Review: VALOUR AND VANITY – Mary Robinette Kowal

12987423There are books that are just perfect when you are in need of some respite – either from too-dark stories or from the annoyances that real life sometimes places in front of you: this kind of book takes you elsewhere in an effortless way because you are so familiar with the setting and the characters that you feel as if you were enjoying a relaxing chat with old friends.  The Glamourist Series by M.R. Kowal is indeed this kind of story, and as a bonus it keeps improving with each new book.

The plot in itself is a fascinating and entertaining one: Jane and Vincent travel to Venice to connect with Murano’s glass-blowers in order to perfect their technique of trapping glamour in glass. On their way to the city their ship is boarded by pirates though, and the two – after a few other misadventures – find themselves penniless and cut off from any ties with family and friends. As if this were not enough they are caught in a convoluted web of spies and swindlers and have to battle both with their destitute state and the consequences of their craft being put to evil use.

Such a story-line is more than riveting, of course, but what makes the book extraordinary are the characters, and the way their growth – both as individuals and as a married couple – is shown in an organic and very believable way.   There is a sizable romance component in Ms. Kowal’s stories, and it’s a necessary part of their structure since it’s based on an alternate version of the Regency era, but it’s never the foundation of these books, or the reason for the characters’ existence: what carries the story here is the way these people evolve – and there is nothing more effective, for that evolution, than putting them through the proverbial grinder.

When Jane and Vincent met in Book 1, their interactions went more along the expected lines of genre stories as one would find, for example, in Jane Austen’s work, while in Books 2 and 3 a few elements of darkness and grief were introduced, so that the danger of drowning the protagonists in saccharine-laden marital bliss was successfully averted. Still, I found that Jane’s character appeared a little submissive – even for the times’ standards – and far too self-effacing for my tastes, and even though this element further faded as the story-line progressed, I kept hoping for a more assertive stance on her part. Well, I can happily say that my wish was granted in Valour and Vanity, even though the character maintained her defining qualities.

In this novel Ms. Kowal managed to blend in a seamless whole both modern considerations and the era’s social viewpoints: for example, Jane is able to find some steady work, while Vincent can barely manage as a street performer, thus presenting the reader with a situation we can find in our present days – that of a man unable to support his family, while his wife is the one bringing the bread home, literally.  It goes without saying that this state of things builds conflict in the relationship and leads to a heated quarrel that exposes all the raw nerves Jane and Vincent have tried to ignore so far. The whole scene has a very realistic feeling and makes you feel deep sympathy for both of them, while understanding that they need to let it all out to be able to go on and overcome their troubles.  These are not perfect characters, and stress brings individual flaws to the surface, but it’s exactly this show of humanity that further endeared them to me, not in spite of their insecurities, but because of them.

What emerges from this difficult moment is not only a reinforcing of Jane and Vincent’s bond but, more important, the acknowledgement (especially from Jane) of the equal footing they share in the marriage: from this point on both of them will know how to lean on the other for support – without shame or loss of self image – because they have reached a true partnership. This is also what allows them the luxury of expanding on the subject of children and how parenting duties might interfere in their work as glamourists. It’s a very modern discussion in the themes it touches, and yet it’s carried on through the medium of the historical period’s worldviews and sensibilities: the author manages this in a flawless way, at the same time keeping her characters true to themselves.

The cast of supporting players is just as variegated and interesting:  from a group of organized swindlers that could stand up to the guys from “The Sting” or “Ocean’s Eleven” to the moody and secretive Murano glass-blowers or the group of enterprising nuns with a flair for adventure, the secondary characters breathe further life in the story and help relieve the brooding sadness that hangs over Jane and Vincent, and of course Venice and Murano add their own background magic to the mix.  There’s even a cameo from Lord Byron himself, dashing in and out of the scene trailing impromptu verses in his wake…

As much as these books have been delightful reads, this fourth volume stands several notches above its predecessors and bodes very well for the continuation of the series. Which makes me quite happy.

My Rating: 8/10

(On a more personal note, I will be “off the grid” for a few days: if I don’t reply to your comments, please be patient, because I intend to do so on my return. Thank you!)


Review: WASTELANDS 2 (Various Authors)


When I ran across this collection of post-apocalyptic short stories the names of a few authors I enjoy reading jumped at me from the cover and I knew I had to try this book out, even though I’m not exactly partial to short stories. But after all, part of the reading experience includes getting out of beaten paths now and then, doesn’t it?

Here are a few of the stories that caught my attention: not all of them, of course, but merely a sample of the best ones in this book.

“Animal Husbandry” by S. McGuire

In this tale of a decimated humanity in the aftermath of a series of devastating plagues I discovered that McGuire channeled her writing “twin”, Mira Grant, in themes and narrating voice. There is the same sparseness of words, the same terseness of tone that I first encountered in her highly successful “Newsflesh” series: the horror is conveyed in an almost detached way that perversely makes it more detailed, more cutting, and it’s one of the characteristics I have come to appreciate in this author.   The main character, Mercy Neely, is a veterinarian who’s traveling across the country to join her daughter, in the hope she survived the onslaught of sickness: this hope, though understated, is the fuel that makes her go on despite the loneliness and the terrible sights she has to face day after day. With Mercy travels a veritable menagerie she has rescued along the way: horses to pull her wagon, dogs for company and protection, goats for the milk: with her knowledge as a veterinarian, the protagonist knows which kind of animals can survive and be more useful and which are best put down to spare them useless suffering. What struck me as I was reading was the level-headedness of this woman in front of a worldwide catastrophe and its aftermath: at some point she recalls coming back to consciousness after being bedridden because of the plague, and discovering that her small town had turned into an open-air grave – she says something about “freaking out a bit” but almost immediately turning to practical matters of survival.  What I didn’t expect was the turn of events and the revelation about her that occurs at the very end of the story, a chilling denouement that left me staring at the page for a long time, literally dumbstruck.  On hindsight, I could have expected it, knowing this particular author, but once again she managed to lull me into a false sense of security before delivering her blow.       Well done indeed!

“… For a single yesterday” by George R.R. Martin

George Martin’s fame is of course tied to his Song of Ice and Fire saga and to the medieval fantasy world he created, a world of violence, cruelty and intrigue. Yet there is a different GRRM to be found in his short stories, a writer capable of deep insights in the human soul and of lyrical flights of imagination: this story is one such example.  The world has been profoundly changed by the Blast – clearly a nuclear holocaust – that targeted the main cities killing millions, and humanity survives in small pockets of civilization, like the hippy commune where the action takes place: created long before the Blast, it shelters both the original founders and the few strays that managed to get there escaping from the doomed cities and the bands of murdering foragers prowling the land.  Musician Keith is one of those people, and he plays his songs every evening, recalling a world that does not exist anymore.

Having lost everything, including the woman he loved and for whom he still yearns after four years, Keith has found solace in a drug scavenged from an abandoned hospital: this drug, created to tap buried memories, has the power to re-create the past in such a vivid manner that he’s convinced he’s truly back in a better time, with his Sandy.  Keith knows the supply of the drug is not infinite and someday he will have to give up his “timetripping”, as he calls it, but when we meet him he’s biding his time and dwelling in peaceful denial.  Of course the bubble bursts when a newcomer to the commune starts leading the survivors toward a more pro-active attitude, trying to convince them not to think only of the present, of day-to-day survival, but to plan for the future: for this he needs Keith’s drug, to trigger individual memories of useful knowledge in the technical or medical field.   This theme strongly reminded me of another short story from Martin, “With Morning Comes Mistfall”: once again the battle between harsh reality and dream, cold science and the realm of imagination is being waged, and once again the magic is killed by reality, taking away with it something precious and irretrievable. As in that other story, there is a poignancy, a sense of something fleeting that’s too easily broken and leaves behind an emptiness nothing can adequately fill, and Martin describes it with emotional intensity without ever turning maudlin, in the kind of perfect balance I encountered before in his writing. This is the kind of story I will not easily forget…

“Jimmy’s Roadside Café” by Ramsey Shehadeh

This is a short but poignant story that tells you almost nothing about how the world ended and rather concentrates on one person, the titular Jimmy, trying to find an oasis of normalcy in the aftermath of the collapse.  Jimmy opens a makeshift café along the highway, congested with stalled vehicles, all that’s left of the final stampede to avoid the plague that decimated the human race, and there he waits for customers. He’s not crazy, nor deluded: he’s quite aware of what surrounds him, but he waits for other survivors like him to pass through, offering a moment of respite, some companionship and stale doughnuts. There is a sort of cheerful acceptance in Jimmy, the unspoken awareness there’s nothing to be done to change things but also that one should not give in to despair. He can find beauty even in the desolated landscape of rusting vehicles, as he watches the sunset: “A wash of brilliance exploded up out of the highway, the slant of the sunlight reflecting up from thousands of sloped windshields, and suddenly the road below them was a sparkling, blinding sheen of narrow white light”.

Post-apocalyptic stories tend to concentrate on the ugliness that takes hold of the human spirit after a global disaster: this story, though it offers little or no hope about survival, hints at the possibility that we might still find our better angels even in the midst of chaos. And it’s enough.

“Advertising at the end of the world” by Keffy R.M. Kehrli

What started like another story about the lone survivor in the world – a woman living by herself in a mountain cabin – soon became a weird peek into this future where ads are walking humanoid shapes, built to interact with humans. Marie, the main character, finds a group of them on her front lawn, remnants of the past civilization who have managed to contact one of the last surviving humans: there are many scientific hypotheses about the creatures that will inherit the Earth once mankind has managed to wipe itself out of the equation – some say cockroaches, others say rats, but no one ever thought about ads, and I found this idea even more unsettling than the other ones.

In our present society we are literally hounded by ads – on the radio, on tv, even before movies start in theaters. And let’s not go into the obnoxious telephone ads that come through at all times, especially the most inconvenient ones, defeating your attempts at shielding yourself… When Marie, in the story, tries to make her unwelcome “guests” go away she is just as unsuccessful as we are: “The ads turned to face her. They were designed to understand when they were told to leave. This was meant to limit the annoyance factor. Even in the best of times, the command had rarely worked.”  Strange as it might look, I found this even more scary than the extinction event itself, the idea that such a modern – and very real – annoyance might survive even longer that its creators.

Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man’s Back by Joe Lansdale

Nuclear apocalypse is nothing new to genre fiction, nor are the plight of survivors and the desolate devastation that’s their legacy, but this story managed to put a different spin on this particular topic, adding a few shades of horror that made the total annihilation of the human race almost pale in comparison.  We learn about what happened from the journal of Paul, living with his wife Mary in an abandoned lighthouse: the two don’t speak to each other anymore, since Mary holds Paul responsible for the death of their teenage daughter Rae, wiped out by the nuclear holocaust that ended the world as we know it.  Paul worked with a team of scientists “teaching, inventing and improving on our nuclear threat” and the two survived, with a handful of others, because Mary was driving him to work on the day when the Big One was dropped, and they made it to safety inside the compound’s shelter. Of course Rae didn’t and that’s what Mary blames him for, building a wall of silence and resentment between them: their only interaction the tattoo she’s drawing on his back – slowly and painfully – of a mushroom cloud on which a weeping Rae’s face is etched with realistic care.  Paul accepts the pain from the tattoo because it’s become the only point of connection between him and Mary and the only way to somehow re-create the loving triangle that existed, prior to the bomb, in their family – and because that pain is the only thing that can keep his deep-seated guilt at bay, at least for a little while.

The horror – besides that of the awareness that the human race has been wiped out and the world has undergone terrifying changes – comes from a race of mutated roses that take hold of bodies, transforming them into zombie-like creatures that might very well be the new rulers of this devastated Earth: what’s more poetic and beautiful than a rose? And what’s more terrifying than something beautiful twisted into a creeping mortal danger?  This is a disturbingly excellent story, one that will give me nightmares for quite a while….

Overall Rating: 8/10


Review: ORYX AND CRAKE – Margaret Atwood

46756Even though I greatly appreciated Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, I never read anything else by this author, and I needed a friend’s enthusiastic comments about this book to finally try her other works: I must recognize that Atwood does dystopian landscapes quite well, and even though I needed to take a break, now and then, from the bleak scenario she paints here, this story is indeed a compelling one.

We start at the very end – or rather the aftermath: Snowman, once known as Jimmy, is probably the only surviving member of the human race, wiped out by a devastating plague that swept across the globe. He survives in a radically changed world, where climate has gone crazy with high temperatures, flooding rains and tornadoes, and a damaging level of UV – probably due to the thinning of the ozone layer.  Snowman is not alone though: he acts as a sort of indifferent shepherd to a group of people that have been genetically tailored to be the new inhabitants of planet Earth, placid, innocent creatures he calls the Children of Crake.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn how the situation came to the present state, and it’s a disturbingly hopeless picture: overcrowding and lack of resources have brought Earth to the brink of collapse, while the population is divided between the Compounds – guarded enclaves where the privileged enjoy higher living standards – and the Pleeblands, where the rest of humanity lives in the polluted remains of the cities.   Jimmy is one of the privileged, since his parents work for one of the bio-tech companies more interested in profit and exploitation rather than the betterment of living conditions. He’s not living a charmed life, though, because he’s a lonely boy, largely ignored by his elsewhere engaged parents and not bright enough to be included in the circles of his peers. Things change with the arrival of Glenn – later to be known as Crake – and the start of a friendship that will profoundly mark Jimmy’s life and affect his future.

It’s through these two teenagers’ eyes and habits that we get to know the not-so-far removed future in which the action takes place, and it’s a dismal one: the deep split in social structures and the dwindling resources go hand-in-hand with illness, violence and drug abuse, while the bio-tech corporations flood the market with tailored pharmaceuticals and drugs, also providing genetically modified animals for either food consumption or organ harvesting. What’s more horrifying though, is the high level of violence in “entertainment” programs, video games and internet sites, where the common theme is the lack of value in human life: as we see these two young men watching videos of executions, assisted suicides and so on, or playing games where maximum points go to the highest body count, we understand humanity passed beyond the point of no return and that the bleak future in which Jimmy/Snowman now lives in comes as a direct consequence of these premises.

What I find fascinating here is that events are described through the point of view of unlikable characters that nonetheless manage to keep the reader’s attention focused: Jimmy goes through his life as more of a spectator than a participant, and if his apathy is the direct result of parental neglect, his constant whining about the unfairness of it all – both in the past and in the present – did nothing to endear him to me, and yet I found myself following both his life story and his current journey through the abandoned ruins of our world with deep fascination. The same fascination offered by a developing train wreck, granted, but still…

The same goes for Crake: brilliant and personable where Jimmy is average and awkward, he hides quite well a dark streak of scorn for the rest of humanity, a side of his psychological make-up that surfaces in deceptively off-hand remarks whose deeper meaning, and impact, Snowman will understand only through the obsessive recollection he spends his time on. Crake is profoundly disaffected with humanity in general and his scientific mind compels him to find a solution to the world’s troubles: the fact that this solution is quite final – and bloody – would put him in the proverbial mad scientist’s shoes, if his coldly intellectual and analytical approach to the problem did not make a sort of twisted, spine-chilling sense, or rather, it would if simply applied to a theoretical exercise and not to the real world.

Oryx is the third character in this story, a former sex slave bought from an impoverished family who becomes Crake’s assistant: her role is somewhat limited, and mostly consists in being Jimmy/Snowman’s constant obsession, and yet she represents the love Jimmy wants but can never fully attain, just as Crake represents the kind of friendship he strives for, but that might have been more imagined than factual.  This is probably the reason for the presence of both names in the title: love and friendship (Oryx and Crake) that are now forever out of Snowman’s reach and whose memory is not enough to fill the last surviving man’s emptiness.

This review would not be complete without a comment on the Children of Crake, the genetically tailored post-humans that in Crake’s plan should inherit the Earth: these lab-grown creatures are simple, innocent and trusting and in their creator’s plan they will avoid mankind’s mistakes of strife through religion, politics and unfulfilled passions. Yet we catch a few glimpses that show how human nature can’t be so easily denied, even in the absence of proper stimuli: the Crakers are intensely curious about their world, for example, and they tend to create their own mysticism in an attempt to explain what they don’t understand – this would seem like a precursor to religion, one of the components that Crake tried to breed out of them. Snowman also observes that some of them are more assertive than others, which would indicate an embryo of leadership, with all the negative elements this might entail.

Does this mean that Crake’s grand plan is doomed to fail?  The book does not answer the question, since it ends in a sort of cliffhanger that will – probably – be resolved in the following novels, but what really matters here is the journey, how humanity reaches the brink and falls to its own destruction.  It’s a compelling, if very depressing, story that offers no room for hope or respite, but still takes hold of one’s imagination and never lets go.

My Rating: 8,5/10


Review: HALF THE WORLD – Joe Abercrombie

22055283Once more, reading this second volume of Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea Trilogy, I’ve found myself wondering how it came to be marketed as YA, since it’s quite deeper and more thoughtful than the usual YA fare – even taking into account my bias against this sub-genre. Of course the main characters are younger people set on a coming-of-age journey, and there is some romance involved, yet these factors can’t be enough, in my opinion, to apply that label…  My own musings aside, this middle book in the trilogy is even better than the first one, and it promises to lead toward a compelling and gripping finale.

The author himself gives a sort of summary for the story with these words:

Sometimes a girl is touched by mother war.

Sometimes a woman becomes a warrior.

Sometimes a warrior becomes a weapon.

And weapons are made for one purpose.

Indeed one of the main characters here is Thorn Bathu, a young woman who prefers learning the art of sword-fighting rather than her culture’s more acceptable womanly crafts: having killed another trainee by tragic accident she’s condemned to death and rescued by Yarvi, the protagonist of Half a King, now become Father Yarvi, minister to the King of Gettland. He sees something special in this rough-edged, short-tempered girl and enrolls her for his mission to seek allies against the High King’s encroaching rule.  Yarvi’s motley crew of misfits, among whom there are a few familiar faces from the previous book, also includes young Brand, another warrior in training who failed his goal by trying “to do good”, to be honest and straightforward.

Brand is somehow Thorn’s polar opposite: steadfast and grounded in common good sense, he does not hold a high opinion of himself and seeks in the brotherhood of warriors the family he never had. Unlike Thorn he’s not looking for glory or payback for the wrongs, real or imagined, life inflicted on him; all he wants is to belong, and of the two he’s the more inclined to dreams or flights of fancy.  There is a sort of role reversal here: Thorn is the one with the more aggressive personality, with the temper that can flare at the slightest provocation, while Brand tries – and more often than not fails – to use diplomacy in the attempt to defuse situations.

These two young people’s journey on the South Wind does not entail only travel to far-away lands where we readers learn more about this world, and into unforeseen dangers, it’s also a journey of discovery: of themselves and their potential, of the bonds that can be forged by shared toil and dangers, of the unexpected ways one can grow – physically as well as mentally. What’s unsurprising is that this growth is encouraged (and exploited) by Yarvi who knows quite well how such an experience can change an individual’s outlook and mind-set. In a way the story runs on parallel tracks to Yarvi’s own in the previous book, even though it must be stressed that it’s far from a carbon copy: if some of the elements look the same – a sea journey and a group of ill-assorted companions, the painful effort of rowing a ship, the uncomfortable, sometimes brutal living conditions – the tale develops along different lines, mostly because in the first book the characters were somehow finding their way as they went, while here one can perceive Yarvi’s subtle direction, his long-term planning, his willingness to employ every means at his disposal to reach his goal.

Father Yarvi’s “deep cunning” is quoted often by various characters (maybe as a hint for the younger audience the book should be aimed at?) but the reminder is hardly necessary: his behind-the-scenes work can be felt all along, like the careful weaving of a spider’s web being spun under our eyes. He’s a very different person from the one we left at the end of Half a King, where he had lost all of his boyish naiveté to become something of a manipulator: now he appears as the advocate of peace, as a mediator, but it’s soon clear it’s all a cover (and a thin one, at that) for his peculiar brand of morality and ruthless political maneuvering.  A kind of maneuvering that does not balk at using people, changing them into the weapons he needs for the protection of his land.

That’s exactly what happens with Thorn, whose fighting skills are sharpened through relentless practice – as an aside I’d like to mention the wonderful character of Skifr, the older woman who instructs Thorn in the fighting arts and does so in the most unusual way and with some very outlandish techniques: I loved Skifr for her amazing blend of wisdom and snarky humor, mystery and common good sense and for her unabashed, loud-mouthed brashness. Her teachings transform Thorn from an ineffective fighter moved by blind, unfocused rage, into a finely honed warrior gifted with flawless instincts. Exactly what Yarvi needed to carry out his plans.  Abercrombie pulls no punches where Thorn is concerned, and all too often I found myself cringing at the amount of physical injury the character goes through, and yet this is indeed one of the author’s trademarks as far as female characters are concerned: the heroine needs not be stunningly beautiful and alluring to make an impression, since the sheer strength of her personality is enough to make her stand out. Thorn and Skifr (but not just them) are a fine example of this, the former as a battle-scarred warrior, the latter as an older, wise woman proudly wearing the ravages of time as a badge of honor.  It’s a very refreshing attitude, and one of the reasons I enjoy reading this author’s works so much.

With these premises, I’m fairly certain that the third and final volume of this trilogy will be more than worth the wait.

My Rating: 8,5/10


Review: A WHISPER OF LEAVES – Ashley Capes

25266010I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

Ashley Capes is a very eclectic writer: I became aware of his writing through the first book of his fantasy saga, City of Masks and its sequel The Lost Mask that should reach the shelves soon. Then I was asked to read and review his novella The Fairy Wren, a curious and inspired combination of mainstream and fantastic elements. I also know he writes poetry, even though my abysmal ignorance of the medium prevents me from appreciating what I’m certain are equally enjoyable works.

So, when Mr. Capes proposed I read his newest novella, A Whisper of Leaves, I accepted immediately, since I was curious to see what new avenues he would lead me along. This is again a different kind of story, both in concept and background, since it’s based in Japan: even though modern civilization tends to create a similar context, no matter where you are in the world, there are subtle differences in outlook and mind-view and they tend to influence both the characterization and the story itself. I found these almost subliminal differences quite intriguing, and they added to the appeal of the novella.

In short, the main character Riko has come to live and work in Japan, though she was born and grew up in Australia where her parents moved long ago. As the story opens, she’s facing some work troubles brought on by a huge misunderstanding and to take her mind off these troubles she’s hiking at the foot of Mount Fuji with her friend and roommate Kiyomi. When Riko finds an old journal hidden by the forest’s underbrush, she doesn’t know that the apparently innocuous object will have a deep impact on her life and on the way she views the world.

This is as far as I’m prepared to discuss the story, because I believe readers must discover it on their own: what I feel free to reveal about it is that it’s a tale about obsession, and how it can impact our lives, even beyond our will.   Obsession can take many forms: like the kind that possesses Riko, ready to put aside her own problems, and to jeopardize her friendship with Kiyomi, to uncover the mystery held by the pages of the journal, and to know as much as possible about Makiko – the journal’s owner – and her life. As the story progresses, we see how obsession can live even beyond the grave, how it can fuel a soul’s search for fulfillment and how it can motivate any creature to deeds of love or hate, which for some might be divided by a very thin border…

In consideration of the novella’s compelling quality, I can easily say that burning curiosity was indeed the driving force that moved me to finish it quickly: the clues pile up in such a crescendo that you will not be able to close the book until you have solved the mystery at the basis of the story. And that’s not such a bad way to give in to obsession after all!

My Rating: 7,5/10