Reviews

CHAOS VECTOR (The Protectorate #2), by Megan O’Keefe

 

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

Where I was literally swept off my feet by Velocity Weapon, the first volume of this saga, the sequel took my breath away with the expanding complexity of the universe it describes and the excellent balance between action and characterization that takes the story to a new, higher level and lays the foundations for quite an explosive ending climax.

At the end of the previous book, the situation in the Ada Prime system was of tightly controlled strain, the conflict between Ada and Icarion still brewing under the surface as the rebellion and disappearance of Bero – the evolved AI running the ship Light of Berossus – further upset the precarious balance between the two powers.   Now Sanda Greeve, the pivotal figure in that series of momentous events, understands that she must find the answers to her questions alone, not being able to really trust anyone after the string of half-truths and deceptions she was subjected to: as she tries to do her best to make sense of the often conflicting information she gathers, she struggles to stay alive against what look like insurmountable odds and a chain of plots-within-plots that threatens to bring the very fragile status quo to and end…

Once again, I find myself unable to supply a decent synopsis of this high-octane story, not so much out of a lack of proper terms, but because to do so would spoil your enjoyment of it: in my review of Velocity Weapon I used the term ‘jaw dropping’ to define the surprises that were in store for us readers, and this is even more true here, where we uncover a few of the pieces of this very complicated puzzle and we understand that there must be more, much more that still needs to be brought to light. But where I feel compelled not to reveal anything about the plot of Chaos Vector, I am free to talk at length about its amazing characters, both old and new, and the way their emotional and psychological growth enhances this story and gifts it with a deep layer of humanity that grounds and complements the elements of drama and adventure.

Sanda is the kind of character that’s easy to root for, because she’s both strong and compassionate, determined and gifted with a quirky sense of humor: if before we saw her deal with courage and toughness to adversities, here she evolves from someone who reacted to circumstances to an individual who takes matters in her own hands and makes difficult decisions that might cost her, both in the short and long run, but does so out of a strong moral foundation that knows no compromises. The Sanda we meet here in Chaos Vector is a person who seems to run constantly on the last fumes of her energy, dodging short-sighted superiors, impossible odds and deadly dangers, and yet she keeps going, driven by the need to forestall what appears as an inescapable catastrophe.

What makes Sanda different here is the fact she’s not acting on her own anymore: she requires allies to do what she desperately needs to do, and the people she slowly gathers around her – like a spinning celestial body that attracts drifting matter through gravitational forces – greatly help in defining her personality’s traits and show her ability in bringing their skills to the surface as she builds them into a cohesive team.   If there is one narrative theme I enjoy it’s that of ‘found families’, a mixed bag of individuals brought together by circumstances and who are able to pool their strengths for the common good: this theme is strongly celebrated here thanks to the crew Sanda assembles out of the most disparate characters one could imagine.  On the surface, these people might look like stereotypes: Nox the former military turned rogue; Arden the tech wizard and skilled hacker; Liao the driven scientist; or again Conway and Knuth, regulations-bound junior officers – but it’s through their skillful characterization that they are revealed as individuals with their own voice and personalities, and their slow but constant growth into (to use that previous metaphor) an accretion disk around Planet Sanda. Or rather, into a family.

Sanda’s brother Biran undergoes his own transformation – maybe not as quick or outwardly evident as his sister’s, but he’s progressively leaving behind the bright-eyed ideals that fueled his career among the Keepers as he discovers that the real-politik requirements of his position are quite far from those earlier dreams, and that he needs to adapt if he still wants to do what’s right for his people. There is this core of sadness and disillusionment in Biran that lays a grey pall on him, and I’ve wondered more than once wether he will be able to remain faithful to the essence of those ideals or if the compromises he’s forced to accept will change him, and in what way.

As far as the story itself is concerned, Chaos Vector is a veritable emotional rollercoaster, spinning plot points and revelations with a relentless pace made even more implacable by the alternating POVs: most of them end with a cliffhanger-like situation, but unlike what happens in other novels these segue into equally intriguing chapters that keep your attention riveted just as much as the previous ones, resulting in a compelling page-turner where shady research labs coexist with an equally crooked guild of fixers and/or killers for hire; where some of the military show corruption through the chinks in their armor and the members of the underworld appear to possess a certain code of honor.  And of course, this being a space opera novel, there are many instances of intriguing technology: wearable access to a galaxy-wide net; healing-gel baths capable of bringing wounded back from the brink of death; gates that bridge enormous distances, and so on – but these are just… background decoration because The Protectorate, as a series, chooses to focus more on the human element of the story rather than on technological wonders, and that’s one of its winning details, the will to focus on people and the ties that bind them, on the concept of family and loyalty, on what being human means.

More than once I found myself thinking that The Protectorate possesses the perfect requirements to be turned into a space opera TV series as engaging as The Expanse, just to name one: it is my hope that enlightened executives from streaming services like Netflix or Amazon will see this story’s potential and show the foresight their Hollywood counterparts – mired in a self-defeating circle of reboots and prequels – seem to have long since lost.

In the meantime, I will look forward to the next book in line…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

UNRECONCILED (Donovan #4), by W. Michael Gear

 

The Donovan series has been one of my favorite stories of alien planet colonization from the very start, and with each new installment it manages to keep fresh and intriguing by adding new faces and new situations to the core elements and characters at its roots.  Capella III, a planet 30 light years from Earth, was named Donovan as a tribute to the first casualty from the initial wave of colonists: Donovan is a lush, promising world rich in precious minerals and with an abundance of fertile soil, but its nature – be it animal or vegetal – is beyond hostile and the population’s rate of survival is very low, even when taking all the possible precautions.

The original colonists have learned how to come to terms with their new home, but still life on Donovan is a dangerous one, even more so for the new arrivals – uncharitably called fresh meat – and particularly if their journey did not go as planned, as was the case of the ship Freelander, whose subjective journey went on for over a century and is now an empty derelict where weird ghostly apparitions and a mountain of bones are the only passengers; or of the Vixen, that appeared to arrive instantly at the planned destination but was in effect written off as lost for the past fifty years.

In this fourth novel of the saga, the ship Ashanti reaches Donovan after a journey that lasted seven years beyond its expected duration: knowing that the hydroponic tanks could not sustain the whole ship complement for so long, the passengers staged a revolt that forced Captain Galluzzi to seal them off in their deck, thus condemning them to starve to death so that the crew could reach Capella III alive. And yet the transportees somehow survived, led by the crazily charismatic leader Batuhan who turned anthropophagy into a religion, naming his followers the Unreconciled. The arrival of the Ashanti poses a new series of challenges for the Donovanians, who have to deal with a group of cannibalistic religious fanatics who represent both a danger for the colony and for themselves, since they are led by a madman who refuses to take any advice on how to deal with the planet’s threats.

One of main attractions of the Donovan series comes from the fact that the location offers the possibility of exploring new ground – and new dangers! – in each book, since the planet remains fairly uncharted due to its deadly challenges: in Unreconciled we get a glimpse of Tyson Station, a promising settlement that was previously abandoned and where the main characters face both the “old” dangerous critters, like slugs and gotcha vines and so forth, and a new one – a huge, very deadly beast no one had seen before and whose existence is not stored into quetzals’ TriNA memory, apart from a strong feeling of abject terror. And if even a quetzal can be so scared of this monster, you can imagine the kind of havoc it can wreak on humans…

The story itself is carried by the increasing sense of impending menace that comes from various directions: on one side we have the Unreconciled who seem, with only a few exceptions, to have completely bought into Batuhan’s insane belief that by consuming their enemies they will “purify” them and bring about a new, better world – one of the characters at some point states that anthropophagy comes from four basic motivations, survival, ritual, political, and pathological, and that the self-styled messiah has wrapped them all up into a twisted faith fueled by the despair of people facing certain death. Then there are the ever-present quetzals that seem more determined than ever to kill as many of the intruding humans as they can, acting with a cunning and a tactical organization that once again show them as the more formidable foes on the whole planet. And again there are the “simple” human machinations, with the constantly shifting balance of power between the administrators of Port Authority and the crime lord Dan Wirth who finds himself at a crossroads in his search for riches and power.   These elements are presented in alternating chapters that keep the story flowing at a fast pace and make for some electrifying sequences that simply beg to turn the pages faster and faster.

But the psychological angle of the characters, old and new, remains the most fascinating aspect of the story still: we see a more settled Talina, who has somehow reached a sort of armed truce with the quetzal essence stored in her consciousness; or a mellowed but still combative Kalico who seems to have found true purpose in a place and situation that’s the polar opposite of what she had in her old life; or again an older Kylee, who has found a way to reconcile her dual nature and reclaim part of her humanity thanks to her bond of friendship/apprenticeship with Talina. The new arrivals, though, offer great opportunities for reflection, in particular where Captain Galluzzi and the Unreconciled are concerned.

Ashanti’s captain is a very tormented man: faced with a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, he’s crushed by the weight of his decision and alternately desires and dreads the moment when he will be called to answer for it, so that he’s stunned when none of the punishment he envisioned is forthcoming, partly because there is no authority on Donovan designated to administer such punishment, and partly because the colonists – even Supervisor Aguila – have seen even direst consequences come from similar situations and know that there is no easy answer to the kind of dilemma Ashanti and other ships faced when confronted with impossible odds. I enjoyed how Shig Mosadek, Donovan’s resident philosopher, tries to help Captain Galluzzi reconcile himself with his actions and how he’s growing from a secondary character into one of the moral pillars of the colony, a delightful blend of wisdom and gentle humor that I’ve come to greatly appreciate.

The Unreconciled and their leader Batuhan, on the other hand, present another kind of dilemma: once the circumstances that brought them to seek survival in horrible ways are over, can they be brought back to the human fold? Can they be considered human still? What’s terrifying is that almost all of them, in a sort of perverted form of Stockholm’s Syndrome, keep believing in Batuhan’s dogma and are ready to follow him along the same bloody, flesh-consuming path even when Donovan starts doling out its deadly lessons. There are no easy answers to these dilemmas, and the book offers none, but the look we are afforded into the Unreconciled’s mindset is at the same time fascinating and horrifying.

There are a number of narrative threads still open in the Donovan saga, which makes me hope that more books in this series will be published: apart from the mystery of the new deadly creature discovered by Talina & Co., there is the angle of the oceanographers landed on the planet from Ashanti with the mission of exploring Donovan’s bodies of water – and if the land is so dangerous, what will the oceans hold in store for our adventurers? And the characters offer many more opportunities for growth that I’m certain Mr. Gear will have many more stories to tell us about them.

Keeping my fingers crossed…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE LAST EMPEROX (The Interdependency #3), by John Scalzi

 

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

A series’ ending might probably be one of the most difficult tasks an author faces: readers’ expectations, narrative twists and resolutions, characters’ paths – it all must come together at the end, and I also imagine it might not be easy to let go of a world that one has so carefully built over time. Well, The Last Emperox turned out to be a very satisfactory ending to the Interdependency series, and did so by also being a compelling and fun read from the very start, where it offered a sort of recap of what went before by observing a character’s thoughts as his ship comes under attack. Not only did this choice avoid any dangers of info-dumping, it also managed to turn into entertaining recollections what could very well have been the last, terrified considerations of an endangered individual. After all, this is a work from John Scalzi, and one must expect some playful rule-breaking…

So, the Interdependency is a galaxy-spanning civilization whose settlements are connected by the Flow, a system of wormhole-like paths that allow ships to cover vast distances in a relatively short time. The Flow has been in operation for centuries, but recently scientists have discovered that the whole system is going to collapse, therefore isolating these far-flung settlements and very likely dooming the inhabitants to death, since only one planet in the whole confederation is able to sustain life in an Earth-like environment and all the others are artificial habitats depending heavily on Flow-driven commerce. Such catastrophic news brings out the best and worst in humanity, as it’s wont to do: some of the  great  merchant Houses try to speculate by amassing even more riches and power, others try to help in maintaining a level of civilization and the newly elected Emperox, Grayland II, finds herself dealing with a difficult situation, several attempts on her life and the conflicting agendas of various Houses.

Despite the light, playful tone, this series deals with several quite serious subjects, like the way people react when confronted with an imminent catastrophe – considering the moment in which I read this book, with humanity facing a worldwide crisis, I thought it was very spot-on and I was glad for the author’s trademark lightness because observing the various fictional players it was impossible not to make disheartening comparisons with actual events. The series, and The Last Emperox in particular, shows how personal advantage is paramount for power-hungry individuals and how sowing distrust and misinformation helps drive their agendas, while the general population is divided between the few who plan in advance against a worst-case scenario and those lulled into the complacent belief that those in power will find a solution before the inevitable becomes a reality.

Where I found the second book in this series, The Consuming Fire, somewhat uneven in pacing due to the shift between the quicker-flowing sections and the long chunks of exposition dialogue, this final installment turned into a swift, riveting read as the antagonists’ plots battled against the Emperox’s and her allies’ countermeasures, generating a constant race against time, fueled by shrewdness and political expediency that kept the story lively and the tension high.  Most of this narrative tension rests on the three main characters: Grayland II, whose desire to be a good and just ruler needs to be balanced against the challenging decisions she must take in the face of the forthcoming Flow collapse; Nadashe Nohamapetan, the very embodiment of the evil lady, the dastardly plotter whose ambitions are surpassed only by her ruthlessness; and Kiva Lagos, the foul-mouthed, crafty ally of the Emperox who remains my favorite character and one of the best sources of humor in the whole series.

It’s worth noting how these three women are not only at the very center of things, but also the most striking figures among the various personalities peopling this series: for example, if Nadashe is a vile adversary who stops at nothing to fulfill her goals, she ultimately does not come across as totally bad, if that makes any sense. As I saw her labyrinthine plans taking shape, I was torn between wanting them to fail and at the same time feeling sorry if they didn’t: in a way I ended up envisioning her as poor Wile E. Coyote, who concocted equally convoluted and far-reaching plans to win over Road Runner, only to be always spectacularly defeated in the end – and that never failed to elicit some form of sympathy from me.  On the other hand, there was no ambiguity in my cheering for Kiva’s success, and although at some point she managed to set in motion a series of events whose serendipity might appear totally unbelievable, it all worked within the over-the-top setup of her character, making it easy to suspend my disbelief and equally easy to observe her antics with an amused smile. Grayland looks less intense in comparison with these two formidable figures, her apparent candor masking instead a firm determination and a core of integrity that seems to be sorely lacking in the Interdependency, and that’s the main reason I was surprised – or rather stunned – at her unexpected choice for solving the quandary and giving her subjects a new direction and a hope for the future. I must say I did not expect the direction the story took and that in this instance the author managed to drop a very unpredictable twist on me here.

Where The Last Emperox draws all the narrative threads of the series to a good close, I find myself sorry to have to leave this universe, and I hope that John Scalzi might decide in the future to return here, maybe to show us how the former Interdependency fares in a post-collapse of the Flow future.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

HOW RORY THORNE DESTROYED THE MULTIVERSE (The Thorne Chronicles #1), by K. Eason

 

The first word that comes to mind when thinking about this book is ‘surprising’: any kind of expectation I might have harbored from reading its synopsis and the reviews published by some of my fellow bloggers was subverted by what I found in the story itself. And those surprises were quite delightful.

Rory Thorne starts as a fairy-tale retelling: the first girl child born after generations of male heirs to the Thorne dynasty, Rory becomes the center of a christening ceremony involving the blessing of fairies, which is sort of unheard-of because no one believes in the existence of fairies any more and because the story is set in the distant future and the Thorne Consortium is an alliance of planets “in a galaxy far, far away”. The fairies do come to the ceremony however, present the child with many gifts and even cause some intriguing ripples when the uninvited thirteenth fairy crashes the party and lays her own gift on Rory: not a proper curse, no, but the ability to see through lies – which turns out to be a mixed but useful blessing.  After that, the fairies disappear and are never seen again, having fulfilled their role in the economy of the story, that becomes some kind of space opera intrigue, finely balanced between drama and tongue-in-cheek humor.

As Rory grows, and a male heir is born to the Thorne dynasty, all that is expected of her is a politically advantageous marriage and conformity to the rules, but events and Rory’s own determination defy those assumptions in more ways than one: a terrorist attack changes the balance of power, so that the young princess finds herself a pawn to a power-hungry villain’s plots and to political expediency, but things will not exactly go as planned…  I don’t want to share more of the story since I believe it’s best enjoyed if approached with no preconceived notions, especially because you will discover that nothing follows expected parameters here – which is one of the novel’s best strengths.

Rory Thorne’s world-building is quite interesting, being a mix between science fiction and fairy tale material: we have galaxy-spanning coalitions of planets, inhabited both by humans and aliens, and interstellar travel and space stations on one side; we also get fairies, and the intriguing concepts of arithmancy and hexes. In this universe, science and magic combine in the form of arithmancy, which allows its practitioners to influence the laws of nature, or the functioning of technological items, through the application of specific hexes, whose complexity varies according to the wielder’s abilities and training. Not much is explained (thankfully, from my point of view) and the concept is filtered and elaborated through the reader’s imagination and (at least for me) with the assistance of the famous Arthur Clarke’s sentence about sufficiently advanced science being indistinguishable from magic. Rory is of course quite apt in arithmancy, which proves very useful in her experiences.

Where the world is engaging, the characters are what make it work: Rory herself is young, barely sixteen when she’s sent to Urse station in preparation for the political marriage she’s being groomed for, but she’s very far from the usual YA characters we often encounter, another important point in favor of this story. She is clever, but never annoyingly so; she’s determined and sometimes stubborn, and yet she balances that with a thoughtfulness that belies her years; more important, she knows when to follow her own instincts, when to listen to her advisors and when to walk the fine line between these two directions. It was easy for me to feel sympathy for Rory, because despite being a prisoner of her role she never complains about it, never falls prey to the usual angst that seems the prerogative of YA characters, but rather accepts it as fact of life and moves on, doing her best to carve her path with what she has:

… [a princess] did not take casual strolls with her friends, because a princess did not have friends. She had body-maids, guards, teachers, viziers. She had never thought of herself as alone, until now. It was a revelation.

And yet, if not exactly friends, the people closest to her become allies and co-conspirators through the sheer force of her conviction, her self-confidence and her hard-earned wisdom. Speaking of Rory’s closest associates, they are very enjoyable creations: Vizier Rupert and Deme Grytt could not be more different persons – the former is Rory’s steadfast advisor, a man of controlled emotions and careful thoughts, the latter a former soldier sporting cyborg implants and a “shoot first and ask questions later” attitude, but they are united in their affection for their young charge and offer many entertaining interludes when debating from opposing points of view about how to best take care of her.  Similarly different are the two female bodyguards assigned to Rory, Thorsdottir and Zhang: one composed and reserved, the other more exuberant, but both equally dedicated to the mission of protecting the princess and – though unexpressed – of being the friends she needs.

The main villain, Regent Moss, might look stereotyped – all he lacks is a mustache to be twirled – but he feels perfect for the role and the right foil for Rory’s cat-and-mouse games where she does her best to outwit an opponent who seems to hold all the winning cards. One of the best parts of the overall story is the subversion of the traditional tale of the princess in danger who needs to be rescued by the handsome prince, because here Rory is the one doing the saving, and the prince she is slated to marry the one who needs to be saved. Please allow me to spend a few words on Prince Ivar, because – apart from the role reversal – he offers one of the amusing angles of the story, at least for me: you might be aware that “Ivar” is the name of an IKEA line of furniture, and the prince’s constantly wooden disposition always made me think that there was a tongue-in-cheek joke from the author’s part. If the young man is depicted as ineffective and weak, all his mentions never failed to elicit a smile from me when I thought his name could not be a coincidence, an impression strengthened by the way the tale is relayed though an omniscient narrator who enjoys offering humorous asides and somehow making a joke of its own reliability.

How Rory Thorne destroyed the Multiverse turned out to be a swift, compelling read in a weird, but intriguing, mashup of genres: it is my understanding this is the first half of a duology, so that I’m quite looking forward to the second book and the discovery of the rest of Rory’s adventures.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

AUBERON (an Expanse Novella), by James S.A. Corey

 

Getting a new Expanse novella while I wait for the next (and last…) book in line feels like a way of shortening that waiting time, and going back to that universe is always a joy, even when the main characters I’ve come to know and love are not part of the story.

Auberon’s time-line is set somewhere between the last two published books, Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath, as the Laconian forces are tightening their hold on the occupied planets: governor Biryar Rittenaur and his wife Mona have been charged with the running of Auberon, one of the most Earth-like colony worlds behind the Ring gate, and like all Laconians Rittenaur is very focused on his mission, on the ideals of order and civilization that High Consul Duarte uses to advertise his merciless military conquest.

While Rittenaur and his staff expect the usual resistance – more or less overt – against what is in truth an occupation force, no matter the mask it wears, they are not ready to face the deeply rooted system of criminal corruption headed by a man named Erich whose reach into Auberon’s society goes quite far, and who is not ready to give in to the self-styled new masters of humanity. The new governor will soon discover that it’s not easy to keep faith with one’s ideals when they are in direct conflict with what he holds most dear – or as Erich tells him at some point: “Ideological purity never survives contact with the enemy.

The description of “old man” Erich, with his prosthetic arm covering for a malformed one, is a very intriguing one because it connects with a character I already encountered first in the novella The Churn (the one about Amos’ past) and then in the full novel Nemesis Games, where again Amos and Erich’s shared past came to the surface. If you read both of them, you will find that the present story gains even more depth, but even without this kind of information, Auberon remains an intriguing snippet in the overall Expanse background, because as usual the characters and their journey are at the core of it all.

What makes the two main characters in this novella interesting is that neither of them is likable, and at the same time neither of them is utterly despicable: we are made privy to their motivations, and from their point of view they are acting for the good of the people under their authority. Erich is a crime lord, and there is no measure of white-washing that can make us forget he’s a gangster ruling his territory with a blood-drenched iron fist (no pun intended here…), but he’s also fighting – in his own way and for his own purposes – against an invader bent on ruling the galaxy, so it’s difficult not to root for him, at least a little bit.  Rittenaur is the voice and arm of the conquerors, people who use other humans as guinea pigs for protomolecule alterations, people who execute their own as an example against mistakes, but he’s also a man with a deep love for integrity and a sincere belief in the good of the “Laconian dream” – he’s a decent man, very unlike Medina Station’s Governor Singh, and therefore worthy of some sympathy.

In the tried and tested tradition of the Expanse series, Auberon gives us much food for thought and sheds some interesting light on the latter part of the overall story, while we wait for the conclusion of this sweeping space opera saga that for me represents one of the best in the genre.

 

 

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Reviews

A FLEET OF KNIVES (Embers of War #2), by Gareth Powell

 

Embers of War, the first volume of Gareth Powell’s space opera saga, brought to my attention a new series that looked more than promising both in narrative scope and in writing quality, but it’s with this second book,  A Fleet of Knives, that I became even more invested in the story as it raised the overall stakes in a major way, turning into a breathless, compelling read that cost me several hours of missed sleep as I kept promising myself “just one more chapter”….

The background: a galaxy still recovering from the aftermath of a devastating war and looking for peace and stability, which are nonetheless hard to find. In Embers of War we met several key players in this scenario: Sal Konstanz, a ship’s captain from the House of Reclamation, a peaceful organization devoted to rescuing endangered spacers; Annelida Deal, former commander of the fleet that put an end to the war by ordering a heinous act of genocide, and hiding under the assumed identity of poet Ona Sudak; and the sentient ship Trouble Dog, once part of that attacking fleet and now working for the House of Reclamation to expiate its sins.  At the end of the first book, Trouble Dog and its crew managed to avoid a rekindling of the old conflict, while waking a million-ships-strong alien fleet from its millennial slumber: the Marble Armada, this is the collective name for these knife-shaped ships – hence the book’s title – had been tasked by its creators to uphold the peace and by rousing it Trouble Dog set in motion the events portrayed in A Fleet of Knives.

Captain Konstanz and her crew are dealing with the traumas sustained in the course of their last mission, especially the captain who feels guilty both for the loss of a valued officer and for the way one of her decisions affected the ship’s newest crewmember: when a request for help comes their way, the interpersonal balance aboard Trouble Dog is a very delicate one indeed.   For her part, Ona Sudak has been tried and convicted for her war crimes and as the day of her execution approaches, a commando frees her from the prison and takes her where the Marble Armada is stationed: the sentient alien fleet is ready to comply with its mandate – prevent any kind of war by taking away the means to do so – and therefore it needs a leader who is prepared to act with dispassionate callousness – and who better than the person who destroyed an entire world?

The third major plot point focuses on a group of new characters: the merchant ship Lucy’s Ghost is maneuvering toward a derelict Nymtoq generation vessel, now abandoned, to reclaim all salvageable items in the hope of shoring up the finances of the crew and its captain, “Lucky” Johnny Schultz: attacked by a trans-dimensional entity, Lucy’s Ghost suffers heavy damage and the survivors are forced to repair to the Nymtoq ship while waiting for help from the House of Reclamation. Their problems go from worrisome to deadly when they must fight for their lives in a vessel swarming with nightmarish creatures coming from the same trans-dimensional fissure that disgorged their attacker.   

If all of the above were not disturbing enough, the Marble Armada, led by Ona Sudak whose guilt feelings and scruples seem to evaporate all too quickly in the wake of her newfound power, launches on a sort of holy “war to end all wars” by destroying everyone who dares to oppose it: the ships’ twisted logic about the application of violence in the present to eradicate it in the future offers a chilling, if enthralling, prospect for the series’ next developments and the terrifying consequences for a humanity driven to remain planet-bound to maintain the peace – a peace enforced at gunpoint….

Where the previous book introduced the main players of this saga and set the background for it, A Fleet of Knives moves to the next level by blending action and characterization in a seamless and gripping way: Trouble Dog and its crew are dealing with various degrees of PTSD and it’s both sad and fascinating to see how they react to it and how they deal with each other while trying to still be effective as a rescue ship, to perform the good, selfless deeds that now more than ever are their main reason to go on. And amid such turmoil, the crewmember who shines the brightest is the alien engineer Nod: I already commented, in my previous review, about how delightful a character he is, but here I looked forward to his chapters and loved his simple, but heartfelt, way of looking at his broken family as something that could – must – be repaired. Because fixing things is Nod’s life and joy and his philosophy does not contemplate the impossibility of mending something in need of repair.

Trouble Dog arrives at a similar conclusion from a different angle: once it was part of a “pack” of ships whose components included human and canine DNA, so that now it misses that pack and the sense of belonging it offered, until it realizes that it can find it right here, with its crew, the family it needs to keep safe and protected – at any cost.  One of the best details of these novels comes from the ships’ avatars, which manifest as human beings changing their appearance according to the circumstances and therefore expressing a sort of emotional statement from A.I.s who are not devoted to absolute logic: and so we are treated to the many incarnations in which Trouble Dog appears to its crewmates, or the various little-girl manifestations of Lucy’s Ghost, its component brain cells coming from a dying child whose father choose to preserve her as a ship’s interface many years back, and therefore expresses itself as a combination of young innocence and long-standing wisdom.  On this note it’s interesting to note that the interface A.I. from the Marble Armada chooses to appear not as a human being but as a huge bear, and given the fleet’s ultimate goal this is a disturbing consideration indeed…

These interesting characters – even the less savory ones, like Ona Sudak – are complemented by a compelling narrative that’s part mystery, part action and part moral debate on the price of peace and the ways to implement it, opening a completely new chapter in the story as it steers toward the brewing galactic conflict, the eventual resistance to the Armada’s overwhelming advance and the new, terrifying danger represented by the inter-dimensional creatures roaming in space.  To say more would mean spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of this series, one whose next book I more than look forward to reading.

 

 

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Reviews

Vorkosigan Saga: CRYOBURN, by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

And here we are at the last chapter of my Vorkosigan revisitation – yes, there are two more stories, The Flowers of Vashnoi and Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, which were published after I began blogging, so you can follow the links if you are interested – but as far as the older books are concerned, this is it 🙂  and I can’t hide my sadness at the thought I will have once again to say goodbye to the world and characters I enjoy so much.

Cryoburn is not one of my favorite Miles stories, although it’s a nice one that hits all the usual themes (and a few new ones as well) while moving smoothly along: still, like it happened with a couple of its predecessors, I can’t shake the feeling that Bujold has said all she wanted or needed to say about Miles & Co. and that the famous forward momentum, her main character’s defining element, is petering out.

In this novel our energetic Imperial Auditor is on the planet of Kibou-daini to attend a conference on cryonics, the planet’s major industry: here people who are afflicted by conditions for which there is no treatment yet, or simply waiting for a cure against aging, choose to be cryo-preserved while waiting for the solution to their problems. The mega corporations offering such services have come with time to gather considerable political power and are of course seeking to extend it beyond the planetary limits.  Miles’ covert goal is to investigate what looks like a corporate financial takeover aimed at the Barrayaran empire, and at the start of the novel we see him in a bad state, drugged and wandering through the catacombs where frozen people wait to be reawakened.  It’s a chilling and unsettling beginning, one that throws you straight into the middle of things with no knowledge of what has transpired, not unlike disoriented and hallucinating Miles.

Luckily for him, he meets twelve-year old Jin, a boy whose anti-corporation activist mother was frozen because of alleged health problems: Jin has been living on the roof of a building where many of Kibou-daini’s dispossessed dwell, and he kindly offers Miles a shelter where the Auditor is able to come back to his senses and then launch into a very Milesian campaign against the evil corporations and their goals.

Cryoburn feels somewhat different from the usual Miles caper, and I’ve come to believe that it’s because there is no immediate danger to his world or the people he cares about here, apart from the scam he’s come to break down and that looks more like an inconvenience than anything else. In his previous adventures he was laboring for far higher stakes, like issues close to his heart, to Barrayar’s interests or related to his survival, while here the whole situation has the flavor of a job – a well done job, granted, but nothing so thrilling as what happened in the past, despite a few intriguing goings-on.

The Miles Vorkosigan we meet in Cryoburn is a more sedate person as well, which is unsurprising since he’s now 38 years old, a father of four and well-established in his role as Auditor. Still I do miss the old Miles and his mad antics, even more so when they manage to surface as a mere shadow of the past ones – and if faithful Armsman Roic is always ready to try and keep his liege lord away from trouble, those glimpses feel more like nostalgic echoes of what was, and end up coating this story with a thin layer of regret, at least for me.

On the positive side, this quieter but more assertive Miles is a joy to behold when he deals with young Jin and his sister: it’s clear from those interactions that he had ample practice with his own children and that he’s now able to relate to young people with tact and kindness –  a side of him we had not seen before and which rounds his overall character in a nice, but unsurprising way considering the parenting example he could draw inspiration from…

What makes this book interesting is the underlying theme of life and death, and the impermanence of both in light of cryo-preservation techniques, not to mention the political implications that come from the individuals’ voting power handed down to the corporations while they lie frozen, which sounds quite crazy. There is also a thought-provoking question about the dubious advantage of waking up, decades after one was frozen, to find the world so changed that the returnees are unable to find their place back in it. And all of the above takes a special significance for Miles since he was indeed technically dead in the cryo-chamber where the Dendarii stowed him in Mirror Dance, and he had to walk a long road to a recovery that was far from complete.

As light and fairly amusing as Cryoburn is, it does pack an unexpected punch in the end – a very abrupt end brought on by three words that leave Miles as shell-shocked as the reader. If you read the book you know what I’m talking about…   And both shock and the ensuing grief at those words are compounded by the short drabbles Bujold employs as a sort of coda to that staggering revelation, the event seen through the eyes of some of the characters we have come to know and love: more than Miles’ it was Gregor’s point of view that brought me to tears.  Not something I would usually associate with a Vorkosigan novel….

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

PARIAH (Donovan #3), by W. Michael Gear

Even before reading Pariah, I was very happy to learn it would not be the last book in the Donovan series, but now that I finished this third installment I’m even more glad that the story will not end here, because this latest novel considerably raised the stakes while still leaving many questions unanswered.

Donovan is so far the only habitable world discovered by humanity and it stands at thirty light-years from Earth: the voyage to reach it is fraught with dangers, mostly because the drive technology – which creates a sort of shortcut between distances – does not always work as intended, so that some ships are lost forever or emerge at destination after decades or centuries, the crews having succumbed to hardship or madness. For this reason the colonists of Donovan have learned to rely only on themselves, and had to do it in a very hostile environment: if the planet’s soil is both fertile and rich in minerals, the place is also filled with aggressive flora and fauna waiting only to prey on unwary humans.

Book 1, Outpost, saw the arrival of the ship Turalon, bringing new colonists and a supervisor from the Corporation – the entity ruling Earth and financing the colony ships: what they found was a reality far removed from their expectations and a society ill-disposed to fall again under the thumb of a far-off organization. Book 2, Abandoned, showed us how the new arrivals tried to integrate in Donovanian society, adapting their outlook and goals to the planet’s unexpected environment – and there was also the added mystery of the ghost ship Freelander and its ominous cargo of bones.

Pariah expands on its predecessors by showing us how the characters we know are progressing in their journey: security Chief Talina Perez is dealing with the “infection” from quetzal DNA – they are the planet’s largest predators, and their ability to mix molecules between species might hold the key to communication and, perhaps, a truce; the changes Talina undergoes range from improved vision and hearing to what look like hallucinations that impair her ability to function. For this reason she chooses to leave Port Authority, Donovan’s main settlement, to deal with these changes without endangering her fellow colonists. Former supervisor Kalico Aguila has long forgotten her corporate ambitions and is turning into a worthy Donovanian, not only because she’s learned to integrate with the rest of the colony, but because she takes to heart its well-being, to the point that she’s very serious about the threats against her new home. Dan Wirth, the escaped criminal who arrived with Turalon, has consolidated his hold on the less savory sides of colonial economy like gambling and prostitution, and is now striving for a patina of respectability by building a school, although no one is willing to trust him as far as they can throw him…

As with previous instances, it’s the unexpected arrival of the ship Vixen that upsets the ever-precarious balance of Port Authority, partly because the Vixen has been considered lost for 50 years – while its crew and passengers’ subjective experience was that of an instantaneous travel from Earth to Donovan – and partly because two of those passengers prove highly disruptive, each in his own way.

Dr. Dortmund Weisbacher is an environmental preservationist who made his name and career with a program for the revival of ancient Earth flora and fauna in protected areas and is determined to safeguard Donovan’s biome at all costs: he’s a haughty and self-centered individual with a high opinion of his own value, untouched by the harsh wake-up call he receives once he learns that the planet has already been colonized and that the “contamination” he loathes has become a reality in the past few decades. Not even the information that his carefully maintained Earth preservations failed, because plants and animals had not built an evolved resistance to the current micro-organisms, can shake him out of his blind faith, nor is Donovan able to make him understand its basic principle, that foolishness means grievous harm, or death. Weisbacher’s obtuse lack of perspective helps to drive home once again Donovan’s most important law, the need to adapt to one’s environment to ensure survival, and the fact that this planet does not forgive recklessness or mistakes.

A lesson that the other new player seems to ignore as well: where Weisbacher is merely an annoyance, in the grand scheme of things, Tamarland Benteen is another matter entirely. Ally and henchmen of a Corporation CEO, he boards Vixen just in time to avoid capture by an opposing faction, and once he realizes there is no return to Earth he decides to build his own empire on Donovan by applying the cut-throat methods that served him so well on Earth. Deadly as a poisonous snake and totally without scruples he proceeds to create a power base in Port Authority but, as the arrogant professor, he fails to understand the true dynamics of the colony and its inhabitants. Where I previously hated Dan Wirth with a passion, Benteen made me see how there are several degrees of evil and that the one held by Wirth is clearly not the worst one…

The power struggle that ensues is one of the driving themes of Pariah, and builds an ever-escalating tension that compelled me to keep turning the pages to see where the author would take the story, and for this reason it made Talina’s battle with her inner demons a somewhat less interesting theme than intended. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s a very important subject, made even more fascinating by the journey into the Mayan lore at the roots of Talina’s past, but to me it seemed to take too long and it was somewhat confusing, while all I wanted was to see how the situation in Port Authority ran its course. In the end, all the pieces fit together well (and I’m not using this metaphor at random…) and open the way to a possible change in the relationship between humans and quetzals, but still, seeing Talina helpless in the face of what was happening to her felt so wrong – given the way her personality had been drawn – that I could not wait to get over it all. On the other hand, having the chief security operative out of the way for part of the novel allowed other ‘regulars’ to get more space and to delve deeper into their characters, particularly in the case of Kalico Aguila who is quickly turning into my favorite player. She is still the commanding woman who is used to see things go her way, but she has learned to apply those drives to the common good: Donovan has marked her in more ways than one, but Aguila is one of the finest examples of the maxim “what does not kill us, makes us stronger”.

As a small aside, I would like to add that I was pleased for the confirmation a certain suspicion I had been nurturing from Book 1, about what happened with Cap Taggart: if you read the book you will know what I’m talking about… 😉

With Outpost and Abandoned, the author introduced us to an epic struggle for survival in an unforgiving environment, but it’s with Pariah that he consolidated his vision of this world and its people: I’m beyond curious to see where he will take us next, and what other dangers and mysteries will face the people of Donovan, but I’m certain that it will be a thrilling adventure.

 

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