Reviews

THE SINS OF OUR FATHERS (The Expanse 9.5), by James S.A. Corey – #SciFiMonth

A short story from the universe of The Expanse is hardly enough to compensate for my sadness at the end of the best SF series I read so far, but it’s still a very welcome surprise, even more so when it ties off one of the threads left hanging by the main storylines in the saga.

Jannah is one of the newly colonized worlds reached by humanity through the ring gates system, whose collapse has now isolated those worlds from the rest of the galaxy. The colonists on Jannah have so far been dealing – like everyone else in their same situation – with the uncertainty of cut communications, dwindling supplies and lack of replacement parts, when a new problem surfaces: some previously unknown creatures have been attacking the settlement, and their defenses might not hold much longer.  The group of colonists is of two minds about how to cope: stay and keep defending themselves, or relocate the village in a different area, and tempers rise in the confrontation, opening the way for the strong and ruthless to impose their will.

One of the stranded colonists is an old acquaintance: Filip, the son of Naomi Nagata of the murderous leader of the Free Navy Marco Inaros. He’s a few decades older than the last time we saw him, and he’s been living a nomadic life since then, haunted by the guilt for his actions when he was his father’s lieutenant, and trying to keep as low a profile as possible.

His past was like a wound that wouldn’t heal, he’d spent his life dodging justice that might not even have been looking for him except in his head. That had been enough to break him.

Once Filip recognizes in fellow castaway Jandro the signs of the man’s narcissistic thirst for power that were at the roots of his father’s character, he understands that history might repeat itself and the ghosts of the past come knocking at his door once again…

Despite the dreary, almost hopeless atmosphere of this short story, I enjoyed very much the character study at its core: humanity manages again to show its failings and its inability to learn from the mistakes of the past (the sins of the fathers mentioned in the title). We see the bully Jandro understand that the lack of laws and organizations able to implement them have left a door open for a show of force and the possibility of seizing power; we also see how people deprived of self-esteem, or agency, tend to attach themselves to such individuals as Jandro, giving in to their basest instincts to gain the leader’s approval.  It’s a scenery with which Filip is quite familiar, one which has the effect of reopening the emotional scars he’s still carrying after so long.

When we last saw him, Filip was a teenager, confused, lost, oppressed by guilt –  and more important eager to distance himself from the looming figure of his deadly charismatic father: the choice to take on his mother’s surname – Nagata – his way of expressing a willingness to cut the ties with that past. And yet, at the start of the story, Filip is still running from that past, and from himself: until now, when things became unbearable, or too comfortable, he always moved on and left without turning back, in a form of self-inflicted punishment: 

[…] if anything ever went right for him, if he ever seemed in danger of gaining something he might be able to keep, he ran.

Now, with the collapse of the gates system, that possibility is gone forever, and that’s probably the reason he  finally takes a stand – a way to avoid history repeating itself and of atoning for his own sins. It might not be a true redemption (not considering the way things develop) but it’s the beginning – the hope – of one. And it’s enough.

The Sins of Our Fathers might very well be our last chance to visit the Expanse universe, but it’s a quietly moving, very satisfactory one.  Even though I keep hoping that the authors might still have something in store for us in the future…

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

CONSIDER PHLEBAS (Culture #1), by Iain Banks – #SciFiMonth

When, some time ago, I decided to acquaint myself with Iain Banks’ famous Culture saga I went, of course, with the publication order and started with Consider Phlebas, but my experience with the book was not a positive one, since the story seemed to go all over the place – both narratively and in the figurative sense.  My reading journey for the Culture might have ended then and there if not for a number of comments I read online about Consider Phlebas not being the best starting point for the non-initiated in Banks’ writings, and so I moved – with greater success – to Player of Games and Use of Weapons, and then to a few other titles in the series. 

So, armed with a few more Culture books under my proverbial belt (although not as many as I would like…), I decided to go back to Phlebas and see how it fared this time: it worked indeed a little better, granted, but still it felt so different from what I’m used to from this author that I found myself unable to change my initial opinion in a very significant way.

The story develops on the background of the war between the Culture – a post-scarcity, utopian, galaxy-spanning conglomeration of civilizations –  and the Idirans – a belligerent society with xenophobic tendencies; keen on capturing an escaped Culture Mind (a very powerful AI), the Idirans enroll one of their agents, a Changer named Bora Horza Gubuchul. Changers are humanoids gifted with the ability to transform their appearance, and therefore to infiltrate any environment without arousing suspicion: Horza is also perfect for two reasons, because he hates the Culture passionately as his masters, and because he served, long ago, on the planet where the runaway Mind has gone to ground, so he’s quite familiar with the territory.

Horza’s task proves far more arduous than anticipated, leading him through a series of adventurous mishaps (for want of a better word) that nonetheless offer the author a way of introducing the setting for this series and acquainting his readers with the Culture and its many facets.  This is indeed the aspect I most enjoyed in this second journey through the book: elements like the concept of the powerful Minds, or the sentient drones gifted with often quirky personalities, are standard fare in Iain Banks’ Culture novels, and here they make their first appearance in a very intriguing way; and again descriptions of the huge space habitats called Orbitals, veritable worlds artificially constructed to offer any kind of terrain or environment, are nothing if not mind-blowing and fascinating.  But where these details – made now familiar by the books I’ve read before this – still prove intriguing and thought-provoking, the story fails (still) to get a grip on my imagination, and the characters suffer the same kind of fate.

Horza’s weird adventures end up feeling a little too much, to the point that any intended dramatic effect resulted more farcical than dramatic: he starts with a harrowing experience when he’s sentenced to a gruesome death in a cell that’s going to be filled with the bodily waste of a banquet’s participants; rescued by the Idirans he barely survives a ferocious space battle only to be retrieved by a band of pirates/salvagers with whom he engages in the spectacular failure of a preposterous heist; a shuttle crash lands him on the section of an Orbital where a crazy cannibalistic cult is waiting for the end of the world (and this segment is even more gross than the waste-disposal cell one, believe me); and finally he enters in an outlandish card game called Damage where lives are at play besides fortunes. All this before truly engaging in the mission the Idirans hired him for…

It’s clear that Consider Phlebas is more plot- than character-oriented, and there is nothing wrong with that, but I’m still not sure where the failed heist, the Orbital debacle or the “cannibals interlude” serve this plot, since none of these narrative elements have any relation with the search for the runaway Mind. None of this – be it adventurous or merely grotesque – serves to highlight or develop Horza’s character, which remains the same detached-from-everything (and everyone) personality from start to end, making it very difficult, not to say impossible, to form any attachment to him.  In a similar way, the long, sometimes overdrawn, sequence of “adventures” prolongs the wait for the real task Horza must accomplish, so that when it finally comes into play it’s lost any appeal or involvement – or at least that’s what happened to me, to the point that I skimmed the whole segment to reach the end more quickly.

I realize I’ve been somewhat harsh with this book, maybe undeservedly so, but it’s clear that something important for me was missing from it and it failed to capture my attention despite the familiarity I acquired with this saga over time. At least I can agree that even with my first approach it was still enough to keep me interested in Banks’ Culture, to the point that I enjoyed the following books and that I will continue my exploration with the ones still waiting on my TBR.  So maybe this is not a complete loss, and that’s the reason my rating for Consider Phlebas gains a half point more than I would have given it on its own… 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE STARS UNDYING, by Emery Robin (DNF @40%) – #SciFiMonth

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

It always pains me when I have to DNF a review book, particularly because I tend to pick and choose them according to my tastes, which should enable me to target only novels I can be sure to enjoy, but sometimes this method fails and I’m faced with a story that does not work for me.

The Stars Undying had all the potential the be the kind of narrative I enjoy, enhanced by the fact that it’s inspired by the events surrounding the fateful meeting between the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra and roman conquerors Caesar and Mark Anthony, translated into a space opera background.  Princess Altagracia, the heir to the Szayet empire, has been overthrown by her own sister, who also claimed the Pearl, the computerized device that imparts to Szayet rulers the wisdom of their god. When the commander of the fleet from the empire of Ceiao, Matheus Ceirran, lands on Szayet, Gracia sees in him the opportunity to regain power by using her feminine wiles, but she soon understands that the game might be more complex and dangerous than that…

I have to admit that my troubles with this novel started from the very beginning: the author throws her readers into the thick of things with little or no background to sustain them, and if that usually does not worry me – since I do indeed enjoy a good challenge – the way in which the story flows felt both confused and confusing and I struggled to understand how that veritable avalanche of names and places and background details could form an organic picture.  More than once I backtracked through the chapters, driven by the definite sensation that I might have missed some pages or sections and that some vital information had eluded me, but I failed to find any helpful clue.

The story is told in alternating chapters equally shared by Gracia and Ceirran, and here is where I encountered more problems because their “voices” lack the kind of distinctiveness that would make their individual personalities stand out: if I was distracted and failed to take notice of the character name at the top of the chapter, I had a few moments of uncertainty about whose thread I was following because I could not readily distinguish between the two identities.  The fact that it took me close to ten days to reach the 40% mark before admitting defeat, is a signal that my progress through the book was an uphill, losing battle.

When all is said and done, I firmly believe that it’s more a kind of “it’s not you, it’s me” issue with this book than anything else: from what I’ve read online, the consensus is that The Stars Undying is a brilliant debut, and I don’t doubt it – it’s just not the kind of book, or narrative style, that I find suits my tastes and I truly look forward to the comments of my fellow bloggers to learn what I might have missed or misunderstood in this failed reading journey.

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

RECORD OF A SPACEBORN FEW(Wayfarers #3), by Becky Chambers #SciFiMonth

No two books end up being the same. This is indeed what one should be aware of when approaching a new novel in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, because each one takes the readers in a different direction from the previous ones. And so I went from the group of space travelers in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet to the personal journeys of Lovelace and Jane 23 in A Closed and Common Orbit, only to find myself sharing the lives of the people from the Exodus Fleet – a cluster of connected spaceships that had left the Earth in its decline to create a space-faring society – with Records of a Spaceborn Few.

The story starts with a catastrophic explosion aboard one of the vessels in the Fleet and with the aftermath – emotional, psychological and also practical – of this event, seen through the eyes of a number of characters: Isabel is one of the Archivists, people tasked with recording the history of the Fleet, as well as presiding over the births, and the deaths, of its members; in the latter case, Eyas the Caretaker pays homage to their remains and their return (sort of) into the cycle of life; Tessa (the sister of Captain Ashby from book 1) works in the salvage department and has to deal with huge issues like her daughter’s trauma after the explosion, her father’s failing health and the need to move to a different job; and then there’s young Kip, who’s still trying to find his way and is not sure that his future will take place in the Fleet. The only non-Fleet character we follow in the novel is that of Sawyer, a descendant of former Exodans who choose a planet-bound life: he takes the inverse journey and comes aboard the Asteria – the ship on which most of the story takes place; his destiny will cross that of a few of the people mentioned above, influencing their outlook and their choices for the future.

There are many themes I enjoyed in the novel, not least the one about a space-faring society that forsook a ground-based life to forge its existence in the depths of space, with all the interesting social modifications that such a life implies: there is a similarity here to one of my favorite SF tropes, that of generation ships forging the unknown, and even though the Exodans have established their society in the proximity of a sun they were allotted by the Galactic Commons, their way of life is not so different from that depicted in generation arks traveling in search of a new planet to colonize.   The sense of community is the strongest element at play here, together with that of legacies passed from one generation to the next: one of the most fascinating details comes from the descriptions of the quarters allotted to the various families and of the way each group of dwellers left the imprint of their hands on a wall, as a mark of their passage and as an encouragement to those that came after to improve and build on that ground.  Exodans left their home with the keen awareness of having mortally wounded their home planet, and with the burning desire to avoid such mistakes in the future: keeping score of their progress toward a better society, a better breed of people, is indeed a way to try and avoid those mistakes – as Isabel says, we tend to be:

[…] a longstanding species with a very short memory. If we don’t keep records, we’ll make the same mistakes over and over.

It’s not surprising, then, that a similar focus on trying to create what sounds like an utopia, and a sort of insistence on traditions, might feel suffocating for younger generations, here represented by young Kip who struggles between the love for his family and his desire to look beyond the metal walls of a ship, no matter how comfortable or secure that existence might be.  So it’s interesting that he ends up being profoundly touched by the inverse journey taken by Sawyer (who does not seem much older than he is) when he chooses to join the Fleet and finds himself on a very unexpected path. (I apologize if this sounds a little cryptic, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers…)

Given all these intriguing premises, it came as a surprise that I was not as invested in this story and these characters as I hoped: while I enjoyed the book overall (by now I know that Becky Chambers’ novels will always play well with me), I felt as if something was missing, and I’m still struggling to understand what it was. My involvement always remained on the surface, and while interested in what was happening to these people, I could not form any emotional ties with them, even in the direst of situations.  Probably the contrast with the more adventurous bent from the first book, or with the deep personal journeys of the second, led me to believe that I would be able to get the same level of in-depth perception here, but the chronicle form of the narrative seemed to prevent that – even though the title itself should have represented something of a warning…

Still, Record of Spaceborn Few turned out to be a pleasant read, and my hope is that with the next issues in this series I will be able to recapture the sense of wonder and the character involvement that I experienced in the previous books.

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher
Reviews

SciFi Month: Challenge Prompt 3/11/2022 – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher

Today’s Challenge Prompt being EVEN BETTER TOGETHER – or a showcase for shared universes or author collaborations – made me think immediately of my favorite space opera saga, which started with a run of nine books and was then very successfully translated on the small screen in a visually amazing series.

The Expanse was published under the author name of James S.A. Corey but the pseudonym hides the identities of Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank, whose partnership gave us one of the most engrossing stories of space exploration by humanity that I ever remember reading, so let’s celebrate it with a montage of the books’ covers…

Reviews

TEN YEARS IN SPACE! SciFi Month 2022 – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Simon Fetscher

Our adventurous voyage through the depths of interstellar space continues, and now it reaches its tenth year!  Which is certainly the reason for some serious *celebrations* 😉

Were you just awakened from cryosleep and don’t know what we’re talking about? No problem!  Just follow this LINK and all will be revealed, just don’t forget to fill out the SIGNUP FORM so we can correctly allocate your luxury cabin for the journey…

As the ship hurtles through the uncharted reaches of space, we’ll entertain ourselves by reading books and graphic novels, watching shows and movies and generally indulging our enthusiasm for SF as much as we want. Oh, and don’t forget to try out the daily PROMPTS that will challenge our our skills and imagination.

As for myself, I will explore some new books, re-acquaint myself with a well-loved saga (something I’ve been meaning to do for quite some time now…) and try some of the prompts, just for fun.

Ready? Then let’s GO!

Reviews

A PALE LIGHT IN THE BLACK (NeoG #1), by K.B. Wagers (DNF @ 46%)

My first DNF of the year: statistically, it was bound to happen sooner or later, but still the disappointment stings…  The blurb for this book promised a space opera focused on an organization, the NeoG, labeled as the space equivalent of the Coast Guard, and on the crew of one particular ship, Zuma’s Ghost, also adding that “A routine mission to retrieve a missing ship has suddenly turned dangerous, and now their lives are on the line. Someone is targeting members of Zuma’s Ghost, a mysterious opponent willing to kill to safeguard a secret that could shake society to its core . . . a secret that could lead to their deaths and kill thousands more […]”. 

Quite intriguing, indeed, and the start of the novel – despite some slight info-dump concerning the characters – introduced some captivating themes, like the promotion and subsequent transfer of a beloved second in command coinciding with the arrival of a new officer, whose past history and present uncertainties would add some spice to the interpersonal mechanics aboard the ship.  Given these premises I expected a lively, adventurous story peppered with some interesting character evolution, but unfortunately things did not work that way at all.

From the very start the story seems focused solely on the annual Boarding Games that pit the various branches of Earth’s military against each other, with much space given to Zuma’s Ghost’s commander and crew lamenting their defeat in the previous edition of the Games, and their preparations for the upcoming session: up to the point where I stopped reading there were only a couple of instances in which the crew faced emergencies related to their actual job, and they were solved quickly, almost off-handedly, immediately going back to talk of the impending Games. From a quick online search I discovered that the more adventurous section of the story does come into play once the “Space Olympics” are over, but I could not find the strength to go through chapter after chapter of fights and simulated battles to reach what might have been the “meat” of the story.

To be entirely truthful, I have to admit I don’t care for team sports of any kind, so that might very well have colored my reaction to this story, but still I don’t understand the importance of the competition in the economy of the novel (at least as it’s presented in the blurb): a passing reference seems to indicate that the winning faction would get the greater portion of the government’s funds destined to military operations, and since NeoG did not gather any wins they are forced to go into space with sub-standard and/or old equipment. If that’s how things are in this future vision of humanity, it’s a ludicrous way indeed to manage a space-faring civilization…

Which brings me to the background, or rather scarcity of it: there are references to a Collapse that threatened to end civilization, but since it’s now four centuries in the past no more details are given about what it entailed, or how Earth overcame it; technology seems advanced enough – ships achieving light speed, instant communications spanning great distances with no time-lag, rejuvenating treatments keeping people young well beyond human standards, and so on – but it looks like an afterthought rather than an organic part of the whole. Then you are met with weird details like swords as onboard armament because “no one yet had the lock on a reliable handheld laser weapon”. Granted, once my inner Nasty Nitpicker is awakened, it tends to sink its teeth onto these trivial details and to never let go, but to me this speaks of poor planning, or editing, or both.

When all is said and done, A Pale Light in the Black looks like the kind of book I might have read – and probably enjoyed – a few decades ago, when I began reading SF: now that I have a good number of books under my proverbial belt, and that I have hopefully honed my tastes, books like this one feel totally unsatisfying.  This is not the droid… pardon me … the novel I was looking for.

Moving on….

My Rating:

Reviews

TV Review: THE EXPANSE Season 6

With the end of the book series and now of the TV version of this saga, I can certainly consider myself an Expanse orphan: both versions of this story are leaving a big gap in my SF horizon, one that will be hard, if not impossible, to fill…

This final season of The Expanse proved to be even more epic than its predecessors, leaving a great deal of room to well-orchestrated space battles – which might be the reason that the number of episodes was cut to just six, probably in consideration of the high budget that they required. But while the episodes were less than usual, there were no shortfalls in the characters’ evolution or in the political angles that have been the backbone of this saga, in both mediums.

In this season we have, on one side, the family of the Rocinante finally reunited after the harrowing events of the previous season, and if offscreen troubles required the removal of Alex’s character, the inclusion of Clarissa “Peaches” Mao to the ship’s complement leaves room for some welcome bonding scenes; on another side, Avasarala is battling with the practical and political aftermath of Earth’s bombing, still backed by former Martian marine Bobbie whose career switch as Avasarala’s aide has not changed her energetic approach to problems.  And again, Camina Drummer and her crew are still carrying out their rebellion against the darkly charismatic Marco Inaros, whose outer façade of Belter liberator is showing several cracks as his megalomania becomes more and more evident.

Individuals, and their reactions to events, have always been at the core of The Expanse, and they are still front and center here at the end of the journey: Naomi was put through the wringer in the previous season, and I approved of the choice of showing how she’s not over those trials, as dramatically proven through a scene where she freezes as she’s about to begin a spacewalk; Amos seems to have mellowed down a little – although with him one can never know – and his choice of adding Clarissa to the crew represents his unspoken willingness to give her another chance, just as he was when he joined the Roci’s family. Clarissa herself is dealing with her past and the heavy consequences of her actions, so that the first sign of acceptance from Holden looks to her like something of an absolution.  Holden is probably the one who seems to have changed less, but this makes sense because he’s the focus of that family, its moral compass if you want, and he needs to represent a fixed point for the others, which is the main reason for a very difficult choice he makes early on in the season.  As far as Alex is concerned, I appreciated how he’s mentioned in fond remembrance by his crewmates, placing a firm divide between the character and the actor who played him, whose actions forced the storyline to remove Alex from the Rocinante’s complement.

There are however two characters I have barely mentioned before and who drew my attention more keenly in this final season of The Expanse: one is Camina Drummer, who was fleshed out more on screen than she is in the books, and who thanks to the amazing performance by Cara Gee quickly became one of my favorites. Drummer’s journey through the series has been a long and complicated one, and I simply loved the combination of outward strength and inner, well-masked frailty that turned her into such a fascinating personality. In these last episodes of the show she looks even more determined and daring than ever, openly challenging Inaros in a scene that surpassed even the famous shipboard address from the bridge of the Behemoth we saw a couple of seasons ago. The message she sends to the leader of the Free Navy, whose actions have revealed his self-serving ruthlessness, is short but very powerful, and gives the full measure of this awesome character:

For his part, Inaros is depicted as your typical, irredeemable bad guy, who gathered almost unanimous consent from the Belters by unleashing their pent-up outrage through the vicious attack on Earth: his charisma barely hides a cruel, manipulative disposition that at times seems to come from deep-seated and unacknowledged insecurities. In other words, he’s the villain we all love to hate, and much of his successful portrayal is due to actor Keon Alexander who had the far-from-easy job of bringing him to life. Playing a convincing bad guy, and one who tethers on the edge of madness like Inaros, is far more difficult, in my opinion, because it requires a fine balancing act that not everyone can manage successfully: Keon Alexander did an amazing work on this character, one that left me divided between my loathing for Inaros and my admiration for the actor’s skills.   Which compels me to also mention Jasai Chase Owens as Filip Inaros, equally successful in showing the young man’s torn loyalties and his slow but inevitable drift from the toxic orbit of a father who had been his whole world for a long time.

Even though The Expanse has been given an appropriately wrapped-up finale, it’s impossible for book readers to forget that there are three more unexplored books in the saga, especially when the final TV season hinted at some of the Laconia storylines that make up the core of the final trilogy: those hints, which look disconnected from the rest of the story told in the final season, made me hope that there might be a remote possibility for a continuation, if not immediately maybe some time from now.  Whatever happens, though, I am aware that both the books and the TV series have merged together in my imagination, despite the differences between the mediums: The Expanse remains one of the best (if not THE best) space opera series I have known in my “travels” and one it will always be a joy to revisit in either form.

My Rating for Season 6:

Reviews

LEVIATHAN FALLS (The Expanse #9), by James S.A. Corey

Reaching the end of a beloved series is always a bittersweet experience (and the fact that the TV show inspired by this book series has also reached its final season adds to the feeling of loss, but I digress…), yet it’s also true that when a story comes to an end leaving readers wanting for more it means that the author has done an excellent job, and this is quite true for the highly successful, decade-long run of The Expanse

At the close of the previous installment, the might of the Laconian empire had suffered a hard blow, compounded by the disappearance of its leader, High Consul Duarte, and the crew of the Rocinante had finally reunited, taking with them Duarte’s daughter, Teresa. Elsewhere, scientist Elvi Okoye continued her studies on the protomolecule creators and on the mysterious entities that obliterated them and that still represented a clear and present danger for everyone.

Leviathan Falls opens with the desperate search for Duarte, introducing a new character in the person of Colonel Tanaka, a ruthless, cold-blooded operative who is given carte blanche to recover the Laconian leader and who clearly enjoys the unfettered freedom about collateral damage she’s given: her cat-and-mouse game with the Rocinante’s crew showcases very well her callousness but also her tunnel vision where Holden & Co. are concerned, because their longtime experience with difficult situations (together with a good amount of luck) has gifted them with the kind of flexibility that allows them to thwart Tanaka’s plans time and again. And I for one have to admit that witnessing the Colonel’s angry frustration was quite satisfying, since she’s the kind of character that I just love to hate…

The stakes, in this final book, are of course high: though diminished, the Laconian empire is still a force to be reckoned with; the rebellious systems, coordinated by Naomi Nagata, lack the resources and the organization necessary to deal a significant blow to the enemy; and the ruthlessly dangerous aliens responsible for the destruction of the gates’ builders are ready to do the same to humanity as a whole. And yet, even though the story does not lack for edge-of-your-seat scenes, furious battles and harrowing journeys through weird alien constructs, the overall mood is more sober, more inclined to melancholy – it might have been the projection of my own sadness at the end of the saga, granted, but with hindsight this book is, after all, a long goodbye to a number of characters I have come to know well and love as real people, just as they, in the course of the series, went from total strangers thrown together by circumstances to a tightly knit family.

Even in the midst of a galaxy-wide conflict, it’s the crew of the Rocinante that still earns the spotlight in this final act, and despite all that has happened to them over the years, despite the unavoidable injuries of passing time or life’s emotional wounds, they hold on to each other through learned trust and affection, in a sort of symbiosis which needs no words to make them work as a unit.

Time and use had changed them, but it hadn’t changed what they were. There was joy in that. A promise.

Thinking about the persons they were at the beginning, and seeing how time and experiences changed their outlook, made me aware of the long road they traveled as characters: Naomi kept trying to be as inconspicuous and unassuming as possible, guilt from her past compelling her to keep to the shadows, and yet she ended up being the leader of the resistance against Laconia, putting her mechanical skills at the service of the vast “machine” of the underground; Alex had always skirted his commitments as a husband and a father, preferring the freedom and joy of piloting a ship, but in the end the choice he makes is focused on his son and grandson.  And Holden, who had chosen a nondescript work on an ice hauler to be free from responsibilities, little by little found himself at the center of big and momentous events, so that his ultimate decision is a supremely selfless one, which looks even more poignant when considering that his return from imprisonment on Laconia had left him “scarred and broken” in the wake of the physical and emotional torture he had endured, and that he would have deserved some peace after so much suffering.

The only one who remains a constant is Amos: not even the uncanny changes he underwent in the course of the previous book managed to shift him from the steadfast presence I’ve come to appreciate and expect, someone who can come up with startlingly wise advice: 

“You’re overthinking this, Cap’n. You got now and you got the second your lights go out. Meantime is the only time there is.”

Amos’ personality is a weird combination of menacing strength, expressed in nonchalant understatement, and of unexpected gentleness, which we see – time and again – in his penchant for picking up strays: from distraught botanist Prax, looking for his missing daughter, to Clarissa “Peaches” Mao, former enemy he added to the Roci’s crew, to Teresa Duarte (plus her dog), who seems to come as close as an adopted daughter for the apparently unemotional mechanic.  Maybe it’s not so strange when considering Amos’ past and his (albeit unexpressed) desire to protect the helpless, which makes a great deal of sense when we see Amos as the one to get the very last word in this final book, in his role as protector and guardian.

If the final chapter in The Expanse is not as “epic” as might have been expected, it’s however quite rewarding thanks to the quiet but poignant emotions that stand as its backbone: I’m not ashamed to admit that some of these goodbyes affected me deeply because, despite the 9-books run, I was not ready to part company with this crew, and the only comfort to be had was the hopeful outlook on humanity given by the last paragraphs. Granted, in this series humanity did show some of its worst traits, but also the capacity to move beyond them, or at least of being willing to try: the hint that the story does go on behind the closing curtain is indeed a glimmer of hope, and I will stick to that while I wait for these two amazing authors to create something new and equally compelling in the future.

My Rating:

Reviews

YOU SEXY THING, by Cat Rambo

With such an intriguing title and the information that one of the story’s characters is a sentient bio-ship, it was inevitable that You Sexy Thing would end up on my TBR, and that I would have fun with it. It’s a quick read, and maybe a little on the light side as far as background and characterization are concerned, but since many elements in the story seem to indicate this novel might be a series starter, I will take this book as an introduction and keep hoping that some stronger developments will come along in the following installments.

Niko Larsen and her team now manage the Last chance restaurant on the remote Twice Far space station, but they once used to be soldiers enrolled by the Holy Hive Mind, a political/military conglomerate focused on expansion (think of a somewhat milder version of Star Trek’s Borg): to stay out of the HHM’s clutches, Niko and her people must demonstrate that their venture is an artistically successful one, and therefore the promised arrival of famous food critic Lolola drives them to excel in their culinary offerings, so that they might be granted a prized Nikkelin Orb to show their value as a renowned eating establishment.  Even the best-laid plans are subject to unforeseen events, though, and a set of peculiar circumstances sees our heroes trapped aboard the sentient ship You Sexy Thing, bound for a prison planet with no possibility of changing course. What ensues is a series of madcap adventures including a detour toward a pirate enclave and the arrival of a stasis-bound princess whose care has been entrusted to Niko by an unknown sender.

The various narrative threads that form the novel’s structure might seem a little confusing, but fortunately they combine into an engaging plot that remains interesting from start to finish. If the characters are not explored in real depth, their interactions are quite fun and their mutual relationships offer many intriguing angles that, in turn, help to better focus on this variegated universe. Niko Larsen (and later on princess Atlanta) are the only humans in the group, since the rest of the crew is of alien origin: Dabry, once Niko’s XO and now the restaurant’s chef, is a four-armed humanoid; the  twins Thorn and Talon can morph into lion’s form and are possessed of the same unquenchable energy as feline puppies; Gio is an evolved apelike creature who can communicate only through hand gestures; Milly is the pastry chef and looks like an avian; Skidoo (my absolute favorite!) is a squid-like being and – last but not least – Lassite is a reptilian mystic with the ability to perceive the future.  What makes these alien creatures interesting is that they are quite believably alien in mindset and behavior, not only in appearance, and what’s more important is that they have created a family-like bond whose basis might have been born in the mind link that bound them  during their military service, but is now the product of many shared experiences and the affection and care that those experiences consolidated among them. 

Of course once the group is onboard the You Sexy Thing, another character comes to the fore – the ship itself: as a bio-ship, the Thing possess the ability to adapt and change its environment according to the passengers’ requirements, and it’s also able to interact with them, but we soon understand that the previous owners did not take many steps in expanding the Thing’s capabilities.  Thanks to the time spent with Niko’s crew – starting with Dabry and his culinary performances – the Thing understands there is more to its existence than it was able to perceive before, and the ship initiates a process of growth and transformation that is a true joy to behold.

[…] they had interacted with [the Thing] as though it were another person, there in the room with them. All of its owners had treated it simply like a thing, and before the ship had always thought that was the norm. Now it knew there was a different way.

Where the book falters a little, however, is in the presentation of the antagonists: the pirate overlord comes across almost like a caricature, his focus on revenge and torture is presented in such a way as to create a dissonance with the story’s previous tone, while the insistence on the “evilness” of the character seems to deprive it of any realistic connotation.  On this subject I have to admit that the choice of inserting a character’s death as part of the pirate’s “dastardly plot” introduced a jarring note in what had so far been an adventurous/humorous narrative mood: this death brings serious consequences for the group and adds a more dramatic layer to the story, but I’m still struggling to envision it as an organic part of the plot.

The novel’s world building needs some stronger foundations as well: apart from learning about the existence of the Holy Hive Mind, of a large Empire (to which princess Atlanta is one of the designated heirs), of the pirate conglomerate and of the space bound society of the Free Traders, we don’t know much about this universe and I for one would have loved to learn a few more details – that’s where my hope that there will be other books about Niko & Co. makes me look more favorably on this novel.

Still, to close on a positive note, I have to say that I liked very much all mentions of cooking and food: story-wise they are part of the bonding process of the group in their new life, and of the group with the Thing, but on a personal level I enjoyed them because I do love to cook and to experiment with new recipes – one of the reasons I felt a great connection with Dabry and his fascination with ingredients 🙂

In the end, I had fun with You Sexy Thing and that’s what I was looking for when I picked it up, but still I would have liked to find more in this story: should the author decide to write more adventures featuring Niko Larsen, her crew and the adorable Thing, she will certainly find me there glad to follow them.

My Rating: