Reviews

FOUNDATION (Apple TV+) – Season One – #SciFiMonth

Without doubt, this is one of the most anticipated TV series for this year, and at the same time a quite controversial one: while I read Asimov’s saga a few decades ago and therefore forgot most of its details, there are people who are quite conversant with it, and they have been quite vocal in their displeasure about the way this story has been translated to the small screen.  My lack of familiarity with the original material did somehow work in my favor as I watched this first season: once I realized that it was going to be quite different from Asimov’s works, no matter how much of it I remembered, I decided to simply sit back and enjoy it nonetheless – and ultimately I did, although I have to admit it was something of a complicated journey.

The core concept, which Asimov drew from Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is that of a vast galactic empire whose end has been forecast by scientists Hari Seldon through the application of psychohistory, a mathematical predictive model applied to large social groupings and able to foresee the development of future events. Seldon affirms that the fall of the Empire will bring a new Dark Age that might last for millennia, proposing the creation of a huge encyclopedic project – the Foundation – to preserve knowledge and shorten the dark ages before civilization can rise again.  Seldon and his followers are exiled to the planet Terminus, there to collect such knowledge into the Galactic Encyclopedia, and to remove their destabilizing presence from the Emperor’s sight.

Asimov’s original work proposed a series of temporal leaps in which the reader could follow the Foundation’s progress over the centuries and the inevitable collapse of the Empire, and as such it certainly presented a narrative (and character) continuity problem for the televised format, and so the series’ creators choose to keep the author’s basic concept and move from there toward a different path – choice that caused the displeasure of many fans of the author.  Personally I did not dislike this path, particularly where the theme of the Empire’s genetic dynasty is concerned: it is stipulated in the series that each emperor is a clone of the original founder, Cleon, and that he’s present in three different stages of his life – youth (brother Dawn), maturity (brother Day) and old age (brother Dusk) – thus allowing the effective ruler, brother Day, to always wear the same, recognizable face, while at the same time offering an intriguing narrative device through many reflections about the continuity of power and the prices to be paid to maintain it.

Another change comes from the decision to gender-switch a few key figures to create some much-needed character balance which the core material lacked, given that it was a mirror of its times and worldview, particularly where SF was concerned. And so we have the human-looking robot Demerzel, who acts as a combination protector/companion/guide to the various Cleons through the ages, and who quite intriguingly mixes an apparent coldly calculating exterior with some deep feelings and even religious beliefs.  Then there is the young mathematical prodigy Gaal Dornick, who finds herself caught in Seldon’s project and ends up challenging its apparent ineluctability. And again Salvor Hardin, possessed with the heart of a warrior and the drive to keep her people on Terminus safe from any danger.

Visually, the series is nothing short of stunning and you can see that it received a conspicuous budget to carry on its goal: alien landscapes and civilizations, gorgeous costumes and incredible ships, not to mention everything related to Trantor, the imperial planet built of so many levels that only the most fortunate can enjoy the true light of day while others spend their entire lives seeing only the holographic representation of what the outside world could be. And yet, behind this beautiful façade something seems to be missing: for me it was a strong connection with the characters, because the constant changes of scenery and the time jumps did not leave me enough time to explore them as individuals, to understand their motivations or to perceive their feelings.  These characters rarely feel like people, often driven to the discussion of deep, far-reaching issues but seldom coming forward as living, breathing individuals – if I’m making any sense here…

The story’s rhythm also feels off for most of the time, with sections that move at a glacial pace only to be followed by rapid changes of scenery that might appear unconnected to the entirety of the narrative: it’s only with the eight episode of the series that finally all those apparently disconnected threads start to take shape and to show that the ambitious – but slightly unfocused – design at the root of this first season is heading in a particular direction.  With only ten episodes for the season this choice looks like a huge risk, because I can’t help but wonder how many viewers the story lost along the way because of that lack of cohesive focus – I know, because I came close to that point and now that this overlong “prologue” is over I’m glad I soldiered on and can hope that with season two we’ll be able to find a stronger storytelling method that will be able to fulfill the promises laid down by this somewhat shaky opening.

There is some hope that now that the foundations (sorry, no pun intended!) of the story have been set in place, the series will be able to carry on in a more organic and more narratively satisfying way: the last three episodes have strengthened this hope, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the next season has in store for us viewers…

My Rating:

And with this post ends the latest iteration of SciFi Month, one of the two pivotal bookish events I look forward to each year. As usual it was fun to roam through strange worlds and weird backgrounds and for this we have to thank once again our hosts IMYRIL and LISA whose guidance always steered us true and prevented us from falling into a black hole or to be snatched by a temporal anomaly 🙂

Until next year!

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

INHIBITOR PHASE (A Revelation Space novel), by Alastair Reynolds – #SciFiMonth

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

It’s been a long time since I read Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy and I have to admit that I approached this new installment with some trepidation, because I know my memory of details and characters might be faulty: I saw that the author said Inhibitor Phase can be read as a standalone, and that’s partly true, because any reference to the previous works (and also the previous timeline of events) is offered in such a way as to provide enough information without need for lengthy and distracting explanations. 

Still, there is a number of details that surface now and then that can shed more light on the background if you are familiar with Revelation Space, and I was pleasantly surprised by the discovery that I remembered much more than I thought possible, which added to my enjoyment of the story.  Think of the difference in approach – according to your knowledge of Revelation Space or lack of it – as watching a movie in which the production hid some Easter eggs: old-time fans will recognize them and be delighted, but newcomers will enjoy the story nonetheless.

In the distant future envisioned by Alastair Reynolds, humanity scattered among the stars and made great progress, but encountered two huge dangers in its path: first the Melding Plague, a nanotech virus attacking both machinery and implants with horrifying consequences, particularly for those humans who had chosen to modify their bodies with augmentations. Centuries later, a worse threat manifested itself, that of the Inhibitors, also called “wolves”: hive-mind machines whose only goal was to annihilate any sentient life reaching beyond a certain level of technology. Inhibitor Phase starts a few decades after a devastating war that saw most of humanity succumb.

On the inhospitable world of Michaelmas, Miguel de Ruyter leads a small group of survivors living under the surface, hiding from Inhibitors by leaving as small a tech imprint as possible: when a ship in distress enters the system, Miguel tries to meet and destroy it before the wolves become aware of human activity, but the encounter propels him instead on a dangerous quest across the galaxy in search of a weapon that might one day tilt the balance in favor of humans and remove the Inhibitor threat once and for all. Miguel’s journey starts with something of a leisurely pace, but gains momentum and raises its stakes as it progresses, offering such surprises and revelations that often made me unsure about where the story would take me next – this is the main reason I’m struggling a little with this review because I don’t want to spoil anything: facing this novel with… innocence is indeed the best way to enjoy it.

Story-wise, Inhibitor Phase looks like a cross between a classic quest and a heist: the characters’ final goal is to procure a weapon from the secretive Nestbuilders, a weapon which might prove decisive in the battle against the Inhibitors, but to get there they need other items first, and some of them can only be obtained through dangers and sacrifice, which at times adds a layer of deep pathos to the adventure. There are elements of horror as well, particularly in the section in which the characters need to effect a dangerous exchange among the ruins of Chasm City, which was the background for a previous novel in the series: this encounter with the crime overlord – or rather lady, if you can use such term for this barbarous butcheress and her bloodthirsty Court of Miracles – is one of the most tense, most hair-raising passages in the whole novel.

Still, the adventure, the technological wonders and the obstacles to be overcome take second place in comparison with the personal journey facing the characters: identity is the main theme here, either hidden for personal reasons or convenience, or voluntarily suppressed to forget a dark past – I know I’m being cryptic here, but a few of the characters are not who they look on the surface, or who they think they are… Just as much as the quest for the Nestbuilders’ weapon forces the group to piece together information and parts, so the discovery of who they are, or were, is also a puzzle working slowly but steadily toward showing the reader the complete picture. What ties these different people together – even when they are wary or distrustful of each other – is their willingness to give everything they have to fulfill the goal of ridding the galaxy of the Inhibitor threat, and that spirit of sacrifice shows how much they value the survival of humanity and the potential for hope.

And speaking of humanity, be aware that this term has a far wider meaning here, because the people that once took off from Earth to venture into space have taken many forms in Reynolds’ universe, from the mind-linked Conjoiners to the cyborg-like Ultras. And yet one of the most human characters I encountered in Inhibitor Phase is a hyperpig, the result of past genetic manipulation and part of a race used for menial and dangerous tasks: Pinky (even though that’s not his real name) turned out to be my favorite, not in spite of but because of his gruff attitude that hid the psychological scars of a terrible past, and a great capacity for courage and selflessness. There is a magnificent sentence that defines Pinky perfectly: “You don’t have to be human to be people”, and it’s one that moved me deeply.

While I found that reading Revelation Space was a very immersive experience, sometimes it used to feel too much: too many characters to keep track of, too many narrative threads to follow, too much information – no matter how intriguing – to digest. This new novel in the saga appears almost streamlined when confronted with my recollection of the past, with a tighter pacing and only the barest details: in the end it makes for an enhanced reading experience and a totally engrossing story. I have no idea whether Reynolds intends to move forward with this story – although these premises are just begging to be developed – but if he decides to do so, I will be more than happy to see where he takes me next.

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

LIGHT CHASER, by Peter Hamilton & Gareth Powell – #SciFiMonth

A work written in cooperation by Peter Hamilton and Gareth Powell was bound to pique my curiosity, so as soon as this novella became available I had to read it: it was a strange experience – in a good way, of course – because it offered many tantalizing glimpses into what might have been a broader, much more layered narrative, while telling a compact, circumscribed story whose arc encompasses only a handful of pages.

The titular Light Chaser is Amahle, a lone traveler who is almost immortal: genetic modifications and the time-dilation factor of her ship’s near-lightspeed velocity allowed her to live for millennia as she completes her unchanging circuit through a number of planets where her visits are hailed as extraordinary events. Her employers, Ever Life, are the alien creatures called the Exalted and living on Glisten, the final port of call of each circuit: in the course of her stopovers Amahle retrieves her employers’ memory collars from the planets’ dwellers and leaves new ones for the next generations – these are artifacts that record a person’s life experiences for the vicarious enjoyment of the Exalted and are considered a great honor for the individuals so entrusted, who pass them on as precious heirlooms to the family’s various members.

Amahle herself experiences these lives as a form of pastime during the long journeys from one planet to the other, when her only companionship on the Mnemosyne comes from the highly advanced ship’s AI. Someday though, a man addresses the Light Chaser directly in one of those recordings, stating that his real name is Carloman, that they share a common history and – more important – that she should not trust the onboard AI.  I prefer to leave the synopsis at that, because the story is so short that more details would certainly spoil your enjoyment…

Memory is indeed the front and center theme in Light Chaser – and the ship’s name is certainly not a random choice, given that in Greek mythology Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory: the concept of the memory collars is an intriguing one, at first looking like a way of monitoring the evolutionary situation on the many planets in Amahle’s circuit – places that range from medieval societies to more technologically advanced ones – but then taking on a sinister connotation as the Light Chaser is made aware of the reality behind the clever smokescreen.  This change in perspective transforms the story into a puzzle-solving quest first and a history-changing mission later, with Amahle having to literally find herself again thanks to the mysterious Carloman’s clues scattered throughout other people’s memories and encounters she searches for in her collection of collars.

Given the novella’s shortness and its strong reliance on plot, characters are somehow left by the wayside, particularly where Amahle is concerned: I could never fully connect with her even though I was invested in her journey, but I guess this depends on the fact that she is detached from herself as well. In order to fulfill her ages-long mission, and to keep experiencing those vicarious memories, she must purge her own from time to time, in a way discarding the old to make room for the new: this entails losing pieces of herself and of her past, something that she struggles to reconnect with thanks to Carloman’s influence and the clues offered through his various appearances in the stored memories.

In the end, I came to understand that my lack of connection with Amahle was the result of her lack of connection with herself, of her loss of everything that made her the person she originally was: giving up the memories of her own past (and at some point we understand the reason she would choose to take that path, either consciously or not) she let herself drift aimlessly through space and time losing any power of choice – at some point Amahle likens herself to a comet:

 A frozen wanderer sidling in from the darkness to briefly warm myself by the light of the sun, before being flung back out on the next lap of my long, solitary orbit.

It’s only with the appearance of the enigmatic Carloman that she is able to regain that power as she reconnects piece by piece with the memories of who she was and who Carloman was to her. And to finally choose to break out of the unending cycle that kept her prisoner for so long while she believed she was the one in control…

If I have to find any fault in this story it might be in the way many details are left vague and incomplete: we get short peeks at those planetary societies Amahle visits and as soon as we become invested in their peculiar layout we are taken away by the Mnemosyne as it departs for another station of its circuit; or again we are kept wondering how Carloman – once his real identity is revealed – was able to do what he did (apologies for the ambiguity but I want to avoid spoilers here) time and again.  

On hindsight, this novella looks like a trailer for a much longer, much more layered novel that could have taken on the scope of a sweeping space opera – still, for all its shortness, Light Chaser works well offering an intriguing, and often suspenseful, story and some food for thought about identity and memory and the meaning of life.

It will be interesting to see if these two authors team up again and what they might come up with next…

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com
Reviews

THE WRONG STARS (Axiom #1), by Tim Pratt – #SciFiMonth

The Wrong Stars is the first volume in a space opera series dealing with the far future of humankind and focusing on the ragtag crew of the White Raven, whose salvage & law enforcement operations are conducted under the aegis of the Trans-Neptune Authority, one of the political entities ruling human-controlled space.

During one of their explorations, Captain Callie Machedo and her crew encounter the wreck of an ancient Earth spaceship, part of the Goldilocks fleet – slow vessels equipped with cryosleep units to allow the bridging of vast distances – sent centuries before in search of habitable planets: only one onboard cryopod is still in operation, holding Dr. Elena Oh who, once revived, warns her rescuers about the threat of a dangerous alien life form she and her lost crew-mates encountered.  Callie and her people are mystified, since the only alien race humanity came across so far are the squid-like Liars who are certainly untrustworthy, as the name they came to be known by hints at, but quite far from a deadly menace. 

As the salvage operation turns into the attempted rescue of Elena’s trapped crew-mates, new revelations bring to light the existence of another, far more ancient alien race – the Axiom – which once ruled the galaxy and might still represent a deadly threat for humans and Liars alike, so that Callie and her people find themselves enmeshed into an action-packed race to discover the truth and, if possible, avert the doom that a return of the Axiom could entail.

As with most books, The Wrong Stars stands on the double supports of plot and characterization, with the former being the strongest element. There is hardly a moment’s respite in the breathless sequence of events and plot twists that creates the backbone of the story, enhanced by a series of progressive revelations that do little to ease the burden of impending catastrophe hanging over the characters’ heads, but instead keep raising the stakes for the group of intrepid explorers.  The universe in which the story is set is an intriguing one, and the author manages to give us a good picture of it without need for lengthy exposition, also conveying the notion that humanity has changed a great deal, both socially and physically – as indicated, for example, by the presence of engineer Ashok, who is a cyborg constantly on the lookout for further modifications and enhancements. Moreover, there is a vein of light humor running throughout the story, carried by the constant quips exchanged among the crew, that mitigates the seemingly endless adrenaline rush of the events, and offers a welcome respite during the tenser moments.

Unfortunately, the characters suffer from such a tight focus on the plot, and they looked to me rather like… signposts (for want of a better word) of what actual characters should be, with not enough depth for me to truly connect with any of them.  As I read I kept thinking that the potential for each character was not fully explored, particularly where the already mentioned Ashok is concerned, or the weirdly inseparable duo of Janice and Drake, or again the alien Liar named Lantern who at some point joins the team: they all looked to me more paint-by-the-numbers aspects of diversity than anything else, which proved disappointing in light of the hints at trans-humanity and post-humanity inhabiting this future universe, not to mention the potentially intriguing race of the Liars.

Another source of frustration comes from the excessively carefree attitude with which the crew launches into unknown dangers – and into a situation that could lead to the total annihilation of humankind: their lives are constantly at stake, but I never perceived their acknowledgment of this fact, and was in turn surprised and annoyed at the way they faced mortal dangers as if they were embarking in one of their routine missions. This kind of portrayal failed to make me worry about their survival – both as individuals and as a group – because the way the story is told clearly implicates that they will survive anything: the fact that they always manage to overcome any danger, no matter how dire, and beat the worst odds, robs any of their endeavors of the suspense necessary to make such actions believable.

And on top of it all, there is an equally unbelievable insta-love between Captain Callie and Dr. Elena: first of all, I was somewhat creeped out by the fact that Callie feels the pangs of physical attraction for Elena when first observing her frozen body in the cryo-pod – my suspension of disbelief did not pass this stress test, which later colored my consideration of the told-but-not-shown mutual attraction between the two of them.  Add the unnatural ease with which Elena accepts the fact that she’s been frozen for a few centuries and that the world she knew is no more, an ease that never takes into account the element of “future shock” one should expect in such a situation, and you will understand my problems with the characterization of this novel.

Still, the core concept of an ancient alien race poised to return and wreak havoc in the galaxy is an intriguing one, and it might be the encouragement I need to try the second book in the series – if nothing else to see if some of the problems I encountered here have been straightened out.

My Rating:

Reviews

PLANETSIDE (Planetside#1), by Michael Mammay

More than once I’ve mentioned how Military SF can be problematic for me, since the focus on battles, strategy and technology in many novels tends to go the the detriment of characterization and story: this was not the case with Planetside, although after a promising start this book turned out to be a different kind of letdown.

Colonel Carl Butler, once a well-known war hero, is living in semi-retirement filling a teaching position, when his old friend General Serata calls him to investigate an issue which might have huge political repercussions: the son of a High Councilor, wounded in battle on a disputed planet, has disappeared after being evacuated on the medical ship, and Butler is dispatched to learn what happened.  Cappa is a planet where spacefaring humans found a local intelligent population: needing to mine the planet’s resources, humans have built a sort of uneasy truce with the Cappans, but there are insurrectionary fringes that still fight the occupying forces.  On his arrival at the space station orbiting Cappa, Butler finds himself mired in a web of conflicting information, blind alleys and red herrings, and the first inklings of a deeper trouble that might compromise the mining operations and the Earthers’ occupying force, so that his efforts at finding the truth – not to mention the whereabouts of the lost Lieutenant Mallot – are constantly met with lack of cooperation and a few attempts on his life.

The start of the novel is an intriguing one because it looks more like a mystery than a SF-Mil story and Butler’s voice is quite captivating: he comes across as brazen and uncaring of the toes he steps on in the course of his investigation – as a matter of fact he seems to enjoy ruffling everyone’s feathers, aware as he is that in his position he has nothing to lose.  Moreover, he’s a heavy drinker, and that brings him closer to the typical figure of the investigator in noir detective stories, which confers an appealing, old-fashioned patina to the otherwise futuristic narrative.  I liked how Butler’s personality comes to the fore through dialogues and his interactions with other characters, and his dry, not always appreciated, brand of humor tempers the military bearing turning him into a quite intriguing figure. The investigation itself is fascinating because we see Butler and his team-mates gathering different kinds of information, which allows the reader to get a clear picture of the background in which the story is set, without needing to fall into the trap of long, boring infodumps.

The first alarming cracks in the story appear with the description of humans’ cavalier attitude when landing on a new world: we learn that they take steps to “preserve” autochthonous species by relocating them, but that the needs of humans are always the deciding factor – which to me has quite an ominous sound. Worse still, Butler conveys the information that 

“If a planet unsuitable for humans had indigenous life that affected mining, we could simply destroy it from space with XB25s. Planet busters. As long as it didn’t hurt the commercial value, nobody cared.”

Apart from the narrative foreshadowing that this sentence implies, what truly shocked me here is the nonchalant acceptance of what amounts to genocide, not to mention the destruction of an existing ecosystem, that is carried out with such careless ease. Maybe I have watched too much Star Trek and become used to its utopian mindset, but there must be an intermediate way between the opposing philosophies of the Prime Directive on one side and the “humans first” attitude of this future vision.  

Which leads me to the big issue that brought down my rating for this book: at some point Butler is made aware of the possibility that the Cappans might have come into possession of higher technology that could help them in fighting the humans’ occupation – which, let me add, would have been their right – and that the planet’s dwellers have been used in genetic experiments of hybridization, a circumstance that would certainly not help in mutual understanding.  So, to avoid further trouble, the colonel resorts to a devastating solution that will remove the “Cappan menace” while maintaining the humans’ ability to exploit the planet’s resources. And he does so with what looks like such untroubled determination, such a blatant absence of moral quandaries, that any sympathy I might have harbored for his character at the beginning vanished immediately. Butler’s actions are not so dissimilar from other, real-life choices of actual military commanders in the recent past, granted, but what I find deeply disturbing is the matter-of-factness of the decision, and the total absence of inner turmoil that such a path should have engendered.  Not to mention the fact that he’s able to board a ship headed for home without anyone batting so much as an eyelash.

The abrupt ending of the book did not help me in metabolizing my feelings of horror and anger, and while I’m aware that there are two more books in this series and that the next one might portray Butler facing judgement for his actions or seeing the repercussions for such wanton destruction, I am so appalled right now that I can’t contemplate moving forward with the story.

My Rating:

Reviews

CATALYST GATE (The Protectorate #3), by Megan O’Keefe

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

I imagine that the beginning of any story must be a difficult time, with ideas crowding on the writer’s mind and clamoring for release, but I also believe that bringing it to a close must be equally trying, if one wants to tie up all the narrative threads in a satisfactory way for creator and readers alike: Megan O’Keefe managed to do so very well, and in a breath-stopping, compelling way. 

What started as a more personal journey in the first book of the trilogy, Velocity Weapon, which focused on the main character Sanda Greeve and her discoveries aboard the AI-driven ship Light of Berossus, then turned into a system-wide menace in the second installment, Chaos Vector, to be ultimately expanded into the threat of galactic annihilation in this conclusive volume of the trilogy, one that I once again hope will be optioned for a TV series by some enlightened network executives, if such creatures exist, because this story deserves to be enjoyed in both mediums, and it possesses every quality to turn into a visually stunning, story-intense show.  

In the final book of the saga we find all of the people we got to know along the way, and can enjoy their expanded characterization and the huge twists and revelations that keep coming at them, and at the readers, with a relentless pace that still manages to offer a cohesive, engaging story never missing its focus despite the complex interweaving of its many narrative threads.  While Megan O’Keefe keeps faithful to the structure of the three main POVs employed until now – Sanda, her brother Biran and Jules Valentine – she still finds a way to flesh out the secondary characters with depth and facets that add layers to the story and make you care for them quite deeply, and it hardly matters whether these characters are actual people or not, because Bero – the A.I. entity who is Sanda’s major ally – comes across as a delightful personality, capable of both great determination as well as subtle humor.

What was hinted at before and becomes dramatically clear in Catalyst Gate is that humanity, despite its amazing progress, has not evolved beyond its own self-centeredness and petty squabbles, that reaching for the stars and expanding its civilization there has not cured them of the need to conquer without thinking about possible consequences: once the danger threatening mankind is revealed as the repercussion of an act of extreme hubris, I kept thinking about a sentence in Tolkien’s LOTR about the Dwarves “delving too greedily and too deep” and therefore releasing their own nemesis. The scourge that humans unleashed is the main element driving the story here, and it does so through a series of interconnected threads that impart an almost impossible acceleration to it: more than once I felt the need to stop and come up for air, trying to distance myself a little from the constant adrenaline surge of the action, but I could not stop for long because the story kept attracting me like a powerful magnet. 

It’s amazing to understand, in the end, how the past and the present are closely tied, how the glimpses of humanity’s road to the stars connect with the events in the current timeline, and there are some quite harrowing, edge-of-your-seat moments as the various characters try to piece together those revelations from that past with the dangers of the present, all the while dealing with their own problems – and secrets.  Yes, because there are still many truths still to be revealed in Catalyst Gate: if you thought that all the jaw-dropping surprises had been used up in the previous books, well, think again, because there are quite a few still in store for you. And some will prove to be more than unexpected…

Characters are still shining as brightly as in the previous installments, from Biran who finds himself having to step into his position with the kind of strength and hard resolve that seemed far from his personality; to former spy Tomas, who is still trying to understand his place in the world and the direction his newfound emancipation must take, but knows for certain where his loyalty must lie; to Bero, once the captive A.I. on the ship Light of Berossus and now a powerful player in the galactic milieu, yet one possessed with a delightfully childish glee about its skills (“I continue to be the most effective weapon in the known universe”).  Nor are the secondary players forgotten here, particularly where Sanda’s motley crew is concerned: Megan O’Keefe took these disparate individuals and turned them into one of the most engaging, most enjoyable fictional found families I ever encountered, one whose banter – even in the face of possible destruction – offers welcome rays of light in a very dark, very troublesome background.

And of course Sanda: I connected with this character from day one, admiring her resilience and her no-nonsense approach to problems, even physical ones, like the loss of one leg which has been affecting her from the very start and served to showcase her attitude and personality quite effectively. Sanda is indeed the perfect modern heroine, one who can both kick ass and be affectionate and caring toward her families – the one she started with and the one she built around her. The perfect balance between human frailties and courage, the way she can face even the most desperate situation with tenacity and determination have been the best features in Sanda Greeve, and those that made this series quite special besides its enthralling core story.

As I said at the start of this review, bringing a saga of such magnitude as The Protectorate to its close might hold its own pitfalls, but Megan O’Keefe proved to be a very skillful weaver here, always keeping a tight control on her creature and delivering an end that is both satisfactory and emotionally appealing.  If you are looking for a compelling space opera series with depth and substance, you need look no further.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE LAST WATCH (The Divide #1), by J. S. Dewes

First things first, my thanks to Tammy at Books, Bones and Buffy because she was the first of my fellow bloggers to review The Last Watch and literally propel me toward this book and its gripping story: I cannot turn away from a promising space opera novel, and this one met all my expectations, and makes me look forward with eagerness to its sequel which is happily slated to come out in a short time.

Long ago, humanity fought a bloody war with the alien Viators, bent on conquest and/or destruction of the races they encountered on their path: humanity managed to prevail and the Viators retreated back beyond the rim of the universe, a border called the Divide. Fearing that the alien invaders would return one day, humans set up a border patrol, the Sentinels, in a line of ships and buoys monitoring the Divide’s activity.  The task, however, was not assigned to rotating crews but rather to the fleet’s misfits, criminals and the unwanted at large, as a way to permanently exile them while still making them useful: practically abandoned at the edge of the universe, far from the Core where life and civilization move forward, the Sentinels keep watch aboard old ships that are literally falling apart, as their requests for spare parts and essential supplies take far too long to be fulfilled, if ever.  The overall feeling is that the central government stopped worrying long ago about the Viators’ return and that it also choose to apply the saying “out of sight, out of mind” to the men and women assigned to guard their backyard.

Adequin Rake is the captain of one of the Divide’s capital ships, the Argus, and as the story opens she feels all the boredom and futility of a duty in which even her superiors seem to have lost interest, but soon enough she finds herself faced with a series of problems: starting with the new recruit, Cavalon Mercer, who does not come from the military as the rest of her personnel, and sports a rakish attitude that’s out of place in the ranks; then she must deal with a series of strange phenomena that impact the already struggling systems of the Argus, while to top it all, the Divide seems to be closing in at an alarming rate on the deployed Sentinel ships, an ominous indication that the universe might be contracting…  This is only the beginning of the adventure, and if these troubles look more than enough to keep your adrenaline flowing… well, think again, because they will pile up in a harrowing sequence that will task to the very limits Rake’s and her crew’s ability to react.

The Last Watch has been presented as a cross between The Expanse and the theme of the Night Watch in Game of Thrones: while I tend to be wary of these comparisons, I have to admit that there are some connections there, but this novel is its own story and it successfully melds some intriguing scientific notions with interesting and relatable characters and a space opera flavor that keeps things lively throughout the book. I was surprised to learn that this is a debut novel because, apart from a couple of “hiccups” I will mention later, it feels like the work of a seasoned writer, which makes me look forward to the next volume with great impatience.

Characters and plot share equal space in this story, in what I discovered is a very effective combination, and if some details about the political and military structure of the universe, or the events that led to the present, are left a little on the vague side, I can always hope that the next books will widen the horizon: the pace in The Last Watch, after the introduction of background and characters, is relentless and it would have been weighted down by too many details, so I’m quite happy with what I got.  Even though this is a space opera novel, the cast of characters remains contained to a handful of people, which makes it very easy to connect with them: the first we meet is Cavalon Mercer, the odd man out since he does not come from the military – on the contrary, he’s the scion of the ruling family, but his continuing acts of rebellion against his grandfather’s ruling strategies finally led him to exile, and he finds himself forcibly enrolled with the Sentinels, and in dire need to hide his true identity, since the Mercer family does not instill much sympathy in the ranks.

From the very start, Cav’s rakish, impertinent attitude is no help in keeping the low profile he needs, and puts him in dangerous social situations, but as the story progresses and his skills come to the fore, often proving instrumental in solving some dire straits, both Captain Rake and the closest crewmates start to warm up to him and accept him as one of their own. Some of Cavalon’s talents require a little suspension of disbelief, because it often looks as if he possesses the right skill at the right moment, making him something of a proverbial Gary Stu: while it’s true that as the heir of the ruling family he might have had a lot of time on his hands, and therefore the opportunity to become acquainted with many aspects of science, it does sound somewhat preposterous that he would be proficient in fields ranging from medicine to engineering.  Luckily for him (and for the readers…) Cav counterbalances this wide knowledge with a far-from-heroic attitude and a healthy fear for his wellbeing that manage to make him quite sympathetic. 

Captain Rake is indeed able to see beyond Cavalon’s smoke screen and to understand that offering her trust and keeping him engaged she will be able to bring the real person to the surface, and turn him into the man he needs to be for the good of the team.  I liked Adequin Rake from the very beginning: here is a woman who distinguished herself in the war against the Viators but for some reason (which we will learn along the way) she was sent to the Divide and is now battling with depression at what she perceives as a futile role. When things start going sideways, however, she shows great determination, courage and moral strength against both the impending doom and the discovery that the central government might have abandoned the Sentinels to their destiny. What’s more, I enjoyed the way she connected with Cavalon as a mentor and guide, leading to what promises to be a rewarding friendship between two very different personalities.

Besides these two main figures there is a number of secondary characters that are wonderfully drawn and given very distinctive qualities that make them much more than simple background extras: from scientist Mesa, a genetically engineered human/Viator hybrid, to gum-chewing Emery, to serious and dependable Jackin, they help fill out this story by giving the reader other people to care about apart from the main characters, and by showing other angles of this universe through their eyes rather than through lengthy exposition.  

The Last Watch seems more like an introduction to this universe than the first installment in a promising series, and as such it left me with a lot of questions about the narrative nooks and crannies that were left unexplored, but what this book managed to do was to hold my attention from start to finish and to make me look forward to the next volume, where I hope to find the answers to those questions. That is, besides the continuation of this amazing adventure, of course…

My Rating:

Reviews

SHARDS OF EARTH (The Final Architects #1), by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I received this novel from Pan/McMillan through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Shards of Earth is my sixth book from Adrian Tchaikovsky and one unlike the others I read so far: this author moves from one kind of story to another with enviable ease, so that I’m now certain that no matter which work of his I pick up, I will be pleasantly surprised by what I find. This first volume in the Final Architects series brings us fully into the space opera genre with a story spanning many worlds and civilizations and introducing the most terrible kind of adversary, one which does not seem to act out of malice or thirst for power, but simply because that is its way – one for whom the words collateral damage or consequences seem to hold no meaning at all.  More than once I have wondered how events of the past year have weighed on Adrian Tchaikovsky’s imagination as he crafted the Architects, entities that work according to their own inner programming (not unlike a virus!), unaware of the damage they are inflicting…

At the start of the novel, galactic civilization is two generations past a catastrophic event which threatened to annihilate every form of life – human or alien – in the universe: moon-sized things appeared literally out of nowhere, changing the shape of the worlds they encountered in a sort of destructively “artistic” way, erasing in the process all life present on those worlds. The Architects – so the mysterious entities were named – seemed attracted only by inhabited worlds, and their deadly attention did not spare either alien or human civilization: Earth was one of the worlds so reshaped, and the people who were able to escape from the cataclysmic remolding of their worlds lived like refugees under the constant threat of the appearance of an Architect in their skies.  A last, desperate attempt was made to contact the aliens by genetically enhancing a group of human volunteers (called the Intermediaries) who would be able to communicate with the Architects in the hope of stopping the destruction: during an all-out battle involving the allied fleet created to face the threat, the Intermediaries were able to stop the mindless carnage, and the aliens disappeared just as swiftly as they had manifested.

Some fifty years after the end of the war, what had been an alliance forged under the threat of annihilation has now fractured into a number of governing bodies more often than not at odds with each other: danger forgotten, every one of them – including some criminal conglomerates – seeks power and dominance over the others. The Intermediaries, already marked in body and mind by the transformation, did not fare so well and most of them died, while a program to create more is underway using convicted criminals, not so much as a defense against a return of the Architects – which many deem impossible – but rather because one of the side effects of the genetic enhancing is the ability to navigate unspace, the ghastly nowhere between worlds.  Idris Telemmier is the last one of the original group of Intermediaries, and he now works as a navigator for a crew of interstellar scavengers on a ship very aptly named Vulture God: he does not age, nor does he need sleep, but he’s a very troubled individual and all he wants is to be forgotten and to forget – as impossible as it is – the horrors he had to witness, which makes a strange discovery, made by the Vulture God’s crew in the far reaches of space,  even more disturbing: the Architects might be coming back…

It takes a while for Shards of Earth to make the reader comfortable within its pages, or at least that was my experience at first: Tchaikovsky wastes almost no time in explaining his universe, plunging the audience in medias res so that one feels a little lost – that is, until a closer look at the character and civilizations list, not to mention the useful timeline, opens a window on this huge, complex background and everything falls into place.  The aliens peopling the Galaxy are indeed quite bizarre creatures, confirming the author’s richness of imagination: they are not only weird-looking, but they come from equally outlandish civilizations and their interactions with the humans can go from the humorous to the quite terrifying. Yet it’s the human (or post-human…) characters I connected with more deeply, particularly the crew of the Vulture God, which gave me the same kind of wonderful vibes I could find in Firefly or The Expanse, making me feel perfectly at home with this group of mismatched individuals.

Idris is the one who required more “work” from me because at first he comes across as gloomy and sullen: it’s only as his story comes into light, bit by bit, that it’s possible to understand the depth of the damage inflicted on him first by the procedures necessary to turn him into an Intermediary, then by his war experiences and finally by the constant journeys into unspace – the navigational medium that can turn an unmodified human into a crazed wreck and weighs on an Intermediary with the conflicting sensations of loneliness and of a looming, threatening presence.  If Idris is able to still maintain a grip on sanity it’s because of the bond he forged with his crew-mates, an apparently ill-assorted group that has grown into a found family whose interactions are a joy to behold – from expansive captain Rollo who calls the members of his crew “children”, to dour drone specialist Olli, whose stunted body made her a wizard in remote control of machinery; from  crab-shaped alien tech Kit to lawyer Kris, whose main job is to protect Idris from being indentured by unscrupulous conglomerates, they all create a wonderful sense of familial cohesion that looks like the only barrier separating Idris from a devastating breakdown.

That’s the main reason the arrival of an old acquaintance of Idris places them all on defensive mode: Solace is a member of the Parthenon, a human faction that long ago left Earth establishing a society of parthenogenically created women-soldiers – she and her sisters fought valiantly against the Architects, but are now looked on with suspicion, not least because there is a great deal of misinformation about their civilization and goals.  Solace is tasked with convincing Idris to help the Parthenon create their own Intermediaries, should they be needed with the possible return of the Architects, and when she joins the Vulture God she initially upsets the balance aboard the vessel, but as the days go on and a series of dramatic events plagues the crew, she feels torn between commitment to her duty and the growing sense of belonging that her adventures aboard the ship are bringing about.

As far as space opera goes, Shards of Earth is a perfect, quite engaging representative of the genre, and for this very reason I refrained from mentioning any detail from the fast-paced string of events at the core of this story. What I’m more than happy to share, however, is that the last 15-20% of the novel moves from a fast pace to a breakneck speed that had me turning the pages as quickly as I could, because the stakes were enormous and the various revelations beyond compelling.  And the good news is that although this is the first volume in a series, it does not end in a cliffhanger: granted, we understand that the various pieces have just been set in motion on this galactic chessboard, but this segment of the story is tied up quite satisfactorily – although I would not mind reading the next book right now 😉

If you are a fan of Adrian Tchaikovsky, I’m certain you will enjoy the depth and scope of his new work, and if you never read any of his books, this might very well be an amazing introduction. Either way, you will not be disappointed….

My Rating:

Reviews

AFTERSHOCKS (The Palladium Wars #1), by Marko Kloos

Thanks to SciFi Month this past November I felt the need to add more SF books to my reading queue, and a quick peek at my ever-growing “wanted” list reminded me of this novel that had looked very intriguing when I saw it mentioned online.  Although a bit wary about it, since Military SF does not always agree with me, I soon discovered to my joy that this series is more about people than technology, and that Aftershocks is the promising beginning to an interesting saga.

The six-planets system in which the story is set is slowly recovering after a devastating war started by the Gretians against the other five settlements, who in response created the Alliance and defeated Gretia, which is now occupied by the winning side and struggling under political turmoil and the effort of paying for the reparations imposed by the Alliance.  Aftershocks follows the journey of four individuals from different extractions, offering a multifaceted view of the scenario in which the events take place: their various experiences contribute to the accumulating clues that paint a picture of a complex and intriguing situation still in the first stages of its development.

Aden is a Gretian POW and a former member of the Blackguards, Gretia’s elite troops, although his role as an intelligence operative kept him from the atrocities committed by this infamous corps: after five years of a quite comfortable imprisonment on an arcology orbiting Rhodia, he is released together with the other Blackguards but does not feel like going back to a home he left in anger long before the war.  Idina is a sergeant in the Alliance contingent enforcing the occupation on Gretia and she struggles with her post-war feelings about the defeated adversaries, particularly because she now needs to work alongside some of them in the peacekeeping activities required by her present role. Dunstan is a captain in the Rhodian navy, suddenly thrown from his somewhat boring patrol duty into an escalating conflict with pirates who seem focused in something more than a simple looting spree of merchant ships. And then there is Solveig, the daughter of a former Gretian magnate, who finds herself at the head of the company and must deal with a conflict between her duties to the company and her family ties.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Aftershocks is its depiction of a multi-planetary society going through the aftermath of a bloody war caused by the desire to control valuable resources – particularly Palladium – rather than by a mere expansionist drive, so that the end of the conflict has left in its wake a sense of unspoken unease: my take on the situation is that everybody might be worried about a repeat of the attempt by someone else – the Alliance operatives are acting together, indeed, but certain events in the story led me to believe that someone could be “stirring the pot”, so to speak, to create suspicion and mistrust, playing both sides against the middle to gain the upper hand. The first clues seem to point that way, and what little is shown in this first book had me totally hooked and eager to see where the story will lead.

Given the complexity of this scenario, the author quite skillfully depicts the background by moving constantly between the various POVs: their disparate origins offer the chance of describing their respective worlds without need for lengthy info-dumps, while their reactions to the current situation offer a similar opportunity for a few flashbacks on the war, so that readers find themselves quite comfortably set in the story and able to follow the characters in their individual journeys.  Of the four, Dunstan seems the more prosaic, but I believe this comes from the fact he enjoys less exposure than the others: I hope that as the story progresses he will find himself in the thick of the action, and that the blend of military competence and humanity that are his most notable qualities will allow him to emerge in finer detail.

Aden, on the other hand, is the one with more time in the spotlight: he’s adrift in more ways than one, since he joined the military to escape from a smothering home only to find himself embroiled in a war he did not look for. Quite skilled, thanks to his previous intelligence duties, he however possesses an unpretentious disposition and a deep honesty that make him easily likable: hopefully, the next books will reveal more about his past and offer more clues about his present.

Idina is a quite complex character: her combat role in the war forced her to face its worst aspects and while she’s not exactly suffering from PTSD, those experiences have left a deep mark on her – having to work alongside her former enemies she must deal with very complex feelings that become even more difficult to analyze when she finds herself at the center of a tragic event whose origins and consequences defy interpretation.

Solveig enjoys too little narrative space to be clearly defined, but I see a great potential in her personality, mostly because she’s aware of being classified as “daddy’s daughter” by other people who seem unable to perceive her qualities: still, there is an iron core to her whose evolution I quite look forward to.

As I said, Aftershocks retains all the qualities and ingredients for an engaging space opera, and I certainly enjoyed it as a starting point for the series, but I have a big complaint about it, one that prevents me from giving it the full four stars that the book deserves: it’s too short – to use a cinematic comparison, what we can enjoy in this first volume feels more like a long trailer rather than the full movie, because the characters’ arcs are sketched but not brought to any satisfying stage, just as the story itself is cut just when the individual paths seem to be about to reach a turning point.

Luckily enough, there is already a second book in print, so I will not have to wait too long to see how events unfold, but I can’t help wondering if this narrative choice is going to be repeated in the future, because being left in the lurch is not a pleasant experience… 😉

Still, I feel like recommending this series to all enthusiasts of the genre.

My Rating:

Reviews

TV Review: THE EXPANSE, Season 5 (Spoiler Free)

There was a number of reasons I was looking forward to this fifth season for the screen version of my favorite space opera series, The Expanse: first, it’s one of the most dramatic segments in the narrative arc, the point of convergence of several threads that include the violent reaction of some extremist fringes in Belter society to the decades-long exploitation by Earth and Mars; the never ending struggle to use the alien protomolecule for power leverage; and the profound changes – political and economical – brought on by the discovery of the ring system and its portals to many habitable worlds. And then there is the character development enjoyed by some members of the Rocinante crew, who are cut off from each other by circumstances, so that they enjoy their own separate arc, therefore gaining much more depth and a better definition of their past and of the way they became the people they are in the present. Much as it’s hard to see them so scattered, because time and hardships have built the four of them into a family, the separation does not only achieve the goal of adding compelling layers to their psychological makeup, it also offers the opportunity to follow the various narrative components of the story through their eyes and experiences.

James Holden, who until now has been the fulcrum of the events and the front-and-center character, is left a little on the sidelines in this fifth season, allowing the spotlight to shine on his crew-mates, particularly Naomi and Amos, and we see him feeling somewhat adrift now that the rest of his found family has departed from the Roci to meet their personal needs that, although in different ways, are all centered around family matters. Avasarala is suffering under similar circumstances since losing her position as Secretary General of the UN, and her tight focus on politics and power has cost her the estrangement from her husband as well, so that her initial story arc follows a similar path to Holden’s, that of someone in search of direction – not that I doubted for a single minute that she would find it…

The common factor for Naomi, Amos and Alex, as they depart from the Roci, is their need to deal with the past and for all of them this journey will have quite unexpected consequences: Alex goes back to Mars to try and reconnect with his estranged family, but time and his previous attitude have made this impossible. Of the three this felt to me as the less compelling thread and it became more interesting only once Alex met with Bobbie Draper, now engaged in the investigation about the strange goings-on apparently implicating the Martian Navy in smuggling operations.  As the two team up to shed some light on the mystery of the diverted equipment and the ramifications that seem to involve some of the higher echelons in the Martian military, we see how the discovery of the ring gate, and the number of habitable planets beyond it, has impacted on the Martian dream of terraforming the planet and turning it into an Earth-like world – after all, why toil for decades, if not centuries, when there are countless worlds out there ready to be colonized? What once was a tight society united by a common goal has now lost its inner cohesion and is rapidly turning into a despondent civilization ready to crumble: Bobbie’s sorrow as she observes the death of the ideals that fueled her world is saddening, but at the same time her resolve in getting to the roots of the puzzle shows that she is the same fighter we have come to know and love.

Amos’ travels bring him back to Earth instead, and more precisely to Baltimore, the city he had run from at a young age to carve his life in space: Lydia, the woman who cared for him like a mother, died recently and he wants to pay his respects. When I read the book, this was the story section that helped me focus better on Amos’ character: back then I had not yet read the novella The Churn, which opens a huge window on Amos’ past, so that the events  depicted in Nemesis Games finally gave me a perfect grasp on his personality. The TV series has been able to flesh this character in a more organic way, and I enjoyed the way the actor has been able, in this season, to seamlessly blend Amos’ outward fierceness with his unexpected softer side, particularly when he decides to visit Clarissa “Peaches” Mao in the maximum security prison where she has been sent. The unspoken reason for such a visit is that he somehow feels connected to the young woman through their shared violent past and that he probably wants to offer her the hope that there might be a form of redemption down the road, as was the case for Amos thanks to his ties with the Roci’s family.  Which might indeed be the kind of opportunity “Peaches” is given at the end of the season…

From my point of view, though, the most important, most intense thread is the one focused on Naomi: we already learned that she has a son she had to abandon to escape from involvement with the most radical fringes of the OPA. Now that she knows her former lover Marco Inaros, the father of that child, has become a dangerous terrorist, she wants to save her son Filip from the same fate she escaped long ago – if that is still possible.  When I started watching The Expanse  in Season 1, I felt that Dominique Tipper was the perfect Naomi as I pictured her from reading the books: here, in this fifth season, she gives her absolute best performance so far, one that is both physically and emotionally heartbreaking as she deals with the choices of the past and their consequences. I was able to perceive Naomi’s pain and regret as she seeks to connect with a son who does not know her – apart from what he’s been told by a manipulative father – and tries desperately to drag him away from Inaros’ toxic influence; and I felt just as physically ill during the long, painful sequences where she attempts a desperate gamble to undermine the terrorist leader’s callous plan to destroy her friends. If you saw the episodes I’m referring to, you will not be surprised if I tell you that I needed to remind myself to breathe, because Naomi’s struggles with the situation on the derelict ship were so vivid and intense that for a while I could not remember it was just a TV show.

And speaking of Naomi, I’d like to point out how many other amazing female characters people this series – both in the books and on screen: I’ve spoken often of Avasarala and her aggressive but effective approach to power, but she’s not alone. Bobbie Draper is another amazing character, and the way she faces challenges – either with or without a powered armor – has always been one of my favorite elements in the story; and in this season we see more of journalist Monica Stuart, whose courage and persistence in following leads elevates her above the professional norm. But the one I want to talk about more extensively is Drummer, portrayed by the very talented Cara Gee: this character has been fleshed out more in the TV series, and I’ve been always looking forward to her appearances, where her determination and strength of character manage to hide a form of vulnerability that becomes more apparent in this season where she has to deal with many painful losses and very hard decisions.  From her famous speech on the bridge of the Behemoth in the previous season to the present interactions with her crew, struggling to find a way between the Belter ideals and Inaros’ violent approach, she emerges as a compelling figure where strength and gallows humor combine to create a fascinating personality that is so easy to connect to and enjoy watching.

Given how much further depth this show has managed to achieve with this fifth season I’m saddened at the thought that the sixth will be the last one, leaving the last three books in the series (the ninth of which should be out toward the end of the year) out of the screened story. Still, this continues to be a brilliant, deeply engaging series that fully deserves all the praise that it rightfully receives.

My Rating: