Monthly Archives: April 2016
Experience should have taught me by now there is no guarantee that a highly acclaimed book might automatically be right for me – and yet there are times when widespread praise breeds high expectations, so that when a book falls short of those expectations, I’m bitterly disappointed. Time Salvager is a case in point.
What adds a good measure of sadness to that disappointment is that this story possessed all the elements to be a good one, the kind of story I love: a fascinating premise, an intriguing journey and a promisingly complex main character. It’s a pity that such potential riches were squandered in such a way as to make it very difficult to go on, to the point I could not finish the book.
As I said, the premise sounded solid: humanity has discovered the secret of time travel but – and here is the brilliant twist that caught my attention at the beginning – uses it only to keep the present going, more or less. Earth has become a wasteland, except for a few cities and some wilderness settlements where people scrape up a miserly hand-to-mouth existence. Civilization has moved outward, colonizing other planets in the Solar System, but it’s not the kind of life one would expect from an advanced future: the overall impression is that of a dreary reality from which there is no escape, with failing technology few are able to maintain, and none to improve. The last resort of this future humanity is to cannibalize the past in the hope of shoring up the present, in a sad game of diminishing returns: it comes as no surprise that time agents – or chronmen – do not lead an adventurous, charmed life gallivanting all over the continuum, but fall prey to a lingering pall of depression that, combined with the inevitable after-effects of time travel, sooner or later brings them to rebellion or suicide.
James Griffin-Mars is one such chronman, toiling to repay the huge investment made for his training, but losing day by day the will to go on: he’s despondent, jaded, prone to heavy bouts of drinking. Every time he comes back from a mission, he finds it still more difficult to ignore the accumulated disillusionment and the guilt for the past lives he must consign to unescapable death. He’s plagued by nightmares about them and his younger sister, lost and probably dead in the turmoil that was their childhood, so that she has become the embodiment of all his failures and remorse.
While on a difficult retrieval, one whose importance will bring him and his handler very close to comfortable retirement, James unexpectedly breaks the rules, and brings back Elise, a scientist from the 21st Century, unable to abandon her to certain (and historically correct) death. After being mildly annoyed by stilted dialogs and not enough showing as opposed to telling, here I hit the first major disturbance in this story: bringing someone from the past is forbidden, because it would both destabilize the time-line and cause the transportee’s death amid horrible sufferings. This last detail is shortly revealed as false information, but at the moment of his decision whether to leave Elise to die in a radiation-plagued ocean, or to bring her to the future where she will die nonetheless, James knows nothing about that deception, so what’s the motivation for his actions? A swift (and improbable) infatuation for Elise, which seems to be the reason, does not resonate with his personality as shown up to this point, nor does it make any sense, since she would be destined to die, one way or another – at least according to what James knows.
Accepting this development took some effort, but I chose to go along and see where it would lead: unfortunately it meant starting on a road increasingly paved with clichés – and here my trust in the story suffered some mortal blows. James and Elise must now hide from James’ former employers and from their main financer, a big corporation with evil goals – because of course every time a big corporation figures in fiction it has to be totally evil and corrupt. After a few adventures, the two fugitives find shelter with a group of semi-savage people living in the wilderness: surprise, surprise, these are good-and-wise savages, who know how to live in harmony with poor, wounded Earth, and who inspire Elise to find a cure for the fatally ill planet. Single-handedly and with scrounged, sub-standard equipment, the scientist from the past embarks on a monumental effort that has so far proved impossible for people with better means, while James hops through time in search of supplies, always managing to evade the search mounted by *two* organizations bent on finding him.
I’m aware that a work of fiction requires some suspension of disbelief – after all I find talking and walking trees perfectly acceptable, just to make an example – but this goes against any logic, to the point it becomes absurd, as does James’ handler’s equally successful help to his former colleague: no one keeps him under observation, no one questions his actions in an organization where everything and everyone is closely monitored. Sorry, but that makes no sense. Even if, for the sake of adventure, I had been able to overlook all of the above, the arrival of Grace – another brilliant scientist from the past, enrolled to help Elise in her save-the-planet project – was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Grace is a wise, elderly lady of power, and yet she greets Elise with a string of spiteful repartees over James that seems to come straight from some teenage movie: the scene is not only incongruous (and again, groundless), but it transforms two brilliant scientific minds into a couple of shrews battling for a man’s affection – because that’s what women do, when they meet from across time, don’t they? Another tired, overused cliché brought up to keep the previous ones company, in an ever-growing, noxious crowd…
There is an enlightening quote from Grace that gave me a definite perspective on this story: “We’re two scientists, an alcoholic (…) and a mud-wallowing tribe in the middle of a dystopian wasteland” – it sounded like the beginning of a joke about three people walking into a bar, and that was not what I was looking for in this book – or any book, for that matter.
Moving on to greener and better pastures….
Thanks to SF SIGNAL, one of my favorite SFF-related sites, I learned of the existence of this short story: it was co-written by GRR Martin and Howard Waldrop as they met during a convention in 1976, as recounted by Martin himself on a blog post. Since then this short story has gone out of print, and only recently – with GRRM’s blessing – has been made available in audio format on the Starship Sofa site: it was through the SF Signal’s interview with Starship Sofa’s owner that I became aware of it.
I have to confess that audiobooks are not my “thing”, since I prefer to hold a book in my hands and I know that I get easily distracted if I simply listen to a narrating voice. And yet I discovered a few wonderful short stories by GRR Martin, through audio recordings read by the amazing voice of actress Claudia Black, so I decided to try this one out, and it proved to be an interesting experience indeed. It seems only fitting to post this now that the Game of Thrones series has returned to our screens…
The story itself seems to widen the reader’s understanding in concentric circles, like the ripples you get when throwing a stone in a pool of water: information is presented in ever-expanding focus, and in the end you see the full picture – a very grim one. A group of explorers lives on an isolated research station on a faraway planet, where they appear to be besieged by the local fauna and in constant danger from a fungus whose spores seem able to take control of living organisms. The mood is claustrophobic, the sense of impending danger palpable from the very beginning and the descriptions of the place where the station was built do nothing to inspire the reader’s faith in an uplifting tale.
To reveal more of the plot would be a massive spoiler. What I feel free to share is that the overall “flavor” of this story brought me back to the old-style novels I used to read in my youth: a more… simplistic narrative frame, for want of a better word, where men find themselves battling alien creatures and there are no women included in the team. It’s clearly the product of earlier times in the evolution of the genre and in the personal journey of the author, so I can “blame” the lack of elements more suited to modern sensibilities to both the time-frame in which this was created and the still-growing skills of the writer. That said, the story was interesting enough to keep my attention focused, and the resolution at the end felt like a good payoff.
Last, but not least, a few words about the narrating voice, belonging to Nick Camm: he managed to create different personalities through changes in tone and accent for every character in the story, making it very easy for me to visualize them all as single individuals. A noteworthy performance, indeed.
Much as I enjoyed the amazing revelation that was Red Rising, the first volume in this series, I thought it suffered from a somewhat uneven pace, especially in the middle part, so I started this second installment with a mixture of curiosity and wariness. Well, I should not have worried at all, because Golden Son’s pace is nothing but relentless, without a single moment of respite, both for the main character and the readers. To say that this second book is far superior to its predecessor would be a massive understatement indeed.
We find Darrow, the Red mole in Gold society, now firmly ensconced in his role as the protegé of powerful Nero au Augustus: having completed the brutal training at the Institute, where the weak and unworthy (at least according to cruel Gold rules) are weeded out, he graduated to the Academy to learn space warfare. Here occurs the first of a sequence of blows that shake the foundations Darrow is building for the completion of his plan: on the verge of the victory that should crown him as the Gold rising star he promised to be, he suffers a terrible defeat, one that exposes both his overconfidence and one of the more ruthless tenets of the ruling race – that there is no place for failure, and that even a powerful lion, if wounded, is not immune from attacking wolves.
Just as he underwent a physical reconstruction and rebuilding in the first book, one that transformed him from a lowly Red to a Gold, here he faces that same process as far as his mind and soul are concerned: Darrow is primarily a warrior – a fighter – but he’s not tailored for the subtler warfare of politics, psychology and shifting alliances, and this is what he must learn here to avoid being crushed by the ferocious machine he’s been instructed to destroy. Once again, and even more dramatically than before, he must face a terrible truth: that he must be ready to make extreme sacrifices to reach his goal, even when those sacrifices include the life of the lower Colors he should be a champion of, or the lives of his friends. This is the most difficult struggle Darrow faces, because if on one hand some of the people he met at the Institute have become allies and friends, on the other he’s unable – or unwilling – to forget that they are also his enemies, that if they knew the truth of his origin they would not hesitate to turn against him. Or would they?
Darrow does have huge trust issues indeed, because he’s an infiltrator who must keep his guard high at all times, but also because personal history does not make it easy for him to trust anyone, since to do so would mean to put his life in someone else’s hands. And yet events force him to do exactly that, to depend on others and therefore accept the risks and benefits that this choice implies. This character has never been a people person, not even when he was a simple Red miner in the bowels of the planet: he relied too much on himself, on his pride, on his ability to carry on single-handedly any kind of task. Defeat makes him more human, as does the need to reach out to others, because his inexperience in this field causes him to make mistakes – either relying too much on an untrustworthy person, or blinding himself to real friendship, with all the consequences that this implies.
Despite the constant uncertainty that Darrow has to deal with, or maybe exactly because of it, he really flourishes as a character and as a person: the apparent lack of choices that his Academy failure entails seems to free him from any constraints and shows us his full potential, the reserves of cunning he was keeping hidden – even from us readers. Not only that, it also widens the scope of his mission: away from the enclosed environments of Institute or Academy, Darrow is finally able to perceive how profoundly unjust Gold culture is, because its brutality does not extend only to the Reds, but to all strata of society – exalted Golds included. He finally understands that change must come from within, not as a rebellion-driven revolution, but as a re-shaping of mindsets and attitudes – a much more difficult task because certain mechanisms and thought processes are far too ingrained to be easily subverted, as dramatically shown in a couple of instances.
Just as Darrow’s personality expands and improves in Golden Son, so do others, be they old ones or new to the scene: they all share that same feeling of increased depth and substance, especially the women, who were something of a sore point for me in Red Rising. Here they finally become fully fleshed, complex persons, with well-defined powers and goals – be they either figures for good, like Mustang, or evil, like Octavia au Lune. Or something in between, like mercurial Victra, one of my favorite secondary characters. The writing and pacing show the same increase in maturity, being tighter and more focused than they were in the previous book: the action sequences keep rolling inexorably to the end – and what an explosive, breath-stealing end it is! – with no perceivable reprieve, making this installment in the series a totally compulsive reading experience. The sense of impending doom, of inexorable defeat, hangs over even the most successful endeavors, accentuating the state of extreme turmoil of a society on the verge of upheaval, mirrored by the constant tides of alliances made and broken, of betrayals and sacrifices, of love and hate that permeate the fabric of this novel.
On hindsight, it was fortunate that I choose to read this second book so late after its publication, because waiting for the final installment, after that harrowing cliffhanger at the end, would have been sheer torture. Luckily, I can pick up Morning Star any time I want, and see how the story arc will end: if I adventured in this book armed with curiosity and wariness, I will tackle the final one with high anticipation – the progress I encountered here leads me to expect great things.
Whenever I find a book that manages to infuse new life into an old trope, and does so brilliantly, I’m always delighted: this is the case of The Fifth House of the Heart, a story about vampires that feels fresh, compelling and even entertaining, since the horror in its core theme is skillfully tempered with humor.
Most of the latter is due to the main character, Asmodeus Saxon-Tang – or just Sax – an elderly antiques dealer with a rather adventurous past, even though the use of that adjective might be something of a stretch, since he’s not exactly hero material. Sax is an interesting mix of greed and aesthetic sense, of cunning business skills and unabashed cowardice: he possesses all the facets that would make him an unsavory figure and yet he manages to insinuate himself into your sympathies, and take root there forever, mostly because he’s quite candid about his own shortcomings. His drive for acquisition could make a Ferengi run away in shamed tears, but at the same time it’s possible to feel his deep love for precious things, a love coming both from his appreciation of their beauty and his extensive knowledge of their origins and history: there are many instances in which we are informed about a given object’s appearance and past, and those details never feel like exposition, because Sax’s loving point of view makes them stand out in sharp relief and teaches us fascinating facts about them, or the historical period in which they were created.
One of those successful purchases is the reason Sax finds himself enmeshed with the vampire community – again. Yes, because in the Sixties our greedy friend stumbled for the first time on a vampire hoard, making a name for himself in the antique dealers’ circles and painting a target on his back at the same time. The vampires in this novel are not the fascinating but dangerous individuals portrayed by older movies (nor, thankfully, are they the moodily sparkling kind of latter representations…) but rather vicious creatures that take the shape of the victims they feed on: a vampire subsisting on human blood will take a human shape, and also the gender of its preferred victims – with the possibility of switching between male and female as whim strikes it – while one that feeds on toads, for example, will morph into a far more nightmarish form. The flashback to Sax’s highly rewarding expedition to a French chateau where he stumbles on his first vampire hoard of riches is one of the best-paced tales of terror and discovery I can remember, detailing a place with built-in hidden traps to catch the unwary and the greedy, where dread takes an exquisitely claustrophobic flavor.
This first encounter with a vampire leads to the present events described in the book with a delightfully organic progression, instigating an older Sax to mount a new expedition and gather a band of time-tested companions who will accompany him into the mouth (or rather fangs…) of danger once more. The heist thread in The Fifth House of the Heart is one of the best components in this story, alternating well-calibrated humor with the inevitable drama one can expect when facing blood-sucking, ancient and cunning creatures. These extremely unlikely companions include Brother Paolo, one of the monks who actively fight vampires (and whose order is always quoted with its full name, the Ordine dei Cavalieri Sacri dei Teutonici e dei Fiamminghi, Special Branch – making it one of the in-jokes peppered throughout the book): Paolo is both an innocent and a valiant vampire-hunter, seemingly oblivious to Sax’s plans of wooing him, even though said plans mostly remain in our hero’s head. Rock is the proverbial Big Guy, the one endowed with an abundance of muscle and courage and a charming penchant for gallows-oriented witticisms. Then there’s Min, the Korean vampire hunter driven by tragedy and a burning desire for revenge, who has steeled herself into a killing machine who forsook all emotions in the pursuit of her prey. And again, Gheorghe the thief and Abingdon the steel-working irrepressible womanizer. I was surprised at the speed with which I grew fond of them, and cared about what happened to them, but this is one of Ben Tripp’s obvious skills, to create great characters with just a few brush strokes, and make them real, with the same ease with which he mixes moods and themes and comes up with an engrossing tale.
From the gathering of this band of treasure- and thrill-seekers onward, the action takes speed like a rolling avalanche and never lets go until the very end, moving from the USA to Europe, where Sax – somewhat belying his insistence on old age and creaking joints – takes them from Italy to France to Germany, where an epic battle is waged inside an old castle housing the vampire’s stronghold. It’s here that the author most successfully blends adventure, horror and humor in a seamless whole, building an unrelenting climax that ends in a very satisfying way, even though it leaves the reader quite shaken with all its accumulated tension.
This is such a surprising book in so many ways, and a proverbial page-turner: do yourselves a favor and read it, because it’s more than worth the time.
I recently stumbled on this GoodReads group that proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related. It sounds fun, and something I can manage even with my too-often-limited time.
This week’s subject is: Books with “hard” topics
When I discuss my reading preferences with people who don’t enjoy speculative fiction, they often complain that the genre does not deal with “real” issues and they could not be more wrong, as testified by these few examples:
In this dystopian future, society relegates unwanted citizens on an island that is also a huge garbage dump. Among these rejects the most unwanted of all are the old: left there to die of deprivation, of the pollutants brewing among the garbage piles, and of neglect. But what’s worse is that the youngsters who have been marooned to the island with them are taught that their plight is the old people’s fault, so bands of angry teenagers hunt the old and defenseless as a bloody sport. Science fiction? Not really: merely the extrapolation of the many small incidents we can observe in our everyday life…
In this novel, the author postulates that a vicious form of flu has left many of the victims prisoners of their own bodies: their minds are fully functional, but the bodies don’t respond to the brain impulses any more. After a while the affected people are able to interact with society once more by connecting to a sort of android bodies called “threeps” and have a semblance of normal life but after the initial wave of social awareness, the general public starts to turn against the threeps, the most vocal maintaining that too many resources are being employed for the locked in, resources that could be better spent elsewhere. It does sound frighteningly familiar, indeed.
When eight-year old Jos’ ship is attacked by pirates who kill the adults and take the children prisoners to turn them into slaves, the young protagonist starts a nightmarish descent into Hell, one made of fear, terror and abuse that will forever scar him, even when he will find the strength to escape from his tormentors. I usually avoid stories that contain this kind of theme because I believe that there is nothing more terrible than stealing a child’s innocence, robbing them of what should be the most carefree years in a person’s life, but in this case the author described young Jos’ journey with such a light hand, through suggestion more than outright detail, that I had to stay until the very end. This is a book that will leave its mark on you, but it will be worth the pain.
No need to describe this story, the one that opened the road to so much YA dystopian narrative – both for the good and for the bad. What I found truly horrifying in the whole scenario was not only the cruelty of pitting young people against each other in a ruthless battle that would see only one survivor, but the fact that the whole scenario was used as both a bloody spectator sport and as admonition against rebellion. I remember thinking, as I read through the book, that we are not so far from the Capitol citizen watching teenagers die horribly: after all there seems to be a huge audience for those so-called reality shows where people face dangerous or harrowing situations. What it says about us, as human beings, is something I prefer not to dwell upon too much.
In a post-apocalyptic landscape a man and his son travel over a wasted land, where the few survivors are more beasts than men, toward the coast and the sea in the hope of finding something better – or maybe just to give themselves a reason to go on. It’s a hard, harsh story that at the same time lights the darkness with the love binding the two of them: it’s an understated kind of love, but it shines through and makes the nightmarish scenes almost bearable. Almost.
This novella was recommended by a number of fellow bloggers as a good sample of Brandon Sanderson’s writing, so I need to start this review by thanking them for pointing me toward this delightful story. If the rest of Sanderson’s work follows this same path, I know I will enjoy his novels very much.
Shai is a Forger, and a very special one, because she works within the parameters of her world’s peculiar brand of magic, which allows her to change an object’s appearance by manipulating its essence, and its history. It’s a very fascinating concept, one that postulates the presence of a soul even in inanimate objects, so that the means through which the changes are wrought is a special seal called “soulstamp”, applied to a specific item so that it’s transformed. The most intriguing detail of this concept comes from the need for believability of the changes: in other words, the modifications must be coherent with the item’s origins and past history if they are to be successful. You can change the history of an old, scarred table, for example, by rewriting its past of neglect into one of loving care and dutiful maintenance, so that the soulstamp will transform it into a gleaming, polished surface. But you can’t turn that table into a vase, or a stone statue.
When the Emperor is left comatose and mindless after an assassination attempt that cost him his Empress’ life, the inner council turns to Shai – who is in prison for the attempted theft of the Emperor’s scepter – to create a soulstamp that will give them back their Emperor, or at least a useful approximation that will allow them to keep hold of their power. Ironically, Shai was arrested and sentenced to death because of her Forgery, a practice that’s both outlawed and reviled, and here lies the paradox of the situation, expressed by elder Arbiter Gaotona: “…one must accept the aid of darkness in order to contain a greater darkness”.
Gaotona is Shai’s counterpoint, her polar opposite, and the main attraction of this story comes from their interactions, and the way they grow both closer and more distant in the course of events, in a complicated dance not dissimilar from the one played by planets as their orbits are influenced by the laws of gravity. They feel a growing respect for each other, even though it remains unexpressed, one that brings Shai toward a sort of obsessive honesty born of pride (for want of a better definition) and Gaotona toward a grudging respect for the younger woman’s talent and skills. They are the true protagonists of the tale, leaving the other characters in the background, never fully fleshed nor defined – and in the end it matters little, because the story takes life from the confrontational osmosis binding the young and the old in a tight relationship that excludes everything and everyone else.
The kind of magic show in this novella is of a new and fascinating type, and I enjoyed the way it’s developed in the short span of this narrative form, with a few brush strokes and very little exposition, so that it feels very organic and… natural, not contrived at all. What’s most intriguing is the concept that Forgery can be applied to people as well as objects, and that the related concept of soul is taken in interesting directions: if an item’s soul can be directed toward a better expression of itself (the scarred table becoming a beautiful desk, or the unformed stone morphing into a pleasing statue), can this be applied to a person’s soul as well? And would this “nudge” toward a better self be ethical?
Shai’s inner debate on this matter remains mostly hidden, but it’s defined by her feverish application to the task at hand, even when it delays the careful plans of escape she’s concocting, even when it threatens her own survival: the last part of the story feels like a breathless race against time, marked by the dwindling number of days left to her before the cover for the Emperor’s “illness” is blown apart. The intricate weave of outward appearances and inner workings, the dangerous games she plays, all contribute to a build-up of tension that makes the last pages a breathless rush, and a very enjoyable read.
I’m fascinated by Sanderson’s skill in world-building, and hungry for more.
I received this book from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.
This kind of anthology is usually centered round a core theme that individual authors choose to develop as they wish, while here I found a different interpretation: there is a common background, concerning the invasion of an alien species called Makh-ra, who have conquered Earth and are ruling it and exploiting its resources. Therefore each author had to work inside a set of pre-established parameters, giving this anthology a very different feel than usual – in other words, this reads more like a novel developed through a change of POV at each new chapter, rather than a collection of disjointed stories, and that gives it a more cohesive feel that I found quite enjoyable.
Another point of interest in these collected stories is that they don’t focus on the actual invasion: that’s already in the past, one generation removed or thereabouts. What the anthology chose to show is the aftermath, the way in which people and customs re-arrange themselves in the face of occupation, the dichotomy in outlook between those who remember life as it was pre-invasion and those, like the younger people, who have known nothing else. The Earth that comes through these stories is quite a dismal place: the stripping of resources by the Makh-ra has generated shortages (like water, for example, that’s subject to rationing) and supplies are not as plentiful as before; cities present large ruined areas, some as the result of battles during the invasion, others because the changes in economy have decreed the end of once-flourishing activities. The separation between those with power and influence and the rest of the populace has increased, and only individuals who have chosen to collaborate with the new rulers can enjoy a semblance of normal life.
“Semblance” being the operative word here, because the Makh-ra’s rule is far from a benevolent one: the overall flavor of this situation strongly reminded me of the stories of occupied France under the Nazi invasion in WWII, with a curfew in place, strong restrictions on travel and frequent searches of places or people suspected of aiding rebels. As it happened in that historical period, many have chosen to collaborate with the alien invaders: some for personal gain, some because they have no other choice, with all the possible variations in between the two opposites. There are a few instances of attempts at integration as well, the case in point being that of the three-part story from the anthology’s editors, that acts as a sort of frame for the others: here a human FBI agent works side-by-side with his Makh-ra colleague, and they manage to reach a sort of mutual understanding through shared work and dangers.
In general, though, the Makh-ra act as conquerors and oppressors, and even though some of them seem willing to adopt a few human traits and preferences, still they maintain an air of arrogance, the inner conviction that conquest is something of a god-given right stemming from superiority in mind, body and customs. The Makh-ra, however, also represent the weakest feature of this anthology in my opinion, because they are not alien enough: I’m not speaking about their appearance, which is roughly humanoid except for their taller, stronger frame and the dark, light-sensitive eyes. The lack of alien-ness I perceived comes from the mind-view that seems more like that of a stolid bureaucrat, rather than that of an off-world creature: granted, this allowed for many of the interesting developments portrayed in the stories, but still I could not avoid the comparison with the Star Trek aliens – my main disappointment with the various incarnations of the series – who are nothing more than humans with strange noses or foreheads. In my opinion, to be truly alien a creature requires one to exhibit some outlandish traits, some quality that is so far removed from our own experience that the sheer otherness of it jumps straight at you. Sadly, that was not the case here, though it was not a major problem.
The quality of the stories is generally good – with anthologies it’s a given that some might appeal more than others – and there are two of them that I found truly outstanding: Strange Alliance (by Cliff Allen) concerning a human who has risen through the Makh-ra ranks to a position of prestige, and Traitor (by Adam Lance Garcia) focusing on the woman who aided and abetted the alien invasion, and the consequences on her personal life. These two were several steps above the others, breathing life and consistency into their characters.
In short, this is a peculiar kind of collection that’s certainly worth exploring and offers a new outlook on a well-known trope.