Reviews

Review: VELOCITY WEAPON (The Protectorate #1), by Megan O’Keefe

 

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

When I saw Velocity Weapon showcased in the regular Orbit newsletter of upcoming titles, something immediately drew me to it, and I requested it with a bare minimum of knowledge about the story, which is unusual for me since I like to have an idea about what to expect from any given book.  What I found was a very immersive story peopled with characters that felt real and solid, and I breezed through it in a short time: since this is the first volume in a series, I hope that the next ones will come out soon, because there are so many questions I can’t wait to see answered.

This is not going to be an easy review to write because I must avoid any kind of spoiler: Velocity Weapon offers so many surprises, so many unexpected twists, that to even hint at any of them would be a huge disservice – my unconscious decision to approach it “sight unseen” proved to be the best choice, and I urge you to do the same to enjoy this remarkable novel as it deserves.

The background: the discovery in the 22nd Century of a technology – called Casimir Gate – able to bridge huge interstellar distances fostered widespread colonization. Many centuries later, the settlers of Ada Prime hold the key to the local Casimir gate, while their neighbors on Icarion must pay for the rights of transit through the gate, which has caused increasing political and military friction over time. As the novel opens, in one such skirmish Icarion forces took the Prime fleet by surprise, scoring a bloody victory: while bound to their system by the punishing gate tariffs, they reached substantial technological advances, one of them being the powerful weapon which destroyed the Primes’ convoy.

As the political and military pressures mount, the Keepers – Ada Prime’s ruling body – must decide how to respond, while Biran Greeve, newly minted Keeper, has to deal with the loss of his sister Sanda, who commanded one of the Prime ships lost in the battle near Dralee moon.  Sanda is not dead, however: she wakes up in a medical emergency cocoon, one leg missing from the knee down as a consequence of the battle, and the ship she finds herself on is empty of any other form of life. That is, empty except for the AI controlling the vessel – an Icarion ship named The Light of Berossus: what she learns from Bero, as the AI controlling it prefers to be called, is devastating. Icarion deployed their ultimate weapon, the Fibon Protocol, and in so doing obliterated not only Ada Prime but their own world as well: Sanda might very well be the only human alive in this portion of space, and what’s even more shocking comes from the revelation that it all happened 230 years before her awakening and that her emergency pod was the only one with a living survivor that Bero found in the debris field.

The two main narrative threads of Velocity Weapon follow the two siblings as they deal with the harrowing circumstances they find themselves in, and are offset with two other perspectives, one  of them Alexandra Halston, the 22nd Century creator of the Casimir gates, and the other Jules, a thief-scavenger who stumbles on a heist with unexpected consequences and deadly ramifications. I must confess that I struggled a little to understand Jules’ role in the overall story – her timeline is parallel to Biran’s but they are systems apart – but in the end the “big picture” started to take shape and I admired the way in which the author juggled all these elements into a cohesive and fascinating whole.

The story is indeed an absorbing one, offering unexpected discoveries and mind-boggling surprises (more than once I had to keep myself from reacting loudly to such surprises when I was reading in a public place, lest other people think I was out of my mind), but the real bone and muscle of this novel are the characters, especially Sanda.  The usual mold for a strong female character in the genre requires a hardened individual who is either brusque or forceful, or a combination of both, but Sanda goes beyond these limitations (not to say tropes): she is tough and resilient, granted, but she also possesses a good deal of compassion and a sense of humor that blend into a no-nonsense, hands-on approach which immediately endeared her to me. For example, when she wakes up on Bero and acknowledges the missing leg she remembers losing during the battle, she wastes no time on hysterics but rather looks for the best means of assisted locomotion and later on works on fashioning herself a prosthesis.

Where Sanda truly shines is in her interactions with Bero and the way the two of them slowly build a relationship based on cautious trust which at times slides into semi-affectionate banter (the exchange about kitten pictures on the internet is beyond precious): after a while she understands the ship’s AI suffers from a form of post-traumatic syndrome, caused by way the scientists manning the ship hurt its sense of self and its developing personality. Sanda’s realization she is dealing with what is in essence a psychologically damaged teenager brings to the fore her true nature along with her vulnerabilities, showing her for the wonderfully rounded and authentic character she is.

At first I did not connect as easily with Biran, Sanda’s brother: on the surface he looked too naïve and somewhat easily influenced, but as the story progressed I started to see he is made of the same stuff as his sister, just in a less apparent way. As he kept going on the path he choose (apologies for the cryptic phrasing, but it’s necessary) I understood how ready he was to sacrifice anything, even the position he had worked so hard to achieve, to fulfill his goal, and I started to warm to him – unexpectedly but with growing certainty.

In the end what can you expect from Velocity Weapon? Certainly a good space opera novel combining action scenes and character growth, but most importantly a story exploring the meaning of life, consciousness and freedom; the intriguing observation of political maneuvering and of plots building over a span of many years; and above all a very entertaining tale that will keep you with your nose in the book for the whole duration.  And looking for the next book with an eager eye…

 

My Rating:

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Reviews

Short Story Review: THE ATONEMENT PATH, by Alex Irvine

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

I came away from this short story reeling in horror, a horror compounded by the detached, almost clinical tone of the narrating voice.  The premise here is that young offenders are no longer sent to jail or rehabilitation centers, but rather directed toward the Path of Atonement, a way to make amends for their misdeeds.

At first it seems as if the Path simply compels these young people to serve the community in any way that is required of them, and that might sound like an enlightened, civilized way to make amends for youthful mistakes, but as the story progresses and the narrating voice adds details on the workings of the Path, is becomes hideously clear that there is more to it than one could imagine: from the distressingly effacing way in which the people committed to the Path speak of themselves and their journey it looks as if some kind of brain-washing might be involved, as are other even less savory practices.

But what sheds light on the truly horrifying side of this… correctional method is that those committed to it are seen as less than citizens, less than persons, and are treated as such – I can leave to your imagination what the consequences might be.  And that kind of mentality, and behavior, might be against the law, but is, in the very words of the narrator, “rarely prosecuted”, while “kindness is not illegal, but is frowned upon”.

I will say no more about this peek into a possible (and how possible? – one can wonder) future, this story must be read without prior spoilers that might lessen its impact on the reader’s mind, since it opens the way to an analysis of the ratio between crime and punishment, and how far it can go.

As hard as this short work hit me, I would not have missed it for the world, indeed…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: THE CITY SCREAMS (An Ordshaw Novella), by Phil Williams

 

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

When Phil Williams sent me the copy of The City Screams, I hoped it would expand on the themes encountered in his previous two novels, Under Ordshaw and Blue Angel, since there are many dark corners in there that I would love to explore. What I found was instead a very different kind of story, one that however was both intriguing and fascinating: instead of investigating further the mysteries of the imaginary city of Ordshaw, here we travel to Japan, following the journey of an Ordshaw citizen, Tova Nokes, as she lands in Tokyo to undergo a revolutionary medical procedure.

Tova lost her hearing at a very young age, and although she adapted to her disability as she grew up, the offer from Mogami Industries to be part of their experimental surgery, one that will return her hearing, is too good to pass up. Moreover, aside from the opportunity to visit a different country, there is a bonus thrown in: the chance to meet Tova’s idol, the rock singer Natalie Reid – another Ordshaw citizen – and to finally be able to hear her music.

The operation does not seem to sort the desired effect, though, and all Tova is able to hear, once the new implant is activated, are anguished screams coming from all over the city – and the disembodied voice of someone called Ki, who tries to warn her about a sort of unspecified danger she must avoid at all costs. From that moment on, Tova will find herself enmeshed into a breathless adventure that looks more like an obstacle course than anything else, and it will take all her resourcefulness and strength to stay above water and keep hold of her sanity.

First things first, I just loved the Japanese setting in The City Screams: if on one side the story showed that Ordshaw is not unique in its peculiarities, on the other the alien-ness of the parallel world coexisting and interweaving with our primary one is enhanced here by the social and cultural differences of a society so dissimilar to ours, despite some of its leanings toward western mores. What’s truly intriguing here is Tova’s point of view: she is not only the proverbial stranger in a strange land, she also lacks one of her senses, which makes those new and surprising sights even more perplexing, adding to the sense of displacement she suffers once a maelstrom of weird events threatens to overwhelm her.

It’s quite easy to care for Tova as a character: despite the disability, she has managed to build herself a good life, one centered around family, work, friends – like the sisterly Ren – and boyfriend Ethan, who however does not shine for his supporting attitude.  Not unlike Pax, the central character of the other two novels in the Ordshaw series, Tova is a strong, determined person and at the same time a quite average one, but when push comes to shove she is able to unearth a reservoir of toughness and resilience that carry her over the increasing obstacles she finds on her path, starting with the anguish caused by the failure of the “miracle” implant.

Tova might not be the classic heroine, and she certainly is not the ass-kicking kind of person modern literature and movies have led us to expect, but for this very reason she feels real and relatable, an ordinary person forced to face extraordinary (and baffling!) circumstances and meeting them with admirable resourcefulness. The best moment in her growth came for me when Tova realizes that until that moment she had let others determine what she could or could not do, allowing them to put fetters on her ability to deal with life’s little and big problems – the moment when she consciously choses to walk on her road and not the one others picked for her:

 

[…]It was easier to stay in a bubble, not push it. The story of Ethan’s life. Hell, the story of her life before coming out here. After a thought, Tova casually signed, “F*** off, Ethan, I can take care of myself.”

 

What’s not to admire, indeed…  🙂

The City Screams, like its companion novels, leaves us with some unanswered questions, since the author clearly wants to keep the most important cards close to his chest for a final revelation, so this novella does feel somewhat… incomplete, especially when the real motivation for the mysterious Ki’s actions is revealed and ultimately sounds quite shallow and self-serving.  But meeting Tova is worth accepting a few more gray areas in the overall narrative, and the author’s words about finding her again in the near future – probably in the final book of the series – give me a renewed enthusiasm for this Urban Fantasy arc and its as-yet unexplored threads.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE THING ABOUT GHOST STORIES, by Naomi Kritzer

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

Uncanny Magazine is a new haunt for me as far as online short stories go, and I have not chosen the word ‘haunt’ lightly, because the first work that caught my attention is indeed one about ghostly manifestations.

Leah is a researcher who collects ghost stories for her essay on folklore: her approach is quite scientific, to the point that she has created a numeric classification for any kind of materialization, like “emotional content; individual vs. communal experience; whether physical evidence of any kind was involved” and so on. Her skepticism is clear, even in the face of her one past experience about seeing a hanged man in a rented apartment, and she maintains that she’s “a folklorist, not a ghost hunter”.  Still, her fascination with the eerie is clear, and it becomes more focused as Leah shares details of her story, of her life with her mother whose descent into the murky depths of Alzheimer robbed the woman of her keen intellect and of the close relationship with her daughter.

When one of the people Leah interviews to gather stories about ghostly manifestations tells her that there’s a presence beside her, and it appears to be that of her deceased mother, the scientific drive leaves some room for unwilling belief, which becomes stronger as another individual acknowledges that same presence.   From that point, the story takes on a different shade, one tinged with poignant remembrance and the recognition of loss, and one that touched me deeply – not so much because of the ghost mythology, but rather because of the theme of mother/daughter relationship, and how it can endure even despite and beyond death.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: THE UNBOUND EMPIRE (Swords and Fire #3), by Melissa Caruso

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

The third and final installment in Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy is the brilliant finale of a remarkable series, but for me it also firmly places the author in my personal “buy sight unseen” category – which looks even more extraordinary if you consider that this is her debut work.  While I was captivated by this series and its characters since Book 1, I had the pleasure of being more and more engaged in the story with each new volume, her mastery of pacing, dialogue and characterization growing literally from chapter to chapter, and The Unbound Empire represents indeed the culmination of this journey.

Storywise, the events take place a short time after Amalia Cornaro’s harrowing experiences in the hostile territory of Vaskandar, where she participated in the Witch Lords’ Conclave, called by the powerful Lord Ruven attempting to create an alliance against Amalia’s own Raverra.  Taking advantage of the short respite before the storm, the young Cornaro heiress works to make her Falcon Reform Act a reality: the mage-marked of the Empire will not be subjected to forced conscription anymore and will be able to live wherever they want, provided that they are willing to help their country in time of need.

Amalia’s elation at this success is however short-lived: Ruven launches the first phase of his attack at the very heart of Raverra, undermining the Empire’s political stability with the intent of weakening it from the inside before launching the actual military assault. It will fall on Amalia to implement the first line of defense against the Witch Lord, and to try and remove his threat at any cost, so that in this final battle she will have to learn which lines she is prepared to cross as she balances the survival of her home against that of the people she loves.

When reviewers say they find it difficult to set any given novel aside for a moment, it might seem a hyperbole, but this was certainly not the case with The Unbound Empire: personally I begrudged every single moment in which I had to close my reader to attend to life’s everyday requirements, and in those moments I kept wondering what else would be in store for me once I could reopen the book and keep on reading.  The pace is artfully calibrated and increases exponentially as the stakes and dangers keep mounting and the situation takes on the most bleak of overtones: even taking into account the general ruthlessness of Witch Lords, whose powers tend to divest them of many, if not all, of the usual factors that make humans human, Ruven’s callousness surpasses that of his peers by many orders of magnitude.   

Moreover, Amalia often finds herself fighting on two fronts, because the political maneuverings in Raverra look as coldblooded as the Witch Lords’ schemes: now that she is gaining political clout and is starting to make her own path in the powerful circles to which she is destined, it becomes clear that she must harden herself to any eventuality and lose the scholar’s naiveté and self-absorption that used to be her comfort zone at the beginning of the story. I have to confess that I was hard-pressed to remind myself that Amalia is a young woman not yet out of her teens: one of my strongest contentions when dealing with YA characters is that they seem condemned to be depicted as whiny, prone to temper tantrums and moody inner dialogue, but Amalia Cornaro is nothing of the sort. Hardships and tragedy only serve to strengthen her resolve, and any sacrifice, any tough decision she is forced to make may grievously wound her soul but they never weaken her spirit.

One of the main themes of this series is the need for a balance between love, friendship and one’s duty – especially in dangerous times – and I enjoyed the way Melissa Caruso was able to blend all these elements into a cohesive and engaging whole, investing me with the intricacies of the sentimental triangle of sorts in which Amalia becomes involved. Again, what in lesser hands could have turned into somewhat annoying angst, does instead give life to several considerations about the weight of commitment to duty against the leanings of the heart, so that both the narrative developments and the characterization come out enhanced by the detours into “romance territory”, so to speak, instead of being weakened by them. And the unspoken but clearly highlighted notion that it’s possible to love two different people with the same depth of devotion, though expressed in different shades, is a great and enjoyable step forward in the exploration of this subject.

As I said in a previous review of this series, Marcello – the captain of the Falconers to whom Amalia is attracted – and Kathe – the mage lord whose courtship Amalia accepted for political expediency before becoming fascinated by his mercurial personality – represent the dual leanings of Amalia’s soul: Marcello is the safe harbor, the dependable, gentle person she could spend the rest of her life with; Kathe is both unfathomable and dangerous, yet here some hidden, more sensitive sides of his personality come into light, forcing Amalia to reassert her previous views on the man.  If anything, the uncertainty of the choice she will have to make between these two opposites serves to strengthen Amalia’s character and to show that despite the inevitable heartbreak she is capable to set aside the inclinations of her soul and to listen to the harsh necessities of her mind: I don’t want to spoil the details for you, but there are moments when having to decide between “want” and “must” she is able to weigh all the possibilities – like the true scientist she was at the beginning – and to pick the path that will fulfill the mission she was tasked with.  Not without pain, granted, but with an outstanding and admirable clarity of mind.

In this Amalia is supported by her Falcon Zaira, the young woman who can master balefire – the best weapon Raverra possesses against its enemies.  The slowly evolving, grudging friendship between them is one of the highlights of the overall story if not its best element.  Zaira herself is a fascinating character, one who had to survive on her wits alone while having to deal with the terrifying powers she possesses and which have already caused a great deal of grief in the past. For this reason Zaira tries to avoid any kind of emotional connection, afraid that the slightest lessening of her guard might cause harm to the people she cares for despite herself, and the brittle, skittish personality that comes from this is compounded by a propensity for sarcastic remarks that are both amusing and poignant, because they open a window on Zaira’s bruised soul.

Some of the best moments in this series come out of the interactions between Zaira and Amalia, and I enjoyed the way their friendship evolved – slowly and grudgingly – as these two persons who come from the opposite sides of the social scale move toward each other and become each other’s support in the traumatic events unfolding around them. It’s the guilt they have to deal with – Zaira for the tragic consequences of her unharnessed balefire; Amalia for the deaths caused by the necessities of war – that brings them together and forms a bond neither of them is willing to mention openly but still is a delightful sight to behold.

The Swords and Fire trilogy wraps up nicely with this third volume while leaving the door open for possible sequels, and I for one hope that Melissa Caruso will allow us to return to this world, because I think there are still many stories to be explored in here, and greatly enjoyed just as these three books were.

My Rating:

Reviews

Novella Review: SPECTRE (Book of Never #7), by Ashley Capes

 

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

It’s been some time since I read Never’s last adventure and it took me a little while to find my bearings again in this story fashioned in equal parts out of a series of adventures, in a world where magic takes strange and weird forms, and of the main character’s quest to learn about his past and the heritage from his now- extinct and legendary forefathers.  Once I did, though, the narrative flew quickly, carried by a very appealing premise.

In Spectre our hero is not facing the “simple” turmoil of warring factions bent on controlling territory, as it happened in past adventures, but rather the dire menace of a cult bent on the horrifying transformation of hapless victims – think Island of Doctor Moreau and you will have an idea of what I’m talking about.  And this time the stakes are quite high, because he needs to save a young boy from the cult’s clutches and to prevent and old… well, frenemy is the best term that comes to mind, from succumbing to the vile alteration.

As usual Never is able to find valid allies in his endeavors, and this time the person who shares this portion of his journey is an intriguing one, the unassuming priest Lakiva: not unlike a warrior monk, the young man carries on with self-effacing modesty, only to exhibit amazing abilities when necessity arises. This combination quickly endeared him to me and often brought a smile to my face.

That smile was more than necessary, because Spectre is one of the darkest adventures Never faced until now, rife with a sense of impending doom and a relentlessly ticking clock, culminating in a harrowing confrontation that blends a heated battle with an authentic descent into Hell that kept me on the edge of my seat, especially because in this case even our hero’s remarkable powers and stamina seemed to be inadequate to the task at hand.

And of course it does not end here, because a new threat looms on the horizon at the end of the novella, promising more intriguing adventures…

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE (Teixcalaan #1), by Arkady Martine

 

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

From the very first time I saw this book mentioned in the blogosphere I knew I would love to read it, since it promised to offer many of the themes I enjoy in speculative fiction, especially the in-depth examination of the cultural and political implications of a huge empire, one where the Dune-like vibes appeared to be quite strong – which never fails to attract my attention.  What I ultimately found was quite different, but in the end it did not matter much because A Memory Called Empire turned out to be a thought-provoking read.

The Teixcalaanli Empire has not extended its influence only through political or military annexation, but more subtly through the impact of its culture, one which is based on a poetry-inclined mode of expression that has become the model for what is viewed as ‘in’ – the very model of civilization. Even the systems not directly placed under the Empire’s control can fall prey to this fascination for Teixcalaanli civilization, as is the case with Lsel Station, a mining space enclave whose only political tie with the Empire is represented by its ambassador in the City, the central planet at the heart of the dominion. Mahit Dzmare, a young woman who has long been a student and enthusiast of all things Teixcalaanli, is summoned to replace the former ambassador, only to discover upon arrival that her predecessor is dead.

Stationer culture offers a unique perspective on the preservation of past experiences: they have developed a neural implant called imago machine which can store the memories of its holder and share them with a different host – the mechanical equivalent of a Trill symbiont from Star Trek or the ancestral memories received by Reverend Mothers through the ritual of the water of life in the Dune universe. Mahit carries the fifteen-years out of date imago of her predecessor, Yskander, and is still in the process of fully integrating with it given the swiftness of her assignment, but as soon as she visits Yskander’s body in the City’s morgue, the voice inside her head goes silent, either because of a shock sustained by the hosted personality or of some kind of unexpected malfunction.

By all intents and purposes, Mahit must therefore carry on her mission alone – a stranger in a strange land, no matter how much of the Teixcalaanli culture she has absorbed – and under the double pressure of having to discover what really happened to Yskander, which could very well have been murder, and the political turmoil agitating the Empire, seemingly bent toward a new campaign of expansion, this time headed in the direction of Lsel Station.  Not completely alone, though: the cultural attaché she was assigned, Three Seagrass, appears inclined to help her even when that means going against the rules, and the dramatic events they are part of – including a couple of attempts on Mahit’s life – keep drawing the two young women closer, in a sort of mirror attraction for each other’s culture that slowly turns into a personal one.  Still, despite finding a few allies in unexpected places, Mahit’s job looks like a mix of improvisation, deception and learning on the fly that never allows her a moment of respite, while the world all around her looks headed down a dangerous, uncertain path, one she must try to deflect at any cost, even personal safety.

A Memory Called Empire proved to be an intriguing read, as I expected, largely on the basis of the themes central to the story: one of them is the absolute belief at the root of Teixcalaanli society that it represents the best humanity can offer, the most civilized, refined example of mankind’s achievements; a belief that makes them view everyone else as a barbarian, dismissing them all too easily.  There are many instances where Mahit finds herself measured by this very yardstick instead of being accepted for her accomplishments in the culture she admires so much and in its aesthetic values, not to mention her own innate abilities. This leads to another interesting concept, the meaning of self and the way it can be defined – especially when confronted with the use of imago memories and the possibility of change introduced by the coexistence of one’s experiences with someone else’s.  Where the initial buildup appears somewhat slow, once the pieces are all set on the board, the action moves forward at a fast pace, with the last segment focused on a fight against time and apparently insurmountable odds, one who certainly kept me on the edge of my seat as I waited for the whole complicated scenario to unfold completely.

And yet… As captivating as this story was, as delightful some characters were (Three Seagrass being the winner in this contest, thanks to her elegantly witty repartees), I could not shake the feeling that there was something missing – which does not mean that I did not appreciate this book, only I could not be… captured by it, always remaining on the periphery, so to speak, and never truly losing myself in it. Even now, as I’m writing this, I have not managed to put my finger on the real reason for this  perception of distance and the best comparison I can find is through music: I enjoy listening to Mozart, I recognize the beauty of the works he shared with the world, but to me it’s a cold beauty, devoid of the heated passion I can find in Chopin or Rachmaninov, just to quote two of my favorite composers. 

This does not mean that I view A Memory Called Empire in a negative light – the rating I gave it should dispel any doubt about that: it’s only that though I recognize its brilliance, I failed to be engaged by it, probably because my heart wanted to be warmed by the story just as much as my mind had been intrigued by it…

 

My Rating: