Reviews

Short Story Review: DEAR SARAH, by Nancy Kress

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

This is not my first short story by Nancy Kress, and as before I found myself immediately drawn into the picture she paints here of a very changed Earth after first contact with an alien race.  The theme of the aliens coming to our planet is a very familiar one in science fiction, and it usually goes both ways: either they are here to do something bad to humans (exploit, enslave or eat them, or all three together), or they have come to offer a higher level of civilization and better living conditions.

In Dear Sarah the latter scenario is the one that plays out, but it has not brought positive consequences for the Earth population, even though they brought Q-energy, a form of clean power that has supplanted oil and nuclear plants and even the small quantity of coal still in use, so that jobs were lost, and more were still when the aliens’ robots started being employed in manufacturing.  The greater part of the population – those without money of their own – is suffering from the lack of income and living on scant unemployment pay, the resentment against the aliens mounting day by day, fueled by some terrorist groups that are trying to drive the extra-terrestrials away from Earth.

MaryJo, knowing there is no future for her in the small village where her family lives, decides to enlist in the military, the only alternative to the hand-to-mouth existence led by her relatives: since the army is tasked with the duty of protecting the aliens against terrorist attacks or just plain anger from the man in the street, MaryJo’s family is strongly opposed to her choice, seeing it as a form of betrayal – protecting the creatures responsible for the sad situation of the majority of Earth’s population.  And MaryJo indeed finds herself torn between two sides as she tries desperately not to choose one – that is, until she has to…

Short and very realistic, this is a very thought-provoking story about choices and their consequences, and one that feels more grounded in actual reality than in speculative fiction. Something I’ve come to expect from this author…

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: THE AUTUMN REPUBLIC (Powder Mage #3), by Brian McClellan

 

My long and meandering way through this series has come to an end, and it was a very satisfying one, both story- and emotion-wise.  I used the words ‘long and meandering’ because I read the first volume Promise of Blood not long after it was published, and although I did like it, I did not feel strongly compelled to move forward with the series, since I had some slight issues with the book, mostly concerning the pacing and some characterizations.  Then some time ago I had the lucky opportunity of reading the ARC for the first volume of the sequel trilogy, Gods of Blood and Power, and I found there a more mature, more masterful control of story and characters, so that I decided to go back to… the origins so to speak, and discovered that hindsight helped me through the little ‘hiccups’ of the first book, so that once I reached the second, The Crimson Campaign, and this third installment, I could enjoy the tighter narrative and far more engaging storytelling. By now, Brian McClellan has become one of my favorite fantasy authors, one whose books I can always look forward to.

This final segment of the trilogy brings to a conclusion many of the threads that have been developing until now, bringing to a cusp the aftermath of Tamas’ revolution, the renewed conflict with the Kez and the resurgence of the ancient gods, and it does so with a sustained pace that never knows a moment of dullness. As enthralling as the events are, I would prefer to focus my review on the characters that move through them, because in The Autumn Republic they are explored in greater depth, and from new angles.  The only one I’m still unable, after three books, to really warm up to is Inspector Adamat: if I can sympathize with his past and present troubles and his ardent desire to keep his family safe, his segments are the ones that elicit the least interest in me as a reader, since I have been constantly incapable of forming any kind of attachment to this character.

It’s quite a different song for all the others, some of which we get to know better in this book, particularly Nila, the young laundress who recently discovered her Privileged powers: if at the beginning I wondered what part she was destined to play in the overall arc, here she fits wonderfully as the foil for Borbador, the only surviving member of the Adran cabal and Taniel’s long-time friend. Bo’s sometimes cavalier attitude toward his Privileged status and abilities might be tempered by what is basically a good nature and his affection for Taniel, but in the end he comes across as something of a spoiled child, and it falls on Nila, who he has taken on as an apprentice, to remind him of his duties as a human being and to cut him down to size when necessary.  I enjoyed quite a bit the interactions between the two of them and the way they end up supporting each other: what becomes clear at some point is Bo’s loneliness, and his yearning for the carefree days when he was part of Tamas’ family, so that I want to see this developing relationship between Bo and Nila as a way to re-create that sense of family he so clearly misses.

Vlora’s character enjoys some defining scenes in The Autumn Republic, and knowing the direction of her narrative arc in the following trilogy made me appreciate the hints of the more assertive personality she will develop later: here she is still trying to make amends for her past mistakes, and not for the first time I wondered at some of the comments I read about her not coming across as a very likable person, since I felt great sympathy for her since day one. Granted, she acted improperly and caused a great deal of grief, but almost no one (either readers or other characters) seemed to take into account her sense of loneliness and neglect that others manipulated for their own purposes, and that’s the reason I always felt more inclined to forgive her lapse.  Here she is able to mend her fences with both Tamas and Taniel, and at the same time starts on the road toward becoming her own woman instead of someone else’s protégée or betrothed, the beginning of a newfound independence that I can only approve of.    

Taniel, for his part, looks far more human than in previous instances: maybe being separated from Ka-poel (whose absence through most of the book is my only real complaint concerning this third volume) and his final admission about his feelings for her managed to shed a better light on him from my perspective. The whiny boy seems to be gone at last, and even though I still see some shadows in his character, he looks like a more grounded person, one who can recognize his failings and start to work on them. This becomes clear in his exchanges with Tamas, where for the first time in the series they actually speak to each other like father and son and not like two estranged acquaintances: their reciprocal admission of love, and the unspoken forgiveness for their past mistakes, is one of the more emotional passages in The Autumn Republic, one I realize I had been waiting for since book 1 and one that the author was able to convey with admirable deftness, down to a wonderful shared laugh that melts all the old misunderstandings and brings them together more than any words could.

Which finally brings me to Tamas, who has remained my favorite character throughout the story – faults included.  Here he sees his years-long planning nearing its conclusion, even though he’s aware that this does not mark the end of the struggle or that things did not turn out exactly as he envisioned them. There is a definite sense of needing to finally pass the reins to someone else, to give in to the weight of the years and the big and small injuries sustained during a long, hard career and the tight focus on his goal.  Tamas started taking stock of his past since the previous book, where he was assailed by some doubts about his ability to lead, so now that he sees himself at a crossroads and understands he left many things unsaid and undone, he feels compelled to correct any mistake he made along the way. Much as I enjoyed reading about his brilliant military strategy and his unwavering faith in the mission he set for himself, this softer side of Tamas complements wonderfully what was shown of the man until now, making him a more rounded and even more likable character – the true star of the narrative arc.

If I had read this trilogy when it came out, I would now be feeling quite bereft because I developed a deep fondness for this new fantasy genre and even more for the world Brian McClellan created, but as luck would have it, there is now more to be discovered in the next trio of books – and hopefully in many more that could follow.  The conclusion to the Powder Mage trilogy felt perfect in its promise for what is yet to come, but even more in the deeply touching feelings it engendered, even though they were tinged with sorrow: unfortunately this end is a bittersweet one, and if I understand the need for some of the author’s choices, I’m still in mourning for some of them – Brian McClellan has shown time and again he never pulls his punches, but when he sacrifices his characters he does so in a way that’s so balanced, in description and emotions, that I can forgive him for the pain we have to deal with…

The Powder Mage trilogy has now taken its place among my favorite stories, and it’s a world I will always enjoy visiting, in any form the author chooses.

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

Short Story Review: MY ENGLISH NAME, by R. S. Benedict

A short story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

 

MY ENGLISH NAME

A very weird story that hovers over the dividing line between science fiction and horror: the main character is an unknown creature (possibly an alien) forced to hide its true appearance under a human mask – or rather under a whole human skin.  The process by which Thomas Majors (that’s its last incarnation, and I will use that name as he does throughout the story) obtains the skins and wears them is only hinted at, mercifully so, because there is more than a whiff of creepiness in the whole business, mostly because those human disguises are subject to wear, tear and decay.

To avoid difficult questions, Thomas has elected to live in China, passing for an English expatriate and teaching in Chinese schools: there is a glaring dichotomy between this crowded, lively background where people live and move very close to each other and Thomas’ need for physical distance – not only because of his fear of discovery, but also because close contact might prove dangerous to the disguise.  This brings about a subtle streak of loneliness that I found quite touching despite my profound horror at what Thomas really is and the things he does to survive.

The chronicle of the creature’s existence as Thomas Majors is set as a sort of one-way dialogue with the only person he finally grows closer to, the man who employs him in his latest teaching gig, the one that will prove – through caring and affection – to be Thomas’ undoing in more ways than one.

I’m not certain how I feel about this story: certainly it piqued my curiosity and I did care for Thomas’ journey, mostly because of my curiosity about his origins and survival methods, but at the same time I can’t think about it without a shiver of revulsion.  Nonetheless it was intriguing…

My Rating: 

 

 

Reviews

Review: ONE OF US, by Craig DiLouie

 

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

One of Us is a classic example of a book that should not be judged by its cover, even though I initially was guilty of this very mistake: when looking at this title on the Orbit newsletter, the cover appeared so bland to my eyes that I was not even tempted to read the book’s synopsis. My bad.  Luckily for me, some of my fellow book bloggers possess a more open mind and a keener curiosity, and through their reviews I learned that I was missing out on a very intriguing story, so I rushed to correct my error.

I knew, going in, that I would find myself in the midst of a dark, harsh tale, one that would push several of my buttons, but when all is said and done I don’t regret having read it despite the anguish and rage and frustration that it engendered: this novel is like a mirror into mankind’s soul, and once we look at ourselves through it, what stares back at us is something we should try to grow up from if we want to keep calling ourselves ‘human’.

The story is set in an alternate 1984 (a curiously apt choice at that…): fourteen years before a teratogenic virus spread all over the world causing the birth of mutated babies, and while many did not survive long after birth, a good number of them made it through. Rejected by their families, they were confined in the Homes, virtual prisons where the “monsters” would grow up out of sight and out of mind, while the world community, in a rush of puritanical zeal, implemented a strict regime of screening and control on sexual intercourse, especially where young people were concerned, to avoid further spreading of the plague.

In the rural community of Huntsville, Georgia, one of the Homes lies on the outskirts of town, the kids it holds employed as cheap labor in the surrounding farms, while their scant education is geared toward destroying their sense of worth and implementing blind obedience: the “plague children”, as they are called, are nothing but slaves, living in squalid conditions that would make Dickensian tales pale in comparison, most of their “teachers” little better than the dregs of society, taking on the job for lack of worthier opportunities.   Yet something is changing, because with the onset of puberty many of the Home’s inmates start showing peculiar abilities, like reading or influencing minds, starting fires, flying, and so forth; a few of them are spirited away in secret installations where they are employed by the military or the intelligence services, but the rest of them, on the advice of Brain, try to keep their powers hidden.  Brain is one of the more feral looking children of the Huntsville home, and the one who possesses the keener intellect: the acute awareness he was born with made him understand that one day the showdown between the “normals” and the “monsters” would come, and he wants them to be ready to fight back – for themselves and their right to exist.   Once the conflict does erupt, the fury and resentment that have been long simmering under the surface – on both sides – flare up into a bloody climax fueled by mindless violence and carnage of apocalyptic proportions.

The first question that comes to mind while reading One of Us is the one about the definition of ‘monster’: does being born with a dog’s head and paws, or an upside-down face, or looking like a cross between a lion and a gorilla make you a monster? Or should the label apply to those who confine these hapless creatures into internment camps, literally (and gleefully) torturing them for the slightest deviation from the imposed discipline?  Humanity does not show its best in the sliver of society represented by the Huntsville community, one where the fear and loathing for the plague children comes out of the kind of blind ignorance that is proud of itself, which refuses even to consider an alternative to the illiterate narrow-mindedness that many wear like a badge of honor.

I was deeply distressed while reading about the children’s treatment in the Home, where constant abuse, filthy living conditions and abominable food were everyday occurrences, to the point that when one of them is incarcerated on a false accusation, he considers the jail cell – with its bare-bones cot and waste disposal facility – like an unhoped-for luxury: that simple thought, one that does not even touch upon the fact that the boy is being unjustly held, was both chilling and heartbreaking, moving me to unexpected tears.  That’s why I felt even more profoundly the anger that possessed me once the false premise of wrongdoing by one of the plague children drives the oh-so-good, law-abiding citizens of Huntsville toward a hate-fueled pogrom.   By that point, all concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ fly out of the window, with acts of cruelty (and a few exceptions of mercy) being performed by citizens and children alike.

The reason this story can hit so close to home comes from the realization that humankind can be cruel toward those it perceives as ‘different’, and it becomes even more so when its own well-being is threatened in some way, be it physical or economical: that’s the moment when the need for a scapegoat becomes undeniable, when the compulsion to heap the mounting frustration on the nearest available target reduces our better angels to silence.  The fact that this novel is set in our past – or an alternative version of it – does not make it any less actual, or help us dismiss the story as simple fiction, because we only need to turn to any news channel to see a version of it play out under our eyes.

As I said, One of Us is a dark, brutal read that might not be for everyone, but still I would recommend it, if nothing else because of its ability to make us think, to take a good look at ourselves and wonder if we can do better, or if we want to.  My only complaint with the book comes from the ending that seems to be fizzling out somewhat after the huge, well-crafted buildup: but it’s a minor complaint indeed, considering that this story will remain with me for a long, long time….

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: GHOSTS OF THE TRISTAN BASIN (Powder Mage #0.8), by Brian McClellan

In my first search for short stories that complemented Brian McClellan’s epic about powder mages, I must have missed a few, and only a recent search unearthed other works I knew nothing about: it goes without saying that I would not think twice about reading them as well…

 

 

Set a few months before the events in Promise of Blood, this novella offers a double bonus: one that allows us to see more of Taniel’s deeds during the Fatrastan war for independence from the Kez, and one where we are introduced to a beloved character from Gods of Blood and Powder, none other than Mad Ben Styke.   As the story begins, the Tristan Basin Irregulars – the Fatrastan militia Taniel and Ka-poel have attached themselves to – have been harassing the Kez in the inhospitable swamps that cover the Basin, keeping them quite occupied with guerrilla warfare.

Returning to their base camp, they learn about new orders: the city of Planth, where Governor Lindet has retreated to regroup her forces, is threatened by a Kez army, and the Irregulars must get there quickly to shore up the city’s defenses. As grim as the situation appears, since the rebels are vastly outnumbered, a slim ray of hope is represented by the arrival of Colonel Ben Styke and his Mad Lancers, an elite troop that seems to be made out of warriors as berserker as their leader – and Planth will need their madness if the citizens want to survive…

As I said, there were two main points of interest in this story: for starters, I enjoyed seeing a very different Taniel from the one I met in the Powder Mage books. Much as he’s still trying to get out of the shadow of his very famous father, Taniel here appears like a more sympathetic character, a young man driven by the ideal of helping the region’s inhabitants gain their freedom from the Kez, whom he hates deeply since they were responsible for the execution of his mother.   He’s honing his skills in the conflict, and he’s also strengthening the ties with his local guide Ka-poel, the young mute woman whose weird abilities he’s just starting to know.  The only trait he shares with the older Taniel is his aversion to authority, especially when Lindet’s orders concerning the fate of Planth clash against his sense of duty.

That’s probably the main reason he seems to form a sort of bond with Ben Styke, the mountain of a man leading the Mad Lancers: the Ben Styke we meet here is also a very different person from the one appearing in Sins of Empire, since he has yet to endure the physical and psychological abuse of his long years in the prison camp, so that it’s a pleasure to witness the depths of joyful abandon as he launches himself in the activity he loves most – fight.  And fight he must, together with his Lancers and the Irregulars, if he wants to save the city, against almost insurmountable odds, yet there is more to him than just a practically invincible warrior, because here he exhibits humor, and cunning and courage, all wrapped into a carefree attitude that makes it impossible not to like him, and enjoy the pages that focus on him.

Losing myself in this story was a wonderful experience, and I strongly recommend it both to all McClellan fans and to those who still don’t know this author and series: you will not be disappointed…

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

Review: CHILDREN OF TIME, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 

I suffer from a strong aversion to insects – any kind of insect: the mere idea of something crawling up an arm or a leg, even if it’s the most harmless creature in the whole universe, makes me shudder in revulsion. That’s the main reason I resisted so much before reading this novel, despite the glowing reviews from several fellow bloggers – because I knew spiders were this story’s main characters. Spiders.

And yet, the premise for this novel sounded interesting, and the unanimous praise concerning Adrian Tchaikovsky’s work was a powerful incentive to try and overcome my dislike. You can therefore imagine my surprise when I was not only able to happily sail through the… many-legged narrative of Children of Time without a qualm, but ended up enjoying the sections focusing on the spiders much more than the ones about humans. Our mind works indeed in mysterious ways…

The future on Earth does not look very cheerful: despite the huge advances in technology and the many terraforming projects launched to create new homes for humanity’s expansion, there is also a strong movement that abhors the manipulations of science and wants to keep planet Earth as the sole, pristine home for the human race, a movement that is apparently growing in strength and numbers. Dr. Avrana Kern is carrying on a very ambitious goal: that of not simply terraforming a suitable planet, but of peopling it with enhanced monkeys, infected with a nanovirus that will speed up the growth of their mental abilities and therefore create a willing race of assistants for the colonists that will come for a further phase of the project. The final stage of Kern’s endeavor is however sabotaged from the inside, the ship that should have landed the monkeys on her planet crashes and burns, and she remains the sole survivor of the expedition, waiting in suspended animation to see what the virus payload – the only part of her plan that escaped sabotage – will do to the target world.

As human civilization crumbles and falls in the aftermath of the anti-science faction, and then rises painfully out of its own ashes, launching ark ships in search of a new home for what remains of the people of Earth, on Kern’s world spiders find themselves the recipients of the nanovirus, and start the long journey toward their uplift as a sentient race: the story splits here into two threads, following the two separate – but at some point converging – narratives, that of the spiders, slowly but surely evolving from simple-minded hunters to complex creatures who build a flourishing civilization; and that of the humans, displaced both in space and in time, as they are awakened from their frozen sleep when need arises and as their search for a new home becomes more and more desperate.

It’s impossible not to notice the dichotomy between the spider’s upward spiral, as their grasp on evolution (the buildup of Understandings, as they call them) increases exponentially, and mankind’s regression as their resources dwindle and the ship starts to break down around them: humanity has not only lost its home planet and the colonies it established in its golden age, they have also lost much of the higher technology that allowed projects like the one launched by Dr. Kern.  Much of what made Earth’s civilization is now almost consigned to myth, and the only person on the ark ship Gilgamesh who is able to access that knowledge is Mason Holsten, a classicist – a cross between a linguist and an archeologist, a man who often feels like the proverbial fish out of water and therefore symbolizes perfectly the floundering attempts at survival of these people who have been torn from their roots in more ways than one.   

It’s indeed a desolate spectacle, made even sadder by the steady advancements of the spiders, whose powers of adaptation to their environment appear so extraordinary that after a while I forgot I was not reading about human creatures: I became deeply invested in their discoveries and successes, particularly because the author gives us a definite frame of reference through a few recurring characters that, generation after generation, take on the roles of their predecessors.  We therefore have Portia, the intrepid hunter who incarnates the courage to explore and to overcome one’s limitations; then there is Bianca, the thinker and scientists whose discoveries advance the spiders’ civilization in leaps and bounds; and then there is Fabian, the only male of notice in a society that is strongly geared toward matriarchy and who acts both at the catalyst of many changes and as the balance between Portia and Bianca.   

Make no mistake, these are not humanized spiders, they retain all of their weird alien-ness in cultural outlook and instinctual behavior, but still the author made them highly relatable not in spite of, but because of those differences. There are several descriptions of the spider cities, sprawling complexes of aerial bridges and woven-silk platforms that come across as things of wonder and beauty even while one sees the huge differences brought on by the nature of their dwellers and the limitations imposed by the planet’s resources, where metals are scarce and much of the spiders’ organic technology is based on chemistry and scent, on biology rather than mechanics.  One can easily see the successful hybridization of beauty and function that the spiders are able to achieve, and the admiration for such endeavors is enhanced by the respect for the deeds of the three recurring protagonists – Portia, Bianca and Fabian – in all of their incarnations: like pioneers of old, they are the ones who take the giant steps that advance the civilization, sometimes paying the ultimate price for it, and it’s impossible not to be moved by such determination in the face of danger, hostile attacks or ravaging disease.

On the other hand, humanity offers a very sorry spectacle as the power plays of old take precedence over the needs of simple survival or the goal of finding a suitable planet where to establish a new civilization: the few voices in favor of reason are constantly drowned by the apparently unavoidable drive toward conflict and destruction, a drive that comes to a dramatic height once the desperate survivors realize that Kern’s world is their only viable option and that they will have to fight the spiders for it.  This is the point where the author managed to surprise me with a twist I would never have expected, a solution to the often quoted Prisoner’s Dilemma – an interesting logic exercise, indeed – that felt both unexpected and right, a very satisfying conclusion to a riveting story.

I now understand the reason for the praise I have often encountered for Adrian Tchaikovsky’s work, and I look forward to discovering what other enthralling wonders he has in store for me…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: RETURN TO HONOR (Powder Mage #1.5), by Brian McClellan

In my first search for short stories that complemented Brian McClellan’s epic about powder mages, I must have missed a few, and only a recent search unearthed other works I knew nothing about: it goes without saying that I would not think twice about reading them as well…

 

This story was quite a delightful find, not only because it features Vlora, but because it goes some way toward filling the empty narrative space between the events in Promise of Blood (where we learn of her dalliance with another officer and the breakup with Taniel) and her welcome return as Lady Flint in Sins of Empire.

Return to Honor begins shortly after the end of Promise of Blood, when Vlora is still very much a pariah because of her indiscretion, and also mourning the death of Sabon, one of Tamas’ closest friends and Vlora’s mentor.  A still-very-angry Tamas orders her to seek and capture a traitor who intends to defect to the enemy carrying important intelligence with him: what remains unspoken is that success might work a long way toward restoring, at least in part, the Field Marshal’s respect.   As encouraging as this might sound, the prospect of failure still hangs over Vlora, and what’s more she must do it alone, because Tamas does not intend to spare anyone to help her.

It’s impossible not to feel deeply for Vlora here: she’s conscious of her mistake and bitterly regrets it, but the worse part of the situation comes from the attitude of her fellow soldiers since they – either for personal inclination or to curry favor with Tamas – treat her like the worst kind of trash, even those that used to be her friends.  That’s when unexpected help comes in the person of the Field Marshal’s bodyguard, Captain Olem…

My knowledge of the shared history between Vlora and Olem in Gods of Blood and Powder enhanced my appreciation of this first encounter between them, where I could witness the ease with which they manage to work well together despite barely knowing each other, and more importantly where Olem’s laid back attitude acts like a balm on Vlora’s damaged soul, taking her out of her misery and bringing the sunnier side of her character to the fore.

One of the best Powder Mage short stories to date, indeed….

 

 

My Rating: