Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: COMMAND DECISION (Vatta’s War #4), by Elizabeth Moon

Book after book this series is taking shape and substance and this installment went a long way toward helping me forget the slight disappointment of volume 2, that I’m now regarding more as a case of “growing pains” than anything else.  Despite a few residual niggles, truly too small to spoil my enjoyment of the story, Command Decision turned out to be a solid, entertaining read.

In previous books, Kylara Vatta, whose family made a fortune with their interstellar transport business, was expelled from the SpaceForce Academy in the aftermath of an unfortunate mishap and went back into the family’s fold trying to re-invent herself as a merchant captain. An unprecedented attack on her home world resulted in the death of a huge portion of Ky’s family so she resorted to try and resurrect the family business while fighting the encroaching expansion of a pirate consortium.  In Command Decision, we saw Ky working to consolidate her small but growing coalition of merchant captains who choose to stand up to the pirates, but we are also afforded a wider view of the overall situation, discovering alongside the characters that the pirates are only a part of the problem, one that involves hostile corporate takeovers, political maneuvers and a generalized regression in the galaxy’s civilized dealings.

The shifting focus between the various situations keeps the pace lively and the story interesting, and in some cases it changed my opinion of previously encountered characters: a case in point is represented by Rafe, whose earlier appearance seemed to point toward a Gary Stu kind of figure, while here he takes on some much-needed depth and morphs into a very intriguing person.   It’s through Rafe’s segment of the story that we start perceiving the scope of what looks like a huge conspiracy to change the political and economical face of the galaxy: having lost contact with his family, he travels in incognito to his homeworld only to discover that his parents and siblings have disappeared and any inquiry on their whereabouts raises the interest of some unsavory characters.  There is a subtle irony in the fact that Rafe was sent away from home because of a dramatic incident that changed him profoundly, and now he’s his family’s only hope for freedom and safety: as I saw him struggle to resolve the situation without endangering their chances for survival, and while I learned what it meant to him to be perceived as a monster, I slowly warmed up to him and started to see the real person under the rakish façade, someone who can forget any bitterness at the unfair treatment received and risk everything for those he holds dear.  In a way, I believe that Rafe’s back story runs on a similar course to Kylara, since both of them needed to re-invent themselves after a traumatic experience, and that this element, rather than any form of mutual attraction, could be the basis for the future relationship that is at times hinted at as a possibility in the course of the story.

Stella, Ky’s cousin, is also slowly emerging from a trauma of her own, one that disrupted her sense of identity and belonging to the Vatta clan: while some residue from that shock might understandably linger, in this book Stella goes back to her earlier appearance, that of a well-grounded, no-nonsense person with a good head for business and the courage to try untraveled roads.  Having been invested with the position of CEO for Vatta Enterprises, she throws herself into the work leaving little or no space for doubts and self-recriminations, and the need to care for the underage Toby – another survivor of the merciless attacks on the family – seems to be what she needs for her newfound balance.   The most interesting comment on Stella’s transformation comes from Aunt Grace, the clan’s matriarch and a character I never see enough of, when she considers how those changes went even beyond Grace’s expectations, or anyone else’s for that matter.

But of course the main focus remains on Ky, even though she equally shares it with the others here, offsetting any danger of looking like the cliché do-it-all-by-herself heroine: she is still on a learning curve, but she’s gaining in assuredness with every challenge faced and overcome, and she’s also acquiring some of the toughness that’s required by her position, as demonstrated by the swift, uncompromising way in which she deals with the situation at Gretna station, whose inhabitants – already infamous for their racist viewpoints – have turned to fraud and slavery to increment their resources; or when she accepts Captain Ransome’s ships as part of the convoy, knowing that their inexperienced enthusiasm might prove fatal, but accepting the necessity of some “cannon fodder” on the front lines.   More importantly, Ky’s storyline serves to showcase the foolishness of corporate mentality and the blindness that can impair the smooth workings of a galaxy-wide service (like ISC, the owners of the communication network), making it the far-too-easy target of anyone armed with the will to take advantage of it: this is what makes this series different from other space opera settings, the mixing of the required adventure with some economic considerations and a few social commentaries that spice up the narrative and at the same time set it firmly into a very believable background.

Command Decision does still suffer from some slight problems, like a few repetitions of known facts and the tendency to slide into undue exposition; or again the instances (thankfully less marked here) in which Ky is accused – because of her youth and perceived inexperience – of being susceptible to girlish infatuations: the latter is what makes me grind my teeth in frustration every time I encounter it, making me wonder why the author keeps undermining her character this way.  That said, Vatta’s War is still shaping up nicely for what I hope will be a satisfactory ending, and a good introduction to the next series, whose first book I sampled before retracing my steps to the beginning.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: PERSEPOLIS RISING (The Expanse #7), by James S.A. Corey

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for the opportunity to read this new installment in my very favorite space opera series.

Apart from a brief synopsis of the story, something you could find on GoodReads or the back cover of the book, there will be no spoilers in this review: more than any other, this is a novel that must be enjoyed with a minimum of foreknowledge.

At the end of Babylon’s Ashes, as many narrative threads seemed to have come to a conclusion, I wondered where the authors would next take the story, and after reading the novella Strange Dogs I had an inkling that the focus might be shifted toward the colonies established in the worlds beyond the alien portals accessed through Medina station. In a way, I was both right and wrong: the colonies – or rather, the world of Laconia, which figured prominently on that novella – are there, but not in the way I imagined.

For starters, the action takes places some 30 years after the events of Babylon’s Ashes, showing how the balance of power and the political landscape have changed in the aftermath of Marco Inaros’ faction’s attack on Earth: the home planet of humanity has recovered from the massive upheavals caused by the asteroid impacts, but its influence has somewhat lessened and is now shared between the inner worlds and the Transport Union, the successor of the OPA, now a legitimate association that monitors traffic to and from the colonies beyond the portals, with Belters having finally reached equal status with the rest of the system. The social and political balance might not be perfect, but they are certainly better than they were in the past.

The crew of the Rocinante has gained two permanent members, ex marine Bobbie Draper and Clarissa “Peaches” Mao, once their adversary and now Amos’ engineering buddy. Through the years in which they worked for the Union the six have coalesced into an easy family, so that Holden and Naomi’s announcement that they are going to retire, and leave the ship to the others, is received with a mix of happiness for the couple and the well-deserved rest they’ve earned, and sadness at the loss of a piece of their group.  It was something that troubled me, as well, because I wondered how removing these two from the equation would change the dynamics aboard the ship – and the narrative as well.

A worry quickly forgotten, though, since the Solar System finds itself faced with an unforeseen menace: in the decades since he carried a third of Mars’ naval forces (and a protomolecule sample) through the Laconia gate, former Admiral Duarte – now self-elected High Consul – has created a powerful empire that he means to extend to the rest of the explored worlds, starting with the Sol system through a surprise attack on Medina station, with a giant ship that’s a hybrid between Martian technology and applied protomolecule tech.  What follows is a huge game change, a series of events that transform the face of the story as we knew it until now: if, in the tv series inspired by these books, the dividing line between the events of books 1 and 2 was titled “Paradigm Shift”, here we encounter another shift, one of massive proportions that will in all probability encompass the final two volumes of The Expanse.

Change is indeed the focus of the story here, and primarily the changes in the characters: the people of the Roci have grown comfortable with each other, and of course they have grown older, so that a good portion of their thoughts or good-natured exchanges focus on the small indignities of advancing age that seem to afflict both people and ship, as if they were one and the same.  Seeing them affected by the passing of time was something of a surprise for me, because we tend to think about characters as somewhat physically immutable, but these people accept it with equanimity and with the awareness that they can overcome anything as long as they keep taking care of each other and of the Roci, because – as a bulkhead plaque reminds them – doing that will ensure that they will always come home.  It was the slightly melancholic, bittersweet mood that accompanies these first glimpses of the Rocinante crew that made me realize how fond I’ve grown of them, how they have become real to me, not unlike flesh and blood people, and how much I care about what happens to them. And trust me, here a LOT happens to them…

However, the original crew does not enjoy the spotlight here, at least not all of the time, since the point of view shifts between them and some new characters, most notably Drummer and Singh.  The former we already met as second-in-command to Fred Johnson at Tycho station, while here she’s the president of the Transport Union, a very influential woman facing some hard choices once the Laconian invasion starts.  I quite liked Drummer, her no-nonsense approach to power that comes both from her origins as a Belter and her past as an OPA operative, and I felt for her when she had to compromise some of her hard-won principles for the greater good.  For Drummer, the only bright light in this gloomy situation comes from the shrewd advice of a greatly beloved character who manages to steal the brief scenes where she appears, her keen intelligence and foul-mouthed expletives undimmed by age: the verbal confrontation between the two women, different in age, background and political views are nothing short of delightful.

Colonel Singh, on the other hand, is a newcomer to the Expanse’s cast: a bright young Laconian officer on the rise, he’s sent to Medina to act as governor and facilitate the “transition” in government.  He’s a very interesting person, mostly because of the dichotomy between his kindness as loving husband and doting father and the hardness he needs to exert as a soldier of the conquering empire.  His story-arc brought me to alternate between compassion and hostility, even though I understood that the less savory aspects of his personality were the product of his indoctrination.  In this he’s very much like the other Laconians, not much different from anybody else on the surface, but dramatically so in outlook and psychology: the few glimpses of the society built by Duarte on Laconia offer a quite chilling context for the way these people think and act, for the deeply rooted certainty they harbor about being right, about being able to win over the rest of humanity to their way of seeing things.

This new story-arc in The Expanse series promises to rise in intensity far above the previous ones, and considering how outstandingly amazing they have been so far, we are in for a remarkable journey: given the total, not-coming-up-for-air immersion I enjoyed here, I know the remaining two volumes will prove even better.  And I can hardly wait…

 

My Rating:   

Reviews

Review: ENGAGING THE ENEMY (Vatta’s War #3), by Elizabeth Moon

After the partial disappointment of the second volume in Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series, I was eager to see whether that less-than-stellar book was just a fluke, or if the initial promise had really been so sadly reduced: I’m quite happy to share that the third volume in the series, Engaging the Enemy, rolls back on track in a very appealing way.

The story resumes straight from the point it had left off in Marque and Reprisal, making me realize that this is not exactly a series, but rather a long novel divided into five sections, and as such it might have its “down” moments, like it happened with book 2, while taken as a whole it creates an immersive story, one that deals with space opera themes from a different point of view.  There are space battles of course, and intrigue, double dealings and betrayals (and pirates! Let’s not forget the pirates…), but above it all there are the economics lying at the basis of a space-faring civilization and they are explained through the day-by-day challenges faced by Ky Vatta and her crew,  avoiding the danger of boring the reader with what might be otherwise dry facts.  And of course there is a good deal of character exploration…

In the wake of the brutal attacks targeting Vatta headquarters and its ships, their commercial empire stands on the brink of failure, and it’s up to Ky and her cousin Stella to try and gather as many surviving vessels as possible to resume trade and put the company back on its feet, while back home Ky’s formidable aunt Grace (the true revelation of this book, character-wise) deals with the aftermath of the assault and takes the necessary steps to bring the perpetrators and their accomplishes to justice.    For her part, Ky just realized that the attack on her homeworld of Slotter Key was only the first move of the pirate organization bent on controlling the galaxy’s trade routes, and at the same time she needs to deal with her newly-discovered killer instincts (born out of necessity, granted, but still worrisome in their intensity) and with Stella’s malcontent in having to play second fiddle to her younger cousin.  As if that were not enough – and let’s not forget that the threats on the life of any surviving Vatta are still a clear and present danger – Ky encounters a great deal of resistance to her plan of gathering other privateers, possessing like she does letters of marque from their own governments, and creating a force able to deal with the pirates and protect the shipping lanes.

There is a huge amount of problems laying on Ky Vatta’s plate in this novel – from the mundane needs to refuel her ships and procure new and reliable crew, to the political obstacles she encounters in her dealings with various governments, to her own personal issues – and it’s good to see her practical, and sometimes ruthless, approach to them all, just as it is to finally witness some emotional fallout after the grievous losses of family and relatives, something that I sadly missed in the previous book.  Despite her young age, and relative inexperience, Ky never forgets her duty as a commanding officer, and always presents a firm, competent front to her crew, keeping her inner troubles and doubts to herself, while at the same time she is not afraid of asking advice from more competent people when she needs it.  It’s a well-balanced attitude that helped restore my confidence in the character, in the way she is handled, and to find her both believable and relatable, especially when she faces some ethical questions: in this respect there is a very interesting conversation she holds with Rafe, concerning the needs for self-defense and the ensuing violence, and the way they can affect a personality – or damage it – that serves both to illustrate the theme at hand (one that cannot find an easy answer of course) and to shed some light on Rafe himself, on what makes him tick, which ultimately helped to shift my viewpoint on him.  Time will tell if that was only an isolated occurrence or if it’s the beginning of his evolution from a stereotypical lovable rogue to a more solid character.

Stella, on the other hand, seems to lose some of her previous charm: in Marque and Reprisal she came across as a capable individual hiding her remarkable skills under the guise of the clichéd vapid beauty, and back then it seemed as if the pooling of the two cousins’ very different resources would make for an almost invincible team. Here, though, Stella seems to suffer a slight meltdown as the childhood rivalries between herself and Ky resurface and cause her to act in a somewhat immature way – and all that happens long before some revelation on Stella’s past hits like a bomb, causing further damage.  Perversely, it’s that shattering revelation that helps bring the barriers down between the two cousins and puts them on the path toward mending their fences, as they finally realize that different talents can be put to use in synergy and not in opposition. Still, it’s the younger Ky who finds the strength to act like a balanced adult, while Stella succumbs to temper tantrums: I very much look forward to the return of the woman we met in book 2, because I liked her a great deal more…

Story-wise, Engaging the Enemy is a novel with many souls: even though the title suggests a focus on space battles, this happens only toward the last quarter of the book, while the previous segments deal instead with a wide range of subjects from interstellar politics to commercial transaction to peculiar planetary rituals, and yet it never feels boring.  Sometimes dealing with bureaucracy can feel as daunting a deep space adventure, as fraught with dangers as a trip into uncharted territories, and this is what happens to Ky when she needs to stand up to hard-headed functionaries or to prove her identity in the face of malicious accusations.  This is what I believe Elizabeth Moon excels in: incorporate the mundane into her stories and make it appealing by adding some little human touches that transform those potentially dull details into something fascinating, and at times even scary, like the heavy stress on courtesy that’s at the basis of Cascadian civilization, for example, a side note that starts as a humorous commentary and in the end generates a chillingly unpredictable effect for a certain individual.

This third novel in the Vatta’s War series has the definite flavor of a story that has found its right course and promises to develop in exciting and engrossing directions: if the second book, from my point of view, did not fulfill all the promises of the series’ beginning, this one holds all the chances to turn it into a spectacular journey, one I’ll be happy to stay on board to discover.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: MARQUE AND REPRISAL (Vatta’s War #2), by Elizabeth Moon

After the delightful discovery of this series with the first book, Trading in Danger, I did not wait too long to read the second volume in Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War, because my curiosity about the main character’s continuing journey needed to be satisfied.  Sadly, Marque and Reprisal proved to be something of a disappointment, or maybe the victim of excessive expectations, because it did not meet the standards of its predecessor.

In the aftermath of the adventures in book 1, Kylara Vatta does not have time to enjoy her new-found independence and to settle into the role of commercial captain: violent, murderous attacks on all Vatta holdings throughout the galaxy hit Ky’s family’s commercial empire, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction, enhanced by the extended sabotage of the ansible net, the faster-than-light communication system, which leaves isolated planets at the mercy of lack of information and wild rumors.

Ky finds herself cut off from any kind of help and must rely on her wits, her small crew and the help of the few friends she can find, namely the mercenaries she met in the previous novel and her cousin Stella, the family infamous black sheep: surviving the attempts on her life while staying financially afloat, and finding clues about the attacks and the people behind them, will require an even more difficult balancing act, and Kylara will need to grow a thicker hide and quicker wits if she wants to keep herself and what remains of Vatta in one piece.

With this kind of premise and the high stakes of such a situation, there was room for both action and some character exploration, but what I found was far less than I would have liked: for example, Ky’s family suffers brutally from the first wave of attacks on Vatta, but the drama of it is observed in a detached manner – for want of a better definition – lacking the emotional impact that such a tragedy entails.  Granted, on Ky’s home planet of Slotter Key the remaining members of her family find themselves with little time to mourn the losses, because they must concentrate on keeping the business alive and on possibly removing the threat before it’s too late; and Ky herself learns of the attack after some time, due to the ansible sabotage, and therefore the impact of it all is lessened by the time factor, but still I would have liked to see some more evidence of grief and loss, instead of being simply told about their existence.

Stella’s introduction, on the other hand, is an interesting choice because it compares the different attitudes of the family’s two “failures”: Stella had been cut off from Vatta’s affairs after a massive indiscretion, and now – not unlike Kylara – is trying to demonstrate she’s outgrown her youthful silliness.  While Ky works to show her competence has not been impaired by the good-faith mistake that had her thrown out of the Academy, and that she can learn from that mistake and better herself, Stella has learned to use her fiasco as a form of deception, as a mask for the cunning and skills she has honed since then.  The moments in which the two cousins are able to compare notes, and to start understanding each other better, are among the best in the novel.

Unfortunately, the arrival of Stella includes that of Rafe, her former lover, and here the characterization fails a little, at least from my point of view: Rafe is the stereotype of the lovable rascal, the consummate ladies’ man no one seems able to resist; he’s the bad boy with his heart in the right place, the kind of guy every lady knows she should avoid, but is unable to. If you feel like rolling your eyes in exasperation, please do: I will join you gladly.   What’s worse, Rafe is soon revealed as a skilled agent in disguise whose abilities would make the famous Swiss Army knife quite envious: think of an hybrid between James Bond, Montgomery Scott and Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver, and you will have an idea of his talents.  Over the top does not even start to cover it…

As far as the story itself is concerned, if on one side there are some intriguing observations about people’s reactions in times of stress, on the other there are a few truly appalling conversations that are both infuriating and cringe-worthy, that gave the narrative its distinct unbalanced feeling.  What I enjoyed was the general attitude of planetary governments and private contractors toward Kylara and her crew: once it becomes clear that Vatta is the target of an organization capable of extreme violence, everyone turns their backs on her and her family, as if afraid of being tainted by proximity.  Nothing seems to penetrate this ostrich-like behavior, not even Ky’s quite lucid conclusion that the attacks on Vatta might be only the beginning and that others might find themselves in the same position sooner or later, that strength resides in banding together rather than closing one’s eyes and waiting for the storm to pass. As distasteful as it is from an observer’s point if view, this is also a reaction grounded in reality, and as such it’s an interesting commentary on human nature.

What annoyed me, on the other hand, is the paternalistic attitude that Ky is forced to endure from many sides: in her first voyage as a newly-minted captain it would have been understandable, particularly since an impulsive choice had been the reason for her banishment from the Academy, but now she has a successful – and very difficult – first run under her belt, one where she was able to show her mettle and the ability of thinking on her feet.  And yet, more than once, she is confronted with the wrongly perceived inability to resist the lure of a pretty face, therefore losing any capacity for rational judgment: in particular there is a conversation with the mercenary commander, whose paternalistic attitude had me grinding my teeth in frustration, that made me wonder about the author’s intentions with that scene, because if it wanted to be humorous it failed completely for me.

It’s exactly this dissonance that prevented me from enjoying Marque and Reprisal as I did the first book in the series, the perception that somehow the standards achieved in book 1 had been… diluted.  Still, I don’t want to give up on it, in the hope that the next books will recapture the “magic” that charmed me with Trading in Danger.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

TV Review: DARK MATTER Season 2 (no spoilers)

 

When last year I wrote reviews for the two “summer shows” from SyFy, KillJoys and Dark Matter, I sensed a stronger potential for growth in the former, while the latter seemed headed toward a more conventional, if still entertaining, path. Season 2 however overturned my predictions for both shows: if Killjoys did not exactly disappoint, it did not prove to be equal to its promises, while Dark Matter showed a solidity of stories and characterization that was a very welcome surprise.

In the first season we met six people (plus and android) who wake up from suspended animation on a strange ship, without memory of their identities and past.  As they try to come to terms with the situation and what little information they can glean about themselves – apparently a band of criminals hired for dirty operations, with the exception of the young stowaway girl who’s not part of the original crew – they also face the problems created by the dichotomy between their former selves and the people the are now, thanks to the clean slate created by amnesia.

In this second season, the crew of the Raza faces a different set of challenges: they have acknowledged their violent past, but feel more comfortable with the personalities they have developed since waking up, and prefer to proceed from there (with one notable exception, but that’s something of a spoiler, so I will not say more about it).  Having accepted both their shady past and the somewhat uncertain present, the group chooses to look forward, to plan for the future rather than delve into the past, even when parts of it come back to bite their proverbial behind.

Shared dangers have coalesced the crew into a team – almost the embryo of a family, I’m tempted to say – and they have learned to look out for each other, while at the same time maintaining their individual quirks and, on occasion, less savory personality traits: as I said in the review for Season 1, there must be something in one’s personality makeup that is similar to “muscle memory”, something that comes into play through the unconscious, like an autonomous reflex.  This time, however, those reflexes come into play for the good of the team, and not for an individual’s egotistical drives and even if it doesn’t mean that the former “bad guys” have turned into angels, still there is a huge difference between who they are now and who they used to be, and they seem to prefer putting some distance between their present and past selves.

The background that was sketched in the first season of the show takes more substance, and presents a galaxy that’s quite far from the standards of more idealistic future shows: there are far too many struggling colonies or mining outposts that try to eke out a living despite the pressure of the corporations that seem the real ruling power here, and the corporations themselves are at war with each other using mercenaries like the team on the Raza to undermine their rivals’ powers.  Even the Galactic Authority, the entity that acts as a police force, is not immune from power plays, to the point that they are far too easily corrupted and even when one of their officers doggedly pursues the crew of the Raza, he appears motivated more by personal drives than simple love of justice, making me often think about inspector Javert from Les Miserables in the blind pursuit of his quarry.  This last element is quite dramatically evident in the last episode of the season, where he apparently throws away the chance of stopping a terrorist operation in favor of capturing his elusive prey.

If character development and well-timed action are the main components of this series, and even more so in this second season, the plot is equally capable of evolution, branching off from the main theme that was at the root of the story and developing into several individual narrative threads that still remain firmly grounded in the main arc, giving it a multiplicity of points of view that keeps the story itself always interesting.  What’s more, Dark Matter is not afraid of taking extreme measures with its set of characters: in the very first episode, one of the original six is removed from the equation in a very surprising game change that’s not at all usual in serialized television. The addition of new figures to the crew, and their non-permanent status, reinforces the awareness that no one might be safe here, that we should not take for granted the survival of any individual character.

For this reason (or should I call it warning?) when the final episode of the season closes on a very difficult situation, with the members of the crew separated from each other and facing potential annihilation on a doomed space station, the ending cliffhanger takes on a further layer of uncertainty and makes us wonder about the changes that we might witness in Season 3.

In short, Dark Matter might still not shine for originality of plots or narrative devices, but it does move forward with a form of enthusiasm that’s quite refreshing, making us care about the characters and involving us with the narrative threads: I’ll say it again, and this time with even more conviction – it might not be a revelation, but it’s a solid story that deserves more than one chance.

 

My Rating for Season 2: