all his humanity – as a loving husband and father, as a man who wants to strike fearful respect in the heart of the young boy dating his daughter, as an honest worker worrying for the financial future of his growing household – and giving a firm background to his dedication to the Brotherhood’s goals.

Heck and Lovina, on the other hand, are somehow both scarred by life: the former is a war vet dealing with PTSD by drinking himself into oblivion, the latter saddled by the disappearance and death of her younger sister, which gives her an added incentive in the quest that will bring the three of them together.  While I liked Lovina immediately, thanks to her intense, fearless focus on getting to the heart of the matter, despite logistical difficulties and a ghastly encounter with some evil minions, it took me some time to appreciate Heck, because his overall attitude was a good cover for the pain of his past experiences, and his teetering between nihilism and brashness was not endearing at all.  The way these unlikely allies come together, however, and grow into a formidable team, makes for quite interesting reading and shows Mr. Belcher’s skills in handling his characters.

The world-building is just as intriguing as the people inhabiting it, and it’s a fascinating mesh of mundane and uncanny, of modern urban legends and ancient tales with roots in pagan lore: the horror does not come only from the supernatural elements, although they are quite blood-chilling, but from the assumption that evil is just around the corner, that what we perceive as ordinary life might hide appalling dangers. The story starts with the chase for a sexual predator, which is an awful enough reality, and then moves to less conventional threats, passing through revisited and adapted urban myths to create a situation that keeps the readers on the proverbial edge of their seats until the resolution.

In the end, I quite enjoyed The Brotherhood of the Wheel, although I would have liked it much better if the author had not indulged in the detailed physical description of each character as it appeared on the scene, complete with the accurate list of their items of clothing; or the digressions on internet memes or again the appearance of a supposedly dead musical icon – which to me seemed totally unnecessary to the overall plot.  But these felt like mere “hiccups” anyway, and easily forgotten in the long run, to the point that I’m more than ready to sink my teeth into the second book of the series and to renew my acquaintance with Jimmie & Co.

 

My Rating:

 

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Reviews

THE QUEEN OF NOTHING (Folks of the Air #3), by Holly Black – Wyrd & Wonder 2020

 

When we left Jude Duarte at the end of the previous book, she had been tricked into exile from Elfhame by her own husband, King Cardan: back in the mortal world, she deals with heartbreak and anger by taking odd jobs from fae who live hidden among humans and by biding her time until she can achieve a comeback and reclaim the throne.  This chance comes, quite unexpectedly, in the form of her sister Taryn and her plea for help: I want to avoid any spoilers here, because The Queen of Nothing offers many surprises that are best enjoyed with no previous knowledge, and all I can safely say is that Taryn’s revelation puts an intriguing spin both on the situation and her own character, while offering Jude the means of going back and setting her long-nurtured plans into motion.

This final novel in the Folks of the Air series turned into a very quick read for me, because events occurred at a fast pace and because I happened to start the book on a weekend and for once I could enjoy the rare occurrence of an almost uninterrupted read. If the story itself did prove at times problematic – but not enough to turn me away from it – the characters and the themes were more than enough to make up for what felt like a hurried conclusion marred by a few too-convenient events.

To get the negatives out of the way first, it seems to me that there were some avenues left unexplored, like the changes in the dynamic between the two twin sisters and the balance shifts between Jude and Cardan: in both cases the evolution of both kinds of relationship seemed to occur far too quickly, as if some important evolutionary steps had been kept off-stage, so to speak, which led me to wonder if I had not missed something along the way. This problem also concerns the narrative, particularly toward the end, where a highly dramatic situation is resolved far too quickly and in a way that felt “telegraphed” from its very inception: I could not get rid of the conviction that the author was in a hurry to end the story and therefore cut some corners to reach her goal, which is unfortunate, since the buildup of the previous two books deserved a much more articulated conclusion.

Still, as I said, the characters abundantly make up for this particular issue: Jude especially keeps being an intriguing creature, one saddled with many liabilities but also gifted with great strength and an enviable willpower carrying her beyond many obstacles and a lot of pain – physical and emotional. She can be ruthless with foes and incredibly gentle with friends or her young brother Oak, and there is no dichotomy here, both sides of her personality are equally valid and an integral part of her psychological makeup.  Much as her relationship with Cardan can be fascinating – the attraction/repulsion dynamic is one of the defining points of their very convoluted exchanges – it’s not the one that best defines her, since this is left to her bond with Madoc, her adopted father.

Both of them love – crave – power and are determined to grasp it no matter the cost, which makes them at the same time potential allies and bitter enemies: for Jude, Madoc is the father who raised her, granted, the one who taught her sword skills and encouraged her dreams of knighthood, but he’s also the one who brutally killed her real father, and her mother, and wrenched Jude and Taryn from the only life they had known to throw them into an alien world in which they would always be outcasts.   And for Madoc, Jude is the daughter that most resembles him, the child of his heart if not of his blood, but she’s also a contender for that power he covets, and his repeated offers of alliance look more like the desire to keep one’s enemies close rather than the need to have a like-minded partner.

And speaking of characters, there are a few minor ones that shine here, like the “new entry” Grima Mog, former fae general, exiled to the mortal world and with a penchant for cannibalistic murders: I know this description sounds far from appealing, but Grima’s personality – and scathing remarks – are a joy to behold and act as facetious interludes in the overall grimness of the main story. Weird as it might seem, her appearance on the scene always brought a delighted grin on my face…

Another thought-provoking angle comes from Vivi, Jude’s older, full-blood fae sister, and her human partner Heather and the latter’s desire to establish their relationship on a more equal footing, making the decision to move past previous misunderstandings and magic tricks but with the acknowledgement that whatever wounds she suffered are forgiven but not forgotten.  And the human world gains more space in this third novel, not only because a good part of the action happens there, but also because there is a hint that the separation between the two realms might become thinner, more easily crossed in the future.

When all is said and done, I enjoyed this trilogy very much, and if its ending did not entirely meet my approval, I can assign this third book a slightly higher rating on the strength of its two predecessors.  Whatever Holly Black will write next will no doubt end up on my radar because of these novels.

 

My Rating:

 

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Reviews

RESISTANCE (ST: TNG – the Second Decade #2), by J.M. Dillard

 

After my successful encounter with the tie-in book acting as a prequel to the new Picard TV series on Amazon, and feeling some nostalgia for the world of TNG I enjoyed during its run, I went in search of books that might bring back some of that old “magic” and also fill the hiatus between the last TNG movie Nemesis and the current TV show. My search brought me to this novel that was indicated as focused on that time period and also on the most interesting adversary ever created in the Star Trek universe: the Borg. The book promised to bring the old enemy back, so I decided to take the plunge in the hope of connecting once again with a narrative arc that, highs and lows notwithstanding, had managed to capture my imagination in the past.

In Resistance we encounter a Captain Picard having to adjust to a series of changes in his command staff: Riker, the former first officer now promoted to captain, and his wife Counselor Troi, have moved to their own ship; Worf, the best candidate for the position of XO is reluctant to take the post; a new Vulcan counselor has been assigned to the Enterprise; and the loss of Data, whose sacrifice saved them all, still feels very painful.  On top of all this, Picard hears again his connection to the Borg and the voice of the collective, which was not completely vanquished and is now working toward the creation of a new queen and the resurgence of the assimilation program.

Compelled to act quickly, Picard contravenes Starfleet’s orders and heads to intercept the Borg cube before the queen can be activated, and when the first attempt at destroying her fails, chooses a dangerous path to prevent the possibility of a new, devastating invasion.

While the main theme for this novel looked promising, this story unfortunately did not completely deliver on that promise, mostly because it did not add anything new to the concept of this detached enemy following directives like a computer, without personal or emotional motivations. Worse, the plot seems like a mere rewrite of the script for First Contact, with the addition of some outlandish notions bordering on the absurd, like the premise that to build a new queen a male drone is subjected to a special treatment that turns it from male to female. I’m still puzzling over this, since it’s established in canon that Borg drones are captured and assimilated beings – both male and female – and that their inclusion in the collective does not change their gender and at most makes it irrelevant to the hive mind’s goals.

If the writing is good enough and the pacing adequately sustained, the story falters in the plentiful descriptions of characters’ thoughts and feelings with an abundance of telling vs. showing that soon becomes tedious and spoils the overall effect.  Not to mention that some of the characters’ decisions feel out of place, namely Picard’s disturbing solution for boarding the cube without raising the alarm: in consideration of his past trauma at the hands of the Borg, it goes against everything we have seen so far about his PTSD.

There are however some positive elements in Resistance, the most significant being the look into Worf’s personality as he still labors under the weight of guilt for the failure of a previous mission: the reasons for not wanting to accept the position of first officer come straight from his psychological makeup and past history, and help to shed more light into what makes him tick.  And the newly-minted Counselor T’Lana is a promising addition to the team – should she remain as a canon character and be further developed, of course – because her nature as a Vulcan and her posting as a counselor dealing with the crew’s emotions could lead to interesting developments.

When all is said and done, Resistance ended up being something of a letdown after my successful experience with The Last Best Hope, even though I acknowledge that at least the action scenes held my attention and the book was a fast, diverting read. Still, it had a little “paint by the numbers” flavor that did not completely agree with me, although it did not stop my search for more interesting and promising books: as this “quest” is undergoing during a difficult moment in everyone’s life, I feel in great need of some optimistic stories and I have to admit that Star Trek, even in its direst visions, always had the power to offer at least a glimmer of hope. And a vision, no matter how idealistic, of a better future is exactly what everyone needs when finding themselves in dire straits…

So, can anyone advise me on some good titles to read in the Star Trek tie-in universe?  😉

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BOOK OF KOLI (Rampart Trilogy #1), by M.R. Carey

 

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

There was no doubt whatsoever that I would enjoy this new work from M.R. Carey: after being enthralled by The Girl With All the Gifts, The Boy on the Bridge and Someone Like Me, I knew I would be in for another fascinating journey, but The Book of Koli went beyond any expectations I might have held, and confirmed its author as a skilled storyteller in the post-apocalyptic genre.

Civilization fell a long time ago – probably centuries – so that the glories of the past have become more myth than remembrance for most: it’s not specified what happened, but it would seem that a series of climate upheavals and devastating wars destroyed the world as we know it, and what now remains of humanity is confined to small, enclosed villages leading a hardscrabble existence.  Nature now rules rather than mankind: some genetic modifications introduced in flora have turned the trees into aggressive, murderous creatures that sunlight can wake from a light slumber, and fauna is just as dangerous, if nothing else because of its increased size and inherent hostility.

Koli, the story’s POV voice, is a boy in his mid-teens living in the village of Mythen Rood, a 200-odd souls settlement that’s considered quite big for the usual standards, which shows how humanity has indeed dwindled in numbers after the fall. Koli is ready to face the testing ceremony that will mark his passage into adulthood and which consist in attempting to “wake” the pieces of old tech in possession of the village. The defense of Mythen Rood is based on four pieces of still-functioning old technology salvaged from the past: those able to activate and wield them are called Ramparts – their role of protectors also making them the de facto rulers or the community.

As every young person undergoing the testing, Koli dreams of becoming a Rampart, youthful imagination and his interest for a girl fueling those desires into something of an obsession that leads him to break the rules and come into the illegal possession of a dormant piece of tech he’s able to wake: a DreamSleeve. The object and its AI interface Monono Aware will open Koli’s mind to unexpected possibilities but also bring about the beginning of a dangerous adventure that will change his life forever.

The changed Earth we see depicted here is both a strange and fearsome place, and seeing it through Koli’s eyes – and his limited vision – shows how people’s look has turned inwards for fear of the outside: enclaves are protected by barriers, the world beyond them filled with real dangers but also by less physical ones brought on by ignorance, which is encouraged and enforced from those in power through mechanisms that are as old as the universe. It’s no surprise that Ursala, a sort of wandering doctor who travels between settlements with her drudge – for all purposes a mobile first aid/defense unit – is welcomed for her skills but considered with suspicion by the leaders, because her considerable knowledge and the news she brings from ‘out there’ might pose a threat to their authority and the aura of superiority they need to project to assert their power.

Koli’s experience in the outside world is a coming of age story, of course, and a hero’s journey as well, but it’s also a way of showing that world and how it mutated from the one we know: being on his own is certainly a harrowing situation, but it also illustrates how limiting an existence based simply on survival can be.  The most striking narrative detail here comes from the language and the way it adapted over time, becoming simpler, less concerned with grammar and syntax: I saw a few comments declaring how this aspect of the story interfered with some readers’ experience and made their progress through it more difficult, but to me it was instead the perfect way of driving home the changes people went through from a flourishing, technology-rich society to a more primitive life. Far from bothering me, this less-refined language was the perfect complement for the background the author created and added a level of poignancy to the story that would be lacking with a more polished form of expression. Anyone who read Flowers for Algernon and remembers the language progression in the protagonist’s diaries knows what I mean…

At the start of the novel, Koli is your typical teenager, preferring the carefree company of his friends to the drudgery of the work all villagers must share, and dreaming of a brighter future, one where he might be able to add the qualifier of Rampart to his name, and as such he makes ill-advised decisions dictated by inexperience and hormones, and yet he does not come across as foolish because he’s always guiltily aware of the possible consequences of his actions, and of the often illogical motivations driving them. There is a sort of mature candor (for want of a better definition) that makes him very relatable, the kind of protagonist it’s easy to root for, and his world-view, in spite of the simplified language – or maybe because of it – shows a wisdom that goes well beyond his actual age.

[…] it seemed like nothing would ever happen to change it. But it’s when you think such thoughts that change is most like to come. You let your guard down, almost, and life comes running at you on your blind side.

Yet it’s through his encounter with Monono Aware that his personality truly takes flight, this interaction between two creatures coming from very different worlds and times who nonetheless find the way to build a bridge between them, one who changes and enhances them equally through the bond of an improbable friendship that’s a pure joy to behold.  I don’t want to spend too many words on Monono because she must be encountered with as little prior knowledge as possible, but let me tell you that her liveliness, her ebullient glee and her expressive mode are the elements that make a huge difference in this story.

Where the first part of this novel was an intriguing introduction to a strange world and to wonderful characters, in the end I realized it was only the foundation of a larger adventure that will certainly develop in depth and scope in the following books, and I can hardly wait to see where Mr. Carey will lead us next. Please let us not wait too long….

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE LAST EMPEROX (The Interdependency #3), by John Scalzi

 

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

A series’ ending might probably be one of the most difficult tasks an author faces: readers’ expectations, narrative twists and resolutions, characters’ paths – it all must come together at the end, and I also imagine it might not be easy to let go of a world that one has so carefully built over time. Well, The Last Emperox turned out to be a very satisfactory ending to the Interdependency series, and did so by also being a compelling and fun read from the very start, where it offered a sort of recap of what went before by observing a character’s thoughts as his ship comes under attack. Not only did this choice avoid any dangers of info-dumping, it also managed to turn into entertaining recollections what could very well have been the last, terrified considerations of an endangered individual. After all, this is a work from John Scalzi, and one must expect some playful rule-breaking…

So, the Interdependency is a galaxy-spanning civilization whose settlements are connected by the Flow, a system of wormhole-like paths that allow ships to cover vast distances in a relatively short time. The Flow has been in operation for centuries, but recently scientists have discovered that the whole system is going to collapse, therefore isolating these far-flung settlements and very likely dooming the inhabitants to death, since only one planet in the whole confederation is able to sustain life in an Earth-like environment and all the others are artificial habitats depending heavily on Flow-driven commerce. Such catastrophic news brings out the best and worst in humanity, as it’s wont to do: some of the  great  merchant Houses try to speculate by amassing even more riches and power, others try to help in maintaining a level of civilization and the newly elected Emperox, Grayland II, finds herself dealing with a difficult situation, several attempts on her life and the conflicting agendas of various Houses.

Despite the light, playful tone, this series deals with several quite serious subjects, like the way people react when confronted with an imminent catastrophe – considering the moment in which I read this book, with humanity facing a worldwide crisis, I thought it was very spot-on and I was glad for the author’s trademark lightness because observing the various fictional players it was impossible not to make disheartening comparisons with actual events. The series, and The Last Emperox in particular, shows how personal advantage is paramount for power-hungry individuals and how sowing distrust and misinformation helps drive their agendas, while the general population is divided between the few who plan in advance against a worst-case scenario and those lulled into the complacent belief that those in power will find a solution before the inevitable becomes a reality.

Where I found the second book in this series, The Consuming Fire, somewhat uneven in pacing due to the shift between the quicker-flowing sections and the long chunks of exposition dialogue, this final installment turned into a swift, riveting read as the antagonists’ plots battled against the Emperox’s and her allies’ countermeasures, generating a constant race against time, fueled by shrewdness and political expediency that kept the story lively and the tension high.  Most of this narrative tension rests on the three main characters: Grayland II, whose desire to be a good and just ruler needs to be balanced against the challenging decisions she must take in the face of the forthcoming Flow collapse; Nadashe Nohamapetan, the very embodiment of the evil lady, the dastardly plotter whose ambitions are surpassed only by her ruthlessness; and Kiva Lagos, the foul-mouthed, crafty ally of the Emperox who remains my favorite character and one of the best sources of humor in the whole series.

It’s worth noting how these three women are not only at the very center of things, but also the most striking figures among the various personalities peopling this series: for example, if Nadashe is a vile adversary who stops at nothing to fulfill her goals, she ultimately does not come across as totally bad, if that makes any sense. As I saw her labyrinthine plans taking shape, I was torn between wanting them to fail and at the same time feeling sorry if they didn’t: in a way I ended up envisioning her as poor Wile E. Coyote, who concocted equally convoluted and far-reaching plans to win over Road Runner, only to be always spectacularly defeated in the end – and that never failed to elicit some form of sympathy from me.  On the other hand, there was no ambiguity in my cheering for Kiva’s success, and although at some point she managed to set in motion a series of events whose serendipity might appear totally unbelievable, it all worked within the over-the-top setup of her character, making it easy to suspend my disbelief and equally easy to observe her antics with an amused smile. Grayland looks less intense in comparison with these two formidable figures, her apparent candor masking instead a firm determination and a core of integrity that seems to be sorely lacking in the Interdependency, and that’s the main reason I was surprised – or rather stunned – at her unexpected choice for solving the quandary and giving her subjects a new direction and a hope for the future. I must say I did not expect the direction the story took and that in this instance the author managed to drop a very unpredictable twist on me here.

Where The Last Emperox draws all the narrative threads of the series to a good close, I find myself sorry to have to leave this universe, and I hope that John Scalzi might decide in the future to return here, maybe to show us how the former Interdependency fares in a post-collapse of the Flow future.

 

My Rating: