Novella Review: ALL THE PRETTY LITTLE HORSES, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This week I will explore ALL THE PRETTY LITTLE HORSES

In the introduction to this story, Mira Grant describes it as “one of the most difficult, emotionally challenging pieces I’ve sat down to write” and I immediately understood what she meant once I started reading: in the prequel story Countdown we follow several individuals’ plight as the Kellis-Amberlee virus starts spreading, and two of them are Michael and Stacy Mason – the adoptive parents of Georgia and Shaun, the main characters of the Newsflesh trilogy.

In the last scene dedicated to the senior Masons, their small child Phillip is going near a neighbor’s dog that has been infected by a raccoon’s bite: little Phillip approaches his four-legged friend addressing it with his usual “Oggie?”, and that chilling flash is all we need to understand what is going to happen to him.

As “All the Pretty Little Horses” opens four years elapsed and the worst of the Rising has taken its course, while the world is trying to pick up the pieces and to find a way to get back on track.  Stacy Mason does not care about it all though: once the emergency was over, she asked to be punished for having killed her infected son, but when the law did not (and could not) find her guilty she fell into deep depression.   Worried about her, her husband Michael finds a way to pull her out of it by managing to attach the two of them to the army contingent tasked with exploring the Oakland Zoo: it’s while Stacy is taking pictures of the premises that Michael realizes the best way to help his wife is to put her once more in the thick of things, just as they were while they organized the Berkeley enclave to hold on until help arrived.  Stacy thrives in dangerous situations, and so Michael finds a way for them to seek those situations and document them: we can see the birth of the blogging culture that’s at the center of the Newsflesh trilogy here, and how it starts as a way to deal with emotional trauma.

The loss of a child would be emotionally devastating in any situation, but the way Stacy Mason had to face her tragedy adds several layers of pain and guilt that no rationalization is going to erase: as usual, Mira Grant lays out her characters’ souls and their suffering in what I like to call a stark, utilitarian way, and in so doing she confers to these emotions a poignancy and hurtful directness that others not always manage to achieve.   What is fascinating here is the observation of the long struggle of the world to come out of the ashes of the Rising, and the way it mirrors the equally agonizing journey of the Masons toward a new way to deal with their past and the uncertain future before them.

Where Countdown was the story of how the Rising came to be, All the Pretty Little Horses shows the aftermath of it, the birth of a new world where the dead can walk: in a way these two novellas are like the bookends for the origin story of this alternate world, while this one holds many of the seeds of the larger tale that will become the Newsflesh series.  The tapestry, for want of a better word, takes even more shape and substance and, despite the pain and loss that run among the threads, remains a fascinating story.

My Rating: 

Review: BLACK CITY DEMON, by Richard A. Knaak (Black City Saint #2)

I received this book from Pyr/Prometheus Books in exchange for an honest review.

Last year I had the opportunity of reading and reviewing the first book in this series, Black City Saint, discovering a quite unusual mix of Urban Fantasy and noir detective fiction: the main character Nick Medea is a special kind of private investigator, because he helps clients who believe their homes are haunted, or prey to malicious infestations.  In truth Nick is no other than legendary Saint George, the dragon slayer, but with a slight twist to the tale: the dragon he vanquished was the guardian of the Gate standing between our mundane world and the realm of Faerie, and in suppressing the creature George/Nick let the door literally open to the passage of dangerous beings from Faerie.  Since then he’s taken upon himself, and with the endorsement of Queen Titania, the task of keeping the Wyld at bay, and he’s somewhat melded with the dragon, who can lend him his power and strength at need, sometimes with unforeseeable and terrifying effects: for example, the great fire that ravaged the city of Chicago in 1871 was caused by the dragon as he and Nick were battling Oberon, Titania’s husband and rival.

For sixteen centuries the alliance between man and dragon has kept Faerie’s Wyld from having their way, even though it entails a constant struggle for Nick to keep the dragon from gaining the upper hand, or, as he defines it at some point: “…an eternal war for dominance with moments of tentative alliance when others tried to do us in. And sometimes, even those dangers weren’t enough to keep him from trying to betray me.”  This is indeed the nature of Nick’s allies, like the shape-shifter Fetch, a Faerie expatriate who looks like a dog and peppers his speech with the slang of the ’20s, in a quite amusing way of…. well, blending in I guess; or mysterious Kravayik, an elf who used to be the master assassin for the Faerie Court and has now found religion, in the attempt to atone for his past sins.  Both of them repeatedly profess their allegiance to Nick Medea, but it’s clear they both can pursue other agendas, and are anything but trustworthy.

Last but not less important in the list of people revolving around Nick is Cleolinda, the woman he loved and lost to the dragon: she always came back during the long centuries of his vigil, with another name and unaware of her past, but always ended in the same way.  The present incarnation, Claryce, has shown amazing powers of resilience and courage – even aiding Nick in his final battle against Oberon – and while the investigator desires nothing more than to keep her close, he’s afraid that this very closeness will lead to her death, once again.  As this story starts, Nick is trying to keep her at arm’s length while a series of alarming events makes gang-troubled Chicago an even more dangerous place than ever: the defeat and death of Oberon has not put an end to the danger, because the wake of the Frost Moon is giving strength and substance to creatures touched by magic, not least a ruthless serial killer bent on coming back from the dead and gaining enough power to shape the world to his desires.

Black City Demon, like its predecessor, is a quick and captivating read, mixing a very specific time period – that of the Prohibition era – with the typical themes of Urban Fantasy, like magic, weird creatures and outlandish dangers: in this case the threat comes from a very human-derived foe, even though the forces of Faerie are involved and Nick Medea needs to unravel a complicated maze of clues and misdirections to reach the heart of the problem and put a stop to it.  His journey is not an easy one: as I remarked in the case of the first book, in a few instances he seems to take some time in putting two and two together, giving the appearance of not being the smartest of players, despite his long years of service. Granted, worry about Claryce’s safety and the guilt over the loss of her previous incarnations can be quite distracting, but he also seems oblivious to the fact that Claryce is perfectly able to fend for herself – just look at the sang froid with which she wields a gun, more often than not saving Nick’s hide in the process – and that she can be a valid partner in his ventures.  In that respect Fetch is several steps ahead of his master: the unabashedly sincere devotion he shows Claryce is the proof of her effectiveness as an ally, while it helps to showcase Fetch’s personality in a delightful way, making him a more interesting character than ever.

It seems to me that the non-human individuals in this series are fleshed out in better relief than the purely human ones: Fetch is such an example, as is Kravayik – about whom we learn a great deal in this book, transforming him from the disturbing figure of his first appearance into a deeply tormented being worthy of at least some pity.  Queen Titania, even in her brief appearance, projects an aura of dispassionate cruelty that makes all the legends about the cold wickedness of the Elves come true in a very palpable way; and the various minions she and her underlings employ in the convoluted play for dominance are fascinating and creepy in equal measure.

Much as I appreciated this novel, however, I had some issues with it: as with the first book, the pacing seemed uneven at times, with the story meandering a little as if in search of the proper direction, and if the final resolution came thanks to a very compelling journey through a maze that was both physical and mental, partly based in the real world and partly in a different, crazy dimension, getting there required a little struggle now and then.  The biggest problem, though, came from the need to root this story in a specific time period: while it’s understood that events happen during the 1920s, there are often brief asides quoting situations or incidents that add more details to the background, indeed, but are expressed in such a way and in such circumstances as to prove distracting to the narrative flow. Not as distracting, though, as the anachronistic misstep I found in one of the final chapters, one that somewhat soured the whole experience for me: a small thing, granted, but even a little speck can mar a good picture…

I’m sorry I’m unable to rate this book as high as I hoped, but at the same time I’m still curious to see if the overall story will be able to reach its full potential in the next installments.

My Rating: 

Novella Review: PLEASE DO NOT TAUNT THE OCTOPUS, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This week is the turn of: PLEASE DO NOT TAUNT THE OCTOPUS

This novella marks the return of a great secondary figure from the Newsflesh trilogy, Dr. Shannon Abbey, a rogue virologist who keeps experimenting in search of a cure for the Kellis-Amberlee virus outside of the CDC-established parameters.  Abbey is a wonderful character, brash, hard-nosed and harshly practical: she describes herself as an “annoyed scientist” as opposed to the “mad scientist” label pinned on her by detractors, and she works out of semi-clandestine labs that she must abandon, from time to time, due to security reasons. This has taught her the hard lesson of cutting your losses and starting again, and shares this attitude with her closest assistants, the ones that have stayed with her the longest and constitute the core of her little outlaw family.

The story is somewhat light-hearted in comparison with other offerings in the Rise collection, and even though it’s not a humorous tale by a long shot, it’s also a welcome respite from the more dramatic presentations in this anthology. In short, Shannon Abbey is continuing her work after the breakthrough offered by a chance discovery following Shaun Mason’s visit to the lab with his team, and she rules over her little domain with firmness and a few well-placed dramatics (like the use of her huge dog Joe, a formidable deterrent if there ever was one). One day Dr. Abbey finds, in the woods surrounding the lab, a badly malnourished woman on the verge of collapse and she takes her inside, only to discover that her guest is part of a trap devised by a neighbor, the same ruler of the little underground kingdom we see in Feedback, ex-military turned despot Clive. He’s not the only connection to Mira Grant’s previous work, since in the course of the story we find out the real identity of the woman Abbey brought inside, someone we met in the novella The Day the Dead Came to Show and Tell, and this discovery leads to an exploration of post-traumatic stress and the ways to cope with dramatic loss.

The best feature of Please Do Not Taunt the Octopus, however, remains Dr. Abbey: I quite liked her in Deadline and Blackout, but here she is both point of view and narrating voice – and what a voice she has, indeed.  Sarcastic and pragmatic, she also feels deeply for the people entrusted to her authority and the creatures in the lab – the scenes with the titular octopus are among the best, and helped me a great deal in metabolizing the dread and sadness that hit me after revisiting The Last Stand of the California Browncoats.  There is a good measure of pain and loss in Dr. Abbey’s past, and the small flashbacks help us understand how she came to be the person she is now, but the main emotion that information prompts is not so much pity as admiration for her strength and her willingness to fight back: that’s why I ‘m not surprised to learn that she is one of the author’s favorite characters.  She is now also mine, as well.

My Rating: 

Review: THE GATES OF HELL, by Michael Livingston (The Shards of Heaven #2)

Through The Shards of Heaven, the first book in this series, I discovered a new sub-genre I enjoy quite a bit: historical fantasy, a way to blend entertaining reading with some real history – and to pique one’s curiosity about learning more about the time period in which the story is set. For these reasons I was more than looking forward to continuing with Michael Livingston’s series, and The Gates of Hell did not disappoint.

A few years have elapsed since the fall of Alexandria and the conquest of Egypt by Rome: after the deaths of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, their children are either dead, in hiding or, like Selene, prisoners of Octavian, now self-styled Caesar Augustus, emperor. Selene Cleopatra, has been taken into Octavian family’s fold and married off to Juba II, son of the deceased king of Numidia, a double tie that should keep her under control.  But Selene being Selene, she remains quite unbowed and although her marriage to Juba proves to be a happy one – where respect and friendship quickly turn into love – the need for vengeance is never far from her thoughts, doubly so because in this as well she finds a kindred spirit in her husband.  With the help of the Shards they acquired – the Aegis of Zeus that Juba obtained in Alexandria, and the one hidden into a statue Selene stole from the temple of the Vestals – they work to master the power of the artifacts, with the goal of one day bring about the destruction of Rome.

Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Cesarion – son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, and Selene’s half-brother – has gone deep underground to avoid capture and to help preserve the very powerful Shard hidden inside the Ark of the Covenant. When former legionnaire Vorenus visits the Head Librarian Didymus to inquire about the Ark’s apparent loss of power, their conversation is overheard by disgruntled ex librarian Thrasyllus, who concocts a plan to put himself in Didymus’ exalted position and gain the favor of the Roman occupants.

These are the main narrative threads at the heart of Gates of Hell, and they carry the story forward at a steady pace while expanding on the characters we met in Book 1: the preferred focus is on Selene and Juba, of course, and their increasing mastery of the Shards in their possession. There is an intriguing form of character osmosis – for want of a better word – between the two of them: Juba has become more reflexive, more inclined to think his way through and to consider every possible facet of a problem, while Selene has lost some of her merry-go-lucky youthful attitude (which is understandable, considering the heart-rending losses she endured) and she is the one who seems to be goading her husband toward their shared objective.

What’s truly fascinating is the change in Octavian: I remarked on his cold cruelty in my review of Book 1, and how different he looked there in respect of the image that has come to us through time. I wondered if, in his case, the author was stressing the concept about history being written – and therefore shaped – by the victors. That’s why I was surprised to see a softer side of the newly crowned emperor, that of a man who cares about the people he calls family and is very aware of the sacrifices he might call them to accept in the name of the grand dream he nurtures, that of a huge, peaceful empire.   This change, one that comes along in small, organic increments until it blossoms into an amazingly selfless act, was not only a surprise for me as a reader but also for the character of Juba, who starts to question his and Selene’s goal of vengeance and to lean toward a different path:

Was the Peace of Rome a truly horrible dream? Or was it perhaps something real, something tangible that was worth setting aside their need to avenge the fallen members of their families?

Some harrowing circumstances cause both Juba and Selene to review their stance and to accept a more peaceful path for their future, a fresh start that will allow them to forget the pain and loss in their past. But if Octavian has mellowed out in this second volume of the series, another historical figure – that of Tiberius – has taken the role of the antagonist here, and it will be the long reach of his actions that will determine the developments of the last part of the book, where the meaning of the title becomes horribly clear.   As Selene and Juba battle with their inner demons (and not only those), Caesarion and his steadfast allies Vorenus and Pullo face a different kind of danger that will climax in a bloody battle fraught with heartbreaking losses.

The Gates of Hell proved to be a swift, sometimes breathless read, and it certainly paves the way for some huge developments: there were some… hiccups along the way, like the author’s need to involve his characters in long philosophical discussions that were certainly interesting but that somehow broke the rhythm of the story; or the often-repeated information about the Shards, that at times sounds just a little pedantic.  But apart from these very small blemishes, I enjoyed the book very much and I’m now waiting for the next installment with great expectation.

My Rating: 

Novella Review: SAN DIEGO 2014 – THE LAST STAND OF THE CALIFORNIA BROWNCOATS, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This week is the turn of SAN DIEGO 2014: THE LAST STAND OF THE CALIFORNIA BROWNCOATS

This is the most terrifying and at the same time the most poignant of the stories about the Rising, and if anything it was more difficult to bear on re-reading than it was the first time – not because I already knew what was going to happen, but because knowing that, I was able to focus on other details, the ones where human frailty and courage took center stage.

Here Mira Grant imagines what would happen at the start of the zombie apocalypse in a place as crowded as a sci-fi convention (in the specific case, San Diego’s Comic Con), and she aptly terms it “the perfect recipe for chaos”.  The title takes inspiration from a very real group of people, the California Browncoats (from the delightful, unfortunate tv show Firefly), a non-profit organization that promotes charity fundraising at Comic-Con.  My own sole experience of a sci-fi convention – and a very small one at that – helped me visualize the scenes in this story, and that made it even more harrowing…   

In the summer of 2014, when the Kellis-Amberlee virus starts running rampant, killing people and bringing back the dead, all seems normal for the people attending the annual Comic Con convention in San Diego: little do they know that hell will break loose and in a matter of hours the convention center will transform into a slaughterhouse.  This story runs on two time tracks, one following the events at the convention as they happen, and one from 30 years in the future, when Mahir Gowda (a welcome return from the Newsflesh trilogy) interviews the only survivor of the carnage.  It’s mostly a story of ordinary people forced to face extraordinary events and doing their best to cope with a situation no one would ever have imagined, and there are acts of true heroism standing side by side with the inevitable terror and panic following on the heels of the outbreak.

It’s a very powerful account, one that employs with great success the image of a huge, enclosed space plunged in semi-darkness, where the living and the undead move among the stalls – some of them transformed into makeshift barricades – in a sort of modern transposition of Dante’s Inferno. The story does not only mark the beginning of the end for the world as we know it, but also underlines the loss of the most precious commodity humanity can enjoy: innocence.  In Mira Grant’s own words: “We are incapable of imagining a return to a world where we could abandon all care and spend a week living in a fantasy.”

I don’t believe I will be able to ever attend any convention without thinking about this story….

My Rating: 

Review: LUNA: WOLF MOON, by Ian McDonald (Luna #2)

“We fight and we die up there; we build and we destroy, we love and we hate and live lives of passion beyond your comprehension and not one of you down here cares.”   (Lucas Corta)

One of my most awaited titles for this year was the sequel to the amazing Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald, that for me had represented a double discovery – a great story and a new-to-me author who captured my imagination with his representation of a complex and merciless society established on the Moon.  When Luna: Wolf Moon came out I did now waste any time in acquiring and reading it, and indeed it was worth the year-long wait. For those who plan on reading it, this review is as spoiler-free as humanly possible…

The colony established on Earth’s Moon has thrived and expanded, in the span of a few decades, into a microcosm society ruled by the Five Dragons, the families who have created their own resources-based empires: the Mackenzies mine the surface in search of rare metals; the Suns deal with software and technology; the Asamoahs are the food growers; the Vorontsovs run the transport systems; and the late-comers Cortas extract the precious Helium3 that keeps the lights running on Earth.  These five families have been at each other’s throats – albeit in a subtle and apparently civilized way – since forever, despite the intermarriages that should have cemented a sort of truce and instead only managed to fuel rivalries and hatred, yet for some time the status quo prevailed until the Mackenzies decided to take matters into their own hands and brutally attacked the Cortas in order to erase them from the face of the Moon.

And so the first book ended, in a mass slaughter that made Martin’s infamous Red Wedding appear like a church picnic, and Luna: Wolf Moon opens some eighteen months later: the few surviving Cortas have either gone into hiding or adopted a very low profile, while the Mackenzies have taken over their rivals’ business and destroyed their enclave, Joao de Deus, in a ruthless tabula rasa operation that speaks volumes about the conquerors’ determination of sending their adversaries into oblivion.  Yet the Cortas are not truly finished because Lucas, one of the surviving heirs of matriarch Adriana, decides to undergo the grueling and potentially lethal training that will allow him to travel to Earth, where he intends to collect the necessary resources and allies to effect a comeback and vanquish the Mackenzies.  And as an added point of interest, the latter are not exactly enjoying their victory, because an inner war for power has started…

To say that I totally relished my return to McDonald’s Moon would be a massive understatement: there is so much in this story to hold my attention – apart from the plot about which I will say no more, because it must be appreciated on its own: the social structure created on the Moon is a fascinating exercise in imagination, as is the frame of mind of the people who have made their home there; and then there are the characters, the majority of which are not people one can easily admire, but are still so fascinating that they kept me glued to the pages not in spite of their shortcomings, but because of them.   The society on Luna seems divided into two neat halves, those who wield power and have the means to live comfortably, and those who work for them and are seemingly locked in a precarious situation, subject to the whims and moods of the Dragons and their families.  There appears to be no middle class as we intend it, and that’s somewhat puzzling – unless the author chose not to mention these people because they were not functional to the economy of the story…

The civilization that grew up on the Moon as the small settlements expanded is a very peculiar one, not exactly lawless (even though the strongest usually prey on the most vulnerable and no one ever raises their voice to object), but rather… anarchic, for want of a better word: you could say that it was the environment that made the rules, not its dwellers, and since Luna is the proverbial harsh mistress, weakness cannot be tolerated there, not in a place whose very nature is focused on killing you with cold, lack of air and water, or unshielded radiation.  Luna is one giant factory geared toward the production of energy and precious materials, where law and fairness have no place or, as one character says at some point:

We’re not a nation state, we’re not a democracy robbed of the oxygen of freedom. We’re a commercial entity. We’re an industrial outpost. We turn a profit. All that’s happened is a change of management. And the new management needs to get the money flowing again.

If the characters are not exactly sympathetic, one cannot avoid feeling invested in their journey, be it one of discovery of oneself, like it happens with Wagner Corta, the man who feels the influence of the waxing and waning Earth as a werewolf of legend felt that of the Moon; or one of vengeance, like the true descent into hell of Lucas Corta, who braves the crushing gravity of his mother’s planet of origin to find the means to restore his family’s power – and there lies one of the best features of the book, the terse descriptions of Lucas’ brutal training and the nightmarish torture of living under six times one’s weight, sustained only by the iron will that’s part of his family’s heritage.

Ian McDonald’s writing is economical, almost stark at times, with no concession to flowery descriptions, and yet it manages to depict the savage, terrifying beauty of the lunar surface, or the most shocking of circumstances with effective clarity, to place his readers right there where events are occurring, and to see them clearly with their minds’ eye.  Lucas Corta’s fight with gravity that I mentioned above is indeed a case in point, the man’s agony portrayed with a cinematic quality that at the same time makes you physically share in the pain he undergoes, all this underlined by a parallel description of the music he listens to as a form of distraction and support, the staccato delivery of the narrative in perfect sync with the music’s rhythm.

And if the writing is outstanding, the story itself is compelling: it jumps from character to character, from location to location, in a perpetual motion that leaves you no time to catch your breath, much like the lunar version of the parkour runners defying injury and death even in the reduced gravity of the Moon. It’s a story told by many voices, examined from different perspectives, and in the end it makes it clear that it’s much bigger than the sum of its parts.  And speaking of ends, this book should have been the second in a duology, and in fact there’s no indication it will be followed by others, but there are too many evolving threads, too many open issues still on the table, that I don’t want to consider the possibility this will be the last time I’ll visit this world.

Please, Mr. McDonald… can we have another book – or more?

My Rating:  

Novella Review: EVERGLADES, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This week I will explore

EVERGLADES

Short and brutal and sad: these are the words that best describe this story, one of those that are new to me.  Each of these short tales comes with an introduction by Mira Grant, a way to set it in the bigger picture if you want – and I find these just as fascinating as the stories themselves.  In here, the author delves into the mindset of those people facing the end of the world as they know it and choosing to be “a statistic”, one of the “soft costs” of a dramatic chain of events.

Everglades is set in the early days of the Rising, in a California campus besieged by the walking dead and seen through the eyes of Debbie, one of the students attending summer semester.  The harsh reality of the zombie apocalypse alternates with Debbie’s recollection of one perfect summer in Florida, visiting her grandparents and going on an excursion in the Everglades with her grandfather.  The man had taken Debbie to the swamp, showing her that what looked like logs in the waters were, in truth, alligators lying in wait:

“Always remember that Nature can be cruel, little girl,”said Grandpa.  “Sometimes it’s what looks most harmless that hurts you the most.”

Debbie is remembering that lesson now, as the number of survivors in the campus keeps dwindling alongside their hopes of rescue: knowing, as we readers know, that salvation will not come, not in the chaotic days of the Rising, it’s not difficult to understand these people’s mindset, the uneasy mix of hope and despair, of doubt and terror.  When she realizes that the alligators, like other predators out there, are more tailored for survival than human beings, that intelligence and progress and science can amount to nothing in the face of the unspeakable horror that is being visited upon the world.

These stories are not easy to read – the subject matter sees to that in no uncertain way – but at the same time they show the whole range of human emotions, of strength and frailties, that can be seen in exceptional circumstance: and Mira Grant truly excels in depicting those in her deceptively plain, but powerful, way.

My Rating: 

Review: SINS OF EMPIRE (Gods of Blood and Powder #1), by Brian McClellan

I received this novel from Orbit Books in exchange for an honest review.

A few years ago, I read – and enjoyed – Brian McClellan’s first volume of his Powder Mage trilogy, Promise of Blood.  It was a good and engaging start to a new fantasy series, but for some reason – mainly the fact that I get far too easily distracted by any new title that catches my attention – I did not read the two remaining volumes.  With the passing of time, my recollection of the events and characters in Promise of Blood faded considerably, so that I knew I would have to re-read book 1 first once I decided to pick up the series again.

When I saw Sins of Empire and realized it was set some ten years after the time-frame for the first trilogy, I knew it offered me an opportunity to get back into this world, one where magic shows peculiar features: besides wielders of more “conventional” magic, called Privileged, there are Powder Mages, people graced with exceptional strength, speed and endurance through the use of gunpowder, besides having the ability to detonate it from a distance.  Then there are people gifted with a knack, a lesser talent – like needing little or no sleep, or sensing the presence and use of magic – that can nonetheless be quite useful.  This much I remembered from my past reading of Promise of Blood, and it helped me settle into this world with no effort, but I should not have worried about it anyway, because the time and place removal of this novel from the original trilogy makes it a totally new start anyone can enjoy, and the author shows a great skill in inserting a few useful snippets of information that refer to the past, and help ground the narrative, without slowing the pace of the story at all.

The nation of Fatrasta gained its independence through a bloody war and is now on the way toward an economic boom, although not everything works smoothly: the Palo natives are marginalized by the Fatrastans and there is unrest brewing both on the frontier and in the capital city of Landfall, administered with an iron fist by Chancellor Lindet and her Blackhat secret police. In the outreaches of Fatrasta, lady Vlora Flint (a character from the original trilogy) and her Riflejack mercenary army are battling against Palo insurgents when they are called back to Landfall as additional manpower against the brewing rebellion carried out in the name of the mysterious Mama Palo, a dissident leader hiding in the warrens of Greenfire Depths, the capital’s Palo enclave where even the Blackhats fear to walk. Michel Bravis, a Blackhat Iron Rose (which means a high-lever officer), is given the task of rooting out the revolutionary clique responsible for the printing and distribution of an anti-government pamphlet, and finds himself, in case of failure, in the unenviable position of losing his status and any hope of acquiring the prestigious Gold Rose that will secure his standing. And last but not least, Ben Styke, former commander of the Mad Lancers, a famed Fatrastan assault battalion, has been languishing in a labor camp for ten years with little hope of getting out alive, when a mysterious lawyer manages his release in exchange for a peculiar request…

These are the three main storylines that give life to Sins of Empire, alternating chapters between the various characters while building them little by little: this is the main reason for the quick pace of this novel that caught my interest and imagination from page one, and never let go. There is much more going on, however, because Landfall is shortly revealed as a power keg waiting only for the right spark, and there are many different currents moving in the background and slowly but inexorably building toward the final showdown. Characters are indeed the driving force of the story, and my absolute favorite is Mad Ben Styke (the “mad” moniker more than amply justified…): a hulking bear of a man prone to violence and with more than a few shadows in his past, but nonetheless the kind of person anyone would want guarding their back in a dangerous situation, and one capable of the most unexpected tenderness and care, as shown with his taking charge of young Celine, a street urchin he met in the labor camp.  And Celine is a great character on her own as well, her youth and innocence offset by street-wise expediency and her utter admiration for Ben’s killer instincts.

Vlora Flint, who I remember vaguely from my first foray into McClellan’s storytelling, is a well-rounded, ass-kicking lady hardened by military campaigns and the mistakes of her past (whose hints made me decide I must not wait any further to explore the original trilogy), who nonetheless still cares about decency and fairness, and above all wants the best for the men under her command.  If the world described in these books is a welcome variation on the usual fantasy setting, with its end-of-18th / beginning of 19th century feeling, Vlora is a few steps removed from the typical heroines of the genre, even the most empowered ones, because her courage is also supported by pragmatism and a strong sense of responsibility.  Knowing more about what makes her tick and what created the person I encountered in this book has now become an imperative.

The character I found most difficult to approach is that of Michel Bravis, particularly because of a few personality quirks – like the habit of keeping long conversations with himself while debating plans and strategies – that puzzled me no end. I could however relate to his need to keep afloat in the difficult milieu of the Blackhats, especially after meeting their commander in chief Fidelis Jes, a real psychopath if there ever was one, and most importantly after a huge revelation shifted my opinion of Michel a nice 180 degrees, while at the same time changing the rules of the game in a major way.

And remarkable revelations do indeed abound in this novel, especially concerning identity and goals, to the point I was often reminded of a quote from my beloved Babylon5: “no one here is exactly what they appear”. The surprises that the author sprung on me along the road were both unexpected and momentous, and added to my enjoyment of the story, one that starts deceptively slowly but builds with inexorable momentum toward the final showdown – a battle of epic proportions that kept me on tenterhooks the whole time.  In this regard, I must reveal that I usually don’t do well with battle scenes, since I find them both confused and confusing: not so here, where the crystal-clear cinematic quality of the writing made those scenes come alive in my mind’s eye.

Despite being the first book in a new series, Sins of Empire does not end in a true cliffhanger (which is something I greatly appreciate), but still lays the groundwork for some very intriguing developments, the most important of them being a danger coming from far away, something steeped in legends and the half-remembered past.  Only the awareness I can now backtrack through Brian McClellan’s previous works will help me weather the wait for the next installment.

My Rating: 

Short Story Review: MEAT + DRINK by Daniel Polansky

My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues…  I have recently discovered the dedicated section over at Tor com, and found many interesting offerings.  This week’s choice is for:

MEAT+DRINK by Daniel Polansky

The vampire myth has been explored in all its forms and variations, so one might think there is no room for a new angle or a different perspective, yet at times you can find authors able to put a different spin on the trope.  This is the case of Meat+Drink, indeed, a story told from the perspective of vampires who have none of the glamour, attraction or sophistication that’s usually associated with the most classical point of view of the genre.

The narrator here used to be a 17-year old girl but is now meat, as opposed to flesh – dead as opposed to living. She shares a hiding space with four other undead, one of them a child, spending their days in a basement, away from the sun, and their nights either scavenging in search of money or valuable objects, or hunting for prey – for drink.

This former girl’s voice is quite peculiar, more like a stream-of-consciousness report than a organic tale, grammar and punctuation as decayed and still decaying as the walking meat these vampires have become once they lost the vitality of flesh.  As the unnamed narrator says: “flesh is ever-changing, flesh is self-aware. meat is insentient, meat is stagnant”.   The horror in this story does not come so much from seeing these vampires prey on the living, but from the feeling of hopelessness and despair of such a condition, so much stronger and poignant because they remain unexpressed and probably unfelt.

And yet something of the former personality must remain after the transformation, as the events show when the little “family” undergoes an upheaval that changes the internal dynamics. It might be wrong to use the world “hope” in such circumstances, but the end is a little less bleak than the rest of the story. And that’s enough.

My Rating:  

 

Review: GEMINA, by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (Illuminae Files #2)

Last year I was literally swept away by Illuminae, the first volume in this trilogy: not only because of its compelling story, but also thanks to its remarkable characters, that went a long way toward changing my opinion about YA-oriented stories. Kady Grant and Ezra Mason, the two main protagonists of book 1, were depicted as normal teenagers – no whining, no pouting, no interminable complaints about the unfairness of the world – dealing with some relationship troubles until a tragic event turned their lives upside down, forcing them to mature more quickly while they desperately tried to stay alive.

When I went into Gemina I knew that this second book would follow along the same guidelines, but with different characters, and I was somewhat worried that it would feel like a rehash of the previous story, and that disappointment might lie on that road. Now I’m very happy to say that I was totally wrong. Yes, Hannah and Nik – the main characters in this new installment – are young people fighting for their lives and needing to push their individual envelopes a lot further than expected, but their journey is a different one, and their personalities refreshingly different.  But let’s proceed with order…

As the survivors of the Kerenza assault travel toward Heimdall Jumpstation, to bring evidence of the colony’s massacre and BeiTech’s involvement in it, the latter are mounting a raid that will insure the elimination of any and all witnesses to the Kerenza operation. A special incursion team is dispatched to Heimdall, taking advantage of the station’s downtime due to a holiday, and takes over, killing the higher-ranking officers, locking away the rest of the personnel and lying in wait for the Hypathia, the ship carrying the Kerenza survivors.   Only a few people manage to escape the assailants’ net: Hannah Donnelly, the station commander’s daughter; Nik Malikov, son of an influential member of the crime organization House of Knives, and Hannah’s drug dealer; Ella Malikova, Nik’s cousin, a disabled girl with an amazing knack for computers.  The three find themselves dealing not only with the assault team – and the incoming drone fleet that will obliterate Heimdall after the destruction of Hypatia – but also with the infestation of an alien life form, used by House of Knives to harvest a highly sought-after drug and running amok after the BeiTech attackers have killed the criminals handling the operation.

The only similarities between Illuminae and Gemina come from the protagonists’ need to overcome insurmountable odds, while the clock keeps ticking toward certain annihilation, and of course from the format of the story, a collection of chat transcripts, personal messages exchanged across the station’s net, Hannah’s diary excerpts and the transcripts of the station’s camera footage, complete with the dedicated technician’s comments (a very welcome relief from the drama unfolding on the pages) and the redaction of profanities.  That said, both the story and the characters are refreshingly new, and all of them managed to surprise me because they defied any expectation I might have had given the way they were initially introduced. The pace is relentless, and there are many surprises along the way that again challenge any pre-conceived idea I might have had about the evolution of the plot.

In the beginning Hannah Donnelly comes across as your typical spoiled brat, frustrated by the life she’s leading on the station and compensating by being a party girl and a supplier of drugs for her friends. Her liaison with one of her father’s junior officers seems to go in the same direction, as if she’s trying to “rock the boat” and see how far she can go. Not exactly the kind of person one would expect to come forward and try to stop the bad guys from blowing up the station, is she? And yet, when the BeiTech team storms Heimdall, Hannah sheds her flighty persona in no time at all and shows what she’s really made of, revealing unsuspected qualities, like the perfect physical form she’s maintained in the long hours spent in the gym, practicing martial arts, or the lessons in tactics and warfare that were part of her father-daughter moments with Commander Donnelly, and that allow her to keep up the dangerous cat-and-mouse game she engages with the invaders, particularly their leader, code-named Cerberus.

On first meeting Nik Malikov one might be inclined to describe him as the typical gang member: he’s cocky, arrogant, covered in tattoos that shout to the world his deeds or the times he spent in jail.  He works with his uncle, the station’s leader for the House of Knives, and helps harvesting dust – the recreational drug used on the station – from mind-drinking, snake-like alien creatures: there is a particular scene concerning this part of the HoK activities that I don’t recommend reading around mealtimes…  Yet there is more, much more than meets the eye with Nik – and what we discover about his past, along the way, helps a great deal to alter that initial image – and more importantly there is a deep capacity for both care and courage in this young man that quickly endeared him to me, long before I started to look at Hannah with equally different eyes.

Plot-wise, the dangerous, bloody game the two engage with the assault team is the main driving power of the novel: on the surface, some of the defeats suffered by the BeiTech people seem too easy, even contrived, but the authors always manage to show that either Hannah or Nik employ their experience, intelligence and craft (not to mention an intimate knowledge of the station and how it works) to put all the monkey wrenches they can think of into the invader’s gears. For their part, the BeiTech people appear quite sure of themselves, and well prepared on technical side of the operation, but their past rate of success seems to have put a dangerous cockiness into their attitude, a flaw that exposes them to the young people’s guerrilla tactics.  After a while, the operation seems to change its scope and transforms from a military raid into a conflict of wits and a fight for physical and psychological supremacy – especially true for Cerberus and his chief operative Kali, whose nickname goes well with her vengeful attitude.  In my opinion, the reason for Hannah and Nik’s successful incursions lies exactly there, in the loss by the BeiTech team of their professional focus in favor of a more personal goal.

Another interesting element comes from the growing relationship between Hannah and Nik: unlike Kady and Ezra in Illuminae they are not already a couple, and there is no attraction between them.  There is a sort of playful game going on, granted, where Nik peppers their communications with not-so-subtle innuendoes and Hannah plays to the hilt her role of arrogant snob – the one that gains her the appellatives of “Princess” or “Your Highness” from the young man – but they come from two very different walks of life and romantic attachment is indeed the last of their thoughts.  But it’s through the experience of being the only two (three, if you count Ella) free people on the station, the disillusionments they suffer (Hannah in particular) and the shared dangers that they become close, and something starts growing between them.  Even more than romance, the coming together of Hannah and Nik feels like the meeting of two people who are changing through hardship,  finding their true selves and finding a great match in the other person, once the real personality manages to shine though.

All in all, I can safely say that I enjoyed Gemina even more than its predecessor, and that this series will end up being one of my favorites, and a keeper: I have decided to buy the physical books so that I can look in detail at what I missed in the electronic form of the novels, and will do so for the third volume as well.  For someone who vowed to keep strictly to e-books for ease of use and freedom of space, this means a great deal, indeed…

My Rating: