Short Story Review: THE FIXED STARS (An October Daye Story), by Seanan McGuire


Finding a complementary short story to Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series is always a pleasant discovery, and it’s an even better one when, as is the case of this short work I found in the Baen Free Library, it deals with events and people other than Toby and her circle of friends and family, widening the background of this complex and many-faceted Urban Fantasy series.

(click on the link to read the story online)

It took me a little while to find my bearings in The Fixed Stars, until I understood that it tells of an old battle between Faerie’s firstborns and their changeling descendants, here called merlins – the reason for which I understood once their leader came on-stage, a powerful, revered warrior named Emrys.  The story is told from the point of view of a firstborn, watching the besieging merlin army camped under the walls of Broceliande castle before what will be the decisive battle.  The narrating firstborn goes here under the name of Nimue but says this is only one of many, and when at the end of the story her brother calls her “Annie”, my theory about her real identity was confirmed (and my pleasure at being right and meeting her here): compelled to always tell the truth, Nimue plays a dangerous gamble in the bloody game between the fae and their mixed-blood descendants, one that will end badly no matter what, since she’s aware that “the nobility […] was eager to wet their swords on merlin blood. The fact that the men outside our walls were our distant descendants didn’t matter to them. My brothers and sisters had raised their children to believe that nothing outside of Faerie had value”.

The leanings of Nimue’s heart are quite clear here, and they go a long way toward explaining her attitude in later times, when she will often lend her gruff but precious help to a certain changeling…

A sad and lovely story, and one I’m very happy to have found.


My Rating: 


Review: LOST BOY: The True Story of Captain Hook, by Christina Henry

Once we grow up we are able to acknowledge the basic cruelty that lies at the root of many (if not all) fairy tales: think about Cinderella’s stepsisters chopping off their toes to make the crystal shoe fit; or Snow White’s stepmother asking the hunter to bring her the girl’s heart – the examples are endless.  I believe that such brutal details might serve as a subliminal reminder that the world is not fair and that children should not trust blindly.  Still, there are some tales that seem to point only to lightness and fun, especially in the more widely known, and edulcorated, Disney movie version, as is the case of the story of Peter Pan: I remember watching some scenes with my nephew when he was little, and even potentially frightening situations – like being chased by a crocodile – were turned into amusing and non-threatening vignettes.

Now imagine my dismay once I encountered Ms. Henry’s version of Peter Pan, a character I’ve always been lukewarm about but never actually disliked, even though his name is connected to the syndrome shown by men who refuse to grow up and take responsibility for their lives, so that it shines a less-than-bright light on the character.  Lost Boy, on the other hand, gives us an interpretation of Peter that is as chilling as it is engrossing, and I was surprised at the intensity of the hatred I felt for him reading this novel. This is indeed the kind of story that can’t leave you unmoved…

The story is told from the point of view of Jamie, Peter’s very first companion on the island and for quite some time the only one: he, like the other boys who will later follow, was lured to Neverland with the promise of a life of endless fun and games, free from hunger or pain. In theory, the boys Peter brings over are escaping from an existence of Dickensian drudgery, but in reality it’s not always so: there is a recurring fragment of memory that haunts Jamie and that will later on showcase Peter’s duplicity with dramatic starkness.  The real reason the boys are brought to the island is the fulfillment of Peter’s narcissistic tendencies, his need to always be at the center of attention, admired, adored, idolized: it would not really be such a terrible life if he didn’t drive his companions to reckless escapades and bloody battles with the neighboring pirates…

It’s trough Jamie’s eyes that we see behind the façade of never-ending play and fun: the island is a dangerous place, inhabited by ravenous crocodiles that have nothing in common with their playful counterparts in Disney’s movie, then there are the Many-Eyed, a kind of huge arachnids whose blood is poisonous and burns like acid; or the pirates might resent the boys’ more daring escapades and retaliate with violence.  As if that were not enough, there are always injuries and illness to contend with, or the violent Battles pitching boys against each other as Peter enjoys the spectacle like a Roman emperor of old, and which has caused the death of many young people over the years: it has fallen to Jamie to bury them, as it falls to him to care for the newcomers and to see that everyone is clothed, fed, and in good health.  Yes, because Peter is extremely careless of his playmates, just like a child who unthinkingly tosses aside a toy that does not interest him any more, or is broken: as long as they provide the willing and cheering audience he craves, he’s the genial host, the enthusiastic companion, the charismatic leader; but as soon as someone stops being entertaining, Peter is quick to adopt the “out of sight, out of mind” policy, when not leaving the various island’s dangers work for him in removing the nuisance from the equation.

As the story opens, Peter has quickly tired of his new acquisition, five-year old Charlie, a child far too young to be taken away from the Other Place or to participate in the boys’ increasingly dangerous escapades, and therefore boring and useless according to Peter’s rules.  Jamie has become his guardian and protector and Charlie has developed a sort of hero worship for him that does not agree with Peter’s worldview, and what’s worse, the time and energies Jamie devotes to the newest arrival are time and energies he does not give Peter – a truly unforgivable sin.  The picture that emerges from Jamie’s point of view is indeed disturbing, with Peter appearing at best as a self-centered narcissist and at worst as a dangerous sociopath, a jealous self-declared god: as the story progresses the information we gather becomes more and more unnerving, destroying every notion we might have held until that moment about Neverland and Peter’s entourage.

On the other hand, Jamie comes across as a very sympathetic character and one that’s quite easy to love: in a group of people who have run away from dire situations and unloving families, Jamie takes on the role of a parent and, in some measure, of a leader who possesses all the qualities that Peter lacks. What’s fascinating is that as Jamie’s disaffection mounts, estranging him from his former friend, still he harbors a measure of guilt about those feelings, as if his growing consciousness of Peter’s shortcomings were a betrayal – that is, until he realizes that his loyalty was one-sided and the other boy did nothing but take and take, without giving anything back.  What happens at that point is extraordinary, because Jamie realizes his body is growing, that he’s leaving the eternal childhood in which he was frozen by the island’s magic: each growing spurt is accompanied by pain – and that’s another fascinating metaphor, indeed – brought on by the increasing awareness of Peter’s dual cruelty and carelessness, not unlike those of an escalating serial killer.

This loss of innocence, of that childish vision that prevents us from seeing the nastier side of life, is the most poignant element in Lost Boy, and even the realization that Jamie is fated to become Peter’s arch-enemy, Captain Hook, isn’t as heartbreaking as the chain of losses he must endure.  To say that he left a deep mark on my imagination would be a huge understatement indeed.


My Rating: 


Short Story Review: LOST, by Seanan Mcguire


Read the story online


Reading this shortly after my encounter with Christina Henry’s “Lost Boy”, this story resonated with me in a deeper way that it would have otherwise: it’s a tale about eternal childhood and adventures and it speaks of the need for both, and also the price that it entails.

The story is told from the point of view of Daniel, now well into adulthood and probably old age, and he recalls what happened when he was just past his fifteenth birthday and the children of the world, those younger than him – including his sister Torrey – started looking fixedly at the night sky and humming a strange, compelling song.  Shortly afterwards, in one fateful night, all those children disappeared, never to be seen again.

This is a bittersweet story – more bitter than sweet since poor Daniel is marked by the awareness that he had whatever touched his sister and all the others within his grasp, but just because of an accident of birth he could not take part in what happened. And he’s one of the few who is unable to put a different face on this kind of rapture and call it an epidemic, like the rest of the world does to cover its shared incomprehension of the event.

The theme of innocence needing to go on beyond the time when adulthood sets in and takes away our dreams, our capacity for them, seems to be one that’s very dear to the author, and here she managed to convey it in a way that I found deeply moving, even in the unavoidable cruelty toward those who remained behind.



My Rating: 


Review: THE LAST SEA GOD (The Bone War #1), by Ashley Capes

I received this ARC from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

In truth, I did not know whether the story spanning the books in the Bone Mask trilogy would move toward a sequel: at the end of the final volume, many threads had been carried to conclusion – some of them with a tragic epilogue – and the world seemed destined to find its way toward a sort of new balance after the widespread turmoil that had shaken it.  Still, other narrative paths had been left hanging, and from there this new Bone War trilogy takes its start: even though it’s a brand new narrative trail, I would not recommend starting from here, because its roots dig quite deep into what went before, and you will need that knowledge to move easily in this new territory.

Unlike the previous installments of the story, The Last Sea God follows a good number of points of view, some well-known, some new. Notch, the former soldier-turned-adventurer who played one of the central roles in the Bone Mask trilogy, does not find himself in a very good place: at the beginning, we meet him as he’s plagued by guilt for Sofia’s ultimate sacrifice, and tries to drown his sorrow in alcohol – quite a departure from the determined character we learned to know in the past.  The only way he can get out of his despondency is by launching himself into what looks like an impossible task: traveling to the Ecsoli’s land and find a way to reverse the Sacrifice required by powerful masks, so that he can assuage his remorse over having failed his duty to Sofia.  What he and his companion Alosus (a character I’ve come to care for quite a bit) will find there will be much more than he bargained for, both in the matter of acquired knowledge and in the way of what we might call foreign politics…

Flir, Notch’s long-time comrade, takes a journey back to her home of Renovar, to convey King Seto’s peace overtures after the failed invasion from a group of her own compatriots, and also to acquire some more powerful bones to replenish Anaskar’s stores, that have been almost completely depleted by the war with the Ecsoli – with the exception of old Argeon.  This path down memory lane is quite difficult for Flir, especially where her peculiar abilities are concerned, but this relatively minor discomfort is overshadowed by the discoveries she makes about her old home.  Her ambassadorial duties must soon be placed on a back burner when she finds out that there is something quite sinister going on, something that more than hints at sorcery, or worse.

Pathfinder Ain, of the desert-dwelling Medah, makes a welcome return here: after the first book, where he enjoyed one of the three main points of view, he was later afforded far less space than I would have liked, so finding him again here, and seeing him face a deadly threat to his people, more than made up for the past.   Having brokered an alliance between the Medah and Anaskari, he’s leading the extraction of more precious bones from the desert, when his village is attacked by a veritable horde of weird people, bent on stealing the bones he and his compatriots have excavated: it will fall to him, true to his Pathfinder duties, to forge a new road toward salvation and the solution of a new, terrifying mystery.

King Seto, for his part, looks like the living proof for the famous Shakespearian quote about the uneasiness of the head wearing a crown: Anaskar is still suffering from the Ecsoli invasion’s aftermath, and something nasty is brewing in the background, something that seems well beyond Seto’s ability to fully comprehend or stop.

The newcomers on the scene are Nia, of the grove dwellers, who we encountered before but too briefly to get to know her well, and Fiore, a Storm Singer in training, who despite her your age might prove pivotal toward solving the riddles that the new conspiracy based in Anaskar is laying on King Seto’s path.  Both of them provide further insights into what is happening, either in the grove or in Anaskar, where dark forces are clearly bent on subverting the attempts to return to a normal life.

There is indeed much to take in while reading The Last Sea God, and I needed all of my powers of recollection and concentration to juggle the myriad details that compose this story like a very convoluted puzzle.  The increased number of points of view did not help, either, and I must admit it felt as if the narrative focus became somewhat diluted if compared with the more contained solutions previously adopted.  The characters are literally scattered all over the world, where strange, often weird events involve them and create separate and apparently unconnected story-lines, and this time more than ever I had to “battle” with the difficulties presented by author’s narrative style, that is more discursive than descriptive, and therefore required me to pay increased attention to avoid being distracted and missing vital clues.

Of course this does not mean I did not enjoy the story, because I certainly did, but at the end of the volume I felt as if I had been presented with only a glimpse of things to come – a great number of things, to be precise – but no hint about how they all individually fit into the grand scheme of events, or where they were headed, and I confess that this left me a little frustrated, despite the certainty that in the end all will become clear. Sadly, patience is not one my virtues…  🙂

So, to end on a more upbeat note and remove that hint of frustration I mentioned, I want to spend a few words about the book’s cover, which is a departure from the previously adopted style, and shows a simple background – like fractured marble – on which the title draws all of the attention. From my point of view it’s quite eye-catching and it somehow sums up the core of the story, that of a world on the verge of breaking down because of a series of treacherous events. As they say, an image can be as powerful as words, if not more.


My Rating: 


Short Story Review: NEITHER FRUIT NOR FLESH, by R.J. Barker


Some time ago a fellow blogger mentioned the FANTASY HIVE site, a place for all things related to speculative fiction in its many forms: news about upcoming books, movies and tv shows, interviews with authors, and so on.  Amid such bounty, it stood to reason that some short stories would find their place for our enjoyment, and the very first of these stories to be published on Fantasy Hive was Neither Fruit Nor Flesh, by R.J. Barker, author of the highly acclaimed Age of Assassins, one of the best debut novels of 2017.

Unexpectedly, it was not a fantasy-themed story – which shows how wrong we are when we believe an author could possess only one kind of ‘voice’ in their narrative set of skills: Neither Fruit Nor Flesh starts as a mainstream tale, and then step by step it slides seamlessly into horror.   The unnamed main character, a young woman slightly obsessed with her appearance and even more with cleanliness and healthy living, has an accident while she’s out running: her head turns at a sudden noise, she collides with some hedge plant on her path and a thorn pierces her face near one eye.

According to the doctors who treat her, there was no damage and once the eyepatch covering the injury will come off, she will be as good as new, but she starts to obsess about the extraneous material – the filthy material – covering the thorn that might have entered her body, contaminating its carefully maintained health.  What starts at this point seems to be a journey into hell fueled by a hygiene-fixated frame of mind, one that colors the young woman’s awareness so much that it ends up affecting her perceptions of herself and the world she lives in.

That is, until the story takes a very, very unexpected turn, one that ends in a scene that is as startling as it is horrifying, despite the equally weird build-up until that moment.  Horrifying and very well done.

My thanks to Fantasy Hive for this welcome gift, that I’m sure will be only the first of many.


My Rating: 


Review: YEAR ONE (Chronicles of the One #1), by Nora Roberts

Some time ago, a friend told me about the In Death series written by Nora Roberts under the pseudonym of J.D. Robb, and I decided to give it a try, but unfortunately the story did not work for me: I found that the author favored some telling over showing and often indulged in sudden changes of p.o.v., a technique I don’t exactly approve of.  Nothing wrong with either practice, granted, but to me they spoil the enjoyment of a story, so that I moved on – that is, until I saw this book mentioned on a fellow blogger’s post.

Post-apocalyptic scenarios always fascinated me, so I found the premise for Year One quite irresistible, enough to silence any residual misgivings coming from my previous experience.  Once again, though, I must give in to the realization that Ms. Roberts’ writing is not my cup of tea…

As I said the premise is intriguing and the novel starts with great momentum: what looks like a strain of avian flu sweeps like wildfire across the world, with a staggering mortality rate. The descriptions of the rapid spread of infection, aided by the worldwide transport network, reminded me of the initial scenes of the ’70s BBC classic Survivors, in my opinion one of the staples of the post-apocalyptic genre, and the ensuing, inevitable collapse of infrastructures all over the world is painted in dramatic flashes that focus on the main characters’ lives and the way they deal with the end of the world.

At some point, however, Ms. Roberts decided to introduce a magical element, something that literally came out of the blue with little or no explanation other than it was a by-product of the pandemic: people start to exhibit peculiar abilities – like lighting fires or flying – and those few who already possessed some, discover that these abilities are enhanced and growing every day.  It was somehow jarring, I’ll admit it, because in my opinion this element had little or no place in the description of the end of the world as we know it, but I decided to take it in stride and see how it would develop.   Sadly, it failed to integrate with the rest of the narrative, in my opinion, in great measure because I kept seeing it as a mashup of incompatible themes: as a civilization literally falls, the appearance of ladies riding unicorns or Tinkerbell-like pixies (I kid you not…) takes away the drama from the depicted events and becomes dangerously close to ludicrous, and just as unbelievable as character Lana, who “graduates” from lighting candles with her mind to shifting heavy objects (like a moving bridge) with no explanation whatsoever for this amazing escalation.

This alone should not have been enough to stop me from forging on, particularly because the few ominous mentions of immune people being rounded up and disappearing from the face of the Earth – probably being experimented on in search of a cure – added a new, scary facet to the overall drama, as did the mounting violence that always comes when social infrastructures weaken or cease to exist.  Still, problems kept piling up: for example, in this novel people seem to be divided into two groups, the ‘good guys’, who are unfailingly, immutably good; and the bad ones, who are irredeemably evil.  There is no space for gray areas, for people wavering between the brutal needs for survival and the tenets of humanity, and this robs characters of believability, transforming them into cardboard cutouts instead of the flesh-and-blood people I always want to care for (or even hate, why not?) in a book.

And again, some behavioral choices don’t add up when compared with the seriousness of the situation, so that they strike a jarring note I was unable to ignore. Some examples? Lovers Lana and Max are preparing to leave New York city, before it becomes to late for that, and they gather some necessary items for the road: when going out to procure a couple of backpacks, Max comes back with an appropriate camouflage-colored one for himself, and a pink-hued one for Lana, as a cute gesture – because of course if one wants to avoid calling attention to themselves, pink is the perfect choice, and you need to be cute when the end of the world draws near!  Or take the example of journalist Arlys and her intern Fred (i.e. Miss “Hey, I’m a pixie! Cool!”) who are leaving as well, knowing they might be hunted down for a number of reason I won’t list here: as they grab what supplies they can, Fred adds makeup items to their stores, as if unwilling to face the end of the world without looking at their best. Seriously?

Add to that a few obvious plot devices, or some dialogues that are at times quite cringe-worthy and you have the perfect recipe for a huge disappointment: I had tried very hard not to compare Year One to my favorite novels on this subject, Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, but at some point it was impossible not to, and this novel came up quite short of the mark, so I gave up the struggle at around 50% of the road.


My Rating: 


Short Story Review: RED LIGHTS, AND RAIN, by Gareth L. Powell


(click on the link to read the story online)


This turned out to be a very strange story – and I mean ‘strange’ in a very positive way, of course – one that started as something with a somber mood: the opening brings us to a small pub in the Red Lights district of Amsterdam, where a woman is waiting for someone.  The description of the rainy night and the people moving past the pub’s windows on their various errands puts the background into sharp focus and  it quickly drew me in, thanks to what I like to call “cinematic quality” in writing.

Quite soon, though, the story’s atmosphere changes, and that happens when the waiting woman fingers the gun in her pocket – a gun that’s fifty years more advanced than anything else in this time zone” – and the man she’s waiting for appears.  She’s there to kill him, and he’s aware of the fact.

I’m not going to tell you more about Red Lights, and Rain, because it’s the kind of story that begs to be read with no foreknowledge: the only thing I feel comfortable sharing is the consideration underlying the narrative – what is a monster?  Is it the creature whose only motivation is to kill, the one that is driven to spill innocent blood, or is it the one that acted as creator and sent it on the path of destruction?   In the end I found myself echoing the words of the young man managing the pub, “you are a monster”. Indeed…


My Rating: