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Review: LUNA: WOLF MOON, by Ian McDonald (Luna #2)

“We fight and we die up there; we build and we destroy, we love and we hate and live lives of passion beyond your comprehension and not one of you down here cares.”   (Lucas Corta)

One of my most awaited titles for this year was the sequel to the amazing Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald, that for me had represented a double discovery – a great story and a new-to-me author who captured my imagination with his representation of a complex and merciless society established on the Moon.  When Luna: Wolf Moon came out I did now waste any time in acquiring and reading it, and indeed it was worth the year-long wait. For those who plan on reading it, this review is as spoiler-free as humanly possible…

The colony established on Earth’s Moon has thrived and expanded, in the span of a few decades, into a microcosm society ruled by the Five Dragons, the families who have created their own resources-based empires: the Mackenzies mine the surface in search of rare metals; the Suns deal with software and technology; the Asamoahs are the food growers; the Vorontsovs run the transport systems; and the late-comers Cortas extract the precious Helium3 that keeps the lights running on Earth.  These five families have been at each other’s throats – albeit in a subtle and apparently civilized way – since forever, despite the intermarriages that should have cemented a sort of truce and instead only managed to fuel rivalries and hatred, yet for some time the status quo prevailed until the Mackenzies decided to take matters into their own hands and brutally attacked the Cortas in order to erase them from the face of the Moon.

And so the first book ended, in a mass slaughter that made Martin’s infamous Red Wedding appear like a church picnic, and Luna: Wolf Moon opens some eighteen months later: the few surviving Cortas have either gone into hiding or adopted a very low profile, while the Mackenzies have taken over their rivals’ business and destroyed their enclave, Joao de Deus, in a ruthless tabula rasa operation that speaks volumes about the conquerors’ determination of sending their adversaries into oblivion.  Yet the Cortas are not truly finished because Lucas, one of the surviving heirs of matriarch Adriana, decides to undergo the grueling and potentially lethal training that will allow him to travel to Earth, where he intends to collect the necessary resources and allies to effect a comeback and vanquish the Mackenzies.  And as an added point of interest, the latter are not exactly enjoying their victory, because an inner war for power has started…

To say that I totally relished my return to McDonald’s Moon would be a massive understatement: there is so much in this story to hold my attention – apart from the plot about which I will say no more, because it must be appreciated on its own: the social structure created on the Moon is a fascinating exercise in imagination, as is the frame of mind of the people who have made their home there; and then there are the characters, the majority of which are not people one can easily admire, but are still so fascinating that they kept me glued to the pages not in spite of their shortcomings, but because of them.   The society on Luna seems divided into two neat halves, those who wield power and have the means to live comfortably, and those who work for them and are seemingly locked in a precarious situation, subject to the whims and moods of the Dragons and their families.  There appears to be no middle class as we intend it, and that’s somewhat puzzling – unless the author chose not to mention these people because they were not functional to the economy of the story…

The civilization that grew up on the Moon as the small settlements expanded is a very peculiar one, not exactly lawless (even though the strongest usually prey on the most vulnerable and no one ever raises their voice to object), but rather… anarchic, for want of a better word: you could say that it was the environment that made the rules, not its dwellers, and since Luna is the proverbial harsh mistress, weakness cannot be tolerated there, not in a place whose very nature is focused on killing you with cold, lack of air and water, or unshielded radiation.  Luna is one giant factory geared toward the production of energy and precious materials, where law and fairness have no place or, as one character says at some point:

We’re not a nation state, we’re not a democracy robbed of the oxygen of freedom. We’re a commercial entity. We’re an industrial outpost. We turn a profit. All that’s happened is a change of management. And the new management needs to get the money flowing again.

If the characters are not exactly sympathetic, one cannot avoid feeling invested in their journey, be it one of discovery of oneself, like it happens with Wagner Corta, the man who feels the influence of the waxing and waning Earth as a werewolf of legend felt that of the Moon; or one of vengeance, like the true descent into hell of Lucas Corta, who braves the crushing gravity of his mother’s planet of origin to find the means to restore his family’s power – and there lies one of the best features of the book, the terse descriptions of Lucas’ brutal training and the nightmarish torture of living under six times one’s weight, sustained only by the iron will that’s part of his family’s heritage.

Ian McDonald’s writing is economical, almost stark at times, with no concession to flowery descriptions, and yet it manages to depict the savage, terrifying beauty of the lunar surface, or the most shocking of circumstances with effective clarity, to place his readers right there where events are occurring, and to see them clearly with their minds’ eye.  Lucas Corta’s fight with gravity that I mentioned above is indeed a case in point, the man’s agony portrayed with a cinematic quality that at the same time makes you physically share in the pain he undergoes, all this underlined by a parallel description of the music he listens to as a form of distraction and support, the staccato delivery of the narrative in perfect sync with the music’s rhythm.

And if the writing is outstanding, the story itself is compelling: it jumps from character to character, from location to location, in a perpetual motion that leaves you no time to catch your breath, much like the lunar version of the parkour runners defying injury and death even in the reduced gravity of the Moon. It’s a story told by many voices, examined from different perspectives, and in the end it makes it clear that it’s much bigger than the sum of its parts.  And speaking of ends, this book should have been the second in a duology, and in fact there’s no indication it will be followed by others, but there are too many evolving threads, too many open issues still on the table, that I don’t want to consider the possibility this will be the last time I’ll visit this world.

Please, Mr. McDonald… can we have another book – or more?

My Rating:  

Review: GEMINA, by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (Illuminae Files #2)

Last year I was literally swept away by Illuminae, the first volume in this trilogy: not only because of its compelling story, but also thanks to its remarkable characters, that went a long way toward changing my opinion about YA-oriented stories. Kady Grant and Ezra Mason, the two main protagonists of book 1, were depicted as normal teenagers – no whining, no pouting, no interminable complaints about the unfairness of the world – dealing with some relationship troubles until a tragic event turned their lives upside down, forcing them to mature more quickly while they desperately tried to stay alive.

When I went into Gemina I knew that this second book would follow along the same guidelines, but with different characters, and I was somewhat worried that it would feel like a rehash of the previous story, and that disappointment might lie on that road. Now I’m very happy to say that I was totally wrong. Yes, Hannah and Nik – the main characters in this new installment – are young people fighting for their lives and needing to push their individual envelopes a lot further than expected, but their journey is a different one, and their personalities refreshingly different.  But let’s proceed with order…

As the survivors of the Kerenza assault travel toward Heimdall Jumpstation, to bring evidence of the colony’s massacre and BeiTech’s involvement in it, the latter are mounting a raid that will insure the elimination of any and all witnesses to the Kerenza operation. A special incursion team is dispatched to Heimdall, taking advantage of the station’s downtime due to a holiday, and takes over, killing the higher-ranking officers, locking away the rest of the personnel and lying in wait for the Hypathia, the ship carrying the Kerenza survivors.   Only a few people manage to escape the assailants’ net: Hannah Donnelly, the station commander’s daughter; Nik Malikov, son of an influential member of the crime organization House of Knives, and Hannah’s drug dealer; Ella Malikova, Nik’s cousin, a disabled girl with an amazing knack for computers.  The three find themselves dealing not only with the assault team – and the incoming drone fleet that will obliterate Heimdall after the destruction of Hypatia – but also with the infestation of an alien life form, used by House of Knives to harvest a highly sought-after drug and running amok after the BeiTech attackers have killed the criminals handling the operation.

The only similarities between Illuminae and Gemina come from the protagonists’ need to overcome insurmountable odds, while the clock keeps ticking toward certain annihilation, and of course from the format of the story, a collection of chat transcripts, personal messages exchanged across the station’s net, Hannah’s diary excerpts and the transcripts of the station’s camera footage, complete with the dedicated technician’s comments (a very welcome relief from the drama unfolding on the pages) and the redaction of profanities.  That said, both the story and the characters are refreshingly new, and all of them managed to surprise me because they defied any expectation I might have had given the way they were initially introduced. The pace is relentless, and there are many surprises along the way that again challenge any pre-conceived idea I might have had about the evolution of the plot.

In the beginning Hannah Donnelly comes across as your typical spoiled brat, frustrated by the life she’s leading on the station and compensating by being a party girl and a supplier of drugs for her friends. Her liaison with one of her father’s junior officers seems to go in the same direction, as if she’s trying to “rock the boat” and see how far she can go. Not exactly the kind of person one would expect to come forward and try to stop the bad guys from blowing up the station, is she? And yet, when the BeiTech team storms Heimdall, Hannah sheds her flighty persona in no time at all and shows what she’s really made of, revealing unsuspected qualities, like the perfect physical form she’s maintained in the long hours spent in the gym, practicing martial arts, or the lessons in tactics and warfare that were part of her father-daughter moments with Commander Donnelly, and that allow her to keep up the dangerous cat-and-mouse game she engages with the invaders, particularly their leader, code-named Cerberus.

On first meeting Nik Malikov one might be inclined to describe him as the typical gang member: he’s cocky, arrogant, covered in tattoos that shout to the world his deeds or the times he spent in jail.  He works with his uncle, the station’s leader for the House of Knives, and helps harvesting dust – the recreational drug used on the station – from mind-drinking, snake-like alien creatures: there is a particular scene concerning this part of the HoK activities that I don’t recommend reading around mealtimes…  Yet there is more, much more than meets the eye with Nik – and what we discover about his past, along the way, helps a great deal to alter that initial image – and more importantly there is a deep capacity for both care and courage in this young man that quickly endeared him to me, long before I started to look at Hannah with equally different eyes.

Plot-wise, the dangerous, bloody game the two engage with the assault team is the main driving power of the novel: on the surface, some of the defeats suffered by the BeiTech people seem too easy, even contrived, but the authors always manage to show that either Hannah or Nik employ their experience, intelligence and craft (not to mention an intimate knowledge of the station and how it works) to put all the monkey wrenches they can think of into the invader’s gears. For their part, the BeiTech people appear quite sure of themselves, and well prepared on technical side of the operation, but their past rate of success seems to have put a dangerous cockiness into their attitude, a flaw that exposes them to the young people’s guerrilla tactics.  After a while, the operation seems to change its scope and transforms from a military raid into a conflict of wits and a fight for physical and psychological supremacy – especially true for Cerberus and his chief operative Kali, whose nickname goes well with her vengeful attitude.  In my opinion, the reason for Hannah and Nik’s successful incursions lies exactly there, in the loss by the BeiTech team of their professional focus in favor of a more personal goal.

Another interesting element comes from the growing relationship between Hannah and Nik: unlike Kady and Ezra in Illuminae they are not already a couple, and there is no attraction between them.  There is a sort of playful game going on, granted, where Nik peppers their communications with not-so-subtle innuendoes and Hannah plays to the hilt her role of arrogant snob – the one that gains her the appellatives of “Princess” or “Your Highness” from the young man – but they come from two very different walks of life and romantic attachment is indeed the last of their thoughts.  But it’s through the experience of being the only two (three, if you count Ella) free people on the station, the disillusionments they suffer (Hannah in particular) and the shared dangers that they become close, and something starts growing between them.  Even more than romance, the coming together of Hannah and Nik feels like the meeting of two people who are changing through hardship,  finding their true selves and finding a great match in the other person, once the real personality manages to shine though.

All in all, I can safely say that I enjoyed Gemina even more than its predecessor, and that this series will end up being one of my favorites, and a keeper: I have decided to buy the physical books so that I can look in detail at what I missed in the electronic form of the novels, and will do so for the third volume as well.  For someone who vowed to keep strictly to e-books for ease of use and freedom of space, this means a great deal, indeed…

My Rating:


Review: FORTUNE’S PAWN, by Rachel Bach (Paradox #1)

Is it possible to enjoy a book for the intriguing background it depicts, and for the adventure and mystery at the core of its story, and at the same time to be extremely irritated with it for some annoying characterization choices?  Yes, it is, if that book is Fortune’s Pawn.  But let’s start with the details I did enjoy, first.

The beginning of the story is immediately captivating: Deviana Morris is a mercenary, a highly-skilled one, working out of her custom-made powered armor toward the goal of enlisting with the Paradoxian Kingdom’s elite corps, the Devastators. Devi is focused and determined, and when she understands that her latest posting will not advance her further toward the Devastators, she choses a lateral career move: on the advice of a friend, she finds work as security on Captain Caldswell’s Glorious Fool, a ship with a bad name, because its security personnel does not last long – Caldswell seems to go through hired mercenaries as if they were disposable tissues.

Once she’s enlisted by Caldswell – and immediately proceeds to put her fellow mercenary Cotter in his place – she starts having second thoughts about the posting, one that seems a bit dull by her standards, until things start to happen, and the mysteries pop up one after the other.  The Glorious Fool‘s crew is a peculiar mix: apart from the captain, and his silent daughter Ren – a girl who sports autistic-like behavior but is much, much creepier than that – there are an avian first officer with the temper of an old curmudgeon; a nice but distant chief engineer who’s also the captain’s sister-in-law;   Nova, a tech who’s into new-new-age rituals in a major way; a reptilian doctor, from a species that is otherwise regarded as ferociously dangerous; and Rupert the cook.  I’ll come back to this guy in a little while…

This premise caught my attention in no time at all: a woman working – and excelling – at a traditional male job, and doing so with a suit of powered armor, to boot.  I enjoyed immensely the descriptions of the Lady Grey, Devi’s suit, and its various weapons, all of them graced with female names.  In Devi’s mind the Lady is a person more than a collection of parts; a trusted companion more than a tool, and the mercenary cares about it more deeply than she does for her team-mates.  Morris comes across as a mix between Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor and Aeryn Sun all rolled into one and she lets nothing and no one interfere with her ultimate goal: she might even look obsessed at times, and extremely self-centered, but this is part of her personality and what makes her intriguing, and different from the usual mold of the proverbial ass-kicking heroine.

As she starts to integrate with the crew of the Glorious Fool, Devi notices some oddities in their behavior, and her curiosity is aroused beyond what would be safe for her plan of fulfilling her year-long commitment to Caldswell and his eventual backing to a post with the Devastators, so that she keeps digging, until a few outlandish – and possibly dangerous – truths start making themselves plain. The last part of the story is a crescendo of conflicting revelations and half-perceived clues that point to a possible galaxy-wide conspiracy, and much more; heated battles, alien mysteries and a touch of black-ops politics all contribute to create a riveting background for which this first volume in the series represents only the first act. For this reason alone I know I will continue reading, even though some narrative choices went against my tastes (and the character’s outline) in a major way – namely the romantic element.

Devi Morris is presented from page one as a very independent, very strong-willed person; one who knows very clearly what she wants and how to get it; one who dismisses sentimental entanglements because they go against her final objective.  The first time we see her, she’s enjoying a brief fling with her friend-with-benefits Anthony, and she politely but firmly turns down his offer for a stable relationship.  More than once, Devi reminds us that “home and hearth” are not what she wants, and that she’s used to mercenary-style liaisons, i.e. brief affairs between battles, with the awareness that death is always around the corner.

But once Devi sets eyes on the Glorious Fool‘s cook Rupert, on his “piercing blue eyes” and “silky black hair”, all of the above flies out the nearest airlock, never to return. At first it seems like a purely physical interest, one that could go well with Devi’s previous behavioral patterns, but when the man keeps gently (oh, so gently!) rebuking her advances, she becomes obsessed. Worse, Rupert is soon revealed as the holder of Big, Dark Secrets, and that only serves to fuel the mercenary’s infatuation even more. Worse still, once the two manage a heated night of passion, Devi discovers he’s the best lover she ever had, the most gentle and considerate, and of course the strongest.

So it’s instant, deep and abiding love and – surprise, surprise – it’s mutual.

I’m unable to avoid seeing this course of events as forced, and taking up much more space than necessary in the economy of the story. I can’t perceive any real chemistry between Devi and Rupert, except for what looks more like a hormonal reaction on her part –  and one more suited to a teenager than a battle-hardened soldier.  The whole scenario, in my opinion, robs her character of all the attributes that make her unique and that caught my attention at the beginning of the book, while the “crime” is compounded by two instances (not one, but two!) in which she’s saved from certain death by a mysterious creature: it’s as if the author were saying that yes, we have a strong, capable soldier here, but she’s still a woman, and she still needs to be saved – she still needs someone to carry her away in their oh-so-strong arms. Which defies the whole purpose of the character, in my book.

Speculative fiction requires its readers to suspend their disbelief, and we are more than happy to do that when it comes to faster-than-light engines, exotic alien forms, strange environments, and so on – just to quote a few – but no matter how outlandish the setting, people remain people and I like to see them behave and react in a believable, organic way, and not as trope-fueled puppets.  As I said, I will keep on reading the series because I’m curious about the unsolved mysteries that were presented here, but I’m afraid I will not be enjoying the main character as I did at the beginning – unless something changes in the next installments…

My Rating:


Review: REVENGER, by Alastair Reynolds

28962452If someone had told me that I would not be able to finish a book by Alastair Reynolds, I would never have believed them: he’s one of my favorite SF authors, and I’ve always enjoyed what I read so far, so when I learned of this new novel I dived straight for it, only to be profoundly disappointed.

The story focuses on two sisters, Adrana and Arafura, and is told from Arafura’s point of view: they leave their home on Mazarile to join a crew of glorified scavengers searching through the relics of old civilizations for valuable objects.  There are many interesting details to this view of the universe: humanity has spread away from Earth (there are several mentions of the Old Sun and its failure) and created artificial homes on planets and habitats; the remnants of previous civilizations are to be found enclosed in baubles, that open at pre-arranged times to allow the treasure hunters to look for artifacts; there is a form of instantaneous communication/listening device that uses a sort of huge (alien?) skull to establish contact, or to eavesdrop, but only if the operators are young people, with a still-developing brain; and there are pirates, preying on the scavenger crews to get at the artifacts without doing the hard work.

Most of the above is often mentioned in passing, but never satisfactorily explored, especially on the subject of the baubles and how they came to be: I’m not in favor of massive info-dumps, on the contrary, but it seems… wasteful to give the readers a glimpse of something so intriguing, and never to offer enough information to make sense of it all.  I believe the roots of the problem lie with Arafura’s point of view, and for a variety of reasons: for starters, she knows little of the universe she lives in, and that makes sense up to a point, because of her secluded life on Mazarile. Yet, once she escapes the stifling confines of her life, she shows little interest in the “big picture” out there, accepting with irritating passivity the information provided by her crew-mates, without looking further than that: there is nothing of the hungry curiosity I would have expected from a teenager who is for the first time free of the constraints of her former existence, none of the wonder of being “out there” and living an adventure.  If I were to distill the sisters’ reactions to the new and intriguing vistas opening before them, I could do it with: “oh, um… yeah, ok”.

Even worse is the “voice” of the two young girls: their dialogue and inner thoughts sound… dumbed down, for want of a better word.  If this is meant to be Alastair Reynolds’ attempt at expanding into YA fiction, I find it more than inadequate: used as I am to his neat, incisive prose, what I found in Revenger was a writing style so careless that I often wondered if I was truly reading such a well-known author. And if Arafura’s very simplified expressive range is the means to reach out to the younger audiences this seems to be intended to, I find it somewhat insulting, because readers in this age target are much more articulate than that.

Another problem I encountered with this book was the inciting incident for the whole story: the decision of the two girls to leave their planet comes out of the blue, after a visit to a sort of carnival booth in which some lady happens to have a device that measures the ability to read bones, a very sought-after skill for a treasure-hunting crew.  Forgetting for a moment the presence of such a device outside of a lab, or the fact it’s in the hands of a charlatan, the ease with which the two – and Arafura in particular, since she seems the less flighty of the pair – choose to abandon their home and their father sounds contrived and far too convenient, just like their immediate recruitment by Captain Rackamore of the ship Monetta’s Mourn. In what looks like a matter of hours, the sisters are out in space, ready for a remunerative job that might help the family’s flagging finances, without a single apparent qualm about what and who they leave behind, or what kind of dangers they might face on the scavenger ship.  Moreover I want to reserve a special mention to a scene in which the carnival lady’s helper wrecks the girl’s guardian robot Paladin to keep it from interfering with the examination: it looks ludicrous, absurd, excessive and totally out of context with the rest of the story.  If it was meant as comic relief, I’m afraid it failed completely.

Faced with these difficulties, I would not have hesitated to abandon this book much earlier, had it been written by a less-respected author, so I struggled on, ignoring my own law about never reading something that feels like work rather than pleasure: still, the story remained un-engaging and after a while even the attempts at inserting peculiar words to show the changes in everyday language (“lungstuff” for air or oxygen; “lamps” for eyes; “coves” for persons, and so forth) became an irritant rather than background information.  When tragedy hit the crew of Monetta’s Mourn, with the assault by the pirate ship led by Bosa Sennen, I hoped that something would change, that I would see some strong reaction from Arafura, but once again my hopes were dashed: the girl’s lack of substantial emotional responses strengthened my impression of a cardboard character with no depth at all, one I could not be invested in.  Having lost what little interest I had gathered for the story up to that point, I gave up the struggle a little before the halfway mark.

What most troubled me with Revenger was that the potential for the story was there, but it remained untapped and was instead buried under uninspired writing and poor characterization.  Not at all what I’m used to from a Reynolds book.

My Rating:


Waiting for The Expanse…

Season 2 of the SyFy show inspired by the amazing space opera series by James S.A. Corey is about to begin, and as I was looking for some news and trailers (by the way, the few snippets we were afforded about Martian marine Bobbie Draper are more than promising…) I found this quite funny Season 1 recap – or rather, re-cat, since it’s all done with cats in the roles of the main characters.

It’s too delightful not to be shared 🙂

WARNING

If you have not seen Season 1 of The Expanse, or read the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes, the video will be full of spoilers: watch at your own risk!

 

Review: THE COLLAPSING EMPIRE by John Scalzi

31568281I received the e-ARC of this book from Pan McMillan through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

When a fellow blogger mentioned that NetGalley had this title available for request I applied immediately: how could I not, since I’m a huge Scalzi fan? Not that I had many hopes of seeing my request accepted, since I’m well aware that my blog is a small one, with a low posting rate, but I had to try anyway. So you can imagine my delighted surprise when I received the confirmation email: the wait for the official release of the book would not have been long, granted, but the possibility of reading this new story right there and then was very exciting. To say the least…

The premise of The Collapsing Empire is that the impossibility of attaining faster-than-light travel has been bypassed by the discovery of the Flow, a sort of inter-dimensional set of “corridors” able to bring ships toward other worlds, not unlike a set of currents in an ocean.  Moving away from mother Earth, humanity has established a huge interstellar empire, the Interdependency, spreading among the stars in search of habitable worlds. Not finding any, with the exception of End – aptly named because it’s the terminus of the Flow – the Interdependency chose to build stations and artificial habitats where civilization flourished in a tightly connected web of mutual support.

Until the time when the story begins, the Flow has been believed to be set and immutable – that is, with the exception of the tragedy of Dalasysla, whose inhabitants were cut off from the Interdependency by what was termed a once-only destabilization of the Flow. People can choose selective blindness when it suits them, however, and for centuries they have blithely ignored the simple fact that something named ‘Flow’ is all but static, and the Flow is indeed destabilizing, or probably changing the direction of its currents, so that the human colonies that it connected until this moment are now threatened with permanent isolation, and probably extinction.

In times of such massive changes or upheavals that menace the fabric of society, there are those who prefer to turn a blind eye to it all, those who try to profit from the turmoil, and those who attempt to salvage the salvageable: these different positions constitute the core of the novel and should be discovered by reading it, so I will not reveal anything else about the plot, focusing rather on the central characters.

For those readers who enjoy the presence of solid female characters, The Collapsing Empire does not disappoint, on the contrary the most prominent figures in the story are mostly women, starting with Cardenia Wu-Patrick, the newly elected emperox of the Interdependency. Elected by default, it must be said, because she’s the sort-of-illegitimate daughter of the previous emperox and she entered in the line of succession due to an unfortunate accident in which the rightful heir was involved.   Finding the unexpected weight of the Interdependency on her shoulders, she tries to adapt to her new role, and it’s through the trial-and-error of her first few days, marred by some very harrowing circumstances, that her strength of character and quiet determination come to the fore – nicely balanced by a touch of humor and self-deprecating irony.  I believe that the story so far just showed the tip of the iceberg with Cardenia, and that this is one character who has many interesting developments in store for the readers along the way.

There is no story without an evil counterpart, and no one is more fit for this role than House Nohamapetan – one of the many trading Houses of the Interdependency – and its de-facto ruler lady Nadashe.  She is above all a skilled manipulator, an intelligent, ambitious woman who knows what she wants and how to get it: by contrast, her two brothers – equally scheming and ambitious – appear as no more than putty in her competent hands, and it’s no surprise that she is the one pulling all the strings. Even those leading to murder…

The most conspicuous, striking – and ultimately amusing – character remains however that of Kiva Lagos, representative of the Lagos trading House and my absolute winner in case of a contest among the novel’s figures: she is brash, outspoken and uncaring of any behavioral or diplomatic convention, and she peppers her speeches with an amount of profanity that would give the Expanse‘s Avarasala a run for her money –  although, unlike the more eloquent Avarasala, her four-letter vocabulary is exclusively limited to the f* word in all its declinations…   Needless to say, I loved Kiva since she first appeared on the scene: only a skilled writer like John Scalzi could deftly manage such a foul-mouthed character, and the endless stream of expletives hovering like a cloud around her, and at the same time turn Kiva Lagos into a reader’s number one choice for… well, heroine.  And I have not even mentioned her equally formidable mother!

As far as the narrative itself is concerned, the tone and mood are what I’ve come to expect, and enjoy, from a Scalzi novel: serious business interspersed with humorous commentaries on situations and the vagaries of the human mind, and an intriguing core concept that promises to develop into fascinating directions. One detail I’d like to mention in particular is the homage paid toward Iain Banks’ Culture series (or so I like to believe) in the names of the ships listed in the story: names like Yes Sir, That’s My Baby; Some Nerve!; If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.  It was both amusing and charming, and I appreciated it greatly.

My only complaint (if I can call it that) is that The Collapsing Empire is mostly dedicated to building the framework for this new series, and as such it’s focused on laying the foundation for the future developments, ending when separate events start coalescing into an intriguing whole: the novel does not close with a cliffhanger, not as such, but the promise of things to come is not enough – I want more, and I want it right now. Which means I’m happily on board to see how this will all pan out.

 

My Rating:

Salva

Review: BABYLON’S ASHES, by James S.A. Corey (The Expanse #6)

25877663This is the book I was most looking forward to this year, and I’m very happy to showcase it as my last review for 2016: The Expanse is without doubt one of the best space opera series currently running, its pacing and storyline a constant progression that shows no slumps or uncertainties, so that I feel I’m closing this blogging year with a proverbial bang.

Speaking of which, I was aware that the momentous events of the previous book, Nemesis Games, might have created some expectations of a more… active story, but this is a very different one, a transition story rather than one purely based on action.  The devastation visited on Earth has not only created countless deaths and massive environmental upheavals, but also huge shifts in politics, alliances and perspective: what happened on the home planet is not affecting only its inhabitants, but the whole Solar System.  From the need to relocate the staggering number of refugees, to the loss of irreplaceable materials that only Earth could provide to its outlying colonies, the actions of the Free Navy, far from freeing the Belters from their subordination to the inner planets, had a negative influence on all of humanity and its future.

This must be the main reason that compelled the authors to shift from the tighter focus on the Rocinante’s crew to a wider cast of characters: much as it happened with the second book in the series, Caliban’s War, the overall scope has now become too big to be observed solely through the eyes of Holden & Co., it needs other points of view, different tiles in the mosaic, so to speak. Therefore, events also unfold from the standpoint of well-known figures like Avasarala or Bobbie Draper, combined with those of returning characters like Michio Pa, Clarissa Mao or scientist Prax, and the addition of newer ones like Anderson Dawes, Marco Inaros and young Filip.

This choice felt quite appropriate to me, because instead of subtracting precious “screen time” from the Rocinante Four, it put their actions and choices into a wider perspective, and ultimately enhanced them: when it was only (so to speak…) a matter of chasing the trail of the protomolecule, it was good and right to follow the story from the angle of a handful of characters, but now that the trouble has expanded system-wide and could extend to the newly-founded colonies beyond the alien gate, the story needs to broaden its horizons. What started as the tale of four people thrown together by dramatic occurrences and slowly coalescing into a family, has now become the saga of humanity, its reach into space and the choices that need to be made to keep this larger family alive and thriving – because, to quote from the book, “ash and misery had made a single tribe of them all”.

The core theme of Babylon’s Ashes is indeed this, the need to understand that the differences that have divided humanity – political, religious, racial, whatever – are nothing but distractions on the road toward the stars: if the threat of the protomolecule was not enough to drive this message home, the damage inflicted on Earth could (and should) be the means to overcome those differences. Despite the dramatic events unfolding before our eyes, the still ongoing strife and battles, the political and military posturing, there is a subtle thread of hope woven throughout the narrative, the evidence that humanity holds the potential for building a better family out there, one that can look beyond our divisions, recognizing them for the red herrings they are, and come together in times on need.

These changes are mirrored in the characters as well, both the old ones and the new. Holden is not the idealistic do-gooder he was at the start of the story, nor does he make his decisions on impulse anymore: he has learned how to include some political expediency in his planning – probably due to the influence of Fred Johnson, and certainly having had to live far too often with the consequences of his rashest actions. More than that, what happened in the course of Nemesis Games brought home far more clearly than in the past that everything and everyone he holds dear is far too fragile to be risked without thinking about the short- and long-term effects of his choices: not that he never considered this in the past, but recent events showed him how clear and present is the danger of losing the people that have become his family.   Naomi still labors under the burden of guilt that resurfaced with a part of her past, and of the hard decisions she had to make then and in more recent times: she is not on stage as much as she was in the previous book, but here you can see she is still evolving, and that the process is both painful and enlightening – she is still growing as a person, and acquiring more depth and substance. And Avasarala…. Well, it’s no mystery I greatly enjoy her as a character, and here we see even more facets of her formidable personality, her powerful determination even in the face of harrowing personal loss: strangely enough, the brief moments in which her granite façade crumbles are the ones where her strength comes across more clearly, showing that nothing can dent Avasarala’s resolve in a permanent way. Or exhaust her bottomless well of profanities…

This novel is not just about the “good guys”, though, and I’d like to spend some time with the story’s main villain, Marco Inaros, self-styled commander of the Free Navy and liberator of the Belters, the man responsible for the apocalyptic attack on Earth. At first he looked to me as the proverbial mustache-twirling baddie, and I was saddened at the apparent waste of potential he represented, but I should have trusted these authors more, since they never disappointed me in the past – and neither did they now.   After a while I understood that Inaros represents a case in point for what happens with revolutions born out of profound injustice and moving forward on a wave of unthinking violence: in those cases it’s far too easy to lose sight of the original motivations for the rebellion, and lash out blindly with little or no thought about long-range consequences or collateral damage.   Marco Inaros is the kind of man who emerges in such circumstance, one who can give voice to festering hostility held in check for too long: a man who can make himself known for blatant acts, or “grand gestures” as they are defined at some point, but far too focused on himself rather than the people he pretends to be helping.  He’s not inherently evil, but more simply, and more tragically, in love with his own image, and unable to see – or foresee – his mistakes.

The best picture of the man comes from his son Filip, when he considers that “..he had two fathers now. The one who led the fight against the inners and who Filip loved like plants love light, and the one who twisted out of everything that went wrong and blamed anyone but himself”. And in that consideration there is definitive judgment as well: Inaros is ultimately a figure of tragedy, not in the sense that he should be pitied, but rather one whose blindness and self-absorption are the cause of widespread heartbreak.

Young Filip is also one character who, though still in continuing development, promises to be an intriguing one, should he return in the next installments: all throughout his journey in search of recognition, of the parental love he needs and is denied for a series of reasons as complex as he is, he goes through several stages that are often quite difficult to witness. He was the object of my compassion, because I could feel the pain underlying his brash attitude and the cloak of hate he wore as a coat of armor: there is hope, though, in the identity choice he makes at the end of his last p.o.v. chapter – a choice that might signal an important course change, one I hope to see as the story progresses.

There is much to look forward to for the next three books of The Expanse: there is still a sample of the protomolecule at large, for example, and the former Martian Navy’s ships that passed through the Laconia gate constitute an unforeseeable danger for the future. And who knows what other troubles the authors will decide to visit on this not-so-distant future version of our system.  This series has been steadily growing and branching off in new and compelling directions, and I for one cannot wait to see what the next books will bring.

 

 

My Rating:

TEASER TUESDAY #16

Teaser Tuesday is an intriguing meme started by Ambrosia over at The Purple Booker.

All you have to do is:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other Teaser Tuesday participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Teaser Tuesday

This week I’m going to showcase one of the books I was most looking forward to, this year, the sixth volume in the amazing space opera The Expanse, by James S.A. Corey (a.k.a. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck).

Babylon’s Ashes comes after an amazing fifth book in which so much happened, and so many of the characters I’ve come to care about where in serious danger, and the apparently subdued tone of this volume might seem anti-climatic, but I’ve come to trust these two authors to deliver, and I was not disappointed.

Here is a brief excerpt from the thoughts of Chrisjen Avarasala, one of my favorite characters: her musings offer the possibility of giving the reader a condensed recap of all that happened before, but in such a genially offhand way…

Her mind danced across the solar system. Medina Station. Rhea, declaring against the Free Navy. The food and supplies of Ganymede. The starvation and death on Earth. […] The colony ships being preyed upon by the Free Navy pirates, and the stations and asteroids gaining the benefit of piracy. And the missing ships. And the stolen protomolecule sample.

If you have not started this series yet, I urge you to do it, as soon as you can: you owe it to yourselves, seriously 🙂

Review: A THOUSAND WORDS FOR STRANGER, by Julie Czerneda (Trade Pact #1)

129019I’ve been aware of this very prolific writer’s works for some time, and I finally managed to read the first book in the Trade Pact trilogy, that’s also Julie Czerneda’s debut novel: it took me a while to understand where to start because this first trilogy is followed, in terms of publication, by a ‘prequel’ trilogy (called Stratification) and is now being complemented by a follow-up triptych named Reunification, whose title This Gulf of Time and Stars caught my attention and imagination before I understood it was not the best place to begin delving into this series.

In the future depicted by these books, humanity has spread throughout the stars and also met a wide variety of alien races, all of them coexisting – more or less – in a sort of loose alliance called the Trade Pact. Outside of this treaty-like convention stand the Clan, a group of aliens who look perfectly human but are set aside by their mental powers: telepathy, teleportation, telekinesis, and who knows what else, since they are not very forthcoming about their gifts, and look with barely concealed disdain on those they consider their inferiors.

At the start of the novel, two members of the Clan are attacked near the spaceport on the planet Auord: the man is left unconscious on the ground, while the woman – whose name we’ll later learn is Sira – manages to escape.  Sira has no memory of who or what she is, the only thoughts in her mind generated by a strong, inexplicable compulsion to find a ship and leave the planet: when she accidentally meets Captain Jason Morgan, of the independent trader ship Silver Fox, she knows he’s the right person to accomplish what the voices in her mind urge her to do and she manages to be signed on as crew on the Fox.

I have to admit that at this point the story looked to me like a classic romance novel in a space-opera setting, and that I started to feel some disappointment, but since I did enjoy the writing I decided to stay onboard – so to speak – and see where this particular ship was going to take me: now I’m happy I did, because the story took me in quite unexpected directions, and it was far from predictable or trope-heavy.  True, there are some romantic overtones in the narrative (something I usually try to avoid), but they are dealt with a light hand and do not excessively intrude into what turned out to be a complex plan (the kind where boxes hide within boxes) to sidestep the dangerous path where the Clan’s method for propagating its species seems headed.

The main focus largely remains on Sira and her literal discovery of herself as she tries to make head or tails of her identity, her past and the strange abilities that surface in the most unexpected moments: what I particularly enjoyed in her story is the fact that despite the loss of memory and the apparent helplessness, Sira is not a passive victim of events, nor is she the proverbial vulnerable heroine waiting for the equally proverbial hero to save her. On the contrary, she’s often able to save herself, to tap an inner core of resourcefulness that enables her to overcome the problem at hand, or to wait for the best opportunity to do so, even in the direst of circumstances.   And once that past does surface, the dichotomy between what she was before the amnesia and the person she’s become since then, the person that was born on that night on Auord, makes for a very interesting dilemma, one that helps to shape the character’s personality.

This journey of discovery also serves the purpose of explaining the nature of the Clan, the way they evolved as a race (although on this subject we are given only tantalizing glimpses) and how their mind-set and customs reached the present configuration: if it’s true that there is a downside to every form of power, the Clan’s own brand of it is a huge one, the kind that could bring them to extinction if given enough time.  It’s a very elegant way of counterbalancing such amazing abilities that would otherwise have made these people less believable: the fact that their own demise, as a race, could be the direct result of a relentless pursuit of ever-increasing mental powers, makes them more approachable and, ultimately, an object of sympathy, difficult as it is considering the attitude of some of their members.

At the same time, Sira’s search of her past and identity allows the author to showcase Clan society without need for the dreaded infodump, because her discoveries are the readers’ discoveries and we learn things alongside her. In the same way, her adventures make room for a parade of alien creatures and societies that the reader encounters in a very natural way: it all becomes part of the adventure, and each new steps brings new characters on the stage while advancing the plot.  And if the villains are sometimes too… villainous and easy to hate, like the reptilian pirate Roraqk, whose stressed sibilants become too much after a while, or if the friends and allies are too easily lovable, like the strange, metallic-plate-covered Huido, all can be forgiven thanks to the swift pace of the story, and without forgetting that this is a debut novel and as such is exceptionally well written and free of the many mistakes one could expect from an emerging author.

A Thousand Words for Stranger proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable read, and an intriguing start to the series: I look forward to learning more about this universe, and I will certainly return to it as soon as possible.

 

My Rating:

SciFi Month 2016 Review: HOUSE OF SUNS, by Alastair Reynolds

18306114Alastair Reynolds is easily one of those authors I tend to read sight unseen, because he’s always able to sweep me into these complex, galaxy-spanning stories that never fail to appeal to my sense of wonder. House of Suns is indeed one such story, and without doubt it’s the best one I’ve read until now, both for narrative scope and for sheer entertainment value.

Shatterlings are post-human individuals, clones of their progenitors who created hundreds of copies of themselves with the purpose of traveling far and wide across the galaxy, gathering information that is shared among members of a given Line at meetings that take place at appointed times.  Shatterlings are very long-lived and able to increase that augmented life-span to millions of years, through techniques of suspended animation and cryo-freezing that help them overcome the tedium of long treks through interstellar space.

Purslane and Campion are two such shatterlings from Gentian Line, the House of Flowers, who have entered into a forbidden association: flaunting the Lines’ rules they travel together and have become lovers, and at the beginning of the story they are also late for Gentian Line’s meeting, which will certainly result in censure from their peers.  This circumstance, however, proves quite fortunate for them because on approaching the system where the meeting is being held, they discover there’s been a massive attack on Gentians and that only a handful of shatterlings survived the massacre, some of which the two lovers are able to rescue, heading toward a safe place where the survivors will regroup.

If the story takes a little while to gather speed, once this event is brought to the table the pace increases exponentially from the investigation of the reasons for the attack to the brutal interrogation of some captured enemy agents; from the crushing loss of a murdered Gentian shatterling to a breathless interstellar chase that will turn out to be a journey of discovery, both of unsuspected information and of very unpalatable truths.  The events are narrated from three points of view, those of Purslane and Campion in the present and that of Abigail Gentian, the founder of the House of Flowers, from the past, this one in a series of flashbacks that give the backstory of the Lines in bits and pieces.  Other interesting players are represented by a few of the Gentian survivors the two meet on Neume, the planet where the refugees have fled to, and the Machine People: sentient artificial beings like Hesperus – who has been held in stasis for thousand of years on a planet visited by Campion and Purslane – and Cadence and Cascade, two mysterious synthetics who have befriended the Gentian refugees.

Abigail Gentian is a fascinating creature: artificially stalled in childhood for over 30 years, she describes her life in a huge, planet-spanning and constantly changing house where she lives alone but for her tutor, the household robots and her mother, with whom she infrequently interacts through video communications, when the woman is able to overcome the mind-breaking paranoia she fell victim to. Abigail’s only companionship comes from the visits of a boy from another influential family: the two share a strange love/hate bond that finds its more intricate expression while playing with Palatial, an interactive game giving the two of them roles in a medieval-like adventure that can become far too immersive, to the point of losing one’s identity and memories.    Despite these fascinating details, Abigail’s character remains elusive throughout the novel, as do those of Campion, Purslane and other Gentian shatterlings, a fact that robbed some of the enjoyment from the experience.

Granted, the shatterlings are Abigail’s clones, imbued with her memories, so it would stand to reason that there would be a sort of uniformity in the core of their personalities, but it would also stand to reason that each one’s accumulated experiences would add different layers to an individual’s psychological makeup, making every offspring different from his/her progenitor. Even their “voices” fail to carry any substantial differentiation: it took me a while to focus on the fact that Campion is male and Purslane female, since their alternating chapters “sounded” the same, at least in the beginning, when some reference to the other allowed me to understand who was speaking.  This lack of definition became worse when other Gentian survivors were introduced: other than their names, and a few individual leanings – like Betony’s desire to take over as lead, or Mezereon’s cruelty in interrogating the prisoners – there was no firm sense of differentiation between them.

Purslane and Campion’s relationship suffers from the same brand of indetermination: we are told they form a couple, that they are forced to edit their memories of the liaison before any Line meeting, to avoid being reprimanded for disobeying the rules, but we never perceive them as a couple until events separate them and Campion launches in a desperate chase to reach Purslane’s ship and rejoin his lover.  That’s the point where we are finally able to see the feelings they share for each other, how deeply they are rooted and what each of them is ready to sacrifice to insure each other’s survival.

Ironically enough, I thought that the more human, approachable character was Hesperus, one of the Machine People: the long imprisonment from which the two Gentians free him – or maybe some event prior to his incarceration – have robbed him of most of his memory, and there’s a gentle, almost child-like quality to his wistfulness about the loss, and the need to recover it, together with the purpose of his mission.  This gentleness, and his selfless attitude in helping out the shatterlings in several occasions, quickly made him my favorite character and the one I found more relatable than the flesh and blood ones.

Despite these issues, I greatly enjoyed the book because the questions examined throughout the story appear much more important than the characters moving through it. More than the inexorable rise and fall of civilizations, more than the political and economical maneuvering of the great Lines, more than the observation of societies born out of human colonization, some of which have even transcended human form, what really held my attention was the focus on knowledge and memory.  Knowledge seems to have become the galactic currency: no coin or precious metal hold the same worth as information, and the contents of individual “troves”, the stores where such information is collected, seem to have taken the place of bank accounts. And in the search of knowledge shatterlings can even take great risks, like Campion does, for example, when visiting the Vigilance, a sort of archive of enormous proportions, run by a forbidding, mysterious intelligence.

Memory, on the other hand, takes center stage during the whole course of the novel. The shatterlings store, edit and share the memories they have accumulated in their long lives, and are able to manipulate them – either to delete risky details (as Purslane and Campion do to hide their relationship from Gentian Line) or even to erase damning evidence, as the story reveals when survivors pursue the reasons for the attack on their Line.  Hesperus lost every memory of his past, of his mission, of the reasons for his presence in that portion of space, and lack of that knowledge renders him incomplete – and at times even makes him appear suspicious.

Memory is identity, and here it also becomes the defining quality of one’s personality: Gentian Line strictly enforces the erasure of a particular memory, that of a heinous crime perpetrated without intention, yes, but still will tragic repercussions, and that choice is seen as the erasure of guilt, of the consequences of that long-ago choice.  Does forgetfulness also imply forgiveness? This is the lynchpin on which the end revelation turns, and the partial answer that is given does not even start, unsurprisingly, to explore the issue.

Complex and fascinating, thought-provoking and engaging, House of Suns is the kind of novel that leaves me thinking about it even after I’ve reached the last page, and even though it ends in a quite abrupt manner, after slowing down the forward momentum reached until that point with some heavy exposition, it remains a very satisfying read. The kind of story that could no doubt gain from a re-read, and a highly recommended one.

 

My Rating:

 

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