Thursday, October 28, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Cross and Burn (Tony Hill / Carl Jordan, #8) by Val McDermid

Cross and Burn is the eighth installment in the British police procedural crime thriller series written by Val McDermid featuring psychological profiler Dr. Tony Hill and Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan set in the Manchester suburbs of Bradfield in the north of England. This series is one of the most exciting and compelling entries in the multiple genres that it occupies (which include suspense thriller, British police procedural, and murder mystery). It is also one of the rare series that has both a male and female lead in a primarily non-romantic relationship.

I hadn’t read one of McDermid’s books in a while so I had forgotten about one of the most effective aspects of her books, which is the inclusion of first-person perspectives of future crime victims. By doing this, she connects the reader to the characters and increases the impact of their deaths at the hands of the homicidal psychopaths that tend to populate her books. It’s also surprising because many authors generally use first-person mode to indicate important characters who may be placed in extreme peril and ultimately survive, but McDermid seems to be unafraid of killing off these characters. It's not like they always die or always survive, so the uncertainty ratchets up the suspense in the reader.

As I have said before, one of the added pleasures of reading a long-running series in order that have a repeated primary protagonist (like Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan, Stephen Booth’s Cooper & Fry, Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks or Peter James’ Roy Grace, for example) is the deepening relationship the reader has with the characters due to increased familiarity via repetition. In the Hill & Jordan series, the two have gone through a lot together, especially in the previous book’s The Retribution which resulted in the horrendous death of Carole Jordan’s only brother and his female partner. This happened as a direct consequence of her and Tony’s work of hunting and capturing a serial killer (who escaped and went on a killing spree). It causes Carol to (irrationally) blame Tony for his inability to realize that once the serial killer had escaped that his revenge might have included her family, quit her job as a police officer, and cut off all contact with Tony and her former colleagues in the Bradfield Metropolitan police department.

In addition to including first-person perspectives of victims McDermid often includes first-person perspectives of the perpetrator as well. This is something other suspense thriller authors do as well, but generally not as cleverly as she does. In Cross and Burn, the reader watches with horror while a deranged male chauvinist targets women who happen to resemble Carol Jordan, capturing them, making them play out his twisted vision of a “perfect subservient wife” and then eventually killing them when they fail to meet his insane “standards.” Through back channels Tony is brought in to help with the case by DI Paula McIntyre when she’s approached for help by the teenage son of a missing woman who works in the same hospital as her wife. For some reason Paula’s new boss decides that circumstantial evidence tying Tony to one of the disappearances of a woman later found dead means that he is likely the serial killer the Bradfield police are looking for. The only good outcome of this bizarre development is that it gets Carol out of her mourning funk enough to try and help Tony fight the charges.

Another one of the notable features of McDermid’s books are the (sometimes gory) scenes of violence and torture. She doesn’t shy away from the depiction of the horrors that violent crimes, both physical and psychological, can produce. Despite this, her books are always entertaining, well-plotted and memorable. In fact, overall Cross and Burn is an example of a master working at the height of her craft, cementing her status as one of the best in the business by creating another spine-chilling entry in her long running series.

Title: Cross and Burn (Tony Hill & Carol Jordan, #8).
Val McDermid.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 438 pages.
Publisher: Mariner Books.
Date Published:  October 22, 2013.
Date Read: October 8, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A-/B+ (3.5/4.0).


Thursday, October 21, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Shards of Earth (The Final Architecture, #1) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Shards of Earth is the first installment in a brand new space opera trilogy by Adrian Tchaikovsky, one of the most prolific and creative science fiction authors working today. Space opera is my favorite genre of book so discovering a new entry is always an exciting treat.

Shards of Earth has aliens, spaceships, space pirates, planet-destroying machines, motley crew, genetically modified humans, multiple political factions and incredibly advanced technology nearly indistinguishable from magic. The premise of the story is that Earth (and several other planets colonized by humans) were physically manipulated by mysterious gigantic alien vessels/creatures called the Architects into bizarrely artistic, lifeless shapes, rendering them uninhabitable and killing billions in the process. These apocalyptic events happened a full half-century before the time period the first book is set in but the now-scattered human diaspora still lives in fear, wondering and waiting for the return of the Architects to complete the extermination of the species.

The main characters in the story are Idris Telemmier (an Intermediary, i.e. a human who has been biologically modified to enhance his ability to access unSpace and propel vehicles across vast distances) and Solace (a parthogenetically created soldier who has a history with Idris and is on a secret mission). Both Solace and Idris had a role in the last battle which ended the Architects War 50 years ago, but the time has affected each of them differently.

Idris and Solace are two members of an eclectic crew of a salvage vessel called The Vulture God. The crew of The Vulture God contains a number of different aliens and differently-abled humans. Tchaikovsky is a true master at thinking up and depicting aliens in a way that readers can relate to, despite the physical and cultural peculiarities they possess. It’s amazing how he can write characters that are so different from humans but whose actions, beliefs and motivations are so familiar and compelling to readers. 

In fact one of the most enjoyable aspects of reading Tchaikovsky’s work in general (and Shards of Earth in particular) is becoming immersed in the worlds the author creates. For example, the setting of Shards of Earth includes the political situation of different factions of humans competing for supremacy, each of whom is convinced their ideology is the best choice for humanity. This, combined with at least a half-dozen alien species, can make the book a little hard to follow at first, but eventually the reader gets our bearings and it’s this level of complexity and attention to detail that illustrates the depth of Tchaikovsky’s world-building.

In addition to the world-building and the setting, the plot is a key highlight of Shards of Earth.  While on a seemingly routine salvage mission, The Vulture God finds a surprising artifact that could upend life for all humans in the galaxy by indicating that the Architects have returned. However, after this happens, there are many different entities which very much want to obtain what their ship has found and the crew has to do whatever it takes to protect their ship and its contents. This involves a number of action-packed sequences that have significant consequences for many of the characters that we have recently encountered (not everyone survives these dangerous and exciting events, which is probably the way it should be). Eventually the chase is resolved in a way that doesn’t leave everyone satisfied but the original problem is overwhelmed by the stakes involved in more recent developments. The story has a scale which is both galactic in nature and intimate: the relationship between Idris and Solace is one of its key elements.

Overall, Shards of Earth is an exciting standalone space opera novel as well as the first entry in what is sure to be a compelling trilogy about the fate of humanity in a Universe where there are existential threats to its survival and prior episodes of genocidal trauma.

Title: Shards of Earth.
Adrian Tchaikovsky.
Format: Hardcover.
Length: 548 pages.
Publisher: Orbit.
Date Published: August 3, 2021.
Date Read: September 30, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).


Thursday, October 07, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Galaxy and the Ground Within (Wayfarers, #4) by Becky Chambers

The Galaxy and The Ground Within is the fourth entry in the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers, a quirky collection of loosely connected stories of life about an interstellar, multifarious civilization where humans are just one among a large number of space-faring species. The Wayfarers series won the Hugo award for Best Series in 2019 for Becky Chambers. 

The previous books in the series are The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014); A Closed and Common Orbit (2016); and Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018). The Galaxy and The Ground Within was published in 2021. The books are all similar yet also very different, with nebulous connections between the individual entries. Basically what they all share is a vibe, which a significant fraction of readers find admirable and appealing. I suppose they can be classified as “space opera” because the formal definition of the term is “an adventure science-fiction story” and there are aliens, spaceships and conflict in all of the Wayfarer books. 

However what sets the Wayfarers books apart is that the “narrative tension” or conflict in these books is often at a much lower scale/volume than what one typically sees in a space opera novel. This "lack" of action sometimes leads to complaints that “nothing happens” in these books but I disagree. Instead, most of the action is more individualized and impacts a small number of characters.

For example, in The Galaxy and The Ground Within a horrible accident happens that results in the destruction of multiple satellites over a planet which is usually a busy way station for travelers (called the Five-Hop One Stop) across the galaxy. The result is that a handful of aliens have their travel plans disrupted and are forced to interact with each other and the manager of the way station for an extended period of time. It’s basically the interstellar equivalent of the famous Icelandic volcanic eruption that disrupted inter-Atlantic travel several years ago, leaving travelers stranded in various airports. For the people involved it’s a big deal, of course, but for an uninvolved observer it is inconsequential.

What Chambers does is try to make us care about what happens by getting us to know more about the aliens (in this Wayfarers book there are no speaking characters that are human) while slowly revealing to us the impact of the travel delay on their lives. Chambers incorporates diversity in multiple ways into her books. In some of the earlier books, there was diversity in the kind of intelligence (artificial or computer-based intelligence versus biological) was a theme. In in The Galaxy and The Ground Within there is a prominent non-binary character and multiple characters perform their gender in a way that would surprise humans by their fluidity (like "male" characters either getting pregnant or having borne offspring).

Overall, I liked this book about as much as the other books in the series but I must admit that they are a specialized, acquired taste for the vast majority of science fiction fans who are used to their space opera in the mode of Star Trek or Star Wars or The Expanse (that is, action-packed, thrill rides with weapons, aliens, discovery and suspense). That said, there are still some low-key levels of enjoyment from reading the Wayfarers books and if you have read the others, you will most likely enjoy The Galaxy and The Ground Within too.

Title: The Galaxy and the Ground Within.
Becky Chambers .
Format: Hardcover.
Length: 325 pages.
Publisher: Harper Voyager.
Date Published: April 20, 2021.
Date Read: September 8, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).



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