Reviews

THE TRIALS OF KOLI (Rampart Trilogy #2), by M.R. Carey

 

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

When I saw in my inbox a very unexpected email from Orbit announcing the ARC’s availability for the second book in M.R. Carey’s Rampart trilogy, I did not hesitate in requesting it because The Book of Koli, the first volume, was one of my best 2020 discoveries so far, and I was more than eager to learn how the protagonist’s journey away from his home village progressed. In the second volume, the focus on this post-apocalyptic world widens a little as Koli, Ursala and Cup travel in the direction of London, but character evolution remains front and center, with some interesting shifts in the interpersonal dynamics that offer promising developments for the future.

To recap the story so far: a series of environmental catastrophes and the Unfinished War left the world in shambles, and what remains of humanity seems confined only in small enclaves with little or no contact with the rest of the world. In the 200-souls village where young Koli lives the few, highly prized items of technology still functioning are in the hands of the Ramparts, the de facto leaders of the community, whose power is passed on only to the members of the Vennastin family. Once Koli discovers that the ability to wield the old tech is not tied to the Vennastins alone, he’s exiled and left to fend for himself in a world that’s become dangerous in many ways, and only his encounter first with Ursala, a sort of traveling healer, and then Cup, the former member of a death cult, increases his chances of survival and leads him on a coming-of-age and discovery journey toward London, fabled place of tech and progress.

One of the surprises of this book was that the narrative viewpoint is split between Koli and Co. on one side, and his former home of Mythen Rood on the other, through the voice of Spinner, Koli’s old friend and one-time lover, as she chronicles the events following his exile: it’s an intriguing choice, when considering the first book’s single point of view, and also a clever one because it keeps the pace lively by alternating between the two story threads, while showing how Koli’s discoveries have ultimately opened the Pandora’s box of the Vennastins’ secret and hinting at great changes in Mythen Rood’s power balance. Spinner is revealed as a layered character: at first she seems only interested in attaching herself to the Vennastins for convenience, but then she surprises the readers – and herself – by acknowledging how those apparently selfish choices have changed her and the way she looks at the world and her role in it. In the course of the story Spinner undergoes great adjustments which parallel the unsettling transformations in her small community: Koli started to perceive the possibility of a different reality through his connection with the Dream Sleeve, the piece of tech he claimed for himself, and its A.I. Monono, while Spinner here becomes aware of the wider world through a series of events that force her to mature quickly and to understand how the limited vision imposed by village life could be ultimately precarious and deadly.

For their part, Koli, Ursala and Cup (and Monono, as well) have formed an uneasy relationship: the crusty healer does not trust Cup, whose former attachment to a murderous cult makes her understandably suspicious, nor does she trust Monono and the increased abilities gained after the A.I. downloaded additional software – Ursala’s repeated requests that Koli reset the Dream Sleeve to factory standards drive a wedge of uncertainty between them that mars their former teacher/student relationship.  The dangers of the road, however, will change this balance and force the four of them to acknowledge the respective strengths, and to depend on each other for survival: the shift from grudging tolerance to playful banter and then to a sense of family is one of the most delightful surprises of the story, as are the growing friendship between Koli and Cup, the latter’s conflict with her sexuality and Ursala’s flourishing “maternal” attitude toward her charges.

Still, dangers indeed abound in the wider world: there are some sections where the small company has to fight for their lives, not just because of the natural perils of the world – like wildly mutated animals and trees – but also because of other humans who have not lost the old, ingrained penchant for dominance through aggression. There are also moments when the catastrophe that obliterated the old world manifests itself in dramatic evidence, as is the case with Koli’s first view of what remains of Birmingham: a huge field of bones that has him reacting in fear and dismay as he contemplates both the amount of people once inhabiting the land and the magnitude of the event that caused their demise, so that he feels overwhelmed by “more feeling than I could rightly manage all at once”.

If The Trials of Koli suffers a little (but only a little) from the dreaded middle book syndrome, particularly in the section devoted to the characters’ stay in the coastal village of Many Fishes, it also sets the stage for what promises to be a momentous conclusion, where hopefully many of the questions concerning the wider world and what really happened to it will be answered: the cliffhanger ending of Book 2 left me with a burning curiosity to see where the story is headed, and I’m comforted by the short interval between the first two volumes but still eager to see for myself where Koli’s journey will move next and how the developments in Mythen Rood will intersect with the main narrative.  I’m certain that Book 3 will provide those answers with the intensity I’ve come to expect from this author.

My Rating:

Reviews

MR. MERCEDES (Bill Hodges Trilogy #1), by Stephen King

 

After a long hiatus due to a mild disenchantment with Stephen King’s works, I found my way back to his novels through The Outsider and the more recent – and for me far more successful – The Institute. So I decided to retrace my steps and see what other good stories I missed in those “years of disappointment” and settled on the Bill Hodges series, starting with Mr. Mercedes: this trilogy marks a change of pace from King’s usual offerings, since it’s a crime/thriller novel with no elements of horror or supernatural activities, but as I’ve often found out we hardly need monsters to inspire dread, when the darkest depths of the human soul offer more than enough material in that sense…

Mr. Mercedes proves this theory from the very start: in 2009, as the world suffers in the grip of widespread recession, a sizable crowd forms around a stadium where the next morning a job fair will open its doors. Hundreds of hopefuls queue up in the chilling nighttime fog waiting for an opportunity, when a high-end Mercedes sedan plunges at full speed over the crowd, killing eight innocents and maiming twice as much.  Roughly one year afterwards Bill Hodges, one of the detectives working the case of the Mercedes Killings, finds himself in a deep depression brought on by his retirement and the ghosts of the cases he could not solve: he spends most of his days drinking, sitting in front of the TV watching trashy shows, and at times contemplating suicide. All this changes when he receives a letter from the killer, calling himself Mr. Mercedes, and urging the detective to put an end to his life. Forced out of his inertia, Hodges engages in a progressively more dangerous game of cat and mouse with Brady Hartsfield, the killer, teaming up with some unconventional helpers like Jerome, a tech-savvy teenager; Janey Patterson, the sister of the Mercedes’ guilt-ridden owner, driven to suicide by the killer himself; and finally Holly Gibney, Janey’s niece and a character I met in The Outsider, making her first appearance here.

Much as I enjoyed this novel, which turned out to be a compulsive read, I ended up being of two minds about it: on one side the story moved along at a fairly relentless pace and with the stakes getting progressively higher I found it practically impossible to put the book down, on the other, once all was said and done and the proverbial dust settled, my “inner nitpicker” surfaced and started pointing out several inconsistencies that I was able to overlook while I was engaged in reading, but came back to bother me afterwards.

What I liked: as usual, Stephen King’s main strength comes from characterization, and Mr. Mercedes offers many opportunities for the detailed creation of outstanding figures, starting with Bill Hodges himself, who might look like something of a cliché in that he’s the classical former detective, overweight and lonesome, who gave his all in the course of a long career paying the price in terms of family ties, and now feels useless and adrift, but ultimately shows unexpected resilience once he’s presented with the opportunity of getting closure on a case still preying on his mind for several reasons. There is a kind of twisted humor in the way Hodges evolves along the way, because the action that in the killer’s intentions should have driven him over the edge is exactly the one that revives the ex-detective’s interest in life and compels him to get out of the well of melancholy and lethargy that had enveloped him up to that point. This unexpected outcome works well within King’s overall tendency toward dark humor, which is evident both through some tongue-in-cheek references to his previous works (like IT or Pet Sematary) and through a few unexpected developments that keep frustrating the killer’s plans in a way that is, at the same time, dramatic and reminiscent of poor Wile E. Coyote’s major failures.

Brady Hartsfied stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, of course, not only because he’s the villain here, but because he’s the worst, most despicable kind of villain one could ever imagine: a person with a history of abuse, granted, but also one who is a completely abominable creature filled with the need to make his own mark on history, to be seen beyond the drab anonymity of his life, and who chooses to do so by hurting people –  not just physically hurt them, but to torture them psychologically as he does with the owner of the stolen car he used for the massacre, or with Hodges himself. There is a well of hate in Brady – directed both inward and outward – that seeks release by striking toward those he sees as more “fortunate”, and he does so with such a gleeful abandon that wipes out any trace of compassion one might feel for the damaging experiences of his past. There is a chilling, inescapable consideration that comes to mind when reading his sections in the novel: that there are, and have been, many Brady Harstfields in the real world, that a substantial number of them have doled out death and pain, and that any one of them might do so again…

Where the characters and the story-flow worked quite well for me, there are however some narrative choices that did not: for example, Hodges’ dogged determination to solve the case without involving the police. If there is a believable reason, in the beginning, to keep the new evidence and the killer’s missives to himself, and if it’s understandable how Hodges might want this “last hurrah” for himself, this rationale stops being credible once Brady raises the stakes in an… explosive way (pun intended, sorry…) and shows that the theory of the dangerous wounded animal is more than sound. The reasoning behind Hodges’ decision, that the police department is busy dealing with a huge weapons raid, sounds far too convenient to be completely believable and looks like an aberrant deus-ex-machina created to allow the “heroes” to shine on their own.

Still, the final part of the novel is such a breakneck run against time and impossible odds that it’s easy to momentarily set aside any misgivings and to let oneself be carried away toward the ending. While I might not completely appreciate the method, I enjoyed the thrill of the ride and that’s what ultimately mattered. And of course I’m now curious to see where Stephen King will take his characters in the next two novels of the series.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

LIGHT OF IMPOSSIBLE STARS (Embers of War #3), by Gareth Powell

 

It’s with the third installment of the Embers of War series that I was able to see how carefully – and shrewdly – Gareth Powell has been building this story, adding information in narrative “concentric circles” that little by little expanded our view of this universe and of the stage where the final confrontation was destined to happen.

In the first book of the trilogy, Embers of War, we met the sentient ship Trouble Dog and its crew, working for the House of Reclamation, an interstellar organization dedicated to helping endangered spacers; as the galaxy looked to be on the verge of another devastating conflict, the discovery of a mysterious portal to a different dimension led toward a slumbering fleet of automated ships, the Marble Armada, and to its awakening from a long sleep.  In book 2 the real purpose of the Marble Armada was revealed: they were built by an ancient race, the Hearthers, to fight against the Scourers, vicious dragon-like creatures from another dimension and their crab-like minions; the Armada’s solution to this threat, since the Scourers are attracted by fighting, became to relieve humanity of its means of waging war, forcing them at gunpoint to surrender the ships insuring commerce and survival across the galaxy and viewed by the Armada as the means to wage war.

As this third volume opens, Trouble Dog, its crew and some survivors they gathered along the way, are trying to hid from the Armada while they deal with diminishing power reserves and a few grievous losses. Meanwhile, near the space phenomenon called The Intrusion – a point of contact between two universes – young Cordelia Pa ekes out a meager living as an alien artifact scavenger on the Plates, a peculiar artificial world made out of connected flat surfaces and possibly a remnant of the Hearther civilization. A sudden, significant change in her life will bring Cordelia to learn the secrets hidden in her past and will put her at the center of humanity’s double struggle against the Marble Armada and the ravaging Scourers.

On the whole, the Embers of War trilogy is a successful mix of action, intriguing characterization and thought-provoking concepts: this third book might appear far too short for the great amount of ideas it introduces, and some of the characters suffer for it – particularly those of Johnny Schultz and his surviving crew, who were introduced in book 2 and are allowed little space here – but where Light of Impossible Stars excels is in showing the epic conflict at its roots through the point of view of the people enmeshed in it, gifting the story with the kind of intimate flavor that is very rare in space opera, where technology and the description of battles often grab the lion’s share of the page count.

The “new entry” Cordelia is a likable character: a loner, apart from her step-brother, looked on with wariness because of her peculiar appearance, she has learned self-sufficiency at an early age and this trait serves her well once she leaves the Plates embarking on a journey toward the unknown that will reveal her true nature and the meaning of her weird connection with Plates’ technology. I liked Cordelia and her inner steely core that belies the outward appearance of the street urchin, and I appreciated the way she met each new challenge, ultimately embracing her nature: there is a passage where she makes a defiant statement about that by enhancing her singularity through a bold haircut, a way to tell the world “Yes, that’s what I am. So what?”, and I greatly appreciated her for it.

But of course it’s the “core group” of characters that received my undivided attention, the sentient ship Trouble Dog and her crew.   Trouble Dog has been growing as a character from the very beginning and here we see how much she has gained both emotionally and as an evolving creature. Many of her statements are expressed through her interface avatar, whose changing appearance and dress mode offer both an indication of her feelings and some much-needed lightness in a dire situation.   Captain Sal Konstanz is a delightfully layered character, and probably the one undergoing more transformations than anyone else: transitioning from war veteran, appalled by the bloodshed of the Pelapatarn massacre, to dedicated commander of a relief vessel from the House of Reclamation, she had tried to give meaning to a life beset by grief and loss, only to find herself pushed again into the role of military commander to protect her ship from the aggression of the Armada and of the Scourers. She always tries to project a though façade to the world, but she’s torn by very human insecurities, and that’s the trait that most endeared her to me: she might be able to tap her inner strength when necessary, but it’s through her very human, very fallible insecurities that we see the real, very relatable person she is.

Last but not least, I would like to dedicate a special mention to the alien engineer Nod: in the two previous books I had the chance to appreciate the weird-looking Druff whose dedication to the ship and its well-being, enhanced by a peculiar expressive form, is nothing short of charming, but in this third volume of the saga we learn more about his species, the reason for their commitment to the task at hand and their underlying philosophy, and it’s a discovery as delightful as any interaction with these alien creatures who in the end appear much more human than the humans themselves. And let’s not forget that here Nod is tailed by a number of his offsprings who give the word “cute” a whole new shade of meaning… 🙂

Where this story stands on the solid narrative basis of a growing interstellar conflict and its ominous implications, its strength comes from the portrayal of the characters’ feelings, the often devastating consequences of personal loss and of the anguish and sorrow that accompany it: these issues are treated with a rare compassionate lucidity that adds a layer of poignancy to a beautifully written exploration of the human (and not only human…) soul.

Light of Impossible Stars seems to be the conclusion of the saga, but there are still several narrative avenues that could be explored, and if Mr. Powell will decide to keep telling the story of Trouble Dog & Co. I will be more than happy to jump on board for more.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BLACK ECHO (Harry Bosch #1), by Michael Connelly

 

For quite some time now I have been thinking about branching out of my preferred “stomping ground” focused on speculative fiction, not so much because of reader fatigue but rather for a healthy change of pace through a more varied choice of reading material.  In the past, besides SFF, I’ve always enjoyed books in the thriller/crime niche, and I’ve recently marked as interesting several titles in these genres that were showcased by my fellow bloggers, but what really compelled me to finally turn those good resolutions into reality was a tv series.  In the past I had noticed, in the customer suggestions from Amazon Prime Video, the series Bosch and at some point during the lockdown months I decided to take a look: in the space of a handful of episodes I was won over by the story and characters, so that once I discovered they were based on a series of books by Michael Connelly, I decided that my new “reading adventure” would start there – and it turned out to be an inspired choice, indeed.

Mr. Connelly’s successful series focuses on the character of Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, a L.A.P.D. detective whose dogged determination in solving cases equals only his total disregard for departmental politics, which makes him quite unpopular with the powers that be and always on the brink of dismissal. In this first case, Bosch is called on the scene of what looks like a death by overdose, and only a few conflicting details and the fact that he knows the victim – a former comrade, and like Bosch a Vietnam vet – will drive the detective to investigate deeper into what is beyond doubt a murder staged like an accidental death. Despite the inherent difficulties and the bureaucratic obstacles in his path, Harry pursues the elusive evidence that leads him to discover a long-planned, convoluted heist that will not only put him against well-organized masterminds and unfriendly co-workers, but will force him to face some of the demons of his past.

One of the most noticeable differences between the tv series and the book is of course the time setting: while the former takes place in the present, the latter – published in 1992 – is set some 30 years in the past and this accounts for the lack of some elements we have come to take for granted, like cell phones, easy internet searches or information merge between law enforcement databases. Still, this does not detract from the story in any way, and one of its major themes – the predicament of overseas wars’ veterans, who come back home and struggle to reclaim their place in society – is as actual now as it was back then. What I found truly unsettling, however, was the protagonist’s chain smoking: it’s not just that now we are more aware of the dangers inherent in smoking than we were back then, just as it’s not only that as a reformed smoker (I’m proud to say that I quit in 1982 and never relapsed) I now look at it as a ghastly habit – there was so much virtual cigarette smoke in the book that I often felt the need to air the room…. 😀

Apart from these minor distractions, The Black Echo proved to be a very compelling read, one that blends intriguing characterization and an interesting plot that managed to surprise me at several turns, encouraging me to look for the other books in the series: this is Michael Connelly’s debut novel, and it shows already a firm grasp of pace and characterization, so that I know I can only expect the rest of his works to keep improving from this remarkable starting point.

Storywise, I found the depiction of the city of Los Angeles quite intriguing: forget the glamor that’s part and parcel of the world’s entertainment capital, forget the endless, palm-lined avenues and the beaches where beautiful people laze in the sun – here you will get to know the dirty, shabby, ugly face of the city, its graffiti-stained walls, its concrete drainage ditches and the abandoned pipes where the homeless and the dregs of society take refuge. This far from rosy view of L.A. is mirrored by the stark depiction of a police department more focused on bureaucracy and internal politics than in crime-solving work: at some point we learn about Bosch’s partner’s alternate activity as a real estate agent, a job that gets more attention and energies than the man devotes to his primary one.  This is the main reason that sets Bosch apart from most of his colleagues: he’s grimly determined to go to the bottom of things, to bring justice to the victims, and he does so with a dogged persistence that stems from an event in his past, one that’s mentioned in passing here and will certainly come to dominate his attitude as the story moves forward.

What is interesting is that while Bosch’s dedication is admirable, he’s not portrayed as the proverbial square-jawed, unblemished hero: on the contrary he’s a deeply flawed individual – a lone wolf rather than a team player – one who seems to go out of his way to keep people at a distance or to be unpleasant, as if he enjoys aggravating them.  This aspect of his character is in synch with the overall noir atmosphere of the story, evident in the often blunt prose that nonetheless manages to be vividly descriptive. There is a darkness in Bosch’s soul that both keeps him apart from the rest of humanity and compels him to look in places others prefer to ignore: the book’s title refers to a feeling he experienced as a “tunnel rat” in Vietnam, the sensation of the darkness coming alive in those stifling, claustrophobic spaces – he lost something of himself in those tunnels, and only facing his fears he might find it again. There is a passage in the novel where we get a glimpse of Bosch’s mindset through the description of a painting that fascinates him, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks:

 

 

He mostly sees himself as the man sitting alone on one side of the counter, but there is a part of his mind that hopes he might be the other guy, the one sitting alongside the woman: it’s this drive toward normality, coexisting with his cynical acceptance of reality, that makes him such a fascinating character whose exploration is just as intriguing as that of the mysteries he needs to solve.

As a first foray into new “territory”, The Black Echo proved to be a very encouraging attempt, and it will certainly not be the last in this compelling series.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

NETWORK EFFECT (The Murderbot Diaries #5), by Martha Wells

 

How do I love thee, Murderbot? Let me count the ways…

Network Effect was one of my most anticipated novels for the current year, and it delivered on all fronts: I was of course mildly concerned that the transition from novella size to full-length book might not work as well as expected, but that was not the case. On the contrary I hope that future installments in the saga of our beloved Sec Unit will maintain this trend, making me – and countless other Murderbot fans, I’m sure – quite happy with its continuing adventures.

The story in short: after relocating to Preservation Aux with its former client – and now not-friend – Dr. Mensah and her enlarged family, Murderbot is still trying to balance newfound freedom and the still present threats against Mensah, the last of which left her with some residual PTSD. The colony’s open-minded attitude is in direct antithesis to the corporations-ruled rest of the galaxy, making Sec Unit’s  protection duties even more difficult.  A planetary survey run by some of Mensah’s family members is cut short due to a vicious pirate raid, and as the Preservation ship makes for home they are attacked and captured by a mysterious group based on a vessel that’s an old acquaintance of Murderbot, although it behaves in a strange, disquieting fashion.

What follows is a high-octane adventure where a mystery about alien artifacts mixes with corporate greed, an abandoned colony and some heated battles in space and planetside: to say more would be a huge disservice – this story, like the others preceding it, must be enjoyed with as little prior knowledge as possible. The detail that I can safely share is that, in this case, more is better: the broader narrative space gives us more chances to delve into Murderbot’s psychological makeup, its evolution as a sentient being and the meaning of freedom and choice for artificial intelligences. A coming of age story together with a hero’s journey, told with a satisfying balance between humorous quips and deep introspection.

As usual, the tale is told from Murderbot’s point of view as it struggles to understand the “strange” behavior of its charges, especially when it does not compare with previously recorded experiences or with any kind of human custom learned through the huge amount of media that Sec Unit loves to consume: more than ever before we see how the fictional series it’s addicted to are the bridge between itself and humanity, the key to decipher our puzzling ways, and the means to make itself more like them – although Murderbot would strongly deny that last… In Network Effect media also becomes a sort of liberating factor, the window on a different way of being offered to another Sec Unit as Murderbot presents it with the chance to get rid of its governor module and be something else.

In this respect there are some passages where the whole concept of constructs is brought into the light, and offers a terrible, inhuman vision, made even more so by the apparently dispassionate tone our ‘hero’ employs in all its musings: we know from the very beginning of this saga that Sec Units are composed of mechanical and organic parts (and I for one am quite keen to learn more about how those organic parts are obtained…), and that their main job is to protect the employers from harm, even sacrificing their own existence. The downside comes from the fact that in case of a dire emergency, the Sec Unit is abandoned to its destiny, just like one might abandon an unthinking piece of equipment – it’s such a “fact of life” that it’s also regularly portrayed in the serialized media Murderbot watches, and speaks loudly about the callousness of the corporate world. This might be the main reason Murderbot offers the choice of freedom to Three, as its brethren is designated, because it has realized the cruelty of the laws governing them.

[…] because I was a thing before I was a person and if I’m not careful I could be a thing again.

The same goes for the infamous governor module: it’s not just a control system, it’s also a self-destruct apparatus: when the distance between client and unit exceeds a given limit, for example, it destroys the unit itself.  One of Murderbot’s most chilling reflections, as it contemplates Three’s indecision about employing the hack for the governor module, uses this very example to state how it sees its journey from construct to person:

Change is terrifying. Choices are terrifying. But having a thing in your head that kills you if you make a mistake is more terrifying.

I love how Murderbot constantly denies its feelings while being literally inundated by them, how it manages to rationalize them to itself while fooling none of its human companions, just as I enjoy their amused conspiracy in allowing it to maintain the fiction: the person who seems to better understand this is young Amena (the best addition to the cast so far), and this shows in her interactions with Murderbot, which are a mix of teenager annoyance and adult empathy, resulting in the most delightful exchanges throughout the book.  I have come to the conclusion that since Sec Unit’s journey toward self-determination is still underway, it can be viewed as a teenager – still unsure of its role in the wider world and still prey to emotional storms – so that only another teenager is the most qualified to get on an equal footing.

Last but not least, Network Effect features the return of a previous character, one whose role was crucial in Murderbot’s transition from its former existence: ART is the cybernetic opposite of Sec Unit in many personality traits, and the two renew here their troubled relationship, complicated by some events that are an integral part of the overall story – they may be at odds, and even quarrel bitterly, but there is a profound, undeniable bond between them that gets delightfully explored in this novel and promises interesting developments for the next installments.  Again, I don’t want to say too much about this part of the story, except that ART’s is a very welcome return and offers new insights into what makes Murderbot tick.

Humans tend to be the “guest stars” in this series, leaving the spotlight to constructs and artificial intelligences, and yet the latter are the ones to offer the deepest and most emotional insights in the overall story. So… please Ms. Wells, can we have more Murderbot soon?

 

My Rating:

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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: