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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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SciFi Month 2016 Review: EXCESSION, by Iain M. Banks (Culture #5)

12013This Culture novel was the most difficult and most puzzling in my experience with Iain Banks’ writing, so far, and still I am not sure about my feelings, if I truly liked it or not.  The novel was enjoyable, of course, and it also was a quick read, its momentum provided by the rapidly advancing plot, but still it seemed as if something was missing: certainly I did not feel as invested in the characters as I was with previous books, and this might be the reason for my faint dissatisfaction, considering that characterization was the strongest point of the novels I read before this one.

An Excession – or out-of-context problem – is an event without precedent and without predictable outcome: in this case it’s a mysterious black body suddenly appearing in space near the star Esperi, doing nothing, but still representing a menace, if nothing else because of its inscrutability.  The study of the Excession is carried out mostly by the Culture’s Minds – the vastly evolved artificial intelligences residing on huge ships, or in the orbitals: they appear here as the true movers and shakers of the galaxy, even more than humans who seem far less preoccupied with the strange phenomenon than their cybernetic counterparts.

In a way, this novel is about the Minds more than it is about the mysterious object at the center of the story: I already encountered some Minds in my previous “travels” in Banks’ Culture, but they never took center stage as they do here, and this gave me a new perspective on the Culture itself.  As a society that can offer its citizens everything they want, with easy and ready access to any kind of physical resource and where the word “impossible” seems to have no place anymore, the Culture might look like the perfect Utopia. The Minds have evolved to the point where they can build each other in a sort of mechanized parthenogenesis, and they are the true managers of society, while humans can freely pursue their diverse goals.

Minds are not coldly perfect, though: some of the human traits they acquired along the way surface through the messages they exchange with each other (one of the most enjoyable parts of the story), and these exchanges are both amusing and illuminating, showing how the degree of evolution the Minds reached has endowed them with the equivalent of a soul, besides their distinctive personalities.   The other side of this coin is that the Minds can also fall prey to human flaws, and errors: as the story develops we understand there is a conspiracy, brewed by a group of Minds, to start a war between the Culture and an alien civilization, so that the Culture might finally impose some more enlightened rules on the wayward Affront (I’ll come back to them in a moment…).

Here resides one of the reasons for my puzzlement with this novel, if not the main one: confusion. The huge number of Mind-ships’ names, most of them quite bizarre (like Not Invented Here, Shoot Them Later, Anticipation for a New Lover’s Arrival, just to name a few) made it difficult for me to keep track of who was who and what faction they belonged to. Much as I enjoyed their witty exchanges, after a while I gave up trying to keep them straight, and let myself go with the flow, in all probability missing some important clues. I thought more than once that maybe the author had given in to his own desire to showcase these amazing intelligences, and in so doing made life difficult for his readers…

Another point of contention with this story comes from the human characters: while I understand that the Minds needed to take the center stage here, I can’t accept that the flesh-and-blood people called into play are never developed as much as they were in the other books, and at times they look more like props than anything else. For example, Byr Genar-Hofoen, Culture envoy with the Affront, is recalled from his post and tasked to reach the ship Sleeper Service to retrieve the conscience of a person who was Stored there: along the way we are given Genar-Hofoen’s back story, and many details about his past liaison with Dajeil Gelian, who is the Sleeper Service’s only passenger and has been keeping her pregnancy in stasis for forty years. As the past they share is slowly revealed, it becomes clear that the Sleeper Service is doing all it can to help them reconcile their differences, and to overcome the tragic circumstances that brought on their separation. And yet, when the moment comes, it also seems to pass in a manner that’s way too subdued in respect of the huge anticipation that was built until then.

In the same manner, I’m still wondering what was the purpose of the young spoiled brat Ulver Seich, who is enrolled by Special Circumstances (the Culture’s equivalent of a secret service) to expedite Genar-Hofoen mission: much space is given to the girl’s self-centered character, and her dismay at the physical changes she undergoes to resemble Dajeil Gelian and therefore to better ensnare Genar-Hofoen. And again, it all boils down to practically nothing…  There is something I’m missing, I’m certain of it, but for the life of me, I’m unable to see what it is.

On the other hand, the depiction of the Affront, a neighboring civilization that is totally alien both in appearance and in outlook, and that looks like the Culture’s polar opposite, is one of Excession’s best features: imagine a race of floating octopuses, gifted (so to speak…) with congenital bad manners and the boisterousness of unruly students on spring break. And still that would be too weak a description: the Affront are by turns amusing and outrageous, the details we learn about their culture made me hate them, while their unabashed enjoyment of life made me smile with the tolerance reserved for rambunctious kids. I can see, with hindsight, how some of the Culture’s Minds saw such a danger in the Affront and its cruel values, so that they decided to start a war (something the Culture avoids studiously, preferring a more subtle integration) rather than risk a long-term contamination of its status quo.

Still, it’s not enough: I was fascinated by Player of Games; soul-wrenched by Use of Weapons; and poignantly affected by Look to Windward, but I could not summon any strong emotion with Excession, and it left me with a pervasive sensation of incompleteness, which feels very strange for a book by Iain Banks.

 

My Rating:

 

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TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY #10

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This GoodReads group proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.  This week’s theme is:

INACCURATE COVERS

Those books that have nothing to do with the story, or the cover model doesn’t look anything like the actual main character, or it’s a really cheesy cover for a great read!

To say the truth, none of the covers of the books I’ve read in the past few years were really misleading: when I went to check on my GoodReads library, I could not find any that would fit this week’s theme.  So I decided to do a little search for the covers of pulp magazines from a few decades back and there I found exactly what I was looking for.

In those times, garish covers were the accepted norm: monsters from outer space, outlandish aliens and extra-terrestrial landscapes, spaceships of every size and shape – you name it, they had it.

There was one common factor though: the women depicted on those covers were all scantily clad, exotic-looking and either terrorized victims of some evil-doer or being rescued by the muscled hero. And probably had nothing to do with the stories listed in the magazine.   Here are the Top Five that came out of my search:

01In the first one, we see the lady on the cover being pursued by some bad guy and/or alien (he’s bald, and back then most aliens were bald…): they must be hovering in space, and both of their heads are enclosed by a bubble helmet, but while the man is wearing a space suit, the woman sports something close to a bathing suit, with a very, very deep neckline.  In vacuum…

In the second cover, our designated victim is stalked by a spidery-looking2 alien and looking suitably frightened – but no fear! The hero is just around the corner, ready to save her!  And once again, the man is in full EVA suit, while the woman wears a golden bikini. With matching shoes.  After all, you can’t give up on fashion, even in the direst of circumstances!

Third cover – more of the same, with a slight variation: the woman is unconscious, probably terrified by the big-toothed, long-nailed (and bald!!) monster in the background.  Thankfully the hero is carrying her away to safety.  As if we could ever doubt it!

With cover nr. 4 there is a change: in this case the lady is armed and deadly –4 in the picture she seems to have just stunned or killed the “big bad alien” (he’s green AND bald, to offer some variety, no doubt).  The woman’s weapon is still smoking (do energy weapons smoke at all?) and she looks quite resolute – yes, in her space bathing suit, complete with bubble helmet and spiked epaulettes. Oh, and gloves…

5And finally, at nr. 5, another ass-kicking lady, swinging an axe against a many-tentacled monster, while the guy in the background seems to have some trouble defending himself.  The woman is wearing a full-body suit this time, but it seems painted on her, and the conical cups for the breasts look decidedly uncomfortable!

What’s worse, is that there are still some genres where covers with scantily clad people appear in absurd poses: that’s the reason why writers like John Scalzi and Jim C. Hines decided, some time ago, to poke some fun at those covers, while supporting a charitable foundation.  As a “bonus” for this week’s theme, here are both the original cover and the… portrayal by Scalzi (on the right) and Hines (on the left), but you can find more by following the links in this IO9 article. Have fun!

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Review: VICK’S VULTURES, by Scott Warren

31019075I received this book from Parvus Press, in exchange for an honest review.

Just a few days ago I was reading a fellow blogger’s reasons for not accepting submissions from indie authors any longer, and I could sympathize with those reasons: more often than not, the writing and editing quality of these books is not exactly stellar, or the premise and promise of the stories don’t hold up against closer scrutiny. And that not even taking into account personal reading preferences and biases.  My own experience is that only one book in ten doesn’t end in the DNF pile, if I’m lucky, so I appreciate why some would choose to concentrate on more tested and tried offerings – I’ve held that thought myself several times, especially after a particularly disheartening encounter.

Then I “meet” books like this one, and I understand the reason why I have not given up yet: because otherwise I would miss out on exciting discoveries.  Vick’s Vultures is precisely the example of the kind of potential that could get lost in the huge crowd of emerging authors struggling for recognition, if it couldn’t get under a helpful spotlight: it’s a good, solid, entertaining story, and even if it’s not a world-changing reading experience, it’s an enormously enjoyable book, and sometimes that’s all we look for.

The best feature of Vick’s Vultures is its premise: once humanity ventures beyond the Solar System it discovers that the Galaxy is peopled by a great number of alien races, all of them far more advanced and far more belligerent and dangerous than Earthers. Starting out with such a handicap, humanity chooses to keep a low profile, forging alliances with lesser civilizations, while trying to acquire technological improvements in the most unobtrusive way.  This is the origin of the privateers, to all intents and purposes scavenger crews who gather scraps of alien tech in the wake of the endless conflicts between the major races: retro-engineering this alien technology, Earth is able to further its own advancement while staying out of sight of the big guys – and out of harm’s way – as much as possible.

The Condor, under the command of Captain Victoria Marin, is one of these privateers: as the novel opens, Vick is worried by the lack of valuable finds that has plagued her crew in recent times – she needs a sizable profit, something truly outstanding, to keep her ship afloat both financially and morale-wise.  Fate brings the Condor across the wreck of a Malagath ship, drifting in space after a battle with their arch-enemies the Dirregaunt: the salvaged materials alone could be a dream come true for Vick and her people, but the real bonus comes with the Malagath survivors she finds on board, because one of them is First Prince Tavram, the heir to the throne. Taking him home will be a great coup, and coupled with what the Condor will bring back in alien tech, it will mean a great deal for the Vultures and their captain’ future as privateers.

Trouble is, the Dirregaunt – in accordance with their wolf-like appearance and predatory nature – are not ready to give up on their quarry, and this starts a dangerous hunt for the prince and the ship that rescued him, a hide-and-seek chase through interstellar space that will take its toll on the already stressed Condor and its crew, pitting Captain Marin’s willpower and cunning against that of a very determined, very savage enemy.

This premise results in a fast-paced, at times breathless story that makes for a compelling reading while laying the background for the author’s vision of the future, one that is quite believable in its lack of glamorous technological advancement for Earth, whose people try to carve their own niche in the grander scheme of things, despite the obvious disadvantages they started out with.  You will not find exotic and hard-to-believe (or comprehend…) technobabble here: Earth ships all but forge on through makeshift repairs, inventive use of purloined technology and a good dose of human stubborn resourcefulness, which make it quite easy to root for the characters.

Captain Marin is a good example of this: a strong, determined woman who cares deeply about her ship and crew – and shows it through action rather than words, which is a very welcome change. A woman who has learned the hard way how to survive in the doubly hostile milieu of space, where environment and people lie in wait for that single moment of distraction which will mean one’s death.  Vick knows what she wants, and knows how to take it, be it precious salvage, a tactical opportunity or a moment of passion to make her forget the heavy demands of her position.  As far as female characters go in this genre, she’s sound and believable, and does not need to be beautiful and alluring, or dark and tormented (or one of the possible permutations…) to stand out: she’s a capable, reliable professional, and she has charisma – it’s more than enough.

This novel is not immune from a few problems, however, but they are indeed minor and do not detract from the overall experience of the book: the background information, for example, is pared down to the essentials but at times it intrudes on the narrative flow in such a way as to prove mildly distracting. While I understand the need to flesh out the author’s vision and to offer useful details on this imagined future, there are times when the didactic nature of this information feels a little too much – at least for me. Then there is the characterization, that is not explored in great depth, although the adventurous nature of the story requires a tighter focus on action, rather than introspection. And again there is a thread about two Earth marines playing infiltrators where the suspension of disbelief is stretched somewhat thinly.  Still, these are considerations that did not spoil my enjoyment of the story or took me out of the narrative “bubble”, and are quite superseded by some intriguing, unusual details that make a difference: for example the fact that the few colonies Earth managed to establish are largely ignored by alien expansion because the oxygen atmosphere humans need is not in great demand with other species.  It’s a small thing, but to me it speaks of an active imagination capable of intriguing lateral thinking.

Vick’s Vultures will be available from October 4th: if you feel the need for an engaging, adventure-filled story and the beginning to what could turn out to be a good series, you need look no further.

My Rating: