Reviews

Review: ONE OF US, by Craig DiLouie

 

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

One of Us is a classic example of a book that should not be judged by its cover, even though I initially was guilty of this very mistake: when looking at this title on the Orbit newsletter, the cover appeared so bland to my eyes that I was not even tempted to read the book’s synopsis. My bad.  Luckily for me, some of my fellow book bloggers possess a more open mind and a keener curiosity, and through their reviews I learned that I was missing out on a very intriguing story, so I rushed to correct my error.

I knew, going in, that I would find myself in the midst of a dark, harsh tale, one that would push several of my buttons, but when all is said and done I don’t regret having read it despite the anguish and rage and frustration that it engendered: this novel is like a mirror into mankind’s soul, and once we look at ourselves through it, what stares back at us is something we should try to grow up from if we want to keep calling ourselves ‘human’.

The story is set in an alternate 1984 (a curiously apt choice at that…): fourteen years before a teratogenic virus spread all over the world causing the birth of mutated babies, and while many did not survive long after birth, a good number of them made it through. Rejected by their families, they were confined in the Homes, virtual prisons where the “monsters” would grow up out of sight and out of mind, while the world community, in a rush of puritanical zeal, implemented a strict regime of screening and control on sexual intercourse, especially where young people were concerned, to avoid further spreading of the plague.

In the rural community of Huntsville, Georgia, one of the Homes lies on the outskirts of town, the kids it holds employed as cheap labor in the surrounding farms, while their scant education is geared toward destroying their sense of worth and implementing blind obedience: the “plague children”, as they are called, are nothing but slaves, living in squalid conditions that would make Dickensian tales pale in comparison, most of their “teachers” little better than the dregs of society, taking on the job for lack of worthier opportunities.   Yet something is changing, because with the onset of puberty many of the Home’s inmates start showing peculiar abilities, like reading or influencing minds, starting fires, flying, and so forth; a few of them are spirited away in secret installations where they are employed by the military or the intelligence services, but the rest of them, on the advice of Brain, try to keep their powers hidden.  Brain is one of the more feral looking children of the Huntsville home, and the one who possesses the keener intellect: the acute awareness he was born with made him understand that one day the showdown between the “normals” and the “monsters” would come, and he wants them to be ready to fight back – for themselves and their right to exist.   Once the conflict does erupt, the fury and resentment that have been long simmering under the surface – on both sides – flare up into a bloody climax fueled by mindless violence and carnage of apocalyptic proportions.

The first question that comes to mind while reading One of Us is the one about the definition of ‘monster’: does being born with a dog’s head and paws, or an upside-down face, or looking like a cross between a lion and a gorilla make you a monster? Or should the label apply to those who confine these hapless creatures into internment camps, literally (and gleefully) torturing them for the slightest deviation from the imposed discipline?  Humanity does not show its best in the sliver of society represented by the Huntsville community, one where the fear and loathing for the plague children comes out of the kind of blind ignorance that is proud of itself, which refuses even to consider an alternative to the illiterate narrow-mindedness that many wear like a badge of honor.

I was deeply distressed while reading about the children’s treatment in the Home, where constant abuse, filthy living conditions and abominable food were everyday occurrences, to the point that when one of them is incarcerated on a false accusation, he considers the jail cell – with its bare-bones cot and waste disposal facility – like an unhoped-for luxury: that simple thought, one that does not even touch upon the fact that the boy is being unjustly held, was both chilling and heartbreaking, moving me to unexpected tears.  That’s why I felt even more profoundly the anger that possessed me once the false premise of wrongdoing by one of the plague children drives the oh-so-good, law-abiding citizens of Huntsville toward a hate-fueled pogrom.   By that point, all concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ fly out of the window, with acts of cruelty (and a few exceptions of mercy) being performed by citizens and children alike.

The reason this story can hit so close to home comes from the realization that humankind can be cruel toward those it perceives as ‘different’, and it becomes even more so when its own well-being is threatened in some way, be it physical or economical: that’s the moment when the need for a scapegoat becomes undeniable, when the compulsion to heap the mounting frustration on the nearest available target reduces our better angels to silence.  The fact that this novel is set in our past – or an alternative version of it – does not make it any less actual, or help us dismiss the story as simple fiction, because we only need to turn to any news channel to see a version of it play out under our eyes.

As I said, One of Us is a dark, brutal read that might not be for everyone, but still I would recommend it, if nothing else because of its ability to make us think, to take a good look at ourselves and wonder if we can do better, or if we want to.  My only complaint with the book comes from the ending that seems to be fizzling out somewhat after the huge, well-crafted buildup: but it’s a minor complaint indeed, considering that this story will remain with me for a long, long time….

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Novella Review: GHOSTS OF THE TRISTAN BASIN (Powder Mage #0.8), by Brian McClellan

In my first search for short stories that complemented Brian McClellan’s epic about powder mages, I must have missed a few, and only a recent search unearthed other works I knew nothing about: it goes without saying that I would not think twice about reading them as well…

 

 

Set a few months before the events in Promise of Blood, this novella offers a double bonus: one that allows us to see more of Taniel’s deeds during the Fatrastan war for independence from the Kez, and one where we are introduced to a beloved character from Gods of Blood and Powder, none other than Mad Ben Styke.   As the story begins, the Tristan Basin Irregulars – the Fatrastan militia Taniel and Ka-poel have attached themselves to – have been harassing the Kez in the inhospitable swamps that cover the Basin, keeping them quite occupied with guerrilla warfare.

Returning to their base camp, they learn about new orders: the city of Planth, where Governor Lindet has retreated to regroup her forces, is threatened by a Kez army, and the Irregulars must get there quickly to shore up the city’s defenses. As grim as the situation appears, since the rebels are vastly outnumbered, a slim ray of hope is represented by the arrival of Colonel Ben Styke and his Mad Lancers, an elite troop that seems to be made out of warriors as berserker as their leader – and Planth will need their madness if the citizens want to survive…

As I said, there were two main points of interest in this story: for starters, I enjoyed seeing a very different Taniel from the one I met in the Powder Mage books. Much as he’s still trying to get out of the shadow of his very famous father, Taniel here appears like a more sympathetic character, a young man driven by the ideal of helping the region’s inhabitants gain their freedom from the Kez, whom he hates deeply since they were responsible for the execution of his mother.   He’s honing his skills in the conflict, and he’s also strengthening the ties with his local guide Ka-poel, the young mute woman whose weird abilities he’s just starting to know.  The only trait he shares with the older Taniel is his aversion to authority, especially when Lindet’s orders concerning the fate of Planth clash against his sense of duty.

That’s probably the main reason he seems to form a sort of bond with Ben Styke, the mountain of a man leading the Mad Lancers: the Ben Styke we meet here is also a very different person from the one appearing in Sins of Empire, since he has yet to endure the physical and psychological abuse of his long years in the prison camp, so that it’s a pleasure to witness the depths of joyful abandon as he launches himself in the activity he loves most – fight.  And fight he must, together with his Lancers and the Irregulars, if he wants to save the city, against almost insurmountable odds, yet there is more to him than just a practically invincible warrior, because here he exhibits humor, and cunning and courage, all wrapped into a carefree attitude that makes it impossible not to like him, and enjoy the pages that focus on him.

Losing myself in this story was a wonderful experience, and I strongly recommend it both to all McClellan fans and to those who still don’t know this author and series: you will not be disappointed…

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

Review: CHILDREN OF TIME, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 

I suffer from a strong aversion to insects – any kind of insect: the mere idea of something crawling up an arm or a leg, even if it’s the most harmless creature in the whole universe, makes me shudder in revulsion. That’s the main reason I resisted so much before reading this novel, despite the glowing reviews from several fellow bloggers – because I knew spiders were this story’s main characters. Spiders.

And yet, the premise for this novel sounded interesting, and the unanimous praise concerning Adrian Tchaikovsky’s work was a powerful incentive to try and overcome my dislike. You can therefore imagine my surprise when I was not only able to happily sail through the… many-legged narrative of Children of Time without a qualm, but ended up enjoying the sections focusing on the spiders much more than the ones about humans. Our mind works indeed in mysterious ways…

The future on Earth does not look very cheerful: despite the huge advances in technology and the many terraforming projects launched to create new homes for humanity’s expansion, there is also a strong movement that abhors the manipulations of science and wants to keep planet Earth as the sole, pristine home for the human race, a movement that is apparently growing in strength and numbers. Dr. Avrana Kern is carrying on a very ambitious goal: that of not simply terraforming a suitable planet, but of peopling it with enhanced monkeys, infected with a nanovirus that will speed up the growth of their mental abilities and therefore create a willing race of assistants for the colonists that will come for a further phase of the project. The final stage of Kern’s endeavor is however sabotaged from the inside, the ship that should have landed the monkeys on her planet crashes and burns, and she remains the sole survivor of the expedition, waiting in suspended animation to see what the virus payload – the only part of her plan that escaped sabotage – will do to the target world.

As human civilization crumbles and falls in the aftermath of the anti-science faction, and then rises painfully out of its own ashes, launching ark ships in search of a new home for what remains of the people of Earth, on Kern’s world spiders find themselves the recipients of the nanovirus, and start the long journey toward their uplift as a sentient race: the story splits here into two threads, following the two separate – but at some point converging – narratives, that of the spiders, slowly but surely evolving from simple-minded hunters to complex creatures who build a flourishing civilization; and that of the humans, displaced both in space and in time, as they are awakened from their frozen sleep when need arises and as their search for a new home becomes more and more desperate.

It’s impossible not to notice the dichotomy between the spider’s upward spiral, as their grasp on evolution (the buildup of Understandings, as they call them) increases exponentially, and mankind’s regression as their resources dwindle and the ship starts to break down around them: humanity has not only lost its home planet and the colonies it established in its golden age, they have also lost much of the higher technology that allowed projects like the one launched by Dr. Kern.  Much of what made Earth’s civilization is now almost consigned to myth, and the only person on the ark ship Gilgamesh who is able to access that knowledge is Mason Holsten, a classicist – a cross between a linguist and an archeologist, a man who often feels like the proverbial fish out of water and therefore symbolizes perfectly the floundering attempts at survival of these people who have been torn from their roots in more ways than one.   

It’s indeed a desolate spectacle, made even sadder by the steady advancements of the spiders, whose powers of adaptation to their environment appear so extraordinary that after a while I forgot I was not reading about human creatures: I became deeply invested in their discoveries and successes, particularly because the author gives us a definite frame of reference through a few recurring characters that, generation after generation, take on the roles of their predecessors.  We therefore have Portia, the intrepid hunter who incarnates the courage to explore and to overcome one’s limitations; then there is Bianca, the thinker and scientists whose discoveries advance the spiders’ civilization in leaps and bounds; and then there is Fabian, the only male of notice in a society that is strongly geared toward matriarchy and who acts both at the catalyst of many changes and as the balance between Portia and Bianca.   

Make no mistake, these are not humanized spiders, they retain all of their weird alien-ness in cultural outlook and instinctual behavior, but still the author made them highly relatable not in spite of, but because of those differences. There are several descriptions of the spider cities, sprawling complexes of aerial bridges and woven-silk platforms that come across as things of wonder and beauty even while one sees the huge differences brought on by the nature of their dwellers and the limitations imposed by the planet’s resources, where metals are scarce and much of the spiders’ organic technology is based on chemistry and scent, on biology rather than mechanics.  One can easily see the successful hybridization of beauty and function that the spiders are able to achieve, and the admiration for such endeavors is enhanced by the respect for the deeds of the three recurring protagonists – Portia, Bianca and Fabian – in all of their incarnations: like pioneers of old, they are the ones who take the giant steps that advance the civilization, sometimes paying the ultimate price for it, and it’s impossible not to be moved by such determination in the face of danger, hostile attacks or ravaging disease.

On the other hand, humanity offers a very sorry spectacle as the power plays of old take precedence over the needs of simple survival or the goal of finding a suitable planet where to establish a new civilization: the few voices in favor of reason are constantly drowned by the apparently unavoidable drive toward conflict and destruction, a drive that comes to a dramatic height once the desperate survivors realize that Kern’s world is their only viable option and that they will have to fight the spiders for it.  This is the point where the author managed to surprise me with a twist I would never have expected, a solution to the often quoted Prisoner’s Dilemma – an interesting logic exercise, indeed – that felt both unexpected and right, a very satisfying conclusion to a riveting story.

I now understand the reason for the praise I have often encountered for Adrian Tchaikovsky’s work, and I look forward to discovering what other enthralling wonders he has in store for me…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: RETURN TO HONOR (Powder Mage #1.5), by Brian McClellan

In my first search for short stories that complemented Brian McClellan’s epic about powder mages, I must have missed a few, and only a recent search unearthed other works I knew nothing about: it goes without saying that I would not think twice about reading them as well…

 

This story was quite a delightful find, not only because it features Vlora, but because it goes some way toward filling the empty narrative space between the events in Promise of Blood (where we learn of her dalliance with another officer and the breakup with Taniel) and her welcome return as Lady Flint in Sins of Empire.

Return to Honor begins shortly after the end of Promise of Blood, when Vlora is still very much a pariah because of her indiscretion, and also mourning the death of Sabon, one of Tamas’ closest friends and Vlora’s mentor.  A still-very-angry Tamas orders her to seek and capture a traitor who intends to defect to the enemy carrying important intelligence with him: what remains unspoken is that success might work a long way toward restoring, at least in part, the Field Marshal’s respect.   As encouraging as this might sound, the prospect of failure still hangs over Vlora, and what’s more she must do it alone, because Tamas does not intend to spare anyone to help her.

It’s impossible not to feel deeply for Vlora here: she’s conscious of her mistake and bitterly regrets it, but the worse part of the situation comes from the attitude of her fellow soldiers since they – either for personal inclination or to curry favor with Tamas – treat her like the worst kind of trash, even those that used to be her friends.  That’s when unexpected help comes in the person of the Field Marshal’s bodyguard, Captain Olem…

My knowledge of the shared history between Vlora and Olem in Gods of Blood and Powder enhanced my appreciation of this first encounter between them, where I could witness the ease with which they manage to work well together despite barely knowing each other, and more importantly where Olem’s laid back attitude acts like a balm on Vlora’s damaged soul, taking her out of her misery and bringing the sunnier side of her character to the fore.

One of the best Powder Mage short stories to date, indeed….

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: WAR CRY, by Brian McClellan

 

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

As a huge admirer of Brian McClellan’s work with the Powder Mages saga, I was more than eager to sample his foray into a different genre, and even though I enjoyed this intriguing novella, I ended up feeling somehow unsatisfied – not because of any negative reaction to story and writing, but because I would have liked to know more, read more about this world.

McClellan is not new to the novella format, and while I found that his shorter writings in the Powder Mage setting filled out the background and added interesting facets to the story and the characters, they worked so well because they were part of a greater whole, one I was already familiar with.  Here the author starts from the other side of the road, giving us a glimpse of a new, different world that simply begs to be expanded and deepened, and that’s the reason War Cry feels somehow… incomplete.

The main character here is a young man, Teado, who grew up during an unspecified conflict that has been going on for years, if not decades: we are not given any detail about the war, or the motivations and identity of the opposed factions, all we know is that the civilization level has a mid-twentieth century flavor, and that there is magic involved in the mix.  Teado, for example, is a Changer – a shapeshifter who can morph into a taloned creature almost impervious to bullets. There are also Smiling Toms, who are able to create illusions either to fool the enemy or to mask one’s own activities; and there is mention of Fire Spitters or Wormers, whose abilities are not actually explained but sound quite intriguing.

Teado’s platoon has been entrenched in its position for quite a while, carrying out guerrilla raids against the enemy, but their meager supplies dwindle and morale gets lower every day: the young man himself often toys with the idea of giving in to the enemy propaganda he listens to on the radio and turning himself over to the other side, since he’s tired and hungry and demoralized – only the thought of leaving his friends and maybe being forced to betray them has stopped him until now.   A risky operation against the enemy base that might offer the platoon the opportunity to resupply and hold on for some more time turns into something else, something that will expose the futility of a long, drawn-out conflict and the grey areas of warfare strategy.

The actual story takes second place to the intriguing background that in some way reminded me of the trench warfare from WW I or the long sieges from WWII, sharing with the latter the perception of technological level and society orientation: in particular the use of propaganda for the extra push on the war effort sounded like something out of the mid-40s’ historical records, and reminded me of the many documentaries on the period that I saw on the History Channel.

Still, it’s all just barely touched on, as is the use of magic: as a reader I kept wondering at the reasons for the war, at the identity of the opposing factions and their goal, and at the appearance of magic and its users in what looks like an alternate version of our own world.  It was slightly frustrating to be offered so many clues but no clear resolution, and I hope that this will not be just an isolated attempt at something different by Brian McClellan, but that it will develop into something more detailed and articulated, because what I saw in War Cry is not enough to satisfy my burning curiosity…

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: GREEN-EYED VIPERS (Powder Mage #0.6), by Brian McClellan

In my first search for short stories that complemented Brian McClellan’s epic about powder mages, I must have missed a few, and only a recent search unearthed other works I knew nothing about: it goes without saying that I would not think twice about reading them as well…

Green-eyed vipers is set eight years before the events in Promise of Blood, as Field Marshal Tamas is still collecting allies in his plan to overthrow the Adran monarchy, and it opens on one of the many parties held by the nobility, where politics and personal liaisons move side by side in a complicated dance.  The lady of Skyline Palace, Petara, is a famous (or maybe infamous) widow well known for her wealth, influence and also for the habit of successfully wooing any man she sets her eyes on.  In this particular evening her sights are set on Tamas, a widower himself, and not for the first time: we learn that she has admired, and wanted, him for a long time, but like any good strategist she is patiently waiting for her plan to unfold, savoring every moment.

For his part, the Field Marshal does not seem averse to a little dalliance: he’s famous (or again infamous) for his ability to court young women, and there is a moment in the course of the story where Petara observes the worry of a noble as Tamas kisses his young daughter’s hand.  So everything seems to lead toward the widowed lady’s ultimate goal but… there is always a ‘but’, of course, because we are made privy to an important detail, one that will turn the tables in a most dramatic way.

To say more would be a huge disservice: this story and the surprises it holds must be enjoyed without prior knowledge – although at some point the writing on the wall becomes quite clear…

A great addition to the short works featuring this world, and one that feels quite satisfying.

My Rating: 

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Review: ANNEX (The Violet Wars #1), by Rich Larson

 

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

My previous experience with Rich Larson’s writing is limited to a short story I read some time ago, one that however left a lasting impression on me because of its lucid bleakness, so that once I learned this is his first full-length novel, I did not hesitate to see how that sharp storytelling translated into a longer work – and the answer is, very well.

As Annex opens, we readers are immediately thrown into the thick of things: a huge alien ship appeared over the city where the characters live, an image that strongly reminded me of Independence Day, and destroyed a number of buildings with a surgical attack. The surviving adults were then ‘clamped’, fixed with a neural interface connecting them to a virtual reality simulation of their normal lives, while they wander around, zombie-like. The children were rounded up and implanted with what they call a parasite embedded in their stomach, and are held in warehouses where mechanical constructs dubbed ‘whirlybirds’ keep them sedated and docile.

No other explanation is given about the aliens’ motivation or goals and that’s understandable since we witness events from the children’s point of view, and know just as little as they do: this might prove a little jarring at first, but the pace of the story is such that knowing the how and why of things matters less than the characters’ journey.  Two of them take the center stage from the very beginning: Bo is an eleven year old boy of Nigerian origins who managed to escape from one of the warehouses, driven by the need to find his older sister Lia, who was moved elsewhere by the aliens.  After his breakout, Bo meets with Violet and through her connects with a group of other escapees living in an abandoned theater and calling themselves the Lost Boys, led by teenaged Wyatt.  Violet is a transgender on the make: after the alien attack she saw the opportunity of granting herself what family and society denied her until that moment, and she’s been dosing herself with hormones to effect the desired transition.

The outside world Bo finds himself in is revealed in all its horror as he finds his place among the Lost Boys: besides the immanent presence of the ship and the accompanying gloom that prevents the sun from shining through – at some point it’s also shown that there is an impassable barrier at the city’s limits – the ruins are plagued by roving pods that look for stray children to capture and imprison in the warehouses and by the othermothers, bio-mechanical constructs that partly resemble the children’s real mothers and are built by the aliens to lure them out of hiding. Bo’s first act as a Lost Boy must be the killing of his othermother, to show that he’s disenfranchised himself from the world of adults, that his loyalties now lie only with his newfound family.

Both he and Violet were already outsiders before the invasion and this seems to make them uniquely able to survive in this changed world, and to retain a form of independence that the other kids lack, which in turn makes them easy prey for Wyatt’s manipulative skills: there is a strong parallel between Wyatt and the less idealized versions of Peter Pan, those where he looks less like the carefree boy and more like a scheming psychopath.  It’s indeed the arrival of Bo, and the discovery of the uncanny power he can wield through his parasite, that changes the dynamics among the Lost Boys and brings Wyatt’s underlying cruelty – and madness – to the surface, creating a dramatic turn of events inside an already tense situation.

What happens at that point requires some suspension of disbelief, since the children embark on a mission to fight the aliens and “save the world”, and frankly the sequence of events goes at times quite over the top, but the breakneck speed of this story, that develops in the brief space of few days, makes it easier to believe it all and to follow with growing nervousness Bo and Violet’s progress through the alien ship and the Lost Boys’ commando action against the alien invaders.

Much as I rooted for Bo and his quest to save his sister Lia, it was Violet’s journey that I found quite compelling: her status as a transgender person is an important issue and I appreciated how it was not her only defining trait but one of the facets that made her who she is. What I loved about her were the layers of inner conflict that made her stand out from the other characters: the struggle inherent in her gender identity; the struggle between her need for independence and her caring attitude toward the younger and needier Lost Boys; the struggle between her attraction toward Wyatt and the perception of his personality’s wrongness. But what really stood out was her inability to let go of her parents – the drunken father and the listless mother – whose house she visits regularly even though they are not aware of her presence, moving inside the implanted hallucinations of the alien clamp: the nightly visits to her former home speak highly of her continuing bond with the two most important people in her life, despite their rejection of her sexual inclination and in spite of Wyatt’s credo about clamped adults being “better off dead”, and make for one of the most deeply emotional scenes in the book.

The slowly accumulating revelations about the aliens’ intention, the children’s plight in this crazy world, their battle against the invader, all contribute to make Annex a compelling read – and I need to also mention the character of Gloom, a different kind of alien that Bo and Violet encounter at some point, a shape-shifting, self-defined saboteur whose true intentions still remain a mystery. As the first book in a trilogy, Annex introduces a fascinating background that begs for further expansion and promises a conflict whose ramifications and outcome are far from certain: I look forward to learning more about Violet & Co. and can hardly wait for the next book in the series.

 

My Rating: