Reviews

Review: CHILDREN OF RUIN (Children of Time #2), by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I received this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

When I approached this novel’s predecessor, Children of Time, I did so with some apprehension, since I’m mildly arachnophobic and the main characters in that story were indeed spiders: imagine my surprise when Adrian Tchaikovsky’s writing not only made my fear a moot point, but compelled me to root unabashedly for the eight-legged heroes of his saga…

The previous novel ended with a hint that there could be further territory to explore in this universe, whose most fascinating element comes from the fact that uplifted creatures are now the more populous, more advanced species, and mankind is still struggling with the aftermath of its civilization’s end. Children of Ruin starts where book 1 ended, with a mixed group of scientist – arachnids and humans – embarked on a voyage of discovery for new frontiers.

Like book 1, this sequel follows two different timelines: the ‘present’ aboard the ship Voyager with its mixed crew, and the more remote past, where a group of terraformers has to deal with the collapse of human civilization and the realization that they might be all that is left of mankind.  With a storyline that somewhat parallels that of the evolution of new intelligence on Kern’s World, home of the spiders, one of the scientists on the ship Aegean uses Dr. Kern’s uplift virus on his octopus specimens to create a viable race for the water world he’s focusing on, thus creating a new intelligent species.

As eager as I was to learn more about the arachnid-human association and their journey of exploration, together with the marvels of the organic ship they traveled on, Children of Ruin did not work for me as well as the first book in the series did, partly because of what I perceived as a form of pattern repetition, and partly because of pacing problems.  Still, I’d like to start with what I enjoyed in this new story.

The alliance between the survivors of mankind and the uplifted spiders is one that works but still needs to bridge many differences, chiefly where inter-species communication is involved: that was one of the most fascinating elements in this novel, with characters endeavoring to find the best approach – either simply linguistic or more mechanical – to understand each other without the mediation of the Kern personality residing in their computer.  And of course there are still the compelling arachnid social dynamics, where the females assert their dominance while the males struggle to obtain recognition in what I perceived as a pointed commentary worked through an interesting role reversal.

The human terraformers offer another thought-provoking perspective, especially in their reactions after the protracted silence from Mother Earth leads them to a dismal conclusion. They all appear as self-centered individuals, more focused on their scientific goals than on building a cohesive group so far away from home – in other worlds, an echo of Avrana Kern, multiplied by five, which made me think often about the author’s overall negative vision about humanity.

Then there are the octopuses, whose journey toward increased intellect somewhat parallels that of the spiders, but of course with substantial differences due both to their nature and to the liquid environment they live in, which offers fascinating angles in the creation of their society and its evolution, both planet-side and in space. For example, there are two curious details that stuck to my mind: one is that being boneless octopuses don’t suffer from the bone deficiencies that plague spaces after a prolonged permanence in microgravity; and two, for creatures that can move in several directions, there is no concept of ‘up’ or ‘down’ to upset directional perceptions as it happens to humans.

All of the above elements intrigued me of course, together with the addition of a new kind of creature bent on assimilating other forms of life to understand them, which added further pressure on the already tense situation between octopuses and the explorers from Kern’s World. Still, the octopuses’ evolution did not feel as compelling as that of the spiders in the first novel, and there was a great deal of space dedicated to their biological and psychological progress that felt more like a textbook than a work of fiction, lacking the irresistible quality of the evolutionary saga of the arachnids. Where I cared – so surprisingly, given my bias – for the way the spiders evolved in the course of the millennia of their history, I could not feel equally engaged with the octopuses’ journey, and what’s worse I could not feel any connection with the spiders featured in this novel: this perceived remoteness on my part was the main reason I was not invested in this story as I was with the first book.

Much of my reaction could be ascribed to the lack of novelty compared with its predecessor, since I could not erase the feeling of “been there, done that” that plagued me for most of the way, and moreover the overall plot gave off the feeling of being artificially intricate, lacking the beautiful, clear progression I enjoyed with Children of Time, which does not mean I did not enjoy this story but that I feel how a more… streamlined narrative would have worked better for my tastes.

I’m glad I read this, but nonetheless I can’t avoid the consideration that sequels often thread on dangerous ground, and this one might not have always successfully avoided the pitfall of such ground.

 

My Rating:

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Reviews

Review: GODSGRAVE (The Nevernight Chronicle #2), by Jay Kristoff

 

This second book in Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight Chronicle was quite damaging to the integrity of my poor, frazzled nerves, not to mention my blood pressure: where Nevernight was a rollercoaster ride, Godsgrave ended up being an emotional tsunami, one that flipped me without mercy between excitement and terror, without a single moment of respite. And I enjoyed every second of it.

Mia Corvere’s path of vengeance against those who destroyed her family takes a new direction here: her harrowing year as an acolyte of the Red Church turned her into an accomplished assassin, and she proved instrumental in foiling the Empire’s attempt to destroy the Church, thereby gaining her place as a Blade, a killer for hire, the first step into her vendetta against cardinal Duomo and consul Scaeva, the main culprits in the obliteration of the Corvere family.  But an unexpected and unforeseeable revelation forces Mia to turn rogue and seek a different track, one that will entail a daring, difficult plan and many brutal, bloody sacrifices.

The first part of the novel follows two converging time tracks: the present, where Mia is now committed to her plan, and the recent past, where we see how and why she got there. It’s a fascinating interweaving of timelines and it shows to perfection how this new, even harder and more determined Mia came into being, once she realizes that the Empire is based on far more convoluted and insidious lies than she imagined, and that she should trust nothing and no one.

The opportunity to get close enough to Duomo and Scaeva so that she can kill them comes through the Venatus Magni, ferocious gladiatorial games that take place in the days of the convergence of the three suns: the champion of the games is crowned personally by the two co-rulers of the Empire, allowing the winner to get in close proximity to them, without guards or protection.  There is a little catch to the scenario, however: gladiatii, or the gladiators who fight in the arena, are all slaves, sold and bought from all over the Empire for that very same purpose, and trained in schools supported by wealthy citizens who compete ferociously for the best fighters and the most skilled teams.

So Mia arranges to be sold into slavery (and I will leave to you to discover the hazardous, bloody way she manages that) and be bought by the main gladiatorial school of the Empire, certain that she will rise in the ranks and be chosen to fight in the Magni. Things don’t go completely according to plan, however, and our young assassin finds herself acquired by a rival school, one ruled by the estranged daughter of Mia’s prospective patron, which poses a number of obstacles in her carefully constructed plot, not the least of which being that Domina Leona, her new mistress, occupies what used to be the summer resort of the Corvere, Crow’s Nest, a place whose memories still cut deep into Mia’s soul.

Much as the journey that takes Mia to Crow’s Nest and the arena is a fascinating one, the true heart of the story resides in the training she undergoes – a harsh, brutal, bloody affair against which the trials in the Red Church look like children’s play – and in the changes in her attitude and psychological makeup: Mia’s character is mostly founded on her single-minded drive to accomplish the goal she set herself, the willingness to push aside any other consideration so she can attain that goal, but here she seems to lose some of that hardness, showing a few chinks in the armor she wrought around her soul from the moment she was all alone in the world.  In the past, no matter the grimness of the situation she found herself in, Mia could still find strength in the awareness of who she was, or used to be – the daughter of an influential family. Now she is a slave, the chattel of an owner who can dispose of her life as she wants, requiring that she fight and bleed – and die, if necessary – for the prestige of her Domina and for the enjoyment of the crowds.  And for the first time in her life she is able to see how the “other half” lives, and how injustice in the Empire is not limited to political maneuvering and assassinations in the upper echelons of society.

And where in the Red Church the other acolytes were rivals to outshine in accomplishments to gain the favor of the teachers, here among the gladiatii Mia learns the power of loyalty, the bond that comes through shared hardships and dangers: no matter how much she repeats to herself that they are not her friends, that they are all means to an end, she starts to see them as persons, and to care about them – definitely a weakness, from a certain point of view, but also a shift in perspective from the definition of what Mia could do, which was the focus of Book 1, to the definition of who Mia is, which is the focus of Godsgrave, the part of her journey where she learns she has indeed a conscience, or starts to unearth the one she suppressed long ago.

Of course, part of the discoveries we make in this novel, one that is packed with twists and turns and unpredictable paradigm shifts, is to find out if this new side of Mia’s character is only a momentary lapse or a new direction: one of the things I learned from this book and its predecessor is that I can never, ever take anything for granted, and that Jay Kristoff simply loves to pull the rug from under his readers’ feet.

The characters are of course a big part of the appeal of this book – not only Mia, but old and new faces whose acquaintance we either renew, as is the case of Mercurio or Ashlinn, or we make for the first time, like Mia’s fellow gladiators: the latter especially offer a wide range of personalities, from the boisterous Sidonius (one of my favorites), to the twins Bryn and Byern; from the servant girl Maggot to the house’s champion Furian, whose tendency to holier-than-thou whining did nothing to endear him to me, but still offered some interesting contrast with the other slaves.  However, the story is just as important as the people who move through it, and in this respect Godsgrave is a very compulsive read, even more than Nevernight was, and if Mia’s prowess with blades and her seeming invulnerability require some suspension of disbelief, the author presents them in such a way that it’s not an effort at all.  Moreover, Kristoff’s choice to move from the confines of the assassins’ school in the Red Church to the completely different venue of gladiatorial games is a winning one, since it shifts what was a somewhat limited focus to a wider slice of Itreyan society.

In my review of Nevernight I compared this world to a mix between the Roman Empire and the Venice Republic, while here the former is emphasized not only through the spotlight it throws on gladiatorial games, but because names, customs and situations look as if they were taken straight from the history of ancient Rome. And just like their historical inspiration, the Venatus Magni are a mixture of bloody games and the application of summary justice, wrapped in a packaging of spectator sports that sheds a pitiless light on mob mentality and the ruthlessness of crowds, whose base desires are channeled and tamed through witnessing the carnage of the arena. Panem et circenses, indeed…

If I were to find any fault in this second installment of the Nevernight Chronicle it’s because it ended too soon and with a cruel cliffhanger that felt terribly unfair, because – ‘byss and blood! – I was having such fun with it…

My Rating:

Reviews

Novella Review: SPECTRE (Book of Never #7), by Ashley Capes

 

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

It’s been some time since I read Never’s last adventure and it took me a little while to find my bearings again in this story fashioned in equal parts out of a series of adventures, in a world where magic takes strange and weird forms, and of the main character’s quest to learn about his past and the heritage from his now- extinct and legendary forefathers.  Once I did, though, the narrative flew quickly, carried by a very appealing premise.

In Spectre our hero is not facing the “simple” turmoil of warring factions bent on controlling territory, as it happened in past adventures, but rather the dire menace of a cult bent on the horrifying transformation of hapless victims – think Island of Doctor Moreau and you will have an idea of what I’m talking about.  And this time the stakes are quite high, because he needs to save a young boy from the cult’s clutches and to prevent and old… well, frenemy is the best term that comes to mind, from succumbing to the vile alteration.

As usual Never is able to find valid allies in his endeavors, and this time the person who shares this portion of his journey is an intriguing one, the unassuming priest Lakiva: not unlike a warrior monk, the young man carries on with self-effacing modesty, only to exhibit amazing abilities when necessity arises. This combination quickly endeared him to me and often brought a smile to my face.

That smile was more than necessary, because Spectre is one of the darkest adventures Never faced until now, rife with a sense of impending doom and a relentlessly ticking clock, culminating in a harrowing confrontation that blends a heated battle with an authentic descent into Hell that kept me on the edge of my seat, especially because in this case even our hero’s remarkable powers and stamina seemed to be inadequate to the task at hand.

And of course it does not end here, because a new threat looms on the horizon at the end of the novella, promising more intriguing adventures…

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: VALOUR (The Faithful and the Fallen #2), by John Gwynne

 

After the cliffhanger ending of the first book in this epic fantasy series I was keen to learn the fate of the characters I cared about, since most of them had not been left in a comfortable position by the end of Malice, so I was happy to see that Valour started exactly where its predecessor had left off, almost as if this were a new chapter in the story.

What I was not prepared to accept, however, was the leisurely way in which the author placed his pieces on the complicated chessboard of this series: much as the previous volume (and the other Gwynne book I read) the story starts with a deliberate pace that I have now come to recognize as the author’s modus operandi, and this kind of pace requires some patience from the readers, a quality I don’t possess in great amount, unfortunately, and that in this case was hindered by my eagerness to move forward with the story.  This experience taught that with a John Gwynne novel one must be patient, and that such restraint will always be rewarded in the end.

War has come to the Banished Lands: high king Nathair, persuaded that he’s the Bright Star, the champion of light who must fight against the encroaching darkness, has launched his plan of conquest, blind to the deviousness of his allies and the harm he’s inflicting on the ever-dwindling decent rulers of the land.  Young Corban, the true champion of good, is on the run with princess Edana and a few trusty companions, and suffering the double burden of the loss of his father and sister on one side and the awareness of being special on the other, a notion he’s not ready to accept.  Cywen, Corban’s sister who has been left for dead in the assault on Dun Carreg, is taken prisoner by Nathair’s war-band, her attempts at escape thwarted time and again, as are her attempts to convince Veradis – Nathair’s first sword – of her brother’s innocence: Veradis is indeed as blind to outside influence as his king…  And last but not least, warrior Maquin (one of my favorite secondary characters in Malice) finds himself prisoner of the Vin Thalun pirates and is forced to set aside his principles and humanity as he’s compelled to fight for his life in their slave pits.

These are only the highlights of a very complex story that slowly but surely gains momentum as it expands to encompass an ever-widening playing field and cast of characters: each of them is given room to grow and the chance of offering their point of view to the readers through alternating chapters that are often quite brief, as if to underline both the intricacy of the plot and the scope of the events.  One of the points that these characters’ journey underscores repeatedly is that the line of demarcation between good and evil is thin and often blurred: the “bad guys” are more often than not mislaid by the true enemies who use their insecurities or their flaws as leverage to accomplish their dark goals, so that the readers can see these people are not inherently evil but more simply misguided; just as the “good guys” find themselves repeatedly forced to be vicious in order to survive, needing to forget the rules of honor and fairness that have been at the root of their nature until then.

As a counterpoint to this element, however, there is a wonderful stress on the feelings of friendship, of belonging to an extended family that does not rely only on ties of blood but rather on the those forged in adversity, which end up being stronger than any blood relationship might be. We see this often – with the most notable example being that of former brigand Camlin, who for the first time in his life perceives this sense of belonging once he discovers he’s prepared to give his life for people he once might have preyed upon. It’s one of the few rays of hope in what looks like a dire, sometimes hopeless background.

Be they good or evil, invested with a mission or duped into wrongdoing, these characters – all of them – are the real backbone of the story, here even more than in the previous novel because we can see how they have evolved and can perceive where they might be headed; what’s more, the addition of new characters adds more layers to the ones we already know, because it’s through these interactions that an individual’s true nature comes to the fore. And here lies the most difficult hurdle to be overcome by us readers, because one way or another we come to care for these characters, to see them as flesh and blood creatures, and when the author needs to remove them from the playing field it’s always a shock, and one that’s not always easy to metabolize.   Epic fantasy should have prepared us to endure these losses: from the death of poor Boromir to the cruel slaying of Ned Stark, just to name two of the most famous ones, we should know that being one of the “good guys” is no guarantee of survival, and yet every time that happens we feel the same pain of… betrayal and are reminded of the bitter lesson of war, that no one is safe.  The only comfort offered by John Gwynne’s portrayal of these deaths is that they always seem to fulfill some higher purpose, that we can see how that particular life was not wasted on a whim – it might not be much, but it’s enough.

And speaking of war, I noticed how Valour contains an impressive number of battle or duel sequences, from war skirmishes to gladiatorial arena combat: in every instance you can find a precision of detail, a sort of choreography to the action that turns these scenes into quite cinematic portrayals.  For someone like me, who usually skips across this kind of description, this is indeed an amazing approach.

Much as Valour might have started somewhat slowly for my tastes, by the end it developed into a breathtaking narrative with higher and higher stakes, and totally unpredictable developments: if Malice laid the ground for the encroaching of evil, and Valour showed the kind of sacrifices required by the battle against it, I wonder what the next book’s title – Ruin – will mean in terms of story progress. What I know is that it will be another enthralling journey.

 

My Rating:

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Novella Review: THORNBOUND (The Harwood Spellbook #2), by Stephanie Burgis

 

I received this novella from the author, in exchange for an honest review, and I was thrilled to be able to go back to Ms. Burgis’ new series combining alternate history with magic.

Stephanie Burgis’ digression from the historical fiction of her previous novels (Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets) into “pure” fantasy is proving to be just as intriguing as her other works: the alternate Regency England – here called Angland – introduced with Snowspelled is further developed here and gains new facets and a deeper look into the characters, while offering a fast-paced and engrossing story that offers some gloomier, more intriguing shades to the established background.

Present-day Angland is the result of the successful war waged by Queen Boudicca against the Roman invaders, whom she was able to drive away thanks to the alliance with her magician husband, thus setting the mold for a society in which women hold the political power and men exercise their magic abilities for the good of the country, a situation that has endured for centuries.  That is, until Cassandra Harwood, daughter of one of the most influential members of the Boudiccate, chose to forgo a political career on the path traced by her mother in favor of the practice of magic in which she excelled, causing significant ripples in the established status quo.

When we met Cassandra in Snowspelled, we learned that the desire to prove her worth had caused a grievous accident that almost claimed her life and left her unable to cast any spell, and at the end of that story she had found new purpose in the foundation of a magic school for the teaching of other young women who wanted to cast off the shackles imposed by society as she had done.

As Thornboud starts, the school at Thornfell, the Harwoods’ ancestral home, is about to open, the first nine pupils have just arrived, and the Boudiccate has sent a surprise inspection team to assess the school and the teaching program.  Cassandra has indeed her hands full, having to deal with the preparations, the inspectors and her problems with the staff, not to mention that she is plagued by horrible nightmares and suffers the absence of her newly-wed husband, who has been called away on Boudiccate business on the very same day of their wedding. As if all of the above were not enough, strange occurrences and a dismal discovery seem to point toward a malicious plot to cause the school’s failure…

Thornbound’s overall tone is slightly darker than that of its predecessor and I found that it fit well with Cassandra’s problems and more importantly with the doubts about her ability to fulfill her dream, not to mention the anguish she feels in realizing that her choices might have seriously impaired both her sister in law’s and her husband’s prospects for their future careers. It’s a very subdued Cassandra that I found at the beginning of this story, and I felt for her, but was overjoyed to see her rise to the challenge and summon her inner strength to overcome the trials in front of her.

Still, the major pleasure in this novella comes from the theme of mutual support and the bond it can create between people, especially women: in this tale of intriguing role reversal, women appear still hampered by social conventions and unable to express their full potential, any attempt they make to break out of the mold harshly criticized by their peers when it’s not the object of scandal and shunning. It’s a very actual theme that for all of its placement into a fantasy Regency background can however resonate with our modern sensibilities, as does the other important and equally modern subject about balancing one’s own career aspiration with the needs and requirements of marriage and family.

All these elements are set into a compelling story – a real page-turner, to use an expression typical of back-cover blurbs – where magic and everyday practicality blend into a seamless and highly entertaining whole.  I hope that many more of these novellas will come forth in the future, because they are truly a delightful read.

Highly recommended.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE TYRANT’S LAW (The Dagger and the Coin #3), by Daniel Abraham

 

Once again I managed to let a long time elapse between this book and its predecessor, but once I returned to this world I discovered that my memory of it was as fresh and sharp as if I had finished Book 2 just yesterday, and this can show you the measure of Daniel Abraham’s skill as a storyteller and the impact of his characters on a reader’s imagination.

When considering epic fantasy it’s easy to think about grand, sweeping stories that encompass vast expanses of territory and a huge cast of characters, and while Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin series does take place in such a background, it manages to advance the plot through a limited number of P.O.V. characters, namely four, and to switch seamlessly between them keeping a constant rhythm that helps you fly through the novel and find yourself at the end of the book wanting for more.  Granted, The Tyrant’s Law is in the unenviable position of being the middle book in a series of five, and there are moments when it seems to lag a little, but it’s just an impression, and an incorrect one, since in the end I saw what the author was doing here, which is build some momentum that will certainly propel the final two books toward their intended goal.

The world in which this story grows has never been a peaceful one: legends speak of bloody conflicts in the past – an era in which dragons ruled, the only sign of their existence in present times represented by the jade-paved roads that connect the cities – and the co-existence among the thirteen races who roam through the lands is not an easy one; moreover, in the first book readers witnessed the wanton destruction of a flourishing city and the slaughter of its inhabitants.  Now, however, those conflicts seem to have been rekindled with a vengeance, and the unrest that fueled a civil war in the imperial city of Camnipol is spreading throughout the world, taking on the ugly new face of a bid for power masked under a cultural, religious and racial battle for supremacy through conquest and submission.

The new, rising power is represented by the spider goddess’ priests and their goal to subjugate everyone under the goddess’ banner: after securing themselves a position of supremacy by backing the former nobody Geder Palliako, they proceed to focus their conquering drive by finding a convenient scapegoat in the form of one of the thirteen races, the Timzinae, and conducting a genocidal campaign of hate and distrust that justifies any action they take.  It’s nothing new either in the imagined or in the real world, and this awareness keeps imbuing the story with chilling overtones that feel even more terrifying for their historical familiarity.

Two of the main characters, Captain Marcus Wester and Master Kit (former priest now turned apostate and hiding as an actor troupe leader) try to find a weapon against the encroaching power of the goddess and her priesthood, and embark on a long, dangerous journey in search of a powerful artifact that might destroy the goddess herself.  I already remarked, in my review of the previous book, how diminished Marcus Wester looked once he stepped away from his role as a military leader, and here he still has not regained that former strength that had made him stand out as a character at the beginning of the narrative arc. Even through the hardships he and Kit have to face, and despite the great resilience he shows in the course of their quest, I found it difficult to really feel interested in Marcus’ journey, and I have to admit that I found his P.O.V. chapters the less engaging of the book, at least in comparison with what happens to the other characters.   The last segment where he appears, though, holds the promise of a big change, and I look forward to seeing what will happen with the amazing discovery he and Master Kit are faced with at the end of the novel.

Despite being confined somewhat in the sidelines here, Cithrin enjoys a much more interesting character arc: after demonstrating to her employers, the Medean bank, that she is an able businesswoman, she is officially apprenticed to an important branch in Timzinae territory, and finds herself a little lost, and disappointed.  The harsh experiences that tempered her in the fateful escape from Vanai led her to believe she could do anything, and made her not a little self-centered: here she must deal with the knowledge that she still has a great deal to learn, especially where the real value of money is concerned.  When Geder’s army takes control of the city and starts its cruel oppression of the Timzinae, she realizes what the true power of money is, and it’s the kind of revelation that is bound to change her outlook and thought processes in a major way – this becomes clear in a fateful choice she makes that will certainly have major repercussions along the way, and I can’t wait to see which will be the direction that Daniel Abraham has chosen for this girl who is finally starting to perceive the realities beyond the bank’s ledgers.

As for Geder… well, he is a wonderful character in the sense that he’s complex and unpredictable at the same time, but he’s also a horrible one. While reviewing the two previous books I already commented on his decisions to mete unthinking destruction with the same lack of empathy one might reserve for insects, but it’s the changes through which he is going that prove to be the most appalling. The man who started out as a bumbling, book-loving nerd, finds himself suddenly gifted with great power, flattered and bowed to by the same people who used to despise and ridicule him, and while he does not gloat about his change of fortunes, there is a deep well of unexpressed resentment in him, of desire for retribution, that drives his actions in the most nasty and shocking of directions.  The person who best describes him is indeed Cithrin, with whom he fell in love as they hid in a basement during the worst of the civil unrest in Camnipol:

“Geder’s not a cunning man,” Cithrin said. “He’s… he’s just a man of too little wisdom and too much power.”

“He is a terrible person, you know. But he’s also not. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who managed to make himself so alone.”

And it’s Geder’s infatuation for Cithrin which might be the proverbial straw that will snap his last, feeble ties with reason and humanity and send him further down the road to hell.  Whether I will still pity him in the future, as I did in the past… only time will tell.

I’ve saved discussing my favorite character for last, because her chapters were the ones I most looked forward to, and her arc the most intriguing and fascinating of the whole saga: Clara Kalliam, former lady of substance in the community of Camnipol, is now the widow of a traitor and has fallen down to the bottom of social standing, but being the dragon lady she is, she might be powerless but she is not broken. I totally loved how she maintains appearances and keeps working her contacts, a true spider weaving a complex web geared toward the fulfillment of her plan – because she has one, and it’s both ambitious and far-reaching.  Where other women might have fallen prey to despair and given up the fight, she understands that her reduced standing has given her a freedom of movement that she did not possess when she had to conform to society’s strict rules:

Her actions and opinions were impotent, and so they could be anything. She was already fallen, and so she’d been freed.

What Clara has set in motion will certainly change the fate of many, and I am beyond eager to see where her machinations will take the rest of the story: the simple fact that the next book’s title is The Widow’s House sounds very, very promising…

As a middle book in the narrative arc, The Tyrant’s Law might deceptively look like a transition novel, but in the end it proved to be the beginning of a huge game change, one that will keep me reading on with keen interest.

 

My Rating: 

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Review: ARTIFICIAL CONDITION (The Murderbot Diaries #2), by Martha Wells

 

The theme of rogue A.I.s is one of the classics of science fiction, and most of the times – if not always – the rogue goes on a rampage, killing humans with gleeful abandon, or its cybernetic equivalent. And even though this unescapable trope, in a delightful meta reference, fills much of the serialized fiction Murderbot so enjoys, this is not the case with our Sec Unit character: yes, it has gone rogue after being liberated by the humans it saved in All Systems Red, but the reason for the escape lies in its desire to better understand its nature and to explore the roots of the incident in which it allegedly killed the people it was entrusted to protect.

Artificial Condition sees a further step in Murderbot’s evolution: where the first installment was all about gaining some measure of freedom from the centralized control, a feat made possible by the Sec Unit’s hack of its governor module so that Murderbot could enjoy its favorite soap operas when not actively engaged in a task, now the outlaw construct wants to learn what truly happened in that fateful mission in which it might have turned against its human charges – Murderbot possesses few information about it due to the system wipe sustained after the incident, but it’s determined to go to the roots of the matter and learn what it can.

Thanks to a few exterior modifications that might make it pass as an augmented human, Murderbot hops between systems hacking the software of unmanned transports, so as to leave no traces, but it finally finds its match in ART, the evolved A.I. of a science shuttle: ART (an acronym created by Murderbot on the basis of its perceived attitude, and whose meaning you should discover for yourselves 🙂 ) quickly bonds with Murderbot through a shared enjoyment of its favorite serials, Sanctuary Moon and Worldhoppers, and soon becomes invested in the Sec Unit’s search for the truth, helping it blend more successfully with humans and giving it pointers on the best ways to avoid standing out in a crowd.

The sarcastic, often scornful conversations between the two A.I.s are indeed the best part of this novella, with ART somehow being Professor Higgins to Murderbot’s Eliza Doolittle thanks to its more experienced worldview and badly hidden sense of superiority, which irks the Sec Unit to no end.  It’s also fascinating to observe their different opinions about humans: where ART is clearly fond of them, as testified by its rapid attachment to the serials’ characters and its profound distress when something bad happens to them in the course of the saga, Murderbot is more wary of them and tries to have as little to do with them as it can, even though I still maintain it’s a self-imposed distance, because once it takes a cover job to more easily access a space station, it shows – again – a deep commitment to its charges, one that in my opinion goes well beyond any kind of programming as a Sec Unit.

But they were clients. Even after I’d hacked my governor module, I’d found it impossible to abandon clients I hadn’t chosen. I’m made my agreement with these clients as a free agent. I couldn’t leave.

The fact that Murderbot loves to lose itself in fictional series portraying humans shows its deep – if unconscious – fascination with them, something that goes beyond the need to interact with them, something that seems connected to the organic components of the construct and is in constant strife with the artificial parts: there is a sentence that I found quite enlightening and that to me showed clearly that conflict, one that I still wonder if it’s typical of all Sec Units or just of this particular Sec Unit – when Murderbot undergoes further modifications to better pass as an augmented human, it looks at its new self and realizes that the changes were very effective, and that it finds it difficult to accept them because “it would make it harder to me to pretend not to be a person”.

Murderbot’s struggle with its identity goes hand in hand with the difficult, painstaking search for clues about the incident that caused its system wipe, and the two threads seem to be interconnected, because discovering what really happened might offer important clues about why Murderbot is different from other Sec Units, and ultimately what led to its decision to hack the governor module – a device we already saw could be used offensively and not just as control software.  Given what Murderbot discovers on the space station, and the events portrayed in All Systems Red, it’s not hard to imagine some kind of far-reaching conspiracy whose goal is still nebulous – and I’ve been wondering time and again if the governor module hack was not a way for Murderbot to distance itself from it all, even though the A.I. gives completely different, more mundane reasons for it, which is hardly surprising considering the inner dissembling it is often prone to.

The jury is still out on this detail, though, and hopefully we’ll learn more in the next installments of this series that is turning out to be both intriguing and delightfully amusing. My hope is also that ART might reappear at some later date, because I loved it for its snarky sense of humor and its wonderful interactions with Murderbot.

Thankfully, the wait for the next novella is not long…

 

My Rating: