Half Off Ragnaork – Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid series might be described as the lighter side of her Urban Fantasy universe – not that it lacks any drama and/or brushes with mortal danger for her characters, but it does so in a far lighter vein than I’m used to in her highly successful October Daye series.  And that makes for a fun, relaxing reading.

Coming back to these books is like sitting comfortably down in my favorite armchair, even though there are times when the sitting happens on the very edge of that chair.  When I learned about the change in perspective for this book, with the focus switch from Verity (the protagonist of the first two) to her older brother Alex, I was somewhat dubious, having enjoyed Verity’s spunk and humor-laced adventures very much.

Well, my doubts were unfounded: this story is just as entertaining and interesting as the previous ones and there is enough “transitional material”, including a cameo appearance from Verity, to make the crossing as painless as possible.  Alex is a totally different personality: he’s more a quiet and dedicated science type – complete with proverbial glasses – and his exploits less physical than his sister’s, yet we can nonetheless see him as a productive and pro-active member of the Price family.  His choice of pet (a griffin) and the inevitable colony of Aeslin mice – my very favorite cryptid ever – go a long way in defining his character and telling us through interaction what kind of a person he is.

The main focus of interest in this series are indeed the cryptdis – the kind of creatures that would otherwise be labeled as monsters: the fresh approach chosen by McGuire is to show these creatures’ perspective and point of view, not so much humanizing them but rather helping the readers see the world through their eyes. Their motivations, their strife for survival, and ultimately the sympathy elicited in the reader (unless we’re dealing with really dangerous critters, that is) help to drive across the most important point of these stories: that once we understand what makes the other tick, we can see him/her/it in a different way. And embrace the difference.

The Gorgon colony described in depth in this book is one such example, even though the pride of place goes to Alex’s family – not a family created by blood ties, but rather by ones of love: Alex lives with his grandparents – a humanoid telepathic predator and a patched-up zombie – and his cousin Sarah (one of the supporting characters from previous books), a telepath like the grandmother. Plus the griffin and the funny, adorable, witty Aeslin mice (yes, I’m somewhat partial to them…).   The love, loyalty and mutual support of these different creatures teaches a lesson that needs no further explanations about embracing our differences, because the teaching is done through example.

My only point of contention with Half Off Ragnarok comes from Shelby, Alex’s adventure partner, and the interaction between the two of them.  First, I don’t get a strong “couple vibe” from them: yes, they pursue similar interests, face dangers and are attracted to each other despite the difficulties created by their chosen profession. Yet I don’t perceive any real attraction, any magnetic pull drawing them together, not in the same way as the polar opposites that were Verity and Dominic in the previous books.

And then there is Shelby herself: I’m used to McGuire’s heroines being strong, determined and self-sufficient and while Shelby does possess those qualities they are quite subdued, so much that she seems more Alex’s subordinate rather than his equal and ultimately she needs rescuing more than once.  True, not all female protagonists need to exercise their kickassery all the time, but still all McGuire’s characters have been true to that standard, so that I’m somewhat puzzled by Shelby’s presentation.

Nonetheless I’ll hold any further judgment until next book, because I trust this author to always deliver on her promises.  And as long as there will be Aeslin mice and their deceptively funny wisdom, I will be happy.

My Rating: 7.5/10


The Price of Spring – Daniel Abraham

Writing this review was not easy, not because I didn’t know what to say, but rather  because I didn’t exactly know how to say it.  First, because talking about this series without mentioning some plot points is near to impossible, and second because when I love a book (or a series) the way I did this one, words seem to elude me… And this fourth and final book in The Long Price Quartet is more compelling than the previous ones, thanks to Mr. Abraham’s storytelling style and his writing, clear-cut and lyrical at the same time.

I’ve finally understood the meaning of the “long price” in the title: the whole story arc points at the price paid for one’s actions, and choices – and their consequences, not just for the involved individuals but for the whole world they live in. These consequences can be far-reaching, as well, given how decisions taken decades in the past can come to fruition in the present, and shape the future.

Accepting or refusing the change that comes with this realization is what makes Abraham’s characters’ tick: some still ferociously cling to the past, to the old way of doing things, therefore raining more grief on an already stricken world. Until now the danger represented by the andats (man-shaped manifestations of abstract concepts) had been clear but at the same time observed from a distance, while at the end of the previous book and in this one, the reader is treated to the full, tragic power of the creatures and the way they can influence the poets, their creators and handlers, who can in turn be shaped, or twisted, by their creations. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the andat that drives this point home is called Clarity-of-Sight, also called Blindness for his darker side.

The underlying conflict, that until now has been cultural and political, and only in the previous book turned to all-out war, becomes here a conflict of ideas, and one of personalities: it’s only fitting, from my point of view, that it’s made manifest in the struggle between Otah and Maati, the main characters. After so many years and so much history (good and bad) between them, the resolution centers on what they are in respect of each other, on how much they influenced each other in the past, and how their present actions stem from that shared past.  If their origins are the same – unwanted sons of great houses, sent to the harsh school that trains poets for the binding of andats – they come to walk on different and diverging paths: one of them still tied to the past, despite the dangers of such a vision, and the other daring to dream of a different, if not necessarily better, future.

The beauty of it is that they are both right and wrong at the same time, that there is no well-defined boundary and that the very concepts of right and wrong shift according to any given situation.  The horrible mistakes that are made along the way all come from the desire to do good, and their inevitable consequences plague the characters to the very end: we are constantly reminded that they are, after all, only human and as such they always do what they can, hoping for the best.  That very humanity is what endeared them to me, not despite their mistakes but because of them: the story does have an epic feel, granted, but the human dimension of it is what gives it life and depth.

There is a definite feeling, in this fourth book, of the end of an era – even more definite than it was in the previous one: the sense of melancholy, the awareness that no matter what time will bring, things will never be the same anymore. Many of the characters I followed from the beginning have grown old, and the sense of loss that accompanies this natural progression only added to the poignancy of the situation, because I had to face the fact I would have to say good-bye to these characters and the world they inhabited – and it made me sad. This realization brought home the awareness of how much I had come to care for them, for better or worse, depending on their place in the story.  And yet all things – all people – must come to an end because, as Abraham so poetically states in the last pages, renewal comes only through evolution: Flowers do not return in the spring, rather they are replaced. It is in this difference between returned and replaced that the price of renewal is paid.

Even recognizing the rightness of the concept, it was hard to part from this world – harder still because of the quietly emotional ending. But I also know it will be a pleasure to revisit it some time in the future.

My Rating: 9/10


A Retrospective Look: Dune, by Frank Herbert

Thanks to a recent discussion with Mulluane from Dragons, Heroes and Wizards over at Pinterest, I’ve been thinking about this book, one of my all-time favorites, and one of my rare multiple re-reads. I think I revisited it almost as much as I did Lord of the Rings, which is interesting, since Dune might very well be my iconic science fiction book, as LOTR is for fantasy.

Interesting because – and that was part of the discussion I mentioned above – Dune‘s genre has long been the subject of debate, my idea being that it stands on some undefined middle ground between the two: the action unfolds in a very distant future and concerns a vast galactic empire, spanned by ships that travel enormous distances almost in the wink of an eye, and yet the technology is… subdued, for want of a better word, and  is never the focus of the story. Many references are made to the Butlerian Jihad, the movement that banned the use of computers and stressed the powers of the human mind, and such powers are reflected in the use of Mentats – humans who have been trained in logical thought – and the abilities of the Bene Gesserit, the all-female secret society working, slowly but surely, toward their mysterious goals.

These elements, coupled with the murderous political intrigue that constitutes the backbone of the story, the internal strife between the Empire’s noble houses and the amazing world-building underlying the concept of Arrakis, the desert world, would not be out of place in a fantasy novel, and the same can be said about the protagonist’s story-arc: Paul Atreides/Muad’Dib goes from sheltered heir of House Atreides to religious leader of an oppressed people seeking freedom, passing though the harrowing grind of loss and betrayal.    Moreover, there is a heavy emphasis on esoteric powers, prophecies and melange-induced prescience: all concepts that can be found in many fantasy storylines…

Apart from the debate about genre, that I believe will go on for as long as Dune remains one of the pillars of spec-fic literature (and that’s a good way to label it, nicely skirting the issue…), the question I asked myself is: what makes this book so unforgettable, and what compels me (and others) to go back to it time and time again?

One of the reasons must be its timeless quality: Dune is almost 50 years old, and yet does not show its age, as some of the classics of that period do.  Frank Herbert’s language, though sometimes ponderous and convoluted, does not carry a time stamp that immediately identifies it as a product of the mid-sixties.  Some of its themes, as well, are even more actual today than they were at the time of the first publication: the war for precious, finite commodities that engenders political schemes and conflicts is something modern readers are acquainted with in many ways.

But I think that the characters are the real magnet of the story: what’s amazing, and also very modern, is that most of them – if not all – are not totally likable people, are not “hero material” according to an old-fashioned, black-and-white concept. And yet we, the readers, root for them and want them to succeed.

Seen through today’s filters, Paul Atreides – who ultimately exploits the Fremen’s desire for freedom riding a corpus of religious legends he tailors after his needs – would not be so different from GRR Martin’s Tyrion Lannister, just to quote one of my favorite examples: not a bad guy, but not a good one either. Just the right blend of light and darkness that makes today’s “heroes” more interesting, and believable, despite the shadows lurking behind their backs.

All of the above are good reasons, granted, but sometimes the need to analyze a story makes us forget the main one: we are captivated by it because it’s a great story, a compelling tale of honor and betrayal, of sacrifice and determination, love, hate, passion and wisdom. And let’s face it, that’s all that matters in the end, isn’t it?


Aurora: Darwin – Amanda Bridgeman

I won this book and its twin Aurora: Pegasus in a giveaway contest. My thanks to Momentum Books for this opportunity and to SF Signal (one of my favorite places for information and reviews on spec-fic books) for hosting the contest.

Unfortunately I have to confess I could not finish this book, even though I tried hard, doing my best to hold on until the middle of it: it did not work for me on several levels – plot, characterization and a few writing choices. I’m quite sorry about it, because it sounded very promising and I always try to keep my mind open for new, emerging authors, but after a while the struggle became too much.

Promising, indeed: the idea of a ship’s crew headed toward unknown danger while they try to overcome some personal troubles was intriguing, but from the very start it was mired down in too much exposition and awkward dialogues, and the author’s seeming obsession to offer her readers the whole personal back-story of those characters all at once. This, coupled with the habit of giving the most minute details on eye and hair color, height and build for each of them, the process being repeated for every character present in a determined scene, weighed the story down in an uncomfortable way for me.  I’m a great believer of the “show, don’t tell” school of thought, and here there was too much telling and very little showing for my tastes.

The technical side of the book felt somewhat out of synch: I’m not a big fan of excruciatingly precise explanations of every working technology present in a story, but I try to look for some believability, and a few details either puzzled or irritated me. For example we are told that the ship’s weapons stores hold both laser guns and lead-projectile ones – on a ship? With no though of the danger of de-compressive explosion?  And those weapons are stored in wooden crates, that are at some point opened with a crowbar.  It’s not and end-of-the-world detail, granted, but the anachronistic force of it managed to jar me violently out of the narrative flow.

My main point of contention with the book, however, came from the premise that in this future society the role of women in the military, especially the space branch, is that of second-class citizens, and both the hierarchy and the troops see the women – their fellow soldiers – as a nuisance to be (badly) tolerated, or a PR stunt to be exploited. I’m quite aware that even in today’s world there are preconceived notions and glass ceilings in the modern military, but they are not so openly practiced as they are in the future society that Bridgeman depicts, and at least they are not sanctioned by the chain of command. It feels both anachronistic and annoying, especially when considering that the author is a young woman.

The male crew’s reaction to the presence of the women feels exaggerated and unbelievable as well: not so much for the attitude, but for the way it’s expressed. These are supposed to be highly trained professional soldiers, and they behave like rambunctious school children just one step away from a food fight.  I would have understood grumbling resentment – not so much because the new arrivals are women, but because they are added unexpectedly to a team that’s already well-integrated: this would have made a great deal more sense, both in a military and personal way. But no, these soldiers, these skilled and finely trained individuals, all but elbow each other and snigger openly when the new recruits make their appearance (and at some point in the story make lewd suggestions that are not properly addressed by the superior officers); these men can’t seem to be able to remember that they are adult professionals that should follow rules about military decorum at all times, and the officers that should keep them in line do nothing about it.   It would be hard to buy in present society, it’s even harder in a future one, especially when we are told that these women soldiers have all been previously tested by completing tours of duty on Earth in various operations.

Characterization suffers from a few flaws as well: the main characters’ development is left to long, drawn-out inner monologues, or rather sequences of question they ask themselves trying to puzzle out situations or inter-personal problems. I could not see them as living, breathing people, but rather as sketches of what they should have been, or maybe stereotypes: the bright, spunky soldier out to make a name for herself; the seasoned commander torn between sternness and compassion; the young doctor with a heart of gold; and so on…

Even when the crew meets their antagonists, the latter are so blatantly evil that all that’s missing is some proverbial mustache-twirling, and the hints about the danger they represent are so broad that one wonders how in heaven the soldiers miss every single one of them until something finally opens their eyes.

That was the point where I had to stop: despite the intriguing mystery that is the core of the story, I became aware that I did not care about discovering what it was, or how the protagonists solved it. The slow, cumbersome pace of the narrative and the lack-luster characters could not hold my attention any longer: a sad reality I had to accept.

My Rating: 4/10


"Repent Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman – Harlan Ellison

I have been meaning to re-read this short story since I saw the promising news about an upcoming movie based on it: the very fact that Harlan Ellison and J.M. Straczynski will renew their creative cooperation from the times of Babylon 5 – one of the very best science fiction series ever – gives me great hope and not little expectation for this movie.

The story is a classic: in a future world where time – and being on time, always – represent the one law whose transgression can mean death, a mysterious rebel tries to put a monkey wrench into this perfectly oiled mechanism. Not with impassioned speeches or acts of terrorism, but with pranks – and so he styles himself as Harlequin, the ultimate jester, hunted by the dreaded Ticktockman, upholder of the establishment and Master of Time.

The story appears fresh and actual even now, almost fifty years after it was written: it made me think about how Ellison’s writing style feels timeless, as do many of the topics he developed in his works.  Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman, is one such example: time does indeed rule our days, either when we try to keep our busy schedules or when we wish for some free time of our own, the latter being such an elusive beast….

In this future dystopian world Time and punctuality have eaten humanity’s soul, robbing it of every joy that makes life worthwhile: there are two such examples in the course of the narration, and though they are polar opposites in mood, they give a clear picture of the society. The first concerns a woman receiving a dreaded Termination Notice from the Ticktockman: she desperately hopes that it’s for her husband (as it indeed is), because she’s terrified at the notion of losing her life – to the point that she wishes that fate on her spouse, or even on one of her children. As long as it’s not her. This chilling little detail speaks loudly about the way the totalitarian rule of Time has changed people.  As does the other snapshot, the one about a medical convention whose participants laugh in high amusement at the Harlequin’s antics, as if they had forgotten the simple act of laughing, or the meaning of it.

I’m curious to see how the upcoming movie will portray all this, and much more: considering the involved parties, I have high hopes about the outcome.