Emissaries from the Dead by Adam-Troy Castro

Emissaries from the Dead by Adam-Troy CastroEmissaries from the Dead by Adam-Troy Castro
Narrator: Kathe Mazur
Series: Andrea Cort #1
Published by Audible Frontiers on 5/15/12
Genres: Science Fiction
three-stars

Story: B-
Narration: B-

The Plot:

As an eight-year-old living on the alien world of Bocai, Andrea Cort was caught up in an inexplicable night of blood-lust and murder. Remanded to the custody of the Diplomatic Corps from that point on, she has traded a life of service to the Corps for safety from prosecution by those who view her actions on Bocai as unforgivable – as Andrea herself does. Now Associate Legal Counsel for the Homo Sapiens Confederacy Diplomatic Corps Judge Advocate, Andrea finds herself assigned to a murder investigation on the fabricated cylinder world of One One One. Created by an artificial intelligence known as the AIsource, One One One is also home to an engineered sentient species developed by the AIsource: the Brachiators. Extremely slow moving primates, the Brachiators spend their lives navigating the vine entangled hub of One One One which, while covered with vegetation, is essentially the “sky” since the pull of gravity is toward the outside of the rotating cylinder – an area of roiling poisonous atmosphere.

Andrea is charged with tracking down the killer…as long as the AIsource isn’t implicated by her investigation. She has a large suspect pool to choose from in the Dip Corps contingent observing the Brachiators while living in a community built of huge hammocks suspended from the Uppergrowth. Complicating the investigation is not just Andrea’s uncertainty about who she can trust on One One One – starting with Ambassador Stuart Gibb; the minder he’s assigned to her, Peyrin Lastogne; and the intriguing one-entity-in-two-bodies Porrinyards – but the occurrence of a second murder, multiple attempts on her life, and the ongoing battle with her own inner demons.

My Thoughts:

This book was a surprisingly seamless blend of sci-fi and mystery and it worked pretty well for me on both fronts. Although it took me an uncommonly long time to get the layout and construction of One One One fixed in my head, on the whole the world-building was well-developed without devolving into needlessly complex detail. The omnipotent AIsource may not strike even the casual sci-fi reader as refreshingly unique (and unfortunately, based on the descriptions I kept picturing them as floating LCD screens) but they were well integrated into the plot and provided a few surprising moments.

The Confederacy is an interesting political animal with far flung member worlds that are, as often as not, basically owned by corporations who have made the inhabitants debt slaves. The Diplomatic Corps offers an alternative to that life but is its own brand of indentured servitude. This sets up fertile ground for conflict not only within the context of this book but I also anticipate it expanding nicely into the rest of the series. I was slightly discontented by how one of the plot threads relating to the murder investigation wrapped up – both in how exposition-heavy the conclusion was and in the whodunit part – but the entire mystery story line was unexpectedly (and pleasingly) multi-layered.

In many ways, Andrea displays the characteristics of an antihero. She’s blunt, often rude, and wholly misanthropic. She’s lacking in ideals other than completing the task assigned to her where she’s not so much pursuing justice as puzzle-solving while giving herself a reason to tune out the inner voice that tells her to stop trying and give up on life. She’s unsuited to an investigation based in “Hammocktown” since she has an aversion to heights and unlike many of the other Dip Corp indentures on One One One, she’s not genetically enhanced.

Adam-Troy Castro did a nice job balancing Andrea’s unlikeable characteristics with understandable motivations for why she acts the way she does. She also has a subtle character arc that I look forward to seeing reach apex over the course of the series. This combination enabled me to maintain interest in what could have been an unlikeable character until the changes that began to take place in her in response to events on One One One started to humanize her a bit. I found the dynamics between her and the Porrinyards particularly engaging.

The Narration:

For the most part, I enjoyed the narration by Kathe Mazur and will continue with the series in audio. She seemed to actively inhabit the character of Andrea Cort and handled the voicing of the AI entity and the somewhat alien Brachiators well. Much of the first person narrative delivery is in an almost confidential in tone, as if I was standing nearby and Andrea were half-whispering her thoughts. I struggled with that in some respects because I interpret that delivery as indicative of strong narrative tension but here it seemed more of a presentation style chosen for a first person narration and I was unable to maintain a sustained engagement with that much perceived tension. It also had the effect of then partially blunting the moments of real tension that the story provided. Andrea Cort is a very tightly wound character with a significant amount of emotional baggage and my read of her character is that because she feels she has nothing to lose, she tends to be blunt and forceful in expressing herself. Where I found the narration to be ideal was in balancing Andrea’s unlikeable aspects (her brusque speech patterns and disregard for anyone’s feelings) with just enough emotional vulnerability tinging her thoughts to keep me from disconnecting from her character. In addition, the supporting cast of characters were nicely distinct in both vocal presentation and viewpoint.

three-stars

The Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn

The Shape of Desire by Sharon ShinnThe Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn
Narrator: Erin Moon
Series: Shifting Circle #1
Published by Audible Frontiers on 4/3/12
Genres: Fantasy, Romance

Story: B-
Narration: B-

Quick Review:

This book unwinds at a leisurely pace and has a real-world feel to it, despite the inclusion of shape-shifters. A woman who has spent fifteen years desperately in love with a man who keeps the supernatural aspects of his life a secret from her (and the reader) and who is now able to spend less than a week with her each month might not be a character every reader will warm to but her gradual journey to a contented life, some thoughtful meditations on love and the secrets we protect, and a leavening of humor balanced out Maria’s pining and a mystery plot whose resolution left me thinking Uh, OK.

The Plot:

Maria Devane has spent fifteen years watching the love of her life, Dante Romano, leave her for longer and longer stretches of time each month. Dante is a shape-shifter and as he ages, he spends more time in various animal forms. Although she has friends at work and a loving family, Maria has resigned herself to a life where she hides her relationship with Dante and pours her passion into a handful of days each month. When a co-worker’s abusive relationship spills over into her life and a string of wild animal attacks occur nearby, Maria is forced to question her own relationship and ultimately both her safety and what she’s willing to sacrifice for love.

My Thoughts:

Shinn’s stories have a quiet build to them that I appreciate. In her previous novels that slow build has been buttressed by the vivid fantasy world-building. With this book the world is realistic and while Dante and his family are shape-shifters, that aspect is envisioned both as a personality characteristic (where how it manifests in each Romano varies between the siblings) and as a part of their lives that they hide. We don’t see them shift, there isn’t a pack dynamic or a complex history surrounding their abilities, and while it acts as a point of conflict because it keeps Dante away from Maria for long periods of time and affects his sense of self-worth, it doesn’t add the dynamic to the story that a reader might be looking for. This book is not really about romance but rather is a book about love – what we’ll sacrifice for it and what the difference is between how we perceive it and how those outside the relationship view it – and the secrets we hide from those close to us.

As we learn more about Maria’s co-worker Kathleen and her abusive relationship, I enjoyed teasing out the parallels between her life and the choices Maria makes to maintain her relationship with Dante. When I talk about the man who expresses interest in a woman after she shows a willingness to keep secrets and hide a violent event from the police, who engages in behavior that can be emotionally and possibly physically harmful to his girlfriend, and who seems to exercise all the control in the relationship, I could just as easily be talking about Dante as Kathleen’s husband. When Maria reassures Dante that she will never leave him and voices the line “‘I love you,’ I say. ‘That changes the shape of everything else.’” it almost echoes Kathleen’s protestations of love for Ritchie.

Details are parceled out (a little late in the book for my tastes) about how Maria and Dante met and how Maria has explored the boundaries of her decision to stay with him. The climactic moment seemed somewhat awkwardly constructed but I was satisfied with the dénouement. I enjoyed this book because I like character-driven stories and the author has constructed Maria as a realistic and generally likable (if somewhat needy) woman but it is my least favorite of Shinn’s books to date. I know several ‘Maria’s: the quiet, hard-working, fun-to-be-around-when-among friends woman who, like we all do, has made compromises in search of happiness or in the name of love. That sense of her as a real person is something that is often absent in genre fiction and if you are looking for supernatural thrills combined with romance you might be disappointed.

The Narration:

This is my first listen to one of Erin Moon’s performances and despite a few issues I encountered, the narration was enjoyable. This first person presentation contains a frequently employed rise and then fall in pitch and/or trailing off at the termination of many of the narrative statements that set up a rhythm to the narrative that I found somewhat distracting. Dialogue, however, did not suffer from the same problem. It was crisp and reactive and the characters were fully-voiced and easy to individually pick out of the conversational crowd. I was irritated with some proofing misses such as “cumulates” instead of “culminates” (3:53:43), “Babler Stake Park” (9:56:50),“dulsitory” in place of “desultory”, gaping pronounced as gapping (8:06:45), “limned”pronounced limed (long i), and several others. Although some of the text directive didn’t come through in the tone of the narration, I was immediately drawn in by the subtle desolation given to Maria’s voice when Dante leaves and the vulnerability and confusion in Kathleen’s voice as she struggles with her decision to stay in an abusive marriage as well as the down-to-earth and snappy delivery given to Maria’s co-worker, Ellen. There were very natural character asides that were easily distinguishable as internal comments and not dialogue and the tone struck during Maria’s dryly delivered commentary was pitch perfect.