Reviews

Short Story Review: THE THING ABOUT GHOST STORIES, by Naomi Kritzer

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

Uncanny Magazine is a new haunt for me as far as online short stories go, and I have not chosen the word ‘haunt’ lightly, because the first work that caught my attention is indeed one about ghostly manifestations.

Leah is a researcher who collects ghost stories for her essay on folklore: her approach is quite scientific, to the point that she has created a numeric classification for any kind of materialization, like “emotional content; individual vs. communal experience; whether physical evidence of any kind was involved” and so on. Her skepticism is clear, even in the face of her one past experience about seeing a hanged man in a rented apartment, and she maintains that she’s “a folklorist, not a ghost hunter”.  Still, her fascination with the eerie is clear, and it becomes more focused as Leah shares details of her story, of her life with her mother whose descent into the murky depths of Alzheimer robbed the woman of her keen intellect and of the close relationship with her daughter.

When one of the people Leah interviews to gather stories about ghostly manifestations tells her that there’s a presence beside her, and it appears to be that of her deceased mother, the scientific drive leaves some room for unwilling belief, which becomes stronger as another individual acknowledges that same presence.   From that point, the story takes on a different shade, one tinged with poignant remembrance and the recognition of loss, and one that touched me deeply – not so much because of the ghost mythology, but rather because of the theme of mother/daughter relationship, and how it can endure even despite and beyond death.

 

My Rating:

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Reviews

Review: THE UNBOUND EMPIRE (Swords and Fire #3), by Melissa Caruso

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

The third and final installment in Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy is the brilliant finale of a remarkable series, but for me it also firmly places the author in my personal “buy sight unseen” category – which looks even more extraordinary if you consider that this is her debut work.  While I was captivated by this series and its characters since Book 1, I had the pleasure of being more and more engaged in the story with each new volume, her mastery of pacing, dialogue and characterization growing literally from chapter to chapter, and The Unbound Empire represents indeed the culmination of this journey.

Storywise, the events take place a short time after Amalia Cornaro’s harrowing experiences in the hostile territory of Vaskandar, where she participated in the Witch Lords’ Conclave, called by the powerful Lord Ruven attempting to create an alliance against Amalia’s own Raverra.  Taking advantage of the short respite before the storm, the young Cornaro heiress works to make her Falcon Reform Act a reality: the mage-marked of the Empire will not be subjected to forced conscription anymore and will be able to live wherever they want, provided that they are willing to help their country in time of need.

Amalia’s elation at this success is however short-lived: Ruven launches the first phase of his attack at the very heart of Raverra, undermining the Empire’s political stability with the intent of weakening it from the inside before launching the actual military assault. It will fall on Amalia to implement the first line of defense against the Witch Lord, and to try and remove his threat at any cost, so that in this final battle she will have to learn which lines she is prepared to cross as she balances the survival of her home against that of the people she loves.

When reviewers say they find it difficult to set any given novel aside for a moment, it might seem a hyperbole, but this was certainly not the case with The Unbound Empire: personally I begrudged every single moment in which I had to close my reader to attend to life’s everyday requirements, and in those moments I kept wondering what else would be in store for me once I could reopen the book and keep on reading.  The pace is artfully calibrated and increases exponentially as the stakes and dangers keep mounting and the situation takes on the most bleak of overtones: even taking into account the general ruthlessness of Witch Lords, whose powers tend to divest them of many, if not all, of the usual factors that make humans human, Ruven’s callousness surpasses that of his peers by many orders of magnitude.   

Moreover, Amalia often finds herself fighting on two fronts, because the political maneuverings in Raverra look as coldblooded as the Witch Lords’ schemes: now that she is gaining political clout and is starting to make her own path in the powerful circles to which she is destined, it becomes clear that she must harden herself to any eventuality and lose the scholar’s naiveté and self-absorption that used to be her comfort zone at the beginning of the story. I have to confess that I was hard-pressed to remind myself that Amalia is a young woman not yet out of her teens: one of my strongest contentions when dealing with YA characters is that they seem condemned to be depicted as whiny, prone to temper tantrums and moody inner dialogue, but Amalia Cornaro is nothing of the sort. Hardships and tragedy only serve to strengthen her resolve, and any sacrifice, any tough decision she is forced to make may grievously wound her soul but they never weaken her spirit.

One of the main themes of this series is the need for a balance between love, friendship and one’s duty – especially in dangerous times – and I enjoyed the way Melissa Caruso was able to blend all these elements into a cohesive and engaging whole, investing me with the intricacies of the sentimental triangle of sorts in which Amalia becomes involved. Again, what in lesser hands could have turned into somewhat annoying angst, does instead give life to several considerations about the weight of commitment to duty against the leanings of the heart, so that both the narrative developments and the characterization come out enhanced by the detours into “romance territory”, so to speak, instead of being weakened by them. And the unspoken but clearly highlighted notion that it’s possible to love two different people with the same depth of devotion, though expressed in different shades, is a great and enjoyable step forward in the exploration of this subject.

As I said in a previous review of this series, Marcello – the captain of the Falconers to whom Amalia is attracted – and Kathe – the mage lord whose courtship Amalia accepted for political expediency before becoming fascinated by his mercurial personality – represent the dual leanings of Amalia’s soul: Marcello is the safe harbor, the dependable, gentle person she could spend the rest of her life with; Kathe is both unfathomable and dangerous, yet here some hidden, more sensitive sides of his personality come into light, forcing Amalia to reassert her previous views on the man.  If anything, the uncertainty of the choice she will have to make between these two opposites serves to strengthen Amalia’s character and to show that despite the inevitable heartbreak she is capable to set aside the inclinations of her soul and to listen to the harsh necessities of her mind: I don’t want to spoil the details for you, but there are moments when having to decide between “want” and “must” she is able to weigh all the possibilities – like the true scientist she was at the beginning – and to pick the path that will fulfill the mission she was tasked with.  Not without pain, granted, but with an outstanding and admirable clarity of mind.

In this Amalia is supported by her Falcon Zaira, the young woman who can master balefire – the best weapon Raverra possesses against its enemies.  The slowly evolving, grudging friendship between them is one of the highlights of the overall story if not its best element.  Zaira herself is a fascinating character, one who had to survive on her wits alone while having to deal with the terrifying powers she possesses and which have already caused a great deal of grief in the past. For this reason Zaira tries to avoid any kind of emotional connection, afraid that the slightest lessening of her guard might cause harm to the people she cares for despite herself, and the brittle, skittish personality that comes from this is compounded by a propensity for sarcastic remarks that are both amusing and poignant, because they open a window on Zaira’s bruised soul.

Some of the best moments in this series come out of the interactions between Zaira and Amalia, and I enjoyed the way their friendship evolved – slowly and grudgingly – as these two persons who come from the opposite sides of the social scale move toward each other and become each other’s support in the traumatic events unfolding around them. It’s the guilt they have to deal with – Zaira for the tragic consequences of her unharnessed balefire; Amalia for the deaths caused by the necessities of war – that brings them together and forms a bond neither of them is willing to mention openly but still is a delightful sight to behold.

The Swords and Fire trilogy wraps up nicely with this third volume while leaving the door open for possible sequels, and I for one hope that Melissa Caruso will allow us to return to this world, because I think there are still many stories to be explored in here, and greatly enjoyed just as these three books were.

My Rating:

Reviews

Novella Review: SPECTRE (Book of Never #7), by Ashley Capes

 

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

It’s been some time since I read Never’s last adventure and it took me a little while to find my bearings again in this story fashioned in equal parts out of a series of adventures, in a world where magic takes strange and weird forms, and of the main character’s quest to learn about his past and the heritage from his now- extinct and legendary forefathers.  Once I did, though, the narrative flew quickly, carried by a very appealing premise.

In Spectre our hero is not facing the “simple” turmoil of warring factions bent on controlling territory, as it happened in past adventures, but rather the dire menace of a cult bent on the horrifying transformation of hapless victims – think Island of Doctor Moreau and you will have an idea of what I’m talking about.  And this time the stakes are quite high, because he needs to save a young boy from the cult’s clutches and to prevent and old… well, frenemy is the best term that comes to mind, from succumbing to the vile alteration.

As usual Never is able to find valid allies in his endeavors, and this time the person who shares this portion of his journey is an intriguing one, the unassuming priest Lakiva: not unlike a warrior monk, the young man carries on with self-effacing modesty, only to exhibit amazing abilities when necessity arises. This combination quickly endeared him to me and often brought a smile to my face.

That smile was more than necessary, because Spectre is one of the darkest adventures Never faced until now, rife with a sense of impending doom and a relentlessly ticking clock, culminating in a harrowing confrontation that blends a heated battle with an authentic descent into Hell that kept me on the edge of my seat, especially because in this case even our hero’s remarkable powers and stamina seemed to be inadequate to the task at hand.

And of course it does not end here, because a new threat looms on the horizon at the end of the novella, promising more intriguing adventures…

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE (Teixcalaan #1), by Arkady Martine

 

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

From the very first time I saw this book mentioned in the blogosphere I knew I would love to read it, since it promised to offer many of the themes I enjoy in speculative fiction, especially the in-depth examination of the cultural and political implications of a huge empire, one where the Dune-like vibes appeared to be quite strong – which never fails to attract my attention.  What I ultimately found was quite different, but in the end it did not matter much because A Memory Called Empire turned out to be a thought-provoking read.

The Teixcalaanli Empire has not extended its influence only through political or military annexation, but more subtly through the impact of its culture, one which is based on a poetry-inclined mode of expression that has become the model for what is viewed as ‘in’ – the very model of civilization. Even the systems not directly placed under the Empire’s control can fall prey to this fascination for Teixcalaanli civilization, as is the case with Lsel Station, a mining space enclave whose only political tie with the Empire is represented by its ambassador in the City, the central planet at the heart of the dominion. Mahit Dzmare, a young woman who has long been a student and enthusiast of all things Teixcalaanli, is summoned to replace the former ambassador, only to discover upon arrival that her predecessor is dead.

Stationer culture offers a unique perspective on the preservation of past experiences: they have developed a neural implant called imago machine which can store the memories of its holder and share them with a different host – the mechanical equivalent of a Trill symbiont from Star Trek or the ancestral memories received by Reverend Mothers through the ritual of the water of life in the Dune universe. Mahit carries the fifteen-years out of date imago of her predecessor, Yskander, and is still in the process of fully integrating with it given the swiftness of her assignment, but as soon as she visits Yskander’s body in the City’s morgue, the voice inside her head goes silent, either because of a shock sustained by the hosted personality or of some kind of unexpected malfunction.

By all intents and purposes, Mahit must therefore carry on her mission alone – a stranger in a strange land, no matter how much of the Teixcalaanli culture she has absorbed – and under the double pressure of having to discover what really happened to Yskander, which could very well have been murder, and the political turmoil agitating the Empire, seemingly bent toward a new campaign of expansion, this time headed in the direction of Lsel Station.  Not completely alone, though: the cultural attaché she was assigned, Three Seagrass, appears inclined to help her even when that means going against the rules, and the dramatic events they are part of – including a couple of attempts on Mahit’s life – keep drawing the two young women closer, in a sort of mirror attraction for each other’s culture that slowly turns into a personal one.  Still, despite finding a few allies in unexpected places, Mahit’s job looks like a mix of improvisation, deception and learning on the fly that never allows her a moment of respite, while the world all around her looks headed down a dangerous, uncertain path, one she must try to deflect at any cost, even personal safety.

A Memory Called Empire proved to be an intriguing read, as I expected, largely on the basis of the themes central to the story: one of them is the absolute belief at the root of Teixcalaanli society that it represents the best humanity can offer, the most civilized, refined example of mankind’s achievements; a belief that makes them view everyone else as a barbarian, dismissing them all too easily.  There are many instances where Mahit finds herself measured by this very yardstick instead of being accepted for her accomplishments in the culture she admires so much and in its aesthetic values, not to mention her own innate abilities. This leads to another interesting concept, the meaning of self and the way it can be defined – especially when confronted with the use of imago memories and the possibility of change introduced by the coexistence of one’s experiences with someone else’s.  Where the initial buildup appears somewhat slow, once the pieces are all set on the board, the action moves forward at a fast pace, with the last segment focused on a fight against time and apparently insurmountable odds, one who certainly kept me on the edge of my seat as I waited for the whole complicated scenario to unfold completely.

And yet… As captivating as this story was, as delightful some characters were (Three Seagrass being the winner in this contest, thanks to her elegantly witty repartees), I could not shake the feeling that there was something missing – which does not mean that I did not appreciate this book, only I could not be… captured by it, always remaining on the periphery, so to speak, and never truly losing myself in it. Even now, as I’m writing this, I have not managed to put my finger on the real reason for this  perception of distance and the best comparison I can find is through music: I enjoy listening to Mozart, I recognize the beauty of the works he shared with the world, but to me it’s a cold beauty, devoid of the heated passion I can find in Chopin or Rachmaninov, just to quote two of my favorite composers. 

This does not mean that I view A Memory Called Empire in a negative light – the rating I gave it should dispel any doubt about that: it’s only that though I recognize its brilliance, I failed to be engaged by it, probably because my heart wanted to be warmed by the story just as much as my mind had been intrigued by it…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

GRR Martin’s ASOIAF: A Gentle Nudge from New Zealand…

It’s no news that readers of GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire have been dealing with the author’s long gestating times between books with varying degrees of patience – or lack thereof, and the not-quite-satisfactory way in which the overall story was wrapped up by the TV series Game of Thrones did little to assuage the readers’ curiosity and their need to see the story and the characters’ journeys developed with the depth they expect from the books published until now.

Over the years some voices have been raised in a less than civilized way, literally demanding the next book in line as if it were their unalienable right, and lately I heard that a silly rumor was being circulated that Martin had actually finished the saga but was keeping the books under wraps as a favor to the TV show, which sounds totally foolish but still needed a public rebuttal by the author.  Which proves that rumors spread faster than a pandemic, and are just as dangerous.

Replying to such absurdity with humor is always the best choice, to the point that playful creations like this one go a long way toward keeping the tone light:

 

 

And that’s the reason I enjoyed immensely this video created by Air New Zealand, which encourages George Martin to find a place where his creativity would flow uninterrupted, inviting him to visit their country.  It’s a delightful way to express the readers’ eagerness to see the next book hit the stands, and it’s full of amusing tongue-in-cheek quips, my favorite being the one about “being nervous as a Stark with a wedding invite”.

Enjoy!  🙂

 

Reviews

Wyrd & Wonder 2019 – A TIME OF BLOOD (Of Blood and Bone #2), by John Gwynne

 

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

My very first book by John Gwynne was this novel’s predecessor, A Time of Dread, and it revealed to me not just an author who has rapidly become one of my favorites, but a complex world that simply begged to be explored: for this reason I backtracked to Gwynne’s first series, The Faithful and the Fallen, and now that I have read its first two books I am getting a more detailed picture of the historical background for this new series titled Of Blood and Bone.  As I said in my review for A Time of Dread, it’s not necessary to have read the four volumes of The Faithful and the Fallen to enjoy this new saga, but having walked through half of that journey helped me to appreciate this new story more, and every time there is a mention of characters or events from the past, it feels like meeting some old friends.

Unlike all other books I read from this author, who likes to prepare the scene at a leisurely stride, A Time of Blood starts at a high speed and never, ever stops, increasing its pace all throughout the story with almost no respite at all: the playing field has been set, the pieces are all in their places, and now there seems to be room only for action. The forces of evil are on the move, and as we learned previously, they have been preparing for a long time for their comeback, yet what’s terrifying is how they prepared: not just by working secretly for their return, but by forging alliances and increasing their numbers in ways that go well beyond the simple act of recruiting troops. Prepare to be shocked, terrified and revolted at the same time…

As for the forces of good… well, in some instances they have unwittingly moved in directions that might ultimately aid the ancient enemy: the Order of the Bright Star and the Ben-Elim are still allies, of course, but somewhat uneasy ones, and their different perspectives on how to prepare for the battle against the never-vanquished Kadoshim often generate the kind of attrition that undermines such alliances. The members of the Order are proud of their past history and present accomplishments, and don’t look too favorably on the Ben-Elim lording it over everything and everyone, posing as the sole saviors of humanity.  There is a definite feel of political strife here that counterbalances nicely the physical battles and adds a worrisome note to what might be the outcome of the final struggle that looms ever closer on the horizon.  And where politics are concerned, there is always the possibility of deceit and betrayal, which in a few instances come completely out of the blue and leave you reeling in shock.

A Time of Blood is indeed a book in which revelations abound, either concerning characters or present and past events, and it’s because of these surprises that the quick pacing of the story becomes more like a flood against which we have no other recourse but to go with the flow and see where it takes us. As if this were not enough, the novel contains an amazing number of battle scenes described with such a cinematic quality that it feels as if we were watching one of those complex action movies where the different clashes are choreographed with great skill and allow you to follow the single skirmishes together with the overall battle, without losing any detail. If this story were ever to be transposed either to the big or the small screen, these would be epic scenes, indeed, and once more I’m in awe of the author’s technique in blending the descriptions of weapons wielding with the characters’ feelings as they fight, adding the human side of the equation to what might otherwise be a simple portrayal of clashing steel.

The term epic is indeed the only one that can be correctly applied to this story where the brewing conflicts of Book 1 have come out into the open, encompassing a whole world, and we witness the bloody combat in which men and giants, angels and devils fight against each other together with their own allies – bears and wolvens and hellish creatures that are the stuff of nightmares. A title as A Time of Blood hardly prepares you to the level of violence described here, although it must be said that it’s never gratuitous and always serves the narrative purposes of the overall story, not to mention that it’s wonderfully balanced by the themes of hope and love, of friendship and loyalty that have often been the only light in this encroaching darkness.  Still, John Gwynne is not the kind of author who cossets his characters, so they are more often than not put through the grinder, to the point that there is never the absolute certainty of their survival – and previous experience with his writing has taught me that no one is truly safe, which adds another layer to the high level of tension that runs through this book.

Speaking of the characters, they continue to shine and to gain new facets as their journey moves forward: my favorite remains young Drem – the hero of this tale – as he moves from the naive boy who lived in the wilderness with his father and had little experience of the world, to a determined warrior who knows he has to find his courage and fulfill his role in the coming war. It came natural for me to draw a parallel between Drem and Corban, the main character from The Faithful and the Fallen: in my musings about the latter I wrote that he gave off some “reluctant Chosen One” vibes I did not particularly enjoy, since he seemed at time prone to the why me? kind of whining that annoys me a little. While I’m aware that I don’t know Corban’s whole story yet, and therefore I know that I should suspend my judgement, I can’t help but feeling more partial toward Drem who does not show any of the usual signs of the fictional hero, but is rather an ordinary person called to deal with extraordinary events and doing his best to face them with bravery and determination.

What is very enjoyable in the characters of this saga (and the one that preceded it) is that they are equally flawed, be it because of pride, or arrogance, or the penchant for evil, but they all share one common trait: they believe in what they do, even the villains, they have a reason for being what they are, and even though there is no way I can sympathize with some of the “bad guys”, I can see where they come from, and this makes them real, and relatable just as much as the heroes of the story. And this is one of the elements that makes these novels so intriguing and riveting.

Did I find any fault in this second book? Yes, one: it ended too soon and did so on a massive cliffhanger which makes me wish I could read the final installment right now.

But it’s not really a fault – it’s an encouragement. As if I needed one… 🙂

 

My Rating:  

 

(image courtesy of kasana86)
Reviews

Wyrd & Wonder 2019 – Selections from BY BLOOD WE LIVE – Edited by John Joseph Adams

(image courtesy of kasana86)

 

I found this anthology on the Baen Free Library, and I was instantly captivated by the idea of a series of stories focused on the vampire myth, one of the most powerful in the horror and paranormal landscape. It was an interesting journey indeed…

 

 

Under St. Peter’s by Harry Turtledove

This is indeed the weirdest vampire story I ever encountered and, as the editor wrote in his introduction, one that carries more than a whiff of blasphemy – which stands as a warning for anyone choosing to sample it – and still it makes for a fascinating read, one that becomes bizarrely more compelling as the hints pile up and one starts to understand that they are heading without fail in that particular direction. To anticipate anything would be a huge disservice: suffice it to know – and to act as a teaser – that there is an ancient, terrible secret buried under St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome, one that’s revealed to any new Pope right after their investiture…

 

Lifeblood by Michael A. Burstein

As a counterpoint to the previous story, this one deals with the vampire threat – and the possible defenses against it – from the point of view of Jewish religion: in the legendarium surrounding vampires, the Christian cross is a powerful instrument in stopping and repelling a vampire, but what happens if the potential victim does not belong to the Christian faith?  In Lifeblood, a distraught father enters a synagogue looking for help: his son has been bitten three times by a vampire, which means that by the end of this day he will turn into one, and the man is searching frantically for a way to avoid that, while being very aware that his distance from the faith of his ancestors might prove to be the boy’s undoing.  An intriguing tale, and one that makes us think about the power of faith, no matter its origins and its precepts.

 

Do Not Hasten to Bid Me Adieu by Norman Partridge

This is a mix between a retelling of the myth of Dracula as narrated by Bram Stoker, and a sort of… well, unhappily-ever-after focused on a Texas cowboy returning home after the events of the Stoker novel. It’s a strange tale, somehow disconnected due to its alternating between two timelines, but it’s also a poignant one about love and the deathlessness of the emotion even beyond actual death. Unconventional, but quite fascinating.

 

This Is Now by Michael Marshall Smith

There are no vampires as such in this story, but rather the suggestion of them, or at least of strange, deadly creatures held behind an electrified fence by the government since the mid-eighties: three friends, now in their forties, recall a long-ago night of thirty years prior, when they scaled the fence on a dare, on a cold, snowy night, and found more than they bargained for. Now that they are older, and probably wiser, only a night of drinking and reminiscing brings them back to that fence and the desire to see if they can try again.

 

After the Stone Age by Brian Stableford  

Interesting, but so far the weakest of the lot: the premise here is that offering oneself as a willing “blood donor” for a vampire can have positive effects for an overweight person. A weird story, and one that felt too strange by far.

 

House of the Rising Sun by Elizabeth Bear

This story proved puzzling besides being darkly fascinating: it could not have been otherwise since its background is New Orleans – a city where traditions, mystery and a touch of the uncanny always manage to create a very peculiar atmosphere. The main character is a vampire who prowls the streets not so much to sate his own thirst but rather to procure blood for his mistress, an old vampire whose extreme old age makes her incapable of feeding directly from the victims. There is a definite feel of sadness and misery in this undead man that’s quite touching, but that’s not all: from a few hints, and from the editor’s preface to the story, it would seem that the man used to be a famous singer, and the lyric quotes from older songs should be the key to the mystery. Unfortunately, my knowledge of music is sadly lacking, so I’m left with a big, unanswered question…

 

Peking Man by Robert J. Sawyer

Just imagine a story where paleontology is applied to vampires, and you will have an inkling about the core concept of this short tale, one that alternates between the discoveries of a dig in Chinese soil at the start of World War II and a series of flashbacks about a primitive tribe, probably of Neanderthals, meeting a strange creature,  tall, thin, pale, with red-rimmed eyes that somehow seemed to glow from beneath his brow ridge”, one who first douses their precious fire, throwing their night back into terrifying darkness, and then proceeds to catch them, one by one, and drink their blood…  “Fascinating” does not even start to cover my reactions to this intriguing journey.

 

Exsanguinations: A Handbook for the Educated Vampire by Anna S. Oppenhagen-Petrescu and translated from the Romanian by Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne Valente is one of those authors I have not managed to read yet, despite my growing curiosity at every enthusiastic review I see of her works, but if this short story is any example, I will certainly enjoy any of her books – if nothing else for the tongue-in-cheek humor exhibited here in a mock essay (with footnotes!!!) about vampirism allegedly written by one of the undead blood-suckers, the titular Anna Petrescu. To say more would be to spoil the utter fun this story offers: just read it  🙂

 

Lucy, In Her Splendor by Charles Coleman Finlay

Another somewhat disappointing story, made more so because it was the last of this anthology and closed it on a lukewarm note, especially after the fun that was the Valente short, which would have been a better way to end the book, in my opinion.