Reviews

Short Story Review: RED LIGHTS, AND RAIN, by Gareth L. Powell

 

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

This turned out to be a very strange story – and I mean ‘strange’ in a very positive way, of course – one that started as something with a somber mood: the opening brings us to a small pub in the Red Lights district of Amsterdam, where a woman is waiting for someone.  The description of the rainy night and the people moving past the pub’s windows on their various errands puts the background into sharp focus and  it quickly drew me in, thanks to what I like to call “cinematic quality” in writing.

Quite soon, though, the story’s atmosphere changes, and that happens when the waiting woman fingers the gun in her pocket – a gun that’s fifty years more advanced than anything else in this time zone” – and the man she’s waiting for appears.  She’s there to kill him, and he’s aware of the fact.

I’m not going to tell you more about Red Lights, and Rain, because it’s the kind of story that begs to be read with no foreknowledge: the only thing I feel comfortable sharing is the consideration underlying the narrative – what is a monster?  Is it the creature whose only motivation is to kill, the one that is driven to spill innocent blood, or is it the one that acted as creator and sent it on the path of destruction?   In the end I found myself echoing the words of the young man managing the pub, “you are a monster”. Indeed…

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: A TIME OF DREAD (Of Blood and Bone #1), by John Gwynne

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

I’ve spoken often of what I call “book vibes”, the strong pull that an unknown-to-me story exerts on my imagination from the first time I see its cover: I have no idea what it is that calls out to me so strongly – after all a cover is nothing but an image – but still, nine times out of ten, that siren song leads me toward a story I end up loving.  This was the case with A Time of Dread, and it’s an even more extraordinary event because this novel’s core theme is about the conflict between angelic and demonic figures, a subject I’ve always been somewhat wary about, and what’s more this story comes as a sequel to a previous series, so I feared finding myself lost in a strange land.  Well, I should not have worried on either count, because this book literally swept me off my feet and left me wanting for more – and deeply curious about the previous series, that I mean to read as soon as possible.

First things first, if you are a John Gwynne newbie like me, you should not worry about getting your bearings in this story: the beginning of the book and its leisurely pace seem tailor-made for readers who have no prior knowledge of previous events, so that characters’ recollections and dialogues can ease you into the history of this world, and what came before.  What’s even more important, from my point of view, is that the “good vs. evil” battle is not so clean cut as its main players might make you believe: if the Kadoshim, the devil-like creatures threatening to overcome the land through evil, are a clear enemy, the Ben-Elim, the “angels”, are not quite perfect, leaving plenty of room for some grey areas in their characterization and objectives.

The Land of the Faithful is enjoying a relative peace after the brutal conflicts of several decades before, when the Ben-Elim and their human and giant allies defeated the Kadoshim and their leader Asroth, now frozen in a metal-like substance in Drassil, the Ben-Elim’s main fortress. Still, an enemy who was not completely vanquished is fated to return, and the titular dread is indeed a pervasive feeling as many apparently unrelated occurrences stir trouble and lead the guardians of the land toward preparations for a new war.  Through the four main point-of-view characters, the situation unfolds under the readers’ eyes, steering them toward the momentous climax that brought as many revelations as clues for the story’s future developments.   All four points of view were equally engaging, and the skillful management of their individual threads made for an accelerating pace that often made it difficult to close the book, but even though they were all on an equal footing, I could not avoid picking favorites…

Riv is a young warrior-in-training with the White Wings, the Ben-Elim’s elite fighting force. Strong and determined to emulate her mother and older sister in military prowess, she tries too hard and ends up failing the final test that would have marked her official enlistment in the army. Prone to bouts of blinding anger, she struggles between the need to belong to the forces of good and the powerful drive to explore some strange occurrences, a curiosity that, together with her anger-management issues, might cost her the goal she’s been pursuing all her life.  Much as I was interested in Riv’s journey, given that her inquisitive nature allowed me to discover more of this world, I struggled to warm up to her because of some personality traits that felt too much YA-oriented for my comfort, especially in her attraction to Bleda and the pointed rivalry with Jin, Bleda’s future wife.  Nevertheless, the last chapter of the novel opens a new road for her, one I can’t wait to explore and see where it leads and that might help me overcome my (albeit slight) misgivings.

Bleda is another character with some YA overtones, but I found it less difficult to like him than I did with Riv: he’s the only surviving son of a war chieftain, taken to Drassil by the Ben-Elim as a hostage to insure the continuing truce between his people and their neighbors. He is an interesting character, because he starts as a virtual prisoner of the Ben-Elim, at first resenting them for taking him away from a life of freedom in the wilderness, then learning to see their merits and finally risking his life in their defense during a surprise attack by the Kadoshim and their followers, and this causes him to doubt his loyalty to his people and to question himself and his motives.  Not unlike Riv, Bleda is driven by the need to fit in, to find his place in the world, and his being in a state of flux might bring unexpected developments I am eager to learn.

As for Sig, the giantess allied to the Ben-Elim, who rides to battle atop a huge bear, I liked her immediately, always looking forward to her p.o.v. chapters: long-lived like all her people, she has accumulated a store of wisdom that she blends with subdued humor, two traits that make her character an instantly likable one, especially in the dealings with some of her more enthusiastic human comrades in arms. Sig is like a window on the past, and through her I was able to glimpse what came before and to understand how the present alliance for good is not exactly one based on blind faith, but rather on necessity borne of the need to battle a greater evil.

The other character I most cared about is Drem, little more than a boy who grew up in the wilderness with his father, trapping animals for their skins. Drem is an interesting mix of guileless innocence and strength, of deep sense of integrity and fierceness that it’s impossible not to like him, to suffer for his losses, share in his desire for justice or more simply to feel a deep kinship with him.

While these main characters, and the secondary ones that move alongside them, are the backbone of the story, what truly drew me in was the constant, relentless buildup leading toward the breathless final part of the novel: it was like listening to a crescendo of suspenseful string music, the kind we know heralds great portents, or great tragedies.  A Time of Dread offers both, thanks to a story that is epic in scope and at the same time quite focused on individuals and their journey. If you have not yet read anything by John Gwynne, be prepared to be (happily) ambushed by this story and to be taken captive – not that I feel any need to escape, because I’m firmly on-board for the duration and can’t wait to know what will happen next.

 

My Rating:   

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: 

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.

 

§

 

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: