Reviews

Short Story Review: HOMECOMING, by Seanan Mcguire

Oh, what a surprise! Another Seanan McGuire story!  🙂
Bear with me, I do like her writing…

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

 

This was an incredibly weird story, one that had me puzzled until the very end when everything became clear – still the weirdness was deeply compelling and never for a moment I thought about not seeing it through until I understood what it was all about.

It all starts in a locker room where two groups of cheerleaders prepare for their show of support to their respective football teams: it’s the night of THE big game, and they are both nervous and excited. Nothing strange about it all, until the girls reach the playing field and we see that the players of both teams are wearing white, non-descript uniforms, nothing like the red and rust of the Falcons or the blue and silver of the Ravens, as the girls are wearing.   More stranger still, the players start wearing more proper uniforms only when their names are given, and as we learn that they are transported to the stadium on the moment of their death…

I’m loathe to say more, because this is the kind of story that must be read – and appreciated – with a minimum of prior information: what I can safely share is that it’s a deeply compelling story, one that drew me in like a spell, and let me tell you that it was a powerful one since it kept me glued to the pages despite the core theme, that of team sports, which holds little or no interest to me…

On hindsight, I believe that only someone as talented as Seanan McGuire, whose storytelling skills often border on the uncanny, could have taken hold of my imagination in this way and kept it there until the final, poignant reveal.

Quite a ride, indeed…

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: VICTORY CONDITIONS (Vatta’s War #5), by Elizabeth Moon

With this fifth volume Elizabeth Moon’s series Vatta’s War reaches its conclusion, and a very satisfying one at that.  Until now we have been following Ky Vatta, heir to a family of interstellar traders, who was expelled from the Space Academy because of a mistake in judgment and who tried to re-build her life inside the family business.  Faced with increasing challenges, including a vast network of pirates trying to take over space routes with the complicity of moles planted in various governments, Ky manages to gather around herself a fleet of former merchanters and privateers to fight the pirates, while gaining precious experience and skills that force her to grow well beyond her young age.  As Victory Conditions starts, Ky is ready for the next step in her difficult mission, that of taking on board various planetary governments and their fleets to repel the coming assault from Turek, the leader of the pirates and the man responsible for the massacre of most of her family on their home planet of Slotter Key.

This series is not, however, a one-woman show, and the action is equally divided between other characters we have met along the way: Ky’s cousin Stella has taken over the running of a company’s branch on the planet of Cascadia and is successfully juggling the family’s shipping business with the thriving new activity of manufacture and selling of a new communication device. Once Vatta’s black sheep because of a few youthful indiscretions, Stella is growing into her role of businesswoman and shrewd manager, earning the respect of surviving family members and associates alike.   On a different part of the galaxy, Rafe Dunbarger – estranged son of the CEO of ISC, the leading communications firm – went back into the fold once he discovered the takeover attempt from his father’s closest associate, attempt that included the kidnapping and possible extermination of Rafe’s own family.  Taking control of the company, and trying to eradicate the complex web of traitors (some of whom are in collusion with the pirates) and “simply” greedy executives, forces Rafe to discard his disreputable persona and to morph into a more stable, more dependable individual, even though he somewhat pines for the old days of freedom.

All the while, the constant threat from the pirates, whose infiltration of governments and manufacturing facilities speaks of a long, careful planning, escalates to open conflict, one that the “good guys” are not so sure of winning… The constant change of point of view between characters and situations makes indeed for a fast-paced story, one that fulfills all the promises of the build-up carried on by previous books.  And if the narrative is sometime slowed down by reiteration of well-known plot points (which for some instances happens more than once in the course of the story), it’s easy to forgive this misstep because the events succeed each other at such speed that glossing over these writing ‘hiccups’ requires no effort at all.  Vatta’s War is above all a space opera whose main goal is that to entertain the reader, and in this it reaches its goal quite successfully.

Where this novel works very well is in character exploration and development: Ky, for example, is not at all the kind of Mary Sue heroine who’s able to troubleshoot every problem just by batting her eyelashes. She has to work for what she obtains, and work very hard, more often than not leading an uphill battle against prejudice, not so much because she’s a woman (there are plenty of capable women in positions of responsibility in Moon’s world), but rather because of her young age and (wrongly) perceived lack of experience.  Ky Vatta is not afraid of shouldering heavy burdens, knowing that she will learn from them, and being aware that nothing comes without a price: there is a segment of the story here where we see her dealing with the aftermath of all that happened to her until that moment, a combination of the experiences that matured her and the painful losses that shaped her psyche even as they hurt her.  It’s an important part of the narrative, from my point of view, because it stresses Ky’s  basic humanity and fallibility,  while showing the potential for inner strength and emotional stability, the qualities that make her a convincing leader.

My opinion of Rafe changed considerably with this volume: where he earlier looked like the proverbial rakish adventurer, here (and partly in the previous book) he shows great determination to bring ISC up to speed, removing all the elements that leeched funds and credibility from the company and taking very seriously his duties to it and to his family, especially where his traumatized sister Penny is concerned. In a sort of parallel with Ky, he needs to overcome the wrong image the world wants to paint on him, one that is only in part the result of his swashbuckling life and instead owes much to the deceptive bad publicity artfully circulated to keep him away from his home world and the company.  The only segment where his characterization falters a little is in relation with Ky: while their mutual but unspoken attraction has been a subtle thread throughout the last three books, and it comes to the fore here promising future developments, it’s also at the root of a scene that demeans his maturity placing him on the same level as a hormone-crazed youth.  Still, like I said, it’s one of those elements readers can take in their stride when considering the entertainment value of the story, without being too troubled by it.

I’m glad that when I started reading Elizabeth Moon’s Cold Welcome, the first installment in the new series Vatta’s Peace, I decided instead to explore this first foray into Ky Vatta’s adventures, so that now I can move forward to the next books “armed” with the knowledge necessary to enjoy the story as it deserves. The journey continues, and it promises to be equally enjoyable…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: EACH TO EACH, by Seanan McGuire

 

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

 

Those who have read “Drowning in the Deep” and/or “Into the Drowning Deep” by Seanan McGuire, will probably something more intriguing in this short story than readers who never encountered the author’s version of the mermaid myth. Still, I would recommend it to all her fans and even to those who have not sampled her works yet, because I believe it’s a good, engaging example of her storytelling style.

The premise for “Each to Each” is that global warming has caused water levels to rise so that dry land has become scarce and humanity turned to the sea to try and create a new living environment, while seeking as-yet-untapped resources in the depths.  To do so, and to be able to live underwater, some drastic physical changes are necessary, and a literally new breed of sailors is enlisted to survey the oceans in a way that baseline humans would be unable to: this marks the launch of Project Amphitrite, also known  as Mermaids for the Military – the recruits being all women.

The choice is made at first because the genetically mutated humans would be living in submarines, and women are statistically more tolerant of restricted living conditions, very rarely – if ever – resorting to violence when suffering from ‘cabin fever’. Yet with time another reason for the choice comes to the fore: these women are the pioneers for what might be the future of humanity, and to present that future in the best possible way, to convince ‘drylanders’ that they must accept the change, that inevitable choice must be given a pleasant face and a compelling look, no matter how that might clash with mutated physiology, or an individual’s discomfort:

 

“we’re living advertisements for the world yet to come […] still they see us as fantasies given flesh[…] How easy is it to fear something that you’ve been seeing in cartoons and coloring books since you were born?”

“All this work, all these changes to the sailors, and they still can’t change our required uniforms – not when we still have things that can be called “feet” or “legs” and shoved into the standard-issue boots or trousers.”

 

Yet such drastic changes as these women undergo – changes that bring along pain and suffering for the body and profound adjustments for the mind – lead to an inevitable alteration in outlook and mindset, and little by little these pioneers feel detached from baseline humanity and progressively unable to tolerate the surface world from which they come, or the rigid rules imposed on people that have little or no connection with the beings they used to be, or the organization that enlisted them – because, as the narrator says,  “the chain of command dissolves under the pressure of the crushing deep.”

I found this to be a deeply emotional tale, even though McGuire, as usual, keeps her narration very terse and never gives in to easy sentimentality: this is the kind of story that stays on my mind for a long time after I finish reading it, and one I will not forget to easily.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: BLOOD OF ASSASSINS (The Wounded Kingdom #2), by R.J. Barker

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

In 2017 I placed the first volume of this trilogy, Age of Assassins, among the best debuts of the year and also my favorite reads, so I had great expectations for this follow-up novel: let me say up front that those expectations were more than exceeded by Blood of Assassins, that is not only a worthy sequel but also an amazing story on its own.

Five years have elapsed since the end of the first book, and they have not been easy years either for the world or for assassin-in-training Girton Clubfoot: the political situation has degenerated into all-out war between the three pretenders to the throne of the Tired Lands – Aydor, the former queen’s son, ousted by young Rufra, Girton’s friend, and finally pretender Tomas.  War is never good news, but in a land still suffering from the sorcerer-enhanced conflicts of the past, that brought great devastations with them, this new war is adding a further layer of misery to an already grim situation.  Girton and his master, Merela Karn, have fared no better: to escape from the bounty hunters set on their tracks, they have been forced to abandon their trade and attach themselves to mercenary bands, where Girton’s exquisite skills as an assassins have been replaced by a more brutal approach to killing, namely the use of a war hammer.

Ambushed by a band of savages, the two barely effect an escape toward Castle Maniyadoc – theater of Girton’s previous adventures – but Merela has been poisoned and hovers on the brink of death, leaving her apprentice bereft of her balancing advice and cooler thinking.  What’s worse, Girton’s ability to wield magic – a dangerous skill in the Tired Lands, one that could sentence him to death – is growing stronger, and the scars that Merela tattooed on his skin to keep them at bay are not working as expected, so that the young man must battle daily against the impulse of unleashing such deadly power.

Reunited with his friend Rufra, now King, Girton has little time to enjoy the meeting, because he learns of a plot to kill his friend, orchestrated by a spy that must have worked its way among Rufra’s closest advisers: tasked with this apparently impossible job (Rufra does not seem to worry too much about the possibility of treason), and in constant worry about Merela’s chances for recovery, Girton faces the most difficult time of his young life, one where conflicting emotions and needs threaten to overwhelm him and make him lose everything he holds dear.

Blood of Assassins is a deeply compelling story, one where the details we previously learned about this world fall into a wider and more fascinating context: we come to understand that the central power, the one held by the remote figure of the High King, could not care less about what happens in the outskirts of the realm, where wars are fought, won and lost while the supreme ruler prefers to wallow in his court’s more or less dubious pleasures.

There is a definite sense of lawlessness in the Tired Lands, of the rule of the strongest, that makes the suffering of the peoples dwelling there all the more poignant: the Landsmen, that could be compared to a sort of official army, are more interested in rooting out sorcerers – be they real or simply imagined – and their allegiance often hangs on the whim of their current leader.  The recent turmoil has given rise to a peculiar band of outlaws, calling themselves the Nonmen, who delight in berserker attacks and in the vicious torture of their victims – and sometimes of their own members, with a sort of reckless, bloody abandon that speaks of madness, and worse.  And last but not least the priesthood, that already did not come out with shining colors in the previous book, here looks like an added complication – both moral and political – to a very dire situation.

All this comes together in a story that kept me on my toes for the whole length of the book, among unexpected twists and turns, discoveries and betrayals, and a final battle that left me literally breathless with suspense. Add to that a powerful writing that manages to remain almost lyrical even while describing bloody skirmishes or to-the-death duels, and you will understand why I found this book so enthralling.

As fascinating as all of the above is, the focal point of Blood of Assassins remains Girton: he is a very different person from the one we left at the end of Book 1, and to say that here he’s in a bad place would be a massive understatement.   The five years spent as a mercenary (and with Landsmen, no less, with all the added dangers that his potential for sorcery entails) have both hardened and unraveled him, taking him away from his training as an assassin and teaching him far too much about brute force.  His relationship with Merela has changed as well: there is a thread of resentment toward her, that remains however mostly unexplored due to the fact she’s out of the picture for most of the book, and that comes from the necessity of the scars she must carve on his body to keep the magic at bay. This necessity seems to have placed some cracks in their mutual trust and generated a deep conflict in Girton, who still feels the strong pull of his loyalty – his love – for Merela, while battling with the impulse to rebel against all she taught him.

Losing Merela’s support so early in the story proves almost catastrophic for Girton: she is not only his teacher, his surrogate mother and the only person he used to trust implicitly, even before himself, she is also the one who guides his logical process, and his moral compass, so that her absence makes itself dramatically clear in the sequence of bad decisions Girton takes while pursuing his task for Rufra.  Seeing him so unhinged is a painful experience, because if sometimes I felt like shaking some sense into him, my prevailing emotion was compassion because I could not forget the heavy amount of damage he had to go through in a relatively short life.  And what further damage might be visited on him in the course of the story: as with the previous book, we are given to understand here that we are reading an older Girton’s memoirs, and given as well a few hints of more tragedies to come.  As harrowing as that might be, I know I would not give up this opportunity, because I’m deeply invested in this character and his journey: at the end of this book I saw that the third and final volume already has a title – King of Assassins – and that GoodReads shows its cover, so I imagine my curiosity will be satisfied before long.  Still it will feel like a too-long wait….

 

 

My Rating:   

Reviews

Short Story Review: ESCAPE TO OTHER WORLDS WITH SCIENCE FICTION, by Jo Walton

My continuing search for short stories to read between full-size books continues, and this time I’m not writing about stories I’ve read online, but about a few I found in an anthology (THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW SF – 23, edited by Gardner Dozois): the authors’ names I saw on the table of contents for this one were enough to pique my curiosity, either because I already read them in the past, or because they were writers I was eager to sample.   As it often happens with anthologies, there were good stories, so-and-so stories and works that did not “speak” to me at all, and I’m sorry to report that the overall impression was not a very encouraging one, despite the presence of many talented authors in the list.

Still, there were a few stories that did reach out and leave a lasting impression, and here is another one that truly caught my attention, and what’s more important made me think.

 

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Jo Walton is an author who features prominently in my “must read” list, thanks to the enthusiastic comments about her works I read from other fellow bloggers, so I was thrilled at the opportunity of sampling her writing in this anthology: if this is a good example of her style and narrative voice, I know I will enormously enjoy her longer works.

In the alternate world depicted here, the Great Depression never truly ended and things went from bad to worse with time: even the events of World War II developed quite differently from established history, and the USA at the time in which the story runs are in a very sorry state indeed.

The tale is told in brief flashes alternating newspaper headlines and points of view from various characters, and the overall impression is that of a place where survival is often attained at great price: we see people being overworked under the threat of losing their employment; long queues at soup kitchens; news of strikes and insurrections being mercilessly dealt with, and there’s an often-repeated hint about people being taken away from the soup kitchens’ queues, loaded into trucks and disappearing forever.

Interspersed with these quite appalling scenes are the newspaper and television ads for miracle products like hair regrowth or for the new blockbuster movie from Hollywood, a quite creepy “The Reichsmarshall” starring Marlon Brando: these snippets of information convey more than anything the real state of affairs in this alternate world, one where a man might choose to take his lover not on a dinner date but to a political rally, an event sporting “…rallies and torch-lit parades and lynchings, beating up the blacks as scapegoats for everything. It didn’t help at all; it just made people feel better about things to have someone to blame”.

As an oasis of hope in this very bleak background, now and then a listing for a new science fiction novel or story pops up, the only apparent means of escape from this miserable, depressing world…

To say that this story made quite an impact on me would be a massive understatement.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: STILLHOUSE LAKE, by Rachel Caine

Sometimes it’s good to expand beyond one’s reading preferences, if nothing else to sample the skills of a known author in a different genre: it’s the case of Rachel Caine, whose Great Library books I quite liked and who choose to branch off into thrillers with Stillhouse Lake.  This is a genre I used to read extensively once upon a time, but have not visited for quite a while, and this novel helped in reminding me that you don’t need supernatural elements like ghosts, demons or vampires – just to quote a few – to instill horror in a reader: there are instances where plain, old human evil is more than enough.  If not downright worse.

Gina Royal believed she had the perfect life: a loving husband, two wonderful children, a good house and no financial problems. That is, until a freak car crash revealed the horror behind the façade: what went on in the garage where her husband Mel had built his off-limits-to-everyone workshop had nothing to do with do-it-yourself projects and everything to do with the abduction, torture and murder of a number of young women.  Arrested and tried as an accessory to Mel’s foul deeds, Gina was later found innocent by the law but not by the public opinion, so she was forced to change her name and try to stay ahead of the haters, always on the move, with the protection of her children as her paramount goal.

The titular Stillhouse Lake is a remote rural location where Gina – now Gwen Proctor, the latest in her assumed identities – seems to have found a modicum of stability for herself and her teenaged kids, fourteen-year-old Lanny and eleven-year-old Connor.  The years have marked them all deeply: apart from the aftermath of what they have called The Event that destroyed their entire world, their rootless life and the constant need to look over their shoulder, leaving as light a footprint as possible, have severely hindered the children’s normal growth.  Just imagine what it might mean for a modern teenager to have to limit access to the internet, or to a smartphone’s functions, not to mention the need to keep guarding one’s words so as to avoid dangerous slips of the tongue: Lanny and Connor had to learn to cope with their lack of friends and of a peer group to share experiences with.

Still, Gwen’s family seems to have finally found a sort of balance, a sense of home they have been missing in recent years, when the past comes crashing back on them with a vengeance: faced with the contrasting need of picking up stakes once again, or standing her ground and fighting for the right to have a normal life, Gwen will need to tap all her newfound confidence and courage if she wants to defeat old ghosts and provide as normal a future as possible for Lanny and Connor.

As I was saying, human cruelty easily provides more material for scary plots than your run-of-the-mill critter ever could: in this case we are offered a closer look on a kind of victim that’s frequently ignored when dealing with serial killers – the perpetrator’s close relatives.  Once a serial offender is discovered, there’s a question the general public can’t help asking: how could their immediate family not be aware of what was going on?  How could they not see the signs?  Gina/Gwen is a case in point: her husband Mel brought his victims to the family’s garage, where he proceeded to slowly torture and then kill them, and public opinion finds it hard to believe that she was unaware of it all. Yet, seeing things from her perspective, it’s easy to understand the hows and whys of such… selective blindness: for instance, Mel was outwardly the model husband and father, and only a few enlightening flashbacks show how his mask did slip now and then, and how a woman like Gina – one with a yearning to feel loved and needed – might have rationalized those episodes and closed her eyes to the deeper, darker implications of Mel’s behavior.  Moreover, a personality like Gina’s would be the perfect clay in the hands of such a skilled manipulator like Mel, whose depths of depravity surface only from the letters he sends her from the prison, messages where he reveals his true face with the abandon of someone who feels finally free from the need to hide the dominant side of their nature.

Learning the truth is both traumatizing and liberating: as we meet Gwen for the first time, she’s in a shooting range for the final stages of obtaining a handgun permit and we see clearly how she’s determined to take her life into her own hands, to be the one who makes the choices: as she says at some point, that trauma made her stronger and she will not go back to being Gina, weak and easily controlled Gina, any longer.

Another kind of darkness in this story comes from the people who refuse to let Gwen and her children rebuild their life, hunting and haunting them with the sins of the monster who shared their home: I’m not talking about the victims’ relatives, whose pain and rage is understandable but who very rarely transform their desire for revenge into concrete actions, but rather those ghouls who enjoy delving into bloody crimes, either by a form of morbid fascination or an unexpressed desire to emulate the killer (and from where I stand, the border between the two is frightfully thin…).  In Stillhouse Lake, these people fill message boards with their plans of exacting revenge for Mel’s crimes on his children, often graphically exemplifying such dreadful ideas, and not even realizing that their purported need for justice is indistinguishable from a serial killer modus operandi.  The anonymity the Internet offers to these individuals, the possibility to express the foulest of thoughts with impunity, is something we can observe daily with various degrees of intensity, and it offers a gloomy commentary on the general status of the human soul…

Besides these interesting psychological observations, Stillhouse Lake is an intense, gripping story that makes for a compulsive reading and ends with surprise development that will carry the story into the next book with undiminished momentum.  No one could ask for more in a suspense-filled novel.

 

My Rating: