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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Andrew Mayne, Black Coral (2021)

Author: Andrew Mayne

Title: Black Coral

Format: e-book

Pages: 317

Series: Underwater Investigation Unit #2

Andrew Mayne has been getting a lot of good reviews – and a lot of publicity – in recent years. Specializing in well, specialist police procedurals/mystery thrillers, where the protagonists have each unique skillsets and viewpoints markedly different from your run-of-the-mill police detectives, Mayne made a name for himself. I guess his previous career as an illusionist gave him a lot of experience in creating intricate structures and patience in preparing the big show in incremental, consecutive steps, because that approach is clearly noticeable in his newest book, Black Coral. Black Coral is the second installment in the Underwater Investigation Unit series, but can be read as standalone.

I confess that I chose this book from NG on a whim, not having read anything by Mayne before. But the premise, promising a special diving unit solving crimes in Florida, sounded really cool – and my own experience with crime thriller series (from Nesbo’s Harry Hole to Rankin’s Inspector Rebus to Larsson’s Millenium, or even Peters’s Brother Cadfael) is that I’m usually happier NOT reading them in the chronological order. This way there’s more to discover:  I can have more fun with the mystery puzzle pieces and the inner workings of protagonist and/or their team, as well as the psychological makeup of the characters, and I don’t get bored by the ever-growing historical background :D.

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Adrian Tchaikovsky, Bear Head (2021)

Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Title: Bear Head

Format: E-book

Pages: 400

Series: Dogs of War #2

Tchaikovsky became one of my favourite authors of fantasy after I read his amazing, and still not well-known enough (read it if you haven’t yet!) Shadows of the Apt. His Children of Time proved that he can easily deliver interesting, thought-provoking, emotional SF as well, and I’ve read enough of his short stories to know he can be a pro at writing these, too. In short, he’s a very well-rounded, very talented author, with unwavering focus on emotional development and a firm if understated ethical foundation. He has a knack for tackling difficult, often traumatic topics with tact and sensitivity, never going for cheap thrills or gratuitous exploitation. All in all, he’s one of the very few authors I keep constantly on my radar. Granted, there were a few a bit concerning reviews of his couple of books along the way that I haven’t gotten around to read, and I’m not certain I will – the sequel of Children of Time, Children of Ruin, springs to mind. But generally, with Tchaikovsky, I knew what to expect. Now, after reading Bear Head, I’m not so sure anymore. If anything, I’d venture an opinion that he had become the victim of his own success: writing too many books in too short a time, and none of the projects getting enough attention and polish and love to become a truly outstanding work, on par with Shadows of the Apt.

Because Bear Head is the worst of Tchaikovsky’s books I’ve read so far. It’s by no means bad; it’s still very engaging, well-written, fast-paced page-turner tackling ambitious problems in an interesting, thought-provoking way. Yet it also feels underdeveloped, rushed, and – surprisingly for Tchaikovsky – not entirely thought through. It has a more “paint-by-the-numbers” feel than the usual impression of a thoughtful creative work. It’s also, maybe most importantly, more of a political statement than a SF novel. Ah, all SF novels are political statements of one kind or another, I think we’d all agree on this. It’s just that in this case Bear Head veils itself in a very thin layer of science, indeed – and whatever there is, serves as a focus for the very concrete, very clearly defined “now,” in contrast to the previous concerns with more abstract ideas like “human nature” or “future,” which used to be the crux of his Children of Time, for example.

Lots of big words here, I know, and lots of harsh accusations. Let’s get down to the tangibles, then.

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