Monthly Archives: February 2017

Review: TOWER OF THORNS, by Juliet Marillier (Blackthorn & Grim #2)

22567177Tackling the second book in a series can be a tricky business when the first one happened to be an amazing read: I’m often afraid that the “magic” will not be there with the same strength as it was in that first, remarkable read, so that I tend to postpone my approach to the next volume. Well, I should not have done that with Juliet Marillier’s Blackthorn and Grim, because this second book is even better than the first – and consider that Dreamer’s Pool was already an incredible find.

Tower of Thorns starts some time after the events of Dreamer’s Pool, showing how wise woman Blackthorn and her companion Grim seem to be quite settled in their life at Winterfalls: despite Blackthorn’s prickly character and Grim’s broody silence, the two have integrated well into their life in Prince Oran’s household, finding a modicum of peace, although the ghosts of their respective pasts still haunt them.  This quite fragile equilibrium is unbalanced by the move of the Prince’s retinue to the king’s palace, due to a temporary absence of the sovereign: leaving what the two have come to think of as their safe place is not easy, but the advanced pregnancy of Lady Flidais, the Prince’s wife, compels Blackthorn to insure her presence – and it’s clear that, despite her grumblings, the healer has developed a strong attachment to the community she lives in, while Grim has gone even beyond that.

Neither of them has much time to adapt to their new surroundings when two things happen that upset once more the status quo: Lady Geileis, the ruler of a nearby land, comes asking for help against a creature that has taken residence in an abandoned tower, its day-long wails upsetting both the people’s  spirits and the health of crops and cattle; and Flannan, an old friend of Blackthorn and a wandering scholar, makes his appearance, stirring up old ghosts and the healer’s never mastered need for vengeance.  Blackthorn’s acceptance of Lady Geileis appeal for help – the monster’s curse might be lifted by a wise woman – is simply the means to leave the court and explore the possibility of following Flannan south and connecting with a net of rebels bent on exposing Mathuin’s wrongdoings and finally bringing him to justice.

This story is told in what I have come to envision as expanding concentric circles, each new one adding some more information to the plot, and this is particularly true with the mystery of Geileis and her wailing monster, imprisoned in a tower protected by an impenetrable barrier of thorns. The flashbacks to what appears to be a classic fairy story offer more and more information about the terrible curse weighing on Geileis’ land, and her own part in it: it’s a fascinating tale, one that provides some much-needed clues to what basically is a very mysterious character, one who appears from the start to have an hidden agenda, and the will to bring her plans to fruition, no matter the cost.  As I learned the details of her past, I was caught between pity and dislike: on one side Geileis is a tragic figure, considering the heavy curse hanging over her domain, with a tower-bound monster howling all day long throughout the summer, its cries dredging the saddest thoughts from the listeners’ minds and sometimes bringing them to extreme acts, even affecting the cattle and the crops.  On the other, there is a core of ruthlessness in her that renders her uncaring of any consequences might be visited on those who choose to help her: the glimpses we see of the younger Geileis made me think that probably she never grew out of her teenage selfishness, so that her plight did not touch me as deeply as it should probably have.

Despite being at the core of the inciting incident for this story, Geileis is far less central to its economy than Blackthorn and Grim, especially the latter who – in my opinion – often takes the center stage here, while part of his past his revealed.   Blackthorn is a woman caught between two powerful forces: the need to see justice done for the wrongs Mathuin visited on her and other helpless victims, and the equally strong need to keep true to her pact with the fae Conmael. The arrival of Flannan makes the latter’s pull less strong, and day by day her need to throw caution to the four winds becomes more compelling, tempered only by the curiosity toward the riddle she wants to solve and – even more important – her loyalty toward Grim.  The relationship between Blackthorn and Grim keeps being the beating heart of this series, and here, where it’s sorely tested, it shines even more brightly: should she decide to follow Flannan south, toward vengeance, she knows she has to deceive Grim in order to keep him from following her toward what Blackthorn believes will be a sure death, and this causes her great anguish because complete honesty lies at the root of their relationship, one forged not on romantic attachment but on the kind of trust that only family can engender.

For his part, Grim perceives the distance that has come between himself and Blackthorn and while he can only guess at its reasons – and is hurt by it – he refuses to forsake the role of protector, confidant and friend that he needs to exercise just as much as Blackthorn knows she needs it herself. To say that my heart went out to him in these circumstances would be a massive understatement, especially when observing other people’s dismissive reaction to his silences and his oh-so-deceptive simple-mindedness, that under its surface hides a keen mind and a deep capacity for selflessness.  Whatever compassion I might have felt toward Grim’s character, however, went several steps further once the massive disclosure about his past came to the fore: it’s a huge, earth-shattering revelation that completely upends any theory I had about his background and shines a very different light on his personality, and his soul.  Tower of Thorns is very much Grim’s story more than anyone else’s, and the pages where we learn about the events that destroyed his past and shaped him into the man he is are among the very best of the novel, the intensity of feelings described with a sort of lucid compassion that is nothing short of breath-taking.

In Tower of Thorns both Blackthorn and Grim appear to have mastered some of the ghosts from their past, or at very least to have come to more comfortable terms with them, and even though it’s clear they still have a long road before them, it’s also clear they know – with the absolute certainty they had not reached until now – they can totally depend on one another, that despite their flaws they can count on each other for support, and strength.

There’s an intensity of feeling in Blackthorn and Grim’s relationship that touched my heart in such a deep way I have not experienced in a long time: to me this is the mark of stellar writing.  With the first book I discovered an amazing author, but with this second I have become a staunch fan.

My Rating:


TV Review: STRANGER THINGS (Season 1)

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I encountered a great deal of online praise for this series, so that when I had the opportunity to watch it I jumped in eagerly, and with no expectations of any kind, since I knew very little about it. What I found is a small jewel of a story, one that ensnared me completely and led to a quick, compulsive watch.

The story and background have something of a nostalgic feel, thanks to the opening titles that are a clear call-back to the ‘80s – the time period in which the events are set – and to the soundtrack through which we revisit a few hits from those years. Moreover, there is a definite Stephen King vibe to the plot itself, a faint reminiscence of “IT” and “Firestarter”, with some “Carrie” overtones thrown in: which does not mean that the story is derivative, not at all, but rather that it wants to pay homage to the undiscussed master of the genre. And this is just one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much.

In the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, young Will Byers disappears without a trace while returning home after a day spent with his friends Mike, Dustin and Lucas. Local police start the search for the boy, but it’s clear that they are not putting all their hearts and energies into it, so that his three friends decide to start looking on their own.  Meanwhile, a  frightened girl with weird powers manages to escape from a nearby secret government installation and connects with the three friends, who believe she might be able to help them find Will.   Something else escaped from the secret facility, however, some formless creature from an alternate dimension, and the missing people’s count starts to go up…

The undeniable truth that characters are everything comes to the fore here in Stranger Things, because each and every one of them gets the chance to shine and to add his or her own contribution to a very satisfying whole: to my surprise, the young kids were the ones who worked best in the economy of the story.  From my point of view, television rarely fares well with younger characters, either making them too “old” and adult for their age, or excessively playing on the cuteness factor; here, though, kids are kids, and in a delightful, naïve way that portrays them with accuracy, showing at the same time a richness of imagination that’s typical of that age and that is able to navigate the thin border between reality and fantasy with ease and profound belief.

When we first see them, before Will’s disappearance, they are playing at some board game, dealing with dangerous traps and terrifying fictional monsters with gleeful abandon. Once their friend vanishes and the mysterious Eleven literally lands on their doorstep, they are ready to acknowledge her weird powers with the same easy acceptance of gamers who are being offered a special card to play. This does not mean they walk into danger blindfolded, on the contrary their game-playing seems to have prepared them, both mentally and on a practical level, to face the hazards from unbelievable monsters, and uncomprehending adults, with enviable clarity.

Among the adults, the best performance comes from Joyce, Will’s mother, portrayed by Winona Ryder: the distraught desperation of a mother, ready to believe the unbelievable for the sake of her son, is depicted with amazing craft, never going over the top despite the truly crazy paths she chooses to travel. Close second comes Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour), a man marked by a tragic past and walking the very thin line between duty and the need to do the right thing.

Stranger Things, before the tale of weird horror it is on the surface, is above all a tale about marginalized people having to face extraordinary events: Will and his friends are smaller kids, not exactly geared for physicality, and therefore the butt of cruel jokes and constant hazing from the school bullies; Joyce is a single mother, struggling to make ends meet and therefore looked on with suspicion by the closed society of a small town; Sheriff Hopper has a history of drinking as a coping mechanism against his loss, and does not enjoy the full respect of his deputies – the two best (or rather worst) examples of small-minded members of an inward-facing community. And finally Eleven, a child who was taken from her mother at birth because of her peculiar powers, raised and trained by Doctor Brenner (a very disturbing Matthew Modine) with a cold, practical efficiency that to me represents the true horror of the story, even beyond that of the blood-thirsty monster from the parallel reality.

The eight episodes of the first season of Stranger Things manage to concentrate a great deal of story and character development in such a small time frame, and to make the most of that time with a judicious use of pacing and the levels of tension. While the main events do reach a sort of conclusion, the door is left open for further developments – either in the same setting or a different one – and not all mysteries are solved: a choice I greatly appreciated and one that will keep me on the alert for the arrival of Season Two.

My Rating:


2016 PLANETARY AWARDS

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Like last year, Planetary Defense Command promotes this award for our favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy works (and I’d like to add my thanks for the timely reminder I received today, since I almost forgot that time was running out to post my choices).

HERE you will find all the necessary information: the deadline for the nomination is February 14th, at 11:59PM US Pacific time.  So there is still time to choose and post your nominations!

The 2016 Awards require we nominate two categories (instead of the three that were available last year):

1) Shorter story (under 40,000 words/160 paperback pages)
2) Traditionally published novel

My thanks to Planetary Defense Command for this opportunity to list my 2016 favorite reads!

And here are my choices, which were quite difficult, because I read a great number of shorter works and full novels that I enjoyed very much, so I had to go to my 5-star ratings and choose from them, to try and restrict the… playing field.  Still, it was far from easy…

For Shorter Story my choice fell on GRR Martin’s THE GLASS FLOWER, a SF story about death, rebirth and the search for eternal life, and perfection. It’s a tale that’s both wonderful and chilling – in perfect keeping with Martin’s style – and one that can be both enjoyed in writing and in the amazing audio version read by Australian actress Claudia Black.

For Traditionally Published Novel my choice goes to James S.A. Corey BABYLON’S ASHES, the sixth volume in the Expanse saga: I’ve come to anxiously wait for each new installment of this engrossing space opera series, that has quite redefined my parameters for what I most enjoy in the genre.

So I’m done – in the nick of time…  And now let’s see how it goes!

Review: THE CLOUD ROADS, by Martha Wells (Books of the Raksura #1)

9461562I’ve been aware of this series since the appearance of the first book, and I’ve kept reminding myself to see what it was all about every time I saw news about the release of a new installment or a positive review, but as it often happens I kept procrastinating in favor of other books: now, mostly thanks to the enthusiastic review of a fellow blogger, I’ve decided it was high time.

The first volume of this series introduces the readers to a peculiar world divided into three realms and peopled by a wide variety of beings: all of them are humanoid looking but show some differences in coloring and appearance that make us realize quite soon there are no humans as such on this world, a place where plains and mountains give way to rivers and seas and even offer the breathtaking spectacle of floating islands, that reminded me of some amazing vistas from James Cameron’s Avatar.  Apart from the weird creatures that can be found on land, water or air, there are two big groups of sentients: the groundlings, those who most resemble baseline humans, and the Raksura, winged and tailed crosses between lizard and human, who can shape-change from flying configuration to a wingless, groundling-like form.

Moon is a Raksura, but he’s not aware of his true nature: he’s been living on his own since the rest of his family group was killed by predators, and he has tried to live with groundlings, only to have his shape-shifting ability revealed every time, so that he ended up being evicted from the groups he had tried to blend in. The conflict between his desire not to be alone and the fear of inevitable discovery has shaped his attitude into a sort of bitter disillusionment that manages to keep him apart from others, even when he’s temporarily part of a community: for this reason, once he comes into contact with another Raksura for the first time, he’s quite distrustful about accepting the stranger’s offer of joining a proper court and finally be with his own people.  Stone, that’s the name of the scout sent by Indigo Cloud court in search of new members to refresh the bloodlines, does not take Moon’s initial ‘no’ for an answer and urges him to at least see for himself what he’s missed until now. Unfortunately, the two’s visit to a neighboring court reveals the threat from the Fell, a kind of feral Raksura with a cruel, predatory attitude.

This event, in addition to Moon’s earlier encounter with the Fell, and the painful memories tied to it, about which we will learn much later in the course of the story, convinces Moon to lend his aid to Indigo Cloud, at least temporarily: part of his unwillingness to offer a permanent commitment comes from his ingrained diffidence, but there’s another factor weighing in, the discovery of his nature as a consort, the rare kind of Raksura who can mate with a queen to give birth to other Raksura or their wingless brethren, the Arbora.   There’s an interesting consideration to be made here, and it’s one of the fascinating aspects of this story: Raksuran society hinges on a role reversal, where the queens hold all the power (even that of keeping individuals from shifting into winged shape) and the male consorts possess a role quite similar to that of concubines in a harem. The courts’ organization closely resembles that of an ant- or bee-hive, with the different roles – mentors, warriors and so on – established by birth.

The depiction of Raksuran society, together with the vivid descriptions of the world in which the story unfolds, are the backbone of this novel and the most fascinating aspect of it, while the steady pace keeps the story flowing at a good speed. What’s interesting here is that we see it all through Moon’s eyes, and since it’s all new to him, we share in both his wonder and puzzlement.  The author has managed to convey the same insights one might gain from a first-person perspective while keeping the narrative in the third person, although tightly focused on Moon’s point of view.  He is an interesting character, a grown adult – at some point we learn he’s around 35 – but possessed of some traits belonging to a younger person: it’s clear that his life of solitude has not allowed for a full psychological development and that he’s still searching for himself, more than for a stable home. That’s why, I think, the discovery of his possible role as consort seems fraught with negatives: while solitude has been a burden throughout his existence, Moon does not look ready to give up his independence in favor of a permanent home and some creature comforts, and his first meeting with Pearl, the ruling queen of Indigo Cloud, does not help his skittishness at all.   The impending threat from the Fell puts these troubles on the back burner, however, and Moon finds himself confronted with the need to help his newfound allies (and maybe family) deal with a danger that swiftly turns into “clear and present” mode.

While I totally enjoyed the book, and will certainly read on, the story is far from perfect: the action is swift and engrossing, the world-building amazing and at times quite cinematic, but characterization – apart from the central figure of Moon – feels somewhat sketchy.  For example, Stone, Moon’s mentor and guide, or Jade, queen-in-training and possible mate, are not fully fleshed out but seem to be there only as props for Moon’s journey of discovery of his true nature: I could not get a sense of the persons behind the characters, and that made me feel as if something important was sorely missing.  I wanted to know what made them the way they were, how they had come to that point, just as I could more easily understand what makes Moon tick.

Apart from this small disappointment, that I hope will be assuaged in the future course of the story, The Cloud Roads is a fascinating tale set in an intriguing universe, one that I will certainly enjoy exploring further.

My Rating:


Short Story Review: INHUMAN GARBAGE, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

32597254This novella was part of a collection, the 2016 edition of the Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novellas, edited by Paula Guran – the one containing Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti” that I previously reviewed.  As far as shorter stories go, not many of them worked out well for my tastes, Binti being the only one to stand out and truly shine, in my opinion.

Inhuman Garbage starts out in a very intriguing way, being a mix between science fiction and a police procedural: the police is alerted about a body being found in a garbage dumpster, which sounds like a far from unusual beginning, but the great difference comes from the fact that the dumpster belongs to a recycling plant based in the Armstrong dome, on Luna.  Stories about human colonization of our Solar System, and of the way these settlements develop and grow, always exerted a strong pull on my imagination, so I was immediately drawn in: the detective called on the scene, the young and upward-moving Noelle DeRicci, launches herself in the investigation moved both by her strong sense of duty and the need to overcome some deep-seated phobias.

In a close environment such as a dome on an inhospitable planet, recycling is one of the most important factors: every bit of organic waste in Armstrong is sent to the Growing Pits, from where Luna-grown foodstuffs come from, and while DeRicci is aware of this fact, just like everyone else, she tries not to think too closely about it and what it implies.  The fact that a body might end up in the compost heap that will promote food growth is not something she is ready to face: despite the fail-safes built in the system, a strong suspicion starts to insinuate itself in her mind, that this might not be the first time this happened, and that other bodies might have passed unnoticed into the system.

As the investigation progresses, we learn a great deal about what it means to live on the Moon, to build a viable outpost there and what kinds of problems humanity can take with it once it leaves the planet of its birth. At the same time, DeRicci’s character takes on substance and shape, and while she does not come across as totally likable, her dogged pursuit of the truth – as opposed to a more laissez-fare attitude from some of her co-workers – shows how some things never change, even when the environment is radically different from that of mother Earth.

The involvement of former mob boss Deshin in DeRicci’s investigation, and the discovery of the true nature of the body found in the dumpster, add further points of interest: Deshin’s desire to try and go legitimate – at least on the surface – comes from having adopted an abandoned child he and his wife are raising on their own. Both of them come from dysfunctional backgrounds, and the possibility of giving this child the kind of life they did not have opens new possibilities for them: Deshin is an interesting character, and I would have liked to see more of him and the kind of organization he runs, both on the legitimate and the less savory side of it.

Furthermore, we learn about the existence of clones, and the quite intriguing detail about their status in this future society: they are not considered persons, but rather property. Any harm visited on a clone is not labeled as a crime, but rather as damage to property: killing a clone is tantamount as denting someone’s car – the perpetrator pays a fine and that’s that.

With all of this on the table, I expected a different kind of story, even taking into account the shorter medium it was told in: unfortunately, there were many tantalizing hints that could have worked far better in a novel-sized format and were instead barely outlined here.  What’s worse, the ending appeared rushed, switching from the organic storytelling of the beginning to a “tell-vs- show” progression in the last part of the novella. I had the definite impression that the author realized she had put a great deal on the table, and didn’t know what to do with it as the constraints of the format closed on in, so that what had started as a fascinating story fizzled out in a very disappointing way.

A missed opportunity that deserved much better, indeed.

My Rating:


Review: INK AND BONE, by Rachel Caine (The Great Library #1)

20643052This is the kind of book that exerts an undeniable appeal on book lovers and compulsive readers like me. Appeal as well as horror, because the idea that books and their contents would be subject to a superior authority empowered to decide who can access the information and what kind of information can be accessed, is indeed the stuff of nightmares.

The premise: in Ink and Bone’s alternate history, the Great Library in Alexandria was never destroyed, all its precious cache of works and knowledge surviving and spreading all around the world with the creation of daughter-libraries. Sadly, a surplus of knowledge does not bring either wisdom or enlightenment: on the contrary the Library has become the most powerful entity in the world, ruling through intimidation and the influence accrued over the centuries.  This… bibliocracy, for want of a better word, has banned the individual property of books, whose ownership is reserved to the Library and its representative delegations: books are still handwritten, since the development of the press never occurred – Gutenberg, and any other inventor ever to approach the idea of mass-produced books, having been mercilessly suppressed as dangerous heretics.

Written works can be read through blanks, devices resembling modern tablets or e-readers and whose contents are owned only temporarily and strictly controlled by the Library, of course. This detail forced me to consider the role of e-readers in our time: useful and practical as they are, they still are a far cry from the effective ownership of a book, or the simple pleasure of holding a cherished volume in one’s hands, of enjoying its smell and texture.  E-books don’t carry the same definitive aura of possession, and this story has done much to strengthen my determination to always keep a backup copy of every e-book I’ve ever bought – just in case. But I digress…

Jess Brightwell belongs to an influential family that has made a sizeable fortune by smuggling books to wealthy customers who can afford the price – and the risk of discovery: when we meet him he’s just a child, and yet his stern, uncompromising father sends him out as a runner, disguised among other children as decoys.  The Garda, the feared Library police, is constantly on the lookout for the young smugglers, often aided by “concerned citizens” ready to point out anything untoward.  Capture might entail death, as already happened to Jess’ older brother Liam, who choose capital punishment rather than betray his family.  Still, Jess’ father sends his child on these missions with apparent disregard for his safety; at some point, Jess recalls those moments with poignant clarity:

[…] He remembered how it had felt in that awful moment of clarity in his childhood, knowing his father would let him die.

A few years later, Brightwell Sr. sends Jess as a postulant to the Library once he turns sixteen: should he succeed in being accepted, he will be able to act as a spy and fifth column for his family – failure to graduate and gain a place in the… enemy camp will leave Jess on his own, because his father is not going to pamper a son who loves books for themselves rather than as a valuable commodity.

These two incidents managed to quickly endear young Jess to me: I have often stressed my lack of patience for trope-laden YA characters who do little but sulk, whine and bemoan the cruelty of the world or their situation – not so with Jess Brightwell, or the other postulants he meets once he reaches the hallowed grounds of the Library.  These are teenagers, yes, but they are depicted with all the true exuberance and hope of youth, the need to excel and to prove themselves to their peers, the drive to learn and make a mark on the world. In other words, they feel real, and completely relatable: the harsh trials they undergo once in Alexandria help to showcase their characters, their strengths and liabilities, and the way they are growing as persons.

What Jess and his fellow postulants soon discover is that the Great Library is not the beacon of knowledge they believed, but rather a brutal tyrant imposing its will by force, both on nations and on individuals: even the high-placed Scholars are not protected from this inflexible rule, on the contrary they are the subjects of intense scrutiny at every moment of their lives.  As the young students forge their way through the lessons, we learn more about this alternate – and dystopian – world, one where steam-driven carriages coexist with the equivalent of tablets, although these are powered by alchemy; a world where fast trains that reminded me of the most advanced mag-lev conveyances stand side-by-side with greek fire and guardian automata.  And a world where bloody wars are waged, like the one between England and Wales: one of the most harrowing passages in this fast-moving, totally absorbing story, covers the baptism of fire mission in which Jess and his friends are called into besieged Oxford to try and save the books stored there before the fall of the city.

Parallel to the story itself, there is a narrative thread carried out through the “Ephemera”, short chapters showcasing bits of Library correspondence exchanged throughout the centuries and giving information on the course of history and on what happens behind the scenes.  Some of the contents of these Ephemera are quite chilling and reveal the pervasive presence of the Library in everyone’s life, and the extremes reached in the pursuit of power.

I’ve often thought that there are shades of Orwell’s 1984 in the Library’s reach into individual lives and in the pursuit of absolute control, in the will to shape the minds of its subjects and to drive home the awareness of the institution’s unlimited power: nothing can be hidden from the Library, not even one’s innermost thoughts and desires.  It’s a very compelling theme, and it’s explored with a great control of pacing and character development: from the young students to their proctor Wolfe to the figures who hold the highest ranks, everyone is painted with subtle strokes and cleverly developed, making the readers care for each of them, making us love or hate them as the story requires.

This might well be one of the most fascinating books I’ve read so far, one that has done a great deal toward curing me of my mistrust toward YA-oriented fiction, and one whose story I more than look forward to reading on.  And Book 2 already beckons from the (virtual) shelf…

My Rating:


Short Story Review: SPECTRUM, by Aidan J. Reid

30365707I received this short story from the author, through InstaFreebie, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

There are some vibes in this short story that somehow reminded me of “Flowers for Algernon”, but with a much sinister twist to it: BioLuminary is a corporation that tests new drugs and medical procedures on volunteers, and that’s nothing out of the ordinary, but their manner of finding subjects for the trials is what instantly sounds alarm bells in the reader, because they search among society’s rejects – the homeless, the drifters, the people living at the margins of society. People who will not be missed if something goes wrong.

The main character, a young woman who remains unnamed, tells the story in diary form (that’s where the Algernon resonance comes from, I believe): a drug and alcohol addict, she’s recruited off the street to test a new procedure for restoring 20/20 eyesight, with the promise of a substantial amount of money as compensation – money she already intends spending indulging her vices once she’s out.  During the course of her stay in a medical center that seems more a correctional facility than anything else, she seems to accept the strange, often alarming reactions of her fellow volunteers to the various procedures tried on them: she appears removed from it all – probably due to her wasted, mindless existence – even when her own trial shows weirdly troublesome effects.

The abrupt ending leaves several questions on the table, especially concerning BioLuminary – not so much about their purpose, which seems all too clear, but rather about who and what they really are. And the only fleeting clue is quite chilling….

My Rating: