Reviews

Short Story Review: DEATH ON MARS, by Madeline Ashby

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…

DEATH ON MARS

I don’t know exactly what I expected from this story given its highly dramatic title, maybe a tale of something going horribly wrong, or one of a desperate struggle for survival against unforgiving odds – but in the end it caught my eye because of the word ‘Mars’: the red planet has returned with a (welcome) vengeance in speculative fiction these days, probably because the first manned mission seems to be looming closer and our curiosity and expectations for what we will find have reached new heights.

And yet, Death on Mars managed to surprise me because it was not even close to what I had imagined – it was better than I anticipated and it also was a deeply emotional journey, one that moved me beyond words.

A group of women has been sent on a station orbiting Mars to study in depth the planet and prepare the ground for the first ground mission and settlement: they have been chosen because of their greater adaptability to enclosed spaces and the ability to sustain the great and small annoyances of a long-term assignment. And also for their lesser body mass and reduced caloric needs, as one of them remarks with sarcastic clarity.   Over time they have developed a close relationship, almost a family bond, and as the story starts they are waiting for the arrival of a technician who will help solve a problem with the sampling drills downplanet: the group wonders if this new addition – a young man – will upset the balance they have managed to build over time, and in fact Cody’s appearance does bring a huge disturbance, not so much because of his presence, or his personality, but rather because of something he carries with him from Earth, something he brought for one of them…

The dramatic revelation this engenders seems to upset the balance that the group reached with dedication and effort, and for a while the atmosphere aboard the station feels quite tense, until a technical problem offers what looks like the perfect – if heart-wrenching – solution.  The last part of the story affected me deeply, and made me wonder if Madeline Ashby’s longer works will hit me in the same powerful way: I guess there is only one way to discover it…

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE GUTTER PRAYER (The Black Iron Legacy #1), by Gareth Hanrahan

 

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 the past few days, The Gutter Prayer has been reviewed all over the place, so let’s join the fun…

This is the kind of book that requires extreme flexibility of mind from its readers, because it throws them into the thick of things from page one, and from there it keeps a constant, swift pace for most of its length, leaving them almost no time to metabolize the events or to consider them in depth – which in a way encapsulates both the pros and cons of this story.  If that breakneck speed works well for the progress of the story itself, which is built upon a series of twists and turns, discoveries and betrayals, it goes to the detriment of character development, because in the end it seems we never get to know those people well, or at least that was the impression I received.

The city of Guerdon is something of a safe port in a sea of turmoil, while the rest of the world is in the throes of the God War, a conflict in which divine entities battle for supremacy, generating hordes of refugees fleeing from mayhem and destruction. Guerdon avoided this fate some time before by taming its deities and turning them into the Kept Gods, beings whose powers are greatly diminished and only wielded through “saints”, ordinary people imbued with special faculties who act on the gods’ behalf.  This does not mean, however, that the city is a quiet place: the secular powers running Guerdon keep contending with each other for dominance, and it soon becomes clear that someone has been working in secret to tap the buried energies of the old gods to achieve that goal. In this scenario, the three main characters find themselves swept away by events that seem bigger than they are and that will test their powers for endurance and growth.

Carillon Thay, or Cari, is the only survivor of a once-influential family whose members where slaughtered when she was a small child. Trusted into the care of relatives, she ran away but was forced to return to Guerdon – penniless and desperate – and try to eke out a living among the thieves of the less-savory quarters of the city.  We meet her in the middle of a heist she’s working on with her friends Spar and Rat, and from that moment on she falls prey to terrifying visions that hint at something dark and dreadful at work.   Spar is the son of the former head of the Thieves’ guild, or Brotherhood, and he lives in the shadow of his famous father who died in prison without revealing the Brotherhood’s secrets despite beatings and torture: Spar wants nothing more than to follow in his father’s footsteps, but his dreams are crushed when he contracts the Stone Plague, an illness that turns its victims into pieces of rock.  And finally there’s Rat, a ghoul who tries desperately not to succumb too soon to his people’s inescapable drive for dead flesh and underground dwellings, staying near the surface as long as he can. The friendship between these three people, the bond they forge in spite of their differences, is indeed the brightest light in the grim scenario of The Gutter Prayer, and something that manages to withstand the worst kinds of test.

As the story progresses, we are taken through various parts of the city and learn of its structure and history, of its day-to-day workings and its horrors, especially the horrors: the Alchemists’ guild is one of the strongest powers in Guerdon, and among their creations are the Tallowmen, unfortunate people – mostly criminals and low-lives – who have been rendered into waxy shapes animated by a lit wick in the head; or the Gullheads, whose mere sight can inspire deep terror in the onlookers. But there are even worse players at large, like the Ravellers – nightmarish creatures who consume their victims and are able to take on their appearance so as to ensnare other targets; or the Crawling Ones, masses of worms that can mimic the human shape of the people whose soul they have eaten.

With such horrors as background and the revelation of the dirty political maneuverings that are the heart and blood of the city, Guerdon takes its rightful place among the flesh-and-blood characters and becomes more than a simple theater for events; more than once I was reminded of another city where darkness was stronger than light, China Mieville’s New Crobuzon from Perdido Street Station, but with an important difference: where the depiction of New Crobuzon stressed the element of decay almost to the point of basking in it – one of the reasons I did not enjoy that novel – here the negative aspects play as counterpoint to the story’s saving graces, and in particular to the themes of friendship and loyalty that are embodied in Cari, Spar and Rat.  Cari in particular looks like a whimsical creature, one whose fight-or-flight instinct tends toward the latter rather than the former, a person who at first seems superficial and self-centered but who slowly reveals her deep commitment to her friends, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for them. And if Spar’s nobility is clear from the very start, something that together with his stoic acceptance of the illness’ unavoidable progression quickly endeared him to me, Rat comes across as a more complex creature, one whose nature and leanings bring him to live always on the edge.

What we can learn about these characters and the many others that people the story, however, looks more like fleeting glimpses, and the reckless speed of the narrative often denies the possibility of delving deeper into their nature, of knowing them better, which unfortunately leads to an overall effect of detachment that is one of my main contentions with this novel: I need to feel invested in characters – either for good or bad – to really connect with a book, and The Gutter Prayer never fully let me do this, keeping me at arm’s length, so to speak.

There is nothing wrong in a plot-driven story, of course, but it seems… wasteful to build such intriguing characters only to employ them as little more than extras – and here comes my other big problem with this novel: a good number of these people ends up dead, and that in itself would not be so unexpected considering how the story unfolds, but all these deaths seem devoid of any emotional connection since they happen far too quickly and are immediately washed away by the tsunami of other events. Two are the instances where this narrative choice bothered me greatly: in one case it’s an heroic act that allows other people to escape, and it happens off-screen, only a flash in the darkness marking the character’s ultimate sacrifice; in the other the person falls from a great height and is seen no more, and even if there are momentous consequences in the wake of that fall, it’s as if the individual did not matter anymore. In both cases it felt as if the characters were only little motes in the grand scheme of things, and given my sympathy for both of them that was quite hard to accept.

Still, The Gutter Prayer is a solid, very enjoyable novel and as debuts go a reasonably well-crafted one, and I can certainly recommend it to all lovers of the genre.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE HISTORY OF THE INVASION TOLD IN FIVE DOGS, by Kelly Jennings

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…

THE HISTORY OF THE INVASION TOLD IN FIVE DOGS

To say that I found the title of this story very intriguing would be an understatement: the theme of alien invasion is one I’ve always found fascinating, but it was the… dog element, for want of a better description, that piqued my curiosity, since I’m very fond of dogs, even though I can’t share my life with one. What I found here was very different from any expectations I might have held, particularly because it touched me deeply.

The unnamed character relaying her story starts with recollections of her childhood, and of her first dog, a surprise present for her ninth birthday: what follows looks like the normal process of the bonding between a kid and her dog, that is, until the family is forced to move to a refugee camp – and that’s when we learn that things are not so idyllic, because the people on the run must leave behind a great deal of precious possessions, and Elvis – that’s the name of that first dog – cannot follow her human friend in her escape.  And that was the first painful blow that this story dealt me.

From here on, things go from bad to worse: the invaders are reshaping Earth to suit their needs, altering the climate to colder temperatures and therefore bringing modifications to the eco-system, modifications that put the surviving humans on a road to starvation.  The protagonist relays her struggle for survival, first with a resistance group, then alone, and finally with a secluded community trying to eke out a living in a remote area of the mountains: in every one of these instances, our protagonist is always in the company of a dog (with one notable, dramatic exception), and you can tell that it’s the presence of these four-legged companions that helps her hold on to her sanity, or even her humanity.

If nothing else, this story is an ode to dogs, and their irreplaceable role in our lives – and I totally agree.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

PLANETARY AWARDS: Nominations for the best of 2018

 

It’s again time to vote for the Planetary Awards, the chance to nominate your favorite novel and shorter story for last year.

At the beginning of each year bloggers are called to vote for the Planetary Awards, a chance to showcase your favorite novel and shorter story from last year’s readings.

The contest is promoted by PLANETARY DEFENSE COMMAND and you can go HERE and learn how to list and promote the titles that caught your imagination more than others, or that were amazing discoveries from so-far-unknown authors.

Once again I went through my 5-star-rated books to choose, and once again was reminded how difficult that choice can be when you can nominate only one title in both categories, the Full Length Novel and the Short Story. Last year I picked my nominees by letting blind chance decide, but this year I wanted to do something different, so I decided to choose an unknown to me author and a well-known one, so that I could feel a sort of… balance in the process.

So the winners and my nominees for the 2018 Planetary Awards turn out to be:

 

Full Length Novel: A TIME OF DREAD, by John Gwynne (my new discovery)

 

Short Story or Novella: THE FLOWERS OF VASHNOI, by Lois McMaster Bujold (an old-time favorite)

 

I encourage you to go and vote for your favorite authors/stories: it’s another way of showing our gratitude for the many wonderful hours we spend immersed in some other world…

And as usual, my thanks for Planetary Defense Command for hosting the awards!

Reviews

Review: EMPIRE OF DUST (Psi-Tech #1), by Jacey Bedford

 

There are several interesting themes, at the basis of this debut novel, that I found intriguing, telepathy being the foremost of them, and I enjoyed how it was woven into the background of a galaxy-spanning civilization ruled by corporations and therefore plagued by the usual afflictions of economic interests and greed.  The end result might not have been completely successful at times, but it was a fast and entertaining read, and one that holds the promise of developing into something much more substantial.

The main character, Cara Carlinni, is a telepath on the run: formerly employed by one of the two big galactic corporations, Alphacorp, she is now hiding from her boss and former lover Ari Van Bleiden because of the vital information she possesses and that could damage him if it came out into the open.  Empire of Dust‘s take on telepathy is an intriguing one: people with such potential (which does not limit itself to mind reading) are enrolled by the big corporations and provided with an implant that enhances such abilities, allowing them to communicate across vast distances, for example, or to merge with a ship’s instruments to better guide it through space.  The implants also work as a sort of locator beacon, and for this reason Cara is not activating it (although that causes her a great deal of stress) and taking menial jobs to survive.

Having been discovered once again by Van Bleiden’s minions, Cara connects with another telepath, Ben Benjamin, working for Alphacorp’s rivals, the Trust, and manages to escape on his ship. Despite the initial difficulties in their encounter, Ben decides to help her escape and recruits her, under a false identity, for the latest mission he’s been assigned to together with a team of specialized telepaths, that of assisting a group of anti-technology colonists settle on the new world of their choice and start a back-to-the-origins kind of life.  Of course Van Bleiden’s hounds have not given up their search, and other kinds of corporate mischief threaten the safety of both Cara and Ben, not to mention that the difficult co-existence between the telepaths and the Luddite colonists adds another level of danger to the mission.  And of course between the two main characters some feelings are developing…

As I said, while Empire of Dust proved to be an entertaining read, and one that showed some promise for the future, I could not avoid feeling that in some instances it felt a little old fashioned, reminding me of the kind of stories written in the ’60s or thereabouts, stories that at times glossed over in-depth examination in favor of advancing the plot: there is nothing wrong about this kind of choice, of course, but when I’m given glimpses of an advanced civilization and the way it works, I like to know more, to see how certain details came to be to better understand how they apply to the story.  This novel gave me the impression that there was much more underlying the events being described, but that the author had shied away from delving deeper into them, so that my curiosity ended up bordering into mild frustration.

On the other side of the spectrum, though, the theme of the Ecolibrians, the colonists searching for a virgin world to be colonized in the old way, without assistance from machines and other technological implements, is an intriguing one: the “return to nature” movement is not a novel idea, but here it proves interesting because of its desire for a simpler way of life, despite all the drawbacks that such a choice entails, especially in a new, potentially hostile world whose dangers have not been completely assessed.  In any technologically advanced society there are always people who feel the need to distance themselves from the perceived slavery to everyday’s gadgets, and in this novel the colonists make us think of the mid-nineteenth century adventurers who moved west on oxen-driven wagons, bent on facing the unknown in search of a better way of life.  Of course there are always extreme elements driven by the need to step even further, and those depicted in Empire of Dust provide for some of the more dramatic, tension-filled moments, showing us how human nature basically remains the same, no matter the location or the time frame.

The same duality in plot I mentioned above extends to characterization as well: the “good guys” are portrayed well and give birth to rounded, believable figures it’s easy to picture in one’s mind.  I quite enjoyed the slow-building relationship between Cara and Ben, the way their interaction started off with unspoken truths and withheld secrets, to move gradually toward trust and then love – and I’m glad to report that the love story is not central to the novel, but only one of its elements. As a matter of fact, I ended up rooting for them and hoping that the misunderstandings and problems that afflicted their relationship would be resolved: these two start out as co-conspirators, move on to comrades and partners in danger and then progress toward something deeper – no insta-love here, thankfully.

Unfortunately, I can’t say as much about the antagonists, since they on the whole look more like the cookie-cutter variety of baddies, and if any of them sported some mustache I’m sure they would have twirled them evilly. Here lies my main contention with Empire of Dust, because the “bad guys” are all irredeemably bad, and just for the sake of it – especially Ari Van Bleiden and his theatrically cruel sidekicks.  I would have enjoyed a little more depth in them, and not characters merely driven by malice for the sake of it.

On the whole, however, this was a very enjoyable novel, and I have no difficulty in ascribing any flaw I detected to its nature as a debut work: the promise for better pacing and characterization is there and I will certainly keep on reading this series in the hope to see those promises flourish.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: CANOE, 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…

 

CANOE, by Nancy Kress

Another story from an author I’ve encountered before in very interesting reads: this time she offers a quite poignant story of a small exploration crew and of a huge discovery in the farthest reaches of space.

The Herschel is a new breed of ship sporting a revolutionary kind of drive that can take it well away from the Solar System, and its four-people (plus one artificial construct) crew is headed toward Luhman 16, the first alien system to be visited by humans – a system comprised of two stars and six planets.  The most interesting of them, an ice-covered planet with sixteen moons, suddenly appears to be escaping its sun’s hold, plunging into the even colder depths of space: knowing that their time for exploration is limited, the crew of the Herschel rush to complete, as far as possible, all the measurements they were scheduled to do, and suddenly something quite unexpected meets their eyes.

The two men and two women in the Herschel’s crew are highly trained professionals but also human beings, with all the flaws and troubles that we have been carrying with us since the dawn of time, and that we will probably take along once we’ll take to space, so that the long voyage, the protracted inactivity and the unavoidable boredom have taken their toll on their interpersonal relationships, especially that of Rachel, a biologist of Samoan origins, and Peter, the scion of an influential WASP family – the two have indulged in a brief fling that ended in a terrible row, straining the already tense atmosphere aboard the ship.

But such petty troubles vanish almost instantaneously once an unexpected discovery changes the scope and goals of the Herschel’s mission, forcing the four of them to re-assess their outlook on it and their long-term goals: Rachel in particular, thinking about her exploring ancestors who braved the oceans in search of new homes, strongly feels that need to the point that it becomes her primary drive.

At times poetic and quite touching, this is a story that will remain with me for a long time.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: 13 MINUTES, by Sarah Pinborough

 

My previous experience with Sarah Pinborough’s work through her novels Mayhem and Murder led me to expect only the best from this author, but I have to say that with 13 Minutes those expectations were more than exceeded: from start to finish this story kept me glued to the book in an adrenaline-rich rollercoaster that gave the label of ‘unputdownable’ a whole new level of meaning.

16-year old Natasha is rescued from the icy river in which she fell, and literally brought back to life by the paramedics, since she was clinically dead for 13 minutes. No one knows how she ended in the freezing waters, least of all Natasha herself who suffers from retrograde amnesia, so the investigators are looking both at attempted suicide – although nothing in Natasha’s life appears to lead in this direction – and at foul play.

This latter option seems to gain some substance when Natasha notices the strange behavior of her two best friends, Jenny and Hayley, who seem to be hiding something: the three of them, dubbed “the Barbies” by their school mates because of their looks and popularity, used to be a close knit group standing at the top of their peers’ social standing, equally admired and envied by everyone, but now there seems to be an insincere overtone in Jenny’s and Hayley’s demeanor, something that alarms and arouses Tasha’s suspicions.  For this reason she places some distance between herself and the other two Barbies, and reconnects with Rebecca, who used to be her best friend when they were younger and was mercilessly discarded when Tasha opted to move in more glamorous circles.

For her own part Becca, despite the devil-may-care attitude developed after being shunned by Tasha, is all too eager to resume the friendship and is able to silence her qualms about ditching her new friend Hannah, a plain but steadfast girl with whom she’s become close, in her turn adopting the same heartless approach exhibited by Tasha in the past: she’s aware of the profound injustice of the whole situation, but at the same time she is consumed by the need to get to the bottom of the mystery and in that way regain her place by Tasha’s side.

From this point on, the hints and clues about what might really have happened in that fateful night are laid out in a breadcrumb trail that offers misdirections and red herrings rather than answers, until the final revelation that comes as a shock and a surprise – at least that’s what it turned out to be for me since I could never have figured out that this was the intention of the author all along.

The first consideration that came to my mind once I closed the book was that I’m glad to have gone through my teenage years without major troubles, never having had to face the kind of peer pressures that Sarah Pinborough describes in this novel: granted, when I was a teenager (which was a very, very long time ago…) there was none of the aggressive viciousness described here, none of the sick thrill of ganging up on a victim for the simple pleasure of seeing to their moral and social destruction – of course there were closed groups and cliques even back then, but those who were not part of them were simply left to their own devices, not targeted as the victims of choice in the guise of Stephen King’s Carrie, for example.

Here though, physical looks and social standing seem to be the parameters by which people are measured, with those at the top (in this case the Barbies) laying down the laws ruling the microcosm represented by the school environment. Such a volatile mix is also compounded by the presence of social media and their swift diffusion of news, comments and judgements which can make or break one’s image with a viral swiftness of propagation.  When considering the ease with which the mere perception of an individual can be changed on the sole basis of a post or a comment that’s shared almost instantly across the web, it’s uncomfortably evident that this is nothing short of a lethal weapon that’s being wielded by people who seem ignorant of its inherent danger – or are they?  While it’s clear that teenage years are the most difficult transition time in the growth of a human being, it’s also evident that what used to be unthinking childish malice ends up becoming a well-honed knife these young people know how to wield with unerring, cruel precision.

On this disturbing background, the main characters all come across as quite unlikable, a mix of shallowness and immaturity that does not spare even Becca, who on the surface prides herself in not caring for the Barbies’ less… grounded interests, but deep down feels the need to belong, to be accepted, and for the sake of this acceptance does not think twice about adopting the other girls’ mean standards of behavior.  What’s interesting here is that the story changes its point of view every time the author switches from one character to another, and after a while it becomes clear that many of them – if not all – are unreliable narrators, some of them because they don’t have all the clues to move forward, and some of them because they are lying outright, as the reader discovers at some point.

And this is indeed the major strength of 13 Minutes: Sarah Pinborough leads her readers through a merry chase in which she keeps offering ambiguous leads that take them toward dead ends, each time building what seems like a sure development only to pull the rug from under their feet at the last minute, and leaving them clueless and disoriented and back to square one. Manipulation is indeed the code word here: of emotions, needs and desires visited by characters on each other, and of expectations and perceptions offered by the author to her readers and then dismantled with a snap of her fingers.

I am unable to recall a story that both baffled and impressed me in such a way, but one thing is certain, that my admiration for Ms. Pinborough’s skills reached new heights and confirmed her in the “must read everything she writes” position she already enjoyed.

Very highly recommended…

 

My Rating: