Reviews

Novella Review: PENRIC’S DEMON (Penric and Desdemona #1), by Lois McMaster Bujold

I must thank fellow blogger Mogsy, from Bibliosanctum, for mentioning this series in a post: Bujold is the author of one of my favorite SF sagas, the Vorkosigan Series, but so far I have not been as fortunate when I sampled her fantasy works with The Curse of Chalion.  So, when I heard about this cycle of novellas that promised at least some of the humor I had come to expect from the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, albeit in a fantasy setting, I did not hesitate to try it out, and it turned out to be a winner.

The main character, Penric, is the younger son of a minor noble, on his way to a neighboring fiefdom for his formal betrothal to that lord’s daughter. While on the road, he and his retinue happen on a group of distressed people: their charge, a priestess of the Bastard god, has fallen suddenly ill and they are seeking help.  Penric, a person of good disposition, kneels near the dying woman and tries to comfort her by holding her hand, not knowing that elder Ruchia is host to a powerful demon who gets transferred to Penric as Ruchia dies.

Being the host of a demon means a huge upheaval in Penric’s life, not because demons are inherently evil, but because now the young man will be able to work magic and as such, for example, he’s not good husband material anymore. While he tries to come to terms with this and the other changes, Penric gets to know his newly acquired demon, who is a mixture of the personalities of all previous hosts (including two animals, by the way): the only thing all these personalities, that survive through the demon as a sort of collection of memories, share is that they were all female, and the fact that Penric is not gives way to a number of humorous – and for him highly embarrassing – situations.

The element that I most enjoyed in this delightful novella is the juxtaposition between Desdemona (the name bestowed on the Demon by Penric, with a gesture that is unheard of and quite appreciated by the recipient) and the young protagonist: the demon’s great store of experiences gathered while moving from body to body and Penric’s essential naiveté make for a great contrast that fuels most of the narrative and helps define his character in a very promising way.

As a beginning to the two unlikely companions’ adventures, Penric’s Demon looks quite promising, and more than worth some further exploration.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: PORTAL OF A THOUSAND WORLDS, by Dave Duncan

Portal of a Thousand Worlds was my first approach to Dave Duncan’s prolific production, and it ended up being a surprisingly involving read. The novel can be labeled as historical fantasy and is set in an alternate version of China, probably in the late 19th, early 20th Century: the rebellion of the Bamboo Banner adepts sounds quite similar to the real Boxer rebellion that flared up between 1899 and 1901, and here it serves as a useful time indicator.

The story follows several narrative strands that move, slowly but inexorably, toward the final confluence: one of the first characters we meet is Tug, a malnourished street urchin who is taken in by the Grey Helpers, a quasi-religious brotherhood dedicated to the handling of the dead and their speedy transition to a higher plane of existence.  What the Grey Brothers really are, however, resembles more a secret society with financial and political goals and the patience to wait even for generations to accomplish them: here the former hungry child, who will later on take the name of Silky, learns how to deal with the dead – including how to remove the valuables placed by relatives on the bodies to secure their passage of the dear departed to the next level of existence – but also how to read and write, to cheat without being discovered, to change one’s appearance. And above all, how to kill without leaving a trace.

There is a sort of cheerful viciousness in the Grey Helpers that helps mitigate the truly horrible crimes they carry out, and I was often surprised at the way in which I was rooting for them – and particularly for Silky – to succeed in their endeavors: in a world where cruel exploitation and the lack of care for the less fortunate is the way of living, the Brotherhood almost takes on a Robin-Hood-like aura that is bound to elicit the reader’s sympathies, even taking into account that they steal to help themselves and not the poor…  Silky himself possesses a kind of roguish nonchalance in everything he does, that makes it easier to forget how exploitative he gets – especially with women – in the pursuit of his goals: it’s something one tends to realize after the fact, while as the story is unfolding he’s able to focus the readers’ sympathies.

Another Grey Helper, novice Horse, earns his place in the spotlight as he finds himself enmeshed in a massive hoax, that of impersonating the current Emperor, a young man with serious mental damage who has been kept in seclusion by his mother, after she ruthlessly eliminated everyone who might have revealed that secret and who has been ruling the country from behind the virtually empty throne.  The Empress finds herself in a quandary though, because the realms needs the heir her son is unable to produce, so she concocts the scheme that will bring Horse – who has gained the name of Butterfly Sword – to the imperial palace, playing a game that might see him dead once his usefulness comes to an end.   This was one of the most fascinating threads in Portal of a Thousand Worlds, because it showed the political and power maneuvering that goes on in the imperial court, a contest of wills and strengths that could become quite deadly, but still is couched in the flowery prose and refined manners required by etiquette.  You can hide a knife in an embroidered silk scarf, but it still remains a knife…

The third main point of view in the story is that of Sunlight the Urfather, a mystical being who is constantly reborn and retains the memories of all his previous lives: he’s closely tied to the titular Portal, a passage toward other realms that opens at certain intervals and always signals the end of the ruling dynasty and a period of upheaval.   Sunlight (this is the name he uses in this particular incarnation) is currently a young man, imprisoned by the Emperor and forced, through torture and deprivation, to reveal the Portal’s secrets, but he always refuses, at great personal cost, until he is freed by a set of fortuitous circumstances and starts a journey across the land toward his ultimate destiny.

These narrative threads, carried by effective writing and a nice sense of pacing, are the backbone of the story and move it forward without a single slow moment, and are bolstered by a few side excursions into the journey of some minor characters, or the proceedings in the army of rebel Bamboo, who seeks to overthrow the ruling line and place himself in power. As the story progresses, we learn much about this fantasy version of old China, its politics, its customs and its peoples, and if not all that we learn is a pleasant discovery – the condition of women in particular was a sore point with me, because even taking into account the historical accuracy of it, it irritated me to see them devoid of any agency not closely tied to the use of sexual favors – nevertheless, we are carried along with an ease that makes this book a very positive reading experience.

That is… until the very end.

For starters, the end feels very abrupt in comparison with the massive buildup that preceded it: much of the story centers on the approaching opening of the Portal, and on the signs and portents that herald it – including a devastating earthquake that wreaks havoc across the land, laying the basis for famine and further death. The characters all act on the strength of this promised upheaval, whose precedents have been chronicled in the past, and in the end we see two huge armies, the Emperor’s and Bamboo’s, ready to engage in the battle of all battles in the plain facing the portal, with the future of the land resting in the victor’s hands.  The characters’ journeys, the events that brought them all to this place and in this moment of time, create enormous expectations of a huge showdown, or an equally huge revelation, or both.

Sadly, none of this occurs: I can’t get into the details without incurring in a spoiler, but I can freely say that the “bang” I was expecting turned out to be less than the proverbial whimper, even the more-or-less happily-ever-after of the surviving characters being dealt with quite summarily, almost as an afterthought.  To be quite honest, I felt cheated, not unlike those instances in which convoluted events turn out to have been just a dream, as many cheap TV shows have done in the past.  On reflection, I considered that the author might have wanted to show the futility of human endeavors, the pointlessness of recorded history, the silliness of our desire for everlasting power – even if that was his intention, I did not appreciate the way he chose to showcase it.

So, it pains me to report that the solid 4-star read this book was until that moment, lost some points because of that choice.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Stories Review: THE LIVING DEAD 2 Sampler, edited by John Joseph Adams

The zombie theme has never been more actual as it is these days, with literature and both screens – the big and the small one – often employing it for stories, although it’s difficult to find tales that try to look beyond the far-too-easy shock of blood and gore, focusing rather on the psychology of characters and their reaction to the apocalypse they are desperately trying to survive.   Recently I discovered this BAEN FREE LIBRARY book showcasing some of the stories contained in one of two larger anthologies dedicated to the living dead, and decided to take a look: some of the offerings were quite weird – like the one that sees events from the point of view of an Amish community (“Rural Dead” by Bret Hammond), or the one whose premise is that all of humanity dies and wakes up as zombies, and follows the plight of a family as they try to get on with their non-lives as much as they can (“Who We Used to Be” by David Moody) – but a few truly left their mark on my imagination, my favorites being the two I’ve chosen to showcase in this review.

The reason they appealed to me is that in both instances we can still see the humanity in these living dead, because, as the editor reminds us in the preface, zombies might become our enemies, but they are “enemy that used to be us, that we can become at any time”, and as such they should not be only something to fear.

FLOTSAM & JETSAM by Carrie Ryan (the author of The Forest of Hands and Teeth, a book I’ve often seen mentioned and been curious about) deals with the beginning of the zombie plague, and as such piqued my interest, since I find origin tales much more fascinating than the actual aftermath, probably because of the early imprinting due to Stephen King’s The Stand.     In the editor’s preface to the story, we learn that Ryan wanted to show the outbreak from an enclosed point of view, a claustrophobic one I’m tempted to say, so that from the initial idea of a plane being constantly turned away from airports, the author moved to a lifeboat from a cruise ship, and the two survivors in it.

We are given to understand that the zombie plague hit as the two young men were on a cruise, together with friends, and that when all hell broke loose they found their way on the raft, which at the beginning of the story is still drifting near the ship, with the fugitives hoping against hope that the carnage going on aboard the ship might be brought under control.   As the days go on, dwindling supplies and increasing despair take their toll on the two men, particularly because one of them was bitten during the mad dash toward safety, and he acknowledges – after an understandable period of denial – that he will turn and become a danger to his friend.

The story is focused on hope, and on the way it can be a two-edged sword: what made it stand out from the other offerings was the stark, lucid observation of the characters’ feelings and reactions, and particularly of the way in which the initial aversion, fueled by the close quarters, turns into something quite different. It’s not a happy story, or one with a happy ending, either, but it’s very much worth reading.

My Rating:  

THE DAYS OF FLAMING MOTORCYCLES by Catherynne M. Valente, besides being an amazingly unexpected story, represents my first sample of this author’s writing and makes me understand why so many fellow bloggers speak so highly of her works.     In the author’s own words, the idea of this story came from the notion of the “quiet apocalypse”, not so much the raging inferno that seems to be mandatory in this kind of account, but rather “an apocalypse you just have to live through and find a way to co-exist with”.

The main (and only, to say the truth) character here is Caitlin Zielinski, a young woman living in deserted Augusta, Maine, a virtual ghost town where only the zombies remain: she has chosen to stay because of her zombified father, a man who was, when alive, violent and irascible, and now seems only a pitiable creature, one that still dwells in the house they shared and tries, with mournful moaning that seems more lament than menace, to call out the name of his daughter, as a last thread of the humanity he doesn’t want to let go of.

Valente’s zombies are indeed a different breed: they try to attack the living, of course, but one can escape them with sufficient nimbleness and speed – what differentiates these living dead from the more widely known variety is the spark of humanity that seems to be still present in them, compelling them to remain close to the places they frequented when alive, and even showing a sort of melancholic yearning for their past lives, and loved ones: the pivotal scene where Valente shows a sort of… communal service (for want of a better word), in which the zombies seem to mourn all they have lost, is a very powerful one, and it moved me to compassion in a way that I would never have thought possible for these creatures.  It’s a scene best read on one’s own rather than described, and it changed my perception of zombies in a major way.

Touching, poignant and wonderfully written.

My Rating: 

Reviews

TV Review: THE EXPANSE Season 2 (no spoilers)

 

 

It’s no mystery I consider The Expanse – the space opera series written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank under the pen name of James S. A. Corey – one of the very best contemporary works in the genre, and the proof I’m not alone in this comes from the fact that what should originally have been a trio of novels has turned into a deal for nine of them, six of which have already been published, offering a continuously evolving story that branches off in often unexpected directions.  And the seventh book is right around the corner…

In my review of the first season of the show inspired by this book series, I revealed my initial doubts about it being picked up for development by SyFy, whose record in the matter of science fiction production had not exactly been stellar in recent years. If Season 1 of The Expanse went a long way toward dispelling those doubts, Season 2 consolidated my certainty that SyFy might have found the way back to its intended origins, thanks to the exceptional narrative and visual quality of this show.   For me, the mark of that quality comes from my burning need to see how the story develops on screen, even though I know what is going to happen thanks to my familiarity with the books: a story that still manages to get hold of my imagination, despite that familiarity, is indeed an outstanding one.

What’s interesting here is the choice of not falling prey to the equation “one book, one season”, so that Season 1 ended at roughly three quarters of the first book’s journey, taking up the story again with the new season right up where the previous one left, and with little or no room given to a recap: the Expanse (both written and televised) requires a good deal of attention from its followers, and rewards them with implicit faith in their powers of recollection and understanding – an attitude I greatly appreciate.

Wrapping up the events of Book 1 a little before the middle of the new season allows for the creation of a narrative divide of sorts, one that sends the story in a different direction and takes it away from the mystery at the heart of Detective Miller’s investigation, moving it into the realms of interplanetary politics, conspiracies and the possibility of an all-out war: not surprisingly, the episode marking the new run (nr. 6, for the record) bears the title “Paradigm Shift”, and opens the door to a new series of problems, and discoveries.  Before that happens, though, Miller’s story arc of his search for Julie Mao is brought to a close with a perfect, deeply emotional and profoundly moving sequence: the jaded, cynical detective had been indeed looking all along for a purpose and probably for redemption, and when he finds them both it’s impossible to remain detached, both for the stunning visuals and the high emotional content that still is delivered with admirable restraint.  Speaking of visuals, I need to mention the gorgeous segment of the Nauvoo’s launch: a wonderfully balanced choreography between the images of the ship itself (and the tugs moving it away from the space-dock) and the voices of the technicians coordinating the launch – I’ve watched it more than once and every single time it takes my breath away.

The new season introduces the character of Martian marine Bobbie Draper (a favorite of mine) and I appreciated the fact that the series gave us a brief glimpse of her in the very first episode, thus not forcing her to appear midway through as a perfect stranger: in so doing, the creators made sure we would be invested in her journey once the story moved back to her.  Bobbie is a wonderfully complex character: on the surface she is a though, determined, well-trained marine who, like all Martian-born, dreams of one day transforming the barren red desert of her home planet into a lush paradise; there are chinks in her thick armor though, mostly where her squad’s fate is concerned, making her prey to survivor’s guilt, and where loyalty and training find themselves suddenly in conflict with political expediency.  Despite her moral and physical strength, despite her career choice, Bobbie is something of an innocent, steeped in the ideals of the average Martian and unaware of the power plays running under the surface: for this reason her meeting with Avasarala is a life-changing occurrence in more ways than one, opening Bobbie’s eyes to a kind of reality she never knew existed.  Avasarala herself is nothing short of magnificent in this new season (and they let her cuss to her heart’s content this time, to our collective delight), so that the encounter with Bobbie and the education of sorts she imparts the young marine are quite a joy to witness – although I must admit that I would enjoy Avasarala even if she were simply reading from the phone directory…

The four on the Rocinante are still in the process of transformation from strangers thrown together by circumstances to close-knit family (and some even beyond that 😀  ), and the trip is still fraught with misunderstandings and personality clashes, but they are learning to rely on each other’s strengths, and to tighten the bonds tying them together: knowing that showrunner Naren Shankar is moving the strings here, I’m certain that his previous experience with Farscape and a similar “dysfunctional family” will prove vital for the end result.   The character of Amos takes on greater depth and facets with each new episode, and I never cease to be amazed at the degree of sympathy that an essentially sociopathic individual can engender in both readers and viewers: actor Wes Chatam deserves full praise for his delightfully balanced portrayal, not a simple feat considering Amos’ complexity.   Naomi comes across as equally nuanced, though in a different way: much might depend on my knowledge of her story arc, but there are moments when Dominque Tipper’s glances and her meaningful silences hint at her past, and the scars she bears from it, much more eloquently than any heartfelt dialogue. Naomi’s acceptance of Miller’s shortcomings, her forgiveness for the acts the others are condemning, all seem to point in that direction without need for a single word, as my appreciation for her work grows.

Story-wise, much happens in this season, mostly because social and political tension step beyond the point of no return – ruthlessly aided by the faction that needs this kind of turmoil to cover their own activities – and we face the dire possibility of an inter-system war.  At the same time, we are treated with closer looks at other parts of our Solar System beyond Earth and the Belt: Mars is given much space, and so is Ganymede, where a good portion of the action is based.

To say more might entail trespassing into spoiler territory, and my goal is to drive as many watchers (and readers!!) toward this awesome series, so I’m not going to ruin their fun, but once more let me advise you to either read the books or to start watching this well-deserving show: you will not regret it at all.

 

My Rating for Season Two: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: Children of Dagon by ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY

 

CHILDREN OF DAGON

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

I’ve been hearing about Adrian Tchaikovsky for some time now, especially in connection with his novel Children of Time, and if I’ve yet to start reading it, it’s because of the usual pressures of time and TBR piles – and the fact that spiders are among the main characters of that novel, but that’s another matter…

So, sampling his writing through a short story sounded like the best way to start, not least because the presence of the world “children” in both works seemed to hint at a similarity in theme, and I though it would be a good form of… exercise before tackling the novel: in this story the author postulates that global warming will cause massive floods that change the face of the planet, driving the survivors inland as the tides keep rising.  Children of Dagon is set in London and is told from the perspective of a new breed of humans, one that’s been created in a lab by a scientist who saw where the world was headed and wanted to modify humans so that they could survive in a profoundly modified environment.

This unnamed creature – clearly an amphibian – recalls how areas of London went under water one by one, and how he and his kind are slowly reclaiming the territory that once belonged to ‘original’ humans, now a sorry remnant of Earth’s previous owners, decimated by hunger and increasingly cruel living conditions.

Your little island enclaves are almost all gone now.

These are our places now; you have forfeited your stewardship of them.

Of course, baseline humans hated and persecuted these lab-engineered creatures, sowing the seeds of a hate that has now turned into all-out war, a racial conflict, if you want, but also a battle for resources and living space.  What it all comes to, however, is a profound sense of sadness, the awareness that things could and would have been better with some foresight and less greed: there is a moment in which the narrator looks at human children playing on the edge of the water, blissfully unaware of the radical changes of the world, and he considers how similar to the new breed’s own children they are.  For a moment, a sense of closeness, almost pity, seems to prevail, only to be washed away (the term seems painfully appropriate) by the need for survival and the awareness of the profound rift between the two diverging branches of humanity.

It’s a hard, harsh story, but one that left a lasting impression on my imagination: if this is indeed a good sample of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s writing, I’m certain that I will find the rest of his works equally fascinating.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

THE COURT OF BROKEN KNIVES (Empires of Dust #1), by Anna Smith Spark

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

As far as I know, grimdark has until now been the province of male writers – that is, until Anna Smith Spark penned this amazing debut novel.  It was a delightfully weird read, mostly because the harshness of plot, landscape and characters is delivered with such elegant writing that creates an incredible contrast and carries this story forward with remarkable strength.  Where novels are defined as being either plot- or character-driven, The Court of Broken Knives is both, although the story itself appears less important than the characters inhabiting it, as they move across an unforgiving land that seems bent on destroying life just as much as weapon-wielding people do.

The main focal point of the novel is the city of Sorlost, the center of the Sekemleth Empire: once a powerful political entity, the empire seems headed toward its unavoidable decay. To stop the decline and try to counteract the advance of neighboring lesser states bent on expansion, lord Orhan, a high-placed nobleman of the empire, concocts a coup that will wipe out the emperor and his whole court, allowing Orhan to start afresh and restore some of the former glory and power. Enter Tobias, the leader of the mercenary band employed by Orhan to carry out his plan: probably my favorite character, he’s a level-headed, practical man gifted with a sort of skewed integrity and determination that quickly endeared him to me. The most bizarre element in his band is young Marith, the latest recruit, a boy possessed of an almost otherworldly beauty and manners that speak of a higher station in life: once Marith single-handedly slays a dragon (yes, a dragon!) that was happily wreaking havoc in the mercenaries’ camp, something seems to free him of any self-imposed restraints he might have been working under, and he starts to change, revealing a ruthless, murderous nature fueled both by his bloody ancestry and the drug addiction that destroyed his former life and led him away from his past.   Last but not least among the main characters is Thalia, high priestess of Sorlost’s god of life and death – a god who requires human sacrifices to be performed daily, and whose celebrant is destined to be killed by her successor, just like she did when her turn came.

The overall mood of the novel is one of extreme pessimism: Orhan dreams of changing the power balance in the empire, but is also aware of the unavoidable decline of his world, one that still decks itself in silks and jewels but is quite rotten underneath.  At times I thought that his desire for social and political change came from the extreme dissatisfaction for his own life: married to a woman he does not love, yearning to be with the man that was his soul mate since their youth, Orhan finds himself trapped in the command role he sought and obtained through terrible bloodshed, and realizes that he’s now at risk just as much as his predecessor was, if not more considering the spreading unrest.

Thalia is a deeply damaged soul unable to realize how much that damage has spread: forced into the role of high priestess of a blood-thirsty god whose preferred sacrifice are children, she seems to have adapted to her temple prison and to the prospect of falling under the knife of her already-designated successor, unaware of the vastness of the outside world and its wonders (and perils), yet when the opportunity arises to leave her gilded cage she takes it. I’ve often wondered, following her narrative arc, whether she didn’t fall from the proverbial frying pan to the fire, because her fascination with Marith sounds more like a journey through hell than an infatuation – I find it very hard to call it ‘love’….

As for Marith, he’s equally pitiable and loathsome: seeing his anguish at the effects of the drug that was forced on him and made him an incurable addict, made me pity him, especially since a few flashbacks hinted at a great personal tragedy that’s revealed at some point; but his way of denying the drug’s pull is to give himself over to a killing frenzy, reveling in blood and destruction in the name of the ancient god Amrath from whom he descends – and in whose name he’s able to draw others in that same unthinking paroxysm – so this revelation worked a great deal toward cooling my initial sympathy.  Still, he remains a fascinating character and I can’t wait to see where his path will lead him in the next books.

I find it quite difficult to delve deeper into this story without falling into a… spoiler trap, but what I can say freely is that The Court of Broken Knives surprised me at every turn, not only because of unexpected revelations or shocking turns, but more than anything because it feels like the work of a consummate writer and not a first novel: if this is what the author can offer as her debut, we must indeed keep an eye on her and her next works. In the book’s preface, there is a quote from Michael Fletcher, calling her “the queen of grim dark fantasy”: the title, and compliment, are more than deserved.  All hail the queen!

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story: A GOOD HOME, by Karin Lowachee

 

 

A GOOD HOME, by Karin Lowachee

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

Some years ago I read a novel from Karin Lowachee – Warchild – whose main focus was on post-traumatic syndrome: in that case it was the story of a young boy captured by pirates, abused and bound by force to their way of life.  It came therefore as no surprise that this story concerned the difficult return to normality after the ravages of PTSD, but in this case the subject is an android.  Mark, that’s the name it was identified with, is the sole survivor of his platoon – all of them androids built by the military to fight in an unspecified war in space – and despite the re-programming he underwent he’s still in shock and does not speak.  A human veteran, Tawn, whose spinal injury forced him in a wheelchair, accepts to act as… well, tutor for Mark and to help him move forward toward a more integrated existence, despite the protests of his neighbors – somehow afraid for their children’s safety – and his mother, terrified beyond reason that Mark might one day hurt or kill her son.

Mark does not speak, although he’s able to, and he seems to remain in a semi-catatonic state for most of the time, only showing some reactions when thunderstorms move over the area: that’s when his repressed memories flare up and Tawn finds him curled up on the floor, a tearless keening issuing from him.  It’s a long, difficult road for both of them, and one that might lead nowhere, but Tawn keeps insisting, probably for the unexpressed reason that it takes a broken person to reach out to another one, and the author manages to convey the slowly building rapport between man and android even beyond the need for words.  There is no conclusion as it is, no ‘happy ending’, but the glimmer of hope that Mark might find his way again is there, and it’s enough.

A Good Home is a poignant, if restrained, story: Karin Lowachee knows how to deal with hurt people without recurring to easy sentimentality or forced pathos, and this story confirms it quite well.  Well worth reading.

 

My Rating: