Reviews

Review: ARTEMIS, by Andy Weir

I received this book from the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

My first experience with Andy Weir’s writing, his acclaimed The Martian, did not work out well: although the story’s potential was amazing (as testified by the huge success of the movie inspired by the novel), the delivery failed to engage me, and the book ended up in my ‘unfinished’ pile.  Still, I’m a great believer in second opportunities, and when the first synopsis for Artemis surfaced, I was intrigued enough to give it a try: this time around, things went a great deal better…

Artemis is the first (and so far the only) organized community on the Moon, a collection of interconnected domes named after famous astronauts: the city, with a resident population of around two thousand people of varied ethnicity, is mostly an industrial settlement and a tourist resort – a place with few written laws and a good number of unwritten ones.  Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara is a young woman of Saudi descent, the daughter of a respected welder she had a falling out with some time prior to the start of the story: Jazz works as a porter, a low-income occupation she uses as a front for her smuggling operations, and it’s because of her non-official job that she becomes involved in an industrial take-over scheme that suddenly morphs into a bloody gang war, turning her into a target for both the police and the members of a ruthless Brazilian cartel.

The pace is lively, carried by Jazz’s mordant, impudent tone, while the city of Artemis comes alive before our eyes thanks to her first-person narrative, whose scientific explanations (clearly the main staple of Andy Weir’s storytelling method) come across as lightly informative rather than pedantic: unlike what happened with Mark Whatney’s voice logs, Jazz ideally talks with the audience rather that at them, and this made a huge difference for me as far as my connection with the character was concerned.  The mechanics of living in microgravity, and in a hostile, airless environment, are explained in a discursive manner that makes it sound more like an interesting chat between acquaintances than a pedantic lecture – one of the most fascinating pieces of information being the effect of reduced gravity on the boiling point of water and therefore the temperature (and taste) of hot beverages.

Another characteristic Jazz seems to share with Whatney is her flippancy, with the difference (from my point of view) that with her it works well and it feels natural, an integral part of her psychological makeup, and what’s more it suits the character and the situations she finds herself in, while that same cheekiness sounded wrong for Whitney and his dilemma. Moreover, the book’s chapters are interspersed with the mail correspondence Jazz starts as a child with an Earth boy, Kelvin, and through these exchanges we learn much about her back-story without need for lengthy infodumps. There is a not-so-subtle veneer of pain and resentment underlying Jazz’s character, a dark side that she seems to have accepted and makes jokes about, but at the same time you can feel it places her apart from everyone else, a remoteness that seems more a form of defense than a real wish for solitude.   

I guess it all boils down to the youthful transgression that caused the rift with her father, an event that still preys heavily on her mind and must be the reason Jazz constantly refuses to employ her remarkable skills to better herself: there are several instances, throughout the book, in which people point at her above-average intelligence and wonder – to her extreme annoyance – why she remains attached to what is essentially a menial job, when she could fare much better with work she’s more skilled at.  It’s easy to imagine it might be a form of self-inflicted punishment – unexpressed as it remains – that coupled with her sense of fairness, and her peculiar moral code, quickly endeared her to me despite the brash surface appearance Jazz presents.

Here, though, also lies my main contention with this story: as an independent, self-sustaining woman, Jazz exerts that freedom in many areas of her life, including her sexuality, something that is not at all strange in our present time, nor should it be in the near future period –  and frontier location – where Artemis is set, since the absence of Earth-style laws or morals allows that freedom in all its different declinations. As an example of that liberal mindset, we are told about a couple of siblings engaged in an incestuous relationship that chose to emigrate to the Moon to avoid condemnation for their life choices.  So, why does practically everyone have to remark on Jazz’s past and present promiscuousness? Why is she targeted as the Red Woman from Babylon, in a place where you can do almost anything as long as you observe strict airlock safety?   It’s a small thing, granted, but still it bothered me like an itching nose in a spacesuit…

Still, it’s a very minor quibble, and the story itself more than makes up for it, especially in the breath-stopping (literally…) final segment, where the words “compulsive reading” become quite appropriate.  As my second attempt at Andy Weir’s writing, Artemis worked like a charm and the news that it’s already been optioned for a movie picture made me eager to see how this one will translate to the big screen: hopefully they will find an actress that will do Jazz the justice she deserves.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

VICK AND HER VULTURES ARE COMING BACK!

 

Last year I had the opportunity of reading the first volume in Scott Warren’s Union Earth Privateers series, kindly offered for review by the publisher Parvus Press. Vick’s Vultures proved to be a fast-paced, quite entertaining story about a band of privateers, space crews sent to retrieve any kind of alien tech that Earth would be able to retro-engineer and use to keep abreast with the more advanced races peopling the galaxy, while at the same time keeping a low profile.

One of the book’s best features was indeed Victoria Marin, the captain of the Condor, a strong, well-rounded character whose practical determination quickly won my sympathy: once I closed the book I knew I would look forward to learning more about her and her Vultures.

Soon I will have this opportunity: Parvus Press contacted me with the kind offer of reading and reviewing Book 2 in the series, To Fall Among Vultures, that will be published at the beginning of October. I am of course eager to learn what new adventures are waiting for the Condor and its crew, and equally eager to share my findings with you, so while we wait I’m very happy to share the link to the giveaway for Book 1 that is currently running and will enable you to catch up with Vick’s first adventures and to prepare for the new ones.

Just follow the link below and fire your engines! The journey starts here…

 

VICK’S VULTURES GIVEAWAY

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE DEBT OF THE INNOCENT, by Rachel Swirsky

My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues, thanks to the archives of online magazines.  This week is the turn of:

THE DEBT OF THE INNOCENT, by Rachel Swirksy

(click on the link above to read the story)

This is one of the most chilling, most terrifying stories I read, and the horror does not come from monsters, alien invasions or deadly plagues, but from the cold calculation exerted on the right to live based on available resources that’s at the core or the story itself.

In the world depicted in Rachel Swirsky, one that does not seem very far in time from the one we’re living in, the energy crisis requires severe rationing of electricity: no more lights or computers kept on all day long, private cars a memory of the past, plane trips a luxury for the very rich.  This need to regulate energy expenditures extends to all sectors of society, hospitals included, and here is where the shock hits, because the author postulates that in any hospital neonatal care is restricted to a given number of incubators, and that occupancy is controlled by the ability of parents to pay for the energy outlay necessary to keep their babies alive.  It they can’t, the child is “displaced”, i.e. removed from the incubator and left to die so that their place can be taken by a baby whose parents’ solvency is more secure.

Even more terrifying than this premise is the acquiescence that becomes apparent from the characters’ reactions, as if that were an acceptable price to pay while the world re-builds its energy output and tries to go back to previous standards.  This compliance seems to come from the acknowledgment from the more fortunate that someone else will have to suffer the consequences, that there is “a luckless, down-at-heel class the majority can look down on and think ‘at least that isn’t me’. And as long as that balance remains, the deplorable policy of killing infants for watts will continue.”

Given recent news on the subject of health care, this story resonates both as a warning and an accusation, an admonition toward thinking about the long-range consequences of today’s decisions, and the impact they can have on the not-so-distant future.

Blunt, distressing and to the point – viciously so.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: TRADING IN DANGER, by Elizabeth Moon (Vatta’s War #1)

Elizabeth Moon is one of the authors I kept promising myself I would read someday, and the reasons I kept procrastinating were both the huge amount of books she’s written (with an embarrassment of riches you often don’t know where to start!) and the fact that, on a cursory examination, her stories seemed focused on military SF, a genre I’ve had some problems with.   Military SF generally tends to focus mainly on the technical side of the stories and on the mechanics of space battles, leaving little room for character exploration: even a series like David Weber’s Honor Harrington – one that started quite well from my perspective – after the first books tended to favor tech vs. people, causing me to stop reading at some point.

A short time ago, however, Mogsy from Bibliosanctum showcased the newest book from Elizabeth Moon, Cold Welcome, and her review prompted me to try it out, even though it looked connected to a previous 5-book series, Vatta’s War: it’s true, as Mogsy wrote, that you can read it without prior knowledge of the main character’s back story, but after a handful of chapters I saw that said back story was not only very interesting but also important to understand what makes this character tick, and so I decided to start back from the beginning, with the first book in Kylara Vatta’s journey, Trading in Danger: it turned out to be one of the best choices I could make, because Elizabeth Moon is now firmly on her way to becoming one of my favorite authors as a great writer of military SF/space opera of the kind I enjoyed only through Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books.

Kylara Vatta is the youngest daughter of the Chief Financial Officer of Vatta Transport, a far-reaching trading company that’s also a family-run business: not wanting to be drawn into it, Ky has enrolled at the Space Academy, where she distinguished herself as an honors student. She’s however prone to misreading people and their true leanings, and in trying to aid a fellow cadet, whose ulterior motives are revealed when it’s too late to do anything about them, she indirectly causes profound embarrassment to the Academy and ends up being blamed for it and expelled.  Back home on Slotter’s Key, Kylara is once more enfolded in the family trade she tried to avoid and given the captaincy of an aging ship for its last run, one that will end in a scrap yard where it will be sold for parts: on the surface, a milk run to test her capabilities as a commercial captain, with the assistance (read ‘babysitting’) of some senior members of Vatta’s vast fleet.  Determined to prove her independence, Ky accepts a contracts from the Belinta colony to bring them the agricultural machinery they so desperately need from Sabine, show she can fulfill the family’s motto about “trade and profit”, and make some money she intends to funnel into repairs for the ship she’s developing a fondness for.

Unfortunately, the law about best laid plans is still in operation, and once Ky and her crew reach Sabine they find themselves in need of overhauling a major drive component, of juggling finances that are stretched too thin for comfort, with the obligations they need to fulfill and – what’s worse – a sudden conflict that escalates beyond control far too quickly, cutting off communications with the rest of the galaxy – and Vatta’s central headquarters.  For Ky it will be the opportunity to truly grow into her own woman while trying to meet her commitments and stay true to her personal code as well as that of the family’s business: this will require some difficult decisions, at times even terrible ones, decisions she will face with determination and a strength of character that quickly endeared her to me, placing her among my favorite characters and Elizabeth Moon among my “must read” authors.

Speculative fiction abounds with plucky heroines who defy great odds and come out winning, but a good number of them suffer from pernicious impulsiveness that nonetheless seems to have no consequences: that’s definitely not the case with Kylara Vatta. She is young and inexperienced, granted, and she tends to trust people at face value, which in some cases brings negative outcomes, but she’s also capable of soul-searching and possesses the honesty of analyzing her past mistakes and learning from them. Her actions always have consequences – in some cases deadly ones – and Ky is not exempt from some darker tendencies, that help shaping her character into a more real, more believable one: there is one instance where she is forced to actually kill people, and when she does that, with a quick efficiency that she must have learned at the Academy, she accepts the thrill of satisfaction that comes with the act as part of human nature, as part of the adrenaline rush of the situation, and knows that this darker shade of her cannot be denied, even if it needs to be kept in check.   

All this gives her a wonderful, multi-faceted complexity that together with her business pragmatism takes Ky out of the mere realm of fiction and endows her with a sense of reality that is like a breath of fresh air.  What in other, less carefully crafted characters, might have resulted in empty stubbornness, here gives us a person who realizes she is not fully matured into the woman she wants and needs to be, but at the same time requires the freedom to make her own mistakes, learn from them and become a better individual because of those mistakes, and not in spite of them.

The same sense of realism at the core of Kylara can be found in the events at the core of the novel: for example, when the old ship starts breaking down, it stays broken – there are no miraculous engineering feats steeped in improbable technical jargon that make the problem disappear into thin air, like we are used to see in certain well-know tv franchises.  Ky and her crew face real dangers: they could be stranded with no way of asking for help, with a broken drive, dwindling supplies and a sabotaged beacon, and it will take much ingenuity (and a good dose of sheer luck) to see the end of the proverbial tunnel.  And again there are the economics of the far-reaching human expansion into space: contracts to be honored, matters of financing and of making the ends of a business deal meet; or the different social structures of newest, still struggling colonies against more established and wealthier settlements.  All of this helps bring this fictional civilization into focus and makes the reader want to learn more.

At the start of this review I compared the overall feel of this story with Bujold’s Vorkosigan universe: though there are vast differences, both in background and in characterization, the… flavor – for want of a better word – is the same.  In both cases we have a story about people, and the way they work to carve a place for themselves in a universe that wants to imprison them into a mold they don’t agree with; there is galactic strife mixed in, granted, but the human part is what matters here, not the technology or the dynamics of interstellar conflicts or the deployment of weapons.  If what you look for in a space opera or military SF novel is this, if people count for you more than gadgets or battles, this book will prove to be perfect.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: LADY ANTHEIA’S GUIDE TO HORTICULTURAL WARFARE, by Seanan McGuire

 

LADY ANTHEIA’S GUIDE TO HORTICULTURAL WARFARE

(click on the link to read the story on Lightspeed Magazine)

 

Think about “The Day of the Triffids” blended with “The War of the Worlds” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” on a steampunk background: this is what this story made me think about, even though there is much, much more to it.  These concepts, handled by the deliciously evil writing skills of Seanan McGuire, have created the tale of an invasion that is also a commentary on human flaws, poking fun at our ingrained short-sightedness.

Told in the style of a 19th Century memoir from a lady of high breeding, it recounts the invasion and conquest of Earth by an alien race of… vegetables, and if the premise makes you smile, think again, because if the tone of the account is deceptively gracious and civilized, the reality it depicts comes across as efficiently brutal, and it chilled me to the bone.

The first wave of the invasion by what will be later termed “The Vegetable Empire” starts with the arrival of seeds all over the world: the only one who manages to thrive lands in 19th Century England in the garden of Sir Arthur Blackwood, the royal botanist – and promptly proceeds to eat Sir Arthur’s sister’s maid, taking on her appearance and memories.  Far from being appalled by what happened, the Blackwoods take the seedling into their circle, as a novelty and a subject of polite study, even bestowing on her the name of Lady Antheia, from the goddess of flowers. As Antheia later writes in her memoirs, “better had my first encounter with humanity been a man, and not a woman of low station with no family to mourn her. Better for who, I cannot say”.  The lack of a shocked reaction to Antheia’s method of interaction with humans is commentary enough on the period’s regard for household help and of their short-sightedness about the creature they have welcomed into their midst with little or no thought for her true, blood-thirsty nature: after all, Antheia comments, all they see is “the very flower of English womanhood, with my curves trained to the corset’s embrace and my skirts hanging full and demure down past my ankles”.  She looks like a woman, therefore she can offer no threat, can she?

When six years later the bulk of the invading army arrives, England and the rest of Earth are unprepared for the assault, not understanding how their perceived superiority in culture, breeding and arms (that include airships and ray guns and so forth) seems to melt in the face of a veritable shower of seeds that cover the ground and start sprouting invaders, with appalling results.  As a shocked Sir Arthur is forced to accompany Antheia to the Queen to negotiate a surrender, he struggles to wrap his mind around the incursion, and Antheia’s reply forces him to consider what the British Empire has done until that very moment, taking resources they wanted and needed: “that’s the first reason you did what you did, and that’s the first reason we do what we do”.

As always, Seanan McGuire’s writing skills make this story shine in a delightful way, not in spite but because of the main character’s personality: even if your are not a reader partial to shorter works, I would recommend reading this one for the amazing experience that it is.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: STRANGE DOGS (an Expanse novella), by James S.A. Corey

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

A confession first: when I saw this title among the monthly proposals from Orbit, I immediately clicked on the NetGalley link, without even checking first what the theme would be, or which character it might focus on.  For me it was more than enough that the story would be centered on the Expanse’s universe, one of the best (it not THE best) space opera series currently running. The rest would take care of itself… And it did, indeed: even though none of the familiar “faces” is present in this novella, the story is totally absorbing and my only complaint is that it ended too soon, leaving me with a lot of questions that I hope will be answered in the next full-length book(s).

Laconia is one of the worlds opened to colonization by the alien portal whose creation we saw in Abaddon’s Gate, and young Cara arrived there as an infant together with her parents; her brother Xan was born on Laconia and both of them don’t know any other life but that of their new home, Earth being more like a fairy-tale than an actual place.  Cara’s life is divided between school lessons, domestic chores and the times she spends near the pond at some distance from her home, where she observes the strange flora and fauna of her home world.  And Laconia looks indeed like a wondrous place: the descriptions of Cara’s surroundings create an image of a beautiful, alien world full of possibilities, a place devoid of grave dangers and just perfect for a young person’s imagination to run free.

Not everything is idyllic in this new world, though: the presence of soldiers, who landed on Laconia in the aftermath of the brutal attack on Earth from Nemesis Games, has placed a veil of unease on the settlers and at times Cara intercepts some conversations between her parents that make her wonder about the seriousness of their tone, and the half-understood sentences she is able to catch. Still, she does not delve too deeply on that, preferring to spend her time observing the animals that visit her pond: the weirdest encounter happens when she sees for the first time a group of peculiar dog analogues, creatures that seem possessed of a superior intelligence and that fire her curiosity and imagination, especially when they seem able to do the impossible.

I’m sorry I can’t be more specific, but to do so would be to spoil the whole story, particularly because at some point tragedy strikes and the dogs – the Strange Dogs – will prove pivotal in the upheaval of Cara’s life and the hard choices she will feel compelled to make.  Also, the fact that rogue Martian admiral Duarte is mentioned, and since he’s very likely the one who stole the protomolecule sample Fred Johnson was safekeeping, this detail lays a very uneasy feeling on the whole scenario, especially where the dogs and their peculiar abilities are concerned…

What I can safely share is how well-rounded Cara appears, despite the short length of the story, how she feels both very young and very mature at the same time, and how she is able to maintain a sort of… lucid innocence – for want of a better word – despite the harrowing events developing in her world.

There are so many narrative threads in this short story, and they are quite tantalizing because the authors just touch on each subject, moving swiftly to another one and so on, and that’s the reason I felt both intrigued and frustrated while reading the novella: my hope is that this might be a sample of what we will find in the next installments of the series, branching off in what promises to be a new and exciting direction, as it has done with every single book.  All the same, this was a very, very welcome “appetizer” while the wait for Persepolis Rising goes on…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE RED HOURGLASS (Slaves of the New World #1), by Ashley Capes

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

I’ve often reviewed the works of Australian author Ashley Capes, whose writing range goes from fantasy to magical mystery to (albeit mild) horror: this time he’s tackling another genre, steampunk – but with a touch of magic thrown into the mix.

The siblings Mia and Thomas are running from pursuers across a desert landscape: they just buried their deceased old protector and guide David, and their prospects look quite bleak, since over the horizon a dust cloud signals the approach of the hunters looking for them.  Mia and Thomas are escaped slaves, the condition indicated by the hourglass tattoo on their arms: in this future or alternate history, slavery has returned – at least in Australia, so that the country has been isolated from the rest of the world because of this – and the siblings were the property of self-proclaimed King Williams, who wants them back because of their special gifts.

The clues in the narrative point to a classic steampunk background: steam-powered vehicles, the mention of airships (although this particular technology seems to have been lost by the ruling dynasty) and so on, and yet there are a few tantalizing mentions of a more advanced past, one that has now become more legend than actual memory. On top of that, however, there is magic: Mia shows a sort of precognitive ability, paired with her almost total blindness, and the knack of summoning a powerful creature with destructive powers; while later on Thomas discovers an affinity for steel, which he can bend or break with the sole strength of his muscles.

The world in which they move is an intriguing one: even though it’s not immediately mentioned, we soon understand the action is based in Australia – if the author’s origins were not an obvious clue, there is at one point a mention of an iron fountain shaped like a kangaroo to make this clear. The country appears different from the one we all know, the desert encroaching on the fewer livable spaces, red dust creeping forward like a tide that covers abandoned cities and chokes everything and everyone.  It’s not clear what happened, but at some point major environmental and political upheavals must have combined to create the present situation, one that nobody in power seems to care about.

As the two siblings run for their life and freedom, while searching for answers about the past they seem not to remember – including the bewildering changes worked on them by the mysterious Alchemist, something they have no memory of, as well – we get to know this cruel, harsh world and its few islands of respite, like the colony established by former slaves on the shores of the ocean, or the rebel camp where a handful of fighters tries to subvert the rule of King Williams’ dynasty, or the freemen of the mangrove village no one seems to know about.    I have to admit that these proved something of a frustration to me, because they were more like fleeting glimpses rather than deeper explorations of these enclaves, where I might have learned more about the past and the events that brought on the current situation.  The same happens with King Williams’ capital city, a place of hard labor in the smoke-belching factories and of fear of terrible retribution for those who cross the ruler’s wishes: I would have loved to know more, and to see more than the quick peeks the novel afforded.

On the other hand, this is a story carried by motion, the constant, running motion of the two fugitives trying to stay at least one step ahead of their pursuers, so I understand how it would have been difficult to… stop and smell the roses, so to speak: still there is that nagging voice, asking for more, that is not so easily silenced. My hope is that the next installments in the series will shed more light on the whole scenario and bring about a few answers as well.

As an introduction to this world, The Red Hourglass is an intriguing offering that promises to develop into a quite exciting story, one whose follow-up I’m looking forward with great interest.

 

My Rating: