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: 

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Reviews

TV Review: THE EXPANSE, Season 3 (spoiler free)

 

The on-screen translation of one of the best space opera book series to see the light in recent times has now reached its third season – one that for some harrowing days also seemed destined to be the final one, a subject to which I will return in a short while.

What never ceases to amaze me, in this visual version of James S.A. Corey’s epic, is the fact that even as a book reader I never experienced any dull moment, never took anything for granted, because the pace of the story is such that expectations always run high, even for those who know how the narrative journey develops.  This has become particularly true with this third season, where actions and characters have been shifted in unexpected ways, or changed completely, so that the viewing experience has become fraught with uncertainty for book readers as well as newcomers to The Expanse’s storyline.  If, with the previous two seasons, I was merely eager to see how certain events would be portrayed on screen – and still found myself enthralled by the way the creators managed that – now I am often speculating, together with non-book-readers, about how the story will move forward, what will happen to the characters, and so on.  The joy of seeing this amazing epic brought to the small screen is now combined with the deep sense of wonder and expectation that should always be part and parcel of any such experience.

The actors’ portrayal of the characters keeps being very enjoyable, and the characters themselves continue to gather new facets and offer deeper insights on their psychology and what makes them tick: we are given, for example, an important revelation about Naomi’s past (one that in the books happens much, much later than the point reached by the TV series), one that explains many of her past and present actions, and from my point of view gives some subtext to Dominique Tipper’s choice to always add a veil of wistfulness to her interpretation of Naomi, one that might have been a subtle form of foreshadowing.   Another delightful surprise came from Amos and the friendship he creates with distraught scientist Prax, who is desperately trying to find his missing daughter: actor Wes Chatam managed to keep his Amos the strong-armed, borderline psychopathic character we all know and love, but at the same time showed his gentler streak in his support of Prax, all without once changing Amos’ basic ruthlessness – not a mean feat indeed, and one that reached its peak in the famous (if you saw the show) “I am that guy” scene.

Fans of both Bobbie Draper, the Martian marine, and of Chrisjen Avasarala, the consummate, foul-mouthed politician, will certainly have enjoyed as I did their exchanges and how the balance of power shifts between the two of them according to the situation: where politics and the handling of people is concerned, Avasarala holds the upper hand, applying all her skills and craftiness to the manipulation of anyone unlucky enough to find themselves on her path, and at the same time she acts as a teacher to Bobby, who is indeed an amazing warrior, but suffers from a form of innocence where interpersonal talents are required.  On the other hand, when they are in danger and fighting for their lives, the roles become reversed, and it’s Bobbie’s turn to impart vital knowledge that can make the difference between life and death: the shared dangers they faced and are still facing have created a bond of mutual trust and respect between them, so that they know that any advice coming from the other is based on sound experience and can be heeded without reservations.

And these are only a handful of examples of what one can expect from this set of remarkable characters…

Story-wise, the third season looks more articulated and far-reaching: the mystery about the origins of the alien protomolecule now encompasses the questions about its goals (especially after the creation of the huge space ring), and intersects in a dramatic, breath-stealing way with the conspiracy to weaponize the alien substance and use it to affect the already precarious political balance of the Solar System. We spend more time on Earth, witnessing the power play between contrasting political forces, but we are also afforded a much closer look at Belter society and interactions as the Belters ask for a front seat on the general playing field thanks to their retrieval of the Mormon ship Nauvoo, now renamed Behemoth.   And speaking of space, it’s worth mentioning how well The Expanse shows the mechanics of life in vacuum, be it on a ship or a station, and the effects of microgravity on day-to-day existence or on the human body: space is vast and dangerous, we are all aware of this fact in one way or another, but it’s through some details of this show that the full impact of this reality hits home. One of the most striking scenes I can remember is that of the corridors of a damaged ship, where the bodies of the dead keep floating in an upright position because their magnetic boots keep them anchored to the deck; or the information about the effects of microgravity on a wound, because blood clotting cannot happen in gravity’s absence.

This attention to detail is one of the series’ distinguishing marks, and one of the aspects that many commentators have touched on, together with the excellent writing and the high-quality of character portrayal, so that it is unanimously acknowledged that The Expanse is one of the best genre shows on air at present.  Which leads me to the inevitable discussion about the proverbial elephant in the room, i.e. SyFy’s decision not to carry the show after its third season, a piece of news that came as a very cold shower around the middle of Season 3’s run.

When I wrote my review for Season 1 of The Expanse, I commended SyFy’s choice to commit to a quality story (and as a book reader I knew it had quality to spare), taking a step into the right direction for the network’s own chosen field, that had been neglected for some time in favor of other kinds of entertainment that had little or nothing to do with science fiction. You can therefore imagine my dismay when I learned of the decision to take The Expanse off their schedule, because of insufficient ratings due to SyFy’s distribution contract, which provided only for live viewing, a choice that apparently was not enough for the network’s goals.

Now, I have no idea about the workings of such contracts, so I might be barking up the wrong tree here, but it would seem to me that SyFy did not take into account the huge changes in the way TV viewing is approached now: live, direct viewing has dwindled in favor of streaming services or the more mundane recording of a show – not everyone can be in front of their TV on a given day and hour, our lives just make that difficult if not impossible, so that it’s far easier to record something we are interested in, to watch it later. So, basing the ratings of a show just on live viewing seems like a very narrow-minded interpretation, or an imperfect understanding of the modern dynamics of viewership, or both. Which leads to what, in my opinion, was a short-sighted and unfortunate decision that, despite the words of praise for the show expressed in the official announcement, immediately recalled other equally unfortunate and short-sighted decisions taken by SyFy in the past, as titles like Stargate: Universe or Farscape, just to name two, come to mind.

Luckily for The Expanse, though, the show is not produced by SyFy themselves but by Alcon Entertainment, and they immediately set to work in search of a new home for the series, backed up by a huge, really huge, fan involvement that included the signing of a petition to save The Expanse, and which brought on the involvement of Amazon and its owner Jeff Bezos – a fan of the book series even before the show aired – with the result that Season 4 (and the next ones, we hope…) will see the light on Amazon Video.  While I am relieved to know that the Rocinante and its crew will keep on traveling through space, I am also sad to have witnessed this further misstep from SyFy, one that – in my opinion – once again undermines their reliability as a network dedicated to quality science fiction.  And quality is always something one should strive for, especially in this genre…

That said, I am happy to close on the positive note of The Expanse’s new – and certainly more trustworthy – home and look forward to what Season 4 will bring.  Please, keep the Roci flying!

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE CONSUMING FIRE (The Interdependency #2), by John Scalzi

 

A new Scalzi novel is always a treat for me: since I discovered this author with the first volume of his Old Man’s War series, each new book he published has been a source for intriguing stories, remarkable characters and some well-placed humor.  Book 1 of The Interdependency series, The Collapsing Empire, was no exception: it depicted a sprawling galactic empire whose means of travel and communication depend on the Flow, a mix between a sea current and a wormhole that allows ships to travel huge distances in a relatively shorter time than they would if they moved through normal space.

The Flow, however, is not immutable, and a few scientists have discovered that the routes of communication toward the various colonized systems are on the verge of collapse: once that happens, each system will find itself isolated from the rest of the Interdependency, risking chaos and the fall of civilization. In Book 1 we saw how newly elected Emperox Cardenia Wu-Patrick, who took the name of Grayland II, was trying to deal with this disturbing news while finding her way as the supreme ruler of the Interdependency (a role that was thrust on her unexpectedly) and fending off the assassination attempts carried out by some of the ruling families, bent on seizing the ultimate power before civilization’s end.

With The Consuming Fire the stakes get higher and even more dangerous: House Nohamapetan still stands at the heart of every evil scheme, despite the crippling blow sustained after the latest failed attempt on the Emperox’s life, and here we get to know better the House’s true ruler, the callous Countess who does not balk even at using her own offspring as pawns in the complicated game she’s playing.  Kiva Lagos, the young CEO of House Lagos who has been tasked with uncovering the Nohamapetans’ closeted skeletons, is often in danger of losing her life as her adversaries attempt to remove the nuisance she represents, with no regard for any collateral damage.  And Cardenia/Greyland knows she must find new ways to rule that can be applied to the extremely volatile and uncertain situation none of her predecessors ever faced.

Meanwhile, Marce Claremont, the scientist whose work has brought to light the precariousness of the Flow, learns that his data is incomplete and that there might be a possibility to establish new pathways once the old ones collapse, just as he discovers that the shutdown of a Flow does not necessarily mean the end of civilization: a journey toward the recently re-opened path toward doomed Dalasysla – an older colony that was cut off from the Interdependency when a few centuries before its arm of the Flow collapsed – shows that there is still life in that system – harsh, precarious life, granted, but still a healthy form of society that gives hope for the future.

With all of the above (and much more) going on, The Consuming Fire is indeed a swift and entertaining read, which is what I have come to expect from a Scalzi novel, but I’m sorry to say that it also proved to be something of a disappointment: in part I can place the blame for that on my expectations, which were quite high after the first book set down the playing field and then ended on a cliffhanger, leaving me wanting to know right there and then what would happen next.  In part, however, my dissatisfaction with this book comes from an uneven pace that alternates moments of adrenalin-infused narrative, especially where the plots-within-plots of the Nohamapetans are concerned, and others of extreme slowness where one or more characters indulge in long, drawn-out conversations that offer some necessary context but at the same time sound pedantic and artificial.  Now, this kind of wordy exchange is at times typical of Scalzi’s writing, but until now it never went on at such length and especially not as the dull counterpoint to more energetic segments: here it gives the story a start-and-stop quality that in the end I found frustrating and what’s worse it gave me the impression that the author has in part given up on his previous habit of just hinting at deeper issues, so that his readers can think about them on their own, in favor of a more open and sadly heavier lecturing. 

And so, probably in an attempt to even out the scales, there is an excessive emphasis on a certain individual’s foul-mouthed tendencies, so that if at first I found Kiva Lagos’ characterization an amusingly irreverent portrayal, here she has become a caricature of herself, and a badly overstated one at that.  In the first book, Kiva used to drop the f-word at every opportunity, with no thought for circumstance or company, and she offered a refreshing contrast to the stuffy courtliness or the razor-thin false politeness of other characters.  Sadly, in The Consuming Fire, Kiva’s cussing is all out of proportion to many of the situations she finds herself in, and what’s worse her profanities are not simply uttered in direct dialogue as would be expected, but also employed when the author relays her thoughts, which I found unnecessary and redundant, more in the spirit of a child who has just learned a four-letter word and enjoys the shocking impact of it, rather than the representation of an adult who does not care overmuch about social graces.

These issues, minor as they are, coupled with the shortness of the novel and my perceived lack of any substantial advancement in characterization or story, managed to spoil some of my enjoyment, and that’s the reason I find myself unable to give The Consuming Fire a higher rating. Still, I have not given up either on this series or this author, and can look forward to the final chapter in this adventure with the hope of seeing all my expectations realized.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: INTO THE FIRE (Vatta’s Peace #2), by Elizabeth Moon

 

 

In the previous book of this new series featuring Kylara Vatta, we saw the character returning home after her successful campaign against the pirates that were wreaking havoc on the interstellar shipping lines: instead of receiving the deserved hero’s welcome though, Ky found herself, and the crew of the shuttle ferrying her on-planet, battling for their survival on an isolated, barren continent.  The discovery of a hidden base on that continent, and of the conspiracy to keep its existence hidden from general knowledge, confirmed the presence of a number of corrupted elements in Slotter Key’s government and military, a discovery that should have brought on a massive cleanup.

What instead happens here is the attempt at a massive cover up: the soldiers rescued together with Ky from Miksland are bundled off on the pretense of medical checks and completely isolated from the rest of the world, their families being told that they are all incapacitated due to a pathogen infection, while Ky, unaware of their fate, is hounded on very trumped up charges of expiration of her citizen rights, just as Rafe and his right-hand man Teague’s visitor visas are called off.  For her own part, Ky would not be aware of the fate of her fellow survivors if not for the successful escape of three of them, who seek shelter at her home and reveal the existence of the devious plot.

Into the Fire, unlike its predecessors, becomes then more of a political thriller than a space opera story, as Ky and her friends and family try to stay abreast of the attempts to silence and possibly kill them – not just in relation to the cover up involving Miksland and the secret base, but also because that purpose becomes entangled with some other individuals’ desire for revenge against Vattas, all of them. This last is probably the weaker thread in the narrative, because the long-held grudge looks all out of proportion when compared with the intended retribution, and the opponents little more than cardboard nasties.

On the other hand, the conspiracy involving Miksland, tied as it is to the possible financial gain from the continent’s rich resources and to a play for independence whose roots go back several decades, makes for a very compelling narrative, especially when Ky’s adversaries move from bureaucracy to outright slaughter as they try to remove her from the playing field.  This deeper look into Slotter Key’s society is quite unsettling when one stops to consider that home assault and assassination seem to be part and parcel of this culture and that the need for an escort, bodyguards and a fortified home are normal facts of life where prominent figures are concerned.  More than once, as I read along, I found myself wondering at this future version of mankind, one where the finer points of bureaucracy, whose pedantry can outgun plain good sense at every turn, exist side by side with home invasions by trained commandoes or murder by poison gas: it’s a bizarre dichotomy indeed, and certainly one more suited to a Game-of-Thrones-like society rather than an advanced civilization that colonized space.

It makes however for a very engaging read, and if this new installment of Kylara Vatta’s adventures does not offer much in the way of expanded characterization, it more than makes up for it by sheer suspense, especially in the latter part of the book, when the rescue operation to free the remaining prisoners is carried out with the same military precision that Ky used to combat the pirates in space.  We are also afforded a deeper look into some characters’ back story, especially Ky’s formidable aunt Grace, whose mysterious past, that was hinted at several times in previous books, is revealed in all its unsettling details.

And here lies what for some readers might be a problem with this story: for those who started following Ky’s adventures only from Cold Welcome, as it happened with fellow blogger Mogsy at Bibliosanctum, the connection to the various hints scattered over the course of the five books of Vatta’s War might look somewhat uninteresting, even distracting, while for me it finally shed some light in several dark corners that had me wondering at past goings-on.  What’s more, the perceived brusque turn from the journey of survival in Cold Welcome to the more… mundane developments here might feel like a slowing of the rhythm, while in the original series the author often made her readers privy to the financial and political side of the Vattas, and to their complicated family dynamics, so that here these details don’t look like they came out of the blue.

That said, this novel is not completely problem-free: my main point of contention with it comes from the author’s habit of repeating known facts several times during the course of the narrative, which in the end becomes quite annoying.  It’s one thing to briefly mention past happenings to remind old readers, or to inform new ones about them, but it’s quite another to rehash information they already possess, over and over again. When we are told, for example, that Ky’s citizenship has been revoked because she was away from Slotter Key for a certain number of years, we don’t need to have this information repeated – in all its minute detail – every time the narrative requires another character to be apprised of the fact. It’s a pattern that I noticed in the other books as well, but here at times it reaches embarrassing proportions, and this kind of…. redundancy only manages to slow down the pace of the novel, feeling at times more like padding than anything else, where this story should be about more than a simple word count, in my opinion.

Still, I did enjoy Into the Fire because I am by now invested in Kylara Vatta’s journey and look forward to learning more about it, especially now that the bulk of past issues seems resolved, so that I’m curious to see where the story will head next. I’m sorry that, for the reason I expressed above, I’m unable to give it a higher rating, but I trust this author to do better in the next installments, and I will wait for them with great anticipation.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE FLOWERS OF VASHNOI (Vorkosigan Saga #14.1), by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

 

After reading Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, I had to deal with the sad certainty that no more stories from the Vorkosiverse would be forthcoming: that latest novel had the flavor of finality, of the author having closed the door on those characters and their lives, leaving them to continue unobserved by prying eyes.   So I was happily surprised when fellow blogger SJ HIGBEE showcased this novella, a very welcome and quite unexpected find, one I might have missed for a longer time if not for her post, for which I’m very grateful.

The focus here is not so much on Miles as on his wife Ekaterin, which brings an interesting change of pace and also the possibility of observing Miles from an external point of view – and I must say that sharing Ekaterin’s observations about her rambunctious husband, as he engages with their children in target practice with food against the house cat, is just as entertaining as following any of Miles’ adventures, not to mention that it shows how the passing of years and the weight of responsibility have not changed him at all. Thankfully…

The district of Vorkosigan Vashnoi has been mentioned often in the course of the saga, and it’s an interdicted zone due to high levels of radioactivity dating back to the heavy bombardment from a past Cetagandan invasion: the place had been bequeathed to Miles from his grandfather Piotr, probably as a form of not-so-subtle sarcasm considering what the old man thought of the deformed grandson he tried to murder in his crib.  As the story begins, the radiation levels have started to subside, and Ekaterin has enrolled the Escobaran scientist Enrique Burgos – the creator of the (in)famous butterbugs first appearing in A Civil Campaign – to help in the requalification of the area.

Doctor Burgos has bio-engineered a new kind of butterbugs – the radbugs – whose function is to ingest the contaminated flora and soil of the Vashnoi territory, incorporating the radiation into their bodies and slowly but surely taking away the pollutants, so that the region can be made habitable again.  During one of their tours of inspection of the test area where the first generation of radbugs has been released, Ekaterin, Enrique and their ranger escort make an amazing discovery: the area is not deserted, on the contrary there are clear signs of habitation – and someone has been stealing a good number of radbugs…

This very enjoyable novella felt to me like some sort of mirror image of Miles’ adventure in The Mountains of Mourning, where he had to confront the harsh reality of what happened to children born with radiation-induced malformations: however, where Miles had to deal with some tragic revelations that felt much more dramatic due to his own physical problems, Ekaterin’s discovery runs on a lighter path, one where the inherent drama is tempered by humor and the acknowledgement of the fact that Barrayar’s outlook toward those who are not perfect is changing, and for the better.

As always, it was a delight to go back to these characters and place, so that my hope is that this will not be an isolated occurrence and that Ms. Bujold will opt to return again – even in this brief form – to what I consider her best creation.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: EMBERS OF WAR (Embers of War #1), by Gareth L. Powell

When I started reading the synopsis for this novel, as soon as I reached the words “sentient ship” I stopped paying attention to any other detail, since this has been a favorite theme since the times of my long-ago encounter with Anne McCaffrey’s stories, and more recently with the Leviathan Moya of the acclaimed tv show Farscape.  And once I discovered that in Embers of War the ship Trouble Dog is not simply sentient, but enjoys its own first person point of view, I knew I was in for a delightful experience – but I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s proceed with order…

The action takes place in what feels like a distant future, when humanity has been discovered by and welcomed into a sort of galactic federation called the Multiplicity: such enlightened company has not changed humans very much though, and therefore the story opens on the final stages of a brutal conflict between two factions, the Conglomeration and the Outwarders.  The former, knowing the war might go on for a long time with heavy casualties on both sides, decides to strike a massive blow against its opponents and causes the total destruction of a planet covered by a sentient forest, where Outwarder and Conglomeration forces are locked in endless guerrilla skirmishes.

Years later, Captain Sal Konstanz commands a vessel of the House of Reclamation, an organization devoted to the rescue of endangered spacers, and her ship, the Trouble Dog, used to be one of the vessels tasked with the annihilation of Pelapatarn, the planet destroyed in the prologue: the ship, gifted with sentience thanks to a mix of technology and human brain cells, feels the need to atone for its past actions (evidently not subscribing to the easy alibi of “I was just following orders”, as many humans do) and believes that working for  the House of Reclamation is a start to balance the lives lost to wartime destruction.

The House of Reclamation is indeed a fascinating concept, a mix between the Red Cross and the Foreign Legion, where one’s past and previous affiliations cease to matter and the only goal is that to save lives.  For this reason they are not subject to any one planet or system’s laws and they are free agents commanding respect from all factions thanks to their humanitarian goals.   This does not mean, however, that they are immune from dangers, and as the Trouble Dog is called to render aid to a liner that was attacked while exploring a peculiar group of planets called ‘the Gallery’, ship and crew find themselves in the crosshairs from competing factions poised to start another conflict.

Besides Sal Konstanz and her crew – former Outwarder soldier Alva Clay, the alien engineer Nod and the young, inexperienced medic Preston Menderes, who’s been assigned to the Dog after the demise of the previous doctor – the story’s points of view include poet Ona Sudak, a passenger on the attacked liner and also a woman with a dark secret in her past; and Ashton Childe and Laura Petruska, respectively a Conglomeration and Outwarder agent.   Their individual paths converge on the Gallery system, a group of planets that a mysterious alien race carved into bizarre shapes and where a chance find opens a portal toward a distant part of the galaxy and the encounter with an old alien race.

This is a story that moves forward at a very good pace, thanks to the author’s narrative skills in keeping the action rolling, and his choice of alternating between the main points of view while having each of them relate the events in the first person, thus giving a more hands-on perspective to the whole scenario as he builds the individual characters. If there is a common bond between these different individuals (and I count Trouble Dog among them) is the strong need for redemption, or freedom from their inner ghosts – or both: for example, Captain Konstanz’s life is dotted with losses, so that she works to save lives to balance those that were taken from her, and sometimes the struggle becomes so painful that she needs to physically retreat from everything and everyone, to elaborate her pain in solitude.  Ashton Childe is profoundly disillusioned by his life’s choices and believes that his current assignment as a spy and military adviser in a far-off conflict is leading nowhere, crushing him under the weight of uselessness and despair.  Or again young Preston is desperately trying to live up to his father’s standards, and doomed to failure by devastating psychological problems.

Still, the most interesting character remains that of Trouble Dog, formerly a Conglomeration ship of the Carnivore class (interesting denomination, this one…) and part of a pack of similar ships built for speedy ruthlessness of action: witnessing the destruction of Pelapatarn and its living forest, knowing that in the massacre uncounted lives were lost, besides the age-old sentient trees, changed its attitude – or probably the growing and learning human brain cells implanted in its systems realized the full consequences of the Carnivores’ strike, and reeled from it in horror.  Nonetheless, despite having now dedicated itself to saving lives instead of taking them, Trouble Dog perceives that its feral instincts are not vanquished, but simply dormant, ready to be awakened in defense of its crew and the people it rescues: I loved how the Dog acknowledges its dual personality, the streak of ingrained violence existing alongside more noble feelings, and how it manages to make them work for the good of the crew through a very creative application of computerized logic.

The ship’s twofold nature is also a good mirror for the story itself: on one side we have action scenes and a plot whose tension grows with the turning of each page as the characters converge toward a well-crafted peak of confrontation and discovery; on the other we are made privy to many inner struggles to protect the life choices they made without jeopardizing the nobler pursuits of their new existence.  The result is a captivating story led by interesting characters, and two of them stand out for very different reasons: one is the alien engineer Nod, whose extreme focus on his job and his spiritual goals make him probably the most stable personality aboard the Trouble Dog, and whose manner of speech – or rather, thought – is a delightful combination of single-minded innocence and affectionate mocking of his human companions’ perceived quirks.  The other is the poet Ona Sudak: even before discovering what lies in her more than checkered past, I could not relate to her because she seemed too detached, too coldly calculating to really make a favorable impression on me; and as the story progressed, I found that I ultimately disliked her.

In the end, Embers of War is revealed as an introduction to a more complex plot, one that will develop over the next books in the series: here we are given glimpses of an age-old alien mystery and of the way it might impact on the present – and very volatile – situation.  Consider me quite intrigued and firmly on board for the rest of the journey…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: VICTORY CONDITIONS (Vatta’s War #5), by Elizabeth Moon

With this fifth volume Elizabeth Moon’s series Vatta’s War reaches its conclusion, and a very satisfying one at that.  Until now we have been following Ky Vatta, heir to a family of interstellar traders, who was expelled from the Space Academy because of a mistake in judgment and who tried to re-build her life inside the family business.  Faced with increasing challenges, including a vast network of pirates trying to take over space routes with the complicity of moles planted in various governments, Ky manages to gather around herself a fleet of former merchanters and privateers to fight the pirates, while gaining precious experience and skills that force her to grow well beyond her young age.  As Victory Conditions starts, Ky is ready for the next step in her difficult mission, that of taking on board various planetary governments and their fleets to repel the coming assault from Turek, the leader of the pirates and the man responsible for the massacre of most of her family on their home planet of Slotter Key.

This series is not, however, a one-woman show, and the action is equally divided between other characters we have met along the way: Ky’s cousin Stella has taken over the running of a company’s branch on the planet of Cascadia and is successfully juggling the family’s shipping business with the thriving new activity of manufacture and selling of a new communication device. Once Vatta’s black sheep because of a few youthful indiscretions, Stella is growing into her role of businesswoman and shrewd manager, earning the respect of surviving family members and associates alike.   On a different part of the galaxy, Rafe Dunbarger – estranged son of the CEO of ISC, the leading communications firm – went back into the fold once he discovered the takeover attempt from his father’s closest associate, attempt that included the kidnapping and possible extermination of Rafe’s own family.  Taking control of the company, and trying to eradicate the complex web of traitors (some of whom are in collusion with the pirates) and “simply” greedy executives, forces Rafe to discard his disreputable persona and to morph into a more stable, more dependable individual, even though he somewhat pines for the old days of freedom.

All the while, the constant threat from the pirates, whose infiltration of governments and manufacturing facilities speaks of a long, careful planning, escalates to open conflict, one that the “good guys” are not so sure of winning… The constant change of point of view between characters and situations makes indeed for a fast-paced story, one that fulfills all the promises of the build-up carried on by previous books.  And if the narrative is sometime slowed down by reiteration of well-known plot points (which for some instances happens more than once in the course of the story), it’s easy to forgive this misstep because the events succeed each other at such speed that glossing over these writing ‘hiccups’ requires no effort at all.  Vatta’s War is above all a space opera whose main goal is that to entertain the reader, and in this it reaches its goal quite successfully.

Where this novel works very well is in character exploration and development: Ky, for example, is not at all the kind of Mary Sue heroine who’s able to troubleshoot every problem just by batting her eyelashes. She has to work for what she obtains, and work very hard, more often than not leading an uphill battle against prejudice, not so much because she’s a woman (there are plenty of capable women in positions of responsibility in Moon’s world), but rather because of her young age and (wrongly) perceived lack of experience.  Ky Vatta is not afraid of shouldering heavy burdens, knowing that she will learn from them, and being aware that nothing comes without a price: there is a segment of the story here where we see her dealing with the aftermath of all that happened to her until that moment, a combination of the experiences that matured her and the painful losses that shaped her psyche even as they hurt her.  It’s an important part of the narrative, from my point of view, because it stresses Ky’s  basic humanity and fallibility,  while showing the potential for inner strength and emotional stability, the qualities that make her a convincing leader.

My opinion of Rafe changed considerably with this volume: where he earlier looked like the proverbial rakish adventurer, here (and partly in the previous book) he shows great determination to bring ISC up to speed, removing all the elements that leeched funds and credibility from the company and taking very seriously his duties to it and to his family, especially where his traumatized sister Penny is concerned. In a sort of parallel with Ky, he needs to overcome the wrong image the world wants to paint on him, one that is only in part the result of his swashbuckling life and instead owes much to the deceptive bad publicity artfully circulated to keep him away from his home world and the company.  The only segment where his characterization falters a little is in relation with Ky: while their mutual but unspoken attraction has been a subtle thread throughout the last three books, and it comes to the fore here promising future developments, it’s also at the root of a scene that demeans his maturity placing him on the same level as a hormone-crazed youth.  Still, like I said, it’s one of those elements readers can take in their stride when considering the entertainment value of the story, without being too troubled by it.

I’m glad that when I started reading Elizabeth Moon’s Cold Welcome, the first installment in the new series Vatta’s Peace, I decided instead to explore this first foray into Ky Vatta’s adventures, so that now I can move forward to the next books “armed” with the knowledge necessary to enjoy the story as it deserves. The journey continues, and it promises to be equally enjoyable…

 

My Rating: