Reviews

PLANETARY AWARDS: Nominations for the best of 2018

 

It’s again time to vote for the Planetary Awards, the chance to nominate your favorite novel and shorter story for last year.

At the beginning of each year bloggers are called to vote for the Planetary Awards, a chance to showcase your favorite novel and shorter story from last year’s readings.

The contest is promoted by PLANETARY DEFENSE COMMAND and you can go HERE and learn how to list and promote the titles that caught your imagination more than others, or that were amazing discoveries from so-far-unknown authors.

Once again I went through my 5-star-rated books to choose, and once again was reminded how difficult that choice can be when you can nominate only one title in both categories, the Full Length Novel and the Short Story. Last year I picked my nominees by letting blind chance decide, but this year I wanted to do something different, so I decided to choose an unknown to me author and a well-known one, so that I could feel a sort of… balance in the process.

So the winners and my nominees for the 2018 Planetary Awards turn out to be:

 

Full Length Novel: A TIME OF DREAD, by John Gwynne (my new discovery)

 

Short Story or Novella: THE FLOWERS OF VASHNOI, by Lois McMaster Bujold (an old-time favorite)

 

I encourage you to go and vote for your favorite authors/stories: it’s another way of showing our gratitude for the many wonderful hours we spend immersed in some other world…

And as usual, my thanks for Planetary Defense Command for hosting the awards!

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Reviews

Review: EMPIRE OF DUST (Psi-Tech #1), by Jacey Bedford

 

There are several interesting themes, at the basis of this debut novel, that I found intriguing, telepathy being the foremost of them, and I enjoyed how it was woven into the background of a galaxy-spanning civilization ruled by corporations and therefore plagued by the usual afflictions of economic interests and greed.  The end result might not have been completely successful at times, but it was a fast and entertaining read, and one that holds the promise of developing into something much more substantial.

The main character, Cara Carlinni, is a telepath on the run: formerly employed by one of the two big galactic corporations, Alphacorp, she is now hiding from her boss and former lover Ari Van Bleiden because of the vital information she possesses and that could damage him if it came out into the open.  Empire of Dust‘s take on telepathy is an intriguing one: people with such potential (which does not limit itself to mind reading) are enrolled by the big corporations and provided with an implant that enhances such abilities, allowing them to communicate across vast distances, for example, or to merge with a ship’s instruments to better guide it through space.  The implants also work as a sort of locator beacon, and for this reason Cara is not activating it (although that causes her a great deal of stress) and taking menial jobs to survive.

Having been discovered once again by Van Bleiden’s minions, Cara connects with another telepath, Ben Benjamin, working for Alphacorp’s rivals, the Trust, and manages to escape on his ship. Despite the initial difficulties in their encounter, Ben decides to help her escape and recruits her, under a false identity, for the latest mission he’s been assigned to together with a team of specialized telepaths, that of assisting a group of anti-technology colonists settle on the new world of their choice and start a back-to-the-origins kind of life.  Of course Van Bleiden’s hounds have not given up their search, and other kinds of corporate mischief threaten the safety of both Cara and Ben, not to mention that the difficult co-existence between the telepaths and the Luddite colonists adds another level of danger to the mission.  And of course between the two main characters some feelings are developing…

As I said, while Empire of Dust proved to be an entertaining read, and one that showed some promise for the future, I could not avoid feeling that in some instances it felt a little old fashioned, reminding me of the kind of stories written in the ’60s or thereabouts, stories that at times glossed over in-depth examination in favor of advancing the plot: there is nothing wrong about this kind of choice, of course, but when I’m given glimpses of an advanced civilization and the way it works, I like to know more, to see how certain details came to be to better understand how they apply to the story.  This novel gave me the impression that there was much more underlying the events being described, but that the author had shied away from delving deeper into them, so that my curiosity ended up bordering into mild frustration.

On the other side of the spectrum, though, the theme of the Ecolibrians, the colonists searching for a virgin world to be colonized in the old way, without assistance from machines and other technological implements, is an intriguing one: the “return to nature” movement is not a novel idea, but here it proves interesting because of its desire for a simpler way of life, despite all the drawbacks that such a choice entails, especially in a new, potentially hostile world whose dangers have not been completely assessed.  In any technologically advanced society there are always people who feel the need to distance themselves from the perceived slavery to everyday’s gadgets, and in this novel the colonists make us think of the mid-nineteenth century adventurers who moved west on oxen-driven wagons, bent on facing the unknown in search of a better way of life.  Of course there are always extreme elements driven by the need to step even further, and those depicted in Empire of Dust provide for some of the more dramatic, tension-filled moments, showing us how human nature basically remains the same, no matter the location or the time frame.

The same duality in plot I mentioned above extends to characterization as well: the “good guys” are portrayed well and give birth to rounded, believable figures it’s easy to picture in one’s mind.  I quite enjoyed the slow-building relationship between Cara and Ben, the way their interaction started off with unspoken truths and withheld secrets, to move gradually toward trust and then love – and I’m glad to report that the love story is not central to the novel, but only one of its elements. As a matter of fact, I ended up rooting for them and hoping that the misunderstandings and problems that afflicted their relationship would be resolved: these two start out as co-conspirators, move on to comrades and partners in danger and then progress toward something deeper – no insta-love here, thankfully.

Unfortunately, I can’t say as much about the antagonists, since they on the whole look more like the cookie-cutter variety of baddies, and if any of them sported some mustache I’m sure they would have twirled them evilly. Here lies my main contention with Empire of Dust, because the “bad guys” are all irredeemably bad, and just for the sake of it – especially Ari Van Bleiden and his theatrically cruel sidekicks.  I would have enjoyed a little more depth in them, and not characters merely driven by malice for the sake of it.

On the whole, however, this was a very enjoyable novel, and I have no difficulty in ascribing any flaw I detected to its nature as a debut work: the promise for better pacing and characterization is there and I will certainly keep on reading this series in the hope to see those promises flourish.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: CANOE, by Nancy Kress

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

 

CANOE, by Nancy Kress

Another story from an author I’ve encountered before in very interesting reads: this time she offers a quite poignant story of a small exploration crew and of a huge discovery in the farthest reaches of space.

The Herschel is a new breed of ship sporting a revolutionary kind of drive that can take it well away from the Solar System, and its four-people (plus one artificial construct) crew is headed toward Luhman 16, the first alien system to be visited by humans – a system comprised of two stars and six planets.  The most interesting of them, an ice-covered planet with sixteen moons, suddenly appears to be escaping its sun’s hold, plunging into the even colder depths of space: knowing that their time for exploration is limited, the crew of the Herschel rush to complete, as far as possible, all the measurements they were scheduled to do, and suddenly something quite unexpected meets their eyes.

The two men and two women in the Herschel’s crew are highly trained professionals but also human beings, with all the flaws and troubles that we have been carrying with us since the dawn of time, and that we will probably take along once we’ll take to space, so that the long voyage, the protracted inactivity and the unavoidable boredom have taken their toll on their interpersonal relationships, especially that of Rachel, a biologist of Samoan origins, and Peter, the scion of an influential WASP family – the two have indulged in a brief fling that ended in a terrible row, straining the already tense atmosphere aboard the ship.

But such petty troubles vanish almost instantaneously once an unexpected discovery changes the scope and goals of the Herschel’s mission, forcing the four of them to re-assess their outlook on it and their long-term goals: Rachel in particular, thinking about her exploring ancestors who braved the oceans in search of new homes, strongly feels that need to the point that it becomes her primary drive.

At times poetic and quite touching, this is a story that will remain with me for a long time.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: 13 MINUTES, by Sarah Pinborough

 

My previous experience with Sarah Pinborough’s work through her novels Mayhem and Murder led me to expect only the best from this author, but I have to say that with 13 Minutes those expectations were more than exceeded: from start to finish this story kept me glued to the book in an adrenaline-rich rollercoaster that gave the label of ‘unputdownable’ a whole new level of meaning.

16-year old Natasha is rescued from the icy river in which she fell, and literally brought back to life by the paramedics, since she was clinically dead for 13 minutes. No one knows how she ended in the freezing waters, least of all Natasha herself who suffers from retrograde amnesia, so the investigators are looking both at attempted suicide – although nothing in Natasha’s life appears to lead in this direction – and at foul play.

This latter option seems to gain some substance when Natasha notices the strange behavior of her two best friends, Jenny and Hayley, who seem to be hiding something: the three of them, dubbed “the Barbies” by their school mates because of their looks and popularity, used to be a close knit group standing at the top of their peers’ social standing, equally admired and envied by everyone, but now there seems to be an insincere overtone in Jenny’s and Hayley’s demeanor, something that alarms and arouses Tasha’s suspicions.  For this reason she places some distance between herself and the other two Barbies, and reconnects with Rebecca, who used to be her best friend when they were younger and was mercilessly discarded when Tasha opted to move in more glamorous circles.

For her own part Becca, despite the devil-may-care attitude developed after being shunned by Tasha, is all too eager to resume the friendship and is able to silence her qualms about ditching her new friend Hannah, a plain but steadfast girl with whom she’s become close, in her turn adopting the same heartless approach exhibited by Tasha in the past: she’s aware of the profound injustice of the whole situation, but at the same time she is consumed by the need to get to the bottom of the mystery and in that way regain her place by Tasha’s side.

From this point on, the hints and clues about what might really have happened in that fateful night are laid out in a breadcrumb trail that offers misdirections and red herrings rather than answers, until the final revelation that comes as a shock and a surprise – at least that’s what it turned out to be for me since I could never have figured out that this was the intention of the author all along.

The first consideration that came to my mind once I closed the book was that I’m glad to have gone through my teenage years without major troubles, never having had to face the kind of peer pressures that Sarah Pinborough describes in this novel: granted, when I was a teenager (which was a very, very long time ago…) there was none of the aggressive viciousness described here, none of the sick thrill of ganging up on a victim for the simple pleasure of seeing to their moral and social destruction – of course there were closed groups and cliques even back then, but those who were not part of them were simply left to their own devices, not targeted as the victims of choice in the guise of Stephen King’s Carrie, for example.

Here though, physical looks and social standing seem to be the parameters by which people are measured, with those at the top (in this case the Barbies) laying down the laws ruling the microcosm represented by the school environment. Such a volatile mix is also compounded by the presence of social media and their swift diffusion of news, comments and judgements which can make or break one’s image with a viral swiftness of propagation.  When considering the ease with which the mere perception of an individual can be changed on the sole basis of a post or a comment that’s shared almost instantly across the web, it’s uncomfortably evident that this is nothing short of a lethal weapon that’s being wielded by people who seem ignorant of its inherent danger – or are they?  While it’s clear that teenage years are the most difficult transition time in the growth of a human being, it’s also evident that what used to be unthinking childish malice ends up becoming a well-honed knife these young people know how to wield with unerring, cruel precision.

On this disturbing background, the main characters all come across as quite unlikable, a mix of shallowness and immaturity that does not spare even Becca, who on the surface prides herself in not caring for the Barbies’ less… grounded interests, but deep down feels the need to belong, to be accepted, and for the sake of this acceptance does not think twice about adopting the other girls’ mean standards of behavior.  What’s interesting here is that the story changes its point of view every time the author switches from one character to another, and after a while it becomes clear that many of them – if not all – are unreliable narrators, some of them because they don’t have all the clues to move forward, and some of them because they are lying outright, as the reader discovers at some point.

And this is indeed the major strength of 13 Minutes: Sarah Pinborough leads her readers through a merry chase in which she keeps offering ambiguous leads that take them toward dead ends, each time building what seems like a sure development only to pull the rug from under their feet at the last minute, and leaving them clueless and disoriented and back to square one. Manipulation is indeed the code word here: of emotions, needs and desires visited by characters on each other, and of expectations and perceptions offered by the author to her readers and then dismantled with a snap of her fingers.

I am unable to recall a story that both baffled and impressed me in such a way, but one thing is certain, that my admiration for Ms. Pinborough’s skills reached new heights and confirmed her in the “must read everything she writes” position she already enjoyed.

Very highly recommended…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE INFLUENCE MACHINE, by Sean McMullen

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

THE INFLUENCE MACHINE, by Sean McMullen

A delightful tale with some steampunk overtones, set in Victorian England (or maybe an alternate version of it) in which Scotland Yard inspector Albert Grant finds himself confronted with extraordinary events and an equally extraordinary young woman who makes him change his outlook on the world.

Despite his young age – he’s twenty-four years old – Grant is as cynical as they get: the son of an impoverished family, he was sent to the best schools where he learned modern scientific methods to be applied to police work. Despised and ridiculed by his peers for his family’s misfortune and kept at a distance by his colleagues because of his superior education, he lives in a sort of cocoon made of loneliness and contempt that at times turns to disappointment when he realizes that there is no amount of scientific knowledge that can outdo the street-wise experience of a beat policeman.

So, when he’s called to investigate the case of Lisa Elliot, a young lady who was arrested on suspicion of illegal activities, he finds in her a kindred spirit and someone with whom he can discuss scientific facts with the certainty of being understood. For her part Miss Elliot shows him an incredible device that can afford a glimpse into the future or maybe an alternate reality, something that instantly draws the attention of the powers that be and sets in motion an unpleasant chain of events.

Among the details I most enjoyed in this story are the underlying comment about the Victorian era’s mindset, especially toward women, and the tentative friendship between Grant and Constable Duncan, a man that the inspector first treats with his usual disdain, only to slowly change his opinion and start forming a working relationship based on mutual respect.

A very pleasant read, indeed…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: A VEIL OF SPEARS (A Song of the Shattered Sands #3), by Bradley Beaulieu

 

It took me a while to finally get to this third installment in Bradley Beaulieu’s Song of the Shattered Sands, but I finally managed to learn what happened after the ending of book 2, where many narrative threads were left in a state of flux, and to satisfy my burning curiosity.

Over the course of the previous two books in this series, whose scope has now grown from the initial three to six volumes, the focus broadened from Çeda’s revenge quest to a more complex political scenario of alliances and betrayals, political maneuvering and old mysteries, just as the background expanded from the fascinating city of Sharakhai to the outlying desert wastes and neighboring realms.   While this has enriched the narrative, adding many more facets to it, it has also proved to be something of a mixed blessing, because at times I felt quite lost by the number of players and their conflicting or interlacing agendas, and by the revelations that came to light as Çeda’s journey progressed, so that once the gods and demons of the story’s pantheon came into play as well, interfering in a more direct way with the warring humans and their plans, I could not avoid being somewhat overwhelmed by something approaching sensory overload.

On one hand I understand how the story could not be sustained only by Çeda’s mission, since that particular narrative thread had a limited scope and it would have been difficult to carry it forward for the now increased number of books, but on the other I could not avoid the sensation – less apparent in book 2 and much stronger here – that the story sometimes takes a meandering path that feels a little… wasteful, for want of a better word: the tight pacing I encountered in Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, one of the many reasons I loved that book deeply, faltered a little in the second volume and it does so a bit more in this one – at least in my perception – and I could not keep myself from worrying that the extension of the series to six volumes might ultimately weaken the strong concept at the basis of this work and also the role of the main character.

Yes, because Çeda surrenders the limelight here even more often than in book 2, and I have to admit that I missed her strong presence and her determined focus every time the point of view shifted to another character, no matter how interesting: granted, the difficult path walked by Ramahd as he aids Queen Meryam in her schemes while trying to hold on to his own humanity and basic decency is a fascinating one, just to name one example; just as the first cracks appearing in what used to be the Kings’ united front, now that the first deaths have started to upset the balance of power, look like a prelude to their downfall; or again it’s good to see how Emre, Çeda’s longtime friend and once-lover, continues his growth from a street thief to a warrior inspired by an ideal bigger than himself.  Still, not one of them holds for me the same relevance as Çeda does, and every time she has to step aside and let other stories take center stage, my interest does flag a little…

That said, Çeda still remains the lynchpin on which much of the plot revolves, thanks to the inner strength that is tougher than her doubts, to her fierce loyalty and single-mindedness, even more so in this book where many of the separate factions working to undermine the Kings’ merciless rule start uniting in a common purpose, a development that promises to bring exciting consequences in the next books – especially as we get closer to the final showdown.  Moreover, it’s through Çeda that we learn other anguishing aspects of the asirim’s tragedy, of the callous lie that ensnared them and led to their transformation, and of the huge reservoir of anger and hatred that moves them: as terrifying as they are, now that I know about their origins I cannot avoid a deep sense of pity for all that they have lost.   And again, Çeda’s meeting with the branch of the family she never knew, because of her mother’s estrangement from them, offers a delightful pause in her harrowing search, and gives her some much needed roots to anchor her down and lessen her feeling of isolation.

These more… personal elements, however, end up being a little lost in the grander scheme of things that is taking shape as the story unfolds in all its complexity, and that’s the main reason of my slight – but unavoidable – disappointment with book 3 and the persistent sensation that ‘more’ is not necessarily ‘better’: while the scope of the battle was confined to a limited number of characters, it was easier to keep abreast of them, their plots and schemes and endeavors, but now that the players on stage are more numerous, and have been joined by gods, demons, sand wyrms and whatnot, I feel a little lost and confused and wonder if what started as a good vengeance and political upheaval story will not morph into something else…

Still, I know I’m looking forward to the next installment for this series: my desire to see Çeda succeed in her quest is indeed stronger than any of the doubts I expressed above.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

WORLDS WITHOUT END: Reading Challenges

 

Many of you will know of Worlds Without End, a fantastic site dedicated to books in the speculative fiction genre that can be browsed by title, author or publisher. The site also contains a lively forum where members can discuss any kind of SFF-related topic – and not just limited to books, since it involves threads about movies and TV and other media.

One of the most interesting features of WWE is the section devoted to reading challenges: every year a list of these challenges is published, allowing the site’s members to pick the ones they feel most inspired by, or to propose one of their own.

This year – as in previous years – the list is rich and inspiring: just take a look HERE to see for yourselves…  I have been intrigued by two: the first a list of the books I plan to read in 2019, with no limitation concerning genre, the other is a sort of promise to myself, i.e. to move forward with some of the series that have piqued my interest with the first or even second book, but that I’ve been unable to see through the end of the cycle.

  

 

As you will see, there are several levels to each challenge, with the possibility of adjusting them upwards if we manage to exceed our expectations: I choose 50 books for the Books Read challenge, and 9 for the Read the Sequel challenge. Of course a few books in the first challenge will be eligible for the second one, which might improve my chances for an upgrade in goal. We’ll see…

No matter what, this is going to be fun, so I’m ready to start.  Anyone else interested?  🙂