Reviews

Short Story Review: THE PRESIDENT’S BRAIN IS MISSING, by John Scalzi

 

I stumbled by pure chance on this short story by John Scalzi while searching for one of his earlier books that I missed, The Android’s Dream, and of course there was no doubt that I would read this brief work as well: the title was indeed intriguing, and knowing the author’s penchant for humor I expected to be amused by it – and indeed I was.

Part of the fun in this story comes from my familiarity with shows like The West Wing and its ‘dark side’ twin House of Cards, detailing the dynamics of the White House behind the closed doors the public never crosses, especially where appearances and public image are concerned.

In this particular case however the presidential aides are faced with an unconceivable situation: an MRI scan on the President reveals that his brain has disappeared, and yet the man is still alive and functioning – well, apart from the impossibility to submerge his head in the pool, since every time he tries, the head “pops back up like a cork”.  This is the premise from which the short, hilarious story starts, poking some fun at the intricacies of politics and the dichotomy between appearance and reality: even though the staff’s descriptions don’t give a shining picture of the President – a man who is not exactly brilliant and who won the election because his opponent was involved in a sex scandal during the campaign – they worry about the possibility of a situation they might be unable to deal with, and so they start to search for the cause of the mysterious disappearance, and of a possible solution.

Quick, entertaining and in line with what I’ve come to expect from a Scalzi divertissment.

 

My Rating: 

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NEVERNIGHT (The Nevernight Chronicle #1), by Jay Kristoff

 

 

Jay Kristoff is one half of the writing team that brought us The Illuminae Files, a science fiction series that went a long way toward curing me of my distrust for YA characters, so that I did not think twice about tackling this solo work by Kristoff once I learned that the protagonist is a teenager – and my leap of faith was more than rewarded, indeed…

Young Mia Corvere lost everything when she was just ten years old: her father, one of the most prominent figures in the Itreyan Republic, was hanged after his failed coup against the Republic’s ruling body; her mother and baby brother imprisoned in the foulest place imaginable; and Mia herself destined to be drowned on the order of the consul her father was unable to unseat.  In the worst moment of her life, however, Mia discovered an ally she never knew she had: a feline-shaped creature made of shadows, that helped her escape her captors and showed her how she could manipulate darkness herself.

Landing by chance in the shop of old Mercurio, who is affiliated to the Red Church (what you might call a school for assassins), Mia starts to learn the skills she will need to exact her vengeance against all those who destroyed her family: six years later, she is ready to be enrolled in the Red Church, where her abilities will be honed to perfection – provided she survives, of course.  Yes, because this… academy for killers is no picnic: imagine a teaching body who does not care if their pupils die in training, or who choose to impart stern lessons by actually maiming the students!

The challenges Mia faces at the Red Church are not just about physical prowess, the ability to use poisons or her ninja skills, but also – and more importantly – about how she relates to other people and the rest of the world, and the way she sees herself in light of her ultimate goal.  Not to mention the deadly perils and the slowly brewing conspiracy that she will have to face…

Nevernight turned out to be a deeply fascinating book on many levels: first, the background, a world where three suns always burn in the sky so that true night falls only once every two years or thereabouts, having therefore given birth to a belief system in which Light won its long battle against Darkness, so that everything connected to the latter is viewed with fear and distrust (and, not surprisingly, the Red Church adepts who worship the Goddess of Night, are marked as heretics).  Then there is the city of Godsgrave, built over the very bones of a fallen god: the overall feel is something of a cross between imperial Rome and ancient Venice, a place where broad plazas and shadowed alleys compete in an allegory of the light and darkness at the basis of the whole civilization. Last, but not least, the Red Church, a fortified keep that can be reached either by crossing an unforgiving desert, filled with hungry monsters that look like a cross between the hydra and Dune’s sandworms, or through a blood-filled portal: the most fascinating detail about this school for killers is that it dwells in perpetual night, as if it were not on the same planet – or plane of existence – as the rest of the world. Another mystery that begs for answers…

Besides this amazing world-building, there is the story itself: I simply love a good vengeance theme, and Mia’s journey toward the fulfillment of her oath had my undivided attention, especially since the author revealed his cards very, very slowly, adding the hints with the painstaking precision of someone building a mosaic tile by tile.  More than once my mind went to another favorite character, that of Arya Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire: both young girls are torn from their families at a very early age, and both of them need to learn first the art of survival and then that of skilled murder, being forced to give up their innocence and the gentler side of their souls along the way.  Given the similarity, it was impossible for me not to root for Mia, especially when she had to face harrowing choices, aware of the price to be paid for them, but faithful to her mantra: “Never flinch. Never fear. And never, ever forget.”

And here we come to the major strength of this novel, the characters: Mia herself is a well-crafted anti-heroine, one who has embraced darkness (and not just metaphorically) and made it her best weapon – her association with Mr. Kindly, the catlike being hiding in her shadow, is a symbiotic relationship based both in mutual need and humorous affection.  The barbed repartees the two exchange, often in what look like the least auspicious circumstances for humor, help break the tension and at the same time show us the strength of the bond that the years of coexistence have built between them.

Then there are the teachers and the other pupils at the Red Church: the former are a very weird group (and I mean truly weird…) of instructors who must believe quite firmly in the maxim that goes “what does not kill us makes us stronger”, but are quite fascinating at the same time; while the latter follow the range of personalities one might expect from a group of people in training – and in competition with each other – but fortunately don’t fall into any of the trope-laden traps I might have feared.

Nevernight, for all that I greatly enjoyed it, is however not a perfect book: the main annoyance comes from the footnotes that help shore up the world-building, a fact I was aware of from other reviews I read.  They would probably not have proven so distracting if I had been reading a physical book, but in my electronic copy they were placed at the end, therefore requiring a sort of back-and-forth every time a signpost appeared: after a while I gave up on them, fully conscious that I was missing some useful detail, but also aware that they were breaking my concentration and the story flow, and once I was enthralled by Mia’s journey I wanted no distractions whatsoever.  In the end, I hope I did not miss anything vital, although some of the curiosity remains…

I don’t believe I will wait too long to start Nevernight‘s sequel, Godsgrave, that is already out, and learn of Mia’s continued journey toward her vengeance.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: A WORLD TO DIE FOR, by Tobias S. Buckell

 

 

A WORLD TO DIE FOR

(click on the title to read the story online)

 

This story started out as something out of a Mad Max movie, with cobbled-up vehicles manned by people armed to the teeth and bent on attacking a convoy for its resources, but it soon turned out into something else.

Chenra is the gunner for Cheetah Cluster, one of the quasi-military groups led by Miko: years ago she was taken in by Cheetah as she staggered out of the desert, more dead than alive, and given a home and purpose, even if that home is a harsh one and the purpose looks more like raiding and killing than anything else.  Still, what she has is more than enough: in a world that’s been transformed into a dust bowl, where people need respirators to breathe and death lurks around every corner, the clusters are the closest thing to family that the survivors can gather into, places where loyalty matters a great deal.

Cheetah’s latest confrontation, however, develops in a very unexpected way when their quarry not only fights back but offers them a deal in exchange for information on a specific person, who turns out to be none other than Chenra…  From this weird encounter the story takes a strange and intriguing turn, one where we learn much about the way the world became such an inhospitable place, but also that there is some measure of hope, not so much in planning for a better future but rather by taking a… lateral step.  To say more would mean spoiling the surprise of this very interesting story that kept my attention tightly focused from start to finish and made me wish – as it happens often with good short stories – that this subject could become a full-fledged novel.

Highly recommended.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: ADRIFT, by Rob Boffard

 

 

 

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

When a book manages to surprise me by offering much more than I expected from it, it’s always a wonderful discovery: this was indeed the case with Adrift, a story that ended up being more than the sum of its parts, and a compelling read. The Red Panda is a dilapidated tour ship taking groups of tourists around Sigma Station to admire the Horseshoe Nebula, and this trip does not look much different than the countless others that preceded it: the travelers are restless and grumpy because they had to wait for their guide, young Hannah Elliot, who is on her first day on the job and understandably flustered and lost; Captain Volkova is a disgruntled veteran of the recent war that pitted Frontier and Colonies against each other, and prefers to keep to herself in the cockpit, drinking and chain-smoking; and last but not least, the ship’s barman just called in sick, so the tourists can forget any catering during the excursion.

If this collection of small annoyances can remind us of the unavoidable hiccups of organized tours, what happens next is totally, shockingly unexpected: out of the jump gate linking Sigma to the rest of the galaxy comes an unknown ship that proceeds to attack and destroy the station and the gate itself – only the Panda, thanks to Volkova’s piloting skills, manages to remain unscathed and out of sight of the enemy ship. With limited resources and a run-down vessel, the ten survivors of the attack face a bleak and short future: the destruction of the jump gate cut them off from any kind of communication and help, and with no easily reachable destination their life support and supplies will be depleted soon. Worse still, the attackers might return and this time discover there are still witnesses to what happened…

It’s at this point that what might have been a relatively simple survival story, set in a claustrophobic environment, turns instead into a detailed character study and one that singles out each personality, shifting our initial perspective for every one of them while showing the individuals’ changes brought on by the harrowing situation they find themselves into.  One of my favorite narrative themes is that of a group of people thrown together by unforeseen circumstances and forced to work together for their survival, and there could not be a less homogeneous crowd than the Panda’s passengers (and captain).  Hannah, the tour guide, is a young woman still trying to find herself and her path in life: shy, insecure, and plagued with a heavy burden of self-doubt, she finds herself in the improbable role of leader, if nothing else because she’s wearing the tour operator’s uniform.  At first I found it hard to sympathize with her, because she came across at somewhat whiny, but as circumstances forced her to take on the responsibility of keeping the group together, and as safe as possible, I warmed up to her and came to appreciate the effort she put into the unwanted task that fate dropped into her lap.

Another character whose outlook changed drastically is that of Jack, the equivalent of a present-day travel reviewer: he’s a man quite down on his luck due to a series of negative turns, and he has all but given up on everything and everyone, becoming a cynic and a listless drunkard.  During most of the story he tends to flow with the tide, letting his disillusionment with life guide his steps, and yet there is a powerful need for redemption in him, one that might lead him toward a much-needed change.

These are only two examples, but the entire group runs through some pretty wild alterations as the story unfolds: what happens aboard the Panda is indeed a thorough study on the effects of hopelessness and despair boiling over in the close quarters of the ship, a place with no escape – not just from the predicaments at hand, but more importantly from one’s own demons. And every one of the Panda survivors does have some demons to fight, even the two teenaged sons of the Livingstones, a couple on the verge of divorce.   What’s interesting here is that we are made privy to the characters’ background story, so that we are able to learn what shaped them in the past and what makes them the persons they are: these flashbacks are not only placed at very convenient points in the narrative, but they also blend in a seamless way with the survivors’ present predicament and in some fashion influence the way each character chooses his or her actions.

The Red Panda itself becomes a character at some point, because this dilapidated vessel, that probably never saw better days, is part and parcel of the troubles of its ten occupants and the way it’s described – the substandard parts, the accumulated grime, the scarce supplies that would have been inadequate even if tragedy had not struck – makes it stand out in sharp relief and share with the reader every one of its ominous creaks, obnoxious smells and claustrophobic environment.  Yet, like the humans it shelters, even the Panda becomes capable of unthinkable feats and manages to battle its way through incredible odds, to the point that it’s impossible not to root for it, as if it were somewhat alive and sentient.

Adrift is indeed the kind of story that compels you to turn the pages as quickly as you can as the narrative develops in often unpredictable, but always believable ways – maybe with the exception of the too-rapid change of heart of one particular character, that seemed much too quick given the beliefs that moved his actions and had informed his choices up to that moment.  Still, it was a little snag that I could easily move past in the breathless journey that was this highly enjoyable story.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: BLOCK PARTY, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

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.

 

Another story in the multi-faceted Liaden Universe series and one that further compelled me to learn more about these books and what seems to be a very complex, very intriguing narrative creation.  In the case of Block Party I felt the weight of my lack of knowledge much strongly than it happened with the authors’ other story I read, Wise Child, but still I managed to enjoy it because of the curiosity to learn more that it engendered, and not in spite of it.

On a remote planet called Surebleak, whose name seems to come from quite adverse atmospheric conditions since it’s cold and snow-bound, at least in the time frame of the story, the original settlers have built a close-knit society whose quiet way of life has been recently changed by the arrival of “newbies” that are slowly trying to find their own niche on Surebleak.  The main point of view is that of Algaina, who runs a baking shop that’s something of a community meeting place: it’s through Algaina’s musings and interaction with other characters that we learn much about Surebleak and its past, one that includes a despicable move from the part of the company running the colony.  From the retrieval of old records it becomes clear that for some reason the company pulled stakes and left, abandoning the colonists below a certain level (of usefulness, I presume) to fend for themselves, which explains the strong sense of community that binds them, and the way they refer to each other as “neighbors”, no matter the distance separating them.

The “newbies”, on the other hand, are revealed as refugees from some conflict or disaster, and what’s more the majority of them are children, or young adults helping to watch over them.  It’s through the chance encounter between one of these children and baker Algaina that the story develops, and it does so in deliciously intriguing way, with cookies, and sweet rolls and other baking creations acting as a bridge between the two groups of people, and even helping some of them overcome their inner troubles.  As someone who loves to cook for friends and family, I enjoyed this story very much, recognizing the binding power that can come from something that is made out of love of cooking and sharing one’s work; or the healing power in giving oneself to the simple pleasure of baking…

It’s not a revelation I would have expected from a science fiction story, but it was a happy find nonetheless…

 

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

Review: INTO THE FIRE (Vatta’s Peace #2), by Elizabeth Moon

 

 

In the previous book of this new series featuring Kylara Vatta, we saw the character returning home after her successful campaign against the pirates that were wreaking havoc on the interstellar shipping lines: instead of receiving the deserved hero’s welcome though, Ky found herself, and the crew of the shuttle ferrying her on-planet, battling for their survival on an isolated, barren continent.  The discovery of a hidden base on that continent, and of the conspiracy to keep its existence hidden from general knowledge, confirmed the presence of a number of corrupted elements in Slotter Key’s government and military, a discovery that should have brought on a massive cleanup.

What instead happens here is the attempt at a massive cover up: the soldiers rescued together with Ky from Miksland are bundled off on the pretense of medical checks and completely isolated from the rest of the world, their families being told that they are all incapacitated due to a pathogen infection, while Ky, unaware of their fate, is hounded on very trumped up charges of expiration of her citizen rights, just as Rafe and his right-hand man Teague’s visitor visas are called off.  For her own part, Ky would not be aware of the fate of her fellow survivors if not for the successful escape of three of them, who seek shelter at her home and reveal the existence of the devious plot.

Into the Fire, unlike its predecessors, becomes then more of a political thriller than a space opera story, as Ky and her friends and family try to stay abreast of the attempts to silence and possibly kill them – not just in relation to the cover up involving Miksland and the secret base, but also because that purpose becomes entangled with some other individuals’ desire for revenge against Vattas, all of them. This last is probably the weaker thread in the narrative, because the long-held grudge looks all out of proportion when compared with the intended retribution, and the opponents little more than cardboard nasties.

On the other hand, the conspiracy involving Miksland, tied as it is to the possible financial gain from the continent’s rich resources and to a play for independence whose roots go back several decades, makes for a very compelling narrative, especially when Ky’s adversaries move from bureaucracy to outright slaughter as they try to remove her from the playing field.  This deeper look into Slotter Key’s society is quite unsettling when one stops to consider that home assault and assassination seem to be part and parcel of this culture and that the need for an escort, bodyguards and a fortified home are normal facts of life where prominent figures are concerned.  More than once, as I read along, I found myself wondering at this future version of mankind, one where the finer points of bureaucracy, whose pedantry can outgun plain good sense at every turn, exist side by side with home invasions by trained commandoes or murder by poison gas: it’s a bizarre dichotomy indeed, and certainly one more suited to a Game-of-Thrones-like society rather than an advanced civilization that colonized space.

It makes however for a very engaging read, and if this new installment of Kylara Vatta’s adventures does not offer much in the way of expanded characterization, it more than makes up for it by sheer suspense, especially in the latter part of the book, when the rescue operation to free the remaining prisoners is carried out with the same military precision that Ky used to combat the pirates in space.  We are also afforded a deeper look into some characters’ back story, especially Ky’s formidable aunt Grace, whose mysterious past, that was hinted at several times in previous books, is revealed in all its unsettling details.

And here lies what for some readers might be a problem with this story: for those who started following Ky’s adventures only from Cold Welcome, as it happened with fellow blogger Mogsy at Bibliosanctum, the connection to the various hints scattered over the course of the five books of Vatta’s War might look somewhat uninteresting, even distracting, while for me it finally shed some light in several dark corners that had me wondering at past goings-on.  What’s more, the perceived brusque turn from the journey of survival in Cold Welcome to the more… mundane developments here might feel like a slowing of the rhythm, while in the original series the author often made her readers privy to the financial and political side of the Vattas, and to their complicated family dynamics, so that here these details don’t look like they came out of the blue.

That said, this novel is not completely problem-free: my main point of contention with it comes from the author’s habit of repeating known facts several times during the course of the narrative, which in the end becomes quite annoying.  It’s one thing to briefly mention past happenings to remind old readers, or to inform new ones about them, but it’s quite another to rehash information they already possess, over and over again. When we are told, for example, that Ky’s citizenship has been revoked because she was away from Slotter Key for a certain number of years, we don’t need to have this information repeated – in all its minute detail – every time the narrative requires another character to be apprised of the fact. It’s a pattern that I noticed in the other books as well, but here at times it reaches embarrassing proportions, and this kind of…. redundancy only manages to slow down the pace of the novel, feeling at times more like padding than anything else, where this story should be about more than a simple word count, in my opinion.

Still, I did enjoy Into the Fire because I am by now invested in Kylara Vatta’s journey and look forward to learning more about it, especially now that the bulk of past issues seems resolved, so that I’m curious to see where the story will head next. I’m sorry that, for the reason I expressed above, I’m unable to give it a higher rating, but I trust this author to do better in the next installments, and I will wait for them with great anticipation.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE POWHATAN, by Tony Daniel

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.

 

 

A very strange (but strange in a good way) story that shortly reveals itself as an alternate history: the focus is on Native American tribes, but in this version of the New World they have built cities and what looks like a thriving civilization rather than a nomadic life, an existence that is threatened by invaders – Romans and, probably, the descendants of Viking explorers.

The city of Potomak is under siege by the Romans, the population now facing the approaching threat of famine, so that Wannas, the son of one of the city’s leaders, is determined to try and get help from nearby allies – that is, if he and his companions will manage to pass unseen through the enemy’s lines and reach the canoes that will bring them up the river to their destination.   As Wannas prepares himself for the difficult mission, we learn more about the kind of society he lives in, and we are offered several tantalizing glimpses about this alternate vision of the world that I would not mind seeing expanded in a full novel.  One of the more intriguing is the mention of slaves (a practice that Wannas and his family strongly disagree with) and the fact that some of these slaves are Anglish – we are given the names of Ian and Gladys, which made me even more curious about how this alternate world came to be.

The mission proves to be more difficult than anticipated, and at some point the intervention of a group of beaver-men (I kid you not) makes a huge difference in the outcome: the appearance of these new players adds another fascinating layer to this too-short story, one that ended far too soon for my tastes and left me with a strong curiosity to know more.

My Rating: