Reviews

Short Story Review: WEATHER (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.  A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

Weather is a novella-sized tale exploring in more depth the hostility between the Conjoiners and the rest of humanity, even that part of humanity that has chosen to meld flesh and machine: the Ultras, another of the factions in which the human race has fractured itself, combine mechanical and organic parts, either to augment some capabilities or to replace lost limbs, but they leave the mind well alone, finding the Conjoiner way of life beyond repulsive.

This story takes place aboard the Petronel, a cargo ship being chased by pirates: after a long, nerve-wracking pursuit, the Petronel’s crew chooses to stand and fight and, quite surprisingly, they get the best of their hunters, who have run afoul of some wandering space debris.  As they board the pirate ship to salvage equipment for repairs, the crewmen find a Conjoiner girl who had clearly been a prisoner and, not without some difficulty, take her aboard the cargo at the insistence of Inigo, the shipmaster, and against the objections of Captain Van Ness, who is highly distrustful of Conjoiners.

The two men have enjoyed, up until now, a close relationship borne of trust and mutual respect, but Inigo’s insistence in trying to deal with the girl – named Weather as a way to simplify her complicated designation – as a human being instead of a dangerous monster, drives a wedge between shipmaster and captain, to the point that the fracture seems impossible to reconcile. Only the danger presented by the failing drive – a Conjoiner model – will convince the captain to trust Weather, up to a point, and let her try to repair it so that the Petronel can reach its destination in time.

The rift between Conjoiners and the rest of humanity is represented here in all its bitterness, the past misunderstandings and troubles so deeply rooted that even the passing of time seems unable to lessen them, and Inigo finds himself trying to walk the fine line between two opposing feelings, while the story reaches its inevitable, bittersweet conclusion.

 

My Rating:

Advertisements
Reviews

Review: POLARIS RISING, by Jessie Mihalik

 

There are times when some lighter reading is exactly what the doctor ordered: after happily losing myself in any number of books dealing with end-of-the world scenarios, galaxy-spanning conflicts or epic battles in ancient realms, a palate cleanser, so to speak, is not only desirable but required, so that books like Polaris Rising always seem like the right choice for the occasion.

What this novel promises is the kind of uncomplicated adventure, combined with some humor, which is exactly was I was looking for: I knew there was some romance added to the mix, but given the overall premise I hoped it would not prove too intrusive. Moreover, the story ticks all the boxes I was looking for in an entertaining, light read: a plucky heroine, a darkly mysterious male counterpart, a galaxy ruled by family corporations in constant economic and political warfare, and a mystery to be solved.

Ada von Hasenberg is the scion of one of the influential families at the top of the feeding chain, but since she’s only a fifth child her usefulness to the clan can only come from marriage to some other aristocrat, in that endless game of political give-and-take that’s been going on since the dawn of time.  Not being very sanguine about that kind of fate, Ada escaped and for the past two years managed to keep ahead of the “hunters” sent by her family to bring her back into the fold – and she manages that until the beginning of the novel where we meet her as she fights the mercenaries who just captured her with the promise of a rich bounty set by the von Hasenbergs.  Thrown into the brig of the mercs’ ship, she finds herself in the company of another prisoner, Marcus Loch, best known as the “Devil of Fornax Zero” and one of the most wanted men in the galaxy – a very dangerous cellmate indeed, but in these circumstances a very useful ally for the escape plan Ada is already concocting and which becomes even more urgent once she learns that her prospective fiancé is about to rendezvous with her captors to retrieve her.

From here on, the novel takes a path that could certainly be defined as predictable, if still entertaining: the tentative alliance between Ada and Loch is based on uneasy trust, charged silences and a smoldering mutual attraction that at times borders on comical absurdity, yet the author manages all of that with the kind of panache that helps to overlook the blatant (and in my opinion often unnecessary) deviations into a territory more suited to ‘bodice rippers’ than SF adventure.  Luckily there is enough of a main plot as to offer a reasonably solid background, and even though it looks somewhat thin in places or prone to lengthy infodumps, it might be enough to counterbalance the main characters’ passionate interludes. That is, if it weren’t for some glaring pitfalls that become more evident – and less bearable – as the story progresses.

For starters, Ada and Loch are quite over the top, as far as characters go: she all too often skirts into Mary Sue territory, what with her fighting abilities and physical prowess, the handy gadgets she can produce at the drop of a hat when the situation requires, or the easy way she meets any mechanical or navigational challenge – it’s all credited to her training as a major House heir, of course, but still it sounds like far too much for a single individual. For his part, Loch fits perfectly the cliché of the Brooding Guy With A Past, a man with a gruff exterior and an honorable soul – and of course he’s shaped like a Greek god cast in bronze, circumstance that causes Ada to lose her hard-gained cool in more than one occasion

The addition of some secondary characters, who should have offered an interesting balance, seems however more a nod to the necessity of peopling the story with someone besides the two protagonists, rather than anything else: these figures – Veronica,  the backwater planet fence who turns into a precious ally; Rhys, the arms dealer with ties to Loch’s past; Bianca, Ada’s older and very supportive sister – look more like stage props than flesh-and-blood people, and they are not given enough room to grow and become more defined, smothered as they are by the overwhelming presence of Ada and Loch.

Something I noticed, as I kept reading, was a sort of repetitive pattern that became stale after the second or third instance: the two protagonists keep being taken captive, one at a time, to allow the other to rescue them, and the wounds received in such rescue operations give way to another dreaded trope, that of the “hurt/comfort syndrome”: you can understand how my initial enthusiasm might have cooled considerably by then…

It would not have mattered much in the general economy of the novel, however, if Ada’s characterization had not sent such mixed signals: on one side we are told she’s strong, independent, capable and quite bold – at some point she goes on a dangerous solo mission to infiltrate a mining operation where a momentous secret might be held – so that we are led to expect a personality more suited to our modern sensibilities, not to mention the genre chosen to tell this story. On the other, she both shows a great deal of “girly” inclinations, like the meticulous description of the clothes she wears, that run contrary to the image the author wanted to present. Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles if compared to her sudden about face once the relationship with Loch becomes a thing: she turns to putty in his hands, and ultimately bows to his domineering attitude – as if she had been waiting all her life to find the kind of man who would sweep her off her feet and become the center of her world.  It would have annoyed me if I had been reading about a character set in Victorian England, but at least that would have been justified by the chosen time frame – not so for a story set in a distant future, and certainly not so for a character that until that moment had made of her freedom and independence the founding pillars of her life.

What do you do when you need a palate cleanser after the potential palate cleanser?   😀

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: VELOCITY WEAPON (The Protectorate #1), by Megan O’Keefe

 

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

When I saw Velocity Weapon showcased in the regular Orbit newsletter of upcoming titles, something immediately drew me to it, and I requested it with a bare minimum of knowledge about the story, which is unusual for me since I like to have an idea about what to expect from any given book.  What I found was a very immersive story peopled with characters that felt real and solid, and I breezed through it in a short time: since this is the first volume in a series, I hope that the next ones will come out soon, because there are so many questions I can’t wait to see answered.

This is not going to be an easy review to write because I must avoid any kind of spoiler: Velocity Weapon offers so many surprises, so many unexpected twists, that to even hint at any of them would be a huge disservice – my unconscious decision to approach it “sight unseen” proved to be the best choice, and I urge you to do the same to enjoy this remarkable novel as it deserves.

The background: the discovery in the 22nd Century of a technology – called Casimir Gate – able to bridge huge interstellar distances fostered widespread colonization. Many centuries later, the settlers of Ada Prime hold the key to the local Casimir gate, while their neighbors on Icarion must pay for the rights of transit through the gate, which has caused increasing political and military friction over time. As the novel opens, in one such skirmish Icarion forces took the Prime fleet by surprise, scoring a bloody victory: while bound to their system by the punishing gate tariffs, they reached substantial technological advances, one of them being the powerful weapon which destroyed the Primes’ convoy.

As the political and military pressures mount, the Keepers – Ada Prime’s ruling body – must decide how to respond, while Biran Greeve, newly minted Keeper, has to deal with the loss of his sister Sanda, who commanded one of the Prime ships lost in the battle near Dralee moon.  Sanda is not dead, however: she wakes up in a medical emergency cocoon, one leg missing from the knee down as a consequence of the battle, and the ship she finds herself on is empty of any other form of life. That is, empty except for the AI controlling the vessel – an Icarion ship named The Light of Berossus: what she learns from Bero, as the AI controlling it prefers to be called, is devastating. Icarion deployed their ultimate weapon, the Fibon Protocol, and in so doing obliterated not only Ada Prime but their own world as well: Sanda might very well be the only human alive in this portion of space, and what’s even more shocking comes from the revelation that it all happened 230 years before her awakening and that her emergency pod was the only one with a living survivor that Bero found in the debris field.

The two main narrative threads of Velocity Weapon follow the two siblings as they deal with the harrowing circumstances they find themselves in, and are offset with two other perspectives, one  of them Alexandra Halston, the 22nd Century creator of the Casimir gates, and the other Jules, a thief-scavenger who stumbles on a heist with unexpected consequences and deadly ramifications. I must confess that I struggled a little to understand Jules’ role in the overall story – her timeline is parallel to Biran’s but they are systems apart – but in the end the “big picture” started to take shape and I admired the way in which the author juggled all these elements into a cohesive and fascinating whole.

The story is indeed an absorbing one, offering unexpected discoveries and mind-boggling surprises (more than once I had to keep myself from reacting loudly to such surprises when I was reading in a public place, lest other people think I was out of my mind), but the real bone and muscle of this novel are the characters, especially Sanda.  The usual mold for a strong female character in the genre requires a hardened individual who is either brusque or forceful, or a combination of both, but Sanda goes beyond these limitations (not to say tropes): she is tough and resilient, granted, but she also possesses a good deal of compassion and a sense of humor that blend into a no-nonsense, hands-on approach which immediately endeared her to me. For example, when she wakes up on Bero and acknowledges the missing leg she remembers losing during the battle, she wastes no time on hysterics but rather looks for the best means of assisted locomotion and later on works on fashioning herself a prosthesis.

Where Sanda truly shines is in her interactions with Bero and the way the two of them slowly build a relationship based on cautious trust which at times slides into semi-affectionate banter (the exchange about kitten pictures on the internet is beyond precious): after a while she understands the ship’s AI suffers from a form of post-traumatic syndrome, caused by way the scientists manning the ship hurt its sense of self and its developing personality. Sanda’s realization she is dealing with what is in essence a psychologically damaged teenager brings to the fore her true nature along with her vulnerabilities, showing her for the wonderfully rounded and authentic character she is.

At first I did not connect as easily with Biran, Sanda’s brother: on the surface he looked too naïve and somewhat easily influenced, but as the story progressed I started to see he is made of the same stuff as his sister, just in a less apparent way. As he kept going on the path he choose (apologies for the cryptic phrasing, but it’s necessary) I understood how ready he was to sacrifice anything, even the position he had worked so hard to achieve, to fulfill his goal, and I started to warm to him – unexpectedly but with growing certainty.

In the end what can you expect from Velocity Weapon? Certainly a good space opera novel combining action scenes and character growth, but most importantly a story exploring the meaning of life, consciousness and freedom; the intriguing observation of political maneuvering and of plots building over a span of many years; and above all a very entertaining tale that will keep you with your nose in the book for the whole duration.  And looking for the next book with an eager eye…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: BIG DAMN HERO (Firefly #1), by Nancy Holder & James Lovegrove

 

Every time I think about the ill-fated TV show Firefly, or hear it mentioned, I can’t avoid a combined feeling of sadness and irritation, the former for the untimely demise of a very promising story, and the latter for the short-sightedness of the network executives responsible for that decision – a situation all too common in the unfathomable world of television, and whose lack of wisdom is stressed by the huge success that the short run of 14 episodes and the 2005 feature movie Serenity are still enjoying today, a long time after the cancellation.

For this reason, any opportunity to enjoy new stories focused on the crew of the ship Serenity is still welcome, so that when I learned of the publication of this book (thank you Tammy!!!) I made it a point to check it out as soon as I could, despite a few misgivings: over the years I had tried some fan-written stories, but I was never lucky enough to find any that truly could bring the old ‘magic’ back, so I approached Big Damn Hero with some trepidation.  Well, as it turned out I should not have worried, because this novel is the closest I ever came to the true spirit of the TV show and its characters.

Shiny! 🙂

The story starts more or less where the last episode of Firefly left off, which is a double bonus, since it works as a continuation of the show and allows me to avoid dealing with the painful losses suffered by the crew in the movie Serenity: the old gang’s all here, and they are a sight for sore eyes… Of course they are in trouble, but that’s nothing new: with finances at an all-time low, and with the ship needing constant repairs, Captain Reynolds must accept a cargo from the disreputable Badger, the crafty boss of Persephone’s criminal underworld.  This time the shipment carries an added problem, since it consists of several crates of highly volatile explosives, destined to a mining operation, which must be delivered in a short time frame, or they might blow up in transit.  In an attempt to kill two birds with a stone, Mal also takes on another commission, an apparently easy task whose destination lies on the same course as the main job – and since in this part of the ‘verse “easy” often equates with “tricky”, the meeting with the mysterious client ends up with Reynolds being attacked, kidnapped, and taken off-planet for destination unknown.

What follows is a fast story running on parallel tracks: the crew must deal with the dangerous shipment and take it to destination before it – and Serenity – are blown to smithereens, while trying to find out what happened to their Captain, the only certainty being that he’s in danger and that time is of the essence. Meanwhile, the Alliance is on their tracks, again, searching for their two most-wanted passengers, Simon and his disturbed sister River, and tempers aboard ship are becoming as volatile as the explosives in the cargo bay. As these threads develop, we discover some interesting details about Malcom Reynolds’ past and that of Shepherd Book, one of the most mysterious members of Serenity’s crew, while we renew our acquaintance with each one of the characters we learned to appreciate and love in the past, as every one of them enjoys some screen time.

Zöe gets indeed the lion’s share of the focus here, and it’s a narrative choice I greatly appreciated since she’s always been my favorite character: if on the show she distinguished herself for her no-nonsense attitude and short, caustic utterances, here we are able to get into her mind and see what makes her tick. Her unfailing loyalty to Mal plays as a nice counterpoint to Jayne’s selfishness and matter-of-fact acceptance of the possible loss of their captain, and it’s in the interactions between the two of them that I found the true spirit of Firefly in this book.  The brisk pace of the novel does not permit the same level of depth for the other members of the crew, although there are a few moments in which River’s uncanny powers play a significant role and we can perceive the hidden layers of her formidable but deranged mind, and in those moments I could very easily hear her voice and its peculiar cadence.  The true discovery in Big Damn Hero is reserved for Shepherd Book however, and the hints (too few, granted, but better than the continuing mystery) about his more… energetic past: it’s interesting to see him in a more active role and I liked how he was able to balance the compassion required by his calling with the ability to meet physical threats.

The “meat” of the story, though, comes from Reynolds’ abduction and the reasons at the root of it: these reach far into his past and focus on his youth and the later war experiences, giving the readers a chance to witness some of the events that molded him into the present individual. This thread also takes a closer look at what it means to be a former Browncoat in a world now firmly ruled by the victorious Alliance, and how the bitterness of that defeat can still prey on the minds of those who lost the fight – sometimes with toxic effects.  Another interesting side of this narrative theme comes from the fact that the crew is forced to scatter in different directions, as some of them try to fulfill their job and others need to stay and investigate Mal’s disappearance: the main strength of Serenity’s complement comes from their being an actual family, and the lack of one member – especially the pivotal Captain Reynolds who is their glue – deeply unsettles them, besides being a source of deep worry for his safety.  I was reminded in several instances of one of my favorite episodes, Out of Gas, where a life support malfunction forced them to abandon ship leaving Mal alone aboard as he tried to restore the systems: as it happened in that episode, the crew’s separation mines their confidence and for a while makes them unable to effectively react to the situation at hand.  But once they do, their synergy is a joy to behold…

Big Damn Hero might not be a perfect novel, since it sports some quirks and weaknesses, but they are negligible when compared with the sheer joy of being immersed once again in this ‘verse and meeting again these beloved characters.  A joy I expect to renew with the next book in this welcome revival series.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: TIAMAT’S WRATH (The Expanse #8), by James S.A. Corey (spoiler free)

 

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

While there might be spoilers for the previous books in the series, I will try my best to avoid any in this review: to do otherwise would be a huge disservice to anyone reading this.

More than many of its predecessors, this new installment in The Expanse series took me through an emotional rollercoaster that left me breathless, and often reeling in shock – starting with the opening sentence that is nothing short of a violent punch in the gut.     And I freely admit feeling more than a little incensed at the authors for leading with that

Story-wise, the galaxy is far from a happy place: granted, it was no unicorns and rainbows before, when Earth, Mars and the Belt were at each other’s throat and the protomolecule ran amok throughout the Solar System, but after the all-to-brief respite enjoyed by humanity in the hiatus between Babylon’s Ashes and Persepolis Rising, the arrival of Duarte’s fleet and the founding of the Laconian Empire with its dictatorial iron fist have plunged mankind’s origin worlds and its many colonies into dark times indeed. The situation becomes even grimmer when the Laconians’ drive for expansion and dominance meets once again with the mysterious entity that once vanquished the protomolecule engineers: the show of force dictated by Duarte provokes a dramatic reaction that threatens the humans’ tenuous foothold on the many worlds beyond the alien gates and their continued survival, while giving the underground resistance a feeble chance to strike the kind of blow that might change the balance of power.

As for the Roci’s crew, they are scattered to the four winds: Holden is Duarte’s prisoner on Laconia; Bobbi and Alex, who have signed up with the resistance, are playing a dangerous game of sneak attacks on the enemy fleet; Naomi is doing her part by keeping the rebel network functioning and thriving, and Amos has been out of touch after undertaking a dangerous mission following Clarissa’s death.  Our heroes are quite aware of the David vs. Goliath nature of their struggle, and sometimes the temptation to leave it all behind, to find some quiet place to burrow down and live the rest of their lives in peace, makes itself felt and causes some tension among them, but never in such a measure as to bring them apart despite the wear and tear of life on the trenches.  For his part, Holden is not resigned to his prisoner-disguised-as guest situation, and still manages some small measure of defiance that shows he has not given up either on the struggle or the hope of one day being instrumental in the downfall of Laconia.

What becomes clear, as we follow the main characters’ individual journeys, is that the sense of family they built by living and working together for so long is too strong to succumb to the separation imposed by vast distances and the different paths taken: even when they are million of miles apart it’s as if they still shared space on the Roci, so that they still quote an absent friend’s catchphrase at the appropriate moment, or recollect their gestures or expressions in the face of similar occurrences. It’s a way to keep alive the memory of those who are far away and to show that the bonds that tie them together are strong and vital: I found myself deeply touched reading such passages, not just because they worked so well in the economy of the story, but because the Roci’s crew has grown on me so much that I have long since stopped envisioning them simply as fictional characters, and they have become living and breathing people I keep caring about.

Alongside our old friends we see the story through some new – or newfound – points of view: Elvi Okoye, the scientist we met in Cibola Burn, is now working for the Laconian military in what she believes is a mission of discovery beyond the alien gates and instead turns out to be something quite different.  Much as I did not care overmuch for her character in that first encounter, here I greatly enjoyed her point of view, mainly the fine line she and her husband have to walk, balancing the needs of scientific study with the goals of the hierarchy, especially the Laconian expansionist and merciless military.  Looking through her eyes gives us a measure of what it means living under an oppressive regime that likes to paint itself as benevolent and enlightened while it conducts appalling experiments on human subjects, and I managed to sympathize with her dilemma between the drive of scientific curiosity and the need to adhere to ethical standards: Elvi gains a good number of facets here, and I always welcomed her p.o.v. chapters with great interest.

The new addition is represented by Teresa Duarte, the teenaged daughter of the High Consul and the heir-in-training to the empire: her path takes her from basking in the illusion of a charmed life to waking up to far starker reality that forces her to grow up much faster than her already peculiar position previously required her to.  Teresa is an interesting character and in some way her journey mirrors Elvi’s in reverse: having been indoctrinated from birth to believe that Laconia is a force for good, she has to wake up to reality bit by bit, and probably the major factor in this change of perspective comes from a dramatic event that undermines the belief in freedom of choice she had given for granted until that moment.  I realize how cryptic this sounds, but there is a huge spoiler here, and all I can say about it is that this narrative thread was another of those gut-punches I mentioned before, one of the many that the authors deliver in this latest Expanse installment.

But of course my favorite character remains Naomi Nagata: I’ve always envisioned her as a mixture of strength and wistfulness, the latter tied to past experiences and mistakes that still prey on her mind, and in this novel she still tries to temper the underground’s penchant for violent action by being the voice of reason. It’s clear that this desire comes both from the weight of her past and the need to keep faith with Holden’s vision – a means to keep his legacy alive and to lessen the sting of his absence: for this reason Naomi chooses to isolate herself, to work in a sort of bubble – both physical and mental – that page after page takes on the aspect of a chrysalis in which she undergoes a change, one that will become evident as the events unfold and will transform her in a very unexpected way. Again, I apologize for the vagueness with which I’m expressing this, but I want you to enjoy this journey on your own, and if you are Team Naomi like I am, you will certainly want to explore this with as little prior knowledge as possible. You will not be disappointed.

If the characters, old and new, are the backbone of the story, the story itself is a constant escalation of events that become more and more pressing as the stakes pile up in a breath-stealing progression that moves inexorably toward the final showdown, and a further change of perspective in a series that bases its very strength in such changes. Be prepared for some painful shocks as well, and a constant worry about what is going to happen next: given the premises carried from the past installments and those contained in Tiamat’s Wrath,  the ninth and final book in this amazing series will certainly blow our minds.

And I can’t wait to read it…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: OBSIDIO (The Illuminae Files #3), by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

 

Before launching into my review of the third and final volume of the Illuminae Files, I would like to share a detail of my “history” with this series: since most, if not all, of my reading happens through ebooks, I acquired the first two installments of the series in that format, and although I enjoyed the story immensely I was also aware that the peculiar narrative form chosen by the authors – which includes memos, transcripts, graphics and even sentences deployed in strange and convoluted patterns – did not work as well on an e-reader as it would on a printed page. For this reason I also bought the physical books for Illuminae and Gemina to see what I had missed, and once the date of publication for Obsidio was announced, I decided to directly acquire the physical book and read the story in the… old-fashioned way.  And it was indeed a good decision, because this is an amazing way of telling a story.

Please be aware that this review might contain spoilers for the first two books: if you have not read them, don’t go any further!

Obsidio closes the circle that started in Illuminae with the assault on the mining colony of Kerenza, perpetrated by BeiTech Corporation against what they deemed an illegal operation: in the first book we followed the survivors of the attack as they attempted to flee on a handful of ships to reach the Heimdall transit station; the second volume focused on BeiTech’s attempt to eliminate them, and therefore any witness to the massacre, by taking control of Heimdall.  Here, the few who escaped both assaults – now crowded aboard the very stressed-out Hypatia and the newly acquire Mao – have decided that going back to Kerenza is the only viable choice, which becomes all the more imperative once they learn that BeiTech intends to kill the remaining miners on the planet once they have extracted the precious hermium that is the planet’s main resource, leaving no trace of their heinous crime.

All the characters we encountered along the road are present here: Kady and Ezra, Hanna and Nik and Nik’s cousin Ella, as well as the other people (those still alive, that is…) who shared their journey.  Their trials on the crowded ships, their plans for the coming battle and their hopes and fears act as a counterpoint to the events on Kerenza itself, where we make the acquaintance of Asha Grant (Kady’s cousin) and her ex boyfriend Rhys, now one of the BeiTech “ground pounders” from the occupying force.  I must say that I found the planet-bound sections quite fascinating, both in terms of narrative impact and of character exploration: even though the previous relationship between the two youngsters feels a little convenient (in my opinion it would have worked just as well if they had been complete strangers), it helps in highlighting the dire situation of the miners on one side and of the soldiers on the other, showing how extreme circumstance can bring to the surface both the best and the worst in human beings.

The miners know their life expectancy is limited, and are doing their best to try and draw out that timeline in the hope of rescue, as improbable as it might look, so that we can witness acts of courage and self sacrifice as well as foolish choices driven by rage, despair and the burning need for vengeance.  The BeiTech soldiers, for their part, range from the “just following orders” kind – some of them even enjoying the power of life and death they are given over their victims – to those who are painfully aware of the atrocities they are committing, but are unable to act differently because they know any kind of defiance would be futile.  There are some scenes where these soldiers try to forget the unpleasantness of their duties by spending time in endless card games interspersed with heavy banter, but one can somehow feel the desperate effort this is, and in some way perceive the humanity that the robot-like armor encasing them cannot completely conceal.

As fascinating as all of the above was, the events transpiring aboard the ship headed for Kerenza were the ones that drew my more intense focus, because they mixed the efforts at survival with the frantic plans to overcome BeiTech’s stranglehold on Kerenza – a David vs. Goliath kind of struggle that was fraught with uncertainty and the ever-present awareness of potential failure.  The young people who were at the center of previous events, forced by circumstances to grow up quickly and make harrowing choices, here must wage a war on two fronts: one represented by the might of BeiTech and its aggressive power, and one represented by several adults who are unable – or unwilling – to give them the credit they are due and still view them as children, underestimating them and forcing them to prove themselves time and again.  This thread adds a very frustrating element to the story, but also one that was both electrifying and suspenseful.

And last but not least I must mention AIDAN, the insane, murderous AI with a conscience (much as that might appear as a contradiction!) who despite the horrible acts of the past, and the present, keeps growing in his understanding and acceptance of human emotions. There is a section, here in Obsidio, where AIDAN makes a hard choice that is both appalling and necessary, fully aware of the consequences but also aware that not to act would be a worse option:

And in the end, I suppose it will not matter what they name me. […] And it does not matter what they believe. […]  I am not good. Nor am I evil. I am no hero. Nor am I villain. I am AIDAN.

It’s a bleak choice, and the dispassionate (?) way in which AIDAN observes it stresses even more the AI’s loneliness, one that never fails to tug at my heart because – no matter how many deaths he’s responsible for – AIDAN strikes me as the proverbial child looking into a warm home from the outside cold, knowing that he will never be part of it.  The fact I have used “he” and not “it” to speak about AIDAN is a clear indication of what I feel about this character and his journey, one that should be discovered on its own…

As the conclusive book in what has been an electrifying trilogy, Obsidio works quite well and manages to keep the suspense and uncertainty about the outcome until the very end, and if it cheats a little in one particular regard (spoiler territory, so I apologize for being cryptic), I can forgive it in the name of the amazing narrative tension that carried me from start to finish.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: EMPIRE OF DUST (Psi-Tech #1), by Jacey Bedford

 

There are several interesting themes, at the basis of this debut novel, that I found intriguing, telepathy being the foremost of them, and I enjoyed how it was woven into the background of a galaxy-spanning civilization ruled by corporations and therefore plagued by the usual afflictions of economic interests and greed.  The end result might not have been completely successful at times, but it was a fast and entertaining read, and one that holds the promise of developing into something much more substantial.

The main character, Cara Carlinni, is a telepath on the run: formerly employed by one of the two big galactic corporations, Alphacorp, she is now hiding from her boss and former lover Ari Van Bleiden because of the vital information she possesses and that could damage him if it came out into the open.  Empire of Dust‘s take on telepathy is an intriguing one: people with such potential (which does not limit itself to mind reading) are enrolled by the big corporations and provided with an implant that enhances such abilities, allowing them to communicate across vast distances, for example, or to merge with a ship’s instruments to better guide it through space.  The implants also work as a sort of locator beacon, and for this reason Cara is not activating it (although that causes her a great deal of stress) and taking menial jobs to survive.

Having been discovered once again by Van Bleiden’s minions, Cara connects with another telepath, Ben Benjamin, working for Alphacorp’s rivals, the Trust, and manages to escape on his ship. Despite the initial difficulties in their encounter, Ben decides to help her escape and recruits her, under a false identity, for the latest mission he’s been assigned to together with a team of specialized telepaths, that of assisting a group of anti-technology colonists settle on the new world of their choice and start a back-to-the-origins kind of life.  Of course Van Bleiden’s hounds have not given up their search, and other kinds of corporate mischief threaten the safety of both Cara and Ben, not to mention that the difficult co-existence between the telepaths and the Luddite colonists adds another level of danger to the mission.  And of course between the two main characters some feelings are developing…

As I said, while Empire of Dust proved to be an entertaining read, and one that showed some promise for the future, I could not avoid feeling that in some instances it felt a little old fashioned, reminding me of the kind of stories written in the ’60s or thereabouts, stories that at times glossed over in-depth examination in favor of advancing the plot: there is nothing wrong about this kind of choice, of course, but when I’m given glimpses of an advanced civilization and the way it works, I like to know more, to see how certain details came to be to better understand how they apply to the story.  This novel gave me the impression that there was much more underlying the events being described, but that the author had shied away from delving deeper into them, so that my curiosity ended up bordering into mild frustration.

On the other side of the spectrum, though, the theme of the Ecolibrians, the colonists searching for a virgin world to be colonized in the old way, without assistance from machines and other technological implements, is an intriguing one: the “return to nature” movement is not a novel idea, but here it proves interesting because of its desire for a simpler way of life, despite all the drawbacks that such a choice entails, especially in a new, potentially hostile world whose dangers have not been completely assessed.  In any technologically advanced society there are always people who feel the need to distance themselves from the perceived slavery to everyday’s gadgets, and in this novel the colonists make us think of the mid-nineteenth century adventurers who moved west on oxen-driven wagons, bent on facing the unknown in search of a better way of life.  Of course there are always extreme elements driven by the need to step even further, and those depicted in Empire of Dust provide for some of the more dramatic, tension-filled moments, showing us how human nature basically remains the same, no matter the location or the time frame.

The same duality in plot I mentioned above extends to characterization as well: the “good guys” are portrayed well and give birth to rounded, believable figures it’s easy to picture in one’s mind.  I quite enjoyed the slow-building relationship between Cara and Ben, the way their interaction started off with unspoken truths and withheld secrets, to move gradually toward trust and then love – and I’m glad to report that the love story is not central to the novel, but only one of its elements. As a matter of fact, I ended up rooting for them and hoping that the misunderstandings and problems that afflicted their relationship would be resolved: these two start out as co-conspirators, move on to comrades and partners in danger and then progress toward something deeper – no insta-love here, thankfully.

Unfortunately, I can’t say as much about the antagonists, since they on the whole look more like the cookie-cutter variety of baddies, and if any of them sported some mustache I’m sure they would have twirled them evilly. Here lies my main contention with Empire of Dust, because the “bad guys” are all irredeemably bad, and just for the sake of it – especially Ari Van Bleiden and his theatrically cruel sidekicks.  I would have enjoyed a little more depth in them, and not characters merely driven by malice for the sake of it.

On the whole, however, this was a very enjoyable novel, and I have no difficulty in ascribing any flaw I detected to its nature as a debut work: the promise for better pacing and characterization is there and I will certainly keep on reading this series in the hope to see those promises flourish.

 

My Rating: