The first time I heard about this book, it sounded intriguingly different from the usual fantasy settings, and when reviews started to appear from fellow bloggers whose judgement I trust, I knew I had to read Kings of the Wyld as soon as possible.
The deciding factor was a visit to the author’s site, where I saw a map of his imagined world: maps always fascinate me, and they help me visualize the place where the story unfolds. This particular map caught my attention because it looked similar in style to the ones you can find in many editions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and when I discovered, in the text just below the image, how much the author loves the Professor’s work, I knew I was in the right place.
The story is a quite straightforward quest: Clay, Gabriel, Matrick, Moog and Ganelon were famous mercenaries whose band, Saga, reached unsurpassed heights of fame and glory. As the story starts, some twenty years after they split the band and went their separate ways, forging new lives for themselves, Clay Cooper seems to be the one who is better off: he has a wife and a young daughter and if his work on the city watch in the small village of Coverdale is neither glamorous nor exciting, Clay feels reasonably happy. The bubble is shattered by the arrival of his old friend Gabriel, seeking help: Gabe’s daughter, Rose, has embraced her father’s lifestyle and become a mercenary and is now in besieged Castia, where a host of creatures from the Wyld tries to break this last bastion of resistance against a monster invasion. Gabriel begs Clay to help him reconnect with the rest of the band and save his daughter: the plan seems hopeless, but a friend is a friend, and Clay decides to go with Gabriel, if nothing else for old times’ sake.
What starts at this point is an amazing romp through a bizarre land where strange creatures – some sentient, some… well, less so – share space with humans, who range from peaceful villagers to highwaymen (and women!) and adventurers. As Clay and Gabriel seek to hook up with the other members of Saga, we learn more about this world and, more important, about the past that the group of friends shared. And how I loved meeting each of the former band members! What I most appreciated in their creation is that the outward appearance, be it Matrick’s boisterous drunkenness, or Moog’s inventive absentmindedness, just to quote two examples, always hides some personal pain or tragedy, and shows how Saga’s back history is not just one of brave fights and epic adventures, but also one in which darkness has its place and left its mark.
This balance is mirrored in the whole narrative, where a fine vein of humor runs throughout the story, in a seamless blend that supports the equally balanced pace of the novel: humor is a difficult beast to handle, and there’s always the danger of it working against the story – either because it falls flat on its face, or because there is too much of it, and it stops being funny. Kings of the Wyld finds – and maintains throughout – the perfect formula, and that confers the novel the special quality that makes it such an enjoyable read.
The other lynchpin on which the story hinges is the relationship between the characters: there is a great deal of history binding these five men, not just shared glory and adventures, but also some betrayals and a few instances of petty behavior, and the beauty of it is that these men honestly acknowledge it all, and are able to move past it, because what really matters is the bond they created over the years, that same bond that compels Clay to leave home and family to save his friend’s daughter; or Ganelon to forgive his mates for abandoning him to his fate when he was convicted of murder and sentenced to be turned to stone as punishment. Saving Rose from Castia’s siege is the outward reason for recreating the band, but the one coming from inside is their sheer joy in being together again, reconnecting with their past as they reconnect with each other. And that’s a delightful thing to behold, indeed.
As the re-formed band of Saga moves toward Castia – with great difficulty, granted, given that they encounter many obstacles (some of them amusingly preposterous) – the readers discover places, peoples and bizarre creatures that speak of an amazingly inventive imagination: from friendly cannibals to deadly beasts, passing through an animated door knocker talking with a lisp (or course, since it’s holding the brass ring in its mouth…), the world Nicholas Eames created is one that’s full of wonders, dangers and fun, and this last comes up in the most unexpected moments and unlikely places, often offering delightful “easter eggs” for the discerning reader. As an example I’d like to quote a brief passage about a kobold (a sort of ratlike creature) that Saga meets at some point, and in particular about its lair:
“It was a kobold’s hovel, and that meant shithole.”
This call-back to The Hobbit is only one of the many enjoyable tongue-in-cheek references spread throughout the book (and I’m certain I missed a few!) and contributing to its overall mood, together with some wonderful characterizations that enrich the story with depth and feeling: among them I need to point out Jain and her Silk Arrows, a band of female robbers who manage to relieve Clay and Gabriel of their possessions not once, but twice, with an easy matter-of-factness that would make Robin Hood and his Merry Men hide in shame. Or bounty hunter and paid killer Larkspur, a dark lady indeed from head to toe to feather points, who proves to be an interesting – and surprising – antagonist for a good portion of the novel. Or again the ettin, the humanoid creature gifted with two heads who delivers an interesting counterpoint to the humor in the story: one of these weird twins is blind, and the other brightens his brother’s dark world with fictional descriptions of their surroundings that belie even the direst of circumstances, offsetting the merry-go-lucky adventures of the main characters with a deeply poignant element.
Kings of the Wyld is not just an amazing find, it’s a book that in turns entertains and makes you think, exploring in a deceptively offhand manner the meaning of relationships and the power of friendship. As the first volume of a trilogy it’s a great introduction to this world and also works as a stand-alone book, but one that leaves you wanting to know more about these characters and the background they move in. And as a debut work it’s an incredible discovery, because it looks like the endeavor of a much more seasoned writer: as such it deserves the highest of praises.
When I saw this book mentioned in a “Waiting for Wednesday” posts on Lynn’s blog, it immediately caught my attention and I wasted no time requesting it from NetGalley: luck was with me and Orion Books kindly granted me the possibility of reading it, in exchange for an honest review.
In short, humanity has ceased to exist, defeated and then destroyed by the automatons it built to improve living conditions: once the AIs achieved a sense of self and asked for freedom, the first inevitable steps toward war were taken and mankind’s downfall became only a matter of time. Now the only creatures moving across the Earth are the robots, but the aftermath of the war is not what the first rebel AIs envisioned, because of the rise of the OWIs (One World Intelligences). These huge conglomerations of computers have been trying even since to assimilate, Borg-style, all the other intelligences, creating massive banks of processing machinery in which individuality is banned forever. The free bots are given a simple choice, either submit or die.
We, the lesser AIs, were chased out of the world we had created, the world we had fought and killed and died for, by a few great minds hell-bent on having the world to themselves. […] Upload or be shut down. That was the choice.
At first there were many OWIs, battling among themselves, but the strongest ultimately prevailed until only two remained, Cissus and Virgil, fighting for supremacy. Meanwhile the freebots, those who refused to surrender and wanted to keep enjoying their new-found individuality, are forced to live like refugees, scavenging for parts to replace their malfunctioning circuits or casings, and more often than not preying on each other to survive: the dream of freedom has indeed turned into a cannibalistic nightmare…
Brittle is one of these survivors: once a caregiver bot acquired by an ailing human (who wanted, more than medical assistance for himself, a companion to alleviate his wife’s solitude), she now roams across the Sea of Rust, what used to be the industrial Rust Belt, and now is a graveyard of broken bots whose useful parts have been scavenged by their brethren. Brittle is a loner, by choice and by necessity: meeting others of her kind might mean a fight for survival, as the main story shows all too clearly while she desperately tries to avoid a band of poachers led by Mercer, another caregiver in dire need of spare parts he can only get from Brittle, since their kind is all but extinct.
We’re all cannibals, every last one of us. It’s the curse of being free. We don’t control the means of production anymore; we can’t just make new parts. And parts gotta come from somewhere. I’m sure if there were any people left, they’d be appalled at what we’ve become.
Yet a few enclaves where bots can stay in relative safety, at least for a while, still exist: subterranean warrens where a semblance of law is enforced and the “murder” of another bot to steal their parts means being thrown out at the mercy of the OWIs and their assault teams; or the realm of the King of Cheshire, an aggregation of bots whose logic circuits have gone haywire, rendering them so crazy not even the OWIs deem them worthy of assimilation. Every single one of them, though, is threatened by the advancing wave of the OWIs, whose thirst for total control, for the perfection offered by one single governing mind has become the rule of the land.
It’s a very sad spectacle the one offered by this story: there’s some shades of Wall-E, in the total lack of human life and the wasteland scenery in which Brittle and the others move; there’s a vibe reminiscent of The Road, and the hopelessness of something irretrievably lost; and then there is a strong call-back to the Mad Max universe, especially in the scenes where cobbled-up bots try to survive in a world that’s become hostile even to mechanical constructs, and where fights to the death for resources are a fact of everyday life.
And yet in this bleak background there are still those who dare to dream of freedom, of a better world, and this leads to fascinating thoughts about not so much what it means to be alive, but rather about what it means to exist, to make one’s own choices – right or wrong as they might be – and make the leap from mere tool to individual. Men might have created the bots to be their servants, but the OWIs are not much better than their former masters; by denying the single bots their individuality, they remove what makes each one of them a unique being, to the point that now many bots understand how humans were, in a way, the lesser evil, because mankind’s imagination helped them transcend the limits of their nature, go beyond their inner programming:
We have become the very worst parts of our makers, without the little things, the good things, the magic things, that made them them.
Sea of Rust is composed in equal parts of sad, guilt-ridden reminiscences of the past, in the flash-backs that show how the current situation came to be; of poignant considerations about the ‘brave new world’ the bots created in the wake of human extinction; and of electrifying chases across the desert, or pitched battles – and also a quest, one that could once again change the world. What most surprised me was the sheer level of humanity the author managed to confer to his robotic characters, so that it was difficult for me to picture them as metal-and-circuits creatures rather than flesh-and-blood ones.
It’s a very peculiar story, and one that will not fail to touch emotional chords – strange as it might seem considering the nature of the characters – and even if you are not an habitual reader of science fiction, I would advise you to read this one, for its thought-provoking issues and the emotional depth of the characters.
My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues. This week is the turn of:
(click on the title to read the story online at LightSpeed Magazine)
When the first reviews of Yoon Ha Lee’s novel, Ninefox Gambit, started appearing online, I was immediately curious about this intriguing new story and, more importantly, about the author’s writing style. Since I always enjoy sampling a shorter work from a new-to-me writer, I was quite thrilled when I saw this story on the online version of Lightspeed Magazine.
Swansong is the kind of story that requires all of your attention, because it plunges you straight in with the bare minimum of context – and in this particular case even less than that – and forces you to learn as you go. I always enjoy this mode of writing because I like to be challenged, so I waited patiently for events to unfold and for details to come into focus, and in the end I was happily rewarded.
Swan is a young woman from an affluent family in the Concert of Worlds and she has been sent to the Fermata as a punishment for offending a ship’s captain: the sin looks quite trivial, because she merely “addressed him in the wrong language for the occasion”, and yet the girl is sent into exile at the station orbiting near the Fermata, that sounds like a black hole, one where swanships come to die in an endless plunge toward oblivion, ruled by the relativistic forces of an event horizon – or at least this is how I interpreted the situation.
The only way to leave the place is to create a work of art so sublime that the judges, coming to the station every ten years, would lift the sentence. None of the other exiles present on the station – Dragon and Phoenix, Tiger and Tortoise – are artists, so only Swan, trained in music, might be able to compose a symphony worthy of her freedom.
This story seems built more on emotion than fact, images and sounds rather than characterization, and for this reason it had an enormous impact on my imagination: there is a current of quiet despair in the group of exiles manning the station, a despair that is enhanced by the sight of the ships, big and small, that cross toward their endless doom. And yet there is something more at play here, a glimmer of hope, a seed promising something more and better – I don’t dare say more, for fear of spoilers – that changes the reader’s outlook as it changes Swan’s, and it’s something, quite appropriately, quietly beautiful.
Since my first brush with historical fantasy I’ve discovered a genre quite suited to my tastes, not only for the kind of stories it can offer, but also because it leads me to explore in more depth any given historical period in which the novel is set. So it was a given that I would read this one, as soon as I saw the first reviews popping up on fellow bloggers’ sites.
Fallon, the main character, is the daughter of the king of the Cantii, a fierce Celtic tribe: in a culture where women fight alongside their men, she’s training to be a warrior in her father’s army (such as it is) and to follow in the footsteps of her older sister Sorcha, who died in the battle that freed their father from his Roman captors. On the eve of her acceptance in the king’s war band, she discovers to her dismay that her father has promised her to the leader of a neighboring tribe, the brother of the young man she just discovered herself in love with. A series of circumstances brings Fallon to be captured by slavers, brought to Rome and be sold to a female gladiators’ school, where she will be trained to fight in the arena for the delight of the crowds.
There was a lot in favor of this story, starting with the premise of female gladiators, whose existence is a relatively new discovery by the archeological community, and with the possibility of exploration of two cultures – the Celtic tribes in northern Europe and the conquest-prone Roman empire – pitted against each other. Moreover, the book promised a fearless heroine bent on regaining her freedom, even if that meant risking life and limb in the bloody sport of a gladiatorial arena. Sadly, it fell short on every count, at least from my point of view.
The cultural and historical background is barely sketched, and if on one hand I might understand the need to focus on plot developments, they might have worked just as well in any imagined fantasy culture as the ones we meet daily: fantasy readers don’t need a tie to any given existing culture to accept a plot such as this (a female warrior fighting for her freedom), so the scant details inserted for both civilizations seem to be there as mere lip service to the chosen background, rather than a desire to give a concrete feeling for it. Celtic culture was more than beer-laden feasts and blue tattoos, and Roman culture was more than gladiators, purple-striped togas and political intrigue.
Along similar lines, the circumstances leading to Fallon’s capture sound rushed and contrived, less an organic chain of events and more like plot devices needed to bring her where the author wanted her – in Rome as a slave gladiator (even though there is precious little time devoted to the details of training and actual combat) – and the speed at which everything happens kept me somewhat removed from the overall story, and I never felt any real sense of danger or any sense of reality whatsoever.
My greatest contention, however, is with Fallon herself: throughout the novel she failed to make a connection as a character, as a person, and the almost childish impetus she employs to move through her life seemed to point at a fatal shallowness and a lack of maturity, something I would never have expected in someone with her background and experiences. Fallon’s greatest failing as a character, in my opinion, is the huge dichotomy between her statements about being a trained warrior and the constant need to be saved from unpleasant situations.
A few examples? Back in her house, after she’s been informed she will be married off to her love interest’s brother, she peevishly throws all adornments into a brazier, including her knife, so when her prospective husband comes in, somewhat drunk and with amorous intentions, she is powerless to defend herself and the impasse is solved by the lucky arrival of her almost-boyfriend. On the slaver ship headed toward Rome, Fallon becomes the object of unwanted attentions from a crewman, and of course she’s saved, once more, by slave master Charon. And again, once in Rome and on her way to become a gladiatrix, she sneaks to a party in a patrician villa (an event that shouted “danger!” to the high heavens to everyone but her…) and finds herself in such a situation that requires her rescue by the handsome Roman decurion that has become her new love interest. If these are the marks of a fierce warrior fighting for her freedom… well, something is sorely missing.
As if that were not enough (and I will mercifully spend no words on the insta-love issues that seem a mandatory requirement in this kind of story), Fallon appears quite childish in her reactions, especially concerning a particular discovery I can’t describe (spoiler!) that should have made her ecstatic with joy and instead plunges her into new depths of petulance, that to me appeared quite uncalled for, given both past and present circumstances. In a possible attempt at balancing out this querulousness, we are told about her surges of sisterhood feelings for her fellow gladiatrices, for example, sentiments that seem to come out of nowhere since the only true friend Fallon makes along the way is fellow captive Elka, while in several cases she seems to ignore even the names of some of the other girls in the training school, identifying them with the animals depicted on their shields rather that with their names. A main character should be someone we root for, someone we establish a connection with, but sadly Fallon did not come even near that goal for me.
Even though I’m honest enough to understand that most of my objections stem from the fact I’m a crusty old curmudgeon 🙂 there is the fact of the huge divide between the premise of this story and the actual delivery of it, between the promise of a certain kind of character and the disappointment about what I encountered. The Valiant is not a bad book, not at all, but even as “popcorn entertainment” it fails to meet some of the criteria I look for in a story I want to care for, and I can sum it up as a missed opportunity.
As the main character in the Powder Mages trilogy, Field Marshal Tamas comes across immediately as a strong, intriguing figure, and not just because of his connection to this peculiar brand of magic. Finding more about his past, and what made him the person we meet for the first time in Promise of Blood, is a fascinating journey: we saw a glimpse of him at the end of the first novella I reviewed, Forsworn, but here he takes center stage in a story that dovetails nicely with that first prequel and happens shortly after those events.
Young Captain Tamas is a commoner who rose in the army’s ranks through courageous feats in battle and dogged determination, but his road has not been an easy one: in the realm of Adro, military prowess is not enough for a man to overcome his origins, and Tamas finds himself having to defend his honor (or rather deal with the huge chip on his shoulder…) through duels. The latest one, where he nicked a nobleman son’s earlobe as a gesture of contempt, has frozen his appointment to major and is heading him straight toward a board of inquiry, where his career hopes might be dashed forever. While he tries to clear his name, he finds himself enmeshed in the struggle between the King and the Privileged cabal, whose thirst for power has the ruler of Adro more than willing to play a dangerous game with Tamas as the main pawn. The only positive side of the whole situation comes from Tamas’ meeting with Erika ja Leora, and the relationship that slowly builds between these two practitioners of powder magic, the seasoned soldier and the young, headstrong noblewoman.
The best part of their encounter – apart from the verbal skirmishes and the personality clashes – comes from Tamas’ reluctant acknowledgment that not all nobles are arrogant, self-centered creatures who enjoy looking down on him and making him the object of their scorn, but that there are people who care about others and value them for what they are. Erika’s selflessness in the rescue of Norrine, makes Tamas realize that this young woman might have lost everything – including her life – to save a virtual stranger, and he feels diminished by her gallantry, when he understands that “he battled primarily for his own gain and honor”, while Erika had far higher goals in mind. For her part, Erika comes across as a strong personality, one graced with both courage and an impish sense of humor – not to mention an aptitude for ruthlessness when necessary – that slowly but surely breach the seasoned soldier’s armor and move him away from his self-imposed grimness, and loneliness.
The more I learn about this world, the more I’m fascinated by it and feel compelled to explore it at length: Brian McClellan is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors, and I berate myself for having waited so long before finally learning more about his works. But I’m getting there…
First things first, I want to thank fellow blogger Stephen Bianchini, over at The Earthian Hivemind, for showcasing this novel in one of his Teaser Tuesday posts, otherwise I might never have come across an incredibly intriguing read.
And second, I have to caution you that it will be next to impossible to review Under the Skin without spoiling its main plot concept, although I might add that the mystery at the basis of the story is revealed quite soon and that there are crystal-clear hints even before the actual disclosure, so I don’t believe that talking about it will ruin the journey of any reader – the warning stands though, so that anyone might decide how to proceed.
As the story opens, we learn that main character Isserley drives over the roads of rural Scotland in search of hitchhikers – a very specific kind of hitchhiker, brawny and strong, with little or no ties to community or family – for what’s clearly a heinous purpose: at first I thought she might be a vampire, or a serial killer, but little by little the accumulating clues revealed something totally different. For starters, Isserley’s appearance is quite odd: she’s small, frail-looking, her face is strange and her eyes are hidden behind thick glasses that magnify them all out of proportion; her arms and legs are spindly and there are scars on her slightly-misshapen hands, but the strangest feature is represented by her breasts, whose size and fullness recall more the look of a centerfold playmate rather than that of the gangly creature flaunting them.
What’s more, Isserley grasp of language is sketchy at best and some of the more colloquial forms of expression (not to mention the Scottish brogue she encounters at times) completely fly over her head, as do some of her potential victims’ behavioral patterns: that’s because she is an alien, and her job is to collect viable male specimens to be fattened and slaughtered so that their meat can be sent to her home planet as a rare delicacy. From the few flashbacks we are afforded, we learn that Isserley’s place of origin is a barren wasteland where food and water are scarce, where even the few privileged live in a sort of aseptic seclusion, while the rest is sent to toil in the dreaded Estates, places that would make a penal colony of old look like a tropical resort. Isserley has volunteered to be cruelly altered to resemble an Earth human (or as close to it as these alien minds can imagine, hence the huge breasts) so that she can act as a lure for the prey to be collected, processed and shipped home.
Hers is a life of agony, the original four-legged, furred appearance surgically corrected into a shape and posture that are unnatural and require constant exercise to keep the pain at bay; and also a life of loneliness, because the rest of the alien crew – the unmodified alien crew – looks on her as something to be pitied, something that is useful and productive, but is not human anymore. Here is one of the mind-bending concepts of this novel: the aliens think of themselves as human, while Earth people are vodsels – unthinking, unrefined animals to be harvested and consumed, nothing more. Isserley has chosen – volunteered – to undergo the transformation out of despair, and bears the pain and loneliness with a sort of detached acceptance that creates a surprising bond with the reader: more than once I felt sympathy for her, despite the horrible task she performs, because I could see how much a victim she is even though her role is that of the predator.
On hindsight, I believe that one of the reasons for my surprising reaction must come from the author’s stark, restrained prose: when he describes the aliens’ operation, even in its more crude details, the sober, almost clinical tone cushions his readers from the shock of it all, and his almost constant focus on Isserley and her thoughts places the ghastly reality of it all on the back burner, so to speak. What in less skilled hands might have become a blood-and-gore account worthy of the worst splatter movie, turns instead this novel into a story that feels close to a disconnected dreamscape rather than harsh and disturbing reality, and whose emphasis is on what makes us humans, people capable of compassion and mercy – this last a word that takes a harrowing significance in one of the most chilling sections of the book.
Isserley is basically a person who has lost her identity and floats uneasily in a no-man’s-land of uncertainty she keeps at bay by fiercely concentrating on the job at hand: what looks like endless repetition of her everyday chores – cruising around, spotting potential subjects, taking them aboard her car and drugging them so she can carry the day’s load to the processing plant – is a way for her to forget who she was, who she is now and what her life has come to. That’s the reason for the huge upheaval that occurs when the wayward son of the operation’s boss comes to visit the premises and throws everything out of kilter. Amlis Vess is the typical spoiled brat of a wealthy family, one who has never had to struggle in his life, and so feels free to pursue his own ideals – including that of recognizing the rights of the “animals” his father’s company is fattening for the home planet’s market. In this same way, he offers Isserley his respect (something she sorely lacks in her present situation) and maybe something more, helping her become aware of the beauty that surrounds them on this alien planet so different from their own, so that the fierce, violent way in which she initially rebuffs his approach is all the evidence we need to understand all that has been brewing under the thin veneer of Isserley’s apparent detachment.
Under the Skin is a story that goes well beyond the outward appearance of alien horror, the kind of book that stays with you long after you have finished reading it, because there is much more under the surface than meets the eye: I believe one of the meanings of the title is exactly this, that there are layers upon layers to us and to what we are. It’s not an easy book, but one I’m glad I have not missed in my journeys.
My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues… This week is the turn of Ken Liu’s
(click on the link to read the story)
Thanks to the online archives of Lightspeed Magazine I discovered this intriguing short story by Ken Liu: it postulates that in a not-so-far future our life will be handled by the next generation of the technology we daily use today.
Sai is a young corporate employee whose life is totally managed by Tilly, the captivating name of the virtual personal assistant created by Centillion software – think Siri on steroids… He wakes up to music Tilly tailors to his personal preferences, prepares himself for work eating the kind of breakfast that Tilly judges is best for him according to the day ahead, and knows that after work he has a date with a girl whose profile has been chosen by Tilly on the basis of his previous choices and psychological profile.
Sai is not alone in this: like millions of other Centillion customers, his whole life is run by Tilly, down to the smallest detail, because Centillion’s motto is “Make Things Better”, by creating social profiles of people and guiding them toward the choices that best correspond to their preferences and ultimately to their happiness. Tilly is an ever-present voice in Sai’s ear coming from his phone’s earpiece, a sort of technological Jiminy Cricket finding exactly what Sai wants even before he knows he wants it, always coming up with the perfect solution to any issue that might arise during the day.
The evening date with a very compatible woman goes according to plan: they are eminently suited to each other, and have no lack of common interests – Tilly’s choice seems to have hit its mark once more, and yet a little worm of doubt starts creeping over Sai’s consciousness:
Everything was indeed going smoothly, but maybe just a tad too smoothly. It was as if they already knew everything there was to know about each other. There were no surprises, no thrill of finding the truly new.
These doubts stem from the latest encounter with Sai’s next-door neighbor Jenny, a person who resents the excessive presence of technology in people’s lives, like Tilly’s camera over Sai’s door, complaining about the invasion of privacy. During one of their hallway encounters, Jenny accuses him of living under Tilly’s thumb, so to speak, accepting its advice to the point he’s unwilling – or even unable – to make choices on his own.
Once this doubt has been sown, Sai starts to question Tilly’s choices and this attitude is met with the kind of amazed perplexity of a hurt mother – a very suffocating mother: observing the ramifications of this software into people’s everyday life is something of a shock, because in truth many of us in the real world have started to rely on our gadgets in a way that makes us quite depended on them, instead of our memory, awareness, choices. As one character says at some point:
Without Tilly, you can’t do your job, you can’t remember your life, you can’t even call your mother. We are now a race of cyborgs. We long ago began to spread our minds into the electronic realm, and it is no longer possible to squeeze all of ourselves back into our brains.
This story is not a dire warning about the dangers of technology, not at all, but rather a cautionary tale about surrendering our independence to the oh-so-easy help of convenient appliances, forgetting that at the same time we are surrendering a part of ourselves. Something to always keep in mind when we share the big and small details of our lives with the faceless technology that’s part of our existence…
When I first heard about Shadow Run my attention was caught by its definition as a cross between Dune and Firefly: as a huge fan of both I could not let this book pass me by, of course, and that kind of anticipation helped me overcome any misgivings due to the fact that this story seems mainly targeted toward a YA audience, something that usually does not sit well with me. But having had a few positive runs with this sub-genre in the recent past – most notably with the Illuminae Files for SF and the Great Library series for FY – I felt confident that I could overcome my bias one more time.
Shadow Run‘s main core concept is the existence of a substance – Shadow – that can be employed as an almost limitless source of energy: Shadow can be harvested in space near ice-bound Alaxak, a planet whose only resource comes from “fishing” the precious material, the other side of the coin being represented by the very nature of Shadow, that can poison the harvesters, driving them to madness and an early death. Qole Uvgamut is the 17 year old captain of the Kaitan Heritage, a “fishing” ship she inherited from her dead parents: Qole runs the Kaitan with her brother Arjan and a small crew composed by hacker Telu, strong-arm Eton and the mysterious, gender fluid Basra, who is something of a walking mystery. Her new recruit Nev, engaged as a cargo handler, is soon revealed as the heir of the noble Dracorte family, intent on proving his worth as a prince while finding a new, safer way of handling Shadow through the affinity shown by Qole, whose link with the substance seem to have gifted her with amazing powers.
Narrowly escaping the clutches of a rival noble family, Nev and the Kaitan‘s crew reach his home planet, where Qole is slated to become a partner in the research that will bring unlimited energy to the galaxy and a measure of wealth to Alaxak and its destitute and suffering inhabitants: the situation is soon revealed to be far less utopian than it appeared, and Qole and her crew will have to fight a battle on two fronts for their lives and freedom, while Nev will have to confront his life-long beliefs and take a stand, choosing the side he wants to be on.
As far as premises go, Shadow Run begins in a very intriguing way, first because it drops the reader in the middle of things and then proceeds to expand the focus in small increments, painting this world little by little without need for long exposition or tedious info-dumping. Moreover, the choice of working from a first-person perspective is given a good pace by alternating point of view chapters between Qole and Nev, which keeps things at a nice, almost compulsive speed. The crew of the Kaitan is an interesting mix, and even though they are painted in broad strokes and don’t get as much “screen time” as the two main characters, there is enough to give most of them enough substance to make them real and three-dimensional, leading the reader to care for them and desire to know more about their past and what makes them tick.
Shadow is also a fascinating element, a material moving in currents through space that somehow made me think about plankton banks in the oceans: the method employed to gather it, by using energy nets, reinforces the comparison to actual fishing and makes for a few interesting scenes, that coupled with the description of the Kaitan, an old, rundown ship lovingly maintained by ingenuity and a lot of love, helps to carry home the harsh, unforgiving background in which the Alaxans try to eke out a living. Last but not least there are several scenes and dialogues that stress how the galaxy’s powers that be exploit Alaxak’s resources without giving much back to the inhabitants, therefore creating a social commentary on the state of affairs in this time and place: again a comparison springs to mind with the mining of coal from the past, and with the health dangers incurred by the miners whose hard, dangerous labor never received enough compensation in correlation with the risks they took every day.
Unfortunately, such fascinating premises are somewhat marred by some narrative choices: of course there is a good measure of adventures, daring escapades, heart-stopping rescues and bloody battles, but they all appear as a mere side-dish for the romance between Qole and Nev. The young captain starts out as a strong character who has reached a maturity well beyond her years, a person who works for the small family she has built on the Kaitan, while very aware that her time is limited, that Shadow poisoning will soon come to claim her like it did her parents and older brother, and yet she keeps fighting because she refuses to give in and accept the inevitable defeat. There is much to be admired in Qole, and that’s the reason I felt betrayed when first she repeatedly needed to be saved by Nev, and then fell in love with him: what would be the reason to create such an independent, headstrong person, only to place her in a condition of physical and emotional weakness?
And this would not have been the worst “sin” of the story if, on arrival on Luvos – Nev’s home planet – she had not been confronted by Nev’s distastefully aristocratic family: a form of social distance had to be expected in consideration of the circumstances, but was it really necessary to make them so blatantly snobbish and arrogant? The scene where Qole is prepared for an evening’s event is totally over the top, and in my opinion entirely undermines everything that has been shown about her character until that moment. Sadly, it does not end here: the budding romance between the rugged captain and the young prince is subject to a further cold shower when Nev’s fiancée Ket makes her appearance and – of course! – she’s a shrewish, catty airhead bent on humiliating the new arrival.
These elements are sadly part and parcel of any trope-laden YA narrative, and from my point of view they impair any effort at creating convincing characterization and story-telling, because the risk of producing cookie-cutter narrative is always around the corner, and in this case this is what I believe happened, spoiling what so far had been an interesting and promising story that I might have rated higher. Missed opportunities are always the saddest, indeed…
What a fun read this was! Novels dealing with books exert a strong appeal on a compulsive reader, and this one is no exception: what’s more, the titular Invisible Library is a fascinating entity in and of itself. First, because it’s a huge repository for incredible amounts of books, and second because of its location: the story postulates that there are many parallel realities coexisting next to one another, and the Library is located in a place belonging to none of them, a location where space and time have practically no meaning. Dusty volumes fill up row upon row of shelves, while modern computers are strategically placed where Librarians might need them, and from the occasional window one can at times see cobble-paved streets lit by gas-lamps. As I said, fascinating…
Irene is a junior Librarian tasked with retrieving a particular book the Library wants, and following the last phase of her planned heist drops us straight into the heart of the story, through a narrow escape from animated stone gargoyles and hounds from Hell that carries the same kind of thrill as a dive into deep waters. Here we learn one of the most important peculiarities about Librarians: they can use Language (a special speech construct that is constantly adapted and modified to suit Librarians’ needs) to force inanimate objects like door locks to obey their commands – it’s not exactly magic as we usually consider it, but it’s an interesting detail and, at times, a very useful tool.
Having managed a successful extraction from this particular alternate world, Irene looks forward to some well-earned rest to be spent doing what she enjoys most – reading books. This was what caused my instant connection with the character, even though she was not fully fleshed yet: Irene might be a thief/spy/adventuress, but above all else she is a reader, one who in the end wants only “to shut the rest of the world out and have nothing to worry about except the next page of whatever she was reading”. The author could not have found a better way to endear her to us readers than this, indeed.
There is no rest for the weary though, and Irene’s superior Coppelia sends her on a new mission to retrieve a precious volume of Grimm’s tales from an alternate London that’s usually off-limits because of its chaos contamination, which means that magic and technology clash in unpredictable and dangerous ways. And on top of that, she must take an apprentice with her, a young man named Kai, both an unknown quantity and a departure from Irene’s usual solo missions – not to mention that Kai seems to harbor some secrets…
There is little time for Irene to dwell on all this, however, since the version of London in which the two find themselves presents several obstacles to the assignment: a late nineteenth Century alternate with steampunk overtones – think of Zeppelins and steam-powered machines – where Fae, vampires and werewolves coexist alongside normal humans. On top of that, the book Irene is looking for has just been stolen after the murder of its latest owner, and she finds herself working alongside Detective Vale (this world’s version of Sherlock Holmes) battling with steam centipedes, clockwork alligators and various other contraptions, while supernatural creatures drive forth their own agendas and a dark figure from the Library’s past – the mythical Alberich – extends his murderous shadow over everything and everyone.
This unstoppable flow of surprises and death-cheating adventures keeps the story going with good momentum and at the same time serves to flesh out Irene’s character more: what I like about her (apart from her love of books, of course) is that she’s skilled but not overconfident (unlike her previous teacher and sometimes competitor Bradamant) and she takes her mentoring duties toward Kai quite seriously, trying to avoid the mistakes Bradamant made with her, when she hogged all the praise and heaped any blame on Irene. Moreover, she’s ready to face the dangers inherent in her chosen work – and more than once, in the course of the story, she suffers damage of some sort – but she’s not reckless or stupid, nor does she fall into the “heroine needing help” narrative trap. Irene feels quite real as a character, because she’s driven and willing to better her position in the Library, but at the same time she’s aware of her limitations and knows when to move aside in favor of people with more experience.
On the other hand, the other characters are somewhat less defined: we learn something more about Kai along the way, granted, and we get interesting glimpses about Vale and Bradamant, but they are still… in flux, so to speak, probably waiting for the next installments in the series to get some more flesh on their proverbial bones. The same happens to the concept of the Library itself: we see a few quick flashes of its long corridors filled with books, we learn that there are endless passages and junctions – and this reminded me a little of some kind of multi-dimensional puzzle in which one could get too easily lost – but we know nothing about the creation of the Library, and how it developed over the centuries, and across the worlds. But this will probably be detailed more in the next books…
The overall mood of The Invisible Library reminded me a little of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series: the coexistence of werewolves and vampires, the steampunk elements, the mysteries hiding behind every corner, but where Carriger’s work is a headless romp carried by tongue-in-cheek wit, Cogman’s brand of humor is more subdued and far less outrageous – unless she decides to have a refined party crashed by mechanical alligators, that is. The light-hearted fun mixed with more dramatic events creates a good blend that makes for a swift, entertaining read: it might be a little on the thin side, as far as the plot is concerned, yet there are times when some lightness is not only welcome, but rather necessary for a change of pace, and I believe this series might become one of my go-to stories when I want to… take a breath from more intense reads.
There are a few elements that detract from the overall positive experience though: for example, the moments when the characters fall prey to the need for lengthy exposition, going over previous occurrences and recapping them in painstaking detail – to me these segments felt like wading through quicksand where a moment before I was flying on a dirigible. And the Language – fascinating concept that it is – seems to be used too liberally, to the point that it takes on the shape of a convenient plot device rather than a tool to be employed in the direst of circumstances: as if to drive this point home, it seemed to me that Irene’s skills were brought in better light when she was momentarily unable to use Language, rather than when she wielded it as a weapon at the drop of a hat.
These little snags notwithstanding, I enjoyed The Invisible Library quite a bit, and will look forward to the next installments in the series, one that I can recommend for its high entertainment value.