Reviews

Short Story Review: THE MAIDEN THIEF, by Melissa Marr

THE MAIDEN THIEF

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

This moving story possesses all the qualities of fairy tales of old: we have a village where life follows the usual patterns of such tales, and an event that regularly blights the inhabitants’ peaceful rhythms – each year, at the onset of autumn, a girl disappears, never to be seen again.  Everyone knows that the Maiden Thief is responsible for the disappearances, just as everyone is powerless to prevent them, or to know who the thief is.

Verena is the younger daughter of a man embittered by the harsh blows life dealt him: his wife and only son died in a terrible accident that left the man lame, incapable of providing adequate income for his three surviving daughters. Amina, the eldest, has taken the role of mother for her younger siblings, and Karis, the middle one, tends the garden that supplies most of their scarce foodstuffs. Verena is the only one attending school in an attempt of being what her dead brother should have been, but soon is forced to leave: a paper she wrote about the Maiden Thief angered her father, and the subsequent disappearance of Karis shortly after convinces the man that Verena’s words directed the mysterious abductor’s attentions on them.

What follows is a slow descent from dark fairy tale to horror story, as the details about the Thief’s identity keep collecting and what seems like Verena’s unavoidable destiny looms closer: the girl’s spirit, however, will not suffer under her fate’s blows for long, and she will walk on a very unexpected path.  To say more would be to spoil what was a highly engaging and riveting story, one I can’t recommend enough.

 

My Rating:

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Review: OBSIDIO (The Illuminae Files #3), by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

 

Before launching into my review of the third and final volume of the Illuminae Files, I would like to share a detail of my “history” with this series: since most, if not all, of my reading happens through ebooks, I acquired the first two installments of the series in that format, and although I enjoyed the story immensely I was also aware that the peculiar narrative form chosen by the authors – which includes memos, transcripts, graphics and even sentences deployed in strange and convoluted patterns – did not work as well on an e-reader as it would on a printed page. For this reason I also bought the physical books for Illuminae and Gemina to see what I had missed, and once the date of publication for Obsidio was announced, I decided to directly acquire the physical book and read the story in the… old-fashioned way.  And it was indeed a good decision, because this is an amazing way of telling a story.

Please be aware that this review might contain spoilers for the first two books: if you have not read them, don’t go any further!

Obsidio closes the circle that started in Illuminae with the assault on the mining colony of Kerenza, perpetrated by BeiTech Corporation against what they deemed an illegal operation: in the first book we followed the survivors of the attack as they attempted to flee on a handful of ships to reach the Heimdall transit station; the second volume focused on BeiTech’s attempt to eliminate them, and therefore any witness to the massacre, by taking control of Heimdall.  Here, the few who escaped both assaults – now crowded aboard the very stressed-out Hypatia and the newly acquire Mao – have decided that going back to Kerenza is the only viable choice, which becomes all the more imperative once they learn that BeiTech intends to kill the remaining miners on the planet once they have extracted the precious hermium that is the planet’s main resource, leaving no trace of their heinous crime.

All the characters we encountered along the road are present here: Kady and Ezra, Hanna and Nik and Nik’s cousin Ella, as well as the other people (those still alive, that is…) who shared their journey.  Their trials on the crowded ships, their plans for the coming battle and their hopes and fears act as a counterpoint to the events on Kerenza itself, where we make the acquaintance of Asha Grant (Kady’s cousin) and her ex boyfriend Rhys, now one of the BeiTech “ground pounders” from the occupying force.  I must say that I found the planet-bound sections quite fascinating, both in terms of narrative impact and of character exploration: even though the previous relationship between the two youngsters feels a little convenient (in my opinion it would have worked just as well if they had been complete strangers), it helps in highlighting the dire situation of the miners on one side and of the soldiers on the other, showing how extreme circumstance can bring to the surface both the best and the worst in human beings.

The miners know their life expectancy is limited, and are doing their best to try and draw out that timeline in the hope of rescue, as improbable as it might look, so that we can witness acts of courage and self sacrifice as well as foolish choices driven by rage, despair and the burning need for vengeance.  The BeiTech soldiers, for their part, range from the “just following orders” kind – some of them even enjoying the power of life and death they are given over their victims – to those who are painfully aware of the atrocities they are committing, but are unable to act differently because they know any kind of defiance would be futile.  There are some scenes where these soldiers try to forget the unpleasantness of their duties by spending time in endless card games interspersed with heavy banter, but one can somehow feel the desperate effort this is, and in some way perceive the humanity that the robot-like armor encasing them cannot completely conceal.

As fascinating as all of the above was, the events transpiring aboard the ship headed for Kerenza were the ones that drew my more intense focus, because they mixed the efforts at survival with the frantic plans to overcome BeiTech’s stranglehold on Kerenza – a David vs. Goliath kind of struggle that was fraught with uncertainty and the ever-present awareness of potential failure.  The young people who were at the center of previous events, forced by circumstances to grow up quickly and make harrowing choices, here must wage a war on two fronts: one represented by the might of BeiTech and its aggressive power, and one represented by several adults who are unable – or unwilling – to give them the credit they are due and still view them as children, underestimating them and forcing them to prove themselves time and again.  This thread adds a very frustrating element to the story, but also one that was both electrifying and suspenseful.

And last but not least I must mention AIDAN, the insane, murderous AI with a conscience (much as that might appear as a contradiction!) who despite the horrible acts of the past, and the present, keeps growing in his understanding and acceptance of human emotions. There is a section, here in Obsidio, where AIDAN makes a hard choice that is both appalling and necessary, fully aware of the consequences but also aware that not to act would be a worse option:

And in the end, I suppose it will not matter what they name me. […] And it does not matter what they believe. […]  I am not good. Nor am I evil. I am no hero. Nor am I villain. I am AIDAN.

It’s a bleak choice, and the dispassionate (?) way in which AIDAN observes it stresses even more the AI’s loneliness, one that never fails to tug at my heart because – no matter how many deaths he’s responsible for – AIDAN strikes me as the proverbial child looking into a warm home from the outside cold, knowing that he will never be part of it.  The fact I have used “he” and not “it” to speak about AIDAN is a clear indication of what I feel about this character and his journey, one that should be discovered on its own…

As the conclusive book in what has been an electrifying trilogy, Obsidio works quite well and manages to keep the suspense and uncertainty about the outcome until the very end, and if it cheats a little in one particular regard (spoiler territory, so I apologize for being cryptic), I can forgive it in the name of the amazing narrative tension that carried me from start to finish.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: THIS CHANCE PLANET, by Elizabeth Bear

 

THIS CHANCE PLANET

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

We are alone, absolutely alone on this chance planet: and, amid all the forms of life that surround us, not one, excepting the dog, has made an alliance with us.

— Maurice Maeterlinck

 

This quote before the actual story had me puzzled for a while, until I understood its meaning some way into the tale, one that’s set in Moscow in what sounds like the near future.  Petra is living with her musician boyfriend Ilya, he spending his days with a band of hopefuls looking for success, she working as a waitress in a cocktail bar.  It’s clear from the very start that this is not a happy, fulfilling relationship, nor a balanced one, since Petra is the one supplying most of the income and paying the rent, while Ilya is the one dreaming of one get-rich-quickly scheme after another, all of them leading nowhere.

The kind of man Ilya is appears clearly from one of Petra’s considerations: “Decent chocolate was becoming less a luxury and more of a complete rarity. And what I could make last for two weeks of careful rationing, Ilya would eat in five minutes and be pissed off I hadn’t had more.”   Ilya’s latest idea is that of supplying one’s body as a sort of incubator for growing new organs from stem cells and selling them to those rich enough to afford them – and of course Petra should be the incubator, because Ilya cannot afford to lose his good looks in view of a stage appearance. A true, caring gentleman, indeed…

The chance encounter on the Metro with a dog gifted with superior intelligence will lead Petra to an unpleasant discovery, but also to the much-needed push to change the direction of her life, one where she can be her own woman and fulfill her own dreams. But what truly comes to light here is the renewed bond of friendship and mutual assistance between humans and dogs, something I can really appreciate even though I don’t share my life with one of our best four-legged friends: just reading about this particular dog’s antics in helping Petra brought a huge smile to my face, and I’m certain it will do the same to you.

A perfect, feel-good story if there ever was one…

 

 

My Rating:

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Review: BEHIND HER EYES, by Sarah Pinborough

 

Only a short time ago, while reviewing Sarah Pinborough’s 13 Minutes, I wrote that previous experience had taught me to expect only the best from this author, but my enthusiasm suffered a nasty blow with Behind Her Eyes, not enough to prevent me from reading her other works of course, yet enough to make me a little wary before plunging straight into another one of her novels.  But let’s proceed with order…

Behind Her Eyes starts out as a psychological thriller, and one that shortly becomes a quite compulsive read: the story is told through the alternating P.O.V.s of Adele and Louise.  The former is the fragile wife of psychiatrist David, a man prone to mood swings that seem to hint at an irritable, maybe violent nature; it’s clear from the start that there is something wrong in their marriage, although Adele does her best to present a perfect front to the outside world, and even at home she goes out of her way to please her husband and offer him the most impeccable kind of home life.   

Louise is instead recently divorced from her cheating husband and is raising alone their 6 years old son Adam: battling with loneliness and the existential problems of a single mother, not to mention the night terrors and sleepwalking episodes that occur practically every night, Louise finds a moment’s joy in the encounter with a handsome stranger in a bar, and the two of them share a kiss. Only the next morning, though, the woman discovers to her horror that the man is David, her new boss in the medical clinic where she works as a secretary.

To compound Louise’s confusion and dread, she literally bumps into Adele, David’s wife, and the two women move from a spur-or-the-moment chat over coffee to a friendship that is fraught with guilt and doubts on Louise’s side, because despite their best intentions she and David have meanwhile become lovers, and she’s quite taken with him, although the sides of his personality that she’s inferring from what Adele tries to gloss over make her think he might be a harsh control freak who terrorizes his submissive wife.

From here on the story becomes quite tangled as the narrative points of view are revealed as unreliable, one of them being shown as having an unfathomable agenda: it’s thanks to Pinborough’s writing skills that this surprise did not rob me of the thrill of discovery, because my need to understand this character’s true goal was what drove me to keep turning the pages, as the often contradictory clues piled up and seemed to move in a certain direction, only to defy my expectations time and again.

And those same skills also kept me interested in the characters’ journey although I found all of them to be quite unlikable, especially Louise: she collects bad choices as other people collect shells on the beach, and she seems unable to learn from her mistakes. Not only that, but she is a walking mass of contradictions: she knows that her affair with David is a huge mistake, not only because he’s a married man, but because she’s friends with his wife, and yet every time she finds him at her door she cannot find the strength to send him away.  And what about her alleged maternal feelings for her son? She seems to have built her life around him, but once he’s away on vacation with his father (a vacation she was at first strongly opposed to), she feels free to enjoy her illicit fling and hardly seems to reserve a though for her child except for the moments when he phones her.  And let’s not go over her massive intake of wine at the slightest drop of a hat…

Still, I could not tear myself away from the story because the author had put me under her spell, and I wanted, I needed to see where all this buildup was headed: I am not going to give any details here, because to do so would mean to offer a massive spoiler, but suffice it to say that once the fantastical element of lucid dreaming was introduced, changing the course of what had until that moment been a “simple” psychological thriller, the narrative took a whole new direction and finally moved toward the massive twist at the end, one that required the recovery of my jaw from the floor where it had fallen. Because it would have been impossible to foresee it, not until the very last second.

If the story had ended at that point, it would have been perfect – an incredible buildup leading the readers through a maze of baffles and dead ends concocted to confuse them so that they could not guess what was the author’s true intention. But unfortunately the novel did not stop at that first twist, that unpredictable revelation – no, there was a second one, and that ruined the overall effect of the story for me, because in my opinion it was an overkill: just imagine being in a fancy restaurant, and the chef comes at your table with a special dessert that he presents with a lot of flourish and a few moves not unlike those of a stage magician. Once he has your full attention he sets that dessert on fire and you marvel at the spectacle and enjoy the end result – it should end there and then but no, because the chef cuts the dessert in half and from it a flock of birds takes flight. Makes no sense, does it?  That’s exactly how I felt after that second, totally farfetched revelation.

Up until that moment I was more than willing to accept the whole chain of events that led to it, including some of the more improbable ones, but the need to overdo the… shock factor, for want of a better word, was what lost me in the end, since I am a firm believer of the philosophy of “less is more“, and that second surprise ruined the overall effect for me. Pity…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: THORNBOUND (The Harwood Spellbook #2), by Stephanie Burgis

 

I received this novella from the author, in exchange for an honest review, and I was thrilled to be able to go back to Ms. Burgis’ new series combining alternate history with magic.

Stephanie Burgis’ digression from the historical fiction of her previous novels (Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets) into “pure” fantasy is proving to be just as intriguing as her other works: the alternate Regency England – here called Angland – introduced with Snowspelled is further developed here and gains new facets and a deeper look into the characters, while offering a fast-paced and engrossing story that offers some gloomier, more intriguing shades to the established background.

Present-day Angland is the result of the successful war waged by Queen Boudicca against the Roman invaders, whom she was able to drive away thanks to the alliance with her magician husband, thus setting the mold for a society in which women hold the political power and men exercise their magic abilities for the good of the country, a situation that has endured for centuries.  That is, until Cassandra Harwood, daughter of one of the most influential members of the Boudiccate, chose to forgo a political career on the path traced by her mother in favor of the practice of magic in which she excelled, causing significant ripples in the established status quo.

When we met Cassandra in Snowspelled, we learned that the desire to prove her worth had caused a grievous accident that almost claimed her life and left her unable to cast any spell, and at the end of that story she had found new purpose in the foundation of a magic school for the teaching of other young women who wanted to cast off the shackles imposed by society as she had done.

As Thornboud starts, the school at Thornfell, the Harwoods’ ancestral home, is about to open, the first nine pupils have just arrived, and the Boudiccate has sent a surprise inspection team to assess the school and the teaching program.  Cassandra has indeed her hands full, having to deal with the preparations, the inspectors and her problems with the staff, not to mention that she is plagued by horrible nightmares and suffers the absence of her newly-wed husband, who has been called away on Boudiccate business on the very same day of their wedding. As if all of the above were not enough, strange occurrences and a dismal discovery seem to point toward a malicious plot to cause the school’s failure…

Thornbound’s overall tone is slightly darker than that of its predecessor and I found that it fit well with Cassandra’s problems and more importantly with the doubts about her ability to fulfill her dream, not to mention the anguish she feels in realizing that her choices might have seriously impaired both her sister in law’s and her husband’s prospects for their future careers. It’s a very subdued Cassandra that I found at the beginning of this story, and I felt for her, but was overjoyed to see her rise to the challenge and summon her inner strength to overcome the trials in front of her.

Still, the major pleasure in this novella comes from the theme of mutual support and the bond it can create between people, especially women: in this tale of intriguing role reversal, women appear still hampered by social conventions and unable to express their full potential, any attempt they make to break out of the mold harshly criticized by their peers when it’s not the object of scandal and shunning. It’s a very actual theme that for all of its placement into a fantasy Regency background can however resonate with our modern sensibilities, as does the other important and equally modern subject about balancing one’s own career aspiration with the needs and requirements of marriage and family.

All these elements are set into a compelling story – a real page-turner, to use an expression typical of back-cover blurbs – where magic and everyday practicality blend into a seamless and highly entertaining whole.  I hope that many more of these novellas will come forth in the future, because they are truly a delightful read.

Highly recommended.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE HUNGER, by Alma Katsu

 

While the fateful journey of the Donner Party is a matter of record for American history, it’s not as well known outside of the U.S.A. so I was not familiar with this event apart from having heard it mentioned once or twice in passing, and as soon as I encountered the first reviews for Alma Katsu’s book I went in search of more information about it: what I found was a tale of hardship and horror whose reality seemed to surpass any fictional tale of the supernatural I might have read until now.

The Donner Party was a group of hopeful pioneers headed to California to start a new life in what was the new frontier for the times, the middle of the 19th Century: they set out from Missouri in the late spring of 1846, but instead of following the tried and tested trail other adventurers had successfully traveled on, they decided to attempt the newest Hastings Cutoff, named after the explorer who had first opened it.

Unfortunately, Hastings had not specified either that the cutoff would add a considerable number of miles to the trek, or that the way was more suited to men on horseback rather than oxen-driven wagons loaded with supplies, so that a series of accidents and drawbacks cost the travelers precious time – not to mention the loss of several animals and even wagons – and at the start of a particularly hard winter they were stranded and snowbound on the Sierra Nevada, as their supplies ran out and they found themselves with little shelter and no food.  The survivors who were rescued by a search party in the early spring of 1847 had had to resort to eating the flesh of their dead to keep alive.

The historical events of the Donner Party look horrific enough in their stark reality, and yet the author decided to insert a supernatural twist to the story, in the form of a disturbing presence stalking the wagons from the very start and at times grabbing some hapless victim whose remains hinted at something inhuman and terrifying at play.  While this choice added a further (and maybe unnecessary) layer of dread to an already ghastly situation, it worked as a sort of mirror for the overall darkness that progressively fell on the colonists, one that seemed to come from them rather than from the outside, a force that was freed once the people were removed from the moral and spiritual boundaries of civilization.

From the very start we see how the relationships among the 90-odd people of the caravan are subject to strain, mostly due to the different social backgrounds and mindset of the various individuals, so that they fall prey to arguments that end up dividing the group into smaller factions, at odds with each other.  Once the true adversities start piling up on them, these divergences flare up, sometimes with dramatic consequences.  George Donner’s wife Tamsen, for example, is a practitioner of natural medicine though her knowledge of herbs and remedies, and therefore the subject of mistrust that quickly turns into the belief she might be a witch, with the consequence that the Donners are shunned and treated like pariahs.  Or once the supplies start dwindling, those with more refuse to share with the less fortunate, all too easily forgetting the principles of Christian charity that everybody seemed to profess.

As the journey becomes more harrowing and takes its toll on people, animals and supplies – the crossing of the salt desert being one of the most heartbreaking segments – whatever shred of humanity the group might have held on to seems to disappear, each wagon, each individual becoming a world unto itself, focused on its own survival to the exclusion of anything, and anyone, else. And once that humanity dwindles or is silenced forever, once any residue of acceptable social behavior evaporates under the hardships, it looks far too easy for the pioneers to let go of their more enlightened habits and to fall back to more primitive patterns.  First they stop caring about appearances:

They were all starting to neglect themselves, losing the will to keep themselves clean and tidy. To remain civilized. Day by day they grew wilder, filthier, more animal.

Then there is a scene in which the starved group is forced to kill one head of cattle to have some food, and the people partaking of that flesh look more like a bunch of cavemen rather than city born and bred individuals:

 

..no laughter or songs or shared bottles of whiskey […] Now it was just the sound of ravenous eating, the smack of lips and teeth tearing flesh off bone.

 

With this particular sentence I was strongly reminded of Tolkien’s description of Gollum, about his “furtive eating and resentful remembering”, and it was a chilly comparison, one that emphasized the regression of these pioneers to a more primeval state, one that was much more horrifying than the shadowy beings haunting the group from the encroaching darkness.  And for this very reason, once the supernatural element in the story is revealed, it looks almost mundane, far less frightening than the mindless savagery consuming the group of settlers.

The Hunger is not an easy book, and certainly not an uplifting read, but despite its bleakness I could not tear myself from it: the author has a way of relaying even the most horrific of details with a blunt clarity that never slips into morbid gratification, and for this reason offers a compelling tale of the heights and pitfalls of the human soul when subjected to intolerable stress.  Like the colonists’ own, this was not an easy journey, but it taught me a great deal about humanity, and I would not have missed it for the world.

 

 

My Rating: 

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Short Story Review: NUMBER THIRTY-NINE SKINK, by Suzanne Palmer

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 the last one of the stories from this anthology that I chose to review:

NUMBER THIRTY-NINE SKINK

If you are a fan of Martha Wells’ MurderBot and of sweet Wall-E like I am, you will enjoy this story very much: it’s a bittersweet tale of a mechanical construct that was part of an expedition on an alien planet, seeding it (through a process that somehow made me think of laser printing) with appropriate life to establish a suitable eco system for human settlers.

Something must have gone wrong, though, and Kadey (the nickname for KED-5) recollects how its crew suddenly abandoned it, with the exception of mechanic Mike who remained on planet until illness took him away: puzzled for the desertion, and still feeling the loss of Mike, Kadey still goes on with its work, introducing newly-minted fauna into this this world during the day, and going into energy-conservation mode at night – see where I derived my resemblance with Wall-E?   And like the little garbage collecting unit from the animated movie, Kadey does feel the loneliness, in its own way, especially now that there is no Mike to share thoughts with and to make sense of the details that escape a too-logical mind.  At some point it needs to be awake at night to check on some strange happenings, and it’s on this occasion that it notices the stars in the alien world’s sky, and decides to give the constellations a designation “I name one group The Wrench, and another Coffee Mug. Mike would have approved; I rarely saw him without one or the other in hand.”  If that is not enough to make you root for Kadey, I have no idea what would…

But the unnamed planet is not as bereft of life as the expedition crew believed, and curiosity sends Kadey on a journey of discovery that will give it more answers than it’s able to process, and also offer a few unexpected, incredible revelations.

I loved this little story quite a bit, and I hope to see Suzanne Palmer’s name again, maybe on a longer work: something tells me it will be a very enjoyable experience.

My Rating: