Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Newsflesh Trilogy – Mira Grant

Mira Grant (that is, Seanan McGuire) just announced the arrival of a new short story in her Newsflesh universe, so – in what is becoming something of a tradition for me – I thought about retracing my reading experience with her previous novels.

Zombies were not exactly my kind of narrative trope: not on the screen and certainly not in book form. So I’m still unsure about what made me pick up the first book of Mira Grant’s Newsflesh Trilogy: probably some glowing review that underlined how different it was from the usual fare – no matter the reason, after the first few pages I was hooked, and at the same time discovered a new author, one that’s quickly entered my “buy whatever comes out” list.

Mira Grant is the pen name of Urban Fantasy author Seanan McGuire – I plan on recapping soon her still ongoing, successful series about private investigator October Daye, but for now I’ll concentrate on the alter ego who created this stunning, ground-breaking trilogy: Feed, Deadline and Blackout.

The premise: twenty-odd years from now the world will be dramatically changed by a zombie epidemic whose origins come from the accidental interaction of two experimental viral cures for cancer and the common cold. Exposure to this mutated virus (Kellis-Amberlee, from the names of the two scientists working on the projects) does indeed cure the targeted ailments but also resuscitates the dead – in the Newsflesh world it’s called “amplification”.  There are two short stories that expand on this premise, and I recommend them both to better understand the train of events: one is Countdown (the tale of the incident that started it all) and the other is San Diego 2014: the last stand of the California Browncoats (the start of the epidemic seen through the eyes of the famous convention’s participants).

The ground-breaking choices I mentioned come from the fact that the usual bloody scenarios of a zombie apocalypse are strictly kept as background information: yes, the un-dead move around searching for victims – not so much to consume their flesh but rather to spread the contagion, in a sort of viral prime directive – and there are whole sections of the world made uninhabitable by the concentration of zombies, but what Mira Grant focuses on is not the cheap thrill of blood-and-gore images but rather the way people and society have changed because of the epidemic.

Amplification has forced people to completely review their way of living: houses have become fortresses capable of withstanding massive attacks from the un-dead; pets above a certain body weight – say a small dog – are out of the question, because above that limit they are subject to amplification just as humans are, and the phenomenon extends, of course, to other common animals as cows or horses, whose mass makes them as deadly as infected people.  And then there is the terrible choice that everyone must be prepared to face: when one of your loved ones, or friends, dies and then amplifies before your eyes, you have to decide between survival and the impulses of your heart.  How would that change the unwritten laws of society?  How would it affect ethics and morality?

Fear is therefore the main driving force of society: fear of the infected, of course, but also fear of excessive proximity or crowded areas – someone dying of a heart attack in a crowd could amplify and start a new outbreak; fear of contagion, that requires constant blood checks before entering any enclosed space, be it a coffee shop or one’s own home; fear of whatever and whoever can’t be controlled.  An enlightening quote summarizes the situation all too well: “...we have embraced the cult of fear, and now we don’t seem to know how to put it back where it belongs.”  Fear can also be a powerful means of control, because a scared and divided humanity is much more easily subdued – or lied to.

The antithesis of fear is truth, and its… paladins, for want of a better word, are bloggers: the first to recognize the threat of the virus and to spread the word when the government still hid behind carefully worded statements. Bloggers are, at the start of the story, a force to be reckoned with, and the new heroes of a world that keeps turning in upon itself with every passing day.  Enter Georgia and Shaun Mason, highly successful bloggers who have been selected, together with their team, to follow the presidential campaign of candidate Ryman: this represents an enormous opportunity for visibility, but it will also lead them along very unexpected and terrifying paths.

This is all I dare reveal about the story, because its hair-raising twists and turns must be discovered on their own: suffice it to say there is not one moment when the tension lets go, and where drama is delivered without pulling any punches – no matter how painful they can be to the readers.

What really matters, and what I can safely share here, is that it’s a fascinating look at a profoundly changed society, and also a character-driven narrative that will keep you on your toes from start to finish.

Not the easiest of books, granted, nor something I would recommend before bedtime either – but still I urge you to read them, because Mira Grant’s storytelling and powerful characters are worth the extra effort needed to find the necessary strength to do it.

My Rating: 8,5/10

The Expanse Trilogy – James S. A. Corey

James S.A. Corey is the pseudonym for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the first best known for his Long Price Quartet and Dagger and the Coin series, and the second for his collaboration with GRR Martin.  Together they have penned one of the best space opera series I ever read and, to my extreme satisfaction, are hard at work on a second one: talking with Mulluane from Dragons, Heroes and Wizards about the new book, I thought it was a good idea to share a few details about the first three volumes, so here we go…

What makes these books stand out is the human dimension of backgrounds and characters: the words space opera often make us think about vast empires, galaxy-spanning wars and wondrous technology, but this is not the case here. The theatre where the action unfolds is our own Solar System in an advanced stage of colonization, where the older and more established outposts – like the Moon or Mars – enjoy a comfortable way of life, while the newer ones, like the civilization growing in the Asteroid Belt, still deal with problems like microgravity and its deep effects on human physiology, or the rising prices of air and water in a hostile environment.  Political and economical tensions are always one step away from flaring into all-out conflict, and there are forces working – more or less covertly – to tip the balance one way or the other.  Add to that a few realistic details like communications lag across vast distances or the problems of space travel, which requires a constant battle against the pain of acceleration – endured through the use of drugs – and you have a very relatable universe, as are the characters that people it.

Summing up the story is far from easy, especially when trying to avoid any spoilers, so I’m not even going to try. The first book, Leviathan Wakes, follows mainly two characters: Miller – a middle-aged police officer who has lost all his drive and motivations, and wakes up only when what looks like an open-and-shut case he’s been assigned turns into something else, something both suspicious and frightening; and Holden, ex military now working on an ice cargo hauler: he’s the kind of person who wants to do the right thing, to be a good guy, and more often than not makes huge mistakes, with unpredictable consequences. The novel alternates chapters between these points of view until the two men meet and face an unforeseen danger that adds some touches of horror to the story.  The other two books, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate, expand on this core theme, widening the picture to include complex political scheming tied with economic interests, and convoluted games of power that still dare to go on despite an all-encompassing menace.

All this, however, is just background – a solid background, granted, that helps move the story along, often in unexpected directions. The real focus is on characters, on the way they deal with events, on the way physiological and mental changes affect people from the different habitats where human expansion brought them.  One of the interesting aspects I encountered is indeed in these differences, because the physiological adaptation that has made the Belters thinner and taller than Earth norm, seems to have created a sort of racial differentiation that goes beyond skin color. In other words, we might go to space someday, but we will still bring our short-sightedness and prejudices along with us…

Most importantly, though, the novels deal with choices, with the often tragic consequences engendered by those choices, even when they are made with the best of intentions. Because we all know what paves the road to Hell, after all…

Holden, and his crew of almost-rogues, embody that concept very well: enmeshed against their will in something too big for them to handle, they try to do their best with the limited options at their disposal. In the first book there’s a marked antithesis between Holden and Miller, between idealism and the need to set things right on one side, and tired cynicism on the other, the bitter acceptance of the impossibility of seeing the “good guys” win. Despite their differences – or maybe because of them – these two men form a strange alliance that will be the one of the driving forces of the story.

This focus on humanity goes on in the following books, exploring more deeply the characters of Holden’s crew – a closely-knit group for whom I felt an immediate attachment – and several other players, big and small, who feel as fleshed-out and solid as the main protagonists. A special mention goes to the female characters, that the authors created without using a single strand of cliché in their DNA: Naomi, of the Rocinante’s crew, smart, though and outstandingly excellent in her job, gifted with a wry sense of humor; Martian marine Bobbie, steadfast and powerful, a fighter in more ways than one, but still possessed of a softer side; shrewd politician Avarasala, who knows how to wield her power, and can cuss like a hardened sailor; minister Anna, gifted with a steel resolve under the caring attitude.  They are far from perfect, but I liked them exactly for this reason – because they feel real.

Given that each of the separate books of the trilogy managed to raise already hight stakes, it’s hardly surprising I was waiting with feverish anticipation to read the next installment (the first in a new trilogy, according to what I’ve read online): even though the main narrative threads have been brought to an end, many more have appeared and they would seem to point to a further widening of the picture, both in scope and in setting.   Cybola Burn, the fourth volume, came out on June 5th and so far it looks very promising so… stay tuned for the forthcoming review!

My Rating: 9/10

Sparrow Hill Road – Seanan McGuire

With this book, Seanan McGuire managed to surprise me once again: her main character, Rose Marshall, appeared as a “guest star” in the short story The Ghosts of Bourbon Street, and because of the tone of that story and its loose link with the Incryptid series, I thought this novel would be in the same light, half-serious, half-humorous tone. But I was wrong.

Sparrow Hill Road is a ghost story, one that carries all of the sadness and poignancy of those who dwell in the twilight and long for life: it does so in a touching, often lyrical way that touched me quite deeply with the melancholic beauty of the words I was reading. McGuire outdid herself here, both as a story-teller and as a writer, reaching out of the pages to affect both my imagination and my heart.

Rose Marshall died in a car accident when she was sixteen years old, headed to her prom night: driven off the road by Bobby Cross – who had signed a sort of devil pact, to keep his youth and good looks, in exchange for human sacrifices – Rose discovered that the afterlife was not what she had imagined. For over sixty years she’s been a ghostly hitchhiker, accepting rides from travelers to try and steer them from certain death or, when that’s inevitable, to speed them on their way over the twilight roads.

The story presents some fascinating details about Rose’s existence (strange as the term might appear): she’s incorporeal, as any ghost should be, but the gift of an item of clothing – a jacket, a coat – freely given to her, can lend her substance and make her feel alive again. She is able to consume food, but that has to be given as a gift as well, or it will have no taste. These drawbacks, shared with the reader in half-humorous, half-sad narrative, coexist with a background of longing for life, warmth, human closeness, and define her character in a poignant way that nevertheless does not slide into self-pity or useless regrets. Matter-of-fact acceptance, tinged with both sadness and irony, is what makes Rose the person (or ghost) that she is, one gifted with a clear, strong voice that immediately endeared her to me: McGuire struck a perfect balance here between her teenager appearance and her world-wise (and sometimes world-weary) attitude, giving her a three-dimensional and realistic depth.

Following Rose through her peregrinations we discover that there is no safety even in death: the world of the departed is fraught with dangers just as much as that of the living, and it obeys its own set of rules. What’s interesting – or rather fascinating – is the way both worlds intersect and how many people, living people, are able to perceive the twilight world and interact with it.  Along with a wide range of incorporeal entities – some good, some evil, some in-between – we meet route-witches, a gypsy-like community of travelers whose strength comes from the long miles accumulated during their peregrinations, or bean-sidhe like the mysterious Emma, neither alive nor dead but gifted with unusual powers.

Here McGuire has taken many of he traditional ghost myths and woven them into a new and special form of folklore, one that is structured around an organic set of rules and traditions and blends with the living world’s beliefs (both right and wrong ones) in a fascinating way. The strongest theme is that of travel, one of the deep-seated tropes of American narrative, of the road as another character in the story: there are almost-sentient roads here, some good, some bad, and like in the old myth of the unexplored frontier, there are places of safety and rest – the ever-present truck stops and diners.
Often placed on the border between the two planes of existence, these places are both ports for weary travelers of both kinds and nodes where everything is possible, or destinies hang in the balance.  One of the descriptions that stuck in my mind for its lyrical quality was indeed related to one such diner and its lighted beacon:

“the rainbow gleam of neon struggling to paint the night in something more than darkness”

The book itself is more a collection of stories, or sketches, tied together by the common thread represented by Rose and weaving from past to present in a seamless and gripping way. There are fear and terror, wonder, longing and sadness and humor as well. There is also a deeply touching goodbye, in the last section, that brought me to tears – and that’s something that does not happen often to me.

This is Seanan McGuire at her best – and getting better, no matter what kind of story she chooses to tell…

My Rating: 8,5/10

Soulless – Gail Carriger

What a delightful, funny find!

Before I read this book, my few encounters with steampunk had not been very successful, and I was convinced that this genre was not for me: well, Gail Carriger’s Soulless (the first in the Parasol Protectorate series) changed my mind from the very beginning of Chapter One.   After all, how could I resist a heroine who, seeing herself repeatedly assaulted by a hungry vampire, was shocked not so much by the attack as by the fact that “We have not even been introduced!”?

But let’s proceed with order: Alexia Tarabotti lives in Victorian England – a country where vampires, werewolves and even ghosts are accepted as part of the society, as long as they conform to a series of rules dictated by BUR, the Bureau of Unnatural Registry. Part of the fun I derived from this book came from the descriptions of this strictly regimented community, with its vampire hives and werewolf packs, and regulations governing even the roves – unaffiliated vampires or werewolves. The humans observe this parallel world and its peculiar ways with the same amused curiosity we would reserve for actors, or sports stars, just to name some examples: the supernaturals are so well integrated that their differences are accepted as fascinating quirks, and are of course the subject of dinner-party gossip, but never of open fear or rejection.

Ms. Tarabotti, however, has several problems fitting into society: she’s a spinster in her mid-twenties, she likes to speak her mind in no uncertain terms, her deceased father was Italian – thus bestowing on her a very unfashionable coloring and full figure – and what’s worse she’s a preternatural. In other words, she possesses no soul, so that contact with her can remove the supernatural qualities of other creatures: werewolves turn back into human form, vampires lose their canines, and so on.

In a world where it’s been discovered that an abundance of soul is the deciding factor for surviving the change from normal human to supernatural creature, a person like Alexia is the object of both distrust and curiosity from the non-humans, thus adding to her isolation. She bears that well enough though, having created for herself a circle of friendships that include two of the best supporting characters in the book: Lord Akeldama, an old vampire quite fond of young and good-looking male minions, and Ivy, totally human but too fond of truly terrible hats.

This balance is broken on the night of the vampire assault, because Alexia is forced to kill him in self-defense: this brings her into contact with BUR and its chief, the Alpha werewolf Lord Maccon who, despite his protestations and the heated verbal exchanges between the two of them, is quite attracted to this unusual woman.  The ensuing adventure, involving a dastardly scheme against the supernaturals, is tied to the inevitably developing love story between the two of them: I can say this without fear of spoiling any prospective readers, because the outcome is clear from their first encounter – what really matters here, what makes this book an entertaining, delightful read, is the way it’s all handled.  With spirited humor and many unconventional narrative choices.

Alexia possesses all the characteristics of the typical genre heroine: she’s attractive, but in such an unconventional way that she’s convinced of the contrary; she’s strong and outspoken, curious and stubborn, and she’s not afraid to stomp in where angels (or vampires) fear to tread. Add to the mix a stern mother, absent stepfather and two vapidly unpleasant step-sisters, and the book would resemble too much a Cinderella-like scenario, or walk down a too-often beaten path. But Ms. Carriger’s writing and wickedly peculiar sense of humor elevate Alexia, and her story, far above the usual and predictable fare, regaling her readers with scenes that run from funny to saucy while mystery and romance compete for the limelight in the foreground.

If you want a book that’s both amusing and exciting, this will no doubt be the perfect choice.

My Rating: 7,5/10