Bernard Cornwell, The Lords of the North (2007)

Author: Bernard Cornwell

Title: The Lords of the North

Format: paperback

Pages: 383

Series: The Saxon Stories #3

Today I was supposed to publish a review of P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, but, as The Saxon Stories’ protagonist Uthred would say,

Wyrd bið ful ãræd – Fate remains inexorable

Having started Clark’s novel after finishing The Lords of the North I haven’t done A Master of Djinn any favors; in fact, I’m actually pretty close to DNFing it – not because it’s so bad, (it isn’t that bad, after 1/3 it’s just mediocre and way too similar to Kate Daniels for my liking) but because Cornwell’s book was so much better.

With three books already read I feel I’m justified in saying that The Saxon Stories series is among the very best of what historical fiction genre has to offer. It’s well researched, believable, carefully constructed (or reconstructed, at least in part), dramatic, funny and heart-breaking in turns. The previous installment, The Pale Horseman, turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read in 2020; while The Lords of the North is slightly weaker, due to some repetitiveness in structure, it’s currently one of the best reads of 2021 for me.

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Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Beautiful Ones (2017/2021)

The Beautiful Ones is out today

Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: The Beautiful Ones

Format: E-book

Pages: 320

Series: –

Another of recently re-published novels, with a new (very sumptuous and eye-catching) cover, The Beautiful Ones has been my first unsolicited NetGalley book – hurray! 😊 I’ve received more titles since then (and I’m still struggling with saying no), but that old-new Moreno-Garcia’s novel definitely caught my eye. Having read and enjoyed Mexican Gothic, I expected The Beautiful Ones to be similarly dark and unsettling. The blurb promised secret bitter truths, magic and telekinesis, so I envisioned a fin de siècle vampire story, somewhere along the lines of Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (no, I haven’t read that one, I’ve only watched the movie 😉). Alas, I should’ve listened to the reviewers who claim that no two Moreno-Garcia’s novels are alike – because this one turned out to be a very straightforward historical romance, or novel of manners, with a slight fantasy twist. To be honest, I felt that the fantasy elements were mostly decorative, and I had a distinct impression that they were there for a single purpose only – for one scene at the very end.

Let’s be clear: I don’t read romances. Not because I’d never touch them with a ten-foot pole (though I’m getting there) but because I have already read a few, mostly historical ones, and my observations to date indicate that 1) they are generally following a very simple formula; and 2) I just don’t like them. I don’t find myself interested or even slightly invested in the daring adventures of hearts, in the usually contrived obstacles between star-crossed lovers, and in the dramatic resolutions. No, not even Austen (gasp!).

Imagine my conundrum with The Beautiful Ones, then – which is as simplistic in terms of cast and as baroque in terms of plot convolutions as it can get away with. The plot especially seems like something taken straight from numerous Latin American soap operas, with multigenerational families, secrets from the past, and beautiful, cold women. I was close to DNFing this one despite the evocative, trademark Moreno-Garcia’s prose, because veritably all characters seemed to be ready-made by the same romance-churning machines: walking stereotypes engaged in predetermined actions. Charming, sure, but not even considering not toeing the line of romance conformity. And yet, I’m glad I persevered and finished this book, because even if it didn’t change my opinion of romances as a literary genre, I was still pleasantly surprised by the feminist twists on the age-old patterns.

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Gareth L. Powell, The Recollection (2011/2021)

Author: Gareth L. Powell

Title: The Recollection

Format: e-book

Pages: 384

Series: –

The Recollection is a standalone SF novel, or, more precisely, a space opera, covering several hundred years and a bunch of dramatic conflicts, from very old and lethal to very new and quite intimate. It’s the second novel by Gareth L. Powell, so don’t be misled by the publishing date – the 2021 is a 10th anniversary edition. As a sophomore effort, it’s not bad: full of interesting, well-explored ideas, but bogged down by choppy execution, less than three-dimensional characters, and a very rushed ending.

We start with two timelines: now (more or less the now from 10 years ago, with war in Somalia and not that great British economy [actually, when you think about it, neither changed much in the last decade…]) and 400 years in the future. The protagonists of the contemporary timeline are Ed and Alice, and any description of the pair will inevitably sound like soap opera. Sigh. Let’s try this, nonetheless. Ed and Alice had been lovers, but their ties go deeper: Alice’s husband is Ed’s brother Verne (you see?) who having learned about Ed’s and Alice affair escapes in anger to another dimension. Because, coincidentally, while Verne was learning about his brother’s and wife’s betrayal, weird interdimensional arches started to pop up all over the Earth. Verne is one of the first to go through, somewhat willingly, but Ed’s and Alice’s shared guilt makes them unable to let him go. They chase after him, using a different arch – and only after they get through, they learn that it’s actually not that simple. Duh.

The future timeline introduces Katherine Abdulov, a starship captain caught between the rock and the hard place and willing to risk a lot to get back on top of things. Some soap-operatic past decisions haunt her still, and getting back to the stars and her ship, and back in the good graces of her family, are her top priorities. She gets her chance pretty quickly, and with the added benefit of an opportunity to get revenge on her former lover Victor, Kat doesn’t think twice before she makes the decision. After all, racing to a remote desert planet to bid on a one-in-a-hundred years crop of spice sounds like a great fun! What can go wrong? Fortunately for her, her ship Ammeline seems much more level-headed.

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Martha Wells, Fugitive Telemetry (2021)

Author: Martha Wells

Title: Fugitive Telemetry

Format: E-book

Pages: 176

Series: The Murderbot Diaries #6

The latest (and I mean the latest, its pub date is today!) instalment in the Murderbot series returns to the tried and slightly tired format of a novella. Pity, I say, I preferred the novel length, but it looks like I’m in a minority 😉. Still, Murderbot is enjoyable in any format, and I’d happily read even a short story if there was one.

Fugitive Telemetry seemingly takes us back to pre-Network Effect times, when Murderbot was only beginning to realize the consequences of its previous actions – mainly, that its treated like a person by those closest to it, and expected to make decisions pertaining to its wellbeing. It means such cumbersome, boring and difficult things like finding a place to live, an occupation (and no, binge-watching ridiculous TV series doesn’t count), earning money, etc. Murderbot is not happy. Like any self-respecting rebellious teenager Murderbot is bent on proving to the whole world that giving it any responsibility was a big mistake… Well, at least in the beginning.

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Martha Wells, Network Effect (2020)

Author: Martha Wells

Title: Network Effect

Format: E-book

Pages: 350

Series: The Murderbot Diaries #5

Network Effect is the first and only Murderbot entry to date that had managed to achieved the novel length; the previous 4 were novellas, and the subsequent one, Fugitive Telemetry, which will be published on 27 of April and which I’ll review next week, also reverts to this format at meagre 176 pages.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like novellas. I like them a lot. I’m just not a fan of a serialized novella format. To me, it just doesn’t make any sense. If you have so much to say that you need 4 or 6 novellas to do it, why don’t you just write 2 or 3 novels instead?

With Network Effect, I finally got my wish: 350 pages of one story, undivided. And I must say I enjoyed it quite a lot, definitely more than some of the previous novellas as well as (spoiler alert) the sequel. In Network Effect, Wells gets to create a more elaborate and meaningful plot, full of the ugly f-word (feelings, for those who hadn’t met Murderbot yet) balanced by significant amounts of action. We also get ART (an AI from the second novella, sorely missed since) back, and that in itself is a point in favour, as ART’s overbearing know-it-all disposition and authoritarian tendencies always make for a good counterweight to Murderbot’s gloomy Eyeore personality.

Network Effect also manages to fill out a significant chunk of the world, barely sketched before. The evil megacorporations ruling the known part of the galaxies have not always been there to order people around – there had been a time when corporations were small and vulnerable, and colonists had a say in their decisions, or at least weren’t necessarily treated like slaves. That time had ended badly for everyone involved, however, and many of those colonizing corporations went bankrupt, the colonists and their colonies more often than not becoming not-so-valuable chips in a trade war. Some of them were forgotten, or purposefully omitted from financial reports, and were rediscovered, hundreds of years later – and as the megacorps are more interested in the planets and remaining equipment than those poor wretches who may have or have not survived in their budding colony without a helping hand, reclamation efforts are as intense as they are clandestine. And so, when a sudden attack of a vessel recognized by Murderbot as its supposed friend ART finds the SecUnit’s human clients scattered, scared, and in a lot of danger, well – the game is afoot.

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