Reviews

Short Story Review: FELDSPAR, by Philip A. Kramer

The Baen Free Library is a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  During one of my visits, I discovered the existence of a series of short stories collections, grouped by year of publication: as it often happens, anthologies can be mixed bags, but I found a few stories that truly caught my attention: in my next posts dedicated to shorter works I will review the ones that I liked most in this collection from the best of 2017.

 

 

FELDSPAR (from Best Free Stories 2017)

The first story to catch my undivided attention in this anthology is one featuring the exploration of Mars: with the increased interest focusing toward the red planet in recent times, it’s only natural that so many works would choose to set their background on it.    The titular Feldspar is a remotely-operated rover, one of many landed on the surface of Mars to collect ores and carry them to a big smelter working to provide the necessary materials for the colonization effort: these rovers’ handling has been turned over to very committed and enthusiastic workers – gamers from all over the world who bought the operating rights to their rovers and became the “most dedicated workforce on Earth”.

Blake is one of those gamers-turned-operatives and through Feldspar he’s contributing to the effort of Project Regolith from his home in San Francisco: like many of his brethren, he’s playing this sort of serious game while living like a virtual recluse, but unlike others he has a dream and a goal, that of one day moving to live on Mars. To him the project is not just a divertissment, but a serious endeavor and one that moved ever closer to reality when the first manned mission landed on the red planet and started setting some permanent presence there.

For this reason, once he detects something troubling on the surface, he wastes no time in checking out the problem and discovering the presence of an injured astronaut whose oxygen and battery power might be depleted before the rescue party can reach her. The race against time and the unforgiving environment of Mars suffers from a false start of sorts because NASA does not look too keen about having a civilian (and what’s basically a nerd, at that) involved in their operations, but Blake’s preparation in the field and the help he can provide soon change their mind, so that the battle for astronaut Kate survival can be engaged with some hope of success.

I enjoyed this story very much, not least because of the suspense created both by the situation and by the nerve-wracking time lag of 8 minutes that makes communications – and commands sent to Feldspar – very difficult in that specific situation.  A story to be fully enjoyed, indeed, so that it’s no surprise that it won the Grand Prize in the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award 2017: a well-deserved victory.

My Rating: 

 

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Reviews

Review: BENEATH THE SUGAR SKY (Wayward Children #3), by Seanan McGuire

 

 

This third installment in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series takes us in a very different direction if compared with its predecessors: where the other stories were based on oddity and darkness, Beneath the Sugar Sky strives for a lighter mood even though the core concept still carries a dramatic vein, but for this reason it does not seem to work as well as the previous tales, at least from my point of view.

We’re back at Eleanor West’s school where we meet a new character, Cora, who used to dwell in the Trenches as a mermaid: together with her friend Nadya – who comes from a different water world – she’s spending time near the school’s pond when a girl literally splashes out of nowhere in its waters. She’s Rini, daughter of the former pupil Sumi, who was killed in Every Heart a Doorway: due to the nature of Nonsense worlds, Sumi was able to give birth to a daughter before she died (and even before she was old enough to become a mother, at that), but now that Rini has become aware of her mother’s demise, she’s becoming the victim of entropy and disappearing bit by bit.  Asking and obtaining the help of her mother’s fellow students, Rini proceeds to recover Sumi’s bones from the Halls of the Dead – where we meet again Nancy, happily back in her role as a fleshy statue – and then moves to her home world of Confection to find Sumi’s heart and soul and make her whole again, so that Rini can go on living.

Confection is a world entirely made of sugar, gingerbread and candy, but it hides a darker side because of the Queen of Cakes’ cruel rule, as she tries to bend reality to her own twisted desires; the Queen’s attempt to stop the group of friends from attaining their goal proves to be one of the biggest obstacles in their quest, and it almost costs them dearly, but still it’s not enough to imbue the story with the kind of drama that is this series’ trademark.

The spun-sugar and candy nature of Confection might have been an attempt to lighten the mood of the series, and the group’s adventures – despite the seriousness of the almost-impossible task they set themselves to – follow a strange, outlandish pattern that looks more confused than anything else and robs it of much of the urgency inherent in the quest itself: Rini’s piecemeal disappearance and her need to have her mother back feel more like narrative devices than the emotional signposts they should be, and I never truly felt any commitment to the kids’ mission or its final outcome.

If the narrative somewhat suffers from this change of tone, losing some of the smoothness I have come to expect from Seanan McGuire’s works, the characters fare no better: with the exception maybe of Christopher, about whom we learn a little more, the other “old hands” see practically no evolution in the course of the story, and the new ones like Cora become mere allegories for the issues the author wants to explore, which is a change of pace and intensity in McGuire’s usual way to address them.   Until now I have always admired the way in which this writer choose to discuss important topics like diversity, perception of self, and so on, in a way that never felt preachy or heavy-handed, just laying down the basics and leaving to the readers the welcome task of thinking about them.    Here though, Cora has to deal with the fact that she’s overweight and has always been stigmatized and mistreated because of it: this detail is mentioned practically every time she is the p.o.v. character, so that instead of being an issue that should lead us to deeper considerations, it becomes an annoying repetition that adds nothing to Cora’s psychological makeup as a person and in the end makes her appear as whiny, and shallow.   

I missed the effortless dignity with which Seanan McGuire usually tackles the matters she cares about and drives home her message, and I believe this is one of the reasons I enjoyed Beneath the Sugar Sky less than I expected and less than it deserved.  My hope is that this might be just a small bump along the road and that the next installments in this series will return to the kind of quality I’ve come to associate with this author.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: OF A SWEET SLOW DANCE IN THE WAKE OF TEMPORARY DOGS, by Adam-Troy Castro

From the anthology: SELECTIONS FROM BRAVE NEW WORLDS

edited by John Joseph Adams

 

 

Here is another happy find from the Baen Free Library, a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  Selections from Brave New Worlds is a sampler from a larger collection of short stories, this time with a dystopian theme. Not all of them were concerned with ruin and destruction changing society, as is often the case, but they were all quite intriguing in their very different outlook.

OF A SWEET SLOW DANCE IN THE WAKE OF TEMPORARY DOGS

 

This is one of the hardest reads I encountered in my journey through short stories, so that even taking into account the fact that it’s part of a dystopian anthology and that some harshness was to be expected, there were moments when the horror became too much to bear. But I guess that was the intention of the author…

Enysbourg is an actual island but also a virtual island of carefree happiness and delight in a world that’s become too set in its way, too dedicated to work, duty and productivity; a gray, dreary world that sucks all joy from people, who come to places like Enysbourg to taste something they sorely miss in their lives.  The island’s dwellers are welcoming, sunny people and it’s so very easy for tourists to be swept away by their hosts’ delight in living and having fun, to the point that some of them choose to abandon their former lives and take residence on Enysbourg, never to return.

Where’s the problem, then, one might ask. Well there is, and it’s a big one: the revelries don’t go on forever, but only for nine days – on the tenth something dreadful happens, war breaks out in the most bloody and vicious declination one might imagine, and the citizens of Enysbourg are savagely brutalized within an inch of their lives, without ever dying no matter how deadly the injuries.  No explanation is given about the sudden shift from idyllic setting to war zone, as no explanation is given, on the morning of the new day when the nine-day cycle begins again, about the return to health and integrity of the former victims.  The description of that one single, terrible day of death and destruction is given through the eyes of Robert, an occasional tourist who decides to stay for the love of a woman he met, and he voices the question any reader of this story would ask: how is it possible to accept even one day of appalling carnage, of lingering pain unrelieved by death, in exchange for nine perfect days of joys unknown to the rest of the world?  And how does one deal with the aftermath of such suffering, even in the midst of pure happiness?

It would not be an easy answer, if there is indeed one. Still, this story made an indelible impression on me, and despite its brutal change of pace it was indeed the most memorable of the whole anthology, worth indeed the effort of looking for this book.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE DEFIANT HEIR (Swords & Fire #2), by Melissa Caruso

 

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

The previous book in this series, The Tethered Mage, proved to be a delightful discovery in many ways: the magic system, in which people with peculiar abilities, or Falcons, are bound for life to a sort of companion/guardian, or Falconer; the background, where the Serene Empire of Raverra reminded me strongly of 18th Century Venice, complete with shady political maneuverings and complicated plots; and the characters, of course, mainly young Amalia Cornaro, the heir to a very influent Raverran family and the unwitting Falconer to equally young Zaira, a Falcon gifted (or better, cursed) with the rare ability to master balefire, a powerful, dangerous weapon that might prove useful in the brewing war against Raverra’s enemies.   Following their journey, as they got to know each other while trying to unravel a threatening conspiracy, was a charming experience, but with this second volume of the series both the narrative stakes and my enjoyment of the story took flight toward new heights.

The action starts several months after the events of book 1, and while Amalia and Zaira can now work together on easier terms, moving with baby steps toward a better understanding of each other if not actual friendship, the political situation has taken a turn for the worse: their Vaskandar neighbors, ruled by a caste of skilled magicians called Witch Lords, are once again on the move to expand their territory, threatening the Raverran Empire. Amalia finds herself in the role of envoy first, as she is sent to reassure the Empire’s allies and muster their defenses against any possible attack, and of ambassador later, when she is invited to the Conclave, the Witch Lords’ assembly that will decide whether to start a war with Raverra.  To say that pace and tension keep increasing with each page would indeed be a massive understatement: where The Tethered Mage was more of an introduction to this world and what made it tick, The Defiant Heir takes us into the heat of battle, and it hardly matters that it’s one fought with words and cunning and magic rather than conventional weapons, because the outcome is just as uncertain and bloody.

The increased rhythm is mirrored by a widening of our perspective of the world of Eruvia, as we are led first to Callamorne – Raverra’s closest neighbor and ally – where some of Amalia’s relatives live and where we learn a few details about her past and, more important, her bloodline: a discovery that will prove instrumental in the unfolding events and might have interesting ramifications in the future. The journey to Vaskandar is instead imbued with danger that does not come only from the prospect of an invasion and a war that the Empire might very well lose, but from the magic wielded by the Witch Lords, who are able to extend their control over beasts and plants alike: the instances where trees take on a semblance of life (and quite hostile life at that…) attacking Amalia’s party, are among the most terrifying scenes one could imagine, and will stand in your mind just as much as the Lady of Spiders’ dress, which is enough to give nightmares to any arachnofobe…

However the characters and their development remain the most fascinating feature of the story, starting with Zaira who still retains her more evident abrasive qualities and intolerance for regulations, but has also learned to look beyond her immediate wants and needs to take into account the well-being of others, or the possibility of employing her terrifying powers for the common good. Although she still dreams of her freedom, she has come to understand that there are worse situations than being bound to Raverra and her Falconer, and that outside of the apparently stifling world of the Mews there are people who don’t think twice about exploiting a Falcon’s powers, with or without their consent – and more often than not, without.  Zaira is learning the basics of compromise, and that sometimes you have to give up something to obtain something of even greater value, but more than anything else she is learning that friendship and loyalty are more than worthy of some sacrifice: she has just begun to travel on that road, and her feet still move reluctantly, but it’s a joy to observe her progress and the way the discoveries she makes along the way change her, little by little.

Amalia, for her part, evolves much more quickly and palpably: gone is the bookish girl who wanted nothing else but to study the intricacies of artifice, and in her place a skilled politician is growing slowly but surely. As it happens for all growing processes, this one is not exempt from pain: her infatuation for Captain Marcello Verdi had to be put aside in favor of the possibility of a politically advantageous marriage, and even though the relationship hardly had any time to truly coalesce, the feelings Amalia and Marcello share are strong and difficult to ignore. This situation is further complicated by the appearance of the Crow Lord Kathe, a Vaskandran who might be an ally: when Amalia accepts his courtship she is torn between her yearning for Marcello and the undeniable attraction toward Kathe, with whom she plays an interesting game of subtle double entendres and dangerous flirting, never fully knowing whether this Witch Lord is truly a potential associate or someone who will knife her in the back, but still feeling the pull of Kathe’s mercurial personality.

What I appreciated about this not-quite-triangle is that rather than focusing on the turmoil of indecision and angst, it showcases the crossroads where Amalia stands: Marcello represents the security of her old life, the potential for quiet happiness and scholarly pursuits, while Kathe carries with him the danger and uncertainties inherent in the new role of political player and influencer her mother is steering her toward – and the undeniable attraction exerted by the proverbial bad boy.   And this is not the most difficult hurdle Amalia must overcome, because terrible choices lie in wait for her in the course of the dangerous mission she’s been assigned, decisions that teach her the kind of price one must pay for playing the role she so reluctantly accepted: how this dreadful awareness will factor in her future decisions is something I’m eager to discover in the next book (or books…).  If the narrative progression I observed between the first and second book keeps up, I know it will be an amazing read.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: JUST DO IT, by Heather Lindsley

From SELECTIONS FROM BRAVE NEW WORLDS, Edited by John Joseph Adams

 

 

Here is another happy find from the Baen Free Library, a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  Selections from Brave New Worlds is a sampler from a larger collection of short stories, this time with a dystopian theme. Not all of them were concerned with ruin and destruction changing society, as is often the case, but they were all quite intriguing in their very different outlook.

JUST DO IT by Heather Lindsley

The ubiquitousness of ads is a sad fact of life: just think about all the times we have been pestered by some silly commercial repeated throughout a program we were watching, maybe accompanied by an annoying tune that lodges in our mind and refuses to go away. In my case – but I suspect that’s what happens to most of us – such… insistence, to be kind about it, doesn’t achieve the expected result: on the contrary, the more irritating the ad has been, the less chances there are of my buying the showcased product.

In this story, the author postulates that advertisers have gone beyond the stage of merely harassing an increasingly recalcitrant audience: ads are literally shot, in the form of darts, at the hapless victims, the chemicals contained in the payload creating an irrepressible craving for the product at hand.  Imagine going down a street, being hit by one of these darts and, like the character in this story, being possessed by a sudden, inescapable craving for French fries (“French fries from the den of the evil clown, where they don’t even pretend to use potatoes anymore”) – even if your conscious mind keeps telling you that you don’t want them, even if you try to resist the compulsion, there is nothing to be done, and you have to give in to the induced craving.

Alex, the protagonist, belongs to a group trying to fight the chemical-advertising companies, and she plans to do it from the inside, letting herself be hired by the enemy, but even the best plans can meet unexpected obstacles…  Should you choose to read this story, be prepared to feel both amusement and dread: there is nothing more unsettling than an extrapolation based on our present reality…

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: DARK MATTER, by Blake Crouch

 

Book blurbs once tended to use the phrases “a page turner!” and/or “unputdownable!” to advertise a book that would grab its readers and not let go until the very end, and over the years I’ve become a little wary of such emphasis because more often than not it led me down the path of disappointment.  But in the case of Dark Matter I think those sentences describe perfectly the effect the story had on me, the way it pulled me in and held me under its spell until I finished it; and the proof of the potency of such a spell lies in the fact that I did not start to question the (few and far between, granted) small inconsistencies in this fascinating narrative until I closed the book.

Jason Dessen is a physics professor in Chicago, a man whose life is running on comfortable tracks – if a little predictable and boring: he’s happily married, he and his wife have a teenage son, they are financially well-off and experience no troubles of any kind – the picture of the perfect suburban life.  Both Jason and his wife Daniela had to give up some of their youthful dreams – he of pursuing his scientific research, she her artistic inclinations – when Daniela became pregnant with their son Charlie and they choose to marry and build a family, but neither of them seems to openly regret that sacrifice.   One night, Jason accepts the invitation to the party of a former colleague and friend, who just won a prestigious prize for his breakthrough research, and for a brief moment we see Jason’s shell of contentment crack, even though it’s a passing thought, easily shaken off.

At that point I knew that something had to happen, that the idyllic picture had to be broken, and indeed as Jason is walking back home he’s assailed by a masked man who kidnaps him and brings him to an abandoned power plant, where he injects his victim with some unknown substance.  When Jason regains consciousness he’s in a strange installation, greeted as the returning hero by a host of people who seem to know him well, while he never met a single one of them.   Even if I had not been aware of Dark Matter’s core theme, it would have been easy to suspect that I was dealing with alternate universes, and that the mysterious assailant was indeed another Jason, one who had chosen to pursue his scientific career and unlocked the secrets of the multiverse, but now yearned for the fulfilling family life that the other Jason enjoyed, and so orchestrated the exchange.

From here on, the novel becomes Jason’s breathless, desperate search for the way back to his own reality, and his family, while the author explores the theories about parallel realities and the science behind it, laying it down in such a way that it’s both easy to understand and emotionally engaging: one of my favorite themes is the one about the traveler’s power of observation and mental state affecting the reality of the world he opens the door to.  The first parallel worlds Jason ends up in, while searching for the way home, are desolate places made uninhabitable by glacial temperatures or nuclear fallout, and they mirror closely his despair and helplessness at being torn from his reality and family, and it’s only by clinging to the memories of the life he built day by day, and recollecting with painstaking care the more minute details of that life that he keeps getting closer to his goal.

It’s not surprising that the strongest theme in this novel would be that of the road not taken, and of the consequences of our decisions, even the most trivial ones: they don’t affect only the outcome of people’s lives, but also the makeup of their personality.  What Jason sees, in the multitude of his alter-egos living in other realities, brings into sharp focus the evidence of the extreme volatility of existence, of the way even minor occurrences can have a profound effect on one’s destiny. We see that in the news quite often: the missed train or plane that saves an individual from a deadly wreck is the most classic example, or on a less dramatic instance, a chance encounter might decide for an unforeseen career path.  For Jason, all those variations of himself bring home the fact that his family, the people he loves more than himself, are what defines him and that he will be whole again only when he gets back to them, undoing the horrible wrong that his doppelganger inflicted on him: if this narrative choice contributes to making him a very sympathetic character, it’s also something of a double-edged sword.  As I said, it’s easy to ignore the doubt it instills while in the midst of the story, but on hindsight it’s a little bothersome.

The “original” Jason is basically a nice person, and he remains that way all throughout his ordeal: even in the direst of circumstances he strives to keep hold of his fundamental decency, and if at times he almost gives in to his baser instinct, he always manages to drag himself back from the brink. That’s all right of course, and it serves to enhance a reader’s sympathy toward a character who is going through any kind of hell to get back to his loved ones, but this side of the characterization falters once Jason starts meeting his counterparts (and at some point there is quite a LOT of them…) and the vast majority of all those Jasons shows no qualms about doing away with any obstacles in their path, even when that requires murdering their “twins”. While all that serves to show Original Jason in a more favorable light, on hindsight his inner decency appears contrived, as if the author were blatantly pointing at him as the only true Jason, distinguishing him from the rest of his “evil” copies.   Something similar also happens when our hero wakes up in the alternate reality lab: with a single exception, everyone is a cold-blooded murderer, ready to kill anyone to maintain the secret of their momentous discovery: in my opinion it felt all a bit forced, and unnecessarily so.

It’s a very small complaint, though, and the fact that it surfaced only after I finished the book shows the depth of commitment to the story I enjoyed while I was reading it – which means that I can only highly recommend Dark Matter as a very satisfying read.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: IS THIS YOUR DAY TO JOIN THE REVOLUTION? by Genevieve Valentine

SELECTIONS FROM “BRAVE NEW WORLDS”, edited by John Joseph Adams

 

 

Here is another happy find from the Baen Free Library, a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  Selections from Brave New Worlds is a sampler from a larger collection of short stories, this time with a dystopian theme. Not all of them were concerned with ruin and destruction changing society, as is often the case, but they were all quite intriguing in their very different outlook.

IS THIS YOUR DAY TO JOIN THE REVOLUTION?

This short story was quite intriguing: it depicts an alternate version of our world ruled by an apparently benign totalitarian regime (and how can a totalitarian rule ever be benign?), one where ubiquitous propaganda dictates the citizens’ way of life, of behavior, of thought.

For example, an unspecified event called “the Bang” has allegedly created pockets of an infectious disease against which the government enforces a widespread campaign of prevention, but there are those who claim it’s all a massive hoax to keep people in line. Or couples are formed on the basis of state selection, and their relationship closely monitored to observe anything untoward.  Or again, citizens are constantly instructed to be on the lookout for any “anomalous” behavior, and to report it no matter how trivial it might look, because – as the propaganda says – “What do you know that we should know?”.

For all its outward ordinariness, this is the kind of society that most frightens me, one where people – with the exception of a very few – don’t even realize that they are being controlled, herded and shaped according to someone else’s idea of perfection.  It’s even worse than an open dictatorship, because on the surface people should not have anything to complain about. “Should not” being the key word here…

It might have given me the chills, but I truly appreciated this tale, one I heartily recommend.

 

My Rating: