Reviews

Review: THE FLOWERS OF VASHNOI (Vorkosigan Saga #14.1), by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

 

After reading Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, I had to deal with the sad certainty that no more stories from the Vorkosiverse would be forthcoming: that latest novel had the flavor of finality, of the author having closed the door on those characters and their lives, leaving them to continue unobserved by prying eyes.   So I was happily surprised when fellow blogger SJ HIGBEE showcased this novella, a very welcome and quite unexpected find, one I might have missed for a longer time if not for her post, for which I’m very grateful.

The focus here is not so much on Miles as on his wife Ekaterin, which brings an interesting change of pace and also the possibility of observing Miles from an external point of view – and I must say that sharing Ekaterin’s observations about her rambunctious husband, as he engages with their children in target practice with food against the house cat, is just as entertaining as following any of Miles’ adventures, not to mention that it shows how the passing of years and the weight of responsibility have not changed him at all. Thankfully…

The district of Vorkosigan Vashnoi has been mentioned often in the course of the saga, and it’s an interdicted zone due to high levels of radioactivity dating back to the heavy bombardment from a past Cetagandan invasion: the place had been bequeathed to Miles from his grandfather Piotr, probably as a form of not-so-subtle sarcasm considering what the old man thought of the deformed grandson he tried to murder in his crib.  As the story begins, the radiation levels have started to subside, and Ekaterin has enrolled the Escobaran scientist Enrique Burgos – the creator of the (in)famous butterbugs first appearing in A Civil Campaign – to help in the requalification of the area.

Doctor Burgos has bio-engineered a new kind of butterbugs – the radbugs – whose function is to ingest the contaminated flora and soil of the Vashnoi territory, incorporating the radiation into their bodies and slowly but surely taking away the pollutants, so that the region can be made habitable again.  During one of their tours of inspection of the test area where the first generation of radbugs has been released, Ekaterin, Enrique and their ranger escort make an amazing discovery: the area is not deserted, on the contrary there are clear signs of habitation – and someone has been stealing a good number of radbugs…

This very enjoyable novella felt to me like some sort of mirror image of Miles’ adventure in The Mountains of Mourning, where he had to confront the harsh reality of what happened to children born with radiation-induced malformations: however, where Miles had to deal with some tragic revelations that felt much more dramatic due to his own physical problems, Ekaterin’s discovery runs on a lighter path, one where the inherent drama is tempered by humor and the acknowledgement of the fact that Barrayar’s outlook toward those who are not perfect is changing, and for the better.

As always, it was a delight to go back to these characters and place, so that my hope is that this will not be an isolated occurrence and that Ms. Bujold will opt to return again – even in this brief form – to what I consider her best creation.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: WRATH OF EMPIRE (Gods of Blood and Powder #2), by Brian McClellan

 

 

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

My appreciation of Brian McClellan’s storytelling started as something of a slow burn, as I read and liked Promise of Blood but did not feel greatly compelled to move forward with the series – at least not until I had the opportunity to read the first book of this new series, Sins of Empire, and found myself totally engaged with the story and characters, to the point that I went back to the Powder Mage trilogy and started retracing my steps.  Wrath of Empire is not only a worthy sequel to its predecessor, it’s also a huge game changer in the overall narrative sequence and the kind of story that consumes the reader with the sheer need to know what happens next.

Starting straight where Sins of Empire left, this second book of the Gods of Blood and Powder series takes us once again to the continent of Fatrasta, now in the throes of the Dynize invasion: as the attackers try to consolidate their hold on the capital of Landfall, they are also searching for the godstones, the powerful artifacts that will help them resurrect a god as a means of uniting their peoples once more.  Clearly they have not learned anything from the past mistakes of others….   Two of the godstones might be found at the farthest corners of the territory, so our heroes are compelled to divide their forces in the attempt of finding and possibly destroying the artifacts before the Dynize can acquire them: Vlora and her Riflejacks, together with Taniel, head north toward the secluded valleys where gold mining operations are underway, having to balance the need for speed with the secrecy surrounding their mission, which makes things all the more difficult considering the natural suspicion of the miners concerning their claims and profits.  Mad Ben Styke and the Lancers, with the addition of Ka-poel, travel in the opposite direction, constantly fighting with the encroaching Dynize army, while Ben tries to carry on his personal vendetta against the former comrades who betrayed him and sent him to the labor camps.  And lastly, Michel Bravis, former Blackhat and Taniel’s fifth column in Landfall, must remain in the occupied city trying to find one of Taniel’s informants and bring her to safety before she’s discovered.

The three separate narrative threads are interwoven with such skill that the novel quickly becomes a compulsive reading with never a moment of respite, and pervaded with a mounting sense of urgency and dread as the clues pile up and we are made privy to the invaders’ plans and witness the defenders’ apparently impossible task in the face of such odds.  At the same time we see more of Fatrasta: where Sins of Empire, with its focus on the city of Landfall, might have felt more cramped, so to speak, here our knowledge of the land and its history expands as the characters travel through it – and of course the characters are those who get the lion’s share of the narrative, taking on more facets and depth as the story goes on.

Ben Styke is the one who undergoes the greater changes: we first knew him as a mountain of a man gifted with enormous aggressive potential and the kind of physical stamina that made him appear almost invincible, more berserker than simply fearless. His interactions with Celine, the orphan child he befriended in the camps and became his ward, have changed him however, because he finds himself thinking more and more about what consequences his eventual death might have for his young ward. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg: apart from the delightful exchanges between the two of them, where the interaction of grizzled warrior and not-quite-innocent child gives way to several amusing passages, it’s Ben’s quest for vengeance on the men who betrayed him that transforms him and, more importantly, forces him to think about himself and his motivations.  There is something approaching inner pain in Ben’s musings when he considers how his past actions have shaped both his personality and his “legend”, and it’s only in the acceptance of his failings as an individual, and the acknowledgement of old age, that he gets closer to his own long-lost humanity.

The other character who gains more interesting facets is Michel Bravis, who infiltrated the Blackhats for Taniel, playing a dangerous double game in which he was forced to compartmentalize his mind to work more efficiently in his role.  Asked to remain in occupied Landfall, he’s walking on a razor’s edge as he works with his former colleagues to smuggle the families of other Blackhats out of the grasp of the Dynize, while trying to keep those same colleagues from learning that he was a traitor. This difficult balancing act is rendered even more dangerous by Taniel’s request to extract a precious informant about which Michel has very little information: forced to align himself with the Dynize, poor Michel finds his loyalties sorely tested once he realizes that not all of the invaders are bad people and that among them he can find the kind of human connection that his previous work always denied him. This is a man who had to keep to himself as much as possible so as not to blow his cover, and it’s here that we see his profound loneliness and the strong need to belong: if I found this character interesting before, it was this book that made me sympathize with him quite deeply.

Last but not least, Taniel and Vlora enjoy their own limelight as they engage in a spying mission without the support of the Riflejacks: there is something that reminded me of classic westerns as I followed their progress in the isolated mining community near the hiding place of one of the godstones, and if I still have some reservations about Taniel (he started out as a somewhat whiny young man with big daddy issues to morph into an inscrutable person with uncanny powers, who has no qualms about using others to attain his goals), I greatly enjoyed the focus on Vlora as her courage and capacity for self-sacrifice were showcased in the latter part of the story.  I might have had some complaints about the author’s treatment of female characters at the beginning of the Powder Mage trilogy, but I acknowledge that he changed course as the story unfolded and made me completely forget those early objections.

Add to all of that a few momentous revelations (and no, I’m not telling you about whom, it would be quite unfair to even hint anything!) and a final section that literally took my breath away as I feared for the survival of some of the characters, and you will understand why I used the phrase ‘consumed by the need to know’ at the beginning of this review.   The scene is all set for what promises to be a spectacular conclusion to this trilogy, one I will wait for with barely contained impatience.

Well done indeed…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: FELDSPAR, by Philip A. Kramer

The Baen Free Library is a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  During one of my visits, I discovered the existence of a series of short stories collections, grouped by year of publication: as it often happens, anthologies can be mixed bags, but I found a few stories that truly caught my attention: in my next posts dedicated to shorter works I will review the ones that I liked most in this collection from the best of 2017.

 

 

FELDSPAR (from Best Free Stories 2017)

The first story to catch my undivided attention in this anthology is one featuring the exploration of Mars: with the increased interest focusing toward the red planet in recent times, it’s only natural that so many works would choose to set their background on it.    The titular Feldspar is a remotely-operated rover, one of many landed on the surface of Mars to collect ores and carry them to a big smelter working to provide the necessary materials for the colonization effort: these rovers’ handling has been turned over to very committed and enthusiastic workers – gamers from all over the world who bought the operating rights to their rovers and became the “most dedicated workforce on Earth”.

Blake is one of those gamers-turned-operatives and through Feldspar he’s contributing to the effort of Project Regolith from his home in San Francisco: like many of his brethren, he’s playing this sort of serious game while living like a virtual recluse, but unlike others he has a dream and a goal, that of one day moving to live on Mars. To him the project is not just a divertissment, but a serious endeavor and one that moved ever closer to reality when the first manned mission landed on the red planet and started setting some permanent presence there.

For this reason, once he detects something troubling on the surface, he wastes no time in checking out the problem and discovering the presence of an injured astronaut whose oxygen and battery power might be depleted before the rescue party can reach her. The race against time and the unforgiving environment of Mars suffers from a false start of sorts because NASA does not look too keen about having a civilian (and what’s basically a nerd, at that) involved in their operations, but Blake’s preparation in the field and the help he can provide soon change their mind, so that the battle for astronaut Kate survival can be engaged with some hope of success.

I enjoyed this story very much, not least because of the suspense created both by the situation and by the nerve-wracking time lag of 8 minutes that makes communications – and commands sent to Feldspar – very difficult in that specific situation.  A story to be fully enjoyed, indeed, so that it’s no surprise that it won the Grand Prize in the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award 2017: a well-deserved victory.

My Rating: 

 

Reviews

Review: BENEATH THE SUGAR SKY (Wayward Children #3), by Seanan McGuire

 

 

This third installment in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series takes us in a very different direction if compared with its predecessors: where the other stories were based on oddity and darkness, Beneath the Sugar Sky strives for a lighter mood even though the core concept still carries a dramatic vein, but for this reason it does not seem to work as well as the previous tales, at least from my point of view.

We’re back at Eleanor West’s school where we meet a new character, Cora, who used to dwell in the Trenches as a mermaid: together with her friend Nadya – who comes from a different water world – she’s spending time near the school’s pond when a girl literally splashes out of nowhere in its waters. She’s Rini, daughter of the former pupil Sumi, who was killed in Every Heart a Doorway: due to the nature of Nonsense worlds, Sumi was able to give birth to a daughter before she died (and even before she was old enough to become a mother, at that), but now that Rini has become aware of her mother’s demise, she’s becoming the victim of entropy and disappearing bit by bit.  Asking and obtaining the help of her mother’s fellow students, Rini proceeds to recover Sumi’s bones from the Halls of the Dead – where we meet again Nancy, happily back in her role as a fleshy statue – and then moves to her home world of Confection to find Sumi’s heart and soul and make her whole again, so that Rini can go on living.

Confection is a world entirely made of sugar, gingerbread and candy, but it hides a darker side because of the Queen of Cakes’ cruel rule, as she tries to bend reality to her own twisted desires; the Queen’s attempt to stop the group of friends from attaining their goal proves to be one of the biggest obstacles in their quest, and it almost costs them dearly, but still it’s not enough to imbue the story with the kind of drama that is this series’ trademark.

The spun-sugar and candy nature of Confection might have been an attempt to lighten the mood of the series, and the group’s adventures – despite the seriousness of the almost-impossible task they set themselves to – follow a strange, outlandish pattern that looks more confused than anything else and robs it of much of the urgency inherent in the quest itself: Rini’s piecemeal disappearance and her need to have her mother back feel more like narrative devices than the emotional signposts they should be, and I never truly felt any commitment to the kids’ mission or its final outcome.

If the narrative somewhat suffers from this change of tone, losing some of the smoothness I have come to expect from Seanan McGuire’s works, the characters fare no better: with the exception maybe of Christopher, about whom we learn a little more, the other “old hands” see practically no evolution in the course of the story, and the new ones like Cora become mere allegories for the issues the author wants to explore, which is a change of pace and intensity in McGuire’s usual way to address them.   Until now I have always admired the way in which this writer choose to discuss important topics like diversity, perception of self, and so on, in a way that never felt preachy or heavy-handed, just laying down the basics and leaving to the readers the welcome task of thinking about them.    Here though, Cora has to deal with the fact that she’s overweight and has always been stigmatized and mistreated because of it: this detail is mentioned practically every time she is the p.o.v. character, so that instead of being an issue that should lead us to deeper considerations, it becomes an annoying repetition that adds nothing to Cora’s psychological makeup as a person and in the end makes her appear as whiny, and shallow.   

I missed the effortless dignity with which Seanan McGuire usually tackles the matters she cares about and drives home her message, and I believe this is one of the reasons I enjoyed Beneath the Sugar Sky less than I expected and less than it deserved.  My hope is that this might be just a small bump along the road and that the next installments in this series will return to the kind of quality I’ve come to associate with this author.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: OF A SWEET SLOW DANCE IN THE WAKE OF TEMPORARY DOGS, by Adam-Troy Castro

From the anthology: SELECTIONS FROM BRAVE NEW WORLDS

edited by John Joseph Adams

 

 

Here is another happy find from the Baen Free Library, a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  Selections from Brave New Worlds is a sampler from a larger collection of short stories, this time with a dystopian theme. Not all of them were concerned with ruin and destruction changing society, as is often the case, but they were all quite intriguing in their very different outlook.

OF A SWEET SLOW DANCE IN THE WAKE OF TEMPORARY DOGS

 

This is one of the hardest reads I encountered in my journey through short stories, so that even taking into account the fact that it’s part of a dystopian anthology and that some harshness was to be expected, there were moments when the horror became too much to bear. But I guess that was the intention of the author…

Enysbourg is an actual island but also a virtual island of carefree happiness and delight in a world that’s become too set in its way, too dedicated to work, duty and productivity; a gray, dreary world that sucks all joy from people, who come to places like Enysbourg to taste something they sorely miss in their lives.  The island’s dwellers are welcoming, sunny people and it’s so very easy for tourists to be swept away by their hosts’ delight in living and having fun, to the point that some of them choose to abandon their former lives and take residence on Enysbourg, never to return.

Where’s the problem, then, one might ask. Well there is, and it’s a big one: the revelries don’t go on forever, but only for nine days – on the tenth something dreadful happens, war breaks out in the most bloody and vicious declination one might imagine, and the citizens of Enysbourg are savagely brutalized within an inch of their lives, without ever dying no matter how deadly the injuries.  No explanation is given about the sudden shift from idyllic setting to war zone, as no explanation is given, on the morning of the new day when the nine-day cycle begins again, about the return to health and integrity of the former victims.  The description of that one single, terrible day of death and destruction is given through the eyes of Robert, an occasional tourist who decides to stay for the love of a woman he met, and he voices the question any reader of this story would ask: how is it possible to accept even one day of appalling carnage, of lingering pain unrelieved by death, in exchange for nine perfect days of joys unknown to the rest of the world?  And how does one deal with the aftermath of such suffering, even in the midst of pure happiness?

It would not be an easy answer, if there is indeed one. Still, this story made an indelible impression on me, and despite its brutal change of pace it was indeed the most memorable of the whole anthology, worth indeed the effort of looking for this book.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE DEFIANT HEIR (Swords & Fire #2), by Melissa Caruso

 

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

The previous book in this series, The Tethered Mage, proved to be a delightful discovery in many ways: the magic system, in which people with peculiar abilities, or Falcons, are bound for life to a sort of companion/guardian, or Falconer; the background, where the Serene Empire of Raverra reminded me strongly of 18th Century Venice, complete with shady political maneuverings and complicated plots; and the characters, of course, mainly young Amalia Cornaro, the heir to a very influent Raverran family and the unwitting Falconer to equally young Zaira, a Falcon gifted (or better, cursed) with the rare ability to master balefire, a powerful, dangerous weapon that might prove useful in the brewing war against Raverra’s enemies.   Following their journey, as they got to know each other while trying to unravel a threatening conspiracy, was a charming experience, but with this second volume of the series both the narrative stakes and my enjoyment of the story took flight toward new heights.

The action starts several months after the events of book 1, and while Amalia and Zaira can now work together on easier terms, moving with baby steps toward a better understanding of each other if not actual friendship, the political situation has taken a turn for the worse: their Vaskandar neighbors, ruled by a caste of skilled magicians called Witch Lords, are once again on the move to expand their territory, threatening the Raverran Empire. Amalia finds herself in the role of envoy first, as she is sent to reassure the Empire’s allies and muster their defenses against any possible attack, and of ambassador later, when she is invited to the Conclave, the Witch Lords’ assembly that will decide whether to start a war with Raverra.  To say that pace and tension keep increasing with each page would indeed be a massive understatement: where The Tethered Mage was more of an introduction to this world and what made it tick, The Defiant Heir takes us into the heat of battle, and it hardly matters that it’s one fought with words and cunning and magic rather than conventional weapons, because the outcome is just as uncertain and bloody.

The increased rhythm is mirrored by a widening of our perspective of the world of Eruvia, as we are led first to Callamorne – Raverra’s closest neighbor and ally – where some of Amalia’s relatives live and where we learn a few details about her past and, more important, her bloodline: a discovery that will prove instrumental in the unfolding events and might have interesting ramifications in the future. The journey to Vaskandar is instead imbued with danger that does not come only from the prospect of an invasion and a war that the Empire might very well lose, but from the magic wielded by the Witch Lords, who are able to extend their control over beasts and plants alike: the instances where trees take on a semblance of life (and quite hostile life at that…) attacking Amalia’s party, are among the most terrifying scenes one could imagine, and will stand in your mind just as much as the Lady of Spiders’ dress, which is enough to give nightmares to any arachnofobe…

However the characters and their development remain the most fascinating feature of the story, starting with Zaira who still retains her more evident abrasive qualities and intolerance for regulations, but has also learned to look beyond her immediate wants and needs to take into account the well-being of others, or the possibility of employing her terrifying powers for the common good. Although she still dreams of her freedom, she has come to understand that there are worse situations than being bound to Raverra and her Falconer, and that outside of the apparently stifling world of the Mews there are people who don’t think twice about exploiting a Falcon’s powers, with or without their consent – and more often than not, without.  Zaira is learning the basics of compromise, and that sometimes you have to give up something to obtain something of even greater value, but more than anything else she is learning that friendship and loyalty are more than worthy of some sacrifice: she has just begun to travel on that road, and her feet still move reluctantly, but it’s a joy to observe her progress and the way the discoveries she makes along the way change her, little by little.

Amalia, for her part, evolves much more quickly and palpably: gone is the bookish girl who wanted nothing else but to study the intricacies of artifice, and in her place a skilled politician is growing slowly but surely. As it happens for all growing processes, this one is not exempt from pain: her infatuation for Captain Marcello Verdi had to be put aside in favor of the possibility of a politically advantageous marriage, and even though the relationship hardly had any time to truly coalesce, the feelings Amalia and Marcello share are strong and difficult to ignore. This situation is further complicated by the appearance of the Crow Lord Kathe, a Vaskandran who might be an ally: when Amalia accepts his courtship she is torn between her yearning for Marcello and the undeniable attraction toward Kathe, with whom she plays an interesting game of subtle double entendres and dangerous flirting, never fully knowing whether this Witch Lord is truly a potential associate or someone who will knife her in the back, but still feeling the pull of Kathe’s mercurial personality.

What I appreciated about this not-quite-triangle is that rather than focusing on the turmoil of indecision and angst, it showcases the crossroads where Amalia stands: Marcello represents the security of her old life, the potential for quiet happiness and scholarly pursuits, while Kathe carries with him the danger and uncertainties inherent in the new role of political player and influencer her mother is steering her toward – and the undeniable attraction exerted by the proverbial bad boy.   And this is not the most difficult hurdle Amalia must overcome, because terrible choices lie in wait for her in the course of the dangerous mission she’s been assigned, decisions that teach her the kind of price one must pay for playing the role she so reluctantly accepted: how this dreadful awareness will factor in her future decisions is something I’m eager to discover in the next book (or books…).  If the narrative progression I observed between the first and second book keeps up, I know it will be an amazing read.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: JUST DO IT, by Heather Lindsley

From SELECTIONS FROM BRAVE NEW WORLDS, Edited by John Joseph Adams

 

 

Here is another happy find from the Baen Free Library, a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  Selections from Brave New Worlds is a sampler from a larger collection of short stories, this time with a dystopian theme. Not all of them were concerned with ruin and destruction changing society, as is often the case, but they were all quite intriguing in their very different outlook.

JUST DO IT by Heather Lindsley

The ubiquitousness of ads is a sad fact of life: just think about all the times we have been pestered by some silly commercial repeated throughout a program we were watching, maybe accompanied by an annoying tune that lodges in our mind and refuses to go away. In my case – but I suspect that’s what happens to most of us – such… insistence, to be kind about it, doesn’t achieve the expected result: on the contrary, the more irritating the ad has been, the less chances there are of my buying the showcased product.

In this story, the author postulates that advertisers have gone beyond the stage of merely harassing an increasingly recalcitrant audience: ads are literally shot, in the form of darts, at the hapless victims, the chemicals contained in the payload creating an irrepressible craving for the product at hand.  Imagine going down a street, being hit by one of these darts and, like the character in this story, being possessed by a sudden, inescapable craving for French fries (“French fries from the den of the evil clown, where they don’t even pretend to use potatoes anymore”) – even if your conscious mind keeps telling you that you don’t want them, even if you try to resist the compulsion, there is nothing to be done, and you have to give in to the induced craving.

Alex, the protagonist, belongs to a group trying to fight the chemical-advertising companies, and she plans to do it from the inside, letting herself be hired by the enemy, but even the best plans can meet unexpected obstacles…  Should you choose to read this story, be prepared to feel both amusement and dread: there is nothing more unsettling than an extrapolation based on our present reality…

My Rating: