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:

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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: 

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: