Monthly Archives: May 2017
My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues… This week is the turn of Ken Liu’s
(click on the link to read the story)
Thanks to the online archives of Lightspeed Magazine I discovered this intriguing short story by Ken Liu: it postulates that in a not-so-far future our life will be handled by the next generation of the technology we daily use today.
Sai is a young corporate employee whose life is totally managed by Tilly, the captivating name of the virtual personal assistant created by Centillion software – think Siri on steroids… He wakes up to music Tilly tailors to his personal preferences, prepares himself for work eating the kind of breakfast that Tilly judges is best for him according to the day ahead, and knows that after work he has a date with a girl whose profile has been chosen by Tilly on the basis of his previous choices and psychological profile.
Sai is not alone in this: like millions of other Centillion customers, his whole life is run by Tilly, down to the smallest detail, because Centillion’s motto is “Make Things Better”, by creating social profiles of people and guiding them toward the choices that best correspond to their preferences and ultimately to their happiness. Tilly is an ever-present voice in Sai’s ear coming from his phone’s earpiece, a sort of technological Jiminy Cricket finding exactly what Sai wants even before he knows he wants it, always coming up with the perfect solution to any issue that might arise during the day.
The evening date with a very compatible woman goes according to plan: they are eminently suited to each other, and have no lack of common interests – Tilly’s choice seems to have hit its mark once more, and yet a little worm of doubt starts creeping over Sai’s consciousness:
Everything was indeed going smoothly, but maybe just a tad too smoothly. It was as if they already knew everything there was to know about each other. There were no surprises, no thrill of finding the truly new.
These doubts stem from the latest encounter with Sai’s next-door neighbor Jenny, a person who resents the excessive presence of technology in people’s lives, like Tilly’s camera over Sai’s door, complaining about the invasion of privacy. During one of their hallway encounters, Jenny accuses him of living under Tilly’s thumb, so to speak, accepting its advice to the point he’s unwilling – or even unable – to make choices on his own.
Once this doubt has been sown, Sai starts to question Tilly’s choices and this attitude is met with the kind of amazed perplexity of a hurt mother – a very suffocating mother: observing the ramifications of this software into people’s everyday life is something of a shock, because in truth many of us in the real world have started to rely on our gadgets in a way that makes us quite depended on them, instead of our memory, awareness, choices. As one character says at some point:
Without Tilly, you can’t do your job, you can’t remember your life, you can’t even call your mother. We are now a race of cyborgs. We long ago began to spread our minds into the electronic realm, and it is no longer possible to squeeze all of ourselves back into our brains.
This story is not a dire warning about the dangers of technology, not at all, but rather a cautionary tale about surrendering our independence to the oh-so-easy help of convenient appliances, forgetting that at the same time we are surrendering a part of ourselves. Something to always keep in mind when we share the big and small details of our lives with the faceless technology that’s part of our existence…
When I first heard about Shadow Run my attention was caught by its definition as a cross between Dune and Firefly: as a huge fan of both I could not let this book pass me by, of course, and that kind of anticipation helped me overcome any misgivings due to the fact that this story seems mainly targeted toward a YA audience, something that usually does not sit well with me. But having had a few positive runs with this sub-genre in the recent past – most notably with the Illuminae Files for SF and the Great Library series for FY – I felt confident that I could overcome my bias one more time.
Shadow Run‘s main core concept is the existence of a substance – Shadow – that can be employed as an almost limitless source of energy: Shadow can be harvested in space near ice-bound Alaxak, a planet whose only resource comes from “fishing” the precious material, the other side of the coin being represented by the very nature of Shadow, that can poison the harvesters, driving them to madness and an early death. Qole Uvgamut is the 17 year old captain of the Kaitan Heritage, a “fishing” ship she inherited from her dead parents: Qole runs the Kaitan with her brother Arjan and a small crew composed by hacker Telu, strong-arm Eton and the mysterious, gender fluid Basra, who is something of a walking mystery. Her new recruit Nev, engaged as a cargo handler, is soon revealed as the heir of the noble Dracorte family, intent on proving his worth as a prince while finding a new, safer way of handling Shadow through the affinity shown by Qole, whose link with the substance seem to have gifted her with amazing powers.
Narrowly escaping the clutches of a rival noble family, Nev and the Kaitan‘s crew reach his home planet, where Qole is slated to become a partner in the research that will bring unlimited energy to the galaxy and a measure of wealth to Alaxak and its destitute and suffering inhabitants: the situation is soon revealed to be far less utopian than it appeared, and Qole and her crew will have to fight a battle on two fronts for their lives and freedom, while Nev will have to confront his life-long beliefs and take a stand, choosing the side he wants to be on.
As far as premises go, Shadow Run begins in a very intriguing way, first because it drops the reader in the middle of things and then proceeds to expand the focus in small increments, painting this world little by little without need for long exposition or tedious info-dumping. Moreover, the choice of working from a first-person perspective is given a good pace by alternating point of view chapters between Qole and Nev, which keeps things at a nice, almost compulsive speed. The crew of the Kaitan is an interesting mix, and even though they are painted in broad strokes and don’t get as much “screen time” as the two main characters, there is enough to give most of them enough substance to make them real and three-dimensional, leading the reader to care for them and desire to know more about their past and what makes them tick.
Shadow is also a fascinating element, a material moving in currents through space that somehow made me think about plankton banks in the oceans: the method employed to gather it, by using energy nets, reinforces the comparison to actual fishing and makes for a few interesting scenes, that coupled with the description of the Kaitan, an old, rundown ship lovingly maintained by ingenuity and a lot of love, helps to carry home the harsh, unforgiving background in which the Alaxans try to eke out a living. Last but not least there are several scenes and dialogues that stress how the galaxy’s powers that be exploit Alaxak’s resources without giving much back to the inhabitants, therefore creating a social commentary on the state of affairs in this time and place: again a comparison springs to mind with the mining of coal from the past, and with the health dangers incurred by the miners whose hard, dangerous labor never received enough compensation in correlation with the risks they took every day.
Unfortunately, such fascinating premises are somewhat marred by some narrative choices: of course there is a good measure of adventures, daring escapades, heart-stopping rescues and bloody battles, but they all appear as a mere side-dish for the romance between Qole and Nev. The young captain starts out as a strong character who has reached a maturity well beyond her years, a person who works for the small family she has built on the Kaitan, while very aware that her time is limited, that Shadow poisoning will soon come to claim her like it did her parents and older brother, and yet she keeps fighting because she refuses to give in and accept the inevitable defeat. There is much to be admired in Qole, and that’s the reason I felt betrayed when first she repeatedly needed to be saved by Nev, and then fell in love with him: what would be the reason to create such an independent, headstrong person, only to place her in a condition of physical and emotional weakness?
And this would not have been the worst “sin” of the story if, on arrival on Luvos – Nev’s home planet – she had not been confronted by Nev’s distastefully aristocratic family: a form of social distance had to be expected in consideration of the circumstances, but was it really necessary to make them so blatantly snobbish and arrogant? The scene where Qole is prepared for an evening’s event is totally over the top, and in my opinion entirely undermines everything that has been shown about her character until that moment. Sadly, it does not end here: the budding romance between the rugged captain and the young prince is subject to a further cold shower when Nev’s fiancée Ket makes her appearance and – of course! – she’s a shrewish, catty airhead bent on humiliating the new arrival.
These elements are sadly part and parcel of any trope-laden YA narrative, and from my point of view they impair any effort at creating convincing characterization and story-telling, because the risk of producing cookie-cutter narrative is always around the corner, and in this case this is what I believe happened, spoiling what so far had been an interesting and promising story that I might have rated higher. Missed opportunities are always the saddest, indeed…
What a fun read this was! Novels dealing with books exert a strong appeal on a compulsive reader, and this one is no exception: what’s more, the titular Invisible Library is a fascinating entity in and of itself. First, because it’s a huge repository for incredible amounts of books, and second because of its location: the story postulates that there are many parallel realities coexisting next to one another, and the Library is located in a place belonging to none of them, a location where space and time have practically no meaning. Dusty volumes fill up row upon row of shelves, while modern computers are strategically placed where Librarians might need them, and from the occasional window one can at times see cobble-paved streets lit by gas-lamps. As I said, fascinating…
Irene is a junior Librarian tasked with retrieving a particular book the Library wants, and following the last phase of her planned heist drops us straight into the heart of the story, through a narrow escape from animated stone gargoyles and hounds from Hell that carries the same kind of thrill as a dive into deep waters. Here we learn one of the most important peculiarities about Librarians: they can use Language (a special speech construct that is constantly adapted and modified to suit Librarians’ needs) to force inanimate objects like door locks to obey their commands – it’s not exactly magic as we usually consider it, but it’s an interesting detail and, at times, a very useful tool.
Having managed a successful extraction from this particular alternate world, Irene looks forward to some well-earned rest to be spent doing what she enjoys most – reading books. This was what caused my instant connection with the character, even though she was not fully fleshed yet: Irene might be a thief/spy/adventuress, but above all else she is a reader, one who in the end wants only “to shut the rest of the world out and have nothing to worry about except the next page of whatever she was reading”. The author could not have found a better way to endear her to us readers than this, indeed.
There is no rest for the weary though, and Irene’s superior Coppelia sends her on a new mission to retrieve a precious volume of Grimm’s tales from an alternate London that’s usually off-limits because of its chaos contamination, which means that magic and technology clash in unpredictable and dangerous ways. And on top of that, she must take an apprentice with her, a young man named Kai, both an unknown quantity and a departure from Irene’s usual solo missions – not to mention that Kai seems to harbor some secrets…
There is little time for Irene to dwell on all this, however, since the version of London in which the two find themselves presents several obstacles to the assignment: a late nineteenth Century alternate with steampunk overtones – think of Zeppelins and steam-powered machines – where Fae, vampires and werewolves coexist alongside normal humans. On top of that, the book Irene is looking for has just been stolen after the murder of its latest owner, and she finds herself working alongside Detective Vale (this world’s version of Sherlock Holmes) battling with steam centipedes, clockwork alligators and various other contraptions, while supernatural creatures drive forth their own agendas and a dark figure from the Library’s past – the mythical Alberich – extends his murderous shadow over everything and everyone.
This unstoppable flow of surprises and death-cheating adventures keeps the story going with good momentum and at the same time serves to flesh out Irene’s character more: what I like about her (apart from her love of books, of course) is that she’s skilled but not overconfident (unlike her previous teacher and sometimes competitor Bradamant) and she takes her mentoring duties toward Kai quite seriously, trying to avoid the mistakes Bradamant made with her, when she hogged all the praise and heaped any blame on Irene. Moreover, she’s ready to face the dangers inherent in her chosen work – and more than once, in the course of the story, she suffers damage of some sort – but she’s not reckless or stupid, nor does she fall into the “heroine needing help” narrative trap. Irene feels quite real as a character, because she’s driven and willing to better her position in the Library, but at the same time she’s aware of her limitations and knows when to move aside in favor of people with more experience.
On the other hand, the other characters are somewhat less defined: we learn something more about Kai along the way, granted, and we get interesting glimpses about Vale and Bradamant, but they are still… in flux, so to speak, probably waiting for the next installments in the series to get some more flesh on their proverbial bones. The same happens to the concept of the Library itself: we see a few quick flashes of its long corridors filled with books, we learn that there are endless passages and junctions – and this reminded me a little of some kind of multi-dimensional puzzle in which one could get too easily lost – but we know nothing about the creation of the Library, and how it developed over the centuries, and across the worlds. But this will probably be detailed more in the next books…
The overall mood of The Invisible Library reminded me a little of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series: the coexistence of werewolves and vampires, the steampunk elements, the mysteries hiding behind every corner, but where Carriger’s work is a headless romp carried by tongue-in-cheek wit, Cogman’s brand of humor is more subdued and far less outrageous – unless she decides to have a refined party crashed by mechanical alligators, that is. The light-hearted fun mixed with more dramatic events creates a good blend that makes for a swift, entertaining read: it might be a little on the thin side, as far as the plot is concerned, yet there are times when some lightness is not only welcome, but rather necessary for a change of pace, and I believe this series might become one of my go-to stories when I want to… take a breath from more intense reads.
There are a few elements that detract from the overall positive experience though: for example, the moments when the characters fall prey to the need for lengthy exposition, going over previous occurrences and recapping them in painstaking detail – to me these segments felt like wading through quicksand where a moment before I was flying on a dirigible. And the Language – fascinating concept that it is – seems to be used too liberally, to the point that it takes on the shape of a convenient plot device rather than a tool to be employed in the direst of circumstances: as if to drive this point home, it seemed to me that Irene’s skills were brought in better light when she was momentarily unable to use Language, rather than when she wielded it as a weapon at the drop of a hat.
These little snags notwithstanding, I enjoyed The Invisible Library quite a bit, and will look forward to the next installments in the series, one that I can recommend for its high entertainment value.
While searching for the titles of Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy, I discovered that the author had written a number of prequel novellas, and since I’m already backtracking my steps after reading Sins of Empire, the first book in the new series set in the same background, I decided to start from a… more remote past, so to speak.
Forsworn is the first of these novellas and deals with the story of Erika ja Leora, a young noblewoman from Kez, a place where powder mages are hunted down like dangerous animals. Erika is a powder mage herself, but her noble birth saved her from that fate: she has however taken an oath not to use her powers – the Forsworn from the title are indeed people who can wield powder magic but renounce them publicly.
The chance encounter in the woods with a runaway child, Norrine, will change Erika’s life forever: Norrine (a character I encountered as an adult Riflejack mercenary in Sins of Empire) escaped from the prison where she was being held as a powder mage, after being denounced by her own parents in exchange for money, and on meeting her Erika sees what her own fate would have been if her station had not prevented it. Choosing to help young Norrine is an act of dangerous defiance, especially since a Privileged sorcerer is on the runaway’s trail and pursues the prey and anyone ready to help her with dogged determination.
The world being depicted here is a cruel one: of course that’s a given in this genre, but there is something more brutal at play here, especially since it highlights the strife between the more “conventional” magic of the Privileged, and that of the powder mages, with the former clearly fearing the latter’s encroachment of their position of power, especially with the ruling class. And just how ruthless the Privileged can be becomes evident during the long chase through the mountains toward the safety of neighboring Adro, where powder mages can live without fear: Erika will need all her strength and courage to survive and escape with Norrine from the pursuit of Duke Nikslaus and the King’s Longdogs, the aptly named power mage hunters.
As a first introduction in this world, this was a very promising one, and the surprise appearance, at the very end, of a well-known character from the original trilogy was very welcome, almost like a sign I’m going to enjoy losing myself in this series.
Given that Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was one of last year’s biggest revelations for me, I was naturally eager to read its sequel, and in that respect With Blood Upon the Sand did not disappoint, expanding on the world and characters whose foundations had been laid in the first book.
The story resumes with a high-adrenaline scene in which we see the protagonist Çeda trying to assassinate another one of the Kings ruling Sharakhai: the discovery of a terrifying piece of the puzzle she’s attempting to unravel leads to failure, and to a harrowing escape through the city’s meandering alleys she knows so well from her past as a street urchin. It’s a great way of reconnecting to Çeda, a wonderful character that captivated me from the very start with her mixture of strength and frailties, determination and failings brought on by a sometimes too-narrow focus on her goal.
The first book was centered on Çeda’s meticulous work toward infiltrating the Blade Maidens – the elite fighters protecting the Kings – so she could be nearer the people responsible for her mother’s death, and close enough to carry out her plans for vengeance; here she has finally obtained her place among the Maidens and moves the first steps toward acceptance as her training progresses, and this causes the first cracks in her armor, raising many doubts that force Çeda to question, if not her motives, her perception of the people she has always viewed as enemies.
As a street rogue, and later as a fighter in the pits where she gained her fame as the unbeatable White Wolf, Çeda had always been able to count on the support of allies and comrades, and on the unfailing closeness of her childhood friend Emre; now she is doubly isolated, as a newcomer in an elite regiment where she has to prove herself day after day, and as a double agent needing to hide her goals, and this weighs heavily on her mind – not least because some of the overtures she receives from her fellow Maidens are sincerely offered, causing Çeda to examine herself under a different light. This adds new, welcome facets to the character as her dilemma is complicated further by exposure to a Maiden’s daily duties, that bring Çeda to see different aspects of life in Sharakhai: for example, when the Moonless Host – a resistance movement bent on destroying the Kings, and therefore aligned in some ways with Çeda’s purpose – effects a shocking attack on the city’s Collegia scholars, she sees firsthand the suffering brought on by the Host’s actions and is forced to witness the price that others have to pay for freedom from the tyranny of the Kings, and to wonder if her need for vengeance might not have to take second place to more pressing and more important concerns.
It’s a fascinating analysis, and the kind of dilemma that many revolutionary fighters have brought to the table in the real world as well – and for Çeda the problem is compounded by a new factor: once bonded, as custom requires, with the asirim, the fell creatures used by the Kings as shock troops (where ‘shock’ and ‘terror’ are not mere words…), she learns more about their origins – one of the most staggering revelations of this story – and finds herself attuned to their pain and rage for the prolonged slavery the asirim have endured, to the point that at times she ends being controlled by those feelings instead of being the one controlling and channeling that very anger. Loss of certainties, loss of focus, and the awareness that the world cannot be reduced to black-or-white convictions, seem to pile many doubts on Çeda’s shoulders, and as the situation becomes more complicated we learn more about the world in which the novels are set.
Once Çeda’s role in the story has been firmly established, the author widens his scope in this book to encompass other people and other places: first, the Kings come to the fore as something other than semi-mythical figures whose alliance with the gods granted them eternal life and unimaginable powers. They are revealed here as people who don’t always work in synchrony, but rather have hidden agendas whose byzantine ramifications reach far and wide: at some point, a quite unexpected revelation changes any perceptions we might have held until then, and sheds a very different light on the way the Kings assumed power. Never has the maxim about history being rewritten by the victors been more true…
Other players come on stage as well: the Moonless Host and its leader Macide; the powerful blood mage Hamzakiir; and old acquaintances as Juvaan, or Rahmad with his sister in law Meryam, take on added substance and depth as they play more pivotal roles in the unfolding story.
The narrative remains as fascinating as ever, its very difference from the usual fantasy settings being the foremost quality that sets it apart from the others: the unforgiving desert surrounding the cities, the ships that travel on the sands, their sails wind-driven, the fascinating – and dangerous – creatures that people the endless waste, all contribute to paint an enthralling background that comes alive under the reader’s eyes. Unfortunately, some of that same wind seems to elude the story’s virtual sails toward the middle of the book: more than once I found myself struggling with the pace in that section of the novel, where the momentum that had carried it so far appeared to have been mired in quicksand. For a moment I thought – I feared – that the story might not pick up its former speed and would fall victim of the dreaded “middle book syndrome”, but to my relief the events evolved in such a way that they regained their former energy, leading to a breath-taking finale that was both exhilarating and satisfying.
Now that some of the characters, especially Çeda, have come to find themselves quite far from their planned routes, my curiosity and eagerness for the next book are at even higher levels than they were at the end of the first volume. This is indeed a series not to be missed…
Vampires have been long used (and sometimes over-used) in horror/paranormal literature, so that at times it seems that nothing new can arise from that corner of the genre. Then books like Certain Dark Things come along, and new life is breathed into the concept.
For starters, this story is set in Mexico City – quite a far cry from the usual mid-European foggy wilderness one would expect whenever vampires are concerned – and this gives the novel a very peculiar quality, enhanced by the discovery that there are several kinds of vampires, each with their own unique appearance and customs: in keeping with the various world-wide legends about a blood-sucking creature that preys on humans, the novel postulates that vampires are not all alike and they don’t necessarily look like pale-faced Count Dracula.
While the existence of vampires is a well-known fact in the history of the world as depicted by the author, their presence is not tolerated everywhere, and Mexico City is indeed one of the places where they are unwelcome, with “sanitation squads” making regular checks, not unlike those of the police in a totalitarian state, to root out and deport – or exterminate – any stowaway blood-sucker. Mexico City is, at least on the surface, a place where only drug cartels and other kinds of criminal groups can operate, but among the widespread corruption and the tired indifference of the authorities there are always dark areas where the occasional vampire can slip into the cracks.
This is what happens with Atl, the only surviving member of a clan of vampires whose roots go back to the Aztec civilization: her family was exterminated by a rival gang of Necros – which are a more “classical” variety of vampires – and she’s trying to bide her time until she can cross over to Bolivia where she will have better chances of survival. The Godoy family, here represented by brash, young Nick with his human sidekick Rodrigo, is on Atl’s tracks with the goal of eliminating the last survivor of the competition, although Nick has a further agenda, that of exacting vengeance on her for humiliating him when she managed to escape capture. Quite unexpectedly, Atl gains an improbable ally when she meets Domingo, a homeless teenager who survives by selling useful objects he searches for in trash dumps: at first she sees him only as a blood source and an errand runner (a “Renfield” in the vampire speak quite ironically derived from Bram Stoker), but his status will change as the danger increases and her enemies close in. The last point of view of this quick-paced, fascinating story is represented by Ana Aguirre, a police officer trying to do her job as honorably as possible in a city where dishonesty and lack of care are the rule.
The background for Certain Dark Things is wonderfully detailed, the characters well-drawn and believable – especially the “bad guys” whose ruthlessness and lack of any moral code is drawn with the skilled finesse they require – and the whole vampire culture is an intriguing revelation, but for me the real focus of this story is young Domingo: everything revolves around him, to the point that all the other characters, on every side of the fence, acquire depths and facets only in relation to him. In a way, he is a catalyst, and as it happens with every chemical reaction, his presence changes things.
On the surface, Domingo is a discard of society, not unlike the garbage he collects in search of valuable articles: his family rejected him, the rag-tag band of street kids he first joined treated him badly, and he now lives alone in the abandoned tunnels of the subway, leading a hand-to-mouth existence that nonetheless affords him a modicum of freedom and self-respect. With these premises, one could expect him to be angry, hateful, cynical – not so: Domingo is a gentle soul full of dreams, gifted with guileless innocence and an awkward goofiness that is quite charming. He’s fascinated by vampires and possesses a collection of graphic novels that taught him all he knows about them, or rather all he believes he knows: when he first sees Atl and her guard dog on the subway, far from realizing what she is, he simply sees a figure from those novels – a stark, black and white living illustration from those comic books, and that’s how the reader perceives her too, because Domingo is indeed our eyes and ears, allowing us to see the world through his perspective.
No one can remain indifferent to Domingo’s view of the world, nor to his loyalty: what starts as a sort of inescapable fascination for Atl, who has no other plan but to use and discard him in the fashion of her people, becomes steadfast devotion and unshakable support even in the face of mortal danger. The harrowing few days in which Domingo and Atl try to stay one step ahead of their pursuers, while seeking the means to leave Mexico City, see the young man’s change from unprepossessing street urchin to protector and shield: where he could not find the strength to stand up to those who mistreated him in the past, he now can find it for Atl, giving himself up to whatever awaits him down the line.
There is a point when a man may swim back to shore, but he was past it. There was nothing left than to be swallowed by the enormity of the sea.
And for her part Atl cannot remain indifferent to Domingo’s attitude and starts to see him as a person, if not an equal, going against everything she has been taught and the warnings of Bernardino, the ancient, creepy Revenant who accepts to help her. The feelings she starts to develop toward Domingo don’t come out of the blue but stem from the realization that, being alone and the last of her clan, she needs not follow the ancient rules but can forge some new ones, be a law unto herself. Even Bernardino, for all his ancient cunning and the dire warnings he imparts on Atl, seems to recognize something in Domingo, a quality that distances him from mere food and cannon fodder: there is a hint of acknowledgement, almost respect, in the old vampire that remains unexpressed but is however there.
At some point, during the course of the novel, the fascination exerted by vampires on human is likened to the attraction of the moth to a flame: in the same way, the reader is irresistibly drawn into this story, caught by the relentless pace of the action and held there by the fascinating characters and their journey. An amazing find, indeed.