Reviews

Review: THE GLASS FLOWER, by George R.R. Martin

0bebd-martinMy first encounter with this story was through the audio version read by Australian actress Claudia Black, whose amazing performing skills made it quite special (the different voices she can bestow on the main character’s acolytes, for example, being a case in point).  Shortly thereafter I bought and read the collection “Dreamsongs”, a retrospective of GRR Martin’s stories, interspersed with information about his writing career, and it also included The Glass Flower.  This time around, I decided to merge the two, re-reading the story while listening to Ms. Black’s performance, and it was indeed an enhanced experience: when simply listening, my mind tends to wander and I lose focus on the finer details, but listening at the same time as I’m reading the text makes for a total immersion, something that made me appreciate this story even more.

On the swamp world of Croan’dhenni there’s an alien artifact that allows the exchange of consciousness between the participants of the game of mind: the old and infirm, or the simply jaded in search of new experiences, must petition the game’s mistress, Cyrain of Ash, for that privilege.  Cyrain is almost two centuries old and presently inhabits an adolescent’s body, the young and innocent flesh a stark contrast to the woman’s wisdom and cunning: she has held this position for a long time, and though quite aware of the danger presented by her obsequiously scheming acolytes, she is certain of her own strength and resilience and harbors no fear about the future. As she says herself, “I do not defeat easily”.

This status quo in Cyrain’s little domain is disturbed by the arrival on Croan’dhenni of Kleronomas, a cyborg: once a famous general and scholar, he was believed dead for the past few centuries but has now resurfaced in search – as he says – of death: he wants a flesh-and-blood body that will decay and die.  After so much time, immortality has become a burden for the indestructible cyborg.  Cyrain, who has gone through several bodies in her quest to keep the ravages of time at bay, is intrigued by Kleronomas’ desire and accepts his petition as she would a challenge: once the game of mind begins, this challenge will bring unexpected discoveries, and an even more unexpected outcome.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is indeed the game itself, the way it’s played and the pain that it entails, because to be able to move one’s consciousness from one body to another, the subject must be strongly motivated, and pain is indeed the ultimate instigator.  And that is only the tip of the iceberg: the game requires that for every player who has been accepted, there must be a prey, a body whose mind is not strong enough to withstand the invading assault of the player. Still, not everything goes according to plan, as testified by the multitude camped under the walls of Cyrain’s keep: those who could not manage the transfer, or those who ended up in the wrong body. The mistress of the game feels no compassion for them, because, as she says, “I steal their bodies, but they lose their souls themselves.”

Inside this terribly beautiful narrative lies the story’s core concept, the value of life, and the age-old question about the merits of a long life versus a meaningful one, embodied by Cyrain on one side – she who above all values her glass flower, immutable and enduring in its perfection – and Kleronomas on the other – the man who was once flesh and now yearns for the natural decay denied to a cyborg.  It’s also an exploration of the concept of self, and how much of it could survive when disassociated from the body it was born in – or in Cyrain’s own words: “Who are we after all? Only who we think we are, no more, no less.”

The contest between the two weaves between word-play in reality and willpower-play in the game, and it’s a fascinating challenge, enhanced by Martin’s skillful writing: much as I enjoy his longer works, and the richness of plots and characters I can find there, it’s in his shorter stories that I often find his best qualities, as if they were concentrated and distilled in a way that a full novel does not achieve.

The more I read this story, the more I can see its exquisite perfection, not unlike that of the titular glass flower.

My Rating:


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Reviews

TOP TEN TUESDAY #1

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish with the aim of sharing Top Ten lists of our favorites – mostly book related.

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This week’s topic: ten scary books, favorite horror novels, non-scary books to get you in the Halloween/fall mood, bookish halloween costumes, scariest covers), scary books on my TBR, etc.

With Halloween rapidly approaching, this meme was too intriguing to ignore, and I believe no one would better represent the genre than the true master, the king – in fact and in name – of horror: Stephen King.

The multi-faceted declinations of horror in his novels have fed our nightmares for the past few decades – and let’s face it, we love being scared this way!  So here is my personal top ten of his books:

10 Christine – A car with a personality, and a malicious one to boot. It’s enough to make you seriously think about public transport for the rest of your life. This story starts with a young man’s obsession with one such car, and progresses from there to its chilling evolution.

9 Firestarter – Mental powers are scary enough, especially when they can be so disruptive: here Mr. King showed us what could happen to a young girl capable of lighting fires with her mind, once her world has been destroyed and she’s on the run from those who would use her ruthlessly.

8 Carrie – Everyone indulged in some innocent pranks during their times school, and I’d like to think no one was ever as cruel as the other kids were to Carrie. But if they did, they should read this book and think – long and hard – about retribution…

7 The Dead Zone – What if one went into a coma as a consequence of a terrible accident, and woke up able to see other people’s past and future? And what if they could see – truly see – the evil that lurks into their minds?  It’s just as frightening a possibility as it is intriguing…

6 Pet Sematary – Losing one’s beloved pet must be a harrowing experience, or so I’ve been told by people who had this happen to them. But would having them back really be a good thing? Especially if the same “miracle” that brought them back can be applied to people…

5 Mysery – Nothing supernatural in this story, but it’s more than enough to terrify you: imagine being at the mercy of someone who claims to be your staunchest admirer and wants something from you, or worse, feels you owe them something.  Sometimes a real-world setting can hold more horror than a fantastic one.

4 The Shining – The idea of haunted houses (or hotels as is the case here) can give you shivers, but when they are located on an isolated mountain, during winters, and the ghosts that dwell there can take possession of an already disturbed mind, you have a recipe for unspeakable horror.  One of Stephen King’s most haunting stories.

3 It – This is one of King’s books I found more disturbing, and I mean this in a very positive way: a group of people reunites after a long time to battle once again the monster who preyed on kids luring them into the depths of the city’s sewers. After reading this story, I’ve never looked at a storm drain in the sam way…

2 Salem’s Lot – my very first vampire book, the one that set my standards for the genre.  A small town is being slowly overtaken by the undead, and only a writer, returning home after a long absence, can convince his fellow citizens to fight the monsters.  The scene that burned itself in my mind is the one of the young boy, transformed into a vampire, who knocks on a friend’s window at night begging to be let in.

1 The Stand – I consider this King’s masterpiece: on the wake of a global pandemic that has decimated the world’s population, an ancient evil tries to establish its rule over the survivors while the “forces of good”, gathering around the mysterious Mother Abigail, prepare for the battle against the darkness.  As involving as this battle is, I find the first part more involving: the slow, deliberate pace of the end of the world as we know it remains, in my opinion, the best description of an apocalypse in the making I’ve read until now.

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Reviews

Review: ONCE BROKEN FAITH, by Seanan McGuire (October Daye #10)

15748538Ten books and still going strong: not many series can make this claim, no matter the genre, and yet Seanan McGuire’s October Daye appears immune from the danger of “wash, rinse, repeat” that can affect other book cycles.  I guess it mostly depends on the eclectic nature of the author’s writing, able to speak with many different voices in a wide range of stories, where the only common factor is given by strong, believable and easy-to-care-for main characters.

Toby is indeed the quintessence of such characters: her drive comes from the understanding and acceptance of her assets and faults, and the ability to use them all for the solution of the problem at hand; and also from the strength she can draw from the diverse and multi-faceted family she has built around herself over time.

This new story starts with one of those family moments that look even more precious because we readers know all too well they are not going to last long: Toby is hosting a slumber party for the younger folks, and there is a great deal of goofing around and delightful silliness that help us reacquaint ourselves with the characters and their background – that is, until reality intrudes once more in the form of the convocation for a conclave that will rule on the new-found cure for elf shot and the possibility to use it on the victims.

Fae politics – or maybe just politics, and diplomacy – are not something Toby is comfortable with, but in this case she is very passionate about alchemist Walther’s discovery, because of the dual nature of elf shot: as a way to circumvent Oberon’s prohibition about Fae killing other Fae, since it puts them to sleep for a hundred years and therefore effectively removes them from the scene, elf shot has been the established way of life for a long time, and of course the undying and unchangeable Fae don’t respond easily to anything that alters the status quo; but the downside of it is that elf shot kills changelings.

This is the point where the “changeling problem”, to quote an equally cruel designation, comes to the fore once again, to the annoyance and dismay of those Fae who would prefer to keep ignoring it: the range of reactions goes from appalling to dumbfounding, with the former belonging to those who don’t care at all about changelings, since they are placed too low on the scale to even deserve consideration, and the latter to those who do care but believe that a cure would engender a careless use of elf shot, once it was deprived of its threatening quality.

Most of all the assembled Fae are concerned about change, about the subversion of an established modus vivendi that has served them for so long that they have forgotten how to desire something different, or even think about it. In the variegated responses to the availability of the cure there is a common factor, the fear of moving in a different direction, of walking another path and therefore challenging all that has been the accepted norm until that moment.  The best summary of this attitude is given by the Luidaeg, whose comments in the course of this novel are both enlightening and delightfully amusing:

The idea that Faerie should always be a twisted mirror of the human medieval age is proof that sometimes people don’t like change.  […] Anyone who says the past was perfect is a liar and wasn’t there. Everything that thinks can aspire, and everything that aspires wants something better than what they’ve left behind.

The Fae, faced with the prospect of being deprived of what has been their weapon of choice, balk at the very idea of losing it, of losing the only offensive method allowed to them: for this reason I saw the whole question as an interesting parallel to the ongoing debate about the procurement and use of personal weapons that has occupied so much space in recent news, and still does.  As usual, McGuire lays the problem before her readers’ eyes and lets them see all aspects of the issue, and draw their own conclusions, without unnecessary and lengthy sermons: Professor Tolkien would say that she uses applicability rather than imposing allegory, and as such I commend her choice, her way of making us think without appearing to do so.

This being an October Daye story, however, means that debate and discussion take second place to a series of assaults – some of them ending in murder – that occur when the conclave is in recess and that show the use of a peculiar, unheard-of kind of magic, one that leaves no traces of its user, therefore rendering Toby’s investigation so much more difficult.  We see her struggle with the scant evidence she can gather, and yet this only manages to increase her determination to find the perpetrators, all the while juggling her obligations as a hero of the realm and as the protector of the people she calls family.

The threat keeps circling closer and closer to Toby and her own, like a blood-hungry shark, and when it strikes at the very heart of what she holds dear we are forced to witness one of the more soul-shattering moments of the whole series, not just because of the traumatic scene deploying before our eyes but because of the possible consequences that will come from it.  This might very well be the most difficult choice that Toby has to make in the long, painful string of harrowing choices lined up in her past, because it might put her in the position of having to give up the last shreds of her humanity to keep hold of what she has gained until now.  I know it makes little sense if you have not read the book, but I want to avoid any spoiler for those who are still making their way through the series: suffice it to say that, as always, Toby’s road is not only liberally doused in blood, but also in agonizing loss.  That whatever she chooses, there will always be a price to be paid, and that price will entail heartbreak, no matter what direction she takes.

That’s the main reason I like her so much as a character, that no matter how much she breaks – physically and metaphorically – she always finds the way to pick up the pieces and move forward. Not shrugging off the hurts and losses, but embracing them as part of what she is and what she will become: this, more than anything else, is what makes her real, convincing and always a joy to behold, even in the direst of circumstances.

There is much to be still explored in this world, and with these characters, and if the few hints that have been tossed around about what’s to come are any indication, we are in for some very interesting times.  I can hardly wait.

My Rating:


Reviews

TEASER TUESDAY #15

Teaser Tuesday is an intriguing meme started by Miz B over at Books and a Beat.

All you have to do is:

• Grab your current read

• Open to a random page

• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

• Share the title & author, too, so that other Teaser Tuesday participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Teaser Tuesday

The name of George R.R. Martin is more frequently tied to his Song of Ice and Fire saga, a tale often filled with violence, cruelty and ruthless political intrigue, but a different GRR Martin can be found in his shorter works: a writer capable of subtle lyricism and poetical descriptions.

One of the best examples is THE GLASS FLOWER, a story included in the first volume of his DreamSongs, a collection of his tales ranging his entire writing career.  This story is a favorite of mine, full of mystery and strangeness.

Once, when I was just a girl in the first flush of my true youth, a young boy gave me a glass flower as a token of his love.  […]  My flower has a long and delicate stem, curved and graceful, all of fine thin glass, and from that frail support the bloom explodes, as large as my fist, impossibly exact. Every detail is there, caught, frozen in crystal for eternity: petals large and small crowding each other, bursting from the center of the blossom in a slow transparent riot, surrounded by a crown of six wide drooping leaves, each with its tracery of vein intact, each unique.

If you want to experience the full beauty of this story, I also recommend the audio version read by Australian actress Claudia Black: HERE is the first segment of the audio file, just to give you a sample of great writing and amazing acting.  Enjoy!

Reviews

Review: NICE DRAGONS FINISH LAST, by Rachel Aaron (Heartstrikers #1)

20426102I became aware of this series when reading the review for the third volume over at THE BIBLIOSANCTUM, and was immediately intrigued: titles like this one, or One Good Dragon Deserves Another and No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished are an implicit promise of humor mixed with the usual elements of the genre, and some light fun is always welcome between heavier reads.  Moreover, if dragons are fascinating creatures, dragons who can take human form at will can be even more so.

Julius Heartstriker is an unusual dragon: unlike his brethren, he doesn’t enjoy typical draconic pastimes as domination, manipulation and the hoarding of riches, and prefers to keep himself apart from his large family, holing up in his room playing online games.  Tired of this state of affairs, his mother Bethesda decides to put him in a “swim or sink” situation and after sealing Julius in human form, she kicks him out of the house with only the clothes on his back, and drops him in Detroit, where he will have to show some dragon-like initiative and strength: failure to do so will result in his death – probably at the hands, or rather jaws, of Mommy dearest.    The city is, however, forbidden to dragons after the release of magic effected by Algonquin, the Lady of the Lake, and it’s a dangerous place for anyone, either on the upper levels where the more affluent live, or in the ruins of the old town, where the dispossessed and the shadier characters dwell.

To prove himself to his mother and the rest of the family, Julius will have to fulfill what looks like a simple task: retrieve the fugitive member of another dragon family and bring her back into the fold. The assignment proves however far less easy than predicted, due to some convoluted dragon politics and the added trouble brought on by Marci Novalli, a human mage with whom Julian strikes a business deal and who quickly becomes his partner and ally.

Nice Dragons Finish Last is a fast, entertaining story that manages to mix successfully the typical elements of Urban Fantasy with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor that seems to enjoy poking some fun at the genre’s main tropes: this is particularly evident in the character of Marci who is a very skilled mage, quite versed in her craft but at the same time possessed of a MacGyver-like approach to magic that will more often than not bring a smile on your face rather than an awed expression. Yet, at the very same time, there is an earnestness in her, coupled with the tragic circumstances that brought her to the DFZ (Detroit Free Zone), that makes you also take her very seriously, just as Julius does, understanding – after a relatively short acquaintance – that he can rely on her to carry them both forward through the dangers they face.

Labeling Julius as a wimp would be quite appropriate, even by less exacting human standards: if on one hand I could understand his unwillingness, as a smaller-bodied dragon, to engage in the more physical activities of his large family, on the other I found his choice of becoming a couch potato did little to endear him to me, at least in the beginning.   If Bethesda and her daughter Chelsie, the family’s executioner, appear quite ruthless and bloody minded, to the point that her treatment of Julian sounds altogether cruel, it becomes quickly clear that being an active part of a dragon family does not necessarily entail bloodshed and mayhem, and that one might find his or her own niche in some equally profitable activity that does not necessarily require physical violence, but rather shrewdness and business acumen.  Yet Julius has chosen to hide himself in his room, preferring to avoid and be avoided, in what looks like a flight from responsibility – any kind of responsibility.  So, after a while, one feels that maybe he did need to be shaken up and away from his complacent isolation, and Bethesda’s actions appear almost justified.  Almost…

It will be only through his association with Marci and his growing fondness for the beleaguered human mage, that Julian will find his spine and the courage to stand up for what he believes in, and to finally tap his… inner dragon, but it will be a long and difficult journey, one that will take the two of them – at times helped by a couple of Julian’s more lenient brothers – through cat-infested, haunted mansions, Detroit’s sewer system plagued by scores of huge lampreys, and other less-than-savory places.

I have to admit that after a while I could not avoid the comparison with another Urban Fantasy series, one I enjoyed very much: M.L. Brennan’s Generation V, nor could I shake the impression that I might have enjoyed this one much more if I had not read the other prior to discovering this.  In both cases we have a matriarch running a supernatural family, whose youngest child is reluctant to assume the role and duties that come with the territory. Here, like in Generation V, there are older brothers ready to help the younger sibling along – at least up to a point – and an older sister who is the family’s henchwoman and who can inspire abject terror at the merest mention of her name. And again, partnering up with someone from the outside (be it the mage Marci or the shape-shifting Suzume), makes all the difference for the main character who can finally overcome some of his liabilities and start to come into his own.

The tone is however quite different here, the balance between humor and drama leaning more toward the former, the dragons’ dynamics and peculiarities lending a unique flavor to a story that is both entertaining and intriguing, and lays the basis for promising future developments.  As the beginning of a new series, Nice Dragons Finish Last is quite successful in introducing its readers to a peculiar world, giving just enough hints to pique their curiosity and make them want more.   I, for one, will certainly want to know what’s in store for newly-awakened Julius and his journey toward becoming a full-fledged Heartstriker dragon.

My Rating:


Reviews

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY #10

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This GoodReads group proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.  This week’s theme is:

INACCURATE COVERS

Those books that have nothing to do with the story, or the cover model doesn’t look anything like the actual main character, or it’s a really cheesy cover for a great read!

To say the truth, none of the covers of the books I’ve read in the past few years were really misleading: when I went to check on my GoodReads library, I could not find any that would fit this week’s theme.  So I decided to do a little search for the covers of pulp magazines from a few decades back and there I found exactly what I was looking for.

In those times, garish covers were the accepted norm: monsters from outer space, outlandish aliens and extra-terrestrial landscapes, spaceships of every size and shape – you name it, they had it.

There was one common factor though: the women depicted on those covers were all scantily clad, exotic-looking and either terrorized victims of some evil-doer or being rescued by the muscled hero. And probably had nothing to do with the stories listed in the magazine.   Here are the Top Five that came out of my search:

01In the first one, we see the lady on the cover being pursued by some bad guy and/or alien (he’s bald, and back then most aliens were bald…): they must be hovering in space, and both of their heads are enclosed by a bubble helmet, but while the man is wearing a space suit, the woman sports something close to a bathing suit, with a very, very deep neckline.  In vacuum…

In the second cover, our designated victim is stalked by a spidery-looking2 alien and looking suitably frightened – but no fear! The hero is just around the corner, ready to save her!  And once again, the man is in full EVA suit, while the woman wears a golden bikini. With matching shoes.  After all, you can’t give up on fashion, even in the direst of circumstances!

Third cover – more of the same, with a slight variation: the woman is unconscious, probably terrified by the big-toothed, long-nailed (and bald!!) monster in the background.  Thankfully the hero is carrying her away to safety.  As if we could ever doubt it!

With cover nr. 4 there is a change: in this case the lady is armed and deadly –4 in the picture she seems to have just stunned or killed the “big bad alien” (he’s green AND bald, to offer some variety, no doubt).  The woman’s weapon is still smoking (do energy weapons smoke at all?) and she looks quite resolute – yes, in her space bathing suit, complete with bubble helmet and spiked epaulettes. Oh, and gloves…

5And finally, at nr. 5, another ass-kicking lady, swinging an axe against a many-tentacled monster, while the guy in the background seems to have some trouble defending himself.  The woman is wearing a full-body suit this time, but it seems painted on her, and the conical cups for the breasts look decidedly uncomfortable!

What’s worse, is that there are still some genres where covers with scantily clad people appear in absurd poses: that’s the reason why writers like John Scalzi and Jim C. Hines decided, some time ago, to poke some fun at those covers, while supporting a charitable foundation.  As a “bonus” for this week’s theme, here are both the original cover and the… portrayal by Scalzi (on the right) and Hines (on the left), but you can find more by following the links in this IO9 article. Have fun!

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Reviews

Review: THE PEAKS OF AUTUMN by Ashley Capes (Book of Never #4)

31822092I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

Never’s adventurous quest in search of his lost heritage, and the answers to the many questions plaguing him about his nature and past, goes on.  Together with faithful Luis, the former treasure hunter, and Tsolde, a young woman who joined the company in the previous installment of the series, he continues in his perilous journey across a world that seems to reserve the most incredible – and sometimes frightening – surprises just for him, as if the rest of humanity were blissfully unaware of the weirdness that lives just outside of their collective sight.

With this new segment in Never’s series I felt more clearly than before the videogame-like quality of this story: although I’m no gamer, I am aware of the structure of role-playing quests, so that each new encounter, each new danger that the group faces does indeed feel like a new level in a game, with the stakes being raised after every successful accomplishment, and new skills being called into play.  This impression is strengthened by the narrative structure, by the box-within-a-box sequence of episodes where the solution to the riddle does not bring success, but rather a new – and more difficult – challenge to overcome.

As I said before, this can be both compelling and frustrating, because the intelligence Never so painfully gathers seems to lead him nowhere, except toward new tasks and new trials.  The narrative structure does not help in defeating the aggravation either, because the serialized form of this novel subjects the reader to longish waits between installments, that always end in a more or less harrowing cliffhanger.  After the end of this fourth chapter in The Book of Never, I reached the conclusion that the author does indeed enjoy torturing his readers…  🙂

If, until now, the characters have not enjoyed a thorough characterization, since the story is more plot-driven than character-oriented, in The Peaks of Autumn I saw something change in Never, and in a major way: his companions become something more precious for him than simple travel mates, and Never feels the huge burden of responsibility for their fate. This looks like a mixed blessing, because until recently Never was used to fend for himself alone, and to hell with the consequences, but now he’s been entrusted with the lives of two people, two persons he cares about quite deeply, and this seems to somehow weaken him, making him more vulnerable. Yet, at the same time, this new-found awareness makes him more human and approachable, and at the same time gives a new, interesting layer to his personality.

Finally, I would like to spend a few words for the cover: I’ve been enthusiastic about every cover for this serialized novel, but this new one surpasses all the preceding ones, both in subject and in color choice: it’s very dramatic and eye-catching, and it complements very well the book’s contents.  If it’s true that you should never judge a book by its cover, it’s also true that a good cover can be a powerful enticement….

The Peaks of Autumn will reach the shelves today, so I’m more than happy to celebrate its arrival, looking forward to knowing more about Never and his companions in the future installments of the story.

My Rating: